Sunday, 24 October 2021

Waiting for the upswing...

I meant to publish this post to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Day which was earlier this month but then I dithered, edited, and then delayed, dithered some more, made further edits and delayed again. Why the reticence? Well, despite having relatively few readers, to publish a deeply personal post about mental health still feels very much like an exposure - it's putting yourself out there, allowing yourself to show your vulnerability and, potentially, invites judgement, accusations of attention-seeking, or worst of all... disbelief.  

Though there is much helpful information about mental health, and a barrage of hashtags on social media, there is still a stigma attached to it and many misconceptions. I have struggled with bouts of recurring depression for over 20 years and yet if I ever admit this to people they are often surprised and some do not understand at all, diminishing the condition entirely with lines like, 'I get a bit down sometimes too'. Feeling a bit low is not the same as experiencing the overwhelming, persistent and  oppressive, despairing sadness of clinical depression. Recognising this, and talking openly about mental health, not only raises awareness but helps to give a voice to those struggling to express what they are feeling and that's the reason I finally published this post - not for attention or pity but just in case it helps someone else.  

Each person's experience of depression is, of course, different but there are three main ways that depression affects me, and many others. I have summarised these under the headings  - distortion, disengagement and dissociation - all appropriately enough beginning with the negative prefix 'dis':

Firstly, depression affects cognitive processes - it hijacks your ability to reason objectively and distorts your reality. Almost everyone experiences these types of thinking errors at one time or another but with a depressive disorder the thoughts are constant and, for me, include: 

Emotional Reasoning - an entirely subjective viewpoint where you think that if you feel something then it must be true. For example, you might feel that you made a bad job of something - a task at work maybe - and so because you think this, it must be true.  You can't apply any logical reasoning but rely on emotional judgement instead.

Mental Filter - the feeling of gloom and hopelessness dulls everything around you so you can no longer see any light or pick out any colour. Everything darkens and the only details of any situation or event that you can focus on is the negative and you will dwell on this exclusively. Like Alice, you fall down the rabbit hole but instead of seeing Wonderland you just see the hole.

Mind-Reading -  where you make negative assumptions and conclusions about other people's actions without any real evidence to support them. For example, if a friend is busy and can't make a get together then you might wrongly conclude that they don't want to see you at all; someone delays answering your text, or gives an unusually brief response - they must be angry or upset with you. You don't question your mind reading ability or bother to check out your assumptions.

Depression creates disengagement from friends and family and from any previous source of joy and inspiration. You cannot fully engage socially with people you would normally enjoy spending time with. You feel too emotionally distant and numb to initiate a conversation and too physically exhausted by the mental process of appearing 'normal' to engage in any activities or hobbies.  A close friend observed that she knew I was depressed when I said that I hadn't been able to read; this is coming from a voracious reader who generally has at least two books on the go at a time. If I picked up a book then I would feel like a machine reading - I read fluently but the words meant nothing. There's a disengagement from day-to-day living too - you cannot find the motivation to meet needs with action. You need to get up, you need to take a shower, you need to work, but you stay buried alive under the duvet, reach for the dry shampoo and don't bother with the makeup, then sit almost catatonically at your desk unable to engage your 'work persona', feeling instead like an useless imposter.

Dissociation is a term that encompasses a number of conditions. For me, dissociation is the most distressing part of depression. It is the unsettling experience of depersonalisation and derealisation. You become so disconnected that you feel that you are literally not yourself. Trying to manage depression for any length of time means having to do things on autopilot and this creates a sense that you are looking at yourself from a distance - an observer in your own life. Not feeling connected to your internal dialogue makes your thoughts seem as though they come out of nowhere and sometimes they become bizarre, random and intrusive. Everything around you feels artificial. Bad dreams seep into waking life and flood your perception, meaning that you have to actively question what is real and what is not. 

I think, ironically, that I've managed to write a thoroughly depressing post when that wasn't my intention! One thing that I have learned about these bouts of depression is that there is an upswing - you just have to be patient. But it's not something you can manage alone. Your instinct is to shut down and retreat into yourself but you need to be brave enough to reach out to those around you for help and support to give you that necessary push. 

Sunday, 9 May 2021


How to define 'nostalgia'? Looking back at the past through a warm golden filter? Sentimental longing? Wistful affection for the past? The word's etymology is interesting - from the Greek nostos meaning 'return home' and algos meaning 'pain' - and it is exactly that bittersweet nature of nostalgia that I've been dwelling on recently. Because nostalgia is much much more than just remembering, it is a feeling. We transport ourselves back to a time in order to feel pleasurable emotions and sensations again but, in doing so, we are also reminded that we can never have this again in the present. 

Why have I been musing on nostalgia? Well, there's nothing like a pandemic, with its threat and uncertainly, to make us collectively crave the familiar comforts of the past and, with the introspective nature of lockdown, it is not surprising that nostalgia has become a current preoccupation. Almost everyone I know has revisited their own personal archives over the last year whether sorting through the wardrobe and remembering the last time you wore something, clearing out the loft of sentimental possessions or going through old photographs and reminiscing. I managed to find a random collection of photos from decades ago when I was a similar age to my adult daughters now. One showed me getting ready to go out, hair in heated rollers (remember those!) with a good dollop of make-up. Although I'd say I'm more introvert than extrovert, that image brought back all the carefree excitement and abandonment of a good night out. How thrilling it was to mingle on a crowded dancefloor, socially undistanced, get swept up in the music at a live gig or laugh so much with friends that you lost the ability to stand unaided! Those photos made me smile but also reminded me, sadly, that I am in my fifties and not my twenties - how quickly time passes! And it's not that I would want to go to a nightclub necessarily when restrictions lift or experience sensory overload at a music venue or, indeed, suffer a vodka induced hangover at 54, but the seclusion and social isolation that lockdown brings does make me wistful for the happy clamour and closeness of other people. 

In Covid confinement, nostalgia also manifested itself as a return to old fashioned analogue hobbies. I haven't been the slightest bit tempted by baking, knitting or gardening (I seem only able to bake scones, I'm more of a knotter than a knitter and gardening to me is just housework outside) but I have re-read old favourites and completed one ridiculously difficult jigsaw puzzle. Nostalgia is not just limited to pastimes either, it's affected our media consumption too. TV habits changed with many re-watching events such as the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics or starting on old box sets once more. I started Homeland again but once I got to Season 5 I couldn't cope any longer with the sheer bonkers plot lines! Spotify reported a 54% increase in listeners creating nostalgia-themed playlists in April 2020 alone and I'm guilty as charged having created more than one of these - surprising myself that I still know all the words to Are 'Friends' Electric...'It's cold outside...' 

So all this retrospection must be a coping mechanism of some kind and in this sense it is a positive one as it reinforces a sense of continuity when everything around us feels fragile and disrupted. Feeling insecure and anxious about the present sends us scurrying back to the past; nostalgia - the security blanket of adulthood. But there is also a negative aspect to nostalgia, one that doesn't help promote good mental health. Going back to its etymology, nostalgia can evoke 'pain' as well as comfort simply because it induces longing. In the words of Shakespeare,  'there's the rub',  for when indulged in in isolation, nostalgia becomes too inextricably tied up with loss and its equally miserable bedfellow - regret. We are painfully reminded of what, and who, we have lost and the more we long for them. If we cocoon ourselves in the past for too long then we distance ourselves from appreciating what and who we have now. Nostalgia is a poor proxy for happiness in the present. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Lessons in the Time of Corona

So, back in lockdown again and this time I've been able to reflect more on the weird experience that is remote teaching. First time around there was no time to plan; back last March, with about a day's notice, it was all I could do to hastily throw whatever resources I could into a shopping bag and decant the classroom plants to the car, saving them from certain arid death. It was all a bit like a classroom trolley dash and once home I discovered that I had few of the things I really needed for virtual teaching survival and, also, a horrible realisation that I had left a half-eaten banana to ferment in my desk drawer. 

This time we were prepared (well, as much as we could be) - no matter how much the government would repeat the optimistic mantra of schools being 'Covid-secure' it was easy to see from inside education that, being in contact with potentially hundreds of households a day, schools would surely provide a conduit to transmission despite their best efforts otherwise. I'm very fortunate in that the school I work for provided every teacher with a more than decent laptop and I have room at home to set up my home classroom. We use MS Teams and Firefly to deliver live teaching and collaborate and I'm defnitely nearer to the top of that steep learning curve in learning how to use both than I was; as for the the myriad of add-ons, apps, tools etc. I'd say I'm still sliding about in the pit at the bottom!

What lessons have I learned then about, well, 'lessons' in the time of Corona? Here are four of my observations about online learning and teaching so far:

1. Teaching the void

(Image credit: New|York Times)
As a specialist teacher, I teach a variety of age groups. The younger pupils are all for the novelty of appearing on camera, often with their pets or younger siblings, whereas older pupils, particularly early teens, are for the most part more reluctant. This results in lessons where you feel you are very much teaching to the void - a silent, blank virtual space with live teenagers replaced by initials or bitmojis and avatars. This is very disconcerting. A good teacher works on 'reading the room', working to keep engagement high - how do you engage in a vacuum? 

It's not difficult to understand the reticence; I think anyone can remember how painfully important peer acceptance is at this age and so letting your entire class into your home and to be staring at each other face-to-face on screen for extended periods is uncomfortable - like sustained eye-contact. I've found some compromise so far to be to encourage interaction at the start with an unmuted video check in so I can at least ascertain who's there - a game, quiz, emoji rating for objectives - all go a long way to break the ice. I've also taken my cue from them - teens prefer the Chat bar on Teams and even the most wallflower student will use the 'raise hand' function. Zoom are, apparently, introducing the option of students only appearing on video to the teacher/presenter - a welcome development indeed. Of course, there will always be the exhibitionists, and future social influencers, who love to appear on screen and it's not gone unnoticed when there is a budding flirtation between teens going on either (cue endless hair-flicking) - just imagine how distracting it would have been to have your high school crush, in their bedroom, on your screen...for hours!

2. I'll show you mine, if you show me yours

The art of seamless screen-sharing during remote teaching is essential as well as learning how to incorporate various other apps and links. It should be simple, but to start with I found this difficult to get right, sometimes with amusing (possibly compromising) results such as sharing my Amazon basket with my class rather than the PowerPoint! At least I am not alone, as a quick poll from teacher friends and social media confirms this is a common issue as we grapple with screen multi-tasking: teachers being embarrassed by majorly cluttered desktops, private emails, cringe-worthy notifications coming up and, for one poor soul, the big reveal of their Harry Styles obsession with their screen background. And, for heaven's sake, remember to stop screen-sharing when you're done!

3. Video killed the teaching star

Teachers are often surprisingly introverted - I have colleagues who come into their own commanding a classroom full of rowdy pupils yet shudder at the thought of ringing a parent and feel physically sick giving a presentation to colleagues. I think this is even more the case in Higher Education where the sudden change to broadcaster and online presenter has been stratospherically out of the comfort zone. Almost overnight, teachers and lecturers have had to become both online course designers, video producer, editing specialist and live streaming star. Before all of this, the terms 'synchronous' and 'asynchronous' meant nothing to me whereas now I am 'in the mix' and able to at least consider how these might fit online pedagogy even if I haven't fully mastered breakout rooms, chat bars, online polls and collaborative spaces such as MURAL and Padlet! Personally, I'm of the opinion that less is more - too much technology and the lesson becomes an overwhelming multi-sensory circus. I've not forgotten the first live teaching experience where I played it safe and just focused on having a check-in with pupils and spending time talking over what they were finding difficult; one pupil at the end exclaimed genuinely, 'Oh Miss, it's just so nice to see you!' 

(Image credit:

4. Private versus public

Perhaps the biggest change with remote learning is the way the gap between public and private worlds has narrowed. Pupils perceive their teachers within the confines of the classroom; they are surprised to see you outside of that realm and realise that you don't pack yourself away in the classroom store cupboard at the end of the day. Bringing the classroom into your home, and for pupils to bring you vitually into theirs, obviously needs careful safeguarding. Teens do so much of their socialising online that, for many, virtual learning seems like an extension of this. It's easy for them to forget protocol and need direction about what is and isn't appropriate - this has mean a whole host of sentences I never thought I'd hear myself say in the context of teaching: 'Please wear actual clothes not pyjamas'; 'I can only see your feet, please can you sit the right way up'; 'Can you mute your microphone - the slurping of noodles is very distracting' - being just some. In now crowded lockdown homes, often with two parents trying to work and a whole host of other children, trying to find a quiet space to concentrate is as difficult for pupils as it is for their teachers and I feel nothing but admiration for the educators with young children. Improvisation is the name of the game and I've seen colleagues with ironing board desks set up in the hallway, or using a corner of the kitchen with the side of the fridge making an impromptu whiteboard and children sat cross-legged on the floor of a cupboard or round the table on their phone with the whole extended family, even grandma, on theirs.

That said, for all the distractions and interruptions that home learning brings, there has been something heart-warming too in rediscovering just what a privilege teaching is, and, that successful learning and teaching, however it might be delivered, is very much reliant on the quality of the relationship between teacher and learner. Pupils having insight into more than your teaching persona - hobbies, pets, interests and family - has not been the infringement on privacy that I thought it might be but instead a way to build common ground and increase the trust needed for the learner to tell you what's missing from their understanding. Finding out your teacher is a secret gamer, hence the headset, or that they support the same football team does much to increase that bond. In the same way, having parents be around, or even join in lessons does not seem like an observation or judgement but instead an opportunity to work in partnership to support learning. There is so much humour in the situation we find ourselves in too - my husband said just the other day that what surprised him the most about remote teaching was the amount of shared laughter that dominates the majority of lessons in lockdown. In the middle of such an uncertain and anxious time for our young people, school continues to be the stablising influence, all that has changed is its physical location. 

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Of tents and smocks

The summer weather (defined as anything above 12 degrees in Scotland) brings with it a clothing dilemma for curvier gals. For once you are a size 14 or more it seems you are beyond fashion too. You pass into the alternate universe of plus-sized fashion or 'fatshion' as I tend to call it.  How I hate the term 'plus-sized'; if you're going to have a separate range of clothes then at least give that range a more body positive name; after all, you would never expect to see 'petite' marketed as 'short'. Some high street brands such as ASOS have introduced terms such as 'Curve' which is definitely better but while it has more positive connotations, it is still a label and still a separate category. Why should anyone have to shop in the segregated section at the back of the shop or shop online only. There should not be limited options and an expectation that less than perfect bodies should be hidden under ugly clothes. All curvier women really really want, is the same clothes selection as everyone else just in their size. 

With fashion, the underlying judgement is that you have to fit the standard to earn the right to buy nice clothes. Ugly clothes are a kind of punishment for not being the beauty ideal and that is slim. But, I hear you say, there's so much more about 'body positive' these days and it's true that I see more variety of models in advertsising that are not model size 8. That's great, and I hope more than a trend, but when you actually look at the clothes on offer nothing has really changed. There's a huge (excuse the unintended pun) market out there for women who want to be able to buy the same clothes as their slimmer friends and not a poor quality tent dress or a frumpy smock. If you've never had to look through the fatshion range then you probably think that there's the same choice as in the standard section. There's not. Rather than go with the fashion, plus-size sticks with the same clichés regardless as to what's in vogue and will charge you more to boot. It's the 'same old, same old' totally limited disarray of unimaginative and often downright hideous clothes. If you don't believe me then let me take you on a guided tour. I've divided this into four 'fategories' with some pictures of actual current offerings from the cheaper high street and online brands.

John Lewis

1. Back to Black
It might be summer but if you filter plus-sized fashion by colour then black is the most common - they might add some scratchy lace or old lady polka dots but essentially black is the colour of choice. Yes, it's often slimming but that's because it disguises any kind of contour; there is a point where it is no longer flattering but instead creates a shapeless black block with no definition at all. What's more, you will absorb all sunlight until you melt into a black puddle. I call this shapeless number - the slug

2. Checks, Stripes and Abstract
At the opposite end of the fat spectrum to black are the truly horrible patterned numbers. You will never see stripes so ghastly or patterns so grotesque as in the plus-sized section. The thinking seems to be 'more is more' rather than something subtle. If you're bigger than average then you obviously need bigger stripes, enormous geometric shapes or cabbage sized flowers.
Yours Clothing

New Look

Simply Be

3. Random Additions
For some reason plus-size also seems to mean plus writing too. You might find something acceptable in style and shape but you can bet if it's plus- sized then it will have the unwelcome addition of a random word or cliched expression - 'Be Happy', 'Paris', 'Diva'... Alternately the addition will be some kind of generally childish applique. Why as a grown woman in my 50s would I want a cute rabbit on the front of my t-shirt or hearts and cherries? It's as though the underlying message or expectation is that curvy equals cutesy chuckles and fun, fun, fun rather than anything mature, seductive or business-like.


Simply Be
4. Unpleasant Peasant
Never has bohemia been so ugly. Frills, florals, tassels, frumpy sleeves and cheesecloth. Apart from looking like Gypsy 'Roly' Rose, materials that inflate rather than drape leave you in real danger, on a windy day, of sailing across the lawn.

It is possible to design something attractive and stylish in a larger size but the key word here is 'design' and that's the missing element. Where are the designers that understand all shapes and sizes? I challenge you to provide a much needed service and banish fatshion for good. Bring on the biggerlicious!

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind

I once gave directions to Van Morrison; on another occasion I was nearly run over by Mariella Frostrup, and, one time, while waiting to pick up pizza, I awkwardly complimented Paul Weller on his shoes.These are just a few of the random celebrity encounters I have had over the last 35 years but they are, for various reasons, some of the most memorable.

There is nothing special about me, I lack the tenacity to be a stalker and I am not in a job where such meetings are inevitable. The truth is more mundane and the result only of coincidence of place and time. Pretty much everyone I know has had at least one such encounter and a quick trawl of  Twitter reveals it to be awash with tales of such incidents that occasionally turn out to be inspiring, but often disappointing.

An 'encounter' is defined in the dictionary as 'an unexpected meeting' and it is this that makes the experience very different from the contrived. Joining the crowds on the pavement at some premiere, going to a YouTube meet-up or handing over a book for signing at your local Waterstones is not quite the same. Casual encounters with A-listers surprise us as they suggest that these earthly gods might, in fact, be just like us - they get lost, drive badly and eat pizza. Glimpsing them unguarded or without the usual entourage reveals them as just people.

Back when I was in my twenties (how ancient that makes me sound) there were no mobile phones to record such encounters and no social platforms to share the proof. Perhaps that meant that celebrities, minor and major, felt less vulnerable and more able to do 'normal' things. Certainly, I can't imagine that anyone remotely famous must be able to eat in a restaurant nowadays without being filmed or being constantly interrupted with requests for a 'selfie'. Much of the reason for this is that the modern celebrity presents themselves in perfect form: the posts on Instagram have been selectively curated and edited, paparazzi carefully prepped on where and when to get the best shot. It is not surprising that we do not recognise the famous as one of us and, perhaps, excuseable that we are either disappointed or delighted when they slip up, depending on how much of a fan we are.

In a media lecture I remember first learning about this so called 'halo effect' - the psychological phenomenon where if someone has a particular talent or is highly rated in one area - attractiveness for example - then we assume that they must be equally superior in all other areas. Of course, promotion and endorsement plays on this skewed perception, fooling us into thinking that if they wear a particular logo or use a certain brand of make-up that some of that 'celebrity magic' will somehow rub off on us; sometimes, in the young, this is to a dangerous degree. A chance meeting, if only brief, gives us a chance to view the famous from a different perspective - this time as a fellow human being with the same foibles and idiosyncrasies.

To me, Van Morrison is an icon - the finest songwriter there is - and so when I met him at the doorway to my local cafe, when I lived in London, and realised who I was giving directions to, my heart thumped right out of my chest, and, not being very good at directions anyway, I then became hopelessly tongue-tied. What I wanted to do was tell him how much I admired him or, cleverly, quote an appropriate lyric; what I actually did is mumble and stutter hopelessly inaccurate directions. It was only when I staggered breathlessly into the cafe and spoke to the friendly Iranian owner that I discovered that Morrison was a frequent visitor; the owner even showed me where he liked to sit and revealed that he was quite partial to a sausage roll! I was stunned. I had been to that little cafe so many times so it was quite likely that I had, unknowlingly, sat on the next table to him. "I treat him just like any other customer," the owner said proudly and I agreed, somewhat disbelievingly, that he was really just like us. I went back, more often than usual, forever hopeful that I'd run into 'Van the Man' again but he never returned. I think my stunned reaction scared him off, either that or he's still wandering around west London...

Sunday, 19 August 2018

What stuff they really need for Uni

I've been inspired to write this practical post after having just moved my eldest daughter into a new student house for the second year of her degree. Her new digs are positively palatial in size compared to the cramped cell of the uni halls she endured for the first year. 

As a new undergraduate we thought it was important that she stayed on campus but had no real idea of what she might need and so went along with everything that was recommended. Needless to say, at the end of that first year, over half of the 'stuff' she took wasn't needed. So if you have reached that life stage where your son or daughter is about to start uni, and will be living in halls, here's a straight forward guide to what they really need.

Obviously, student accommodation varies hugely, from luxury hotel chic to grim rabbit hutch, so you should know that this list is based on the University of Stirling's mid-price range accommodation which is basically akin to a 1960s communist prison programme:

1. The soft stuff

Before - bare cell
A mattress topper is a must have if you want them to have a little comfort and to avoid thinking about the previous sweaty bodies that may have broken in that mattress! I splashed out on a sumptuous velvet 'enhancer' which did exactly that and improved a pretty ropey mattress no end.

On the topic of bedding you'd be wise to take all your own rather than use the duvet/pillows the uni may provide which in our case felt much like 40 tog porridge. Halls are often hot, even in winter, and so a summer weight duvet might be better, dressed up with cosy throw and cushions to provide a place to sit as well as sleep. 

Take plenty of towels/sheets/ covers; the laundry facilities might be miles across campus! 

Speaking of laundry - a bag for storing/transporting dirty/clean clothes is useful too. Avoid buying laundry detergent/conditioner until you've checked out the facilities - most unis have a card system but some machines work best with the all-in-one capsules. Still on the subject of laundry - colour catchers are great as they allow you to mix colours and save money on doing separate washes. 

2. Electrical stuff

After - much improved 
A laptop is an obvious must but a small printer that can also scan and copy is super useful too and cost saving in the long run. Chargers and at least one extension cable helps as an older style uni room will have limited plug sockets in the wrong place (many unis will insist that items are PAT tested unless new.) A lot of halls provide a desk lamp but it's nice to have some other lighting to create a more homely atmosphere - don't forget bulbs. Candles are generally banned but battery operated tealights and fairylights are a good alternative. 

Each uni will have a list of electrical items that students are not allowed to bring but that generally doesn't stop many from trying. When we moved our daughter in we saw parents attempting to squeeze microwaves and slow cookers into tiny rooms as well as irons and hoovers! You don't need any of these items. If you have room, then a small fridge is helpful; shared kitchens mean that anything left in a shared fridge for even the briefest amount of time is fair game!

3. Kitchen stuff

If you read the list provided on most student websites you'd think that everyone was planning a stint as resident chef; far better to bring less to start with and pool kitchen stuff with others. Even if self-catered, you don't need a whole saucepan set, scales or a mixing bowl (one medium saucepan may well be enough). A plastic measuring jug that doubles up as a microwave saucepan is a good idea too. There is little room in any communal kitchen so whatever can be cooked in one pot or pan is best and it needs to be simple and fast. For that reason a smallish wok is a pretty good investment as is a small rectangular oven dish and a baking tray. A tray so they can easily take stuff back to their rooms. Get your offspring to do the shopping and practise cooking now so they have a few dishes under their belt. 
The Dream
Only two plates, bowls and a couple of inexpensive mugs are needed along with a selection of cheap glasses and few pieces of basic cutlery (a tip here is to get something that is easily recognisable as theirs, i.e. coloured handles, as this discourages other students from claiming the odd fork and teaspoon as their own), a multi-purpose knife, tin opener, scissors and a bottle opener- A small chopping board, a small sieve is also useful for draining all those cheap meals of pasta. A few cleaning items - spray, washing up liquid, cloth, tea towels and oven glove etc. Final suggestion is some kitchen towelfoil, food sealer clips, tupperware and/or plastic storage boxes for fridge etc that they can put their name on (have a few Sharpies for naming).
The Reality

4. Food Stuff

It's tempting to worry that they're going to starve but try to avoid arriving with a semester's supply of food. There's little cupboard or fridge space so, again, just a few things to start off with - one bag of pasta and a few ready made stir in sauces, breadfruit, cereal, milk, yogurts etc.

It's useful to buy some of the more expensive store cupboard ingredients like oils/sauces for stir fry, dried herbs/spices as well as a some comfort/snack items: nutella, cookies, tortilla chips and dips. For drinks coffee, tea, hot chocolate etc. You may well be coerced into providing alcohol (I saw plenty of bottles of vodka and tequila being surreptiously brought in) but don't forget soft drinks too. It's worth buying a filter jug for water between hall mates or a small filter water bottle.

Buy some frozen food for ease as well. Packets of ready-prepared veg and rice are easy to do in the microwave and, let's face it, for the majority of students there's more chance of them actually eating vegetables this way (the fancy peeler we bought our daughter came back after the year still in the packaging!)

It's pretty common for most students to spend the first few nights (sometimes months) with takeaways and beer, getting to know their hall mates, so a Domino's or Nando's voucher/giftcard is a nice touch as is a homemade cake/brownies to share that first night. 

5. All the other stuff

  • Onesie/fancy dress items - the madness of Freshers requires suitable gear - a funny onesie, wig, mask, face paints etc. all comes in handy
  • Medicine/Vitamins - They are almost certain to get Fresher's Flu so make sure they have a medical box with all the possible stuff they might need: painkillers, plasters, lemsip, savlon etc etc. Multivitamin/Echinacea - Give their immune system a boost and stave offf scurvy!
  • Hot water bottle/ fluffy socks etc. - some kind of comfort item is appreciated 
  • Something smart/dressy - depending on likely events -  black tie, freshers ball, club or job interview - oh, and also - hangers!
  • Bath/shower mats & flip flops/sliders - shared bathrooms - that's is all I'm going to say on this point! 
  • Cheap loo brush/toilet rolls- if you have your own bathroom
  • Door wedge - an open door is an invitation to new friends
  • Bluetooth speaker - As above, nice to be able to share music rather than being in isolation listening on headphones and great for impromptu hall parties
  • Entertainment -  frisbee, beer pong, cards, favourite DVDs  etc. - also plastic cups for parties!
  • Bowl/Bucket, kitchen towel, cloths, cleaning wipes/spray, febreze, rubber gloves - for when there's a little too much partying!
  • Earplugs - for when it's all too much and the paper thin walls, and your noisy hall mates, stop you from sleeping 
  • Important documents folder - make sure bank details, national insurance number, certificates, passport etc. are securely together
  • Discount cards - many student accounts offer incentives such as a 16-25 railcard so it's worth shopping around. is also worth joining for money off favourite products
  • Emergency fund - if you can afford it give them some emergency cash to stow away for when they've gone through their loan or need a taxi etc. It takes time to work out how to budget if you've never done it before - often the whole of the first year!
  • Stationery - Obviously paper, pens, binder, stapler, hole punch etc. also a whiteboard, academic year wall calendar. A few blank-inside cards and a book of stamps; nothing beats a handwritten note especially for older relatives who aren't online, particularly if they've donated to the 'poor student fund'. N.B. Don't let them take all their A Level/Higher textbooks and notes - they will never look at them!  
  • Decoration -  Command strips are great. They can even be used for putting up coat hooks or fairy lights- get a selection of sizes. Washi tape is great on notice boards and for general decoration. Photos, posters are all good for cheering up a uni room but take care of paintwork. Space saving storage - stacking boxes, coat hooks, trolley, hanging organiser, under the bed boxes if there's room etc.
  • Amazon Prime - for everything else! Seriously, the best thing we did was have family membership - it meant I could send all manner of emergency items and my daughter could order books etc as well as watch movies online. 
It's a big step and that's not just for your young one; it's hard to let go of the apron strings. If you can, try and have that chat about all the potential problems, before they go and not on moving day, that includes all the usual safety issues. Being in halls creates a pressure cooker for anxieties and tempers - it's common to have fallouts and even more common to feel homesick. Try to discourage it when they want to run home after the first week and be clear and honest about how much financial help you can really afford to give. Lastly, once you've moved them in, it will be super hard to say goodbye and you'll want to hang around or even take them for dinner. DON'T! Say goodbyes cheerfully with a good hug and positive reassurances that they'll be fine and then leave! 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Letter to Luna

Dear Luna,

I remember the day we picked you up. We drove around a little Yorkshire town in the torrential rain eventually finding the right address. My first impression was that of a scraggy, dirty white cushion with legs! Rescued from a puppy farm, mother dead, and the runt of the litter, you didn't have the best of starts but for all of us it was love at first sight. We drove back up to Scotland with you whimpering in the back seat all the way. Your little heart fluttered furiously in your chest and you continued to shake the entire journey.

To be honest, you didn't smell the best but, bribed with tidbits, comforted with toys and a soft bed, you eventually settled enough in your new home for us to give you a bath and try to tame that matted fur into cotton wool fluff. You were adorable.

It was the desire to protect, to have a collective 'fur baby' and the prospect of a living toy to play with that ensured your place at the centre of our family and a special place in our hearts. We spoilt you rotten and never managed to successfully train you. You complained too much to be left alone at night, and despite my discouragement, you would brazenly take your place in the youngest member of the family's bed, contentedly snuggled under the duvet.

Despite that high pitched shriek of a bark, and your tendency to pee at the feet of any visitor, you were also loved by friends and extended family too. You had your favourites, of course; essentially anyone who was prepared to play lengthy games of 'chase me' or to over indulge you with treats. You weren't one for long walks but you loved to run along the shore, chasing seagulls and digging in the sand. 

I am trying to remember the good times and not let the bad ones at the end cloud my memory. Your perchant for a 'Bichon blitz' - the sudden frantic running in circles, jumping on and off furniture in a crazy whirlwind of energy; your skill at roll-over tricks, your tolerance at being dressed up in a ridiculous Christmas pudding outfit; and the calmer times too where you would curl up at the end of my bed in quiet companionship.

Sometimes I think I can still feel the shape of your little head as it rests on my lap, I might see a dash of white around the doorway or hear the tap tap of your little paws across the floor. Not everyone understands the intensity of grief from the loss of a pet. Some less sentimental souls have said, 'It's just a dog' or, 'You can get another', but you were never just a dog, Luna, and you cannot be replaced. There is capacity in our hearts for another dog to love but it would not be a replacement. You were a member of the family and there is a Luna-shaped hole in our hearts that can't be filled. Life is fragile and joy often fleeting but I'm glad that we found each other and despite the pain of losing you I'm so grateful that we had you to love if only for such a short time.

Goodbye little Luna. We won't ever forget you. 

Luna 1st May 2011 - 5th June 2017