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Excess Baggage


Airports are strange places. Dislocated islands populated by all the nations of the world brought together for a short time in a false sense of camaraderie. An ever changing montage of sizes, shapes, colours, accents and behaviours.

Take the lady of African descent seated two rows in front. She chews gum for three beats then scratches her nose for one. She’s been doing it for an hour. Is she allergic to the very gum she masticates with such enthusiasm? Every now and then her head drops to reveal an unexpected bald patch on the top of her head. She traces her hand across it periodically leaving me to wonder: which came first? The bald patch followed by a concerned-to-be-balding hand? Or an involuntary head stroke tic leading to a gradual wearing away of her hair?

To my right is the shifty dark-haired gentleman who has just been turned back at the Air France gate. I overheard the word “standby” followed by a derisory laugh from the airline attendant. Clearly he stands nowhere, let alone “by”. He is left tapping his knees with a nervous set of fingers while he awaits a similar rejection from the British Airways staff who are already wise to him. How did he get through security without a boarding pass? He is the man from nowhere going nowhere. I fear he may be here some time.

Then there’s the so obviously British business suits. The ones with ties still tightly fastened for the flight who insist on queuing just in front of the doors a good forty minutes before boarding. They glare directly at the staff and defy anyone to try to board before them – even the unaccompanied minor waiting patiently to the side of them warrants a tut and a curled lip.

Poor love. There she perches atop her purple Trunki, wild-haired and hollow-eyed. Is she the unfortunate commuter ferrying between two estranged parents? Is she visiting grandparents who dislike her father and his presence in her life – the father who I watched drop her off at the airport and leave her in the care of a complete stranger?

Who knows what people’s stories are? We are all baggage in the end, waiting to land and for someone to claim us. Just passing through this airport island on our way to the real world again.


It’s a Funny Old Game….

It has been a strange few weeks here at Pig Central. Having never really been at home for more than a week at a time during the whole of my adult life, I suddenly found myself thrust firmly into a weird new world of family life – together with inordinate amounts of unexpectedly free time.

Firstly, let me say I have enjoyed it. I have loved being here to make breakfast for everyone. I have really loved being here when the Mini Pig gets home from school: that fresh air smell that fills his hair and the increased noise level from the minute he enters the front door – precious moments. I have laughed aloud at the Teen and her mates as they loll around snacking after college and telling me all the gossip and funny bits. I have even enjoyed the slightly bemused by it all presence of the Man Hog – all day, every day. We’ve had a lot of fun and too many pub lunches – in between the barbed banter!

What I have realised however is:

A) Staying at home will, in my particular case, lead to diabetes, morbid obesity and eventual death. Fact. All I do is bake. Endless buns, brownies, batter-based goodies and all manner of sweet homely treats. Fantastic, some would say. But this is far from the truth. There is no consistency: said baking veers wildly from the sublime to the completely inedible. It’s anybody’s guess how some of it will turn out. I’ve produced a bun whose surface was not unlike the face of Barack Obama – go figure? Maybe a dodgy oeuf? Who knows? I’ve also produced a batch of brownies that were so hideously vile the Man Hog actually retched as he tasted one. When it’s good, I devour more than I should. When it’s bad, I devour it anyway because no-one else will and it would be a shameful waste of ingredients if it went straight in the bin. This has to stop. I must step away from the baking. And the eating!

B) If I continue to stay here, I am well and truly under the Man Hog’s feet. I inadvertently perch in “his” corner of the sofa. I tut openly when he sneaks in from the garden for a round of Hobbit-Second-Breakfast toast. I am in the kitchen cooking or ironing something when he wants to wash his shoes in the sink (a filthy habit I knew nothing about until now). The home, at least during daylight hours, has been his personal fiefdom for over ten years now. And he wants it back. Sans moi!

C) I simply cannot afford to stay at home. I see too much that needs to be done: repainting the ancient crumbly windows or, failing that, replacing same crumbly windows; a new kitchen; a complete garden overhaul; painting everything inside and then buying/making/stealing the necessary soft furnishings to go with….the list goes on and on. The Man Hog scoots away like a whipped puppy with his tail between his legs when I start any conversation with “Do you think you could just…..” I find myself chasing him from room to room with my prioritised snagging list while he harrumphs and insists he needs to check the oil in the car. The iPad glows a sickly red with the sheer strain of all the bookmarking I have done on the John Lewis and Dulux websites. I had less time before now to notice the endless decay that accompanies owning an old house but now…I see it all. It’s a little bit like Steve Austin, the bionic man….it is a house barely alive. But Gentlemen –
we can rebuild him. Or knock the bugger down and start again? Actually….put that on the snag list: New house.

D) I have discovered I’m unable to relax and am therefore not very relaxing to be around. After years of work, deadlines, ego massaging and deftly managing my own usually very limited time I now find this lack of structure means I simply cannot sit still. We went on holiday right at the start of the redundancy and that was fine – away from home I cannot meddle or control or tidy and so all is well. Back home: all bets are off. I’m literally driving the family bonkers – I think the Man Hog may even have developed a slight tic.

E) I actually need to work. The most soul-searing and honest thing that has come out of all of this is that I truly do love my family to distraction, but….without a job I am rootless. Surplus to my own requirements. Pointless. I truly like going to work and most of the time, I’m quite good at it. Staying at home – it’s a really tough job fraught with constant decision making and the potential to fail at the most basic of tasks.

So I have taken another job – a tougher one than the last and for less money, with longer hours, sporting an unknown group of people to try to win over. Daunting? Yes! Scared? A bit. Swap it for permanent retirement? Not on your nelly!

Call me a monster but I have come to the conclusion that I am a better wife, mother, friend, sister or whatever I am simply for going to work. It’s what I know. It’s what I do. It’s my function, my contribution, my commitment to the life we have built. More importantly, it’s what the family knows I do. It defines me for myself and for them. Without it, I am genuinely uncomfortable. So I’m off to do it all again – with the family’s blessing.

And……hopefully…..I’ll relax!


Parenting: Old Navy Stylie

We have a favourite film in our house – well, at least the Man-Hog and I do. It is “The Bounty”, the 1984 version starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. The Man-Hog admires all the stiff upper lips of stout, loyal serving men (not so loyal as it turns out) in difficult circumstances and, of course, the ripe Polynesian women. I covertly ogle the young and as yet untainted-by-booze-and-unfortunate-rantings Mel Gibson from behind my firmly gripped cushion, replete in all his fine-fettled youth and breeches-clad glory. Mmmm.

Anyway, moving swiftly on. The film has many excellent lines and we quote them to each other (because we are sad) and have most recently started using them on the children (because it amuses us).

For example, a whingey-whiney complaint about insufficient pasta content in the week’s dinner menu can be met with “Your comments shall be noted in the log, sir.” A protest against demands to tidy their rooms shall be parried with “Filth, sir! Filthy, Mr Christian! Still filthy! Look!” and the like. Long journeys are not to be negotiated – we have family in the deepest North after all – and complaints are countered with “Around the Horn is the easiest way, the better way, and that is how we will go. Anything more?” as we turn our heads creepily slowly to face them, slitty eyes piercing into their developing skulls and with a firmly overinflated sense of our own superiority.

We’ve stopped short of making them dance for 15 minutes daily under pressure from Social Services, and the only grog on board the good ship “Prancing Piglet” is that consumed by the Man-Hog during a particularly tense episode of “The Real Wives of Orange County”. (He wants one, I am NEVER going to be one.) Nevertheless, the spirit and culture of the Bounty such as seamanlike behaviour, discipline etc. and the Prancing Piglet – more like ill-disguised sarcasm and grog in times of stress – appears to be working. The children are responding and I hope to issue promotions to Lieutenant shortly.

Such parenting ethos does mean that high standards need to be maintained at all times. I’m just off to check the bathroom floor for errant socks and discarded boxer shorts. If I find any, someone will be walking the plank. And I don’t mean taking the Man-Hog out for his daily stroll.

Over and out.

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In Which We Make A Decision!

Moving house is acknowledged to be one of the five most stressful experiences in the average human life. Right up there with death, and we all know how that ends. As I write, I am sending hopeful prayers to the god of British estate Agents, asking him to unearth their good natures which I know must lurk somewhere beneath their seemingly rhino-like hides and have them do their jobs properly for this little family. No more, no less. Sell my house, help me find the new one and then slip quietly away clutching my hard-earned in their paws. Simple. Stress is not something I wish to invite willingly in to my life. I am not very good at it;  I tend to over-react and have been known to bite people. Literally.

So why have we made this decision to up sticks and slink West by over 200 miles? A decision that will, inevitably, lead to more than a little over-crowding in my tiny stress pouch? Why would we willingly put ourselves through it?  Staying put is the obvious solution, isn’t it? 


I want to move. I’m done with the current status quo. For many of the usual reasons – changes in the local neighbourhood, changes in our lifestyle as a family, a general yearning for sea air, beautiful walks, friendly locals, more sailing, alternative opportunities for the kids, etc etc yawn yawn. Most of which I already have and will be sad to leave behind, but which I hope we will find again. We have made some truly great mates in our nine years in this locale, and we will miss them all horribly. Coupled with this, we know we are lucky to be thinking about moving at all at a time when many people are just looking for some job security, extra income or someone to even give them a mortgage.   

So why else? The simple fact is that I need to go. Some other, less conventional, reasons are also behind the decision. Not the least of which is the hole in my home and my life since the demise of my gorgeous labbie back at the end of last summer. The house, that haven of happiness after the hellish working day, would greet me with jolly children and a waggy-tailed pooch. All that has changed since his demise. Now I come back each day – we are talking almost seven months on – and there is no joyful canine greeting, no excited yelping, no-one to sit by my side at the dining table puffing biscuity breath into my face until I take him for a walk. No stench of dog or filth underfoot either, of course, which I acknowledge to be a minor upside but not enough to overcome my sadness and sense of loss.

That’s just the inside of the house. Outside is even worse. I have tried to walk the paths of the beautiful local estate lands three times since Fred shuffled off this Earth. Each time the lack of crunching feet behind me, or a black rump in front of me snuffling through the woods, has seen me return crying my eyeballs out. I don’t do crying, I promise you. Clearly, now, I don’t do walking either. If even the gorgeous local countryside no longer holds an attraction for me, then I am as they say “stuffed”. I know there will be those among you who think I have lost my mind – he was only a dog after all – I’ve lost a lot more significant others than that. But grief is a funny thing. You can’t plan it, you can’t even really understand it. You just have to acknowledge it is there, and that things have changed irreparably.

Another reason, perhaps even more non-sensical to the majority including the Man-Hog, is my panic that life is passing me by. Too short all together when looking at my parents – surely my best source of genetic life expectancy calculation – who both sadly croaked fairly early on into retirement and with so much still left to do in their lives. I don’t want to be that person – waiting and waiting for retirement, for the perfect time, whatever that even is? I fear “not getting it all done”. I want to go while I have such a desire, some sort of means to pay for it, and the determined will to change things for everyone in my family for, hopefully, the better. The Man-Hog is lonely at home, the kids are great but too pale and chesty, and I am craving fresh salty air and a change of pace like my own personal crack habit. I want to get on with it.

There are many more, very personal, reasons why we want to go but I shan’t bore you with them. Suffice to say it has taken two years to come to this decision and I am so glad we finally have!

Amazingly, we have the support of our two children for this move. Upping sticks as a teenager is not an easy issue for most to come to terms with. The Mini-Pig girl has GCSEs to contend with this summer, something we have to factor in to the overall move plan somehow. I know about enforced moves, I had to do it at the age of 18 and I couldn’t wait to turn my back on my parents and hightail it back to where I came from.  Luckily, the Man-Hog (the boyfriend du jour) was in situ back in the former homelands and it all worked out very well. But I remember the feeling of doom, of panic and of powerlessness. I have never wanted that for the children and if they had voiced any dissent for this plan, we would likely have re-considered. My kids positively embrace the idea. They are just as eager to get on with it now that any prevarication between the parentals has ended. I cannot count the number of times people have told us how lucky we are that the children are enthusiastic for this new era – I would be shocked except I am conceitedly proud of them and their ability to adapt. Living with a mother like me – the original Mrs Ants-in-her-Pants-Let-Us-Chuck-Ourselves-Off-A-Cliff-Today – it should really be no surprise. It is one less stress to have to deal with.

 So, the house is up for sale – I have smiled winningly at the estate agent and am praying I had no poppy seeds in my teeth at the time! The Man-Hog and I are venturing West hand-in-porky-hand on Friday for a nose around properties in our price range at the other end. All we need now is a fair wind and some good fortune. Oh, and estate agents that do their jobs. Watch this space.


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When Pigs Became Tigers…

This past week was spent in a not-so-sunny Salcombe. A very wet half-term but with some fun, challenging and awe-inspiring moments.

We’re not well-known for any outstanding acts of bravery here in the House of Pig. We lead pretty ordinary lives really broken only by the madcap adventures of me, Mrs Pig, who does like to mix it up a bit and who occasionally wanders outside the family comfort zone.

This week, however, saw my Pigs become veritable Tigers. Pure Lionhearts of determination and courage. Not on an epic scale for the general good of mankind – that would be unrealistic and time-consuming (only a week’s holiday after all). But on the Pig scale of courage, quite something.

The first was Man-Hog who bravely took up the challenge of learning to handle a pretty hefty rib up and down the estuary and out to sea. An ex-Naval man, he’s not afraid of the water by any means but close proximity has not been felt for many a long time. On this occasion, it was a darn sight too close. A 360 degree doughnut at 30 knots into a Force 8 swell by one of the other trainees on board unfortunately threw the boat’s skipper down the full length of the rib and left the Man-Hog, who’d been sitting at the back, clinging to a rubber handle of the rib by only his fingertips; his tootsies skimming the water and all looking very bleak. He could not get back in-board and there was no-one available to help, the skipper still struggling to return to the inept trainee helmsman from her prone position in the bow. A lucky wave bounce finally threw the Man-Hog back on-board. The skipper, now recovered from her own fall, just laughed it all off as a “learning curve” in how not to turn a boat at high speed but I know my Man-Hog was left feeling like he’d just received six of the best in the naughty corner! He recounted his story with shaking hands and much nervous swallowing over a wee tipple in the pub that night and we pronounced him a hero for not drowning and for continuing with the course after such a frightening experience. A Man-Tiger is among us after all – who knew?!

The Mini-Pigs, meanwhile, were each allowed to bring a friend on holiday with them. Whilst the Man-Hog bravely battled the ocean blue, I took four damp children to an outdoor theme park much to their delight and my abject sogginess. As chief coat-holder/lunch-purchaser/mug I was left at the bottom of many a ride and the seams of my waterproof were simply not equipped to cope with the constant downpour. Damp and Cold were my companions. Nevertheless, the kids had fun and threw themselves around with great enthusiasm. My son’s friend is fearless in the face of speed, water depth and, mainly, height of rides and wanted to go on everything. My son is conversely (and by self-confession) afraid of heights and would rather eat scrambled seaweed in a weaver-fish jus than jump off the top of anything over ten feet. Peer pressure can be a terrible thing sometimes but, miraculously, in this instance it proved to be a mini Lion-Maker. Rather than face the ignominy of returning to school having not met the same challenges as his friend, my son swallowed his rising bile of fear, hitched up his sodden trousers and LEAPT (eyes shut naturally) off the top of a high freefall slide, FRONTED the pair of them in a boat hurtling at top-speed from a great height down a water-drenched flume and even RAISED arms (OK one arm, not two but meh) on the swinging Galleon ship upwardly mobile ride from hell. My heart, and his I’m sure, was bursting with pride at his determination and sheer guts to overcome a real and genuine phobia rather than lose face. My little Mini-Tiger can hold his head high, he was not found wanting.

Small victories on a global scale but hugely significant in the Pig household. Perhaps more Tigger than Tiger to outside observers. Well – let me put it this way: the highlight of my week could have been the lovely beaches, the great food, the warm welcome from locals. But not this time. This time it was proudly seeing my Pigs, large and small, display their Inner Tigers. And Grrrrrr to anyone who thinks otherwise!

Making Up for Lost Time

I wish this was a deep and meaningful blog about regret and missed opportunity. There is plenty of that, believe me, but I’m not one to blab on in a serious manner. You surely know this by now.

No – this week’s Monday Morning Moment of Murderous Intent was caused by a man who had the audacity to TUT at me for putting on my make-up whilst sitting on the train to work this morning.

Let me first explain. When I say make-up, I mean licking a finger to smooth any potential “Dennis Healy” eyebrow movements, spitting on a by-now defunct mascara to coax one more day’s worth of juice to smear on my eyelashes, and possibly some lippy if its not already been stolen from my make-up bag by the cleptomaniacal girl-child. It is not extensive in any way. I can complete said maquillage in under five minutes. Natural beauty is a blessing (OK, I’m kidding but Paris Hilton says if you think you are pretty then you get prettier. She got a book contract with that which is more than I can say for me, so I’m totally going with it.)

Moving on.

So I got out my teensy tiny little make-up bag on a fairly crowded train this morning and had not even commenced the strange open-mouth gape that inexplicably accompanies putting on mascara before Mr-Tutty-Visible-Nose-Hair peered over the top of his newspaper wall and let rip with his teeth-curling show of disapproval. This from a man wearing paisley and not in an ironic fashion, either.

I saw red. Literally. The tut volume itself had caused me to poke myself in the eye. I perfected the one eyebrow raised lip curl and said sweetly: “Is there a problem?” to said Neanderthal.

“Yes. Why can’t you women do that sort of thing at home.” He harrumphed before un-crossing and re-crossing his legs to reveal my pet hate – comedy socks. They were possibly what sent me over the edge. My Inner Cow raised its head, cleared its throat and began to moo as if it had chronic mastitis in every teat of its udder.

“Well, let me explain.” I began. “Before boarding this 7.15 train today, I drove 20 minutes to the station..”

“Yes, but…” He tried to interject, all blustery bravado and macho indignance. I raised a firm hand to silence him.

“Before that I rose at some ungodly hour to bathe, wash my hair etc. I also unloaded the dishwasher from last night, unloaded the tumble dryer, re-loaded it with more washing, laid out two sets of uniform for my kids, packed one PE kit, fed the fish, made tea for my husband, breakfast for my son, sorted out dinner money, debated the merits of hair up versus hair down on a windy day, picked off chewing gum from the sleeve of my son’s new £45 school blazer and killed three spiders.” I paused for breath.

“But…” He whimpered, pathetically now.

“So forgive me if I didn’t get around to putting some make-up on so as not to offend the general populace while I ran around like a blue-arsed fly.”

“Now hang on….” He pleaded, beginning to unpleasantly sweat up now just to add to his manifold attractions.

“I’m getting off the train now.” I rose with my bag in hand.  “But may I suggest that 5 minutes with a hygienic trimmer before YOU leave tomorrow morning wouldn’t go amiss. Caveman!”

And I flounced in absolute hip-sashaying perfection off the train and thankfully didn’t trip over an errant briefcase or wedge my heel in the doorway. Yessss! I wanted to punch the air. Not only did I display balls of steel in the face of extreme provocation, but I didn’t stutter, cry or dry-up mid-speech delivery. I think I may become a motivational speaker if the whole writing thing doesn’t work out. 

The euphoria won’t last, I know. The trials of the working day will crush it in its usual fashion, but by God, for that brief moment I was Queen of the World.

And the moral of the story? Don’t mess with me before I’ve got my make-up on.



We’ve Only Just Begun…

With only just over a week to go until the Teen-Tween Two start back to school, I have been musing on what we will miss about having children at primary school now that this phase of their development has ended. At the end of term back in July, my boy was so happy simply to be leaving that we didn’t dwell on what we might all miss about this institution we have been a part of for 8 years or more.

So I asked him. Here are his answers:

1. Friends that would be going to other schools and not joining him at his new school. This is an interesting one: kids have an uncanny ability to compartmentalise to a much higher degree than we mere adults. I never understood gang mentality until I applied it to this type of situation: quite baldly, if a friend is not going to my son’s school, then he’s no longer much of a friend and is not in his new “gang” which now becomes those at his new school. Despite modern technology and easy access via social networking etc., there is not a cat in hell’s chance that he will stay in touch with people he doesn’t see every day. Harsh, but true. If I applied that basis to my own life, I might never see my far-flung scattered family ever again!

2. Some of the teachers. He will miss his class teacher from Year 6, whom he loved despite the odd clash of personalities, and one or two others. Interestingly not all the teachers and, in particular, not his head teacher or one of the teaching assistant’s in his class. His aversion to some of the most influential adults in his life cannot be undone. He is adamant that he does not like them, they are not very nice people and in the case of the teaching assistant (aka “Monster”), should be kept as far away from children as is humanly possible. She, along with strange and repugnant school lunches, are high on his list of things NOT to miss about school.

3. Playtimes. Even before he has started, my boy has already garnered that playtimes at secondary school will not be the rough and tumble, football playing mayhem of his former schooldays. He manages an impressive lip-curl when he says: “S’pose we’ll be, like, talking and stuff.” Clearly talking is up there with being smeared with Bovril and licked by French poodles in terms of interesting things to do with his playtime. He will miss the greater emphasis on play at primary as much as anything: secondary school being focused on academic endeavour rather than whether you can get seven boys to fall backward in domino fashion for a full 15 minutes without a trip to A&E.

At this point, the boy’s attention span was exhausted and he needed to rest and recuperate from such a looooooong intense discussion with a grown-up. Bless him. So I turned my attention to what we, the parentals, might miss about not darkening the doors of primary school any more. Here’s our, rather more sarcastic, version:

1. Newsletters from the school. Yes, we will miss those informative missives delivered in a crumpled heap via the primary book bag each week. How will we function if not being reminded 52 weeks of the year about head-lice, the benefits of walking to school (which we do already) and the importance of reading 3 times a week (which we do much more than)? The answer is absolutely bloody fine, thanks. We have not yet felt the beginnings of early on-set Alzheimer’s nor do we have attention-deficit syndrome. So why the need to tell us the same thing week in, week out? Sometimes, when there is a different heading on the page, my husband and I clutch each other in excitement at this new world opening up in front of our eyes. Sadly, it is usually to announce that not only are there head-lice but also measles, chicken-pox and bubonic plague in the school. The let-down is immense.

2. Good Work Assemblies. Tragic will be the mornings every 10 weeks when we do not have to attend school to watch our children shuffle recalcitrantly to the front of the hall and mumble a few pre-prepared words from a card about a topic in which they have not had the slightest interest. One particularly memorable one was when the then 9 year-old boys had to explain how they had put together a country dancing sequence. They would honestly rather have had their pants pulled down in the front of the school, it could not have been more embarrassing. Fire-red cheeks and woeful tones of voice will haunt me forever having watched those poor lads hop about Munchkin-stylie in front of all the parents: definitely one to forget. While the girls probably relished such a topic, I fear it may have damaged the chaps for life. Oh – and the heat. I will miss the heat of being packed snugly next to 30 other sets of parents on chairs designed to accommodate buttocks much smaller than mine. I’m practically engaged to one or two of the other parents having shared such sweaty, intense intimacy.

3. Money. Yes, we are wondering what to do with all the extra money we will now have at our disposal as we are not gleefully filling the school coffers with cash. Without exception, not a week went by in 8 years when we weren’t asked to contribute towards, sponsor, give generously or just plain get your cash out for something that damn school needed. It was money with menaces. Not to mention the looks we got if we deigned to put a couple of tins of tomato soup in the basket for Harvest Festival. Clearly, I was supposed to make something organic with produce from the local farm shop at great expense to myself. Well, that didn’t happen. Like EVER.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, were the things the boy is looking forward to at the new school:

  • Learning new subjects: he is EXCITED about learning German, has looked up fab new swear words in his dictionary already. I have started announcing “Gott in Himmel!” at the state of his room in the mornings, just to practice;
  • New friends and joining up with friends he already has through football club that will be at his new, much larger school;
  • Exotic school trips: he is already talking about going to Kenya although seems to have an irrational belief that he will not only contract malaria, but will in fact die from it. In Africa. Alone.

This is heartening stuff giving me hope that the transition will not be too traumatic. As for us, the thing we will really miss most about primary school is the primary school age children themselves. For better or worse, what we have here now are young adults in the making. Which begs the real question du jour: when are my husband and I planning to grow up?

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Tough? You Don’t Know the Half….

I’ve been bombarded, like everyone else out there, with the news reports and magazine exposés about the state of the nation’s youth and how disaffected, disenfranchised and disillusioned they are.  On the flip side, I have been researching a chapter for a book which led me to articles and government publications about the forced emigration of British children to the far-flung colonies from the turn of the century until well into the 1950s and 60s.

It’s scary stuff, let me tell you.  According to Alan Gill in his book “Orphans of the Empire: The shocking story of child migration to Australia “, he estimates that as many as 30,000 impoverished children and orphans were “re-located” from Britain and Ireland to farm and reformatory schools in the Americas, Australia and South Africa between 1912 and the late 1960s. Estimates are apparently difficult to verify, there may be thousands more unlisted, undocumented. Paperwork is scant; many adoption agencies, religious institutions and the recipient families themselves either lost, destroyed or mis-placed paperwork; children were re-named when adopted and their original identities disappeared; or there was simply little or no detail given on the documents themselves to indicate parentage or birth locations. There are now large organisations in all of those countries dedicated to helping this lost generation find their relatives. Imagine being sent away sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years old, never to return to Britain, your family, your life. Or being an unmarried mother forced to give up your baby for adoption overseas by the very societies you went to for help.

Some of the stories of those who were forcefully emigrated are harrowing. Seen as cheap slave labour by many itinerant farming families, these children were treated worse than animals: malnourished, overworked, kept in appalling conditions and in many cases abused physically, sexually and emotionally. Many who thought they were going to be sent to “school” for their own betterment and that of their family, received the shock of their lives on arrival at their new “homes”.  A significant number were adopted illegally by the families that received them; their parents back in Britain unaware that their children were no longer their own. Some parents were illiterate themselves or of such poor educational background that they simply did not understand the papers they were signing. Many children went with the parents’ blessing, for their education and benefit, on the understanding that they would return home at 16 – they later found out those children had been lied to and told they were to work for their benefactors indefinitely for no pay and very poorly cared for. The parents who did want their children to return were often still too poor to or otherwise unable to search for, retrieve and legally re-patriate their own children. Still others felt so guilty for sending them, or on learning of what  had happened to their offspring upon their return, that their relationships irretrievably broke down. Many returned to find their family scattered, no welcome for them, left to fend for themselves.

I’m not so naïve that I think it has all ended: that some or all of this goes on in one form or another throughout every society even today. Much to my disgust, I know it does. However, I take heart by the success stories of some of those who rose above such criminal treatment and adversity and made something of themselves. David Hill, for example, born in 1947 into a one-parent family in Eastbourne (not a million miles from where I live now) and living in poverty with his mother and three brothers. Through the Fairbridge Farm Schools, he was sent out with his brothers to their Molong school where life was very hard, very tough and he withstood beatings, poor health and malnutrition. BUT. He came through it and ended up MD and Chairman of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (Oz’s version of the BBC).  I expect his life was hell on earth at the time: the Fairbridge scheme is still under investigation to this date for malpractice and the mistreatment of those under its care. The point I suppose I am making is he did experience rock-bottom situations, he went through all of that and still retained integrity and strength enough to make his choice. The choice to move forward. To make things better. To try, however difficult his status was in life.

I am sure there were others cast down by their misfortunes whose lives did not turn out so well.  That will always be so; for those I maintain huge sympathy and sadness. But for some on our TV screens bemoaning their lack of opportunity, their disillusionment at such a young age and blaming everyone under the sun for their circumstances; they could do worse than look at this little episode in history. It is not to be recommended as the solution to any problem; far from it. The migrant scheme was an unfortunate by-product of a society under strain, as many would have us believe we are now. But out of that ill-conceived idea, the fortitude and bravery of a few who did rise above their own problems remain shining beacons of hope, of achievement, of potential, even in the worst of times.

Oftentimes, the solution to any problem lies within ourselves. Our willingness to make changes, our ability to set goals and suffer the steps necessary to achieve them. Life is hard. Sometimes, as I have been reading, almost impossible to survive. But some did. And continue to do so.   Why not today’s youngsters?  Replace disillusionment with determination. Replace disenfranchisement with willingness to re-build community spirit. Move forward, not blame the current and the past. 

A choice can be made. Smashing windows in frustration brings only temporary relief. A looted laptop is not life-changing.  A history book and a sense of purpose just might be.

Phew…..did I get serious there for a moment? Better put the kettle on.

Stranger than Fiction…

There are things about me that my children do not know. No – I’m not talking about those sorts of things, smutty people. I’m talking about weird and wonderful habits and foibles I have developed over the years that make me happy, cheer me up, or simply allow me to function properly.

In order of weirdness, they are:

1. Writing down the name of the rail station where my car is parked – on my hands. Yes, plural. So I don’t forget to get off the train at the right place. This is a good system until it gets cold or the lights go off in the train tunnel. Mittens play havoc with my personal SatNav. It can also look a little like a very sad, homemade tattoo – a display of solidarity support for various South-Eastern towns. For some towns, I am tempted to add M U V V A on my knuckles too.

2. Eating Heinz baby food for lunch. Secretly. In the office. I have a particular predilection for Lamb and Vegetable Risotto for main course followed by Apricot Custard for dessert. I like to eat them cold and straight from the tin. I justify it by telling myself they are low in salt and nutritionally balanced. They also mean I don’t have to chew – infinitely preferable to fighting my way down a French stick and bearing the facial scars to show for it.

3. “Discussing” things with inanimate objects: bags of dog food, pillows, the car dashboard etc. Some days, after a day in the office, it is the most sensible conversation I get. It’s not madness, it’s simply getting across my point of view. Always and without argument.

I could go on, there are many more. But you get the picture. 

Then, of course, there are the things they DO know about, and accept as absolutely normal:

1. I love model villages. Yes, really. Bekonscot has been known to make me faint.

2. I like “mini” things. The minier the better. My latest is mini dental floss. Awesome.

3. I have a violent aversion, resulting in acute gagging, to rubber gloves. Any colour, any thickness. I’m shuddering now. When I was having the children, I did my own examinations during labour. It was easier that way. Gross, but true, I’m afraid.

4. I absolutely, unequivocally and completely ADORE Julian Clary. Both as a man and a woman. In another life, I want to come back as his mother.

So, in consequence, it is a testament to my two wonderful mini-beasts that they are as normal and well-balanced as they appear to be. It certainly is not because of their upbringing. In these days of social instability; when parenting, environment and culture are being blamed for everything that is not quite right; it is a comfort to know that I have not been responsible for damaging them. That normality reigns, against all the odds. So far.

Now then, where did I put that teaspoon…..I’m hungry again.


Non means No….

I have just returned from a few days with friends in the south of France. We had a lovely time, despite truly British – dare I say Scottish – weather.

One of our jaunts out took us to the port of La Rochelle. I have fond memories of this place, having spent a riotous four days there in late 2009 on stopover prior to departing for an insane yacht race with ten other boats all the way to Rio de Janeiro. Good times – well, the bits I remember anyway.

Returning to La Rochelle the year after my return from Brazil with the family on holiday, I was mortified to be met with a hug and an effusive welcome by the proprietor of the port’s only Irish Pub – he apparently remembers me downing impressive quantities of some shocking cocktails called After Eights and thereafter dancing on the tables accompanied by other slightly inebriated sailor-type companions. It was not one of my finest parental moments – being displayed in front of my children – but they were so “Meh” about the whole thing that I believe I got away with it. Phew. Note to self: Must learn to lead children by example…..

But – staying on point – this visit included a mooch around the shops with our friends, where the children were amused to come across a series of Mr Men books written in French. The one that tickled our funny bone the most was “M. Non.” Just that – Monsieur Non. We fell about laughing on reading it, as we all immediately identified the elder male Stratton in the character – he who was browsing in a model-making shop at the time (because sensible people stay home and make models, not gad about the globe in glorified tin cans for the fun of it).

My husband – now M. Non forever more – is, let’s say, one who errs on the dark side. Not wholly negative, but not completely positive either. A planner and procrastinator. He’s most definitely a “No, but…” person when discussing ideas, people, concepts etc. whereas the rest of us are much more “But, yes…” He’s a “Can’t”, not “Let’s” person.

(Note: This “Non” does not, however, extend to bottles of French wine, for which he demonstrated much more “Mais oui!” this weekend than was good for him. Since his only failing here was to get louder in proportion to the quantity of wine consumed, this is a minor issue, although our poor friends may need to consult ear specialists this week as they recover from having us to stay.)

This inherent negativity has led to many clashes en famille as being with M. Non can somewhat limit spontaneity, creativity and simple learning through childhood (and adult) experiences. My son, for example, is protected from hurting himself with too much gung ho launching off walls and scaling of trees etc., by M. Non. He would say it is health and safety awareness, but I would argue that our son could also be less dexterous, less able to problem-solve and more cautious than he would otherwise be if allowed to experience more. My daughter is prevented from certain fashion choices and from experimenting too much with her hair. M. Non says non. But is that stifling her creativity, “cramping her style” or just his fatherly way of protecting her from peer ridicule?

It’s hard to know. I am a different animal altogether. I fight M. Non on many fronts myself. I believe in having a go, pushing boundaries and accepting the consequences as they happen. Not necessarily thinking about those consequences in advance. If I had, I would not have even been dancing on tables in La Rochelle, or scaring myself silly trying to manhandle a 68 foot bath-tub across the Atlantic for six weeks. “Non” is not a word I use much at all, unless we’re talking about tattoos or piercings on my daughter’s beautiful teenage person. That’s not so much “Non” as “Over my dead and rotted body.” Me and M. Non are, for once, in agreement on these issues.

But I do have to concede that without M. Non’s practicality, forward-thinking, hazard avoidance and foot-putting-down-ness then myself and the kids would teeter on the edge of potential disaster much more often than we do. While I find all that flying by the seat of my pants stuff terribly exciting, I do accept that it does not make for great parenting. Many meals and much of their formal education would be missed as we windsurfed our way across to the Canary Islands or trekked cheetahs in remote jungle bush, if their parenting was left purely to me.

So, here’s a tribute to the M. (and Madame) Nons of this world – those who we may moan about and rail against, but who keep us safe, love us enough to stop us doing too many silly things, and give us the secure base from which to leap into the unknown prepared and protected as much as they can manage and arrange.

Without my own M. Non, Madame Oui-Oui-Oui here and the little Oui-Ouis would not be the happy, healthy little unit we are. More time would potentially be spent in A&E than out enjoying ourselves. We must appreciate him and all he does (without the loud bits, obviously), even when “non” means no.

(She says, sneaking off to have a go at base-jumping before her ancient and creaky knees seize up altogether and/or M. Non finds out!! Just kidding, M. Non, honest?)

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