From Steph in London: Age shall not wither us – or has it? Apologies to the Bard

July 31. Eighteen years ago a group of 7 of us, who met only at parties (will we remember what they are?)  decided to meet for lunch to organise a 60 birthday party. We duly booked a table at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge and vaguely discussed the impending party. (Which incidentally never happened)

Moving forward to now – we have met every few months since then, visiting good and supposedly good restaurants in London and  the South East. It has become de rigueur to be together and share the things going on in our lives- the good and the bad and sadly, sometimes, the downright ugly.

Since then we have acquired several daughters and sons in law and 34 grandchildren between us. We have all gone from working full time to part time, to being active members in our communities.  3 out of 7 were magistrates across London. We were busy and active, interested and interesting.

We decided to  Zoom twice weekly and whilst we were locked down completely it worked-ish. However, as time has gone on our institutionalization has thrown up a few worrying observations…..

Our worlds have shrunk however hard we try to remain part of wider society. News has become almost parochial and whilst I hate to admit it some of us are ageing too quickly. Health has become an obsession, total self interest has come to the fore and the cohesion of the group needs a reboot.

If we are allowed we will do a socially distanced lunch in a garden in a few weeks time, when hopefully we can rebalance and entertain and be entertained by each other.

We don’t of course know whether this would have happened anyway. Age has a funny way of hitting you when you are not watching and when, in your head you’re still 30.  It’s an affront  to be labelled elderly and to have to be extra cautious about being sociable. It’s something else to realise that you (never!) and those around you may be sliding into another stage of elderlyness.

On that note I’m going to find a pair of flared trousers and a flower power shirt and dance barefoot in the garden……..

From Steph in London: Zoomed out

24 July


I’m not sure I can do many more large Zoom gatherings, so the couple I join may become victims of my irritations. It’s fine when there are only a few people because then you converse as normal. With more than 4 you are at the mercy of the few who want to hold court continuously. Whereas normally one would naturally be having side conversations at large gatherings, there is nowhere to hide in big settings. Feigning a bad connection seems a way out but the guilt of leaving people you are individually fond of takes over. Small beer in comparison to those in power but not in control……

If this is really an observation of life at present I’m appalled at the ineptitude of the government- but to what purpose other than to rant with like minded people?

Life has certainly taken on a new normal. Pressure to join groups in gardens, go out for coffee and meals and go to work on public transport are all part of the plan to pretend it’s all ok and safe….. I’m not sure about that and am struggling with an open invitation to Holland to look after the
grandchildren. They appear to be much more gung ho in The Netherlands with less social distancing, and everything open – but still loads of hand washing..Their figures are better than ours ( where in Europe isn’t!) so theoretically all will be well if we brave driving over.

Going back to Zoom and the transformation to face to face- or should it be side by side? It was a life line for some, it gave us time to adjust to solitude together and probably gave us a false sense of security about the future. We may indeed need it again if the winter is as dire as predicted, but in the meantime seeing people face to face across the garden is a joy- and I even got a birthday hug from some of the grandchildren. Bliss.

From Steph in London: A World Beating system … and absolute incompetence

June 19

Hurrah, with a world beating system the NHS and the country will be saved…

The new track and trace scheme is now up and running.  The management of it has bypassed local public health teams and it’s controlled centrally. So- from a very reliable source …. somebody gives information after testing  positive for Covid on May 31.  The team starts phoning round but can’t get any  joy so on June 10 contacts the local PHE team to take over the contact tracing ….only 10 days wasted and heaven knows how any more infections..

Fortunately, we are on top of the track and trace(!)  and are going to give Google/ Apple a try at the phone app-creating world beating systems temporarily shelved! We’ve only wasted about 3 months and millions but the boys have all the answers.

And now we move to education, where the leadership has been spectacular. Thank goodness we have Heads and staff working their socks off trying to work out how to get children back into schools realistically..

My daughter in law is a data manager for a 1600 plus secondary school. Normally at this time of year she will have done the timetable for September and head of departments will have ironed out any issues (like double A level Physics on a Friday afternoon!)

This year she has created 2 timetables – a normal two week timetable with all subjects getting their allocated time in the right rooms with the right staff and a shadow timetable that can be slotted in for all pupils…..for simplicity and to ensure all pupils get time in school, they have decided to offer Maths, English and science only on a part time basis if necessary …..It’s the Options that create problems for bubbles and social distancing.

Given the school leaving age is now 18 it may be time for the curriculum police to think about a broader offering for all students for longer.  No Options or GCSE exams at 16, (which no longer makes sense as everyone stays in education beyond that.. the end of year 11 is not a definitive time anymore) Perhaps International Baccalaureate type education?

from Steph in London: transport or teleporting?

June 15. So, the shops can open tomorrow – it will be interesting to see how successful it will be and who will venture forth.

It made me think how we will get into London when it’s time to go – public transport being off limits for the foreseeable future. We made a conscious decision to run a small car several years ago. It is great for city living, can be parked in the smallest spaces and suits us…. Or it did suit us. Faced with no trains, UK holidays and car travel to Holland to see the children do we need to think about a different option – slightly larger, more powerful and more comfortable for long journeys? It goes against our environmental philosophy to think about it but we are all being pushed onto the road again. I’m not sure how that will play out.

We moved a huge pot containing a Cornus Kousa (dogwood) up to the top of the garden today to finish off the design in that area. Having time to get the whole garden replanted and organised has been a joy and for the first time since we moved in, we feel as if the garden is now ours. All we have to do now is keep everything alive.

Relationships with lockdown and Covid appears to have changed considerably. Is it fatigue or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to get us out of this mess? They certainly have lost the confidence of many- to the point that we no longer believe almost anything we are told. How could it have been handled better and why on earth wasn’t it?

 Answers on a postcard …

from Steph in London: If you’re not bothered about uplift …

June 4. Shiny graphs galore and an inbuilt belief that, if they look good, they will be telling the truth and, even more importantly, will be proving we are not the worst country in Europe and nearly the worst country in the world for the virus … David Blunkett when Minister of Education once said, “Learn to measure what you value not value what you measure”. It might help!

Shutting the borders so that those countries with a worse record than ours don’t send people over to contaminate us … I am sure that the fact that we are (almost) the worst country in the world will mean that anybody with any sense will keep a wide berth of the UK for ages.

In the meantime we wait and watch to see what happens with the freedom that has been given to us … there are definitely more cars around. Five of the grandchildren are back in school 3 days a week, one is having a full day of lessons on line much to her horror and the others are getting very much  better at table tennis and baking cakes. The six-year olds spend the day in ‘bubbles’ of 15 with 2 teachers. They do everything together and are separated from everybody else at break and lunch time. Then when they are dismissed at 3-ish they all pile into the playground, throw themselves at their friends from other bubbles then go home.

 My eldest son is planning to be working at home until December with the younger members of the team going into the office on a fortnightly rota. The logic of that is that the “youngsters” may not have the space at home to work there long term and the oldies (those over 35!) who can work in a separate room will do so, and just visit the office once a week for the odd meeting.

Life has become strangely more agitated for us all. Do we go out? With gloves, a mask, nothing? We’ve bought disposable cups for friends so we can serve coffee (in gloves) and safely. Are we being totally neurotic and is the R number in London only .4? It was strangely calmer when the world had stopped … but it is the summer and if it had gone on into the winter there would have been many (more) stir crazy households.

So, the conversation about uplift was a joy – two very jolly over 80s discussing comfortable underwear.

The rest is censored …

from Steph in London: turning point week

May 31. Capacity over strategy, instinct over compliance, self righteousness and the divine right of kings over competence … all in all a turning point week. Tempers are strained and it’s not the lockdown that is causing the frustration. It’s as if dear Boris and his henchmen are bored now- we are distinguished in having almost the worst figures in the world, nothing is working smoothly, the R number remains steady at too high and now a few more deaths won’t really matter … 10 weeks of grasping at straws, over promising and under delivering tests even the most loyal in society.

Essentially nothing has changed but we are being released albeit slowly (but are the over 70s?)

So now we have to think about meeting the world again – well, up to 6 of them at least. From being a extrovert who loves being with people I feel anxious about being with anybody other than my nearest and dearest, even in the garden. So, Book Club could meet in a garden, as could our Ladies who Lunch group – do I want to? No thank you, not yet.

Happy birthday to my middle son, who turns 45 today. He lives in the Netherlands and heaven knows when I can next give him and the grandchildren a hug – and a present!

from Steph in London: education …

When I agreed to write a blog, I swore I wouldn’t make any political comments … after over two months of lockdown I am about to fall off the wagon … why does education have to be politically governed? Or rather why does it have to be politically governed by people whose only interaction with schools was decades ago when they went. If we were an authoritarian state into indoctrination, perhaps interference is needed but I have yet to see a politician whose raison d’etre was actually the good of the young instead of their own career.

Why have we not got a decent education minister? In fact, the last decent one was in the 90’s. She actually understood education – such a novelty.

So, our esteemed MOE wants children taught in a bubble up to 15 pupils all day … I wonder how any schools have classrooms big enough for social distancing. A local school with 1,400 pupils only has classrooms large enough for 8 socially distanced. The mathematicians amongst you can work out how many rooms and how many teachers will be needed.

Then compute the options for the older pupils – 240 pupils per year. Pupils choose up to 12 subjects, practical subjects including the sciences needing more space and staff … bubbles might work for the core subjects but all the other subjects would place pupils and teachers in so many different groupings.

Rotas seem a good idea – different year groups in at different times … but no! He doesn’t want schools to run rotas as happens in Holland and other European countries.

The Heads I know are really trying to work something out- not least a timetable for the next academic year.

Rant over- back to the garden …

from Steph in London: the new rhythm …

The new rhythm of Face Time, Zoom and HouseParty for social contact has yielded surprising results. Friends who we normally see every few months or longer are now weekly or fortnightly buddies. We enjoy conversations that are not full of a report on recent activities in the City or wherever, but are more chats around the here and now.

‘News’ takes second place and we get to know people on a much more intimate level as we chat on. I suppose it could be construed as a Covid dating app.

We have time to find out more about each other that we may not have known and the things that attracted us originally are reawaken into a greater understanding and affection….

People I’ve known for 40 years, when conversation has been revolved around the children or work are now sitting chatting about other things. Not necessarily always deep and meaningful but easy, comfortable and strangely supportive. Online! I never thought I’d admit that!

My relationship with the virtual world is contrary. In January I would never Face Time anyone without a previous conversation and appointment. It seemed an intrusion into people’s private lives. It’s now May, and actually I now use social media with gay abandon. I even showed a pal round the new house without making the bed first..

Hey ho- my mother would have been totally distraught and would know I was definitely going to the dogs….

from Steph in London,UK: homelessness …

May 8. The government (this or the last one) had started to look at homelessness and said it would take till 2025 to get people off the streets. Post or mid-Covid19 there is a consensus that most if not all homeless people have somewhere to sleep every night … I wonder if it’s true and if it is how can we transfer this practice to being a normal state of affairs post post Covid? Hopefully the mindset has changed and the powers that be will be able to see their way to look positively at solutions instead of presenting the usual ‘Yes but” scenarios.

We’ve really opened the box on deprivation. Good schools  know their cohort of pupils and they work to raise their attainment – extra support, mentoring,  the best teachers encouraging and working with parents to try to  ‘level’ the playing field. Today those same schools are delivering free school meals to their vulnerable pupils and checking weekly on the pupils and their work personally. This, of course is easier in areas where schools catchment areas are small. I wonder how rural schools with much wider catchment areas are organising this vital service to the pupils.

The lack of computers  and tablets in homes automatically puts students at a huge disadvantage. If there is a computer, several children and parents may well be trying to work on the same machine in the same room at the same time.

I hear that some schools are doing class time together via one of the platforms – in order to make sure that safeguarding guidelines are followed some are only audio. Staff are contacting their pupils via email and that contact is vital if the lock down continues. It’s vital that somehow those pupils without access to these interactions should be part of the new normal schooling. Suddenly pupil poverty, which is largely hidden in schools,  has come to the fore and supplying the technology should be as important today as text books were to us.

So the weather is to take a turn for the worse this week. Perhaps I’ll get round to sorting out my paperwork – or creatively think of loads of distraction activities to avoid it. In the meantime the garden beckons.

from Steph in London: grandchildren adapting …

 April 30. “Watching” the grandchildren adapt to being at home has been interesting. They seem to be happy to work at home and are enjoying not getting into school uniform every morning although they do have a routine. Joe Wicks is the start of the day, followed by school work until lunch time-ish. The older ones continue to work after lunch, the younger ones do I know not what but they have been cooking, baking, digging up worms and generally learning how to play on their own without outside or electronic distractions. There have definitely been fewer fights than normal and it appears (via Face time or Zoom) that they are calmer, more able to just ‘play’ and even, dare I say, a better cooperation culture is emerging.

They range from 15-6 in 3 families, the most labour intensive being the 9-year-old and her 6-year-old twin brothers. They have a garden, so are some of the lucky ones- playing out has become part of the routine (“We have to play out for an hour at a time”)

However, as an ex-teacher I watch the adults trying to juggle their work and the properties of a quadrilateral and I don’t envy them.  Most of them spend the day in conference calls, which requires a different level of concentration and my eldest son has asked the children to text him and their mum when they need help. Being in the next room seems a bit OTT but it’s working.

Or it was until the 10-year-old had a message from his teacher – he HAD to build a working volcano … he texted his parents – both of whom were knee deep in keeping the economy going. A once very calm mum went mad and threw her toys out of the pram-

‘How can we be expected to do that?’

‘Does the teacher not realise we have to work too?’

‘How the … do we make it froth?’

They compromised and he built a building of interest instead with help from his older brother (The leaning Tower of Pisa)

When the message from the teacher was re-read, there were  about 20 options, including the volcano, but not a building of interest! Am sure going off piste won’t be the difference between a stellar career or failure…

Finally, some friends with autistic children have found that they are calmer at home, without the hustle of uniforms and deadlines to meet every 45 mins and are learning well. They are seriously considering what sort of education will be best for them in the future …