Friday, 6 November 2015

School pick-up and "university walk"

Our daughter has returned to work, 28 hours a week, term-time only. She gets to boost her income, we get to do the school pick-up. But that’s what we’ve always done, mucked in and helped out where we can, come rain or shine. Yesterday, the shine was on ‘hold’, and we all got drenched. Actually the twins were double-drenched, having been trudging around the countryside on an autumn walk, and kicking their way back to school through piles of soggy leaves.

So, home for a quick snack, a cuppa, and a half-finished account of a friend’s wonky penguin, from Iris, before setting out again.

In the car, en route to SW’s piano lesson. The rain is incessant, the windows are just about holding their own, against steaming up, although a corner on the passenger side has presented itself as a space where a smiley face can grow. Some fingertip doodling takes place as our conversation swings easily between her latest jokes (invariably made up on the spot, and sometimes landing with all the humour of a cryptic crossword clue) and getting briefed on the days events at school. I listen intently, of course. Who would want to miss delicious tales of a chaotic Spanish lesson, or the scarily accurate impressions of the dinner lady from hell? Not me.

But her attention shifts, as it invariably does, to my schooldays. Did I have teachers I didn’t like? Did I have teachers I did like, and why? Was I naughty? Did I get told off?

Fortunately, the journey is a relatively short one, but I did have time to put my case and explain that most teachers in my day possessed little by way of a personality you could admit to liking. In fact, we went to school to learn, not like. If we did like, it was fortuitous, and the hands of the classroom clock moved a tad faster.

She shook her head in disbelief at ‘hands on heads’, ‘fingers on lips’, ‘go and stand in the corner’. She winced at the thought of corporal punishment being administered to naughty children, in front of the entire class. Thank goodness, kids don’t have to endure the threat of a size ten plimsoll these days. Yet, in the news, this article, about the ‘university walk’, recently introduced in St George the Martyr primary school in central London. Apparently, “It was introduced to strengthen pupil safety, further raise the aspirations of pupils and to maximise learning time.”

I have to say, in my opinion, the idea is totally bonkers, and I’m prepared to stand on my chair for the remainder of the lesson for saying so!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Peripheral Autumn?

We’ve witnessed plenty through our enormous lounge window, a double-glazed aperture offering a wide angled view of the world beyond the confines of our first-floor flat.

Autumn, from the corner of my eye?

Through it, we’ve witnessed a street fight, between combatants who had lingered too long in the beer tent at the village fete, and I recall with sadness, the solemn arrival of a private ambulance that came to collect the body of a young mother in the adjacent block. Visions of a tenant we called ‘Fishman’, who cycled habitually, and wildly along the road with fresh trout dangling from his handlebars, stay with me. One Saturday afternoon a bolting horse with gig in tow, careered off the road and crashed through a neighbour’s fence, the gig a tangled wreck. The horse, afterwards, remarkably calm, steadily grazed its way through a planted border while the breathless owner gulped air and scratched his head.

We’ve seen an armed response unit, called after someone reported a knife-wielding individual in the area. Brides have left for church, and neighbours have graduated from parents to grandparents, just like us. Recently, very early on a Sunday morning, a large brown horse wandered past with a Jacob sheep a few paces behind. After a few minutes, they walked slowly past once more, and out of the Close. I could on.

Perhaps, more importantly, the window has presented wonderful opportunities for photography. It’s held raindrops steady on its surface for me to record, allowed me to access cloud formations without needing to venture outside, drawn my attention to a heron on a neighbour’s roof, a sparrow hawk with it’s kill, rainbows, and the beautifully lit foliage of maple trees, opposite. It has also, year upon year, framed the seasons. But today, I was presented with what might be considered as the turning of a season, and it was only while reviewing some experimental snaps on my iPhone, that the phenomenon appeared to me, hugely obvious yet peripheral, at one and the same time. Surrounding me, yet held at a point beyond the glass.

My thanks to Jennyfreckles, for the 'heads up' on the "Slow Shutter" app.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Designs on Saving the Planet

So proud of Primrose (aka SW). Along with the designs of four other competition winners from school, her artwork is prominently displayed on the cab of a brand new lorry; one of a fleet belonging to a recycling firm in Hampshire.

The message is loud and clear, "Recycle and Save the Planet!"

When the lorry turned up at the school, we were eager to see how the finished product looked. Then, one of the teachers spotted it and said, "Here it is, on this side. Those are definitely Primrose people." I have to agree, her figures are certainly distinctive. Those of you who visit regularly will already know this.

Of course, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to sit in the driver's seat, original design in hand.

Friday, 16 October 2015


I watched as he stacked the dried hedge trimmings. He moved gracefully from one small pile to another, stabbing the tangled mess with an old pitchfork before holding it high, like a sacrifice. With long strides he worked around the coarse-carpeted field, quietly. Even his heavy corduroy trousers chafed in a whisper. The hobnailed boots crushed debris into the soft earth, with no audible protest.

When he was out of sight, beyond the growing stack, I turned my attention to the sky, and the clouds that moved like migrating spirits, beyond the limits of the freshly trimmed horizon. It was as though they were compelled to escape from where nature had been cut back. I imagined their great shifting bodies of cumulus seeking to mirror a wilder terrain.

He returns and pushes the pitchfork hard into the ground. “Better light up,” he says. I’m excited because I know there’s going to be a blaze.

“Fetch up some little bits and pieces like this.” He holds his huge, calloused hand in front of me, a small replica stack of dry grass and tiny twigs sitting steadily in his palm.

I scouted around, eager to please. “This enough?”

“Lay it in that space I’ve left at the bottom of the stack.”

I did as instructed, and waited.

He took a cigarette paper from his waistcoat pocket, and crumpled it gently before placing it in the tinder I’d collected. Then, out came his lighter. He clutched it tightly and held my gaze for a moment or two, before handing it down, saying, “Remember, fire is a good servant, but a bad master.”

The lighter felt huge in my hand. I was suddenly conscious of being given enormous power, the power to make fire.

With the first snap, the wheel showered sparks onto the soaked wick. A weak flame wobbled behind the shield of my hand, as I moved it to ignite the small ball of paper. Signs of smoke bled from the stack, and I could see a long, searching tongue of flame reaching to consume its desiccated fare.

Lighting a fire was one thing, managing it, quite another. I was watching again. He used the pitchfork to move the stack around, keeping the flames somewhere near centre. It struck me odd that a fire needed to be constantly wrapped, but I knew, in reality, it needed to be constantly fed.

Eventually, the stack ate itself and shrunk into a grey disc of ash and defiant embers. The heat subsided and the cool of the late afternoon gained the upper hand in a soothing way.

I looked up, the clouds were long gone. Barely visible wisps of smoke sailed past my face and stung my eyes. He was putting his tools away and drawing a thick canvas sheet over them. Those stiff folds would be my seat for the short journey home. I was ready for my tea. I had made fire.


I was inspired to write this post after reading this piece by Kate Blinco in The Guardian, today.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Is he one of ours?

I don’t have any post-mortem photos in my family collection, but I do have a few that come close.

I have no idea who this character is, yet he has a place in the scheme of things, and a story that that was lost the moment he floated free from the memories of those who knew him. His sad anonymity leaves him stranded in a forgotten frame. He has travelled, through a lens and into limbo.

What can we judge from a face, or a pose? Well, the truth is, he can be whatever we want him to be. A kindly uncle, a scheming businessman, a sworn bachelor caught out in his Sunday suit.

How about the setting? Inside a marquee, a funeral parlour, at the site of a grizzly crime, perhaps? A police inspector frozen with a flash for the daily papers?

For me, the great fascination resides in the fact that he had a voice, a laugh. He would have shed tears, of joy and sorrow. He breathed the air, and in quiet moments, possibly before sleep, he would have been conscious of his heartbeat and all the realities that particular awareness brings. Later, he would have dreams, a flood of dramatic episodes and peaceful sensations that would help him imagine what might be, in his waking hours.

But today he can be regarded as dead. Dead, but for this photograph where he relives a brief moment, each time we look upon his image. A photograph that captured an expression, his dimensions and proportions, half a thought, the spark of an idea, a secret, the beginning of a smile, a single heartbeat.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A touch of Alice, by appointment.

I make sure I have a book with me, as I have no idea how long my daughter’s appointment will last. A medical assessment. Nothing to be concerned about, purely routine. As it happens, I never get around to reading a single word of the novel. The wonder of the smartphone proves too much of a draw, and I pass the time catching up on some articles I’ve saved – ah, technology. One piece in particular by Michael Goldfarb, explains beautifully, the distinction between work and employment. My being here explains the difference between work and retirement.

We miss the entrance to the building the first time around, and when at last we find it, we are confronted with a locked door. Instructions on how to gain entry are written on a small square notice, fit for Alice herself. “Press white button, and wait.” Except that there are two white buttons, a plain one and another with the word “white” printed on it. My daughter presses the latter. No answer. No sudden release of the lock. No entry.

We check the time, we’re 15 minutes early – so no white rabbit, then? Does that matter? (the time, not the absence of a rabbit). Surely there’s someone inside?

My daughter decides to call the number given on the website. No sooner than a voice replies, the door clicks and we’re in. But the answered call and the sudden entry are unconnected. When we point out the synchronicity, the receptionist looks bemused, she merely stares down as we ascend the ridiculously steep staircase.

We’re ushered into a small room, I estimate it to be around 8’ x 8’. By the time those waiting amount to five, we are all secretly praying that a cat won’t join us (especially a Cheshire Cat) as there is no way to swing it without causing a fatality.

There’s an assortment of seats, but not enough to accommodate everyone in the room. My daughter eventually plants herself in a POÄNG, a young chap in grimy Hi-Vis leggings squats awkwardly on a seat that may have been donated by a primary school, and I struggle to keep the blood supplied to my legs, on a hard, sharp-edged kitchen chair that had quite possibly, in a previous life, collapsed regularly, under clowns.

Then enters a tall man wearing a woeful expression. He looks even more disconsolate when he discovers there is standing room only. But the receptionist, still looking bemused, crashes kindly through the doorway with an extra seat that rocks and wobbles even before it's occupied. Soon the tall woeful man is sitting…very, very still.

My daughter's name is called, and her place is quickly snapped up. I continue to read, only raising my head when a rather large woman joins us. She has her arm in a sling, and her head buried deep into her shoulders. Should I offer my seat? Isn’t she already visibly in enough trouble without having torture inflicted as well? I notice that her feet are very puffed, like dough rising in her open-toed sandals. I shift and make to get up. The chair creaks and my stomach rumbles loudly, like a random clip from some avant-garde musical composition. In the moments it takes me to get upright, the POÄNG is vacated and the woman takes the weight off her proving feet.

Before I can think about sitting down again, my daughter pops her head around the door. Time to leave, when it was just getting interesting. Now I don’t have the chance to match client to therapy. Is the Hi-Vis chap in for some Hopi Ear Candling? Does the tall, woeful man seek relief with the Alexander Technique? Perhaps the woman with the sling is looking forward to her session of Qigong?

I know one thing, after sitting on that chair, I was almost definitely in need of some Moxibustion and cupping. It took ages for the feeling to return.

Friday, 17 July 2015

An old fish and a concocted sibling

I’ve had this picture on my desktop for a few weeks. I lifted it from one of SW’s illustrated tales, about a difficult girl, Amy, who was being forced to visit her horrible grandmother, who Amy constantly referred to as “an old fish.”

Children get a lot of creative mileage from their relationships with adults. First, the awkwardly connected shapes and colours, and the disproportionate eyes and noses that have you looking sideways in the bathroom mirror for weeks on end. Then the words come, along with the hard-to-explain messages written gleefully in school notebooks. I remember a tense moment when our daughter’s teacher congratulated us on the ‘good news’. “Heather is very excited, I’m sure,” said the woman, beaming. “When is the baby due?”

“Ah, yes, well, Heather has a vivid imagination, as you know…”

The teacher, moving on quickly, “And have you seen her artwork? We’ve been learning about dinosaurs. Aren’t they wonderful?”

But I’ll take any number of situations like that. It proves that the a child is taking note of the world around them, trying to make sense of it, and using creative expression to communicate their conclusions.

There was an interesting piece I read, earlier this week, by Kevin Jones, the headmaster of St John’s College School, Cambridge. Some brilliant quotes from children of various ages. Here are just a few, but if you have five minutes, the full article is well worth the effort.

Art is a break for my mind. In all of the confusion of life I can find peace through it. I can experience my thoughts and feelings in a physical form.”

When I’m drawing or painting I feel I can escape to the place that I am drawing.”

I love making sculpture as anything is possible, and as you work it opens up ideas in your head.”