Why I couldn't care less about being important

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Here you go, babe.” Curly hands me four crisp £20 notes. I flick through them wonderingly – this is a highly unfamiliar sensation – before tucking them away in a drawer. My housekeeping money. The phrase seems like something from another age.

My decision to give up paid work – not to mention the near-nervous breakdown that preceded it – appears to have focused Curly’s mind. In just a couple of weeks, he has drummed up two Saturday jobs and has enrolled on an evening course in carpentry. I didn’t even nag him; he just did it. And now he’s done it, he seems rather pleased with himself. There is something newly brisk and confident in his bearing.

“See you later!” The boys and I wave as he heads off for the station in his smart shirt, for all the world like a family from a 1950s TV show. As the door closes, I wonder what to do with the day. Shall I make jam? Bake a cake? Knit something? The last time I tried to knit anything was in primary school and it did not end well but, all of a sudden, I wouldn’t rule it out.

I’m not sure what has happened to me. I used to be thrusting and ambitious. I used to dash around in taxis, schedule high-level meetings, take off for Brazil at a moment’s notice. I used to want to be important and influential.

At the moment, I can’t think of anything worse than being important and influential. The very idea sends a shiver down my spine. I would definitely be a big disappointment to the sisterhood, if the sisterhood were to find out what I’m up to. Only the other day, there was an article in Sunday Times Style by an important woman telling us we should all try harder to be more important. For a brief moment, I wondered if she was right. Then I threw the magazine into the bin and squidged a dirty nappy in there, too, right on top of her smug, self-righteous face.

The funny thing is, actually, I don’t give a monkey’s left ball about all that. I don’t care about anything except for being calm and happy and enjoying my life again. Once Moe is down for his morning nap, I take my copy of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course off the shelf, blow off the dust and turn to the jam section.

“Slice one kilo of fresh pink rhubarb.” Aha. Funnily enough we got rhubarb in the Abel & Cole box this week. I get it out of the fridge and rinse it off. Larry appears in the kitchen. “Mummy, I’m bored.”

“Why don’t you help me make jam?”

“Jam’s boring.” Busted. I snap Delia shut and put down the knife.

“What do you want to do, then?”

“I want to go to the pub.”

“You what?!” “That’s what Ben’s mummy does. Ben gets crisps and plays Simpsons pinball.”

I have to hand it to Larry. That suggestion is so wrong and yet . . . so right. Feeling everso- slightly furtive, I ping a quick text to Ben’s mummy and take one of the twenties back out of the drawer.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.