In search of a school……

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle-class mother in possession of daughters must be in want of a school. Or at least an expat middle-class mother who is utterly horrified at the level of education on offer where she lives. Next week the girls and I set off from Abu Dhabi to England for interviews and exams at various public schools.
Having been turned down out of hand by the school their half sister went to on the basis of an exam they took (I even told said school they would fail it), I figured the only way to get them in is for them to actually meet the people who make the decisions and hope they spot the potential in them.
I also need to show them the benefits of an English school, because they are less than convinced that it is the right move for them. Let’s face it, why would they want to go anywhere. Here they start school early (7.30) but by 2.30 they are finished for the day, and they rarely have homework. So instead of doing prep or careering across a frozen lacrosse pitch they are in their rooms, on their laptops. Which might seem like a nice thing to do, but will of course eventually turn their brains to mush and they will be no use to anyone.
I am also aware that being a teenager in a place where drinking and relations with the opposite sex are illegal may not be ideal. I was brought up in Sweden where both are practically obligatory.
When I was about 15 I had a male friend to stay. In the morning, my mother came into my bedroom to ask if I’d like a cup of tea. The boy had by then left.
“No thanks,” I said.
She was about to shut the door, then poked her head around again. “Did you lose your virginity?” she asked, as casually as if she were asking what time I was going to get up.
“NO!” I yelled, utterly horrified. I was an extremely conservative teenager, and my virginity was not even up for discussion, least of all with my mother.
“Oh,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Why not?”
But the main reason I would like the girls to go to an English school is that I really don’t feel here they’re getting as much out of life here as they could be doing. They’re just not INTERESTED in anything. Nothing seems to have captured their imagination. Not art, nor drama, nor sport. OK so Bea is a fanatical Chelsea fan, which is commendable, but I would like it if they actually did something and excelled at it.
Of course some of that is down to them, but I also believe children need inspiring, and they need exciting role models to show them the way. I can tell them to read a book a thousand times, but coming from me, their natural instinct is to ignore it. The other day Rupert asked Bea what book she was reading. “Facebook,” she replied in all seriousness.
Time to move on girls…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2013

Unacustomed as I am to public speaking…

Tomorrow I have a terrifying task to perform. At 2pm I am to stand up in front of the WHOLE of Leo’s year at school and give a speech about what it’s like being a journalist. Nothing, not even my first appearance on Richard & Judy, or walking up the aisle, or watching Chelsea against Bayern in a penalty shoot-out has filled me with such fear.
I am terrified of letting him down. And I get the impression he is terrified too. “Two pm on Wednesday,” he keeps telling me. “Don’t forget.” This morning he even asked me what I’m going to wear. Good question. Do I go glam (trying too hard?), dressed down (slob mother), trendy (mutton mother) or sexy (slut mother)? It’s an utter no-win situation. And what to talk about?
Rupert’s idea was that I talk about the story I covered in 2005 about the world’s first face transplant performed on a woman who had her face mauled off by her pet dog while she was asleep. Methinks it might be just a tad too gory for 100 nine year olds. Can you imagine the questions? What happened to the dog being the first obvious one….
Anyway, here is my draft speech, advise and comments on this and outfit gratefully received:

RUGBY WORLD CUP

In 2003, the year a lot of you were born, I was in Beziers, covering the rugby world cup for the Sunday Times. Beziers is the heart of French rugby country, and I spent a lot of time sneaking into bars undercover to watch the games.

This wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I decided aged around 10 that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I had envisaged myself in war zones, heroically rushing from battlefield to battlefield in a flak jacket and helmet.

Actually a flak jacket and helmet almost came in handy when I inadvertently shrieked GO JONNY as our hero Jonny Wilkinson scored yet another try against the French and the whole bar went silent.

I managed to survive the wrath of the French rugby crowd, filed the story to London and the next day it was on the front page, my first ever front page story and a defining moment for me because I felt I had achieved what I set out to do.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A GOOD NEWS REPORTER? So what it does it take to be a good news reporter. It’s been said that the attributes required by a Fleet Street reporter are: a plausible manner, a little literary ambition and rat-like cunning. In old films journalists were always portrayed with trenchcoats and hats, but I always found a pen and notebook a bit more useful.

WHY I WANTED TO BE A JOURNALIST As I said I decided I wanted to be a journalist when I was a little girl. I was inspired by the Tintin books, the brave little blond man and his dog setting the world to rights. Like many journalists I did have a little literary ambition, I always wanted to write, and journalism seemed like a natural path towards that. I kept diaries, wrote short stories and read lots. When I went to university I worked on the student newspaper, eventually becoming editor of it. When I left university I looked around for that glamorous job in journalism.

EARLY CAREER My early career was not illustrious. It is a very competitive industry, and despite interviews for the Sunday Times and BBC graduate trainee schemes I found the only way in was through financial journalism.

I started my career at a dreary magazine called Trade Finance magazine. You may well ask what trade finance is; to this day I have no idea, and certainly no interest in it. But I learnt to report, to write, to meet deadlines and I also picked up that invaluable journalist’s tool of pretending to understand what’s going on when you really haven’t the foggiest.

GOOD ADVICE One of my first news editors said that you should treat every story you cover as if you’re a police investigator. Try to amass as much information as possible from as many sources as you can, and don’t always believe that everyone is telling you the truth.

I gather you have been learning about the five Ws: who, where, what, when, why. And of course my daughter’s favourite: whatever. They are a great tool for writing an intro. Make it powerful; get their attention, especially in the first paragraph. Keep it simple and to the point, tabloid press are often criticized but they are brilliant at conveying the maximum information in the minimum  amount of words in the clearest manner.

MOVE TO FRANCE Happily I moved to France and left the world of financial journalism behind. I’m not sure who was more relieved, they or I. Traditionally this would have been a very poor career move. Historically newspapers were based in Fleet Street on the edge of London’s financial district. The journalists were all based there and the printing presses were underneath and offices. CHANGES But then the newspapers moved out to cheaper locations and because of new technology you no longer had to be physically there with a typewriter and a piece of paper. Now in the world of skype, mobile phones and emails you can be anywhere you want to. Just last week I wrote a piece for the Daily Mail about a political scandal in France, from here.

The world of newspapers has changed in other ways too. As a business they are in decline with people preferring to read their news on-screen. At one time everyone in Britain bought a daily paper, nowadays few people bother. However this doesn’t mean there are no avenues for those of you who want to become reporters. The medium may have changed but the message remains the same. The need and desire to tell or to hear a story will never go away. Our ancestors sat around camp-fires telling tales of their hunting expeditions, today we tend to go on twitter or facebook to see what everyone’s up to. We’re all journalists now.

BEST JOB EVER Being a journalist is, I think, one of the best jobs you can have. You are constantly learning new things; you meet fascinating people, along with extremely famous and less fascinating ones such as Prince Andrew and Dannii Minogue, both of whom I have interviewed.

I think one of the most incredible women I ever met was the daughter of an author called Irene Nemirovsky who shot to fame a few years ago when her book became a global bestseller almost 50 years after her death. Her daughter, the woman I interviewed, had carried the unpublished manuscript with her in a suitcase along with her teddy bear as a child while escaping from the Nazis in occupied France. They had arrested her mother and sent her to Auschwitz, where she died. I was also lucky enough to meet such sporting superstars as Tom Daley, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Nowadays I do much more writing of books, features and opinion pieces than pure reporting, although I would be happy to go back to it if someone needed me to. Maybe for the next rugby world cup?

Meanwhile, I would love to hear your questions about journalism, news reporting or anything at all…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Chelsea-Paris-Sainte Cecile-Bramham-Eaton Square

On Monday the children and I head off on our travels until August 31st. This will be the first time in four years that I will have been away for the summer. We arrived in August 2008 and since then, even if the girls have been able to escape for much of July and August thanks to my mother, we have been here. Poor Leo has had a very lonely birthday every year on July 20th with just us to celebrate with, along with maybe one other unfortunate friend who is not away.
Today is Friday, our weekend, and the children have only been outside to go to lunch or the mall. It is so hot you can’t walk anywhere, even once the sun goes down. Leo is going stir crazy, one day after school has ended. Yesterday afternoon he has his final football session, it was a bit like sauna soccer.
Hence the reason for escaping. We begin in London where we stay for a couple of weeks, then we go to Paris for two days followed by Sainte Cecile for a three-week stint. I always used to think Sainte Cecile in August was boiling hot, but it will probably seem quite temperate after here. After France the kids and I head up to my friends at Bramham while Rupert comes back to work, and then we all meet again at a lovely place we’ve rented in Eaton Square before flying back to Abu Dhabi and the start of school.
For those of you who remember the belle maison, the sad news is that we didn’t get it, so we won’t be heading there. I was heartbroken at the time, but have got over it, and it will be interesting to see how we all feel about our old home, which we were going to sell in order to buy it.
When we left Leo was only four, a tiny boy dressed in a Spiderman suit, and the girls were still very much children. They are coming back as different people. Olivia is thirteen, Bea almost twelve, young ladies really.
Bea is most excited about going to Sainte Cecile, while Olivia is desperate to go to London. Rupert is also looking forward to going home to France, and Leo is really excited about the Chelsea soccer school he is going to for the second week of July. I’m just looking forward to getting away from the heat, any of the above suits me. But it will be lovely to celebrate Leo’s birthday at home, surrounded by friends, fine wine, good food and maybe even a football match on the lawn.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Gainfully employed once more….

Yes, I know I have been annoying you all by smugly describing my life as a lady of leisure and telling you all how I was planning not to work until at least September BUT….I have a job. In fact I have a dream job. I am editorial director of (and partner in) a gorgeous, glossy, high-end fashion magazine based here in Abu Dhabi called Masquerade magazine. Check out the website www.masquerademag.com.
The job came from the most unlikely of sources. A few months ago, before the demise of M magazine was even a twinkle in management’s eye, Leo’s favourite football coach, an Arsenal fan (poor thing) called Andrei told me he had a friend in Abu Dhabi who had set up a fashion magazine. I didn’t think much of it because most of the magazines here are hardly quality products. And I couldn’t imagine that I would not have seen it if it were. Then I met Andrei’s friend and he showed me the mag. I was bowled over by its professionalism, quality and also by his ambition and vision. “I want to set up the Condé Nast of the Middle East,” he told me. I was sold immediately.
I have brought the lovely Jemma who used to work with me at M along with me and together we are plotting the next few issues. At the moment Masquerade is quarterly, but it will go bi-monthly from next year and monthly from 2014.
It is strange, much as I loved having time off and being a lady of leisure I could see, even after only a couple of weeks, how dull it would eventually become. I am really enjoying coming up with feature ideas, planning the future of the magazine and working with freelancers I had to let go unceremoniously when M was closed.
So no more lady of leisure, but I am a happier lady, and very much looking forward to helping to create the Condé Nast of the Middle East.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Admin chores (yawn)

One of the best things about living here is that there are people to do most things for you. When you go to the petrol station, a nice man (yes, it is always a man) fills up your car. At the supermarket, there is a packer to do your packing, at home you have a housemaid, or la bonne as the French call them, and possibly a cook as well as a driver.
The driver will deal with everything to do with your car, from taking it to be serviced to washing it. La Bonne does all the washing, ironing and cleaning. The cook shops for food and cooks. And between them all they run around doing errands such as collecting dry cleaning and depositing children around town.
But there are some chores it seems you can never leave behind: admin chores. I am inundated at the moment with pesky paperwork relating to our house purchase in France, as well as sorting out the children’s visas now that Rupert has changed jobs. I am not allowed to put them on my visa (being a mere woman), but I am of course still allowed to do the paperwork.

Not only do I have about a million forms to fill in for the French house, but we have to come up with all sorts of bits of paper from bank statements to salary slips and even our marriage certificate. This place is notoriously bad on the admin front, but I have to say it has nothing on the French system. Just looking at the list of admin chores ahead of me made me almost want to give up on buying la belle maison and never go to France again. But not quite.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

 

New look 2012

When I was buying Christmas presents for the girls this week I was struck by how very different the kinds of things I was looking at were from last year. There is nothing in a toy department that would interest them now, for example. Gone are the pet shops and the furry animals.Their Christmas lists were all about clothes from Forever 21, bits for their BlackBerries and other ‘grown-up’ things, such as fountain pens or new curtains.
Much as I loathe those round robin ‘oh it’s been another frightfully good year in the Frith Powell/Wright household’ I do think it’s a perfect time of year to look back. I am guessing if you’re here in the first place, you must be interested. And to mark the end of 2011, I have a new look, hope you like it.
I will start with work. This year was my first full year as editor of M magazine. It has been brilliant, I love my team and the product, which I feel just gets better and better. It has also been the single most challenging year of my professional life, because of changes to my working environment. But it’s all too tedious to relate here, and quite frankly I have wasted enough time droning on about it.
The latest book is missing around 20,000 words and a satisfying ending, I was hoping to get it done before Christmas but that is not going to happen. Still, I am happy with it so far if rather nervous about the proposed title: How to turn your husband into your lover. My publisher, whom I utterly adore, believes in the old adage of ‘sex sells”. He is right of course.
As I said, the girls are growing up at an alarming rate. Olivia is quite the most elegant creature I have ever seen, and is doing really well at school. We had a letter from the head of her year congratulating her on her great report. Bea is becoming more and more beautiful but now I sound like a ‘smug married’ so won’t go on. She has a boyfriend, he is sooo cute and plays football and piano (grade 8). I fear it’s all downhill from here….Leo is still the sporting superstar, utterly obsessed and determined to join Chelsea FC and turn their fortunes around. The sooner the better frankly.
I started with work and return to work. As I write I am having my hair blow-dried in preparation for Rupert’s leaving party. He has resigned from the National and as soon as I can I will tell you what his next move is. It’s really exciting and may mean we stay here for a few years to come. Which I am actually beginning to like the idea of. As long as we have La Belle Maison to escape to when the heat sets in….
Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

The Big 4-O

No, not me you fool, the country. The UAE, the country that has been our home for the last three and a bit years turns 40 on Friday. It is odd to live in a country that is younger than me, and of course it does make me feel rather old, but I am trying to get into the spirit of things.
The streets are lined with flags, the houses are decorated and the cars, well, the cars are a sight to behold.
I think this outpouring of national pride for National Day is rather lovely, and I wish the Brits had more pride in Blightly. But what I find fascinating is the fact that the population of this nation made enormously wealthy by oil, shows its affection through its four-wheel drives.
One of the main events is the National Day Parade. Unlike parades in Red Square, for example, this involves locals in their elaborately decorated vehicles driving around the part of town where the F1 circuit is.


The rest of them will be driving around the centre of town beeping their horns and throwing streamers. The traffic will be almost stationary there are so many revellers. Last year I made the mistake of leaving the tennis court at 6pm to drive home, it is normally a 15-minute drive max. Three hours later I was still in traffic. But the girls made plenty of new friends along the way.

I think this year we will be on a boat with some friends and watch all the celebrations from the relative calm of the sea. It will be interesting to see what effect turning 40 has on the country. Not much I should think. A bit like humans.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Solvitur Ambulando

When we lived in France, we would go for around three walks a day. One mid-morning, one late afternoon and one after dinner. Mostly we would up to “the cross”, as we called it, the end of the small road we lived on, marked by a metal cross at the edge of a vineyard. On this walk we would walk over two small rivers and pass our almond orchard. We would often (on the mid-morning walk) run into the postman, who would stop for a chat but then take our post home anyway to save us carrying it.

I hadn’t thought about these walks for a while until Rupert woke up the other morning and said “I’d like to go for a walk to the cross.” It was the weekend and I think he was wondering what we could do for the day. The heat is still pretty unbearable and so there really is a limit. It’s basically the mall, or stay at home or drive to Dubai and go skiing, in a mall. Faced with those options, a walk to the cross seems like heaven.

I think one of the most unsettling things about living abroad is the constant question of ‘when are we going to go home?’ It is becoming more and more difficult to make any kind of decision. The longer we stay here, the more complicated it becomes. The kids are now all in the British School where they seem to be blissfully happy. In fact Olivia says she won’t leave here until she has finished school. Bea is literally blossoming and comes home every day with house points. Leo is just about to get in to (fingers crossed) the football, rugby and cricket squads so will be utterly content.

As for us, well things are fine, obviously we can’t walk to the cross, but we do have more time to hang out with our children because the lovely Nirosa does all the domestic stuff, leaving me free to read Winne-the-Pooh (genius book), play tennis and write. I remember my stepfather once advising me never to move in with a boyfriend “because you won’t leave until it gets really bad”. Which I suppose is the case with us and going home. And unless we fall foul of the (sometimes less than predictable) law or disaster strikes, I can’t see it ever getting really bad.

There is that Latin saying, Solvitur Ambulando meaning ‘it is solved by walking’. I remember we used to chat about problems on our walks and often come up with solutions. When I walk alone I come up with plots and ideas for the book. We do walk now, but instead of rivers we cross major road intersections and instead of our almond orchard we walk past a royal palace. And of course one of the major topics of discussion is how long to stay here. Most often we come up with the same conclusion. A while longer.

The cross will have to wait. The good thing is, even if we don’t go back for another ten years, chances are it will still be there.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

La rentrée

I am at home today in order to focus on what the French call la rentrée and what we know as going back to school. It is a big day for the Wright/Frith Powell children. Olivia moves up to Year 8, Bea starts senior school (Year 7) and Leo moves to the same school as the girls, the British School Al Khubairat, joining Year 4.

When we moved here three years ago they were in the French system. That seems like a different world now. A world full of hideous French homework and no school uniforms. Much as I love a bit of liberté, the thought of the girls fighting over a pair of leggings for the next ten years is enough to make me lose the will to live.

Rupert and I took them to school together. I used to hate going to new schools, mainly because of my stupid surname, which the teacher would invariably get wrong and everyone would laugh hysterically. See how well I married? Not much to get wrong with Wright. If any of ours were nervous, they didn’t show it.

There was one dodgy moment when we walked into the main reception along with a few hundred other children and I saw Bea wobble, but then her best friend bounded up to us and all was well.

The girls quickly went off with their friends and we took Leo to the gymnasium where the new primary school children were gathered.

“What year are you?” asked the friendly organiser.

“Year 4,” I replied.

“You might do quite well this time around,” said Rupes.

We left Leo in the hands of his teacher Mr Jones and came home. I am trying to imagine how they are getting on, and what they will have to tell me when I collect them. I am also so excited at the prospect of time alone that I have planned several hundred things to do in the few hours they are away such as have coffee with a friend (this is how some people LIVE), write my book, watch the US Open, sort out my emails, wash my hair and have a sleep.

But mostly I will be thinking about my little English schoolchildren, and hoping they are having a good rentrée.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Travels with a yogi

We went on holiday with four children and a yoga teacher. Ria, as our teacher is called, is also a good friend. I have known her since we first moved to Abu Dhabi. It was Amanda, a friend I was in touch with via email before we even got here who suggested I go to her class.

“She’s amazing, and has the best body ever, you just look at her and you’re motivated.”

So off I trotted to Ria’s class and she was right, I was motivated. But not just motivated to change my body shape. Ria is a true yogi in the sense that she is also very keen on the spiritual side of things. At the end of every lesson she would tell us to focus on our innermost desire, something we wished for, and visualize it happening. I would think about the novel, to the extent that when it finally came out, I gave Ria a copy of it. She very sweetly burst into tears. Maybe it was the prospect of having to read it.

I am pleased to say that this spiritual influence has now affected my children. We did lots of yoga there (see above) and since their week with Ria, not a negative thought is allowed. “Look for the positive,” Bea urged me the other day when I got woken up at 6am by Leo slamming a door. “Maybe you were meant to wake up early to do something special.”

“Don’t worry about the future,” said Olivia when I told her I had been fretting in the night. “Live in the now.”

Leo is similarly smitten, and the most dedicated yogi of them all.

Hugo and Rupert seem less convinced, but I am hoping that eventually this new zen-ness will get to them too, and we can all live blissfully ever after. With Ria, of course.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011