A syllabus for REAL learning

One of the luxuries that I am most grateful for is the opportunity to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. Some might think it’s decadent, given that my youngest child is already 16 and her older siblings (eldest one is 31) all live abroad. But apart from my time at home with my other children and my parents, the rest of my time is wholly dedicated to Georgina, as is her father’s. She is our last offspring to cap off our long parenting journey and we are savouring every moment of our time with her. We both would be in the car together as much as possible when we ferry her round, be it to football practice or her boyfriend’s house or even just to a party down the road. During the car journeys, we talk non-stop about many things. I think her “real” education happens here. Below is an example.


So, what do you remember about Chemistry from your own school days? Many of you would say remembering chemical reactions (what colour when you mix A with B, etc). Many of you would say equations. Many of you would say test tubes.

I had a wonderful teacher called Cliff Haskins, an Oxford man. He would tell us, “Just remember the first 15 minutes. We can talk about other things after that.” Little did I know then, but dear Mr Haskins actually worked very hard before each class to put all we need to know for a particular topic into 15 minutes of teaching time. Because we had such a sweet deal with him, we always paid rapt attention for the first 15 minutes. The other 45 minutes, well, we spent talking. Either gossiping with each other (he never minded) or taking part in his interesting, offbeat discussions.

I decided to teach my child this way. She had to learn benzene in class today. but here is what I was preparing at home for us to have fun with.

Step 1: Getting excited about C6H6

What’s so special about benzene? Its structure, of course. Try drawing C6H6, taking into consideration the covalence of C and H. What did you get? Scientists couldn’t figure out what it looked like for a long time. Codswallop about dreams of snakes swallowing each other’s tails and 6 monkeys holding hands. Finally, it was proved by looking at the bond lengths and Delta H.


Step 2: So what?

Its shape gives it its special properties. It does not undergo addition, but substitution happens quite a lot. Aspirin, paracetomol, solvents. They are all benzene-based. Sorry dear child, you have to memorise the key reactions, but I have summarised the key points for you. It’s not too bad if you print this out and stick it on your wall. Look at it before you fall asleep at night instead of your boyfriend’s photograph.


Step 3: Let the fun begin!

In my book, Catching Infinity, I wrote that exciting things happen at the boundaries. That’s why daredevils leap off tall buildings and biplanes. But we can do the same sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes IF we allow our brains to leap into the unknown. Real education after all is about exploring and thinking the improbable, rather than memorising. So I put this to my child: think about the extraordinary properties of benzene because of its delocalised pz electron cloud. Now think about superfluids. Can benzene possibly be a candidate for superfluids? And imagine what a world with a benzene-like spacetime feel like? Would it be like Alice In Wonderland’s treacle world?


Yes, I was wrong to criticise the International Baccalaureate syllabus. After all, she goes to school to learn the rudiments to pass exams. It is up to me, her parent, to teach her about excitement and the boundless possibilities, and I am loving the journey.

Mummy Army Rules!

When I was young, we had a collection of books called The Encyclopedia Britannica. I still remember the thick, leather-bound books that sat in the study in my parents’ house like stout pillars of knowledge. They contained everything in the universe that you could ever wish to know.

Now, the company is out of business.

Wikipedia is here. Hold up your hand if you use Wikipedia. I certainly do. I love it because it is the work of millions of people. Yes, we all contribute to this huge, living and growing Fact-Tree. No wonder Encyclopedia Britannica went out of business. There was no way expensive static books could compete with free, ever-growing tree of knowledge.

Wikipedia is the ultimate in collaboration. And collaboration is in the human spirit at its purest form. We want to reach out and pull each other up, it is natural.

Yesterday was the day I gave away free downloads of my parenting book. I did lots of preparation beforehand, from making video tutorials on how to download Kindle to where to find the book, but there was no foreseeing all the issues that will arise on the actual day. There were 639 questions coming in fast and furious, ranging from the highly technical to the “What is Kindle?” and “How do I find the Kindle Store button?”

If it had been a conventional business, I would have had to set up a call centre or annoy a lot of customers. But in this wonderful community that I have established through my tireless blogging and Facebook-ing, an army of mummies (my so-called Mummy Army) marched out in their numbers to help each other. They were patiently explaining the steps to each other, they were troubleshooting and posting screen shots, sharing and joking with each other like old friends. Something very beautiful was happening in our cyber world yesterday. I wish I could bottle the essence.

I was exhausted, jubilant and humbled at the end of the long day. And filled with ever so much gratitude for the beautiful spirit of collaboration I had witnessed. My daughter Georgina, the subject of my parenting book, was doing her exams all day – I would love for her to have been here to experience the beautiful solidarity and power of working together to realise a mutual goal. I believe it is a very important lesson to for children to learn. Collaboration is the lifeblood of many successful ventures. My son went to Royal Naval College Dartmouth and I believe he was taught that. I learned it sitting in my office which is a beach shack, courtesy of my Facebook friends and fellow bloggers.

Yesterday, we pulled off something amazing. My book got to #3 on Kindle Store in the parenting genre. Here’s a big thank you to my Mummy Army.

A day at the office

I spent six years at two top universities in the UK (Manchester and Oxford) but my workplace these days is a beach shack on Phuket island with superb internet connection. My poor parents. But hey, welcome to the new world.

4th of May was not a typical office day. It was the day that my second parenting book, Easy Parenting For All Ages was made available for free download on Kindle. It all started in 2012. I wrote a parenting book called Barefoot In The City. It sold 5,000 copies in the traditional hard copy format and went down the route of conventional books with a book launch party (in the rainforest), book signings and book events. It became a much-loved book because I had successfully built a community around the Barefoot philosophy. The community is still going strong on Facebook and my blogs. In a sense, the followers had become real friends.

Four years down the road and the subject of the book, my youngest daughter Georgina, was about to turn 16. She said some scary, truthful things such as “You can’t stop teenagers doing what they want. We can always find a way if we want to.”

Fortunately for us, she does not want to party, do drugs, get high, sleep around….despite living in the party town of Patong. She wants to study, play football and occasionally eat junk food and veg out with Gray’s Anatomy. So I decided to write an updated version of Barefoot In The City. Georgina’s father thinks it is very easy to parent her (really?), so I decided to call the updated book Easy Parenting For All Ages. Yes, it has his perspectives too.


I did well financially out of Barefoot In The City but Georgina strongly suggested that the new book be released on Kindle. “Think about the trees and the ink, Mum!” Since when has she become an eco-warrior, or does she know something I don’t?

But I have to live by my parenting creed, which is allowing teenagers to take the lead. So dinosaur, un-techie mummy ventured into the world of Kindle, foolhardy and optimistic. Can’t be that difficult, right? Right? After all, I paid for a professional book interior designer to sort the techie stuff out.

I decided to give Barefoot In The City free with Easy Parenting For All Ages. At a measly $3.99 for both books, I should hopefully recoup what I paid my decorator. Er, I mean interior designer. Note: I didn’t want to charge more because it is a learning experience for me and in case it turned out to be a bad job. I just wanted to recoup the costs.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 14.05.23.png


I never went to one but I don’t suppose these were mentioned in MBA classes. Here they are, for what they are worth:

You can never be 100% prepared.

However much prep you do beforehand, there will be issues on the day. Easy Parenting was launched on 30th April, Georgina’s 16th birthday, with a list price of U$3.99. The Free Book Day was scheduled for 4th of May:

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.40.36

I made a YouTube video and prepped followers on how to download the free Kindle app, where to find the book, etc.

Don’t assume

Global business does not mean global integration. Surprise, surprise, Kindle downloads based in Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk is not available for download in Asia. I cursed. Because despite all the checkboxes I ticked (WORLDWIDE), it seems that Asia is not part of the world in Amazon-speak.

You must learn to troubleshoot

On the morning of 4th of May, my messaging service, email account and Twitter were full with messages. All saying the same thing: CAN’T DOWNLOAD.

I knew I would be answering at least a hundred of these, so still in my pyjamas, I made another YouTube video. “Good morning, folks. It’s still very early. It’s still the 3rd of May in USA so please wait for Amazon US to wake up before you can get your free copy.”

Not that simple. There is no one solution for all. “I cannot see it on my iPhone”, “I can’t find your book on Amazon”, “Why do I have to pay $3.99?”

And therein lies the two most important lessons learned:

It’s the people that matters

Out of nowhere, the small army of tech-savvy mums began answering the “How do I switch on my computer” questions. They took screenshots, they advised, they encouraged. I was completely blown away, because as a one-woman-show, I could hardly keep up with the questions hitting me every few seconds. I din’t even have the time to pee because if I moved away from my laptop, there would be 30 messages on cue. Yes, at the end of the day, it is the people that matters. The teamwork. The human factor. Sod the book.

You must care about what you are doing

I made it a point to answer every question. Apart from Amazon, I cursed my daughter. She is incommunicado due to football practice and Biology exam. At one stage, I almost phoned the school to drag her out of the exam room to answer the “I can’t find your book on Amazon” questions.

Finally, the sun is setting and my day is coming to a close. And this is the grand total I have earned today, from the few generous who took pity on me and paid for the book that they could have downloaded for free.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 15.31.05

I am happy, because you can buy a lot of beer for that in Thailand. Now let’s just hope folks leave cheery reviews for me to wake up to tomorrow and no “I can’t download!” messages. Good evening, All. x

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 17.15.20.png

Towards Heart-Centred Capitalism

One of the most common regrets of parents in the developed world is the lack of time to spend with their children when the children were growing up. For these precious childhood years, when gone, are gone forever. You would have missed the most magical part of your children’s lives. And yours, too.

Yet not all parents who would like to spend the whole day baking or reading with their offspring are able to do so, because economics drives at least one parent out of the door into the world of work. If one chooses to live in an expensive city such as London, the household often requires two working parents to keep it afloat financially.

I would like to write a little piece on heart-centred capitalism. I am not trained in classical economics, though in my varied career, I once worked for an investment bank where I managed over U$800milion in equities for institutional clients. I, the scientist/medic, ended up working in an investment bank because I needed to pay the mortgage on my Knightsbridge flat. It cost me dear.

It led me to think, maybe economics in the capitalism-as-we-know-it framework does not work?

Many men – and I am being sexist here – work for big corporations. The so-called multinationals, which are often as large as a small country, proudly trumpeting their global reach as well as their ability to understand the local markets. But do these conglomerates practice what they preach when it comes to their employees, or are they proletarian in nature? In the olden days, these powerful large companies use their considerable assets to look after their employees, providing loyal staff with cradle-to-grave job security. The company was like one big, happy and close family where members look after each other.

I do not think that mentality exists now. The world is more dog-eat-dog, more competitive, and the job market is more fluid. Technology has changed a lot of things. Big structures have found to be unwieldy and unsteady, as the former Soviet Union proved, and as the current precarious state of the European Union shows. The economic crisis of 2008 was yet another indication that we have to rethink our current framework. I do not think global economy has fully recovered from 2008, and we are bearing the pain through a rising pension age for the workforce, privatisation of education and healthcare, and a huge burden of debt for many ordinary young people. For me, this smacks of a return to slave capitalism that predates industrial capitalism.

But if you look beneath the surface, you will find a thriving alternative economy based on collectivism and solidarity. If you are a parent, you would be familiar with carpooling. You would be familiar too, with babysitting arrangements with other parents. You might even do group-buys. Expand that into the world of work, and you get Wikipedia, which has $3billion in revenues, which put the encyclopedia business out of existence, which was built solely on collectivism. In 2006, Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. He developed Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank lends to those that commercial lenders would not touch: the bank is founded on the belief that people have endless potential, and unleashing their creativity and initiative helps them end poverty. And despite never ever having any legal agreements with those whom it lends money to, there have been very few defaulters. Contrast that with the now defunct Lehman Brothers. We are still paying back Lehman’s fallout one way or another.

Isn’t it about time we rethink capitalism? Do we live to work until we are 70 years old, merely to buy the things that we do not need or a lifestyle that we do not want?

I am hoping to persuade my partner that after over a decade of serving as a loyal servant in the corporate world that he should step out of it and into this wonderful place with me where we will live on fresh air, sunshine and love. This is the time to abandon the sinking ship of slave capitalism and dissolve the punishing market forces to create a paradigm of parallel currencies, cooperatives, non-market products and shared resources of heart-centred capitalism. We will live well, and with meaning.

Six ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget

As the summer months edge into September, I cannot help but feel a tinge of regret. I always do, because summers had always been magical for me ever since my children were born. We were financially not well-off in those days, given that I was a University student and my children’s young father did not have a highly paid job. But we had something infinitely more precious than cold hard cash, and that was time plus the mindset to enjoy that time with our children. OK, I must confess here that in the beginning, we used to fight over this: I would rather we worked during the summer months to ease our tight financial situation, but he resolutely would not work at all from July to September. Oh, how we fought over our ideals, but I am glad he won hands down in this instance, because we have had close to 30 magical summers in our lifetime together.

Here are our trialled and tested ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget:

  1. Home exchange

This sounds unbelievable, but we exchanged our humble council house in a rough estate in Manchester with a couple from Italy who wanted two weeks of ‘hard culture and party’. Welcome to the Barlow Hall estate, folks, where most of our unemployed neighbours stayed up late drinking cheap beer and watching football on television (you could hear the swearing though the thin walls). The couple from Italy was quite tight-lipped about what they had to offer (they posted photographs that gave very little clues), but we thought we had nothing to lose anyway because no house could be crappier than ours. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at a small palazzo in Venice. Apart from the stress of our children wrecking priceless carpets and falling into the canal, I must say it was one heck of a fabulous summer.

Websites for home exchange:



  1. Camping

Over the years, I have visited some really amazing places, but when it comes to sheer magic, nothing could ever beat waking up in a tent in the morning, stepping outside and seeing hundreds of wild New Forest ponies streaming past within feet of me. My children were completely blown away.

Thus, investing in a tent was the best investment we ever made. If you are a camping newbie, you could try ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) or camp in specialised campsites where you could find help on hand, running water and loo.

Though for me, nothing beats hitting the road with the children in the backseat of our old Land Rover, pitching up our tent wherever fancy took us. We camped in a cornfield in Luxembourg one summer (which must surely be the weirdest place ever) and had such a beautiful time in the fields of gold, feasting on corn, making corn dollies and going on long walks. Sometimes we ventured into the town for showers, to buy provisions and visit the sights. We waited every morning for the farmer to evict us, but he never came. We left a bottle of wine and a heartfelt Thank You note thanking him for one of the most magical holidays we have ever had.

  1. Visit hospitable friends

My eternal gratitude always to my dear friend Ruedi Achermann who very kindly loaned us his sumptuous apartment in front of the Rhine when we couldn’t afford holiday lets. We would chug to Basel on our trusty old beast of a Land Rover and live like lords for weeks on end. Look earnestly into your address book – you will have friends like Ruedi Achermann somewhere in there.

  1. Pack up with similar friends

Exploit economies of scale. Go on holiday with like-minded friends with children of the same age group. Not only do the children entertain themselves, adults can trade babysitting duties too.

  1. Collect coupons

We painstakingly collected coupons from The Times for free ferry crossing to France in low-season February, sailed to France for Valentine’s Day and made our magical third daughter there, all on a shoestring budget.

  1. Work for your board

My daughter’s martial arts coach from the UK will be running a three-month martial arts training camp on the beautiful tropical paradise Phuket. His wife and daughter will be accompanying him for this experience of a lifetime. And you guess it, free board and lodging for the whole family, an opportunity to visit somewhere amazing and start something …. all on a shoestring (airfares covered as part of the deal).

An evocative article on autumn: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3220331/Crackling-bonfires-new-books-school-Yes-end-summer-saddest-time-year-adore-it.html

Across The Counties


Yesterday was officially the end of the British summer as the cold front came in with vengeance. Fierce storms, 70mph winds and driving rain were the forecast, and indeed, when I went out for dinner last night, the roads were relatively quiet as people opted to stay indoors. The forecast this morning was meant to be the same.

Overnight, there had been several fatalities on the road in southern England. This morning, at 6am, there was a massive accident on the M4 at Langley. There was a tailback going back 10 miles.

But over dinner last night, Knight had dared me to do something I have never done before: swim on the River Avon with him.  I have never swam on the Avon with anyone.  What a ridiculous suggestion. Because at the best of times, I hate swimming.  I am a strong swimmer based solely on this very dislike of the water – I swim fast, to get myself out of the water as fast as possible.  But to voluntarily swim on the swollen Avon on the first day of autumn? I must be mad.  Even my normally implacable mother had wailed, “But darling, people have drowned on the Avon!”

But meet Knight’s challenge I must.  After all, isn’t growth all about coming face to face with your inner boundaries, and stepping out of your comfort zone? it’s what keeps us young, as we draw new confidence and new exhilaration from taking the step off our usual daily existence.

So like two misbehaving teenagers, we set off from London at the crack of dawn on this supposedly vicious day to travel to Avon. To our surprise, the sun followed us throughout, with no sign of grey skies or dark clouds, as we drove past the roads of our past. We laughed joyously, and the years melted away.

Whilst at University (though at separate times) we were both members of the Oxford Stunt Factory. I joined, simply because I wanted to go to its Pink Pimms Party in the park after the May Ball. I ended up being catapulted across the river at 3am in the morning, still in my ball gown. After that, I was hooked and became the Club’s fixture.

River Avon is rich in history.  It is 75miles long, slow, meandering, with hidden dangers.  In the past (maybe 5,000BC), when it was young, it was a powerful torrent that the limestone outcrop could not push back. The river gradually wore away at the rock eventually forming the 300 feet deep gorge that is the seaward entrance to the city.

And it was into this river we jumped in, swam briefly, emerged with shivering bodies and chattering teeth, exhilarated, alive.

Warning: Do not attempt this. In April 2014, a man drowned on the same spot on the Avon that we swam in. 



Same view, different eyes

A year after I graduated from Oxford, my family remained in our Oxford house whilst I started work in London. I had to commute. It was a nightmare, but there was no way out. Housing in London (where I wanted to live) has always been exorbitantly expensive, and I was the main breadwinner. We also had lots of children.  So. for almost a year, I had to endure the long commute.  I could not afford to commute by train, because a huge chunk of my salary would have gone to British Rail. The bus would have been too slow. I had no choice but to bike it. My machine was a Ducati Monster, which was a thrill to ride buy quite unreliable.  And it was hellish on winter nights. I just wanted to rush home either to put my kids to bed or to have breakfast with them, depending on my shift.  Life wasn’t easy then.

Thus, I travelled on these roads for over a year without noticing how beautiful they are.  Today, I did.

Avon 2


The strength of a nation

Avon 1

Avon and Somerset, Oxfordshire and London. We set off at 6am, and caught the morning sun burning the mists off the grounds in Oxfordshire. We both have great fondness for this county, because Oxford is our alma mater. We had a lot of lovely memories here, punting on the Isis and Cherwell in summer, pubs of St Giles in winter, the higgledy piggledy bookshop on St Giles, friends’ houses in Jericho and summer parties on our colleges’ quads. It was a magical interlude before ‘real’ life began.

We drove on, passing rolling farmlands and pastures, fields ready for winter cereal or those with tall corn already growing. We drove past deer, horses, cows and sheep. The leaves are starting to turn auburn and gold at this time of the year. It is this that deeply binds Englishmen and Englishwomen to our country rather than the glitter and opportunities of the capital. I hope my son will return after his 6 month tour of duty of the Middle East back to his beloved England once more. He promised me he would do his best to come home, and to bring others safely home too. We have one Englishman whose time is running out, a John Cantlie. My son said, it is worth the sacrifice of his own life and others like him to bring John Cantlie home, because all the British men and women involved had gone into this voluntarily, with their eyes wide open, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“We will never leave one of our own behind, Mum,” my 25 year old Lieutenant said. “It’s not machismo, but a simple ideology.”

My boy is young, passionate, idealistic, fiery and so proud to be English. Someday, he will make a fine leader. But as his mother, I just want him home where he belongs. Here, in England.

Knight touched my hand lightly as we drove into the capital at nightfall. We had driven in silence for the last few miles and I had tears running down my cheeks.

“What I said in my speech just now, though I misquoted slightly, is something you have shown me,” he said. “That you can judge the strength of a nation by the face of its women.”

And through my tears, I smiled for him and my son.