Changing guard

12 Sep

Today I broke an old habit that’s lasted ten years and cost me thousands of pounds.

I went to a new hairdresser.

Every three months for the last decade, I’ve faithfully trekked to the same west London salon to have pretty much the same ‘do.

I started going because it was directly below the office I worked in at the time and, if I factored in a slightly cheeky longer lunch, I could get my hair done and hit the end-of-day deadlines.

Even when I eventually moved 120 miles away I would still find reasons to return, like a bedraggled homing pigeon, every 3 months or so for a T-section and a rough cut.

What is it that kept me under her spell for so long?

The hairdresser and I are not friends, despite our weird, detached-yet-very-intimate relationship built around shampoos, blow drys and 50 shades of highlights. We have pretty much grown up together without ever meeting outside of the salon.

I liked the fact that I knew her, and she knew my hair, and the one time some intern forgot to set the alarm and my locks ended up more silver fox than honey blonde, she fixed it for me free of charge within 24 hours.

Perhaps the beginning of the end for me was when she stopped serving traditional tea, coffee and mini chocolates in favour of horrid raspberry and bergamot herbal brew with assorted nuts. Perhaps for her it was the 700th time she attempted to flog me some Morroccan Oil at £700 per millilitre (or so it seemed) in return for eternal youth, or some such.

Or perhaps I realised that spending 2 hours and £40 to commute to a place in the middle of nowhere, and then spend +£100 to end up looking the same as I did before I arrived was a bit of a false economy.

So – today I took the plunge and went local. I chose a hairdresser recommended by my husband (who does that? another first) and made an appointment.

It was an awkward first date. She asked me three times whether I was going on holiday and didn’t laugh when I told her some an anecdote from the stash of celeb magazines she gave me (admittedly it was poor. You know you’re getting old when you don’t know who most of the celebs are, and the ones you do recognise are botoxed to within an inch of their lives and going on about their bikini body surgery secrets).

My hairdresser would have laughed along with me, I thought, suddenly feeling overwhelmed with guilt and longing.

To be honest, it didn’t last long though. Because guess what? By the time we were done, I looked the same as I do in West London, with the added bonus of being able to walk home in 20 minutes and the entire experience costing almost half the price.

Next step is to wean myself off my dentist. The dentist whose child I went to primary school with and who has been my dentist since my very first tooth made its appearance. She is also a good 90 minute drive away. At least I won’t have to worry about the chit-chat. In all our years together I don’t think I’ve said more than 2 sentences to her and that was while rinsing my mouth at the end.

Baby steps…..


Finding my Olympic spirit

8 Aug

Today I decided to channel Rebecca Adlington and drag myself down to the local leisure centre for a proper swimming session. Not the kind of swim I do with my son, which is if I’m honest is more like a warm bath, but a full-on, swim-hat-and-goggles kinda workout.

The Olympic effect must be in full swing because the pool was pretty busy. Half of it was dedicated to general splashing and the other half contained three lanes – slow, medium and fast.

The first thing I noticed was that nobody wanted to get in the fast lane, despite the fact that it was empty.

I say nobody – in this instance it was all women. There were nine of us squashing ourselves into the “medium” lane (the slow lane tends to be a bit of a write-off at the best of times) and not one prepared to venture upwards, even though they would have had it all to themselves.

Swimming and I have a longstanding on/off relationship. Swimming has been very understanding, considering how frequently I sneak off to play the field (I sometimes have dalliances with improvised tennis rallies, usually around the time of Wimbledon). On the whole, despite my various time-outs over the years, inexplicably I’m still pretty good at it (she says modestly).

When I was at school I took part in races and stuff. Then university arrived and I had neither the time nor the money to keep up my swimming prowess, such as it was. The hangovers didn’t help of course.

In my late 20s I got back into my groove and swam four times a week. Until I met the man who became my husband and found that submersing myself in cold water for hours at a time when I could be snuggled up on the sofa watching movies and drinking wine seemed less tempting. This has been well-documented by my waistline.

I grew up around water. I realise this is quite a claim for a land-locked north Londoner. But my dad’s favourite hobby was scuba diving, meaning I spent almost every spare moment on a beach, regardless of the weather, snorkelling, playing in the rockpools and waiting for him to emerge, smelling of the sea, with a collection of  shells, freshly caught fish (even the occasional lobster) and vintage bottles of Lee & Perrins (the seabed of the entire British coast is covered in them, according to my late father. As a result, so is my family home).

So – I’m kind of used to looking (and occasionally smelling) like the proverbial drowned rat. More than that, weirdly, I enjoy it. Perhaps that’s why it bugged me so much that my fellow swimmers today would rather progress rather slowly nose-to-tail up the middle lane rather than brave the faster lane.

I jumped straight in. Then in got swimmer no 2, a man whose shoulders were as broad as I am long and who seemed to think that doing front crawl meant slapping the water so hard with his palms that almost half of it decided to leave immediately. There was no way I was going to let him overtake me, so I pushed myself that bit harder.

Then swimmer no 3 arrived – another man, more of an indie kid than a body builder, but still pretty nippy.

Then we were all completely outshone by the arrival of swimmer no 4 – a lady in her mid 40s, in a pink swim hat, who powered through the water like a jet ski. Water Slapper practically punched her as she glided past him as if he were standing still. He got out after that.

I swam faster and further than I thought possible after a year off and a baby because I was so determined to keep up.

Afterwards it made me think – why are we all so afraid to push ourselves?

My husband laughed long and hard when I said I wasn’t competitive but I still don’t think I am. I am, however, motivated by my surroundings. Right now i’m sitting on the sofa eating ice cream because that’s what we’re all doing. But in that pool, in that lane, I somehow managed to keep up because the pace had been set by everybody else. Is it too intimidating – and if so why?

Milk matters

19 Jul
milk matters/zskdorset

Bottoms up

The other weekend on the radio show I had an irate local dairy farmer on the phone. British supermarkets are refusing to pay a fair price for milk, he said, and if they carry on we will dump the milk we produce and there won’t be any on the shelves anymore.

“Is that a threat?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied.

Dorset’s dairy farmers, he said, are desperate. Milk costs 29p per litre to produce. The business of looking after 200+ hungry cattle is obviously not cheap.

The supermarkets however are only prepared to pay 27p. There are about 2.5 pints in a litre and a pint of milk in my local supermarket is about 70p. So the dairy farmers are, to say the very least, feeling pretty hard done by. If you want to even dip a toe in that pool of rage, try looking at the hashtag “sosdairy” on Twitter.

I am not renowned for my mathematical prowess but it certainly does seem that something isn’t quite adding up there.

Can you imagine a world without milk? I started writing this thinking I could probably live without it. Until I remembered my morning muesli, the 6 cups of tea I get through in a day, the coffee shop lattes and of course, the three bottles of milk my toddler hoovers up between meals. My house is full of milk. We have both skimmed and whole milk in the fridge and a box of infant formula also on the go. And – oh my God. I forgot about chocolate.

What if milk became a luxury item, sandwiched on the top shelves between the Moet and the Bollinger and with one of those infuriating security tabs over the lid? The VIP bars would serve semi-skimmed instead of Crystal on tap, and milk would be a Friday night treat after a long day in the office.

I’m not a medic but I imagine it wouldn’t be particularly great scenario for public health (although admittedly hangovers would become a thing of the past).

A thyroid specialist told me recently that there is already a problem with iodine deficiency here in the UK, caused by people not drinking enough milk. As an adult you can kind of cope with a low level but it is crucial to the development of babies’ brains – meaning mothers should keep drinking the white stuff. If we have that problem already how much worse would things be if milk was priced out of the weekly shop?

The number of dairy farmers in Dorset alone has already practically halved since 1999. It’s not an easy life – -the farmer on my show had been up since 4am tending to his herd, along with his son. He said farming was in their blood but he was no longer sure it was the best career path for his children. We all have to eat, after all.

Black coffee, anyone?

Mums making money

15 Jun

I just changed the headline of this post. I was going to call it “mumpreneurs” but the word is frankly just too schmaltzy for comfort.

It’s the kind of word you’d expect to see stuck to someone’s forehead on a pink post-it note during a brainstorming session run by a Soho marketing consultancy. And that is a world away from the kind of thing I’m thinking about.

Yesterday I met a woman who sold her house to start her business. She couldn’t get a bank loan, didn’t qualify for any of her local council’s start-up schemes and has a young child of her own. Her idea – a cafe with a Fun House type play area (yup, showing my age there) – opened its doors a few weeks ago.

She bought the cafe venue outright and had the play area designed specifically to fit the space.

She has to clear £14000 profit in her first year just to pay the council tax. The hummous sandwich I bought there for my little son cost £2 – that’s a hell of a lot of hummous sandwiches. She may feel she deserved more encouragement from the authorities – but even if she does, she is not daunted by the scale of her challenge.

Her only regret is that her own little boy would rather help mummy in the kitchen than run free in his new soft play kingdom.

Coincidentally yesterday a friend also added me to a new Facebook group of local businesswomen. Oh my God. There are hundreds of them. Selling cakes, offering photography services, painting faces, organising clothing sales – the group is growing by the hour. In the last two days nearly 200 women have joined.

I am astonished and amazed by the way in which these women are turning their lives into their livelihoods. Who said we were no longer a nation of shopkeepers? I have worked for a large employer, for  a number of years, doing the job I always wanted to do.  I’m not sure whether I would have the balls to start out from scratch, on my own, offering something I do for free for my family every single day. What is it worth, in cold hard cash? I have no idea. My family may be duty-bound to eat whatever I rustle up for them in the kitchen, for example, but I’m not sure I could actually charge for it (that may say more about my catering skills than my business nous).

Here in the UK the last three months of maternity leave, if you choose to take it, is unpaid. Having no income of my own has been a humbling experience, to say the least. But while the champagne hasn’t exactly been flowing, I have seen my son begin to wave, point, crawl and say “mama”. If I’m lucky he will take his first steps with me before I return to work full time in August. That for me is payment enough of course – but it’s not going to pay the rent.

To be honest right now, any company that could offer me 10 hours of glorious, uninterrupted sleep could name its price.

Hmm – now there’s an idea.

Declaring war on my wardrobe

6 Jun

I think I need a new stylist

In exactly eight weeks I resume my alter-ego as a city-based technology journalist after a year of maternity leave.

I am hugely excited (there are only so many times one can pretend that a “let’s play and learn” toy which sings Pollywollydoodle every now and then is in fact a high tech mobile device), more than a little bit daunted (I don’t remember midday naps or 3pm biscuit breaks featuring very highly during the average news shift) – and feeling like Gok Wan‘s worst nightmare after two years of country living followed by motherhood.

I wouldn’t say my wardrobe wasn’t pretty. If anything, it’s too pretty. Everything has a bloody pattern on it. It’s like I’ve been possessed by Cath Kidston.

I don’t even know where my LBD is, my favourite stilettos are inexplicably covered in mould, my Aviator sunglasses are missing an arm and my trendy white jacket was obviously designed to shrink the further away it got from its birthplace on the Kings Road because it’s bloody tiny now and I can’t have scoffed that many cream cakes while I was pregnant, can I? (For your own safety, don’t answer that).

So today I hit the shops. One thing that seems to happen when you become a parent is that it is suddenly impossible to go into any major clothing store without somehow willing yourself into the kids section. I spent five minutes rifling through a rail of black trousers before I realised I was looking for size 9-12 months. To be fair I don’t really know what size I am anymore anyway – there isn’t much point in comparing something that actually requires a waistline with a maxi dress and it has been a very long time since I poured myself into the former.

I can’t go back to work in the same clothes I was wearing when I left – psychologically that would feel pretty weird. I need a new look for the new me.

Besides, i didn’t have hips you could balance a pint on back then.

My friend Becky has just returned to LA after six months in Bali and the first thing she did was get a supersharp haircut. I tried channeling her but all I ended up doing was forking out £14 on an eyebrow pencil while the baby was snoozing. Well, there is no way he would have survived a 3hr highlights & blow-dry session. Neither would my marriage.

Maybe the trick is to invest in a few boring old dark trousers and shirts until I rediscover my style (and start getting paid again). Or maybe I should go back all guns blazing in my favourite summer dress with the Russian Doll prints all over it, cardigan with stubborn stain where firstborn has wiped his nose and the freebie flip-flops from a hotel in Indonesia that are juuuuust about holding together.

What do you wear to work?

Body matters

10 May

I’m starting to get a bit fed up with people telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about.

To be fair – I don’t always. I briefly dated a sports presenter once who never introduced me to any of his sporting mates for fear I would spend the entire time asking them how the hell you score a game of cricket (40 million over 2 – what is that about? I still don’t get it).

Actually, with hindsight it could have been because he didn’t want me to find out that he was married, but that’s another story.

I’ve now locked horns with the medical profession after being told that despite having a flair up of a condition that I am already seeing a consultant for, I am not allowed to contact said consultant without first going via my GP.

“You can’t just make an appointment on your say-so”, said the apologetic nurse on the phone. It turns out that my local doctor, who has about 5000 patients in our small town, has more authority when it comes to my innards than I do. Pretty strange considering they have never even met. And the closest encounter me and my internal organs can get with him is a phone call next Tuesday morning.

It’s not the first time my body and I have ended up wearing matching dunce caps.

When I arrived at hospital in the latter stages of labour with my first child, contractions three minutes apart and beginning to feel like I was in fact a sausage factory, the midwife on duty told me to go home, take a sleeping tablet and come back in the morning. She even helpfully offered to show me a picture of “a woman who is really in labour” just in case I was missing the point of how pathetically unbelievable I was in my attempt at giving birth.

I refused both – and our son was born four hours later. My husband says I spent most of that time yelling “I told you it hurt” every time they told me to push.

The thing is, obviously i didn’t know from experience that the baby was about to stage his grand entrance. But instinctively, primevally, however you want to look at it, I had never been more sure of anything in my entire life. Every cell, every nerve ending was howling at me that this is exactly what it feels like when your cervix is the size of a carton of Dairylea (as it was delicately phrased in our antenatal classes). But nobody would listen.

I have since heard that unless you arrive at your maternity ward wailing like a banshee, you are unlikely to be taken seriously. So that is duly noted for next time. My friend Katie told me she ended up delivering her own baby for exactly this reason. Let’s hope she and I don’t ever end up in the same ward at the same time – everyone within a 50km radius of us would end up with tinnitis at the very least.

This lack of trust is not restricted to us annoying first time mums. When I mentioned the GP thing on Twitter last night my friend Olly tweeted to say he has lived with a heart condition for most of his life but still has to see the doctor to get a repeat prescription for the medication he has been on for the last 13 years.

What is going on here? Why are we – the people actually dealing whatever strange shit our bodies are trying on for size – considered to be the least able to judge what the hell is happening to us and decide what we want to do about it?

I realise the internet has a lot to answer for. You are only ever six symptoms away from a brain tumour*, no matter what you start out putting into Google (*not a fact, although it should be).

But it’s not like we are all running to A&E every time we sneeze. It would just be nice to know that, when you feel like something is happening, you’re not going to have to complete an obstacle course before you can talk to somebody who might be able to help.

The bitches are back

2 May

The Daily Mail has found a new figure of fun in the form of a journalist called Samantha Brick. She writes deliberately provocative articles using headlines like “why do women hate me for being beautiful”, “I use my sex appeal to get ahead at work… and so should ANY woman with any sense” and today’s missive “sorry, some women ARE too ugly for TV”. I can’t bring myself to link them I’m afraid so I’ll link to her page on Journalisted instead.

She claims to be horrified by the backlash she has experienced, especially online, as a result of these features. Twitter lights up angrily every time another bit of bluster from Brick finds its way onto the net and the newspaper’s hit counter probably goes into meltdown.

She is commonly described as a Troll – someone who deliberately picks fights online – and perhaps that is all she is, although unlike most trolls she is insanely somewhat bravely doing it openly, complete with photos and under a byline (if Samantha Brick is a nom de plume it’s a fairly well established one, and she appears to have a self-monikered website).

I expect she knows exactly what she’s doing and I’m sure she is being well paid to do it. Female misogyny comes in many forms, and this is the one guaranteed to stir up the most debate. Whether or not she actually believes what she writes is a different debate.

But  is she any different to the starlets who unleash impossibly airbrushed images of themselves on the world at every opportunity, a beacon of unachievable so-called beauty designed to make the rest of us feel, at the very least, a bit crap?

It’s also interesting to observe in programmes like The Apprentice that it always seems to be the women’s team which implodes in a storm of backstabbing and bitchery, while the men ride out each task on steeds of over-inflated egos and self-belief. It could of course be down to some pretty naff editing. Either way, it’s either there because it actually happens or it’s there because TV producers think the audience expects or enjoys watching it happen.

It is also perhaps no coincidence that the bitchiest place I have been to in the last year was a breastfeeding group. If you want to hear women openly slag each other off look no further than the school gates.

 I read an article in a science journal once which claimed that women are biologically programmed to hate each other because we are all still primevally competing for the attention of The Male. Eva Wiseman wrote about it beautifully in The Guardian. Inevitably, it also courted controversy.
Whether or not that is the reason, the sisterhood certainly feels like a pretty vicious place to be at times. Is there any hope of us being friends?
Women face enough pressure from the outside world as it is, without getting into the complexities of gender politics. Surely we should watch each other’s backs a little more.