Tag Archives: Personal

Managing in the Middle

My husband Rob’s tenure as an acting head of department at Keele University comes to an end on April 1st, and it can’t come soon enough. It was always made clear that in the long run an outside person was wanted, and Rob was happy to play an interim role until a full-time appointment was made. But enough is enough.

We live on campus and don’t have any internet connectivity at home in an attempt to try and keep some work/life balance. Consequently Rob mainly comes home for lunch, and before his headship, would pop back to the office for short periods of an evening or at the weekend. However, with no respite from any of his “normal job activities” and numerous additional demands on his time, 12+ hour days, 7 days a week became the norm!! Lunchtime (if he got one) could swing between anything from 11.15 to 2.45pm, depending on meeting durations or a sudden summons from “on high” being received. Whole days filled with back to back meetings regularly occur, meaning his “day job” duties would start at 5pm or clocking-off time for many others. This situation is all the more frustrating because much of these head of department meetings are on subject matters that you have no qualification for, health & safety, finance, building plans, HR etc! He is a scientist (with his research withering on the vine right now) but finds himself playing a politics game within a hierarchy that has revealed itself in a less than favourable light. Issues of legacy seem to be far higher on the agenda than issues of staff and student well-being.

Strike action over pensions is about to start in universities. Edicts from the powers that be on how to handle the situation, contradict completely the Union manifest on the same subject. It seems to me as if both sides inhabit some alternate reality called La La Land, because their expectations are so unrealistic. Rob as head of department is placed directly in the middle of this maelstrom, being the frontline face and message boy of information, regardless of his own personal feelings on the matter. He is getting hassle from all sides, the university hierarchy, the Union and most damaging of all, grief from colleagues. Rude, ill-tempered and at times derogatory emails flying back and forth is one thing, enduring highly unpleasant face to face confrontations is quite another. It’s hard to accept the Union rep’s mantra “oh it’s nothing personal” having been challenged by a disgruntled colleague “are YOU proud of what the university is doing?” If only that person appreciated just how desperately Rob is trying to tread a fine line of fairness and diplomacy. How he is filtering some of the commands from on high because they are totally ridiculous, being unworkable and highly controversial. But these efforts are going largely unnoticed.

So as strike action looms over the last few weeks of Rob being head of department how do things look to me? Well as I listen to what’s going on from the sidelines, it’s clear that work relationships are bound to be irrevocably damaged by people reacting both in the moment and to the event, whilst generalising Rob’s role in being “one of the bad guys because he’s in management”. There appears to be little awareness that work relationships will have to continue after the dispute is over, however strained that process may be. The mantras being laid down from both the Union and higher university management seem to indicate a “head in the sand” entrenched approach, which shows scant regard for the dynamics of maintaining a good working relationship in the future. It’s all very divisive and I can’t help but reflect on the miner’s strike of the 80s where families and communities were torn apart, many remaining divided to this day. I can see a parallel with the university sector doing battle over pensions now, tuition fees in the future, and lecturers taking sides. Rob will hand over the reins to a new head of department with a sigh of relief in April, but he will never see the university hierarchy or many colleagues in the same light ever again.


Off The Beaten Track 6

BBC Radio 4 has a morning Book of the Week slot on week days, it’s not my usual listen, but due to intriguing descriptions in the Radio Times I’ve recently tuned in.  I’ve been enthralled by the stories concerning two remarkable women, one trying to escape Nazi occupied France, the other honestly chronicling the effects of living with early onset Alzheimer’s. Both have deeply touched me and I will definitely be buying the books, although I admit that the subject matter are areas I would normally shy away from, finding them upsetting to think about. But the indomitable spirit of both these women shone through the readings, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the next episode, in a kind of “wondering way”. Those ten 15 minute slots taught me more about life, survival, history and compassion than anything I’ve seen on TV.  The books are as follows:

NO PLACE TO LAY ONE’S HEAD Francoise Frenkell (Pushkin Press, £16.99)

My interest was caught when the Radio Times commented the book was initially published in Geneva 1945, and then seemingly forgotten until discovered in a French attic in 2010. A second edition was issued in French and now an English translation has been made. A firsthand account of a Jewish woman’s survival and escape from the Nazi’s in France, printed perhaps in the first few weeks of Europe peacetime in 1945, and then untouched until re-discovered in a modern day world.  Wow!

Frenkell came from a Polish Jewish family, was highly educated to degree level (I believe) having studied in Paris, and ended up opening a French bookshop in Berlin on discovering no such facility existed. Her clientele was illustrious, business brisk and successful and the future looked bright in early 1930s Berlin. Then the rule of Hitler and the effect of his policies kicked in. I listened as her beloved bookshop managed to avoid destruction as it wasn’t on an official destroy list. How she had to leave it behind and flee in the night, traversing through Europe from city to city, always somehow avoiding major crackdowns, or invasion, by a matter of days. Her skirmishes with authority and her escape attempts to reach Switzerland, finally successful. Frenkell’s words seem to be beautifully translated into an eloquent yet matter of fact way, and I listened with my “heart in my mouth” most of the time. I punched the air when her escape was successful and breathed a sigh of relief. My overall feeling was one of admiration for Francoise and her determined nature to survive in an intolerable society. But there was anger as well at the same society for its blinkered rule of law. It seemed to conveniently ignore, no doubt because of her Jewish ethnicity,  the fact Frenkell had all the necessary documentation (residency papers, visa) to live peacefully in France and to travel with ease to Switzerland.  My listening ended with Francoise setting foot in Switzerland where she survived the war to write her memoir, about her life before Nazi rule in Europe and her escape from it. The French publishing company Gallimard discovered Frenkell passed away in Nice in 1975 at the ripe age of 86 but could find no relatives.

SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury £9.99)

My listening journey with Wendy began with her describing a “fog in her head” and inexplicable falls whilst she was out running. Doctors suggested she could have had a stroke, having discovered a heart condition that was fixed through surgery. The fog continued and eventually a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was made after a seemingly painfully slow series of visits with health clinicians. Her description of looking at online videos of people living with the condition was searing, the initial thought of “but these are old people nearing the end of their lives” before finding one of a man in his late 50s like herself, who described his experiences in a mirror like fashion to her own.

Wendy worked as a NHS administrator known for her powers of recall and organisation skills. Slowly she had become aware that her grasp on things wasn’t the same. When she told management of her diagnosis the only thing offered was early retirement, there was no procedure to try and enable her to work within her remaining mental capabilities, which were still considerable. Her co-workers brilliantly rallied around to make tasks less stressful and more easy to deal with, enabling Wendy to continue in her job as long as possible. With unexpected early retirement foisted upon her Wendy decided to use her time attending conferences, doing speaking engagements and becoming a leading advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Through this work she hopes to educate people to have a better understanding of the condition. I was certainly educated as I listened to excerpts from Mitchell’s book. Hearing how familiar things can suddenly seem strange and confusing, city living becoming too noisy to deal with, the use of technology to help try and trick her condition, the coping strategies Wendy uses to deal with the sudden onset of panic. It was illuminating to literally “see the world through Wendy’s eyes” and to hear how her condition is slowly taking over her mind. Her articulation is heartfelt, honest and at times perhaps unconsciously funny with a wry humour, like her wonderment at experiencing a gliding session and how quiet the flight was, whilst knowing she wouldn’t remember a thing about the safety video if disaster struck. The realisation “if you don’t use it you will lose it” after taking a three week break from her work and finding the computer keyboard incomprehensible for a few hours. How the person she is today is someone she doesn’t really recognise anymore, yet for the joys she has lost (like TV shows, long novels, cooking) an appreciation for new joys (short stories, poetry, old familiar films). I shared Mitchell’s sadness and resigned acceptance when her extra income from government support was removed, having been deemed fit enough to function on a daily basis.  Much of the “medical tests” used depended on the person remembering how they were before, a ludicrous concept when you consider the nature of an Alzheimer’s condition. Wendy’s resilience and determination to live life to the full for as long as possible was utterly compelling. Once again I had found a woman living in a difficult situation, making the best of it and triumphing in a way against the odds. Somehow both Francoise and Wendy made me feel empowered too.

In closing, I will mention a book that has been on my bookshelf since 2001. It’s called HAPPY TIMES by Lee Radziwill (sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). I read about it in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and asked my husband to look for it in America when he visited a few weeks later. There is little dialogue in it and is mainly a gorgeous photo book, rather like a family album. I’ve delved into it many a time, but only really read the dialogue this week. I’ve been happily updating my photo album with recent activity pictures, and from Wendy Mitchell’s book there is a strong element of how important photo’s can be for memories. We live in such uncertain times; I’ve chosen to look for the joy in things as much as possible. Photography is a passion and a joy, and my husband suggested I look at Happy Times again and actually read it. A quote in the introduction says it all for me: “I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times. That’s my choice”.

A Year of Firsts In 2016

I managed to achieve a few personal “firsts” in 2016 which I feel should be acknowledged, and it all began in January at the Burns Night Supper, where I recited two poems in public for the first time ever. I felt a nice sense of accomplishment after that. You can hear my efforts from both 2016 and 2017 Suppers here:



On a regular basis I attend exhibitions but I NEVER thought I would witness the technology that effectively began the space race. Seeing the “Cosmonauts Birth of a Space Age” in the Science Museum London was incredible. Viewing Sputnik, hearing the signal she sent and seeing all that pioneering technology and reading about the history was amazing. That was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. I also managed to see the 175 Faces of Chemistry exhibition at the Royal Society of Chemistry. Here I had the surreal experience of knowing about six of the faces through Rob’s work as a chemistry lecturer. But my “first” was considering one of them a good friend who is still only in the “first phase” of her career. Dr Suze Kundu has achieved so much for her tender years and I’m sure will continue to fly high. I felt quietly proud of knowing this clever young woman who I first met as a bubbly PhD student at the Aberdeen Science Festival 2012.

During the spring I saw The Three Degrees perform at the Crewe Lyceum Theatre for the first and probably only time. Although I’ve attended many concerts and theatre shows, I never cease to marvel at seeing acts I’ve known about since childhood. I still pinch myself at the wonder of it. The Three Degrees were as beautifully attired as I remembered, with vocals as wonderful as ever, and a real class act. At the same theatre in the autumn I witnessed a Q&A with Dame Joan Collins a style of show I hadn’t seen before, although I had seen Joan do pantomime a few years ago.

Toward the end of the football season 2015/16 I decided to get into “pre-season” training immediately. I had thought of doing it before but dismissed the idea fairly quickly. But doing football commentary from the top end of the main stand at Gresty Road needs stamina, and a three month layoff is no good for the body at the start of a new campaign. So I began a proper exercise routine the day after Crewe Alexandra’s last home match. With the aid of a few home exercise DVDs’ I devised my own workout sequence and kept at it, even when I discovered muscles I didn’t know existed and found general movement (especially sitting down/getting up) difficult. Gradually the shock left my system and come August I bounded up the main stand stairs like Rocky in the film. It was with great restraint I didn’t throw my arms aloft and start dancing around. But I did emulate Rocky inside my head which felt good.

The big sensation of the summer was the Pokémon Go craze and Rob jumped on board within a few short weeks. It got him into exercise as well because walks were suddenly on the agenda and I joined the Pokémon bandwagon the third week of August. I had never done any kind of real computer gaming before, and my coordination is such I don’t use the phone much whilst walking, as something is bound to come a cropper. So I learned a new game and by doing so vastly improved my general coordination. And a bonus is the wonderful sunrises, sunsets and morning/evening birdsong I’ve enjoyed witnessing so much. For a while the walks replaced the workout sessions, although I’m trying to mix the two together now, because each has its place. The added bonus to all this activity is I’ve managed to shave a number of inches and pounds off my frame as well.

Captured on Camera Keele Squirrel
                                Captured on Camera Keele Squirrel

I finally got around to visiting the observatory for the first time, to witness the transit of Mercury in May, a few months short of my 25th Keele arrival anniversary. The observatory was always somewhere I was going to visit but never got round to it. Another Keele first was finally getting a really good photo of the areas main resident, the grey squirrel. Armed with a new digital camera with a huge optical zoom, I at last captured decent images of these distinct Keelites. I’m also working on some bird photography too.

Little Robin Redbreast
               Little Robin Redbreast

Last year was particularly good for moon watching and I can hardly believe I’ve got images which make me think of films from the lunar landings. It was the first time I had ever considered turning my camera toward the moon, but I’m so glad I got the idea.

Super Moon
                                                           Super Moon

In November I had the pleasure of being a volunteer at the local Fenton Manor Sports Complex. My first time ever at a table tennis event, and it was an international European qualifier match England v Greece. I know absolutely nothing about the game but learned quickly as I undertook my duties as a “live scorer”. England was victorious after a nail biting tie-break set and as we wrapped up the evening, I discovered that 600 had been in the venue and 2.2 million had watched on Bible Sport!! Next day I Googled the site and came across footage of the match (with me in it from a distance), and managed to glean some screen shots for the photo album, another first from the experience.

I’ve always felt privileged to have seen Torvill & Dean perform their Olympic winning routine Bolero after they turned professional and went on tour. I didn’t think I would see another Olympic performance again. But at the London International Horse Show at Olympia I witnessed Charlotte Dujardin & Valegro perform their Gold medal routine from London 2012. I didn’t see it at the time nor afterwards. What an honour to see this pair perform together for one last time to say goodbye. My first ever equine Olympic experience was simply sublime to witness and a glorious way to end my year of “firsts”.

Valegro's Last Performance
                                 Valegro’s Last Performance
Goodbye Charlotte Dujardin & Valegro
                        Goodbye Charlotte Dujardin & Valegro

Burns Night (January 25th) celebrates the birth of Scots poet Robert Burns and is generally marked by a traditional Haggis supper. As I look back to last year’s event I realise that in 2016 I began to truly embrace my “Scots heritage” rather than run away from it.

 I was attending a Burns Supper for only the third time ever in my life. With less than 48 hours notice I was asked/told if I could do the Selkirk Grace, a Burn’s poem of my own choice, and recite the William Topaz McGonagall ode “Robert Burns”. I fell back on my old training from Cleland Primary where we all studied Burns for a local competition, although I never had the nerve to audition anything from the stage for the scrutiny of the school. So “To A Mouse” sprang to mind as my obvious poem choice, as I can still remember great swathes of the verse from school. The McGonagall piece was not an easy read and I spent most of my free day trying to get the feel of the words and find its rhythm. I had never heard of this chap before and a Google search told me he was considered one of the worst poets of the English language. Poor guy, and although I could see where that unfavourable label came from, I love an underdog and someone who keeps trying no matter what. So I persevered and came to an understanding with the verse.  On the night I discovered I was on the top table “mistress of ceremonies” I guess, and had a formidable audience of learned folk with Burns anthologies in hand, only too ready to point out mistakes. No pressure then I thought as I stood to attention, knees quaking, to start the ball rolling so to speak. But as the evening wore on and my poetry section approached, I found myself nervously looking forward to doing my turn. Somewhere deep down that wee Scots school lassie was dying to perform the Burns words that came so easily to her, because many of them I spoke at home growing up anyway, and I had a natural affinity for them. I’m pleased to say I carried off the recitals without much trouble, then sat back to listen to the only other Scot in the room do “Tam o’ Shanter”. I smiled knowingly to myself as I recalled teaching Robert how to read this narrative over twenty years ago, and how I’d shook my head in appalled disbelief when he had admitted to never having “done Burns” at his Paisley schools.

My first ever Burns Supper in 2010 was held on my 40th birthday. It was with great reluctance I was persuaded to attend, and I only agreed on condition I had a strictly vegetarian meal and hired a Highland outfit. Much hilarity ensued when I was measured up for the outfit and had the fitting, but I felt terrific wearing all the regalia as I strutted into Keele Hall that night. It definitely felt like I was wearing an outfit ready for battle, I could have taken on the world. Since then I’ve worn a dress at the event, but last year I was asked about half a dozen times “where’s your kilt?” There was a palpable sigh in the air when I replied with my own question “why do you think I should wear one?” It got me thinking, and I toyed with the idea for the rest of the year. Eventually I came up with my own “alternative Highland outfit” idea which will be unveiled this week. This coincided with the discovery a traditional sweetie shop Mrs Mitchell’s and a kilt section in the TJ Hughes store nearby.

In the spring my thoughts strayed away from Easter eggs to sweets I remembered having as a kid, especially the “non PC ones” like sweetie tobacco and proper pipes with sherbet. I distinctly recall getting both of these in Martin Brennan’s Cleland paper shop when my Mammy got her own cigarette/tobacco supplies. Finding I had a decent enough wifi connection, I thought I’d tap a few choice words into a Google search and see what came up. To my utter surprise and delight I discovered many of the sweets I thought had long ceased production were still being made, many came under the handle of “traditional Scottish sweets” and could be found in select shops in big towns and cities. This is when I discovered Mrs Mitchell’s in Glasgow existed and on entering that wonderful sweetie emporium I was a wee girl again. The sights and smells took me right back to the Martin’s and also Bessie Allen’s corner shop, with the big sweet bottles and waxed boxes filled with delights such as odd fellows, floral gums, Berwick cockles and Chelsea whoppers. Willie Wonka could keep his factory this was my kind of place. After my first visit I came out with a canvas bag that was so heavy it felt like a kettle bell weight.

My appetite for Scottish sweeties satisfied I turned my attention to that burning thought of kilts and Burns suppers. Noticing a TJ Hughes store a few doors down from the sweet shop, I strolled inside for a look around, and happily noticed a nicely sized, not too intimidating, decently priced kilt section near the back of the store. I was travelling light for my Glasgow visit and had my sweeties to haul back home, but I promised myself I’d return for a proper look in November. I always have a pilgrimage that month to Glasgow to see Sydney Devine at the Pavilion Theatre. So back I went and spotted THE MOST GORGEOUS jacket, the only one of its kind in the store and in my size with a matching waistcoat. Trying them on, I again experienced that distinct empowered feeling, and the clothes sold themselves. Talking to Alex the concession manager we agreed a kilt purchase wasn’t really necessary, some black trousers would do just as well. With what is in my wardrobe already I can create about three different variations, and with the odd extra purchase that can stretch to six plus outfits. So I’m well sorted for January 25th now, and I just need to opt for the final permutation each year.

As well as seeing Sydney Devine in November, I went to see an 80th anniversary celebration of The Broons on stage. Despite talking like them growing up, my ears took about five minutes to acclimatise to the distinct burr of Scotland’s famous family. I’m just not used to hearing that style of talk from a stage, and my “Anglicised “ ears had to get back up to speed with the rapid fire delivery, the very specific style of humour, and general Scots patter. It was a terrific show and I felt very much at home. By the end of the evening I had reverted back to the Maw Broon dialogue of my childhood, and I didn’t feel in the slightest awkward or embarrassed about it, quite the opposite really. It was as I gazed at the packed bag containing my Broons program, some sweeties and my Sheriffmuir jacket and waistcoat, I realised that those Scots essentials filled me with an enormous pride. You can take the lassie out of Cleland/Scotland……