I was a competitive type once.

Whoever doubts this didn’t know me fifteen years ago when I got into vetschool (start Werther’s Original music here).  Back when getting into Vetschool was Hard.

My UCAS form looked like this:

A-levels (taken for granted)

Music grades 8, 7 and 5

Queen’s Guide Award

Chief Guide’s Challenge

Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s

Assistant Guide Leader

Ranger Guide

local band and orchestra member

County windband too.

School debating society

Young Engineers

School productions

One day a week volunteering at City Farm

Six months as an afterschool kennel-maid

Soooo many weeks observating at local vets

A week spent harassing abattoir workers

….and summer harrassing a dairy farmer’s entire family

….Easter, the Duchess Of Devonshire’s lambing squad

….Summer, the biologists at Scarborough Sea-Life Centre.

My diary was crazy; my revision timetable insane.  The teachers dreaded me putting my head around the science staffroom door. I didn’t get into vetschool by being born ‘clever:’ I was just obsessed and my obsession paid off.

But any early confidence was shattered when I met the other vet students on day one. They seemed so sure of themselves, already like vets. They could talk about vetty things all day; had opinions on nearly everything; could squeeze six long medical words into every sentence.

I quickly identified myself as the group’s imposter.   I became a self-confessed low-achiever, setting myself basic standards which I struggled to meet.  I threw up in my first night-club, learned to kiss and plotted side-steps into alternative careers.

But anyway:  this post is not about me learning to be a vet.  It is about going running. When I go running, I don’t compete with anybody except myself.  To be honest I rarely bother to compete with her.  I just enjoy jogging a bit, harbouring vague hopes of getting fitter and of one day being so fit that I can utter the words ‘Bob Graeme’ without irony.

Now meet our friends, Gareth and Naomi.  At first glance, similar to us: young professionals; young families; keen on the phrase ‘work-life-balance.’  And yet, so different.

Gareth and Naomi have challenged us to race them in the Nine Edges Challenge (21 miles).  They are so good that we get a two-hour head start.


Naomi:  ‘It’s eight miles today.’

Liz: ‘Really?  I hadn’t reckoned on eight miles for a good few weeks yet.’

N: ‘We looked online at BUPAs ‘intermediate’ marathon training and we’re following that.  I hadn’t thought I could run 7 miles last week, to be honest, but we did it.  It was really, really hard -’

L: ‘Presumably you could just do the basic one?’

Naomi looks confused.

‘Surely you could train at beginners level.’

N:  ‘Gareth wouldn’t be up for that.  It’s very important for Gareth not to be seen as a -’

She realises what she’s saying and bites her lip awkwardly.  I wait.

N: ‘Oh, I know it’s not the right word.  But for want of a better one.  Gareth would never want to be seen as a punter. You know?’

Well:  there we have it.  I have aways assumed myself a ‘punter’. If I am out for a run and I start gasping, I am not ashamed to slow down and walk.

‘As long as we keep running all the way round,’ Naomi comments helpfully, ‘It doesn’t really matter how slowly we go.’

So we keep running – although I cheat a bit when I think her back is turned – and Naomi slows down a lot to accommodate me. This is kind of her; she runs at a very respectable pace.

We get to a very steep incline.  Naomi continues to run.  But this is my home turf and I never run on this bit.  I shout directions to the top and drop to a power-walk.  I power-walk quite quickly, but I loose sight of N. Still, it gives my running muscles a rest.

A few minutes later I’ve caught up.  When I say ‘caught up,’ I mean that Naomi has added a loop to increase her distance; I’ve followed along said loop and met her coming back.

Now, Naomi is tired.

Now, we are on steep, tree-routey terrain that Naomi doesn’t like.

This combination slows her down to a pace that I can keep up with and we begin to rub along well, encouraging each other up the hills.

Oh, did I mention that Naomi hasn’t slept all week, and has spent the last couple of days in Hospital with her feverish 7-month-old?

She eventually turns nearly as dark a shade of lobster pink as I have, but not quite.

‘We’re nearly there now!’

‘Come on, we can get up here without walking.’

We literally count down lamp-posts to make it back to the house.

Where I continue moaning.  ‘I just don’t have competitive bones.’

‘You’ll become competitive,’ says Gareth, ‘When you develop empathy with the other runners.  It’s temping to get all self-absorped and think ‘I’m feeling rubbish and they’re really fit,’ but actually, they are feeling rubbish, too. Let’s face it, running’s shit.  You’re not supposed to enjoy it. They’ll probably be feeling worse than you are.  It’s just that they keep going.  When you think that, it keeps you going.’

I think back to an eighteen-year-old Liz, eyeing up the kids in my vetschool year.

If only I had known, on that very first day, that I actually had better A-level grades than most of my peers. A-levels prove nothing, but knowing it would have made a difference to me.  If only I’d known that they weren’t all intrinsically smarter or more absorbant of facts.  If only I’d known that I was capable of understanding a lecture as well as the rest of them. Perhaps I might have listened, or engaged myself in learning to be a vet.  Perhaps I might have hated it all a little bit less.

The vet story has a positive ending. I turned out to be good at explaining difficult concepts to clients and eventually did OK in practise. After three years as a mediocre vet I started locumming.  I started to realise that not all vets were cleverer than me. Then one day I met a super-dooper locum  who knew awestriking amounts and instead of being intimidated, I thought, ‘I want to be like you!’

I knew who he worked for, took a big risk an embarked on an expensive course they ran for newish graduates.  I took on a new attitude; learned new skills, opened myself up to new challenges. I now seek out the sort of cases I used to avoid; have built up a professional identity that I am proud of.  Every time a practise invites me back to work for them again, I am pleased I made an effort to become a better vet.

So what of running?  I was as intimidated by Naomi as I was by that room full of Freshers. She started off going so fast!

Perhaps I should concede now that we’ll never beat those two in the nine edges challenge (even with a two-hour head start).  Or perhaps I can make the effort to try to match her – try to do better, damn it! – and after that who knows where my running will lead?



Turning the Soil

This week, I have mostly been taming my garden.


‘Is that a euphenism?’ my friend Becky asks.

But no. My muff is unchanged. I am actually outside with a spade, attacking our steep bank of weeds.

And I am enjoying it. I can see why gardeners garden. Gardening is a ‘job’ and can therefore be indulged in without feeling guilty. And yet it is outside; it is physical; it is another of those ‘non-verbal’ situations. I turn over the soil; my mind turns soil of its own.

Dandilions. Toddler likes dandilions. They’re bright; they’re yellow; they make nice furry seeds you can blow on. They are also stubborn, with their fat, hairy roots that dig down, down, down to tangle with some obsticle (a concrete slab; a tree-root). Thus when you come to dig them out, a little bit always manages to break off and stay behind to plot regrowth.

My Mum once told me that even the tiniest bit of root left behind can grow back to make a new plant. Is this even true? If so, it is a metaphor for antibiotic resistance. People take antibiotics until nearly all of the bacteria are zapped. But if one, wiley bacterium remains, curled up in an inaccessible bit of body somehwere, as soon as you stop the antibiotics it will start to multiply…. and if your immune system can’t finish the job, you risk a body full of bacteria again but this time all descended from the strongest, wiliest of the bacteria that were in the body to start with. In short, an even worse infection.
This is why it’s important to finish courses of antibiotics, folks, even after you are better. This is why us vets shouldn’t be reaching for the most effective super-drug on our shelves FIRST, because if we make bugs resistant to that, what do we reach for next? This is why we shouldn’t be using antibiotics at all, unless we know that an infection is really present. And that it isn’t the sort of infection that the animal will just shrug and fight off effortlessly on its own.

But anyway. Antibitoics are for fighting infection. Infection is bad. Dandilions…. are they really bad? Really? Why am I doing this? Surely it’s only by accident and social convention that we prefer roses and suchlike to dandilions in the first place? If I stuck fertiliser down and encouraged the dandilions, Toddler – who has no such preconceptions – would probably be delighted. So why should I plant anything else? Why am I wasting hours trying to dig every last dandilion stamding, when I know that another will blow in on the wind?

What about real gardeners (that is, people who actually garden, not just people like me who have a garden and dabble)?  Don’t they realise that when they get too old, like the people who had my garden before me, the dandilions will be back again? That some people with small kids will move into their house and cut down the rose bushes to make way for a lawn? That the bank will be ignored until all that is left of their beautiful garden will be a party of dandilions and a big cotoniaster bush so choken in bindweed that you can hardly see the berries by winter? That eventually, the new people will saw it down?

I felt bad about sawing down the cotoniaster. I felt as though I was playing god, killing the poor bush because it was inconvenient. We rarely euthanase animals purely for convenience. Why a plant? We definatly know that plants don’t have a neural system, right? I didn’t hurt it with my saw?

If that doesn’t make me a softy enough, you should see me after slicing a worm in half with a spade. I find myself kneeling down, prodding the halves. Trying to make them wriggle so I know I’m not a murderer. Or manslaughterer. Or wormslaughterer. What’s become of my pragmatic self?

Gardening, I am finding out, is not for softies. Despite the jolly, wholesome exterior, a real gardener wouldn’t pretend not to notice a snail. A real gardener would stamp on it.  Or – like my grandmother used to do to slugs – sprinkle it with salt and watch it shrivel.

Talking of my Grandmother, if real gardeners work as hard as I’ve been doing for all their gardening lives, they must be signing up to an old age of chronic artthritis and pain. Sure, gardening is exercise.  But it’s an unhealthy sort of exercise that trashes your body. Never before has my back felt so bad. Sport can be bad for your body too, but gardening must be on a par with the really crippling sports, like intensive childhood gymnastics in China or long-distance road-running.

Anyway: it’s nearly done. The soil is dug and the weeds are gone.  Soil has been carted around to rebuilt the bank. Black plastic is going down to prevent further life from colonising it and I will plant some bushes and ‘carpet plants’ on top of that.

Like any wiley Mother though, I have also bought some sunflowers for the Toddler, in a hope she doesn’t ask me where the dandilion plants have gone.

Making Up


I inherited my uneasy relationship with cosmetics.  Just as many people adopt the politics of their parents and vote that way all their lives, so I adopted my mother’s attitude to make-up.  This was, at best, a suspicious one.

Some people don’t like to look at medical implements in sterile packets.  I catch work experience kids with their eyes glued to the items on my table-top, trying to cope with the unfamiliarity and finding things a little unsettling. Needles, syringes, cannulas and catheters are all just everyday tools to me.

Yet I don’t like to watch them doing their make-up in the lunch-break.  No because I don’t approve, but because – like them – I’m squeamish of unfamiliar, somewhat personal equipment.  Lipsticks, poking out of their plastic holders, are sticky, bright and phallic:  I am always amazed by the unselfconsciousness with which people smear them over their lips. Skin colours powdered into plastic containers look like a grown-up’s painting set, but with limitted colours and rules about using them that I don’t understand.  Glistening concentrated skin-colour in tubes, for putting on top of spots – on top of spots, that surely need access to the air – just make me squirm. This is my unfamiliar: a little bit gross and mysterious as witchcraft, with its pots and packages, its colours, its brand-names, its prices!

See me shuffling past them all in Boots, furtive as a prepubescant teenager in the condom aisle.  The saleswomen who are there to consult and advise, read my body language a mile off and never approach.  I might stare for a minute but I never buy anything. I wouldn’t know how to use it if I did.

Of course, other people have done my make-up for me over the years.  They have even made it look nice.  But it feels odd: there is something foreign stuck to my skin.  It has an odd, soft, smooth or clammy consistency about it that isn’t part of me: my fingers keep going to touch it and within five minutes I am wiping it off. I use the present tense but the last time I tried foundation was actually at the trial session for my wedding five years ago.  On the day, it was strictly ‘simple-eye-make-up-only’: never has the make-up artist found a wedding so easy.  Nowadays the experience would probably be worse because the damn stuff would collect in my wrinkles, too.

But I do appreciate that it’s probably me who’s weird and not the people wearing it.  I’ve been weird since school.  Peers were trying to make themselves look older with varying degrees of success, while I was the geeky, inarticulate kid who was confused – the older people I knew all wanted to look young.

Then there were the college years, when a lot of my friends used make-up to look ‘interesting’.  I loved some of the looks, but somehow dying my hair fake colours was an easier way to express myself.  By our twenties, some friends had stopped using so much (a lot of vets and nurses don’t, especially on the night shift; outdoor people, ditto) and others had perfected an intimidatingly professional look.  I never changed my spots.

So a rollicking great Thankyou to the Cancer-thrashing selfie campaign: not because it raised so much money (although I’m sure that will help some deserving people somewhere) but because it normalised, if only for a fifteen minutes, not wearing any make-up. I couldn’t resist joining in and nominating a few like-minded friends.

I find it fascinating that there are people who find it difficult NOT to wear make-up:  the girls with pretty faces who, in a fake stereotype I picked up in the secondary school playground, are the popular, well-groomed ones.  Imagine them finding it difficult to remove the slap and say: ‘look!  This is me!  This is what I look like!’

I don’t know what you were worrying about, any of you, because you all looked lovely. I actually thought that most of you looked better, but that’s perhaps my inherant bias speaking.  My inner child was very pleased to hear that others can be as far out of their comfort zones not wearing make-up as I am wearing it.

My inner adult on the other hand, feels a little sorry for us both.  I hope that anyone reading this who is not fond of their barefaced reflection, finds peace with that. You do not need to hide behind beauty products:  you are not supposed to be permanently glossy.

And hey, maybe one day I’ll lighten up and find some hidden creativity, stop being so grossed out and give my life a little more colour.





Science, Breastfeeding and the Media


Are you open to new scientific research?

Are you willing to look at evidence objectively and adjust your ideas (which is basically what ‘science’ is)?

Had the theory of Evolution been unknown until last week – had Darwin and others appeared on TV with their sketches and fossils and shown them to us for the first time – I like to think that we, as a nation, would have looked… and thought….  and snapped it up, with a cry of ‘YES! This makes sense! – and perhaps, for some ‘...although it does challenge how I think about Genesis.

So let’s have a look at some science that hit the news last month.

This study was carried out at Ohio State University by Dr. Cynthia Colen.  Colen looked at data collected through a previous survey following American kids through childhood.

She analysed a total of 8237 children (all with siblings).  She checked whether the children had been breastfed as babies. She checked health-related, behavioural and academic statistics from their childhoods.  With one exception (the incidence of asthma), breastfed children faired significantly better in all of these tests, which you might have seen coming.

So why do breastfed kids come out tops?  Some say ‘because breast is best’ but others suggest that parents who breastfeed tend to be richer and better educated, so their kids are bound to come out looking better – and that the breastmilk has nothing to do with it.

1,773 of Colen’s children were ‘discordant sibling pairs.’ In order words, they were siblings raised in the same household where one was breastfed and one was bottlefed.  If these children were compared against one another, any bias stemming from family of origin would be eliminated.

Comparing just these kids, Colen found the difference between the breastfed and the bottlefed to be insignificant. She even said that breastfed children suffered more from asthma.

I am in no position to comment on the science, other than to say that I have not even seen the study.

But what I do want to comment on is other people’s opinions.  Here is a selection from the first page of a google search.

Some blatant negativity was inevitable:

A Blogger called CrushZion: The hook nosed so-called ‘doctor’ Colen (Cohen) advises non-Jew mothers to feed their babies powder milk from big Jew-owned pharmaceutical companies

From Malim Balik’s Official page (Facebook):

- Colen or Colon?

- A Doctor wrote this? WHat is wrong with those people?

The Lavtavist:    – Prime Crap     – Twaddle

But mostly, the mood was: ‘Sod thinking about research; I’ve already made my own mind up:’

Daily Mail page, Facebook:  -  undoubtedly, breastfeeding is best

 - Breast is best.  So many scientific studies into this already (this person might have missed the point).

Midwife forum:   -  I’d like someone to tell me that their breastfed babies are better than their bottle fed ones!

Facebook:  – I don’t think breastmilk is important.  My kids are fine

The Lactavist comments:  – Has there EVER been a recall for breastmilk?

In fact I read through pages and pages of comments like this, thinking:  Hasn’t anyone even looked at, or thought about Colen’s Study or commented on it?  Why is this?

An intelligent trainee midwife on a forum hit the nail on the Head:

‘Badly reported.’

Indeed it was.  The Daily Mail headline?

Breast milk is NO better for a baby than bottled milk

It’s not Colon who needs lynching but whoever reported it.  As far as I know, Colen hasn’t claimed this at all.  For a start, she is only looking at long-term outcomes: I think she states that breastmilk has been shown to be greatly beneficial to babies in the first few weeks of life.

I know what you should be thinking (that is – What more than dumb sensationalism and polarisation can you expect from The Daily Mail?) but other papers have done worse still: several have ignored the study.  Why do you suppose my favourite paper, The Guardian, chose not to review it?

For an industry supposed to report the news, Britain’s Press have done a poor job.  If the mainstream media won’t look at the evidence, preferring to sensationalise or ignore it, no wonder such a widely unintelligent reaction.

So what would an intelligent reaction have been?

Well, ideally people would have looked at Colen’s original article and worked out whether or not there was a point worth making and if so, exactly what that point was.  They could then consider whether, for example, anything needed to change about Britain’s public Health Policy or what further evidence was needed.

But Colen’s paper, fifty-seven pages long, is tucked away inside a Sociology journal and one has to pay to see it.

On seeing a paper, one would normally have to wade through a few pages of explanations and scientific analysis to understand whether there was really a fair experiment. You will not have been trained to do this unless you are a scientist with some knowledge of statistics (it is harder than it sounds).  You would also have to do some background reading to provide context (for example, the ‘outcomes’ that were measured – are these the same things that previous research has claimed are benefitted by breastfeeding, or not?)

What is desperately needed is an expert’s neutral analysis of the paper in a reader-friendly format.  But that is hard:  who is neutral about such an emotive issue as breastfeeding?

My search only found one article, anywhere, written by someone who even claims to have read the paper, so well done AllParenting:

It’s just a shame that the author – Rebecca Bahret – is anything but netural.  She confesses to extreme prejudice in her first paragraph.  She uses words like ‘gloating’ to make the paper sound horrific. Such papers are generally written in a prescribed format and while I have seen plenty of flakey ones, I have never known an author ‘gloat.’  It’s hard to separate her opinion from the facts.

Bahret (who isn’t a scientist) spends a lot of time picking apart the author’s prose (which, being unable to see in context, I find difficult to comment on) but less time making relevant points about the evidence.  When she does pick, I instinctively distrust her: She says that Mums were split into ‘breastfeeders’ or ‘not’ with a single tick-box. If unacceptable numbers of Mums ticked the wrong box, how does she explain a significant difference between breastfed kids and not in the ‘overall’ group but not in the discordant sibling pairs?

The fact is, that many papers can be painted to look bad in an article.  One should be suspicious of a paper that doesn’t admit any flaws.  But could I find Bahret even trying to break down and criticise the nitty-gritty of a ‘benefits of breast-feeding’ type article?  Of course I couldn’t.  Why would she?  She is not interested in analysing research but in creating her reader’s distrust of this research, in order to strengthen her pro-breast-feeding postion.

So: Are you open to Scientific research? – there is a litmus test for this:  Have you by now formed an opinion in your head as to what this article will show?

If so, then maybe, actually, you are more closed-minded that you think you are.

But if the media doesn’t discuss such things intelligently, how will we ever be able to make up our own minds?

Natural Parenting


“Natural” has never meant the same as “healthy.”  As a Type One diabetic I find this obvious.  ‘Naturally’ I would have died slowly in my mid twenties.

What if you – or your child – broke a leg? Would you let it heal naturally or would you want pain releif and re-setting?

And yet it is a fact universally acknowledged that a single woman in posession of a baby-bump must be in want of a ‘natural’ birth. They will mostly opt to experience it in fully staffed hospitals, having arrived there by car with camera-phone in pocket, yet they are presumed to have a preference for refusing intervention on the grounds that ‘natural is better.’

I like to dismiss this as ‘middle-class pressure.’  I like to say that I am fully accepting of the fact that a natural birth, despite being a wonderful experience for some mothers, is just not sensible for others.  And yet I still said to be consultant when she explained her plans for Toddler,

‘What about women in India?  I’ve been to the Himalayas and women there won’t even get ultrasounded; nobody would have known that my placenta was completely covering my cervix until it came out.’

The consultant had heard it all before.  Gently but firmly: ‘In rural India you would bleed profusely at childbirth. Women like you, I’m afraid, do die.’

So I meekly signed my C-section consent form.  I also took every type of pain relief they offered.

Second time, the consultant announced that if I wanted a natural birth (interestingly what he recommended), he would be taking over my blood sugar control, inducing me at 38 weeks and that I had a 2/3 chance of delivery being unsuccessful in which event I would need an emergency section anyway.

I sometimes feel pangs. Should I have asked more questions?  Should I have asked to see the studies supporting induction at 38 weeks in well-controlled diabetic ladies?  Should I have listened to my very biased midwife and risked the induction?  Complained?

In truth, it simply didn’t bother me enough.  My kids are healthy; I am healthy. A few pangs aside, I don’t think it impacts on our relationship.

Anyway: enough.  Who knew that natural childrearing was also a thing?

I don’t think we’re supposed to take it literally.  None of the natural parenting peeps I know would actually refuse their child insulin in the face of diabetes.  Nor do they show an obvious preference for humans’ natural, pre-technological ways: they all settle in houses rather than wandering between caves; they cook their food and use the Internet just like the rest of us.

So perhaps we should avoid the word ‘natural’ or rather, take it as branding (much as it is used to advertise nature-inspired purple shampoo in plastic containers).

But what is it?  There are websites dedicated to it but even they struggle for a definition.  ‘Natural parenting means something different to every family‘ says one.  ‘There are many different ways to be a good parent,’ says another, suggesting that natrual parenting is whatever comes naturally to you – provided that what comes naturally to you is a desire to think about baby-slings, co-sleeping, cloth-nappying (as a verb) and breastfeeding – otherwise you are unlikely to enjoy the website.

So do I get to join the ‘natural parenting’ club, I wonder?  It’s open to debate.

I used a babysling, but it was a ‘commercial’ one that the local slings group disapproved of.  Their Facebook page said words to the effect that:  Just because we know that our slings are better, it has never been scientifically shown that commercial slings are anything worse than just uncomfortable, so please do not criticise the sling that new members arrive with.  It was almost a relief to know that even ‘natural parents’ can be judgemental when they’re trying not to be.

We co-sleep too.  It feels natural.  Until the point when I am not getting any sleep, where upon it feels natrual to insist that the child returns to its own bed.

Cloth nappying.  Yup – I did this!  For about a week, until the washing pile threatened to take over the house. Ecological guilt.

Breastfeeding through Toddlerdom.  I would have done this with my first, too. I sat alone and pumped for the whole of my first lunch-break at work, then spilt the milk all over the floor.  The next day I got home to find that my 5 month-old seemed very happy on formula.

I prefer natural diets for my children.  But I also prefer my food to be affordable, not one of the most sugary (fruit-juice) or fatty (coconut oil) options available and not to have flown half-way around the world.  Shopping for me is just one bad-tempered stream of compromises.

I do not refuse my child’s vaccinations.  Nor do I want to adhere to the principles of attachment parenting. I rather assumed that I would until I actually looked them up.

My children do spend a heck of a lot of time out of the house – Toddler is pretty good on birds for a two-year-old – but no.  I am possibly not a ‘natural parenting’ peep after all.  I always feel a bit of a half-baked natural parent: the outsider.  As I was ranting to my friend:

‘I’m all in favour of this attachment (by which I meant natural) parenting stuff, but only when it’s conventient to me….!’

My friend, who is one of the most natural natural-parents who ever walked the Earth (indeed, she is its mother), just said a very wise thing.

‘Labels,’ she said, ‘aren’t very useful.’  You make your decisions based on what feels right to you at the time, not on what tribe you belong to.

She, for instance, had home births but vaccinates.  As long as she and the children are healthy and happy with her choices – as long as me, hubby, Tiddle and Toddler are happy with ours – why am I agonising over labelling it?


As usual, this woman says it better than me.  Thankyou to my wise climbing friend for reading my blog and sending the link

Exercise and The Mind

According to Dorothea Brande, a creative writing guru from the nineteen twenties, most creativity ‘happens’ when the writer is doing something non-word-related.  When the brain is concentrating on nothing in particular.  Chewing linguistic cud.

The trouble is that my brain doesn’t have time to chew cud.  Driving?  Listening to Radio 4.  Eating breakfast?  Talking to Toddler.  Toddler and Tiddler playing together?  Reading the Guardian (are you surprised?) online.  Standing at a bus-stop?  Facebook.  I even watch TV or hands-free chat with friends when I am knitting.


Our modern brains just don’t chew cud like brains used to do in the twenties.  I’ll bet that even Dorothea’s reknown creativity didn’t extend to imagining me text-messaging a friend, who text-messages me right back with one hand while loading her dishwasher with the other.

I discovered Dorothea because Hilary Mantel swears by her methods.  In my little inflated head I would probably have pipped Hilary Mantel to both her Booker prizes, had I been following Dorothea rather than consoling people I don’t even know on discussion forums.

But I can’t help myself:  I lurve the social media.  I also have Tiddlers. And so my brain is interrupted all the time.  By rights, my (otherwise obviously phenomonal) creative potential should be dead…..

All that aside, I worry that the constant mental stimulation of the modern existance might have other, more real downsides.  When do we get chance to think about ‘stuff?’  To put ideas into perspective?  To reflect?  To listen to our souls?

The answer for me is in bed at night, when I should be trying to sleep. Or when I go out running or walking.  Exercise and mental peace is like a ‘reset’ button on my brain.  This runs in the family: my Dad also goes out for a long walk when the world gets too stressful for him.

‘I’m goin’ walkin’ he says.  ‘On me own.’

I used to make fun of it.

Here is a friend of mine on the subject.  “Sally” doesn’t like Winter: she suffers from SAD, Seasonal Affected Disorder.  This is a common form of depression that coincides with short daylengths. Now that Spring has arrived, she is probably coming to the end of wishing she was in hibernation.  Yet Sally has remained functional: she has still been getting out of bed in a morning.  She keeps her part-time professional job.  She cares for her Toddler.

This is possible because Sally has explored treatments to improve her Winters.  These tend to have plenty anecdotal but very little scientific evidence behind them and include things like: alarm lamps that simulate the dawn as the patient wakes up; cannabis as a mood stabiliser; St John’s Wort (although female users should be aware that this renders The Pill ineffective); diets high in antioxidants; vegetables; cognitive behavioural therapy (which is hopefully better proven) and singing.  Sally however, has her own anecdote as to the therarpy that works best.  And that therarpy is….


‘I’m fed up,’ says Sally, ‘…of hearing people talk about going to the gym to loose weight or get fit.  The mental benefits of exercise get overlooked completely.  I go to the gym to do kettlebells, to get blood pumping to my head. It’s so good for you!

‘If I can drag myself outside for a run, I feel better.  Because of the endorphins I suppose, and the daylight.  And using your muscles. The better I feel, the more I want to go out.  It’s a vicious cycle. I love exercise.’


My last anecdotal proof of exercise being good for the mind, is a man my husband and I met some years ago on the banks of the river Ghanges.  He was a small man with collar-length dark hair and a neat little pointy beard. He wore white, baggy clothes, bare feet and glided about like a good little ghost: you could still feel alone when he was in the room, so light and benign was his presence.  I spent time with him every day for eight days and knew as much about him at the end of that time as I had done at the beginning. He rarely smiled and hardly spoke above a whisper although he had a good chanting voice. But I never doubted that he was happy.

What did he do all day?

Yoga, of course.


Feeding the Family


(Image from

I was in the cereal ailse, swearing loudly at the backs of packets.  I can stoop, pick up the car-keys and return them to the kids on the trolley without breaking concentration, but it didn’t appear to be speeding the process up.

“This is STUPID!”  I fumed.  “This is the cereal aisle, not the added-bloody-sugar aisle!  Will you LOOK at this one, all about fibre and healthiness, with 65g of sugars per 100g of breakfast!  This should have a red traffic-light or something on it.”

I won’t repeat what the shelf-stacker said but he thought I was weird.  I didn’t mind, but was a bit surprised to be alone in throwing such tantrums here every week, before sadly choosing Sugary Crapflakes, anticipating breakfastimes of guilt ahead.  Didn’t the other parents do this too?

Anyway, not any more! This week I have found the Answer – what presumably every other parent who was bothered already knew. A retired GP speaking on Radio 4 described three widely available options that are, actually, really cereal.  They are Puffed Wheat, Shreaded Wheat and Quaker Oats.

When Toddler was small, Hubby used to dress her in just a nappy for breakfast and put her into the bath immediately afterwards.  I don’t have time for this – and besides, I hate scrubbing carpets – so Porridge is now off the menu.  There is no Shredded Wheat. So I choose Puffed Wheat, an odd cereal completely lacking in density; it feels like putting your hand into a bag of polystirene balls.  The kids actually love them.

It might have suprised regular readers that I care about added sugar in breakfast cereal (after the anti-dieting campaign and all), but I do believe that cereal was previously eaten without additives; that this was undoubtedly healthier and that if I decide that a mountain of extra sugar needs incorporating into my food, it is better to incorportate it myself, to taste.  I am amazed how hard it is to buy food in a sensible form – and it doesn’t stop with breakfast cereal.

Why do we need sugar in our rice?  In baked bloody beans?  Why take the fat out of yogurt and put sugar there instead?

‘No I DON’T want low fat yogurt!’ I tell the dairy aisle. ‘Yogurt’s supposed to have fat in it!  It comes from dairy cows!’

Toddler inerrupts.  ‘No SHOUTING, Mummy!’ she says.

So that’s breakfast.  I do confess to giving them processed soup for lunch and not checking the salt, fat or sugar content because there’s a homely hand-drawing of a vegetable on the front of the packet. But since so little soup actually makes it into the children’s mouths, I don’t suppose it really matters.

But I have been working on evening meals. I – yes, I, the one who won’t even do the custard at a communal meal in case she somehow makes it inedible – have been trying to cook healthy food for them.

The kids cling to the outside of the babygate across my kitchen door, Tiddler practising standing up and Toddler ‘helping.’

‘Not your kitchen, Daddy’s Kitchen!’  she told me, when i tried to protest.  I hope she continues to see cooking as a desirable privelidge: maybe she won’t end up like me.

Anyway. Here’s what we have made:

1)  Boiled Egg

Source: Beleive it or not, I could do this one even before Delia Smith taught the nation. It’s a novelty for us, because hubby has egg issues.

Method: See Delia, How to Cook

I thought:  A bit runny.  Nice.

Tiddler thought:  Cram it into mouth with both hands.

Toddler thought: ‘Might hatch, Mummy!’

2) Tuna Fish Cakes

Source: Smart Recipes App, a government initiative to get people cooking.  It’s about my level, avoiding hard-to-interpret phrases like: ‘brown the onions.’

Method: Get tuna, carrot, beaten egg, cheese. Onion. Modge together. Make Burgers. Bake.

I thought: A bit dry.  So I served it with tinned tomatoes.

Tiddler thought: Cram into mouth with both hands.

Toddler thought: ‘Yummy yummy Mummy!……. *eating* ….. more, please!’  (held up plate: tinned tomatoes gone, fishcake untouched).

3) Fish Pie

Source:  Smart Recipes.

Method:  Buy fish-pie fish mix from Morrisons fish counter. Ignore the instructions on it: ‘put into oven proof dish.  Take one pack of Morrisons fish pie mixture and spread on top….‘  – yes, honestly.  I followed a recipe instead.

Tiddler: Crams into mouth with both hands

Toddler: Half-hearted

Mummy: agrees with Toddler. This app is promoting ‘healthy cooking’ and therefore has taken everything fatty out of the recipe in order to make it as bland as possible. People won’t cook if they think you have to make mash with low fat spread.

4) Leek and Ham Bake

Source: Smart Recipes.  They are having an off-day.  Six leeks?  But leeks are £1.50 each…..!

Method:  BOil leeks in large saucepan for 15 minutes.  Wrap each leek in a peice of ham.   Clearly they haven’t any conception of the size of leeks are that are sold in Morrisons. Three was plenty.  Make a white sauce with mustard and cheese (and remember to use butter not low-fat spread this time).  Pour over leeks. Bake.

TIddler thought:  Cram it into mouth with both hands.

Toddler thought:  ham and sauce OK.  Two meticulously clean, untouched leeks handed back.  ‘Don’t need these, Mummy.’

I thought:  Slippery buggers, leeks.

5) Butternut Squash Curry

Source:  phonecall to Mother-in-Law (if I ever forgive myself for not asking to learn to cook before my mother died, my wonderful MIL will be why).

Method: Involved simmering over a hob.

Tiddler: Crams it into mouth with both hands.  Best mess yet.

Toddler: Not hungry, Mummy.

Mummy: Not hungry?

- looks around.  Sees that while waiting for Mummy to remember how to chop a Squash, Toddler has found and demolished the entirity of the two punnets of grapes from the fruit box.

A glance in Toddler’s nappy confirms this.

Mummy: Not hungry any more, either.

6) Sea Bass

Source: The fish-counter: “I’ll take anything, but you’ve got to explain how to cook it and it’s got to be foolproof…..”

Method: Wrap in foil with butter and some spices. Medium oven,  20 minutes.

Tiddler:  Had puffed wheat, instead.  I’d made a mess of removing the spine: babyled weaning too hazardous.

Toddler: ‘Look Mummy!  Eyes!  Look!  Fins!  What’s that….’

‘That’s the brain, love.’

‘And what’s that…..’

Mummy:  Enjoyed doing biology but I wasn’t impressed by the food. It tasted odd.  Next time, I’m going to ask which herbs to use.  I suspect that rosemary isn’t the correct answer.



Anyway, the experiment’s over next week because the chef returns from leave.  Tiddler has enjoyed it. I have never known Toddler eat so little, but she doesn’t seem hungry at all so I trust that she’s between growth-spurts.  I have been quite unimpressed, not least by my supermarket bill.

But it’s nice to feel as though I’m feeding my children ‘properly’ – and that I did learn something in Food Technology GSCE, besides how to follow the instructions for a readymeal.   Our teacher said that we should always read food labels because, one day, some good might come of it.

And actually – she was right.