It’s the year of the Sats

stripy heart-shaped lollipops

A heart-shaped lollipop with her name on; an owl made out of shells; a collection of painted pebbles stuck on a slightly bigger pebble with the sign ‘Rock Concert’; a pencil, ruler, rubber and sharpener set and a pair of ankle boots with a two-inch heel.

This is what my daughter got for practising an 11-plus paper every day of the summer holidays last year, including when we were actually away on holiday.

rock concert pebbles

Cute AND witty – what’s not to like?

You may sniff at bribery and instant rewards but they worked; it was the hardest she has ever studied for anything, but it scraped her into grammar school.

It was a good lesson. If you work hard, if you make a sacrifice, if you put in the hours then you get a reward. At the time, getting into a good school wasn’t exactly her idea of a glittering prize. But the rock concert pebbles? That really did it. Even if she didn’t get a place, she’s still got the pebbles and the owl.

shell owl

The prize for doing a mock exam every day of the holidays. I know the value of a good bribe


When my stepdaughters tackled their GCSEs and A-Levels, they had grown past the heart-shaped lollipop stage. For them, getting good grades was the reward. These were the hard-won tickets to the next stop in their education, the key to opening the door to the next step in their lives.

This is why we put ourselves through exams, to achieve something, to move onwards and upwards, to make our families proud and boost our own self-esteem.

Except, of course, when it comes to bloody Sats.

The Sats – Standard Assessment Tests – are supposed to measure how your child is doing in maths and English, and how they compare to ten and eleven-year-olds in the rest of the country. This is important, apparently, to the Government, to the education authorities, to the schools and to the teachers. But not the poor little sods who actually have to take the bloody tests.

black ankle boots

Inappropriate for an 11-year-old? I DON’T CARE

My daughter’s teachers have been banging on about Sats since last September. They have been holding maths booster classes instead of music lessons, handing out holiday revision packs and conducting mock exam after mock exam. A friend was taken out of her beloved PE class in order to practise joined-up writing; three years ago my son had to give up his hugely enjoyable violin lessons to concentrate on arithmetic. He never picked up an instrument again. Waytogo, Sats.

Parents were invited to a special evening where we were given advice on how to remember grammar rules and told to bring our children in for the tests even if they were ill. “One class I had were struck with food poisoning from a party the day before so we had sick buckets all around the classroom,” one teacher told us proudly.

Sats suck. The stress is terrible, with some children in my stepdaughter’s year working themselves up into such a state they were shaking before they went into school. Preparing for them overshadows the last year of primary school to no purpose, other than ensure the school has a half-decent league table ranking and the teachers hang onto their jobs. It leaches away the sheer joy in learning that children have at that age, and replaces it with the need to understand the pluperfect tense.

A Sat exam and a broken pencil

Sats suck

Children have enough exam stress waiting for them when they get to senior school; 11 is too young to be worrying about making the grade. And what possible benefit can there be in telling a 11-year-old they aren’t as clever as most of the other 11-year-olds in the country, that they are ‘below average’. It doesn’t get them extra tuition or sent to a different school. It just makes them feel a failure.

And if they do come out above average, what’s the point, apart from making the headteacher feel smug? They don’t get a certificate, a bang-on job or letters after their name. All that hard work, all year, for sod all.

There are a lot of things you can work your backside off for that ultimately come to nothing, such as weeding ground elder, ironing sheets, getting through level 147 on Candy Crush or knitting socks (too big. Always too big). All of them are more worthwhile than Sats.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public” – Winston Churchill.

Why do our brains want us to be fat?

Runners in the London Marathon

Some new research has shown that regular exercise not only staves off heart disease, diabetes, stroke risk and some cancers but also helps keep your brain healthy, so you are less likely to succumb to dementia.
This isn’t really news – scientists and doctors have been banging on about the amazing benefits of regular exercise for generations.
With this in mind, I watched the London Marathon at the weekend and then heard that a friend is now in training for an ultra-marathon (50 miles).

Marathon bar

For those of you that didn’t know what Snickers used to be. Don’t get me started on Opal Fruits


Why? We all chorus. Why do they do it? I’d rather eat a Marathon for 26 miles than run one (that’s a joke for everyone over 45).
But we all know why – being fit makes you feel bloody brilliant. Your sleep is better and you need less of it; your energy levels are higher and stay higher; you automatically eat healthier food and – and here’s a cracking bit – you can get away with eating more, so can shrug off the odd shashlik chicken or plain chocolate Bounty. Aches and pains melt away, you get up from a chair without saying ‘oof’ and can run for a bus, the school pick-up or last orders without being sick.
On top of that is the mental benefits. I don’t mean the amount of oxygen in your brain means you are likely to be staving off Alzheimer’s disease. I mean the sheer, heartwarming smugness of knowing you are in good shape.
Better shape than the cow-flanked families queuing into the car park at McDonalds; better than that bloke at work who has a Wispa and two cans of Coke for his breakfast and whose breathing sounds like a rusty old boiler; better than the expanding backside of the woman rolling down the supermarket aisle, trolley loaded with fun-size Bounty bars and family pack Doritos.
Runners

Look how happy she is – how healthy, how charmingly smug


You are slim; you are fit; you wear trainers and leggings because they are your workout gear, not your couch clothes – you are better than everyone else in the room.
It’s a no-brainer that being fit brings nothing but good. Only it isn’t. A no-brainer that is.
Because, if it was, we’d all be running marathons and chomping on bananas instead of Bounties. And we aren’t, because our brains don’t let us.
You can rationalise it much as you like, read up on the medical evidence, imagine yourself two sizes slimmer and eight sizes smugger, but it doesn’t stop you ordering chicken korma with rice and a side of Bombay potatoes and a peshwari nan and poppudoms and dips. For the fifth time in a month.
And anyone who has staggered their way through a run, or cycled round the park, or got to the end of an exercise class knows without a shadow of a doubt how good, how euphoric you feel afterwards. For a long time afterwards too, right into the next day when your stiff legs and aching arms are a cause for secret smug smiles.
But, as far as your brain is concerned, none of this trumps the ten minutes of pleasure to be gained from shoving a bowl of profiteroles down your neck. And even that isn’t unadulterated – you are wracked with guilt, or anger or misery at having given in. Yet still you do it.
Why brain, why?
Why isn’t the brain strong enough to say no? To remind you how much better everything is when you are fit, and how shit you will feel afterwards? What’s going on with evolution that the dubious short term delight of a tub of Ben & Jerrys with squirty cream and Golden Syrup will have you dumping the diet? Shouldn’t the threat of diabetes and heart disease have bred this need out of us?
A green apple

You should be reaching for this…


…instead you want this. And you want it SO MUCH


So why is it hardwired to go for the sugar and fat option? Does this go back to the Stone Age? Were there fur-loincloth wearing fatties, spreading their grilled dandelion leaves with mammoth fat and dipping their fingers into honeycombs? Can’t see it somehow – you needed to be fit and thin to run away from rampaging mammoths and swarming bees.
Or have we short-circuited nature with our statins and heart bypasses? Does our brain know, deep down, that it doesn’t matter if we spend our lives porking out in a chair because Medicine will sort it all out?
But even if this is the case, being fat and unfit feels shite, and being fat and unfit and sick feels even shitter. And your brain knows this, as it persuades you to drive to Pizza Hut instead of the swimming pool.
I have come up with two possibilities: The first is that our brains simply hate us. They tell us what we should be doing to make ourselves feel great, then go and make us do the opposite. Our brains want to upset us, to make us depressed, to feel like failures, to get ill.
Or: Our brains are really stupid. They want short-term gratification, to live for the day, to be comfy. They want profiteroles.

This place is lit up like a castle, and other grown-up phrases

I recently had a significant birthday, which kinda took me by surprise, because I thought by the time I got to this milestone I would have grown up.
Trying to remember what my parents were like at this age is hard. As a child, even a so-called grown up one, you are so self-centred you can’t see anything from anyone else’s point of view.
Only now, with an electricity bill the equivalent to the GDP of a small country, do I realise what Dad’s beef was when he stormed around the house snarling “this place is lit up like a bloody castle” and turning all the lights off.

A barn without a door

Where you born in a bloody barn?

And while I’m on the subject, what’s with leaving the doors open all the time? It doesn’t matter that you are coming back into the room in half an hour’s time, my ankles are bloody freezing now.

Some of the stuff I can remember is the things I thought grown-ups should do, the things I was determined I would do once I crossed the shining threshold into grownupness.

What you say you will do
In the 70s, my mum’s favourite chocolates were Black Magic, and Dad bought her a box at Christmas, Easter and on her birthday. I don’t know how, but she made them last ages, starting with the Liquid Cherry and finishing up with the Hazelnut Cluster weeks later. Not me, I vowed. When I am grown up, I will buy a whole box of Black Magic chocolates and eat it all to myself, all in one day.
And why you can’t
Calories. Fat content. Fear of cholesterol levels. Deep-seated guilt. And the fact they don’t make old fashioned Black Magic anymore and I can’t be doing with a truffle.

What you say you will do
Call in sick to work and go to the beach. You can’t do this at school. You need a parent and a note and a way of getting to the beach. But when you work, you can just tell them you’ve got flu and have a free day off – why not do it every month?
And why you can’t
You just don’t. The obligation – to your colleagues, to the faceless monolith that pays your salary – is too strong. And there is the nagging feeling that you are jinxing it somehow. The irrational idea that by taking a day off you don’t deserve you will not get the time off when you do need it. This is total grownupness

What you say you will do
Stay in the house, on the settee and watch TV all day.
And why you can’t
Your back will seize up with all the inactivity, the children will need feeding and you need to get up to sign for the Tesco delivery.

What you say you will do

Here comes the dawn – how bad do you feel? (http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com)

Stay up all night. Bedtime is for boring losers.
And why you can’t
It makes you feel shit. That horrible cold feeling in your chest when the sickly light of dawn filters through and you realise you have to be in work in an hour. The days it takes for your body clock to sort itself out. Shudder.

What you say you will do
Rejoice every evening and weekend. When I stayed on to do my A Levels, a lot of my friends got jobs (or went on YTS schemes. This was the 80s). Whenever they moaned at how they dull it was, how they hated it, how much better school was, I bridled. When you are in education, it never leaves you. There is always another book you can read, some more notes you can write up, a bit more revision you can do. When you work, your evenings, weekend and holidays are yours alone. Joy.
And why you can’t
Education is interesting. Work isn’t. Work is riven with office politics and fear, learning about Napoleon isn’t. You are never free of work, you spend all evening checking your work emails, all weekend worrying about your Monday morning meeting.

An old box of Black Magic chocolates

I can remember what every single one of these beauties tasted like

What you say you will do
Lose weight easily, as all the food in the house will be food you have brought. It will all be carob-coated rice cakes and baked potatoes, not chocolate cake, Tizer and frozen pizzas.
And why you can’t
Because when it comes to buying your own food the last thing you bloody want is a carob-coated rice cake. What you want is a whole box of Black Magic chocolates.

Price of friendship

A twenty pound note

I don’t live particularly close to my closest friend; we keep in touch via long, witty (her), whining (me) texts, and meet up maybe four times a year for a breathless jaunt around Hull’s finest gown emporiums (Zara and Oasis) and a long lunch at for wherever we have a voucher.

We share a lot – misery at our working lives, exasperation at the uselessness of everyone else in our lives; vicious jealousy at anyone who has more than one pair of nude heels.

One thing we have always shared is a lack of cash. First world problems, I know, as we both have (albeit draughty) roofs over our heads, healthy and exceptionally bright children and are both, of course, intelligent and devastatingly attractive.

empty red purse

My purse, always

But there is never enough money to be able to relax – to go to Waitrose and not Aldi, to not have a purse bulging with loyalty cards, to not feel sick when the credit card bills arrive with their hideous inevitability.

It is all down to choices, mine more than hers. She is a not-by-choice single mum (though I don’t think she’d have it any other way now) and has become a full-time carer.

I married a man with more children than you can shake a stick at and decided to work part-time in order to chase after said children. Doesn’t stop me yearning for a weekend in Center Parcs with all the other middle classes though.

Things got pretty rubbish five years ago. Pretty ‘I’ve had enough of this shit I’m out of here’ rubbish. She was there as I staggered through it, offering concern and advice (‘Have some vodka’). She couldn’t make it all alright – but she tried.

She bought me a book I had been wanting (one about being frugal, as it happened) and tucked inside was an envelope with £100 in it.

I was overwhelmed, touched and appalled. You can’t accept money off friends – it just messes up the balance of the relationship. She had always given me bags and bags of outgrown children’s clothes, which were always gratefully accepted, but five purple twenty pound notes in a creamy white envelope was a different thing. And she couldn’t afford it – how could she?

I put the envelope back in the book and resolved not to spend it – I would give it her back ‘when everything sorted itself out’.

Years passed.

I never forgot the envelope. Every now and then I would raid it – once to pay for a school trip, once to buy a pair of much needed boots, once just to fund an emergency trip to the Co-op when I knew we were on our overdraft limit. At first I replaced the twenties I took out. At first…

an exam paper

**shivers**

Last summer my daughter was studying for the 11+ exam, in the hope of getting in a nearby grammar school. The test papers I got off Amazon were so perplexing I got hold of a tutor to walk her through them. This teacher knew her stuff, but was terribly expensive. What price your children’s future though, eh?

At the last session before the bloody test I realised I didn’t have the money to pay for the tutor, so scrabbled through my book for The Envelope. Inside, along with my friend’s lovely note, was the last twenty pound note. I handed it over with a leaden heart, as if I had failed our friendship. The tutor took it without a second glance.

After much stress and a few tears, my daughter took the test. It all seemed a long time ago when we found out this week that she has got a place at the school of dreams. I feel as if we have done the best we could to ensure she has every chance for a shining future full of glittering prizes.

This means nothing to my daughter. All she is worried about is leaving her friends. It is impossible to tell an 11-year-old this, but she needn’t worry. Friends – the true, solid gold ones – don’t just disappear. You might not hear from them for weeks, but they are still there, still hanging on just as you are hanging on and they never forget you – just as you never forget them, and the good things they have done.

Hear that? Not any more, you don’t

Blue cap milk bottles

We just started getting our milk delivered by a milkman again. This is ruinously expensive, but saves the 7am misery of discovering it’s black coffee and biscuits for breakfast.
But – and who knew? – milkmen (aren’t there any milkwomen?) don’t deliver in bottles any more. It comes in those massive plastic cartons. This is more convenient and keeps the milk fresher but just isn’t as nice.
The sound of a milkfloat clinking down the street at 5am is a sound you don’t hear anymore, as is the lovely glug of washing-up water as you rinse the bottle out before putting it on the front step for the morning.
You don’t read about sounds in history books, but they chronicle our age. How weird is it when there is a power cut and the house isn’t filled with the constant background hum of a dozen electrical appliances? Or those odd times when you are out at 3am and you can’t hear a single car?
OK, I’m not reminiscing about hearing the whinny of horses instead of engines or the town crier instead of the BBC (I’m not quite that old). But there are so many nearly dead sounds out there – cue list:

  • Bells – you don’t hear real bells much any more. I got a new telephone system thing and there are dozens of plinky-plonk ringtones but not one of them even tries to imitate an actual bell. Similarly, the church in our village has a tape that it plays every Sunday, because ringing the real bells is in danger of shaking the church tower to bits.
  • Telephone bell ringing on the street from a call box, or on a garage forecourt.
  • Segs (or drawing pins) on the bottom of boots (usually Dr Martens) – the clacking sound the cool boys wearing them make as they walk down the bus.

    Oh, the happy hours...

    Oh, the happy hours…

  • The eerie chimes of the PlayStation One starting up, and the pause and hum when you meet an important part of the gameplay and the game readies itself for a new level or a major battle. (I’m talking about the first appearance of the Licker in Resident Evil 2 **shivers**).
  • The long toneless tone after Closedown at the end of TV pogrammes, usually around 20 past midnight, after the National Anthem.
  • Car alarms going off down the street after a heavy thunderstorm/high wind/a sunny day. Car alarms were a new thing in the 80s, everyone had them fitted and they were a bit rubbish.
  • The swish of garden sprinklers in the 70s. Like car alarms in the 80s – everyone suddenly bought one.
  • Radio Luxembourg fading out to French programmes.

    old school blackboard rubber

    Fond memories of the day mild-mannered Mr Woodford hurled it across the English classroom

  • The soft whoosh of a board rubber on a blackboard. It’s all whiteboards now. Whoever owned the blackboard rubber factory must have gone bust.
  • A real alarm clock – ticking and then going off. Still makes me shudder with memories of getting up for school.
  • Rotary dial phones. Took ten minutes to dial a number, but it sounded good.
  • The cranking on of a camera film. Impossible to explain to anyone brought up with camera phones.
  • Typewriter keys. A right bloody racket when there were half a dozen of them being bashed away in a newsroom. And nothing has replaced the pain of jamming your finger down between the keys.
  • A ticking, chiming clock. Back to bells again.
  • A cash register. Like typewriter keys followed by a telephone bell chime. Double joy.
  • A ding-dong doorbell. People don’t do doorbells anymore. They text to say ‘I’m outside the door’.
  • Dustin lids being banged together or blowing off down the street, or the general noise and clanging of dustbin day.

    Old fashioned ring pull on a pop can

    The misery when the ring bit broke off and you couldn’t get to your drink

  • The sound of a ring-pull being carefully pulled off a can of pop.
  • Tin cans blowing down the street. Don’t know why this doesn’t happen any more – you don’t get people kicking cans down the street either. Are they all being recycled?
  • A china teapot pouring into a cup. Alright, I know people still have teapots (myself included) but mostly it is a bag in a mug.
  • A whistling kettle. Followed by the desperate pounding of someone hurtling downstairs, or in from the back yard, to grab it off the gas before it boiled dry.
  • The satisfying but slightly soft click when you manually unlock a car door from the inside by pulling up the knob.
  • The whoosh of flame when you light the grill or the oven or the gas fire in the lounge with a match because the ignition broke years ago.
  • A school bell being rung by hand.
  • A video cassette rewinding. Whirr and clunk. You still can’t convince me that DVDs are an improvement.

    TDK cassette tape

    TDK tapes – gone but never forgotten

  • Playing a cassette tape into your car – the plastic rattle as you miss the slot then push it in and it clunks into place.
  • Newspaper sellers shouting “Ler Fer” (Late Final).
  • The crackle of the needle hitting the record, the soft thunk through the speakers as it engages.
  • Rag and bone men, on horse-drawn carts, yodelling “Ergeeeeeeerrrb!” and giving you a balloon if your mum came out with an old toaster for them or something.
  • Dial up internet. It got so you could tell from the noise whether it was going to connect or not.
  • Whistling. No-one whistles anymore. Thank gods.

 

I don’t hide the cables anymore

Our walls are made of the kind of stuff sugar lumps are made of. They look perfectly sound and reasonable, but as soon as you go near them with anything approaching a sharp point they crumble away to dust. Most of our pictures are stuck up with a combination of No More Nails and Blu-tac.

Soooo, the phone socket just dropped out of the wall, leaving a big sugary hole and no way of plugging the phone in upstairs without extensive restoration work involving something called ballast.

I reconciled myself to not being able to hear the phone unless I was standing next to it, but my father-in-law, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of every electrical item Amazon has ever stocked, knew better.

US diner phone

Look at it! It’s so fabulous

For my birthday he bought me a jazzy new phone set up, which only needs one socket for the base phone while the rest of the handsets just plug into your proper solid British three-pin electrical affairs.

It took me fifteen minutes to plug it all in and set it up, and most of that was spent choosing the ringtone, which were all either awful, terrible or really, really shite. Now we have phones all over the house, and they light up and play electronic tunes and show the time as well, so we don’t need clocks anymore either.

new Gigaset phone

The new phone. Alright, it works, but stylish it ain’t

This is undoubtedly an improvement, but with each phone I plugged in, a little bit of my soul withered.

When I first moved into this house, I spent years slowly doing it up, trying to get it to look as close to how it would have been when it was built (1928) but with central heating, Netflix and super fast broadband, obvs.

I had paint specially mixed, sourced door handles from reclamation yards, painted a cocktail cabinet in nail varnish because I couldn’t find the right paint tones I wanted.

blue drinks cabinet

The nail-varnished drinks cabinet. See, it’s true

I had two phones – a clever replica of an American diner phone and an original chrome 1930’s affair, with a proper dial and real bells instead of a ringtone.

The diner phone has always sounded as if you are actually making a call in America, using a cocoa tin and a piece of string. The chrome phone, while crystal clear, took five minutes to dial a number (they were invented when you just called the operator) and you could never dial 1 to be put through to the complaints department or tap in your date of birth.

So, they were pretty useless as actual phones, but they looked bloody fantastic and sounded great every time that nice woman called, concerned about my lack of PPI claims.

I pulled up carpet to hide the extension wires, even stuck wallpaper over some cables, and dabbed others with paint to make them invisible, because I wanted it to look perfect.

It's not quite this bad...

It’s not quite this bad…

Is it the fact that I have grown up and stopped being so precious (I used to keep the DVD player in a drawer because it wasn’t authentic looking. Like, that was practical) that has made me just plug these new phones in, oblivious to whether they match the colour scheme (of course they don’t. I also once painted a TV bronze to match a room), and let their ugly cables trail merrily over windowsills and across the floor?

Or have I lost my sense of style, my perfectionism, have I let my standards slip, preferring convenience and the mainstream over authenticity and originality?

Or am I absolutely climbing too much up my own backside? Whether my phone matches my bookshelf shouldn’t really be dominating my thoughts in the weeks after a ruinously expensive Christmas at the arse-end of what has been one of the worst years for global upsets we can remember.

A friend, whose new curtains I was admiring, said she thought they were “too blue” but didn’t care. “When I was younger I would rather have sat here with a bare window than curtains I didn’t like. I wanted it all perfect. Now I live in the real world.”

And maybe that’s it. All the previous me, the one who ordered a mirrored bathroom cabinet from Italy because I liked its shape (**weeps at the thought of the expense**), had to worry about was how to hang an Art Deco mirror on a wall made out of brown sugar. Four children, three jobs, one husband and a near bankruptcy later, hiding a couple of cables has been shoved a bit further down the priority list. And it is a long, long list.