Monday, 30 December 2013

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles

My children are from a mixed faith marriage. As such I think it's particularly important they grow up with a sense of what each religion is about, not so they can chose one over the other but because many of the people I know with one Jewish parent who were brought up entirely secularly feel that something is missing. 

Ironically, this determination to ensure they know both of our cultures means that over Christmas I have not just been peddling Santa lies but have also been telling the nativity story many times, and answering all the questions that brings up. 

- "Where's Mary now?" 
- "Er, she lives on in hearts and minds."

- "Why did they have a donkey?"
- "Because cars hadn't been invented."

- "What's an angel?"
- "It's what people had before pregnancy tests."

And so it is that miracle babies are on my mind quite a lot, especially as my own littlest baby is about to turn one. 

My daughter took what seemed like a long time to conceive. I am aware it takes some people many more years than it took us (she took two and bit years) but at the time every month felt like a year. My son on the other hand happened immediately we began trying for a second child. 

Conversely, a friend of mine conceived her first child immediately but took two and a bit years to conceive number two. 

Based on our first experiences she thought she was super fertile and I thought we were sub fertile. Turns out we were both wrong - taking a mean average means we both fall pretty much in the normal camp. 

We don't know of course what would have happened had we both tried to conceive a month (or a minute) before we did. Did my friend just catch the right moment out of thousands to have sex when she conceived first time round? Had we tried a month earlier might we have thought we were super fertile too? It is so tempting to think of the baby who takes ages to come as the miracle baby. But of course the fact is they are all miracle babies, the barely believable product of that single moment in the history of people and time. 

- What's a miracle mummy?
- You are darling. 

The season, the fairy lights, the stars, the nativity story, the Jewishness, the heady mix of emotions a first birthday brings - it's only bloody gone to my head. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013

How to run a successful Kickstarter project

So I ran a Kickstarter project, to crowdfund a project for my new publishing company, Fisherton Press. You can read all about it here. And see the official Kickstarter project page here

Given I read a lot of blogs on how to run a Kickstarter campaign first, and have been asked that question lots of times since my campaign ended, I thought I would blog some reflections I can point people to. I hope it helps. Feel free to add yours in the comments. 

1) I feel you probably only have one chance to run a small scale friend reliant project. One of my funders, an American musician, shared some advice with me from her own experience running a Kickstarter project and said not to be afraid to cancel the project and set it up again with new tactics and asking everyone to donate again (effectively for the first time as the first donation wouldn't have been cashed), preferably all at the same time so it made the 'popular' slot on the Kickstarter homepage. I don't feel this would have worked for my project as I suspect friends of mine wouldn't necessarily know their donation hadn't been taken, just that they had offered it, and consequently I would have had my slice of their generosity already. But perhaps this does work for some people. 

2) I am based in the UK and concentrated a lot on trying to crack America where crowdfunding is a bigger thing. I tried to get retweets from American celebrities, politicians and journalists thinking if the word spread donations would pour in. This didn't happen. Nearly all of my donations come from people in the UK. 

3) However I think lots of people I know on Twitter saw me sending out loads of tweets to the above people and this reminded them to donate. In that sense it wasn't wasted. 

4) Lots of people told me that they wanted to donate but then didn't. Were they just being nice? Should I have reminded them? Perhaps I would have if near the deadline I hadn't made my target, but I had. Directly asking for money is, it turns out, rather awkward. I preferred the British thing of talking around the project, asking for retweets, and hoping people would thing 'hmmm, a retweet, I can do better than that, have a thousand pounds.'

5) Before I reached my target of £2000 ($3260 US at today's conversion rate) I wondered if perhaps I was being greedy and asking for too much. Then I made the target and wished I had asked for more. I think that means I probably got it about right. What I think you should do is ask for the amount you actually need to make the project happen, which is what I did. Any more is greedy. 

6) I am a journalist. Here is what I should have done. I should have had a media strategy, a press release written and some pitches for articles by me sent before launching the project. I should have had an angle ready for my local paper, for the Jewish press, for the London wide paper, for political magazines, for parenting publications and for publishing titles. And I should have briefed friendly journalists I know and pulled in favours for mentions in their columns in national newspapers. I didn't do any of this until the project launched? And even then a bit half heartedly. In my defence I was on maternity leave. Still, silly me - it was an error not to. Despite all the blogposts I read in advance telling me to prepare, prepare, prepare, I didn't really. You should. It doesn't matter how great your project is, if no one knows about it no one will fund it. 

7) Actually I thought Kickstarter would be so bowled over by my genius idea it would immediately become a staff pick. It didn't. Don't rely on this happening. 

8) I am not a natural fundraiser. One friend sent a particularly generous donation. I immediately emailed him to query whether he had added an extra 0 by mistake and offering to reimburse him. He said he had given what he would have given anyone in sponsorship for running the marathon and that he meant it. I have promised him I will never run a marathon. He has sworn to give up marathons and start publishing books. I am telling the truth. I am not sure he is. 

9) I personally know about 60% of my funders. Truth is, most of your money will come from people you know. Still, that's nearly 50 strangers who are taking a punt on me. Wow!

10) I think I got lucky. Since launching my campaign in October I have read a dozen articles about crowdfunding in newspapers or magazines and had a few approaches from other people I know about their projects or projects run by their friends. I think I got in just on time, probably being the first person to ask many people I know to donate to such a project. As such I suspect people will soon get crowdfunding fatigue. 

Thank you again to everyone who contributed financially, or by tweeting, emailing or Facebooking about the project. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Whilst we were sleeping

I've been inspired by Dinovember, in which a mum and dad pretend their dinosaurs come to life in November and every night set up a dinosaur tableau for their kids to discover.

Bizarrely, because we seem to own everything else, we don't own any plastic dinosaurs. (A friend recently suggested, kindly, that when we come to sell our house in due course we should put half of what we own in the loft to make it look like we have more space. I didn't have the heart to tell her we've already done that.) But we do have soft toys aplenty, and last night before I went to bed I set up a little scene between two of my favourite bears (for the children are fickle and do not yet have favourites). It was a simple scene - just two bears having a civilised chat over a cake each. Not for these bears a feast made of all our toy food. No, my daughter might like making concoctions such as chicken, orange and sock soup, but these bears are a little more refined. I mean, they do wear clothes after all.

No doubt if I was the Dinovember mum the bears would have had real cake, with icing on their paws and a trail of crumbs leading from the kitchen. See, for example, what happened when the dinosaurs discovered eggs.

Good job I didn't bother with that, for Goodynuff's Law that 'the more effort you put in the less bothered the children will be' was completely true. "Look" I cried when the children got me up and brought me downstairs at some ungodly time beginning with 5, "the bears came to life and decided to have a cake and a chat." I was talking to myself really - in the six hours between going to bed and getting up I had completely managed to forget I'd set up this scene before I went upstairs. When I opened the door the surprise was entirely mine. The kids, alas, didn't even notice.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Level crossing policy

Early on in my relationship with my husband, we went to see a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I was early so got myself a cup of tea and found a seat, sharing a table in the cafe with another woman. We got chatting and I asked her what she did. She was the civil servant in charge of level crossing policy.

Oh that poor woman, she had no idea that she had just told this to a level crossing aficionado. 

I love level crossings - the excitement of seeing a train hurtle past, the slight danger than the signals have gone wrong, the idea that order depends wholly on people being told what to do by a mere wooden barrier.

"I love level crossings," I told the woman. I think she thought I was taking the piss. But I made her tell me all about her job, the pertinent issues in level crossing policy and the cultural differences regarding level crossing behaviour around the world. 

My mum puts this down to our regular day trips when I was a toddler, taking the bus to a local level crossing to watch the trains. It was, she says, a cheap day out and perfect for young kids.

I've not done this with my children yet. But our wooden train set has many exciting elements - a station, a ferry (with a horn!) that can take trains on it and that opens automatically as it touches the track, various loops and points and of course a level crossing. I buy the coolest bits for my husband as birthday or Christmas presents to him from the kids. I have noticed recently that, despite no day trips of the kind my mum used to take us on, my son is fixated on the level crossing, endlessly lifting up the barrier and letting it drop. I am so proud. 

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The best crafting with kids book I have read, ever.

I love being creative with my kids and as they get older my ambitions increase. I'm no longer content with using a glue stick to attach cut up bits of magazines to scrap paper. I want to make objets d'art. Though as I have written elsewhere on this blog, my strength lies in enthusiasm rather than execution.

I've been an occasional visitor to the Red Ted Art blog for a while now and have always thought the craft projects look great. But I try to keep my phone and my laptop out of the way when the paints and glue are out at home, and never remember to look up ideas in advance.

Last week however I treated myself to the Red Ted Art book, by Maggy Woodley. My daughter and I read the whole thing during an hour long bus journey, picking out what we want to make together - "everything!" She also spilled apple juice on it which on reflection is the best thing she could have done - now it's already sticky and crinkled we may as well feel free to let it get covered in glue and glitter and let paint covered fingers turn the pages as we look for inspiration whilst choosing our materials.

I particularly love Red Ted Art because so many of the ideas are so simple. Reading it I kept having 'why didn't I think of that?' moments. From easy ways to turn toilet roll middles into animals to cookie bunting, I really can't wait to get started, possibly even whilst the kids are elsewhere so I am allowed, for once, the sparkliest bits of ribbon and coolest scraps of wrapping paper. Is that terribly sad?  Plus I've also been inspired to rediscover crafts I did as a kid - egg blowing and flower pressing, long forgotten as a pastime, once kept me busy for hours. I suspect it will again now I have this book.

If you know me in real life, and you're the parent of young children, then apologies for ruining the surprise as I am likely to buy this for you as a present at some point. If I don't know you, or don't like you enough to buy you a present, go and buy your your own. It genuinely is the best book I have read this year.*

*I've not read many books this year - never sleeping for more than two hours in a row has dulled my concentration. But I suspect it would be my favourite of the year even if I had read more.

Buy it here

(Pictured are stone ducks, walnut boats and loo roll monsters).


Here's a little plug for my Kickstarter crowdfunding project for a book about elections aimed at toddler. Here's the link - every pound or dollar helps, and I have until Nov 21 to get to the £2000 total. And here's my previous blog post explaining what I'm doing

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A post about poo

People who don't have children often wrinkle up their noses, literally and figuratively, and the idea of pooey nappies. I don't mind poo however, unlike vomit which makes me feel, aptly enough, sick. After all, you're worried if your baby doesn't poo for a while, or struggles to do so, whereas vomit is a sign that something is wrong.

Nevertheless, shit stinks. I don't mind wiping it off the beautiful bums of my beautiful babies, but, in the words of Bill Clinton, I don't inhale.

Our council introduced fortnightly bin collections earlier this year for non recyclable rubbish. This has given us a poo problem. On an average day my children will do two poos each. That's four pooey nappies. Even bagged pre binning, that's quite a stench. Imagine now, by the time the rubbish truck is due, the smell of fifty six poos in various stages of decomposition. It's pretty awful in this chilly weather. Imagine what it was like in the summer. We live in a terraced house with small front gardens. Neither we, nor people walking past, can avoid our bins. It's a wonder our neighbours are still talking to us.

You might suggest that the solution is to use cloth nappies, though the environmental case for this, if you use a washing machine and tumble dryer, is far from clear cut. (This is explained in detail here but essentially the carbon footprint of cloth nappies is only lower than that of disposables if you wash at lower temperatures than recommended and don't tumble dry, and reuse the nappies for subsequent children.

I'm not against encouraging recycling, and I understand the strain on finances for local government, but really, fortnightly collections - it's a policy that stinks.

Here's a little plug for my Kickstarter crowdfunding project for a book about elections aimed at toddler. Here's the link - every pound or dollar helps, and I have until Nov 21 to get to the £2000 total. And here's my previous blog post explaining what I'm doing

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Polite notice. A real one!

Further to my post last week, here'a a lovely polite notice I spotted at Liverpool Street station today, proving my point that if it really is a polite notice, as opposed to a 'polite notice', it won't feel the need to headline itself as such.

Here's a little plug for my Kickstarter crowdfunding project for a book about elections aimed at toddler. Here's the link - every pound or dollar helps, and I have until Nov 21 to get to the £2000 total. And here's my previous blog post explaining what I'm doing

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Does anyone know how to make a bottle of formula?

I've mix fed both my children (long story, read past posts if interested) and though number two is coming up to a year I still don't really know how to make a bottle of formula.

The instructions on most boxes of formulas in the UK say to boil water in a kettle and then let it cool for half an hour before using it to make up the formula. Clearly the person who came up with this has not held a screaming, hungry baby in the middle of the night, let alone tried to handle boiling water while doing so, and certainly not for half an hour. Do any parents use this method I wonder?

There's a story about Prince Charles, which he denies, about how he likes to have his boiled eggs just so, so his staff cook seven a few minutes apart when he is expected to come for breakfast so there is always one just right for him. Jeremy Paxman wrote about it in On Royalty in 2006 and Clarence House refuted it in 2012 in a Frequently Asked Questions section of their website. That's what the formula advice reminds me of - I feel like I should have several kettles always boiling so one has been cooled for half an hour at exactly the moment I need it.

During the course of feeding two babies, born two years apart, I have tried many methods. I have used cooled boiled water from the fridge, at room temperature, warmed in the microwave and warmed in a bowl of boiling water. I have used tap water and bottled water. I have pre made and rapidly cooled bottles before keeping them in the fridge and I have topped up boiling water with cool water to try to get the right balance. And I have only come to two conclusions - the first is using boiling water to do anything when exhausted and holding a baby is a bad idea, and the second is that no one seems to know how to make a bottle. Even developed countries with clean water supplies seem to disagree with each other - in Spain the advice seems to be not to bother boiling the water. And in America people seem to put their bottles through the dishwasher to sterilise them, something advised against in the UK.

Science journalist and author Linda Geddes wrote a great blog about this subject when my second baby was just weeks old. It reassured me that the advice really is unrealistic and confusing, but didn't actually help me work out how I should make a bottle in the middle of the night. That is probably because my baby was too young for me to make sense of anything at the time it was written - reading it back now I can see exactly what I should have been doing this past year, which will be handy for the next few weeks only as we're coming up to the end of the formula riddle, this time round at least, as we approach the day that cow's milk is officially allowed as our baby's main drink.

Still, just in case we ever have another, and so I can be the irritating one dispensing advice to friends having babies a few years after us, I'd love to know what other people really do at 3am when their baby is crying. Do please tell me in the comments section.

Here's a little plug for my Kickstarter crowdfunding project for a book about elections aimed at toddler. Here's the link - every pound or dollar helps, and I have until Nov 21 to get to the £2000 total. And here's my previous blog post explaining what I'm doing

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Democracy for toddlers!

Last time I had a baby and then started to get the euphoria that comes with the hormones settling down and some sleep returning, I started a blog. This time round I've neglected the blog a little and chosen to use the post baby yearning for change to start a business. I'm so excited!

For the past decade or so if someone asked me what I really want to do careerwise I have talked about combining education and writing. In some ways I have done that - since 2005 I have been a part-time lecturer in journalism and worked part time as a freelance journalist. It's been great and I intend to carry on doing this.

But though it's a cliche to start a business on maternity leave, I couldn't help but realise I've never before felt the energy and enthusiasm for a new project that I am now feeling.

So I am thrilled to announce my new business, Fisherton Press. We're a small independent publisher focusing on picture books for children, that adults also like reading. Inspired by some of the brilliant books we've read again and again (and again and again) over the past few years, and also inspired by the tedious ones, I'm hoping to publish books for children that excite everyone who reads them, young and old. We're aiming to publish our first books in September 2015 and hoping to publish 10-12 in the first year.

Fisherton is my maternal grandmother's maiden name. Those of you who know me personally will know she was much loved - in fact my daughter was named after her. The Fishertons had a printers on Brick Lane in East London and because of the link with printing I decided to seek my mum's permission (duly given) to use it as my company name.

The long term plan is to forge links with schools and other organisations to fulfill the education part of my aims, running workshops in schools and working out ways to get free or cheap books to children who don't own many books.

The short term aim is to publish fun, witty, beautifully illustrated books that cover subjects as diverse as farting and the birth of civilisation, targeted at young children, and to sell enough copies to make this a viable business.

I love being my own boss. Freelancing has suited me beautifully though doing the work at the same time as having young children is starting to get difficult as it just doesn't work when an interviewee asks you to ring them back the next day and you have to say sorry but you don't have childcare again until this time next week. It's no good for deadlines either. Lecturing is also great with the autonomy of being in charge of your own classroom, and the bonus of being able to see, sometimes, the difference you make to the abilities and confidence of the people who pass through your classroom. But you still have to work within the rules of your editors and your institution. I'm hoping that having my own business will allow me to try out all kinds of ideas and hunches, take risks and explore interesting ways of doing things.

With that in mind here's one thing I am trying out. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website that allows people to donate to your creative project. If the donations reach the amount you are asking for, or over, you get the money to use for your project. If it doesn't reach the target amount, you get none of it.

One of the books I want to publish is explaining elections to young children. I don't hold with the idea that children aren't interested in politics, or that politics can't be explained in an age appropriate way. In fact I think it's vital that we do so if we are to tackle low voter turnouts and general apathy. Politics needs to be normalised. And what better way than by starting young, with a story book about two children whose parents support, and campaign for, different political parties, but who remain friends nevertheless. It's a serious subject but the book is a lighthearted story - it's (hopefully) not po-faced or earnest.

I decided to try to crowdfund this project on Kickstarter as I want to pay the creators of this book an advance, as opposed to the royalty only deal I am offering most writers and illustrators. That's because although I think this book will get loads of publicity, I don't know whether it will translate into sales, and while the business is a labour of love for me, for the writers and illustrators of our books it's their job.

What I'd really appreciate from anyone reading this blog is a tweet or a Facebook link or a blog post or a mention on any forum you use linking to the Kickstarter project. I really need to spread the word about it as far and wide as possible. Here's the link:

And here's the temporary website for the new business - - if you have an amazing idea for a book the young children you know would love, and I reckon most people do, please do get in touch.


Sunday, 20 October 2013

Impolite notices

I've had a few months off from posting to this blog - my energies have been taken up with an exciting new project, all of which I'll write about shortly. Before I do that though I feel the need to vent a little about polite notices.

I vehemently hate polite notices. In the most impolite, want to scrawl 'fuck off' all over them kind of way. In fact sometimes that is exactly what I do. I hate the way they use the word polite, because as we all know if you have to explicitly say something is polite, then it invariably isn't. I hate them too because they seem to be primarily used as a way to pretend somewhere is child friendly when actually it is wholly unfriendly.

When we were on holiday in the south-west last year we went to Dartmouth where an inviting looking tea shop had a sign on its door saying no under eights. I was fuming - because we weren't allowed in it suddenly became the only place in the world that I wanted a coffee and a tea cake. But on reflection it was a relief, because when we did find somewhere else and our child threw up halfway through tea, at least we weren't amongst child haters and tutters. And a sign saying no children is more honest that one pretending children are welcome and then filling their walls with instructions, warnings and aggression.

The Orchard in Grantchester near Cambridge is a lovely tearoom. You can eat your cake in a deckchair under fruit trees without a care in the world bar the wasps and the occasional hard fruit falling on your bonce. It's was here that Rupert Brook was referring to when he wrote "And is there honey still for tea?" But it's ruined somewhat by notices saying what you can, can't and must do all over the place.

Or at the Royal Free Hospital where we had to go recently after an accident, and where the medical care was exemplary but the notices were not only jobsworthy and passive aggressive (and least those at The Orchard do not try to hide the fact they are aggressive) but pretended to be kind and for the sake of fun whilst really sucking the kindness and sense of fun out of the children's waiting area.

I often take photos of polite notices. Sometimes it is for my private collection so I can look at them when I feel my blood pressure is too normal and I want to raise it a bit just for fun, and other times it is just to be naughty. I took perverse pleasure out of taking a picture of a sign at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight that said no cameras. It said no mobile phones too so I took the picture with my phone. Ha! That'll learn 'em.

This sign at a playgroup at the Methodist Church on Pages Lane in Muswell Hill, North London, infuriated me. Almost everything about it pissed me off, from the idea only mums may have buggies to the suggestion that only parents with twins can use the lift, never mind parents with two children who aren't twins or one child but who need help anyway or even a person without children who needs a lift.

Yet sometimes there's a polite notice, as in a notice that is polite rather than one that calls itself a 'polite notice', that almost makes up for all the others. I liked this one at the Donald McGill Postcard Museum in Ryde, Isle of Wight:

Though my favourite one recently has been on the gate to Highgate Wood in North London. The use of the word please really does mean that though it is officious and has a steep penalty for disobedience, it genuinely is polite.

Here's a little plug for my Kickstarter crowdfunding project for a book about elections aimed at toddler. Here's the link - every pound or dollar helps, and I have until Nov 21 to get to the £2000 total. And here's my previous blog post explaining what I'm doing

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

How to save your child's life (if they are choking or drowning)

My husband and I did a children's first aid course when our daughter was a couple of weeks old. It was the kind of course where you sit on a beanbag on the floor and everyone speaks in what I can only term a 'registrar's voice' - pauses where there should be no pauses with an exaggerated serenity. Serves us right for doing it somewhere called the 'Active Birth Centre'. It was great though and made me feel that I might actually know what to do in a crisis.

It has also given me what I suspect will be a lifelong fear of grapes when the teacher told us that we shouldn't just be cutting grapes in half for toddlers, but for older children too, and even for adults, as the size and smooth surface of the skin makes them prime candidates for choking incidents. I'd dismiss this as over the top except a friend told me that she asked a paramedic once what words were most likely to give them a sense of dread when rushing to a call and he replied 'toddler' and 'grape'.

My son had a choking incident when he was a few months old. I don't know whether I was remembering the course without thinking about it or whether instinct just kicked in. Either way I managed to flip him upside down and get him to cough up the mucus he was choking on bringing him from maroon to white very quickly and averting disaster. Mostly I have dealt well with this incident, because I feel at peace with the way I handled it having done my job as a mother and made everything okay. Still, I think about it every day. And I still cut grapes in half.

Consequently I want to flag up this brilliant article by my friend, the journalist Kate Hilpern, whose daughter suffered a similar episode, and which every parent, in fact everyone parent or not, should read.

I thought she was dying

And also another great article that was flagged up on a forum I use recently, on how to spot if someone is drowning.

Drowning doesn't look like drowning

Some blogs and articles I like (an occasional series)

I keep meaning to link to this brilliant blog by fellow freelance journo Cath Janes. We 'met' online through a forum for freelance journalists called Journobiz which was set up by the journalist Janet Murray. Before becoming a journalist Janet was a secondary school teacher. By chance I taught at Goldsmiths College, where I am a lecturer in journalism (and where Janet also now lectures), one of her former students who told me that she had been the best teacher she had ever had. Which is nice.

I am writing this assuming that now everyone admits to internet dating, unlike ten years ago when everyone was doing it and no one admitting to it, meeting on a forum is also no longer an embarrassing thing. If it is then please just assume we met at a party, had a chat and got on well so stayed in touch (which genuinely really is how I got together with my husband - not that I wasn't internet dating at the same time).

Anyway here is the blog - it's is insightful, (and sometimes inciteful), witty and often very very rude.

The Kraken Wakes

Why do I have so many readers in Norway?

Like all bloggers I am a little obsessed by my stats and seeing how many page views each article has had and other information about the demographics of my readership. I am thrilled this blog has readers from all over the world but puzzled why so many of my readers are from Norway (after the UK and USA). I just wondered whether any Norwegian readers could tell me why?

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Peppa Pig and me

The other day I found myself emailing my husband an observation about one of the Peppa Pig books our household owns: "In the Fun at the Fair Peppa book," I observed, "Dr Brown Bear and Mrs Cow appear to be sharing a carousel capsule. Platonic friendship or interspecies date?"

You know things have gone too far when your main subject for discussion with your spouse is a children's television character. But really, we love Peppa Pig in our household. And it's not just us - I tweeted about my favourite episode not so long ago and got several responses from people I knew from my work in journalism and politics telling me about their favourite episode in return. 

For some this marks us out as a little, dare I say it, chavvy. For Peppa Pig is not on CBeebies, the middle-class television channel of choice, but on Nick Jr (which we don't have) and Five, which is where we watch our daily triple bill every morning before resorting to the thirty or so episodes we have recorded. It's the equivalent of having a satellite dish on your house in the early nineties or allowing your kids a McDonald's birthday party (I had one, it was great), and will no doubt earn tuts from the same kind of people who consider flapjacks a biscuit and raisins a treat, Still, it was fitting as we were en route to stay in a caravan for a week. That's right, a caravan, not a cottage, not a farmhouse, not even a Center Parcs. (And it was great.) 

Anyway we love Peppa Pig, an acutely observed five minute animation about the Pig family, a loving and stable family of four whose recent bad press was entirely undeserved, not least because Daddy Pig seems to me to be exactly the sort of dad I would hope all children have - involved, fun and responsible. He's the kind of man, I mean Pig, who makes lunch for his family, gives up his slice of cake so his kids can feed the ducks, takes his kids to work on 'Take your piggies to work day', organises fun days out and fun days in and still enjoys a bit of slap and tickle with Mummy Pig, who he takes to the theatre on her birthday having arranged the babysitter by himself. By which I mean he's certainly no Homer Simpson, though to be honest who wouldn't want him as a dad too?

So we promised our daughter, who already owned a Peppa bubble bath, toothbrush, bag, nightie, pyjamas, two t-shirts, several play figures, large plush toy, small plush toy, camper van, sound blocks and twenty Peppa books, a trip to Peppa Pig World, as if she doesn't already live in it.

And what a world it is. As a rule I hate theme parks. I don't much like rides or enforced fun. But the rides were gentle (a trip in a train, or a boat, or Daddy's car, or if you dared - we didn't - a helicopter, hot air balloon or dinosaur). We saw a real duck in the fake duck pond which made my day as a keen observer of skeuomorphism, had a picnic just as the Pig family would, ate an ice cream from Miss Rabbit's ice cream parlour and, best fun of all, splashed in the muddy puddles fountain area (because as the show frequently points out, everybody loves jumping in muddy puddles). For this I advise taking a swimming cossie and a towel for the kids. Had we paid for our own tickets (see below) I may have been a little annoyed that this was my daughter's favourite bit, as our local park has something similar for free though without the Peppa branding. 

My daughter is two and a half and I would say this was at the lower end of the appropriate age group. The gentle rides were good and the queues for them (on a Monday before the summer holidays had started) just manageable for her, but it was one of those days where we were all in relatively good humour. Had we not been the whole thing could have been a disaster. 

Of course the thing about Peppa with its bright colours and jaunty music is it promotes good behaviour. It was incredibly hot the day we visited but there wasn't any pushing or queue jumping or shouting or swearing. In fact for a show that fails the middle class test, it was all remarkably, you know, middle class. 

There was also a soft play area (take socks with you, adults and children, if you want to be allowed in) though I have to admit the look we get when we admit to being a family that watches Channel Five is the look I give people when they choose soft play over a trip to the playground. Still, it would have been handy had it rained.

I often judge family days out by the price of the food on offer and the price of the gift shop. The food was fine for drinks and ice creams but I would definitely take your own picnic, though I felt a bit guilty about the pork pies I'd packed given the nature of our visit. The gift shop was expensive but had enough at pocket money prices to keep us all happy and we came away with a fridge magnet, a pencil case and a small Rebecca Rabbit soft toy that squeaks when pressed, and a present for my nephew too, and still had change from fifteen quid. 

All of this took place in a brightly coloured area of Paulton's Family Theme Park in the New Forest. We didn't have time to explore the rest of the park, which has rides, animals and gardens, but it looked to me, as we walked through it to the Peppa Pig part, like exactly the kind of place you'd allow a teenage Peppa to take Delphine Donkey when she comes to visit on French Exchange in ten years time and not worry that they'd meet the wrong sort and end up at a Facebook Party organised by Freddy Fox or smoking a spliff behind the playgroup building with some dodgy friends of Danny Dog. 

I'd go again, any time we could afford the price of a non press ticket - £22.50 in advance for an adult or a child over 1 metre (children under a metre are free) or £86.00 in advance for a family of four, and could face the drive down the M3. I just hope that when my kids are too old for Peppa (can you be too old for Peppa? I'm certainly not, but I suspect there may be a period between about 6 and 26 where one is both too old for Peppa and too young for Peppa) and want to go on the rides in the rest of the park, that they'll still let me pop in for a splash in a muddy puddle. 


It may come as a surprise to non journalists but the way this kind of thing works for journalists is that you ask the press office for free tickets and you then write about your visit either in a review or in other articles. I tend not to write direct reviews but most of my trips are written about at some point or another. Take, for example, a trip to Legoland a few of years ago which led to a mention in my national newspaper column shortly afterwards and a diary piece in the Evening Standard when I noticed that the wits in Windsor had added a removal van to the model Number 10 Downing Street at a time the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was in trouble. This means for the very small sum of a free ticket the place in question, if it is any good, gets rather a lot of free publicity. If it is bad you tend not to write about it.

So in the interests of full disclosure, which is something bloggers are expected to do these days, We received two free tickets to Peppa Pig World (and at under a metre, the kids were also free). As Peppa Pig is such a family kind of show, and also enjoyed by the grandparents in our family, I asked if we could also have tickets for my in-laws who planned to come with us, in return for me pitching an article about Peppa Pig World as an ideal place for all generations. It was, in fact, an ideal place for all generations - gentle rides, picnic areas, toilets, ice creams, a sense of wholesome family fun etc etc. But the press office refused my request so that is as much as I am prepared to say. Harumph. Or rather, snort. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

That's not my prince...

Readers who know me in person will know that I have a little obsession with the royal family. Not that I wouldn't prefer a republic of course, but until that day comes I'll enjoy analysing pics of the Duchess of Cambridge (I like her, I'll shoot her last!) and judging Charles for his silly outbursts.

Nevertheless I am not sure where my daughter's constant demands of "Where's the handsome prince?" came from during the seemingly interminable coverage of the outside of the Lindo Wing while waiting for the birth of Kate and William's baby. Jokers among you will suggest she could have asked the same question once William did appear but that is not the point - the point is that I don't believe I have ever used the phrase 'handsome prince' in front of her. I blame nursery.

But the desire to make little girls want to be princesses and to find handsome princes is absolutely ingrained in our culture. I thought we'd avoided it - my mum reported that she took my daughter into a shop recently and when the shopkeeper asked my daughter if she was a princess my daughter replied 'No, I'm xxxx' and gave her full name - but just a few weeks later and a trip to an English Heritage shop at Portland Castle while on holiday in Dorset led to an insistence on wanting a pink princess pen as her souvenir even when I tried to steer her towards a rather excellent girl pirate pen in the same range

So I wasn't necessarily convinced by the That's not my Prince offering from Usborne, though I love the series generally. I needn't have worried - I was sent a review copy and it's ever so witty, though I'd have liked one page to say 'That's not my prince, his hair is too thin' in reference to William's balding pate. Instead the princes have hair that is too fluffy, sashes that are too silky and cloaks that are too velvety. If my daughter continues to insist on talking about handsome princes, I hope she does so in as irreverent way.

The same week we were given a copy of That's not my Pirate. I was ever so pleased that one of the pirates featured was female, though a few more wouldn't have gone amiss. It was a missed opportunity though, as she's not the right pirate because her shirt, which is pink, is too silky. I'd have liked her patch to be too rubbery or her false leg to be too long or her parrot to be too fluffy. 

We love the series in my house though - so simple yet so clever. We've also got monkey, car, bear, kitten, santa, penguin and snowman, though I rather fancy the monster and dinosaur ones. They've not yet done a Grandpa one yet though, so for my dad's birthday we had to make our own.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Because it is my name!

John Proctor:  Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name! 

I studied Arthur Miller's The Crucible for my Literature A Level and to be honest, compared to the splendour of Under Milk Wood and Richard III, my other set texts, I just didn't take to it. And what I particularly didn't get was John Proctor's refusal to sign his name to a confession of witchcraft in order to save his life. Surely, I thought at the time, it is only a name.

I've not given The Crucible too much thought since then. But it came into my head again this week when reading about the use of dead children's names for undercover officers in the Metropolitan Police. I've been surprised by how horrified I am by this, not least because I thought the country suffered a mass over-reaction to the Alder Hey organ scandal

But I feel very strongly that the names we gave our children were a gift from us to them. As the language of the reporting of this case suggests, it is not just a name that has been stolen, but an identity. Their given names reflect their cultural heritage, their religious heritage, the age in which we live and our own taste and,  no doubt, our class, and that's before their surname has been taken into account. 

I don't buy into the need to choose a unique first name for children. Not for me made up names or unusual spellings. But I would be very very surprised if they shared their whole name with anyone else in the world, given they have an unusual surname with my surname as an extra given name. For it to be used by anyone else, be it a fraudster or the police, would be theft of something most precious. Add to that the fact that it's not just identity theft, but theft from dead children, and I find it all hugely abhorrent. Why? Because, as Arthur Miller knew, and I now know, it is their name.

Related post: What's in a name?

I just emailed someone I used to know through work this week. She was convicted of a criminal offence that she says she didn't do. I asked how she was and whether her career was back on track. Her main concern, she said, wasn't her career or friendships, it was to clear her name. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Interview with Viv Groskop

In 2004, casting around for something new to do with my time in the light of all my friends having partners, I decided to take a comedy course run by comedian Logan Murray. I was having a pretty hard time that year - new job, moving out of the flat I shared with my best mate, heart break, a family bereavement, a new job I hated - and needed something new. The comedy course was so good, and something so new to me, that I think of it as one of the best choices I have ever made. I didn't want to be a comedian, but I did want to improve my microphone skills for the broadcast appearance I was occasionally making and I wanted to make new friends. And, of course, I wanted to see whether I really was funnier than all the terrible comedians I have seen over time.

The course was brilliant and I took another straight after, on comedy writing. Was I funny? Ish. Funny enough not to die on my arse at the few open mics I did in London and in New York when I spent a summer there and where, surprisingly, the comedy was far less sophisticated than it is in London, but nowhere near as funny as some of my classmates, particularly Rob Broderick and Judy Batalion, and from the writing class, Holly Walsh.

So I was particularly interested in the journalist Viv Groskop's adventure in comedy in which, after taking Logan's course, she decided to perform 100 gigs in 100 days. I wanted to know how such a challenge worked alongside being the parent of three children (I have two and frequently struggle to find time to brush my teeth) and its impact on her relationship, as well as how the actual gigs went and where her career, already one I admire journalistically, will go next.

Can you briefly tell me about the 100 day thing?
In the middle of 2011 I was trying to decide whether I should take stand-up more seriously or give it up completely. My third child was not yet one. I had done maybe 20 gigs, if that, over the course of 18 months. One morning I woke up and thought, "I know. I'll do 100 gigs in 100 nights. And then I will know within 3 months whether I should go on or give up." And the thought would not go away. So I waited for Jack (youngest child) to turn one and the day after his first birthday I did it.

I did Logan's course myself in 2004  and I really credit Logan's course with saving me emotionally - opening up a new interest and challenge and introducing me to new people. I wonder whether everyone who does it is searching for something new or running from something - it certainly seemed that way on my course. Was there any emotional impact for you?
I stumbled onto Logan Murray's comedy course almost by accident when a careers counsellor asked me the question, "What do you most want in your life that you don't have at the moment?" Without particularly meaning to say it, I answered, "Stand-up comedy." And I suddenly remembered that I had read about Logan's workshop. It seemed an incredibly stupid waste of time but I had paid the careers counsellor a lot of money and that meant I really had to listen to her advice. I signed up and the first day I came back and my husband said, "You are the most relaxed I have seen you in five years." You shouldn't really use those courses as therapy (if you need therapy, you should have therapy). But they pretty much work as therapy whether you intend them to or not. 

Lots of comedians milk their own lives for jokes. Do you do this and do you worry about privacy issues for your kids? The same question goes for your journalism too.

I suppose I believe in being open without putting everything on display. I do write about my family and talk about them on stage but I try to do it in a controlled way. I think you can be honest without doing the full Liz Jones.

Do you think mothers often hide away their ambitions, either because their confidence is knocked or they just can't see a way to achieve it, and what gave you the impetus to actually go out and do it?
For me motherhood had the opposite effect. It boosted my confidence. Possibly the birth of my second child, my daughter, Vera, played a role in that. I had her in the kitchen at home next to the dishwasher and the midwife was only there in the last twenty minutes. It wasn't like I chewed through the umbilical cord with my teeth whilst holding the placenta aloft and screaming "I am the source and the power". But there was an element of that. After I had done that, I didn't really care that much about anything anymore. I think I realised pretty quickly after having children that if you are going to spend time worrying what other people think about you and the way you raise your children, you will not have a lot of time to actually do anything. So I made a decision to do what I wanted to do according to what I thought was right -- and let other people think what they want. It helps that my husband does a lot. There is no primary parent in our household. I know a lot of women who would never give up being the primary parent.

What did your husband think? And your children?
A lot of the book is about the challenge that our marriage faced as a result of me doing something that was pretty selfish that took me away from the house for nights on end. Even within a limited time frame (100 nights), it was tough. It wasn't so difficult for the children because I would usually be able to put them to bed and then go out. There were times during the experiment that I almost abandoned it because it was really awful for Simon. 

Was it worth it?
It was worth it in terms of improving my comedy and getting an idea of whether I wanted to continue with it or not. (Spoiler alert: I did continue and am doing a solo show at Edinburgh for the first time this year -- at Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe on 18 and 19 August.) But whether it was worth it in a wider sense… It's hard to say. It was a massive challenge for any marriage. But I think sometimes you need to do something extreme in order to work out exactly where you stand.

I feel now I am a mum what happens at work is less important, because whatever happens I get home and I have my family. This actually makes me feel a bit invincible in the workplace - I don't care about office politics any more. Does that help when you die on your arse on stage?
Yes and no. I don't walk away from a bad gig thinking, "Oh, well, at least my children love me." I walk away, thinking, "Please let me just die quietly now." Maybe I should focus more on the love of my children…

What next?
I'm still plugging away on the amateur circuit, trying to get better at stand-up. I do a lot of MCing and I love that. I'm also in Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode, a cross between Downton Abbey and Whose Line Is It Anyway? in full period costume. (Also at Edinburgh -- at The Hive with Heroes of Free Fringe, 5pm, 1-25 August.)

I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life 

Monday, 8 July 2013

More than memories

I've been sorting out baby clothes to be stored in the loft just in case we are crazy enough to try for a third. The everyday vests and babygros and buy on a whim Primark outfits (made by children for children?) I'm happy to pass on to anyone but the posher John Lewis dresses bought via eBay I'm saving to bestow upon favoured friends after my family is definitely complete. 

I have however come across a couple of things that have tugged the heart strings and been put in the 'don't give away, ever' pile. 

One of those is a bunny rabbit vest a friend bought my daughter as a present when she went into hospital for an operation as a baby. It says I heart Mummy on it. I say she bought it for my daughter, we both knew it was for me. And though I am usually resistant to slogans, any slogans, this one was just the right message at just the right time. I am not sure I could ever put another child of mine in it, it's so bound up with that time for me, but I don't want to give it away either.

At the other end of the spectrum is a yellow cardigan I bought for my son, though it has the opposite emotional tug and as soon as I found it I just needed it out of the house. I bought it full price, something I rarely do, in Mothercare, in a fit of concern that he'd only ever have hand me downs and never know the thrill of new clothes. As if his three month old self cared. I was also thrilled to find something for boys so bright and cheerful without a lion, dinosaur or car on it. 

The first time he wore it he had a choking incident. It was over quickly, before I could ask my friend to call an ambulance I had held him upside down and was thwacking his back until he threw up monumentally and the colour drained back into his face, but all I can see now when I picture that cardigan is the bright yellow against a purple face struggling to breathe. 

I don't even want to see that cardigan again on a friend's child, let alone my own, lovely as it is, so it's gone to a charity shop far enough away that I shouldn't bump into it again. 

When my daughter was born my mum gave me a dress that had been my own as a baby. She had kept it in her box of special things. I took it out of the drawer one day to put it on my daughter and all the elastic had rotted in the intervening thirty-two years. 

There are people online who make 'memory quilts' out of baby clothes for sentimental saddos who can't let go. You send them your fifty favourite items and a three figure bank transfer and they send you a bedspread covered in teddies, ducks, Breton stripe and knock off Scandinavian prints. I'm so going to get one made in due course, I just know it, with fabric from the one my mum passed down to me at the centre. I know it's vomit inducing and a little pathetic and will take fifty good outfits out of the hand me down circuit (perhaps it's even funded by clothes shops keen you buy as much new as possible), but I know too that I'll love it. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The bucket list

Say what you will about Louise Mensch and her politics, and much of the criticism of her smacks of misogyny to me (who cares about her roots being on show during Select Committee meetings?), I still think of her mostly as wildly successful chick lit author Louise Bagshawe. So I was thrilled when I tweeted last year about my summer holiday to have a response from her praising my tweet for its depiction of our holiday. 

My oldest child is still only two but we have an impressive collection of buckets, spades and other beach toys. My favourites are a castle shaped bucket with wall attached so you can build a sand fort (castles are so last millennium) bought that holiday from a beachside stall, and an amazing builders set from Great Little Trading Company which includes a brick mould and spirit level (£17).

Our sand sculptures are ephemeral of course, the first wall or brick usually being kicked down before the second has been built, but I hope the memories they create last forever. Many of my memories of childhood are of our holidays. Many others however are based on food. In fact I remember day trips by what sweets we were bought (Highland toffee on the Isle of Wight, strawberry Fruitellas by the river at Broxbourne etc). I thought of these sweetie memories when pregnant with my son as I had a near constant craving for the first five months for Tooty Fruity sweets which it turns out are remarkably hard to find in north London (though Skittles scratched the itch temporarily when necessary). Sweets and beaches, that is how I remember my second pregnancy, and my childhood.

All of which is a very long way of getting to the main point which is never mind my holidays, never mind the sweets I crave, never mind my tweets, but look look look at these amazing, memory forming, castle and sweet treat combining, sandcastle ice cream buckets available from The Handpicked Collection (£5.95). I want some.

Saturday, 8 June 2013


In 2000 my friend and I went backpacking. Although we, aged 21, thought we were being intrepid, we actually took a well trodden tourist route taking in India, Vietnam and Thailand.

There's a brilliant scene that makes up the prologue to Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club. Patrick and Sophie are talking about their parents' pasts, specifically 1973:

- Was it really that different do you think?
- Completely different. Just think of it! A world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes. A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war in Kosovo or Afghanistan. There were only three television channels in those days, Patrick. Three! And the unions were so powerful that, if they wanted to, they could close one of them down for a whole night. Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!

I think of this scene when I think about backpacking in 2000, albeit with some revisions. We'd not only heard of Princess Diana, we'd started to forget her. People had mobiles, but not everyone. I got my own later that year so I could have it for the beginning of my journalism course. We used email, but I also still wrote letters. I hadn't yet performed a Google search (I learnt about Google on a computer skills module on the journalism course - imagine!) Phones certainly didn't send emails. Instead we stopped every week or so in an internet cafe and touched base with home, sending what we thought we witty group emails to all our friends with pithy observations about life in South East Asia.

In August 2000 we were in Thailand and heard about a cookery school in Chiang Mai in the north of the country. We decided to go for several days and before we left I called my mum and told her where we were heading.

As far as my mum knew Chiang Mai was a small village and we were the only tourists. In fact it is a big tourist hub with lots of hostels and visitors. Consequently when a couple of days later she heard on the radio that a young British female tourist had been found murdered in Chiang Mai, and that the name wouldn't be released until the family had been told, she had no way of contacting me. For a short while, until the name was released, she thought it was me. My grandpa, I am told, who I never saw have an alcoholic drink, had to sit down and have a whisky.

It was a day later I went to an internet cafe. Although we were in the same town we hadn't heard the news - I don't remember the detail but perhaps my friend and I had had an early night or went for dinner the two of us and didn't speak to other tourists. A deluge of emails from my mum was the first I knew of the murder, the last sent after she knew it wasn't me, asking for me to call her anyway. I did, and my poor mum managed not to ask me to return home early. We barricaded ourselves into our hostel room that night, my friend and I, and didn't go out in the dark.

The woman who was murdered was called Kirsty Jones. She was 23 and from Tredomen near Brecon.

I hadn't thought about those few days that much for the ten years after returning home. Then I had a child. And now I think of it almost every day. I think of my parents hearing the news and assuming the worst. I think of the day my kids are going to come home and tell me they've booked a round the world ticket. And most of all I think of Kirsty's parents having the worst confirmed, and of Kirsty herself.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

My application to work at Google

Dear Google HR department,

I have recently bought the book Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? I have not had time to read it yet, as since becoming a mother I have only read a handful of books, but I fully intend to take it on holiday with me next month and to pretend things will be different because I am using the word holiday, and that I may have a chance to read.

Nevertheless I would like to apply to work at Google, specifically in a very senior position that earns googols of pounds.

I have much experience working as a writer, editor and lecturer, including writing two non fiction books and teaching at a prestigious university. However my application focuses on the experience gained during the two years since my daughter was born including the recent arrival of my son.

During this time I have developed excellent skills in project management. Every activity my family is involved with includes planning, organising and research to ensure completion on time and within budget, from working out journeys that facilitate naps to checking the availability of refreshments. This often involves balancing the competing requirements of the group.

I also have much experience in logistics, making sure people, facilities and supplies suit our requirements. This has included the planning of several holidays and travel on many modes of transport.

As leader of my team I frequently liaise with other team leaders to arrange activities that are both fun and educational. This includes assessing external settings and applying the criteria set by many interested parties and maintaining effective networks.

My communication skills have also developed in my current role. I already had much experience writing, editing and broadcasting. However I can now convey with a look, a twitch, a small intake of breath or a barely perceptible shake of the head whether something is allowed, whether it is dangerous and what level of punishment can be expected if I am disobeyed.

Crisis management has become one of my specialities. I am able to quickly assess any situation and go to the person or object most needing help whilst being aware of the speed in which other crises may be developing. Nothing fazes me, from overflowing sinks to precariously balanced irons or paint about to spill on the sofa.

I have daily responsibility for my team's budget, and can quickly evaluate the value of a carton of apple juice versus a box of raisins. I also now understand the value of a chocolate button, and the value of a cuddle. I also know the price of a 6 pint bottle of milk, and indeed the value (and cost) of 30ml of expressed breast milk.

Learning to delegate and to split tasks to ensure all members of the team feel involved in every project has been a key area for me. This sometimes requires changing the direction of a task in the middle of it. However I feel this is worth it to create a harmonious environment for everyone to work in.

I can assess danger in an instant, explain my decision and persuade all parties that they want to do things my way, regardless of the position they adopt at the start of proceedings. I have also become an expert negotiator and my skills in this area include knowing which battles to pursue and using all resources at my disposal when something just has to be done. A good example of this is convincing a two year old to brush her teeth.

In additon to this I often have to present progress reports on my work to other interested parties such as my husband and my parents, and to ensure a cohesive approach when using external contractors.

I have also acquired experience of interviewing and applying HR functions including hiring and firing. This has involved visiting several nurseries and deciding which best serves the needs of all parties.

All of my work seeks to meet short term goals whilst contributing to a long term strategy.

I am happy to expand on any of these points and very much look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

Ellie Levenson