Sure Start: His generation


 My son will be twenty-one this year. I’m compiling an album for him. Photo’s, snippets of stories and little quotes from his life so far. It is difficult to extract all those first moments (it’s hard enough to remember yesterday sometimes). Of course  I have written things down, sometimes specific moments but mostly I recall fragments of his life. I have found that snatches of memory fire at me; moments with middlest or smallest trigger recollections of his early years. But the traces are  dim and often memories are blurred. 

As I try to  remember it occurs to me how different my experience of being becoming a mother at 21 and 37 has been. Almost as if each time a child was born , a different mother emerged. Accounting for this are the obvious maturational differences that accompany being 21 and 37 respectively , alongside personal circumstance. Additionally, it occurs to me there was a stark variation  in the services I received post partum; as I reflect on these the memories that make me smile emerge , and I say out loud ,”Sure start”.

Back in 2000 I lived in Wales, two years after the then chancellor Gordon Brown announced the curation of Sure Start, an early intervention programme for under 5s and their families. This was an initiative driven by the aim , “to give every child the best possible star in life”, through improving the “educational and life chances of socially and economically disadvantaged children”. This eye brow raising yet heroic strategic aim was to be achieved through a programme service the  Sure Start Learning Programme (SSLP), targeting the most disadvantaged families in the most deprived areas. Essentially this took the form of targeted provision in areas home to families of acute need. Over five years it evolved into a ten year year strategy, at its core, a universal programme for all, the aim to provide a service and build a Sure Start Childrens Centre in every community.

When eldest was born we lived in Wrecsam.  I dont remember there being a Sure Start  in the area of Hightown. We were certainly never signposted to groups or a centre. Perhaps there was a sign on the community centre but I don’t  remember there being anything behind it.  Local services , such as a nursery, health visiting clinic and housing were very far apart and living on an estate border was a hindrance with some professionals arguing that we should attend another clinic for baby weighing. Regardless the result was that we tended to get missed out of invites to facilities and had to do our own legwork to find them. Often we relied on the Health Visitors. Not that Health Visitor calls were particularly frequent- initially every week  but these soon peetered down to every 6 weeks and by the end of the first year had ceased completely with me having to chase up the first year check . For any new Mums or Dads reading ,  this would not be a shock but back then it was unusual made more so as we were definitely one of those families which would have benefited from the service. We struggled and there was violence.

This lack of service though was not apparent until I moved to Greenstead in Colchester, when eldest was 3 and I was pregnant with middlest. In terms of social and economic depriavtion Wrecsam and Greenstead did not stand far apart from another , however from the census of 2001 Greenstead scored 19/20 with 20 equating the highest and worst end of a scale measuring socio economic deprivation. In an attempt to acknowledge this and to address it, Greenstead two years prior had recieved £750,000, “to develop services for Mums and Dads”,  and it was reflected in the provision across Greensteads locality in the St. Annes Ward. The childrens centre was situated above the Greenstead Community Centre, with a purpose built pre-school setting and additional stay and play serices held at two further locations on the estate. The main building was used for one to one sessions, training for parents, play groups, new baby groups and a dads group. The SS Team also hosted trips for families on low income and intermittent groups on healthy eating, reading, communication and keeping your children safe and well.

I recall being given the Sure Start timetable when I  arrived on on the estate and despite my anxiety about being in a new area,   I started to attend. The benefts were tangible; they provided structure, helped us to forge relationships and educated me in areas of parenting that  I had not thought about. The staff were engaging and the outreach service did exactly what it said it would do- it reached out. So if, as a single parent of two who was in the midst of a domestic violence  investigation you did not attend a group, they would come to you. Check in with you. They could support you to take steps that were important for you and your family.  Another key service was the provision of regular, local health visitor clinics which gave a critical point of contact for me and hundreds of other single mums on the estate, at the most isolating part of parenthood.

Beyond the baby years the provision of childcare, a small provision which split its availability into morning and afternoon sessions, allowed me a precious couple of hours down time, which given the absence of family support, was invaluable. It undoubtedly balanced my mental health and when I found work as a voluntary project worker with Home Start, it allowed me to undertake this. 

It is improtant to note that Sure Start provisions could be quite different from one another; service mangers at the time stated informally that there was no specific form or template from which provisions were developed and this was substantiated by visiting other provisions or just knowing people who used SSC in other areas. We definitely had access to an exemplary setting. Such variations in delivery offered a stark reminder of the state of balance between the nations that despite the united status, across a comparatively small divide there was such a difference in service.  Irrespective of the difference the initiative grew and by the later noughties there were 3,500 childrens centres  and the provision of the service accounted for £1.8 bllion (2018-19) of our national annual spending.

Despite its popularity and relative success the absolute success of Sure start  was seen to be minimal. This was based on an evaluation strategy that was on going and in 2010 cuts were made to Sure Start Funding as part of the austerity measures implemented by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. This appeared at odds with another development in politics , the 2010 Child Poverty Act which  aimed to end all children living in poverty by 2020. At the time much evidence pointed to a reduction in service with the focus on its economic contributions however others including Tracey Bain, then the Early Years Minister,  supported continued funding stating that Sure Start played a critical role in children’s health, as well as their development (The Guardian June 2019). Further support pointed to the fall in the number of cases attending hospital due to accidents or illness as evidence of the importance of early years support provided by Sure Start staff. Critics though were quick to admonish the work, pointing out that causal relationships were little or insignificant. Cuts followed and centres reduced scope of service. 

There followed counter arguments  which directed attention to the problems  inherent in longitudinal surveys such as thise utilised in evaluating SSCC.  These highlighted problems of confounding variables in establishing causal inference. They also argued that validity is further pushed into the realms of speculation when you consider that what was measured was derived from the original programme aims ie child development. This was despite there being a shift in the the focus of the work implemented in the centres. This latter point was raised by Norman Glass, who criticised the evaluation on the grounds that the move towards the focus from child development to supporting Mothers’ back into employment was not accompanied with a change in targets, which were the focus of the evaluation strategy. Essentially you can’t say a has no impact on b if a does not exist in the first place. The shift to local authority control rather than being run by boards including parents would also have had a huge impact upon programmes.

also remember the scrabbling around for numbers to validate the centres wider relevance and the impact of this.  Pre- 2005 work focused upon families with under 5s in specific areas; centres linked to immediate population.. In 2005, the change to the centre programme was accompanied by need to fill seats and so doors opened to individuals out of catchment. I remember this being a  bone of contention amongst the groups of the centre.Admittedly,  I myself experienced a twinge of annoyance that all of a sudden there was an influx of people from estates adjacent to ours. People with choice who  had exercised their freedom to choose and had chose to attend ‘our’ centre.  Flattering some might suppose but it also meant that there were some families in the locality who were unable to attend as they had taken their place. For us it was not tit for tat it was a case of protecting our own resources and also our sense of esteem which was very easily tarnished. It was as if we were not enough and for some this resulted in a rejection of the service.  Widening participation also created  methodological problems in evaluation at it detracted or confounded  from original modelling on impact on deprived families. 

Regardless, provisions stabilised and then declined. We still attended everyday taking our place one group or another as  evidenced in pictures, I find in my search for memories for eldests book. However the introduction of austerity measures which  influenced target setting and provision was felt .The number of children in poverty has since risen by 600,000 since 2010. 4.2 million youngsters in the UK – or 30 per cent – are existing below the poverty line (that’s nine children in a class of 30) and the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission is now forecasting a further huge rise to 5.2 million children in poverty by 2022. No doubt many will point to the pandemic for its contribution towards these numbers but there is no avoiding the fact that these numbers existed before the pandemic and will exist long after the effects of Cornavirus fade in other areas. Sure Start may not eliminate such poverty but it supported those living within the confines of a restricted life and reducing its capacity will have come as a double blow to those children in need.

I searched for comparative data, a control group from which to measure outcomes against or perhaps some information on the families that had used the sure start services.

My search revealed none instead I found a wealth of articles, some lamenting the lack of services for father’s (not in Greenstead) others which argued that it did fiscal harm, stealing the money from our budget

Such criticisms have been suggested as weak, even selfish. I would concur; if you consider that the economics of the programme outweigh the importance of what it did on a moral level. Because what these studies don’t capture is that Sure Star made people feel important. At the heart of these services was time. Many of these service users are and were intergenerational benefit survivors, 3rd perhaps even 4th generation benefit families who have nothing but what they know, like the rest of us, to pass onto their children. Except that their knowledge was and is  watered down by deprivation. Sure Start offered substance.

To break this cycle takes time, it takes generations for behaviours to change. At least one for people to even a knowledge that the change is positive and something they could achieve. For a few years though there was a hope that came from people, the staff in particular who made us feel, well human.  For some, like myself the hope was transformative.

In 2009 just before middlest started school the area hosted two centres, the Greenstead centre and The Oak Tree service, a purpose built building, beautiful in its aesthetic, serving the St. Annes or White City area in Colchester. They both still exist; both areas still sit in the margins of poverty however the picture nationwide suggests that 1 in 3 centres has closed and spending has been now reduced to a third of the original budget. A more recent evaluation suggests that against the original figures, the NHS has made of saving of 6% due to the influence of Sure Start with reductions in infection rates in under 5s and reductions in hospital admissions for children under the age of 11, the most cited outcomes. Whether they are the most significant is still not known;  there is still an absence of a study that documents the signficance of the  factors  by the original intervention. NESS research has been conducted but by its own accounts is not robust. It seems absurd to infer that Sure Start has had little or no impact.

I wonder what happened to all of the Sure Start Generation children? There is a suggestion that there is on going evaluation. Perhaps this might include those that it actually reached. We are one such family and I am secure in my position in support of the continuation of such provision certain that without its part in our lives at a very critical point we would have struggled immensley and my children woud not have achieved what they have today.

Neither would I have gone back.

When I had smallest the change in service provision was stark. The health visitor service had been reduced to once a week for four weeks, extended to two weeks due to post partum anxiety. After that the responsibility for contacting them laid with you. An ex collegaue who struggled with post natal depression  contacted her health visitor and 4 months later after a teary phone call to the clinic she was responded to. I sought solace in my past experiences and after a very difficult birth i took refuge at the old centre and was cheered to find two of the old staff still present. They were however the only remaining features of the old Sure Start, a skeleton service remained holding what was now a very thin skin; the creche had disappeared as had 75% of the groups. The looming takeover from yet another provider  had distracted those remaining and the fact that I thought I was still welcome pointed to the wider area which was now catered for in what had once been a locals only service (I live 3 miles away from the centre). I attended two groups after which there was no progression or suggestions of feeder groups. I remembered then the Sure Start ethos of continuity in face of adversity. As I left the centre after the last session I learned that the core group had started an informal group of their own. Those of us who came from the wider area had not been invited.  I felt offended but then I realised what I had done  – I had stolen the place of a Mum from the area just like those Mums from from the next estate had done, all those years ago. I was mortified at my lack of awareness but at the same time interested that I did not even for a moment contemplate this. I went into  the group in my mind as an insider but was received as an outsider. I still felt at home there.I took my rejection as it was.intended to be received,thanks but no thanks but thought about it.  This provision is as important to those people today as it was to us all those years ago. I had come into and enjoyed the nostalgic undertones but i had failed to see the significance of my presence just as the government fails to see how the presence of the Sure Start Learning Programmes featured so positively in many people’s lives. Looking and planning with eyes shut tightly.

Last week nearly four years after my last session ,I  searched for the contact details for the sure start centre which became central to my life all those years ago. I searched under Sure Start and Greenstead Colchester and the listing gave me a telephone number and a registered address. The lady who picked up the phone referred to the service as the Essex child and family well being service. Continue reading “Sure Start: His generation”

Wheat fields forever

Mud fun

I like December especially now that it means not going to work. I feel I can enjoy the end of this year; fading with the light as winter is let in by Autumn. Life sometimes feels a bit lack lustre at this time. Especially this year, when we all teeter on the precipice of another lockdown. We have reached the end of lockdown #2 and have been ushered into a new phase of our countries attempts to slow the spread of Covid.Here in Essex we are in Tier 2 . What this basically means is we can’t do anything more than what we were allowed to do before Lockdown- other than go shopping.All children’s activity centres are still closed as are many other potential sources of amusement for small people.The prospect of being in close proximity to many eager Christmas shoppers doesn’t grab me, so we head back.

This is disappointing for smallest as yesterday he told me he wants “to jump” , to run “ and in reference to the swimming pool “I just want to splash Mummy”. He was basically telling me that he had more energy than he knew he could use in the front room , hence today’s excursion to the Fields.

I have mentioned these fields before as they have been our place of choice throughout lockdown . First as a place to fill time but gradually as a place where time became represented differently. It opened up space where I have made decisions and new angles of life and relationships were uncovered. Without the chaos of the old , life took on took on a seasonal rhythm, emerging as I began to see what was around me.

Smallest seem beleaguered as we drove up to the site where we park. “We already go here Mummy. Loads of times”.

His mood expressed via the bottom lip was tempered though, when he looked out over the field. All he said was “oh” and I looked to take in what he saw. The change was stark .

The hedgerows have been taken back and the fields were already swaddled with the first signs of a new crop, green of course and so in contrast to our last visit, where it was heavy with yellow wheat. The oaks which line the paths had shed and stood in their majesty. He walked on clear paths and then ran and ran. He stopped only to examine the troughs created by farm machinery; staggering its way alongside fields it has serviced.

A nostalgic undertone emerged from beneath a cloud. I remembered the fields of April ,May and June and felt lifted by the simplicity of the memory. Created with no effort, no money; a complete absence of first world reality.

Meanwhile smallest scouted the puddles and dipped in his stick, then very carefully waded through. With each puddle confidence grew until at last turning toward the next path, he jumped and jumped and shouted “mummy I’m jumping” and “I’m splashing look at me”. The afternoon carried on in that vein and by the time we had circled our way back to the car he had a managed to tick all his required boxes for fun. He had run, jumped and splashed – the only thing missing, other children , which he pointed out, “well I can’t go near them anyway Mummy” and “you are the fastest runner”. It is true.

I wondered about the year. Sense by sense we are lulled into the last months. We have acclimatised and our senses have settled on our new surroundings . Birdsong which drowned evenings has dropped a notch and the sound of laughter from the scatted neighbourhood barbecues has disappeared. The fireworks which spattered the skies since November 5th are silent and the trees stand bare , resolute in their preparation for spring. And on a different scale we have accepted the new normal.

Thinking forward, one thing I most look forward to is doing this all over again (minus the pandemic) .These exact same walks which offer us completely different landscapes through the seasons. Walks where smallest gets what he needs and I the food to wonder.

So , as 21 tugs at the corner of 20 , I wonder whether what we need for humanity has been noticed. Just as I can look at the pictures and see the small differences which transformed mine and smallest perception of our field; can we as a collective see how little changes in each of our lives can transform this planet for all our futures? I am hopeful; but then my glass is always half full.

I wonder what you hope for in the year ahead?

Polo United

Crazy laughter emanates from the carriage. We have boarded nearest to the engine, at the back of the train. It seems the potentiality of this summer’s day has lifted the spirits of commuters. We take our seats in the middle of the carriage , back facing our destination.

The train is full and a pack of middle aged men in long sleeved shirts and suit trousers are separated, instead sitting in file, next to other not known, smiling city types. Sunglasses decorate their faces hiding eyes as they arch their necks round to continue conversations already established.

A quartet of early twenties hopefuls, making the early commute sit on the opposite side of the carriage to them facing backwards. The omnipotent emotions generated by this, one of their first journeys it’s appears as commuters, still holds enough novelty to generate an air of self- importance. It sends shockwaves through the personality. I cannot see the girls but I can hear them , piercing voices with little intonation giving opinion on news items, it appears to the whole carriage. Their volume increases as the old timers take up the ingroup offer of a polo which gets entwined in a discussion about ebola. “This makes an Ebolo”, a female voice finishes. Titters amongst the group and a raucous response from the males each keen to take up the offer of a mint. I look up.

“Yeh I’ll have an Ebolo Polo”, a clean shaven smiling sun-glassed man jokes.

Laughter circles, racing up the carriage

Encouraged by full smiles, framed with lipstick, compliments are flung towards the females.

“Intelligent and beautiful,” remarks the man sitting furthest from the group, he drops his glasses and smiles holding his stare confidently before sliding the glasses back and returning his head back to rest on the rose red head support.

His friend sitting directly twists round in front – “you flatterer”  he smirks.

“Anything for an Ebolo Polo!” the man replies , smiling.

The females laugh and a kind of parabolic inflation of ego exchanges occurs – “you are so kind thankyou!” the female repies.

“No thankyou – thanks for sharing”, it continues

“Oh not at all- we like to share the Ebolo”.

Laughter rises once more.

My companion on this journey whispers in my ear.

“Would you like a polo?”

“Are you offering?”- I return my face to theirs. We laugh.



We meet momentarily.


The transparency of the moment is framed with laughter infecting faces up the carriage, mouths stretching and eyes dancing to and fro. The lighter side of humanity takes hold and dispels myths of a future of fractious dystopia and just for a moment,

One moment,

We are

United by a polo.

Adults are bad for Mother Earth

In a deviation from his usual preoccupations smallest has become very interested in the natural world.This started with curiosity about the workings of Volcanoes.

Explaining how a volcano works to a 4 year old is no mean feat. Enter You Tube with its plethora of options to enable a level of understanding suitable for us both.

We selected a 7 minute programme hosted by “Mother Earth”, an animation which by my standards is hilarious and is a mine of information. Smallest is suitably impressed and we have watched this many times over the past week. Subsequently, at any given moment he has found the space to regurgitate his new found knowledge. “Lava is molten rock”, he says. “Yes”, I say. “Pompeii is in Italy”. I nod. “We are bundles of matter” he shouts. “Right”, I say.

Despite his fascination with Volcanoes his main interest appears to be Mother Earth herself. “Why is she called Mother Earth?”, he asks. I explain that we sometimes refer to our planet as Mother Earth, as she is the home of everything that lives and she keeps us alive , just like our Mums do I say . “Oh”, he says and stuffs a(nother) fig roll in his mouth.

Today we left early for our usual morning walk around the Abbey Field. In this journey we decide to walk past the site where the old Gym used to stand before it was knocked down four years ago. It’s been cordoned off by a wall of wooden fence panels, painted in anti-climb paint. We know this because there are signs dotted around on the fence panels with a picture of a Mammoth and the words warning anti climb paint written underneath. Obviously smallest queries the content of the signs and I tell him, explaining that Mamut is french for Mammoth. This sign is for a security company who must patrol the site.”What does it say?”, he asks again and I tell him that it says ‘Mamut’. “But this means Mammoth”, I add. “Mamut”,he says. “Yes, yes it ..means Mammoth”. Preferring the French smallest asks ,”Where are the Mammuts?”

“Pardon?”,I say. Smallest appears to be looking around the site.

“Where are they?” , he has stopped now and he is looking at the derelict gym site. “Oh no they are not there sweetheart they are extinct i say”. It’s just a picture. They are not there. I understand his confusion. He looks puzzled as if to say why is there a picture of a Mamut with a warning sign if there are no Mamuts there.

As we walk home he asks what extinct is and I explain that this is what happens when an animal used to exist but doesn’t anymore – maybe because they were all killed by another animal or even us. “killed by grown ups?”, he asks and I reply well maybe sometimes that happens.

I then continue to talk about the importance of looking after animals and of looking after ‘Mother Earth’. “Mother Earth?” he stops and looks at me. “How do we look after Mother Earth?” he looks at me. I talk about recycling, using less plastic, using litter bins and looking after the wildlife in our garden. All things which I think he can grasp and are relevant to his little life. Not wanting to lose his attention on this quite significant topic, I then rack my brains and drawing on his love of all things motorised, talk about using electric or petrol and not diesel vehicles. He asks why people drive diesel cars and I tell him ,”Some adults just like diesel motors”. It seems a ridiculous point to make. That we just like them. At this point I feel I have lost him – his stick is far more interesting and he’s shooting lava balls at passing cars. I stop talking and start thinking about tea.

Later in the evening we sit and watch the follow up to the Volcano video another Clip about volcanoes followed by a cartoon about the merits of recycling. Middlest sashays into the living room and says ,”what you watching?”, and ruffles his hair. Smallest sighs, “It’s recycling. How to look after Mother Earth.” I smile. There is a small silence,”I don’t think Grown ups are good for the earth. Children are. And Mammuts”.

Nowhere Woman

When you are living in a moment

not yet reached, carrying

your weight in guilt,

not present here . Instead as you will be

When you meet yourself. In the future

All singing and dancing caberet

With a glass half full of milk

deliberating destination

Through a crack in time

in a mind besotted with finding its place.

As you stand surrounded upon it.

The countdown begins

Dad has three weeks before has his second vaccination. Then we can go into his house. I can’t tell you how excited I am just to get in there and sit down and have lunch and a cup of tea with him. He has been inside now since mid December. It’s an incredibly long time and it feels far longer. For him though it must feel like an eternity.

To pass the time he has re-established a relationship with Amazon , with whom there was a tumultuous few months where he had changed card details and then forgot his password. The reconciliation came a couple of months ago and since then he has used his time well and sat pondering what to buy and then making the purchase. Amongst other things this has included shaving foam, a coffee pot, a frying pan, herbs, pants, a sausage and a banana. Actually ,the latter was a purchase via Waitrose but I mention it because it highlights his difficulty with online shopping. “Why 1 banana Dad”, I said , as I stood at the front door. “Well I thought it meant one bunch- who wants one bloody banana?”, he said tutting. “And the sausage?” I said laughing. He sighed and looked at it in its small refrigerated package. “No bloody good”, he said.

I have always been close to my Father. When I was in my early teens I moved in with him and we muddled along together until i was 19 and left for University. In the intermediary years we drifted slightly though always remained in close contact, seeing each other two or three times a week. The pandemic though has reaffirmed what we had and cultivated something a little more enduring. It has certainly made me appreciate what he finds difficult and exposed my own struggle with accepting that. It has triggered the beginning of a narrative between us which has allowed us to reframe weakness as difficulty. The difficulties have been silently accepted and supported.- Dads with shopping, washing and cleaning , and my difficulties financially and with settling into my new circumstances.. Subsequently we have come to accept them; now they present no hardship as they are what life is a series of challenges to be overcome with support.

Most importantly though there have been the phone calls which, over the course of the year have got increasingly longer. These days we can easily spend an hour chatting in the evening. There is no topic which we have not explored together, politics, philosophy, psychology, literature, as-well as matters relating to family. The past has been dug over and we have cultivated a different understanding of those years from which the present is growing.. Our shared humour has carried us (and our dislike of the Johnson Government). It’s been fantastic.

3 Weeks Later

I write this having gone into his house for the first time for 5 months. I am pleasantly surprised at what I find; the only evidence of my not having been there is the kitchen floor which he struggles to get to now. Other than that things are looking good – even the kitchen sideboard has undergone transformation. We sit amongst books and papers and chat about Prince Philip and drink tea. It’s all very British one might say.

Before I leave I take a trip to the bathroom. I click the door latch and turn on the light noticing a slight difficulty opening the door fully. I step in and as I turn to close the door I notice an unholy amount of loo rolls behind the door.

When I return to the living room I comment on the rolls . “Ah yes I was going to ask you to take those downstairs Sploddy” he says.

“Right”, I say “erm ok all of them? How many shall I leave there just a couple?”

.”There are 60 there you know”, he says this triumphantly.

“I can well believe that I say – any particular reason why there is so many?” , I query.

“No”, he says -” I only clicked on one. Turns out it meant one box!”

What the heck is an Alice Pineapple??

Last night middlest and I sat on our sofa, ready to absorb another episode of IT Crowd. I passed her the obligatory packet of something chocolate and she passed back the drink that she had just removed from me. This removal is ritualistic for middlest and eldest. It begins with them seeing my drink sitting on the side. They ask me if its my drink. I say yes. They pick it up and drink some of it then put it down. I pretend to look indifferent.
This scene has graced the last ten years. No doubt there would be some intricate psychoanlaytic interpretation of this; however even with my tendency to explore, I have avoided this and just enjoyed it for what it is. Regardless of time or day for that moment we are all standing on the same point in time and we laugh.
“Its nice”, she said. She passes it back.
“Yup”, I replied, “it is isn’t it?”
“What’s in it?”, she says.
I read, “Er 36 strawberries, 2 and a half bananas”.
“Ooooh”, she says “very precise”-
“5 grapes and…. what’s this?” I say.
I squint at the teeny tiny writing on the side of the colourful bottle. “1…… Alice Pineapple……what the heck is an alice pineapple?!” I say.
“You what??!” says middlest and she looks at me. “Alice pineapple”, I repeat.
She takes back the bottle from me and holds it up, mirroring my facial squint, “alice pineapple….what even is that?” ,her voice travels up in question.
It does not occur to answer our question with a google search, instead we just sit our faces scrunched up in disbelief at the alice pineapple and its place in our (my) smoothie.
They put so much stuff in here. Middlest carries on staring at the bottle. She stops and sighs and says, “its like my list of homework – why they cant just reference the chapter we need to read and ask us to make outline of it? Why give us a list of points we need to make about the chapter- it just overcomplicates things .I just want to read something without panicking I am focusing upon the wrong thing”.
“Are you saying the smoothie is overcomplicated” I reply.
“No, just that we don’t need a bloomin’ list of ingredients like that… that we can’t even read”, she exhales.
I am not sure of the comparison, I think she might just be venting but I concur – at least with the homework issue. Teaching became more of a faff as the years went by, the focus drifting from encouraging learning to ensuring that they students ticked criteria points in the syllabus. It makes sense to want to make sure that you are covering everything but in reality it took away from just enjoying the experience of learning and the sense of well being this can instil. Too much focus on the detail caused anxiety. When you are teaching students, especially with complex needs, just achieving the former is an outcome but there is no box for that on the syllabus. Learning moved from being an experience to a process.

“….And how did they do it?..”, Middlest holds the bottle up, “Put a whole pineapple in here??”, she is exasperated now .”Maybe its a miniature.”
“Yeh, maybe; I cant believe I’ve not heard of it though” I muse.
“Alice pineapple”. I shake my head and after this delay we press play.

Eldest comes in and seeing the bottle sitting next to me walks over .I look up and he nods his head toward the bottle, “Is that your drink?”.
“Yes”, I say.
“Right”, and he picks it up and sits down on the armchair opposite.

We are watching the episode of IT Crowd where Moss sets the office on fire. We settle into the episode and as we do eldest starts to read the ingredients, “36 strawberries, two and half bananas, 5 grapes oh and a… what is that?…. oh, he squints and stares, ” 1 ….. Alice? no…. 1 slice of pineapple.

Middlest snorts and I open my mouth and make what she describes as a Minecraft potion noise.

Filling the Hole

I moved to Colcheter in 2004 from North Wales. Then we were 2, myself and eldest , I was carrying middlest at the time. It was a reluctant move which I framed as a stop gap in which I would consider my choices. Colchester is my birthplace and is not far from where I grew up however, did not appear to offer anything outwardly. In contrast, I had moved to Wales to undertake my degree, and my childhood town well, it contained my friends and my family. There was vacancy in this transition though, one I was unsure how to eliminate.

Life filled up quickly though. First middlest was born and then came their schooling, employment as a local youth worker and involvement in a very supportive Sure Start led community. I grew a social life and from this friendships sprouted.

In my mind though, Colchester’s status remained the same. A stop gap.

One day, a couple of years after my move, I sat chatting with a good friend in my living room. They glanced at my wall and nodded in the direction of a map I had of Wales and another of my childhood home. “No Colchester? ” they asked. “No it’s temporary “ , I mused without explanation or offering a potential future narrative.

Back then I would look forward to the time I wasn’t here. I would frequently take us away on breaks and day trips and on our way back it was always “better get back to Colchester then”. Never home.

Two years later, I relocated to where I live now. Still loosely referring to it as a filler, to everyone else, the move suggested something different – now married , with a permanent job , schools selected and friendships underscored, my life exuded stability. My choices said- this is home.

Privately though my view was the same, it was a stop gap. My mind would often drift to Cornwall or Cromer or Brighton, someplace with just good memories, a bit more surf and a little less concrete. I would make plans and look at letting and opportunity in that direction. One day these dreams drifted into conversation with another friend. I revealed to them my disappointment that I was still here after 15 years, that this was ever only meant to be a stop gap. Their shock at my confession was palpable – “You don’t seem this as your home? Why?!” I couldn’t actually answer at first.

I stopped and wondered openly about this need to separate myself from the town. Why did I resist saying it was my home? I recalled out loud how on occasion I had been repulsed by it even hated it. I said that it felt as if it belonged to everyone else , not me , describing places, specific roads and instances that fuelled the feeling. It slowly dawned upon me that I was drawing specifically upon certain experiences of people (perhaps even the reason for my move here) and this had coloured my perception of the place. My ability to synchronise with my environment , appeared to rest upon bad experiences and in particular how I had received them.

Often when we have difficulties we project our feelings elsewhere, onto other people, situations or jobs or sometimes places. We may take out our bad mood on someone else at work. We might take a negative experience at work, home. Similarly places can become imbued with the characteristics or feelings generated there. So a town that is neutral might come to represent a series of difficult life events.

Similarly we may behave in ways which we struggle to reconcile with our present self and find it difficult to remain where we are reminded of our failings.

I naturally pick things apart and in this conversation I realised the power of my defences. It’s easy to avoid yourself through dissociation than to face squarely, difficult feelings that we find hard to process.It can make things easier in the short term. But there is a flip side – in doing this we can deny things about ourselves and for ourselves, and for me it appeared that had included, feeling where my home is.

A few weeks ago, I realised a huge shift had occurred. A picture had been posted on our neighbourhood , what’s app group. It depicted a sketch of the road drawn by a local artist.

A sketch of our road by Nicola Burrell

Curled up on my sofa I sat up instantly and turned into the light to look more closely. I liked it. I copied it to my photo album and then printed it off. The next day I put it in a frame on my wall.

Somewhere along the line , perhaps in the middle of all this craziness, Colchester had become my home.

What changed? Perhaps it was the many walks around Abbey Field or the long runs around the outskirts of town. Maybe it was the faces that became familiar , throughout the hours spent doing both. Or maybe it was the sense of community which emerged from lockdown on our little road. The sharing of food and plants, the socially distanced chats with people who I have lived alongside for years, yet never spoken too. Or maybe it was the sharing of many pictures of resident foxes throughout. Whatever the reason, I have realised that I am at a different point in my life now and I exist in a space which is familiar yet is speaking to me in a different way. In relaxing my vision I have freed us up as a family.

The next day we head out of town and as we reach the end of another beach day , I get in the car. We chat and as I strap in smallest I ask, “where are we off to now buddy?”, and we look at each smile – in unison we both say “let’s go home”.


I think that I feel

I think that i

I think that

I think


Is this the me of young

Or old, me?


The woman standing at

the crest of the street

Where l live divagating


Or is

Or is this

Or is this me

Or is this me now

Or is this me now and then


Letting the

Letting the words

Letting the words unfold

Letting the words unfold and

With relief , the comfort of knowing I have always been here.

Ring out the wild bells by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Private: Tennyson, Alfred Lord

An excerpt taken from In Memorium.