Tuesday, 23 February 2010

going to seed

It's been snowing all day, yet again, but I am in denial. I am not listening. I am reading seed catalogues. One day it may be spring again, and chez Hinsliff there is - no really, there is! - going to be a veg patch.
It's not going to be the kitchen garden of my fantasies (brick walls, box hedges, mysterious absence of slugs and snails, me wafting about in river cottage-fashion picking homegrown peaches, etc). And I'm resigned to the fact that most of it will obviously die.
But hey, growing vegetables is the big downshifting cliche. I can't not have a go.
What I want is edible stuff that is idiotproof, quick-growing, of interest to toddlers (we may struggle to inspire a passion for gardening by way of courgettes) and can be grown in pots on a patio - we're househunting, and I don't want to have to leave it all behind if we move. Can just see my husband's face when I tell him we need to cram rows upon rows of snail-ravaged stumps into the removal van.
Ideally I'd also like to grow stuff that's expensive to buy in supermarkets, although (see the Great Potato Debacle of last year), in my experience growing your own tends to involve spending a small fortune on materials in order to produce one weedy runt that would be rejected by Lidl.
So far I'm thinking salad leaves, especially rocket; tomatoes (haven't got a greenhouse, but have a sunny back wall); blueberries (my one sad, nonfruiting bush is going to get a mate, even though it's supposedly selfpollinating). Have done Chinese mustard leaves before which were good, so would like to have a go at pak choi or some sort of vaguely stirfryable greenery.
I'd quite like some sort of bean - I grew borlotti beans last year, which were fantastically poncey and very pretty but I had no idea what to cook with them: maybe broad beans this year?
And I'd quite like raspberries, which will allegedly grow in pots, although I'm not sure how well. But as you can tell, I am mostly clueless. Does anyone out there have green fingers?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Time for a reality check

Last night, the dog managed to get fed twice. He did this by rolling mournful, starved eyes at me until I opened a tin: and then when I went to put the boy to bed, repeating the routine for my husband, who assumed I'd forgotten and opened another tin.
This is not good. This is a trick the dog pulled off regularly in the chaotic days of us both working full tilt, when we were too busy to notice who'd done what. Three months on from giving up my Proper Job, I am confronting some home truths.
1. The mountain of ironing that never got done when I was working fulltime? Still there. Not exactly the same ironing (actually, possibly much the same ironing) but still not done.
2. The exercise I never had time for back then? Um, still not doing it. I did go swimming last week. It nearly killed me.
3. The family photos I meant to sort out? The albums still stop abruptly at the point my maternity leave ended (we did take photos after that - we're not completely rubbish parents - but they're either stuffed in a drawer or still on my camera's memory stick. As they were when I worked fulltime. Ahem)
4. The house is not noticeably cleaner or tidier for me being here more. Without the civilising influence of our nanny, it is in fact noticeably worse.
5. I do not seem to have learned Mandarin/read Proust cover to cover/broadened my intellectual horizons in my newfound free time. I have, though, wasted more time on the interweb.
In my defence, up until a fortnight ago I didn't have childcare, so work rather than domestic bliss has swallowed up any free time.
But nonetheless, I was wrong to blame my job for everything that had been squeezed out of my life. It turns out I don't actually care about ironing (well, not enough to do it) and that I don't go running every day because I'm frankly too lazy, rather than because I have no time.
Which is not to say I regret my choice. The bigger goals I set myself upon committing career suicide - getting to know my husband and son again, and trying new things professionally - have actually worked better than I hoped. We are a more relaxed and united family, now all pulling in the same direction (except, possibly, the dog). I am happier personally, and to my surprise also professionally: some interesting projects have come to my way.
But I would sound a small caveat about downshifting. In any life, there's stuff you just don't have time for: and the nature of that stuff may reveal much about that life, and what it's costing you.
But it can also reveal something about your priorities. I fear mine, like the dog's, are not always noble.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

What's wrong with a 21-hour week?

THERE's nothing I like more than someone flying the flag for part-time working, obviously.
So in some ways, hurrah for the report from thinktank the New Economics Foundation arguing everyone should work a 21-hour week, then do good deeds for each other (and the planet) in their new free time.
It highlights the madness of millions of Britons working miserably long hours, while others are unemployed but would love to work. Why not share it out? After all, that's how we ended up with a five day working week: six days was standard, until the Great Depression made us divvy up what little work there was.
But then again: um, not so hurrah. The report does gloss over the slight technical difficulty that working 21 hours means, well, getting paid for 21 hours.
Author Anna Coote's argument that many of us 'live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume' - so why not consume less, and not need to work so much - does resonate. I did used to feel trapped in a mad cycle of working long hours to earn the cash to pay for stuff (nanny, house nearish the office, gin) that let me, um, work long hours.
But that's really a middle class professional argument. What about the very many people who earn to eat, and pay rent? How do they manage on 21 hours of pay?
Apparently, we will all now have time to grow our own food, and walk or cycle everywhere instead of driving, thus saving money and carbon.
Which sounds lovely, and it's true I've rediscovered both my bike and some half-used seed packets since giving up. But this has not, sadly, compensated for halving my income.
In fairness the report does suggest a higher minimum wage, presumably to help those who needed to work long hours. But how is that affordable? If everyone halves their hours (and salary), we pay less tax and NI to the Exchequer. How do we then fund public services, pensions, and benefits?
If it sounds like I'm carping, I am. But only because this report makes me confront two tricky questions.
Firstly, its suggestion that if we had more time we'd all be 'better parents, better citizens, better carers and better neighbours' makes me feel guilty. Beyond the loaded question of whether stopping work makes you a better parent (and believe me, there are days when I think the nanny did a better job)I'm not really spending my new free time to the benefit of society. (I do some voluntary stuff, but then I always did.) Definitely food for thought.
And secondly, it reminds me that choice has consequences. Going part time may be great for the individual, but if enough of us do it we'll deprive the public purse of cash (because we're paying less tax)that might have reached people needier than us.
Which makes me wonder: is stopping work ultimately a selfish act?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

maternity leave? what maternity leave?

How did you feel seven hours after giving birth? Me, I was quite perky (it was a Caesarean: I was off my head on painkillers) but nonetheless I wouldn't have tried anything as complicated as, say, getting out of bed.
Feeble stuff compared to Helen Wright, a headteacher at a private girls' school who apparently went back to work seven hours after having her third baby. She is terribly gungho about great it all is having the baby at work with her, but it's hard to read without feeling faintly exhausted and depressed.
Nonetheless, the kicking promptly administered by today's Daily Mail, who seem to think she should have been sectioned instead, seems unkind.
When Wright says parents at her school expected to see an 'excellent role model' in the job I did wonder whether she felt under pressure not to be away: did she worry the parents wouldn't have tolerated a head absent on maternity leave, when they're paying the fees?
It's all a bit reminscent of Rachida Dati, the impossibly glamorous French minister (as was) and single mother who went back to work days after giving birth. Everyone condemned her for general heartlessness: a few weeks later, Dati was dropped from government, and it became clear that she had actually rushed back because she was terrified of losing her job if she didn't.
And she won't be the only one. When I was writing a piece about the impact of the recession for the Observer last year, one of the saddest things I heard was that nurseries were seeing an increase in very young babies (six weeks and up) coming into their care because their mothers didn't dare take proper leave while redundancies were flying around. In parts of the City, it's normal not to take longer than three months max (otherwise you don't look committed) while in politics, it can be even less (I know at least one MP who dictated letters all through her labour and was back doing constituency work within two days, terrified that her constituents would revolt if she didn't).
It's probably too early for figures to be available, but I'd be really interested to see what impact the recession has on uptake of maternity leave. I doubt many people have cut it to seven hours, but maybe Dr Wright's approach isn't as unusual as it seems.

UPDATE: The Daycare Trust, whose annual report on childcare costs is out today, apparently confirms anecdotal evidence of rising demand for childcare because of women taking less maternity leave during the recession.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

This episode is brought to you by the letter W

That's W as in wifi, without which my life this week would have fallen apart.
I have been a Luddite all my life, basically suspicious of anything with a plug. I don't like gadgets, my husband has to load my ipod for me, and I prefer paper to screen. I kind of regret the passing of the quill.
But now, finally, I get it. The point of technology is to liberate parents (and anyone else who wants liberating) from having to be in the office: to let you pretend to be at work when you're at home/on the move, and to flip between home and work mode wherever. Like many women, I've wasted so much time being intimidated by something that was actually on my side.
I don't know who invented wifi, or how it works (electrickery in the air?). But for itinerant freelance tramps like me with no office, the ability to flip open a laptop in St Pancras eurostar terminal and via free public wifi check your email, file an article to a magazine and check some facts before going off to another interview, literally makes it all possible.
Wifi at home, meanwhile, means I can surreptitiously check my emails in the kitchen without the boy really knowing what I'm doing - rather than going to the proper computer in what is laughably known as the study (cum spare bedroom/dumping ground for everything not yet unpacked from the move/home to heaps of paperwork and mouldy coffee mugs abandoned by my husband).
I realise the rest of the world already knows this. So please drag me into the 21st century. What techy stuff makes life bearable? What tricks am I missing?
Oh and on technical matters - some have complained that the light-text-on-dark-background thing this blog had going on is hard to read. Hence the revamp. I'm not sure which I like better: let me know what you think, and democracy shall prevail.....