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  • Eat your peas?

    Yet again another government body brings out a report telling us that as parents we are just not trying hard enough. ‘Lunchboxes should contain salad and fruit, not just chocolate and crisps’ says the School Food Trust in England and Wales. Really? Wow. Am I glad the government funded that piece of advice. Now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.

    The Trust also came up with the worrying statistic that 40 per cent of school lunch boxes do not contain any fruit and veg, compared with about 10 per cent of school dinners. The conclusion – parents should consider switching to school meals.

    Now, as someone who has had the misfortune, earlier this year, to actually be invited to taste a school meal, I have deep reservations about this. As part of a well meaning but possibly insane attempt by our school to demonstrate to us the nutritious options that are being provided to our children at apparently subsidised rates, we parents trooped into the school at lunchtime. Now, in no way I am blaming the school. Endless cuts to funding now mean that school meals are no longer prepared on the premises, and that while the cost to the parents have gone up, the range of options being provided has reduced.

    If these were healthy options, this would not be an issue, but the meal we were presented with was a glistening, greasy, thick wedge of cheesy pizza that would probably have fared badly in a test taste with Asda’s budget range, served with chips, of course, and, not to forget the most nutritional aspect of the meal, the much lauded vegetable, frozen sweetcorn. Other options were oily salty soup with vegetables cut too thick, a dry white roll, some baked potatoes with hard orange cheese (these were probably the best of the bunch) and a few pieces of shrivelled fruit. Oh, and there was a pudding, some kind of steamed affair with custard that looked so much like my own school dinner options I began to wonder if it had been frozen since the 1970s, just waiting for me to reappear.

    All of which led me to look, ashamedly for the first time, at the menu for other days of the week. Monday. Hot dog and fries (again). The vegetable appears to be baked beans. Tuesday. Chicken Korma (all well and good – but with broccoli?), Macaroni cheese – that magnificent concoction of carbs and fat. Tasty but not exactly healthy. The vegetable is sweetcorn again. Burger in a bun. I wonder what the fat content of the burger is, and is the bun wholegrain? The vegetable is spaghetti hoops?? or coleslaw. Friday breaded fish with chips and peas. Tasty but largely fried.

    Should baked beans, spaghetti hoops and frozen sweetcorn really be classified as vegetables? And while coleslaw undoubtedly contains vegetables, they are after all smothered in mayonnaise, which hardly makes it a low fat option. I remember the overcooked boiled veg we were given at school, and I fail to see how things have moved on at all.

    And there is more to providing school meals than just serving it up. Even if this food was in any way edible – due to cuts there is limited supervision in the dining room to encourage children to eat it. At home, every mealtime is an exercise in coercion. I never give up in my mission to make my children eat just a little veg with every meal. I do this by cutting up raw veg for pre dinner snacks, and at the table by persuasion, by bribery, and sometimes by authority (the ‘you will not leave the table until you have eaten everything on your plate’ approach, which frankly sometimes works). As a parent we require the endless patience to keep trying, to judge what technique might be effective when. It is an endless and frustrating task, and the most children I have ever had to do it with at one time is six. To expect one teacher supervising fifty plus children to persuade them to eat their greens is frankly unrealistic.

    Far better to let their parents give them the food they know they will eat, than to waste thousands of pounds of taxpayers money each year on cheaply produced inedible food, most of which I watched being heaped onto the unappetising looking sludge bucket at the edge of the canteen. Does anyone measure the waste from school lunches? I bet they’d get an unpleasant surprise.

    And in what way is all this more nutritious than the packed lunch my children took to school this morning? A thermos of home-made tomato soup (The soup was leftover from the weekend) Cost 30p. A sandwich made with the weekend’s leftover lamb (they usually have cheese or tuna mayo) – 50p. A piece of fruit – in this case a banana – 30p. Chopped up carrot and cucumber – 20p. A flapjack (home made – but I usually buy them) – 30p. The total cost of this packed lunch was £1.60. My husband put it together this morning before he went to work, and it took him about ten minutes. It contains protein, complex carbohydrate and plenty of veg. It might be a little heavy on the sugar, but we can’t be perfect.

    Conversely, if I had chosen a school lunch today, at the apparently subsidised rate of £1.70, my child would have had a hot dog roll, beans, and chips, because that’s today’s hot meal option. A healthy helping of fat, salt, and simple carbohydrates, and no veg in sight. (apparently there is a salad option but in true school military style – it only comes with the baked potato.)

    Yes, you could argue that my child could ‘choose’ the baked potato instead of the hot dog. If you did, I would have to question whether you were living in the real world. As a health conscious adult we are daily faced with ‘choices’ between salad or chips, fruit or chocolate. Do we always choose the healthy option? I hardly think the diet industry would be so profitable if we did. What kind of willpower are we expecting from our children? Our bodies are programmed to go for the highest calorie option when starved. Do I sit down for our evening meal and say ‘now children, you have a choice tonight between broccoli or chips?’ No, their meal is served and they can eat it or be hungry. The only way to encourage children to make healthy choices is by not giving them a choice.

    It seems to me that we have two options with school meals. Either spend more money on them and make them edible, or make cuts and serve only one or two of the cheapest options. Soup and baked potatoes would be more than adequate, and would have more nutritional value than the fat laden meals we as taxpayers are currently paying for. Kids would be healthier, and we’d all save ourselves a bit of cash which we could spend on something useful, say, for instance, teachers?

    And we could make it easier for parents to choose healthy lunchbox options. We could regulate the sugar levels in those supermarket products that are aimed at lunchboxes, for example. We could give parents recipe cards with lunchbox ideas on them. We could legislate to make sugary foods more expensive, so that a chocolate bar or a biscuit is not cheaper than an apple, as often it is at the moment.

    But since nobody will ever have the balls to do any of these things, I’ll stick to doing my best with packed lunches for my kids. Not that this is easy. Feeding a family healthy food on a budget is a challenge, especially when both parents are working. There are plenty of days I whip out the fish fingers, frozen chips and token peas because I haven’t got myself organised. But like most parents in this country I do my best with the sometimes limited range of options available to me. Like most parents in this country I invest a lot of time and effort in buying the right foods within my budget and encouraging my children to eat them. Like most parents in this country, I am trying my best. If only the same could be said of those in charge of school meal provision.

  • Creative Writing at the St Monans Community Arts Festival

    I will be taking two free creative writing workshops at the St Monans Community Arts Festival on Saturday 17 September.  No need to book.  Just turn up on the day.

    Kids Creative Writing Workshop (ages 8-12) 10am – 11.30am Venue 3 (St Monans Church Hall, Station Road):

    What would happen if Tracy Beaker got lost in Wonderland, or if Batman met Cinderella at a party? Come along dressed as your favourite storybook character, and find out (bring the book), led by Kirsten McKenzie.

    Inspiration and Ideas (for adults and teenagers aged 13+) 12pm – 1.30pm Venue 3 (St Monans Church Hall, Station Road) : Change the way you see the world, and find the creative voice within, in this creative writing workshop led by Kirsten McKenzie.

    For more info visit the St Monans Community Arts Festival website.

  • Talking Heads

    One of my favourite song lines of all time is from Psycho Killer by Talking Heads.  ‘You start a conversation you can’t even finish.  You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.  When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.  Say something once, why say it again?’

    To me this pretty much sums up one of the problems with the way we communicate today.  Because we do say things over and over again.  We say them on twitter, we say them on facebook, we link to websites and say them again in their news sections.  We say them to the press, we say them in posters and fliers.  In marketing, in the past, the skill of how you said something, through logos and straplines, was vital.  Today, it probably takes second place to the simple matter of how often you say it.  We’re talking a lot, but are we saying anything?

    I am an active user of social media.  I have used facebook pretty much from the outset, and it is now pretty much how I organise my social life.  I use twitter to talk about what I do and have struck up useful conversations with strangers, leading to advice on what to do with lemonbalm and where to go walking on holiday.  There is no doubt in my mind that these ways of communicating have transformed our lives in a positive way.

    But, like every new invention, there can be a downside.  With so much information twittering about, how to we choose what to listen to.  Or do we just flit over everything, never really exploring any issue in depth.

    I know that I no longer read papers.  Instead I skim the headlines online.  I scroll down my twitter updates several times a day, looking for something that takes my interest.  Sometimes I read the links people send, but mostly I just pass over them.  Sometimes I receive so many tweets that I miss some important ones entirely, because I am receiving at least two a minute.  I know that far more people will read the tweet I make about this blog than the actual blog itself (you can prove me wrong by making a comment below!)

    Of course, avid twitterers would say that this only means you are not using twitter properly.  In order to gather enough followers to carry out meaningful conversations with the world at large it is necessary to tweet several times a day, preferably attaching interesting links that others can comment on.  I’ve read that, as a writer, I should be tweeting at least three times a day.  And there are times when I do. There are times when I tweet more than this, because I am genuinely bursting with things I want to tell the world, that seem to me, at that time at least, to be important.

    But there are other times when, believe me, it’s better that my lips are sealed.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.

    Sometimes, it seems to me, there’s something desperate about it all, how we all try too hard to be heard, not by saying anything interesting, or by thinking about what we have said, but just by saying it again, louder.  The desperation to say something often enough to be heard can often get in the way of the ability to say something meaningful.

    As well as speaking, we need to learn to listen, to process, and to understand.  We need to take the time not just to read but to re-read.  Remember those cartoon characters who, when they bumped their heads, ended up with little birds twittering about around them.  That’s you, that is.  And me.

    Social media is amazing.  It has transformed the world, and will continue to do so.  But I think a time will come when we will slow down our frenzied use of it, and consider how we can get real value from it.  We are people, not just talking heads.  We need to make time in our busy schedules to stop flitting about the treetops and tweeting like the birdbrains we may otherwise become, and take the time to say something of value.  And there are other times when, in the words of Eddie Izzard – we just need to shut the fuck up.

  • Creative Writing Courses at Dundee University

    From Tues 18 October I will be running two new creative writing courses, Introduction to Short Fiction, looking at the short story, and Introduction to Novel writing, looking at planning and structuring a novel.  The courses will consist of a combination of exercises and peer review.  For more info or to book check out the Dundee University Continuing Education brochure.  For information only contact me via this website.

  • Why I Write

    I have always found that there is nothing more boring than a writer who writes about writing.  I’m not sure why  – I think I’ve just always found something slightly irritating in the assumption that someone who reads my fiction is going to be interested in the process behind the story.  When I read a novel, I read it for the story alone.  If it’s a good book, I forget that somebody has actually made it all up.  To find out more about the process only reminds me of that.

    Perhaps it is also because there is something slightly naval gazing about the examination of the imperative to write, as if it is something mysterious, something God given, some gift, or purpose, that only a certain breed of person has – the writer, the author, who somehow sees things differently for the rest of us.

    I don’t believe this.  I think there is a writer in all of us.  Not a good writer, necessarily, not someone who has made the study of
    the meaning and patterns of language a large part of their life. What I mean is that the need to communicate is the basis of all humanity. It doesn’t always manifest itself in words, of course. We communicate in pictures, through music, and mathematics, although I’m sure that this blog expressed in equations would only be slightly more interesting than a writer who writes about writing.

    Why do I write? It may be because my parents wanted me to – and I was a fairly placid child – happy to do anything to keep everyone happy. It may be because I won a writing competition when I was five with a small masterpiece entitled the sun, moon and stars (with a slightly macabre illustration of an astronaut being exploded by the sun). It might be because I gave up my job to do it, and so was bloody well going to do it, or else.

    But now that I am ‘a writer’, and have discovered the disappointing lack of mortgage settling advances and movie deals, have battled with the isolation of working from home, the intensity of switching constantly from contemplative, imaginary worlds to the
    very real, immediate, and practical demands of family and work, why do I still want to do it?

    I suspect, unfortunately, that the truth is very much less about me, and very much more about the human condition, the need to escape from the isolation of our boxes of skin, and tell people how the world looks to us.  Every expression we make, from the masterpiece in the national gallery, to the tv show you watched last night, to the noise, gesture or ugly face made by the hungry baby – is an effort to tell others something about our own subjective experience of the world.

    My brother and self appointed publicist recently wanted to put a heading on my website.  Writer, Gardener, Mother.  I was horrified.  My husband doesn’t put R&D Director, father, on his businesscard, I said.  But then maybe he should.  Perhaps writers,
    like everyone else, need to remember that their identities do not come solely from their occupation.  Recently, when I asked my five year old daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said ‘I’m going to be a doctor and a mummy and a cyclist and a reader.”  And why not?

    I write as a way of exploring the human condition, the strange twisting logic of cause and effect.  I write to tell others how I feel about things, and why.  I write to escape from my skin, to reach out to the living world around me, to become something other than the limits of myself.   I write because I believe that I should, because I believe that we all should.  Because the drive to communicate is not just an imperative, but a duty.

    But I am not a writer.   I am a writer and a mother and a gardener and a teacher and a cook and a cleaner and a reader and many other things.  In other words, I am a person who writes.