Tag Archives: UK

Summer in the foothills of parenting

I’ve been waiting for a moment of divine inspiration and philosophical insight to begin writing but it has finally dawned on me that it could be a long wait. So here is another missive from the beautiful foothills of parenthood.

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I’m liking the summer. I’m a lot happier when the sun shines, and while the complexions of the other members of family mean I’m unlikely to get to spend much time in some serious heat in the next decade or so, I’ll take the gentle British sunshine any day over the rain. We were in Ireland recently and it rained every day (although all the hardcore natives wore their shorts and t-shirts, regardless). It does make everything over there insanely green, but I had an extra skip in my step when we landed back in Luton in the blazing sunshine.

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Can you believe we have a seven month old now? She’s trying out food and making a big, joyous mess. It’s fair to say her meals get a lot less attention than Jesse’s did at this stage, but that’s the joy of baby-led weaning. She just tries loads of stuff that we eat and I don’t have to make any purees. My old boss used to say many wise things but the one I remember most clearly was that “we’re all as lazy as we dare to be”, and this is a case in point. Lazy weaning. Not that baby-led weaning isn’t a bona fide and respectable strategy, but it especially appeals to me because of the lower level of effort involved. One of its promised benefits is a toddler who isn’t fussy with food but is much more used to a variety of flavours and textures from the start. I am under no illusions about these kinds of grand promises, however, since our toddler is still pretty darn fussy. We do weaning this way because I’m convinced it’s a healthy, happy way to go, and it saves me a heap of effort. Although there is a lot of mess. (Any creativity which I can muster up is largely thanks to the brilliant new website some friends have set up called Baby Loves Veg – check it out!).

We have just come back from two weeks away (during which our fussy toddler ate a bare minimum for survival). I wouldn’t quite call them holiday weeks because Andy was working to some degree for both weeks, singing, speaking and hosting at a couple of Christian festivals. And the word holiday suggests some kind of rest when, as parents, you’re actually still doing all the parenting stuff, just in a different place and probably with less equipment. Looking after kids in our own home is always easier than doing it elsewhere. I know some parents who avoid going away with their small children as the hassle just isn’t worth it (and conversely, I am in awe of Mel Wiggins who just went to Florence with a 5 year old and a 4 month old). Believe me, I really got that this summer. Flying with kids and all that stuff. Sharing a room with a baby and toddler while trying to stop them waking each other up all night. Persuading Jesse to eat unfamiliar food and not destroy someone else’s house. Spending evenings camped outside the bedroom door with a book. It was, at moments, gruelling. (I may have ended up one night holed up in the bath drinking red wine out of a sippy cup. Ahem). But then at other moments it was brilliant. And worth it.

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Jesse loved both weeks. The first week he loved the tents (not that we were in one…) and caravans, the kids groups he went to, the community, the muddy puddles. And the second week he adored having his grandparents available 24/7, and staying in a castle, seeing his cousins and having access to a whole room of toys. Jubilee rolled with it all and was happy as long as I was there (she even spent a few mornings happily playing in a creche). They both slept fitfully, and struggled at different moments. But we had so much love, practical help and prayer that it still felt like a good call to be there. And I just love seeing our kids learn to feel at home in a wider community, learn to trust others and be in new places. Even if we need a break afterwards,

And now we’re home. And I get to spend at least some of each night in our bed while the kids sleep in other rooms. I get to cook our food again (the carbs in Northern Ireland were so intense that I actually started dreaming about salads, which is a new thing for me). It’s nice to be in our own space.

Life is small right now. We’ve dug in because just looking after the four of us is exhausting. No-one is sleeping through the night, and the emotional toil of watching Jesse struggle and scratch and cry out at night with his eczema is worse than the more predictable teething cries of the little one. We’re trying all kinds of things to help him get better – seaweed and aloe and oatmeal and laundry eggs and water softeners (potentially) and so much cream we could just slide from room to room without taking any actual steps. It’s trial and error, life is gloriously normal one minute and agonising the next. But every day there are beautiful moments. Mostly, I feel peaceful and contented (and tired), which is not something I really expected from this year, so I’m savouring the feeling for however long it lasts!

 

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And then there were 3: Cornish holiday part 2

Welcome to the second instalment of our holiday saga, featuring a reduced cast and much less sunny weather.

But first, I thought I’d reflect on holidaying in the UK vs going abroad. There are obvious arguments for staying in the UK if you’re committed to living more lightly on the planet and not contributing to the aviation industry’s disproportionately large carbon emissions (or if, like us, you’re at least trying really hard to be better). The UK is beautiful and there are so many corners of it to discover and enjoy. It can also be cheaper, although not necessarily. (We are big fans of house-swapping, house-sharing and cultivating friendships with holiday-home-owners. And of course, someday we will have to camp…).

On the flip-side, it can be expensive, the weather is wildly unpredictable (you may laugh, but it has a big effect on my happiness levels!), and there’s definitely something to be said for experiencing life in other cultures.

I grew up having a mixture of holidays in mainland Europe and some in the UK, although we always got there by car (the advantages of living near major seaports to France). I like the idea of our kids being at home in different kinds of environments, amongst different languages and cuisines, but also of them not taking that privilege for granted. When we were away I started dreaming up ideas like going abroad every fifth year, and plotting and saving as a family as to where we go. I’m not sure we can predict enough about our future to make plans like that, or that we’ll necessarily be able to afford to go abroad, especially once we have to go in school holiday season. But I like planning anyway.

Returning to our recent holiday, after a week of sociable, chaotic holiday fun in Port Isaac, we were extremely happy with our decision not to rush back to London. Instead we drove down further into Cornwall and stayed in a friend’s converted barn, in a village not far from St Ives. So far, so blissful.

We loved spending a week with friends but also really wanted some time with just the three of us. We’ve never really holidayed as a three – last year we went with my parents to France. And of course summer holidays of the future will now feature another little Flannagan. So some quality time together seemed like a good plan.

There’s nothing better than Cornwall in the sunshine. When it rains, however, I can go to a dark place. Internally I howl and curse our decision to stay in the UK, because I just find it so depressing. And my former coping mechanisms are useless when confronted with a bored toddler (‘darling, let’s just curl up and read our books, or relax in a nice pub, or go to the cinema…’). We had to develop new strategies. And here follows our top recommendations and favourite places.

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1.Paradise Park. I have a minor phobia of birds (or beaks to be specific), so an award-winning wildlife park specialising in birds wasn’t immediately appealing to me. But it was really close, and what’s more they had soft play. We set off one drizzly morning and it was a complete winner. Jesse was utterly captivated by all the amazingly coloured birds. He loved the shows. He loved the farmyard. And he loved the soft-play.  They had a deal whereby if you bought a return ticket it was only £4 (per adult – he was free), and so it became our new favourite place. he always wanted to see more birds, or go down the slides again. And even I was pretty impressed by some of the birds.

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This is a parrot trained to pick up a £1 coin from your out-stretched arm and drop it into a donation box. Sadly neither Andy nor Jesse really understood the premise.

2. Heartlands. I discovered this place on a flyer in Port Isaac, but it was only 20 minutes from our base near St Ives. And it was FREE. It’s basically a regeneration project that celebrates Cornwall’s mining history, and includes a big outdoor adventure playground, a cafe, a museum and various artisan workshops. You have to pay for parking but then you can claim the fee back inside (I got a coffee and a cookie for free). Highlights included the 270 degree film experience in the museum, the kids’ art studio (where Jesse painted a beautiful tea light holder), and the pic playground. Sadly our visit was slightly curtailed when Jesse head butted some concrete and we had to detour to the minor injuries unit…but otherwise it was an excellent outing.

Jesse the artist at work

Jesse the artist at work (with mentor)

3. DVD rental. Can you believe anyone still does it? We had no wifi for streaming, and were basically housebound in the evening once Jesse was in bed. Our solution: daily visits to a fab little rental place in the local town (Hayle), where the guy running the show made daily recommendations which generally proved excellent (or at least were based on true stories that were interesting). Hurray for human contact! It was indescribably more helpful than iTunes, where we have spent many a depressing hour scrolling through scores of films, struggling to find ANYTHING that looks vaguely appealing. (FYI viewings include Long Road to Freedom, Promised Land, Hector & the search for Happiness, Parkland, and The Theory of Everything).

Polishing off a Cornish tea

Polishing off a Cornish tea

4. The train to St Ives. It’s hard not to love St Ives with it’s beautiful cobbled streets, endless ice-cream parlous, beautiful beaches and harbour, and scores of art galleries. But we especially loved going there by train from where we were staying (St Erth), following the shoreline to central St Ives. The views are incredible, and Jesse always loves a train ride. (What’s more, with a journey time of 15 minutes, we can keep him interested enough in the views not to need to run up and down the carriage continuously).

 

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Going on holiday with other people (and their children)

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We’re just back from two weeks of holiday (that’s the excuse for the latest radio silence) and I have two blogs for you about our adventures. The second one will cover our second week when it was just team Flan, and our reflections on holidaying in the UK as a young family. But we’re starting with group holidaying.

For the first time ever (since having a kiddo) we went on holiday with other people who weren’t related to us. Which was something of an experiment, and so I thought I’d tell you how it went, what was brilliant and whether we’re now converts to a new way of holidaying.

Since we got married we’ve really only holidayed on our own. Regular life tends to be relentlessly sociable and busy and so we have always tried to protect our downtime together and keep it quiet, But then once we had Jesse we realised that parental solidarity and sharing the load (especially around 5.45am) were hugely appealing, plus who doesn’t want playmates on hand to entertain your child? (I had visions of one brave dad entertaining all the kids simultaneously while the rest of us supped wine on the veranda).

There were 11 of us, all in, and we stayed in one big beautiful house in Port Isaac, on the north coast of Cornwall. Mercifully we were able to go outside of school holiday season (how does anyone afford holidays at peak time?), and sharing a house rental (and food bill) across three families made the whole thing way more affordable.

Here we all are. Except Matt who took the photo,

 

Our highlights of the week included sitting on the shore on Friday night listening to the Fishermen’s Friends sing sea shanties (they’re pretty famous).

We had a pretty good view

We had a pretty good view

Long afternoons on Polzeath beach watching the kiddos dart in and out of rock pools.

(and stop for crackers)

(and stop for crackers)

The ferry from Rock to Padstow, where Jesse joyfully demolished Andy’s ice-cream (bought at Rick Stein’s deli – the boy has classy tastes).

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And for what it’s worth, here are the lessons learnt from the great adventure:

1.Choose your companions well. I had a definite head-start here in that the whole thing was basically orchestrated by my two best buddies and myself, and we knew we liked each other. Two of us had lived together pre-marriage, and we’d certainly holidayed together before in our single days. It’s definitely easier to be with your favourite people rather than your partner’s favourite people, although I’m pretty sure the boys all like each other too…Or if not, they did brave faces well. So I guess really really making sure that you’re both down with the plan is pretty crucial before committing.

2. Don’t do everything together. Every family had different routines or habits. Our little man was up around 6am, and one of the other families wasn’t usually ready to hit the road much before noon (they did have triple the number of children). So we devised our own adventures, sometime meeting up on the beach later in the day, sometimes just for dinner. Getting a large group of people to agree a shared plan each day is way too much effort. A mixture of family time and group time worked great for us.

3. Snacks are really important. For all ages.

4. Pick a great location. We came up trumps here, and not just because we accidentally ended up in fictional Port Wenn where Doc Marten is set (if that means nothing to you, join the club. We were completely ignorant on arrival). We scored a beautiful big house (through friends of friends), where we had enough space not to need to kill each other, with incredible views, but which was also right on the doorstep of a beautiful village. Children of any age could set out on foot (with responsible adults…) and adventure down to the harbour or the cliff top or just the winding village streets. Beautiful sandy beaches were only a brief drive away, and there were loads of gorgeous pubs and restaurants for meals out.

5. Make the most of people power. Each couple had a great date night out, and we happily babysat for one another. Andy and I had an amazing seafood dinner, despite the fact that that he doesn’t really like seafood.

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It was a brilliant week and has got me thinking that I’d love to do more shared holidays. (Share the cooking! Share the cost! Share the wine! Eat other people’s snacks!) I have so many happy memories of family holidays growing up, but we never really went with other families, and I think it’s such a great thing for kids. Saying that, I can imagine scenarios where it might be a nightmare. If we went on holiday with people who liked to be really tidy we would probably drive them bananas. Or if our kids were all really different ages and weren’t interested in hanging out or doing the same kinds of things. Or if you just didn’t like the people so much. Parenting is a pretty intense thing to be doing around people who wind you up, whereas genuine parental solidarity – I can’t get enough of it.

Do any of you have good or bad experiences of group holidays?

 

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Things I start to realise when I leave the city

Tatton Park

Tatton Park

This week I had the treat of getting out of London to the countryside.  I went to spend a few hours with a friend who has been coaching me, on and off, for the past six years (one of the many gifts that Tearfund has sent my way), and he suggested that we roam the wilds of the Peak District whilst talking about all the big questions life is currently throwing my way.

Do you know I walked for about half an hour before I realised that my eyes were fixed on my feet and I was missing the view?  There were a lot of boggy puddles to avoid, but still.  I was intent on each right step and I was missing the snowy peaks in the distance, the stark, bare trees in the foreground and the bright blue sky above.  I was wasting the extravagant beauty that I’d taken so much effort to escape to.  All I could see was where I was.

But when I did look up, it did my soul good.  The horizon was so wide, the sky so immense, the air so clean and cool.  There was space, so much space.  There was no rush, no bustle, no pressure.  I could breath deeply and slowly, and pause the urgent train of thoughts carolling through my mind.  I thought of the organisations that I’ve been exploring working with, and the stories they tell about what matters in the world and what must be done, stories which I believe but which too quickly become all encompassing, the only stories.  I caught my breath, and felt like there was something bigger.

As we slowly paced the fields and dales (is it only Yorkshire where you have dales?), the pressure to power on forwards and reach some arbitrary landmark seemed to dissolve.  It’s not that there was no intended destination, but our pace was of no great importance, and it was such a shame to miss the view.

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I didn’t look at my phone, not even to check the time. (But I did take a couple of pictures)

And as I savoured the gentle ramble, I realised that we (as a family) have stopped going on walks, besides the daily treks around the neighbourhood.  We never seem to get organised enough to get the train to some serious greenery, and the logistical challenges brought about by taking a one year old have apparently defeated me. My parents always took us on walks as kids; there was plenty of camping, and climbing mountains.  We even had proper walking boots.  I bought my first adult pair in South Africa a few years ago; this week was their second outing.

What a shame.  Not to make the effort to get out of the city and escape its physical and psychological confines.  To accept its deadlines and pressures without stopping to look up at the view and realise that the horizon is wider than it can seem.  At moment of change and rebalancing I need reminding to stop and look up.
What do you realise when you get out into the countryside?
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Our Big Lunch

Doddington Grove Big LunchYes, it’s another foray into the world-beyond-the-baby, in which I catch you up with some local community happenings.

This last week, we finally got organised enough to put on a BIG LUNCH (if you don’t know about the annual BIG LUNCH set up by the Eden project, it’s a cracking idea designed to help us Brits throw an annual street party and get to know our neighbours).

It actually fell on Jesse’s 6 month birthday, so we told him it was kind of a party for him.  We’re just hoping it doesn’t raise too many expectations for future birthdays.

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If you’ve been reading this blog a while you might remember that towards the end of last year we were trying to set up the Tenants and Residents’ Association on our estate.  There once was a TRA but it wound down, and no-one had ever bothered to get it going again.  So the dynamo that is my husband set about marshalling some troops and battling the prevailing cynicism to kickstart a new TRA.

Our building is the only building on the estate on our side of the road.  All the other buildings are across the unusually-wide street and before this year we didn’t actually ever meet anyone from there. We were a world unto ourselves.  But then after a few weeks of flyering and door-knocking and postering, 30 people turned up to the relaunch meeting.  And most of them came not to gripe about leaky roofs (although heaven knows, we all could go there…) but because they wanted to get to know people and build a sense of community around the estate.

The frustrating part is that up until the launch meeting the family Flan were all in it together, but then Jesse suddenly started going to bed at 7 and giving us back our evenings…which meant we couldn’t both go out of an evening.  And given Andy was voted in as the chair of the TRA, it was more important for him to be there.

So Jesse and I missed a lot of the planning.  We did some flyering.  But we still got to go the party!  And what a day it was.

There were loads of people, piles of homemade food, a furnace of a barbecue, a packed bouncy castle, a long queue for face-painting and a whole lot of chatter.  There was even sunshine!  And a friend from uni turned up, who I hadn’t seen in about a decade! What are the chances?

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I loved that there were so many kids there (there were a lot of rounds to the tug-of-war) and that everyone just wanted to hang around and keep  nattering.  It took a lot of legwork to make it happen – the new TRA committee had a lot on their plate – but it was just a great day.  All kinds of people came out of the woodwork, wanting to get more involved.

And possibly the highlight of the day was the incredible Spanish tortilla cooked by Lourdes, one of our legendary neighbours who is loved by people across the whole estate.

Just that morning in church we’d been thinking about what it means to reweave the broken threads of relationships in all the different spheres of our lives, and how we can put into practise a love which restores people and communities.  That afternoon we got to practice.  There’s a new, fragile expression of community starting to emerge in the neighbourhood, and we are loving being part of it.

 

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To the left, to the left (on politics)

It might not seem like the most likely moment to talk about politics, when my natural instincts are all driving me to dig a big deep hole somewhere and hide away, all mammal-like, to give birth in peace; but for today at least, that’s where my mind is.  So I thought I’d tell you the whole unlikely story of how I got to be a bit of a lefty.

I wasn’t raised that way.  My parents are avid Telegraph subscribers and huge Thatcher fans.  I was brought up thinking that the Iron Lady was the bees’ knees.  Our home was a happy place that day in 1992 when John Major was re-elected Prime Minister.

Well, at least our home was politically aware.  Dad likes to read aloud to us all from The Daily Telegraph comments’ section.  I remember my mum’s seemingly weird obsession with us always knowing who the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary were at any one time (I may have known their names but I didn’t know what they actually did).  My education taught me next to nothing about politics or economics: the concept of having to pay tax on my earnings was first introduced to me by a friend when I was about 20, and I was horrified.  But at least I knew who was in the cabinet.

I can understand how Thatcher bred such loyalty in my parents.  Political ideology aside, they, (we), belonged to a segment of society that did pretty well under her leadership.  We worked and saved and prospered.

It did of course help that we weren’t miners.

In John Smith’s day, my mother’s working class loyalties were re-awoken and there was political tension in the household.  I think she might even have voted for Tony Blair once, but don’t quote me on that.

But still, I just wasn’t that interested in politics.  Hardly anyone around me was.

When I turned up at university and gravitated towards all things theatrical, I encountered for the first time a group of people who read The Guardian, and laughed at my Tory-graph-reading (“Seriously? These papers have a political bias?”).  My new, cool, lefty, arty friends started me on a bit of a drift leftwards, but conviction was still pretty thin on the ground.

So I guess it was really in my 20s that I finally started thinking about politics, and reading things, and working out where I stood.  Justice started to matter to me when I looked at the world and read more of the Bible; my work at Tearfund meant I kept confronting horrendously unfair systems and laws that were locking people in poverty both here and overseas; it became obvious to me that charity was never going to be enough to change the world.  And yet the God I worship seems to always be asking big and awkward questions about what we’re all doing to make things fair and look out for the weakest.  It brings you back to politics pretty fast (boring and messy and compromised as it is, Russell Brand).

But why lefty politics?  One glance across the channel to the US would have you believe that Christian faith is practically synonymous with right-wing politics.  I’ll save that rant for another day; but here’s why that’s not the case for me.

I loved how Peter Ormerod put it in The Guardian this weekend:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.

“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.

“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”

It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie… But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolencesupport for outcasts and outsidersthe redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poorforgiveness,taxationreconciliationfigs.

Leaving aside the question of figs, he summarises things pretty well.  I don’t believe in the nonsense of the trickle-down effect; I think that serious work needs to be done to reduce the shocking (and increasing) divide between rich and poor because it makes everyone more miserable as well as just being unfair;  I have even become a huge fan of tax – I love that we all have to contribute to free education and healthcare and roads for everyone.

I am far from an uncritical supporter of all the Labour party has done in the past decades, but their policies and values sit closer to my justice-seeking heart than any of the alternatives, and that’s why I’m a member.  Also, being a member means they have to listen to me.

Yes, things are a little depressing for my parents now, politically.  First I joined the Labour party and then I married a man who actually works at a desk in Labour HQ, with Labour MPs.  I’ve even been to their staff Christmas do.  (It’s fair to say that we don’t talk a lot about politics with the family).

And the reason my mind has turned to all this again this week is because the lefty political organisation which Andy leads, and of which I am a member, is relaunching.  The Christian Socialist Movement has now become Christians on the Left, and relaunches in Parliament tomorrow night.  We are a group of Christians affiliated to, but not owned by, The Labour Party, who care passionately about social justice and believe that we need to pursue it from within politics as well as outside of it.  Oh, and we have this small dream of rewiring the global economic system.

If you are intrigued, baffled, fascinated or just a little bit curious, check out the new website, watch the snazzy new intro vid, and come along tomorrow night:

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And I’d love to hear where the intersection of faith and politics leads you, or how you ended up where you are politically.  You can be right-wing and still my friend.

 

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The divided city

The Ruby DOlls in NewcastleYesterday I spent the day in Newcastle (well, six hours of it was on a train) with The Ruby Dolls where we passed a sublime afternoon in a gorgeous country house hotel, with high tea and open fires and everyone waiting on us hand and foot.  We were singing for a private birthday party (I know, long way to go, it must have been someone special).

I remember the first time I went to a hotel as a child, for a celebration dinner.  I was awed by the luxury and I thought, ‘This is how I want to live when I’m grown up. I want to stay in places like this’.

Again, a few days ago I was taken by a client to an Oyster bar.  I’ve never really gone in for oysters (to me they taste like sea slime), but this place was beautiful, serene, tranquil: a complete oasis.

In my life I weave between different worlds.  Sitting in that swanky bar I thought how many parts of London, and parts of the UK, so many of us never see; there are invisible walls that make completely different but parallel lives possible.  Some of that is about choice, but much of it is about growing segregation.

The contrasts can be especially sharp for performers, I think.  Hired by the people with money, but usually paid relatively little, we swim in and out of swanky hotels and tired dressing rooms, retreating back to our homes in the cheaper parts of town at the end of the night.  But we are at least mobile.

The contrasts of our city can be bewildering, but when we can traverse them they can also be stimulating. I’ve been reading the excellent Londoners by Craig Taylor, which is a compilation of the experiences and reflections of people who live or work in the city, or who left, or who never want to.  It’s a fascinating smorgasbord of windows on the city and is currently inspiring me to write a new show for The Ruby Dolls about the mad, joyous and tragic stories you can stumble across here.

But there is part of this story which should disturb us deeply.

On Sunday, a senior policeman came and spoke at church, reminding me that Southwark, where I live, has the highest rates of knife crime and serious youth violence in the whole of London, a whole 30% higher than the next borough on the list.  And most of that emanates from council estates like the one I live on.

I remember the innocence of my childhood joy at fancy hotels, and the belief that I could choose a path through life that would make them part of my regular landscape.  It doesn’t seem important any more, but when I find myself in a fancy lobby I can’t help but wonder how in the same city some people get to see only the shiny bits, while others are relegated to a world of security doors and metal lifts that smell of wee.  Even though they might live on the same street.

To encounter so many different experiences of life in the same city, the same country, the same world, leaves me wondering where I fit, and where I should fit.  It challenges my priorities, demands and expectations of life.  And it leaves me with a nagging, persistent, grumbling conviction that all the gaping inequality is ugly, unjust, and making our world more dangerous.

My friend Jon Yates wrote an article for the Huffington Post earlier this year about how the UK is becoming more segregated.  He challenged his readers: “Look at your friends. Did they go to university? They mostly did if you did. Do they receive benefits? They mostly do if you do. Are they white? They mostly are if you are.”

I’d highly recommend a read.  He urges us to reconnect, join the dots, stop mistaking passive tolerance for integration.  I think we only start to care about the inequality and the segregation when we experience the contrasts ourselves, and we only do that through making friends with people who are different to us.

I’d love to hear how the way you see the world, or your neighbourhood, has changed because of unusual friends you’ve made…

 

 

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Positive vandalism

Yesterday we vandalised a local bus stop.

I love Walworth Road

I’m not entirely sure it was legal, but I can’t imagine anyone will be that bothered by removing the bluetak.

I wasn’t acting alone. There were four children (the innocents) and at least 11 grown-ups.  We drew pictures, wrote lists (‘things we love about Burgess Park’) and made things pretty.  There was no spray paint, no swearing, no ‘tags’, but lots of crayons, felt tips, and reasons to love our local area.

It was our monthly gathering of folks who are trying to build relationships with their neighbours and work for the good of the community, and this month we were right opposite the newly developed Burgess Park on Walworth Rd.  There’s a ton of redevelopment happening in the area – flashy new (expensive) apartment blocks springing up, (badly) replanted grass, new outdoor ping pong tables and a multi-gym – but we’ve been asking ourselves who it’s benefitting.  Is it the long-term residents of the area, or the upwardly mobile newbies we seem to be trying to attract?

Whether development happens or doesn’t, it’s too easy to be cynical and critical.  (Digression: I went to see the play Coalition last night and was hit in the face again by how our default attitude to all things political is cynicism.  Would it even be possible for someone to write a British West Wing-style show, where the political realm was coloured by idealism and altruism rather than cynicism?)

What we did yesterday wasn’t big or long-lasting, but it was a small, rebellious act of anti-cynicism.  An attempt to celebrate what’s good in both the old and the new – and maybe inspire some other locals, as they wait for their bus, to think about what they appreciate in the neighbourhood.

Decorating the bus stop

One of our crew has lived in the area since he was a kid and could remember stuff about the Walworth Rd from way back then.  One of the kids drew a bright red double decker bus, and another drew herself playing ‘Spies’ in the park like she’d done earlier that week. I wrote how I liked the library.

A friend was visiting from Belfast and he shared with us some beautiful stories from another neighbourhood, which centred around the tiny act of painting a street’s windowsills over the course of a year.  It seems so unlikely that minuscule creative acts like these could provoke even the smallest of changes.  And yet these are the stories we hear and we love.

It reminds me of that verse in Matthew 13, “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed” (super-small).

Bus stop

I doubt much of our graffiti is still up outside Burgess Park, but we’re on the look out for other small subversive acts to do next.  And here’s why:

We believe something else, something better is possible for our neighbourhoods, and so even if we only see the tiniest of opportunities to plant the seed of our dreams, we will seize it and celebrate it.

What do you do to celebrate what’s good about your community?  How do you fight the cynicism of the city?

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How to meet the neighbours

Irving House

On Saturday night we had a brilliant evening round at our Polish neighbours’ flat – we ate great food, drank some extraordinary Hungarian wine, talked about travel, love, family and faith.  Andy finally found another chess player on the block and I vowed to teach him bridge so that we could all play together (somehow we have morphed into middle-age).

We *love* evenings like that, it makes us grateful to live where we do, alongside such a diversity of people from different cultures, and it makes the idea of local community feel tangible.

Those are the good moments. As normal and natural as they might seem, they are neither.    Even living in a social housing block where everyone is very close together, it’s normal to keep yourself to yourself.  The moments we’ve experienced of genuine community have come about because of a series of choices, a good chunk of time, and after a fair dose of false starts.

You’ve probably worked out by now that Andy and I aspire to be good neighbours.  It’s hardly a radical idea, but in London it seems to be getting more unusual. Normal is maybe saying hi if you’re on your respective doorsteps at the same time, but that’s as far as it goes.

(Not so fifty years ago, my 85 year old friend Maire tells me.  Everyone knew who you were and looked out for you.  She has lived in the same square mile her whole life and boy, has she seen things change).

A couple of months ago I spoke at an event aimed at helping people who want to get more involved with social action in London.  I was on a “panel of experts” answering questions about our experiences.  I felt like a total rookie and a bit of an impostor, but I tried to talk about our tiny attempts to be good neighbours.  And, weirdly, it seemed to be what people were most interested in.  They just wanted to know where to start.

So if you already know all your neighbours and find building relationships with them really easy, this is not the post for you (but well done).  Otherwise, this is where I share the things we are learning about it.

1.  It takes time.

By this I don’t just mean ‘gosh, people take ages to trust you, you have to stick around for years before they will open up’, although that it sometimes true.  What I mean is that we have learnt that we have to carve time out of the other stuff we do to make time for the neighbours, or else they never get more than a hello.

I moved onto an estate about seven years ago, super-keen to get to know the locals.  But I worked full-time, commuted to work, was really involved in church and saw plenty of my friends.  I was just never in, and certainly never in the daytime.

Partly motivated by this frustrating experience, four or five years ago I decided to start working part-time.  It was a financial sacrifice but it meant that I would be around in the neighbourhood more in the week, and be less exhausted at weekends.  A bit later Andy and I started booking out an evening every fortnight when we would have different neighbours over for dinner.  Sometimes it means turning down other more exciting invitations, and sometimes our neighbours bail out.  But little by little we’re making friends.

Andy’s top tip: When you leave to go out, go earlier than you need so that if you bump into neighbours you can stop for a chat.

2. It takes cultural adjustments

It’s amazing what you discover about your own expectations of people.

We’ve had neighbours show up for dinner with three extra relatives who happen to be staying, and others turn up 90 minutes late, at 9pm, with all their children on a school night.  Some people never turn the TV off (actually, most people) and plenty of them don’t have much of a taste for British cuisine (or maybe just my cooking).

Some people will come round the first time you ask, others take ages to trust you (or still don’t).  Some people invite you back, others wouldn’t dream of letting you see their flat.

All I can say is that we’re trying and we’re learning.  The “how” of making friends is different every time.

3. Look for allies!

Frank

Frank

When we moved in we were lucky enough to be introduced to loads of the neighbours by our landlady.  And one of those, our next door neighbour Frank, has become our most loyal supporter. He has lived in his flat for fifty years and he knows everything that goes on. Whenever we have a party, he’s the first to turn up. When new folk move in now, he’ll make sure we know, tell us their names and send us off with a wink!  We cook him bangers and mash every now and then (he’s not a fan of vegetables) and he’s introduced Andy to the local fish market (we have not been won over to jellied eels).

Some people are hard to get to know – so we make sure we enjoy the friends who are less hard work!

4. Push through the pain barrier.

If you love knocking on strangers’ doors, this whole business will be easy.  But for those of us who don’t, there’s just a pain barrier to push through.  Andy got used to it when he was campaigning to be a local councillor.  I have to psyche myself up a bit before I go, but if I have done that, I’m ok (can you tell I’m the less spontaneous one?).

Go and ask to borrow some sugar or some milk.  Hand-deliver invites to your house-warming.  See if someone will water your plants when you’re away. Ask the Latinos to help you with your Spanish!  I mean, don’t be too weird, but be a good neighbour – people want to discover they have nice people living nearby!

I’d love to hear about how you get to know your neighbours…

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Winter Rest for the Soul

January and February can be bleak old months.  It’s cold and grey and there’s no Christmas to look forward to (“Always winter but never Christmas” – it’s like we’re in Narnia before Aslan returns).  One of my favourite solutions is quality retreat time with the people I love most, taking advantage of the new year diary’s vacant pages.

Lyme Regis at dusk

Lyme Regis at dusk

These past two weekends took us out to the green hills beyond the city lights; there was eating, walking, laughing and praying and none of it was rushed.  First the husband and I were out west where Devon and Dorset and the sea all meet, and we ran around after small boys, and squelched through muddy fields. and watched the sun set over the grey sea as our teeth chattered and our shoulders shiverered.

On the beach at Lyme Regis

And when the wrestling and the stories and the football ceased, and the boys slept, there was honest talk about hopes and disappointments, the way we fight against where we are, the more that we ache for, and the risks we are all afraid to take.

Then this past week I left the husband behind to hide away in the New Forest with my two closest girls.  It’s past a decade since we first met, since we collided in the middle of this city and started to weave our stories together, steadying one another one moment, cheering each other on the next.  Oh the crazy, deluded obsessions they saw me through.  Every week we would commute across the city to breakfast together before work, and share the details of our tiny, complex, unfolding lives, and pray that they would grow in good directions. Since those days both girls have lived for a spell in distant climes and I have stayed behind.  They both returned, and one left again and we are scattered more than we are together.

Walking in the New Forest

The past decade has accrued for us husbands, children, and a substantial share of heart-ache.  We have serious history.  And this past week we grasped hold again of those strong roots and steadied ourselves again, laughed and cried and listened and cheered.  And were grateful for each other.  We walked through the lush, tall forest (slightly further than we planned, despite being led by a geography graduate), swapping the baby between us.  And it was good.  And some new dreams began to grow there for me, amidst their cheers.

Where do you go to rest your soul?

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