As well as writing books and short stories, I also do non-fiction pieces - bits of observation on whatever is currently relevant. They're usually needed at short notice but that's fine - I'm keen on displacement activity and anything that provides a short break from the work-in-progress is welcome, especially if it still counts as 'work'. So if you happen to be a magazine editor in urgent need of a new (or guest) columnist, I'd like to be up for an audition please. The two items that follow were originally published in The Times.


Study leave: if ever there was an oxymoron, this is it. A nation of examination candidates has effectively packed up school, signed each other's uniforms in silly-string and been sent home to revise.

What an opportunity for self-organised, down-to-it hard work. I can just imagine the party in the staff room. It is matched by the parties held by pupils, who, if they know nothing else about maths, have long since worked out that the word Leave = Time Off.

I have had two teenage exam-takers in my time. I know that if History Paper One does not start till 2.30pm, there will be no need for the duvet to shift before lunchtime. I worked from home while mine were at school and was envied by other parents for being on site to gee up my offsprings' revision efforts. Through bloody-minded persistence, a home parent can make sure the bed is vacated at a respectable hour. But there follows the longest time a teenager ever spent in the shower, several morale-boosting phone calls to friends (which do not include the words "revision" or "work"), constant texting, breakfast (we're at midday now), a feverish hunt for missing biology notes (lent to Sam), frantic drive to said Sam's, break for Loose Women ("Mum, we've been told to take some time off...") and so on.

Parents marooned in distant workplaces have only the phone with which to nag and plead. A QC friend adjourned an entire trial just to sneak out to the robing room where she paced the floor with a mobile, hissing: "Jemima, will you please just get up." Corporate AGMs in vast conference centres are interrupted by offspring demanding the whereabouts of the Marmite and asking if they can borrow a fiver till Tuesday.

If you phone home mid-afternoon, they will not hear because of mega-loud iPod/ear connection or they'll be out, ("Gone to Jake's, quadratic equations") from which they'll return late, looking shifty and smelling heavily of cigarettes. When they have actually stayed in, "slaving" over maths papers, the fridge will be stripped. There will be 17 drinks cans lying around and an assortment of huge, sprawling friends languidly playing computer games.

Come evening, a diligent parent may try to pull the traditional, "No you can't go out, it's only two days till physics." The teenager will sullenly clear dishes from the table and make a clumsy attempt at washing them. There will be deep, pitiful sighs that neighbours three streets away can hear and an unusually generous offer to take the dog for a walk, claiming "I need some air...". It is naïve and foolish to accept this offer. The dog will be taken to a steamy club and either tethered for safekeeping to a parked car or admitted to the premises from which it will come home drunk and be sick on the stairs.

As the exams start, support from the whole family will be demanded. A wan face bent (at last) over a heap of books is irresistible when it feebly requests a cup of tea. "How many sugars?" you ask tenderly only to get a roared, "WHAT?" because you can't be heard above whatever's pounding through those iPod buds.

Exams over, parents revert to their traditional function of providing food, shelter, transport and cash. Then, towards mid-August the nation's exam-takers, just like turtles responding to the moon's call to the beach, suddenly become strangely sweet, thoughtful, helpful and loving. This is called insurance; otherwise known as Love Me, Love My Results.

Good luck to all candidates - and my sincere sympathy to their families.


I sit in my car, queuing to fill up with petrol. The garage is busy; each pump has a long line of cars waiting. Ahead of me is a Previa with three children strapped into it and beyond that is a VW Beetle from which I can hear some pounding drum'n'bass. Neither driver is in their car. No drivers of any cars alongside the pumps are in sight. They have all filled their tanks and gone to pay, leaving the pumps unused but inaccessible to the rest of us because the nozzles, unfortunately, are not on hundred-metre hoses.

They have been gone, like Captain Oates, for some time. I will give them a few more minutes before starting to drum my fingers on the steering wheel, before steaming the windows with the breath of fury. For how long can it take just to hand over payment for goods already loaded?

Ages and ages, that's how long. Even tiny petrol stations are now microcosmic supermarkets in which all sense of time and good manners is lost. The drivers ahead of me are inside the shop, not paying but purchasing. I see the Beetle girl leaning against a magazine rack, flicking through OK! Beside her is the shop's microwave oven in which she has placed a pie to heat up. Another customer idly stirs a teabag in a polystyrene cup.

Browsers take their time picking through the crisps and sandwiches. They fill wire baskets with loaves and lettuces, milk and Marmite, perhaps a bunch of carnations for the beloved and some condoms just in case. Outside, potential barbecuers slowly consider the merits of charcoal briquettes over lumpwood and stop to read all the newspaper headlines.

The self-service petrol station was, long ago, supposed to be one of life's major improvements. How much more slick and speedy it was to fill your own tank and dash into a bright warm kiosk for a fast handover of cash than to wait for one overworked but under-stressed attendant to amble between the pumps and the till in his dank, dark shed of an office, slowly counting out change and grudgingly offering an oil-check. Back in those dark ages you could only buy petrol, oil and possibly car-shampoo if you were lucky, not groceries, cuddly toys, greetings cards or gift-wrap. No-one paid by credit card. No-one required a VAT receipt with "Only the petrol on please, not the crisps and sweets. I'll pay for those in cash, oh sorry, you've rung it up. I should have said..."

The Previa driver (whose children's fists are raised and thumping) has trawled his way round the shelves and is seventh in line to pay. There is one girl working the till, a sleepy teenager with 12 earrings and a love bite the shape of Australia. She taps the till as fast as her underpaid fingers can go. She also has to work the Lottery outlet and explain the difference between the gold and platinum car-wash options. There should be two people on but it's lunchtime and the other one's, well, gone for lunch.

At last Beetle girl emerges, climbs into her car and arranges her purchases on the seat beside her. For several minutes she battles with a tricky bottle top, then swigs down some juice. Only when she's popped in the chewing gum and applied some more lipstick does she switch on the engine and drive away.

Meanwhile Previa Man has returned to his car with three ice-creams which have to be unwrapped and allocated to the fraught children. There is a squabble over the chocolate mint one and he turns to speak to them firmly but patiently. Pacifying over, he puts on his seat belt, adjusting it with great care as if it is a new, unfamiliar thing and at last drives off.

My turn: I leap out of my car, fling the hose into the socket and curse as it splutters and chokes. When the tank is full I race into the shop and stand toe-tapping at the back of the queue. Then I spy about twelve varieties of mints and I begin to ponder: chewy or crunchy, spearmint or peppermint, Imperials, Polos, Extra-Strong or Everton...