Thursday, 23 August 2012

Private School Girl

I blame Enid Blyton.  As a child I devoured her books, becoming particularly enchanted by the boarding school worlds she created in the Malory Towers and Naughtiest Girl series.  This combination of tomfoolery, midnight feasts and loyal friendships seemed right up my street so obviously I asked my parents if I could go to boarding school.

Tempted though I’m sure they were, they didn’t pack me off straightaway but when I was doing my GCSEs they said that if I was serious about the whole boarding school thing I could go away for my A levels.  A necessary condition was imposed and achieved when I earned a scholarship for half my fees so off I went at age 16 to live in a middle-ranking school for my two years of sixth form.

My education up to that point had been entirely within the state sector and all my ideas about private schools and the people who went to them were a result of the stereotypes delivered through mainstream media.  I expected plummy accents, sneering attitudes and a great view of the underside of everyone’s chins as they looked down their noses at me for being from a comprehensive school.

Rocking up on my first day with a nose stud and a massive chip on my shoulder it quickly became clear that I was the one with the attitude problem.  As I recall I was one of only a couple of new pupils who’d come from the state sector but as it turned out, the only person who thought it remotely relevant was me; everyone else was far more interested in killing time until the parents left so that they could go and have a smoke behind the pavilion.

Going to boarding school for sixth form meant that I experienced both worlds at an age where I kind of understood what I was looking at.  Obviously my experiences are based on one comprehensive and one boarding school, I’m sure other people in other places see different things, but here are some of my observations.

Private school is less tribal.  It’s almost like it’s one big tribe, whereas my comp was much more cliquey.  All the girls at sixth form wore their beautiful, swishy hair in the same way (a pony tail not quite pulled through the band – they all looked to me like they’d just got out of the shower and not sorted their hair out) and the boys all had Tintin quiffs.  Strange brands I’d never seen before were everywhere and rugby shirts were definitely the order of the day.

There was a new language to learn; rusticated, gated, prep, san, exeat, master and the one that caused me the most bother – tab.  It took me a while to realise that it meant cigarette so for the first day or two I thought everyone had a massive LSD problem.  Oops.  None of the teachers, sorry masters, were called by their names either; nicknames abounded and learning which could be used to their faces and which couldn’t was a perilous tightrope that all the new students had to walk.

Was my education better there?  Well, my A level results certainly do not remotely reflect what I now know to be my abilities – but educational success is not measured solely in terms of exam results.  I learned a pretty big lesson about not prejudging and living in close and constant proximity with others was a timely tolerance-building exercise.  Without that school I would never have had the opportunity to sing evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral and St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, I’d probably never have gone to an opera and going from a school that put on a single production each year to one that churned them out at rate of more than one a term provided a wonderful outlet for my dramatic (aka showy-off) tendencies.  Students arrived at the school from all over the world and from a massive range of backgrounds – mixing with this huge range of people, and their families, gave me a confidence that has stayed with me into adulthood.  (I am also able to handle larger quantities of alcohol than my size and gender would suggest – this is very definitely a legacy from my boarding school days.)

This post was going to be bit of a rant, fighting back at those who lambast private school pupils as though they’ve been handed something on a plate.  I didn’t get great A level results because I didn’t work hard enough; my parents paying half of my fees didn’t guarantee anything.  It turned into a more affectionate reminiscence, which is telling in itself.  It’s not the right avenue for everyone, but for me the combination of educational experiences provided the best and broadest foundation I could possibly get.  Toodle-pip!

Sunday, 19 August 2012


I'm the one on the left.
Twelve days after this photograph was taken my apparently healthy Dad dropped dead one morning at the age of 60.  He swam regularly and hadn’t smoked since a heart attack almost 25 years previously.  He was, however, obese.  He had been retired for only a few months and had yet to fulfil any of his retirement goals.  His two youngest daughters got married without him to walk them down the aisle and he never met his beautiful grandchildren.  All because he was fat.

I started university as a size 10-12.  Catered halls, pound-a-pint, take-away and eventually the comfort of a long term relationship saw me swell to a size 18-20 over the next 4 years.  I wish I’d nipped it in the bud sooner.  I wish I hadn’t told myself that ‘you only need a 14 because the fit is tighter in this shop’ – it’s not, you’re fatter, and before you know it you’ll have to buy a size 14 in every shop.  You will then go through the same farcical internal monologue at 16, 18 and 20.   I also wish someone had told me that even if you eventually manage to lose weight your body will never look as good as it could have – all that skin has to go somewhere, after all.

Dad’s death made me realise that I loved life more than I loved food so I decided to do something about it.  When I started dieting I weighed 15st 5lb; at 5’6’’ this gave me a BMI of 34.7 and was a serious problem.  I got myself to a healthy weight and started exercising and bugger me if it wasn’t the single best thing I ever did.

I thought I was happy when I was fat.  To a certain extent I was, but I now think back to all the ‘what to wear’ crises, all the sighs in changing rooms as nothing ever looked quite as good as I wanted it to and all the jealousy I tried to pretend I didn’t feel for my dearest friends who were slimmer and more attractive than me.  We all know (or are) people who are obsessed with shoes; I never understood that until I got fat.  Suddenly, shoes were the only clothing items I could buy that didn’t force me to confront my size; I could wear anonymous black outfits and feel like I was making an effort with good shoes.  A wonderful shoe wardrobe is possibly the only good thing to come out of my obesity, sadly I lost a shoe size when I lost weight and many of my beauties are now too big (heel grippers stuck in the back rescued a few but bigger-footed friends did well out of my weight loss).

A happy fatty or not, I can tell you unreservedly that I am happier now.  It is unfathomable to me that anyone could be happier overweight than they would be at a healthy weight.  Losing weight was a fascinating journey, with small yet significant milestones cropping up in the most unexpected places.  I remember sitting in the staffroom and going to cross my legs – they stayed where I put them instead of sliding apart due to my gargantuan thighs.  Such a trivial thing yet momentous for me.  As was the time I was driving down the motorway and suddenly realised that my elbows were not knocking my waist every time I turned the wheel but swishing past it instead.  The first time I travelled on an aeroplane after losing weight and had fresh air between my hips and both armrests, rather than being wedged in for the duration, was a revelation; going to the cinema became similarly comfortable.  I could walk around my classroom without having to get the kids to squash themselves into the desks to make room, there was a purpose to working out (what’s the point in trying to tone your muscles if the thick layer of blubber on top of them is going to wobble regardless?) and I wasn’t constantly doing that fat-person thing of readjusting my clothes to make sure that my rolls were covered.

Thanks to Peter Worth -
Losing weight is hard and the battle to keep it off is unending (and not always won), but the rewards are undoubtedly worth it.  To actually feel good when I get dressed up nicely, instead of just not feeling awful; to know that no one is judging me for my size; to feel in control of my own body; to feel strong and confident; to feel the pride in shedding almost 5 stone; to receive the compliments for this; to know that I stand a greater chance of living long enough to fulfil my dreams and spend more time with the people I love – who wouldn’t want this?  There’s always an excuse.  It’s just an excuse.  Stop making excuses.  Eat less, do more, reap the rewards.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Landmark birthdays have come and gone.  As an August baby my 18th birthday was something of an anti-climax, having celebrated about a hundred others and gone through the far more significant event of leaving school by the time it rolled around.  21 came and went during my summer holidays from university and my 30th was spent alone in Morocco.  Reflection didn’t play a part in any of these ‘milestones’, however as I turn 35 I find myself taking stock.

According to the Telegraph newspaper, middle age begins at 35.  Ouch.  Middle age is all about sprawling paunches, HRT and gardening, right?  No.  Not my middle age.

I am the fittest, slimmest and strongest that I’ve ever been, putting me in the absolute best physical shape of my life.  I can climb mountains, skate marathons and feel no trepidation at taking on fit students two decades younger than me in physical challenges.  The Spartan Sprint on Sunday will be challenging, sure, but not insurmountable – 10 years ago I wouldn’t even have considered entering.  It’s not all physical joy; recovery takes longer as the years go by and gravity is an unrelenting enemy, but the mental strength that I’ve developed as I’ve aged is more than a match for the physical changes.

My career started on a high – my first job involved an element of management responsibility and consequent pay – and I doggedly and fairly successfully chased promotions for several years.  I remember being about 26 and wondering how I’d cope with the crushing disappointment of abject failure if I was still on the same rung of the ladder at 30.  Well I’m now 35 and technically lower than ever, having made a conscious decision to eschew management in the pursuit of happiness.  This was the right decision.  Growing older has helped me to discover what fulfils me and it turns out that an impressive job title with commensurate stress is not it.  For me, doing my job well and having enough energy left over to really enjoy the time and money it provides me with means I am on the way to a fulfilled life, rather than just a fulfilling career.  I am professionally respected and my opinion is sought and valued – that’s enough for me.

An ever-developing self-knowledge means that I have a fairly good idea what I want and don’t want.  It’s only when I look back that I see how influenced I was by those around me when I was younger; I don’t think that’s a problem, I think it’s how we explore and discover, but I like that nowadays I am confident enough to be my own person.  If I want to swim against the tide then I bloomin’ well will.  The freedom that comes with not feeling the need to ‘fit in’ is a joyous one that only comes with time.

So as I enter ‘middle age’, how do I feel about it?  Pretty good, actually.  I can drink until I fall over with 20 year olds one night, discuss my clicky knees with equally middle aged friends the next before enjoying a fiery debate with those 30 years my senior later on.  It’s the best of everything, the middle of everything; by definition the place from which one can see the most, making it the age at which the bigger picture is most clear and all things are equally accessible.  Bring it on!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Summer Adviser

I have observed that fascinating species ‘British Woman’ dealing with the sunshine recently, both in her native Britain and as she migrates south to Spain, and after hours gathering data I feel compelled to offer the following.

Sunshine may lift your spirits but it does not do the same for your breasts
I spent many hours people-watching at the British seaside on a scorching day and I can categorically state that the only people who should wear strapless outfits are bridesmaids and supermodels.  I understand the desire to avoid tan lines (this blog is too short to venture into the clear illogicality therefore of teaming a normal bra with a strapless top) but the judicious use of SPF50 or a cotton wrap does the job in a much less dangly fashion than going braless. 

Likewise, there are underwear solutions available for every type of vest – only the very young or the very flat-chested should ever leave the house sans brassiere.  No one wants to see middle-aged melons drifting about, midriff bound, nipples skewiff as they pendulously lumber from side to side.  If tempted to embrace ‘commando torso’, first ask yourself ‘if I were a fembot, where would my lasers be pointing?’  If you are simply scoring a path in the pavement a couple of metres in front of your feet – strap those puppies up.

Sun burns
This does not mean, however, that you have to allow yourself to be burned by it.  Falling trees crush, but when the cry of ‘TIMBEEEERRRR’ alerts you to the potential danger, you run.  Why would anyone want to look like a barber’s pole, red and white stripes recalling an embarrassed zebra?  Sunburn is dangerous, uncomfortable and unsightly.  For some reason, many treat it as something of an inevitability, despite the links between sunburn and skin cancer being pretty clearly established; seeing sunburned people continuing to expose themselves is, to my eyes, the beach version of the hospital patient wheeling their drip outside so they can have a cigarette.

Magazines lie
When they say you can ‘drop two dress sizes in two weeks’ or ‘get bikini ready in a month’ they are probably telling the truth.  However, YOU won’t do it.  YOU will cheat and make excuses and start tomorrow; even if you do succeed in streamlining yourself you’ll have put it all back on by the end of your holiday, and probably added a bit more too.  With that self-knowledge, buy your holiday wardrobe in the size you are, not the size you want to be.  Clothes that fit look better than those that don’t – particularly if you are one of the many women who insist on jettisoning your smalls at the first sign of sunshine.

If you don’t believe me; believe Baz Luhrmann - Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)