Author Archives: bristolbetty

Back to school

There are some cities that succumb to a form of mass hysteria when it comes to schooling, and Bristol is one of them. Its reputation as a bohemian hub, full of alternative and creative types, sits uneasily with the large number of families here who opt out of state education. My sons have seen a steady loss of their classmates from the local primary school to private prep schools over the years. Some parents admit that switching to the private sector at this early stage guarantees a place for a child who might otherwise fail the Year 7 entrance exam. Others focus on their child’s sensitivity or cleverness: Jasper would benefit from a more nurturing approach; Jessica wasn’t being stretched. All too often, it seems, the local primary isn’t good enough for some special snowflakes.

When the prospect of secondary education looms into view, those who remain loyal to the state sector begin to feel, preposterously, as though they’re swimming against the tide. In this part of town, private secondaries far outnumber state schools: there are at least seven within a two-mile radius of our house. Middle-class parents treat the idea of sending their child to the local comprehensive as some sort of social experiment; a risk that they aren’t prepared to take. The proximity of a well-known and prohibitively expensive public school means that they can justify their educational choices with the refrain, ‘At least it’s not Clifton College.’ They protest that they only want to do what’s best for their child, that their choice of school is nobody else’s business – and yet, in providing their child with an educational springboard, they may well be depriving a clever but less privileged child of an opportunity further down the line.

This unfair divide in our education system is on my mind because I’ve spent the last twelve months choosing a secondary school with my elder son. I’ve trudged around open days, questioned diffident adolescents about their favourite lessons and listened to head teachers rehearsing the USPs of their school. Meanwhile my son has dissected frogs, fiddled with Bunsen burners and watched endless re-runs of the school play. If I’m honest, I still can’t be sure which school will suit him best. There are too many imponderables that will affect his day-to-day experience – the class teacher, the cohort, and the development of his personality. All I can do is make an informed choice based on a combination of observations, data and gut feeling. And my decision? A deep breath, followed by a mumbled confession that lays bare my hypocrisy: he’ll be starting at an independent secondary school later this week.

I always thought I wouldn’t do it, while privately thinking less of parents who did. It seemed wrong – it still does – to buy an educational advantage in this way. Of course, there are many ways in which parents use money to boost their children’s chances in life – engaging a private tutor, for example, or moving to the catchment area of a better state school – but paying for private schooling is a decision on a much larger scale. It means that my son will mix almost exclusively with other middle-class kids on a daily basis. It’s almost certain to affect his world view.

Despite all of this, over the last year I’ve come to acknowledge that my child – small, shy and swotty – is likely to be happier and more successful at the school we’ve chosen than at the local secondary. As Year 7 has loomed ever larger on the horizon, my thinking has become more nuanced and my attitude has softened. (How convenient, I hear you say.) Could it be that private schools aren’t entirely populated by the offspring of florid-faced, braying Tories? Is it not possible to come from a privileged background and still be kind, polite and thoughtful?

The presence of an Ofsted-outstanding state primary school on my doorstep – small, nurturing and with a largely middle-class intake – has, until now, made it easy for me to align my actions with my principles. Our local comprehensive is a different proposition. It’s a large school with a broad social mix, where a higher than average proportion of children qualify for pupil premium. In theory, it was exactly the sort of education I wanted for my son, but that was before I visited. At the open day we witnessed several disruptive incidents which, while swiftly dealt with, meant that the teacher’s focus switched from imparting knowledge to crowd control. The main theme of the head teacher’s talk was disadvantaged pupils and lower achievers – rightly so, given the school’s demographic – but there was no mention of the provision for more able children. Against this backdrop, it seemed horribly elitist to ask about the patchy GCSE results. Fortunately, I didn’t have to: somebody else did, and the head’s response was unconvincing.

I’m aware of how this sounds. To express these concerns, even through the medium of a pseudonymous blog, makes me cringe. It immediately sets me up in opposition to parents who have chosen that school for their children (not to mention those who had no choice in the matter). To them, it will no doubt appear that I am criticising their decision in order to justify my own. And yet, how can a large inner-city school be expected to provide an outstanding education for all of its pupils when faced with real-term cuts to its budget? The reality is that it has to set priorities, and many pupils will lose out. Over the past year, some of Bristol’s secondaries have resorted to desperate measures: withdrawing lessons in ‘non-essential’ subjects, such as drama and sport; denying individual support to children with special needs; and pleading for parents to plug the gap in funding. Meanwhile the status of the teaching profession is downgraded while pressure is heaped on teachers, who are expected to do more with less, year on year. It’s profoundly depressing, and it’s not what I want for my son.

Now the autumn term is almost upon us, and it’s time to stop the self-flagellation. The choice is made, and it’s back to school. Although it’s tempting to preface any conversational reference to my elder son’s schooling with a set piece about how I struggled with my decision and am still not fully reconciled to it, this smacks of having it both ways: preserving a sense of myself as an essentially decent person, while reaping the benefits of an elite education for my child. And perhaps there’s more to the decision than I care to acknowledge. I went to a private school myself, and while there was much about it that I professed to hate, I can’t deny that it conferred certain benefits. I’ve come to recognise a perverse aspect of my personality: I’ve never been a joiner and yet I very much want to belong. I’ve always rather liked the security of being part of an institution – be it a school, university or profession – while publicly railing against it. The wood-panelled corridors of my son’s new school already feel familiar, although I’ve only set foot in the building a couple of times; perhaps, in the end, we all revert to type.

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The art of losing

My children are a source of many small frustrations, but the one thing that’s guaranteed to wind me up is their propensity to shed possessions like dead skin cells. Their impetuous nature makes them incapable of pausing to pack their games kit neatly into its drawstring bag, or remembering what they did with their school jumpers. Instead, personal items are discarded and trampled underfoot as they charge off in pursuit of the next big adventure. In the last week alone, they’ve lost a pair of PE shorts, a single astro trainer, two water bottles and a library book between them.

I should know by now that most of it eventually turns up, but still I find it intensely frustrating – and I envy those laid-back parents who don’t fret when things are misplaced. I recently turned down a friend’s offer to drive my children to a football tournament, just so that I could accompany them myself and ensure that they returned with all their clobber. My partner doesn’t understand: ‘One day, you’ll drop dead and lose everything,’ he helpfully points out. This is a man who bellows ‘Have you seen my wallet?’ on a daily basis, and who regularly leaves his iPad on the train. To him, my reaction seems disproportionate and reveals worrying control-freak tendencies. And on a rational level, I agree with him. It’s only stuff:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Nevertheless, it’s my irrational side that dictates my reaction when the boys spray their possessions around. Why am I so bothered by loss? It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Aged four, I went into a period of mourning after leaving my rag doll on the bus. As a teenager on holiday, I’d bring along a list of the items I’d packed and check it every night before bed to make sure nothing had been mislaid. This batty behaviour appears to run in the family: I remember my father stomping through a Bavarian forest, re-tracing his steps in a futile attempt to find his clip-on sunglasses. When they failed to materialise, he descended into a black mood that cast a shadow over the rest of the day.

You’d imagine that the demise of loved ones, actual or anticipated, would make the loss of mere possessions seem insignificant. After my father died, I sat alone beside his coffin and spoke into the empty air about my hopes for my young half-siblings and my infant sons – my dad’s living legacy – and how they would continue in his place. ‘This isn’t the end,’ I insisted, but who was I trying to kid? For him, it was all over – he’d never drive an open-top sports car, buy a flat in Berlin or write a novel. (To be fair, he was far too risk-averse to have done any of those things even if he’d lived, but there was no harm in dreaming.)

It’s hard enough when a parent dies, but to produce children is to be haunted by the fear of loss. What if that rash turns out to be meningitis; that stomach-ache a malignant tumour? How easy it would be for them to step into the road without looking, straight into the path of that idiot speeding in his 4×4. The many sporting activities enjoyed by my sons only seem to increase the chances of disaster: the bone-shattering tackle on the rugby pitch; the sharp crack of a cricket ball to the base of the skull. The knowledge that one small error of judgement could destroy a young life in a millisecond is almost too much to bear. Perhaps that’s why I keep displacing my dread on to trivial everyday losses: after all, the missing goalie gloves, the Star Wars watch and the Lego mini-figure can easily be replaced.

Things I’d ban #1: snacking

Of all the things that make me want to commit murder – and, believe me, there are many – snacking comes near the top of my list. When did adults develop this infantile need to cram Mini Cheddars down their gullets every five minutes? It’s an assault on the senses: the constant crinkling of sweet wrappers in the cinema; the noisy mastication in the train carriage; the synthetic stench of Cheesy Wotsits on the top deck of the bus. Assailed by the intimate sound of all that chomping, squishing, gobbling and gulping, I despair for humanity. Why can’t they all just sit quietly and look out of the window, or focus on the film? Why the constant need to gorge on Pringles and wipe their greasy fingers on the seats, or stuff Maltesers into their horrific, wet, gaping maws?

These days there’s even a supermarket aisle called ‘snacking’, as if it’s a thing that everyone does, like shitting, shagging or sleeping. A quick internet search reveals copious information about the latest market trends in the sweet and savoury snacks industry. And it’s not even real food – just refined sugar and E numbers in bright plastic packets. It’s a huge marketing ploy; a way of getting us to buy more pointless stuff. Am I alone in finding the sector’s carefully formulated marketing terminology repellent? To me, a ‘grab-bag’ sounds greedy and selfish, while the snacking brand Graze calls to mind a herd of lumbering ruminants wrapping slobbery chops around their cud.

Where small children are concerned, I’ll concede that snacks can be handy. An emergency packet of rice cakes isn’t a bad idea with a two-year-old in tow: I’ve experienced at first hand a toddler’s sudden drop in blood sugar and attendant grumpiness. And I’m not the sort of puritanical weirdo who never buys her kids an ice-cream as a treat. What baffles me is that many parents continue to regard snacks as a round-the-clock necessity, even when their offspring have long outgrown the toddler stage. On a recent outing, my friend brought along multiple bumper packs of Skittles and Haribo, and proceeded to distribute them to the children at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day. Not wishing to come across as a censorious snob or provoke filial meltdown, I suppressed my irritation and allowed my sons to dip in. Perhaps she thought I was tight-fisted or disorganised when I failed to produce my own stash of sugary multi-coloured crap.

Of course, not all snacks are of the sugary or salty variety. Nutritionists tell us to eat lots of healthy nibbles throughout the day – satisfy your cravings by gnawing on a nut or a stick of celery, throw in the odd oatcake, and you won’t even need lunch! Just think of all the calories you’ll save! Well, sod that. Snacking all day long – whether on Oreos or olives – may be a way of occupying our jaws while we gawp at a screen, but it deprives us of the pleasant anticipation of coming to the table hungry. It’s a joyless approach to eating, and one that entirely disregards the social aspect of sitting down to dinner, pouring wine and engaging in conversation; of serving food made with passion and generosity; and enjoying ourselves with the people we love.

All about the money

So it’s done. After months – no, years – of procrastination, I’ve made the phone call and fixed an appointment for the end of next week. I’d expected to feel relief as another long-outstanding job is ticked off the list, but instead I’m anticipating my meeting with the financial adviser with about as much enthusiasm as I would a visit from a Rentokil operative or a Macmillan nurse.

My reluctance to think about money is rooted in my childhood. My father was a worrier. He earned an adequate but relatively modest salary as a teacher, and I grew up with the constant parental refrain of ‘We can’t afford it.’ Family outings were sometimes ruined by his anxiety about the cost: on one occasion, he drove from our house in Manchester to Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire, only to balk at the price of a ticket, turn around at the entrance and head back home, stopping briefly at a lay-by outside Leek for a digestive biscuit and a flask of greasy tea. It’s been liberating to distance myself from that. While I have vetoed some requests from my own children (an Xbox, a mobile phone), I have rarely done so on the ground of cost.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the unedifying spectacle of certain acquaintances – all of them highly paid professionals – taking on extra locum and freelance work in order to feed their pension pots and service their buy-to-let mortgages, while relying on friends and grandparents to look after their children at short notice. If that sounds judgmental, it’s because I am judging. These are the same people who never have change to cover the taxi fare into town, and who plead poverty in restaurants, sucking all the joy out of life. They make me want to chuck money around, to splurge it on the Kobe beef and a bottle of the best Bordeaux, just to show them up for their meanness.

Until recently, the need to make provision for my retirement seemed entirely theoretical. No-one on my dad’s side of the family makes it beyond their sixties: why save for a future that seems unlikely to materialise? I’m assisted by my hypochondria: the fact that I interpret every twinge as multiple sclerosis and every freckle as a malignant melanoma means that I don’t expect to survive for long enough to draw my paltry private pension. Living with me is like being subjected to an endless re-run of the brain tumour scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. It must be exhausting.

But what if I don’t die early? I’m becoming increasingly aware of the need to address the dire financial situation in which I’m likely to find myself if, against all the odds, I reach old age. And I know what the financial adviser is going to tell me: it’s time to grow up. When I try to picture our meeting, I see a dramatisation of Eric Berne’s book Games People Play. Our conversation will run along the lines of the mind-game known as ‘Why don’t you – yes but’, in which character A makes a series of well-intentioned and sensible suggestions, only to be met with a string of objections from character B:

A: Set aside some savings every month.

B: I would sooner spend my spare cash on eating out, red wine, smelly cheese from the farmers’ market and supervised sporting activities for the children that knacker them out and absolve me of any obligation to engage meaningfully with them, thereby freeing up more spare time for me to carouse.

A: Pay more money into your pension.

B: I am inherently suspicious of pension fund managers, who already relieve me of a large portion of my monthly income, appropriate a hefty percentage for sitting around on their arses, and cannot tell me what – if anything – I will get at the end of it.

A: Review your tax liability.

B: Taxes pay for schools, the NHS, state benefits and social housing. They are a good thing. People should pay more taxes and do it with joy in their hearts; they shouldn’t seek to exploit barely legal loopholes in order to minimise their liability.

A: Get married.

B: After twenty years’ cohabitation and two children, this is a ridiculous suggestion. Neither of us is capable of the sincerity or emotional engagement required to meet each other’s gaze and declare ‘I do’ – and, besides, I’m secretly afraid that a wedding would upset the increasingly fragile equilibrium of our dysfunctional partnership. It would simply be a means of taking advantage of various tax breaks (as to which, see above).

A: Make a will.

B: Yes, but that would entail naming guardians for the children, a matter about which we have repeatedly failed to reach agreement. Most of our friends are inherently unsuitable. In any case, who would thrill at the prospect of taking in one boy who keeps a stash of dried bogeys on his bedside cabinet, and another who insists that every car journey is accompanied by Justin Bieber’s Sorry on an endless loop?

So I think it’s fair to say that my meeting with the financial adviser isn’t likely to go well. It taps into too many anxieties and prejudices. I know I should be planning for my future and yet I feel resistant; I don’t want to become the sort of person who concerns herself with hoarding money at the expense of fun and friendship. Besides, the need to save for a time when I may be frail and unable to work reminds me of my own mortality, and I’d rather not contemplate that. I can only prepare myself for the appointment by calling to mind Woody Allen’s line: ‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’

The magic word

When my elder son was a toddler, I spent a lot of time policing his manners. I thought I’d cracked it years ago, with my constant refrain of ‘What do you say?’ and my upbeat exhortations to remember the P-word. Fast-forward a decade, and he seems to have regressed. Head ducked, grunting and mumbling as he shovels food into his mouth in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, he apparently finds it more comfortable to be perceived as rude and entitled than to lift his head and say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to an adult. It’s infuriating. Is he just ungrateful, or is there more to it?

I’m beginning to realise that, for a boy approaching adolescence, it requires a certain self-assurance to look an adult in the eye and express gratitude (let alone initiate a conversation). Charm opens doors, which is why it’s taught at public schools; its absence in a child shouldn’t necessarily be equated with rudeness. When I was eleven or twelve, I was under strict parental instructions to seek out my friend’s mother whenever I’d been round at her house and say, ‘Thank you for having me, Mrs Martin.’ I still remember the accompanying flush of shame: it was excruciating. But it wasn’t as bad as the time when a close friend of my parents insisted that I address him by his first name. I was so mortified that I ended up calling him nothing at all until I was about thirty. No doubt I came across as rude and sullen, but inside I was dying of embarrassment.

My real problem with my son’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it reflects badly on me as a mother. Consider the way we encourage small children to parrot the word ‘sorry’. Some toddlers can sign it before they can even speak. But ‘sorry’ isn’t really about teaching our children kindness or morality: often, it’s about our desire to save face in front of other parents. Whatever the misdemeanour – from bashing a child over the head with a building block at playgroup, to biting him on the leg in the sandpit – small children learn that a swift apology gets them off the hook. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Better to remove the perpetrator from the scene and get her to reflect on her behaviour. If that doesn’t result in a heartfelt ‘sorry’ – because the victim has wandered off, or the moment has passed – then so be it. Other parents may tut their disapproval, but our child will have learnt a lesson and be less likely to do it again.

Like that sing-song ‘sorr-ee’ at toddler group, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are usually said reflexively, without real feeling. More often than not, they’re a matter of social convention rather than a genuine measure of our consideration and gratitude. So, just for the record: my gauche pre-teen greatly appreciates the many dinners, outings and sleepovers arranged for him by family and friends. It’s just that, at the moment, he finds it difficult to express that verbally – for the same reason that he flushes when approaching the supermarket check-out, or mumbles incoherently when asked to read out a poem in class. He knows he’s lucky to have these treats, and no doubt I’ll continue to badger him if the magic word doesn’t trip off his lips. For the time being, though, I refuse to judge him for its absence.

What’s underneath?

I’m a sucker for horror films and their standard tropes – the car that won’t start; the killer in the back seat; the group of friends who decide it’s a good plan to split up in the haunted wood. For me, though, the most successful examples of the genre involve an element of psychological terror, preying on our darkest fears and revealing the madness and violence that lie beneath an apparently ordinary suburban existence.

One of my favourite horror films of recent years is The Babadook. A widowed mother, Amelia, is raising her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel, whose behavioural problems lead to his being pulled out of school and breaking his cousin’s nose when he pushes her from a tree-house. At first his brattish whingeing grates, while Amelia’s drippyness irritates. For God’s sake, why doesn’t she just take the home-made crossbow away instead of trying to reason with him?

Then Sam comes across a mysterious rhyming pop-up book, Mister Babadook, in which a grotesque figure in a cloak and top hat – a cross between Struwwelpeter and Freddy Krueger – terrorises its victims. The Babadook is crudely drawn in charcoal, with a white face, dark silhouette and claw-like fingers. ‘If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look/You can’t get rid of the Babadook.’ Soon enough, the mythical figure comes to life and begins to stalk mother and son: ‘A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks/Ba BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!’ as the demon announces its presence.

Sam’s tantrums and night terrors escalate, while Amelia’s growing sense of desperation is compounded by the immaculate friends who close ranks and distance themselves from the problem child and his dysfunctional mother. Amelia’s sister tells her to get back into writing but, significantly, makes no offer of childcare, while the others talk about their charity work and complain that they no longer have time to go to the gym.

As Amelia’s mental state deteriorates, strange noises fill the house and imaginary bugs crawl out of a crack behind the fridge. (I’m reminded of my own post-partum hallucinations brought on by pethidine and sleep deprivation, when the wallpaper seethed and pulsed like a bad acid trip and the hum of the hospital air-conditioning system became a disembodied lament.) What follows is a terrifying portrayal of a mother’s psychosis and descent into insanity, reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, as the Babadook possesses Amelia and places Sam’s life in grave danger.

The Babadook is more than a demon conjured up by the febrile imagination of a small child, or a symbol of the grief that stalks a bereaved family. It’s also a representation of the terrible power that a parent wields and must never misuse. Here lie our deepest, unspoken impulses; the darkness at the heart of the family. One of the most chilling scenes is when Sam wanders into his mother’s bedroom complaining of hunger and Amelia, half-crazed, lifts her head from the pillow and snarls, ‘If you’re that hungry why don’t you go and eat shit.’ On a really bad day, faced with a small child’s relentless demands, some parents might momentarily relate to this poisonous outburst. In the words of Mister Babadook: ‘Once you see what’s underneath/You’re going to wish you were dead.’

Perhaps the truth is that we need there to be mothers like Amelia. Anyone who has ever bellowed at a child, or delivered a slap in the heat of the moment, needs to feel that there are worse parents and more heinous acts. Like Amelia’s circle of supposed friends, we love to judge others from a distance: the mother in the stained shirt who rages ineffectually at her children in the playground and seems always to be on the verge of tears; the woman with the orange spray-tan who parks on the zigzags and dispatches her grubby five-year-old for a hastily-arranged sleepover on a school night. Of course, this isn’t transgression on the same scale as Amelia’s, but these characters still fascinate us and attract our censure. We use them to preserve and bolster our self-image; we rarely acquaint ourselves with the facts or offer practical assistance. To do so would involve recognising that we aren’t so dissimilar.

By the end of the film, the Babadook has mutated from an evil force possessing the mother to an external reality, acknowledged by her but placated and confined to the cellar (that other classic horror-film trope). Like Amelia, most of us succeed in taming our Babadook and keeping it safely under lock and key. The real horror of the film, and the reason why it disturbs and resonates, is the realisation that it might take only a few small tweaks to our circumstances – bereavement, a difficult child, an absence of social networks – to unleash the demon.

Different class

Often it’s the smallest things that catch us off guard, stirring up old memories and reminding us of our former selves. A childhood friend from Manchester – let’s call her Brenda – telephones one evening to arrange a visit. Pleased to hear from her, but reluctant to chat while my food goes cold, I say that I’m about to have dinner and will call her back in half an hour. ‘Speak to you later – enjoy your tea,’ she replies.

Tea?

A moment of bemusement, followed by a flash of recognition. When we were growing up, tea came out of the freezer and was served at six o’clock. Dry, beige and encrusted in breadcrumbs, it was generally followed by a ‘sweet’ of Angel Delight and Del Monte fruit salad sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Sometimes, on special occasions, there was a ready-made meringue topped with tinned peaches, the casing soggy from the syrup.

Although I look back on my seventies childhood with nostalgia, I’ve moved up in the world. Dinner at my friends’ houses is rarely served before eight and is invariably followed by pudding – even if pudding turns out to be a piece of fruit. It mustn’t be referred to as a meal – meal is for the chickens. The cruet was banished long ago; serviettes have transformed into paper napkins; and at the end of the evening everyone retires to the sitting room (only hotels have lounges) to sip brandy on the sofa (never the settee).

I exaggerate, of course, but I know of people like this. Language is very telling, and it’s no coincidence that these examples all relate to the domestic sphere: the intimate, mundane details of our everyday lives hold the key to our social standing. Coyly asking for directions to the toilet instead of the loo, or sitting out on the patio as opposed to the terrace, instantly locates a person in terms of their background and aspirations, assigning them (for those who care about such distinctions) to the non-U category.

There’s something very British about this need to place a person within a few seconds of meeting them, but Brenda is unusual in that she defies most attempts at categorisation. Unlike the rest of our group of friends, she didn’t head south after her A-levels. She stayed put, went to Manchester University and raised her family a few miles down the road from the modest semi where she grew up. Although her job involves international travel, she retains a fierce loyalty to her home town and a healthy disregard for what she regards as southern pretensions.

It’s all too easy to poke fun at the blunders and faux gentility of those who call their houses ‘homes’ and insist on saying ‘pardon?’ instead of ‘what?’. I’ve long suspected that Brenda chooses her vocabulary carefully to confound expectations and show that she’s immune to such criticism. When she referred to my ‘tea’, was she making a gentle gibe, designed to remind me of where I’m from and what I’ve left behind?

Whatever her intention, I hope Brenda realises that my apparent social mobility is the thinnest of veneers. Substituting ‘dinner’ for ‘tea’ was an early concession to the sensibilities of my smart new friends but ‘supper’ is still a step too far. For me, it will always be a slice of Lancashire cheese on a Jacob’s cream cracker, swilled down with a glass of warm milk just before bedtime.