I Will Teach Them

It is a cold Friday, but the good kind of cold. The red-cheeked kind of cold. You can get by without a scarf, but candles in cafes still feel lovely. I have left the kids at home and come out to clear my head a bit; sit in silence and stare at a wall while elevator jazz plays in the background and two old men sit in the window and talk about Facebook. The coffee in this place is average, but I’ll drink a bucket of it in exchange for the sheepskin seats and candles in jars and golden, golden silence. If someone had told me before I had kids, how much I would come to appreciate sitting still, sitting quietly, with a hot drink, I would have never, ever believed them. And yet here I am.

Really, I have come out to write. Exercise that sorely neglected muscle, throw a few paragraphs at an essay I know will be great, one day, when I finish it, perhaps when the kids are at school and I have more time to write about having kids. Try, perhaps, to order my thoughts on a big week and what it means. I mean, I know what it means. I know what it means hyperbolically, sensationally, realistically. I have consumed all of the memes and tweets and statistics and anger. I have felt that sudden queasy surge of uncertainty in the form of fear. I didn’t really, truly believe he would ever get in. But who am I kidding – bad men have always run countries, populations have always made rash, uneducated, hopeful, hateful decisions. The world keeps turning. None of this is new, none of this reveals something about the way humankind works that we didn’t know before. And yet. Here we are. Surprised, shaken and so very, very sad.

My sister wrote to me the other day and said she didn’t know how parents were going to find a way to raise their kids in this world. I don’t know either. Arguably, how I was always going to raise my children, before America handed its nuclear codes to a profoundly awful, disastrously unqualified, vicious, small man. Children are, simply and logically, the future, and you can say that poetically or say that scientifically, or say it without giving a great deal of thought to what it means because it is something you have always heard. But they are the continuation of our species, a future that will one day vote and pay taxes and make films and write for newspapers and discover and cure, and like we try and right the wrongs our parents’ generation made, so will our children right the wrongs we make.

So I will teach them that we are killing our planet, even if the leader of the free world thinks that is rubbish. I will teach them that religion is a construct humankind has turned to since the very beginning of time, because something within us cries out for answers, and something within us finds tremendous comfort in faith. I will teach them religion can do so much good, and so much bad. That we are free to believe, and just as free not to. We are free to learn and criticise and be angered by. We are free to rail against and rally for. But that we cannot and should not impinge on others’ rights to do the same. And we should never deliberately hurt someone based on a complex relationship with a complex concept. I will teach them to think. To really, really think. To ask questions, and to question those answers. To look at all of the pairs of shoes they should consider wearing before they arrive at their own conclusions. I will teach them to look at how they came to be, how their parents came to be, how their family came to be – because people crossed borders and got on ships and planes and took on new countries and new languages and that so many, many factors go into belonging somewhere. To identifying with something. I will teach them people are female and male and neither nor and how very normal, how very personal, how very part of being human that is. I will teach them to be feminists, both of them. I will show them every single way our world has come to devalue and oppress women, and every single way they can punch that in the face. I will teach them that they, and people around them, can love who they want to love, marry who they want to marry, if marriage is even something they want – it is okay, all of it is okay. I will teach them to stand up to the bully, to share their tremendous fortune, and to always, always keep learning. Keep reading. Keep asking questions. Keep talking. Keep their arms and their eyes open. Keep pushing against what is unfair, hurtful, isolationist. Keep absorbing and sharing ideas, those powerful, powerful things.

I would have done that all before he came in. Perhaps, though, I would have faltered, forgotten along the way. Perhaps I would have run out of puff on a few occasions and let an opportunity to teach them slide by, let myself forget how all of this, all of these ideas, they begin at home. But now I know, now I see, we cannot afford to run out of puff, nor falter, nor forget. And I will raise my children intentionally, as best I can.

That’s what I will do. It is the very least I can.

Totally, Jan

So I read this article this morning, and took the bait. Probably because I was annoyed the handypeople didn’t show, and my coffee this morning was really bad.


Why I’d BAN Children from Cafes and Restaurants

Janet Street-Porter

There’s nothing more enjoyable in life than going out to eat — breakfast, lunch or dinner, it doesn’t matter which. Sitting with friends and having a good natter, preferably over drinks or a really good cup of coffee, is one of life’s pleasures. Totally agree.

But how many dining experiences are ruined because you are forced to conduct your conversation over a cacophony generated by something small, cross and wearing a nappy?

Badly behaved children in restaurants and cafes are in my top five hates, along with men in shiny white shoes, women who lie about their cosmetic surgery, people who like drinks with cherries in them and rude van drivers. My top five hates include really badly written pieces of click bait published in Daily Mail. And slow walkers.

Have you noticed that in the modern world all the emphasis is on child-friendly establishments? It’s as if children dominate our society and no one has the guts to question this ludicrous assumption. I know, right? How dare they even exist? I am so glad I was never one, and instead sprung fully formed from my father’s forehead (or thigh, my parents’ memory is hazy).

What a role reversal has taken place over the past few decades. Go on TripAdvisor or Facebook in child-friendly Britain and it’s easy to find hundreds of places that proudly announce they welcome mums and their offspring, along with their aisle-clogging double buggies, high chairs and nappy-changing requirements. What are they even thinking? That mothers want to leave the house too? LOL! At least if they are going to leave the house, can’t they carry the damn kid on their back, or teach it to walk at 6 months? It would remove the need for those completely unnecessary prams!

What about the rest of us — the people who might want to enjoy a meal without a toddler (not even one we’re related to) for company? I don’t know. You poor things. There is literally nowhere in the world safe from awful small humans.

I haven’t produced any offspring (you don’t say) but it doesn’t make me a child-hater (of course not! This article totally says otherwise, don’t worry!), just someone who thinks there’s a time and place for adventurous play and it’s not when I’m trying to eat lunch. Point taken. Good thing I have you to keep me on the straight and narrow, otherwise we’d be adventurous playing all over the damn establishment.

I’ve got a theory that mums have different hearing to the rest of us. They seem to be highly selective, impervious to the ghastly racket little Johnnie or Klay is making as he screams for attention. Mums just smile beatifically and hope he will stop soon, while the rest of us grit our teeth and seethe. Children scream?

Most mums are impervious to smells, too — maybe pregnancy does something to a woman’s senses. You found us out. Sit near a child whose nappy needs changing and the stench is disgusting — a big argument for baby-free zones on planes and anywhere food is being served, surely. Absolutely. I think anyone or anything that can produce any sort of excrement should just be banned from public spaces. I’m with you on this one, Jan.

Why should baby poo be sacrosanct, something you can’t describe as revolting? No idea. I know I struggle with all the mums constantly talking about their kids’ sacrosanct shit. ‘Get a life!’, I want to scream. Baby shit is gross too! But they won’t listen. Probably that pregnancy hearing thing you mentioned. Luckily, a small fightback seems to be beginning in favour of child-free zones, though anyone brave enough to state this is their policy is bound to be attacked by the politically correct pushchair army of Mumsnetters and bloggers. Bloody PC brigade. They ruin everything.

Make it clear that you don’t welcome small children and you’ll be trolled on Twitter and excoriated on Facebook as if you were the devil incarnate. Yeah. (Really?)

Take Eileen Potter, the owner of Treacles tearoom in posh Winchmore Hill, North London. After a few breakages, she dared to announce to a customer who had complained how unwelcome she and her baby were made to feel: ‘We cannot continually afford to replace crockery. We are not a family establishment.’

What she meant was that her tearoom was aimed more at ‘ladies who lunch’ rather than mums and toddlers. I thought ladies stopped lunching fifty years ago. Then again, I don’t leave the house (toddler) so I am a bit out of the loop.

Treacles has been attacked on Facebook and TripAdvisor because it doesn’t welcome small children. What’s wrong with that? At least the owner is being honest. Honesty is the best policy.

I want to congratulate Eileen for having the guts to say what she thinks, a rare occurrence in these days of extreme political correctness. No one ever says what they think on the internet anymore.

Legally, as Eileen is the owner of the teashop, she can admit whoever she likes.

And there are others exercising this right. The Seven Arts Centre, in Leeds, has a no-pram policy and doesn’t allow groups of mothers and babies to meet there because they want a quiet area for anyone who doesn’t have children.

Full marks to Seven Arts. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to sit in a museum cafe and read a guidebook over a cup of tea as gangs of marauding children rush around screaming their heads off. Why aren’t they in a playgroup or creche? Wait, you’re tell me children go to museums? What are their parents thinking? I mean, for one thing, childcare is a completely affordable, accessible option both for working parents and for those who would rather go to Treacles than change sacrosanct shit, and for another, why are these parents staying at home with their kids and taking them on outings to educational facilities? The world has gone mad, Jan.

Many mums seem to think they have a divine right to monopolise any cafe they can jam their buggies inside. My bad. When I birthed my kid, I also birthed this completely unexpected sense of entitlement. Good to know I can’t monopolise cafes just because I can jam my buggy inside. Up until you told me that, I had been trying to barge into every shoebox in town, yanking my ten kilogram daughter and her 20 kilogram pram, singlehandedly, up steps and through heavy doors, just so I could jam the thing between two tables and then monopolise the shit out of a totally roomy, comfortable space. Because that is a super fun pastime. And along with my hearing and sense of smell loss, I also lost any semblance of social etiquette I once had, so good thing you’re here, Jan.

Why should toddlers be allowed to roam at will, careering into waiters and coming to shout hello when you’re eating your scrambled egg? I don’t know. Why are toddlers even allowed to exist?

Harden’s Restaurant Guide has a few basic rules for parents: choose somewhere the family will feel welcome; go when the children are not too hungry; take small, quiet toys or books; and sit away from romantic couples.

I’d add another condition: do not take your children anywhere near me first thing in the morning. I wasn’t … going to? Ever. Morning, noon, or night. (My child shits – and it isn’t sacrosanct – and is learning to talk, and I am nothing if not super absorbent of your personal likes and dislikes.)

Up until 11am I want to get over the night before. I want to read. Why should a non-eating child, who is not even paying for the pleasure of being there, dominate an entire room?

And why should toddlers be allowed to roam at will, careering into waiters and coming to shout hello when you’re eating your scrambled egg? I don’t know. And while we’re at it, why can’t these little shits get jobs and at least pay for the pleasure of being somewhere? I mean, what, are we expected to be okay with just their parents paying? Honestly.

We don’t allow dogs in most restaurants and cafes, and generally they are better behaved than the average British toddler. They probably shit less too.

As a compromise, why can’t large restaurants and all-day diners have child-free zones as well as specially designated children’s seating areas — as far away as possible from other diners? No better way to teach children how to behave in social settings, than to permanently corral them off and have them only ever exist in creche-esque environments. So true. 

Once you move into the early evening, why not impose a cut-off time for children’s access to restaurants? Yes! Lock-ins! Curfews! Brilliant, rational thinking!

If diners are paying for a special evening out, a small, noisy child can be as infuriating as a large group of slightly inebriated men or women. Oh give me a table full of obnoxious drunk, pawing lecherous suits with machine gun laughs and the belief the whole restaurant wants to hear their voices, over a small child having a meal with its idiotic, parenting-skills-less parents, anyday. Ugh.

Some parents just do not accept that their children are out of control. When I was young, children were seen and not heard in public when you were out for a meal with mum and dad. Not anymore. Ah the good old days. No ankles, no pesky female voters, children who knew what a cane was and became really well-adjusted, happy adults keen to cane their own kids because their experiences were so positive.

An increasing number of parents think that their kids can express themselves however they like. They imagine that their children are ‘fun’ and ‘creative’ when, in fact, they’re being loathsome. Oh stop it – are you for real? Parents are teaching kids to express themselves however they like? What is the world even coming to? What’s next? More PC rubbish like ‘no means no’? ROFL.

A few months ago, my partner and I were celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Ivy Chelsea Garden, a fashionable (and expensive) London restaurant. Ooh, lovely.

It was a fine evening and there were tables of families around us in the garden. One nine-year-old girl was screaming and running from table to table, waving an umbrella over her head, trying to get attention. Were her clothes on fire? Her posh parents were ignoring her and the nanny was too scared to exert any authority in these trendy surroundings.

My irate partner snapped. He got up, went over to the parents’ table and demanded they control their brat, telling them: ‘If I’d wanted a floor-show, I’d have gone to a theatre or a nightclub.’ Zing. (And I hope that 9 year old had a bloody job.)

Begrudgingly, they behaved like proper parents, disciplining their little monster. Good thing you guys were there to provide a teachable moment.

The reaction from my friends was interesting: they were astonished and slightly anxious that we might suffer some reprimand from other diners. You have to be really brave to take on a child these days! Yeah, and it is definitely the kids you should be taking on, never their parents. The adults.

A few years ago, a survey found that 43 per cent of us wanted children banned in some restaurants. Now, I’d be surprised if even 25 per cent of us were brave enough to state the obvious: children should not be allowed to dominate adult environments. There are children farms for that very reason.

I’d go further — why can’t planes have baby zones? Amazing, tenable idea! And they should cost, like, double. That’ll show them.

Have you ever tried to sleep on a long-haul flight when a mother and child are bonding in your row or when junior can’t settle down? Right? I mean, I know that I can think of no better place to bond with my child (even ‘bonding’ is such a modern term for all of these yummy mummys and their buggies. No one used to bond with their kids in the olden days, and they’re fine! Look at the Queen!) than in the economy section of a plane on a long haul flight. To let you in on a little secret, most of the time I am sitting in my matchbox seat, eating my sodium casserole one-handed, and holding my kid in the other, I am not desperately praying she’ll remain quiet and content, but instead just sitting there bonding. It would be fairer on parents if all the little people under ten were seated together, preferably right at the back of the plane. Or, like, on the wings. They aren’t even paying for their seats.

Many hotels state children under the age of 12 are not permitted, so why do we find it offensive if restaurants and cafes do the same? I don’t know! Weird, generally sociable logic, I guess.

Sometimes, a few minutes for a quiet coffee and a sandwich are the only time we have to ourselves all day. Totally agree.

Please, can parents realise that children don’t rule the world. Exactly. Children shouldn’t dictate what we can and can’t do, and where and when we can do it! We must remove their power! All we have to do is implement curfews, make clear rules on which ages people are allowed to start eating in public, ban a portion of the population (those who excrete, those who have loud voices, those who struggle with impulse control, those who smell, those idiots who produce them and in doing so lose their hearing and smell) from being seen and/or heard, and we can have our sandwiches in museum cafes in peace.


Image credit

The Most Powerful Woman in Politics

The woman at the centre of it all, Merkel, is Germany’s first female Chancellor, and, as leader of the strongest member state economy, at the helm of the EU as it navigates the still choppy waters of the Euro Crisis. While saving the euro, she has managed to guide her own country through a period of economic prosperity to a twenty year unemployment low.

She has made the Forbes Most Powerful Women list eight times out of the past ten years, seven of those times – including 2013 – coming in at number 1. She’s currently at number 2, behind Obama, on their World’s Most Powerful People list. Fluent in Russian and English, she has her Doctorate in quantum chemistry, favours austerity, dislikes confrontation and is currently enjoying enormous popularity and solid approval rates.

She isn’t, of course, without her critics, political and otherwise. She’s female, so there’s endless discussion about her appearance. In the televised election debate between her and her rival, Peer Steinbrück, it was Merkel’s necklace (in the colours of the German flag) that stole the show. Just this week The Huffington Post published an article in which Andrew Marr claimed she’s too unattractive to ever be elected in Britain (but that’s okay Britain, because she’s not leading you) and a BBC blog from Matt Frei went for the classic ‘Angela Merkel: more minx than matron’ (why not just combine the two and have a minxy matron running the western world?)

Read the full article on Daily Life.

On Lunch Breaks & Leisure Time

But is time money? Does everything being constantly available around the clock really plump up the tills and keep the economy ticking? Last year, the top five countries that work the fewest hours in the world were all wealthy, economically sound European countries. Germany came in at number one, followed by The Netherlands, France, Austria and Belgium. Make that more than economically sound – Germany is the beating heart of the EU’s economy. A 2012 OECD report found they work an average of 1, 330 hours a year, which is an average of 25.6 hours a week. That’s essentially half of what Greece averages. This low number is in part explained by a higher than average amount of part time and temporary workers, but check this out: ”5.14% of Germans work more than 50 hours a week, less than half the 10.86% of Americans who worked that much in 2011. The average German had 15.31 hours a day to devote to leisure, one of the highest figures among OECD countries. ” It isn’t, as the Germans say, how many hours you work, it’s what you do with those hours (that whole efficient stereotype? Not without grounds, not without grounds.) As for The Netherlands, ”Workers in the Netherlands enjoy low levels of unemployment, high incomes and one of the smallest proportion of employees working 50 or more hours a week .” And the French? They ”embrace their leisure hours, devoting a (daily) average of 15.33 hours to personal time, the fourth highest of the OECD countries reported.”

A little something I wrote about how, in most of Europe, taking lunch breaks, enjoying leisure time, closing on Sundays, and having (and taking!) a generous amount of holiday days, is the norm. And why countries who embrace the 24/7 culture should perhaps have a rethink. The full article is over here, on Daily Life.

We’re back from a wonderful week in Italy – plenty of photos and words coming your way.

What Living in Germany Has Taught Me About Being Nude

A 1920s nudist magazine.
A 1920s nudist magazine. Image credit.

Living in Europe I am, largely, consistently reminded bodies are just bodies, as opposed to being constantly reminded bodies are public property, subject to constant dissection and judgement, subjects of constant quests for betterment. Europeans in general have long been known for having a far, far more relaxed take on all things nudity and sex. And the Germans, well … they’ll nude up at the drop of a hat. That couple on a Spanish beach playing nude racquet ball? Guaranteed German. Strolling through the, ironically named, English Gardens in Munich? You’ll find both seasoned nudists and those seeking an all-over tan. Saunas, domain of the Scandinavians, obviously, are nude. Hell, you can go nude camping or nude hiking if you want to. And being nude, should you want to be, at the local beach is a given (although some seek privacy in the rushes or long grass which admittedly lends a sort of perviness to the entire thing).

Read the full article, ‘Are Australians Less Comfortable Naked Than the Rest of the World?’ over on Daily Life.

On Singing Pigs and Straddling Tuna Fish

I have written a little something for Daily Life on the latest campaign from Animals Australia, against factory farming, and the recent one from Fishlove.co.uk, against over-fishing. One features a singing, flying pig dreaming of escaping his factory farm and the other a bunch of naked celebrities canoodling with various marine species. Which one is more effective? You tell me.

In the realm of Naked Women Sell Everything this campaign is fairly standard. The main images from the Fishlove, an initiative designed to raise awareness of the dangers of overfishing, ticks all the boxes. And when I say main images, I mean the ones hand-picked by various media outlets. So, the ones with women. They feature good looking women. They feature nude women. They feature boobs, a nipple (and a cuttlefish) and an artfully draped pubic region (with an octopus). They are over-zealously photo-shopped (as all naked women must always be). They are tenuously linked to the cause they are supposed to be about.

Keep reading it here …

I also cannot stress enough how much I think you should watch the Animals Australia ‘Make it Possible’ campaign. And how much I think we need to join in and keep working on making Australian farming factory-free.

The Cry of the Over-Committed

One of the things that keeps smacking me in the face is not necessarily that we are, but how much we are the products of our choices. And when I say ‘we’, I refer mostly to those of us who have the luxury of making as many choices as we do, not the equal amounts of people who do not. Where and how we work, live and play are layers of life we are privileged enough to choose to assemble, deconstruct, develop and build how we see fit.

Something else we can choose, ultimately, is how busy we are. How much we take on. I was giving this a little thought when my dear friend Sandi put this article up on Facebook, one I had forgotten I had read and one which sums this whole busy obsession up far more succinctly than I can. We all tend to do a lot because we equate busyness with productivity or see downtime as a waste of time, or feel if we aren’t doing something, we’re not achieving anything. It’s a lifestyle we have constructed, one that values constant activity, constant engagement and devalues time spent doing ‘nothing’, even though ‘nothing’ is so often important reflection or replenishment. So we work, work out, socialise, volunteer, do side projects, travel, study, renovate, sit in traffic for hours getting to various appointments, tapping away on our smart phones (don’t pretend you don’t, I can see you from the bus). And all power to whoever does all of the above while on the phone to a debt collection company claiming you own them $619 for a phone bill from two years ago. And we tend to do it all, because we can. We tend to commit to the point our plates are so full we lose our shit on a Wednesday morning because we have overwhelmed ourselves beyond the point we probably should. We love being busy, we love telling people how busy we are. Social media was made for that shit.

It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Tim Kreider,  ‘The Busy Trap’, NYTimes.

Of course, we don’t have to be the busiest, most exhausted person on the planet. We don’t get a little crown once we pass through the pearly gates and tick the box next to ‘did you spend most of your life so busy, all you could ever talk about was how tired you were?’ And presumably when we’re old and grey and sipping a G&T with our best friend and/or decrepit dog by our side, we’re not going to say ‘I just loved how busy I was throughout my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. I was so busy I can’t remember a fecking thing I actually did, but I must have done a lot because I was busy.’ 

I suppose, really, what I am trying to get at is, if you have assembled the layers of your life in a manner that is busy, then I’m not entirely sure I want to hear about it*. And next time someone asks, just say, ‘fine thanks, how are you?’ so we can crack on and get to the interesting part of the conversation.

*I am by no means exempting myself from the ‘busy’ people, I am just as bad as everyone else. I vow, henceforth, to consciously stop saying ‘busy’ in response to any question I am asked, particularly if I am busy purely as a result of privileged choices have made.