Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Seasons by a Yorkshire river

I travel west from Leeds to Barrow-in-Furness quite often to visit my relatives there. On the way I usually stop at the pretty North Yorkshire village of Gargrave, near Skipton.

When I stop, I take a photograph of the river there because it always looks beautiful whatever the season.

Here are my last four photographs, all taken at different times of the year.

Which is which? One is early November, one is early December, one is mid-March and one is mid-May. Answers below - - -

The top one is mid-March, much as we might expect: early Spring, no leaves on the trees.

The second one is early December. All cold and misty, fair enough - - but lots of leaves on the trees still. What's that about deciduous trees losing their leaves in winter?

The third one is mid-May - lots of new green growth.

The fourth one is November, but nobody seems to have told the trees. The light looks slightly autumnal but the leaves on the trees are just beginning to consider turning slightly orange.

So there we have it! One Yorkshire village: global warming proved beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I remember when I was a child that one of the main ingredients of a good Bonfire Night bonfire on November 5th was a large heap of fallen leaves. Nowadays if you want leaves for Bonfire Night you'd have to climb the trees and rip them off.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Forty Pence is Three and Fourpence

In this part of the country at least, the eleven-plus exam is no more: I was in the second-to-last year to do it. All classes were mixed ability until the last year of primary school, when the eleven-plus exam ruled supreme. This external exam decided whether you would go to grammar school and become a worthy upright member of society, or to a secondary modern and lead a worthless life of deserved obscurity. Of course, that was not the truth, but that's how we thought it was: grammar school was the passport to further qualifications and a Good Job and so passing the eleven-plus was all-important.

In the primary school that I went to, the eleven-plus year was streamed into three classes according to ability. If you were in 4A, that was Mr Storey's class, and nobody in his class ever failed: he simply would not permit it. 4B was Mr Robson's class and quite a few of them passed it every year. The rest were in a class with the dispiriting name of The Remove and they were written off as total failures at the age of eleven.

When I was eight or nine I was very slow at mental arithmetic and some doubts were voiced to my parents as to whether I would pass, but once I had made it to 4A and the capable hands of Mr Storey, my chances of failing grew ever slighter. In the eleven-plus exam you had to do sixty mental arithmetic in thirty minutes: by the time Mr Storey had finished with us, we could do the lot in twenty, and have ten minutes to check them.

I can still do them: forty pence is three and fourpence. (In old money, there were two hundred and forty pence in a pound: eighty threepenny bits: forty sixpences: twenty shillings: eight half-crowns - a half-crown was two shillings and sixpence. Four hundred and eighty halfpennies, often written ha'pennies and always pronounced "haypnies"). Twenty-two yards in a chain. One thousand, seven hundred and sixty yards in a mile. The dozens rule which gave rise to such sums as: I buy twelve buns for tuppence ha'penny, what is the total cost? Half a crown, since you ask. Oh yes, and we knew our tables inside out: all the difficult ones such as six nines and seven eights and eleven elevens were meat and drink to us. "Sir! I know! Sir! Sir!"

Mechanical arithmetic too: long division: long multiplication: pounds, shillings and pence, again and again and again until it was all second nature.

There was also an English paper and we practised old ones until we knew all their tricks. A book called Further English Progress Papers was our Bible. Choose the right word to fill in the gap. Is it:

None of the cricketers were hurt


None of the cricketers was hurt

(all the examples were along these proud-to-be-British lines)

I got it wrong once, to my eternal shame. "None" is short for "not one" and so the correct answer is was.

They all still echo in my head. I was sent to the Headmaster, firm-but-fair Mr Aspland, with an essay that Mr Storey considered particularly good.

"Well, very good, Daphne," said Mr Aspland, "but there is no such word as alright. It is two words, all right."

I have never written it as one word since, not once.

Then there were the "intelligence tests". These came in Further General Progress Papers and the first time we tried them we were rubbish at them. But hoorah! Mr Storey could coach us in intelligence too. Lots of coded things where every time you saw an A you had to put a T. By the time it came to take the exam our intelligence had soared beyond all expectation.

We took the exam. We all passed. Our futures lay shining before us.

Two years later they abolished the eleven-plus. Then they abolished the old money and brought in decimal currency. Out went inches, feet, yards, chains, furlongs, and in came millimetres, centimetres and kilometres - - oh, um, okay, we kept the mile just to be confusing. The intelligence tests were discredited because they suddenly discovered that you could be taught how to do them (a fact that Mr Storey had worked out many years before).

So much of the work we did that year was totally wasted. But two things remain.

I know my tables, and that has been the most useful thing I learned ever in maths at school. Nothing I learned afterwards has ever been so much use. Six nines? Fifty-four! Instant! Who needs a calculator?

And I can spell, oh yes I can. If you look at all the words above you will find that none of the letters is in the wrong place. I have a good grasp of grammar (though I break the rules from time to time, such as starting a sentence with "and").

So he did a lot for us, Mr Storey. And I think we meant a lot to him, too. When I was about twenty I met him on a bus: he had retired the year after he taught us.

“Ah, Daphne - - those were the days, eh?” he said, and burst into tears.

I'm glad I managed to thank him.

Monday, May 29, 2006

1984 part three

So, I was six months pregnant: my waters had broken: the likeliest thing was that I would go into labour and the baby would be born prematurely.

But I didn't seem to go into labour: I had been taken into hospital on a Monday evening and now, here we were, the following Saturday. The general opinion of the hospital staff seemed to be that my waters hadn't broken at all: I had made up this story for my own selfish pleasure in order to spend a week in a side ward while they forgot to bring me any food and gave me disparaging looks.

"Don't think you're having a miscarriage just because your mother did," said a nurse.

"How do you know that?" I asked, rather bewildered.

"You're mother's been ringing up. She told us."

"Well, my mother's miscarriages were different. They were early on in preg - - "

But she had gone. And, not allowed to get out of bed, I could not follow.

By early on Sunday morning I was convinced I was in labour. Something very strange was going on, certainly. The entire lower half of my torso felt blocked up: and there was a funny rippling feeling down my back. No pain though and in every training manual and every lecture throughout the world at that time, apparently, labour meant pain.

"Don't be silly, of course you're not in labour."

"Well, how would I know if I was?"

An arch look. "Oh, you'd know, dear, you'd know."

"Can you get a doctor to examine me?"

An audible sigh of exasperation. "The doctor's round is at midday. I'll get someone to look at you then. But take it from me, you're not in labour. Now stop ringing the bell. We've got other patients to attend to, you know."

Two things I would have liked to have pointed out to her: firstly, that unless I rang the bell nobody ever came into my room, not ever. Secondly - and I didn't know this yet - what if my mother had been given a drug when she was pregnant with me that probably - though never proved in court - caused womb deformities in the daughters? And that meant that my womb didn't contract properly, and hence gave me hardly any pain?

It was before the days of mobile phones or I would have rung my family for help. I had a wild notion of sneaking out and presenting myself at Accident and Emergency as a woman in labour, but I didn't know where it was. So I waited.

At twelve o'clock a very young doctor half-entered my room with the same nurse behind her.
"This patient keeps saying she's in labour, but we know she's not, so I don't know why she keeps saying it," said the nurse, with no attempt to conceal her words from me.

"What are your symptoms?" asked the doctor.

"Well, I have a strange rippling feeling down my back, and I feel all blocked up - - "

"You can't possibly have any kind of a blockage. Only old men get them. If you were in labour you'd have lots of pain. If you do get pain, ring for the nurse. Goodbye - - "

It is hard to be assertive in such circumstances but it was now or never.

"STOP! I have been waiting all morning for a doctor to come. And now you are here, I want you to examine me. And if you can't find anything, I promise I'll shut up."

"Oh, very well, if you insist," she said.

I remember all this conversation word for word - I made a mental note of it all at the time, and wrote it down as soon as I could afterwards.

And the next thing she said was "Oh shit, the baby's head."

With sudden astonishing haste they threw me onto a trolley and I was rushed along the corridor to the delivery room.

"I'm going to cut you now just to make a bigger opening for the head. No time for an anaesthetic," she said. If it hurt, I didn't notice.

I was taken out of the ward at two minutes past midday. Laurence was born at five past. He blinked, so I knew he was alive, and they took him away to the special care unit.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Giant Tortoises of Mont St-Michel

A couple of summers ago we were at Mont St-Michel in Normandy, France. You will probably have heard of Mont St-Michel even if you haven't been there - a huge, triangular rock sticking up out of the sea with a whole village built on it. If you haven't been there for thirty years or so you will remember it as a remote, beautiful place full of atmosphere. If you have been there recently you will remember it as a large, crowded gift shop full of tourists.

One of the things I remember best about it is, strangely, the giant tortoises. They weren't on the rock itself: they were on the main road that leads to Mont St-Michel, in a vivarium placed there in a strategic position to mop up the tourists on the way there or back.

You could wander round their enclosure and and the sign, above, told you in no uncertain terms what you could do when you were in there.

In French the instructions were quite simple: it says such things as "it is forbidden to lift them up" and "it is forbidden to give them anything to eat". But whoever had done the translation into English had the soul of a poet and this is what the English says:

do not sit on tortoises
do not beat them as if they were drums
do not play with them as if they were balls
do not open the door if it is shut and do not shut if it is open
please, do not scatter the grass
do not give it to tortoises which feed themselves

We obeyed all the instructions and were very well-behaved and the tortoises made us very welcome.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Water featured again

Gardening is not a fast process. The soil in our garden is wonderfully rich and plants thrive. That's because my parents, who live next door, have been working on the garden since 1959, carefully composting banana skins and vegetable peelings and putting the resulting compost back into the soil.

But these days people want instant gardens, and television programmes which transform gardens at top speed have not helped. The idea is that a garden is an outdoor room: garden centres reflect this. They are full of outdoor tables and chairs, barbecues, pot-bellied stoves, gnomes, statues - - oh yes. And water features.

Now, I think it's a good idea to have a pond in the garden. Water is pleasing to look at, good for the local wildlife, and you can rear tadpoles in it - yes, I know this is a minor obsession of mine and I don't care. Some people like to have goldfish and this is fine if you can be bothered cleaning it out all the time (goldfish are very messy and will rip out any water plants). Goldfish are also well liked by any local herons, who view them as a handy lunch item.

Pond, yes. And have a little fountain or running stream if you like that sort of thing. But the current vogue is not for ponds. It's for water features, and water features tend to look a bit like this:

Two cute little artificial red squirrels which are fine if you like that sort of thing (and I don't).

But it's no use to wildlife. There's nowhere for birds to perch: the sides are too steep and the water's too deep for birds to bathe: the pond is too high and the flow is too fast for frog spawn.

To me, one of the major reasons for having a garden is to attract wildlife. As I write this I can see two sparrows feeding a fledgling on the bird table - the baby shivers its wings and opens its beak and the parents put some food in. I like watching that kind of thing.

If people want their Greek-style statues or their cutesy little plaster animals they can have them if that's what floats their boat, but living creatures are far more interesting. So, if people must have water features they should be ones that can double as birdbaths.

Or, better still, buy a simple birdbath (mine cost £16.00) and you can buy a heck of a lot of bird food with the change from the £79.99 which this water feature costs. And as a bonus, you don't have to look at the nasty fake squirrels.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Eau Dear

Terrible pun in the title, I know, and I'd just like to say how sorry I am. Which isn't very, obviously, or I wouldn't have done it.

In the primitive supermarkets of 1970s England and in their predecessors, known as "grocers", you could choose from a plentiful supply of soft drinks. Dandelion and Burdock, Tizer, Ribena, bright orange squash crammed full with artificial everything, lemon barley water, to name but a few.

Of course, some of these still exist, huddled in their shame into one end of the aisle with their bottles boasting piteously of their supposed lots-of-fruit-juice-no-added-sugar health-giving qualities. And what's in the rest of the aisle? Water, that's what. Masses and masses of it. Perrier, Evian, Buxton, Caledonian, Strathglen, Brecon Carreg. Some of these waters are still, which taste fine; some are sparkling, which are vile - I don't like sparkling drinks in general but really don't see the point of water that sends bubbles up your nose.

What is the point of all this? In the seventies only a few poshos drank Perrier and we thought they were a bit daft. Now millions of us drink it. Why?

Perhaps it's because we're a bit suspicious of tap water. We don't like the idea that it's been purified - what was in it before? Yuck. And also, we want to show we're classy and can afford to buy spring water and we want to claim that our superior palates can tell the difference between Eau Dear and Leeds Tap. And we hope that spring water is better for us and has mysterious trace elements in it which will give us the gift of eternal youth.

So the water companies get the water from Belle Eau in France and then they bottle it in new plastic bottles. Do any of the chemicals in the plastic leach into the water, I wonder? Then they transport the bottles of water in lorries, for miles and miles and miles, crowding the roads and using up gallons of diesel.

None too good for the environment then. And probably no better for us. And even if it were to be proved to be better for us - which I doubt - I still don't think it's justifiable. Just imagine standing in front of a Third World village and trying to explain that we think it's perfectly acceptable to bring our drinking water from hundreds of miles away. Oh, they would say, you poor things, is there no drinkable water nearby?

Well, yes, actually, there is: you just turn on the tap - - - -

At the end of the aisle I noticed "Table Water" - and what on earth is that? No claims that it's spring water, no explanation of where it comes from. Seventeen pence a bottle. Bargain.
Where do they get it from? Could it be that they- - - ? - - no, surely not - - - !
I know just whom the Cult of Bottled Water benefits. It's the supermarkets. They could sell bottled water under a brand called One Born Every Minute and we'd still buy it.
I'm going to put Leeds Tap in my Ribena and if I die of Leeds Tap poisoning I want you to know that I take back everything I've said.

Thursday, May 25, 2006


Anyone under thirty probably thinks that spam is found in your inbox and comes from people calling themselves Halfheartedly P. Oarlocks who are trying to sell you stuff (and I'm not making that up, that was a real one that came to me this week.)

Anyone over thirty knows that spam comes in tins and is made from some part of a pig. In my formative years we ate it regularly, with a bit of lettuce and tomato and cucumber and Heinz salad cream and that was what we called "a salad". Tinned peaches and Angel Delight for afters and there you have it - the definitive 1970s teatime.

Ah, things have changed. Everything is organic and "a salad" has fifteen different ingredients including things like baby sweetcorn and rocket, with a choice of many different dressings. I must say I enjoy it all, though my grandma would have disapproved - she didn't hold with lettuce and that kind of stuff, she thought it was a waste of time. It didn't fill you up and therefore didn't count as proper food. Proper food was stew followed by semolina pudding.

This lack of lettuce may well have shortened my grandmother's life - she only got to ninety-three.

Now restaurants are falling over themselves to prove their health-giving properties. And here is what my friend Sarah ate last night:

Outdoor Reared Pork Sausages and Mash. It says it again underneath: "outdoor reared pork sausages served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes with roasted red onions and gravy."

I picture those healthy little sausages gambolling in their pens in the sunshine: firstly as tiny chipolatas and finally grown into massive Cumbrian sausages before being humanely slaughtered and plonked on mashed potato.

Yes, sausage and mash. But not as we knew it. In the 1970s that would have been Walls sausages and For Mash Get Smash with Heinz tomato sauce. And for afters there'd be tinned peaches and Angel Delight, or, if Grandma was in charge, semolina pudding. The times they are a-changing.

I must say the sausage and mash in last night's restaurant looked delicious but I went for the steak because steak was posh in the seventies and I still like it. And I still like prawn cocktail. And chicken in a basket. And tinned peaches and angel delight and semolina pudding. Oh yes, and Spam.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Accidental Art Again

I love this bike, which has been languishing in the garden of the Last Hippy House In Leeds for quite a while, as you can probably tell. I took the photo yesterday, in a brief burst of spring sunshine between deluges.

I'm trying to work out why I like the bike so much. Some of it's because of the colours: the rust and the fresh green of the ivy and the brownish stonework - they are beautiful together. I love all greens anyway - green is my favourite colour and I am ceaselessly mocked for this by my cruel family. ("I suppose you'll be wanting to paint the living-room green and get a green carpet and green furniture, will you?")

Also, there's something about the newness of the ivy and the oldness of the bike that I like. I like old machinery, working or not. And I like new plant growth. Anything I write after this is getting into highly suspicious out-of-her-depth art criticism and will sound totally pretentious, so I'll stop now and I hope you like the photo.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Warm Colchester Welcome

This is a true story that happened today, about an hour and a half ago.

One of our jobs is to book bed and breakfast accommodation for our actors, as from time to time they work all over the country on a big corporate contract.

Two of them were booked for tonight into a bed and breakfast in Colchester. I did think of giving the town a pseudonym but hey, it was COLCHESTER.

The first hint that there was a problem was that one of our actors rang me.
"Have you used that bed and breakfast before?"
"Yes, I think so, why?"
"Well, I rang for directions and a man answered the phone and all he would say was Mrs Brandon isn't available at the moment. He wouldn't say anything else."
"What, nothing at all?"
"I'll ring and see what he says to me."

Before I did that, I rang the other actor, who, it turned out, was in his car outside the bed and breakfast, and had been there for the past hour and a quarter. Nobody would answer the phone or the door.

I rang the bed and breakfast. A man's voice answered with the name of the bed and breakfast.
"Hello," I said, "we have two people booked in to stay with you tonight, and one of them is waiting outside in his car, but nobody's answering the door."

His voice was cold, emotionless and very, very creepy. He sounded like Hal, the computer in 2001 - A Space Odyssey.

"Mrs Brandon isn't available at the moment."

"Well, could you let him in, perhaps?"

"Mrs Brandon isn't available at the moment."

"He's waiting outside and has been for over an hour. Can you tell me when she'll be back?"

"Mrs Brandon isn't available at the moment."

"Have you another phone number for her?"

"No. Mrs Brandon isn't available at the moment. You'll have to wait."

"Are you indeed operating as a bed and breakfast at all tonight?"

"It's nothing to do with me. You'll have to take that up with Mrs Brandon."

I finally lost it.

"Well, I would, but I gather she isn't available at the moment. So I'll have to book somewhere else. Then I'll ring the Tourist Information and get them to blacklist you. Goodbye."

His voice was so scary that I nearly called the police to see if he had in fact murdered Mrs Brandon and was standing over her body with a bloodstained axe. I'm not exaggerating: that was what it sounded like.

I found another bed and breakfast in Colchester and booked both the actors into it.
Later, there came a furious message on our answerphone - how could I frighten their son by threatening to blacklist them?

So now I feel a tiny bit guilty - their son certainly didn't sound particularly young, so perhaps there's something wrong with him which causes him to sound like an insane axe-murderer. But then again, if that's the case, why on earth had they left him in charge of answering the phone?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Greenovian, already

Imagine there is a country called Greenovia (and bear with me, please, because I'm trying to go somewhere with this). All the inhabitants of Greenovia have a large green circle on their forehead. They have their own language and their own rather complicated religion which impinges on most aspects of everyday life - the food they eat, the music they play. They are a close-knit community and so they all know, for example, that on a Thursday at three o'clock they must eat an apple and this is called, in Greenovian, the ceremony of Braeburnia. Make any plans for Thursday with any Greenovian and they will ask "Boaba?" which is their abbreviated version of "Before or after Braeburnia?"

Right, that's enough of that, I think you've got the general idea.

Now imagine there is someone who lives in Greenovia who is actually not Greenovian at all, but just happened to be born there with a green circle on her forehead. Her parents were from Somewhere Else and neither of them lives the Greenovian way of life - in fact they think all the ceremonies are pointless and don't believe in any of it.

But because she has the Greenovian Circle on her forehead, all the people of Greenovia assume, of course, that she is Greenovian. They talk to her about the food, the festivals, the religion and look completely confused when she says she doesn't understand. About once a week someone says "But you must be Greenovian! Look at you!"

Now, my father is Jewish, but - very unusually for their generation - he "married out" and my mother is not Jewish. My mother is from a tokenly Christian background but is not religious. My father is from a not-very-religious family and he is a crusading atheist who won't even discuss religion.

I look like my father. Whatever comes to mind when anyone says "she looks Jewish", that's what I look like. But I don't feel Jewish because I was not brought up in the Jewish community and I know very little about the religion or the culture.

I have the utmost respect for the Jewish community. Many of my relatives in Eastern Europe were killed by the Nazis. Some of my best relatives are Jewish and yes, so are some of my best friends. But I don't feel I belong there. Most of the time it doesn't matter - but just sometimes, when a stranger assumes I'll know all about it because of how I look, it does.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Molehills not Mountains

Here are some moles who live near Wetherby.

This is where they had been recently, anyway. How many? We don't know, but since moles only get together in the spring I reckon this whole field of molehills is the aftermath of a mole orgy. All over the field under the ground there were moles groaning in embarrassment as they recalled who they'd slept with the night before. "Oh no - - Tracey! Or was it Sheila? Thing is, it was dark so I wasn't quite sure - - "

We don't know much about moles - we know they eat earthworms and haven't got very good eyesight and tunnel about under the ground composing dark poetry about eternal blackness - sorry, I'm going all anthropomorphic again. Kenneth Grahame started it in The Wind in the Willows with Ratty and Moley and Mr Toad - still excellent I'm pleased to say.

But how, for example, do they find each other? Do they shout? Tap coded messages on their tunnel walls? Have annual arrangements to all meet by the river in Wetherby on the second Sunday in May? I have never seen a mole in the wild - the closest I have come to seeing one was seeing a molehill with earth shooting out of the top, like a little volcano. I was rather thrilled.

Of course, if you want a formal garden (and I don't) then moles are a Bad Thing and the Royal Horticultural Society is full of advice as to how to get rid of them, using words like "symptoms" and "infested".

All right, if you have one of those immaculate, stripy lawns then I can see molehills might be a bit of a problem. Our lawn is infested with daisies and clover and I'm happy for it to stay that way. And if any moles move in, they'll be welcome.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Big Wave

It was a chilly day in October and I was over in Barrow collecting Amy, my mother's schoolfriend and great friend to all of us. We decided to go for a walk on the beach.

It was a grey day: the waves were all fiddling and small. Not a day that was very photogenic really but of course I had my camera with me and was at the top of the beach taking a photograph of some driftwood when I turned round and saw Amy standing looking at the waves.

Ah! that'll make quite a good picture, I thought, but as I pressed the button I realised that the wave - pictured above - was not as fiddling and small as it looked. As it approached the beach it was obvious that it was was a freak wave that was just going to keep coming and coming up the beach. I shouted to Amy who had already noticed this but had no time to turn round so ran backwards up the beach until the wave caught up with her and knocked her over. While she was running backwards, I was running towards her and by the time I reached her she was already on her feet, apparently unharmed, though very wet.

"Did you get it?" she shouted.

"Get what?"

"The photograph! Of the wave knocking me over!"

"Well, no," I explained, "because by then I was trying to stop you from being drowned, which seemed a distinct possibility."

She was rather disappointed by my lack of photographic evidence of this huge wave doing its worst, and we continued our walk.

When I am over eighty, I hope that I will have the same approach to life as Amy.

Friday, May 19, 2006

It's lovely once you're in

A beautiful beach on a lovely sunny summer day - what could be better? This is the North Beach in Tenby on the South Wales coast last July. I have been to Tenby many times and love swimming in the sea there - it's clean and clear and not too cold. There are hermit crabs and fish to look at and the occasional jellyfish to dodge and the waves are just high enough to be interesting.

So I'll stay in the sea for over an hour: late afternoon's the best time. I will swim up and down and jump over the waves until everyone else has come out of the sea and is ready to go back for tea and they are all calling me from the beach.

It was my mother who started it. She was brought up in Barrow-in-Furness which is thought of by many as a slightly grim industrial town with a shipyard. But there are very many lovely beaches round about. No spectacular cliffs, just long expanses of sand and pebbles and dunes with oyster catchers and gulls pecking about. My mother loved them and spent all her childhood and teenage years heading for the beach as often as possible.

So when I was little, we went to visit my mother's relatives in Barrow, and as soon as we decently could made for the beach at top speed.

It was never warm and always windy, and the beach at Walney is covered in pebbles which hurt your feet. But although it was April, and freezing cold, and the sky was grey and the sea was grey there was no question - we were going in.

Out of our clothes and into our swimming costumes and the burning agony of putting our feet in and then the deep chill as the water crept up our bodies, deeper and deeper until the bravest one plunged in. Up went the traditional cry:

"It's lovely once you're in." So in we went, for as long as we could stand it, and then out we came, shivering so hard we could barely speak.

My mother was clearly mad, indoctrinating her children in this way. But, as the Jesuits said, give me a child until she is seven years old - - oh, I loved it. I still love it. Show me any beach, any time of year, I'll be in the sea.

My mother is well over eighty so of course can't be expected to swim in freezing cold seas any more. Not for so long, anyway. Sometimes she comes out after only twenty minutes.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


"Miss, can I talk to you, Miss?" asked Michelle.
"Yes, okay, what is it?"

That fourth year were known throughout the staffroom as a bit of a nightmare. It wasn't really that they were difficult to teach: more that you'd had a big success if you succeeded in getting them all inside the classroom and sitting down.

It was a girls' school, so many people assumed that it would be easier to teach in than a mixed school, but that wasn't the case. It was in a very deprived area of the city and most of the pupils found much of what was taught completely irrelevant to their lives, which were filled with drugs, alcohol and petty crime.

I wasn't even a permanent teacher there, I was a supply teacher, filling in for the many who were off ill with stress. Although I was theoretically on supply, in practice I was there almost every day for three years.

One day I called the register and when I got down to one girl's name she didn't reply.
"Where is Alison today?"
"Don't know, Miss, haven't seen her since Friday, miss."

By lunchtime we all knew that Alison was dead: she and her mother had been found hanging from the banisters, killed by her mother's boyfriend.

Because I was on supply and all the teachers were thoroughly exhausted, they used to swap the classes round so I ended up with the ones everyone liked least. After a while we got used to each other and they knew what I would let them get away with (non-uniform clothing: quite a lot of talking) and what I wouldn't (wandering round the classroom: fighting). I even got very fond of some of them, once I saw the whole year-group together and realised that they looked like underfed, badly-clothed Dickensian waifs. No wonder they were difficult to teach.

So, back to Michelle who was fourteen, small, pale and skinny. I let the others go out and then asked her what she wanted to talk to me about.

"Miss, I'm pregnant," she said with no preamble at all. Her parents didn't know and her ex-boyfriend didn't want to know.

I asked her what she wanted me to do next and she thought - very sensibly - that the thing to do would be to tell her Head of Year, Mrs Jones. She was too scared to do it, so I said I would.

I sought out Mrs Jones (who wasn't called Mrs Jones any more than Michelle was called Michelle, of course) after school and explained that Michelle had told me she was pregnant.

"Oh, that's terrible!" she said. She was a large, boisterous woman with a very loud voice.

I agreed that it was very sad, what with Michelle being only fourteen and not having a supportive family - -

"Oh no, I don't mean that. Loads of them get pregnant, the fools. I mean the fact that she told you. You're only a supply teacher, after all. She should have told me. I shall make sure she knows that when I see her tomorrow."

Michelle had an abortion and returned to school a couple of weeks later looking even smaller, paler and thinner. She'll be thirty-four now and I have often wondered what has happened to her, and whether she has any children.

I never spoke to Mrs Jones again. I might have said something I meant.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Aber Bottel Corner

"So, how do you spell it, Dad?"
"Aber Bottel."
"You don't spell it at all. It's Yiddish. You don't write it down."
"But I want to write it down. How would I spell it if I did?"
"A - b - e -r - - "
"Oh, come on, it can't be like that, it's Yiddish and that's like German. It must be with an e and then an l. Bottel. What's the literal meaning?"
"Sort of past it in an old-age-bonkers kind of way."
"Yes, I know that's what it means, but what does it mean, exactly?"
"Well, I suppose Aber is Uber, meaning over - - "
"Good - - "
"and Bottel means - - er - - well - - Bottle."
"Over the bottle? Admit it, you've no idea, have you?"
"No. But I know what it means."

Some people, including my father, think being over eighty is an excuse to be Aber Bottel. Talk to him about the activities of the Government of the USA and his mind is completely sharp. (In fact, do not try this: he knows more than you do, I promise you, and will argue you into a corner and it will take a very, very long time and you will regret it, possibly for ever.)

But on a familiar car journey he is in Aber Bottel Corner. He has three obsessions: pubs, nappies and back-seat driving of the most alarming kind.

The pubs are always the same:
"We had a meal here once. It was rubbish."

The nappies are always the same:
"This is where we stopped to change your nappy."

"Dad, what year was that, exactly?"
"Well, I'm just telling you."

Sometimes you can get exciting new combinations:

"This is the pub where we stopped to change your nappy. They didn't do food then. They do now, though. They've got a new sign up. No, don't look at it! THERE'S A CAR ON YOUR TAIL! THERE'S A CAR ON YOUR TAIL!"

But, this weekend, there was a whole new development.

"We stopped at this pub once. They sell stuffed bees."


"Stuffed bees. You know. To eat."


"Bees. You know. To eat. Stuffed."

"Dad, nobody eats stuffed bees."

"They do. And you can buy them here."

I never did get to the bottom of it. If you have any suggestions, I should welcome them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Haunted Cottage

On the outskirts of Barrow-in-Furness lie the remains of Furness Abbey, once one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in England and built from rich, red beautiful sandstone.

I took these photographs at dusk last weekend. The abbey is always magnificent and, perhaps because of its secluded setting, always slightly spooky.

I expect it's supposed to be haunted - I think a ghost or two is the least that may be expected from any decent abbey. Some years ago I knew the curator of Abingdon Abbey and he said he often saw ghostly monks gliding along, only visible from the knees upwards because the level of the floor had been raised in later years and nobody had told the ghosts.

At Furness Abbey, however, it's not the abbey that's known for being haunted, it's the cottage nearby.

I took this photo at dusk so it's a bit dark. If you click on this link and scroll down until you get to the aerial photograph, the cottage can be seen just to the right of the road, half-way up the photo on the right-hand side.

It looks like a perfectly ordinary cottage and over the years it's had quite a lot of money spent on it, but my Barrow relatives, who live nearby, tell me that nobody ever stays there for long.

Now look, folks, it's 2006 not 1306 so let's be grown up and search for a logical explanation. If you look at the position of the cottage, it's very near the Abbey - always liable to give ideas to a vivid imagination - and yet with no houses in sight. It's very dark round about, and next to a wood. And finally, a stream runs next to the cottage and streams make strange noises - and perhaps they can alter the air pressure too, and it's a well-known theory that differences in air pressure make people feel uneasy.

There we have it. Of course it's not really haunted.

So would you spend the night there on your own?

No, me neither.

Monday, May 15, 2006

1984 - part two

After my waters broke I was in hospital for seven days without, apparently, anything happening. The most likely thing was that I would go into premature labour.

"You'll probably be all right. Your baby probably won't," someone said, and I was at least grateful to be told something, even if it was bad news, because mostly they didn't tell me anything. I didn't know the job or rank of any of the staff because I had not been in hospital for years, and then only briefly, and there didn't seem to be any way of finding out.

Not knowing what to do with me, they put me in a side ward and, it seemed to me, forgot about me. I wasn't allowed to get out of bed and frequently they forgot to bring me meals: but I didn't really care, I was too anxious to eat.

What did bother me was the window, which would neither open nor shut. So it remained open a tiny crack. I asked it it would open more, to let in some fresh air.

"No," I was told, "it won't, in case you try to throw yourself out."

I tried to explain that the fact that I was in a stuffy room with a window that wouldn't open made me want to throw myself out. She made no comment.

Because the window would neither open nor shut, a tiny draught came in through it, just enough to make the door bang if the door was not properly shut. And hardly anyone shut it, they just pulled it to. And I was expressly forbidden to get out of bed.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Eventually I could stand it no more and rang the bell.

Someone finally came.

"Sorry to bother you, but please could you shut the door?"

Wrong approach. Look of total who-does-she-think-she-is contempt.

"I'm not supposed to get out of bed, and the door bangs, because the window won't shut."

"I'll shut the window then."

She tried to shut the window. It didn't shut.

"Well, I've done my best with it."

"Actually, it's not that I want the window shut. It's that I want the door shut. So it doesn't bang."

She glared at me.

"Well, I've shut the window. That should do it. And now I must get on."

She pulled the door to, and she was gone.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

If I'm ever in Hell, I'll be back in that room.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Wandering Lonely as a Cloud

"Shall I look at the map and work out a route, then?" I asked them, once we had decided to go from Barrow-in-Furness to Coniston Water yesterday.

"Oh, no need, we know the way," said my parents and Amy.

Indeed they did know the way, kind of: but my mother and Amy, who were schoolfriends, learned it as teenagers on bicycles during the Second World War. All the roadsigns had been removed in case Adolf Hitler, or one of his minions, landed in the middle of the Lake District whilst looking for Barrow-in-Furness where the ships were built.

So Mum and Amy learned the way to everywhere by studying what the way looked like: and while doing this they found that there were lots of different ways to nearly everywhere.

Also, my mother - possibly because she was naturally left-handed and was taught to use her right hand at school - has never known her left from her right. So her way of giving directions in the car is to shout "Left - - I mean right! My way! Turn my way!"

Amy has a different method. All ways are good to her and she finds it hard to choose.

"Which way do I go at the crossroads, Amy?"

"Well, left is a good way. So you could go left. Mind you, right is pretty too - - that's through Nibthwaite. But straight on is lovely, there are lots of bluebells that way".

Meanwhile, my father, the eponymous Marxist-Leninist, desperate to restore order to what he sees as all this chaos, barks directions as to a platoon.

"Left! Turn left NOW! Mind that car! Watch out for the ditch! There's a car on your tail! CAR ON YOUR TAIL!"

Also, they have an inner certainty that I too must really know the way:

"But you've been here before, Daphne! We've brought you to Coniston, I know we have!"

"Yes, Dad. In nineteen-sixty-seven. I don't remember it too clearly."

I know it was nineteen-sixty-seven because it was the week that Donald Campbell died trying to break the speed record on Coniston - even though I was very young I remember the shock of it. The only other thing I remember from that visit is knowing that this was the lake where the Swallows and Amazons stories were based, and the idea of being on a boat on a Lake District lake was thrilling to me - still is, as a matter of fact.

Ah well, after twenty-six miles of baffling directions my passengers proved they did indeed know the way, because we reached Coniston. It was a misty day and it looked like this:

Some latter-day Swallows and Amazons were preparing to go out on the water:

Beautiful. Lake District magic.

Now then, bearing in mind that if Scott of the Antarctic had been directed by my mother and Amy he would have by now have been known as Scott of Somewhere Near Barcelona, I have a good idea for a television programme.

Amy and Joan's Grand Tour

They start off in a car at, say, Windermere, and the driver follows their directions for a week, and we see where they travel and where they end up. It would be riveting. I might even be prepared to drive.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Dream Verse

I always keep a pen and some paper beside my bed in case I wake up remembering a dream - they vanish so fast, and I like to think about them if I can.

Sometimes, strangely, I dream in verse. Not poetry - it's never good enough to be what I'd call poetry - but rhyming verse. Provided I can get to the paper fast enough I can write it straight down.

Sometimes it's just a fragment:

To the blue sky - and away!
Another sulky sultry summer's day.

Very, very occasionally it's more than a fragment. Once I woke up dreaming I was trying to push past a lot of people down the aisle of a cinema, and immediately wrote this down:

Always I had the feeling
Of hanging around at the back
Of standing behind the others
Always I felt the lack
Now I am moving forwards
Sidling down the side
The aisle is rather narrow
And I am rather wide
But what will I do in the morning
When I finally reach the front?
A realisation is dawning
I don't really know, to be blunt.

Hardly subtle, and it did ring rather true with me when I thought about it - but how strange that my subconscious mind should invent the whole thing in my sleep (I quite like the line "sidling down the side".)

It's true, I suppose, that it's the same mind that I use when awake and I have always found that writing rhyming verse comes easily to me. If you give me a rhyme scheme and a fixed number of lines (such as a sonnet) then I can generally come up with something reasonably pleasing, but not profound.

Great poetry is harder. I can't seem to do it when awake (well, I don't try much, in case it's rubbish) and I don't seem to do it when asleep either, which is a shame.

And now I'm off to Barrow-in-Furness and some Cumbrian hills and beaches, so my next post will be on Sunday evening. I hope you have a good weekend.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Deserted Park

If I had to choose, it would be wild countryside over formal gardens every time.

But I must say the Monet Garden at Roundhay Park in Leeds looked wonderful this morning:

So did Canal Gardens, which is also part of Roundhay Park:

And the Upper Lake looked fantastic in the sunshine with its fountains going:

And one of the glories of Roundhay Park is that you can also find places like this:

Yet there's something strange going on here. Glorious May morning, about nine o'clock, beautiful park - - where are all the people?

In the 2001 census Leeds had a population of 715404 and I certainly don't think the population has decreased since then. I'm often in the park first thing in the morning, and I'm usually surprised by how few people there are.

I know that a large proportion of the population will be at work at that time (my work doesn't start until ten) but where are all the others? I see the same relatively few people over and over again. I know the park is very large and can absorb a lot of people but even so, out of 715404 people you'd think there'd be quite a few of them out in the morning sunshine.

Where are they all?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


I can't say I hadn't been warned. 1984 had nothing at all to recommend it in George Orwell's novel of that title and I remember wondering, as the year approached, if it would indeed be significant in any way.

It looked as though it might be. Married in 1980, by May 1984 I was pregnant for the first time, and delighted to be so.

In early September we went on holiday with some friends to a couple of log cabins at a camp site in Wensleydale. Lovely weather, beautiful scenery, congenial company.

One early morning I stood by myself outside the cabin and looked across the valley at the hills and the heavy late-summer trees. I couldn't be happier, I thought. Then the whole view slowly filled up with blackness. I didn't know what to make of it: I blinked, it cleared, the view of the Dales reappeared.

Four weeks later I came back from a day's teaching and lay down on the sofa for a little sleep. It had been a quiet day with the afternoon spent in a staff meeting, but nevertheless the pregnancy was making me more tired than usual.

I woke up in a flood. Water everywhere, the sofa wet, me wet. I knew immediately what had happened - my waters had broken, and I was only six months pregnant.

The ambulance crew were being jolly and trying to keep me cheerful -

"Don't worry, love, your baby's on its way."

I tried to explain that I was only six months pregnant but they were having none of it.

"Plenty of women get their dates wrong. Let's see what they say at the hospital."

At the hospital they asked me two questions which were, with hindsight, fully indicative of what I might expect:

"Are you sure you haven't just wet yourself?"


"So, I expect you've been doing some painting and decorating to cause this, have you?"

I could see the blackness stretching ahead, and I was right.

That's enough of 1984 for now. I'll come back to it, but not tomorrow - I wouldn't want to spend too long there at once. So back to this gloriously sunny afternoon in May 2006.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Here's the old pear tree at the bottom of the garden. You can't really see the size from this photograph, but it's taller than my parents' house, which is next to it. We live in an old Victorian house and my parents' house was built in its grounds in the year 2000.

This tree is probably nearly a hundred years old - it was huge when my parents bought the house in 1959.

Most years, like this year, it is covered in blossom which turns in time into huge, deadly pears that rain down in autumn like coconuts. Any car parked underneath is likely to gain a dented roof. Any person standing underneath is likely to gain a dented head. It's a wonder Health and Safety haven't made us chop it down.

And what does the beautiful blossom make me think of? School exams, that's what. As I trooped off to school for the first of my exams the tree would be in full blossom, the sun would be shining (well, sometimes) and my head would be full of better things to do.

Now, years later, my daughter is doing the same thing: I watched her walk past the tree yesterday, glancing at the blossom on the way to her History exam.

But in the seventies at least, after the torment of O-levels, we had a two-year gap before taking any more external exams. What? Young people in danger of having a bit of fun? Quick, fill the gap with some more exams!

So now they have AS-levels. I think these were originally designed so that people who decided not to take their A-levels after all and so left after the Lower Sixth (or Year 12 as it is now called) would still have some qualifications.

But that isn't how it has worked in practice. No, everybody takes AS levels now, not just those who are planning on leaving, and the grades have become yet another thing to be taken into account when applying for college or university.

I know I worked hard in the Lower Sixth, but at least I only had school exams at the end of it. We're only seventeen once: and exams should only form a small part of the many things that seventeen-year-olds should be doing, which should include going for romantic walks in the countryside and playing the guitar in darkened rooms.

Otherwise we risk bringing about a society where the most intelligent adults have never learned to be creative, to have hobbies, to use some of their leisure time well and to mis-spend some of it. They will only have learned to follow a syllabus and to work for exams.

I shall be old and the world will be full of dull young people who will talk about statistics as they rush past me.

Abolish AS-levels! Now!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Hockey in the Dark

One of the things than annoyed me about school was that they were forever trying to teach you how to do things without showing you what the end result should be like, so you never understood what you were aiming at.

So I learned to knit by knitting a dishcloth out of string. Exciting, n'est-ce pas? What child could resist the temptation of knitting a lovely white dishcloth? The idea that you might go on to knit a jumper in something that wasn't string was entirely lost on me.

And when I came to learn the clarinet, nobody explained that if I put in enough effort then eventually it would stop making those disgusting sqeaking noises and - if I was very lucky - start sounding at least a bit like Acker Bilk playing Stranger on the Shore. They expected me to know these things.

And they expected me to know what hockey was about. Goodness knows why, since nobody ever explained the rules. As far as I was concerned, hockey involved wearing a red or a blue bib-thing that slipped over your head, with an aertex shirt and some black shorts and some boots. Then two sporty girls hit each other's sticks together in the middle and everyone ran about aimlessly in the freezing cold while the teacher blew her whistle a lot. Then the bell went and we all trooped off to French or some proper subject.

My mother liked hockey. My mother was, in her day, the Captain of Leeds University Hockey Team. But if she tried to explain it to me, I wasn't listening, and it was only years later when I saw a bit of the England hockey team on television, skilfully passing the ball to each other, that I went oh - - I see - - - that's what it was supposed to be about.

But meanwhile, the baffling game of aimless running around in the cold continued. Then, one year when I was about thirteen, something happened. Time changed. Or rather it didn't. They kept British Summer Time in the winter, as an experiment.

So this meant that the evenings were lighter and children could come home from school in safety, whistling merrily, for lo! it was still light. Hurrah.

But they didn't seem to have considered that what it also meant was that in the mornings it was pitch dark until about half-past nine.

We started school at half-past eight. And Games was the first lesson. So now we had the interesting game of Hockey in the Dark.

And now it was that a certain amount of low cunning on my part came into play. We were always split into two teams and they were always the same - - one was full of keen, sporty volunteers who loved any games. Show them a field with frost on it and they were ready to die from happiness.

Then there was the other team, the Can't Play Won't Play team. Full of people like me.

My new strategy went like this. The teacher sorted out the Keen Team first.

"Who wants to be Goal Defence?"

"Oh, me, Miss, please Miss!" cries Daphne, waving her arms in feigned expression of crazed excitement.

"Very well," says the astonished teacher, handing me the appropriate bib.

Now the Goal Keeper had to wear pads and look keen. All Goal Defence did, as far as I could see, was try to keep the ball away from the goal if it came down that end of the pitch.

And, because I was Goal Defence on the Keen Team, it never, ever, did. All I saw of the ball that winter was a little white dot flitting about in the blackness at the far end of the pitch. I could barely make out the dim shapes of the teacher and the rest of the girls and managed to blot out the shrill blasts of the whistle until the faint dawn light showed that it was nearly time to return to the classroom.

Sometimes I had a chat with the Goal Keeper. Sometimes I just stood and thought. Sadly my experiment with reading a novel didn't get very far as it was too dark. And okay, it was still freezing cold.

But my thoughts were my own. I had, temporarily, escaped.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Accidental Art

Sometimes I come across things that aren't really art at all but which are so pleasing to the eye - my eye at least - that I have to take a photograph of them.

I love this tower, and I can't explain why - but what a great shape!

And this little letter box, found in a French village:

I usually like simplicity, but in this I like its fussiness - it is a letter box with attitude and self-importance.

This is, I think, an old dog-kennel and I like the slight air of decay with the tangled Spring greenery around it. There's something that always moves me about oldness and newness together but I have never quite worked out why.

This is just sunshine on a rock - but I like the stripes. Spring sunshine! Hurrah!

I think this is my favourite of all of these and it's an old ivy-covered tree stump by a river in the rain. I love those greens together.

It's hard to tell whether it's the shapes that I like, or the colours, or the associations and thoughts that they give me - probably a mixture of all of these. But it's a very individual thing - sometimes when I show them to other people I can see them thinking "What?"

What do you think?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Stars

We're all bound to be related to somebody famous - though it depends upon what you call "famous" with the transient celebrity status given by television these days.

In the 1960s the name at the forefront of medical science was Dr Christian Barnaard (sometimes spelled Barnard) who conducted the world's first heart transplant. So I was really rather excited to discover that I was related - only distantly, mind - to the person who received it even though, sadly, he only lived for eighteen days afterwards.

More glamorously, I am also apparently distantly related to the 1950s comedian and film star, Danny Kaye - now sadly out of fashion but I very much enjoyed his films as a child, particularly The Court Jester with its endless permutations of

The potion with the poison's in the chalice from the palace
The vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true

The third - and last, so far as I know - famous person to whom I am related is the astrologer Jonathan Cainer.

I've got a bit of a problem with this one, because I've always believed that astrology is a load of rubbish.

It has to be. Because - so I've been told, please correct me if I'm wrong - astrology looks at the positions of the stars as though they were blobs of cotton wool on a black blanket - flat, in two dimensions. And space isn't like that. When you're looking at the stars, you're looking back in time. I usually look at Nasa's Astronomy Picture of the Day and it's always awe-inspiring.

When you've looked at a few of these, the idea that the position of any of the stars when you're born could have anything to do with your personality or your future, just seems incomprehensible.

There's a whole vocabulary used in astrology that has always seemed completely closed to me, because my mind is completely closed to it.

"This year's Lunar Standstill, though, is more like a magical mist that will descend gradually and then thicken to the point when we are all lost in a fog of emotional elation. We could remain wrapped in it for months before the effect wears off as subtly as it came on."


And yet I know many intelligent people who are completely into astrology. Don't pay any attention to the horoscopes in the newspapers, they say, they're just journalism - - but if you get a proper reading, it can be really illuminating.

HOW? I don't understand how it can possibly work. It seems to me to be a leftover from hundreds of years ago when we knew even less about the universe than we do now.

So I had a read of Jonathan Cainer's website and I looked under "Your Sign - The Truth" and I read about my sign, which is Cancer, and if you want to know what I'm like, well, that's exactly what I'm like. Ask anyone who knows me.


Friday, May 05, 2006

Art or Craft?

Yesterday I asked "What changes something from Craft into Art?" John has written an interesting piece about it on The Unstuck Diaries. Find out why it's more prestigious to be a starving artist than a reasonably-well-off craftsman.

I was thinking about which is which, looking at the photos yesterday. I like the carved woman looking out of the window. Whoever made her would probably think of himself/herself as a craftsman/woman but I don't care whether she is craft or art - I think she's great.

The flying horse is part of Pont Alexandre III, which is considered the most beautiful bridge in Paris. Such things are generally a bit over-the-top for my taste but I thought the whole bridge looked fantastic - if you're going to do showy, that's the way to do it.

I'd normally class the little house - which was actually a box for letters to be put in - as part of Garden Gnome Hell, but at least it was home-made and not a hideous acquisition from some garden centre. Craft, not art, in my opinion, but well-made. In a mediaeval French village they kind of got away with it - - but I feel it's heading for Tweeland and Disneyville and it will all go horribly wrong when Monsieur Dupont from the next village copies the idea and does it badly.

I love the large, twisted piece of wood - I suspect it's probably man-made but I couldn't get near enough to look without treading on its owner's plants. If it isn't a piece of driftwood, it looks like one and that's enough for me. I love driftwood in its strange shapes with its mysterious air of long journeys and distant places. To me this piece of wood is art because of the feelings it gives me.

John and David commented that Art is Craft plus passion and courage - that makes a lot of sense to me.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

But is it Art?

Art or craft? Here is a wooden statue looking out of a window in the village of Flavigny in Burgundy, which is where they filmed some scenes of the very enjoyable film Chocolat .

And then I found this, on a bridge in Paris:

Art or craft?

And then this, in a garden in the delightful village of Montreal:

Or this, in the same village, made of wood:

Art or craft? It's strange that we can admire the skill of craftspeople and then say, disparagingly, "but it's not art". Why should it try to be? And what's the difference?

Can a corn dolly ever be art? - - Well I don't think so. If I think of it as a traditional craft I can quite like it: if I think of it as art I don't. How about a peg doll? Or a table? Or a rug?

So what is it that makes the difference? What changes something from Craft into Art?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Playing with Fire

I'm not the only one who likes playing with fire. David Green - who was a boy in my class in South Wales in 1980 whose name has been changed to protect the guilty, apart from the David bit which was true - liked playing with fire too. A lot.

He was fourteen and very small and nobody liked him. Even I didn't like him, and actually I liked almost all the children I ever taught. The trouble is, real life doesn't tend to be like Kes: the deprived child isn't the one with the kestrel, oh no. The one with the kestrel is the clever one who's also good-looking, in the cricket team, from a loving home and with a pretty girlfriend.

David was not very academically able but that wasn't the problem - he was spiteful, smelly, stole from everyone, insulted everyone, hit most people, broke things and made a lot of apparently meaningless noise which drove even his rather noisy classmates nuts. He was what my Uncle Frank used to describe as "something only a mother could love". Though in his case I don't think she did, much: so he set fire to things.

I did feel sorry for him - but that was no help at all when I was trying to thrill the class with the mysteries of the full stop and suddenly I noticed the smoke.

We were in what - in posher schools - was known as a "chalet". In this school, which was a sub-bog-standard comprehensive, it was called "the hut". It smelled of old socks and magnified every sound. Proper grown-up teachers refused to teach in it, but I was in my first year of teaching so I had no choice. It was raining that day so I couldn't really hear much because of the thundering on the roof.

The desks were the old-fashioned kind that you could keep your possessions in - but in this school you wouldn't do that unless you never wanted to see them again. So what they kept in the desks was old paper, sweet wrappers, lost exercise books, all very dry.

"Miss! Miss! David's desk's on fire!"

So it was. Flames shooting up to the ceiling now. With remarkable presence of mind, I slammed the lid shut.

"Miss! Miss! Don't do that, Miss! It'll make it burn more!"

I'm still not sure whether they were very stupid or whether they just hoped that I was, because a bit of an inferno was so much more fun than the full stop.

The fire went out. I turned my attentions to David who was loudly denying that it was anything to do with him in spite of the box of matches in his hand.

I now had the opportunity to demonstrate my professionalism and caring nature.

Sadly I didn't. I had had enough of that school, that class and that boy.

I opened the hut door. I picked David up. I threw him out as hard as I could and noticed with some pleasure that he landed in a deep puddle. The rest of the class were quite impressed. I carried on with the full stops.

Over the next few weeks he set fire to the science block, a local wood, a house next to the school and the Deputy Head's car. Finally they took him away. I don't know what happened to him, but I don't think his story had a happy ending.

I don't feel very proud of my part in it.

Interesting Times

Many thanks to Galileo McFugger who tells me that tonight - or early tomorrow morning - at three seconds past two minutes past one the time and date will be:

01:02:03 04:05:06

And, of course, tomorrow is Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It Warms You Twice

You chop trees down, and then, in an interesting turn of phrase that must be confusing for those learning English, you chop them up.

In the book "Stig of the Dump", one of my childhood favourites, the boy Barney is reminded that firewood warms you twice - once when you cut it into pieces, and once when you burn it.

I didn't do any chopping of wood, either down or up, for our Beltane bonfire - I just stood around and enjoyed it. I've always enjoyed playing with fire. Bonfires are spectacular, fun and strangely comforting - I am sure our love of them must have been hard-wired into us over thousands of years.

Feeling rather wicked, we burned some old paintings that had been left behind by a previous occupant of the house and as they burned they looked appropriately symbolic for the fire festival Beltane.

I like the way that the partly-burned wood piles up and glows and makes shapes and patterns. One of my earliest memories is looking for pictures in my grandparents' fire in their hearth - central heating is far more convenient, of course, but far less romantic.

Then the fire died down and we could no longer see people's faces.

Beltane celebrates the approach of summer. These days we're simply pleased that summer's on its way - in previous centuries people must have been elated just to have survived another winter.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Beltane and Bread and Cheese

Today is the pagan festival of Beltane, which celebrates the coming of summer.

There's lots of blossom about now, of course - here's some blackthorn which I found near Wetherby on Saturday.

Like many blossoming trees and bushes, the flowers of blackthorn appear before the leaves.

Hawthorn, on the other hand, sends its leaves out first, so that the blossom can appear later and justify its other name of May blossom. Here's some hawthorn that I saw yesterday, doing the leaf thing:

In my family these young leaves were always known as "bread and cheese" and I thought it was just something my eccentric relatives had come up with but no, there it is on the BBC site - just click on the Hawthorn link, above.

Certainly we always used to eat it as we walked along - I ate some yesterday - and I have to say that it tastes of neither bread nor cheese: it tastes fresh and Springlike. I suspect - though I don't know and please contradict me if you do know - that it got the name of "bread and cheese" because it was a basic food, found everywhere, that you could always eat if you were hungry: though, I must say, you'd have to eat quite a lot.

This is my favourite time of the year - Spring at last! Let's light a bonfire to celebrate.