Muddy Puddles

It was Saturday afternoon, and my husband was out with our nine-year-old. The weather was grey and windy, but at least it wasn’t raining…yet. I knocked on the teenager’s door and, granted permission, I entered her cave. 

My daughter was sitting cross-legged on her bed with headphones on and a sketchbook and pen in her hands. 

“I’m going for a walk on the heath, do you want to come?” I asked.

She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. 

“OK, as long as I don’t have to talk,” she said and pointed to her headphones. 

“Fine,” I said, no more inclined to engage in conversation with a mono-syllable teenager, than she was listening to a lengthy monologue performed by her middle-aged mother. 

Dressed in warm jackets and scarfs and wearing wellies, we set out. It’s about a ten-minute walk from our house to the heath, and once we arrived, it was surprisingly empty of people – and dogs. I soon realised why. It was muddy, very muddy. 

Rather than being put off by the sludge-covered grounds, however, my daughter revelled in it. Walking steadily across the heath, she didn’t even try to avoid the worst parts of the ground, but waded straight through it, a grin gradually developing across her face. 

You’re never too old for muddy puddles. 

Since last week, I’ve been itching to return to the heath, but constant rain and strong winds put me off, as did that infernal to-do list on my desk. 

But this morning I told myself, ‘sod the to-do list,’ I’m going for a walk. Luckily, it didn’t rain, but the ground was just as muddy as last week, if not more so. Walking slowly, with no purpose other than to walk, I ambled across the heath, away from the phone-carrying dog walkers and their charges, away from the sound of cars, and people’s chattering. 

I waded happily through the ankle-deep sludge, delighting in the sucking sensation of my boots releasing themselves from the mud as I lifted my feet. As I carried on, my boots covered in mud, a thought came to me: for all my past achievements, it seems the purpose of my life right now is to step in muddy puddles, and I don’t mean that in a figurative sense.  

Perhaps I’m influenced by a book I’ve recently read, which extolls the importance of not working. 

“No sooner is a child born today than her nervous system is engulfed by an unremitting stream of stimuli beaming from an array of electronic devices,” writes Josh Cohen in Not Working: Why We Have to Stop. As a result, “the space for inactivity and stillness, for time spent without immediate purpose, is being closed.” 

For much of my adult life, I’ve been haunted by the question, ‘what’s my purpose?’ Driven by a Weberian sense of protestant work ethic, instilled in my from an early age by society, I told myself I had to be productive, creative, ambitious. Consequently, I measured my life according to my achievements. The problem was, I rarely if ever stopped to ask myself if what I was doing was something I wanted to do. 

If illness – a stroke in my 30s and pulmonary embolism in my 40s – hadn’t intervened, I probably would have continued my unquestioning quest for purpose through productivity. 

Forget my PhD, my published articles, and my work experience; my greatest achievement to date is finally learning to listen to my body and waking up to the importance of ‘being’ as opposed to ‘doing’.

“To stop in the intransitive sense – to say no not to doing this or that but to doing anything, to just stop – is an assertion of autonomy, an invisible act of resistance against the tyranny of action.” (J. Cohen)

I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but if I were to, it would be to jump in as many muddy puddles as I possibly can this year. 

Welcome to the Roaring 20s

Happy new year everyone! The 2020s started with a roar and a bang, proving after only nine days that it’s not merely the new and improved 2010s. Just look at the evidence thus far:

The mad hatter in the White House has ‘taken out’ another mad hatter in Iran; such decisive action surely beats the House of Representatives’ wishy-washy impeachment fluff.

Thanks to finally having a majority government in place, the UK House of Commons has voted against protecting the right for unaccompanied child refugees to be reunited with their family after Brexit. For who needs parents anyway? Look at all these boarding school educated MPs, not to mention our very own prime minister; aren’t they all proof that families are for sissies?

Except, of course, in the case of the royal family. For shame on Harry and Meghan to opt out of that cosy family Christmas gathering at Sandringham, and then begin the new year by announcing they’re stepping back from royal duties.

What do they have to complain about? A bit of bullying from the press never hurt anyone; ‘sticks and stones can break your bones,’ and all that. As a caller to Nick Ferrari’s LBC programme pointed out this morning, “William also lost his mother, but he’s doing just fine.” “Kate Middleton was also an outsider, but she’s a credit to the royal family, so why can’t Meghan be more like her?” another caller said.

Racist abuse, what racist abuse? Britain isn’t racist, just ask Piers Morgan. He knows, 100%.

So, what if the British Academy Film Awards (Bafta) only nominated white men this year; is it their fault that all great films are made by, and featuring, white men?

No, no, this is the beginning of the roaring 2020s and tough luck if you can’t keep up. ‘Might makes right’ is back in fashion and if you don’t cut the mustard, it’s your own fault. These you don’t even have to be especially skilled at anything, because you can always ‘fail upwards’ (just ask the prime minister), so there’s no excuse for not making it in this world.

Blame the victim is the new parlour game and it’s going global. You were sexually assaulted while on holiday in Cyprus? Well, well, well, you should have known better than to hang out with a bunch of drunk lads. You died in a plane crash? Bad luck, but what business did you have going to Iran in the first place?

Forget about the three musketeers’ credo about all for one and one for all; the 2020s is going all ‘lord of the flies’. After 40 years of bondage, Great Britain is rising up again, and as the House of Commons made clear this week by voting against continued membership of the EU’s Erasmus education and youth programme, British youth don’t need European literature or education. No, no, we’re putting the Great back into Britain.

Yes, glory days are ahead of us (at least if you’re white, rich and preferably male).

Don't give me snake oil for Christmas

The newspaper lay spread out on the kitchen counter, with my 9-year old leaning over it.

“Look, mummy, someone’s found a dinosaur skeleton in England,” she exclaimed after a few minutes of concentrated silence and pushed the paper towards me.

I glanced at the article she was pointing to.

“Well, it looks like they may have found one,” I said, “but we don’t know for sure if it’s true.”

“But isn’t everything they write in newspapers true?” my daughter asked.

“Yes, but…” I began, for how do you begin to explain the era of fake news we live in to a child?

We teach our children to tell the truth, but perhaps more importantly, we need to teach them to critically evaluate information presented as facts.

Speaking of truth, the British grime artist Stormzy was recently criticised for telling a bunch of school kids at his old primary school that Boris Johnson is “a very, very bad man” and comparing him to the big bad wolf. Stormzy, of course, was merely giving a truthful answer to a question from a pupil.

Truth and facts may be foreign concepts to the prime minister, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t strive towards honesty in our communication with others, especially with children.

Disturbingly, plenty of people calling into radio shows or being interviewed on the streets in the weeks leading up to the election, said they knew that Johnson lies, but would still vote for him because he is ‘a fun guy’ compared to the dull and uninspiring Jeremy Corbyn.

And here we are, a week after the election that saw the ‘fun guy’ win big. As a result, Brexit will almost certainly happen by the end of January, and we can all look forward to at least five years of government led by a man utterly devoid of a moral compass.

It took him only a few days to start reneging on election promises, but at least he stays true to form.

Much of British media, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to think its job is to hold the prime minister to account, preferring instead to continue its obsessive maligning of the ‘Stalinist,’ ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘terrorist-loving’ Jeremy Corbyn who had the audacity to suggest that poor people are deserving of a decent life. He should have known better than to think that harping on about principles of fairness, equality and compassion would win him the election. Silly man.

But seriously, I’m with Stormzy and the school kids he visited; the snake oil charms of Boris Johnson don’t bite on me. And yes, truth still matters. Perhaps more than ever.

Swedish Cloggs and British Votes

When I pledged allegiance to Queen and country three months ago, I had to promise to “fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.” Well, dear reader, yesterday I did just that.

Donning my favourite pair of Swedish clogs, I shuffled – because after 40 odd years of practice I still can’t walk properly in clogs – a couple of blocks down from my house in north London and posted my ballot.

I could have waited a week of course, and voted on election day, but I prefer postal voting for some reason. Perhaps it’s the privacy that voting by post affords or the finality of it. For now, it matters not who comes knocking on my door, canvassing for my vote, because it’s too late.

Standing in front of the red mailbox on the street corner, wearing a tracksuit and clogs, I felt a sliver of excitement as I prepared to cast my vote, the first one since becoming a British citizen.

So, who did I vote for? Suffice to say, in my constituency, there are only three parties on offer: Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. And as you all know, I’d never vote Tory, just as I would never vote for a right-of-centre party in my native Sweden.

In the end, I chose not to vote ‘tactically,’ but voted with my heart. Most likely, my vote will make no difference at all since I live in a Tory seat, but as my therapist says, we must live in hope or life will be unbearable.

‘Hope’ – that’s a big word, and sometimes I wonder if there’s any hope left in me; hope for a better world for my children, prospective grandchildren and future generations. While a student of international relations in my 20s, I steadfastly believed in progress; I believed that democracy would win the day, and that life would keep improving for everyone on this beautiful planet. Alas, twenty years later, I haven’t just lost my youthful looks (as my kids like to remind me, each time they spot another grey strand of hair on my head) but also my idealism.

As if the political outlook wasn’t glum enough, I recently came across an article I’d saved to read ‘at a later date,’ and now I wish I hadn’t. For in it, British architect, and Leonard Cohen-look-alike, Mayer Hillman offers his final word on the state of the world: “We’re doomed.”

A lifelong cyclist who stopped flying more than 20 years ago as part of a personal commitment to reducing his carbon footprint, Hillman believes that optimism about the future is wishful thinking.

“Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

No, and yet that is what it takes to save the planet.

I do wonder what Hillman made of Channel 4’s climate debate last week, featuring most party leaders as well as a couple of ice sculptures. I suspect he was less than impressed, which brings me back to next week’s general election.

One of the reasons I posted my ballot more than a week before the election, is that no manifesto, no canvassing, no political debate was going to sway me. After all, it’s little more than hype and empty promises designed to win the vote. Once a new government is installed, their election manifesto will be null and void. So, I cast my vote, not on the basis of election manifestos, but according to which party’s overall principles and values lie closest to my own. Even if I don’t love their leader.

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This Ain’t Churchill vs Stalin

Looking to negotiate an increase in the amount of pocket money she receives, my 9-year old drives a hard bargain.

“It’s not my fault I was born three years after my sister. So why should I get less pocket money than her?”

She’s got a point, but life is unfair, I say, “so get used to it.”

Not one to accept defeat, my daughter continues to offer a range of arguments for why she deserves a higher allowance.

“You’re quite the capitalist,” I say with a smile.

“I’m not a capitalist,” she protests and stamps her foot on the floor, “I’m a social democrat.” Deeply offended by my insult, she disappears into her room, slamming the door behind her.

Later, I try to make amends by pointing out that lots of people are capitalists (including members of her family) and very happy to be defined as such. My efforts to cast this -ism in a brighter light falls on deaf ears, however, for my daughter simply retorts,

“If Boris Johnson is a capitalist, then I’m not!”

She’s a primary school child, but that doesn’t stop her from seeing through the lies of the prime minister. If only more people would do the same, especially those old enough to vote on 12 December. For if polls are to be trusted, the Tories are on course to win a majority in the upcoming elections.

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How is it even possible for Johnson to be in the lead when there is growing evidence of a Tory plan to sell off the NHS, as part of a trade deal with the US; and years of Tory-led austerity measures has exacerbated inequality and poverty across Britain?

Listening to the radio while doing the school run, I’m flabbergasted by the number of people openly saying that even though they know Johnson is a liar and a cheat, they will still vote for him, “because nothing could be worse than a government led by Jeremy Corbyn.” Come on, people, let’s get real: Corbyn is no more the next Stalin than Johnson is the new Churchill.

Yet, as long as Johnson keeps large parts of the British media on his side, he effectively enjoys a carte blanche, allowing him to say and do whatever he likes without serious consequence. He will still get more favourable press than Corbyn whose character has been under constant assault ever since he was voted Labour leader. Only this week, media has had a field day casting the Labour leader and the party he represents as antisemitic, while conveniently ignoring evidence of antisemitism, islamophobia and racism in the Tory party.

I’m not a great fan of Jeremy Corbyn, but I am a passionate believer in the welfare state, a legacy of my largely social democratic Swedish childhood, I suppose. Health and education are basic human rights, enshrined in the UN Convention, not commodities to be traded on the market.

As I’ve said before, judge not society by the extent of its economic growth, but by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. In Britain, austerity measures have meant sizeable cuts in support for the elderly, disabled and ill, creating a society where ruthless competition is rewarded at the expense of compassion and solidarity.

While I’m not an economist, I’ve come to believe capitalism is part of the problem, not the solution, to inequality and poverty. What’s more, capitalism’s fundamental dependence on perpetual growth is wreaking havoc on the natural world whose resources are far from unlimited.

For all the reasons mentioned here, and many more, I believe another five years of Tory government would be far more disastrous for society and for the environment than would a Corbyn-led Socialist government. “Don’t make the same mistake we did,” my American friends warn me. Far from being the new Churchill, Johnson is at best a blander version of Trump.

My True Self

It’s been almost two years since I stopped drinking alcohol. As much as I enjoyed having a glass of wine with my dinner, not to mention champagne, I wasn’t enjoying the headache and bad mood that followed, so I decided to quit. It was a personal decision and in no way a moral one, yet I was taken aback by the number of people who seemed to take my no-booze policy as an affront to their own alcohol consumption.

“Go, on have a glass, it won’t hurt you,” they’d say when I declined a drink. It was as if my drinking would make them feel better about their own drinking.

As recently as last summer, I was a committed meat-eater, sometimes joking that if there’s only one lamb left standing on earth, I’ll eat it. “Because I need the protein.”

Yet, for reasons of personal health, combined with concern for the environment, I decided to give up meat a month ago. I thought it would be difficult, that the temptation to eat a juicy steak would be too much to resist, but it’s been surprisingly easy. True, it’s only been a month since I stopped eating meat but, without going into any intimate details, my digestive system has never been so happy.

But, just as people were provoked by my decision to quit alcohol, so some have been less than enthusiastic about my no-meat policy.

“Don’t tell me you’re going vegan and all,” some sneer, “where are you going to get your protein from?”

Actually, I get plenty of protein from beans and vegetables, and I’m already noticing the health benefits of not eating meat. That said, I make no judgement about those who choose to eat meat, including my children. I have no intention to moralise about the virtues of a meat-free diet; I’m merely doing what works best for me.

For years now, my health has been something I don’t take for granted, and as I grow older, I am finally learning to listen to my body rather than relying on the received wisdom of others. That is what’s ultimately behind my change in diet.

Just as I’m listening to my body, so I’m learning to listen to my heart. As a result, I’m beginning to question the beliefs, values and preferences that I’ve always assumed were mine, and I’m discovering that I actually don’t agree with all of them. Does this mean that I am not who I thought I was, who others think I am? To some extent, yes. For it would seem that underneath that posh, intellectual, liberal-minded exterior, lurks a rebellious radical who’s aching to come out.

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Politics and the Bogeyman

thSocialist or capitalist? Take the test. Those words are from a children’s book on politics, which my 9-year old daughter currently favours, and she delights in testing everyone who enters through our front door. Depending on your answers, you’ll end up either as a pure socialist, pure capitalist, mixed capitalist, or a social democrat.

Given my daughter’s penchant for negotiating pocket money, I worried the test might reveal her as a pure capitalist, but she tested positive as a social democrat, as did I.

That I should turn out to be a social democrat was expected given my Scandinavian roots, but I was pleased to see that my political-minded Scandi genes had passed on to my British born daughter. Especially as aged five, she displayed some worrying tendencies towards English nationalism when she suggested that I, her Swedish mother, should move back to Sweden where I belonged.

Said daughter, by the way, refused to let her dad tuck her in last night because she’d had an argument with him and compared him unfavourably to Boris Johnson whom she considers to be the Bogeyman.

“You wouldn’t let Boris Johnson tuck me in, would you?” she responded angrily to her dad when he tried to make peace with her.

As for that test in her politics book, I am beginning to think it’s rigged because most people who’ve been tested by my daughter, have turned out to be social democrats, with the notable exception of her teenage sister who tested positive as a mixed capitalist.

Whether my theory about Scandinavians being genetically prone to social democracy is correct or not, is about to be tested at our next family gathering which happens to be New Year’s Eve. As part of the evening’s entertainment, my daughter has promised to have everyone tested, including her Swedish uncles, English and American aunts, and Trinidadian grandmother. Surely, nothing can go wrong.

But seriously, growing up in Sweden in the 70s and 80s did have an impact on my socio-political values. For example, nothing can shake my fundamental belief that everyone has a right to free healthcare and education and that it is the state’s responsibility to make such provisions.

As the British election campaign kicks off, politicians of all persuasions profess their undying devotion to the NHS whilst doctors and nurses continue to warn of the NHS’ impending collapse in the face of years of government cutbacks.

Poverty, meanwhile, is on the rise as a direct result of Tory-imposed austerity measures that have disproportionally affected the already worse off members of society. With the cost of living often being higher than the average worker’s salary, families struggle to put food on the table and have to resort to food banks and charities. That’s wholly unacceptable in a country as rich as Britain.

Should billionaires be allowed? That’s been an issue of some debate in British media lately, and while I’m not going to engage with the discussion, suffice to say, that philanthropy can never be a substitute for government policies aimed at delivering adequate services to people in need. And yes, I do believe in taxing billionaires to high heaven, because there is something very wrong with the world when 1% of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’ $112bn fortune is equivalent to the whole health budget for Ethiopia, a country of 105 million people.

Few things make me combust like people telling me that the world is becoming a better place, with absolute poverty and infant mortality dropping, and war being less deadly than ever and so on. For even if that’s statistically true, it’s also true that wealth is increasingly and unfairly concentrated among a privileged few while millions of people live in poverty. That is not progress.

Ultimately, the progress and wellbeing of a country should be judged not by how well the richest do, but by how it treats its most vulnerable members.

November Musings

November – officially it is still autumn, but with the clocks turned back and the darkness descending on us an hour earlier than I’d like, it feels more like the beginning of winter. Or the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s the time of year when I wish I could do what bears do and go into hibernation until the spring. Imagine going to sleep for months and not having to deal with the stress brought on by general elections, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Brexit. What bliss!

But I’m not a bear and unfortunately – since I hate cooking – my kids need to be fed on a daily basis and given a decent amount of motherly care, so I continue to drag myself out bed each morning, lest I can convince my husband to get up before me.

While I can’t hibernate like a bear, I can grow hair like a bear. Well, almost. I’m not talking about the frizzy hair on my head; I’m talking about the growing forest on my legs and under my arms. No, I’m not trying to make a feminist statement about body hair, it’s just that November weather – cold, wet, and windy – demands an extra layer of protection. At least that’s the explanation for why women grow hair on their bodies that I give my nine-year-old when she asks why I’m so hairy, and she’s not.

“Whatever, it’s still gross,” she responds, clearly unconvinced by my argument.

Admittedly, hairy legs are not terribly attractive, whether on a man or a woman, but as long as I’m less hairy than my husband, I won’t let my hair bother me just yet.

[On a side note, this time last year I wrote a blog in praise of bushy eyebrows so there really must be something about November and women’s hair growth.]

But seriously, why is women’s body hair such a contentious issue? I can’t even remember when I started worrying about my body hair, but I’m pretty sure I was at least eighteen before I first shaved my legs. And I can’t recall my mother ever suggesting I should remove any unsightly body hair (thanks, mum!). I was horrified, therefore, to hear mothers of twelve-year-old girls – friends of my daughter’s – fretting over their own daughters’ growing body hair. Is it appropriate for a twelve-year-old girl to wear a sleeveless summer dress that reveals the hair under her arms? Yes, absolutely!

One of the best things about growing older, I find, is that with each passing year, I care less and less about what other people think of me. My only regret is that I wasted so much of my youth worrying about others’ opinions. For example, I was in my early 20s when someone I admired first suggested I pluck my eyebrows to look prettier. For years afterwards, I had them plucked on a regular basis until I became a mother and my eyebrows quickly lost any importance.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pluck your eyebrows if you like, or shave your legs if that tickles your fancy, but don’t do it because someone else expects you to.

Me? I’m sticking with my hairy body until spring.

Each to their own!

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Who’s Got Santa’s Vote?

Zut alors!

If only President Macron had made good on his threat to block another Brexit extension, but I should have known, you can’t trust politicians, whether they’re British or French.

For months I’d been planning my Brexit Halloween outfit – I was going as a zombie Theresa May with my blond 3-year old nephew as a mini-Boris to accompany me. But it’s just as well we’re not leaving the EU this week because my nephew would rather go as a ‘mummy cat’. Having seen the adorable outfit he’s picked out, I can’t blame him for not wanting to dress up as a lying politician. So, I’ll probably go as my default character – a mean mother – for which, my children reliably inform me, no dress-up is required.

With no Brexit in sight, I have little use of my shiny new British passport (which, disappointingly, isn’t blue). At least my newly acquired citizenship entitles me to vote in the upcoming December election. With a Brexit Halloween off the table, a Christmas election is a decidedly less exciting alternative. I can’t say I am jumping for joy at the prospect, what with the choices on offer: a racist party, an antisemitic party, a deluded party run by a woman with a massive Napoleon complex, or a one-woman party that’s only popular in Brighton.

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I’m under no illusion that the upcoming election is going to help sort out the gordian knot that led to it: Brexit. Although I would have preferred if Britain remained an EU member, I’m not in favour of revoking Article 50, because that would be like pissing on the millions of people who voted for Brexit in good faith and who are not entitled Tory voters.

That said, the deal that Boris Johnson negotiated with the EU is a terrible one and would make life harder for everyone who’s not filthy rich. And given the narrow margin with which the Leave vote won the referendum, there’s no mandate for a hard Brexit, let alone a no-deal Brexit.

In the spirit of Halloween, therefore, I propose that parliament resurrect Theresa May’s deal from the dead, a deal that no one liked but which wasn’t quite as disastrous as Johnson’s deal. If you must, put the deal to the people in another referendum, but remember, divorces tend to leave everyone feeling a bit rubbish, and Brexit is no different.

But I fear the yuletide election will return another hung parliament and we’ll be no closer to resolving Brexit. Unless it turns out that Santa votes Tory and hands Boris Johnson the majority he needs to push through his Brexit deal. Might we then have a Brexit New Year’s Eve?

While politicians fight like spoilt brats over Brexit, the country is reeling from neglect. The NHS is at breaking point after years of cutbacks; air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 deaths every year and leaves hundreds of thousands suffering from long-term health problems; and years of austerity have hit the most vulnerable members of society the hardest.

Whatever you think of Brexit, one thing is clear: this country deserves better than another five years of Tory politics.