All the beautiful, different families (and Picturehouses cinemas)

There are points in my life when I become acutely aware of the fact I’m a single parent. The dread I feel at the idea of going to my daughter’s school’s family ceilidh, when the Parent Teacher Council organise photographers to take family portraits to raise funds, and when a family ticket for anything only ever covers two adults and two children.

It’s pretty standard across the UK that families are seen as two adults and two children for events, attractions and transport.  Yet at the same time the idea of the nuclear family is really an aberration within the history of family.  If you think back before the mass use of antibiotics many people died early deaths.  At the same time women were most likely to die in childbirth (this is still an issue).  Add to this the large amount of men who would die in war, or from poor working conditions etc,  then what you have is a lot of children who lose one or both parents.  The lone parent would remarry, or move in with siblings, or parents, the children were sometimes given to other relatives to bring up.  In some cultures there has been a strong tradition of Levirate marriage.  The idea of the blended family appears very modern, but it is in fact very, very old.  The only difference now is that often the blended family has happened because at some point one parent chose to leave a relationship that could no longer thrive or survive healthily, rather than the catalyst of change being death.

Today I was discussing with a friend booking tickets for the Cameo’s Studio Ghibli Season.  My daughter has got massively into anime this year, and we’re quite excited to see some of the best being shown on Edinburgh big screens.  Attending a season is expensive.  While my friend has chosen to go for a Cameo membership to keep costs down, there is no children’s membership and being a one adult one child family there is no family ticket that suits me.

I’ve spent some of the afternoon emailing Picturehouses who own the Cameo, and several other independent cinemas across the UK.  I have to say their customer service was first class as the staff member I communicated with wanted to genuinely help me find an option that may work out for me.  Unfortunately there isn’t one.

Rather than admit defeat, and give into the feeling I so often get that my family isn’t a “proper” family (and all the guilt and shame that carries with it) I decided to make another suggestion.  The Cameo has a membership option of Adult + 1.  It could be possible to have an adult membership (transferable between two adults) at the normal price of £45, but on which the adults could then add as many children on to that membership at whatever cost the Cameo thought was appropriate.  I’d suggest something like £20 per child, some people have four kids after all.

The staff member I spoke to is now going to take this idea to her managers for them to consider.  They might not make a decision in time for My Neighbour Totoro on Saturday, but I’m really hopeful that we may be able to achieve a better, more flexible deal for families.

If you think that this is a good idea, and you’d like to see Picturehouses introduce it, then you can show your support by emailing  You don’t have to be a parent to believe families could have better access, or have your own children to believe that services, attractions and entertainment can find ways to acknowledge all our families and their different shapes and sizes.


Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Faces, Features and Creatures Trail

It’s now half term in Edinburgh.  As always there is a need to find something to do with children, that doesn’t cost too much money.  A friend and I decided to take our daughters to The Scottish National Portrait Gallery and try out their Face Features and Creatures Trail designed by award winning artist and illustrator Sara Ogilvie.

Location:  Central Edinburgh so easily accessible by public transport.

Cost:  There is no cost, although you do need to leave a £10 deposit for the trail bag.  The bag includes colouring pencils, costumes to dress up in at certain portraits and objects.

The objective:  The trail takes you round the different floor of the galleries, stopping at eight different places to find specific things, then followed by a drawing task.

Time:  It took both girls two hours to complete.  Importantly though, it didn’t feel like two hours.

Is it fun for the parents:  Well, I have to admit while the girls dashed from gallery to gallery us Mummies trailed behind them having a chat.  If you get some catch-up time will largely depend on where your child is on the independence spectrum.  Our two girls were eight.

Child’s perspective:  When I asked my daughter what she thought she said “Good.  Really fun to dress up.  That was the best part.  Now I want to watch more TV.  I cant believe you’re writing that Mum!”

Downsides:  Fortunately one of the pictures on the trail, of Queen Charlotte, had been moved so we were no longer able to find it in the gallery.

Staff:  I’ve found with the staff of the various National Galleries in Edinburgh are always very kind to children.

Overall:  There are a series of different events for children, free, fun and time consuming.  We’ll definitely be going back

I Am Thomas at the Lyceum Theatre

Tonight I went to see I Am Thomas at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.  Writen by Told by and Idiot with song lyrics by Simon Armitage.  The play is about Thomas Aitkenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy.  Aitkenhead was indicted in 1696 and hung in 1697.

I was looking forward to this play as the 1600s in Scotland is one of my favourite historical periods.  It was bloody and brutal, both physically and psychologically.  It was characterised by extreams, fanaticism, inflexibility and religion.  One of my direct ancestors was executed without trial as a terrorist during this period.  But I have more than a distant genetic connection to the Killing Times and surrounding troubles. I believe that it is this period that did the most to shape the Scottish psyche and character, it probably really was the worst of Scotland.  Having grown-up with strict fanatical Presbyterian/Calvinist parents it has also in many ways shaped and informed who I am.  It is a period rich with drama, conflict and many intriguing characters – all of which can illuminate and tell us something about the state of Scotland today.

Thomas Aitkenhead, only 19 when he committed his crime, was also judged by the older, more experienced Lord Advocate, James Stewart.  Stewart himself had been a political rebel in his youth, having to flee Scotland for Europe to escape arrest for writing a political pamphlet.  It could be expected that the interplay between these two men, as well as Thomas’s own journey from believer to doubter would prove fertile ground for dramatic tension.

I Am Thomas however failed to live up to the promise of conflict and character this story could so richly mine.  There were confusing time lines, in which it appears Thomas commits his blasphemy at an open mic in 1970s?  Stewart, an interesting figure himself, is given the historically inaccurate background of being husband and son to the Wigtown martyrs.  Instead of gaining knowledge and insight into historical events we watch Stewart’s fake family drown twice, and the most underwhelming courtroom scene that I believe has ever existed.

The play is also littered with lazy cultural references, some of which make no sense or bare little relation to action on stage.  Stage action is explained poorly by the hackneyed technique of football punditry and  scattered through with vague references to Scottish kitsch.  Given the kitsch bares no relation to the historical event one has to wonder if it is a way of signposting “This is happening in Scotland.  It’s very Scottish you know.  It’s Scotland, by the way.”

The point at the end “I am Thomas” i.e. we are all Thomas, was overly laboured and lacked any subtlety.  The audience were bludgeoned over the head with it to the point of boredom.  An act that was then followed by the mildly offensive statement “Je suis Thomas”.  It is a shame when a play does not assume its audience are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions, and instead seeks to control their approach entirely.

While attention had been given to try and present this story in a fresh and innovative way it was undermined by immaturity and lack of development.  The actors themselves delivered fine performances, and special mention has to go to John Pfumojena who has truly one of the most sublime voices I have ever heard.


Review: Flowy app

I had become a bit concerned recently that my daughter has been experiencing some anxiety.  Of course all children experience some worry.  Being afraid of the dark is a common one, I can remember hiding under my bed sheets utterly terrified.

However after having a conversation earlier in the month it became clear to me that she wasn’t necessarily developing the best coping mechanisms.  I’m a big believer that we can not avoid the unpleasant in life, or our own feelings, it is how we deal with them that really needs to be the focus.  Unfortunately many of us have grown up in a society which did not promote healthy approaches to mental health.  A heavy emphasis on avoidance as a coping mechanism can lead to people avoiding things that are actually enriching and becoming more isolated in their lives. The earlier we can help young people learn healthy coping mechanism, the more it will help them in the rest of their lives.

Being a mediator myself I started trying to teach my eight year-old meditation.  Of course, this was excruciating for her.  Sitting, or lying still is just not something she can deal with for more than half a minute, unless there is food or the TV is on.  I tried a guided meditation and instead of sharing inner peace with my daughter I got annoyed she wasn’t taking it seriously, and learned a lesson myself about expectations and goals.

Trying to work out how to deal with this I realised that the foundation for meditation is always the breath, and if I was going to teach my daughter I needed to focus on this first and foremost.  Every night at bed time we now breath together and try to sync our breathing.  Even this simple step has it’s challenges.  If someone doesn’t know how to breath from their stomach just describing how to do it isn’t enough, what they really need to learn is the feeling of doing it.

Chatting with people at my office, The Melting Pot, about this one of them mentioned Flowy, and app designed for people who have panic attacks.  The essence of the app is that it retrains your breathing as well as helping to track your symptoms so you can learn more about your own experience of anxiety.  Clinical trials showed Flowy helped people reduce their symptoms within 90 seconds of starting to play.

The breathing is retrained by simple games.  Currently Milla and I are a magic ship being blown across the sea collecting treasure as we go, sometime we turn into a whale.  We normally play this for a few minutes every day on our commute too and from school.  So far Milla has really enjoyed it.

It is more mentally engaging that meditation, and more interesting than listening to her mother talking about lying on a nice relaxing beach.  It’s a challenge which has goals that can be easily meet.  While meditation is also challenging it has goals which are much more abstract.  As a young person yet to understand the difficulty and benefit of patience my daughter needs rewards that are more concrete than “inner peace”.

For me Flowy is a great example of how the gamification of health can work really well. Especially for people who maybe have not yet developed the deep knowledge of self most of us need to recognise and adapt our unhealthy behaviour.




Currently 4Extra is broadcasting all the series of my favourite radio drama on the iplayer, Pilgrim written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz.  The series was nominated for a Prix Italia and won a silver Pix Europe with the actors involved also receiving nominations from the BBC.

The seasons make up part of the story of William Palmer who was cursed by the king of the grey folk for denying their existence, to live forever.  Palmer, also known to the grey folk as Pilgrim, now arbitrates between the modern world, the grey folk and all the supernatural beings which swirl between.  As ever with something I’m enthusiastic about on the radio it is partly to do with the medium itself.  The intimacy of radio is very seductive.

Baczkiewicz weaves a believable and atmospheric dark fantasy world where the legends of old England intruding on the lives of extremely normal modern inhabitants.   Baczkiewicz does not overly rely  on the well known supernatural monsters such as werewolves, which can create an overblown and predictable tale but delves deep into folklore.  Soon a thorn bush, a forest, the ringing of a church bell can all be sinister to the listener.  In fact when he does delve into a monster trope the results are not what we have come to expect.  It is the juxtaposition of the spectacular with the mundane which makes Baczkiewicz’s world so absorbing, always balancing precariously between horror and the everyday.

Ultimately though the tone of Pilgrim is one of weariness, as we see these fantastical and horrific events through the eyes of Palmer, who searches for a way to end his life.  While retaining his compassion, Palmer has also become detached, zen-like to the inevitability of conflict between the two separate worlds ever intruding on each other and his role in trying to limit the damage.  The listener wants Pilgrim to find the release that he desperate seeks, but also want to find out more about the intriguing world who’s surface has only just been scratched.  The listener pivots between these two desires as Palmer himself pivots between the two worlds he inhabits.

If you only listen to one radio drama series this year I would recommend this one.  If you are a fan of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, this is a series that will help the long wait for Susanna Clerks’ sequel.


The Weir. Lyceum Theatre

Last night I went to see The Weir, by Conor McPherson, directed by Amanda Gaughan at the Lyceum Theatre. Before I get on to the meat and potatoes of the play I have to also say I sat in one of the worst audiences I have ever been in.

We were in the upper circle, and had a pretty good views of the stage.  Once the performance started though it was like at least 50% of the upper circle were conspiring to break any dramatic tension or concentration.  There was the woman who told someone off very loudly and aggressively for using a phone, and other people for talking, but thought it was ok for herself to turn round and comment to us loudly about the swearing in the play.  There were a group of school children, who I think maybe did not have English as a first language, who spent a lot of the time whispering to each other.  There were then the multiple times people got up to speak to the ushers and complain, move seats, come back to collect bags, the ushers (who were obviously having a tough performance) coming down repeatedly to ask people to switch off phones or to be quiet.  Then the school children left, loudly and slowly.  This was all in the first twenty minutes and completely ruined the part of the narrative where we have the place, character and relationships set up.

The play is set in a rural Irish pub.  I was with a Irish friend who commented afterwards that the Irishness of it was rendered accurately.  It is a wet and rainy night, and a new member of the community, a woman, comes to this pub populated by men, and the telling of ghost stories ensues.

The telling of ghost stories is just a vehicle though to say something larger about story telling itself.  What the play ultimately tells us is that when we tell any story (in whatever genre) we are really talking about ourselves.  Whether it is the self as an individual of the self of wider humanity.  It’s not just the telling of stories that gives us this information though, it’s how we chose to hear the story, how the hearers reacts, that informs that informs the continuing unvoiced dialogue between people.

The atmosphere was beautifully accomplished, with the splashes of rain in puddles visible to the audience, and a slow sunset and rising moon in real time creating the kind of attention to detail that is the foundation of the illusion of theatre.  The cast, while having a challenging performance due to the audience carried on professionally, and their skilled performances easily brought whole, and familiar, lives and characters of the pub customers to life.  Special mention has to go for Lucianne McEvoy’s gripping monologue, and to the whole cast, for one of the best silences I’ve ever heard.

The version of humanity that McPherson shows us in this play is one which at times is a little pompous, a little scared, kind and with a tender interior.  Most of all it is a humanity which is a little broken, a little battered, a little rough around the edges, but one where hearts can recognise and sing their sadnesses to each other – and this in itself is ordinary, mundane, and slightly beautiful.

The Weir: Four stars

Upper circle audience:  No stars



Black Velvet by Tony Ramsay

For a short time only Tony Ramsay’s radio play Black Velvet is on the BBC iplayer.  This is one of my favourite radio plays, and is also a great example of how incredibly the horror genre can work on radio.

The forty-five minute play follows Master Richard and servant girl Annie, as they are alone in Thoresbey Hall, where Master Richard compels Annie to play at being mistress of the house.

What Black Velvet demonstres so well is the real intimacy of radio, which has lead it to being an enduring medium no matter how technologically eclipsed it is.  It’s not horror’s sexualised intimacy as in the creepy vampire voice whispering temptation in beautiful virgins ear.  It’s intimacy of character and mind.  Because of the lack of visuals you have to make them up in your own head, and that is the snuggest place any story can ever fit.  It’s also the most scary.

In a few short scenes we gain a lot of knowledge about Master Richards psychological state, it’s frailty and his background.  Over the course of the play we become uniquely entangled in Annie’s plight.  It’s as though we have been welcomed into parts of these characters lives and predicaments that we could only witness if we were really there, really part of the story, as much as the characters within it.

When you come across a really well written piece of radio it always feels as though it is speaking uniquely to you, not at you, but speaking right inside of you.  Everything else fades away.  If you’re only going to listen to one piece of radio this week, this well measured, paced, characterised and structured piece should be it.  I recommend listening in the dark.