Am I missing out?

Do you subscribe to a newspaper online?  I only ask because I am teetering on the edge of buying a subscription to The Times. Without it, I feel I am missing out on so much. What, for example, could Giles Coren possibly have said in his column that made Alice Vincent of the Huffington Post (@alice_emily) write such a critical tweet? And why did Giles Coren (@gilescoren) respond so acidly? I will never know.

You can, of course, spend your life looking over your shoulder, thinking that you’re missing out on interesting conversations. I did feel slightly excluded when I was chair of the PTA of St Jude’s. Whole groups of parents would stop talking whenever I walked into the playground.

(In this year of the Jubilee, I think many people will find themselves similarly tongue-tied when they come face to face with the Queen).

Luckily these days I feel very much a part of the social whirl in Fitton. If I’m not brass-rubbing for the Fitton Preservation Society or reading Hilary Mantel for the Fitton Book Club, I’m drumming up support for Bums ’n Tums, spearing litter in St Jude’s churchyard, or arranging longiflorum lilies for the pulpit.

To put Fitton even more firmly on the map, I am thinking of setting up a Lively Minds Society, so that we can invite well-known personalities to lecture on subjects dear to their hearts.

We could ask the lovely Kirstie Allsopp, for example, to talk about crafts. Or would Giles Coren (see above) consider leading us through the intricacies of, say, fish?

We could invite political personalities  –  John Prescott, perhaps, or the rather interesting woman who runs the Green party.  (George Osborne might have a hard time coming to Fitton and trying to defend austerity. Sally in the charity shop next to Tesco Metro tells me that people keep trying to beat her down because they can’t even afford 50p for a pair of socks.)

I do admire that lovely Lord Leveson. I wonder if he’d ever consider visiting Fitton?

South Yorkshire police cut costs

I hear on Radio 4 this morning that South Yorkshire police plan to cut costs by getting rid of bobbies on the beat. There will, instead, be Community Support Officers providing the public face of policing. (Those are the rather nervous ones in yellow jackets that you sometimes see near London parks. They always travel about in pairs, like gloves, or earrings.)

We hardly ever see any police officers in Fitton, so a switch to PCSOs probably wouldn’t make much difference.

But you do wonder about the general principle of providing approximations instead of the real thing. It’s a bit like eating a biscuit with all the fat and sugar taken out  –  a bright idea that ends up making everyone feel vaguely cheated.

I can’t help feeling that the Royal Mail will go the same way. One day we’ll be asked to pay £5.50 for a small envelope to travel to Birmingham some time next winter and we’ll think, is this a real postal service? Or just a surreal fantasy?

Neighbours at war

Considerable anxiety, I hear, about parking outside the church on Easter Sunday. (There are those who drive their 4x4s just a few hundred yards rather than walk.)  I know in the past that Mr Kibble at no. 41 has very kindly allowed members of the congregation to park on his drive. But owing to a falling-out with neighbours over his thwarted plans for a kitchen extension, he is feeling less kindly towards the village as a whole and says his front gate will be padlocked over the holiday period. Such a shame when people living side by side end up daggers drawn. Personally, I have never had a problem with my neighbours. Giles (the barrister) says he has never met anyone like me. Which suggests, perhaps, that an easygoing nature  is not nearly as common as we think.

The power of my website

Astonishing, really, the power of my website. Since I wrote the post ‘Hands Off Our Land’ yesterday, I read in the Telegraph today that the Government has watered down its planning proposals. I am humbled and surprised. I had no idea I had this much influence.

Hands Off Our Land

I keep a close eye on planning issues. Our historic village of Fitton is, after all, a gem. If you allow unsuitable development, you end up with something like Aylesbury. So the new national planning guidelines might be a disaster. The Telegraph newspaper has set up a campaign called ‘Hands Off Our Land’, and joins the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in calling for a re-think to the proposals.

For those of you interested in further clarification, the Fitton Preservation Society is hosting an emergency debate – ‘Concrete or Green Belt?’  – in the parish hall next Tuesday at 8pm. (Please DO NOT park outside the black wrought-iron gates of no. 37. Lizzie Yates is a reflexologist and may be called out, at any time of day and night, to treat emergencies.)

The problem, in my view, is that the new guidelines are in favour of ‘sustainable development’. But no one has quite defined what ‘sustainable development’ means. According to the Telegraph, minister Greg Clark has said that ‘sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations’.

I think that’s a bit like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party when the March Hare says to Alice, ‘You should say what you mean’, and she says, ‘I do. At least I mean what I say. That’s the same thing you know.’ Which we all know is a load of nonsense. Just because Greg Clark is being sincere and earnest doesn’t mean that he can redefine large swathes of the English language.

‘Sustainable’ means that something can be sustained. No more, no less. People need houses. A developer says, ‘I’ll build them!’ People buy the houses, the developer makes money, and the people carry on living in them. That, to me, would be the definition of ‘sustainable development’.

But whether or not that’s a good thing is quite a different matter.

The Prime Minister, according to the Telegraph, has said that sustainable development should balance economic, environmental and social needs. Maybe it should.

But unless you spell it out in the small print, that’s a bit like saying that political parties shouldn’t offer access or honours in return for large amounts of cash.  The default position is self-interest. People will always behave badly unless you specifically legislate against it.

I intend to present these views quite forcefully at next Tuesday’s meeting.



Cheap alcohol

I am very worried about the Coalition’s idea of introducing a minimum price for alcohol. Many Fitton residents are semi-alcoholic. The school PTA is awash with cheap wine and beer. Parents lurch from one drunken occasion to the next, barely pausing to sober up in between. On recycling day, pavements are littered with empty bottles. But these drinkers are already struggling with rising food bills, increased petrol prices and staggeringly high gas and electricity bills. They simply can’t afford to pay more.

Hypocrisy abounds. You have only to come across the Twitter ‘handle’ DrunkGeorgeOsborne (@OsborneDrunk) to realise the truth of what everyone’s saying.  There’s one rule for the millionaires and another rule for the rest of us.

Although, in the interests of accuracy, I should point out that I rarely drink myself. I don’t like losing control, and I don’t like hangovers.

I am slightly tired of having to explain that when I collapsed at Amanda’s party at the beginning of our PTA campaign, I was reacting to heat, not alcohol. It was very crowded, and I was wearing wool.

No amount of sniggering will make me change my story.

Headteachers axed

A new survey says that headteachers are being sacked like football managers if their schools don’t perform well. I don’t think Rachel Jensen should worry. The results at St Jude’s are consistently good. It may be nothing to do with the teaching, of course. Or the leadership of the school. The children in Fitton are very bright. And their parents are enthusiastic in their support of learning outcomes.

The case for gay marriage

‘So what do you think about gay marriage?’  I asked Mary, our vicar, this morning.

She smiled and said, ‘Why?’

(In my opinion, it’s not good manners to answer a question with a question.)

‘Where does the Church of England stand on the issue?’ I said.

Mary’s glasses are so sparklingly clean that you can see her expression very clearly.

She said, ‘So we’re talking theoretically?’

Mary is normally quite direct. So this made me wonder whether, in fact, there is a gay couple in Fitton asking to be married in church.

If so, would you like to put your case on this website? I often listen to the Moral Maze on Radio 4, and would so like a similarly intellectual standard of discussion in Fitton.

Civil partnership, after all  – though admirable in so many ways  – is not a religious ceremony, and I can quite understand why some would prefer to make their vows in St Jude’s.

Berta and I do not agree on this issue. Discussion became quite heated on Monday night, and we have resolved not to discuss it further.

Easter Craft Fair

I understand there was a surprise visitor at the lunchtime meeting of the Fitton Preservation Society today. Plans for the Easter Craft Fair are well under way, but no one expected Kirstie Allsopp, star of Kirstie’s Handmade Britain, to turn up in person! She was looking quite extraordinarily lovely in a green dress with black leather belt and had brought with her homemade Turkish Delight in a small wicker basket she had woven herself.

Kirstie has worked so hard to put British crafts back on the map, and we are all delighted that she has taken an interest in our village activities.  

Kirstie’s new book, which comes out in the autumn, is called Kirstie’s Vintage Crafts and is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20.

If anyone is interested in running a stall at the Craft Fair, please contact the chair of the Fitton Preservation Society, Jackie Hemming

The maiden speech

How lovely the Duchess of Cambridge looked when she made her maiden speech this afternoon at a children’s hospice in Ipswich. (Do take a look at the clip on YouTube.)

I do admire a woman who can tackle public speaking, especially when she knows the eyes of the world are on her £139 blue dress from Reiss rather than on anything she is actually saying.

Unfortunately, during our campaign for the St Jude’s PTA, I was never really able to demonstrate my range. The speeches were often made by Rachel Jensen, our headteacher, who has many and varied qualities but whose pronouncements were often as welcome as leftover vindaloo.

We all have our own special talents. I would suggest that Rachel’s lie in teaching and learning rather than standing on a podium.


Portrait of the artist as a young man

Robin’s drawing of me, him and David. I am not entirely sure why David’s legs are so enormously long. Or indeed why he is smiling. But you can’t expect a five-year-old to be accurate on all points.

Belated recognition

Mumsnet founder Jane Hopkins received an MBE  today. If you feel I deserve recognition for all the work I put in to make St Jude’s PTA such a resounding success (please read the first chapter of my book, How I Seized Power: A Handbook for Leaders Everywhere), contact Buckingham Palace immediately.

The secret of romance

An adult partnership must be practical as well as romantic. This was probably what Prince Harry meant when he hinted in an interview with CBS News that it wasn’t that easy finding a young woman happy to spend her life opening fetes and kissing him in public.  ‘I mean, look at me  – I’m 27 years old, and not so much searching for someone to fulfil the role, but obviously, you know, finding someone that would be willing to take it on.’

(Although he might possibly have expressed this in a more succinct manner. I do find all this ‘you-know’-ing strange for someone with an Eton education.)

It’s no use expecting everyday life to be strewn with rose petals. A harmonious domestic set-up is more of a business arrangement.  I remember congratulating Katherine Thomas and her enormously tall husband Olly on their successful mistletoe stall at the PTA Christmas Fayre, and she laughed and said, ‘Well, we’re a team, aren’t we?’ (I appreciated the sentiment. But can you really have a team consisting of just two people?  It seems a little sparse. I think a team ought to be numerous enough to entertain Cameron and Obama in a basketball male-bonding session.)

Modern marriage  – religious, gay or otherwise  –  cannot focus exclusively on romance. Unfortunately, many of my neighbours in Fitton haven’t caught up with this. I hear in the school playground that our local Relate counsellor is extremely busy. I won’t mention names, of course, but it does seem to me that buying and selling houses must be an extraordinarily stressful job.

Personally I believe there is much to be said for lowering your expectations. It’s only if you’re hell-bent on finding the perfect soul-mate that you end up horribly disappointed.

Why you always think of the witty response when it’s much too late

I have just walked home from an afternoon in the park with Robin and his friends playing ‘football’. It was a very sociable afternoon. The sun was shining. I felt, as I always do when spring finally gives the elbow to winter, quite a lift in my spirits. I might even have been smiling. But as we turned the corner from Smith’s Field, past Mary’s house, a young man caught my eye and said, ‘What’s wrong, love? Someone died?’ By the time we got home, I had thought of probably twenty witty responses. Unfortunately, at the time, I could only wonder at his lack of social grace. Which completely froze my vocal chords.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

There is nothing less attractive, I believe, than a furred kettle. You don’t want flakes of limescale floating in a cup of tea. And the sight of  a calcified element glaring back at you like a vengeful gargoyle is almost, to borrow a favourite word from Cardinal Keith O’Brien, grotesque. As with all household tasks, regular maintenance is key. The cleaning of Venetian blinds, for example, is often overlooked. I once attempted to peep through the slats in Amanda’s house and ended up choking on a fine shower of dust.

May I take this opportunity to remind local residents that additional cleaners at St Jude’s are always welcome. Volunteers tell me that the work is very rewarding (although the brass eagle on the pulpit can be rather fiddly). For further details, contact Serena in the parish office.

Toilets in the church: part two

Further to my previous post, I understand that Mary’s plans for a disabled toilet and a small kitchen at the back of the church have taken a worrying turn. Some parishioners are arguing for both a ‘Ladies’ and a ‘Gents’ and a baby-changing area. While I am keen for facilities that reflect the needs of the whole community, is such large-scale development appropriate for a Victorian church? Views and concerns to Jackie Hemming, chair of the Fitton Preservation Society.

Invasion of the
Krispy Kremes

Sales of Krispy Kreme doughnuts are up 26% in the UK. I can’t help wondering whether, like grey squirrels, the invaders will drive out the native species. Will we lose Eccles cakes, crumpets, Chelsea buns, scones, and doughnuts full of strawberry jam?  I am thinking of Robin, of course. These days my snack of choice is usually a grated carrot.

Do we all hate beards?

No one likes beards, says a new study from New Zealand. Both men and women associate beards with aggression and old age. Is this true? Is Father Christmas aggressive?  Jude Law? I can’t help feeling a bit of bristle-growing might be good in the Coalition government. Different stubble styles.  Just so that we can tell them apart.

New houses kill ancient woodland

There’s a rumour in the Red Lion that a developer wants to buy up Smith’s Field. It is, of course, in a prime position, just ten minutes from the high street. I can’t imagine Mary, our vicar, will be pleased, since the back of her house overlooks it. Although I haven’t heard her views on planning issues. For all I know, she might put housing need ahead of rampant development.

It’s true that, in its current state, Smith’s Field is not particularly lovely. Impromptu football games year-round have scuffed up what grass there was. The swings are old and rusty. The roundabout, which rattles alarmingly, should have been condemned years ago. But it is the only area in the middle of the village where children can let off steam.

Those of us with small boys know how crucial this is. If you don’t let a five-year-old run around outside brandishing a stick and screaming at the top of his lungs, he will transfer his need for world domination to the indoor environment. This means mayhem, chaos, damage and chipped paint, and hours spent Cif-ing black marks off the skirting board.

More than this, there is a principle at stake. According to the Woodland Trust, ancient woodlands in the UK are under threat.

If we let them build over Smith’s Field, we might be opening the floodgates. We might end up losing Four-Mile Wood with its centuries-old trees, its abundance of wildlife and its astonishing sea of bluebells.

I believe Smith’s Field is valuable to the community. I believe we should oppose plans for development. I will be raising this as Any Other Business at the March meeting of the Fitton Preservation Society next week.

I should add, however, that gossip at the Red Lion is rarely reliable. I am often shocked at the rumours that flow out of the public bar like promises from a politician.

It’s quite possible that there are no plans for development at all.

We’re all in this together

The recession makes us think differently. Tesco announces it’s going to create 20,000 new jobs, and we all say, ‘Oh, what a lovely company!’ Yet not so long ago the residents of Fitton were clamouring to sign a petition against a vast new Tesco near the bypass, and everyone you met was muttering about big conglomerates ruining the face of the British high street.

Then there’s a new airport opening in Southend which will put 20,000 people directly under a flight path. No one’s shouting, ‘Stop Airport Expansion!’ They’re just excited about Stacey Solomon opening the terminal and 500 new jobs.

The recession is also making us behave differently. There was a time when people in Fitton boasted about kitchen extensions or holidays to Malaga, or even highlights from Hair. Now there’s a steady but ostentatious stream going in and out of the charity shops.

If you live in a small community, you have to preserve the impression that we’re all in this together. Fitton’s one Porsche owner seems to be driving at considerable speed these days. I always wonder, as he shoots past in a blur of silver, whether he’d rather we didn’t remember quite how wealthy he is.