Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Promoting Kyrgyzstan with the Kyrgyz-British Society

Last week I travelled to London to attend the inaugural meeting of the Kyrgyz-British society. It was great. Stepping out of the train and across London I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. London is different. It smells different. It has a vibe. There’s a constant hum of traffic. There are so many people talking so many languages. Looking back my rural village seemed drab and ordinary in comparison.

I walked through affluent West London to get to the hotel where the reception was being held. It smelt of sweet Turkish coffee. Women were having their hair done in expensive salons. Three armed policemen stood at the end of a cobbled mews making me wonder who was down there. The Jimmy Choo shop looked like an elegant drawing room. I passed immaculately dressed mothers pushing designers prams and I started to understand some of the mummy lit I’d been reading. I’d scathingly dismissed the fictional London mums for their obsessive need to conform, but I was already feeling the pressure of wanting to keep up with everyone else.

The reception was in a smart hotel where there was no sign of the recession. Glossy people in gold jewellery were drinking expensive coffees and cocktails in the lounge. It was all opulence – and waste. I had this sinking feeling that the environment was doomed: in the washroom the towels were thick and disposed after each wipe. In the restaurant beautiful food was being removed from tables to be thrown away. Pulling up were endless shiny 4 by 4’s.

Eventually I stopped staring at other people and went to the reception. It was good to reacquaint with people who have been so supportive of Revolution Baby – the Kyrgyz Ambassador, his wife and other friends from the Kyrgyz Embassy; Tim Hutton of Yurtworks who makes yurts in Cornwall and offers yurt-stay holidays and Marat Akhmedjanov who publishes Discovery Central Asia and Open Central Asia.

I asked John Collis, chairman of the fledgling society, what they hope to achieve. The aim is to promote cultural and trade links through events showcasing Kyrgyz culture and art – both of which I can recommend.

Having lived there for three years I can say with experience that Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country and I would love it to have more recognition in the UK. I was therefore sad to read a recent article in the Telegraph, unappealingly titled Bored in Bishkek. (People love to alliterate with Bishkek, someone once wrote a very scathing review of my book under the title Boobs in Bishkek!)

Douglas Whitehead, cycling to India, was updating readers on his progress. He was frustrated because he was waiting in Bishkek for a Chinese visa. His frustration was taken out on Kyrgyzstan. Most depressing was his list of ten “do’s and don’ts if you ever find yourself waiting for a visa in Bishkek”; a very poor summary of three weeks in a unique place. All he could enthuse about was a full English breakfast and a book by Boris Johnson. I was most saddened by his second point – “Do not bother sightseeing around the city itself. There is absolutely nothing to see.”

I completely disagree. Bishkek is a fantastic city. While I found it very intimidating when I first arrived – it’s grey and austere and full of soviet concrete – I persevered and learnt to love the Kyrgyz capital, even becoming obsessively enthusiastic about the symmetrical geometry of Soviet architecture!

While many of my detractors would argue that I moaned too much in Revolution Baby about Bishkek, especially at first, I would defend myself by saying that I was newly pregnant and struggling to find my place, for the long-term, in a new environment. What I did do, unlike Douglas Whitehead, was try!

As a traveller, surely there’s always something to see in a new city? One of my favourite things to do in Bishkek was just walk the streets. That way I saw so many snapshots of Kyrgyz-Soviet life. It’s often the small detail which gives the greatest experience.

I suppose Douglas Whitehead is travel tired. Cycling around the world, I’m sure new places can lose their novelty after a few countries. Does that defeat the object of these long term trips, if the traveller becomes jaded and consumed by the tribulations of visa red-tape rather than what’s actually there? Can too much travel numb the joy of some new places, especially if its attributes aren’t obvious or anticipated?

Bishkek doesn’t have the lore of Samarkand or Istanbul so maybe it becomes a non-event on a long-distance traveller’s tour. Do you become lazy about exploring when you get the chance not to? Any excitement is reserved for unexpected pieces of home. Wallowing in the perceived luxury of familiar things is comparative comfort, a welcome respite from always breaking out into new territory. I know one round the world cyclist who watched a lot of Cold Feet episodes in Bishkek...and another ex-pat traveller who ate a lot of my Shreddies supply!

So, back to the inauguration of the Kyrgyz-British society. The canap├ęs were great! (As a periodic single mother I don’t get out much and having spent the last month eating child-friendly food, because I’m too lazy to cook for myself, I probably ate more than was polite.)

There’s not much detail to report yet. It was the first event and we are all being encouraged to join up. For an application form please write to: Board of Directors, Kyrgyz-British Society, 64 Clifton Street, London, EC2A 4HB or ask for information through the Kyrgyz Embassy. I am promised that a website is being developed so I will link from here when there is. They hope to run at least four events a year. I’m hoping for a concert of haunting folk music.

Kyrgyzstan has so much to offer, I really hope the society can bring positive aspects of the country to wider attention. I’m not as widely travelled as Douglas Whitehead but I do believe that Kyrgyzstan maintains the luxury of being OFF the tourist route and therefore remains raw and untarnished. Its travel industry is wonderfully un-commercial; no coaches to mar your view, hundreds of miles of valleys and mountains to explore by yourself. In Bishkek alone you’ll find men in conical felt hats, jostling bazaars crammed into treacherously narrow streets, stalls selling sheep heads, beautiful felt carpets, massive Soviet statues, parks to promenade in, delicious lepioshka (bread) straight from a clay oven, and tiny babushkas selling cheap, tasty and colourful fruit, veg, jam, cordials and pickles on every street corner. Please, don’t be put off by the negativity of Douglas Whitehead’s article. Consider an expedition to Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan and form your own conclusions.

Ps, there must currently be lots of cyclists in Bishkek as Simon Evans and Fearghal O'Nuallain, undertaking the first Irish circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, arrived in Bishkek last week! You can find out more about them on their website.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Operation Christmas Child

This is a follow up post to one written by Whistlejacket about having too many toys. All the comments to her post were in agreement – yes we have too many toys; yes people are too generous at Christmas but what can we do, relatives like giving children presents; yes there’s no need to buy toys for children to tell them you love them; yes younger children are happy playing with older siblings' toys.

I could, and probably will, write my own post about too many toys and the attraction of de-cluttering to the nostalgic days of “I only had a ball of string and sticks to play with and I was happy”. But I don’t want to be distracted here from the more important message.

I replied to Whistlejacket that one way to help – with the guilt at least – is to get involved with Operation Christmas Child. You wrap a shoe box and pack it with gifts – toys, toiletries, underwear, felt tip pens - for a boy or girl in your chosen age category and it is delivered somewhere around the world as a treasured Christmas present.

I blogged about this last year as it was great to see my then five-year-old enthused about doing this for another child. Even at that age I believe they really can benefit from thinking about those who live very different lives.

Last Christmas, a combination of the huge pile of presents under the tree and their particularly bad and spoilt behaviour made me feel sickened. So I told them about the children whose homes are orphanages in Kyrgyzstan, a poor country where we lived for three years while my husband worked on a drinking water project. I described how many of these children spent most of their time in cots, ate very basic food and had no toys. This image really stuck with my eldest and when they are wasting food or being spoilt about what they have and what they want, a gentle reminder of the children in cots does have an effect. Sometimes he remembers independently – “would children in cots have this?” he asks. One friend admonished me for this saying children should be allowed to stay innocent, but I don’t see the harm in broadening their understanding and encouraging empathy.

My son has just brought his Operation Christmas Child leaflet home from school and we are going to pack this year’s box as a half term project. There’s load of information on their website If you are interested, don't delay as the deadline for dropping off any boxes is 18 November.

Friday, 23 October 2009

In Celebration of Lego

In his book Superpowers for Parents (click here for my review), Dr Stephen Briers writes “The pace of our modern world conditions our children to expect everything instantly...most children play computer games that deliver a rapid succession of satisfying “hits” in return for very little sustained effort. One drawback of this is that today’s children often have very little experience of the benefits of perseverance. They have never had opportunities to prove to themselves that it can be worthwhile tolerating frustration and pressing through unyielding circumstances.”

My mother, a nursery nurse, calls it “instant gratification”, that children expect everything to give them pleasure immediately.

This is a worrying trend of our increasingly technological world. I have therefore been very reassured to see my children endlessly enjoying Duplo and now Lego. T was given sets of Lego for his 6th birthday and I love watching the systematic way he goes about making the items, tipping the pieces from each bag into separate pots and methodically following the pictorial instructions, mostly by himself.

Maybe it helps having an engineer for a father. I once read an editorial about Lego in the New Civil Engineer (M gets the magazine and I like the pictures of incredible structures!) Antony Oliver wrote enthusiastically about the many virtues of Lego. Firstly, he said, it was his most successful foil at attracting his children away from the television and computer. Secondly he commented that compared to “so much of the tat which is put in front of our young, Lego is a very honest toy. You get out of it what you put in.”

His third point related to the positive impact for engineering if more children are playing with lego (his editorial was about sales of Lego being up) and this point ties in with Dr Briers. “Construction toys like Lego provide a vital part of the education process. They really do provide the bedrock for young minds to learn the basics of design, construction and problem solving and fuels their imagination as they construct something from nothing, over and over again.”

It’s not all perfect with Lego. T is currently building a house which is quite complicated so there’s more “mummy! There’s just one problem here...can you come and have a look”. Trying to ascertain why there was a green space where there should have been the end of a long white block whilst trying to lift his 18-month old sister out of the bath was not particularly easy. Neither was trying to get him away from the project and into bed.

But I am very grateful for his interest. Stephen Briers writes that “good emotional control and strong problem solving skills consistently emerge as two characteristics of children who are better at coping with life. In reality these two factors are related.” With all the challenges facing children in their lives, I am grateful that a toy my child loves is also helping him learn important emotional lessons.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

For women who like to write I can recommend a listen to today's edition of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on BBC iPlayer (available for a week).

It was focused around Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, discussing what it was like to be a woman writer then, and now. It ended with reflections on "a room of one's own". That is my dream, to have a room for all my books, photos, albums and projects where I can hide and write!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Babies Laughing

I'm not really into You Tube but I saw this on someone else's blog and it did make me smile.

There's something special about the fat chuckles of babies. But I couldn't help wondering what it was like when all four cried at once!

Superpowers for Parents by Dr Stephen Briers

Following on from the last posts about books, books, books it seems apt to comment that is dangerous; one book leads to another. They are very good at linking books so that while looking at one title, another pops up and you think “that looks interesting” and click. Before you know it there are ten books in your basket. And I’m the sucker who buys them all.

A virtual “chain of books” is how I came across Dr Stephen Brier’s Superpowers for Parents: The Psychology of Great Parenting and Happy Children. It’s a very interesting parenting book and I have really enjoyed it.

I became a fan of Dr B reading his introduction. “Previous generations of parents would probably shake their head in wonder at the idea of us all striving to be better parents. In the old days, childrearing was just common sense or a traditional way of doing things, handed down largely unquestioned from one generation to the next...our parenting, like so many aspects of modern life, is now subject to constant scrutiny and evaluation from both within and without. Never has parenting been such a self-conscious and guilt-stricken affair.”

The best summary of what the book is about is in the epilogue. SB says he wrote the book with three goals in mind. One, to try and help parents understand WHY children misbehave. Two, that skirmishes we have with our children are nothing compared to the internal battles our children have with their own feelings and impulses and three, to encourage a shift in emphasis in parenting beyond the management of children’s behaviour to embrace the broader opportunities and privileges and to acknowledge our duty to equip them with the psychological skills they need.

As I enjoy understanding the psychology of what children do I found it fascinating. Superpowers is all about how your child views the world and the emotions they are experiencing – emotions that are often more than they know how to deal with. It’s not so much about how to cope with bad behaviour but what emotions might be causing the bad behaviour and how to help control them.

I can already see it translating into my understanding of how my children are behaving, and maybe why, every day. It has already changed my approach to some situations, trying to stop and think how they are feeling and the effect that is having. (Although having written that I’ve not been terribly patient with my three year old lately, we always seem to be rushing and I always seem to be dragging him along, chivvying him to hurry – and I don’t need SB to tell me that’s not positive for anyone. We need to slow down and not always try and cram so much into every minute, but that’s not always possible, especially when you are doing everything on your own. I think we are all ready for the pause that is Half Term.)

An Amazon reviewer commented “I have found since reading this book that I am much more aware of my own responses and attitude towards children's behaviour and speech in school as well as at home.” This comment was in relation to a child who was always negative about what happened to them – “I never win because I am such a loser” etc. This is all about “core beliefs” and how important it is to “ensure our children construct healthy core beliefs about themselves”.

SB encourages us to look at problems from a different perspective – often there will be a completely unexpected cause or more involved problem. He gives an example of a boy who did a “mind map” about why he was always late for school with the result that his parents learnt he was overtired because he was keeping himself awake to avoid nightmares and anxiety attacks.

One of my favourite sections is about why children are angels at school then come home and turn into horrors. “it is precisely because he is behaving well at school...the exercise of self control in one context may be using up available resources in the other.” You may say this is obvious but appreciating the processes Dr B explains has helped me be more understanding with my children:
  • the brain’s processing power, and in particular our capacity to devote conscious attention to things, is a finite resource;
  • adults have already automated many aspects of our lives, children are still assimilating many of the skills we take for granted so their concentration is being taxed to a much greater degree just by the routine business of daily life;
  • mental tasks involving a lot of processing power may have an effect on children’s ability to keep their behaviour in check because self control is a form of mental labour;
  • self control is like a muscle and can increased with exercise but also pushed to the point of fatigue;
  • if we can help our children become more efficient at some mental tasks then we can lighten the load of the “prefrontal cortex” leaving more resources available for other functions such as self control;
  • to help children master themselves we need to adopt a holistic approach that recognises how the different systems connect up and influence each other;
  • carrot and stick approach may take certain behaviour out of context – we can ignore the fact that children’s ability to behave well is just one outcome of the mastery of several distinct but interrelated mental skills.

At times the book deals with some pretty intense and difficult situations, more than the “why have you just hit your brother again?” issues I am currently struggling with. However, the point is that those everyday problems might be derived from deeper reasons – the superpower is to spot them. SB hopes to equip you and your child with skills to best deal with the difficult situations, or hopefully avoid them in the first place. I have definitely learnt techniques I can use now and could come back to should certain problems arise. I have also been encouraged to realise how helpful things I have been doing naturally actually are.

I also found Superpowers beneficial for my own emotional development; there are different strategies we can all learn. Harnessing your own emotions and personality is so important as a parent because your children learn by copying you.

I have enjoyed reading this book – it is not heavy going – and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about why their children are reacting in such a way and long term ways to help – there aren’t your standard “quick fixes” for behaviour. There are also some great quotes used, such as one from Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Books Waiting on the Shelf

Thank you for the great response to my question What are you Reading. I've been really enjoying all the book conversations.

Following on from my comment to Katherine about the Paul Auster book and a conversation I had with a friend last night, I have a new question: Are there any books on your shelf that have been there for years? You know you will read them one day but it just never seems to be the right time. Or are you a "buy a book and read it immediately" type person?

I have lots of books on my shelves because I collect/hoard books, buying things that look interesting all the time, especially in charity shops and from fete book stalls! Therefore I have lots of books that have been there for years, waiting for the right time. I'll give some examples to get the discussion going:

Travel Books, or books set in specific places, like the Paul Auster New York Trilogy - when I go away I like to try and read something set in the place/country so have books waiting in anticipation.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - this has been staring at me for years. I know that it is traumatic and I have not yet found the right time to invest the emotional energy in it.

Likewise, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This is about a 15 year old boy who commits murders at his school and his mother who then reflects on his upbringing. Since becoming a mother I've been very interested in this book but never quite brave enough to start reading it.

So, do you have any books that have been waiting for years on your shelf?

Monday, 12 October 2009

What Are You Reading?

I’ve borrowed this idea from my friend Alastair, who in turn borrowed it from another blogger. I love books and always find it fascinating to hear what other people are reading. Therefore, the idea of this post is to get as many people as possible to share:

1. What they have just read
2. What they are reading now
3. What they are planning to read next.

What to read next is always one of my favourite decisions. I spend ages pondering it, staring at spines on my shelf wondering where to go next.

Alastair has a huge community of followers, many reading adventuring books about marathons and adventures on ice. I felt slightly conspicuous with my contribution, the only person to include a parenting book! I would love to build up a similar community of readers to respond to mine and each other’s thoughts. (I’m anxious this is a little presumptuous for a blogging nobody like me but I feel inspired to try!)

Therefore, I’m making this post in the hope of tempting you to comment and become involved. Please let me know what you enjoy – or don’t – about my blog so that I know what is most entertaining or interesting.

My book list is as follows:
  1. Love My Rifle More Than You – Kayla Williams (reviewed below)
  2. Superpowers for Parents – Dr Stephen Briers (I need all the help I can get! Have nearly finished and will review it here when I have).
  3. Am still enjoying pondering what’s next. Might be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak because I’m hosting a book club on that in November. Or it might be Feminista by Erica Kennedy, mentioned to me by a fellow blogger.

I look forward to hearing what you are reading...

Friday, 9 October 2009

Perforations on Kitchen Roll

This morning I’ve been making a birthday cake. It’s a perilous occupation. I have on my shoulders the weight of expectation of a 5 turning 6 year old and it’s heavy. A few weeks ago I heard him tell someone “my daddy knows how to make a cake shaped like a six”. Sh**, I thought. His daddy is working away in Bangladesh so it falls to me to achieve the perfection that everything must be when you are six and it is your most special day of the year.

Baby J was watching in her high chair, begging for bits of cake mixture with an open mouth like a fledgling, cheeping “me-me-me-me”. We were listening to Dame Ellen MacArthur on Desert Island Discs. Something Dame Ellen said resonated with me to the extent that I went to iPlayer and have listened again and transcribed it. (I am fortunate that the relatives of the show’s founder recently agreed to make it available on iPlayer! This interesting fact I had read in The Week and disregarded as irrelevant until today!)

Why am I spending my morning transcribing this when I should be concentrating on a cake? Because it’s easy to get bogged down in the world of motherhood. As important as that role is, I believe it helps to put things in a wider context. It’s so important to me to think and reflect and other people’s perspective can be so valuable as a prompt to evaluate your own life and priorities.

Dame Ellen said: “The winter after the Round the World I went down to the southern ocean again and I went down to an island called South Georgia and I spent two months down there, part of that was camping on an island and for the first time I actually stopped. And I realised something for the first time that really jarred inside me and that was the fact that when you sail around the world on a boat you take with you the minimum of resources and you don’t waste anything. You never leave a light on, you never leave a computer screen on, everything is looked after. You only have what you have and if it doesn’t last til the end, you won’t make it, and that could be your life or it could be the fact you simply don’t break the record.

And then whilst I was in South Georgia I realised that on land we do not do the same thing. We don’t see things as precious any more, we take what we have for granted, you’d never do that on a boat. If you need some kitchen roll you tear off a corner, not a whole square because someone somewhere thought that perforated line is what everyone needs. It jarred inside me and it started to make me think and I was looking at plans for the future and it just hit home to me that we cannot keep doing that because this world I thought as a child was the biggest most adventurous place you could imagine is actually not that big and there’s an awful lot of us on it and we’re not managing the resources that we have as you would on a boat because we don’t have the impression that these resources are limited.”

I love the comment about kitchen roll, I think it’s a great analogy for our wastefulness and arrogance about what we have – why use less when a whole piece is available – and the knock-on effect that an arbitrary decision can often have.

You can listen to the whole interview (for the next week) here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Troubleshooting the Dynamics between Siblings

Having three children can be chaotic but, interestingly, I feel a third child has brought balance and almost calm to our family because of the relationships it has created. One of my favourite things about mothering is the dynamic between the children.

Although boys T (5 – but 6 this month!) and B (3) fight constantly, they are incredibly close. Sometimes I wonder if they are too close. They share a room – this is not ideal, but unavoidable. They do everything together. B follows T around and copies everything he does and I sometimes worry if this is restraining for B. He was desperate to start at nursery, because T was there. But it upset him when T went into the school room to do different activities and unsettled him when T left to start school. I feel B is really only now establishing himself at nursery. Will the same happen at school, will he just shadow T around the playground rather than being his own person?

I also worry that this adoration and dependency is having a negative effect on behaviour. B used to be such an obedient little boy, devastated if told off. Recently he has become increasingly naughty and defiant, worryingly immune to discipline – he just responds with a cheeky grin. It has taken me too long to realise that this is just his way of seeking attention from me – and T – and that what is needed is not just discipline but positive parenting. Too much of what I do is aimed at T, with B tagging along, expected to keep up because he does.

So, I resolved to treat him more as an individual with his own needs, to make sure, for example, I also read stories for his age group – and to give him some special mummy time. Today in the car I told him about this and said he would have “special mummy time” when he came home from nursery. He could choose what we did. He said he wanted to do puzzles – and added that sister J (17 months) could join in too. I felt touched by his consideration. He’d been promised special mummy time and his first thought was to share it with his little sister.

We did the puzzles. We all enjoyed it. B is adept at puzzles and I love watching him work out where everything goes. I suggested J pass him pieces, which she did, smiling, clapping and excited when we said thank you.

Walking up to school to collect T, B said “I love you mummy”. He often says this, he is wonderfully affectionate. Then he said “I’m going to be a good boy at home now”. It was as if, with a child’s pure intuition, he knew exactly what the special mummy time had been about. I stopped walking to give him a cuddle, which he was very pleased about.

It’s not all perfect. This evening there have been the usual fights, over a Spiderman colouring book and who was washing their hands first at the basin. But I feel more confident about them because I believe I’m coping in a positive way. There will always be issues between siblings but I hope that my new strategy will help, B especially, feel more confident about his place within the family.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

8 Tiny Ways in which I'm Improving My Life

This is a really interesting post from my friend Alastair Humphreys – adventurer, author, motivational speaker. I met Al when he cycled through Bishkek and stayed with us in our Soviet flat. The story of his four year cycle around the world is fascinating, as are Al’s blog posts. Like me he thinks and reflects on things, but whereas my thoughts are bogged down with children, his are more wide-reaching.

There are some good ideas for finding satisfaction in life in this 8 Ways blog post and the subsequent comments. This being a Motherhood and Anarchy blog I should probably add that not all of them are possible for parents - I can’t go for a run every morning and spend the moments when the kettle is boiling dashing around attending to chores and child demands. But, much of what is suggested I do already (I’m nauseatingly anti-television, it sucks you in with, mostly, such trivia and wastes voids of time) and I agree entirely with the sentiments; to push yourself, try harder, start small and aim big. Al is taking a photo every day; it helps him to look for something positive and interesting. There is beauty around us in the normality of every day; children help you see that. Today it was the clouds, leaves and reflected autumn light. T pointed out a tiny green caterpillar. B loved the enormous bright moon rising in the darkening sky.

Reading this post and comments I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities of what is out there to do, read, browse on the Internet, listen to, reflect on, write about then start again. Oh how I wish I had endless time. As I don’t I think one of Al’s points is key – use what time you do have to maximum effect.

Ps, Al suggests having a cold shower – that one’s not for me!