The Shoogly Peg

Little Pigs

It has been almost twenty-five years since I ate meat. At the age of fourteen, I became aware of the industrialised and inhumane processes involved in rearing and dispatch animals intended for human consumption, and I chose to opt out.

However, there are a lot of others who are unlikely ever to give up eating meat. I know this because I live with two of them: my partner is a highly enthusiastic omnivore and my twenty-month old daughter appears to take after her dad. “Bacon!” is one of her favourite words, not to mention breakfasts.

I don’t judge them. I’ve no right to judge anybody: doubtless I do many things that others would consider to be of dubious morality.  But I do encourage them to eat good-quality meat from animals that have had reasonable lives and deaths, ideally from local farms where animal welfare is a visible priority. I have always felt that if you are going to eat an animal, you ought to take an interest in its welfare.

This is exactly what Glasgow’s Locavore has been doing. Over the last few months, I have often cycled past Queen’s Park and enjoyed watching Locavore’s small drove of pigs snuffling around in the grass. They appeared to be living good lives, with freedom to move around and express themselves in their own piggy way. I cannot guarantee the existential state of any pig, but insofar as I could tell, they seemed happy.

But I was never in any doubt about their ultimate fate. These pigs were going to be bacon. And given that around ten million pigs are slaughtered in the UK every year, many of them having been mutilated and constrained, the eventual death of some well-treated and popular pigs did not seem like the worst thing going on in the world. Too often, we – especially those of us who live in cities – are completely cut off from the places where our food comes from, allowing us to shirk responsibility for the welfare of the animals we eat and divorce the meat on our plates from the livestock we drive past in the countryside.

I understood that not everybody would see it that way. And that’s fine – generating a debate about animal welfare and the concept of eating meat seems like a useful by-product of this project. But judging from Locavore’s social media recently, some people have gone way beyond healthy debate, into the realms of hysteria, aggression and threats.

Here’s my position. I like Locavore. I blogged about them in their very early days, and I wrote about them again more recently on Contributoria. They are a small, local business that helps communities to grow their own vegetables and learn to cook, employs people might otherwise struggle to get jobs and provides fresh fruit and veg at little more than cost price to people on low incomes.

They now stand accused of being the very uncaring, profit-focused corporation they are fighting against. Well, it won’t wash, and I personally feel it is important to stand alongside them. I haven’t been as good as I meant to be about using the Locavore shop – it’s a bit far, I’m always busy, there’s always a reason why it’s easier to go to Asda.

But tomorrow I’m going to go down there and buy as much as I can of my weekly shop. I may hate animal cruelty, but I also hate bullies, and I won’t stand by and watch a fantastic part of my community being threatened and abused. I hope many others will join me.

Dear Nicola…

…it’s been a long day. I hope by now you’ve got your feet up, slippers on and a Hob-Nob or two within reach. But while you’re having a well-deserved seat, could I draw something to your attention? I’ll be as quick as I can.

It’s about this childcare business. It’s come up already, in your very first First Minister’s Questions, and you repeated your recent pledge to double the hours of free childcare available for 3 and 4 year olds.

It sounds great. But it assumes that eligible children are already receiving the 600 hours to which they are currently entitled. First Minister, they are not. Here are the facts, with as little fury as I can manage.

My daughter will shortly turn two. As a conscientious mum, I made sure we sent her to a Partnership nursery, which means that Glasgow City Council has a deal to provide some of its free funded places through it. And as a woman who – like you, I understand – believes in being prepared, I recently started checking how I go about accessing Eilidh’s free hours.

Simply put, I can’t. There are thirty-six children aged 3-4 at Eilidh’s nursery. But the Council has only awarded it eighteen Partnership places. The nursery solves the problem by allocating the funding to the 18 oldest children. If EIlidh stays at this nursery, she will receive no free childcare till she turns four.

I have asked the nursery, the council and the Scottish Government why in holy heck the Council has knowingly awarded half the number of places required, and I have never yet had a clear answer.

So obviously, I need to get Eilidh into a Council nursery. But my partner and I both work, so it needs to be an extended services nursery – that is, one which is open from 8-6 and doesn’t close during school holidays. Getting your child into one of these is a near-impossible task, not only because demand massively outstrips supply but because they allocate places to those who meet their priority criteria first. So if you’re not a single parent, vulnerable in some other way, or have a child whose school start date has been deferred, you haven’t a hope.

Please don’t misunderstand. I have absolutely no problem with the idea that those with the greatest need should be helped first. But Eilidh has a legal entitlement to receive 300 hours of childcare, and I am scunnered to find that this “legal entitlement” is simply meaningless rhetoric.

There’s one last piece of this ill-fitting jigsaw, and then I promise I’ll let you go to bed. Let’s just say that I did move Eilidh from her current nursery, where she is safe, happy and settled. Let’s say I somehow managed to get her into a council nursery that was open when I needed it. Problem solved, right?

Alas, no. I would only be offered three hours per day, in the morning or the afternoon. Thus I would need to pay someone else to pick EIlidh up from nursery and either look after her for the rest of the day or take her to a different nursery. In what way would this disruptive and precarious arrangement be better for her wellbeing, education or security? It would not. It would benefit no-one but the Council, around whose needs the entire system is designed.

I asked Glasgow City Council why on earth they didn’t just let the funding follow the child rather than forcing the child to be dragged around in search of a funded place. The answer, if you can believe it, was that it was too “administratively difficult”.

So screw the parents, who are left having to juggle ludicrously complex arrangements. Screw the children, who must be uprooted from nurseries where they have grown to feel safe, to be ferried around the city throughout the day. As long as Glasgow City Council isn’t having to deal with any administrative difficulties, we can all sleep easy in our beds.

First Minister, I apologise. I have descended into sarcasm, and I have gone on far longer than I intended.  I am delighted that my daughter is growing up in a country led by a confident, competent woman. You are an excellent role model. But it infuriates me when I hear you and other politicians trumpeting the “childcare revolution” that is apparently about to take place, when I know that in reality, the whole system is an unfathomable shambles.

I’d love 1200 hours of free childcare. But I’d settle for 600. In fact, right now I’d settle for 6: anything would be an improvement.

Please, First Minister. Sort this out. Deploy some of your legendary tact, determination and Glasgow gumption, and get this nonsense stopped. Eilidh and I are counting on you.

Changing Fear

From time to time, I submit personal essays to magazines. Sometimes they publish them, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, when they don’t, I’m left with an essay that was of a particular time and can’t be resubmitted elsewhere. This is one of those essays. I wrote it in February 2013 when I was extremely pregnant but it didn’t quite hit the mark for the magazine. It seemed a shame to abandon it entirely, so I thought I’d stick it up here.

There is a stage of giving birth called Transition. That’s right, with a capital T. It’s when you move from regular contractions, in between which you can rest, mop your brow and say things like “Whew!”, to actual, proper, pushing a person out of your body. Transition is the part when you are most likely to go bananas. You might find yourself swearing at your partner, weeping helplessly or deciding that you urgently require a sixteen-piece orchestra to accompany your labour.

I am currently in a different sort of Transition: the period between starting maternity leave and having a baby. In many ways, it is lovely. I spend my days swimming, cuddling my cats and doing yoga.

On the other hand, constantly wondering if a baby is about to fall out of you is disconcerting. Every visit to the loo, every dart of back pain, each (teeny and ladylike) bottom parp prompts the question “Is this it?” And so far it hasn’t been, but at some point it will be and I will become a mum.

This is terrifying. From Marmee in Little Women to the indefatigable Marge Simpson, popular culture says mothers always know what to do for the best. Can I, as a non-fictional mum, possibly live up to such expectations?

Probably not, but I’m starting to believe I might not be the Inexplicable Mum Who Can’t. Pregnancy has been a fantastic lesson in the pointlessness of fear and the importance of trusting my instinct.

The fact is, I’m a big feartie – a useful Scottish word for someone lacking courage. The list of things I have not done because I was scared is lengthy, embarrassing and constantly expanding. For example:

– despite being a nerdy kid with an interest in public policy, I didn’t apply to the civil service because I might have had to work abroad: too scary.

– I didn’t accept my dream job when I was offered it after university, because I’d already taken a post elsewhere and was afraid of looking unreliable.

– And the other day, I didn’t ask for bread with my lasagne in a deli, even though the menu said it should have been included, because I was frightened I’d look greedy.  I am not kidding. Somewhere in my brain lurks a genuine belief that the server would have put down his spoon, stared at me in outrage and hissed “You want bread as well as lasagne? For the same price? You intemperate hog!”

Clearly, this is insane. But pregnancy is showing me that it is also unnecessary. In contrast to the paralysis caused by my permanent intellectual fears,  my body has cracked on with making a human being without the slightest hesitation. From the earliest days of my pregnancy, when my abdomen ached and my innards felt suddenly leaden, my anatomy has uttered a metaphorical “Right-ho!” and unbelievably, miraculously, turned out to know exactly what it is doing.

Without the aid of a project plan, risk analysis or spreadsheet, my previously unremarkable body has built ears, kidneys, nostrils, kneecaps, toenails and all the other constituent parts of a person. It has imbued them with life, so that I now spend quite a lot of the day going “Oof!” as my baby wedges his or her foot beneath my ribs, or watching my belly gently roll as a brand new person wriggles around inside me.

All of this is making me question my panic-based approach to life thus far. If it turns out that I actually know, instinctively, how to make a baby, then what else can I do without difficulty? Maybe I won’t be a disaster as a mum. Maybe a combination of hormones, instinct and newfound confidence will get me through.  Maybe I’ll even turn out to be good at it.

It seems unlikely. But then, life is unlikely right now. Recently, I found myself in a circle of mums and babies, singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and learning hand signals for the names of animals, such as cat, dog and cow.

As I bashfully warbled, “With a moo moo here, and a moo moo there”, I couldn’t help reflecting that the week before, I had been a manager, in charge of a department and a budget. Now I was miming imaginary  cow horns. What have I done? How will I cope?

This sort of sudden consternation has since been christened “having a moo moment” by a friend from antenatal class. But it’s exactly the sort of thinking that my body is teaching me to abandon. The fact is, I will cope. I will cope with giving birth, even if I swear and scream and demand an orchestral accompaniment. I will cope with motherhood. I will cope with going back to work, and finding ways to fit the things I love into my new life.

If I can build a person, then what else might I be capable of? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out. And at the very least, next time I’m out for lunch, I’ll be demanding both bread AND lasagne.