Diary: Fiona Millar

What would Jane Austen make of it?

Even though I no longer have a real job, according to my children, and only one of them is still at school, the end of term always comes as a relief. I have been a school governor for almost 17 years and for the past nine months I have been chair of two governing bodies at the same time. So the holidays signal a temporary halt to the meetings, the school visits and the paperwork generated by a seemingly never-ending stream of government initiatives.

Being a governor is hard work and time-consuming, but ultimately it’s fulfilling, especially in a school on an upward trajectory. Given that we are a volunteer force, though, we are spectacularly undervalued. All the political parties seem hell-bent on replacing us with sponsors of some sort. Last year the government came up with a barmy scheme to get rid of all governing bodies and replace them with small “boards” of business people. At some point the penny must have dropped that this would, in effect, mean abolishing over 350,000 civic-minded volunteers – who are often also politically active in their communities in the run-up to a general election – and the plan was abandoned.

Fulfilment aside, it is bliss to leave the meeting schedules behind. For the sixth year in a row, we spent the Easter break in Scotland with a disparate group of friends, family, dogs and children, a ritual we started when our eldest children were doing exams and decided that being somewhere with bad weather and not much to do would be better than being at home with their mates, or anywhere hot. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. While the Highlands may have their fair share of wind and rain, they also get plenty of glorious sunshine – and more hours of daylight than London. There is something deeply satisfying about watching otherwise very urban kids cycling, walking, larking around with golf clubs and, this year, even jumping into a freezing cold river in April.

One of the highlights for me is spending time with Lindsay Nicholson, one of our oldest friends. It is almost 30 years since Alastair and I met on the graduate training scheme then run by the Mirror Group in the west of England. Lindsay and her future husband John were on the same scheme, a year ahead of us. We remained firm friends when we moved back to London and even lived in the same street for three years. Since then Lindsay has lost John to leukaemia (when she was four months pregnant) and then her elder daughter, Ellie, to the same disease. She has survived breast cancer and is a constant reminder of the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Before he died John asked Alastair if he would look out for Lindsay and their children. Since she is now editing Good Housekeeping for the second time, and is very happily remarried, she probably doesn’t need much looking after, but whether we are marching through the driving rain or just sitting by the fire mulling over the past year, I feel we are somehow keeping our promise to him and, in turn, being reminded of how lucky we are.

This year we have been musing about what Jane Austen might have made of the complete reversal in gender roles in our little holiday group. Once upon a time the women used to retire to the drawing room, leaving the men to their port and cigars. Now as our evening meals drift on, all the men gradually vanish from the table, leaving us to polish off the wine. Why? Because of what seems to be a diet of non-stop sport on TV. When I was a child, Match of the Day was shown once a week. And that was bad enough. Now it seems to be on nearly every night. On Monday this week my son declared that he was off to watch Soccer Saturday – a special bank holiday treat for those who hadn’t seen enough balls being kicked or thrown or battered with a stick over the weekend. And I knew there was worse to come. Two more evenings of Champions League football would follow, leading inevitably either to triumphant celebration or suicidal gloom.

I have set myself a little challenge:

I am trying to learn to recognise as many Premiership managers as possible (usually doing my homework while on the treadmill in the gym) so I can have vaguely informed conversations with my offspring in the margins of the endless matches they gawp at. In the women’s room, meanwhile, the conversation has ranged from the best new books – I recommend American Wife, a racy, fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush – to the crass stupidity of the No 10 emailers, Madonna’s unnaturally plumped-up face and the benefits of being on holiday somewhere without a mobile-phone signal or any shops other than those selling outdoor wear. Embarrassingly, though, I notice that our apparent desire to shop has reduced us to discussing whether we should go into the nearest town and kit ourselves out with state-of-the-art waterproofs. Maybe we are no better than the alpha males after all.

Fiona Millar is the author of the recently published “The Secret World of the Working Mother” (Vermilion, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?