Dear Mrs W

The way you talked to me yesterday was beyond unacceptable. You do not talk to another person that way let alone a school parent, let alone in front of the children! My daughter *is* a very sensible child. She was crying to hold my hand because I was there, she was tired, there was a lot going on, there were cars nearby, and we'd all been told to hold hands. Yelling at her to be sensible did not help. Nor was it very helpful to tell the other children snidely that "Katie's mummy needed to get organised" and "Katie's mummy doesn't know what she's doing".

You are a snide, unhappy, wicked little prig. I am SO glad you're not my child's teacher. I'm steamed, but at least you weren't as nasty or insensitive to me as you have been to your own students' parents. The thing is, I'm too American to keep my mouth shut. I don't want you fired or anything like that, just stop being so nasty to people. We were volunteering our time, we were trying to help. I'm sorry I didn't do it right, but that is no excuse. Consider yourself warned.

Smoke gets in your brain

There is perhaps little I enjoy more than seeing a pompous old windbag getting a good mauling. So today's column by David Aaronovitch in The Times was particularly amusing.

Aaronovitch was picking on British artist and self-appointed spokesman for smokers David Hockney. Hockney's paintings look pleasant enough but his pronouncements on smoking are significantly less well-developed.

Aaronovitch really puts him to the sword:

[He] began by rather testily telling Marr that “everybody has to die of something�, and that modern society was strangely obsessed with staying alive. Hockney’s “common sense� is, of course, the purest form of anti-scientific garbage. Because some people beat the odds doesn’t mean that the odds aren’t there.

Hockney’s second unquestioned argument was that smoking represented part of the essential diversity of human behaviour, which was being suppressed by an urge to make people conform. What kind of useful or interesting diversity is encapsulated in your right to smoke over other people? You know that pro-smokers are in trouble because of the arguments they are forced into. I particularly like the one about how Scottish smokers will desert their own pubs and cross the border to smoke in English inns. My bet would be on the opposite happening; smokers, like Hockney, are incontinent and often choose to have no idea of how much non-smokers dislike their habit. Who, after all, is going to tell the nation’s most celebrated painter that he stinks like an ashtray, and makes them cough?

So when Hockney conjures up images of rebellious, freedom-loving Britons rallying to the cause of freedom, I am afraid that he inhabits a fool’s smoky inferno.

The irony is that, were smokers like Hockney more willing to accommodate others in their habit, to recognise that smoking is in severe decline and that therefore smokers might want to consider voluntarily reducing their impact, anti-smoking laws might not be necessary. It's completely absurd that, in the 21st century, smokers still consider it appropriate to smoke near children or pregnant women at bus shelters. Or think it's okay to stand in an open train doorway smoking right up until the final moment the doors pop shut. Or light up next to a non-smoker on the street or while they're eating at a restaurant. This incalcitrant behaviour has guaranteed a much worse result for smokers than would have happened had they behaved more socially.

But, as Hockney admirably demonstrates, clear thinking and smoking seem to be mutually exclusive.

Happy 4th Birthday, Katie!

Happy birthday, big girl. When you were three (yesterday) I could still pretend you were a baby. Now, like you say, you may be *my* baby, but you're not *a* baby. Four years is big. There's no denying it.

Yesterday you spent an hour playing baby with me. You fake cried and wanted to be cuddled. Your idea of what a baby is like is very unrealistic, but I didn't care. Any excuse to hold you. You're so active and independent, you don't always want me to hold you. Now when I hold you you pull away from me. If I squeeze you like I want to you say "ow!" even though I know it couldn't have hurt. It makes me a little sad when you pull away, but I'm also proud. You're growing up. As Barbara Kingsolver says, motherhood is the business of making ourselves obsolete. If we do a good job, we aren't needed anymore. I take solace in the realization that I still need my mom very much indeed.

This morning you woke me up with an excited whisper, "Mommy! I'm four!!" This is the first birthday you really understand. You are so excited about every little part. The one thing you asked for was a candle shaped like a four on your cake ("just like Naveen's"). You are very eager to have things that are the same. In the morning you hold up your bowl of cereal up to mine and say, "Same!" Your glee in sameness has motivated demons deep within me. They compelled me to buy you a hideous Cinderella dress (reversible!) that I know you will love. Because of these demons I won't even throw away the Barbie that Ejiro gave you.

And what is with all these older girls completely falling in love with you? Ejiro gave you a Barbie and a card. Sorcha made several presents for you including a paper basket filled with Mini Eggs. I won't be surprised if you finish the day with cards from Sade and Amena as well. Something about you in all your glorious you-ness makes the year 5 and 6 girls go all mushy.

I can see what they're on about. You've got miles of shiny curls, your grey-blue eyes (thank you, Daddy) are so stunning and beautifully framed by long lashes. Your brown skin (thank you, me) positively glows in the sunlight. As I've told you a zillion times, that all makes you merely pretty. To be beautiful, you also have to be a nice person. I guess you must be a very nice person, because all the aggressive girls in nursery have a soft spot for you. Miss Fry said you're a bit of a lion tamer and the rough girls just want to be sweet around you. They want you to like them.

You say you like everyone in your class, but I know this is a carefully measured statement. You don't like people immediately. You wait. You assess. Once you get to know someone, then you decide if you like them. Lucky for everyone, you usually decide to like them. Even if you don't like someone, you're willing to give them another chance. I find this absolutely astonishing. You didn't get this from Daddy or me. This is your own wonderful trait. We admire you so much for it.

Oh, and did I mention that you're brilliant? You've been reading anything and everything you can get your hands on since last October. You devour books and are getting bored of picture books. You like longer stories with more complicated plots. This makes me so happy, I can't stand it. We always tried to give you good books, but even "Katie and the Mona Lisa" begins to wear on the 200th read.

Daddy is teaching you maths and you love it. Now we ask you what's the biggest number in the world and you answer, "Googolplex!" You can count to 100 without missing a beat. You can add and subtract numbers as long as you've got enough fingers to count. I hope you know how amazing we think you are.

I am so emotional today. I wish I could say that your birth was the most wonderful day of my life. The fact that I got you was wonderful, but all the other stuff wasn't. I'll post your birthstory another time. Just know that whatever it took to get you here was worth it. I would do it a thousand times if I had to. The thing that cranks up my Mommy-guilt is that I don't think it was necessary. I think you went through a hell of a lot and didn't need to. I think that stupid vacuum and forceps delivery was a nightmare for you. I am so sorry. You seem to have recovered pretty well. I will always be sorry I couldn't give you the beautiful start to life that I wanted.

You are my Katie. My girl. I feel like you were made from my rib, carved from my arms. My love for you is so carnal, so intimate. It defies explanation (not that that will keep me from trying). Happy birthday, Katiekins. I love you a googolplex.


Give it a name

Today is Buffy’s christening. No, her Christian name will not be Buffy. She has a nice, long, proper name – Elizabeth Olivia. Elizabeth after Andrew’s mother (who was known as Buff throughout childhood) and Olivia because 1. We like the name and, 2. Olivia Hussey is lovely as Zeffirelli's Juliet, which was on TV as we were discussing names. The UK and US governments already know her name and recognize it on their respective passports. Today, I suppose, we introduce her formally to God.

Afterwards, boat drinks!

A Cinderella Story

So that ridiculously frilly party dress I bought for Katie? I hate it. It's everything I hate - cheap, poorly made, branded (worst of worst, it's Disney). I can't believe I bought it. These were my reasons for getting it:
1. Katie loves Cinderella to the extent of renaming all her toys Cinderella.
2. Katie's friend Armande has the same dress. Katie wears it every time we go over to their house.
3. Katie looks beautiful in it.
4. If I gave it to her, she would love me forever and think I was an Awesome Mom.
5. I want to be an Awesome Mom.

Here are my reasons for taking it back to the shop:
1. I hate Disney and all things Disneyana.
2. A couple of weeks ago Katie told me her hair wasn't beautiful because it wasn't blonde. As if! I don't want to surround her with Barbie and Cinderella and perpetuate that myth.
3. I would rather get her a beautiful dress she can wear for Easter and other nice occasions.

After several phone calls to stores to see what they could do by Monday, I decided to buy her this long fairy tutu. I called the lady and she said it would definitely be here by Monday in plenty of time to get wrapped. The second before I hit "send" I thought I should probably go check the dreadful Cinderella dress one last time. Just to be sure it was as hideous as I knew it was.

You know what? It's fine. It's not crappy material. The design is verging on not terrible. There is that thing about Katie looking beautiful in it. Oh yeah, and I do want to be an Awesome Mom. That's it. Cinderella stays. Pictures to come after Monday's celebrations.

Blast from the past

In my second year at Clare College, Cambridge, I had grown tired of the Natural Sciences tripos and made a switch to read Part II Philosophy, specialising in Logic and Philosophy of Science. Here I butted heads with the establishment at the time who, unlike me, were staunch scientific realists. They simply had no time for my anti-realistic beliefs which, combined with my somewhat clumsy writing style, landed me with a 2-1 instead of the First I can now see I didn't really deserve. My chief protagonists at the time were the brilliant Professor Hugh Mellor and his sidekick Jamie Whyte. So I'm now pleased to learn that Jamie is a writer and journalist with an occasional column in The Times.

And it's good stuff too. This week he's ripping on Gordon Brown's habit of bribing us with our own money:

The entitlement-based policies of all the main parties muddle up two quite different goals: one worthy, the other disgraceful. The worthy goal is redistributing wealth. Since a pound is worth more to a pauper than to a millionaire, transfers from the rich to the poor increase aggregate wealth (at least, until the size of the transfer undermines incentives to work). It also helps to avoid civil unrest, which benefits everyone, including the rich.

The disgraceful goal is to compel people to live in ways that they would not choose for themselves, or to buy things they do not think worth the cost. This is precisely the effect of confiscating a large portion of someone’s income and then providing him with services to which he can no longer afford an alternative.

To avoid this oppression, there should be no state services and no specific entitlements, except to a minimum income. All redistribution of wealth should be in cash. There are today no state supermarkets or state tailors. The unemployed are given cash with which to buy food and clothes. They may choose how to allocate their wealth between food and clothes, and they may also decide what they will eat and wear. Why not give them, and everyone else, the same autonomy with respect to education and healthcare.

Left-wing friends always object to my “all cash� suggestion on the ground that people would spend the money unwisely. They would blow it all on booze and fags or something similarly frivolous. This displays an absurdly dim view of the population. My guess is that spending on health and education would increase under such a system.

The objection also reveals an extraordinary admiration of politicians. Is Mr Brown so vastly superior to you in morality and intellect that, sitting in his office in Westminster, knowing nothing of your circumstances or preferences, he can decide better than you how to allocate your spending? It is a great historical irony that politicians who genuinely aim to help the poor have pursued policies that exempt only the rich from being vassals of the ruling class. And funny to the point of making you weep that such policies are commonly described as “generous�.

Jamie has also written a book, A Load of Blair, in which he rips into the hollow rhetoric of the New Labour project. You can check it out for yourself here.

And you can read a little more about how Jamie enjoyed his seven-year stint at Cambridge in the the Cambridge Faculty of Philosophy 2005 newsletter.