At Mrs May’s Brexit Nursery

At Mrs May’s Brexit Nursery

… with apologies to Joyce Grenfell    

Children … now come along

I’m the head teacher and so let’s hold hands and pull together.  No, Boris, not that way … this way!

Michael, come along now.  Pull your socks up and hold hands.

David, don’t argue dear … you know I know best.  Come along, all you have to do is put a tick in this little box here – the one that says “Yea”.  No, not the one that says “Nay”. 

Now children stop mimicking a pony’s neigh, that isn’t funny. 

Yes, Amber, Yea does mean yes. 

“Yes to what?” … Jacob, you don’t need to ask what you are ticking.  Just do what I say.  I know best.  It’s for Queen and country.  No-one else seems to have a clue.

Now hold your heads up and play your parts.  No, Dominic, you can’t be a superjet so just sit down and keep quiet.

Boris, do stop fiddling.  Don’t do that.

Oh dear, Dominic, is that a penknife in your hand?  It looks rather sharp!  Why were you coming up behind my back just then?  You had better give that to me.  I shall confiscate it and give it to your Mummy.  You go and stand in the corner straight away, you naughty boy.

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Befriending the black dog

Reading about the high statistics of mental illness, anxiety and depression that we seem to be experiencing in the UK, I am wondering how these conditions are measured today.  I am also wondering, in particular, how well young people are being introduced to the fact that emotions are signals, not something to be afraid of necessarily.

We were with a friend last night who was talking about how she has learnt that when she goes down into a dark mood it is actually signalling a transformation that is often creative. I can relate to this personally as I have spent much of my life trying to avoid feeling glum and doing all I can to stay ‘up’.  But as I have become older and – who knows! – perhaps a little wiser, I am far less afraid of those down feelings and have come to recognise them as helpful messages, possibly to go more gently, to take more time out, not to push against life and be willing to accept some disappointments.  Sometimes the words of a poem will arise from these low moments.

I guess in an era of celebrity lifestyles, Facebook and Instagram, young people get the impression that life should always be perfect.  Rejection, disappointment, failures, mistakes can all take on a stronger impact than they would if one was living in different times when one wasn’t surrounded by images of perfect models and smiley happy people.  But disturbing emotions and experiences are part of human life and we can’t and should not try to protect ourselves from the reality that any human life includes suffering, often as much as it includes joy.

So I was horrified to read that students will be allowed to skip exam topics that they find ‘upsetting’.  Apparently staff at leading universities have been told not to include disturbing subjects in the compulsory part of academic assessments.  The list of sensitive topics in the Sheffield University guidelines includes faith, religion, sexuality, rape, abortion, torture, death and bereavement, as well as LGBTQ topics.

What are we doing in trying to shelter students from these areas of life that are a fundamental part of our human history?  Death and bereavement are as much a part of life as birth: how does it help young people to try to paint them out in case they get upset by the idea?  It seems those who claim to be upset can then resit the exam later… which, I am sorry, call me a cynic, seems like a great excuse for a bit more revision time!

Yes, much of human life, history and behaviour is profoundly upsetting but it is part of the whole picture.  We just reinforce the concept of ‘everything must be easy and perfect’ if we don’t explain the darker side of things.  And how can the next generations work towards improving human behaviour if they don’t understand that throughout history there has been murder, violence, robbery, torture and death?  How can they know the horror of the two world wars if we do not continue to remind them that their grandfathers lost their lives in the mud and therefore wars should be avoided whenever possible?

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The Brexit Ship

After a week of such turmoil I can think of little to say other than to share with you the poem I wrote about Brexit:

The Brexit Ship by Helen Whitten

Buffeted and adrift on a turbulent sea
the anchor is up, the mooring rope cut.
We slip between waves of deceit,
lurch around rocks,
lost in caverns of denial.
The Brexit ship is stuck in a fog
of conflict and confusion.
No direction has been set,
the navigation charts sunk long ago
in the depths of egotism and back-stabbing,
intransigence on all sides.
Which way now the crew ask
to China, India, New York?
On lands far and wide people wait and watch,
scratch their heads in bewilderment.
The captain’s shoulders shrug in despair
no answer forthcoming,
no-one at the helm,
the boat twists and turns
somewhere out at sea.

Hey ho, and so it goes on and presumably, one day, we shall end up in a place of greater clarity!


Ghosts and Shadows

We’ve been surrounded by skeletons, skulls, pumpkins and zombies this week.  Hallowe’en has really caught on in a big way in the UK these days and here in Kew we had trick or treaters and small children dressed in all kinds of bloodthirsty outfits knocking on our door.  It’s fun and yet far distant from its Christian origins back in 1745 when Hallowe’en stood for Hallowed or Holy Evening, this, in turn, potentially stemming from Aztec, Mexican and Celtic rituals celebrating the dead.

It got me thinking about ancestors and reminded me of taking my granddaughter to see the film Coco last year, a cartoon about a young Mexican boy transported to the Land of the Dead.  One scene struck me particularly and this was the suggestion – a surmise obviously – that once there is no one left on earth who remembers you then your soul loses its energy.  That certainly made me think how quickly one can be forgotten.  I only knew my grandmother and great-grandmother on my mother’s side but beyond that I don’t remember my grandparents at all.

And yet their presence inevitably lives on in my family’s awareness and we are fortunate enough to have a family tree going back to the thirteenth century on my father’s side.  But a family tree only gives names and dates and occasionally place names – one learns little about the person themselves.

My mother always said that she didn’t believe in an afterlife or in ghosts and yet I have had experiences where I had a sense of a ghost, or was it a shadow?  Once, in the dormitory during my first term at Cranborne Chase, of my great-grandmother sitting on my bed.  A quiet shadow, very benign.  Another time a strange moment when I was sure the phone went in the middle of the night and my mother’s voice said “hello pets” in the way she always had … and yet she was dead by that time.  There have been other moments when I have felt someone tap my shoulder when no one was there and these have left me with a questionmark about the mystery of death and what is beyond.

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How do you listen to music these days?

My new car doesn’t have a CD player.  The Peugeot salesman told me it was dead easy – just plug your iPhone into the slot and you have music.  But I don’t… because I have never bothered to download music onto my iPhone.  When I am travelling on the tube I have watched and overheard the incessant sound of music drumming in other people’s ears but never really felt the urge to listen to music in this way.  I have rather enjoyed a little silence.  And silence is hard to come by these days.

But in the car I do like to listen to music and just at the moment I can’t because I can’t get the dratted iPhone to transmit anything that I really want.  Sporadically I succeed in listening to Spotify but it doesn’t seem to work every time and I end up thoroughly frustrated.  In the house we have Alexa and it plays some of the music we want to listen to but again we haven’t mastered the technology enough to get it to play everything we want.

And so both of us look at our CDs and feel nostalgic that they are disappearing.  David’s study is full of his old vinyl records and I can understand why.  I did sell most of mine, except for my Beatles and Stones collection, of course.  And weren’t we told that CDs would last for ever?  But they don’t, do they?  They jump and get stuck just as the old vinyl did.

And so now everything is streaming and, as I sat in a wonderful concert of Chopin Concertos in the OSM in Montreal last night, I suddenly realised that giving music to a loved one is no longer possible.  When my granddaughter started to play the piano I gave her some CDs of beautiful piano music including Beethoven’s Emperor, and my son put them on for her at night to calm her into sleep.  But now their house, like the houses of most of our young, is all digital and streamed and clever and so the opportunity for me to gift a CD of music to her now has gone.  And I realize that this actually makes me rather sad, and a little discombobulated.

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What Makes you Laugh these Days?

I rather despair.  I long for something silly to listen to or watch but I find that so much of the humour is angry, classist, divisive and crass and so I switch off.  I used to enjoy the 6.30 Radio 4 slot but these days the level of humour is so pathetic it just makes me cross.  The News Quiz and the Now Show used to make me laugh but they are just rather cruel these days and very ‘lovey’ and full of anti-posh rhetoric. There’s Live at the Apollo if one can be bothered so stay up late enough but quite frankly after a few months it is all so much the same stuff of lavatory jokes, boring stories about children that what Michael McIntyre made amusing all those years ago has been taken to endless levels of repetition.

I just long to laugh more.  My childhood memories are of our family sitting round listening to Around the Horne or watching Tony Hancock or Morecambe and Wise and collapsing in laughter to the point that my Dad used to have tears streaming down his cheeks.

There was the gentle comedy of the soaps like I Love Lucy, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Til Death us do Part, Terry and June, The Avengers and idiotic humour like the Benny Hill Show, Eric Sykes, Marty Feldman, The Monkees, the Likely Lads, the Liver Birds, the Goodies, The Flintstones.  And of course Bertie Wooster and the Doctor at Large or at Sea series.  There was the classic Some Mothers Do ‘ave ’em.  We had so much choice!

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was one of the most brilliant comedy series of its day and I am not sure that there has been anything quite as witty since.  Perhaps The Office made an attempt to be as funny but I don’t think it matched up, in my view.

The original fly-on-the-wall Candid Camera could be brilliant but has been played to death.  And It’ll be Alright on the Night similarly ribbed ridiculous moments of theatre and television and made us laugh.

Along came Monty Python’s Flying Circus to take humour into another level of observation and idiocy that was radical and very funny.  Kenny Everett, The Young Ones and Dame Edna were equally radical and equally amusing.  Ben Elton and Victoria Wood combined pathos and sharp wit together.  And I am afraid I loved The Vicar of Dibley.

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A Mad New World?

I sometimes think I have woken up in some parallel universe where people’s minds are tuned in to some new radiowave of thought and I have been left behind.  Like someone has forgotten to update my software.  Did I really hear that:

  • The little green man on pedestrian traffic lights, so simple to explain to small children, is being replaced by two circles with arrows, the male symbol and/or the female symbol which is far less clear?
  • The Gay Rights organisation Stonewall has suggested that two biological men who choose to identify as women and are attracted to one another can call themselves lesbian?
  • The Freemasons, for ever a male-only organisation (thoroughly unfairly in my opinion) will now accept women but only if they started their membership as a man?
  • We have an American President who resembles a Court Jester (if only he was!)?
  • We might drop out of the EU without a deal?
  • A teacher who has decided that Maths makes students too anxious and could potentially be ‘racist’?
  • A convicted rapist, still a biological man, who can decide that he wants to ‘identify’ as a woman and gets moved to a woman’s prison where he carries out more sexual assaults?
  • There is a movement on both sides of the Atlantic to reverse the abortion laws so hard-won, forgetting how many women have suffered physically, mentally and financially (and actually died from backstreet abortions) while men walk away, oblivious of the high-handed nature with which they rule over women’s bodies and lives citing the law or religion?
  • We allow cyclists to cycle on our roads with no accountability, no insurance, no number plate, seemingly no reference to the Highway Code, slamming through red lights at pedestrian crossings and scattering toddlers and the elderly with no redress?
  • There are students who can erase the realities of history by tearing down statues and banning books and lectures?
  • There have been virtually no prosecutions for Female Genital Mutiliation that have taken place in this country despite many cases being reported?
  • By 2035 there will be more Muslim children in this country than Christian?
  • People don’t seem to consider, let alone acknowledge, the fact that using the phrase “male, pale and stale” is both racist and genderist abuse?
  • The number of referrals for transgender dysphoria has quadrupled in the last five years?
  • Apparently I can no longer have a fancy dress theme such as Around the World in 80 Days for my 70th birthday in 2020 because I might offend someone by dressing up in their country’s style?
  • Perhaps I can’t even write or use a recipe that comes from another culture as I might be accused of cultural appropriation?
  • According to some pearly words of politically correct wisdom I can’t write a novel about a black person because I am a white woman and may therefore misappropriate their culture. So presumably all my future work would have to only include white female characters?


Am I dreaming or just down a rabbit hole?  Is it that I have reached the stage of life similar to my parents moaning to me that the Rolling Stones looked hideous and sang dreadful songs? But surely all the above is far more serious than that?  Isn’t it?

The trouble is, I find, that if I raise any of these issues in a way that suggests that I am uncomfortable with some of the changes that are occurring I am looked at as if I am some kind of nearly-extinct pariah.  It seems to be very difficult to have any balanced discussion or debate with people because we are living in this binary black-and-white world where there doesn’t seem to be a middle way.  People just don’t want to hear concerns or questions on these subjects, let along views that differ from their own.

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An appreciation of the quiet grit of women through the ages

We went to visit Bletchley Park [] recently and were given an interesting tour of the huts and environment in which the codebreakers lived during World War II.  The conditions were tough.  The huts were freezing cold in winter, boiling hot in summer.  And full of cigarette smoke.  The women were mainly young, forced, at a time of their lives when they might expect to be dating and care-free, to concentrate for hours on the information coming in across the airwaves.  I felt in awe of them and what they did for us all.  Them and the men who fought, of course.  But these women kept silent and were not allowed to share their experiences even with their husbands.  There was no accolade or acknowledgement for many years of what they did for us.  They just quietly left and got on with life.

This made me think about the way women through the ages have just quietly got on with life, and still do, however tough.  The mothers in Syria, the Yazidis trying to re-enter life after kidnap ordeals, The Rohingyas, countless women who are subjected to violence and abuse in Africa, India, South America and nearer to home.  How they stoically knuckle down to do what they believe will protect themselves and their children.  We must not forget them and cannot imagine that any #MeToo or feminist movement that has occurred so far has solved these problems.

These messages were brought home to me also when we went to see the French film Les Guardians, about the women left behind to tend the farms while their men fought during World War I.  It was back-breaking work, tilling and gathering the harvest, making ends meet.  And it made me think of the women who have done this over the centuries, run farms, castles, palaces while the men went to war or off to Crusade.  Their skills unappreciated, often, and unacknowledged.  Bringing up the children unobtrusively on their own, while their men rampaged around the countryside or globe at the behest of some monarch, prince or baron.  There are few history books documenting their lives or explaining how they kept a country, community and family going in the absence of the menfolk.

Coincidentally I have also just finished the book The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, about the women left behind on their own in France during World War II, one fighting for the Resistance, the other defending her family and friends during the Occupation, finally being drawn to protect Jewish children.  These women, like the women in England and elsewhere, were living on bare scraps of food with little heat or protection.

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A Second Referendum: more questions than answers

I confess to being confused.  There is a lobby to hold a Second Referendum on Brexit but I question whether, in just giving us the terms of the UK-EU negotiations, we would have sufficient information to make up our minds?  Don’t we also want the EU to reform?  Do we really just want to go back to where we were, with our tail between our legs?  Even the most staunch Remainers I speak to agree that there are major issues within Europe that need addressing.  The argument is that it is more effective to do this by influencing from the inside but past evidence doesn’t back this up as our own attempts to influence Brussels have not been that successful.  And I don’t see much listening going on when other EU members have gripes either.  So what’s to be done?

The media debate seems to cover only our own appallingly incompetent negotiations with the EU and how it impacts the UK.  But what about what else is going on in Europe and how that might play out over the next decade?  I don’t read much in our press regarding what the EU’s strategy is to hold the members together in this radically changed world.  I only hear the same old narrative about the four principles, with no flexibility, it seems, to those countries who are struggling to manage to live within them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want a close relationship with Europe but perhaps, having run a small business rather than having been part of a large organisation, I prefer to have the freedom to be flexible and act fast when necessary.  Within the EU currently, negotiations are cumbersome and long-winded.  As I said before, I voted Remain – but only just.  I think, like many others, including those I speak to who voted Leave (who, contrary to the narrative, are usually thoroughly intelligent global thinkers who are far from racist, and often immigrants themselves), there is a sentimental connection to the people who live in those countries and an enjoyment of the exchange of cultural history.  But the reality is that our history is so different, in that the majority of those countries who are now members were all either occupied by invading armies or governed by a Communist or Fascist dictatorship.  Living under an authoritarian regime shapes a very different mindset and lifestyle where people are careful what they say and often source goods or services on street corners or in corridors.  Trust and transparency takes time to build up.

We are currently having our house in Kew refurbished by builders who come from Eastern Europe and they still report that there is enormous corruption in Bulgaria, Romania and other countries where the former Communist regime politicians have found their way back into government and milk the proceeds.  We heard this story in many of the countries we visited along the Danube two years’ ago.  What is the EU’s strategy to tackle this corruption?

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Teaching values, ethics and empathy in a secular age

As a child of the 50s I sat through endless school assemblies and Church of England services drumming home to me the message of “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).  I am not sure I totally understood the detail required within that statement, in terms of personal action.  I know I have said and done things I have regretted but there is no doubt that I have felt a sharp sense of guilt when I have done so.

Values and ethics are not the sole domain of religion, and in other ways religious beliefs can divide us.  And yet those Ten Commandments that I heard repeated so many times in my youth remain in my mind and are surely positive messages for our young?  Our lives depend on the majority of people behaving well and those core beliefs of not killing, stealing, telling lies or coveting one’s neighbour’s wife or possessions help shape social behaviours.

In an era of false news and social media people seem to forget the Golden Rule of “do unto others” and instead threaten people who say or do something they don’t like with death, rape and hatred.  They seem incapable of considering or imagining how it might feel to be at the receiving end of this kind of behaviour.

Cyber bullying translates into objectifying people in real life.  Guns, knives and porn seem to be part of a trend whereby the perpetrator never considers or is faced with the appalling damage they do to a victim and their family.  The lyrics of the drill music rap songs encourage people to violence and seem to laugh at the pain they are causing.  Why do we tolerate this?  Why do we turn a blind eye to the everyday put-downs, the so-called ‘funny’ comedians spitting vitriolic personal remarks that are laced with envy and unpleasantness?  Why do we not silence the preachers inciting jihad, division and hatred?  It’s not just up to Government.  It’s up to each and every one of us to act where we see injustice.

The messages we receive as children get sewn into our neuronal networks.  We may consider them, analyse them and reject them as we enter adulthood but they will have had some influence on our thinking, development and behaviour.  I am concerned that education has become more focused on being ‘clever’ than being wise.  And we are getting very little example from the world leaders of today, I fear, who seem to value power more than doing the best for their population.  Erdogan, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and many others seem to be willing to distort democracy for their own personal power goals. Sports stars get drunk and aggressive.  Video games project endless violence.  Advertisements continue to diminish women.  Porn debases both genders.  These are the images our young people are seeing and I wonder how it will influence their behaviour in future. Read more →