You see them clambering out of their parents’ vehicles every morning. Children so fat they are in adult-size shirts, whey-faced, sleepy. Its so obvious you wonder why someone has to spell it out. Being driven to school is bad for children. Yet the President of the Faculty of Public Health, Professor John Ashton, has felt it necessary to suggest banning the school “run”, in order to help tackle the crisis of our increasingly obese children.
The chunky kids are usually on time. We, however, are usually late. This is because we have walked 2km from our house to our primary school in Islington, which used to be local but now isn’t (since our move).
Never mind. Every day for the last 11 years, Mr Millard or myself have walked our four children to this destination. And back. We have no car. So we have no choice. Even if we did have a car I would still walk. Whatever the weather.
When they arrive, the children are rosy-cheeked, and ready for the day. They are also whip-thin; three miles every day does them good. If this sounds nauseatingly Enid Blyton, too bad. We have jokes, races, quizzes on capital cities. We rate people’s front gardens out of 10. We say hello to certain dogs and avoid certain cats. I sing. I am told to shut up. Yes, there is bickering and occasional parental shouting.
Yet the walk is always an important, private time. I’m not on the phone, or distracted by work. I’m not staring fixedly ahead, behind the wheel. It’s just me and them. And this is when they open up. They chat about everything. Their ambitions for secondary school. Their ambitions for the Sponsored Bounce. Their dislike of the recorder. Their love of (heaven help me) netball.
The school walk that thousands still manage every day is a crucial skein in the web of community. We greet our regulars; the lady artist, the Frenchman with his little daughter, the tall man with his Alaskan husky. We feel like we belong. It’s a bright mosaic which we would never see sweeping past in a car; it would be blown away in a gust of petrol fumes.
Yesterday I spoke about this on BBC London, and immediately got an email from a listener, whose demanding job had meant she could not walk her son to school. “I have lost touch with my son. Things could have been very different if I had been able to engage more fully with his school day. Those trips back and forth and the rows and chats are so important. One day those feet will be pointing in a different direction, away from you.”
If you can, dump the car and get walking. It’s a very special moment when that little hand slips into yours.
The store that stole Christmas
It’s Jingle Bells in London this week, with all the big stores immersed in Christmas “press previews”. Waitrose rolled out Heston Blumenthal, and two floors of achingly delicious food. Muji made Japanese minimalism the star. But the big daddy of them all was John Lewis. Christmas there is HUGE. The store takes 30 per cent of its annual profit in the six-week run-up. Surrounded by twinkling trees and glass baubles, MD Andy Street delivered a word-perfect speech to the assembled press. Who were told, in no uncertain way, that Never Knowingly Undersold is Numero Uno. John Lewis, he said, has “omni-channel leadership”. In both “bricks and clicks”. It is “Britain’s Leading Retailer”. It is, he said “the authoritative voice of Christmas”. Archbishop Welby, are you listening?