Thinking Out Loud

A Rambling Moan about Virtue Signalling at Christmas

Those facebook posts saying “haven’t sent any cards this year as I’ve donated to charity instead so I’ll say Merry Christmas here” kind of miss the point of a Christmas card.

I don’t send as many as I used to but I think that’s to do with laziness and an ever shrinking social circle and my utter ineptitude at keeping track of addresses.

The idea that it’s an either or, a binary choice of cards versus charity is what gets my goat. I buy charity cards so a donation goes towards those organisations, I’ve used Scout Post so the local scouting groups get a little boost to their fundraising. Today I’ve received a card from a friend who’s included a reminder of her fundraising for a marathon, along with her very new address.

Typing a generic Christmas flavoured message for a social media post via your smart phone while killing time on the toilet or mid commute doesn’t bring the same moment of glee that opening a brightly coloured, handwritten envelope does.

There’s a loneliness epidemic and for some people at Christmas, a little reminder that you’ve thought of them goes a long way. Especially for people who aren’t connected online.

The public statement of “I’m not doing *insert Christmas tradition* because I’m donating to charity instead or having an ethical Christmas or teaching my children about what’s important in life” can read as “I’m better than you”, “my heart is bigger than yours”, “you are an unethical shit”. Giving a gift to your partner or buying a present for your child shouldn’t make you feel bad.

We’ve never spent gazillions of pounds on Christmas because we don’t have lots of money. More often than not my husband and I give each other tickets or vouchers for gigs, shows and local restaurants. Our kids have had presents bought second hand from eBay or gumtree. I’ve made Christmas presents like handmade quilts, dressing up costumes, photo albums, paintings, chutney etc. We don’t splurge. I’m not a fan of consumerism for consumerism’s sake, we don’t need more stuff.

But isn’t it lovely when Christmas is about generosity? I get my kids involved in ideas for what their dad would like so they can wrap and give him something and learn about the joy of giving not just receiving. I’m not talking fancy things, it’s stuff like his favourite chocolate bar. Generosity isn’t just presents and cards but time and energy. Trips to our local theatre, long dog walks around Christmas trails, carols at church, Christmas crafting with kids, inviting family and friends over, all those get togethers.

Perhaps I don’t quite get the idea of not giving or receiving as an ethical choice because we already don’t spend as much as a lot of people. Instagram has been a tad galling at times, people buying Christmas Eve box pyjamas that cost more than the main gift my youngest will be getting. “stocking fillers” that cost the same as the tickets I’ve bought for someone else.

When Father Christmas asked our boys what they’d like for Christmas (their sister opted out of meeting him this year, sad times), one said Lego and the other said a puppet. They know it’s not about presents, some of their favourite parts of the day are seeing their cousins and playing charades.

It also makes me wonder how much other people spend on cards. I’ve spent under a tenner. Should I stop this tradition to give £10 to a charity? Would it be the same if I saved £10 by not buying that bottle of wine or those books and gave that money to charity? I know there are extortionate stamps to buy too but I’ve sent half with my dad to get disseminated around family by hand in another part of the country.

It’s a tad disingenuous to be promoting an ethical stance of asking for charity donations in lieu of presents when you promote products for other people to buy. Standing behind the less is more hashtag when everything you already have is beautiful and perfect and lovely. I’d quite like a perfume for Christmas because that’s the one bottle I use through the whole year. Last year I wanted a mirror because we’d had the same one in the living room that had belonged to the previous owners about a decade before. It hasn’t gone to landfill or even a charity shop, the old mirror just moved rooms. When you also talk of having Christmas abroad in another culture away from all the stuff at the end of a year of fancy holidays and posh homewares, it jars with people who are in a financially less privileged position.      

I can air this knowing that the Instagrammers who inspired the previous paragraph won’t read it because they treat Instagram and blogging as their daily paper, they curate it to ensure that they only have what they perceive to be high quality content. This translates as only reading what’s written by their friends. They can’t believe their luck that they’ve got book deals and gazillions of followers but they don’t support or engage with the lowly regional oiks and upstarts, they don’t help nurture the blogging ecology.

I’m not advocating for these people to splurge even more of whatever money they’ve got on pointless, vacuous presents. I just wish they’d stop making me do little sicks in my mouth when they say they’re not buying their partner a gift for ethical reasons and they’ve asked for charity donations from other family. Of course you don’t need or want presents, you’ve already got everything. Your life is already perfect and you get “gifted” shit all year round so why should Christmas be especially gifty?   

If you’re giving presents and sending cards, that’s fine, you do you. If you’re not then great, you can do you too. Just bear in mind that whichever side of the fence you fall, the moment you start preaching or showing off about it on social media is the moment you alienate someone.

  

Places To Go, Things To Do, Thinking Out Loud

Urdd Eisteddfod 2019 and Welshness issues

I’m Welsh but I’m not a confident Welsh speaker. On the daily, this doesn’t make me ponder on Welshness, on national identity and bilingualism but last week I took my boys to Cardiff Bay for this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod where it felt like a bigger deal on the Maes.

We were non Welsh speakers at a Welsh speaking event in Wales. We had a lovely day and we did feel welcome but also at a remove. I felt like a visitor, an outsider, somehow other.

The Urdd Eisteddfod is one of Europe’s largest touring youth festivals. As well as all of the stalls and activities on the Maes, there are loads of competitions for children and young people in things like singing and dancing following regional rounds. About 15,000 competitors take part through the week. The Urdd was set up to give children and young people the chance to learn and socialise in Welsh.

A sign post in Welsh language with the Pierhead building and Wales Millennium Centre in the background
Ble mae’r bar?

We toyed with sending the boys to Welsh school back in 2012 but our closest English primary school is behind our house. We cross no roads to get there, I can hear the playground from home and garden and it’s a cracking school.

The seven year old was in his absolute element in the Senedd display of the 2D and 3D art and design competitions. He’s a model making fiend and a puppet fan boy. He was so genuinely impressed with the paintings and drawings “wow, I can’t believe this one only came second, it’s a winner for me”, it was unsurprising when he looked up at me, his eyes glowing with creative crafting ideas and asked “how can I join in Mum?” like it’s Blue Peter and anyone can enter. Sorry babes, you can’t because you don’t go to a Welsh medium school. *insert sad child’s face* That’s where it feels excluding and exclusive. Which is understandable knowing that the Urdd exists for Welsh speaking children.

When I posted about this on Instagram I had a reply from a teacher at an English medium high school who told me that they had pupils compete so it turns out they don’t have to go to Iaith Cymraeg schools to participate. I did not know this. I thought the Urdd Eisteddfodau were a cultural rite of passage that my kids would have no part of in the same way that the opportunity wasn’t there for me as a child who grew up in Wales at English language schools. And that’s as a pupil who did extra Welsh (true story) and chose to do Welsh GCSE and A Level.

My Welsh is OK, I can get by to a limit. If you did A level French, that’s the kind of language vibe. Except it’s not. I’ve got an A Level in it but I don’t only encounter it at the boulangerie on my holidays. I work all over Wales so Welsh is at meetings, seminars, conferences, it’s in the lunch time chats and evening meals out, it’s sprinkled through emails, it’s on print, websites, in theatre productions, social media strategies. And that’s just work.

At the Urdd Eisteddfod we made an effort to use as much Welsh as we could all day. The 10 year old ordered his hot chocolate all by himself and enjoyed his “un siocled poeth”, the 7 year old  said “diolch” to pretty much everyone in Cardiff Bay.

They were in awe at how much Welsh I used (my children are very easily impressed) “how did we not know you can speak another language?!” I can’t, I’m really not that confident with it but I do try when I can. I felt guilty and lazy for not using it more at home when I do make the effort in work emails and events. I want to use Welsh with them more at home, beyond our current “nos da cariad” (good night love) and “pwy sy’n barod?” (who’s ready?).

Inside the roof of a teepee style tent with bunting and garland lights.
Inside the Children’s Commissioner for Wales tent

It was a lush day out though, one of those exhausting days where you walk for miles, while away time soaking up live music, have a nosey in every trade stall, race cars in virtual reality, golf, join a band, colour in, trampoline, make a bead bracelet, toast mshmallows and bump into a couple of people you know. As it was free entry this year I treated us to drinks and a fairground ride without the inward panic about spending all of the money.

It felt right to expose the boys to a world where people assume you can speak Welsh, it opens their mind up to realising it’s the first language for some people and it’s alive in Wales, not just something to learn in the classroom.

Places To Go, Things To Do

The Big Pit

Boom! It’s National Museum Week 2019 so I’ve been thinking about the last museum I went to, Big Pit National Coal Museum, Y Pwll Mawr. I bloody loves museums I does. The best of them stir a little something in your soul, leave some new knowledge nestled in your brain and get my kids buzzing with the experience. The Big Pit delivers on all three.

The first time I visited, I was excited to get free entry with my Blue Peter badge (which I’ve sadly lost, do they do replacements?) in about 1990. Another time, aged about 18 with my 9 year old brother the day after watching How Green Was My Valley, he produced a white cotton handkerchief to mop his brow because that’s what they’d done in the film. A few weeks ago we took our own similarly aged children and it’s still a thrill to travel in that dark lift 300 feet underground, to stoop through the tunnels, to momentarily stand in darkness, feel the terror and thankfulness that life has changed.

One of the themes of Museum Week 2019 is #WomenInCulture and the vital role of women in the mining industry and mining communities is explored in the Pithead Baths exhibition. Women were only banned from working underground because the inspector was shocked at their state of undress. The work they did was so physically demanding that they were replaced with ponies. Ponies.

As a museum, the displays and experiences above ground have had a hell of a lot of work since becoming part of National Museums Wales, which gives so much more to explore than the 50 minutes down the pit, the shower block was especially effective with interactive bits. Plus, it’s been free to visit since 2001. FREE. (Think it’s £3 for parking though). It’s set in a unique industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site.The guys, real life miners, who lead the tours of the mine are essential, their wit, knowledge and warmth give visitors a flavour of the camaraderie and banter of the place.

That said, I’m not writing this wearing rose tinted glasses about the job of mining. My grandad, great grandad, great uncle, my dad’s cousins all worked in the mines of the South Wales valleys. My grandad hated it. “No son of mine is ever going to work down a mine.” The day he started working at the pits as a teenager, a body was brought up from underground (the deceased man is mentioned in part of the museum), so I can’t say I blame him and he worked his arse off to have a career in another sector.

I am, however, writing this sat in the second largest town in Wales that only sprung into existence on this scale because of the coal industry but I’m also writing this in a time when we’re looking for cleaner energy sources than fossil fuels. Museums are powerful when you can make those connections.

The Big Pit

For more info, opening hours, directions and all that, head here: museum.wales/bigpit/

School Days, Thinking Out Loud

Babies Starting School

My social media is abuzz with school admissions posts and wails about “my baby” going to school. Excuse me while my lack of sympathy and I snicker darkly yet sagely into our milky tea.

I hear you, I do, but I also raise you this: MY BABY IS GOING TO HIGH SCHOOL. They will eat him alive. He is tiny and geeky and high school is not the nurturing, learn-through-play haven of Reception. He will be spat out at the other end as a legal adult.

Ok, he’s not a baby. He’s 10. Double figures and all that. And yes, I may well be projecting my own fears about moving from Primary to Comp. I blame Grange Hill. My comprehensive school looked like the fictional hell hole, it was populated with the same permed, mean eyed, all-knowing teenagers. I was definitely going to get my head flushed down the toilet or be tricked into taking an acid tab. One of the boys in my year 6 class who had an older sister there assured us that it was a rite of passage. The toilet thing, not the drugs.

I’m still yet to ever have my head flushed down the loo or trip on acid (in the words of Zammo “just say no”) and if I’m honest, I’m sure my son will be fine. He’s friendly, he’s sensible, he’s a good guy and he’s feeling cautiously confident after plenty of visits to the school and transition days.

I’ve written about it before, this ever marching time of childhood, not standing in the way of them moving on and developing, of celebrating change and not infantilising them when they’re not babies anymore.

Don’t let your 4 year old see you cry when you drop them off that first week. Please. It’s not about you. Letting them see you panicked, upset or overwhelmed is unhelpful. The same goes for all those future residential school trips. Imagine starting a new job with your partner, parent or friend crying at the entrance. I’ll be doing just that very soon (the job not the weeping) and I’d prefer a thumbs up and a snazzy new lunch box.

My step daughter’s been in high school for two years now and is having a grand old time of it. We see her so much less than we used to but that’s a whole other blog post. I’m sure my son with throw himself into a new school, make new friends, have great experiences but it’s still the great unknown. Think of all those positive things if your child’s starting primary school too.

Of course, I’m writing all of this before his Hogwarts letter arrives this summer and there’ll be a whole other level of worry going on.

Two children's books on batman bedding. The larger book on the left is 100 Things to Know About Space and the other book is Grandpa Was an Astronaut by Jonathan Meres.
School Days, Thinking Out Loud

World Book Day

Before I launch into a rant of sorts, please know that this isn’t anti World Book Day. What they stand for and what they aim to do is brilliant. World Book Day is the world’s biggest campaign to provide every child and young person in the country with a book of their own. Their twitter biography sums it up:

The biggest annual celebration of books and reading in the UK & Ireland. Share a Story with us on 7 March 2019. A charity, sponsored by National Book Tokens. @WorldBookDayUK

Our school isn’t dressing up for World Book Day this year and I’m cool with that. Instead, the children have been asked to take their favourite book into school. It’s perfectly in keeping with the whole ethos of sharing a story, building a love of reading, getting kids excited about books and seeing what a huge range of stories and factual books there are.

Yet some parents still moan. If they’d had to dress up there’d be other parents moaning. I think it comes from the everyone-else-is-dressing-up-why-can’t-we zone while completely missing the point that every child in the school will still have a free book token and a chance to share their favourite book with their class.

World Book Day’s current campaign is #ShareAStory. It’s not #SendYourKidToSchoolInARandomCostumeThatsNotNecessarilyInABook or #BuyABookCharacterCostumeFromTheSupermarketEvenThoughYourChildsNeverReadThatBook or #WearYourFavouriteFancyDressOutfitRegardlessOfWhetherOrNotItsInABook

It isn’t about dressing up. That’s just one of many ways in which schools can mark and celebrate the day. Write a story, find a fact in a book, design a book mark. My kids have dressed up some years but other years they’ve had a pyjama day at school for a day of bedtime stories. The years we’ve dressed up, we’ve talked about their favourite books and did what we could with clothes and props we already had. Think Iggy Peck the Architect (patterned knitted jumper, skinny trousers, daps and a pencil behind the ear) or Jesse Aarons from Bridge to Terabithia (jeans, raglan top and a crown made out of twigs).

I know that my children and I are coming at this from a place of literary privilege. I grew up in a home of books, we had regular tips to the library, I saw my parents read for pleasure, my best friends enjoyed the same boks as me, I had books as gifts, we had day trips to Hay on Wye, I ended up studying books at university (English Lit) and there are books in every room of our home. I read to my children and they read because they want to. When the new Health Visitor first visited after my youngest was born she glanced around the living room and said “you’ll be fine, you’ve got books”, to which I said “none of them are about parenting”. “It doesn’t matter,” she replied “it makes a difference.” The sad thing was, most of the houses she visited didn’t have books.

Not everyone lives a life immersed in books. I know mothers who taught themselves to read as adults. At Christmas in a toy shop I was browsing the children’s books when I overheard a woman say to her friend “no, she wouldn’t want a book as a present, that’s boring” and my heart broke a little. 4 in 10 boys and 3 in 10 girls aged 11-13 who took part in a 2010 National Literary Trust survey did not own any books.

Spending just 10 minutes a day reading with children of all ages can make a crucial difference to their future. Literacy matters. The National Literacy Trust research showed that children who don’t own books were two and a half times more likely to read below their expected level than children who have their own books* (19% compared to 7.6%). It helps to put important campaigns like World Book Day into perspective.

Schools have enough to deal with and your misplaced outrage about fancy dress or late notice about taking in a book isn’t going to be their top priority. Remember it’s also the season for belated St David’s Day Eisteddfodau, British Science Week and bloody Red Nose Day.

Of course, all the Matildas and Boys in a Dress, the Tigers Who Came to Tea and the Highway Rats are delightful. A gaggle of primary aged children in fancy dress is a wonderful thing. There’s joy and creativity in making outfits. But if your school isn’t dressing up for World Book Day, don’t be a dick about it. Dress them up on the weekend or this evening if you’re really gagging to take that photo for Instagram. Even better, just read a book with them, find out what their favourite book is and why.

My boys both chose books that are space themed, which isn’t surprising as they both want to be astronauts (the youngest wants to be the first ventriloquist in space, please tell me no one’s beat him to it). Both books are signed by the authors because they’re both from different literary festivals. They’re not the books they’re in the middle of reading but they’re important to them. One’s a book of facts and the other’s a story.

This quote hit the nail on the head more succinctly than my waffling diatribe:

If your child’s World Book Day costume costs more than a book, STOP RIGHT THERE! Make something from a cereal box, and BUY A BOOK instead.**

If you found yourself cursing World Book Day as you stressed over a costume last night, take a moment to be grateful that your child has access to books. If you fumed about your school not letting you show off via your offspring’s costume today, take a moment to be grateful you had one less thing to stress about and that your child has access to books. And if you don’t give a shit about books or which children have access to them, I’ll take a moment to be grateful for World Book Day doing what they do.

*National Literacy Trust online survey, took pace in November and December 2010

**from an instagram post by @brightbuttonschildminding spotted on @childcare_adventures