The riots: my tuppenceworth

August 21, 2011 2 comments

I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many people get so passionate about politics, parenting, social issues, crime, race and policing, so in a way I’m glad the London/UK riots have stimulated a lot of passionate debate. There is nothing more worrying to me than people who either refuse or see no point in getting involved or having an opinion about politics; saying “It won’t change anything”.

Many of the contributory factors to the riots were political, and we’ve already seen that the discourse and proposed (many draconian) responses will be, so it’s important to understand the political context behind issues like this in order to go any way to solving them (as all parties have previously stated- David Cameron of course has conveniently forgotten his understanding/humanity of yesteryear, of course).

So, firstly I’m saddened.

Sad that shopkeepers in run down areas, with probably no stock insurance won’t be able to regain their livelihoods, adding to the shuttered up blight.

Sad that in the same world where millions in east Africa are at risk of dying of hunger (I blame corrupt govt and religious anti-condom rhetoric for much of that) we have people who have so little context on hardship that they loot their own neighbourhood and pretend that they’re getting what they deserve.

Sad that the media blaming frenzy includes bigotry of almost every shade, and in almost every instance fails to grasp that violence, frustration, bandwagon profiteering and cruelty are neither new nor confined to the poor, unmarried, young, black or any other sector of society.

I’m also heartened by the massive movement of people involved in the #riotcleanup. Hundreds of people with brooms, dustpans and brushes turning up in Clapham, Hackney and across the country, to make good the damage other people caused brings a smile to my face and a little leap to my heart.

For what it’s worth, I have a political theory. I think the riots can be traced back to the selling of council houses. The crucial accompanying theory is my belief that between the carrot and the stick; the carrot seems a much more effective way of maintaining social norms than the stick. The fear of official punishment is often a lot less than the quest for peer approval. So instead of vast police numbers, spending a fortune on jails and punishment, (or maybe an effective addition to) the answer could be in getting society to help to maintain those standards, right?

Here’s the thing: for hundreds of years there have been strong communities of relatively poor (some may say average, as judged by the standards of the past) who lived in subsidised council housing for their entire lives. They knew their neighbours, their parents, extended family, friends from school, staff from local shops all lived in the local area.

My paternal family came from exactly such stock. I remember my Nan in Leeds telling me (on many occasions) that when a new council estate was built, she and my Grandad were proud that their family were invited to be tenants, as they had looked after their previous council house so well, and been model tenants. They were very poor-bringing up 4 kids on one unskilled wage- my grandad went from being a barber to eventually working for decades at the Tetley brewery, but they were proud, clean, law abiding and have turned out, at last count 19 descendants of varying levels of education, but all of whom are working, law abiding and grateful for the chances they have been given. Amongst all of us, the fear of parental, family and social disapproval is a far greater disincentive to crime than the tiny chance of being caught.

So, what happened when council houses were sold off? One family, often from the exact same stock as mine, gain a goldmine-a foot on the ladder, a sense of ownership and a stake in their financial future. But as the houses were sold and not replaced, and the original buyers move on; sometimes making a healthy profit along the way the community changes. The estates where everyone knew each other now have various houses split into privately rented flats (better rental return that way) with transient tenants in. The inflating housing bubble-exascerbated by the lack of affordable long term rental property, makes the privately owned ex-council stock the only property reachable for first time buyers, who move in for a few years – never intending to make this their home or where they raise their family. After a few years of decreasing social connections/pride, a few of the houses get a bit run down, then the only landlords interested are the low level private landlords who rent out ex council property for more than the council would, in a worse state of repair.

Now we get into the much touted ‘broken windows’ theory. Once a neighbourhood goes this way, it’s incredibly hard to regain its social glue, and meanwhile all the people living within it have a constantly reducing sense of social collective responsibility, and the results are clear.

None of this is to say that parents, schools, stop-and-search and ASBOs, unemployment, despair and a materially driven media don’t bear some responsibility; but in Africa they say “It takes a whole village to bring up a child” and where one or more of the above are failing, having no social safety net is hardly the way to learn that society includes you.


The token fat bird

June 19, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s been ages since I last blogged, mainly because I started a new job, which has been harder and longer work than I’ve ever done. It’s also involved a better salary than I’ve ever had before so I’m not complaining, but it’s been a logistical juggling act juggling long hours & stress, trying to see Eleanor before she goes to bed and also keeping a modicum of social life going on.

One thing that I’m super pleased that I’ve managed to squeeze in in the last couple of months is training for a “fun” triathlon, which I completed today. Most of you, like me, may wonder how the words “fun” and “triathlon” get to co-exist in the same sentence (never mind day), but the concept comes from the fact that it’s much shorter than a usual triathlon, and is meant to be a (relatively) easy introduction to the concept.

I only signed up to this by accident (ie: when pissed). A couple of friends were planning to do it together, and then one of them landed a new job in Qatar (about which I’m sure we’ll all learn more when we do our first trip); and since she’d signed up to swim/bike/run in aid of Cancer Research, and I’m a sucker for cancer causes, I felt like I had to step in to make sure the charity didn’t lose out.

So, the concept was 200m swim (8 lengths of a 25m pool – not too bad I thought), a 12.5K bike ride (longer than I would normally do but dealable with) topped off with a 2.5K run. Each of them I figured was do-able (the biggest worry being the run), so it was just a case of doing some training and going for it, right?

Me & Lorraine before we got too sweaty & hecticNot really. 8 weeks of 6am runs 3 x per week, plus a bike ride at the weekend, and I thought I was getting close, but my experience today involved being overtaken during every leg (even in the 7 minutes I spent in the pool), being the only person with seemingly more than an ounce or two of body fat, and (results pending) being probably the last person in the entire fun run to finish.

The weird thing is, I actually enjoyed it, and when people say that exercise is addictive, they’re not wrong. I’m already determined to enter next year, beat my time and raise more money.

If all this makes you want to donate a few quid on my justgiving page then feel free.

Thanks & toodle pip.

“Bloody students”

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

The Young Ones

We definitely showered more than this lot

I’m in a (probably hypocritical) quandary about the whole student fees issue.

I have to be honest and admit that I’m one of the lucky gits that not only didn’t have to pay any fees as I started in 1990, but also due to the not-so-lucky fact that my parents had just divorced and my dad was skint, got a full grant (£2,500 in my first year, topped up with about £400 of student loans as I recall). This was, again luckily for me, in a time when only 10% or so of school leavers went to Uni, so we were still for some reason seen as the cream of the crop, and therefore worth investing in.

As I tirelessly said at the time (to the people in the pub who overheard me; the locals in Lancaster, for whom the students definitely seemed to represent a bunch of posh utter wankers; and extended members of my family who called me a sponger) there are many benefits of further education for both society and with the student. Higher average wages mean more tax receipts, there’s also a lower propensity to crime, more likelihood of bringing up children who also do the same (after smoking a few joints and pretending to be a bit of a rebel along the way of course), all of which helps/helped to justify the public purse funding of further education beyond the age of 18. When loans came in of course there was a lot of hoo haa about people helping to pay their own living expenses, but I don’t remember there ever being a question of the actual education being anything other than worthwhile for the greater good.

Sadly the party that is supposed to stand for access for those who can’t afford it appears to have scored an own goal, as this recipe formula only really worked at a certain level of access. Anyone who thought that Labour’s much vaunted policy of expanding further education to as many people who wanted it wasn’t going to a) cost more or b) devalue the qualifications earned was clearly mad (or needed a bit of basic statistic training – bell curve anyone?).

Add to that a recession and coming out of the oven is a generation of teens who have been taught that anyone who’s anyone gets a degree, and besides, there are no jobs for those who leave school at 18 anyway – ta da daaa – a perfectly predictable well baked funding crisis.

So someone has to pay for it, right? and surely the people who benefit should pay…. but should they *all* – and in what proportion?

I don’t claim to have a perfect answer, but I can’t see that dumping the entire, increased fees on the students themselves is “fair” (yes, you coalition lot).

Firstly, yes of course students benefit, but society does too; and the true opportunity cost of what these people will do instead needs to be borne in mind.
– Is it cheaper to have people at university, busy doing something constructive for themselves and which makes them less of a burden on society for the rest of their lives, than claiming jobseeker’s allowance and housing benefit. If there *is* a short term gain, how does this bear out against the lifetime cost – given that the majority of the fees are paid back and the future tax returns/losses.

A agree that students with money/from families with money should contribute something (not all of these families will help, it must be said – a rich dad can still be stingy), but education is truly an investment that pays back everyone who is involved, and I’m horrified that it’s being restricted to such an extent.

I desperately hope that people who are nervous of paying the fees aren’t totally put off, and choose to plough through anyway.

..and maybe those of us who’ve already benefited from the good old days should put our hands in our pockets and help them out a bit.

… a few quid for your old Uni to help fund a bursary anyone?
… a graduate tax for all graduates from the last 30 years?
… corporate sponsorships from industries that have the greatest need for educated staff?


Another way to rip you off…

November 13, 2010 1 comment

baby surrounded by money

it's mine, all mine!!!

I was out in London last night, on a rare Friday chatting to various girlfriends over mountains of wine and cheese, and amongst the many areas of conversation was the fact that many of life’s events (the two that sprang up were getting married and having kids) are seen a massive opportunity to bleed you for cash.

I have at least three friends currently planning weddings, and each of them has a horror story about a venue that was £N until they found out it was a wedding (now it’s £N x 3), or some other related issue that suddenly becomes more difficult or more expensive as soon as the word wedding comes into play.

The remainder of my social circle seem to be almost all either pregnant, or have a pre-schooler toddling around their house, giving them innumerable opportunities to be sold to and feel guilty. Apart from the reams of advice about how and what you should do about feeding, nappies, work etc, are endless supposedly well meaning acquaintances and magazine articles swearing blind that they couldn’t have managed without product “x”, or they would feel like  a bad parent without it.

The problem is of course, that engaged couples and new parents are prime sales targets – they *do* have to buy a certain amount of things, and emotions are high for both. Weddings will forever be paraded in videos and photos, and what the hell, it’s only once in our life, right? So it must be worth spending another £100, £1,000 or more to make sure it’s perfect.

New parents are not only beset with hormones and insecurity, but also many of us don’t live near to our extended families to solicit their advice, and even if we did – their experiences and the products they used may be hopelessly out of date or even now considered dangerous! My mum was aghast looking at my pregnancy scans, and it only really hit home how different it was when she explained how in the 70s, pregnancy was a case of 1) no period 2) doctor having a fumble to confirm diagnosis 3) get fat 4)hopefully have live child – with barely any medical input and nothing except the baby’s movements to confirm whether the child was alive or not, and certainly not what sex it was or whether there were any complications or disabilities to prepare for.

I am therefore forever thankful that my parenting story started in 2008, with an amazing amount of foreknowledge provided to me by the ever under-appreciated NHS.

I am also massively thankful that Jules and I’s amazing photographer friend Robbie Ewing, has decided to use our daughter Eleanor as a subject for a project of his – taking photos around each birthday to show the amazing growth and difference there is during a child’s formative years – and also saving us hundreds of pounds on the usually extortionate prices of baby studio photos.

Thank you Robbie, and for those who aren’t already bored of me talking about her – take a look at our gorgeous little girl here.

ASLs, cycling, scooters and a bit of empathy

October 13, 2010 3 comments

Okay, I know how passionate cyclists are about cycle lanes etc, and I’m probably going to be (virtually) lynched for saying this, but I don’t get the problem with scooters & motorbikes courteously going in cycle lanes or past the advanced stop line. I do get massively annoyed by cars/buses and lorries though, sitting happily across it without even a passing thought for other road users.

Advanced stop lines for cyclists

Here’s a reminder below for those who don’t know what an advanced stop line  is (it’s not there so that you are slowed down – it’s there to place the cyclists in  full view of the rest of the traffic, as this awareness has been proven time and  again to be the best way to improve riser safety)

In the interests of total transparency I have to state that I’ve been either a  pedestrian, scooter driver, cyclist, train commuter or car driver (or more  than one during the course of any one week) for the last 17 years in London,  and hence do try to look at road issues with a relatively objective view.


I’m well aware of the frustrations of London traffic, and how vulnerable you feel on a cycle or scooter, but I’m always a bit concerned about the apparent lack of understanding, nay sometimes hatred, between cyclists and PTWs (powered two wheelers- easier than saying ‘motorbikes or scooters’). I think we’d all get a better reception from car drivers, traffic planners and the media if we spoke as one, and shared our very similar experiences of feeling vulnerable, being verbally abused, hounded off the road and/or ignored.

Personally I am convinced that the single best way to create understanding amongst road users is to make the car driving test include a mandatory cycling proficiency test, and the CBT (compulsory basic training – all PTW drivers have to do it before they’re allowed out on the road even with L- plates).

Unlike many cyclists/PTW riders I don’t think that all car drivers are evil selfish bastards, out to kill us (although my experience out there often feels like they are); instead I think that they seriously just don’t understand what it’s like to be on a two wheeler, and we could solve the majority of the issues by just getting them to experience it from the rider’s saddle.

For good measure, it can’t hurt to make both cyclists and car drivers sit in the cab of a lorry, so that they can understand the concept of ‘blind spot’.

Before I get roundly beaten up by cyclists who say PTW riders are aggressive and dangerous- note that I did use the word ‘courteously’ for people using cycle lanes etc – it would do us all good to be aware of people more vulnerable than us (yes, cyclists, those people called pedestrians who you scare out of their skin sometimes).

Mel Mack’s abridged highway code:

  • ALWAYS be on guard for those more vulnerable than you
  • Remember not everyone has an engine and they may be going as fast as they can.
  • Car drivers
    • stop thinking of riders of any 2 wheeled vehicle as nuisances who make you set off from junctions a bit slower. It may help with context if you imagine how much worse your journey would have been if each of those people had chosen to drive a car instead.
    • use your bloody indicators- the rest of us are NOT psychic
  • Pedestrians: look carefully before crossing
    • cars take TIME to stop at zebra crossings
    • bikes may be weaving between stationary traffic
  • Everyone:
  • The more exposed your method of transport is, the more vulnerable you are, so take responsibility for your safety- assume people won’t see you, wear high vis clothing and if in doubt, don’t take chances.

Pregnant or fat – what bloody dilemma?

October 3, 2010 2 comments

I had a random conversation on Facebook recently about public transport seating, and the horrible middle-class dilemma of whether to offer your seat or not

Please give up your seat for someone less able to stand

New tube priority seating signs.

and I had to hold back from just shouting at people, especially when I read some of the comments on the BBC article about it. This one, for instance:

I will gladly offer my seat to an elderly person , I believe that you choose to get pregnant , but aging is one thing you cant avoid! I’m 31 and anyone that is obviously older than me gets offered my seat , but pregnant people … not !
Kevin, London

I hope Kevin never gets close enough to a woman to be able to make her pregnant – he has clearly forgotten/not been taught biology well enough to realise that he also is of woman born, and therefore made her back ache too at one point. Enough of misogynistic ignorant wankers, however, as their existence, though annoying, is incidental to this story.

The prevailing thought seems to be that as it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether someone’s pregnant or not (or fat, yes, just say it), there are legions of otherwise altruistic people out there who would jump at the opportunity to offer their seat to someone less able than them, but they’re traumatised at the potential of embarrassing someone by offering them a seat, as if they’re not actually pregnant, this will inadvertently be calling them fat.

To this I say utter bollocks.

I’ve stood there, heavily pregnant (and obviously so), and been looked straight through, and I’m neither surprised or offended at all by it. There’s no reason that pregnant women, old people, or anyone else should have the automatic right to a seat. Others may be suffering far more discomfort from an outwardly invisible knee injury, other illness or even, heaven forbid, an hangover.

What I am saying is that this fake guilt to cover up the fact that none of us really want to give up our seat, is exactly that – fake.

I’ve been commuting in London for 17 years and it’s a war out there – nobody enjoys the squeeze of the tube or the rush hour trains & buses, it’s thoroughly unpleasant, and I daresay we are all sometimes guilty of “I thought I could get away with it and hoped they wouldn’t notice me looking shiftily away.”

It’s not surprising that involuntary close contact with hundreds of strangers makes us guard our personal space so carefully. One of the methods we use is to have a book to read, or studiously avoiding eye contact – not surprising then that we sometimes miss the tell-tale signs of someone else’s greater need than ours.

That said, I am amazed when the occasional man tells me a story of a woman who has rudely refused an offer on the basis that it’s old fashioned/patronising – both at the woman that supposedly threw the offer back in their faces (sister, what are you doing??!!) and the man for taking this as a sign that all women will henceforward be like that. Is it ungenerous to suspect they’re slightly relieved to have an excuse never to offer again? 😉

My feminist sisterhood hackles are also raised by women who remain glued to their seat (older women are actually the worst offenders) in the face of a pregnant woman in obvious discomfort.

In reality we just have to accept that it’s supremely arrogant of us to expect anyone/everyone else in the same carriage/bus to a) notice us or b) care.

I know only too well that it’s hard to think of anything else when you’re pregnant, and it does sometimes feel like the entire planet wants to queue up and coo, guess the gender and stroke the bump, uninvited; but there remains a huge percentage of the population who are untouched by your own personal miracle, and just want to get to work on time without interacting with anyone too rude or smelly.

Baby on Board BadgeSo, take responsibility for yourselves, ladies. For a start you can now pick up from any underground station, a badge that says “Baby On Board. That takes away any excuses of those that do actually look at you.

For the people who don’t notice/hope someone else will stand up, there is always the tried and tested way that I used – walk up to a set of 4 or 6 seats (giving yourself the best chance by not putting just one person on the spot) and say “Excuse me, I’m heavily pregnant and uncomfortable, would anyone mind me sitting down?”. Not once did this fail me, and was usually met this choruses of “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice.” True or not, they have an excuse, and you now have a seat. Win:win 🙂

For those who still have a slight quandary, just bloody well offer your seat will you – if you’re really that bothered by it, why not offer your seat and not make it obvious why? A simple “Would you like to sit down?” doesn’t bear any social stigma for anyone, and will spare you the non-existent cringe factor.

Breaking the chain part 1

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment
Mel aged 5, Eleanor aged 2.5

Me aged 5, and Eleanor aged 2.5

This post  will no doubt be the start of a series of thoughts about the issues of food, exercise and weight management, and how to ensure I do the best for my daughter, in the face of worryingly body conscious early “tweens” , and the undoubted risk of the diseases of affluence such as heart disease that being unfit can only exacerbate.

For a bit of context, I’ve struggled with my weight for my entire adult life. I wasn’t a fat child – probably average, but remember starting to be body aware at around age 10, and already felt somehow less worthy than the very sporty/lucky girls in the class who could wear stretched jeans without a thought (it was the 80s… *cringe*). I was a pretty active kid, doing dance classes twice a week, enthusiastically swimming at weekends, and was on the school hockey team, and in retrospect all this probably staved off for a few years the creeping weight gain that began properly in my university years. Not surprisingly this coincided with a much increased intake of both alcohol and cheap unhealthy food, and a near total absence of exercise.

I’m certainly not blind to the old formula of food in – exercise = weight gain, and have twice over the last ten years lost around 3 stone, from a combination of reduced intake, portion control and getting off my bum more. This has taken monumental self control over several months at a time, and I’ve been incredibly proud of myself during the process, and while the effects last…
The weight loss industry isn’t as profitable as it is by accident, however, and as seems the usual rule, I have always gradually put the weight back on. Sadly it seems that my natural state is not to remain easily slim. I will battle on, and I’m sure I’ll lose more again, but in the meantime my priority has to be to prevent Eleanor from repeating the same destructive pattern.

As with most things once kids are involved, there are many different opinions on how to feed children, whilst hopefully avoiding the dreaded O word (obesity, in case you weren’t up to speed with the new social evil).

A lot of people still seem to think that the “We bore no truck with fussiness, so my kids eat anything” route is the way forward, and that’s what my parents did with both me and my brother. I can understand the horror of waste instilled in them from their war years parents, but for me it certainly wasn’t a successful strategy.
My brother now eats anything, and always did, so it didn’t change him in the slightest. As for me, I am still repulsed by the majority of the things I hated as a child, and we all had to suffer endless hours of tears and tantrums, throwing food on the floor etc as I was forced to try/not allowed to leave the room until I’d eaten things that physically made me gag.
Those things are almost entirely foods that although I like the flavour of (bananas/ tomatoes, peaches) the texture just makes me gag and I can’t keep them down.
It may be churlish to bring up my own constant yo-yo dieting and daliances with bulimia, but I can’t see a way that creating negative associations with food is ever going to have a healthy result.

Now Eleanor’s a toddler, and sadly past the early weaning “eat anything mushy I give her” stage. Currently I give her a selection of relatively healthy items to choose from at mealtimes, and throw away what she doesn’t want. Yes there’s food wastage, but her intake is balanced over the day and she does try different things of her own volition at different times and if not forced.

I just hope I can begin to break the chain. I know this is only the start.