Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Evaluating Evaluations

In my work I am continually evaluated. At the end of the year, schools are asked to respond to over twenty questions on the service they've had from their educational psychologist. When we finish work with a child, parents are sent a questionnaire and the child is asked to answer one question, 'on a scale of one to ten'...you know the sort. We're currently involved in discussions about how we can get better feedback from the children we work with, as we become more outcomes driven. That's okay, we're a local authority service and accountable to the taxpayers of Leicester but it is hard, in any form of therapeutic intervention, to account for what actually made the difference (because you don't have a control group and you don't stop other interventions.)
But I was surprised to get two evaluation forms through the post this week, one from the company that recently fitted a new carpet in my living room 'we value your opinions and would like your views on our products and services', the other from Curve Theatre in Leicester 'we would love to hear about your experiences at Curve'. You will note I didn't say THE Curve, which isn't allowed in Leicester. The definite article has been dropped, without explanation. To say 'the Curve' is like asking for an ashtray. No one will say anything, but the look will tell you a faux pas has been made. Anyway, in the carpet evaluation, I have to rate the sales floor assistant, the estimator, the clerk and the fitter on a scale from 1 to 5. Naturally, Curve ask more creative questions, 'what does the word theatre mean to you?' That question alone would satisfy the dissertation requirements for a B.A. in Theatre Studies but only a single line response is allowed. Reductionist arguments only please. I am delighted with the form from Curve. At last I can complain about being served a cup of instant decaffeinated coffee in the cafe. The theatre blurb says, 'it's one of those rare places where you can drop in and mingle with actors over a cappuccino.' No mention of mingling over instant decaff.
I will be wasting my time. Evaluation forms are only about percentages. But is this rating business becoming a little overdone? Today I took part in an open mic event, part of the Lyric Lounge, a poetry and music fest currently happening at the Y Theatre. As I left, I was handed an evaluation form for performers. Back at the office, I found a message in my in-box from the council's I.T. support team asking me to evaluate their response to my recent call. Isn't it better to drill quality into services through training and skills development and to respond quickly and efficiently to complaints rather than conduct pointless evaluations? What next...shall we rate our G.P. after each consultation or bus drivers after each journey?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Lytton Road Under Fives

In a recent post I dredged from the shifting sands of my personal narrative a lowering memory of the Lytton Road Under Fives, a unique 'starting' school for toddlers that was held in a dark, Baptist church hall that seemed gloomy even in summer. The children were dressed in a uniform of Osh Kosh dungarees or handmade Clothkits dresses. Members followed a strict rota for setting up the tired and battered toys, clearing up and making coffee. The hall smelt of dust and floor polish.
One of the mothers, expecting her second child, developed breast cancer during the pregnancy. Bad enough to have cancer at any time but during pregnancy, the choice is between treatment or the child. This mum opted to go without treatment until the unborn child could survive outside the womb. When this day came, the child was delivered and her treatment started. Anyone who's had a baby can imagine her life; coping with a new baby, a toddler and chemotherapy. I remember her as cheerful, busy and positive but she died within twelve months. The group planted a climbing rose for her and put a plaque next to it on the church wall. The church is now a Hindu temple and when I drive past, which is rare, I wonder whether the rose thrived and if the plaque is still there. I should go in and ask. I think her name was Lynn. While I tell this story I wonder about using other people's lives as part of my own narrative. I'm reading the Secret Scripture and found these lines: 'a person without anecdotes that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following them.' I hope that Lynn would be okay about not being 'lost' to at least one former member of the Lytton Road Under Fives and about sharing the end of her story with you. And I will check her rose.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Beauty Therapy

Beauty therapists are the profession that used to be known as beauticians but everyone is a therapist now. Cleaning ladies are house therapists, writers even do narrative therapy. I'm a late adherent to beauty therapy, as I am in everything except marriage. Although I am often assumed to be of the generation that grew up as hippies, the year I went to university (which is when life used to start), hippiedom was over and it was the age of the 'new romantics', David Bowie, Adam Ant, and... dare I say his name... Gary Glitter.
But the influence of the hippies was strong, even in the Tory bastion of St. Andrews, home of the Adam Smith Institute. The politically correct stance was that we should be admired just as we were, sans make-up, hairy armpits etc, as were the blokes. The sales of Rimmel and Max Factor and much borrowing of boyfriends' razors belied this, but beauty was a hidden activity. When I went to U.B.C in Vancouver in 1975, the power of the sisterhood was still much in evidence. Vancouver was the home of draft avoiders from the U.S, dope smoking and all-night beach parties; a really laid back, 'right on' place. Hirsute armpits, dungarees, hair tied back in an ethnic headscarf (preferably Musqueam Indian) and a couple of babies, one at the breast and one on the hip, were de riguer. Although much plucking, shaving and ex-foliation went on in private, I can't remember seeing a beauty salon in Vancouver.
I arrived back in the U.K. in 1981, complete with baby, ethnic headscarves etc. and was surprised to find the sisterhood still held court at our local church hall playgroup, although the Thatcher era was almost upon us. My health visitor cast her gimlet eye over me and my baby girl and remarked that we weren't quite ready for the Lytton Road Under-Fives and she was right, I was terrified of them. They still wore dungarees, had their hair tied up in plaits and were breast-feeding four year olds. One of them child-minded all our babies and breast-fed them when they cried. Now these women are working, heading up Education and Social Care in Leicester, or executive headteachers in flagship schools. If I see them, they glance at me from under (plucked) eyebrows and avoid my eye. No one wants to be reminded of Lytton Road Under Fives.
Anyway, I wasn't aware of anyone having anything 'done', except their hair. As soon as I found one white hair in my thirties, I had my hair professionally henna'd, since it was so tedious and messy to do at home. But beauty 'treatments' belonged to the rich, an outrageous expense for anyone with children. The change came when places like Ragdale Hall opened their doors for day visits and soon, carloads of very ordinary ladies from Leicester were heading up the A46, happy to spend a day in a white towelling robe having massages, facials and a calorie-controlled lunch in the wood panelled dining room. My friends and I were at the front of the queue, four of us crammed into a Ford Fiesta, bleary eyed at eight on a Saturday morning ('day guests must arrive by nine a.m.'), propelled into a world of luxury where porters carried our Nike bags into the changing room and then escorted us to the Orangerie for a cappuchino before our timetable of sybaritic pleasure. Our first day cost fifty pounds each. We became so blase that on one visit, a hot day in June, we lay by the pool and forgot to go for our 'treatments.'
What the sisters rejected, but their mothers knew well, was that beauty treatments, make-up and lovely clothes are fun and I'm glad I found out that simple thing before it was too late. I do believe that people should be judged as they are but as a psychologist I also know that how you present yourself tells people how you feel about yourself. If you feel crap, taking the time to look great helps you to feel better because people treat you as if you aren't feeling crap. Only the most depressed can't do this and that's why it's a key sign of true depression.
So now I'm an enthusiast and a regular. It doesn't make me look younger, just good for my age. My 'therapist' is Varshna, a Hindu lady who gets more religious with every year that passes. She's not into the menopause yet, so when she asked me (look away chaps) if I wanted even more hair removed from bits of my body as yet unexplored, I explained to her that the upside of being post-menopausal is that hair leaves the body. The downside is that it gravitates to the face. She looked at me wide-eyed, absolutely horrified. 'God must hate women' she said at last.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Aylestone Meadows, Leicester

I live near a river meadow, which acts as the flood plain for the River Soar. The meadows are cut through by the Grand Union Canal and the River Soar. It is possible to walk into the city along the canal, or out of the city all the way to London. The track of the old Grand Central Railway also runs through the meadow; another path or cycleway into the city. The area is known as Aylestone Meadows and I walk there often. It is lovely in places, scary in others but is a sanctuary for birds and animals, runners and dog walkers. I have twice seen a kingfisher and today I saw a green woodpecker and a kestrel, so close I could have touched him. There is a mediaeval packhorse bridge and one lock further south from this, a cottage that sells lunches and teas in the summer. It sounds idyllic and it almost is. Electricity pylons march across the landscape, bringing power to the city and the vast Fosse Park shopping complex is visible from the teashop garden. Traffic from the ring road hums in the background. Human wildlife is the worst aspect. Drugs are openly dealt and cottaging a pre-occupation of single men. Fortunately, this happens largely in one car park area, so can be avoided. A man has offered to show me his willy (no thanks) and a retired sub mariner stopped me to express his concerns about submarine activity in the area. It's pretty safe but I'm careful where and when I walk. I talked about the area with a friend and we thought about whether women ever 'cottage'. Somehow, the idea seemed both ridiculous and funny. Any ideas why?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Middle-aged ladies about town stay in hotels.

I'm convinced we're given the worst rooms, although an alternative could be that internet 'deals' also sell off rooms no one else wants. I travel a fair bit on my own, mainly to Manchester and I have slept in a dreadful room every time. Last weekend, I stayed in the Palace Hotel in Manchester. I was giving them a second chance, to test out my theory but I also needed to be near the university and Manchester is light on decent hotels within walking distance of the university. My room was small but very high, like a corridor on its side. The windows must have been 15 ft. tall. The room had been carved out of a much grander space and two corners were filled with parts of ornate pillars in a state of decay. On the wall facing the bed, there was a blocked off window. The most worrying thing was that one of my windows was in such poor repair, it had no catch to close or lock.. Outside the window (first floor) there was a flat roof. I got back from seeing friends too late for a move and lay awake all night listening for sounds of an intruder on the roof. The last time I stayed at the Palace I had a room overlooking the dank canal at the back of the hotel, with air conditioning that rattled all night. My friends say I should ask for a move of room and they're right but why give us these rooms in the first place? Is it in the hope that a women on her own won't complain or because I'm not part of a corporate booking, so loss of my business doesn't count for much. Hotel chains such as Premier Inn, where every room is exactly the same and of a reliable standard must be strong competition for four/five star 'character' hotels who still try to pawn unacceptable rooms onto the public.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Return to Top Shop

It's safe to go back to Topshop. They've realised that middle-aged ladies about town have money to spend and like to look good. To be honest, where else can we go? We don't want to look like our mothers...not yet. What the designers for young girls have cottoned on to is that a three-quarter sleeve looks great on everyone and jeans are comfortable if the waist fits just above the navel. Exactly what we need too! They've also done something about sizes as I now fit a Top Shop 14 and they stock a few size 16's if you search for them.The thing to watch out for is Mutton-Dressed-As-Lamb-Syndrome (MDAL). If you hang around too long, you'll catch it. You'll know you've caught it if you start trying on all the pretty 'little girl' stuff just to see 'how it looks.' Trust me, it looks awful. Stick to the lovely cardis, jeans and trousers and you'll be okay.
Talking of sizes, I went into the Reiss sale. My batwing arms could barely open the door but I persisted and tried on a black dress, size 14, greatly reduced. I have eaten next to nothing since January and have lost ten pounds but it was far too small. It wouldn't zip up over the tummy. I was told that they don't stock size 16. Well, they're on the way out, as I complained to the sixth former who served me in Hobbs. She was sympathetic, unlike a young colleague at work who told me that some shops don't like to see their clothes being worn by older, erm fatter women. It spoils their image. Well, an image is worthless without customers. Middle-aged ladies about town have tummies because they've had babies or eaten too much cake at work, or both. Think about it...thirty years at work...how many colleagues birthdays? How much cake? We may have tummies and batwing arms but we also have money. So where are the clothes?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Coffee Shop Etiquette (2)

To continue the theme...what's the correct way to ask for the coffee? Do you pronounce the words like macchiato, talle or massimo correctly to show off that you're a well-travelled and educated person or do you act like a little Englander and huffily ask for 'small, medium, large.' Or here in Leicester, should we ask for our coffee in a 'Lestah' accent... 'that's a grandeh for me' ... even if we're in Costa or Starbucks. In Marks and Spencer they helpfully line up the cup sizes for those of us who can't read the menus on the wall, so pointing is quite acceptable (well done to M&S for the little biscuits and sensible cup sizes).
Coffee in buckets is definitely not European. In Spain and Italy cappuccino is served in an ordinary cup and always with chilled water. The first coffee shop in Leicester to serve real European coffee will become a regular with me. So far, Cafe Mbriki makes the best coffee. In too many places the coffee is burnt.When did sixth formers become 'baristas'?
Here's a tip for Starbucks. You can ask for a spoon. Those wooden sticks bring back memories of 1950's ice lollies. It's horrible the way your tongue sticks to the wood. As an experience it's up there with scraping nails down a (1950's) blackboard.Why would anyone subject their customers to this?