Alicia J Duffy

All purpose northern lefty guardian reading feminist single mum.
Alicia J Duffy has written 27 posts for

Play Dough a Go Go!

Play dough is brilliant.  Practically free and endless possibilities.  Plus it lets kids do the whole messy play thing without actually making that much mess, which is always a good thing.Plus if you use the cheap home made version you don’t need to worry about mixing the colours.  I start off with a variety of basic colours (usually based on whatever colourings I have to hand) and then let the kids make further colours by mixing.

Child playing with multicoloured playdough made by an easy homemade recipe

There are a few recipes knocking about the internet, with various no cook options or ingredients, but this is the best one that I have used.  Where I say cup, use any cup, as long as you use the same one each time.  I use a little plastic beaker.Use your common sense and don’t play with playdough on your best tablecloth or tread it into your expensive persian rug, but then if you have that kind of thing in a house with small children then you are a braver (and possibly quite a bit richer) person than me…

Home Made Play Dough

  • 2 cups flour (any will do)
  • Half a cup of salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • A big spoon (or small glug) of oil – any will do
  • Two big spoons of cream of tartar (you can leave this out if you like, but it makes the dough more springy and stretchy and only costs a few pence)
  • Food colouring, smelly oil (use food safe versions in case it gets nibbled…), glitter or whatever else you want to use to make it pretty and/or smelly

Chuck everything in a pan and put over a low heat.  Keep stirring until it looks like…dough.  Allow to cool before giving to children (obviously…)

You can also just add boiling water to the ingredients in a bowl and stir, to avoid having to put it on the hob.

I tend to leave out the colourings and flavourings, cook plain dough and then knead in the colours/flavours/glitter.  That way I only have to cook once but can make loads of colours.  Beware though that colourings can stain, and are much more likely to stain your worktop (and hands, and clothes, and children) before they are mixed in.

This recipe isn’t toxic, but isn’t exactly edible either, given that it will taste horrible and has loads of salt.  Hopefully inquisitive toddlers will just have one taste and then be put off.  Hopefully.

Keep your playdough in an air tight container and it should last at least six weeks.  Enjoy, and let me know if you come up with any cool ideas!

The University Without Walls

Open University students graduating from the MBA programmeIf I told you that there is a way to get a degree without A levels, would you believe me?  If I told you that the university accepts all students, and that you can study at home, in prison, on an oil rig or anywhere else that you might happen to be?  If you could study how and when you like, whether that be in bursts of activity with gaps inbetween, steadily in short bursts on the bus or when the kids are in bed, or full time?  That you would get support off a tutor, optional tutorials and online social support?

The Open University is a wonderful organisation.  Launched in 1969, it currently has more than 260,000 students, mostly in the UK.  A network of nearly 7000 tutors support these students, often alongside working in a traditional university, and 1.6 million people have studied with the university since it was founded.  The university has a stated aim of helping people acheive potential despite barriers that would prevent study at many universities – 12,000 disabled students a year study with the OU, and up to 44% of the student body started without the qualifications that would normally be needed for university study.  However, the degrees and other qualifications are well respected – studying with the OU shows a determination and level of self organisation that many employers find very attractive.

The university produces television documentaries and study resources for other universities and schools.  It also makes a huge range of learning resources freely available at OpenLearn, which is well worth a look for anybody interested in thinking and learning, as well as through iTunes and YouTube.

It is now at risk.

Due to changes in student finding arrangments, the university is having to stop providing the financial support system that it has been helping thousands of students with.  Fees are increasing for all students across the university – a student starting an honours degree in September 2012 will pay approx 15 thousand pounds for their degree in total, around three times the full fee the year before. Many students currently pay either a reduced fee or no fee at all, depending on income, and all students have access to a budgeting account to spread the cost.

What’s more, students will now have to apply for funding through the student loans system, meaning that students who already have a degree or who are otherwise barred from student loans will have to find the money themselves.

Studying with the OU is still much cheaper than study at many traditional universities, and the nature of the courses means that working full time alongside study is very possible.  Still, the university is suffering from the increase in fees, and many students that could have changed their lives and achieved their potential will be put off by the cost.Scene from educating Rita, a play and film about an OU student and tutor

I really hope that the university can continue to provide this wonderful service for all of us non traditional students.  If you feel the same, please sign this petition or, even better, why not register on a course?  It is still the cheapest and most flexible way to get your degree, and might just change your life.

A Broadly Christian Debate

My daughter attends an excellent school.  It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered.  It is also Catholic.  We are not.

I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day.  I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices).  We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious.  What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.Nun with 1960's Catholic Schoolchildren.  Photo: Vin Crosbie

I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all.  As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object.  I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions.  This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.

If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate.  There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children.  To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction.  As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.

My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old.  We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God.  I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories.  Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.

Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population?  A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.

I have no problem with teaching about religion.  In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful.  I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense.  I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths.  I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.

Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum.  However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections.  Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?

In Defence of Mumsnet

Mumsnet, one of the major British parenting network sites, has always come in for a lot of flak, most of which comes from two points of view:

  • Those who think it is the same as the other fluffy pink mummy sites, full of bad spelling and tickers
  • Those who think it is a sinister conspiracy against the country: a Boden and biscuits mafia

Now we have a new one – those who think it is a distributor of “man hate”.  Sigh. *

So, what is Mumsnet?  Why does it cause such a problem?

When people say “Mumsnet” what they usually mean is the Talk section of Mumsnet, which is a huge message board or forum, aimed at parents (although the majority of users are mothers, there are a sizable minority of fathers, grandparents, childcare workers and childless people who also use the site).  There are hundreds of sections, covering all aspects of life, not just parenting.  Each section tends to have its own “feel” – so Pregnancy tends to be fairly gentle, Am I Being Unreasonable? is a hotbed of disagreements and strong debate and Feminist Activism can be pretty militant.  There is a site wide policy of very light moderation, so swearing, heated disMumsnet logocussions and pretty obscene conversations do occur (never, ever google anything users of Mumsnet tell you to google…).  Members can name-change whenever they like, meaning that posters can reveal secret details on one thread then go back to joking with long term friends on another, under their usual nickname, which does not tend to be related to ‘real life’ identities.  There are also no avatars, twinkly tickers, signatures or pictures, and only a very small range of emoticons.

Herein lies one of our problems. Mumsnet is very different to the rest of the parenting forums, and I would say that the main difference is that Mumsnet treats posters as adults.  We aren’t mollycoddled, and the only things that get deleted (apart from spam) are personal attacks and hate speech.  Mumsnet as a body of posters tends to be self regulating – so a poster coming on who doesn’t follow the rules will get very short shrift.  This has given us a bit of a reputation for being bitchy, although, to me, it just means that we say how we feel, like grown ups.  Other sites will tend to ban you if you express any forthright opinions, and so there are a good few Mumsnetters who are banned from other sites.

Mumsnet also tends to be a bit more educated than other sites.  That’s not to say that Mumsnetters all have doctorates, or even GCSEs, but there is a higher expectation of basic education.  Text speak and bad grammar are frowned upon, and there are often jokes about things like classic literature and politics.  This is often given as evidence that Mumsnet is somehow elitist, and that “ordinary” people would be pushed out and ridiculed.

To me, there are endless websites where you can post cute little tickers, use vomit inducing euphemisms and tipe lyk u cant speel 🙂 ❤ ❤ 😮 and I think it is only fair to let one site have its own way of working.  Just because the users of the site are mostly women, and mostly mothers at that, doesn’t mean that we have to act like children ourselves.

justine off of mumsnet.  Because of the general culture of the site, there is a higher than usual concentration of professionals and, in particular, journalists.  Mumsnet is often used as a cheap research technique, with posts (usually without the knowledge and assent of responding posters) being used in news articles as the “opinion of parents” (I have had this happen to me, when I posted about an internet joke, and there was one reply – I was quoted twice, as different users, as proof that mothers in general found the joke hilarious).  Justine Roberts, one of the founders of the site, can often be found on talk shows giving her opinion – she can’t give the opinion of Mumsnet as a whole, because the 2 million users that use the site every month can’t possibly have one opinion.

However, that, and the fact that the site regularly hosts web-chats with politicians and other movers and shakers, gives Mumsnet a reputation as attention seekers who try to control the media.

Why is it that people hate the idea of a site where women can get together to chat about sex, politics, parenting and culture?  Men have most of the rest of the internet, and any woman daring to post anywhere else is often attacked if she dares mention anything feminine in any way.  Parents of young children are likely to become isolated, and there isn’t the support network that used to exist to support young mothers.

So, if my baby is acting weirdly, or the cuts are pissing me off, or I just thought up a really good joke about mooncups…I’ll see you on Mumsnet.

*I have deliberately ignored the ridiculous behaviour of a certain pressure group lately.  Don’t feed the troll and all that.

I Don’t Work, But I Want to Join a Union.

When I told my sister that I wanted to join a union, she laughed and said: “You can’t go on strike – what will you do, go to work?” She had a point.

I suffer from a severe mental illness, and so am unable to work. My husband works part time in a shop and we have two young children, so we don’t have much spare money. I am a member of the Labour party, and strongly feel that the only way to counter the imbalance of power is to work collectively. If we are to stand up for our rights, we need a bigger voice. Unions are a good way of getting that voice.

Union Banners in a March

As soon as I heard that some unions accept unemployed members with a cheap subscription I decided to join. I might not be able to work, but I can do what I can by being counted. Hopefully I can help with campaigns and volunteering. Maybe my voice will make a difference, and I can prove that I’m worth listening to even if I don’t have paid employment. I have become a bit of an informal benefits adviser to friends and family – having had dealings with benefit forms I’ve started following changes with interest, and so I know how important it is to be able to get advice from others.

There are other aspects to being a member of a union that are particularly important to me as a mother, such as legal advice and cheap deals on insurance. Young children make you want a secure life – we need to know that if things go wrong, someone will help.

Until recently I felt secure that legal aid and the welfare state would be there if things went wrong – we are already very vulnerable, and so I will grab with both hands anything that might put a cushion between us and disaster. It isn’t our children’s fault that they have a mentally ill mother – the illness makes day-to-day life hard enough without extra worry.

I probably will never use a good proportion of a unions services, but plenty of people will, and by paying this very small amount we’re helping to spread the cost. Keeping unions viable makes employers act that bit more honestly. They have to do whatever makes the most profit, but if unions are still strong, that becomes a factor they have to consider when making their calculations, and hopefully that is a good thing overall for everyone. Even if I can’t strike.

Beyond Books: The Future of Libraries

Libraries are facing cuts, and are closing at an alarming rate all over the country – CILIP (Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals) estimates that 600 libraries, mobile libraries and services could be destroyed in the next few years.  As a former Library Assistant (totally different to a Librarian, but more of that later) I have seen first hand how people rely on these hubs of community and their books.

But the world is moving fast.  Books are cheap.  Do libraries still have a place in the society of the future?

Books on library shelves

Most people see a library as like some kind of book shop – like Blockbuster, but with novels instead of DVDs. They might have popped in to use a computer if theirs was broken or they needed to study in peace, and they might even have borrowed a CD or taken their children to story time. I think they are missing the point, but I don’t think libraries are helping their own image.

What is the actual essence of a library? It’s not necessarily the books, or the building.  It’s a more abstract concept – that of a community of learning. There are moves now to introduce more events and variety into the day to day lives of libraries – Newcastle Central Library is a good example of this; There are story times, book groups, study space and exhibitions, but I still don’t think they are going far enough.

Libraries should be alive with learning.  They should be a destination, a democratic meeting place.  Lectures open to the public with teachers and librarians on hand to help with research.

There was a time when every public library had to have at least one qualified librarian – a graduate who has studied for a highly specialised qualification.  A librarian can not only answer any question, but they can show you the reputable sources and guide you to further reading. They can navigate the world of information and pick out the important bitNewcastle Central Librarys, and they can keep that information safe for when it’s needed.  In this age of information, Librarians should be our guides, instead they are losing their jobs.

I propose that we bring back this emphasis on the skills of the librarian, and allow them to work with teachers, lecturers, artists and other specialists to create an environment that will remain a vital part of our educational armoury.

Home Education is becoming more and more widespread, with current conservative estimates at 40,000 school age children, and rising.  More people are choosing to study university and college courses on a part time or distance learning basis, with most universities offering part time and distance options, as well as dedicated institutions like the Open University and ICS.  Many people now can’t afford the qualifications that they need or want, and there is a  growing group of adults with poor literacy and numeracy.  The world is getting more and more complex, yet mass entertainment is becoming simpler.  If we do learn informally, it is often through Wikipedia, or reading biased newspapers.  People are getting lonely and more and more segregated by age, class and social group, which is leading to tensions, blame and prejudice.

We need to bring our libraries back to the centre of our communities.  Let’s see informal and formal discussions, activities and resources, all together with books, computers andtwo children reading books in a library even things as simple as paper, pens and quiet tables.  Small libraries could be quieter, with only a few events, and larger ones should be full of opportunity and excitement.  I want to be able to bring a toddler to story time, an older child to a science lesson and a teenager to a philosophy group.  I want political meetings, inclusive discussions and exciting lectures.  I want to be able to buy stationary and a coffee and read the papers.  I want poetry readings, comedy nights and art exhibitions.  I want books, lots of them, but also guidance on the internet, more information on television shows, discussions after plays, talks about local history.

I want us to hold on for dear life to the principle that there should be a library, free and open to all, in every community, for everyone.  It might have to adapt, but it needs to exist.

Nice Concept, Shame About the Coffee.

I’m a sucker for subscriptions.  I love anything where you pay so much a month and you get something through the post – especially if it is something that will introduce new things to me, like Graze or the organic veg boxes I sometimes get from Riverford.  It’s like getting a little present through the post, and takes away some of the bewildering choice in life without taking away the adventure.  Yes, I am so sad that getting some nuts in the post is an adventure.

So, when I got the chance to try Kopi, I was pretty excited.Kopi Coffee Delivery review

Kopi is a subscription scheme for gourmet coffee.  So, you pay your £9 a month (or less if you pay for a few months at once), and you get a little package of posh coffee.  Brilliant.  With each 250g packet, you get a little leaflet all about the coffee – origins, tasting notes and so on, and it all fits through your letter box.  We even got a couple of those tiny biscuits that you get in coffee shops.

We drink a lot of coffee in our house.  We have two little children, at least one of which will be in our bed by the morning, we study and work and we have an unfortunate habit of staying up late watching reruns of 321.  We sometimes treat ourselves to a bag of coffee from Pumphrey’s in the Grainger Market, Newcastle, but mostly we drink normal co-op ground coffee, and our coffee machine is set to percolate just before we wake up every morning.  My mum even keeps a cafetiere at her house for when we visit.  We like our coffee.

I got Mexico Terruno Nayarita Reserva, which was apparently light, yet creamy, with a hint of spice and orange.  Sounded lovely, and I would love to say it was, I really would.  I can forgive a lot from a subscription scheme (wasabi peas from Graze, anyone?) but I just couldn’t see how this coffee could be worth £9 for 250g.

We made our first pot in the machine and it came out quite strong, so I tried again in the cafetiere, measuring the coffee carefully.  That was slightly better, and if I concentrated I could just about make out the taste of Christmassy spice, but not very well.

I take milk in my coffee, so I asked my husband about his.  He told me he couldn’t tell any difference, then moaned about it being too weak.

Now, it could just be that we ended up with a blend that didn’t suit us, and maybe next time it would. On the strength of this pack, I wouldn’t be keen to fork out more than an hour’s wage for the next box.

Maybe we’re just not sophisticated enough.

Stigma – the escape prevention plan

Ah, stigma.  Our old friend.A sillohette of a person trapped behind glass to symbolise stigma

This is a subject that those of us who take an interest in mental health politics are constantly banging on about, but the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through to others.  The problem is, I think, that all this banging on goes on in circles of people who already know it all already.  If you blog about mental health issues as a sufferer/survivor, it is almost certain you will have encountered stigma yourself.  You will have faced the dilemma of whether to reveal your illness to employers, you will have avoided the subject with relatives you know will just make stupid comments.  So reading the statistics just confirms what you already know.

A report, published last year by the NHS Information Commission, found that only 25% of people would trust most ex-patients of a mental hospital to babysit their child.  21% believed that anyone with a history of mental illness should be prevented from ever taking public office.  11% would not even want to live next door to somebody who has ever suffered from mental illness.  People with mental illness have the highest “want to return to work” rates of all disabilities, but face the biggest unemployment rates of any category of disability.  They also report difficulty in getting treatment, not only for their mental illness, but for any physical illness that may also affect them – people with severe mental illness have a life expectancy that is shortened by around 10 years.

The facts make depressing reading, and even more so when, as I once witnessed myself, they are displayed on a colourful information board in the corridor of a psychiatric ward.  Right next to the door. At one point I hatched a theory that it was put there to stop us wanting to escape to the stigma filled outside world.  Looking back, I was probably over thinking things a little…

This is the thing though.  When we are mental in the first place, we need a bit more understanding, because we are likely to be much more vulnerable.  There is no doubt that we face problems with which we are less able to cope.  I’m not sure that just telling ourselves that the problems exist is really going to help much.   It might make us more afraid to go out of our comfort zone, away from the people who know what it is like to be mentally ill.

Of course, there shouldn’t be stigma, but I think that we need to go beyond raising awareness that it exists and start trying to cope with it when we do see it.

I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be fought.  Of course it should, and I will happily join in the fight.  But, the fight will be ongoing for  while, and all that time we will still have to find jobs, talk to old friends and live our lives.  We can’t just write STIGMA on our front doors and not go out until it goes away.

Lazy Cheesy Twists

I promised that I would show you what to do with the leftover puff pastry after making the cheap and easy tart.  Well – here it is.  Even cheaper, and even easier, and doesn’t even need a knife and fork to eat. (Less washing up – vital for the lazy cook.)


  • Some leftover bits of ready made puff pastry
  • That bit of cheese that is in the fridge that you need to use up (everyone has it – I used a mixture of the end of some Cheddar and some Christmas leftover Stilton – stronger flavours work best)

Roll out the pastry and sprinkle about a third of the cheese on top.

Grated cheese on top of some puff pastry, waiting to be turned into cheese twistsFold the pastry over, sandwiching the cheese.  Roll again.

Cheese being folded inside some pastry to make cheese twistsSprinkle, roll, sprinkle, roll, until you run out of cheese/motivation.  Then cut into strips.

Pastry cut into strips to make cheese twistsLightly oil a baking tray (or use one that you have just cooked a cheap and easy tart on) and twist the strips of pastry before arranging them on the tray.  Leave plenty of room for expansion.

Cheese twists waiting to go into the ovenCook in the oven at a hottish temperature, until they get all puffed up and golden brown.  Or until the ones at the back start to singe and the smoke alarm goes off.  Either way, really.

Slightly singed cheese twistsEnjoy!  Perfect for finger food at a sophisticated cocktail party.  Or for eating while watching TV, if yours go all funny shapes like mine did.  (Ha!  Like I was planning a sophisticated anything.)

Cheesy twists, perfect for nibbles at a party, or as a snack

Cheap and Easy Tart

Ok, so it’s not exactly cooking from scratch, but it is really tasty. Meditteraneam style cheap and easy tart

I got all the ingredients from Iceland, for less than £3, and they are all either from the freezer or canned, so it makes an excellent “last days before payday” meal.  Preparation time is about ten minutes, cooking about twenty, and there is plenty for a reasonably sensible small child to help with, and is easy enough for a student/rubbish chef.  These amounts made enough for a family of four plus cold snacks for the adults later, although our children are quite small.


  • Two thirds of a block of frozen puff pastry (you can use the whole block if you like, but then you wouldn’t be able to make lazy cheese twists with the leftovers)
  • About 500g of frozen Mediterranean veg (either roast in batches and freeze, or buy ready frozen)
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • A small block of cheese (I used strong cheddar, which I buy big blocks of, chop up and freeze the smaller blocks, and is excellent to have in for things like this)

Frozen puff pastry defrosting

Leave the pastry out to defrost for half a day, or overnight in the fridge.

Put the oven on to preheat to about 200 degrees C

Empty the tin of tomatoes into a small saucepan and simmer – add some oregano and/or basil if you have it.

Chopped tinned tomotoes simmering in a pan

Sprinkle a clean surface with flour and roll out the pastry, then put it on a baking tray and fold up the edges.Pastry rolled out on baking try ready to be covered in tomatoes

Cover the pastry with the tomatoes, then add a layer of the frozen veg.Frozen veg on tart

Grate some cheese over the top, and stick it in the oven until the pastry at the sides is puffed up and nicely brown, and the cheese is all melty.Vegetable tart with cheese, all ready to be cooked

Chop up and eat.  You could serve this with chips and salad, or maybe garlic bread, and it is excellent cold.  Or just eat slices like a lovely pastry pizza.

Vegetable tart


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