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Thursday, August 13 2015
This Week

Nicola Woolcock worries about hot-housing toddlers, while Antonella Gambotto-Burke, the Australian author of Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, reveals that, amid the frantic writing, she has a very sweet tooth. There are Down’s tests for our Really Trying correspondent and disbelief from me that witches are still thought to exist.


Every parent wants their child to be a genius, and the more culture you cram in, the cleverer they’ll get.

At least, that seems to be the premise behind the rise of “nursiversities” - hothouse pre-schools where toddlers are stuffed with artistic experiences. Parents join pre-birth waiting lists for such institutions and pay sky-high fees on securing a place.

While ordinary nursery kids proudly bring home a “portrait” made from splodgy handprints and pasta shells, the nursiversity child works on full-scale, long-term creations mimicking the world’s most famous paintings, under the guidance of a head of art.

One such London institution boasts: “Not for our parents receiving ‘artwork’ which is a few daubs of paint on paper...we introduce our children to the delights of the artistic world.”

Others show off about their music and dance studios, exposing the children to operas, ballets and classical composers and even putting on Shakespeare productions. Staff at one establishment, visited by a friend, asked a four-year-old to explain Cubism to her. He did, at length.

Does any parent seriously want or expect a toddler’s interpretation of Chagall or Monet to stick on the fridge? Perhaps only if they’re riven with paranoia about not giving their child the best start in life.

These are pre-school children, many still in nappies. No one wishes to ban inspirational art and music, but it seems the real joys of creativity are disappearing at a younger and younger age.

Primary schools are increasingly focused on getting children through Sats tests, and the secondary school curriculum treadmill leaves little time for experimentation or downtime.

Now even some nurseries are squeezing “cultural capital” into children, but to what end? Are parents really so terrified of children being left behind in the rat race that they expect an encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts before their fifth birthday? It pushes imagination, free-play and exploration onto the back burner.

Children are more likely to find creative inspiration poking around in the dirt or looking at clouds than in the formulaic reproduction of Old Masters.

And nurseries already have to teach children how to read, write and count, while ensuring their development in many other areas, including personal hygiene, technology and following rules.

In the remaining downtime, what’s wrong with digging up worms, playing in the sandpit and shaking a tambourine to The Wheels on the Bus?

Nicola Woolcock is education correspondent of The Times

The writer, Antonella Gambotto-Burke is in the chair

Why do you do what you do? Writing is, for me, something like an autonomic function. The only time I don’t write is when I’m stressed or exhausted: when overwhelmed, I short and my system shuts down. When rested, however, I find it difficult not to write. The world is the most fantastically interesting place, and I have always loved people. So you understand my problem. How can I not write? There is so much to say about everything, and everyone. Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution is my first political work. Having a baby radicalised me. I wrote Mama to help shift consciousness. My aim is to trigger debate.

What are you best at? Eating sweets. If there were prizes for eating sweets, I would trump Augustus Gloop. Last night a girlfriend took me out to dinner at Joe Allen’s and I ate both our desserts – a mousse-like cheesecake with berry compote. Just remembering it makes me shiver with pleasure.

What one thing would make work better? A sweets trolley. Sadly, I work from home.

If you had to start again and do something else, what would it be? For me, a life without the written word would be no life at all. However, if I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back as a male writer – cosseted by the women in his life, looking moody against windswept backdrops, and so on. The men I’ve loved are not great readers. My ex-husband preferred video games!

Which woman do you admire and what question would you like to ask her? The scholar and legal philosopher Catharine MacKinnon. As I once wrote: “The leitmotiv of her work is the correction of social injustice, and her role in shaping perception of quotidian iniquities, incalculable.” My question to her: “Catharine, will you marry me?”

MAMA: Love, Motherhood And Revolution by Antonella Gambotto-Burke is published by Pinter & Martin £11.99

Amanda Foreman isn’t sure if she wants her children to be British or American. It’s an intriguing dilemma, with positives and negatives on both sides. She writes: “Not long ago I went to an end-of-term play in England. The school had one American in it, from Florida as it happened. The minute she appeared on stage it was clear that she couldn’t have come from anywhere in the British Isles. The girl was tall and looked older than her age, with glossy hair and great teeth.”

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Melanie Reid is not at all impressed by the “moral blackmail” practised by some charities. “I received a missive from World Villages for Children last week. Taped to the top of the letter were a 2p coin and two 5ps.”

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Three years and two children after winning her Olympic gold medal, Anna Watkins, who won an emotional gold medal with Katherine Grainger at London 2012, is ready to make a comeback. But it's only a year away from Rio 2016. She told Alex Lowe: “There is a bit of me that says somebody should do this and prove that it is possible and I think I can. There is a bit of me doing it for tired parents, to show we are not washed up and that we are good for something.”

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Anna Richardson has been exploring the world of revenge porn and it is frighteningly misogynistic. She even uploaded some pictures of herself, she tells Stefanie Marsh. “Unlike victims of revenge porn, Richardson’s identity was obscured. It’s why, she thinks, two weeks after her photographs went live, they vanished. ‘There had been comments: Hey, these are fakes. I began to understand that it’s more than porn. They want genuine humiliation.’ ”

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Once again, the Russian government is banning books, writes Anne Applebaum, and trying to reshape history. At the same time, the old-fashioned western admiration for brutal regimes has returned. “Jeremy Corbyn, would-be leader of the Labour party, is the latest in a long line of useful idiots. Corbyn has recommended that his Twitter followers watch the Russian propaganda channel, Russia Today, which he has described as ‘more objective’ than other channels. Never mind that Russia Today interviews actors who claim to be “witnesses” and invents stories — for example, that a Russian-speaking child was crucified by a Ukrainian.”

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The prime minister will stick to his pledge to leave his job, because his wife wants him to, says Tim Montgomerie. “Mr Cameron promised to step down in this parliament because he feels he owes it to his family. There’ll be no U-turn. Sometime after the EU referendum but before May 2018 (Mr Cameron thinks his successor deserves two years in the hot seat before the next election) he’ll retire to the back benches.”

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We are still in the realms of early pregnancy screening. Today it is for Down’s Syndrome – a chromosomal defect that causes physical abnormalities and learning difficulties.

It is a test I am not required to undergo, but like most other pregnant women I know, I go ahead with anyway.

At the antenatal screening centre, I am handed a consent form. It has lots of dangerous-looking red print on it. I sign it, fearfully. Bloods are taken to test my levels of hCG (human chorionic gonadotrophin) and PAPP-A – a pregnancy-associated plasma protein. This is analysed together with my age, the nuchal fold data measured by the sonographer at my 12-week ultrasound and my medical history.

The results come back days later. I shake a little as I rip open the envelope. What will I do if it says I am high risk? Not for the first time, dark hormonal thoughts run through my head.

“You are low risk,” the letter says. “Your risk is 1 in 2,500.”

It goes on to explain that had it been 1 in 150 or lower, I would be offered further diagnostic tests: chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or an amniocentesis, both of which carry the risk of miscarriage.

Further research reveals the enormous variance in risk: some women reveal they were given a 1 in 20,000 chance of a Down’s baby, others, as high as 1 in 200. That woman – the mother of a perfectly healthy 2-year-old girl – tells me: “even then, the hospital didn’t seem at all worried.”

Each year, about 1,000 of the 700,000 babies born in the UK have Down’s. Current testing methods are said to miss about 15 per cent of cases where the chromosomal abnormality is present.

So perhaps I am stupid not to go on and pay for a newer, privately-available blood test - the NIPT or “Harmony” test - which costs about £500 and can give up to 99 per cent accurate result whether you are expecting a child with a chromosomal abnormality such as Down’s, Edwards’, or Patau syndromes. Yet I choose not to.

“Life’s a risk, darling,” my husband tells me, sagely. “I think we’ll just take the low risk as good news and get on with it, eh?”

In this week’s award-winning Saturday Times Magazine: “I went back because war sucks. It sucks you back in.” A year after he was kidnapped and shot in Syria, Anthony Loyd, the award-winning war reporter, returns to the front line, against Islamic State.

In The Sunday Times Magazine: Jamie Oliver has had the nation eating out of his hands for two decades, but then he had a man-wobble. He reveals his plans for reinvention. Plus, the stag-and-hen industry is now worth £500m. Our writers join a groom and bride-to-be on their last nights of freedom to find out why.

Chosen by Flossie Saunders, Fashion Editor of The Sunday Times Style

Pom Poms are having a bit of a moment right now; we are seeing them on hats, earrings and bags. These navy points are perfect and won’t break the bank. Great to jazz up a simple cropped jean for the weekend or really pack a punch with a printed frock for a night out. Enjoy.

Pom Pom shoes, £40, from Asos
“Women’s successes are seen as a success for women, not for humanity, right? We’re judged differently. Whereas a male scientist has achieved a great thing for medicine, a woman who has invented something has been a great pioneer for women, but not for medicine.”
Bridget Christie, the comedian, talks about double standards
Kylie Jenner is only 18? I feel like she's been around for 8635 years. Or since the neolithic era, anyway.

It was only a couple of lines in the newspaper, but it shocked me nevertheless. Five women in India had been murdered, beaten to death by villagers who believed they were witches.

These women were blamed for “curses”, causing crop failures, illness or simply bad luck. It sounds medieval, but this happened only last Friday in the eastern state of Jharkhand. The unfortunate women were, according to the police, dragged out of their homes while asleep. A police spokesman added: “The entire village was involved in the crime.”

It’s a strange time to be female. In the so-called developed world over the past few years, huge strides have been made when it comes to equality, although we all know there is much more to be done. Elsewhere, the story is bleak. Women are being pushed back, cut up, covered up and murdered, all because of their gender. It’s horrifying.

When I was at university, I took a special subject called the "witchcraze". It covered roughly the 15th to 17th centuries, but the stories were the same. People looked around for scapegoats and women were easy targets, especially women who lived alone, who were older, or perhaps a bit difficult or outspoken, even those who had a pet (you know the stereotypes, don’t you?).

The witchcraze was worse in those parts of Europe where government had broken down and society was fractured. When everything is in turmoil, scapegoats become even more appealing. Women who were singled out as witches could be found guilty of anything from unexplained deaths (a common occurrence in those troubled times) to destroyed crops. Well, if it wasn’t the witches’ fault, whose was it? It was easier to have someone to blame, than to ask those sorts of questions.

The idea of witches and black magic has long been discredited, so why and how can it still exist around the world today? In India, about 2,000 people, almost all women, were killed for being witches between 2000 and 2012, with more since then. It seems that in some countries, women need to conform to the rules and not step out of line. Otherwise the lies and murders will continue.

Thank you for reading. To keep the conversation going, please join us on Twitter @TimesWoman.
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