Thursday, July 27, 2006


On Saturday morning Hayley had her hair cut and styled (pictured above). She looked quite different when she returned home. Like a typical man, Oliver looked at her trying to work out what had changed. Instead of a beaming smile when she walked through the door, poor Hayley got a slightly bewildered look!

Fortunately he worked it all out after a few seconds.

"United - yeah!" Part 2

Further to my previous blog entry on the subject of Oliver showing his allegiance to Man U, he now cheers and waves his arms when Hayley asks him "Who's the greatest team? United!"

Article: "Sorry, but my children bore me to death!" The Daily Mail

Sorry, but my children bore me to death! | the Daily Mail

This article has caused a small storm of indignation and outrage across the media, at least among the chatterng classes. It does seem to beg the question "Why have children if you don't like bringing them up?", which is the title of today's related article in the Daily Mail.

I do sympathise with any parent who gets tired of reading the same story or playing the same game umpteen times and who longs for some adult company. But ultimately it is the responsibility of the parent to show a little imagination in how to spend their time with their children and this can include other adults in the picture in most cases.

To illustrate this, Hayley has gone out today with Oliver, a fellow Mum and her child to a child-friendly farm where they can experience animnals first-hand. She often seeks out things like this to do, but even when she isn't partaking of such paying attractions, she seems to manage to make something interesting out of such everyday things as going to the shops.

So surely there has to be a better option than to hide upstairs chatting to cyber-pals online to avoid your two year old child who is playing downstairs as was the case with one one woman's story on Breakfast TV this morning.

And even if parents don't have that much imagination, children themselves have the greatest imaginations. Sometimes "imaginary" games are the best of all for them. Ironically, the author of this article quotes this as a jutification of her hands-off attitude to her kids.

But it all comes back to the question that headlines the backlash to the original article: why have children if you don't want to spend time with them? And even if you don't want to, as parents we have a responsibility to do the best we can for our children and primarily that means "being there".

Of course I can say this in the full knowledge that I would have neither the patience nor imagination to keep Oliver happy half as well as Hayley does. But I genuinely think that's true of the majority of fathers. I don't much care how many times someone cries "sexist" at me, there is no avoiding the fact that men and women are different and most mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. They are complementary roles and I can't say I see that as a bad thing.

So I count myself as lucky that Hayley can turn an ordinary day into a fun day: for me as well as the little man.


Sorry, but my children bore me to death!

It's the start of the summer holidays, when millions of mothers despair at how to entertain their children for the next six weeks. What none of them dare say is that they would rather their children were still at school or, frankly, anywhere else. Helen Kirwan-Taylor, a 42-year-old writer, lives in Notting Hill, West London, with her businessman husband Charles and their sons Constantin, 12, and Ivan, ten. Here, she argues provocatively that modern women must not be enslaved by their children.

The lies started when my eldest son was less than ten months old.

Invitations to attend a child's birthday party or, worse, a singalong session were met with the same refrain: 'I would love to but I just can't spare the time.'

The nanny was dispatched in my place, and almost always returned complaining that my son had been singled out for pitiful stares by the other mothers.

I confess that I was probably ogling the merchandise at Harvey Nichols or having my highlights done instead. Of course I love my children as much as any mother, but the truth is I found such events so boring that I made up any excuse.

I can't say which activity I dreaded more: playing Pass The Parcel at parties with a child who permanently crawled away from the action towards the priceless knick-knacks, or listening to the other mothers go on about such excitements as teething and potty-training. Mind-numbing!

To be honest, I spent much of the early years of my children's lives in a workaholic frenzy because the thought of spending time with them was more stressful than any journalistic assignment I could imagine.

Kids are supposed to be fulfilling, life-changing, life-enhancing fun: why was my attitude towards them so different?

While all my girlfriends were dropping important careers and occupying their afternoons with cake baking, I was begging the nanny to stay on, at least until she had read my two a bedtime story. What kind of mother hates reading bedtime stories? A bad mother, that's who, and a mother who is bored rigid by her children.

I know this is one of the last taboos of modern society. To admit that you, a mother of the new millennium, don't find your offspring thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable at all times is a state of affairs very few women are prepared to admit. We feel ashamed, and unfit to be mothers.

It's as though motherhood is an exclusive private club and everybody is a member except for us few. But then, kids have become careers, often the Last Career, for millions of women who have previously trained for years to enter professional fields of business. Consequently, few of those women will admit that they made a bad, or — worse — a boring career move to motherhood.

My children have got used to my disappearing to the gym when they're doing their prep (how boring to learn something you never wanted to learn in the first place).

They know better than to expect me to sit through a cricket match, and they've completely given up on expecting me to spend school holidays taking them to museums or enjoying the latest cinema block-boster alongside them. (I spent two hours texting friends throughout a screening of Pirates Of The Caribbean the other day).

Am I a lazy, superficial person because I don't enjoy packing up their sports kit, or making their lunch, or sitting through coffee mornings with other mothers discussing how Mr Science (I can't remember most of the teachers' names) said such and such to Little Johnny and should we all complain to the headmaster.

At this point in the conversation, my mind drifts to thoughts of my own lunch and which shoes I plan to wear with what skirt.

The other mothers tease me for my inability to know anything about school life. But since when did masterminding 20 school runs a week become an accomplishment? Getting a First at college was an accomplishment.

The trouble for a mother like me is that not being completely and utterly enthralled with, dedicated to and obsessed with one's children is a secret guarded, if not until death, then until someone else confesses first. When I mentioned this article to my friend Catherine Fairweather, travel editor of Harpers & Queen, the relief on her face was instant.

For years she's listened to her friends proselytising on the sublime act of mothering. 'But no one ever told me how boring it is,' she moaned.

When I brought it up at lunch yesterday, my friend June, a stay-at-home mother of three young children, admitted that 'children are mind-numbingly boring' and the act of being with them all day and night is responsible for many mental breakdowns. 'Looking after children makes women depressed,' she concluded.

All those glossy magazine spreads showing celebrity mothers looking serene at home with their children serve only to make women feel inadequate. What the pictures don't show is the monotony, loneliness and relentless domesticity that goes with child-rearing.

They don't show the tantrums, the food spills and the ten aborted attempts at putting on shoes. They don't show the husband legging it to the pub so he doesn't have to change a nappy, either.

Research tells us that mothers drink the most when they have young children. Is that because talking to anyone under the age of ten requires some sort of lobotomy?

Arabella Cant, an art director with two young children, admits that she considered jumping off a bridge in the early stages of her career in motherhood. 'Bringing up children is among the most boring and exhausting things you can do,' she says.

Her solution was to avoid subjugating her own life to that of her chil-dren's. 'I'm certainly not traipsing around museums or sitting on the floor doing Lego if that's what you mean by being at home,' she explains. 'I'm loving it, but my children fit into my life and not the other way around.

'I have friends who spend their lives driving their children to and from activities, but I don't want to spend my life on the North Circular'.

Those of us who are not thoroughly 'child-centric', meaning we don't put our children's guitar practice before our own ambitions, are made to feel guilty. We're not meant to have an adult life — at least, not one that doesn't include them.

Many of my friends — fortysomething, university-educated professionals who swore that they would be normal parents — make it a policy now that 'our kids go where we go'. They drag their three-year-olds to dinner parties where the youngsters end up in front of a video all night. (I have seen children having tantrums in front of guests, and rather than send the children to their rooms, the parents send their guests home.)

So how have we reached this point where so many intelligent women are subverting their own needs and desires to that of their children?

Much of our current obsession with parenting has to do with the cult of child sychology. 'Parents in the Fifties were led to believe that if they weren't with their children, the children would be disadvantaged,' says psychologist Eva Lloyd. 'It started this ridiculous "kids first" culture. We live in an age when parenting is all about martyrdom.'

Psychiatrist Dr Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding The Hyper-Parenting Trap, adds: 'To be a good parent today, you have to sacrifice a lot.

'When the current generation of mothers was young, children were simply appendages.

'Our parents would never cancel an adult activity to get us to a soccer game. They would often not show up for our games or school plays, and, as a consequence, they never witnessed our great triumphs or were there to comfort us in our humiliations. As a result, our generation said we would do it differently.'

So it is drummed into mothers that if we find our children stressful or dull, it's because there's something wrong with us (but not dads, of course, who have a ready-made excuse for being out of the house all day because they 'have to go to work').

And yet many women have spent years studying and then working so that we would not have to do a job as menial as full-time motherhood. I consider spending up to 30 hours a week sitting behind the wheel of a 4x4, dropping children off at play centres or school, to be a less-than-satisfactory reward for all those years of sweat.

Besides, in my view, making a child your career is a dangerous move because your marriage and sense of self can be sacrificed in the process.

Psychotherapist Kati St Clair has listened to the frustrations of scores of mothers. 'Women now feel great pressure to enjoy their children at all times,' she says. 'The truth is, a lot of it is plain tedium. It's very unlikely that a mother doesn't love her child, but it can be very dull. Still, it takes a brave woman to admit that.'

All us bored mothers can take comfort from the fact that our children may yet turn out to be more balanced than those who are love-bombed from the day they are born.

Research increasingly shows that child-centred parenting is creating a generation of narcissistic children who cannot function independently.

'Their demand for external support is enormous,' says Kati St Clair. 'They enter the real world totally ill-prepared. You damage a child just as much by giving them extreme attention as you do by ignoring them altogether. Both are forms of abuse.'

Child experts are increasingly begging parents to let their kids be.

'Parents think they can design their children by feeding them a diet of Mozart — well they can't,' says Dr Rosenfeld.

Sometimes, apparently, the best thing parents can do for their children is to let them be bored.

This, of course, makes mothers like me — who love their children but refuse to cater to their every whim — feel vindicated. By sticking to our guns, we have unwittingly created children who can do things like make up stories (very few kids can any more).

Because I have categorically said: 'I am not a waitress, a driver or a cleaner,' my children have learned to put away their plates and tidy up their rooms. They've become brilliant planners, often inviting their friends to come for the weekend (because I've forgotten to bother).

Frankly, as long as you've fed them, sheltered them and told them they are loved, children will be fine. Mine are — at the risk of sounding smug — well-adjusted, creative children who respect the concept of work. They also accept my limitations.

They stopped asking me to take them to the park (how tedious) years ago. But now when I try to entertain them and say: 'Why don't we get out the Monopoly board?' they simply look at me woefully and sigh: 'Don't bother, Mum, you'll just get bored.'

How right they are.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"I'm up. Where have you been?!"

On Monday night I went in to check on Oliver in the middle of the night and found him lying on his front. I've never seen him roll from his front to his back or lie down backwards so I turned him over and lay him on his back. Later I went in and found him half on his front again. This can't be comfortable for him, can it? What worried me more was that cot death is associated with babies sleeping on their fronts. But he seems determined to lie that way as he did the same when I checked him last night.

By 6.50am on Tuesday morning we could hear him talking to Julien and playing with his nightlight (clunking loudly against his cot) and his Winnie The Pooh mobile. He can only reach the mobile when he is sitting up. Sure enough, when we went in to see him he was sitting up in his cot waiting for us. Its the first time we've found him like that in the morning.

Thanks to the terrible weekend we had I never got round to lowering the base of his cot. Looking at him stnding up in his cot I realise I will need to do that pretty damn quick!

Today I feel so guilty that in my previous blog I said how he was sleeping badly and waking up early then refusing to go back to sleep. For the last two nights he has only complained very briefly when I put him to bed, then we haven't heard a peep out of him until after 6am. And even then he just chatted to Julien. Oliver, I apologise.

Cereal offenders - Health - Times Online

Cereal offenders - Health - Times Online

Ironically on this hot (34 degrees) summer day I had porridge for breakfast, but most days I have a bowl of Alpen. Consequently this article on the dark secrets of supposedly healthy foods didn't make welcome reading.


Cereal Offenders
by Nick Wyke

Muesli-munching may have shaken off its hippy image but with high fat and sugar levels, is it as good for us as we think
We all know that porridge is good for us. But who feels like a hearty bowl of steaming oats when the weather is enough to warm you up at breakfast time? A bowl of museli with some ice-cold milk is far more tempting.

Traditionally, this Swiss-style breakfast has had a healthy image. The original version, soaked with fresh fruit, was conceived by Dr Max Bircher-Benner in 1900, as it was easy for his patients to digest. By the 1970s a dried-fruit variation had become a staple of the sandal-wearing cohorts leading the health-food revolution. Today, such is the smart-set status of the cereal that David Cameron’s high-profile campaign to win round the new movers and shakers in British society is known as the “muesli offensive”.

Packed full of dried fruit, seeds and nuts and high in fibre, there can be few healthier starts to the day than a nutritious bowl of muesli.

As more and more research highlights the health benefits of a good breakfast, loaded with complex carbohydrates, muesli’s popularity has risen, and there are dozens of different varieties to choose from. “It’s certainly the next breakfast cereal after porridge to show a rapid rise in popularity,” says Carol Flint, the marketing controller at Jordans Cereals.

Only this month Jordans launched its Superfoods Muesli, which contains mineral-rich almonds, antioxidant-rich cranberries and immune-boosting blueberries. While Rude Health’s Ultimate Muesli, with its protein-rich quinoa flakes, omega-3-rich golden linseed and trendy goji berries, is the breakfast of choice for style-setters such as Zac Goldsmith and Elizabeth Hurley. You pay for the privilege, mind, at more than a fiver a packet.

But while many mueslis add up to their healthy eating claims, there is evidence that some mueslis are masquerading as good for you when, in fact, they are high in sugar and fat. So does this breakfast with a healthy image have a dark secret? “Some foods that you don’t expect to be very high in sugar, including some muesli, can contain lots,” says Sarah Read, of the Food Standards Agency’s consumer media department. Alpen, for example, the UK’s bestselling muesli with more than 20 per cent of the market, contains 21.8g of sugar per 100g, and Jordans Special Fruit Muesli has 33.5g sugar per 100g. The FSA’s daily guidelines suggest that while 2g of sugars or less per 100g is “a little” sugar, 10g of sugars per 100g of food is “a lot”.

Read says: “If a muesli contains lots of fruit, although the sugars are natural you’ve still got to be careful.” Sugar in its most common form, sucrose, provides energy but has only negligible amounts of other nutrients. Claire Williamson, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says; “Even the natural sugar in dried fruit and fruit juice can cause decay, too, if consumed frequently.”

Luci Daniels, a dietitian and past chairman of the British Dietetic Association, says the problem with “no added sugar” mueslis that are low in dried fruit is that they are also low in taste. “If you have to play spot-the-raisin, the muesli may have little flavour and you could be tempted to add sugar,” she says.

High sugar is not the only problem. Most mueslis have straightforward ingredients, but there are some surprises. Dried milk might seem a strange addition for something that you are going to pour milk on, but it serves as a sweetener and gives the muesli an added creaminess. Glazing agent is another addition, it helps give dried fruit a shiny appearance and prevents deterioration. Calcium chloride is also used as a firming agent in the dried fruit.

“Some of the mainstream mueslis are full of padding, with stale nuts and dead-fly raisins,” says Kate Freestone, the co-founder of Rude Health foods. Fed up with brands that were high in sugar and salt and containing an average of only seven ingredients, Freestone concocted her own with 25 ingredients. She now sells it as Ultimate Muesli, one of a number of designer mueslis that have broken the £5 a packet bracket recently. The feedback from regular tastings at healthfood stores shows that people are looking for a wheat-free muesli. “It gives the energy hit without leaving you bloated,” says Freestone.

Of all the many claims made on muesli packets, surprisingly few claim to be low in fat. The fat content, for example, in Eat Natural Breakfast muesli is 25g per 100g. This is as high as some cheese, but the good news is that it is mostly derived from the high nut content, only 1g of which is saturated fat, the harmful sort that raises cholesterol. “The benefits far outweigh the low degree of saturated fat in nuts,” says Daniels. Nuts contain healthy unsaturated fats and are a source of fibre, essential fatty acids and protein. They also contain vitamins, such as folic acid, niacin, vitamin E and a range of minerals.

Clearly, finding the right balance of ingredients in muesli is important. It should be low in sugar, high in complex carbohydrate, as well as high in fibre. But this could make for a really dull start to the day and Daniels says that there is a danger that “food fascists (that includes food writers) will put people off eating perfectly decent food such as most muesli if it has to be free of salt, sugar, fat and taste”.

Studies have shown that children and adults who miss out on a cereal breakfast are more likely to be overweight. It is commonly agreed among nutritionists that we need a nutritionally adequate breakfast to see us through to lunch. They recommend that it should make up a quarter of your daily nutrient intake. In terms of calories this means about 500 for the average adult. Even with milk few 50g servings of muesli exceed more than 200-300 calories.

"Consuming a healthy breakfast means that you are less likely to snack on foods that are high in fat and sugar later on in the day," says Williamson. “It is better to eat wholegrain versions of starchy (carbohydrate) foods, such as muesli and porridge, as these provide a sustained slower release of energy throughout the morning compared with sugar-coated cereals.”

However, she points out that “crunchy” types made with oats are quite different from traditional muesli and can be higher in fat and added sugars, a fact that Which? points out in a report this week: “Sainsbury’s Crunchy Oat Cereal gives you almost the same amount of fat as the supermarket’s thick pork sausages at 20.3g of fat per 100g.”

As well as being a good way of ensuring a sustained release of energy, natural wholegrain foods are a source of fibre and antioxidants and can be beneficial in terms of weight management and heart health. “Generally, mueslis are a very good breakfast choice,” says Daniels, “if you choose the right one.”

For details of where to buy Rude Health’s Ultimate Muesli, visit

Bowful of goodness?

Catherine Collins, the chief dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London, takes a closer look at the ingredients of some of the more popular muesli brands. The FSA says the following amounts are high, per 100g: 10g sugar; 20g fat; 5g saturated fat

Sugar 31.4g per 100g.
Fat 7.9g per 100g (1.1g saturates).
Other ingredients Chilean flame raisins and freeze-dried cherries.
Nutrition Sugar is almost double that of the other cereals below, all derived from fruit. The slightly higher fat content comes from the sunflower seeds and the sunflower oil glaze on the cranberries, but it is low in saturates and high in polyunsaturates.
Taste test A creative mix of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and toasted cereals, which tastes good with yoghurt, fruit juice, or even eaten dry.

Sugar 24g per 100g.
Fat 25g per 100g (1g saturates).
Other ingredients Sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. No sugar, but added honey.
Nutrition A unique muesli profile — only a third of the product by weight are grains — rice and millet. The use of honey has no health benefits, but it sounds more natural. The highest fat (and highest calorie) cereal by far on the list (a quarter of the product by weight is fat) reflects the 41 per cent by weight seed and nut content. More like a pudding topping than a cereal.
Taste test The sultanas are plump and succulent, there’s a good array of seeds, and macadamia nuts make a nice change. You’ll either love or hate the powerful honey aroma.

ALPEN ORIGINAL, £2.15, 750g
Sugar 21.8g per 100g.
Fat 5.8g per 100g (0.7g saturates).
Other ingredients Dried milk whey powder, dried skimmed milk.
Nutrition Whey and skimmed-milk powder make it unsuitable for those with cow’s milk protein allergy. By weight, Alpen adds more sugar than nuts to its product and there is also a tiny amount of added salt.
Taste test The brown wheat flakes dominate and make this feel dry and bran-like.

Sugar 17.1g per 100g.
Fat 6g per 100g (0.8g saturates).
Other ingredients Milk whey powder.
Nutrition Modest sugar and fat content; but the low saturated fat simply reflects the paucity of nuts.
Taste test This tastes OK as basic mueslis go.

JORDANS NATURAL, £2.58, 750g
Sugar 15.3g per 100g.
Fat: 4.7g per 100g (0.8g saturates).
Other ingredients Chopped dates, though you will have to hunt them out.
Nutrition The 76 per cent grain content makes this one of the lowest-calorie mueslis. At 10.4g fibre per 100g, this is the highest-fibre cereal.
Taste test These high-grade flakes become a bit chewy without a decent fruit and nut content; it will have you reaching for the sugar bowl or some fresh fruit.


With packets of muesli hitting £6 for 500g, I decided to make my own. I bought £12 worth of organic oats, barley flakes, dried fruits, seeds and brazil nuts from my local healthfood store.

After chopping the apricots, figs and Brazil nuts I mixed them with the sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins, cranberries and the other ingredients in a bowl until I had more than 2kg of fruit-flecked muesli with no added sugar or salt. I stored it in an airtight cereal-dispenser. The finished product was less oat-dense than any of the commercially-produced mueslis.

Because of the high fruit content (half of the ten ingredients were fruit), it is high in natural sugars and fat from the Brazil nuts, but it’s mostly unsaturated fat and I could use the energy. And it tastes great.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Gallery

Oliver has his very own art gallery in our stairwell.

Exhibit 1: Nanny's pyramid relief (1970)
This tactile experience constructed from plaster-of-paris and resembling an Egyptian landscape, is his first port of call (see picture above).

Exhibit 2: The Little Bull
This oil-on-canvas artistic ditty is one he loves to scratch. It makes him laugh every time he sees it.

Exhibit 3: The bannister
He seems to consider this the best of the lot. He inspects the base section, then traces its angled lines to the top section which he then has to inspect too. Then he'll lean back down to see the base section again. He'll repeat this as many times as we are preapared to walk up and down the stairs with him leaning out of our arms.


Oliver often says "Da da", usually as part of a stream of da's, ma's and ba's. In fact his verbal musings are becoming increasingly expressive. He has the intonation of someone speaking in sentences now, but without discernible words.

Having said that, he also has a tendency to shout "Dad"! Hayley assures me this is reserved to times when I am around. And it does seem to co-incide with him listening and looking, possibly for me...? It's hard to tell for sure.

Sadly he has come to learn something unavoidable about his Dad: he has to go to work each day. Every morning as I head towards the door with my cycling bag, he will start to wave goodbye, even before I have said anything to him or Hayley. Hayley and Oliver stand at the door to wave me off. Cycling off as I do with him looking rather blank faced and waving his limp arm is something of a wrench each morning. Fortunately his beaming smile and welcome when I return in the evening tend to wipe out my sadness completely.

Two steps forward, one step back

Oliver plays guitar in his Nanny's garden

A week ago we were basking in the afterglow of a wonderful weekend up at my Mum's house. We played in the lagoon-sized paddling pool under a hot summer sun, lazed in the hammock, slept in a blanket under the trees and generally soaked up the best a British summer has to offer. Glorious!

Today we are walking around in fog of exhaustion after a weekend dominated by Oliver being ill but also by him showing signs of reverting to his old ways when it comes to sleep: i.e. he doesn't want to unless it's on his terms.

Although those two facts must appear to be obviously related, there have been earlier signs of him refusing to sleep recently and I'm pretty sure he is demonstrating his will to be in charge. In the interests of our sanity, health and family-wide well-being, we are resisiting his attempt to set the agenda.

In many ways I love the confidence he is finding now. He is into everything and wants everything we have that he hasn't. My two current nicknames for him are "Tommy Tearaway" and "Henry Hooligan". If he can't put something in his mouth he will gladly bash it for a few minutes. Kitchen rolls are strewn across the room in seconds. Magazines are retrieved from the coffee table and torn up at his leisure. The bookcase contains so many books he is dying to get down from the shelves: Will Hutton's "The State We're In" seems a particular favourite at the moment. (Good luck to him. I never finished it.)

His water cup is cast to the floor from his highchair at every opportunity, sometimes causing its entire contents to flood the floor. He knows we don't like him doing this so he waits his moment then throws it as quickly as possible before looking at us to see the reaction. At other times he will dangle it over the side of his high chair ever so slowly before letting go despite our warnings. When he does this it takes all my effort to keep a straight face. I know I must, otherwise he will have found an even better game!

The little man has been less playful much of this weekend though. He had a temperature of up to 102.7 Farenheit from Friday evening until Sunday morning. His sleep was disrupted and we gave him Calpol, Calgel and Baby Nurofen at different times in an attempt to ease his distress which we suspected might be exascerbated by teething.

On Sunday we noticed he had spots in varying degrees all over his body. We rang a medical helpline and took him to a walk-in clinic where we were told that the cause was a viral infection: a relief, as measles and even meningitis had occured to us.

Last night, despite being in much better spirits and having had no temperature all day, he cried when he went to bed in a way that we have rarely seen since the bad old days when bedtime was a daily hell (for us as well as him). And this morning he cried at 5.30am until Hayley went in. He appeared to settle while she was here but immediately screamed the house down when she left the room. Sadly it looks like we could be in for another stint of controlled crying to overcome this reversion.

I suspect we may have brought it on ourselves to some degree. If in doubt about his health, we have brought him into our room to sleep in the late morning (ie 5.30am onwards). Often his crying stops the moment he is allowed to join us: not exactly an indication of serious illness or persistent teething pain.

I really thought we were past all that. I should have known better. It's a healthy reminder not to say to myself "we've cracked it!". I hate to see him cry and controlled crying is not the way we wanted to go. But I am resigned to it as a means to the best end. Watching TV at the moment I see that China's first leader to throw aside a planned economy in favour of the free market was fond of explaining his decision with a Sezchuan saying: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice". Sadly, I guess that sums it up for me.

Children 'too old for fun, too young to face future'

This article is lifted from today's edition of The Times.
(By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent.)


PARENTS who think their children are living in another world are right and the consequences are having a devastating effect on society, the Government’s unofficial “happiness tsar” has said.

Speaking to The Times as he prepares to launch the first independent inquiry into the state of childhood in Britain, Lord Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, said that teenagers were becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of society and engaging in a culture in which adults were peripheral.

“It is as if they are living in a separate country from the rest of us. They do not emerge until some time in their early 20s, when they get a job and become dependent on other adults for approval,” he said.

"It’s not in children’s interests or our interests that they enter this separate world . . . Children and young people used to have a much more organic relationship with their parents and other mentors as they moved into employment.”

Many children, he said, did not appear to be enjoying childhood and society did not value childhood either. “We should be looking directly at the experience of childhood itself as a period of life to be enjoyed for its own sake. The fact that children are not enjoying their lives should be enough to make us very worried.”

Lord Layard was struck by a recent World Health Organisation survey of 150,000 teenagers in North America and Europe, which found that less than half of English adolescents saw each other as kind and helpful. The average was 60 per cent. Other evidence suggests that about 20 per cent of British children have mental health problems, while a Children’s Society poll found that nearly a quarter were scared of bullying, and more than one in ten worried about their parents’ lack of parenting skills. Lord Layard said that too many parents took their responsibilities too lightly and called for parenting to be taught in schools. “I think that children are not told the extraordinary responsibility of bringing a child into this world.”

He wanted to move away from the “sausage factory” of education, in which children are forced through exams and wanted to see more apprenticeships for unacademic children. “There is no natural progression into work other than via university. That leaves many young people with a sense of not being wanted at the end of childhood. To them, adulthood is not something to look forward to and that has a terrible impact on their childhood.”

  • Pocket money for 7 to 16-year-olds averages £8.20 a week compared with £1.13 in 1987, a rise of more than 600 per cent

  • Since 1996-97 more than half a million children have moved out of poverty

  • Infant mortality has declined in the past 25 years from 13.8 per 1,000 live births to 5.6 per cent

  • Diseases such as whooping cough and diphtheria have, in effect, been eradicated

  • Literacy has improved


  • More than 100,000 children do not have a permanent home
  • An estimated 20 per cent of children experience mental health problems
  • An estimated 920,000 children live in families in which at least one parent drinks to excess
  • About a third of white children and three quarters of Pakistani and Bangladeshi children in Britain live below the poverty line
  • A third of British girls rate their health as only fair or poor, with only their peers in Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia feeling worse off
  • BBC NEWS | UK | Child Support Agency facing axe

    BBC NEWS | UK | Child Support Agency facing axe

    The troubled Child Support Agency (CSA) is being axed, while absent parents face being electronically tagged, under plans to be announced by ministers.

    Parents will be encouraged to make their own arrangements over child maintenance, with a new agency focusing on parents who refuse to co-operate.

    New powers would prevent absent parents from going out after work and allow passports to be confiscated.

    But the Conservatives are not convinced the changes will make any difference.

    'Tough enforcement'

    The reforms will be unveiled by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton in the Commons. They are intended to allow parents to keep more of their maintenance allowance before it affects their benefits.

    They come as a response to a review of child support arrangements by Sir David Henshaw, whose report is set to be published on Monday afternoon.

    He is understood to favour the replacement of the CSA by a new organisation that will not handle payments for all parents.

    Lord Hunt, a minister from the department, said he wanted to see more parents resolving issues for themselves without state interference.

    But he warned: "It's very important that where parents are not prepared to support their children, there is tough enforcement."

    He said the government had "every right" to get tough with absentee parents, but he would not confirm reports of tagging, curfews or passport confiscation.

    It is thought that the agency will be given the power to use debt collectors, and a residual agency will be created to deal with the massive backlog which has grown under the CSA.

    'Broken families'

    Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman David Laws urged the government not to write off the £3.5bn of child maintenance arrears and 330,000 strong backlog of cases.

    "The government must not abandon the hundreds of thousands of families failed by 13 years of CSA incompetence," he said.

    "The reforms which are being announced must be judged by one test only - will they get more money through to the children living in broken families?"

    He said there might be a temptation for ministers to "wash their hands of many of the most difficult cases".

    For the Conservatives, shadow work and pensions secretary Phillip Hammond said: "The government is right to focus on the link between child poverty and lone parenthood.

    "But by abandoning the principle of shared responsibility for children, it risks making the situation worse, not better, by encouraging fathers to walk out, knowing they will not be pursued for maintenance."

    Chris Pond, from the National Council for One Parent Families, was hopeful that the changes would provide a more effective agency.

    "It's got to be much tougher in enforcement, it's got to be much more effective in administration, and we're hoping that these changes will bring this about," he said.

    The plans are to be put out to consultation over the next few months and it could be 2008 before they take effect, BBC political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue says.

    Spotted dick is off the menu for young diners

    Another article from today's Times.


    THE food revolution may have brought ballotine de foie gras and carpaccio boeuf to our tables, but traditional dishes such as Bath chaps and jugged hare have been left simmering on the hob.

    Classic British cuisine is facing the chop because the youn-ger generation has not even heard of them, according to new research. A survey carried out by the UKTV Food channel has found a “generation gap” in culinary knowledge between those in the under 25 and over 60 age groups.

    It found that less than 2 per cent of under 25s had heard of calf’s foot jelly, compared with 20 per cent of over 60s. Most youngsters had no idea what spotted dick was.

    The biggest casualty is Bath chaps, a once popular meal of pigs’ cheeks smoked like bacon and wrapped in breadcrumbs, which appeared in the first English recipe book written by Elizabeth Raffald, a housekeeper at a stately home in Salford.

    Jugged hare, where the hare meat is served in a sauce of its blood mixed with port, was second highest on the danger list. It was immortalised in Hannah Glasse’s 18th century book, The Art of Cookery, with a recipe that began: “First catch your hare.”

    The two dishes were recognised by just 1 per cent and 1.6 per cent, respectively, of the young people questioned. By contrast, 40 per cent of the over 60s knew about Bath chaps and 33 per cent were aware of jugged hare.

    Brawn — or jellied pig’s head — was the third least-recognised dish among the young respondents. Squirrel casserole is fourth on the danger list with a recognition rate of 4 per cent among the under 25s, compared with 18 per cent of the over 60s.

    The findings prompted concern that increasing prosperity is driving offal from young people’s kitchens. Fergus Smith, the chef who has helped to restore the reputation of offal at St John Restaurant in Smithfield, London, said the findings were “quite gloomy”.

    Desserts on the danger list include calf’s foot jelly, a sweetened milk and rennet pudding called junke,Sussex pond pudding made from steaming suet and a whole lemon, a sweet rice pudding dish called Kentish pudding pie and Dorset dumplings, which are apples served with suet.


    “Cut it in little Pieces, lard them here and there with little Slips of Bacon, season them with a very little Pepper and Salt, put them into an earthen Jugg, with a Blade or two of Mace, an Onion stuck with Cloves, and a Bundle of Sweet Herbs; cover the Jugg or Jar you do it in, so close, that nothing can get in, then set it in a Pot of boiling Water, keep the Water boiling, and three Hours will do it, then turn it out into the Dish, and take out the Onion and Sweet Herbs, and send it to the Table hot.”

    Friday, July 21, 2006

    BBC NEWS | Health | NHS 'lets down allergy patients'

    BBC NEWS Health NHS 'lets down allergy patients'

    Hayley suffers badly from Hay Fever and has little or no relief from the most popular off-the-shelf remedies. She is also severely allergic to cats. SO much so that when visiting friends they have to ban them from our room for several days prior to our arrival.

    Oliver suffered an allergic reaction to eggs at 6 months old (though we are hoping this is a temporary allergy).

    So I was interested but not entirely surprised to hear on the radio today that there are only 33 allergy specialists in the UK, despite 20 Million people - a third of the population - suffering from allergies.

    BBC NEWS | Health | Call for new baby jaundice checks

    BBC NEWS Health Call for new baby jaundice checks

    Thursday, July 20, 2006

    Look what I did!

    Yesterday Hayley put Oliver down for his afternoon nap, but after chatting to Julien for 15 minutes he decided he wanted to get up. When Hayley went in to see him she found that he was sitting up inhis cot.

    So he had obviously worked out how to roll over onto his front in his cot. This evening we saw him do it. When we put him to bed he was quite unsettled, probably due to teething. After we managed to put some Calgel on his gums he rolled onto his front, got up nto his hands and knees and finally sat up.

    Consequently I have an extra job this weekend: lower the base of the cot so he can't learn to climb out!

    Tuesday, July 18, 2006

    It ain't half hot Mum

    We're in the midle of a mini heatwave. After several days in the high 20s Celcius temperatures have reached 32 today and are predicted to hit 34 tomorrow. It's too uncomfortable to take Oliver out except very early in the morning or possibly to make a dash for somewhere with air conditioning.

    This morning Hayley took the little man to the swings and then our local sandwich bar "Fresh", where he charmed the ladies and read the paper. This afternoon they stayed in, taking sanctuary in his bedroom where we have a portable air conditioner (which is redundant for most of the year but seems well worth the money on days like today), before venturing into the then shady garden to play in the paddling pool and lounge around on the picnic blanket.

    Oliver's favourite activities at the moment include feeding us. He will offer us his morcels of soggy chewed bread or (this evening) sausage. If we are lucky he will take them away without letting go of them - which displays another of his favourite tricks at the moment: teasing! This extends to reaching out to his Mummy when I am holding him then recoiling when she gets close to him. And of course he does the same to me when Hayley is holding him.

    His third favourite activity is something Newton would appreciate: experiments in the effcts of gravity, i.e. dropping something, looking down at it, picking it up and and then dropping it again... and again and again. His cup of water is favoured for this game.

    And finally he has decided to start using the phone. He likes to press the hands-free/dial button and then listen to the nice lady telling him "Please hang up and dial again". Sometimes he varies this by pressing a few buttons, occasionally with unexpected coherency. So far he has rung three of our friends and the estate agent (who is first in the phone book) at least twice.

    Just before going to bed tonight, he marked the end of his bath by leaving a little present in there. Nothing Mr Muscle Sink and Drain Cleaner won't clear but I should have spotted the tell-tale strained expression more quickly.

    Tonight it's so hot in his room that we have left the air conditioner on, even though it means the room is brighter (thanks to the tube hanging out of the window) and it is quite noisy with it on. But he was out like a light after his bedtime bottle. This heat takes it out of you!

    Monday, July 17, 2006

    "United - yeah!"

    Hayley and I are both Manchester United fans and she is determined that Oliver should be too, not least because I pay a small fortune (£741 to be precise) for my season ticket each year in the hope that one day I'll be able to take Oliver along with me.

    Over the weekend Hayley tried to teach Oliver to raise his hands in the air and cheer when when she says "United - yeah!". This morning as I made his morning porridge she had got him waving his hands on cue. She was absolutely delighted with this! Just need to add the cheering now.

    Roll over Beethoven

    Oliver has been able to crawl for a while, but interestingly we have never seen him roll over from his back to his front. Even after starting to crawl he has occasionally ended up with his arm trapped under himself and cried for our assistance. And we have never yet come into his room and found him standing up, because it would need him to roll from his back to his front.

    So this weekend Hayley occasionally placed him on his side and encouraged him over to his front from where he was able to get onto all fours quite happily.

    This morning we got him up and brought him into our room where we lay him on his back on the bed. After a few minutes he spotted something of interest on the bedside table. Quite un-prompted, he rolled onto his side and then his front and finally up onto his hands and knees. He looked pleased, if a little surprised, when this got him a round of applause.

    Thursday, July 13, 2006

    No entry!

    Oliver plans his next move after Hayley blocked access to the stairs, just as he was ready for his first expedition.

    BBC NEWS | Health | IVF 'need for father' rule may go

    BBC NEWS | Health | IVF 'need for father' rule may go

    Who's the Daddy! Well, erm, no-one apparently.

    While I don't want the role of fathers to be undervalued or undermined, I can see why this is a move to a more even-handed attitude to fertility treatment. It would be lovely (if a little regimented) if every child could be brought up in a conventional and loving nuclear family. But the nuclear family brings no absolute guarantee of love or happiness, so perhaps a better criteria is simply whether or not the child will be born into a loving family, regardless of how big or small that family might be.

    BBC NEWS | Health | Solo living 'doubles heart risk'

    BBC NEWS | Health | Solo living 'doubles heart risk'

    Contrary to all those jokes about marriage ("Take my wife... Please take my wife!") it seems that living alone is more detrimental to ones health.

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Ice-cream in the park

    "I'm getting the hang of this ice-cream stuff now Mummy."

    Neonatal units are in crisis, says charity Bliss

    Crisis in neonatal units
    (From the BBC website).

    Premature baby charity Bliss has said a crisis in the care of babies in neonatal units is deepening.

    One area of specific concern that the charity has highlighted is the number of babies who are being transferred - sometimes hundreds of miles - between hospitals because of staff or cot shortages.

    Nicola Eardley, from Norfolk, experienced this first-hand when she gave birth to her son Charlie nearly three years ago.

    In the 26th week of her pregnancy, Nicola noticed her baby was very still, so travelled to her local hospital, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, where she had planned to give birth, to see what was wrong.

    "Throughout the day they did lots of scans and discovered that his heart was failing and the placenta had failed. They told me he had to be delivered today," she said.

    "But then the other bombshell came that although he had to be delivered, they had no incubators free.

    "So we had to go home, get some stuff and come back, and within 10 minutes of being back at the hospital we were put in an ambulance and sent off to Nottingham."

    Nottingham City Hospital is about 150 miles from Norwich - it took about three and a half hours to get there.

    When she arrived her baby, who she called Charlie, was delivered by caesarean. At only 26 weeks, he was very tiny; he weighed just 660g (1lb 7oz).

    "In the first few days Charlie did very very well. But then he got NEC - Necrotizing Enterocolitis - a condition that affects the bowels. Some babies need to have part of their bowels removed and it does kill an awful lot of premature babies," she said.

    "But we were lucky enough that the antibiotics did the trick for Charlie."

    Stressful experience

    Charlie spent five weeks at the neonatal unit at Nottingham. Nicola said the hospital staff were "fantastic" because they gave her and her partner a room in the unit so they could stay with their son.

    But the distance from home still caused problems, and Nicola had to arrange for relatives to look after her other three children, at the time all under the age of 10.

    When an incubator was available back at Norwich and Charlie was well enough to be transferred, the family embarked on the trip back to their local hospital.

    But, Nicola said, the change in hospitals was also problematic.

    "Norwich were fantastic as well, it's just that they had different routines and protocols, so it was a completely different set up to what we had got used to."

    Eventually, after spending about 15 weeks in hospital, Charlie was finally allowed home. Now two, Nicola says Charlie is a bundle of energy, but he does still have some problems.

    "He cannot eat and is fed by a gasterostomy tube, and he is also still on oxygen when he is asleep.

    "But other than that he runs about like any other child."

    Although Nicola says the whole situation was incredibly stressful, she is not angry because the team at Nottingham saved her son's life.

    "But what would have happened if Nottingham hadn't had a free incubator?" she wonders.

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    Nap time

    Sometimes Oliver won't have his afternoon nap unless his Mummy joins him. This is how I found my family when I came home today.

    33 Things kids Should Do Before They're 10

    33 Things kids Should Do Before They're 10

    Hayley found this list of 33 things a child should do before they are 10 years old. Number 27 sounds a tad tricky. Number 33 probably violates health and safety legislation these days. And surely number 32 is missing the words "every weekend" at the end. (Well, I can dream.)

    1. Roll on your side down a grassy bank
    2. Make a mud pie
    3. Make your own modelling dough mixture
    4. Collect frogspawn
    5. Make perfume from flower petals
    6. Grow cress on a windowsill
    7. Make a papier mâché mask
    8. Build a sandcastle
    9. Climb a tree
    10. Make a den in the garden
    11. Make a painting using your hands and feet
    12. Organise your own teddy bears' picnic
    13. Have your face painted
    14. Play with a friend in the sand
    15. Make some bread
    16. Make snow angels
    17. Create a clay sculpture
    18. Take part in a scavenger hunt
    19. Camp out in the garden
    20. Bake a cake
    21. Feed a farm animal
    22. Pick some strawberries
    23. Play pooh sticks
    24. Recognise five different bird species
    25. Find some worms
    26. Ride a bike through a muddy puddle
    27. Make and fly a kite
    28. Plant a tree
    29. Build a nest out of grass and twigs
    30. Find ten different leaves in the park
    31. Grow vegetables
    32. Make breakfast in bed for your parents
    33. Make a mini assault course in your garden

    Sunday, July 09, 2006

    Happiness lessons for all

    An article from today's Independent on Sunday. Although talk of a "Happiness Tsar" sounds vaguely (and ironically) totalitarian, it still strikes me as an exercise worth trying.


    Happiness lessons for all

    Schoolchildren will take self-esteem classes to raise standards and cut crime. US guru called in to pioneer radical scheme that could enter the school curriculum

    By Sophie Goodchild, Chief Reporter
    Published: 09 July 2006

    Lessons in happiness are to be introduced for 11-year-olds in state schools to combat a huge rise in depression, self-harm and anti-social behaviour among young people.

    Special behavioural techniques imported from the US will be used from September next year in an attempt to make children more resilient in the face of the pressures of 21st century living.

    Professor Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most influential psychologists of his generation, has been drafted in to train British teachers so that they can deliver classes to nearly 2,000 secondary school pupils.

    Lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will include role play designed to help children build up their self-esteem, challenge negative ways of thinking and express their thoughts clearly. Trials have shown that the techniques can boost class performance and exam results.

    They will also be shown special breathing exercises to keep them calm when their parents are arguing and avoid blaming themselves for situations that are beyond their control, for example, the fact their parents may be divorcing.

    The anti-depression classes, due be introduced in South Tyneside, Manchester and one rural location, have been approved by Lord Layard, the Government's "happiness" tsar.

    The Department for Education is expected to evaluate the programme. If it proves as successful as it has been in the US, happiness classes could become part of the regular school timetable. The move comes as experts warn that record numbers of young people are on the verge of mental breakdown as a result of family break-up, exam pressures and growing inability to cope with the pressures of modern life.

    Figures show that at least 10 per cent - three children in every average-sized class of 30 in the country - are experiencing symptoms of severe depression, including suicidal thoughts, prolonged bouts of despair and the urge to cry on a daily basis. Twenty-five years ago the average age people fell ill with depression was 30. Today this has fallen dramatically with 14 the age at which mental illness first strikes.

    David Cameron, the Conservative leader, will tomorrow highlight the need for professionals to pay attention to the emotional development of young people in an attempt to turn them away from offending. In a speech to the Police Foundation, he will say that children are not "feral" and instead need "love" to restore their health and happiness.

    Wellington College in Berkshire this year became the first private school to pioneer positive-thinking teaching for 13-year-olds. But this new initiative is the first time such a comprehensive programme, which can also be used by parents, has been used in the state sector.

    Mental health charities say that teachers are placing too much focus on disruptive pupils and ignoring the needs of those who do not cause trouble but suffer emotional distress.

    Lee Miller, a spokesman for Young Minds, said: "Historically schools have been focused on children who misbehave because they will disrupt the whole class."

    Lessons in happiness are to be introduced for 11-year-olds in state schools to combat a huge rise in depression, self-harm and anti-social behaviour among young people.

    Special behavioural techniques imported from the US will be used from September next year in an attempt to make children more resilient in the face of the pressures of 21st century living.

    Professor Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most influential psychologists of his generation, has been drafted in to train British teachers so that they can deliver classes to nearly 2,000 secondary school pupils.

    Lessons using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques will include role play designed to help children build up their self-esteem, challenge negative ways of thinking and express their thoughts clearly. Trials have shown that the techniques can boost class performance and exam results.

    They will also be shown special breathing exercises to keep them calm when their parents are arguing and avoid blaming themselves for situations that are beyond their control, for example, the fact their parents may be divorcing.

    The anti-depression classes, due be introduced in South Tyneside, Manchester and one rural location, have been approved by Lord Layard, the Government's "happiness" tsar.

    The Department for Education is expected to evaluate the programme. If it proves as successful as it has been in the US, happiness classes could become part of the regular school timetable. The move comes as experts warn that record numbers of young people are on the verge of mental breakdown as a result of family break-up, exam pressures and growing inability to cope with the pressures of modern life.

    Figures show that at least 10 per cent - three children in every average-sized class of 30 in the country - are experiencing symptoms of severe depression, including suicidal thoughts, prolonged bouts of despair and the urge to cry on a daily basis. Twenty-five years ago the average age people fell ill with depression was 30. Today this has fallen dramatically with 14 the age at which mental illness first strikes.

    David Cameron, the Conservative leader, will tomorrow highlight the need for professionals to pay attention to the emotional development of young people in an attempt to turn them away from offending. In a speech to the Police Foundation, he will say that children are not "feral" and instead need "love" to restore their health and happiness.

    Wellington College in Berkshire this year became the first private school to pioneer positive-thinking teaching for 13-year-olds. But this new initiative is the first time such a comprehensive programme, which can also be used by parents, has been used in the state sector.

    Mental health charities say that teachers are placing too much focus on disruptive pupils and ignoring the needs of those who do not cause trouble but suffer emotional distress.

    Lee Miller, a spokesman for Young Minds, said: "Historically schools have been focused on children who misbehave because they will disrupt the whole class."

    It's official: he's crawling

    Oliver has been crawling in a slightly lob-sided way for a while now, but he has now officially made the transfer to proper crawling on hands and knees (even if he reverts to using a foot occasionally).

    Yesterday Oliver was playing in the living room while I sat on the floor in the adjoining kitchemn, sorting washing. After a few moments, Oliver appeard on hands and knees at the door witha big grin on his face, having crawled across the living room, around the sofa and up to the kitchen door. When he saw me sitting there he laughed. I'm sure his laughter was partially at the new sensation of having travelled somewhere under his own steam and being the person coming into the room rather than the person waiting for someone to come in. I remember the first time I drove a car with no-one else in the car. The feeling of freedom was all the more intoxicating for its newness. I'm sure Oliver was feeling much the same thing.

    Saturday, July 08, 2006

    Hayley and Oliver at Room 311

    Tuesday, July 04, 2006

    On the up!

    Oliver looks suspicious at the bottom of the stairs...

    ...then moves into his customary "one foot and one knee" crawling position...

    ...before inspecting the day's post...

    ..and finally realising he can climb these "stair" things!
    Time to buy a stair gate I think!

    Monday, July 03, 2006

    The joys of cycling (according to the FT)

    I'm cheekily re-producing this article (below) from today's Financial Times because it sums up the rewards of cycling to work.

    I have been keeping a record of how often I cycle to work and since the clocks went forward I have commuted by bike an average of 2 days out of every 3. Given that (ironically) I sometimes drive to work so that I can get to my off-road cycling venue more quickly in the evening, I don't think that's a bad average, but it certainly leaves room for improvement.

    Of course, one of my main motivations is to stay fit and active for my 9 month old boisterous bundle. I can't wait until he can come out with me along the Trans-Pennine Trail or in the Peaks. Though I'm in no rush to see him taking on the traffic on my commute!


    Pleasures outweigh the perils of a more balanced commute

    By Lucy Kellaway

    Published: July 3 2006 03:00 | Last updated: July 3 2006 03:00

    One of the greatest thrills you can have as a needy journalist is discovering that the stranger sitting next to you on the train is avidly reading something you wrote in that morning's newspaper. In 20-odd years I have had such a thrill twice, each time glorious enough to be worth a decade's wait.

    Alas, this pleasure is no longer available to me: 18 months ago I gave up the train and now cycle to work instead. However, the other day something even more gratifying (and odder) happened on my bike on the way to work. I had stopped at traffic lights beside a fine looking man in an expensive suit not designed for cycling. We looked at each other, looked away and then he looked back at me intently. This sort of thing never happens to me these days (if it ever did) and particularly not when I'm wearing an oversized, fluorescent, road sweeper's tabard and garish cycling helmet.

    Then he said: "I'm riding my bike today because of your article in the paper." The lights turned to green, and off he went.

    This was joyous. It was also puzzling as I hadn't written about cycling: I had written about being middle-aged. Still, he had read an article of mine and had been converted to cycling as a result.

    It made me think: if I can convert one man without even trying, think how many more I can convert if I put some effort into it.

    So today I have come up with 10 excellent reasons why cycling to work would be a very good idea for you. It will make you richer, healthier, possibly thinner and definitely less bonkers. It will help you make new friends, it will make you feel virtuous, it will give you more spare time. You will be more productive at work and you'll also save the planet. If you are in your mid forties, you will lose a quarter of a century instantly and feel just like an undergraduate again.

    This is a very impressive list of benefits, you must agree. In fact

    I defy anyone to name any other change to the working day that could be so beneficial in so many ways as commuting by bike.

    Admittedly one can get a bit sweaty when cycling, and one can also get killed, but I'll come to these drawbacks in a minute.

    By far the biggest advantage for me is what my bike does to my spirits. Every day I am calmed and cheered by my ride. Cycling is the perfect buffer between work and home. You have to concentrate when you are cycling, which means you can't think much, and you can't fret - neither about the children's missed dentist appointments nor that half-baked column. Instead I often sing as I cycle. Today it was the Chris Isaak song "Wicked Game".

    The other great beauty of cycling is its efficiency. My commute is five minutes quicker than the train and costs £80 less a month. I never

    have to wait, I never have to be crammed up against other people's bodies at rush hour. Neither do I ever have to go to the gym, spending hundreds of pounds a year and many wasted hours on those awful machines.

    (In truth I never went to the gym anyway, which means that cycling has made me fit for the first time in my life, which is nice, if strange.)

    I cycle quite fast now and so occasionally overtake young men wearing all the kit on Southwark Bridge, which gets the morning off to an agreeably competitive start.

    If your employer has a bike shed then you will find you make new friends as you lift your bike into the racks every day. You have nice little undemanding chats about the traffic and the weather - which are the sort of thing that make office life so reassuring.

    Now for the two main shortfalls. The first is sweat, which a lot of people tell me is what prevents them from getting on their bikes. Speaking personally, I don't find this much of a problem. I cycle in high heels, lipstick and normal office clothes and go straight from the bike sheds to my desk neither unduly soggy nor dishevelled.

    I noticed one young City banker cycling along Cheapside last week looking cool in a beautiful double-cuffed pink shirt and Church's brogues, with one pinstriped trouser leg pulled up to save it from getting stuck in the chain, revealing a touchingly white hairy calf.

    For nerdier, sweatier cyclists who insist on doing their brief commute dressed for the Tour de France, most big offices have showers so that they can peel off their clinging garments, wash and put on something more suitable.

    There is finally the question about getting killed. Cyclists are bundles of soft tissue who don't have much chance when up against one of those massive bendy buses. Cycling is dangerous, and you are very silly if you cycle without a helmet and all the safety gear.

    Yet despite the risk, I hardly ever feel frightened on my bike. I feel alert and alive, but not scared. Recently

    I was cycling out one hot evening to give a speech to some businesspeople. I was feeling fine about the ride, but not fine about the impending talk. On the way, I was nearly hit by a passenger door being flung open, swerved and narrowly avoided a van.

    I put the thought to myself: how come I'm not frightened of being crushed to death but I'm terrified of minor humiliation in front of a small audience of civilised people?

    Suddenly I wasn't frightened any more. I may have perspired a little on that hot night cycling at speed, but on the stage sweaty palms were no longer a problem. Which is the most unexpected bonus of all. Cycling has made me a bit more intrepid, not just in the saddle but out of it, too.

    Sunday, July 02, 2006

    Breakfast al fresco

    Hayley and Oliver had breakfast outside in the garden this morning (above).