Confessions of an Elderly Snowflake

After many months absence, I’m gate-crashing my own blog to give vent to my #Me Too moment. If it helps the revolution along . . !


At the time of Helen Titchener’s trial in The Archers it was “gaslighting”. Now, it’s much more prosaic “sexual harassment”, a term that’s been around since, oh ages, 1970s Spare Rib at least. Surely, we should be over it now, and on to something else, like “genderism”?

Except that we aren’t; I guess it has taken us 50 years to grasp the meaning of the term.

In the 1970s I was a teenager, so I’m of an age to take the view, “Oh what’s the big deal, ladies? Men! They’ve always been like this (and always will be, don’t we just love ‘em girls?. . .)!”  Except in my internalised way, I’ve been fighting it all my life. And I’ve paid the price.

Look at me; highly intelligent, educated (two degrees, in very diverse areas), multi-lingual; physically fit (an amateur ballet-dancer)  musical (taught myself decent violin from scratch in about two years) and, oh yes, pretty good-looking (in a slightly overripe way, see below) always have been. I come from a relatively privileged background; grammar school and Oxbridge; my father (deceased) was quite a well-known academic in his day and a charismatic personality besides.  I know I have my talent from him.

Yet I never married, and am no “career woman” either.  My professional  high point was probably some international freelance trade journalism back in the late 1990s. The staff jobs I occasionally got (after graduating the second time; after the freelancing)  I couldn’t keep; I was fired, or resigned in anticipation of same, after a few weeks or months both  times, miserable. “What did you do?” asked despairing family members, genuinely mystified. I could never really say, because I was never quite sure I hadn’t imagined the worst. “I guess I’m just rubbish at office politics,” I would murmur. Obviously, it was all somehow, in some unmentionable way, my fault.

At sixteen, I already had F-cup-size breasts. Where I lived – or anywhere, in fact, pre-Bravissimo – there were no F-cup-size bras available for slim-backed girls. So I flopped about in whatever ill-fitting contraption my mother could source for me, doing my best to conceal it all under floppy smocks, in which I looked squarely obese, but never mind, that was better than the ludicrously porn-star alternative. Except that school uniform did not extend to tents over skinny jeans; there, I had to wear a fitted blouse and skirt like all the other girls. Except that blouses never fitted, but strained and gaped and often as not popped open when least required. You can imagine –at a big mixed school – what this did to my popularity – or my self-perceived popularity. I shrank, friendless, into the school library at every out of lesson moment, from which groups of boys, using good cop-bad cop routines, occasionally attempted to extract me.

Bosom apart, I was a slight, innocuous thing, unused to city life. I was dispatched aged 11 on a 90 minute  each way journey from my remotest home (chosen by my father after the birth of his second daughter I have always suspected some ten years earlier as de facto purdah)  to my urban mixed grammar school– the only non-boys-only grammar in the county. Sexual harassment, or the threat of, not only from strangers on the train or station platform, but also boys from school, pretty quickly became a constant; but a girl’s “maturity” and consequent “eligibility” (a badge of honour for teenage girls in that time and place) were dependent on being able to suck it up with good grace; a sparkling  smile, perhaps, and some flirtatious repartee! If you scowled and buried your face ever deeper into your book, or whatever distraction might be handy, you were  frigid, a prude, neurotic, and naturally, obviously, “immature”.

That was ca. 1975, pre-punk, post-hippie. Today they’d say snowflake. How much else has really changed?


In time I “matured”, of course; I learned to suck it all up and not complain, although never managed either with very good grace. And neither did I ever manage to “use it!” very effectively; the other piece of parental advice that came my way if I dared to moan about the stresses and strains of young femalehood. The best tactic – especially, perhaps, in Latin America, where I did my best professional work, such as it was – was to fake an innocence so extreme that insistent aggressors were shamed into retreat.  This worked so long as I was conceivably virginal, and being on my own, usually, and always seeming younger than I was, this was workable, in most tricky situations, most of the time.  (“Go with you to a hotel room? Why? What for? . . And why are you wearing your dressing gown in the middle of the day?!)

Nowadays, I could still pass for virgin spinster, but for the fact that I, very belatedly, became a mother. Never mind; just-about-coping financially, and contented enough, I have long given up on any kind of professional career (and I never dreamed of marriage!) I’m not putting my professional failures all down to an accumulation of sexual harassment, historical, actual, imminent or possible. Maybe my talents and attitude were never all that anyway. But then again, what an ambitious girl often has to put up with is poison to her ambition; and I know I did have some once, along with my big boobs.  I know it all plays a role.


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Mum vs Denis the Menace

When he loses it, my son, he really really loses it. It happened this week in the adventure playground which doubles as an after-school club for kids at our primary school, being right next door. He’s been going there since he was five, unaccompanied for the last couple of years. It’s his favourite after-school hangout, much preferred to the proper after-school club, which anyway lets the kids who want to, and whose parents agree, into the playground after 5pm. He’ll bring himself the quarter mile home (shock horror!) if he’s had enough before it closes at 6pm, and he knows I’m at home. Otherwise, I come and get him.

So I took a while to grasp it when they called me, shortly after five, to come and get him now, please. I couldn’t quite understand what the young playworker was saying, but when he put my kid got on the phone, it was unmistakable. “Shuddup!” he screamed at the handset. “Just get lost can’t you!” I’ve heard that tone many times, but never in front of other people. He’d been kicking and throwing, refusing to stop. I came and got him.

His class teacher, the next day, couldn’t believe it: “not ____!” The whole school thinks he’s a perfect angel, a model of good behaviour. I know better, of course; he’s been as violent as he knows how to be, many times, over the past eight years, but only, so far, at home, or out alone with me.  I suppose it was only a matter of time.

The adventure playground staff aren’t fazed; they see far worse on a regular basis. My kid has decided, actually, that it’s me he’s angry with. Fed up with endless negotiations over when he’ll do his homework/music practice, I’d decided the day before to be strict from now on about Work first, Screentime after . . . Seemed reasonable enough to me, and I wasn’t forcing anything on him straight away. I’m sure other responsible parents have operated that way from the start.

Our last school year, Y3, on the other hand, was characterised by a series of complicated deals; so much screentime straight away, he’d assure me, meant so much practice/homework straight after, And so many screen-free days later (assuming he was asking for a substantial whack) . . . Needless to say, he never kept his side of the bargain entirely, but he did make genuine attempts at some of it, which was why I let the process carry on.

Then it suddenly became a cool trick, inspired I believe by latest hero Denis the Menace, to promise the world and have no intention of delivering at all: “Ha ha fooled you!” At which point all deals had to stop. From then on, the rule became simple: Work First. Or read, or play at something else; but no screens at all until some work is done.

I have been paying ever since, and so has he; evenings at home after adventure playground have been desperate, drawn-out battles; he refuses to eat without the Ipad, I refuse to give it to him without at least some work first. Other friends calling to see if he’ll come out to play (I’d be fine with that) have been screamed at and had the door slammed in their face. Well, they’re kids themselves, so I trust they’ll understand! I know hunger is fuelling his rage, but the food is there on the table, and I can’t let myself be blackmailed.

I should have addressed all this much earlier, I see the proper disciplinarian parents wagging their fingers at me. I should never have let him get the idea that he decides what he does all evening. Well, I’m addressing it now. He’s a bright kid, I’m assuming he will get it quickly that I really mean it this time. This is a difficult time for kids, the start of a new school year; new teacher, lot of high-stakes assessments which seem to court failure, and the disappearance of some treasured old faces. But even so, I will not let this kid neglect his talents or his schoolwork for Denis the Menace, Chuggington or Train Simulator. He will thank me one day, I trust.

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Summer camp, another rite of passage.

I was so proud of my kid; within half an hour he’d made a couple of friends already, and by the time he was ensconced on one of the two large coaches, taking 50 odd kids aged 7-17 from Paddington station to rural Wales, he was too preoccupied with them to even bother waving out the window.

I, meanwhile, back on the pavement, was almost in tears. My baby, not quite eight years old, disappearing with a bunch of complete strangers, to camp in a distant field in all weather conditions for two whole weeks. Was this really a good idea?

But it clearly was. He’s sociable, quite grown-up for his age, and generally speaking slightly frustrated at home by being the only child of relatively elderly parents, who struggle to incorporate ourselves into a parent-community of similar aged kids. He’s always been popular at school, but outside of it, he’s often bored and a little lonely. I hope this is the start of an annual break for all of us, the gradual building of an alternative old-school network via this longstanding organisation, which I too was a part of back in the day, on which the 18 and 19 year old “graduates”, including my niece, serve as volunteer staffers. I look forward to when my kid does that too.

But I was a wreck. First of all, these beautiful young people, enthusiastically and a little self-consciously playing at being responsible grown-ups for the benefit of us parents; greeting children, checking lists, collecting forms . . . I’d forgotten my form so had to scribble one on the spot, and apologised profusely for my general scattiness to this charming 19-year-old who could (almost) have been my grandson, while his girlfriend smiled composedly beside him. Well I imagined she was, or was planning to be, his girlfriend; he was handsome, in a clean-cut way, and she was very pretty. The young staff enjoy themselves quite a bit on camp, I’ve heard; I don’t blame them. I’m envious of everything they have that I lost decades ago.

I thought of that, because the day before, our lovely, treacherous piano teacher gave my child what may be his last lesson, before he abandons us and London, for good, maybe. He won’t say, but he did mention, twice, looking at my kid’s packed bags, that his girlfriend is an FSC camp staffer, though taking this year off. I think she was on his mind, a lot; I think she may be the reason he’s leaving us, and the city. We have loved him, very chastely, over the past three years, probably rather too much. I feel betrayed, and my son is still in denial, believing that this boy – who is about 25, or 28, possibly – will be back again to teach him in September. I somewhat doubt it.

And then, on the way to the tube station, we ran into our neighbour, a former government minister, who once went on FSC himself; there’s a photo in his memoirs. So I told him where we were going, proudly; he congratulated us.

I am proud. As my sister said (with rather uncharacteristic generosity, being my sister) my confident, independent little boy is a credit to me. But it’s also hard, isn’t it, the coming to terms with him growing up and away, and me growing old. I like being old, on the whole; I like being free of the silly anxieties which plagued me once; I like doing stuff just because I feel like it, not because, well, maybe it will help my career, or look good on CV. I like not caring about my career any more. I like being lucky and having nothing left to lose.

But so many things are ruled out. On the off-the-cuff recommendation of 50 year old on-line dater and Guardian columnist Stella Grey, I’ve been reading Colette’s novel Cheri, which is a salutary lesson if any on the inadvisability of middle-aged women falling for much younger men. Even if, and it is quite common (my child’s father, bless him, says) they may appear to fall for you.

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The Trouble With Homework

“More homework please!” “Homework is too easy – my children are at the top of the class and they do it in five minutes. .   They need homework every night not just a few minutes once a week!” “This school has been going downhill in terms of education ever since (former head) Mr …. left” (a good ten years ago).

Oh dear, it must our school’s termly Parent Forum. It was nice to have a good turnout of parents for once – not just the usual handful of suspects – but then this is what you have to expect. None of the of-course-we-all-agree assumptions of cosy pub PSA meetings.

For your information, as the presiding school governors were at pains to explain, our school has not been going downhill, on the contrary. After a bit of a dip when the former head left, results are definitely, quantifiably on the up. More children than ever are “exceeding national expectations” in reading writing and maths, and that without compromising the extra-curricular activities on offer.

Trouble is, all many parents see is the homework. So if there’s not much of it, or it’s “too easy”, they make similar assumptions about what goes on in class. Most parents at our school, heralding from every continent, are ambitious for their children, in rather conservative ways – after the government’s heart, you would imagine. In primary school they want their children to excel in the traditional subjects, in order to enter good colleges and become respected white-collar professionals later. Everything else, to them, is secondary.

Trouble also is . . .  Most are too stressed or busy to supervise each individual child’s activity between 3.30 and bedtime very closely. When they ask for more homework, my guess is, what they are actually asking for is more school help with this supervision. One way of keeping their offspring from the playstation or other activity they might consider frivolous (if not damaging) would be the threat of a school reprimand if they don’t just keep on studying. Aspiring tiger parents, they want a bit more school back-up on this.

Of course, extra homework doesn’t automatically equal extra brilliant child; I think this point has been made by a number of reliable studies. Children are best served out of state school hours by engaging in a range of, not necessarily organised, social, sporting and artistic activities that whether or not provide career inspiration will generally broaden their experience. They could also, usefully, just read a book.

Trouble is – never mind the formal extra-curricular stuff; I would have countered the above comments by pointing out that our class teachers constantly emphasise the need for daily reading, outside the set book, to the child, the child to you, in English and in the child’s first language, which is different for a majority of pupils at our school. They also recommend regular mental maths practice, and visiting the local library, and oh yes, virtually all children at school are learning a musical instrument, many of them two. These must be practised daily, half an hour each in KS2. Are you already doing all that with your kids? I would have asked. And you still want extra homework?

It’s the speech I wanted to make, but I didn’t, for fear of coming over too white-middle-class. And they’d have a point too. The truth is, even I, with only one child, no demanding husband and no proper job, don’t do all of that, every day, with my son. It takes, never mind money, more time, energy and mental resources than I usually have. If you’ve got dinner to cook for 5, 6 or more, the baby to take to the GP never mind playgroup, plus can’t read English yourself never mind the child’s sheet music, you’re not going to get round to chivvying your kids in years 2, 4 and 5 to do it all, one after the other – or altogether(?) – every single night.

Yeah, it would be great, just as good as doing homework. But failing that, as a respectable distraction, a fair whack of extra prep backed up by a teacher’s sanction if it’s not done probably looks like a pretty good alternative.

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A History of Backing Losers

I don’t talk politics to my seven year old, or to anyone much nowadays; mainly because I am afraid of the strength of my feelings. I’d hate to unnerve him, and I’d hate manifest differences of opinion to get in the way of tentative friendships, especially where his social life is concerned. But come election week, I was forced to. There was election-themed homework, and then his school, a polling station, was closed for the day. Some explanation was overdue.
That this was some kind of contest immediately sparked his interest; great, contests are fun, especially if you stand a good chance of winning. As boys this age go, he’s only moderately competitive, but he still likes to be on the winning side. When I said I’d be voting for the party that mainly champions the poor, that is, the one that always does best in areas populated by life’s losers, rather than life’s winners, I could see loyalty to me vying with his own natural instincts. Winners by definition are in the right, aren’t they?
This to me is the most convincing reason why voters, when undecided, opt under pressure for Tory rather than Labour. Even when they also suspect the Tories’ prime function is to protect those who already have most to lose, to ensure that their Establishment stays established, to which every other declared intention lies secondary; though not part of the Establishment by any stretch of the imagination they don’t see this as a reason for not voting Tory. The fact is, they are impressed by it; they work for it, they want to become, or their children to become, part of it. That’s the nature of “aspiration” after all; and they believe their best hope of achieving this is to share the winners’ approach to life in all things including in voting habits.
Wow, I could almost convince myself. But then I read something like this, a short story about West London’s live-in domestic service class, or see a play like this, about life on a minimum-wage zero-hours contract, I think, how can anyone vote for the state of affairs which positively encourages this real-existing dystopia?
But, my son and others of unsophisticated Tory instincts might counter; when we start to take on responsibility for the world’s unfortunates (compared to ourselves) when do we stop? After all, it’s not just here in London, is it? It is a global phenomenon – witness boatloads of desperate refugees in the Mediterranean; Nepal’s helplessness, the Syrian refugees . . . . FFS, the ones who make it to London and onto a zero-hours cleaning contract or illegal live-in service in a West London mansion are the lucky ones!
And that has a ring of truth too. In the global environment, we all of us here, the entire UK electorate, are the super-privileged ones. That’s largely why, I think, most of us end up voting to protect and defend what little we possess from the grasping and desperate hordes beyond.
As for my son, I’m happy to say, this time loyalty to me won out. He joined me in putting up the Labour poster in our window, reassured that at least around here “because there are loads of poor people,” there was little chance of our candidate losing her seat. “Fingers crossed,” he said.
And for his sake, I have braved the result with a levity I don’t feel. He shrugged it off; just one more sports day race, or summer fair raffle we didn’t win; maybe we’ll have better luck next time.

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