Sunday, 8 March 2015

International Women's Day - what does making it happen really mean?

A Sunday ponder: International Women's Day. What's it all about?

Of course I'm in support, why wouldn't I be? Obviously, it's important and, without doubt, the rights of women, their safety and equality should be at the top of everyone's agenda. 

There are women and girls in the world who can't get education, who are in real danger or who have no choice about what happens to them. It's about them surely. 

I'm lucky. No one abuses me, I got a good education, legislation protects my rights. I'm safe. I have everything I need for me and my family. I have choices. 

International Women's Day, with its #makingithappen theme, is about those less fortuate.

And yet...

Last night was the Glasgow Press Ball. An annual gathering of the great and good among Scottish journalists to raise funds and glasses. Jolly good fun and probably why I'm slightly less sprightly than usual today. It was lovely, as ever, to catch up with lots of people I haven't seen for years. 

It's weird. Some of those people are now fairly lofty - editors and the like. Of note, even. 

But the thing is, almost all of those in elevated positions are men. Odd that. 

Able though they are, I don't believe any of these blokes are endowed with significantly more talent than the rest of us, men and women, had when we were starting out. So what happened? 

There's no great conspiracy - not really. There's no boys' club secret handshake thing (or at least I don't think so). And I don't believe journalism is any different to any other field. 

No. Instead it's a series of small, almost insignificant, decisions made along the way, for a variety of reasons. Things like concluding that the only childcare solution is the one that requires a job with regular hours; that the sexist comment from a manager isn't worth challenging; that applying for flexible working won't make a difference (ha!).

This includes domestic matters too - who does what at home, the kind of care your children get, and how that makes you feel? Who's responsible for it all - really responsible? 

And elsewhere, every time no one stuck up for a bullied woman, each instance a woman was objectified or demeaned for her gender - and nothing was said, and all the times you wearily sigh and get on with it - because that's just how it is. They all count too. 

Would it have made a difference? I've no idea whether I could have been chief of this or editor of that if I fought harder - or even noticed - every time I made a sexist choice. 

I do know this though - making it happen isn't just about clear significant campaigns in other part of the world. It's about seeing, understanding and saying something every time it happens.

#makingithappen for International Women's Day. 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Why middle-aged women make the best spies

James Bond's time is up, MI5 has come to its senses. 

British spy bosses have announced that they're keen to recruit more middle-aged women to the ranks of the intelligence agencies. More? It's hard to see where they might fit among the well-cut suits, rippling biceps and broodingly mysterious strangers. Do you notice many secret agents with school timetables and kids' party invites on their fridges?

Among the suave and cosmopolitan do you see people lugging large battered bags stuffed with just-in-case wet wipes and emergency socks? Do some of their number suddenly get the crumpled brow and down-cast air associated with the recollection that it is scouts tonight, fancy dress tomorrow or that there's no milk in for breakfast and it's too late to do anything about it?

Disguise (Yumikrum via flickr)

No? Thought not. 

Spies like us? (That has a ring about it, doesn't it?) How can middle-aged women join the ranks of the dashing and debonair? What would MI5, MI6 or GCHQ want with someone, well, someone like me? 

Well that's the very sneaky thing. Women in their prime make the best spies ever. It's obvious. 

How much cunning do you think it takes to do earn a living, keep some children alive, a house from utter squalor and still manage to find time to get to the hairdresser once in a while? Bucket loads, that's how much. It's the same skill that allows them to identify which bakery products will look home-made enough for the bake sale and how to head most of tantrums off at the first petulant sigh. 

As for the need for disguise - that one comes easily. All a middle-aged woman has to do to become invisible is to stand still and say nothing. It's something of a superpower. 

With more hand bags coming into the Service, Q could end up out of a job. Inside the average mother's bag you'll find equipment to deal with most eventualities from splinters to explosions of toxic chemicals (even after the nappy years). 

But what about the fitness? I hear you cry. Of course, we're used to seeing our secret agents leaping into action, bounding across casinos and disarming assassins before you'd even noticed their evil skulking. Well watch what happens when a toddler near a hard surface or a body of water picks up his mother's new iPhone and you'll find your concerns put to rest faster than she can say: "Put it down."

Some intelligence work is about decoding messages and intercepting enemy communication. It can't be any harder than understanding teenagers, can it? Especially not when they're trying to keep a secret. 

Obviously spies need keen observational skills. You know. Like the ones mothers have when they think their children are up to something, or when their spouse is hatching a plot. They may wonder how you know everything you know, but, to us, it's obvious.

Let's consider covert listening - also known as eavesdropping. Take the ability to become invisible add don't-wake-the-baby sneaking skills plus a dash of cunning, and there's very little a mother doesn't know about in her own home - or else where for that matter. 

There are a batch of abilities a mother - particularly a working one - can bring to the international espionage arena: These include the ability to keep tabs on a whole group of people while appearing to pay attention to the primary task; curing minor ailments (reference working mother encountering minor rash or slight cold); finding things (other people's); and being in two places at once. 

So it's obvious really. Mothers make the best spies, they have done for years. The next time you see a woman with a slightly distracted look on her face, she's not wondering what's for supper, she's considering how to handle a crucial piece of intelligence that might just save the nation. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

5X50 Challenge - springing into action

I know it's snowing outside, but soon it'll get warmer, brighter and springier. Then there will be no excuse for skulking by the fire.

So it'll be the time of year for taking up a challenge, or it might be if I could be bothered. In previous years I've done half marathons, got on my bike or climbed marathons. This year, well, meh. I haven't got even an ounce of inspiration.

Until now...

My fit friend Fiona Outdoors nudged me in the direction of 5X50 Challenge. 

It's a 50-day fitness challenge. You have to do something energetic every day from the day the clocks go forward for 50 days. That's March 29 until May 17. 

It's been going a couple of years now and there are lots of ways of achieving the 5X50 challenge. 

Co-founder Kelly Mason said: "with five different 5X50 platforms we hope to see even more people benefit from being more active in 2015."

Launched in 2012, the 5x50 Challenge called on people to do 5km or 30 minutes of exercise every day for 50 consecutive days.
Now Challengers can choose one of the five platforms to complete their 50 days, including: 

• The movers: Individual/team/school complete 5k distance by walking, jogging, running, cycling, rowing etc for 50 days
• The added extras: Individual/team/school complete minimum 30 minutes of activity/exercise including the above with addition of yoga, weight training, exercise class etc for 50 days
• The pairs: Two people split the challenge to cover 5k for 50 days between them, so each person does 25 days.
• The teams: Five people cover 1km per day for 50 days by walking, jogging, running, cycling, rowing, swimming etc.
• The builders: Individuals build from five minutes of activity to 50 minutes of activity by the end of the 50-day challenge.

Five charities in 2015

In 2015, the 5x50 Challenge, which is a Scottish charity, will raise funds for five charity partners. These are Macmillan Cancer Support, SAMH, Guide Dogs, Chest, Heart and Stroke (Scotland) and Children 1st.

Raymond Wallace, the other 5x50 founder, said:  “The Challenge started off in Scotland as a personal challenge in 2012, to run 5k every day for 50 days.

“Since then it has grown amazingly quickly and with so much enthusiasm from so many people worldwide. Research demonstrates that habits are formed after 21 days, so with the challenge running over 50 days, this makes it much easier for participants to continue beyond the end of the challenge into a new way of life.

“We are very hopeful of a fitter and healthier future for so many more people thanks to 5x50.

So I'm going to put my trainers on every day for nearly twin months - or at the very least get on the yoga mat. Anyone fancy joining me?

Sign up to the 5X50 Challenge at
Also see and

5 benefits of quitting smoking

According to surveys, approximately two-thirds of smokers would like to break the habit, but only 30 to 40 per cent try to quit every year. If you are on the verge of making the leap to a smoke-free life, this post might give you the push you need.

If you’ve tried and failed to stop smoking in the past, you may think there’s no hope for you, but don’t be dismayed. These days, there’s a range of effective smoking cessation aids available, including the prescription medicine champix which has been proven to double or even triple your chances of quitting for good.

Whether you get help or go it alone, here are five ways that quitting smoking will change your life for the better:

1.  Your risk of developing smoking-related diseases and health conditions will be reduced
Smoking causes around 90 per cent of lung cancers and can be responsible for a variety of other cancers, including cancer of the throat, mouth, oesophagus and kidneys. It can also lead to heart problems and lung conditions such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia. Even if you’ve smoked for many years, quitting can significantly reduce your chances of developing these life-threatening smoking-related health problems. As a result, you’re more likely to live a longer, healthier life.

2.  You’ll save money
When you’re in the grips of nicotine addiction, it can be tempting to bury your head in the sand about how much you’re spending on cigarettes. However, the truth is, smoking is an expensive habit and you’re probably using more money than you’d like to support it. The average smoker goes through 13 cigarettes a day. In monetary terms, this equates to almost £2,000 a year. Imagine what you could do with this extra cash. Fancy going on a family holiday, doing some home renovations, or splashing out on a new television, computer or tablet device? By quitting smoking, you could.

3. Your sex life could improve

Stopping smoking can lead to better sex for both men and women. Going smoke free promotes proper blood circulation, which enhances sensitivity. These changes can result in better erections for men and improved orgasms for women. As you’ll no longer smell of stale smoke or have tobacco-stained teeth or fingernails, you’re also likely to be more confident with your partner. In fact, studies have shown that people rate non-smokers as three times more attractive than their smoking counterparts.

4. Your fertility levels may be boosted

Smoking can have a devastating effect on your chances of conceiving. In women, smoking can make the uterus less receptive to the egg. In men, meanwhile, it can decrease the quantity and quality of sperm. Generally, smokers find it more difficult to conceive than non-smokers. In fact, it is thought that smokers are one third less likely to get pregnant in each menstrual cycle than non-smokers.

5. Your breathing will improve

The ability to breathe easier is one of the first improvements you’ll notice when you quit smoking. This can make physical exertion easier and help ensure you feel fitter and more energetic. You can take advantage of this new-found exuberance in a variety of ways. Perhaps you’d like to take up a new sport, try out some exercise classes or spend more time playing with your kids.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Do something about dementia: Give my sister your money!

My sister is a remarkable woman. She runs a successful - award-winning even - pharmacy business, keeps a dog, two small boys and a wife happy, and still has time for other people. Plus she's pretty good company. 

However, this time she's excelled herself. She's gone and entered the London Marathon. I know that to some people running a marathon isn't that big a deal. After all, thousands of folk do it every year. But I suppose I've been measuring my achievements against hers all our lives. (I quit smoking with the mantra "if she can do it, so can I" going around in my head!). We've done 10Ks together and even a couple of half marathons - panting along companionably, you understand. 

But a marathon. Blimey. My hat is truely off to her. The half marathons just about did me in and they were a good few years ago. 

I'm not running with her, but I'm cheering her along. Proudly. Therefore, I urge you to join me and sponsor her efforts. And if I can't persuade you, maybe she can:

My sister: the one on the left
Why the dementia charity?

With an ageing population, we are seeing more and more patients in the pharmacy affected by dementia. The effect it has on partners and families is far-reaching.

It reminds me of how we dealt with cancer when I first qualified 25 years ago. Talking in hushed voices. Nobody having the difficult conversations with the patient themselves. To add to that we really don't have very good drugs yet to tackle dementia.

Do you have personal experience?

Only through my work in the pharmacy. Watching the decline of some of the brightest minds I know is very upsetting and to see the effect that has on relatives, friends and carers can be very upsetting.

I also see this as a bit of an insurance policy. By the time I am over 70, one in three of us will be affected by dementia!!!!

What would you like to see your sponsorship donations achieve?

I have worked closely with Alzheimer's Scotland in our efforts at the pharmacy to develop a dementia friendly pharmacy and community, and I am really impressed with the
Organization and its vision.

They provide much-needed support through dementia advisors, a 24-hour helpline and dementia link workers. I really hope my fundraising can help ensure no one faces dementia alone.

Why the marathon? 
The marathon is the ultimate running challenge. London is the ultimate mass participation marathon.

I have previously run 10k and half marathons, but the marathon is different. I only ever want to run one marathon. This is definitely not the beginning of a new obsession! Running doesn't come easily to me. I am not what you would call a natural athlete and I think that makes this more of a challenge.

Best bits about training?

I actually like seeing the way my body responds to training. 10 weeks ago the thought of running 10 miles seemed unachievable. Now I have done 10... but 20 seems a very tall order.

I also really love being out training in the early morning. Seeing the first glimpse of daylight, crunching on a frosty pavement or spying a brazen fox crossing my path. Weird? Maybe!

Worst bits?

The early mornings.

Having to take time off training with a cold is frustrating. I'm not known for my patience.
How long it takes to run a long way. I only have one running speed and it is verrrry slow! However I have discovered talking books and podcasts which help take me away to another place on long runs.

Have you learned anything about yourself?

I have always liked a challenged and really thought there was nothing I couldn't do if I put my mind to it, but I have had to learn to respect my body and the distance for his one. Probably because the body is not getting any younger.

This is the first challenge I have done where it is really about getting to the start line in one piece and then the stubborn bloody mindedness can get be to get to the end!

Anything you want to add?

Thanks to my family for letting me disappear for hours on end to get the training done. I promise I won't be doing another one....

Sponsor Sally to run the London Marathon for Alzheimer's Scotland. 

Something else she can do that I can't

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Keep St Valentine out of our schools, for the kids' sake

"I'm very sad, mummy," said Boy Three from his seat in the back of the car. 

We were on the way home last night - the night before St Valentine's Day. 

"What's the matter, honey bun?" I asked. 

This isn't an unusual exchange. Often it's the Worst Day in the World. Ever. Sometimes it's really, really, really bad and other evenings something makes him "hate his life... and everything, except you mummy, and daddy, and the brothers".

Mostly the cause of this deep distress is hunger, a snub from his Lego-building buddy or rain cancelling the outdoor play. I listen, say something soothing and usually by the time the fishfingers are in the oven everything is sunny again. 

This time though it was different. 

"R doesn't love me. She hates me. Sob. She says I'm annoying. Sob. And stupid," he wailed. 

I'm sure she doesn't hate you. He'd been friends with this little girl since they were both in nappies. I knew she was sweet and kind. 

"She does. Really." Snot and tears slid down his face and he smeared them away on his grimy sleeve.


School had been making much of the upcoming festival of tat, unrealistic expectations and commercialisation. Among other things it's also an opportunity for class discussion and crafting... in pink mostly.

Boy Three had created a card for his True Love, the unsuspecting R. "She's the girl I like the best - apart from you, mummy - so it must be her."

R being in receipt of the love token in middle of a group of her pals blushed, stammered and found herself unequipped for a suitable response. Feeling uncomfortable, it seems she rejected Boy Three. Who extrapolated and is now heart-broken. 

St Valentine's Day is a load of old bunk, but even to those of us old and grizzled enough to know better it can cause disquiet, self-loathing, unnecessary hair-removal and overspending. What do you think it'll do to children who have no business being pushed into romantic love? 

Five-year-olds need to learn about unconditional love and what that means for them. If we're going to tell them how they should be loving then, good grief, lets teach them to love themselves, nature and humanity.

They do not need to pin their hopes of happiness on the fantasy of happy ever after, they've got the rest of their lives to waste on that. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

50 Shades of... put it away love, it's not big or clever

It's inescapable, isn't it? The grunting, lunging, lashing and lip biting everywhere. Yuk.

Mr Grey will see you now. Whatever. 

Lots of unappetising double entendres and pictures of improbably perfect people looking intense, moody and bloody uncomfortable. Might account for the mood though. 

In case you hadn't noticed 50 Shades of Grey the movie is out. And it's everywhere. 

Cast your mind back a couple of years to the badly-written Twilight fan fiction that was being sniggered over by, well by lots of people, who had it on their Kindles. (Oooh look I can read smut on the train and no one will ever know.) It was just a bit of harmless fun... after all how sinister can something be when the protagonist's most engaging dialogue is with her unruly hair? Fluff, fumbling, fornication, flagellation and more fluff.

by Ed Oliver via Flickr
Yet now we hear that B&Q has had a run on cable ties. Imagine the breathless Anastasia and Christian fans nipping into the disabled bay and leaving the engine running while they stock up on cut price bondage gear. There must have been some very bewildered hardware sales assistants in orange pinnies shaking their heads.

Emergency services are bracing themselves for a spate of neophyte BDSM adventurers who learn that there was probably a really good reason why that thing isn't normally used for that purpose. And they won't be doing it again in a hurry. 

It could be funny if it wasn't so, well, so horrible. Please, everyone get a grip. (But not a hard grip and not on that... or that.)

There is nothing sexy about a big old bully who tries to control someone and won't tell them what's going on. "Wear this, do this, turn up here," I don't flipping think so. 

Sure, if a bit of slap and tickle and more slap floats your boat then don't let me stand in your way. Or actually don't let me stand anywhere near you. It's like the fact that I know Primark exists, but I don't want to actually have to go there and touch the man-made fibres.

Sex lives - vanilla, choc chip or Heston-esque beans and bacon flavours - should be private, between those involved alone. And even behind your own locked door they should be safe and consensual.

I don't want to watch Mr Grey and his latest victim on the job under any circumstances, particularly not in a cinema seething with lambrini-fuelled lovers straining to get home and improvise with a fish slice and the curtain tiebacks. 

The whole point of the 50SOG in the first place was as a fantasy - that's something that isn't real, that exists in the head of the fantasist (albeit inserted there by EL James and inspired by a sparkly vampire...or something). And that's exactly where it should stay. 50 Shades of No Way Jose.

Romance as a new parent: Or don’t bring me flowers, the kids would only knock them over.

I wrote this a couple of Valentine's ago, but it still applies, or some bits of it do. 

The shops are full of pink stuff, restaurants are already booked solid and florists are raising their prices by the minute. It’s nearly Valentine’s Day and the pressure is on to make a romantic gesture that counts.

However, if there are small children in your house, the traditional offerings of sexy lingerie or expensive perfume will be met by hoots of derision. What were you thinking? The scent will make the baby sneeze and no one can push their post-partum paunch into a pair of lacy pants and hope to feel even slightly sexy.

Instead here are some ways to show her that you care… that you really care:

Consider getting her hot – and by this we mean, getting her hot beverages and allow her to drink them while they’re hot, all the way to the bottom of the cup. In peace. Maybe with a biscuit on the side.

Notice when she’s made an effort. Though you need to be aware that making an effort has evolved somewhat since the early days of your relationship. Where once there might have been hours of buffing and plucking, followed by painting and spraying. Now if she doesn’t smell of sick or have poo under her nails and has a clean t-shirt on, she’s made an effort.

Know that pampering no longer suggests luxury and exotic scents, now it’s just a brand of nappies turned into a verb. Previously triumphant pampering gifts need not apply unless they come with babysitter and/or time machine.

Don’t think dirty thoughts, think clean ones, they’ll be much more effective. There’s a strong likelihood that the mother of small people has more fantasies about having an immaculate house, freshly laundered sheets, no clutter and clean windows than she does about having a filthy time anywhere… with anyone. Therefore, you will be making her dreams come true by getting the housework done, so she doesn’t have to. Hire a cleaner or, hell, even do it yourself. Surprise her with the spotless.

Plan an extravagant night out or adventurous outing… then let her go on her own. I know you’re supposed to be eating lobster by candle light together in a trendy bistro, but nothing will fill her soul with joy faster than allowing her the freedom to go and do something that makes her heart beat a little faster. It’s about helping her to reconnect with someone other than the maternal version of herself. Does she yearn to climb a mountain or learn to scuba dive? Would she adore a night of karaoke with her mates? Nothing says ‘I love you’ better than allowing her to truly be herself.

Of course, if you really want to hit the jackpot with the gift that guarantees bliss unbounded – and lots of Brownie points – then ensure that the light of your life gets at least one good night’s sleep. Solid, uninterrupted hours and hours until she wakes naturally to fresh coffee and smiles. And to really get the benefit of this love token – do it for at least two days in a row.

Happy Valentine’s Day. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Book review - Paris Kiss by Maggie Ritchie

There's ever such a slight downward plunge in the spirits when I learn that a friend has got a publishing deal. 

Mostly it's nothing more than garden variety envy. Green-eyed jealousy that they've done it and I haven't got my act together/the talent. Ho hum. 

There's also that extra weight to the sinking that comes from the fact that when your pal - or even your Facebook chum - has a book out, they're going to want you to read it. And you might hate it... Then what? 

However, I'm delighted to say that my mood is anything but gloomy after finishing my friend Maggie Ritchie's debut novel Paris Kiss. It's a cracker. 

Paris Kiss tells the story of young English sculptor Jessie Lipscomb and her friendship with Camille Claudel. The pair strike up an intense friendship in Bohemian Paris in the 1880s while they are students of Auguste Rodin. 

But the book opens in 1929 when Jessie tracks down Camille to an insane asylum where she has been an inmate for decades. Maggie weaves the story of the women's lives, loves and the scandals that took them down two very different paths. 

Don't be fooled by the romantic title and the prim-looking woman on the cover, there's nothing mushy and soft-filter about this love story. Paris Kiss explores gender roles, women in art, mental illness, passion and duty. 

It's based on the real lives of Jessie and Camille and Camille's lover Rodin, but there's nothing dull and historical about Paris Kiss. I was immediately drawn into their world and fell a little bit in love with Camille too. Paris Kiss is a complex book that explores many issues but never lets itself be distracted from the business of story-telling. 

The only sinking sensation came with the end of the book and saying farewell to the young sculptors. 

Paris Kiss is published on February 26, although there's a special Valentine's book signing in Waterstones at Braehead on Valentine's Day. 

As for envy. Not this time, Maggie and Paris Kiss deserve a huge success. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

What's the point of feminism when so many men are shit?

It was magical. Sunlight made the mountain snow sparkle and the only sound was boots crunching. Boots crunching and people talking. 

Three women were chatting - intelligent, successful women enjoying the stunning Scottish scenery, respite from the festive round and the chance to climb a hill. 

What were these women discussing? 

They might have been talking about how they could make the world a better place. They may have been telling fascinating and hilarious stories. Maybe they were recounting the times they'd done something amazing, or the next carefully planned twist in their careers. 

And there was a bit of that. But again and again their conversation turned away from the wide world and their place in it and came round to men and the things they do (and mostly don't) do. 

They don't, it seems, do their fair share (or even half) of the boring domestic things. 
They don't, apparently, take charge of very much if there's someone else to do it. 
They won't, evidently, see chaos and bring order. 
They can't, when ill, suffer the discomfort alone.

But that's just the start of it. 

Now these three women would count themselves as feminists (certainly the one I can speak for does), they'd also fight hard for equality on other fronts too. They're modern, creative and right-thinking (whatever that is). 

So what's going on? They know that 'traditional' gender roles are bunk, that big boys can cry if they want to and girls don't just wanna have fun, they want their voices heard and not to be objectified. 

Why then are they still having the same conversations and experiencing the same frustrations white hot rages and yet still picking up the stuff of the floors of their homes more often than anyone else does?

Have they chosen their mates badly and should have plumped for a more enlightened chap? But their other halves (the one I know fairly well anyway) talk like a man perfectly qualified to walk around in a 'this is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt. 

Are they just dishing us a big fat fib and hiding a blubbery heap of misogyny behind a lot of right-on speak? Do they really secretly wish we'd just shut up about it and get on with the dishes? 

Can we allow them to skulk off to the man caves beloved of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From The Kitchen subscribers? I don't believe we are really such different creatures on account of our reproductive equipment. It can't be true, can it? 

Everyone hates housework, but women end up doing most of it. (Source: Entirely unscientific survey of lots of people I know.) And I've run out of ideas for how to fix this. 

I tried ignoring the work until it was done fairly. Result - squalor.
I tried discussing the work and organising a rota. Result - either a bad case of bossy headmistress or squalor. 
I tried rewarding domestic effort with sexual favours. Result - bewildered husband.
I tried reminding. Result - I was nagging. 
I tried setting an example. Result - I was doing it all. 
I tried dropping hints. Result - I was doing it all. 
I tried dropping heavier hints. Result - I was nagging. 

I'm tired of the conversations, I don't want to nag but I don't want to live in squalor. Please help, I'm out of ideas. 

I want to be a feminist and maybe make the world a better place, but how can I if I do most of the housework?

(PS I know there are some men out there who do their share and more. If this is one of the two of you, maybe you can shed some light on what's going on here and what we can do about it.)

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