Monthly Archives: May 2016

And so, this week, I’m once again thinking about nature. Human nature, this time (as opposed to hydrozoan) about which I ponder a LOT.

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, while searching for ways to dissuade a local tomcat from terrorizing our kitties, I stumbled upon the virtual behemoth that is Mumsnet. In the event, the advice proved unnecessary, because the tom has disappeared from our garden. Oh, but Mumsnet itself was a garden of delights.

I’m too old for Mumsnet to be useful to me, obviously. Back when my children were small, the concept of an interactive website was still very much in its infancy. Not to everyone, perhaps, but certainly to me, isolated as I was in my little work-cubby under the stairs. I can report with complete accuracy that I got online as late as 1999, and can do so because one of the first lines of my second novel was the (not) timeless “my story starts with a modem”. How quaint is that? Even the word sounds old-fashioned now.

Anyway, the main point is that I am not a mother of that vintage. If I had a maternal/family/relationship problem that needed solving, I would tend to discuss it at the school gate. Or, better still, at any one of a number of fellow mums’ kitchens – over tea or wine, dependent upon hour and/or degree of stress. And if I had an issue that required something more learned or academic, I simply reached for Miriam Stoppard. As one did.

For me, then, the whole Mumsnet-subscriber-as-advice-dispenser concept feels novel. But while I wait to be inducted into the Gransnet fraternity, it is one thing at least – a guilty pleasure.

Have you dabbled? Proceed with caution. It’s terribly distracting. Specially (I know, I should have paid more attention) if you inadvertently sign up for their daily email newsletter. But what psychological riches are to be found therein!

And chief among the gems is an almost Jeremy-Kylesque forum, which goes by the handle ‘AIBU’. (Mumsnet loves shorthand for words common to most of us – DD, DS, DP, and so on, are the Mumsnet equivalent of picking up a poem by Donne, say, or Tennyson, and finding yourself in a linguistically different universe.)

AIBU, if you haven’t already guessed it, is shorthand for ‘Am I Being Unreasonable?’, a question we must all ask ourselves repeatedly over a lifetime, with the peak period, I reckon, given the thread’s popularity, being the one in which motherhood combines with work combines with fractious wider family relationships, and needs various and multitudinous have to be reconciled. (As opposed to the bit I’m in now, where the wisdom of decades has made ‘whatever makes you happy’ my blood-pressure-friendly family go-to.)

Anyway, back to the business of AIBU?, which, when followed by ‘to….’, is the digital portal to a densely populated and excitable community. Here, the poser of such thorny questions can access the fabled ‘wisdom of crowds’. And I do mean crowds, recorded views often topping five figures, and, often, several hundred responses. Some are short, as you’d expect. Just as simple YABU or YANBU. Ah, but others – and here the joy lies – do vicarious fury with all the commitment of – well, hmmm, let me see. Oh yes. Of stuck-at-home with little ones, often on-the-laptop mothers, presumably re-channeling all the energies they’d have once applied to arranging a PTA bring and buy sale.

And, since these tend to be issues of the multi-viewpoint, emotionally complex, walk a mile-in-my-shoes variety (AIBU to be absolutely furious with my MIL vis-à-vis my wedding guest list? AIBU to expect my teacher sister to ask for time of in term time for my wedding in Crete? ) the responses, though invariably as diverse as the posters, seem to share some basic attributes – Impassioned. Indignant. Highly emotional. Verbose.

And what strikes me, as I scroll, sipping tea, taking a work-break, is how the wisdom of crowds so often doesn’t confer wisdom, just muddies the already murky, fast-flowing waters of problems that, if you don’t know the wider emotional landscape, aren’t readily identifiable as black or white.

And time. So much time. So many people, spending time. Sitting at their keyboards. Busy pontificating. Alone.

And I wonder. Is this time really well spent? Wouldn’t all of us, when life throws up complex personal problems, be best served by the wisdom of a Bel Mooney? A Mariella Frostrup? The late, great Claire Rayner? Or by actually sitting down and TALKING to the people involved?

Or AIBU about human nature?


First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine, 14th May 2016


I wonder. Which is an odd pair of words to start a column with. An odd pair of words, generally, once you start wondering about it, because unlike, say, ‘I run’, or ‘I paint’, or ‘I levitate’, together they have become a rather odd bit of language – bobbing about, like a boat without a rudder.

Which is a shame, because wondering’s brilliant. It’s one of the best things to do when there is nothing much else to do, particularly when teamed with a protracted bout of wandering. Do the two – wander, wonder, or, if you like, wonder, wander – and, trust me, you’ll never be bored.

So to last weekend (though I wonder on weekdays as well) when we were in Nice , by way of the alps, by way of Italy, by way of – ahem – another creative bit of work-life-balance planning. And though it’s a city I’m professionally obliged to refrain from calling nice, it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of days.

And I wonder sometimes (there I go again) if I should write a nature column of some sort. Because, again and again, be it Nice, Nantes, or Nottingham, I find myself drawn to the natural.

God forbid that it should be anything preachy, though. No, just some ramblings about nature for the lay nature-fancier. The person, who like me, sees something, and wonders. And takes a photo, then another, and then tracks down some wifi, and spends time – in the best of worlds, dragging loved ones along also – finding out not just what they’ve had the privilege of seeing, but what it’s like, how it lives –  its evolutionary USP.

It’s not really surprising that I am that sort of person. I’ve always been a bit of a Charles Darwin groupie, and my museum of choice would always be the Natural History. But, to my shame, I had a male character in one of my early novels, and, because he was the also-ran, the dolt, the nice-but-dull one, I had him go on a country walk ‘clutching his trusty field guide to flora and flora’ and, worse, had it ‘bristling with post-it notes’. Ouch. Nevermore shall I malign IMG_484125198 such as him.

But I digress. Lunch on beach. Then nice post-lunch beach wander. And because you couldn’t miss it, I saw it straight away. This weird ribbon on the shoreline. This unexpected seam of blue. Not a sea blue or a sky blue – nailed to a post, I’d call it indigo. Which then resolved itself into something quite different. Not surf scum, or seaweed, or pebbles, or shells. No, more like tiny jelly fish, washed up on the shore, as if Triton, or Poseidon, or some other watery overlord, had come along and simply strewn them there, possibly while in a mood. Like jewels, they were – spangly. But also like boats. With deep azure hulls, that were almost opaque. And each topped with a perfect transparent sail.

“Wowee wow!” I said. “Woo! Isn’t nature amazing?” And almost as amazing was that in a long, inquisitive life, I had never seen anything like them before. Moon jellyfish, yes. We get them down on the Gower. But not these intense alien creatures.

It was all I could do not to wake the slumbering masses. Have you seen these? Are you not, like, amaze-balls about them? What are they? And where did they come from?

The surface of the ocean, apparently. These little animals (which are actually hydrozoans called vellela vellela) are adapted to live at the air-water interface, where their sail lets them travel on the breeze. Which is why their common name is the delightful ‘By-The-Wind Sailor’, and also why, since they are obviosuly at the weather’s mercy, they sometimes end up shorebound, and stranded, en masse.

And get this – there are left handed and right handed vellelas, the angle of the sail being apparently dictated by where in the worlds oceans they live. Righthanders off the west coast of America, mostly, while the lefthanders favour Japan and Siberia.

But on the med? I might be wrong, but as far as I can tell, this is uncommon. Which makes it noteworthy – which is why another thought springs to mind. I’m probably wrong about this too. It’s much more likely to be the sky thing. But how about this – that those tiny vellela vellela are the real reason it’s known as the cote d’azur? Azure, indigo – same difference, pretty much, after all.

So you think perhaps it could be?

I wonder.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 7th May 2016


*after the brown one, that is 😉

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Anger. An emotion I don’t generally have a lot of use for. Which is something for which I’m obviously very grateful, even though I don’t know why that is. A blessed life? Some careful choices? A mostly equable disposition? If pushed to choose one, I’d probably plump for the last.

Yet last Tuesday, early morning, as I made a pot of tea, I experienced anger – proper punch-something, pulse-quickening anger – the like of which I’ve not known in a long time.

And the object of my fury? Jeremy Hunt. A man I confess I don’t know, and doubt I’ll ever know. A man who presumably is every bit as inclined to stroke kittens and love his mother as the next.

There I go again, dammit. Trying to empathise, while Rome burns. Well, if not Rome, quite, an edifice of similar emotional size. Our ground-breaking, life-saving, beloved NHS. That organization we all too often take for granted, but are so, so incredibly lucky to have.

That thing that is the envy of everyone, everywhere. And which, once, not long ago, we did NOT have. Some might still recall that, before Aneurin Bevan, if you were poor and you were sick, you were in trouble. Scrabbling around to find the wherewithal to pay a doctor. You often didn’t, because you couldn’t, and if you couldn’t, you sometimes died. And even if you didn’t pop your clogs then and there, your ‘health outcomes’ (to use modern parlance) were still poor, just like you, in every way.

And if you don’t remember, just take a look across the ocean, where the US health care system, though clearly stuffed full of fab sciency goodness, provides it at a cost – a very high cost – which leaves the poor in the same straits there today.

Make no mistake. Modern medicine is expensive. Just take a trip to a place where there is no free health care and marvel at how the tills all ker-ching. That emergency MRI scan? That precious ITU bed? That maternity unit at 4 in the morning? Complex science. Lots of medics. Lots of nurses. Lots of tech. All of which comes at a cost. A cost that is currently shared between all of us via taxes, which means everyone, rich or poor, benefits equally.

Take that away, though, and a shiny new regime will prevail. The rich will all pay for their own private health insurance. And the poor…well, the poor will obviously do what they must – struggle to pay, go untreated, get progressively sicker.

There is no point in my arguing points of fact in this mess. I’ve spent all my adult life married to a hospital doctor, and my second son is a junior doctor right now. So I know how it goes. I have first hand exposure. There is nothing you can tell me about stressful professions that I don’t already, sometimes gut-wrenchingly, know.

No points, then, just this. We are in danger. Forget the ‘7-day’ nonsense. Discard the ‘weekend mortality’. Disabuse yourself of any notion that this is progress. The first IS a nonsense – we already have it. The second is a lie, based on spurious stats. The third is not progress. It’s a cost cutting exercise – one wrapped up in soundbites, predicated on the idea that to get your bunions done on Sunday is something we can actually afford. (“How d’you like your doctors, ma-am? Oh, spread really, really thinly, of course.”)

Remember only this. British junior doctors now leave our world-renowned medical schools with eye-watering levels of debt. They do obscenely long shifts, back to back, nights AND weekends. They work for money that a business or law graduate would laugh at, and make life-and-death decisions as standard. They save lives, they have to tell people they are dying, and, when they do die, they have to go tell their loved ones they are gone. And at the same time while studying for the kind of higher professional exams that make GCSE biology look like finger painting. Oh, and pay to take those, as well.

No wonder they are stressed, and strung out, and striking.

But remember this, Jeremy Hunt, since this column is for you. They are also decent, highly motivated, highly intelligent, and highly qualified. And in demand everywhere on the planet.

And if you don’t listen to them, soon, you will lose them.

Or rather, we will. The NHS will. The NHS PATIENTS will.

Bar, of course, those that can afford them.

That’s why I’m so angry. Nye Bevan must be turning in his grave.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine, 30th April 2016