Halloween…switch off the lights!

It seems that every year the “tradition” becomes even more of a tradition in Britain, being used as marketing ploy by every household name; my inbox has been swamped with assorted offers to help me “celebrate” in restaurants, cocktail bars and adult-themed parties. At the end of the summer a company selling  corsets advised the styles I should invest in suitable for Halloween whilst Debenhams department store sent a glossy beauty page suggesting I purchase an entire new make-up bag so as to create the required scary Gothic face….surely a few extra dabs of mascara and eye make-up would do the trick?

Walking through a Marks and Spencer food hall last week involved wading across huge piles of orange-wrapped sweets and chocolates disguised as pumpkins and ghosts; today I’m wondering if it all sold or will it be returned to the warehouse?  If so what will happen to it?  Perhaps it can be unwrapped and re-moulded into hearts for Valentine’s Day?

Of course children need special events to help them mark the year; I clearly recall how 50 years ago, in the army school in Rheindahlen,  our teacher showed us how to make a pointed witch hat with black paper, decorated with moons and stars. That was our treat. Halloween was sold to us children of the “scientific” 1960s as an ancient festival; there was no chocolate involved, pumpkins were an old-fashioned vegetable linked to Cinderella and an American sweet pie.

Today also marks the birthday of John Keats in 1795;  his gaining his apothecary’s licence in 1816 gives him a special place on my shelf. And his death from tuberculosis. A “romantic” poet who perhaps helped to create a less bloody image for this ghastly disease which plagued so many in the nineteenth century, and which still does.  This week I read of a British vet working in Africa who had recently contracted Bovine TB; the story tells of his shock given that so few realise how easy it is to catch this killer illness. I find this somewhat odd as I had watched a BBC “Horizon” programme in the late 1980s and had researched the increase in Britain and the USA in 1990.  The “scientific” 1960s sold the public a world without the old-fashioned diseases; humans had conquered space so there was no way a few germs could work their nasty magic. However, “Nature” holds its own secret spells; humankind needs to invest in finding new answers but, bizarrely seems fixed on consuming masses of energy in selling to consumers.

My other “big” memory of Halloween is arriving in New York city on October 31st during a two-week road trip in 2009. The rain poured but every character imaginable swarmed about Times Square; SpongeBob SquarePants walked alongside Batman while ghosts, ghouls and skeletons clustered around nuns in black habits. At the bus station, I admired a lone witch seemingly floating down the escalator; her beautiful face reassured us that she was no fairytale hag!  Celebration was the theme and it offered a shared moment of humanity; the mounted police made their way along Fifth Avenue smiling for the cameras pointed to catch this moment in time.

 

 

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August…the great debate; what to wear on the beach?

When it comes to clothing what does “modest” mean?

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Where are we now?

A historic month to put it mildly!

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“School was like chilblains, something to be endured”

Although the reference to chilblains might not be understood by small children in 2016 the notion that school is “something to be endured” may well click with even the youngest pupils starting their journey through education. The current situation with the re-writing of government-imposed SATs tests has finally created a protest movement amongst ordinary parents who feel they have had enough….or perhaps more precisely, that their children have had enough. Spending the majority of their school days being stuffed with facts and grammar terminology in order to pass tests set by a government, school pupils are not receiving the broad creative education desired by parents and promoted by educationalists for decades before the enactment of the National Curriculum.

It could be argued that an education suited for life in the 21st century requires numerous components found in the “schooling” of previous generations alongside the ability to adapt to technical and creative industries unheard of in the school rooms of grandparents and great-grandparents. As an example take the basis of  ”a classical education”; whilst the study of Latin and Ancient Greek serve relatively few scholars today, the ability to speak a foreign language, (or more than one), will enhance the employability of those working in a wide range of industries; global markets appear to use English as the international language of trade which makes negotiations easier to thrash out. However, this linguistic ease might be at the expense of British workers who find themselves in competition with foreign-born employees on home soil, the latter having mastered English sufficiently well to be free to consider moving to Britain in order to work; these rival education systems are delivering a skill and thus the freedom to seek employment in a country offering more opportunities, and very often a much higher standard of living. The on-going issues of migration belong to a separate debate, however, the key for many is their ability to communicate sufficiently well in a language other than their mother-tongue. Surely this factor is a direct link between the historic “classical education” and the needs of modern life? Mastering another language with fluency and confidence can be a reasonably enjoyable experience these days, especially given the many tools available via modern technology and printed material; the range of dual language books created for children, (with prices starting at a couple of pounds), should be reason to celebrate the potential for introducing a foreign tongue alongside the joy of stories and picture dictionaries in the early years of formal learning.

However, can the same be said for children undergoing the updated National Curriculum which demands that 7 year olds are sufficiently drilled to answer questions on complex English grammar terminology?  Young children brought up with English as their mother tongue will certainly enjoy the ability and freedom to pen their creative imaginings; they don’t need to explain how a sentence structure works to attempt creative writing. They do need time and opportunity to access a variety of books, to see and hear language being used well and to enjoy the creative possibilities enhanced by good diction and grammar.

A broad education which teaches the basic skills of literacy and numeracy alongside a wide range of creative arts allows for the opening of doors….sometimes doors have to be broken down as not all children glide smoothly to arrive at “normal” academic milestones. At least a creative approach is more enjoyable and interesting, providing opportunities for individual interests to be uncovered, and hopefully to shine. These points are being articulated by thousands of parents who have joined forces to make a stand against the recently-restricted curriculum.

For decades governments have spouted a desire to improve life chances, to create a fairer educational environment for its future citizens; for this to happen it must be possible to develop potential and allow every child a chance to find their talent or forte. SATs were originally devised and deployed to test the performance of schools so they could be positioned on country-wide “League Tables” and yet they are being marketed as a way to measure pupils’ success or failure… The pieces simply do not fit together but, up until now, most parents have swallowed the government-imposed testing as being the necessary hurdles to finally reach the desired number of GCSE passes at secondary school, never mind that this is almost 10 years after the infant pupil sits their first round of SATs.  Reading the comments posted by parents on various and differing pages on social media it’s clear there is by no means total agreement on the method, or role, of education, but parents do seem to want “a good school”. What does this mean and where is the magic key?

In my mind the route to academic success is cobbled, it’s not a smooth surface; the pavement is not always clear and the road is not always well-lit. There is no certainty as to where young people will end, nor how many times they might well trip up as they find their way. However, the education journey is a very special one; the British education system has the means for every child to receive the academic and creative input alongside the opportunity to develop essential skills such as critical thinking. Every child holds the future potential to discover, design or deliver anything from free energy to fashion textiles to world peace; not everyone will go on to make their mark in such a way, but the years of compulsory education should be ones where potential is released. Smothering the natural curiosity, energy and voice of fresh lives serves no purpose and it may well be the cause of numerous wide-ranging  future problems.  Young children only have their parents to speak for them; next week’s action will show them that they care as much for their present and future as they did in those early days when the joy of new life was so precious. In the 21st century it’s all too easy for parents to be so consumed with earning a living that the worries preying on the minds of their offspring are lost into inexplicable tantrums or moody silence. Perhaps we need to see those inflamed, angry red sores of Victorian chilblains to understand how acute is the problem of this current punitive neo-Victorian education programme?

The banner for this protest is LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY

*title quote is from Joan Kent ‘Binder Twine and Rabbit Stew’ (1976)

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Recipe for Spring…the greening of the Earth

Spring

 

Nothing is so beautiful as spring-

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness: the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

 

What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.-  Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,

Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

 

written in 1877 by Gerard Manley Hopkins (b. 28-7-1844  d. 8-6-1889)

published in Poets and Poetry of the Century, 1894

 

Introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in second year of senior school, I can still hear the crisp voice of our no-nonsense teacher, Mrs J. Smith, as she read her selected poem aloud whilst seated on the teacher’s desk; the modern windows of that section of the convent made for a bright setting in which her voice opened the door to new words, new names and, what was to me, the grown-up world of proper poetry.

I enjoyed experiencing the alliteration of her choice “Pied Beauty”…all these decades later I’ve come to understand my learning style and how the imagery allowed my mind to create the pictures, bringing the words into a tangible existence inside my head.

The weekly poetry lesson allowed for one poet and her selected example, with notes on links to other poems from the same man; all the poets were men in those days…I never heard one female poet in all my years at school!

Being an introductory stage we were not set the task to discover more of the same poet for ourselves which was a pity; I know if my own children had undergone this education I would have piled my own references  and extended material in front of them.  The school timetable was a balanced programme, delivering the arts and sciences, as well as compulsory music and singing lessons, plus religious studies and religious education based on Roman Catholicism. Given his background, Gerard Manley Hopkins was an obvious choice; reading his poetry the Christian references are forceful, but in those days it was the frame for my existence at school, thus nothing to be scared of.

When I think of the arrival of spring this poem comes to mind, with its “long, lovely and lush” weeds….In the real world the mass of  ”sticky weed” which suddenly takes off in my garden throws out such long strands; although not exactly “lush” its power seems symbolic of all wild plants pushing their way out of the soil, surviving every attempt to pull them up. They appear to work in conjunction with Nature as their seeds stick to the numerous wild animals which share our space; I suspect this weed was really the work of the devil and not part of the flora of Eden.

 

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Curiosity killed the rat…

Catching up in the garden after being away is always something of a leap into the unknown…the life of the place has continued in my absence, the flora has had to cope without my attention whilst the fauna has continued to march through, knocking over pots, digging up the lawn and leaving their mess.  So my recent return from semi-tropical vegetation and the brightness of citrus trees required a deep breath and warm garden jacket…the remnants of stormy weather and a normal cold, wet February required my placing the distant tall palms and oranges deep into my memory, and leaving them there.

A certain “fishy” smell hung around one corner which brought to mind the rotting carcass of a dogfish discovered  before Christmas….most likely the beach find of a hungry fox which had been forgotten, or perhaps the tiny shark had presented our local Reynard with too much of a challenge?  No fish was spotted so I left that corner and cracked on.  Later on that “recovery day” the sunshine encouraged my return to the muddy mess and, having noticed pots blown onto their side, I grabbed the watering can to give them a quick rescue drink.  The overpowering fishy stink sent me on a “dead carcass search” again; third plant watered but the required liquid wasn’t coming out; a quick shake of the container to hear soft clonking…and I instinctively brought my face closer. The smell of death required an immediate holding-back of the urge to vomit; the usually innocent water-holder was obviously a place of death!

Thus the contents were rapidly tipped out on the edge of the road to reveal the bloated grey corpse of a small rat; the stench kept me from exploring it any further.  The adolescent rodent must have climbed up to peer into the watery darkness, perhaps diving in to access the imaginary treasure, or simply slipping on the plastic without the helpful sibling which would have existed if this had been yet another adventure in the life of a cheeky rat in a children’s story.  So there’s an idea for an entertaining story, for which I would be content to give the tale a happy ending. In real life, the rats who scurry about too close to the house are evidently managing to survive and grow to a decent size; the mystery of the fishy stink solved, I left the unmourned rodent for the foxes.

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The year closes….another goodbye

In this last hour of 2015 as the first fireworks explode outside I can only feel that the years are racing by at a speed I could never have imagined in my childhood. In that first decade of life the months from one Christmas to another were like world voyages, now it’s more of a Channel crossing.

I’ve always liked to write a diary so that  I can open it and see the words jotted which describe some of my activities. In the last 5 years or so saved e-mails serve in a similar way, especially the conversations with my children and “traveller’s tales” written as daily postcards in which I detail places explored and moments experienced. I still try and write a travel journal although it rather depends on the circumstances of the trip as to how much time is available to put pen to paper. Recent trips are only noted in my diary although detailed descriptions in the messages to my children are, in fact, the replacement for the little notebook as they reveal moments and thoughts which I know my offspring will enjoy hearing about.

Another record of what I’ve done with my time this year is certainly to be found in my “favourites” as my field of research has continued to expand; every day I learn something new, hopefully making up for the lost years at school when so much of life was simply killing time, waiting for each week to pass to reach the end of term. It must be said I absolutely loved learning at school, but there wasn’t enough of it, so much was constant repetition and there weren’t enough books. Since starting to write my book I’ve had to delve back into the shelves of children’s books which were our education library; despite the more recent and very extensive research carried out on-line, I’m still amazed at the range of our collection. Given our very limited budget my children had access to far more material of a superior quality than anything my school or parents offered me; at age 7 my daughter began to devour the enormous Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia. How much better educated I would have been had I owned something similar!

Saying goodbye to 2015 the newspapers remind us of the, seemingly numerous, “celebrity deaths” which have made news…many people living ordinary lives have reasons for remembering their favourite characters or those whose creativity struck them in some way. I note three women whose lives drew to their natural ending this year; working in very different fields their words and actions are significant for me:

Marguerite Patten,  born November 4 1915, died June 4 2015.

Sheila Kitzinger,   born March 29 1929, died April 11 2015.

Cynthia Payne,  born December 24 1932, died November 15 2015.

 

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Medical Doctor turned poet born this day 220 years ago

Dipping into poetry books as a break from life’s chores offers a brief escape into another person’s mind and creativity; how much time is available does affect the choice of poem, especially if wanting to dig around searching for meaning.  This week during a dip into an anthology I learnt that today, 31st October, marks the birthday of the poet John Keats.

I’m always curious about background and family; seems Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon and qualified as a doctor, although e never practised. Given the importance of medicine and all ghastly diseases of his day, training at Guy’s Hospital in 1815 would have been a significant social as well as career step.

Quickly running through first lines Keats delivers so many familiar quotes and shorter poems to squeeze into a quick sit-down. But others present verses of epic length. I have set myself to look into “Isabella Or The Pot of Basil” based on a memory of secondary school poetry lessons with the very crisp Mrs J. Smith. Every week a different poet; one Monday it was Keats so we tackled “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. I found it creepy so it didn’t do much for me….most weeks were very positive and I can still hear Mrs Smith reading “The Naming of Parts” and “Pied Beauty”.

The lesson included some general background and other works by that week’s subject. Somehow the mention of a mysterious  ”Isabella and her Pot of Basil” found a place in my brain…I have a theory about food helping with memory, not that we ever ate basil then; I believe I knew about this herb via a children’s animated short which was broadcast before the BBC early evening news.  ”The Herbs” featured Parsley the lion, but I’m not sure who “Basil” was…there’s bound to be archive film footage on YouTube which will help sort all that out!

These sixty-three verses demand a decent chunk of time but the quick view gave me hope, plus the mention of a “palmer” in the second line threw a line into my historical interest in pilgrimage. So it appears to be a tale to unravel.

 

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Stormy weather and the spell of the sea….time to read and listen to the waves.

Stuck indoors due to stormy rains and blowing gales, today I’ve sat and progressed through one of several books started some time ago and which have accompanied me over long journeys, to be opened, read, marked and left for another day.  These precious copies live in various piles around my life setting.  Most are burdened with markers cut from tea packets; handy scraps of card on which page numbers and notes may be scribbled. The slow progress is not of my desire; these are books read for pleasure and entertainment as opposed to specific academic research, so they remain as companions to re-meet when time allows. But they are still important books so I often have to go back and re-read a little to reconnect with the text; reading all sorts of other material everyday, writing and processing words, when the book is for pleasure I want to enjoy the taste in the same way as appreciating a box of quality chocolates.

With the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below my printed companion has been Strange Places, Questionable People written by the veteran BBC journalist John Simpson.  Published in 1998 it reveals aspects of news gathering involving many political characters now retired, deposed and/or dead; old news perhaps, but much which is directly linked to the current affairs of this moment.

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Summer 2015 closes….

A day of drizzle marked that glorious souvenir of Victorian Britain; the August Bank Holiday. Walking with my son late afternoon we noticed the ripening blackberries, the dark-spotted hedges were a reminder of our previous walks armed with ice cream tubs to gather those pungent berries all holding the promise of sweet spicy crumbles and purple-stained dishes.

The heavenly scent of stewing wild berries always takes me back to a brief stay in a beautiful old house with an even more glorious garden; Rolvenden in August 1966. We had returned after two years living in Malaysia, (still referred to as “Malaya” by most Britons in those days), so this intense memory is perhaps more acute due to its status as my first house and garden after a substantial stint in the tropics. Our journey from Singapore was on the Italian cruise liner, the Achille Lauro; my army-wife mother and her five children in an airless, cramped cabin. I was child number four, my siblings ranged from age 10 down to my six-week old baby sister. Our father was returning on a flight and we were sailing due to mother’s previous ear operation; the risk of flying meant we could “enjoy” a cruise back to Southampton; I can still recall the growing excitement which would soon fall into the biggest hole of disappointment. The glossy brochure did not deliver the promised luxury; our ship was tossed across rough oceans, seasickness struck and the food on board was ghastly although I know I enjoyed the delicious breakfast rolls which must have been fresh-baked on board. Despite the 49 years I can still replay a series of memories in my head, my favourite probably the view towards the desert as the ship travelled up the Suez Canal. The gullie-gullie man climbed onboard and we were entertained by his traditional magic tricks; how those chicks appeared from behind the boy’s ears I simply could not work out!

Thus Rolvenden and our family country walks to gather blackberries is etched in my brain to be forever accessed and refreshed when sighting hedgerow blackberries. To me they signify the closing of summer; our sojourn in the Kentish countryside was so brief, our travels soon carried us away like the scent of stewing fruit disappearing through the open window. But the purple stain left its mark inside my head….blackberries belong there in that old house with its view towards open fields and the oast house.

 

 

 

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