Crash helmets to protect you from life’s knocks


I’m talking to a friend about roller skates.  Not the carefully designed ergonomic ones of today, complete with full body padding accessories but the seriously dodgy ones of my youth.  Held onto the foot by a single strap of leather, they were impossible to control, so we would stumble up and down the street, twisting ankles and crashing straight into the nearest parked car.’  And then in sync we both said, in unnecessary Yorkshire accents: ‘And it never did us any harm!’

At ten, I would go out to play with my younger sister and mum would tell us not to come back till tea time.  Once we came across a cachet of stolen stamps and decided to form a secret society.  My younger sister wanted to join us and regretfully I had to say no because we would be ‘jumping from building to building solving crimes.’  We also knew there was a weird man at the end of the street.  Mum referred to him as a ‘dirty old man’ and told us to stay away from him. My younger sister had her sources and said that he ‘tries to feel you up.’  I used to walk up and down the other side of the road.  He ignored me and I felt slightly put out.  Our local park was an unsavoury miasma of glass and dog shit.

And yet despite living in a neighbourhood of paedophiles, parks with hard surfaces and unsafe roller skates, I survived.  Now when you walk past a playground, you see most of them are covered in that soft tarmac which offers a softer landing if the child falls a full ten inches from the swing.  But even so, you still see small children wearing helmets.  And sometimes elbow pads, and knee pads like mini Michelin figures.  I mention this to my friend.

‘Ha!’ she says.  Have you seen these!  Toddler helmets.  For small children crawling round the house.  Soon I expect to see crash helmets that contain a built in ‘twat alert’ to protect them from unsuitable romantic partners, or crash helmets that feed a constant drip of affirmations to protect you from pain and failure: ‘You’re awesome!’ ‘You’re a winner!’


A whole industry has sprung up which feeds on parental paranoia, even before the baby is born.  You can buy Baby Einstein or Brainy Baby cds that ‘educate’ your baby while still in the womb.  But during a scan I could see my baby playing with her feet.  And slurping the amniotic fluid.  Drinking her own bath water?  Bloody hell, I must have accidentally listened to the Chav Baby CD by mistake.  Then once they are up and about, parents can buy a lock for the toilet just in case.  Just in case what? The toddler falls down the loo?  What’s more likely to happen is mum or dad staggering drunkenly up the stairs, and being unable to get the lid up, peeing on the floor instead.

And it doesn’t stop when the child is at school.  More and more are driven, so they never get used to using their legs or traffic.  And direct one cross word at the little princelings, and helicopter mum rushes up to the school to berate the teacher for not recognising that Timmy’s habit of hitting other children over the head with a mallet is simply his response to not being creatively stimulated enough.

You can dive in when the child is young but as they get older you have to take a step back and let them figure out their own friendship problems.  So when my son was being bullied in primary school, I rushed up to see the Headmistress, breathing fire.  I also cornered the bully in the playground and ‘had a word’.  Actually I told him that if he carried on bullying my kid, I’d get him arrested.  Mean yes, but he had thrown my boy against a wall and landed him in hospital.  So if I scared the little shit – good.

But a few years later, I found out that a particular boy was being nasty to my son – inviting him to his house and then turning him away on the doorstep.  I ached with misery, but had to stand back.  So we came up with a plan.  My boy would write down every incident in a book, to build up a picture and I got him to join some clubs out of school so he was less reliant on his peer group in school.  It took time (and a lot of standing around on freezing cold touch lines on a Saturday morning) but after a few months, his ability to play football and crowd of friends outside school seemed to increase his confidence, and the problem melted away.  I would ask him if he was ok and he would shrug me off.  But he seemed happy.  I left it.

I know one mother (and father to be fair) who installed cameras in the garden to ‘protect the children from paedophiles’.  The daughter is now thirteen and has never crossed the road by herself.   Another who marched up to her ten-year old son who was looking forward to going on the log ride at Thorpe Park and marched him away saying, ‘No you’ll be scared.’  These parents are ruining their kids – infecting them with their own beliefs that the world is a frightening place, ensuring they will still be coming home with their washing in their thirties.

Because all the pain, all the suffering you protect them from now will not stop it happening later.  Your child will go out with someone unsuitable, someone you can SEE A MILE OFF will break their heart and there is nothing you can do.  They will fail.  Despite the ‘I’m a winner’ badges when they come last in the egg and spoon race.  The best thing I can do is make my child feel confident, curious and able to deal with things head on.  I try to remember this every time my daughter makes a half arsed job at making her bed or grumbles when I ask her to unload the dishwasher and I think – it would be easier to do it myself.  But five years down the line and I’ll have a stroppy little madam who can’t see any reason why she needs to make her bed and unload the dishwasher because mum will grumble but she’ll end up doing it herself.  And then she’ll go to college and be a crappy housemate, use up the milk, never make her bed, and nobody will like her.  So yeah – go make your bed madam.  And while you’re at it, you can hang up the washing.


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I certify that I know this horrendously ugly person in the photo



Renewing your passport is a bit of a pain.  You have to fill in the form in black ink – and of course there’s not a pen to be had in the house, despite buying 100 0000 pens a few weeks ago.  Then you have to sort out a photo that doesn’t make you resemble Shrek with a hangover.  And THEN you have to find a friend who is willing to say they have known you for two years.  If you want a British passport this is all very reasonable – you just find someone who you’re neither sleeping with nor related to, and get them to write in teeny tiny writing: I certify that I know Shrek on the photo.

If, however, like me, you are foolish enough to want to update your Irish passport, it’s like jumping into a time machine and shooting back to the 1950s.  Because they have a list of people who are allowed to countersign your passport photo and you cannot deviate from this list. So when it came to getting my Shreky pictures signed I looked through the list of approved signers in growing despair.  Bank Manager?  These people don’t exist anymore.  Doctor? I hardly ever go to the doctor so my doctor hasn’t the faintest idea of who I am.  School Principal – not just a teacher, but the Principal.  Again, you have to be a busy member of the PTA for the Principal to know who you are.   Elected Public Representative – like a counsellor? No – don’t know anyone like this.  Priest – oh yeah because they never lie do they?  And I stopped going to church twenty years ago.   Or Policeman.  No – don’t know any police.

What are you doing Irish Passport People?  Why are you making it so difficult?

That’s it.  That’s the list.  The only person left on it was Accountant.  And she’s met me twice.  So I explained the situation and she said, ‘ok but next time you’re in bring me a bottle of wine.’


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How to tell if a Creative Writing Course is a ‘Kureshi’ or not

I’ve come late to the party about this but t’internet has been all of a flutter about whether or not creative writing courses are a waste of time.  A debate started by Hanif Kureshi who teaches at Kingston University and the Faber Writing Course.  Since part of my livelihood depends on them continuing I’m hardly objective about it but I’ve taught enough to be able to tell the difference between a good one and a bad one.

Just because you’re published (or broadcast) doesn’t make you able to teach. You need endless patience and enthusiasm.

A good cw course doesn’t make promises or even hints about publication, but provides you with a set of tools, a supportive environment and a few deadlines.  Deadlines are vital because they force you to produce work.  If there are no deadlines you’ll spend all your time faffing about avoiding work like me. It won’t make a bad writer a good one. But it will make most writers better and most importantly, better able to identify why a piece is not working, in both their own work and in another student’s.

How to tell that a creative writing course is probably going to be ‘A Kureshi’

The REALLY bad ones have a proliferation of exclamation points,  phrases like ‘Yes You Too’ plus liberal mentions of JK Rowling, as though only a few marketing points stand between you and the Secrets of Publication.

There is usually a picture of an attractive girl with a pencil in her mouth looking wistfully into the distance.  Or lying on her stomach, smiling gormlessly at her laptop for no apparent reason.

Sally knew she looked like a real writer.  Now if only she could remember which end to use . . . ?

Sally knew she looked like a real writer. Now if only she could remember which end to use . . . ?

The word ‘secrets’ is used as in ‘secrets of publication’.  THERE ARE NO SECRETS AND THERE ARE NO MAGIC TIPS. Writing is hard work.  There are no short cuts.  (I particularly like Jeannette Winterson’s pithy remark: ‘I don’t give a shit what’s in your head.  If it’s not on the page it doesn’t exist.  Reading isn’t telepathy.’)

Check how many people will be in the group.  With online courses, there should be no more than 15 or 16.  Online students need more support than face to face ones.

Check who writes the course materials.  If the answer you get is vague then the chances are they are generic.  One of the reasons why the OU CW course is respected is because the materials are rigorous, and updated.

If the course promises input from writers check the nature of this input.  It could be that they will post a video of a writer giving advice as part of an interview this writer gave ten years ago.  It will not be without value but by mentioning authors, it implies the author has validated the course which may not be true.  The author might not even know his or her video is being used, if the publishing company bought up all the rights to it.

Check the credentials of the tutor.  It’s true that being published doesn’t mean you can teach – and some great teachers may not have been widely published but if you are doing a course on script writing then you really need a tutor who has had a script broadcast or performed.  A novel writing course should be taught by someone who has been published, and I don’t think that self-publishing counts.


How much is the tutor being paid?   Ask yourself where the rest of the money is going. If the tutor is badly paid then they will either be a) unqualified, or b) desperate. Is that who you want to be teaching you? If there is a group of say 20 people and you are all paying £350, that’s £7000.  If the tutor is being paid a wretched fee like £1000 (it happens) ask where the rest of YOUR money is going?

Check whether you will be expected to produce work to a deadline. If not there’s no point in the course.  I often point out to my OU students that by the end of the (advanced) course they will have produced short stories, life writing, poetry and a half hour script.  At the beginning, most of them see this as impossible.  But at the end, they look back and cannot believe they have done this.  But without deadlines, nothing would happen.

As for Mr Kureshi, apart from being very cruel to his students, I think that what he says is wrong! He says, ‘”A lot of them [students] don’t really understand,” said Kureishi. “It’s the story that really helps you. They worry about the writing and the prose . .’” But if you look at the stories of Raymond Carver, they are incredibly simple, about blue collar people and written in very plain accessible language. Fat is the story of a waitress who serves a fat man. Doesn’t sound like a ‘great story’. But it is – a story about connection and choices.   And it’s all in the characterisation and language.

So I’ve been teaching with the OU for six years and I’ve learned about point of view, about theme, that stories and plays are built, they don’t emerge in a flash, that rewrites are vital.  And I’ve that students can complete a demanding course while holding down a full time job.

I’ve also learned a little humility.  Something that HK might benefit from.

And the most useful piece of advice ever, courtesy of Ernest Hemingway:

the first draft is shit

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Friends divorcing? Shut up and listen

I have two good friends who are about to divorce.  I know one party better than the other, but I love them both and it turns my insides to acid thinking about it.  Even though I’ve been through it myself, I’m surprised. Even though I know you cannot tell a thing about a relationship from how they behave in a social situation, I’m still surprised.  I’d love to stay friends with them both.

But it’s almost impossible not to take sides.  I split from my husband three years ago and it was horrible.  It’s worth reiterating just how bone crunchingly painful divorce is because rather a lot of people think it’s easy.  Part of that pain is discovering that people you thought of as friends, feel that your divorce is catching.  Loyalties go tits up.  Some distance themselves, in reassurance that it’s not going to happen to them.  One ex friend was particularly angry with me, I think, for not confiding in her, despite my protestations that I didn’t want to put her in a difficult position.  In turn I grew to dislike her condescension, even though I could see it was a defence mechanism.  Now, three years down the line, the dust has settled and I’m a lot tougher (tougher, as in resilient, not harder).  I’m living very close to my ex, so our daughter can see her dad several nights a week.  I love my partner, but my daughter knows she comes first.

During the very worst of it, somebody said to me, The only way out of it is through it.  And now I’m out the other side, friends with my ex and not wrecked, it makes sense.  But if you are just starting the process . . . .

I don’t know enough celebrities or people so rich that they can say ‘I’m off’ and do everything through their lawyers, but those I know who have split all say it’s the most painful decision they ever made.  Remember divorce is no two on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale just below death of a spouse. The fact that divorce is more socially acceptable doesn’t make it easier.

I googled, when friends divorce and found some hilarious articles on how to stay friendly with both parties, including illustrations in case you’re not sure what  ‘listening’ looks like.  And after two weeks of hearing how upset he was from my partner’s point of view, I picked up the phone and dialled her number.  And just listened.  It was, of course, a totally different story.  And my partner and I ended up having a weird row about it of the ‘he said, she said’ variety.  At one point, I shouted: ‘So you’re saying she’s a liar?’

‘No – all I’m saying is that if you look at the FACTS . . . ‘

We had to agree not to discuss it with each other.

But how it actually ended rang an eerie bell. For my breakup, for my partner’s breakup, for the breakup of my two friends.  In all three cases, the man was very aware that the relationship was bad, yet they tunneled along, hoping that things might get better of their own accord.  Or being unable to actually bring up the issue.  Until the woman announces she wants a divorce.  Then the man starts brooding that the woman has been ‘planning’ this.  Or you could say that since nearly 70% of divorces are filed by women, even though their income regardless of whether they work or are stay at home, drops by about 30% initially, it seems to say that women it seems that women are the ones who have the bollocks to call a halt to a wretched relationship.

During our row I pointed out that what men might call ‘just hoping it would get better’ can translate as, ‘I’m going to behave like a total shit until she leaves me’.  Pretty mean as my partner had once shame-facedly admitted to being a total tool, showing up late and being a passive aggressive twunt until his then girlfriend had dumped him. But true.  We had to agree to speak to and be sympathetic to the respective parties, but not talk to each other about it.  So if your friends are splitting up, here are a few painfully learned tips.

The Samaritans save lives with listening.  It’s a powerful thing.

Don’t offer advice unless specifically asked.

Ask your girlfriend out for coffee and round for dinner.  Even if she refuses, keep asking.

Your husband is overweight and balding and she has heard all his stupid jokes before.  So don’t hug him protectively and make ‘jokes’ about her being ‘on the loose’ as though she’s a sexual cluster bomb.

Shut up. Listen.  Don’t judge.

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Be a hair model and get your barnet sorted for pennies.

We’ve all had one of those experiences at the hairdresser.  I’ve had two of them both when I was much younger and ridiculously concerned about being ‘nice’ (i.e. a walkover).  The first was in a ‘Vidal Sassoon’ training salon.  I asked for their advice about my long unruly hair and in the mirror I could see the hairdresser rolling her eyes at her colleague.  I should have got up and left.  Instead I stayed and humbly let her cut me a fringe.  ‘No really I can’t have a fringe – it goes all fluffy – oh ok – yes all right ok.  No I’m not telling you how to do your job.  Ooh look it’s gone fluffy.’

‘Well’ says the Eye Rolling One.  ‘I’ve never had that happen before.’

A few years later I went to another salon for highlights.  ‘Please not those’ I said when the colour chart was shown to me.  ‘They’re burgundy’.

‘I think they’ll suit you’ said the hairdresser who had inexplicably green hair.

‘No’ I said with a modicum of firmness.

But several hours later when the foils had been removed and I was being blow-dried I saw that the badger stripes in my hair were indeed burgundy.  I resembled a three piece sofa from Plumbs; such was the burgundy-ness of my hair.

‘I said no burgundy’ I whimpered, bewildered.   ‘Why did you do the exact opposite of what I asked?’

‘Because I think they suit you’ said the green haired one, a fixed smile on his face.  But they didn’t.  They looked cheap.  I resembled Kate Bush’s uglier colour blind sister.  I’m sure burgundy highlights look great on some woman but considering I’d just paid a fortune; my hair looked as though it had had a box of bad hair dye dumped on it.  I burst into tears of rage and was instantly surrounded by the four hairdressers who ran the salon all telling me I looked ‘great’ although I noticed they were exchanging glances in the big mirrors.  Do some hairdressers not know that the paying customers can SEE them?

I have thick, reddish hair that with care and the right astrological alignment can look sleek or curly but most of the time threatens to burst into a halo of frizz.  I apply a deep conditioning mask on it twice a week, use shampoos with no sulphates and keep it long enough to pull some of the weight down.  But as I get older, my hair is going a bit beige, like my face.  Some women go grey beautifully but I’m going beige.  I’m useless at colouring my own hair but as we all know, good highlights take hours and are very expensive.   So I checked on Gumtree and found the section on free or cheap colour and cuts by third year hairdressing students, rang the salon and found myself booked for highlights and a cut at Lulu Blonde in Wimbledon Village.

They rang me back to confirm the appointment and check I was actually turning up.  It seems that it’s quite difficult even in these cash strapped times to get models for hairdressing students.

Lulu Blonde is a large, airy salon with gleaming wood floors,  big Art Deco mirrors, friendly staff and lots of magazines.   Marina from Latvia asked me about my hair and I said I wanted the colour warmed up a little but I didn’t want to look any blonder which would add to the overall ‘beige’ effect.  I was then offered  Earl Grey tea or a proper cafeteria of coffee (so many expensive salons offer really bad coffee or even instant) while Marina carefully placed about a million foils all round my head including right underneath, so when I put my hair up, you could see gleaming highlights underneath too.  It was supposed to be half a head of highlights but my whole head seemed to be covered.   I soon became engrossed in celebville  the latest anguish of Jordan – her son Jet Propelled is very ‘small’ and she’s worried about getting back to her size eight figure, oh and Victoria Beckham is worried about her brother in law going out with Kelly Brook.  Also Victoria is sporting a horrible dress that could be accessorised with tent pegs.   Hair extensions are bad for you apparently and there’s a mean photograph of Naomi Campbell with a bald patch to prove it.  And Alexa Chung has a book out containing useful advice like, ‘hairdressers make my hair look nice’.

I also read however this month’s Vogue which also features Alexa having a ‘couture adventure’ where she dresses up priceless frocks with hats.  But I think she writes with a keen eye and a slightly satirical air about the fashion world.   The Vogue article is a good piece of journalism.  Just that the book is not a good advertisement of her writing.

When I looked up, three hours had past and Marina suggested adding a ‘tone’ to my highlights.  ‘Ok’ I said and went back to reading about how pink is the colour for autumn and that Mark Wright is in love ‘for the first time’ which might make his ex girlfriend Lauren a bit sad.

When the toner and the highlights were rinsed out, I asked for a trim.  Marina showed me a teeny tiny snippet of hair and I kept saying, ‘more . . .more . . .go on’.   She took off about an inch, and blow-dried it, asking if I wanted serums or mousses.

My head by this point was full of the latest celebrity flim flam but my hair looked lovely, warmer, brighter in colour but completely natural.  Lulu Blonde is a lovely salon where I was put at ease and I only paid £25 for cut and highlights that would ordinarily have cost anything between £150 – £250.  I was thrilled.

So if you fancy a cheap to free hairdo, here are a few guidelines.

  • Marina told me that hairdressers have to be shown to be competent in highlights and cutting, so if you see an ad and they’re doing highlights, always ring up and be truthful about the kind of hair you have – has it been coloured, bleached etc.   Marina says she is currently looking for someone who wants a bob.
  • If the ad specifies straight hair because the hairdresser wants to cut a bob, then don’t book an appointment unless you have straight hair.  If the ad says ‘happy to have a change’ – this can mean anything, so ask.
  • Check the price. If it’s going to cost a nominal amount they should say so up front.
  • Again, if it’s free, don’t be a tightwad.  Give a tip.
  • Before you book an appointment, check out the hairdresser.   I’m always put off by the mad hairstyles of a particular franchised hairdresser so I never go in.  I’m probably wrong but when you’re a woman in your forties you don’t always want your hair done by a bloke with a dyed green Mohican.
  • Be prepared to stay there all day.  Your hairdresser should be monitored by an experienced member of staff but he/she will probably take much longer than an experienced hairdresser.  Take a sandwich.  I was at Lulu Blonde from 11.45 to 16.30


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Political Puffering and Barclays Bollocks

The wonderful JK Rowling continues her refusal to join the Rich People’s Club.  In a Gingerbread article, she says, ‘I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life.’  She remembers the small kindnesses of some, such as the lady who allowed JK to bring her baby to work, and the spite of others.  (The woman who loudly referred to her as The Unmarried Mother)

And now with 200 000 children pushed further into poverty as a direct result of welfare cuts, the government admit to wasting 10 billion so far on a defunct NHS computer and are threatening to send benefit ‘thieves’ to jail, JK reminds yet again that most single parents do not choose their position. Dur.  Only 2% of single mothers are teenagers.  When a partner or husband leaves or a marriage just ends, what are you supposed to do?  Send the child back through Parcelforce?  Or cope?  59% of single mothers work and the tories are strangely silent on how so many parents work full time yet still remain in poverty.  Well possibly because many mothers take part time, horribly paid jobs.  Remember recently when Costa advertised for six jobs and had over a thousand applicants?

Side Note: I’ve recently noticed that with the recent fee hikes, in the field I teach (creative writing) there are now many many dodgy writing courses springing up.  You can tell they are dodgy because:

1. JK Rowling will inevitably be mentioned, usually along the lines of:  Yes you too with your poor grasp of grammar and inability to understand that an anecdote is not a story plus a total refusal to learn can be famous like that JK Rowling.  All you need are marketing tips!!!!!!  Tips N’ Tricks!!!!!!!! (Note – proliferation of exclamation marks, the word ‘marketing‘)

2. When you ask what study materials are used and who wrote them, the company will be very coy.

3. The tutors will be paid very badly and very often don’t have much of a writing profile.  Yes there are some great teachers who haven’t published much but if they don’t have a web presence at all, be wary.  Why would you want to be taught by someone who has little or no more experience than you?  If the tutors are very badly paid, they will be desperate for money (understandable) but not happy about being so badly exploited.  You’d be better off finding an Adult Education class – or starting up a writing group.  Somewhere you can all share your writing, and learn from each other.

I digress:

On Lorraine the other morning, I switched on during a segment where a male and female presenter were discussing ‘skivers’.  The man very calmly pointed out that the biggest part of the benefits bill is spent on pensions, and that benefit fraud accounts for 1%.  And why hadn’t a single banker been brought to book about an endless stream of financial scandals and frauds that were costing the tax payer blllions?  And continue to, the cost of approx £120 billion a year?  It was as if he’d just said: ‘lalalalalalala’ because the female presenter simply said: ‘Yes well we have to get these skivers’ as though they were vermin.  I wanted to punch her.

Speaking of rich fraudsters, Barclays have recently launched a marketing campaign in a ‘bid to humanise its brand’.  Well they could stop behaving like criminals.  That would be a start.  We are invited to tell them what drives us mad?  Hmm . . . involvement with South Africa under apartheid, financial support for Robert Mugabe, money laundering, obscene bonuses such as £14.5 million to Bob Diamond, it’s profit of £2 billion despite the sub-prime mortgage crisis, tax avoidance, the Libor scandal and your stupid patronising adverts.

Over at Mumsnet, the headline was: The Women Problem with a feature on how the three parties are remembering that we exist battling it out for the female vote.

Do they argue over the male vote?  No.  I’m a voter, not a woman voter.  It says a lot about their approach.  They see 50% of the human population as an annoying ‘problem’ like cystitis.    That they have to treat us differently, talking about their kids and pets, and maybe a cheeky mention of their underpants because that way us girlies might forget the lies you told us last time.

Grumpy?  Moi?

Hey on a lighter note, I was walking home with the Girl and she cheerfully told me that she knew ‘how to make fake wee’.

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Bad Sex

The Girl is nine.  Ex brings her home after a week’s holiday just in time for school.  Have you noticed?  Have I noticed what?  What? Apart from the fact she now has dreadlocks after spending approximately 150 hours a day … Continue reading

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