3 Jun 2018

In Which Jamie Oliver Needs to Take a Day Off

So, Jamie Oliver is back on his high horse. Not content with bringing in a sugar tax, driving up the price of popular beverages while doing precisely nothing to combat the diabolical amount of sugar in food, and wading in to tell us how BLOODY EASY breastfeeding is, he has now targeted Tony the fucking Tiger for promoting sugary breakfast cereals at children.

You see Jamie, who is clearly a man who struggles with not eating enough to feed the Five Armies, appeared in the Guardian this weekend claiming that the real issue with trying to get families to eat healthily is as old as the industrial revolution:

The Observer, 3rd June 2018, "Jamie Oliver: I like to laugh and that's all that matters at my age". Good job, really.


The industrial revolution did not hit harder and earlier in Britain, it fucking STARTED here. Nor was it the first recorded time that families went out to work. There is this ridiculous idea that before the age of machines, the common folk of Britain were like Summerisle, all folk tales and flowers, dancing and singing, romping in fields. The picture of health, the picture of idyll. And then came machines, all steam and smoke and the RUIN OF MANY A POOR BOY. It's a lovely idea, and complete horseshit.

If you were in the lower ranks of British society at any point in the last thousand years, you worked. You got up with the sun, you put in a fifteen hour day, and then you went to bed, interspersed with an awful lot of bread. Men? Ploughing. All fucking day, dawn til dusk, ploughing. Women? Everything else. Making fabric, making and fixing clothes, feeding animals, making butter, making bread, making cheese. All this in addition to childcare, education (because how else would children learn all these life skills?), cooking and cleaning.

The difference wrought by the Industrial Revolution is that suddenly, women went out to work. Rather than working at home, or on lands they had some right to, women were employed in mills, in foundries, at coal faces. The idea that women gave up work on marriage to cook and clean and sew is a fallacy - in industrial centres, they kept on working. Pregnant? Working. Maternity rights? Lol, no. Maternity leave? Nope - you were expected to be back at work within days of delivery or you lost your job. After all, there were plenty of other women happy to take it.
Outside of major industrial towns, unmarried women worked in domestic service, and married women worked at or around the home: lace making, straw bonnet making, cleaning jobs, laundry work, nursing and maternity services. Some of these jobs (particularly lacework) earned them more money than their husbands, especially in rural places which mainly relied on agriculture, like Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. And these women would be churning out a child every eighteen months or so. The average family size in the 1840s was eleven children. It had gone down to seven by 1911.

So Jamie, in his infinite wisdom, thinks that these Original Hardworking Families used acquired or innate knowledge to feed their children well. At least, that's what I think his point is, with the follow up about 'fairly humble communities'. LOL. Nope.

A woman working in a factory who had a child had no hope of being able to sustain breastfeeding. If she was fortunate, she might be allowed to bring her baby into work for the first few weeks - I found a great, if terrifying, tale of a woman blacksmith working in the Black Country who rigged up a cradle attached to her smithing apparatus, so she could rock the baby without leaving work. But ultimately, it wasn't going to work, and these babies were fed on cows milk if they were lucky, and cornmeal mixed with water if they weren't. Cows milk was likely to pass on tuberculosis, if the unsterilised bottles didn't give the baby dysentery. Cornmeal and water is not exactly a beneficial diet without any supplementary milk. The baby would typically be left with a day nurse, often an infirm female relative or an older child, and often fed opiate based medication to keep it quiet - hungry babies cry a lot. This combination of mild neglect, overmedication and poor diet was the principle cause of the horrifying infant mortality that blighted the nineteenth century.
A woman working away from town had slightly more chance of keeping her baby with her and well fed, unless the poor thing happened to be born at a time when the women all went into the fields to work. A study of rural Kent (Microhistories by Barry Reay) showed a surge in infant deaths coincided with harvest time, most likely because of unsterilised bottles and improper childcare.

But they knew how to cook? Right? They could cook? Yeah? Pukka?

A girl who was raised working in mills, from around six years old, would not learn to cook. She might see her mother cook, but it's as likely that she grew up in a house with no kitchen.
No kitchen!?!?, I hear Jamie cry, clearly having had visions of every house being like Bob Cratchit's at Christmas, copper aglow, turkey bought with careful savings. The problem is that Bob Cratchit was reasonably well off for a working class lad - born in approximately 1810, he could read and write well long before compulsory schooling was introduced, and had the connections to get him a job for a banker.
A kitchen was a waste of space for most poor factory workers, living in a few rooms of a shared house. They might have access to a kitchen, they might equally not. Their food would have been bought from day to day, and mostly consisted of bread, oatcakes, cheap fatty bacon offucts, and thin porridge. The occasional meat pie would bulk it up, once the man of the house had his share, and fuck knows what the meat pie seller had used to fill it with. These children's main meal might be part of their daily wages, and consist of little more than some oatcake eaten while working. Yum! Better that than some Frosties, eh Jamie?

A girl who went into service did so at around eleven years old. She might learn to cook from the housekeeper. She might teach herself to cook. She might already know how to cook if her mother had taught her. She could take these skills into a marriage. But if, as many did, she lived in rural areas, their food budget would depend on factors as fickle as the crops, the weather, and the whim of the landowner. Bad harvest? No money. Crop failure? No money. Too much labour? No work, no money. If you cannot afford fuel, what are you supposed to eat? A bit of corn stolen from the land, a few potatoes grown in the garden, it amounts to nothing without the heat to cook it.

And then, consider the motherless children, which considering the high mortality rate in childbirth were manifold. Those men who couldn't marry quickly sent their children to other family, or the workhouse. And if food was bad out of the workhouse, it was diabolical inside it.

There was no golden era where working women could fit in a fifteen hour working day, come home and cook a nutritious and cheap meal for their kids from scratch. It has never been a thing. I suspect what Jamie is thinking of is the early twentieth century, when women not having to work once they married was a badge of honour. And with the development of labour saving devices like economic ovens, twin tub washing machines, and the ilk, women had time to cook. The Book of Household Management was a ubiquitous wedding gift for the new brides of the 1920s and 1930s, full of useful recipes, among other slightly aspirational articles on how to get ready for new babies, how to diagnose a rash, and how to accept a wedding invitation. This was a luxury compared to their grandmothers' married lives.

We cannot compare our working lives today to those of 250 years ago. We don't go to work hungry and half expecting to die. Our children don't have to go to work to earn their keep at six years old. We have proper maternity protection and are unlikely to die in childbirth. We have PENICILLIN for god's sake. But we still don't always have the time to spend four hours in the kitchen after everything else, whether it's a full day at work, or whether it's a full day of juggling children. Or both.

Jamie Oliver needs to take a day off. Or better, Jamie Oliver needs to get up, make all his kids fucking granola or whatever he thinks they should be eating instead of Frosties, make their healthy lunch boxes, do a twelve hour hospital shift, go home, cook his kids a meal from scratch, do their homework with them, get them to bed without resorting to opiates but also in time enough to make sure they get enough sleep for school, and do this for seven days. I look forward to his findings.

5 May 2018

May The Fourth Be With You (And Also With You)

CONTENT WARNING: Graphic labour/birth description, no pictures. 

"Soph? My waters have broken"
"Oh Jess! Don't cry!"

And so, the tale of Noah begins. You see, Noah was not due until the fourteenth, but he decided to break with long family tradition of being overdue, and come on May 4th instead. This could have been to honour our granny, who was 81 yesterday. Or it could have been to impress his father by being born on Star Wars day. The neonatal creep.

So I told Jess to phone the hospital to check her waters had actually broken, and then sat anxiously by my phone. Jess took a good two hours to finally get herself up the hospital, where they confirmed that her waters had broken (as if you could mistake it for anything else) and that the baby was fine. She went home to AWAIT EVENTS. I spent this time exhorting her to RUN UP AND DOWN STAIRS over Whatsapp, and discovering my toddler had chucked seasalt all over the dining room to drive cars through. Parenthood. Who'd do it?

By about 2:30pm, she was feeling contractions and asked me to come and help. I got there about an hour later, and she was wandering about. Our mum had seven kids, with nary a stitch or any pain relief, and was a massive advocate of active labour. When I had Jack, my mum made me run up and down stairs for half an hour to get labour established. It worked. And it worked with Jess as well. Me and her husband, Scott, watched Deadpool and drank tea while she paced, posed:

and crept about like a praying mantis. It was like watching a very odd step class.

Time passed. By about 5pm, the contractions were beginning to bite. At 5:30, I decided we should probably go to hospital soon (as the arbiter of all things birthy) and Jess agreed. I timed her contractions for fifteen minutes, and they were every three minutes, lasting a minute. So, at 6:15pm, off we went.

Except that at the hospital, they make you fucking WAIT for triage. Jess was starting to struggle with the intensity by the time we arrived, and it's quite hard to handle massive contractions in a corridor. I got her to squat straight into them ("Use your knees for the squeeze"), using the handy bars all over the walls as a prop. They took her to triage at about 7pm, and finally actually assessed her at 7:45pm. We got Jess to kneel on the bed to cope, which is the position I found most useful having my lot, and she stayed mostly on her knees after that. She was falling asleep in between contractions, or staring at me like a horror movie doll, which was a sign to me that labour was well established. Her assessment showed she was 5cm, and the baby was happy, so she was transferred to the Midwife Led Birthing Unit.

It was my first time on the MLBU - Alex was born in the consultant unit, and Sooz had Evie in a consultant room because it was nearest - and it's AMAZING. Look at this fucking bed:

Look at all those supports! LUXURY! There was also a beanbag, birth stool and hanging rope thing in case you want to give birth Tarzan style. Jess stayed on the amazing bed throughout.

The internal examination really ramped up Jess' labour, and she wasn't really getting more than a minute's break at a time, with waves of two or three minute contractions. And believe me, it fucking hurts. So she asked for entonox, and I said she had to wait a bit longer because I'm actually a sadist. Then the midwives changed over and took forever to find the entonox, while Jess went swivel-eyed-loon with the pain, and actually PUNCHED THE BED. I haven't seen Jess go full mental for years, it was hilarious.

Yeah, I know, you're not supposed to laugh at the birthing woman, but it was funny.

I know, she should have punched me. It is to her credit that she didn't.

The entonox came at 9pm, and after that, she was mostly fucking fucked. Completely pissed. She didn't get the giggles, or start screaming she was BOLD, like Sooz did. Instead, she huffed on it like crazy when the contractions came, and then completely zoned out. She later said she felt like she was drunk in the toilets at Flares. She looked pissed as a fart. I'm surprised she didn't suggest karaoke.

At about 9:30, I nipped to the loo, and when I returned, she said "I JUST SCREAMED I NEED TO PUSH", and with the next contraction, was in transition. Transition is the joyful phase between contractions to open the cervix and contractions to push the baby out, and most women try and go home or give up at this point. With Jim, I was halfway up the stairs to delivery, stopped and was like, "Nope, I'm going home". Needless to say, I did not go home. If Jess harboured any longing to leave, we couldn't hear her because of the entonox tube in her mouth.

So, she began to push at about 9:45pm, and with a first baby, this can take hours. I know, it looks like a two minute job in every TV show, but it's fucking hard work to push a massive baby-head down a relatively narrow muscular tube that's never done it before. The midwife clearly expected this to take about a year and a half, when suddenly some hair appeared at the opening. She went and got the birth pack open, and fetched an apron, and all of a sudden, he crowned. Crowning is when the head comes through the cervix. Motherfucker, it BURNS. Jess was a-howling and a-screaming and pushing like a demon, and panic-pushed his head out in one fell swoop. The midwife didn't even get her apron on.

So, Noah's there, head poking out. Jess is euphoric and waiting for the next contraction to breathe his body out. The midwife is entirely taken aback by all this, and praying Jess hasn't ripped her entire pelvic floor out. Scott is being adorable and saying to Jess "His head's out! His head's out". And me? I hadn't eaten since 11am coz of my useless gallbladder, so I was sat on a birth stool opposite, eating a banana, tweeting updates, with a perfect view of the whole thing, occasionally shouting encouragement.

The next contraction, Jess breathed Noah out beautifully and he was born at 10:15pm, all tiny 7lb 5oz of him. And that was that. We breed like Weasleys.
Not a nipslip, but TINY BABY FINGERS

Noah did not appreciate being born. He howled at the indignity of the thing for a whole hour, until Jess managed to latch him on, and then he was happy. Honestly, who turns up ten days early for a party and then cries coz there's no food? I stayed to see him weighed, and the delivery of the placenta (bleurgh), and went home before the stitching. Thankfully, Jess still has a pelvic floor.

Jess was an absolute star. Labouring without water is more intense (no buffer), and labouring quickly is a proper mindfuck. From the internal onwards, she never got more than 90 seconds break, and only went a little bit mental. Scott was also a star. He didn't panic, he didn't pass out, he didn't shy away from cutting the cord. It was an honour and a privilege to be there. I am so proud of them.

So, numbers: SROM at 8am, established labour at 7pm, transition at 9:45pm, delivery at 10:15pm. Well done Jess, you take after me. Enjoy your 90 minute labour next time.

19 Mar 2018

Better Than Joe Wicks

On my mum's birthday, three days after Christmas, my gallbladder finally had enough of DEALING with my SHIT. Dealing with CHEESE, and MILK, and CHOCOLATE. In fact, it had probably had enough several days before since I'd been feeling sick and off food since Christmas Eve. I remember saying to Tom that I hoped I wasn't coming down with a sick bug because I would hate to not be able to eat at Christmas. OH. OH THE NAIVETE.

I spent that night in screaming, doubled up agony, with absolutely no idea what was wrong. At first, I thought I had trapped wind. Ha. No. I developed rigors, which is a Bad Sign, but didn't even recognise them. I couldn't wake Tom up. I had to keep putting Alex back to bed when he followed me to the toilet when I was being sick, and at one point felt something rip in my back. At no point did it occur to me to ring an ambulance, because it turns out I am only good at diagnosing other people. I googled. I worked out it was my gallbladder. I figured it probably wouldn't kill me (turns out I was wrong, it can kill you quite easily). At about 6am, I woke Tom up enough to get me some ibuprofen and then managed to sleep for a bit. I managed to sort myself out enough to ring the doctors and then rang 111 to see if I wouldn't be better off just going to hospital. They sent a paramedic out. The paramedic decided I didn't need admitting because I was in far less pain than before. The doctor put me on antibiotics. Another doctor put me on more antibiotics a week later. A week after that, I went to A+E and finally had a blood test to check there were no stones in my liver since I was still jaundiced. This showed the infection had cleared. I went for a scan a few days later, more than three weeks since I first got ill, which showed my gallbladder was absolutely fucking RAMMED with stones. So much so that the sono was surprised my gallbladder was still intact. So, at least I knew what was wrong. It also showed I have a fatty liver, which is not great in someone my age. I managed to get a surgical referral four weeks and three days after my initial diagnosis. 

Just a note here. The NICE guideline for acute cholecystitis, which is the proper name for a gallbladder infection, is bloods, scan, admission, IV antibiotics and a cholecystectomy within a week. This is because of the risk of chronic infection, sepsis and death (woo). I am still kinda fucking salty that this did not happen for me, because my temperature was 0.4 degrees under admission criteria when the paramedic came out. 

My first hospital appointment got cancelled because a water main burst under the hospital and they had to close the hospital down, so I didn't see a surgeon until eleven weeks after diagnosis. His happy news was that my surgery will be in the next twelve weeks. He gave me a diet sheet to force my liver to burn up its fat store before surgery. It reads like a diet of kings... two eggs for dinner? In what universe?

Now, some people get gallstones and they get the odd twinge if they eat the wrong thing. My dad is one of these lucky bastards - he's had a couple of biliary colic episodes ever (biliary colic is all the pain, no infection). Other people get gallstones and suddenly find they have zero tolerance for fat. Your gallbladder is a little organ that hangs out by your liver, injecting bile and helping digest fat. It spasms to release bile when you eat fatty food. Stones aren't always a problem, but if they get caught in the opening of the gallbladder, these spasms are CHRONIC FUCKING AWFUL AGONY. I mean it. I have had three huge-headed sons without painkillers, and gallbladder pain is worse than that. You can't get away from it, it's like a massive belt around the bottom of your ribs, squeezing and making you feel sick and wrong and breathless. I most commonly get pain on the opposite side of my rib cage and diaphragm, and in my back, because it rebounds all round your ribcage. My diaphragm always hurts and is distended. Breathing is a real issue when it's bad, as is the accompanying nausea.
via http://theawkwardyeti.com/
Unusually, I had no pain from my gallbladder until it got infected. Since then, constant fucking pain. I can't tolerate saturated fat at all. At. All. The first week or so was terrible, I thought I would die of hunger. It was the first time since childhood where I can honestly say I was properly hungry. I went ketotic for ages, and I know that's some sort of bizarre holy grail for dieting, but fuck me it's horrible. Your pee reeks of sugar, your mouth tastes constantly sweet, you feel achey and wrong and tired and sort of gluey in the limbs. But it passed, and now I'm used to it, and it's OK. Boring as fuck, but OK. 
I cry when I have to do the shopping because I can't eat what the kids have. Cooking for the kids is an endless nightmare - a few days back, they had jacket potatoes so I picked at the grated cheese. It hurt for hours. And I can't watch food programmes because I start to imagine the joys of food and then my gallbladder hurts because FOOD IS A THOUGHT CRIME. In terms of funsies, I've missed Christmas food, New Year booze, pancake day, Mother's Day, Jim's birthday cake (which I've just sobbingly made, without licking the bowl), and I will miss Easter and my birthday as well. 

I'm listed for surgery now. I can't wait. I cannot wait. I literally cannot wait. If I could spare six grand, I would have had it out privately weeks ago, but...lol, no. This is the most miserable illness I've ever had, and doubly cruel to take my cheese away. I know the recovery can be a bit rough, but I really don't care. 

But I have lost 20kg in less than three months. So there is a tiny silver lining. If you would like to experience this weightloss for yourself, but inconveniently lack gallstones, here's how*:

- Eat twice a day - muesli and Skyr for lunch with some jam for calories, and then something fatless and dense in lentils and other veg for tea. Shellfish are good. So is rice. Plain chicken is your only real meaty option. Jelly and fruit pastilles are allowed, Haribo isn't. If you haven't been in pain all day, you  might risk a stick of kikat as a snack in the evening. Otherwise, fast for eighteen hours out of twenty four.

- Should you eat eggs, chocolate, cake, pastry, pie, red meat, cheese, oily fish, butter, yoghurt or full fat milk by accident, don't panic. Fetch a metal kebab skewer and stick it in, nice and deep, under your ribs. Oh sure, it'll bleed and hurt, and you might end up with an infection or rupture, but it will remind you why you don't eat these things anymore.

- Drink plenty because you will be dehydrated as hell, and it's a useful way of getting calories in. Enjoy your single cup of tea a day (unless you can drink black tea), and remember, no alcohol. If you forget and have a glass of wine, ask someone to punch you in the upper abdomen or mid-back. You won't do it again.

- Take supplements. No, really, you will die otherwise.

- Now and then, regardless of how obedient you've been with your diet, stab yourself again with that skewer. Just in case you get complacent.

- Carry this diet on for a minimum of three months, and then wonder at your weight loss, strawlike hair, fragile skin, reduced concentration, poor mood, exhaustion and decimated social life!

*NB: Don't do any of this. I mean it. 

16 Mar 2018

Halfway Through

I started my MA in October 2016, as my mum died. I had surgery a month later. It was Christmas before I knew it. It wasn't really until the later end of January 2017 that I started to try and focus. Then I went on Zoladex for six months, which had the unexpected side effect of levelling my mood to the point where I could actually work. My grades swung up.

My second TMA (an evaluation of a primary resource and a secondary source) scored me a whopping 85%. Turns out working with primary sources informally for several years gives you some useful analytical skills.

Then I had two lengthy assignments on poverty and the evolution of the seaside resort. The first essay got away from me a bit, but still scored a respectable 78%.
My final TMA was written for my mum. Before it was due, I went to my dad's house and scoured my mum's bookshelves for all useful literature. I came home with a pile the height of my toddler. I kinda ignored the question on the theory of urban renaissance, and wrote a history on the birth of Cromer for my mum. And my tutor loved it, and I got 82%, rightly losing marks for er...skating over the actual question.

That was back in August. This left me with four months to come up with an idea for a dissertation, research it, write a proposal and sample chapter and get it in for the first week of January. Yeah, the OU don't like us enjoying Christmas. I had decided to do something on illegitimacy months before, and this was sharpened when I studied the changes in the welfare state. This was partly because of my mum: she was an unmarried mother in the fens at the end of the 1970s, and she suffered a lot of stigma and loneliness and I wanted to know where that came from, particularly as my experiences of family research showed illegitimacy to be historically endemic among the rural working class.
However, I also wanted to study crime, and had been intrigued by stories of infanticide in the press when studying the crime and justice unit in my MA. So I decided to look at how the two were linked, using Coroner's records. Victorian Coroner's records are pretty much my favourite ever source. They are handwritten depositions taken at inquests, and they give the working class a voice that you just don't find (except occasionally in court reports) in the Victorian era. They also tie in with my morbid fascinations with pathology and history of medicine.

I spent six weeks going to the library every week to transcribe my source, (and have since done lots of further research on them), and I then wrote a proposal over six weeks. I was incredibly poorly over Christmas, getting flu and then a chest infection and then cholecystitis, so the essay aspect of my EMA got banged out in a fit of painkillers and delirium. But I got it in on time, so whatchagonnado?

And then I waited. I had PLANS for January and February, like going to SEE people I haven't seen for the better part of a year, only my fucking gallbladder meant I was on a sparrow diet of fuck all, in pain 70% of the time, and couldn't walk to the school without getting breathless. So instead, I kept working on family histories, and watched a shitload of RuPaul's Drag Race. We can't be cultured all the time, darling.

I signed up for the dissertation module of my MA, which was a painful £2000 to see go all at once (I used a mixture of student finance and OUSBA to pay for the first module as I went along). I also applied for a research grant to fund some books and going to the National Archive.

My results came in on 12th March. I got 69%, a pass with merit. Yes, I would've liked 70%  but what can you do? It turns out that my proposed topic is too woolly, and my methodology and TERMS need defining. Naturally, I need to wait two months to get allocated a tutor before I can screech "heeeelppppp" at them. In the mean time, I have a literal library of stuff to read.

I have spent the time since my mum died deliberately immersing myself in work. I have coped by reading and producing hundreds of thousands of words of history. By telling people's stories. By reminding myself that grief is a hallmark of human experience.
And I have been antisocial, and I have hidden from real people, because living in the present frightens me. I am possessed by a tidal wave of grief that rises inside me, but never comes out, because I won't let it. Because I am afraid to lose control, and I have become so accustomed to sitting on my feelings that I'm not sure what else I'm supposed to do with them.
I channel my grief into my work, to stop me going numb. And when I cried at the unhappy deaths of children in the 1880s, I was crying for my mum. And when I cried because it all got too much, I cried for my mum. And when I told everyone all about the stuff I'd found out, I was trying to tell my mum. When I lay terrified and in pain with cholecystitis, I only thought of my mum doing the same eighteen months before for different reasons. When I lost weight, I thought of my mum losing weight. When I had my abdominal scan, I thought of my mum's abdominal scan that I held her hand through because she was so frightened. I was not afraid, I was only sad.

But when I write beautifully, I do it for my mum. When I do well, I do it for my mum.

I wonder if I'll ever do stuff for me again.

15 Feb 2018

The DWP's Valentine's Day Message

On Valentine's Day, the DWP charmingly sent this tweet out:

And my friends, I took umbrage.

Long ago, in the distant mists of 2012, Tom moved down from Newcastle and in with his parents. He didn't move in with me straight away. We hadn't ever spent more than a week together in one go. We hadn't been together two years. He had just got a job but we didn't know it was going to work out at that early phase. It would have been foolishly optimistic to move straight in together. When you already have two very small children, you do not want the upheaval of a 'new daddy' moving in only to move out a few weeks later when you realise that actually, you can't fucking stand each other.

So, we lived apart. I assiduously tried to find out the cohabiting rules from the DWP, about what counted as living together and what didn't. This was ludicrously difficult information to obtain. You cannot just phone the DWP and ask them because this will arouse suspicion, and provoke scrutiny and you get enough scrutiny on income support as it is. You can find the current rules here. You may notice that they are OBSCURE AS HELL, and there is no more palatable version for the recipients of affected benefits. These rules can be used to define almost any sexual relationship as living together as a married couple, whether the sexual relationship persists, whether or not money is shared, whether abuse is present, whether the relationship is happy. I wouldn't let Tom sleep here more than three nights in seven, I wouldn't let him keep any of his stuff here, I wouldn't let him contribute to any of the household expenses. Even though he categorically was not resident here, I was still terrified that the DWP would decide he was and force that arrangement to become permanent before I was ready, or worse, prosecute me.

When Tom did move in, after a year of this anxious situation, I cancelled my income support the same day. It was the greatest relief.

Here's the thing. There is no room in the DWP's rules to allow you to have a trial run, to make a mistake in relationships and undo it quickly, unless you have considerable external financial and practical support - the sort where your boyfriend can live with his parents without issue, or where you can afford to run two households while you get to know each other. You either declare that you're living together immediately, or you break the law.

It is overwhelmingly single mothers who are prosecuted for breaking this law, as they are claiming the benefit in the first place. Those who are prosecuted are usually in abusive relationships. The partner is not prosecuted. The partner is blameless according to the law.

Single mothers are a great target for abusers. Income support doesn't really give you much money, and usually the shortfall is made up in tax credits when you begin to live together if your income remains low. However, income support automatically entitles you to maximum housing benefit for your house in your area, free school meals for older children, and maximum tax credits as applicable. It is a useful gateway benefit. And it can be held over you by a man who wants to live under your roof for free, abuse you, spend your money, and then threaten you with "If you try and leave, I will shop you to the DWP". This is not recognised or allowed for in DWP rules - they are very clear about an abusive cohabiting relationship still counting as living together as a married couple. Financial abuse is often one of the first signs of an abusive relationship developing, and being on benefits means you are additionally vulnerable to partners exploiting the anxiety and dependence inherent in that way of life.

Since the two child tax credit rule was brought in, there is an additional very real risk of declaring cohabitation too early in a relationship if you have more than two children and have been single since before April 2017. You WILL lose tax credits for any more than the older two. You will NOT get those tax credits back if the relationship fails.

There are some advantages to being on income support. There is reassurance in knowing that you get a certain amount of money at the same time every week or month. There is reassurance in that safety net, particularly when the rest of your life is a mess. You don't get much, and there is almost no financial room for anything to go wrong in this situation. You can't save up for a crisis. But it's more reliable than a zero hours contract, more reliable than hoping someone will swoop in and save you, particularly when someone you loved has let you down. It may be the first time you've ever had to manage your own money, the first time you've truly lived independently.

But in return, you surrender your freedom to run your romantic life as you choose. You surrender your freedom to decide when to make a casual living arrangement permanent. The state decides if you're living as married, according to a set of rules that could apply to almost every single relationship I know; serious or casual, with children or not.

It's a hell of a price to pay for being a single mother.

12 Dec 2017

Another Really Good Sandwich

Currently, I do not feel the urge to blog. My life is a nonstop whirl of work, because uni hate me and set the deadline for my dissertation proposal/sample chapter for the 9th January AND I HAVE TO POST THE FUCKING THING IN THE ACTUAL POST, so realistically, I need to finish it and post it by the 5th at the latest. I am, however, well proud of what I've got planned. Soph: Crime and Sexuality Historian at your service. I have a four month research break from January-May and then seven months of write up...and then, fuck knows. A job? Hold tight, NHS, I'm coming back to administrate you!

As well as work, I am trapped by the twin rock of grief and anxiety. Grief for my mum, whose loss lingers in every lit up window, in every Christmas card, in every present wrapped. Grief in every present I would have bought her. Grief in everything I want to phone and ask her ("Mum, are you sure this bloody pudding needs three hours steaming??"). Grief in everything I want to share with her, every nativity and every funny thing Alex (experiencing his third Christmas, but his first as a properly aware person) comes out with. 
And anxiety, because having a stupid fucking anxiety disorder which has MOSTLY gone away since The Worst Thing That Could Happen Happened And I Survived, rears its hideous and unwanted head at Christmas. "What if you all DIE ON CHRISTMAS EVE?" it whispers into my ear. "DID YOU LEAVE THE OVEN ON? WILL THE HOUSE BURN DOWN? I BET IT WILL". "YOU'LL VOMIT ALL OVER YOURSELF AND THE CHRISTMAS DINNER AND THE CHILDREN WILL HOWL AND YOU WILL REMEMBER THIS AS THE CHRISTMAS OF PUKE". I know it's irrational. It doesn't make it any easier to bear. My festive anxiety is not a new thing. As a seven(ish) year old, my parents had to take me to the emergency doctors on Christmas Eve because I was in such excruciating pain. It was just excitement. I used to puke every single Christmas Eve. The last time was when I was about 22. It's quite irrational. Thankfully, my endometriosis painkiller is also an anxiolytic, so at a push, I can eat them until I fall into a passive coma (*don't try this at home, kids*).

But this is all by the by. I came to give you a brilliant recipe for your leftover turkey, because I have always been revolted by the very fucking idea of cold turkey with a plate of bubble and squeak (sorry Dad). On Boxing Day, we don't have the older two boys, so I tend to breakfast on prosecco and REALLY EXPENSIVE bacon sandwiches like a luxuriant slattern. But you can't actually live on prosecco and bacon (and cheese) for the entire festive period (I KNOW, SO UNFAIR). 
This is an adapted form of the Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi, which I have bastardised from a recipe by Niki Segnit in the fabulous The Flavour Thesaurus. If you're carnivorous, you can probably assemble this sandwich from what you have on hand. And it is WORTH getting rice wine vinegar in just to make it, believe me. It needs a little work in advance, but not like Christmas dinner levels, and it's bright and refreshing in a sea of fat and carbs and fat. 
Sorry, no veggie/vegan alternative, but the pickled veg is bloody lovely in most things or indeed, on its own. 

You Will Need For About Four Sandwiches:
For The Pickle
A peeled carrot
An unpeeled cucumber
Rice wine vinegar

For Assembly
Pâté - chicken liver for preference, but it's Christmas so whatever you've got. Nothing too spicy or herby though. 
Mayonnaise - Helmans is fine
Fish sauce (aka nam pla)
Soy sauce
Leftover turkey shredded into strips
Four short baguettes cut not-quite-in-half lengthways
Fresh coriander, but it's not essential

This is a recipe of two halves, so you need to plan it a tiny bit. 
First, pickle your veg, Cut your cucumber and carrot into matchstick pieces. I am crap at cutting them this fine, but you want them fairly thin because nobody wants to bite down on a fucking enormous piece of carrot in their sandwich. Take the seeds out of the cucumber as you chop it up, or the resulting pickle will be a wet seedy mess. Once they are cut, cover them in salt and leave them for ten to twenty minutes. I do this with them on a piece of kitchen roll in a colander in the sink, because the salt draws the moisture out and then it drains straight out into the plughole rather than sitting about, sludgily. When you think they've had long enough, rinse them, dry them and then put them in a bowl. Mix about four tablespoons of rice wine vinegar with a tablespoon of sugar and then pour if over the veg. Leave it in the fridge to marinate until you want it. I tend to do this in the morning if I'm eating in the evening but you can really do it any time in the 24 hours before you want to eat. This sounds a faff. It is not. 

And so to assembly. Drain the veg. Mix some mayonnaise with a dash of fish sauce and a dash of soy sauce - you don't want to make the mayo too runny. Then spread one cut side of the baguette with mayo. Spread the other side with pâté. Warm it through in the oven. Then stuff the baguette with drained veg and shredded turkey. Add fresh coriander.


At this rate, my first book will be Soph's Big Book Of Fucking Amazing Sandwiches.

Merry Christmas xxx

26 Nov 2017


Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people

When I was a child, Christmas began at some point in late November, when Mum made the Christmas pudding. The last Sunday before Advent, known as Stir Up Sunday, was the Pudding Day by ecclesiastical law. 
My mum, never one to do things by halves, made enough puddings to feed the five thousand. An enormous washing up bowl would be summoned from the utility room and sterilised. My dad (or later, me) would be sent to the shops to buy suet or mixed candied peel, or some other seasonal obscurity. A quantity of booze, usually untouched in a cupboard for eleven months of the year, would emerge. And then the weighing and measuring. She used an old Delia recipe, much amended, and a truly ancient kitchen scale that only measured in pounds and ounces. And the house would be suffused with the smell of allspice and clove, beer and fruit, the same sweetness you get in mincemeat but amplified. 

When the washing up bowl was full, sticky and incorporated, we would be summoned to stir the pudding, traditionally with the youngest going first, but as we grew older, whenever Mum could pull us into the kitchen to stir it. She was loath to portion it up for steaming until we'd all had a stir. Long after I'd left home, I would try to arrange to go round every Stir Up Sunday. It was her labour of love, giving puddings as gifts to loads of people, putting her heart and soul into it and then FURIOUSLY STEAMING THEM FOR ABOUT A DAY once they were made, in a great tower of constantly refilled steaming pans. 

In 2015, my mum's last Christmas had we but known it, her carpal tunnel syndrome was playing up so I made the pudding up. She portioned it all out, I mixed it up and got elbow-deep in pudding mix, working it together while she watched on and told me when I was doing it wrong. 

Last year, she'd just died. My brother in law, Scott, made the puddings. I'd just had surgery. Everyone was a bit numb still. There was no stirring event.

So, as it so often the case, it's this Stir Up Sunday that hurts. I could have made enough pudding to feed the five thousand, but I can't bear the thought of it, the smell, the feel, without Mum there. It's fucking freezing outside, the house down the road is beginning to put its amazing light display up, I've done most of the shopping, but it all feels unreal. 

I miss my mum.