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Oscar winners and losers

We all know it’s the winning that counts not the taking part, so I can understand the disappointment that some actors must be feeling right now. Worthy winners don’t usually win, but this year I think there must be few people who could argue that any bad decisions have been made – apart from the nominees who didn’t win. My commiserations go to Leonardo di Caprio who was amazing in The Wolf of Wall Street… one day Leo.

In fact Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres presented Bradley Cooper, who lost out to Jay Leto for Best Supporting Actor, with a handful of lottery scratch cards as consolation prize. It probably helped at the time.

The show enjoyed an early lift thanks to Pharrell Williams who performed his fabulously happy hit Happy. It brought the audience to its feet and got the party started. He looked great on stage and down among the audience too; he was in his element – I wasn’t so sure about his red carpet attire though, but I don’t think a designer dinner jacket teamed with designer shorts will ever be a winning combination, or I’m just plain boring? Yep, I’m just plain boring and it’s people like Pharrell who make life far less boring.

For me the real winner was the British film industry with Gravity, 12 Years a Slave (and thanks Brad Pitt for making it possible for Steve McQueen to get started in the first place) and the Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life showed the world what we do best. (Can we claim Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscar too? She’s Australian, so kind of British.)

 

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The culture of a company: it can make or break you

The news of Rod McKenzie’s departure from the BBC isn’t so much a surprise as a shock. The shock is that action was finally taken. That so many people felt under such threat for so long, complained and absolutely nothing was done about it, speaks volumes about the culture still well-entrenched at this bastion of British broadcasting. You would think, on top of all the allegations made about former BBC personalities, ranging from indecent assault to sexual assault, and that’s without even mentioning JS’s name, the BBC would be the safest of safe havens; somewhere where you can do your work free from intimidation. But it’s not; not yet.

Then there’s the case of Lord Rennard and the complaints that went unheeded until other reputations might be impugned. (Too late there I fear.)  And what about all the hospitals where staff were too frightened to complain in case they lost their jobs, or had to falsify data or risk further bullying? And let’s not get started on care homes… All of it’s a disgrace; at the very least lives have been made a misery, at worst lives have been lost. And for what? To look good? To have an easier life? To enjoy other people’s torment. This culture thing is pretty powerful stuff.

The culture of a company is like a stick of Blackpool rock, it runs all the way through it; unlike the rock, culture can be diluted and mean different things to different people at different times unless it is constantly reinforced by good examples. And those good examples have to be set by the people at the top. There are lots of excellent companies where their culture is so engrained you just feel it. You know it’s right. And it’s contagious.

It might pay broadcasting grandees, politicians and directors to take a good hard look at John Lewis, a company where its respect for its staff and therefore its customers, is beyond doubt. If we were to judge all these people who have been in the news recently, we’d have to eventually reach the conclusion that their behaviour, by being ignored, was condoned by their bosses. And, in doing that, these grand fromages demonstrated their total self-interest and their complete lack of respect for all of us. Culture is a top-down thing and when it goes wrong that’s down to those at the top.

Decades ago the BBC produced one of its most brilliant serialisations, I Claudius, about the eponymous Roman emperor. We all liked Claudius because, among all the duplicity and depravity, he was the one with a conscience. The only one in that powder keg of power. And he was bright too. When he said: “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out…” he could almost have been commenting on today.

(And I haven’t even mentioned the banks!)

 

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Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open

As we’re entering the season of good will everyone is swiftly becoming overtaken by Christmas ads, Christmas card lists, presents lists, shopping lists, and just more lists really.  And, if you’ve got children, the race to reach the bottom of those lists becomes that little bit more frenzied. The next three weeks will be full on and, somewhere in between all this preparation will be work. Work for many of us now takes a back seat to planning for the 24th, 25th and 26th, yet I’ve always found this time to be the most rewarding in terms of getting some real thinking done.  Yes, all the budgets and planning for the next year would have been completed a few months or weeks earlier, but there’s nothing like taking some time out, when everyone else is at party pitch, and concentrating on what you’re really doing with your business and with your client’s. This may sound rather boring, but here’s a short story to get you thinking…

Decades ago, as a very junior account executive at Ogilvy & Mather, I was working with the team who created the Naughty but Nice campaign.  All the research pointed to going along a completely different creative route, but the team was convinced taking a more revolutionary approach would get more attention, make a bigger impact and, ultimately, sell more milk for the Milk Marketing Board. The campaign did just that.  It wasn’t dumb luck, it was the combination of intelligence, forward thinking and an innate understanding that the British consumer is anarchic and wants to be entertained not bombarded with ‘bland’.  The client was prepared to take the risk too. The rest is history, and yet it’s not.  These days, irrespective of whether you’re running a campaign on the Internet, on billboards or tattooed on the forehead of Sean Bean, it’s all about originality.  You can’t just look like a breath of fresh air, you need to actually be one. And it doesn’t just happen… someone, somewhere has thought long and hard about the best way to upset the apple cart and they need compliance.  In our case, at O&M we had a wonderful client who was brave enough and open-minded enough to give a totally outlandish campaign the ‘go-ahead’.  The agency won many awards, but if it wasn’t for our client…

Years ago I experienced the converse.  I went to work for a small company where the response to an issue, any issue, was always a new advertisement or a new piece of literature.  This was not an example of strategic thinking, it was not an example any thinking really, but a new ad meant a media budget and new literature meant a print budget, so more money not to mention mark up for the company. Thankfully most of us operate in a more transparent (or honest) fashion these day, bankers aside naturally, and we know that by being creative with both the budgets and our thinking is the only true way of demonstrating our skill and our commitment to our clients.  Of course you’ve got to get results too; the best strategy in the world is no substitute for poor sales. When you’re super busy or distracted by other issues you can sometimes forget exactly why you were appointed by your client in the first place and now’s really great time to take stock.  Don’t waste this time, use it and start January in great anarchic form.

 

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If you want to save money this winter, fill your freezer with cardboard

It’s Energy Saving Week soon (21-25 October), and that’s roughly when I start wishing I’d taken care of all those draughty problems in my behemoth of a home during those long hot summer months. I really can do little to warm it up as it’s a listed building, which doesn’t mean it can’t be warm inside, it’s just that the walls are solid and  the heat goes straight out through them, and I haven’t got secondary glazing.  And, as it always costs me a fortune to stay only marginally warmer than cool, I’m back to state-of-the-art zonal heating; in other words I turn off all the heating and carry an electric fire from room to room.  I don’t think I’m alone in this practice either.

If I can’t feel warmer than chilly, I’d at least like to cut down on my energy bills as I’m clearly not getting the full benefit of all those thermal units my boiler’s generating.  And Blueflame, Colchester-based heating and renewable energy specialists, have come up with some novel ideas to help me do just that.

So if fist-bitingly high energy bills are the norm for you, and they are now for most of us, here are Blueflame’s top ten tips on keeping warm and saving money. You don’t need any DIY skills, just minimal effort and a willingness to make some small adjustments that could become a way of life.  It won’t cost you a penny but it could save you pounds   every single month.

See what you think, or give it a go:

 1. Take a six-and-a-half minute shower

Showers are the biggest consumer of water in the home, accounting for 25% of all usage. They are supposed to be more energy efficient than baths but as we’re all spending, on average, seven-and-a-half minutes in the shower, it’s only just.  We’re using around 62L of water versus 80L for a bath and a power shower uses even more.  If we all cut one minute off the time we spend taking a shower, British households would save a total of £215 million on energy bills each year.

2. Don’t overfill the kettle

On the subject of water, did you know that as a nation we waste £68 million a year in heating water we don’t need?  Only heat what you’re going to use and you could save around £8 a year from just using your kettle properly.  You can increase your savings to £40 a year by only using full loads in your dishwasher and washing machine, setting the washing machine to 30°C and avoiding the tumble dryer until it’s absolutely necessary.

3. Keep a lid on it

When cooking on the hob always keep the lid on the saucepan, use just the right amount of water on vegetables and cut up food into smaller pieces.  This way you’ll reach the cooking temperature faster and the cooking time needed will also be reduced. The size of saucepan’s important too; use a small pan on a large burner and you’ll be wasting energy heating the air instead of the food.  Heating a six-inch saucepan on an eight-inch burner wastes 40% of the energy used.

4. Keep the airing cupboard door open

If you have an airing cupboard, then instead of keeping the door shut, it should be left open or ajar.  There’s plenty of heat that the airing cupboard can supply to keep hallways warmer.  You can even put your airer in front of the doorway to dry your clothes and avoid using the tumble dryer.

5. Keep doors shut on rooms you don’t use

If you don’t use all your rooms all the time, if the kids are at Uni or you tend to stay in one room for example, don’t waste money heating them.  Turn the radiator valves right down to a frost setting and keep the doors shut.  That way you’re not wasting energy unnecessarily and keeping the heat where it’s needed.

6. Turn them off – at the plug

All electrical appliances, with the exception of satellite and digital TV recorders, should be turned off at the plug when they’re not in use.  Households spend on average over £50 a year on appliances left in standby mode or not in use.  Phone and laptop chargers are the worst; if not switched off at the plug they will use the same amount of energy as if they were actually charging.

7. Draw the curtains

Even if your home has double glazing, drawing the curtains will provide a greater degree of insulation by preventing warm air from leaving the room and cold air entering.  You’ll undo all the good work if the curtains cover the radiator because you’ll be blocking the heat from the room. If you have an older, draughtier house, complete with original sash windows, curtains are essential.

8. Control the heat you need

Everyone knows they should turn the thermostat down by one or two degrees to save money, but it could save around £65 a year on your energy bill.  You could increase those savings by paying more attention to the timer. The heating should come on before you get out of bed, but make sure it goes off an hour before you go to bed otherwise you’re wasting a lot of unnecessary energy heating your home while you’re sleeping. To save more money, you could trim the times so the heating comes on a little later and goes off a littler earlier.

9.  Keep your freezer full

The refrigerator and freezer are the most expensive kitchen appliances to run as they’re on 24/7.  If they’re not full, then the compressor has to work even harder to keep the food – and all that air – at the required temperature and that will add to your energy bill. If you can’t fill your fridge or freezer with food, or you’re going on holiday and have run stocks down, then fill it with empty cardboard boxes which are closed/taped up;  the fridge and/freezer will use less energy and you’ll see the difference in your bill.

10.  Wrap up 

It sounds old-fashioned, but just getting into the habit of wearing another layer of clothing when it gets colder will make you feel more comfortable and less likely to turn the thermostat up.

All energy saving statistics have been supplied by the Energy Saving Trust and can be viewed on its website: www.energysavingtrust.org.uk.  If you want to talk to Blueflame about energy saving and renewable energy systems, you can call the team on 01206 799994 or visit: www.blueflame.co.uk

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Why the UK should take tips from the German car industry

The UK car industry was once one of Germany’s biggest competitors; now it has become one of its biggest assets, says author Dominic Sandbrook. How did Germany accelerate away?

Forty years ago, Germany’s biggest carmakers were putting the finishing touches to a product that would change their image forever.

The Volkswagen Golf is one of the bestselling cars of all time. It made its debut in 1974, the year West Germany won the World Cup at home in Munich and the German band Kraftwerk released their ground-breaking album Autobahn. Ever since, the Golf has been shorthand for mass-market success. Last year VW sold more than 430,000 Golfs all over Europe – a staggering 125,000 ahead of its closest rival. This year they brought out a brand-new, seventh incarnation. And even if you don’t own one yourself, there’s undoubtedly one in a drive near you.

It is, of course, a very familiar story. German manufacturing is one of the great success stories of the post-war age. Little wonder, then, that 21st-Century Germany probably commands more raw economic and political clout than any time in its peacetime history. If you want to know why Angela Merkel calls the shots in Europe, Germany’s car factories are a pretty good place to start.

By contrast, Britain’s car industry is a shadow of its former self. We do still make almost one and a half million cars a year, which is good news for thousands of British engineers. But these days, we make them for other people. The iconic Mini plant at Cowley, for example, is celebrating its centenary this year. It was founded in 1913 by the entrepreneur William Morris as the home for his legendary Morris Oxford.

Today it still makes thousands of cars – but it makes them for BMW.

It’s a similar story at Crewe, the home of another great British icon, Bentley – which actually belongs to Volkswagen. Half a century ago, let alone when Morris was at his peak, this would have seemed unimaginable. But the sad truth is that Britain’s car firms only have themselves to blame.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World War II, Germany was on its knees. After the fall of Hitler’s empire, its car industry lay in ruins. In August 1945 the British Army sent a major called Ivan Hirst to take control of the giant Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, which had been built under the Nazis to produce ‘people’s cars’ for the German masses. Ignoring his sceptical superiors, Hirst could see the potential amid the shattered debris of the Wolfsburg factory.

Rebuilding Volkswagen, he thought, would be a step towards rehabilitating Germany as a prosperous, peaceful European ally. And of course he was right.

In the next few years, Hirst restarted production of a car we know today as the Beetle. And from then on, VW was flying. By the late 1950s, with production up and employment buoyant, West Germany was enjoying an economic miracle. The memories of Nazism were banished, and the Germans began to rebrand themselves as a forward-thinking, hard-working and supremely modern industrial nation.

In the meantime, Britain was coasting in the glow of the affluent society. For decades we had been one of the world’s great car-making nations. And yet, slowly but surely, the wheels were beginning to come off. The men who ran our car firms – men like William Morris, who became chairman of the newly merged British Motor Corporation (BMC) at the age of 74 – were elderly and autocratic. Instead of embracing new technology and tapping the expanding European markets, they shrank from Continental competition and preferred to sell cheap cars to Britain’s former colonies.

Even the most celebrated British car of all – the Mini, launched in 1959 – was a reflection of our industrial and imperial decline. With fuel prices rocketing after Britain’s disastrous bid to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt in 1956, BMC’s designers had been told to produce a car that was smaller and required less petrol. And although the Mini was an enormous hit, there was a sting in the tail. BMC actually lost £30 for every car it sold.

Far from being a symbol of Sixties cool, therefore, the Mini was really a symbol of something rotten at the heart of Britain’s economy. It was a brilliantly designed metaphor for an industry crippled by complacent leadership, dreadful salesmanship and a fatal culture of self-satisfaction.

All the time, Germany’s car industry went from strength to strength. Crucially, it enjoyed excellent labour relations – a stark contrast with the pitched battles in many of Britain’s troubled car plants.

In Germany, management and unions worked closely together in the interests of the common good. Indeed, by law all major German firms are required to set up Works Councils, where the bosses and the unions must work together ‘in a spirit of mutual trust’.

In Britain, by contrast, car factories in the 1960s and 1970s became daily battlegrounds, where militant shop stewards and complacent managers fought out an overt class war.

One fact probably says it all about the difference between Britain and Germany in the post-war years. In 1978, for every day that German manufacturers lost to industrial action, we lost ten.

By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power a year later, the game was probably up for Britain’s car industry. Drivers were already switching to foreign motors – not least German models such as Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and, above all, BMW, which mastered the art of high-end branding.

In 1994 BMW bought the last remnant of British mass car production, the Rover Group. A year later, in the film Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond was even equipped with a BMW Z3, supposedly fitted with Stinger missiles. By now, cars had become the ultimate metaphor for Germany’s extraordinary industrial revival – and for the collapse of much of Britain’s manufacturing industry.

Today the results are all around us. Thanks in large part to the success of its manufacturers, Angela Merkel’s Germany is the biggest economy in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world, as well as the world’s second largest exporter.

It is little wonder, then, that while Britain ran a whopping £120bn budget deficit in 2012-13, the Germans managed to run a small surplus – as they have done so often in recent years. And it is little wonder, either, that amid the terrible turmoil in the capitals of the eurozone, the Germans have ended up calling the shots.

From Britain’s perspective, the tragedy is that we always had the skills. But we lacked the right management, the right unions, the right priorities, and, quite frankly, the right work ethic. And in the end, we paid a heavy price.

There is, of course, a bright side. We do still make more than a million cars a year, providing jobs for thousands of British workers. Even during the eurozone crisis, British car production has continued to grow, while German production actually fell last year.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the Germans still make more than four times as many cars as we do. And what happens to the profits from all those Minis and Bentleys of which we’re so proud? They end up in Wolfsburg and Munich.

Once our car industry was one of the Germans’ chief competitors. Now, it has becomes one of their biggest assets.

Half a century ago, they were on their knees. Yet through grit and dedication, they worked their way back. And now, from their car showrooms to their national finances, the Germans are the envy of the world. To be honest, I rather admire them for it.

Dominic Sandbrook is the author of several history books about Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, including White Heat, State Of Emergency and most recently, Seasons In The Sun.

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Thumbs up to Prince Charles, Highgrove and Primary Care UK, Clacton-on-Sea

It’s official, the UK population is now up to 63.7 million, due to the largest recorded births last year (since 1972), reported the Office for National Statistics yesterday. While this is not going to have an impact on employment levels for the next two decades, domiciliary care company Primary Care says it’s just another timely reminder that employers should start rehabilitating their attitudes to older employees by actively seeking to employ them.  Prince Charles is in agreement too, and has been banging on that particular drum since 1999 – yes for THAT long – through the Prince’s Initiative for Mature Enterprise (PRIME).

Since it was established, PRIME has supported over 25,000 people aged over 50 in the UK to get back into the labour market, by starting their own businesses. The charity supports over 50s through the delivery of training, mentoring, advice, development support and networking opportunities.

Although unemployment figures in Essex have improved slightly, paid employment for people in the 50-64 age group remains a concern.  46% of them have been out of work for a year or more and are concerned about their reduced prospects of ever finding a job.  They face a future plagued by worries and uncertainty, with many potentially finding themselves unable to keep up their mortgage payments or rent.

Commenting on these latest statistics, Natalie Emmerson, director, Primary Care, said:  “As employers we all have to respect and value ‘tomorrow’s pensioners’ today.  They have a lifetime of experience and skills that can be used in the workplace and they often have an innate understanding of how to handle situations with a level of diplomacy that would be hard to teach.  And they’re great team players too.”

Primary Care practises what it preaches. Of its 135 employees, 46% are over 50 years old and 16% over 60.  This mix of older and younger people has created an energetic and productive environment where everyone is keen to learn from each other.  Old school etiquette and new technology may appear to be odd bedfellows but what started as a happy accident is now an integral part of Primary Care’s recruitment strategy.  “Our customers like having people they can chat to about all kinds of subjects, and our older support workers are able to connect straight away with the older people we support and that’s important to us. The sooner we all start challenging the stereotypes and use the talent that’s in such plentiful supply, the better it will be for all businesses and the communities they serve,” added Emmerson.

We need more forward looking employers like Primary Care. We know you’re out there.

 

 

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Don’t judge me till you’ve read to the end!

For 16 years I’d been strong; resisted the veiled threats, rejected the insubstantial bribes and brushed off the personal attacks on my mothering skills.  Then I caved, surrendered, waved the white flag, rolled over and did the one thing I swore I never would; I bought a dog. 

In the past I’d said ‘yes’ to the mini beasts, hamsters, gold fish and rabbits; they’re not too much trouble or expensive to run, but a dog is different.  Like a million pound lottery win or a ride on the Tower of Terror, a dog is life changing.  Why did I do it?  Simple really.  My three children, Merlyn, Jenny and Richard, had lost their dad two years earlier, bang slap in the middle of my chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, so they’d had more than enough sadness in their young lives.  They deserved large dollops of happiness and I’d done my best to provide that, except for the dog bit.  Eventually the “canIhaveadogcanIhaveadogcanIhaveadog” mantra wore me down.

They were over the moon at my decision and spent the next week thinking up names for their new pet.  Purely by chance, as I was searching Yellow Pages for “low-odour, non-moulting, lethargic dogs”, a friend called to say she knew where there were some puppies for sale.  We got in the car, the children delirious with excitement, me with a dull sense of foreboding.  Within seconds of arriving, half a dozen tiny, heart-meltingly cute, furry creatures were slipping, sliding and tumbling towards us.  Before I could even utter “Cruella you bitch!” we were all goners.

We picked out the one with the most beautiful face, but he was already taken, as were the others, so we got Codie.  Codie wasn’t any old dog; he was a Springer Spaniel puppy.  If you don’t know the breed, and I was clearly clueless, they’re the ones whose sixth sense will send them hurtling into the only putrid, bog-filled hole in a field the size of a small county; who like running for hours on end and still want to play ‘tug’; who love gnawing on expensive shoes and swallowing underwear whole, and who can’t see the difference between pets and prey (as our rabbit Nugget would tell you, if she’d survived her injuries, but more of that later).

I’d been given some excellent advice from a dog trainer, who instilled in me that a dog is a dog, not a human, so on no accounts were we to ‘baby’ the puppy and give him bad habits.  Consequently our new addition was gently placed in the back of my estate car with a soft toy for company and we set off.  Within a few seconds the puppy’s crying was unbearable, and the children were begging me to stop so they could comfort him as he was clearly terrified.  Instinctively I was with them on this, but carried on driving; after five minutes I couldn’t take it any longer either, so I pulled over.  To my surprise the wailing wasn’t just coming from Codie, but from Richard too, red-faced, tear-streaked, puffy-eyed and glaring at me as though I had 666 printed on my head.  The rest of the journey was a happy mix of coos and cuddles as Codie was ‘babied’ all the way home.

Now we had a proper pet, I laid down some ground rules.  First there was a rota for walking and grooming.  Initially walking Codie was a pleasure but as he grew in ferocious strength and speed, which coincided with dark winter mornings and school, it was down to me to shout ‘vivisection’ to get them out of bed and do their duty.  As for grooming, Codie was bathed in our bath at least once a week for the first couple of months and brushed until he shone.  It wasn’t long before this joined the growing pile of good intentions and the dog hairs found their way into everything.  And I mean everything.

Second, Codie would sleep in a crate, which is like a playpen with a lid, or prison, as my kids called it, and ‘live’ behind a baby gate separating the kitchen and utility room from the rest of the house.  The crate was a really good idea, because he seemed to feel safe there, especially when we had company.  The kitchen was even better; this was his fiefdom, where he had the droit de seigneur over all fixture and fittings.  One morning I came down to find a wasteland rather than a kitchen; my pristine skirting boards and architraves had been gnawed beyond recognition, the paintwork and wallpaper scraped off to dog-on-hind-legs level and underwear and pegs were missing from the utility room.  He truly did have a hangdog expression and couldn’t meet my eye.  I took some pride in the fact he was ashamed of his actions, but he wasn’t ashamed, he didn’t want me to find what was left of my sister’s Birkenstocks hidden under his front paws.

Naturally, the third ground rule was about training.  We needed to reinforce our position as top dog and Codie’s as our obedient and loyal retainer.  We also wanted to prevent Codie laying waste to any more rooms.  A local dog trainer showed us the ropes and soon we felt ready to take Codie to a field and let him off the lead for the first time.  Like a shot from a bolt, he took flight and, in a matter of seconds, was a speck in the distance.  After five minutes we were worried, after ten we thought he’d been shot by a farmer, after half an hour we decided to go home and wait for bad news.  And there he was, waiting for us on the doorstep; he couldn’t find us, so did the next best thing.  Just like my kids, my dog was a genius too.  We half-heartedly persevered with the field training but it made little difference.  Even shaking a handful of freshly grilled sausages at him to persuade him to come to heel was useless; he’d give us a “yeah right” look and take off in the opposite direction.

I’d come to the conclusion that as a family we were rubbish when it came to training, but we were going to have to live with that.  What was more difficult to stomach was Codie’s penchant for killing things, then proudly coming in to show us.  The first time it happened, there was a slow realisation that the big green smile he was wearing was actually the back legs of a frog.  Then all hell let loose as we screamed and fled.  Well I would have fled, but my kids were faster and slammed the door after themselves, leaving me, the dog and the frog in a strange Mexican standoff.  If I shouted at Codie he might bite down and deposit half a frog on the carpet; if I did nothing he might run at me to let me have first dibs.  I tried to think what Clint would do in this situation, but I didn’t have a gun, so I ran too.

Worse was to come, especially for Jenny’s much-loved rabbit, Nugget.  We knew when Codie was just a few weeks old that rabbit and puppy would be a disastrous combination, so we always kept them apart.  It was a golden rule.  One Saturday after having press-ganged my children and my son’s friend into helping me in the garden, we were all relaxing, glad it was over; Nugget was resting in the shade of the apple tree while her hutch was being cleaned and I popped inside for something and broke the rule.  I accidentally left the back door open.  Codie barged past me like the Terminator on speed; the boys seeing the danger tried to block his way, as my daughters ran to protect the rabbit but it was useless, he was locked on, literally.  With Nugget in his mouth he started to run back towards the house and we all jumped on him.  I managed to grab hold of his collar and was dragged for fifty yards across the garden, he was that strong, but at least he dropped Nugget.  Sadly her injuries were serious and, although the vet sounded hopeful, there was no “hasta la vista Nugget”; she came home in a box.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest impact of a dog in our family was on my personal freedom.  Working full time has always made my weekends very precious and my life “Before Codie” was very different to the one “After Codie”.  I would get the papers, have a cup of tea, and enjoy at least one uninterrupted hour of me-time.  “After Codie” I’d creep downstairs hoping I wouldn’t wake him, so I could eat breakfast in peace.  But as he has the hearing of an acoustically-enhanced bat, he’d jump up, scurrying this way and that and generally get all hot and bothered pestering for his walk.  Didn’t he know I wasn’t on the rota?  So I’d end up walking him anyway.  At breakfast he’d stare at me sending me “I’m still hungry” messages.  I’d give him a piece of toast or cheese but, like a blackmailer, he’d be back, never satisfied, always wanting that bit more.  I ended up eating breakfast in a corner of the lounge where he couldn’t see me, depressed by the very obvious conclusion that I clearly wasn’t the one controlling this household.

After four years of failing to train him to come to a “here boy”; of going ballistic every time I found a dog hair in the butter; of running for the hills when he brought in his ‘kill’ and gagging every time at the smell of wet dog, I’d had enough.  Dogs are supposed to be great stress-busters but that wasn’t my experience and I explained to my kids that having a dog, even one as loveable as Codie, was making my life miserable.  They were sad but understood and agreed we should try to re-home him.  And we did.  But he was back within a fortnight to my children’s “this is a sign from God” delight and my “what did I do in a former life?” disbelief.

So, I am resigned; resigned to never reclaiming my creThe Morrison family - Richard, Merlyn, Jenny and Codie and me at the back.am-carpeted, sweet-smelling, tie-free life.  My kids on the other hand love him; he’s their best friend, their minder, their comfort blanket but, at 20, 16 and 14-years of age, it won’t be long before they leave home, and then there will just be Codie and me.  I wish for all the world I could become a dog-lover too, but unless I kiss him and he turns into Mads Mikkelsen, it’s not going to happen.

As I write this my kids are asleep, so the house is silent except for the muffled woofs Codie makes as he dreams.  The rule about staying in the kitchen was breached long ago, and he’s now slumped by my feet.  Occasionally he looks up adoringly at me and I get real glimpse of what my future will be, all because I gave in.  Then Codie lets one rip, and I light my scented candles to mask the pervasive aroma.

 

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If you really want to help your kids with their homework, you need to do yours first

Every parent, irrespective of their age, will have lent a hand with their children’s homework.  None of us saw this as meddling did we?  We wanted to be involved, help their understanding and, possibly, make sure they were at least as good as the best or better.  When my daughter was 11 she had to build a scale model of the Globe theatre; yes, it was an interesting project but a little daunting, given that she had zero modelling skills.  In the end that didn’t matter because, even though my modelling skills were zero too, I had focus, I was in the zone and I was going to prevail, no matter how many hours I had to devote to thatching a circular construction with a hole in the middle.  She didn’t win top prize, she didn’t win any accolade at all, and I was as disappointed as she was; this was a plague on both our houses after all.  When I was next at her school the winning Globe was in pride of place in the reception area.  I took one look and knew instantly that that kid had architects for parents.

Wanting our children to succeed in life starts early.  Throughout nursery and primary school we set good examples; we read to them, we keep them safe, we sort out issues and we simplify the complex.  We always looked amazing in their eyes because there was virtually nothing that we couldn’t explain coherently, apart from how babies were made.  There may have been a couple of wobbles in years five and six when age and experience were no match for “it’s not done that way at school” or “don’t you understand the question mum?”  but, in the main, we were heroes, giants among men, primus inter pares, winners.  For me this all changed rather quickly when my three got to secondary school.  I found myself spending inordinate amounts of time on BBC Bitesize relearning what I once knew to help them with their homework.  I also wanted to remain their hero, but I didn’t feel bright enough and my contributions weren’t hitting the mark consistently.  It wasn’t too long before my children stopped asking for my help altogether.

Over the years I’d be asked my advice now and then, but when I didn’t have the foggiest about the October Revolution or Milgram’s study or the difference between diastolic and systolic blood pressure, it was back to the chorus.  Then I found my role, I could edit the homework.  I write for a living so I knew that I could make a worthwhile contribution.  And I did.  My son especially appreciated my input and I was delighted to be actively involved in his academic education once more.  This joy ended rather abruptly when my son realised that every time I’d helped him he got lower than expected marks.  His essay on the miners’ strike was a tour de force, but his history teacher wasn’t of the same opinion.  This mini masterpiece, coloured and enhanced by the addition of Eddie Shah and flying pickets, should have attracted an ‘A’ I thought, but it ended up a ‘C’.  Why?  Because my input, chock full of my own knowledge, or ‘OK’ as I later learned it’s called, turned a sharp, relevant, fact-filled essay into a flaccid story, short on substance, but brilliantly descriptive.  My only defence is that I didn’t know the rules, aka ‘AOs’ or Assessment Objectives.

As you’d expect there are marking criteria for all subjects, and sometimes the students know about them and sometimes they don’t, but for me it was a revelation.   After ploughing through all the different AOs for my son’s subjects – and they change according to the subject and the unit – I realised that exam boards don’t want works of art, they’re after incisive thought, depth of knowledge and proof that you can apply that knowledge to specific situations.  You need to be able to cross reference, use source material and embellish with quotes where relevant.  This is brilliant of course, but it does mean that if you know how to trigger the higher marks, a less able student can fare better than a more able one who isn’t as savvy.  Is there any harm in that?  Probably, but being savvy might get you further these days.

The net result of my intrusion into the world of education was increased admiration for secondary school teachers.  I know they have a tough job just doing the day-to-day, but after trying to get to grips with one tiny, but vitally important part of their work, I realised for the first time how enormous their remit is.  Every year they have to be completely at home with new information to guide their students successfully through the course to reach the exams ‘fit for purpose’.   After reading, OK (that means okay) scanning, documents from OCR and Edexcel, all I wanted to do was take another shot at the Globe.

To my kids’ teachers, and to every teacher helping their students be the best they can, all I want to say (without being overly descriptive and using insightful and penetrating vernacular only) is “respect”.

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Maggie Thatcher always thinking outside the box

Whether we like the title or not, many of us are Thatcher’s children because she was in power when we started to work.  Everything she put in place had an effect on all of us, in a way that no politician since has done.  What I find hard to understand is the rejoicing of the few at her death.  ‘Distasteful’ is far too polite a description.  She wasn’t a tyrannical despot, philanderer or a philistine.  She didn’t plunge us into unnecessary and costly (lives not money) wars.  She wasn’t a slippery crowd pleaser either.  She was a scientist and a mum who became a politician; she led from the front and was the driving force behind how this country works and how we are viewed on the world stage.  In case anyone’s in any doubt, much of this is for the better.

Even now there are a lot of people who don’t like change; Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of those either.  She wasn’t interested in supporting the old ways if they were past their sell-by date; she was interested in exploring the new, even if it took her down a path that was unpopular.  You could never accuse her of courting popularity, but she was because we kept voting for her and she was the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century.

Her confrontation with the unions is something that always sticks out in my memory.  No, not because it was long overdue, and that no one had ever had the mental strength to grasp this political nettle in previous governments; it was because of desktop publishing.

Desktop publishing must sound so old today, but in the 1980s it was new technology that would revolutionise the speed in which newspapers and magazines could be produced.  This was the future and opened the doors for Wapping and the digital age of publishing a few years later.  Where technology steps in, less people are needed.  So, while “everybody out” was still ringing in our ears, thousands of pickets were surrounding the offices of Eddie Shah, who was launching a new national newspaper using this technology.  The pickets were there for months, it was violent and it was ugly, but the newspaper, Today, was published.  I know it’s difficult to imagine, but replace Eddie Shah and Today with Sergey Brin and Google.  Unthinkable isn’t it?

It’s hard to know what the history books will write about this time, but it’s more likely to be that Margaret Thatcher stood for progress and competitiveness while the unions wanted to prevent both to protect its members.  You can’t stop the future from happening  so you have to look forward and work collaboratively, but this was impossible for the unions to do then; they were locked in a time warp that thankfully doesn’t exist now, but it was a painful journey getting there.  But we did get there.

Better to think outside of the box and embrace the new than to keep your mind and spirit locked inside it.  That was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and we should be rejoicing that we have it.

 

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Shades of grey

“Actually mum we prefer your hair the way it used to be.”  No, this wasn’t in response to a perm gone wrong or a ropey cut; this was about me having grey hair.

I’ve been working in  PR for decades, so I know how important image is and I also understand and empathise with the pressures some women feel to look younger to hang on to their jobs, their men even.   Apart from staying trim, dressing well and having a great cut, most women have been disguising their hair colour for decades.  And I was one of them.  In fact for many of those years, I didn’t know what my true hair colour was, but I knew that one day I’d have to face being grey and was dreading it.  Well, getting breast cancer and having chemotherapy meant my decision to embrace the grey was sort of forced on me.  I lost my hair and, when it started to grow again, steel grey in places, white in others, I decided NOT to reach for the hair dye.  As much as I wanted to go back to the security of Medium Golden Brown (with-caramel-highlights), I thought I should take advantage of my situation and turn a potentially ageing hairstyle into a short, funky look.

As I was getting used to the close crop and the new colour, which I thought looked good on me (despite the double-takes and instinctive kerb falling reactions from friends and acquaintances), my teenage kids admitted that they preferred my hair colour the way it used to be, and perhaps I’d think about growing the hair a little longer too.  Were they concerned that their friends might think I looked like a granny?  Yes.  Did they think I looked a lot older?  Yes to that too.   Then my sister took me to one side and said that someone at the school fete thought I was her mother and my children’s grandmother.  All this could have made me fall off the wagon completely, but I held my nerve until I could get a more objective view.  I confided in a friend who, sadly, agreed with the kids.  Being grey was just plain ageing.  To top it all I saw a picture of Jane Fonda at 72 looking fabulous, with the style and hair colour I used to have.  To say I was depressed would be an understatement.

My confidence knocked, I started studying grey-haired women in their 70s and 80s and wondered if that’s how I looked; I even stopped doing SuDoku in public as if that might mark me out as being older than my years.  Then I felt angry that the colour of my hair should become such an issue.  I’ve always been used to people enjoying my company and taking my advice because of what was going on inside my head, not on it.  Clearly grey was more than just a colour, it was a sort of litmus paper that indicated I was, in some way, ‘past it’.

Now I wear my greyness like a badge of pride.  I hope, despite the views of my nearest and dearest, that I’m making it a little easier for other women to follow my lead.  Until they do though, I shall enjoy making an entrance and cutting a dash wherever I go, because, believe it or not, my greyness is making a statement and I’m enjoying it.

 

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