Book Review: Vinny’s Wilderness

vinny's wilderness

Vinny’s Wilderness, by Janet Shepperson, explores the lasting impact of school exams, especially on those deemed failures at a young age. Set in Belfast, where the continuing prevalence of grammar schools requires that ten year olds are groomed to sit selection tests in order to gain entry to the ‘good’ schools, it introduces us to two very different families.

Vinny is a single mother, a divorced teacher raising her daughter in the least sectarian area of the city she can afford. Alex is a stay at home mum of three, the wife of a wealthy doctor living in a large property off the moneyed Malone Road. She employs Vinny to tutor her youngest child for the transfer test, still commonly called the eleven plus, as he is struggling to grasp the concepts required to gain the sought after A/B grade.

Vinny’s home is small and untidy, her garden wild and overgrown, a haven for children’s play and imagination. She has taken on the tutoring to raise money to take her daughter, Roisin, on a summer holiday. Roisin is on the cusp of adolescence, an intelligent child who will not have to sit the transfer test as she is to attend one of the few integrated schools which cater for all abilities as well as both sides of the sectarian divide.

Alex’s home is as perfectly toned and groomed as its mistress. Both have featured in the glossy Interiors magazines that grace a polished coffee table. The glazed sun room is devoid of a single fingerprint, smudge or blemish. Even the garden is manicured to within an inch of its life. Alex’s elder two children are heading towards the successful careers expected in such a family. Her younger son, Denzil, is the anomaly, a dreamy child who relishes creativity and the great outdoors. His father blames Alex for what he regards as his son’s failings, pointing out that she attained a mere C in her eleven plus.

In a society where each person’s perceived intelligence may be judged by the school they attended from age eleven, exams take on a stratospheric importance to aspirational parents. Alex may have attended the school for those expected to be failures in life but she subsequently reinvented herself as a supportive, trophy wife, essential to the smooth management of her accomplished husband’s immaculate home. Vinny, who passed her eleven plus and thereby attended a coveted grammar school, became a teacher but was apparently less successful when it came to her personal life.

Vinny has, however, been happier since her divorce. She is now able to relax in a home that welcomes her children’s friends, never worrying about muddy footprints, creative mess, or the timing, style and contents of an evening meal. In contrast Alex appears brittle and on edge as she scurries too and fro trying to fit her home and children into her husband’s precise mould.

As Alex and Vinny grow closer they learn of each other’s pasts and start to influence their futures. Vinny’s comfortable chaos is threatened, Alex’s ordered life develops cracks.

As a native of Belfast I relished the memories so poignantly evoked. The author has captured the vernacular as well as the attitudes of a place where a portion of the population fights to remain a part of a kingdom whose laws it rejects, while others prioritise wider family over home. I enjoyed the small part played by the German lady whose pithy comments on the education system, and on grown men who spend too much time with their mothers, offered humorous truths to be pondered.

This is a tale of friendship, motherhood, and the importance of substance in a life judged by wrappings. It invites the reader to reflect on the weight given to homogenisation in education, leading to the segregation of those who do not fit and subsequent outcomes that affect all. It is a reminder that intelligence, academic and emotional, is more than providing prescribed answers in a child’s test.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.

Random musings from a history course

Yesterday I completed the third on line course that I have studied through FutureLearn, six weeks of finding out more about England in the time of King Richard III. The main lesson that hit home was how many aspects are recognisable and relevant today. To quote Hegel: “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

Prior to the 14th century, peasants in England were tied to a landlord through tenancy agreements that required them to maintain their dwelling and work both the land that they rented and common land. Starting at the beginning of the 14th century a series of crises, including poor harvests, murrains and famines, resulted in population stagnation and economic decline. This trend, clearly established in the early 14th century, was dramatically accelerated by the arrival of the Black Death in 1348-9. The most recent studies set the overall mortality figure as high as 50% of the population. Plague returned in the 1360s, and population remained low throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

The great mortality of the 14th century resulted in increased demand for labour in both town and country, and a corresponding rise in wages. The government of the time made strong attempts to control this and acts were passed that tried to curb the process. Records of transgressions reveal the strategies used by the workforce to improve their situation. It is clear, for example, that workers were now resisting attempts to make them stay in the same place, or enter into contracts that committed them to fixed wages for extended periods; mobility offered much greater opportunity for improved pay, and net mobility seems to have been in favour of the towns. Peasants were clearly abandoning the ties that held them to a perpetual subservient relationship.

The wealthy often strive to depress wages for the workers they rely on for their wealth. In Britain today we have a situation where the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and successive governments are doing all that they can to maintain this. Those who wish to find a job are often required to work unwaged in order to receive the safety net of benefits which ward off starvation and homelessness. The benefits system retains a series of sanctions that force compliance; payments are withdrawn if meetings are missed or if a recipient is not deemed to be trying hard enough to abide by the rules, however nonsensical they may be. Numerous deaths have been reported amongst those who have had benefits withdrawn, the stress and hardship of the withdrawal being cited as a factor in their demise.

Even amongst the more affluent, work experience placements and internships are now a common means of gaining contacts in order to secure future employment. These can be tricky to organise, often requiring the exploitation of familial associations only available to a few. With higher education costed to ensure that it may only be afforded by the rich, or those willing to accept the lengthy restrictions of a huge debt, certain jobs have been put beyond the reach of the new peasantry.

The middle ages saw a period of improvement in the lives of the poorest which the wealthy resisted. Alongside this improvement came innovation, for example the introduction of the printing press which enabled the production of affordable books (yay!). Alongside  increased mobility, information could be disseminated more easily. With the decrease in subjugation the masses were not so easy to control, a situation which those in power feared as it threatened to disturb their own, comfortable and established lifestyles.

I am not suggesting that modern Britain is returning to the conditions of the middle ages, but I find it interesting to note the parallels. Throughout history periods of economic growth have benefited all in society with innovation and improvements in living standards, yet the powerful continue to feel threatened by such changes. Ever eager to protect their own positions they put in place barriers and controls, suppressing those who they deem lazy or undeserving, promoting only those they recognise, who agree with their personal point of view.

On a lighter note, another parallel that I noted between 14th century England and the present day was to do with food. As peasants moved to the towns to find work, landowners could no longer find or afford enough labour to work the land in the old ways. This led to an increase in keeping livestock. Broader affluence alongside changes in supply resulted in the poorer classes eating more meat, a commodity previously beyond their means. As peasants regularly placed beef, pork and mutton on their tables, the wealthy looked to differentiate their meals in other ways. Consumption of, for example, birds that were hard to catch became popular amongst the gentry looking to impress their acquaintances. Hunting was restricted and poaching policed to ensure that only the wealthy had access to certain, elite foodstuffs.

This desire to eat exotic meals that were not available to the masses reminded me of the food fads that exist today. Certain TV chefs love to promote innovation, eating combinations of ingredients that would not previously have been known about or considered. Previously unheard of ingredients become popular, fading away when too many people start to use them as standard. Quinoa anyone?

peasantfood

 

Influencing teenagers

displine_cartoon4

One of the challenges of parenting teenagers is knowing when to speak and when to back off. I have raised my three to ask questions and to think for themselves, to follow the path that they consider right even if others are insisting that they should be going another way. I have hammered home the message that there are many sides to any argument and that they should seek out why others hold an opinion before forming one themselves. I want my children to become adults capable of critical thinking.

Other adults in their lives have not always appreciated the rough edges resulting from this upbringing. Learning to debate cogently and persuasively is a tough skill to master, and some adults do not welcome having their opinions dissected by someone they consider to be lacking in knowledge and experience. To them I would say, learning has to start somewhere. If my children appear brusque then do not dismiss them as rude and irrelevant, teach them by responding to their points calmly and clearly.

We have had a number of fairly heated discussions around the dinner table recently; my elder two children have developed strong views, some of which I do not always agree with. In many ways this is gratifying as it demonstrates that they have learned well. In other ways though it worries me. Some of the views that they hold appear to be at odds with my own core beliefs. It has made me look at our family values, especially the conflicts between what I hold as important and my husband’s views. Obviously my children have been listening to both of us throughout their lives.

Politically I would put my husband to the right of me. He would counter that notions of right and left no longer apply. He is very much against state intervention. I would argue that this is an ideal; in practice the state should be investing in its future (educating young people) and taking adequate care of its most vulnerable (the poor and the sick). We both despise the current political elite and feel strong resentment at how they choose to spend the huge amounts of money forcefully removed from us in the form of complex taxes.

As no political party adequately represents either of us, elections are always times of soul searching as we decide which of the charlatans standing will receive our votes. We always vote.

Our children have soaked in our views alongside those they have picked up elsewhere. When I disagree with their stated opinions I try to discuss calmly, despite finding it hard at times to accept that I have raised young people who think this way. I recognise the irony of my discomfort, I have brought this situation on myself.

Politics is messy, views differ widely, and no individual has much power over what happens anyway. Perhaps I could have shaken off my concerns had it not been for two other incidents that happened in the same week as our most recent elections, which gave rise to these initial debates.

The first to grab my attention was the reported changes to the English Literature curriculum and the suggestion by exam boards that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had forced these through due to his personal preferences. I was livid at yet another damaging intervention by this odious little man. Whilst not quite standing up for him, my husband did not condemn his actions, claiming that studying any book for an exam will strip the enjoyment away anyway. He appeared to miss the point I was trying to make entirely. I am aware that I am not always good at stating my key point clearly and concisely.

Whilst I was still raging over yet another assault on teachers’ ability to educate, and the narrowing of students’ exposure to diverse literature, another news item demanded my attention. Elliot Rodger became the latest in a long line of American serial killers, and the documents he left behind suggested that he was driven by a hatred of beautiful women because they would not have sex with him. An on line society was mentioned that appears to promote a belief that men are entitled to sex. Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but I had no idea that such extreme and damaging views could lawfully be promoted in a supposedly civilised country.

And then, with all of this swirling around in my head, I started to see the twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen appear on my feed.

I am all too aware that women live their daily lives with problems that a large number of men just don’t seem to get. I am just one of these women, and the Everyday Sexism project has been highlighting the issue for some time. This though is the nub of my problem today. I feel that I need to have another conversation with my children, yet feel ground down by the disparate opinions that we have already recently aired. How do I get my sons to see that this is a significant problem that they should be considering, and not just mum going off on yet another of her rants?

Nobody ever said that parenting was easy. Reading back over all that I have just written I realise that I am trying to cover some pretty hefty issues. They need to be covered, but it will take time. I guess I am just aware that so much is currently being discussed in the media making it a good time to be talking about it as a family. My kids can go read other’s opinions, critically examine the plethora of views, and then come back and discuss the conclusions they have reached.

Is it bad that I am worried about what my husband will contribute to the family discussion? I suspect this shows me up as being less open and accepting than I sometimes like to claim. I know that he often amuses himself by winding me up, by attempting to tie my arguments in knots with his ability to remember little details that can appear to erode my opinions. He is cleverer than I, but this does not necessarily make him right. It can be harder for me to accept that I will not always be right either.

 

 

Perfection Pending
I am linking this in with Perfection Pending‘s weekly parenting blog hop. I hope that all the witty, perceptive bloggers who share tales of their experiences raising young kids don’t mind me adding my perhaps overly serious ruminations on parenting teenagers. I sometimes read back over what I write and think I should lighten up a bit. Maybe one day I will learn how to do that. xx 

Mr Gove needs to read more books

It started with Ladybird books, which looked so pleasing to the eye lined up neatly on the bookshelf above my small toybox. I knew each of their stories by heart. My avid reading, however, was inspired by Enid Blyton. My father, the educated reader I looked up to and wished to emulate in so many areas of life, did not seem to approve of Enid Blyton. He did approve of me reading; I was never denied my choice of books.

I expanded my interest to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan Coolidge, Ruby Ferguson, Helen Dore Boylston. I lapped up CS Forester, Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. I discovered the small library near to my primary school and devoured anything and everything that I could find in their childrens section. I immersed myself in new worlds and dreamed of being anyone other than who I was.

When I moved on to Grammar School I needed my books more than ever. I discovered Tolkien, but also a slew of writers of popular fiction; best selling thrillers that were easy to read and romances that fed my burgeoning, dreamy desires. Once again my family showed some disapproval of my choice of reading material, but did not interfere. I frequented the book sections of charity shops and read voraciously.

By the time ‘O’ levels were on the horizon I was a true lover of books. I had opinions that I had no difficulty expressing in essays, a growing vocabulary. I enjoyed English literature, but not the school lessons or the set texts that we were required to dissect and analyse. I preferred Wilfred Owen to Wordsworth; struggled to memorise ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by dull, old Shakespeare; found Dickens ridiculous with his over the top characters; disliked the foolish women of Cranford who never seemed to do anything. When my sister, who was studying for English ‘A’ level, showed me Chaucer I determined to give up the subject when I could.

I did not give up on books though. Alongside my favoured modern writers I read Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I discovered George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf. I tried Dickens again but still disliked him. I tried Shakespeare and came to realise that I enjoyed watching his plays but not reading the texts. I have read some of the ancients, Virgil and Plato, but have not yet attempted Chaucer.

I read widely, books by both living and dead authors from countries near and far. I read popular fiction alongside the more obscure titles that I make efforts to seek out. I still know little that can beat a quiet afternoon spent immersing myself in a well written, fictional world.

I was lucky. I grew up in a house filled with books amongst a family of readers. Not every child has that advantage.

The current Education Secretary, Mr Gove, wishes to raise standards of education in British schools. Following a review of the GCSE English Literature curriculum, the set text list is to be revised to ensure that more British authors are studied. The new GCSE course content will include at least one play by William Shakespeare, a selection of work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama. About three-quarters of the books on the list are from the “canon of English literature” and most are pre-20th Century. The Department for Education wishes the exam to be “more focused on tradition”.

Mr Gove studied English at Oxford and is reported to personally dislike Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, which has been dropped by GCSE exam boards along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘The Crucible’. Mr Gove has stated in a speech that he is disappointed when he hears of teenagers reading the Twilight books rather than something like Middlemarch. The message that is coming across is that Mr Gove wishes teenagers to read the sort of books that he has enjoyed rather than those that they may gain pleasure from. The suggestion that books are not to be read for pleasure infuriates me. If we all liked the same sorts of books then the literary world would be a poorer place indeed.

There are so many aspects of this that anger and depress me. Schools are required to teach pupils about tolerance and acceptance, yet will now have more difficulty in presenting them with works of fiction that explore diversity and the impact of inequality. For children who have not grown up in a house full of books, the texts that they will be required to study at school are as likely to turn them off reading as to instil in them a love of literature that could broaden their outlook and aspirations.

Mr Gove is showing a narrowness of imagination, a lack of understanding for what literature can offer and achieve. He is harking back to a bygone era rather than looking at the world which today’s teenagers must inhabit and will one day rule. We need readers and thinkers, not young people who regard books as anachronistic.

I suspect that, given his inability to empathise and understand the potential impact of his policies, he has been reading the wrong sort of books. He needs to diversify his bookshelves, to get inside the heads of some fictional characters who differ from the yes men he surrounds himself with. He needs to learn to listen, to see how much damage the policies he promotes will inflict on the young people whose future he purports to wish to improve. If anyone needs to be educated on the wider benefits of English literature then it is Mr Gove.

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Nepotism

I am not a blogger who plans and prepares ahead. I tend to just type in whatever I am thinking at the time and hit publish. Sometimes I get an idea and want to write about it but don’t have time. I might set up a few prompt lines in a draft and try to come back later to flesh it out. More often than not these unfinished posts end up in trash.

One thing I would like to do more often is write about light hearted things. I don’t think of myself as negative and do not wish to be considered so. Today, however, I am going to cover a topic that is making me feel annoyed, frustrated and despondent. I am going to write about student work experience.

My daughter would very much like to be a doctor, which does of course require that she gain a place at medical school. When she first started talking about this aspiration I thought that the big challenges would be producing a noteworthy personal statement, impressing the university at interview, and gaining outstanding exam results. Whilst all of this is still necessary, and a tough enough challenge for any aspiring medic, it seems that she also needs to have proof of regular work experience in a variety of medical settings prior to applying.

Having obtained good enough GCSE results to keep her dream alive, in September of this year she started writing to local hospitals and doctor’s surgeries about the possibility of them accepting a work experience student. It seems that our home county has very strict data protection rules that preclude such schemes. As most of the recipients of her letters and emails failed to respond it took her some time to find this out.

In October she started writing to hospitals outside of our home county. She was comfortable with the idea of travelling by public transport and staying over in a cheap hotel or B&B for the week or fortnight that she would be working. Between fifty and a hundred missives later she finally got an explanation as to why nobody would take her; she lived out of county. If she could find someone to personally accept her for shadowing then that would be acceptable, but the Trusts would not take on a student from out of county except on this basis.

November has been spent writing to everyone we have ever known who has some link, however tenuous, with the health service. With one exception, who we have still to hear back from, these people do not work directly enough with hospitals to feel able to help. We are running out of ideas. It seems that to become a doctor you need to personally know a doctor. Or not live in Wiltshire.

I have family and friends whose children have won places at medical school. Their kids worked hard to get the exam results, impressed at the tough interviews, and got work experience through family friends or school contacts. They also went to fee paying schools, the sort of schools that doctors send their children to. My daughter attends a state school.

This is why I am annoyed. Nepotism is alive and well and it appears that I do not know the right people; I feel as if I am letting my daughter down. If she failed to gain a place because she didn’t get good enough grades in her exams, or bombed her interview, that would be unfortunate but her call. It seems that getting work experience is down to the parents. Either they somehow find the money to pay for a school that will help with such pupil aspirations, or they make sure they befriend the right people. I have managed neither so it seems that my daughter will struggle to fulfil her dream.

Even our local care home for the elderly has ignored her. I would have thought that a care home would welcome a regular, volunteer helper. I have read so many times about how the elderly are supposedly lonely in these places, yet my daughter’s requests to meet with someone to discuss the possibility of volunteering go unanswered. There are other care home options to explore but I am now wondering if we need an inside contact for that as well.

I have a Facebook friend who is vocal in her belief that writers and other creative types should not work for free. With the proliferation of internet news sites and amateur bloggers who welcome exposure she is finding that, as an experienced journalist, there are outlets who are unwilling to pay her fees. If too many people are willing to work for free then this trend will increase. She believes that content quality will deteriorate and talented, creative people will be exploited.

Last week I noticed that she was raising this issue with a sixteen year old aspiring journalist. The young lad was writing for, what I understand to be, a respected publication. He was working for free and trying to recruit other young people to do the same. Whilst I can sympathise with her argument, I think that in this particular case the young lad was to be applauded. He had managed to get his foot in the door of a competitive industry and was gaining experience. That experience is worth more to him than any pittance that young people can earn. I mean, have you seen the level of the minimum wage for a 16-18 year old?

A lack of work experience may prevent my daughter from even being considered for medical school. No matter how good a doctor she may make, because her parents don’t have the contacts, she may not be able to get that all important proof of interest in her chosen field of study. Sometimes it is not about the money; experience and contacts now seem to be the vital ingredients if a competitive industry is to be entered.

There are way more people wanting to get into medical school than there are places available. No matter how good my daughter may be she will not be missed (although if she ended up in the field of medical research who knows what she may achieve).

At an individual level though, through no fault of her own, she will miss out on attempting to achieve her dream. As her parent, I think this system sucks.

School-of-Clinical-Medicine-University-of-Cambridge    ‘The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.’

Time management

Yesterday my children returned to school and my husband returned to work after the half term break. Despite not doing a great deal of note I enjoyed this holiday. I am in a good place at the moment as regards personal space. I seem to have found a balance that suits me between supporting my family and doing things for myself. I am managing not to allow how I think others expect me to behave to push me in directions that make me feel uncomfortable.

As well as my reading and writing I visited the gym a few times, spent time in the garden with my hens and completed a few of the housework type jobs that demanded my attention loudly enough. I even managed a bit of sewing and baking over the course of the week. I am so not a domestic goddess but there were no disasters. I can reflect on the results of my efforts with some satisfaction.

The holiday ended with the start of NaNoWriMo. It is now Day 5 of this challenge and I am enjoying taking part far more than I expected to. Of course, I enjoy writing or I would not have chosen to sign up. So far though the task has been a real mood lifter. As I watch my word count climb I can feel my spirits rise with it. My family are allowing me the space and time requested and my story is flowing.

Yesterday I also started a distance learning psychology course with the University of Warwick. I spent a very enjoyable few hours completing some interesting and, at times, counter intuitive background reading before taking part in an experiment; my visual reaction times are embarrassingly slow! I then had to complete a short test which seemed to be aimed at ensuring I had understood the concepts discussed; so far so good.

I found the coursework fascinating; there was so much new information to take in and consider. The results of some of the studies discussed made me question a lot of aspects of the way I and many of my friends think. It would appear that we are not nearly as knowledgeable and reasoned as we may like to believe.

By the time I had worked my way through all my usual, mundane chores; cleaning, laundry, dishes, cooking; my day was gone. These personal challenges that I have taken on may be enjoyable and rewarding in themselves, but the issue in completing them seems likely to be finding the time to give them the attention they demand if the standards that I wish to achieve are to be maintained.

I struggle with lengthy goals. I don’t mean things that take years but rather things that take more than a few weeks. When I can see an end to a task I want to reach it as quickly as possible. I find it hard to pace myself and enjoy the journey.

When I was at school I would try to complete homework at the first opportunity after it was set. I found that I couldn’t relax knowing that there was work to be done; I couldn’t enjoy down time with the knowledge that I had tasks that still needed to be completed, even if not immediately.

In my final year at university I took part in a programme that allowed older students to mark first year student’s work. We were given model answers and a dozen or so papers each and would spend a few hours going through each submission, adding helpful comments and awarding marks. Most students completed this task over a week or so. I would try to sit down on the night I picked up the papers and complete the marking in one sitting. I would then return the papers to faculty the next day. I wanted to do the job and do it to a high standard, but I also wanted it done and out of the way. I would worry that something unforeseen may occur that would prevent me meeting the deadline and I would end up letting my tutors down.

These days I have a similar attitude to relaxation. I prefer to prepare meals that need to sit in the oven or bubble in a pot before serving rather than something that requires last minute attention. I worry that, if a meal is needed at a certain time and something goes wrong, then I will have failed; a child may be late to an appointment and it will be my fault. Once the prep has been done and all that is needed is for cooking time to elapse then I can relax. My job is done, I have completed all that can be expected of me.

I am noticing this attitude in the way that I am tackling NaNoWriMo. I catch myself thinking that, even though I am slowly getting ahead of my required, daily word count, that 50,000 word mark still seems so far away. I struggle with pacing myself, wanting to race to the end.

Sometimes it takes a concious effort not to do this with the books I read. I want to know what happens so rush to finish where I could derive more enjoyment from putting the story down and granting myself thinking time.

When jobs cannot be completed (there is no end to housework) I can procrastinate with the best of them, my ironing pile is testament to that. When a challenge takes too long to yield results (such as losing weight) then I struggle to find the motivation to continue beyond the initial determination. It is those goals that are within sight and attainable with just a bit more effort that I rush to complete.

Time management is an interesting concept. Am I a good time manager because I accomplish tasks quickly? I would consider my time better spent if I could pace myself. Efficiency and effectiveness are all very well but when we do something for pleasure, rushing it seems foolish. Yes I get a buzz out of the final accomplishment, but if it’s purpose is enjoyment why rush?

Perhaps one of my problems is that if I put something down for too long then there is a risk that it will be abandoned. There are books that I have not finished, a cross stitch project that I was deriving satisfaction from but has not been picked up in over a year. If I am to conclude a task then I need to internally schedule time for it and then stick with that. I like organisation and routine; the unexpected, including random surprises, stress me.

Perhaps the most important thing in good time management is learning what suits us as individuals and then working to fit that way of living into our days. I know that I need to have control over what I do and how I do it. I rail against being told what is best for me. When I am granted the freedom to follow a path of my choosing then I can work on improving how I accomplish tasks in a way that enhances my quality of life.

The author George R.R. Martin has stated that there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. For someone who likes her life to be so strictly under my control, planned out and organised, I am a little surprised to discover that my writing style is more like the gardener. I have no idea where my NaNoWriMo story is going to end up. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I am so eager to progress, that I may find out.

I created the graphic myself.

When boys were dangerous

This weeks Blog Hop theme: Remember the time you broke a rule

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I have been ruminating on this week’s theme for a couple of days now. I thought about recounting the time that I was caught by a traffic policeman driving at 80mph in a 40mph limit (and talked my way out of a ticket!) but I have already mentioned that, albeit briefly, in a previous post (The Hot Rod). I thought about the term in my penultimate year of school when I would leave early on a Friday afternoon to go play squash with a friend. I had no classes but should have been studying. Leaving the school grounds was certainly against the rules and I was in big trouble when I was eventually caught (darn those fire alarm roll calls). The little tale I have opted for though sticks in my memory as a time when I got into trouble (again) for doing something that I did not even know was against the rules. Looking back, I suspect it was considered so awful by my accuser that I should have just known not to do it. I mean to say, it involved a boy.

There were a lot of subjects that I did not enjoy studying at school. I have never had a good memory so struggled with recalling the detailed facts that were needed for the essay style answers that most papers demanded back in the day. I also struggled with science, except for maths. I just didn’t get a lot of the concepts that I needed to understand in order to progress. Thus, when it came to choosing my A level subjects at sixteen, there was little that I wished to continue with.

As luck would have it, that year my school introduced a brand new A level subject: Computer Science. I cannot really remember why I chose it alongside Maths and Further Maths. Perhaps I thought it sounded cool, perhaps the unknown just seemed a better option than the subjects I knew I did not wish to pursue further. Whatever the reason, I and half a dozen or so other girls signed up.

These were the days of the Sinclair ZX81ZX Spectrum and, for those willing to spend more, the BBC Micro. Companies used mainframes (IBM was probably the front runner) but schools had yet to invest in any sort of technology beyond the typewriter. In order to offer this subject, my school bought one machine with software that supported the BASIC programming language. Each pupil was required to take turns to complete their practical work in school during study periods or in their own time.

I grew to love this field of study. The logic and practicality appealed to me, as did the messing around on a machine. As with most schools, space was at a premium. The new Computer Science ‘lab’ was created out of what had been a store room for sports equipment. It had no windows and a heavy, sliding door. There were a few chairs stacked up inside and the computer was placed on a high bench. The easiest way to work on it was perched on a tall stool or standing up.

In my final year at school and with my coursework deadline approaching, I arranged to visit the lab during a half term break. I had been in town with my boyfriend that morning and had an evening out planned. He offered to drop me off at school and, when we arrived, asked if he could come in to see the computer (still something of a novelty). I saw no problem with this. We entered via the main door of the school where I acknowledged the school secretary sitting at her desk, and my boyfriend and I walked down to the lab. From habit, I slid the door shut; perhaps this was my mistake.

My boyfriend was intrigued by the machine. I fired it up, loaded my software, and showed him how it all worked. I then got on with the changes I needed to make, tested that all was well, took care to switch everything off and we left the lab and the school. I had not expected my boyfriend to hang around but he seemed genuinely interested. Naturally, I did not object to his company.

I thought no more of this. The holiday progressed, I made several more visits to the lab and returned to classes on the following Monday pleased with the progress I had made.

When I was summoned to the school office I had no idea that I was in serious trouble. The secretary seemed beside herself with rage. She told me that I had abused the trust that the school had placed in me, letting myself and my teacher down. I should be ashamed and was ordered to apologise to my teacher who would be left to decide the details of my punishment. My crime? I had brought a boy onto school premises and shut myself in a room, alone with him. God knows what she thought we got up to in there; I suspect she had a rather more salacious imagination than I possessed in those days. Why she did not just walk in to check on us if she was concerned I do not know.

I left my severe dressing down feeling shaken and genuinely concerned that I was going to be thrown out of class just a few months before my final exams. I was aware of the advice given to girls if in a boys company (always carry a large book and an apple; if he makes you sit on his knee, place the book between you; if he tries to kiss you, bite on the apple) but had still not foreseen that openly entering the premises with such a being would cause such consternation.

When I managed to track down my computer science teacher I really didn’t know what to say to her. I stumbled through an apology, which she listened to looking as embarrassed as I felt. She then told me gently not to repeat the misdemeanour and walked on. The subject was never mentioned again.

Looking back I am unsure if anyone other than the school secretary felt concerned at my behaviour. She made it sound as if I had committed high treason and I could not defend myself. Telling her that a stuffy lab on school premises was probably the last place on earth where I would wish to make out with my boyfriend would probably have got me into even more trouble. Does it show a lack of imagination that I hadn’t even considered it an option?

I came top of my class in computer science and my picture appeared in our local paper when my coursework was used by a sports tournament to create the round robin fixtures list required for that year’s competition. I went on to study the subject at university and worked in the industry for ten years before I had my first child. I have still to make out with anyone in a computer lab.

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Old school badge: star, loom, ship; aim high, work hard, go far.

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Teachers?

This week’s blog hop is about teachers. Remember the time you had that awesome teacher? Sorry guys, but no. I mean, I did have lots of different teachers with varying personalities teaching me over the course of my fourteen years at school. Some of them were good and some, well, not so good. I just didn’t experience any that I remember clearly and think of as inspiring, or incredibly amusing, or even, you know, a little bit special.

I considered writing about my very first teacher, Miss Holt, who I made very angry by telling her a dirty joke when I was five years old. I did not understand the reaction and was utterly mortified. At the time I had no idea that it was rude; when I had heard a big kid tell it, as I did, everyone had laughed hysterically.

My third year teacher at primary school, Mrs Dodds, kept cards in slots under her blackboard with Maths problems on them. Each slot held several different cards and each card had about ten sums to solve. From left to right under the board the problems on the cards got harder. I loved doing sums and relished the opportunity to work on problems that the other children found hard. I can’t remember how far along I got, but I don’t believe I made it all the way to the right before I gave up. At seven years old I learnt that I wasn’t as impressive as I had thought.

Then there was Mr Kerr who taught me in my last year at primary school. He kept an old trainer that he called Willy under his desk and beat the boys on their behinds with it when they misbehaved. Even though I was only eleven years old I was annoyed at how sexist this was. Determined not to let such a situation pass without protest I misbehaved until I became the only girl he ever beat. Looking back, I must have been considered a weird kid.

My all girls grammar school was full of characterful teachers. Miss Kloss and Miss Jackson used to march around the school grounds together every lunchtime. I think one, other or perhaps both of them had a dog. What I remember is the marching, Miss Kloss with her hands behind her back, both of them deep in conversation. They seemed so old to me at the time, but were probably younger than I am now.

We had a student teacher for Geography one term who wore high heels and called female sheep ‘Yow’s’. The heel on one of her shoes snapped in class one day and we thought this was very funny. School kids can be so cruel.

I had an English teacher who was very thin and had red hands that turned blue where the skin touched the bone at joints. I found it difficult not to stare at those hands as she clasped and unclasped them, trying to engage with us and share her love of literature. My most abiding memory of her lessons was when we were studying Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’. We were required to dress up as the characters in the book and hold a tea party. I hated, hated, hated role play. I could never put together a convincing outfit and felt foolish pretending to be someone I was not. It was only when the BBC produced a television series of this book that I reread it and found that I actually enjoyed it. Teachers must despair of truculent pupils, refusing to endorse their ideas when they are trying so hard to share their enthusiasm for a subject.

Throughout my time at grammar school I took extra curricular music and was taught to play the oboe by Mr Osborne. I took all of the ABRSM exams up to Grade Eight, and then spoke to him about studying for my diploma. He had a fairly direct manner and informed me bluntly that I was technically competent but was not a musician as I could not feel the music. I gave up the instrument forthwith.

I did not enjoy school but managed to come away with enough exam qualifications to get me into university and on to a job that I enjoyed. Whatever I may have thought of the various teachers through whose tutelage I passed, they must have been doing something right. There may have been none that I loved but neither were there any that I hated. I did not disrupt the class and always did my homework, but would still guess that a few considered me troublesome. I believe that I was the only regular member of the school Scripture Union not to be made a prefect.

Both my brother and my sister made teaching their career. It is a job that I could never do, at least not in a formal setting; I would find the students much too intimidating. I did home school my younger son for a little over a year (Why I became an amateur teacher). I wonder how he would rate me.

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The making of an incompetent cook – Part 1

I was seven years old when I first tried my hand at baking. My brave teacher, Mrs Dodds, who was also instrumental in encouraging me to push ahead with my love of Maths, decided to run a lesson showing how yeast reacted when added to other ingredients. I missed the end of this fascinating experiment as, for the only time in my entire school career, my parents took me out of class early. They were driving across the country to visit friends who had moved from our area to run a pub several counties away. I remember the excitement of being allowed to stand behind the bar that loomed taller than my head, before the pub opened to the public. I knew that this was distant, adult space, banned to children in those days.

My teacher had whisked my tiny little bread roll out of the oven early for me to take with me, and I nursed it’s warm crust throughout the long car journey. When I eventually ate it I remember it’s hardness and the strangeness of the taste. My mother made delicious bread regularly, but not with yeast. I ate it in the car, feeling guilty that it was too small to share. I would have liked to split it, spread on some butter and show it off. There was too much going on that day to seek attention. I nibbled on it dry, trying not to drop crumbs on my father’s car.

A year or so later I became a Brownie Guide, where we were entreated to ‘do a good turn every day’. I took this mantra seriously. We were told that giving our parents breakfast in bed would be a big treat for them; looking back I am not convinced that my parents wished to risk crumbs on the sheets and would have preferred to rise at a time of their choosing. Ever eager to please, and having recently learnt how to scramble eggs, I went through a phase of getting up early on a Sunday morning to make them a breakfast which I carefully carried to their bedroom on a tray. This ‘good turn’ came to a halt when, unbeknown to me, the clocks changed from summer to winter time and I ended up making their breakfast an hour too early. My sister heard me going through my routine and intercepted me before I disturbed our parents. I returned to the kitchen and cried hot tears of shame and frustration as I tried to keep the food warm. It was the last time I made anyone breakfast in bed.

When I moved on to grammar school I was required to study Domestic Science with a characterful teacher with the apt name of Mrs Pepper. I was truly hopeless at the subject. When we made shepherds pie I could not get the potatoes to boil soft enough to mash; how did I find this so difficult? Mrs Pepper had little time for such incompetence and I dropped the subject as soon as I was allowed.

At home I had learned to grill cheese on toast, cook eggs and heat up tinned food, but was rarely required to produce food for myself or anyone else. The only exception to this that I can remember was when my mother fainted one afternoon and had to spend a night in hospital under observation. My sister was elsewhere so I felt that I should produce dinner for my father and I. Fish had been left in the fridge, to be grilled for the evening meal. I had no idea how long to cook it for and ended up drying it out completely. We manfully chewed our way through what should have been a soft and succulent dish, but I have not attempted to cook plain fish since.

When I first moved out of the family home I lived on cereal, toast, cheese, soup, salads and fruit. With a kettle, toaster and microwave to hand I could avoid the oven and hob entirely. In a series of shared houses, with others who seemed comfortable in the kitchen, I was too embarrassed to demonstrate my lack of skill. It wasn’t until I was able to buy my first flat, at the age of twenty-four, that I began to cook hot meals from raw ingredients.

My mother had produced most of our family dinners in a scary device called a pressure cooker. She would chop up and throw in the meat, vegetables and potatoes before adding a little water and heating it all up until there was an audible whistle. The heat would then be turned down and a heavy weight put over the vent at the top. Occasionally the weight would be blown off resulting in a frightful clatter and a rush of steam. After a prescribed time the pressure cooker would be placed in the sink and cold water run over it before the weight and then lid could be removed and the food served. I have never wanted to own a pressure cooker.

All of this meant that I had not regularly observed other types of cooking first hand, and had little experience to fall back on. I had paid scant attention to what was being done in my mother’s kitchen; I had no interest in participating and learning. My mother was an advocate for healthy eating long before this became popular. I may not have picked up her cooking skills, but I had taken on board her message that processed food was bad; that fat and sugar should be avoided; that puddings other than fruit and yoghurt should be a rare treat.

For the first few months after I moved into my flat I would pop down to the local convenience store after work and buy whatever I felt like eating that night. I continued to survive largely on breakfast cereal, cheese, toast, tinned food, salad and fruit. Once I had managed to save up enough of my wages to furnish the flat, I decided that I wished to show it off and planned my first dinner party. The fact that I had little knowledge of cooking did not present itself as a problem to my naive mind. This first event set the tone for the many to come. For me, preparing the food for each of my dinner parties became a memorable, if fraught, experience.

TBC

English: A pressure cooker with a simple regul...

There and back again – an overview

No matter how exciting or fun a trip away is, it always feels good to come home. After five days of full on activity I spent much of yesterday recovering. I am not used to coping on five or six hours sleep a night, especially when the days are so busy and active. With much to see and the company of a good friend to enjoy I did not wish to waste a minute of my time away. This did take it’s toll when I stopped. It felt good after all the excitement to have a quiet and restful day at home.

I have experienced so much in such a short space of time. Learning about the city we were staying in was fascinating, but the lessons to be learnt about myself will also be of value. I feel as if I have been frantically filling up on facts and now need to sit back and process all that I have taken in. This was no ordinary holiday, not least because I did it without my husband. I was absolutely myself rather than his wife for the first time in many years.

I was away with my two older children who I hope got as much out of the trip as I did. I made a deliberate decision to try not to mother them while we were away. My aim was to allow them to be themselves with my friend; four people enjoying each other’s company and learning from each other along the way. Ian was a truly excellent host and tour guide; he was also a fabulous teacher of alternative culture. The late evenings and early mornings spent at his flat, where he backed up his pedagogy with music or cartoons, were as illuminating as the history of many of the sights he took us to see. Even when our disparate views meant the discussions became uncomfortably heated at times I felt that I was learning.

Berlin is a city packed full of contrasts, history (ancient and modern), vibrancy and colour. As well as being filled with wonder at the more obvious tourist attractions, buildings, and museums, we were offered background knowledge on more quirky sights that would have gone unnoticed without a resident host who had obviously put significant effort into preparing for our visit. Ian coped admirably with our invasion of his flat and his life making us feel welcome and valued throughout.

Having fitted so much into our short time away I now wish to give myself time to consider all that we have seen and done slowly that I may fully process my reactions. Although we visited the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag I was more moved by the nearby Jewish Memorial. Our lunch outside the Hansa Studio and subsequent discussions about Bowie’s musical development gave me more food for thought than the typical tourist destination Bellevue Palace (official residence of the German President that has no actual living accommodation inside). The stunning architecture of the city is not confined to the surviving older buildings, but the city offers so much in addition to the incredible sights.

We spent two full days travelling around the city being tourists plus one challenging and thought provoking day at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I felt it was important to take my children here, but the discussions the place provoked between Ian and I probably brought our views of current government practice closer than I thought possible. It is not a place one can visit and forget.

The remaining days of our time away were spent preparing for and travelling, with much waiting around as seems necessary these days when trying to get from one place to another by public transport. The many train journeys we took allowed us to view the more ordinary aspects of the city so were not wasted. We also ate out a great deal, trying to find a restaurant or cafe that offered cuisine from a different country or culture each time. I was grateful that such activity costs much less in Berlin than it would here at home.

I am immensely grateful that Ian offered us the opportunity to get under the skin of a city that, as he put it, grows on you. Although our visit was necessarily short, the time was used with maximum efficiency without feeling rushed. I do not normally warm to city life preferring the peace and space of rural locations. I think that Berlin could well prove to be an exception.

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