This must be how people feel when they grow their own carrots or give birth.

When I was a younger I had three ambitions:

  1. To be a teacher
  2. To be an author
  3. To be a Blue Peter presenter

What I like about the ambitions of my 8-year-old self is that they range from very achievable to “highly unlikely.” It’s like I was looking out for my future self by giving myself the best possible chance of achieving at least one of my ambitions. Becoming a teacher was just a case of getting the necessary qualifications and securing a job. Actually staying a teacher proved much harder. And, whilst the Blue Peter dream has yet to come to fruition, last week the advance copies of my book were printed and it’s fair to say I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I can only assume this is how people must feel when they grow their own carrots* or give birth. It is still really hard to believe that my words have been put into a book that will be sold in actual book shops.

It’s been a long process: by the time the book is published it will be almost two years since I got that first email from Bloomsbury.

There have been a number of barriers to writing this book, none of which were particularly unique but, when facing them for the first time, seemed hugely overwhelming and almost impossible to overcome. First barrier? Finding the time to actually write a book.

Nobody has time to write a book

Some writers have very specific routines and structure their day around writing. Haruki Murakami, for example, gets up at 4am each day and writes for six hours before running 10k or swimming 1,500 metres. Then he reads, listens to music and is in bed by 9pm. Perhaps the only similarity between myself and Murakami is the 9pm bedtime. WH Auden worked best between 7:00 – 11:30am after a strong cup of coffee. He would often continue writing until late in the afternoon but always stopped by 6:30pm for a strong vodka martini followed by a large dinner and copious amounts of wine.

I had no such routine. The first half of this book was written in the first half of 2017 in our attic apartment in Amsterdam. I was writing full time and most days my book was all I had to work on. It was such a luxury: living in one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world with little to do other than research, write and edit. Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 08.43.11At this point I want to say thank you to Village Bagels on Vijzelstraat. I have some very happy memories of enjoying many a goats’ cheese, walnut and honey on a sesame bagel, starting out at the canal and mulling over my mornings writing. By contrast, the second half of this book was written whilst I had a full time job and at one point, was doing supply and living with my Mum before we moved back into our flat in London. During this time I wrote wherever I could.
I wrote on trains, at my Mum’s kitchen table, in Wood Green library, in classrooms at lunch time whilst doing supply, at any cafe with a power socket in the N22 area and later, having returned to teaching full time, in Zizzi on Finchley Road before the school Christmas concert. I used any window of time available. Because the truth is nobody has the time to write a book and work full time – you have to carve the time out. It means saying no to invitations and not seeing your friends and family as much as you want. It means blocking out days for writing and stubbornly defending that time. It requires a lot of patience and understanding from your friends and family (thankfully mine are wonderful.)

Nobody thinks they’re a brilliant writer

The next barrier to writing a book is a much harder one to overcome: self doubt. That nagging voice that tells you that you’re not good enough, your writing is crap and that writing a book is a complete waste of time because nobody will want to read it. To defeat that voice you need several things: an excellent editor, a supportive family member or friend, techniques for telling that voice to kindly piss off.

Earlier this year I emailed my editor Hannah telling her I couldn’t write my book any more. I was completely stuck and thought it would be best if we pretended none of this had ever happened and I’d just run away and forget all about it (or words to that effect.) She suggested that instead I met her for a coffee and we talked through what I felt I was stuck on. A few months later I emailed  her asking her what we’d do if nobody like the book enough to write a testimonial for it. Once again she reassured me that wasn’t something I had to worry about and once again she was right.

If you don’t have an editor find a patient friend who would be willing to take that role. When my editor wasn’t available I was fortunate enough to have a husband who not only is an incredibly skilled writer, but understood the subject matter of the book well enough to make useful suggestions. He was able to be the positive voice that drowned out that nagging negative voice. When he read sections that he thought were good he would say so, when he read parts that needed work he would suggest how I could improve them. Without his reassurance, advice and the many, many cups of coffee he made, this book would never have been finished.

Because one thing I have learnt since I started this blog three years ago is that it doesn’t ever go away – that feeling that your work isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how many people read what you write, how many people share it on Twitter or whether you have a contract from a publisher – there is always that feeling it isn’t good enough.

What next?

Like my friends and family, my blog has been severely neglected since I started writing this book. Now it’s done my plan is to return to blogging regularly about teaching and education and there may even be another book in the pipeline. But for now we return to Amsterdam, where this journey began, for a much needed half term break.

*I’m told carrots are particularly hard vegetables to grow.

 

 

Why Are Dutch Children The Happiest In The World?

 

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We’ve been in Amsterdam for just over two months now and I’m just starting to scratch beneath the surface of the city. I know the tourist traps and when to avoid them, I can recommend at least one coffee shop (both kinds), I know a good place to get pancakes and have a favourite spot in the Vondelpark. When we returned after Christmas we really felt like residents rather than tourists. I’m trying to take in as much as a I can as before you know it we’ll be back in London.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that Dutch people are open, frank and friendly. They have fewer inhibitions than British people and their entire philosophy seems to be: “live and let live.” As part of our honeymoon last year we travelled coast-to-coast across America, a country which prides itself on being free and liberal. In America you are free to do what you want, within the confines of the law, even if it’s detrimental to other people’s quality of life e.g. exploit workers, avoid tax, pollute the atmosphere with some gas guzzling machine, charge people extortionate amounts of rent for a shitty property etc…

In the Netherlands you’re at liberty to do what you want as long you pay into the society and take care of people. So yes, you can run a business and earn as much money as you want as long as you’re happy to pay the high rates of tax and offer good working conditions. You can be a landlord but there are rent caps, you can build houses or swanky apartments but 30% of all new builds have to be made available as social housing. You can own a car but you don’t have priority on the roads. You come fourth after bicycles, pedestrians and trams. This is a country designed to make life for its citizens as easy and enjoyable as possible. Their laws and regulations are based on an belief that people are entitled to a sufficient income to satisfy their basic needs and should not be at the mercy of charity. And it’s working: The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live and, according to Unicef, Dutch children are among the happiest in the world. Here’s why:

Their parents are happy

For all their liberal attitudes to sex and drugs, the Dutch are small ‘c’ conservative in their approach to raising a family. As parents you are expected to spend time as a family doing nice things with your children. You are not expected to spend 50+ hours of your week working. Unlike in the UK where we wear our stress levels and packed schedules like badges of honour, here over 50% of the country work part time. Over 50%. Legislation was even introduced in 2000 that gave men and women the right to ask their employer for part time work.  This explains why the average working week is only 29 hours.

Admittedly there is a gender gap with over 75% of women working part time – compared to only 27% of men. The reasons for this are historic – the Dutch remained neutral throughout WW1 and didn’t enter WW2 until its occupation in 1940 so there wasn’t the drain of men from the workforce that required women to take up jobs. Consequently women didn’t enter work in The Netherlands until much later than in Britain – sometime around the late 60s.

Households can afford run on either one full time income or two part-time incomes – an option many take. Even though it is more likely to be the man that works full time, 23% of fathers take “papadag” leave each week. “Papadag” literally translates as, “Daddy Day.” In the Netherlands all fathers are entitled to a weekday off EVERY WEEK to spend time with their children. Every week. Arguably it isn’t just the fact fathers are free to take a day to spend with their children that makes the difference – it’s the fact that it has been made a social norm. Fathers are expected to be active in their children’s lives.

children-dad

2. There’s more to life than academic achievement 

Children start school at 4 or 5 – but don’t start formal reading and writing until 7. Instead, in the first few years, schools focus entirely on social skills, gross and fine motor skills and learning through play. Homework isn’t common for children under the age of 10 – all the more time to be playing outside. Formal testing doesn’t take place until the age of 12 when they take the CITO tests the results of which are treated only as a suggestion to the sort of route a child might want to take next. Ultimately the decision as to what sort of secondary education they’ll pursue lies with the child and their parents.

The main difference here is that academic achievement is not the be all and end all. Professor Volleburgh of Utrecht University sums it up quite nicely, “The Netherlands has a social culture, with open and safe relationships between parents and their children and the same applies to the relationships the children have with each other. The pressure to perform is not as high here.”

In the next few weeks I’m hoping to visit a few of the local schools to see what all this looks in practice – watch this space.

3. They’re Active

Wchildren-cyclehether it’s tearing around the Vondelpark on their bikes, or skating on one of the numerous outdoor ice rinks – Dutch children are very active. This is unsurprising as research by the British Heart Foundation found adults in the Netherlands to be some of the most active in Europe. The same research found that 80% of children in the Netherlands participate in more than two hours of vigorous exercise a week, compared to just 49% of British children. The main reason for this is that everybody cycles. It’s the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to travel and is incredibly safe. Secondly, children are outdoors all the time. Come rain or shine Dutch children are outside, swimming and playing – often unsupervised. Whilst family time is important to the Dutch, the children here are incredibly independent: primary school children cycle to school themselves and take themselves off to their friends’ houses in the evening. Not a helicopter parent or tiger Mum in sight.

 


Of course this could all be rubbish. I reckon the real reason that Dutch children are the happiest in the world is because they get to eat Hagelslag every morning. Hagelslag are chocolate sprinkles which are typically served on a hot, buttered toast – who wouldn’t be happy starting their day like that?

choc

That’s What She Read 2016

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Last year I did an end of year review of everything I’d read in 2015. I read one book a month in 2015 and set myself the challenge of two a month for 2016. Now it’s worth remembering that I spent three months of this year travelling around the world on trains with ample time to read which certainly made it easier but this year I’ve read 30 books. Well 30 and a half as I’m only half way through Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child” which is a beautifully written novel based in Alaska in the 1920s.

The total might have only been 29 and a half had I not accidentally read, “Girl on a Train” thinking it was “The Girl on the Train” which I read once I realised my mistake. I haven’t done a review of each book like last year because there are too many of them so instead I’ve taken a leaf out of the Chief Whip’s book and underlined the ones I highly recommend. For 2017 I will be taking on the “50 Book Challenge” – you can get involved on Twitter by following the hashtag #50BookChallenge.

Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood

The Circle – Dave Eggers

The End of the World Running Club – Adrian J. Walker

Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve

The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Room – Emma Donoghue

Not That Kind Of Girl – Amy Poehler

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse – David Mitchell

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

The Art of Travel – Alain De Botton

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling

The Lady In The Van – Alan Bennett

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

Sweet Bitter – Stephanie Danler

How To Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran

Girl On A Train – AJ Waines

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

Nod – Adrian Barnes

High Challenge Low Threat: How the best leaders find the balance – Mary Myatt

A Perfectly Good Family – Lionel Shriver

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

High Rise – JG Ballard

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

The Post of Christmas Past

Having launched the #ChristmasCarolChallenge a couple of weeks ago a rather exciting project appeared out of the blue which didn’t leave me with a lot of free time to actually write my own post. However I am now back at my Mum’s sat by the Christmas tree waiting for my nephews’ presents to be delivered so there’s no better time to reminisce about the Christmases of my past.

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From the age of four my Christmases alternated between my Mum’s in Sevenoaks and my Dad’s place in Tonbridge and then, later on, in his cottage in East-Sussex. Both Christmases were similar having been based on the traditions my parents had once shared however each had its own distinct features. A bit like driving a courtesy car that’s the same model as your own: same, same but different. Carols at Kings made an appearance at both and the Queen’s Speech at neither and the routine of the day almost identical at both.

I owe my affection of the Christmas season to my parents and the time, love and effort they put in to making it so special: from standing outside the house ringing bells so I would go to bed and wait for Father Christmas to sooty footprints that appeared on the carpet on Christmas morning. Neither of parents had a lot money when we were growing up so  there were presents but being together and sharing good food was the priority and that’s still true today. The Christmases they created were full of love and I am eternally grateful to both of them for that.

Let’s start with Christmas at Dad’s.

higham

My Dad’s taste in decor has always been quite minimalist.White walls, wooden floors, clean, light and clutter free. The same was true at Christmas – there’d be a tree of course (with coloured lights) and the traditional light up Father Christmas riding the moon which I assume everybody has. Some years there were stickdad-christmass decorated with white lights.) In his cottage in Sussex there was an huge open fire that we’d keep going from the minute we got up until we all passed out in a food coma at the end of the day.

I’m fortunate that both of my parents are excellent cooks. There were no overcooked vegetables, no lump gravy and Aunt Bessies’s and Bisto were basically blasphemy. Our Christmas food wouldn’t look out of place in a George R.R. Martin novel.

The cooking at Dad’s would begin on Christmas Eve with the first “trial” batch of chestnut stuffing balls which we’d wolf down before they’d even cooled all the name of “testing.” It’s worth explaining at this point that my Dad lay down the gauntlet in our family with his stuffing  balls. I’m one of five siblings and over the years our Mums, partners and even we ourselves have tried to recreate the Paul Brown stuffing ball. Few have succeeded.

On Christmas morning, after stockings (which were actual tights so “you can see the outline of the presents!”), we’d have bucks fizz and crackers with “pink dip”  – another Paul Brown original that is only ever eaten on Christmas Day. Then Dad would announce the time dinner would be served. Except this time was only really because he liked to set himself the challenge of having a deadline .It made the whole thing a bit more Master Chef. He’d spend most of the day in an out of the kitchen listening to the radio or watching the black and white TV.  At some point he’d break from cooking and we’d give out the presents under the tree – the last one would always be a Cadbury’s Selection box which would prove handy if the deadline for lunch was ever “extended.”

sproutsDinner itself was always a fairly traditional affair: My Dad is the King of sides and sundries: sliced sprouts fried with pancetta, honey roast parsnips, cider gravy, cauliflower cheese, pigs in blankets and two types of stuffing ball (chestnut and sage and onion.)  The leftovers would be served with dauphinoise potatoes on Boxing Day. We don’t really do pudding at Dad’s we’re bigger on the savories: cheese, crackers and cool original doritos. However there’s always a box of Maltesers in the cupboard which were useful for pelting your siblings with during particularly frustrating games of Monopoly.

Like moschristmas-dadt families after dinner we’d settle down to watch a film. Except my Dad can’t watch films. He’s constantly getting up, sorting things and pottering before returning to the sofa twenty minutes later to ask, “what have I missed?” For this reason we preferred to stick with television and we’d binge on reruns of The Simpsons, Dad’s Army and, if my Dad won the battle of the remote, Benidorm.

Christmas at Dad’s brought with it the excitement of seeing my older siblings. As a young child there was no one cooler than my older brother and sister. We never lived together but would meet up during the holidays. They’d come bearing card games, DVDs and lots o’ cheese. My younger brother and I would normally arrive at Dad’s first and there was no excitement quite like the excitement of waiting for our older brother and sister to arrive. Now we’re all grown up and married and there are children and in-laws to think about it’s unusual for us to spend Christmas Day together but we have our own sibling Christmas which is pretty special in itself.

siblingmas


Christmas at Mum’s

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Christmas at Mum’s would start weeks before the day itself with numerous lists (my Mum and I are big fans of a list.) There’d be long walks to pick the ivy to decorate the house, we’d burn M&S oil throughout the whole of December and the highlighting of the Radio Times, and the negotiations that would follow, took up the best part of the month. My Mum has excellent taste and the house always looks beautiful around Christmas – full of decorations and candles – but no tinsel. Never tinsel. We’d pierce satsumas with cloves and put them around the house (to this day I’m still not sure why but it’a a very fond memory.)

Our street is very small and close knit and around Christmas there was a continuous stream of visitors dropping in for mulled wine, baileys or just to enjoy the fire. Our Christmases were open to all and we often shared the day itself with friends as well as family. Some years there were more friends than we had space for so we’d pack up our Christmas and take it to a holiday home in Wales, Cornwall or Rye. I believe 22 is the record for the most around our table. My family aren’t religious – in fact we’re staunch atheists but we’d often wander down to the church at the end of the road to sing carols on Christmas Eve before heading home for hot chocolate and to make the preparations for Father Christmas. One  year those preparations included building a barricade in front of my bedroom because I didn’t like the sound of a strange man in a red suit coming into my room at night – regardless of the gifts he may bring.

Christmas Day itself would start with stockings which, once emptied christmas-stockingof presents would end on my head. It’s hard to say why. Breakfast was always fizz and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon which in recent years is cooked by my brother as me makes the best scrambled eggs known to man.

Lunch would be the traditional turkey and all the trimmings as well as a ham – which later would be part of a pie (more on that later.) If my Dad is the King of sides and sundries then my Mum is the Queen of desserts. Yes we all love figgy pudding  but why stop there? Christmas cake, vanilla custard, homemade banoffee pie, chocolate yule log, baileys ice cream, freshly baked shortbread and creme brulee. Throw in a pot of coffee and the dessert course could last longer than the main. It was like something out of Enid Blyton.

bannoffee

Boxing Day at my Mum’s is unique for one reason: Boxing Day Pie. This is one of my Mum’s most genius creations. It’s a simple enough concept: all the leftovers from Christmas dinner sandwiched in pastry. I will try and find the recipe because it really needs to be shared.

And that was pretty much been Christmas for the last 30 years. Magical, happy and full of love (and food.) There was that one year where, due to adverse weather conditions, my brother and I spent most of the day in my flat in London feeling a little bit like we were in Home Alone. But that’s another post for another time.

 

5 Lessons We Can Learn From Children

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This was originally going to be a post about Milo Yiannopoulos and the news that he has been banned from giving a talk at his old school. But the more more I read about the story and the further I was dragged into the dark little corner of internet dominated by the alt-right the more depressed I became with the whole political situation. This is the problem with politics being one of your main interests, in a year like 2016 where there has been a barrage of bad news it can really take over your head a bit. Sometimes you need to step away from the news, turn off Twitter and go and find waffles. Which is exactly what I did this morning.
wafflesThey say that in London you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat. Well in Amsterdam you’re never more than 10ft from a waffle. On my walk to the waffle house, I passed a group of children on a school trip and immediately felt a pang of longing to have my own class again. This shows the strength of nostalgia because, in reality, there are things I miss about teaching but schools trips aren’t one of them. With only a couple of exceptions, school trips were days of head counting, sick bags and trying to look composed in front of parent helpers whilst herding 60 wildebeest excitable children around an overcrowded museum. Still. I do miss having a class. Working with children is unpredictable, stressful and exhausting but they will make you laugh every single day. Even on those really awful, child protection meetings, crying in the toilets days your class will make you laugh. I wholeheartedly believe that if everybody spent just one hour a day with a five-year-old we would all be happier, kinder people. So I decided that, instead of giving more attention to Yiannopoulos who is ultimately a professional attention seeker, I would write about a far more worthy subject – the lessons we can all learn from children.

It’s OK to say “No.”

No is one of the first words children learn and they are the experts at saying it. In my experience, four-year-olds are far better at saying “no” than thirty-year-olds. It’s not an easy word to say; it has a tendency to disappoint or upset people. When I was younger I would do anything to avoid saying no. In an eagerness to please, I would take on anything and everything I was asked to do and then end up unable to cope and having to let people down. Whether it’s work, a social event or a favour for a friend – it’s far better to say no from the very beginning than promise something you won’t be able to deliver. For the sake of your mental health and wellbeing allow yourself to say no.

Be Silly

I’m quite a silly grown up as I believe most teachers are at heart. Silliness was a defining characteristic of the staff room in my first school where lunchtimes were spent quoting Monty Python, discussing the items that had made their way onto the “Michael Gove Shelf” and debating the philosophical question, “Would you still be friends with me if I had cups for hands?” It remains an important part of the Paramour household today. From spending, what some might call, an abnormal amount of our time voicing our cat’s inner monologue to recreating that manic Blair Christmas card.

Children are the masters of silliness. I remember walking into my husband’s Year 6 class one year, at the height of SATs mania, and they were trying to rap the entire theme tune to, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” between them. In my own class two stand out memories are the two boys who created a “Jedi Hedgehog School” (complete with light sabers made from pencils wrapped in coloured paper) and the group of children who approached me one playtime to tentatively ask if we could have a, “Dress Up As A Frog Day.” (We did – on the last day of the Spring term and only the children who had approached me actually did it.) Children teach us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Live In The Moment

This one sounds like a such a bullshit cliche but it is true: children force you into the present because that is how they live. There’s no time for your mind to wander or to retreat into your own thoughts; you have to be there in that moment all the time. And not just because at any minute one of them could rock too far back on their chair and fall and crack their head open – has anyone ever actually had that happen? Or is that just something we tell children? Living in the moment means no worrying about tomorrow, no time to wallow in self pity about a break up or stressing about the work you have to do that evening. You are very much “there” dealing and experiencing what is happening right in front of you. Of course being permanently “present” is one of the reasons the job is so exhausting and why, after three consecutive days of wet play, you find yourself quietly pressing your forehead against the cold window and breathing deeply.

Mindfulness is now up there with hygge, craft beer and pop-up eateries in trendiness but before you dismiss it as another passing fad – give it a go. Learn from children: notice the details, take pleasure in the simple things and keep your thoughts focused on the present.

Be Open Minded

“It’s OK to change your mind” became a motto for one class I taught. In this class there was a handful of dominant characters who would have huge, explosive disagreements that would drag on for days out of stubbornness more than anything else. Even if they knew they had done the wrong thing or perhaps got the wrong idea about a situation they would dig their heels in and allow the drama to continue. So we introduced, “It’s OK To Change Your Mind.” It was our class way of saying “I was wrong” without having to use those exact words.

It is only natural that we become more sure of our views and opinions as we grow up; by the time we’re adults our worldview has been shaped by a range of life experiences, the people we’ve met and things we’ve learnt for ourselves. But how often do we challenge these beliefs? Having strongly held views is honourable but, like children, we should try and remain open-minded to the idea of them changing.

Be Proud Of Your Scars

Children wear scars like badges of honour: “LOOK! I fell down the stairs and look what it’s made – I’VE GOT A SCAR!” cue 29 admiring “ooohs” from the rest of the room and the teacher calling out, “Come back to the carpet – we can look at Ahmed’s scar at playtime.”

When you’re five, scars are to be shown off and marvelled – they demand respect. If you’re extra lucky the teacher might even let you tell the story of how you got your scar in the epic battle of staircase. The child who turns up with a plaster cast on their arm is immediately the most popular child in the class. As we grow older we hide our scars, be they emotional or physical. We keep them a secret out of fear of being judged as weak or vulnerable. Now I’m not suggesting we start covering our scars in batman plasters and shoving them into the faces of unsuspecting passers-by but let’s not be ashamed of them. Scars are reminders that we survived – they symbolise strength.