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Posts from the ‘Human Interest’ Category

My top tip for lifelong success: get plenty of rest

imageI enjoy reading a ‘self-help’or professional coaching book as much as the next person. Being self-employed for the last few years means that using such resources is pretty much obligatory.

But I always feel there is an important element missing from their advice. Of course, no one ever became a successful business person/entrepreneur, sports star or philanthropist by lounging about all day. However, those people who are motivated enough to read these guides and move up through the ranks in organisations, or set up their own businesses, I suspect, tend to be quite obsessive-compulsive about work to start with. As such, the advice given should take this into account.

I make this generalisation based purely on personal experience. I have published eighteen books in five years, alongside being a full-time mum. I also run numerous social media sites and write blogs to complement the book publishing. To achieve this level of output, there’s no doubt you have to be a tad obsessive about the work process. I don’t tend to observe weekends or holidays as any barrier to running my business.

Having said this, I have learnt the hard way, the importance of incorporating plenty of rest time into the working day. Five years ago, I suffered a bout of physical and nervous exhaustion that was debilitating and horrible. I still feel the effects of it now. So, I am careful about not allowing my compulsive nature to drag me down that road again.

I must stress that it isn’t often easy to put the brakes on. But I now ensure I take regular rest breaks and even naps, if necessary. For a relatively young woman who is used to being fit and active, this often makes me feel lazy, and like a bad role model to my children. In my youth, I used to loathe lying down during the day, I would certainly not have been able to actually sleep. But life has a way of wearing you down. Sleepless nights with babies and young children, jobs which put you under continual pressure and place you in situations that cause nervous anxiety. Additional events such as moving house or jobs, illnesses within the family, can heap on even greater burdens.

Over the years, these pressures build up, especially when holidays with young children are harder work than being at home and there are fewer opportunities to properly re-charge the batteries. The fatigue creeps up on you. Most of us don’t notice the warning signs.

Please take the advice of someone who has temporarily slipped over that edge. You cannot maintain lifelong success without plenty of rest. Reading, watching TV and surfing the web are enjoyable leisure activities, but they aren’t necessarily restful. Sleep is crucial, as is time spent alone, without interruption. These things are harder to enshrine within the working day than you might imagine, but they are essential.

Don’t feel guilty about taking the rest needed to maintain good health. It’s a non-negotiable. Your creativity and productivity will benefit, but most importantly, you will be able to manage the long haul. We are bombarded with images of people being extremely active on social media. I’m going to counter this today by attaching an image of someone doing absolutely nothing, which is just as necessary for our professional and personal wellbeing.

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Is it time to re-examine our attitude to the weather?

imageLike the vast majority of the U.K. this week, my schedule has been disrupted by the unusually cold weather and resultant snow. My daughter is still at home with me, as her secondary school is closed for the third day, whilst my son has returned to his local primary (in the same town).

I know that the headmaster of the secondary school will be subjected to criticism for his decision. But in my opinion, his judgment has been correct. The school has a largely rural catchment area, covering tens of miles. Country roads are impassable to the school buses and the large site itself covered in ice and snow.

Despite the severe and unpredictable nature of the weather this week, I feel there is a strong majority opinion in the country that we must be able to carry on exactly as normal. This means that schools and clubs should continue and the roads made passable by the local council and landowners.

But with public sector budgets cut to the bone and the nature of the weather system unprecedented in its longevity and persistence, I’m not sure we have the right to make this assumption any longer. I work from home as an independent novelist, so you may argue that I am immune to the worst effects of the deterioration of the climate and therefore don’t have a right to judge.

But if these freak weather phenomenon keep happening, we are all set to suffer. Power and food supplies will be disrupted if transport grinds to a halt. So, is it time for a re-think to our approach? I work in the digital world and it feels to me as if some of the answers must lie in a better use of new technology.

Schools (who are not required to provide childcare for parents) could easily devise an online curriculum to be accessed on ‘snow days’. Teachers can be available to answer questions during allotted ‘lessons’. Many businesses could adopt a similar practice with their administrative staff. Meetings could be conducted through Skype.

This would remove a huge pressure from the road systems. Emergency services and police could focus on getting essential goods around the country, rather than digging lone drivers out of drifts. It would also be safer for the workforce and their children.

I can sense that many folk would be uncomfortable with this solution. Perhaps imagining that they would be left entertaining their children at home for weeks on end. But this is not how these bad weather snaps tend to work out. We would be looking at a week, max. In some parts of the USA, these lost days are added onto the end of the summer term or in September, which could be another option for us.

It has to be better than the uncertainty and risk-taking which currently accompanies bad weather. I have seen much being made on social media about how overcoming the awful conditions is a sign of ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’, yet too often this undefinable concept gets confused with irresponsibility and inflicting unnecessary hardship on yourself and others.

Five years ago, I suffered a nervous and physical illness brought on by overwork and stress. I’ve always been a healthy, ‘resilient’ person who turns up for every appointment and never took a sick day off work in ten years. Until I collapsed with an exhaustion I didn’t even fully know I was suffering from! So when I hear about staff being required to undergo an ordeal to overcome the bad conditions and getting praised for their resilience, it makes me sad.

Everyday life is often already tough enough for most people. It is a misplaced idea of strength to try and battle against a weather event. We need to encourage a shift in perspective that reflects a more respectful appreciation of our environment. If we step off the conveyor belt for a few days, our world will not collapse in on us. In fact, we may be buying ourselves an extra few years of productivity down the line.

I am much better now and still work hard (as I did throughout my illness) But a legacy of tiredness remains. I know my limits and have to stick to them. I will be setting out into the cold wind and snow later to pick up my son. The effort will exhaust me for the remainder of the day. I am certainly not the only person who will have had this experience. It doesn’t make us weak or without value to society.

In fact, I always think there is an old-fashioned machismo to the claims I see on social media from headteachers who proudly announce their school is the only one staying open in the area. That they’ve  been out since dawn scraping the paths. These managers need to put aside their desire to meet and complete a personal challenge to consider the wider picture. Should they be encouraging their staff and parents to take to the roads? Is it of benefit to the local area? To the students?

It will undoubtedly take a long time for attitudes to change and it will have to come from employers and headteachers. They need to look beyond their individual institution or company, viewing themselves as part of a wider network. Perhaps the only way to ‘overcome’ these weather events is to accept their power over us and recognise that we will need to adapt to accommodate them as part of our lives.

 

 

Are they playing?

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As we reach the end of another school holiday, I think I’ve had a revelation about my kids.

They’ve had a great week. A couple of play dates and a mini break by the seaside with Gran and Grandad. Neither had much homework to blight their enjoyment and there was still time to play with the puppy. But my perennial niggling concerns about their play habits still lingered on.

I suppose I’m not the only parent to feel their children spend too long on their devices. It’s become pretty much a cliche to yell at them every half hour to turn off the phone/Kindle Fire/X-box. I even spent some time surreptitiously observing what my daughter and her friend got up to during a recent play date at our house.

I found myself inwardly lamenting,’do they actually play??’. I saw them watch a film, show each other stuff on their phones and chat about school/pets. I didn’t expect them to get the soft toys out and re-create a teddy bear’s picnic, or even dip into the bag of barbies. But I couldn’t help recalling the imagination games I used to play at their age. Our dolls and teddies were puritans or royalists during the civil war. When the weather was good, the garden became a stage-set, where we could enjoy a world of endless imaginary possibilities.

Then the realisation struck me. They are playing. It’s just the platform upon which these imaginative endeavours are constructed has changed. I knew then that I had judged these young people too harshly. They had spent an hour on Minecraft, comparing the complex worlds and characters they’d both created.

I’m overjoyed when my son and daughter play Lego games together, because that’s what I did as a child. Therefore, I consider it proper ‘play’. There’s something very tunnel-visioned about this attitude. When my son is building his Sim City or winning his Forza races in order to buy new cars for his virtual garage, that is play for him. Much as previous generations’ idea of play was to be kicking a ball around outside, rather than building Lego or dressing Barbie dolls in a centrally heated bedroom. The concept of ‘normal’ child play is clearly partly a social construct and based upon the resources available to us.

Times change. Where I was forced to create an imaginary world from fairly limited props and materials, modern technologies mean those worlds can be formulated in a far more visual and stimulating way. No wonder our children want to play there. It’s pretty fantastic to be honest.

So I’ve decided to be less judgemental. My childhood experience wasn’t necessarily the perfect one. My daughter created a treasure hunt on Minecraft this morning for her brother. This concept amazes me. I couldn’t do it. And who is to say that because the game is virtual, it is inferior to a treasure hunt around the house and garden? Apart from the opportunity to get some fresh air, I not sure that it is. And as a parent, it’s our job to make sure the kids get out and about on trips anyway. That isn’t really their responsibility.

During the Easter break I’m going to chill. The kids have their own way of playing, occasionally it overlaps with my memories of what it means, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. As long as we keep an eye on the potential dangers and are ensuring balance, I think that’s absolutely fine.

 

Middle class sport as an exalted gift to the masses is a sentimental myth.

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Watching ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King on the Daily Politics today made me sigh. I respect King highly as a financial expert and believe he steered the country very competently through the storm of the recession. However, this is where his expertise should have remained.

King’s latest project is to introduce the sport of cricket to all state schools. Of course, many state schools already offer cricket as part of their sport curriculum, but in the case of this particular project, the focus seemed to be on inner city schools; institutions without perhaps the grounds and space available to offer a full range of sporting activities to pupils.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sport in schools. It is great for  pupils’ physical and mental health, team-building etc. But what I object to is the eulogising rhetoric surrounding certain public school favourites, like rugby and cricket. It was obvious that Mervyn King had lovely memories of playing cricket at his own private school and has gone on to be a lifelong fan of the professional game. However, the skills and qualities he claims the sport nurtures in its players could be happily attributed to just about every other team sport you’d care to mention. His love of the game is clearly deeply personal and heartfelt but hardly more than sentimental conjecture.

I did not play cricket at school. My large Essex comprehensive specialised in football and rugby, both of which the pupils still play fixtures in alongside local private and state institutions. I played hockey and netball. Both perfectly enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, but I would never claim the experience furnished me with characteristics which aided me in my future relationships or career, and I consider myself reasonably successful in both. Quite the contrary, my skills set was learnt in the classroom and at home. The suggestion that those who spent their youth on the cricket pitch or rugby field have somehow greater resilience, care for others or leadership skills than I myself possess makes me cross and in my personal experience is also quite wrong.

The misunderstanding inherent in the view of Mervyn King and his ilk, is that the state model nowadays robs the majority of children of the undisputed benefits of these more traditional sports. In reality, the state system has already moved ahead. My first experience of cricket was seeing a young classmate in primary school being carried away on a stretcher after being hit full in the face by a hard cricket ball. I’ll always remember the profusion of blood that spurted out of his shattered nose.

My daughter plays soft ball cricket with my husband, who is a fanatical fan of the game. She has a great deal of aptitude for bowling. But it would never cross either of our minds for her to join a club that uses a hard cricket ball. In this day and age, as parents, we simply don’t expose our children to unnecessary risks. We haven’t really done so as a wider society since the early eighties.

What King appeared to have failed to realise, is that state schools have introduced a raft of new sports over the last decade; such as dodgeball, tag rugby and kick rounders in primary schools particularly, which children highly enjoy and minimises the scientifically documented risks from repeated head injury, which doctors are only just beginning to fully understand.

In short, we shouldn’t have any part of our schools’ curriculum dictated by the sentimental reminiscences of retired men, who are harking back to the imagined golden days of their privileged childhoods. This approach would be deeply unscientific, based on anecdote and poorly recalled nostalgia which would have the result of stifling the development of new, exciting and more risk free sports that achieve the same results without endangering our children unnecessarily.

State schools are there to promote the greater good. They need to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few whilst embracing their individualities and catering for all. They are quick to change with the times when medical and scientific evidence is overwhelming. This ethos is the legacy that my schooldays gave to me. In a few years from now, schools within the remit of the local authority will have universally adopted a sporting curriculum that has evolved away from the use of practices which routinely expose a child to injury. Because children don’t really have a choice about the clubs they attend as pre-teens or the prep schools their parents send them to. It is a culture introduced to them from birth. It’s all about what their siblings and peers are doing. How can an eight or nine year old defer? And what mummy and daddy did as a child isn’t always what’s best for our future generations, let alone gran or grandad.

Maybe I should try and instil the progressive spirit my comprehensive school gave to me into some of our more elite institutions, like Mervyn King has set out to do? Well, of course I wouldn’t, because that would be deeply patronising and superior of me. So why do our inner city comprehensives have to put up with it?

My advice would be to return to the area that is your expertise, Mervyn, and leave education to those who properly understand it and have a less sentimental perspective.

 

For all those with a partner who works at the weekend

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There are plenty of us, although down at the local park on a sunny Saturday morning it might not feel like it’s the case. I see Dads everywhere, giving their wives a lie-in whilst they take the kids out to run off some steam, enjoying precious family time denied them by a busy week at work.
But for those of us who are the primary carer of the children and have a spouse who works one or maybe both days of the weekend, it can be tough. Particularly when the kids are small. My husband works on a Saturday and has done since our daughter was a toddler. I am very fortunate to have my parents living close by and when my son was a baby this help was absolutely essential.
I recall a conversation I had with a fellow mum, who had brought up her three children when her husband, a former colleague of myself and my other half, had worked saturdays. She recounted how difficult the children could be on that day, instinctively knowing you were without backup and cut adrift from the usual structures provided by the working and school week. Their house was often in turmoil – toys and mess everywhere – when her husband finally returned in the evening, exhausted himself.
Having spent so long in the economic recession we have learnt to accept the hardships of our working lives, grateful for employment and emphasising the positives in our jobs over the negatives. But if there was anything I could change about our lives it would be this aspect. Not so much for my benefit anymore but for my husband’s. Weekends are the time when Dads get to interact with their family at a more leisurely rate. With 12 hours lost, the homework and chores tend to dominate instead.
As the children get older, it gets easier. No longer does that Saturday seem to stretch out endlessly ahead of you from the moment when you’re first woken up by a lively offspring at the crack of dawn. There are still issues, however. When both of the children are invited to a party or play date you are immediately unsure of how to get them to the right place at the right time single handed. I call upon my parents for help, but I do wonder how others cope.
The reason that I was prompted to write about the subject on this Saturday morning, is that I was reminded of one of the positive legacies of my solo starts to the weekend. Ever since my daughter was tiny, we have always embarked on some kind of creative project to begin the day. This tradition appears to have embedded itself into the culture of our Saturday, long after the requirement to fill an interminable day has dissipated.
Whether it is completing a Lego set or painting a picture, Saturday a.m. is the time we do it. The habit has been firmly instilled. I think this is a lovely tradition but entirely unintentional!
During every weekend now, I do spare a thought for other families in the same boat. Without a doubt it’s hard, but a necessity and one out of which some unexpectedly pleasant habits can grow.

The Joy of Unwrapping.

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They say that each new generation is different. I’m certain it’s true. But I still expect my children to be just like me. In many respects they are; from the avid reading and telly watching to the mild suspicion of group sports. There are, however, certain new interests and preoccupations my offspring have latched onto that I can’t quite connect with. The attraction of observing other people unwrap parcels is one of them.
My son gets enormous pleasure from watching these little films uploaded to YouTube of Dads and their children unwrapping Lego. What’s the fascination? I’ve got no idea.
I can understand the pleasure derived from unwrapping or unboxing your own birthday or Christmas presents. In fact, this very weekend, I indulged in one of my favourite of all little pastimes – receiving and opening the package which contains the paperback version of my new book. In the writing and publishing world, nothing quite beats it.
But watching someone else demolishing a pile of pressies, I just don’t understand. So I asked my youngest why he enjoys it so much. He told me it’s because he wants to see what’s inside (yes, I asked for that) and to discover if it will turn out to be a set he already has or something new that he may want in the future. Occasionally, they go on to construct the set and he can compare their building methods with his own.
Okay, so I’m starting to appreciate the purpose of the exercise. The opening of the package builds the suspense, like turning over the early pages of a novel, skimming through the publisher’s info and acknowledgments. The anticipation is being established for the main event, when we begin Chapter 1 itself.
This type of activity is also indicative of the visual nature of young people’s lives these days. The digital world is an aesthetic one; where arresting images and fast-moving videos accompany almost every word that’s written. I would stop short at suggesting it is voyeuristic, because I suspect this view is old fashioned. I find it a bit weird and unsettling because it is new to me. But then so is Skype and Facetime.
There are crucial aspects of young people’s lives that are very different from the way ours were. Although getting a chance to watch people just like us around the world doing the exact same things that we do is perhaps not such a bad thing. It shows that there is so much more that unites humanity than divides us – a very important belief to cling on to at this particularly unstable period of time for many parts of the planet.
So I’m keeping an open mind. There is certainly stuff that my son should not be watching through the world wide web, but the innocent and simple joys of unwrapping a parcel, surely a universal human pleasure, probably isn’t one of them.

What they really had for breakfast and other little horrors our children love to reveal…

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An article in The Telegraph today reminded me of an embarrassing incident that occurred a couple of weeks ago. The piece was a frighteningly accurate account of the chaotic reality of most people’s early morning routine. It put me in mind of when my mother-in-law visited on a Sunday afternoon recently, innocently enquiringly of my daughter what she’d had for breakfast, to which my first born happily replied, ‘dry roasted peanuts’.

There followed a full five minutes of me trying to explain that this hadn’t been breakfast at all but an ill-judged and totally unsanctioned mid morning snack. It sounded weak, although it was pretty much the truth. Our son is a great one for eating in the morning and will have whatever we care to serve him. Shona, on the other hand, doesn’t have an enormous appetite before 11am. Despite being offered a selection of breakfast options that a five star restaurant would be proud of, she often refuses them all, waiting for a couple of hours before feeling the desire for sustenance of any kind. By which time she might graze the cupboards largely unnoticed.

So I began to consider all those awkward situations where our children, in their eternal innocence, reveal our worst habits and cock-ups to the world. Naturally censorious as the pre teens tend to be; hang-overs and lie-ins appear to rate very highly in the long list of crimes that our offspring feel the need to tell their teachers and friends about, usually first thing on a Monday morning.

Swearing, passing wind or topping up a glass of wine are also on that list, along with large underwear and the existence of/methods employed for the removal of, any kind of body hair. Nobody fully warns you about this hazard when you embark upon parenthood.

No aspect of your life will pass without comment or judgement once the little darlings first become capable of speech. Most of the time, we will find this honesty refreshing and adorable. But just occasionally, when our youngest decides to announce to all present that they’ve not brushed their teeth for a week, or eaten a piece of fruit since June, we gaze at our shoes, wishing the ground would swallow us up, desperate to explain that this is Timmy’s idea of a joke but knowing  that there’s really no point.

Now it’s been said, no one is ever going to believe it’s not true…

Has our understanding of courage been highjacked?

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When on a trip to London yesterday, my husband and son took a tour up the Orbit tower, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I’m not a great one for heights so my daughter and I ducked into a nearby cafe to await their return. After settling at our table with the drinks, my daughter began indulging in some soul searching. Apparently, they’d had an assembly the week before about ‘courage’. She lamented how she should really have possessed the courage to climb the tower and clearly felt it a personal failure to have ‘wimped out’.

This got me thinking. I immediately told Shona that courage didn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did to the teacher leading the assembly. She agreed, suggesting  that abseiling off a building might constitute courage to one person and stupidity to another. It has certainly  become fashionable in recent years to encourage youngsters to take part in high adrenaline activities, viewing them as ‘character building’. Indeed, my daughter will be going on her year six residential trip in May, which is an adventure holiday including a ‘leap of faith’ on the final day.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. The kids will love it, just as I enjoyed riding roller coasters and diving from high boards when I was a teenager. But where I become uneasy, is in the redefining of thrill seeking, adrenaline pumping acts as synonymous with courage. Fearlessness is only one aspect of the OED definition of being courageous. It is also about having fortitude, being brave and gallant, even heroic. To me, a courageous act is to stand up for what you believe in even if all those around you disagree. To stick up for someone who is being bullied at the risk of a backlash against yourself is courageous. To make the trip to a war zone in order to provide medical care or assistance to those caught up in the violence  is courageous.

When I hear about those individuals who seek greater and greater artificial thrills by walking tightropes between tall buildings or climbing rock faces without support ropes, I always wonder how those who live with real difficulties view this strange occupation; those who trek for hundreds of miles and embark upon dangerous sea voyages to escape torture and persecution with their young families must marvel at why people would actually seek the stress that those dreadful  situations bring.

The answer, I suspect, is that ordinary life bores some people . They’ve sought out every available activity to stimulate the endorphins and have become addicted to the buzz. This isn’t what courage means to me and I wish we would stop telling our children that it’s what they should aspire to. Courage is the ability to recognise the true value in what we have before us right now. It might take more courage to stand still and face our responsibilities than to rush off in search of the next big thing.

So, I had no intention of forcing my daughter to go to the top of that tower – to face and overcome her fear. Because we all have a different interpretation of being brave. For some people, travelling any distance away from their home requires a courage that others may not fully  appreciate. Who am I to judge what another individual’s capacity for stoicism might be. I’d rather my daughter stood up for her friends when it mattered most and was a person who put their head above the parapet at work to point out an injustice. Because that is what true courage means to me and it is possible to achieve it on either  a small or a large scale.

Calling occupants of a 1970s birth date.

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Several things this week have reminded me of my late 70s/early 80s childhood. On Monday evening’s University Challenge, one of the teams completely failed to identify ABBA’s ‘When All Is Said And Done’ in the music round. And why on earth should they? The song is from the album ‘The Visitors’ and was released in 1981, long before any of those students were born.
Being a baby of the 1970s, I recognised it, and was humming the tune for the next couple of days. It reminded me of long car journeys from the south east of England to Scotland, where my parents grew up and my Gran still lived. This was before the M25 was built and it took us three hours to even get past London. My sister and I were too young for the Sony Walkman, which certainly played a significant part in my life later on. During this particular era of the family car journey, we were all listening to the tape player and it was ABBA and The Carpenters who reigned supreme.
We must have thoroughly worn out those poor cassettes. We appeared to play the same selection of three or four albums over and over again. Each recorded from their crackly vinyl original, of course. And there was singing. Oh yes. Loud singing.
We had some particular favourites; ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ by The Carpenters was one. In fact, the song is being used in the trailers for the CBeebies channel, currently running on BBC1. It was another thing I heard this week that got me reminiscing.
In this age of Youtube and iTunes, it’s very easy to track down the songs of our childhood. In a way, it brings the past closer to us than it’s ever been. Until the last few years, I probably hadn’t heard any of these tunes for decades. They were a dimly recalled set of notes or a lyric here and there. Now, I can properly revel in every one of them. ‘It’s Yesterday Once More’, as The Carpenters would say.
I’ve got a birthday coming up too. Which is undoubtedly another reason for my nostalgia.
Whatever the trigger, I really want to warble out some ABBA songs in the back seat of a car – preferably one without upholstered seats and rear belts and certainly without an iPod dock or Bluetooth connection.
Just once, you understand. Simply to remember what it was like. Then, I’ll happily come back to the present day, where everything is in reality so much better than it was, but perhaps that communal sharing of music isn’t quite what it used to be.

Are we correct to set so much store by dressing ‘smartly’?

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So, despite being a world championship winner, Lewis Hamilton was refused entry to the royal box at Wimbledon for being too casually dressed. Gary Lineker described the action as ”England at its pompous worst”.
I’m inclined to agree, although the debacle did make me smile a little. My son and daughter will be required to wear ties as part of their primary school uniform come September. I’ll be buying them this week.
I suppose we’ve been lucky to avoid it for so long. But it’s going to be a wrench, especially after a lengthy summer break spent in nothing but t-shirts and swimsuits. My two children object even to the feel of the soft collar of a rugby top beneath their jumpers, let alone a stiff shirt with clip-on tie.
My offspring do not attend a private school, where such formality is more or less obligatory. But there is a new Headmaster at their state primary. He’s keen to place his mark on the institution and inculcate positive behaviour and habits amongst the pupils. Needless to say, the children already possess these characteristics. However, in these days of healthy competition and the need for strong social media profiles, the children’s good habits have to be more visible and obvious to the outside world.
I’m not a total liberal when it comes to this kind of thing. I like school uniforms because they remove the danger of children being viewed purely in terms of what clothing their parents can afford to buy for them. It creates a level playing field. My view, though, is that a less formal get-up is preferable. Sticking to burgundy tops and grey bottoms has worked very well for us up to now. If children are comfortable, warm and relaxed, they will learn better, is my humble view.
I wore no uniform in my own primary school. We weren’t required to wear uniform in the sixth form of my secondary school either. This practice would be unheard of in the modern day, but I loved it. When studying for ‘A’ Levels, when most of us had Saturday jobs and a bit of spare cash, we could express ourselves through our choice of clothing. This freedom of expression went hand-in-hand with choosing our own paths in life. We weren’t little school kids any more, forced to conform.
It surely couldn’t have done me any harm, could it? Clearly it has not, but I suspect that having been used to a relaxed dress code has perhaps made the concept of ‘power dressing’ one that I cannot seriously adhere to in adulthood. When I see the women on The Apprentice, tottering about in high heels and pencil skirts, in the assumption that this makes them perceived as better businesswomen it makes me inwardly sigh. In most modern industries, we are judged on our performance, not our dress code. I have been either a teacher or a writer for the majority of my career, neither jobs requiring super-smart outfits to be worn on a regular basis (although that doesn’t stop some people, I can assure you).
My husband has often complained that women have more flexibility in their choice of clothing than men. He always has to wear a suit and tie, even in the height of summer. But how long will this tradition survive? Richard Branson pours scorn on the concept and the IT and creative industries have always been notoriously ‘casual’ about staff attire.
Actually, I think the practice is getting more ingrained. It’s the fault of clever marketing, of course, jumbled up with old-fashioned traditions and an innate desire to belong to a particular institution or group. Uniforms are tribal, almost. Or am I making too much of it? My children will simply look smarter and more business-like in their ties and buttoned-up shirts, won’t they?
Hmm, I’m still not sold on the concept. When ties were brought into the uniform for girls when I was in the fifth year at school (they’d always been worn by the boys) we quickly adopted ways of making them more individual. The girls tried to make theirs as wide as possible and the boys as thin (a ‘peanut’). There will always be nonconformists.
The cynical side of me wonders why dress codes are still being enforced in the modern age. Why should we let anyone tell us what to wear – one of the most personal decisions a person can make? Does freedom of choice in clothing suggest some kind of breakdown of the social hierarchy? Would anarchy ensue? No, of course it wouldn’t, but there would be greater freedom to question. We would have more confidence in ourselves as individuals, less likely to act as part of the herd. This is what Richard Branson recognises. He wants his workforce to be unconstrained by such conventions. He wants them to be inventive and original, to be ‘better’ than the received wisdom.
I will still dress formally when the situation warrants it, but there is always that little part of me that wants to put on jeans and canvas shoes to attend a ‘black tie’ event. Mind you, I’d probably get turned away, just like Lewis Hamilton, then it might prove to be nothing but an empty gesture.

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