Sunday, 7 December 2014

Out of the Cold

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” - Albert Camus

In the hollow, dark wasted leaves were soft under the rime crust. I scraped at them with my boot, and they slid over the surface of one another like loosened fish scales.

The trees were mute and severe in the thin light. A small fire burned, smokeless and bright, sitting lightly on the humus, a smouldering crown. Around it, men stood waiting, waiting and whispering, their stories carrying softly into the stillness, on stuttering streams of smoky breath.

I cupped my hands and huffed into them. The short sighs pushed through my fingers and formed frail, momentary clouds around my wrists. I brought my knees up to hug them, and it was noticeable how the skin somehow mirrored the sky, with its indistinct blues and yellows surrounding the small bruised islands of boyhood. The healed wounds, the scars shrouded in secrecy and yet to shine pink and new.

The men had moved silently towards a mature ash, and at the first strike of the axe, the chill was shattered. It collapsed majestically, ringing around the woods and coming to rest at my feet. The pale and persistent head of winter was at once in the hollow with me, and amid the sparks and splinters, claimed what was rightly his.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fifty Years From Ten

I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.
― Alan Watts

50 years ago, today, I was on the cusp of a new life, and didn’t even know it. That’s so often true, when you’re a child. You sense the things that are directly affecting you, day to day, but the bigger picture is the province of grown ups. They call the shots, often with the best of intentions, and you have little choice but to fall into line. So, on my 10th birthday, I had no way of knowing that in a few short months I’d be leaving my grandparents’ home for somewhere that would never be my home, despite the best efforts of a new family and those naturally closest to me.

The Laurels, the house I was so sad to leave.
But that would be my future. In the meantime, I had presents to open. In those days, I was football crazy, football mad, so it wasn't too big a surprise to receive a pair of boots, some red and white hooped socks, and a leather ball. But I also received, a book from my mother, ‘A Pageant of History’.

Those short November days offered me the best of both worlds. Enough daylight, between end-of-school and teatime, to get the boots on and kick the ball about, before devouring the contents of my history book in the soft, yellow light of a low wattage bulb in what we called ‘the kitchen’. In fact, it was a cosiest of living-cum-dining rooms.

Each night, for several weeks, I roped my grandfather into a game of football in the unkempt field adjacent to his house. Me, variously playing as Moore, Greaves, Charlton or Paine, weaving around between the long tufts of grass and playing to the sound of a stiff evening breeze as it passed through the loosely strung power cables hemming the lane. My grandfather kept a makeshift goal, standing solid in his hobnail boots and blocking my shots with his huge splayed hands, fresh from the woods. Only when daylight finally drained away and the final whistle of my grandmother’s shrill call reached our ears, did we beat a path for home.

That particular birthday has remained fresh in my mind for so many reasons. My first in double figures, my last in the house I always regarded as my true home. It was the launch date for the next half century, a length of time I wouldn’t have got my head around as a 10 year old, except maybe, with the aid of my history book. I still have it. It’s a thing I cherish, a chronological record of the lives of others and the events that shaped them.

 The most poignant reminder of my 10th birthday. An inscription from my mother.

Now I have my own significant history to look back on, my own sequence of events that have shaped me. I’ve shared glimpses of that past here, from time to time. Perhaps I'll dig deeper, but for now I’m going to enjoy the day which I’ll spend in the company of my nearest and dearest. I hear tell that a special 'birthday' chicken casserole is being prepared in a house not so far away.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Aliens and woodland scenes

Exactly what goes through the mind of an eight year old, when she's wielding her paints and crayons may never be known for sure. SW has been very productive of late, and this picture, 'An Alien Party', caught my attention for a number of reasons. Who could blame the aliens for celebrating 100 years without having to endure a human invasion? Perhaps a little more worrying is the sign pointing to a risky looking asteroid ride. In case you can't see it clearly, it reads, "Asteroid ride this way. Warning: 90 - 100, because if you die, you don't lose as much of your life."

On the other hand, some pictures are inspired, and the source of the inspiration is revealed eagerly. This second work is based on a painting by SW's great great grandfather. I love it, and I know he'd love it, too.

A woodland scene by Speckly Woo.

A woodland scene by A.J. Gregory.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Scratch to Itch

After I persuaded SW to let me demonstrate a couple of options that might make her Scratch project work a little more effectively, she peered over her specs and cautioned her Nan, “Never work with children, animals, or Ga.”

In the event, she was probably right. My options fell short, and failed to impress. Her technical ability is growing week by week, and I look forward to our Saturday morning Scratch sessions, while Things 1 & 2 are at gym club.

SW started our with this colourful idea...
...but since Halloween, she's been animating ghosts and ghouls.

For those of you who may not be aware, “Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. It is provided free of charge.” It’s something I’ve been dipping into for a while now, and I was delighted to learn that it’s now been introduced into primary schools, as part of a drive towards developing the programmers of tomorrow.

Children learn to work collaboratively and are able to share their creations with others all over the world. It’s a fine initiative by the MIT, and I would highly recommend it to any child with a leaning towards storytelling, inventing games, or animation. Give it a try. It’s completely free, and a lot of fun.  

Monday, 27 October 2014

Kusama comes calling

Apparently, when Yayoi Kusama was ten years old, she announced to her rather well-to-do, conservative family, that she would be a great artist. Three quarters of a century later, long after fulfilling her prediction, she still works at her art, obsessively.

During one of those non-specific conversations adults have with children - you know, those that shift between school updates, the funny thing that happened at the shops, and piecemeal advice in relation to a task in hand, that evaporates quickly under the hot concentration of a young mind – I was describing some of Kusama’s work that I seen in a recent documentary. At the time, SW’s response was little more than a half-hearted, “Hmm.”

Today, she turned up on a visit – SW, not Kusama – gripping a sheet of paper, and obviously keen for me to see what might be the first in a sequence of efforts. Without having seen any of Kusama’s paintings, she had produced something purely from my almost unacknowledged descriptions. I think what impresses me most is the confidence SW shares with many children of her age. She has, not necessarily the clearest vision of the finished article in mind, but she works steadily towards a conclusion, having formed an unshakable belief in those component parts that emerge from her imagination.

Artwork by SW

There is definitely something in the hearts and minds of children that allows them to express visually, an idea or arrangement of the world they inhabit, without fear of criticism or failure. And anyone who has tried to point out the errors associated with an upside-down tree that has blue foliage, will know exactly what I mean. As for polka dots, don’t even go there. Leave it to people who know how polka dots should be applied. People like Kusama, and any child artist, whether they recognise that they have a calling or not.

Click to see Heart of Flowers, by Yayoi Kusama

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Another Way and a Few Puddles

I haven't posted here for a while, but I haven't been idle. Firstly, Ciara Brehony of Milkmoon fame, and I have just launched a new blog. It's called Another Way, and if you have ideas of how we might better educate our children, do drop by and join the conversation. There's an active group on Facebook, too. New members are always welcome.

Secondly, I've been stretching the lens on my iPhone, to see what I might achieve. The following shots were all taken hereabouts, usually when out walking. Trees, puddles, reflections. You know the sort of thing.

Puddle 1

Puddle 2
Puddle 3
The puddle source.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Death of a shepherd

Give a young child a blank sheet of paper, some colouring pens or crayons, and ask them to draw a picture of the countryside, stand back and expect the unexpected.

The imagination of a five year old won’t be held or contained by a prescribed landscape. There may well be elephants climbing a mountain and a rocket ship in the farmer’s back yard. More importantly, there will be good reasons for both.

When we came across a shepherd’s mobile dwelling, in the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey, last weekend, the grandchildren were all over it like a rash. Instinctively, you want to inform and enlighten, but it’s so much more fun to hear what they have to say.

We climbed the steps and entered the tiny space where the shepherd would have sheltered when he wasn't out and about, tending his flock. At the far end of the caravan was a short bunk. “That’s where the shepherd would have slept,” I said.

Yes, and he died there too,” came the solemn response.

“Well, we can’t know that for sure, can we?”

I do. I know that.”

Later, when we were taking a final look from the outside, one of the twins tugged at my elbow. “You see those wheels, Ga?

“Yes, I see them.”

They’re on the shepherd’s house because he’s allowed to go on holiday.”

“Oh, I see.”

So nice to know that the poor chap managed to enjoy a short break before expiring in his bed.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Another Way

About 8 months ago, Ciara Brehony and I set up a Facebook page called simply, Another Way. Our blurb states, “News and views about the way our children are educated, along with possible alternatives and changes that might benefit learning in the 21st Century.”

I doubt if the education of our children has never been a more closely scrutinised topic than it is today. Home schooling is as popular as ever, free schools and academies springing up all over the place, confusion reigning supreme in an area of vital importance to parents and pupils alike.

Yesterday, our little group swelled by three new members, bringing the total to 60. In light of that milestone, I’d like to share a short video clip that was posted earlier this week. It’s just food for thought. And that’s the key thing about education isn’t it? Keeping an open mind and investigating all routes towards helping our children fulfil their potential.

Another Way is open to anyone, so if you have a Facebook account, and you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to join us.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Fresh air, ice-cream, and going ape!

Had a fabulous family day out at Moors Valley Country Park. Although we paused for a ride on the miniature steam railway, ice-creams, and multiple playground activities, there was adventure and celebration in the air, too.

Now 35 years old, I think this little girl might be past close encounters with bears. Even those with a seat and wheels! However, her daughter, SW, was very keen to 'Go Ape' with her dad.

And, do you remember what I said in my last post, about scaling fallen tree trunks, twice your own height? Well, as far as Things 1 and 2 are concerned, it's mission accomplished!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Breathing Space

We’ve been planning a family visit to London for this coming weekend, in part to celebrate our daughter’s birthday, but also to take the opportunity to introduce our grandchildren to the ‘sights’. So why are we now heading for a country park instead? Well, it’s a question of breathing space, really.

Once you start to organise a day out in the capital city, for four adults and three small children, it’s not just the Millennium Eye that’s rotating. Anyone who’s familiar with the film of Fantastic Mr Fox will know that possum feeling.

Yes, it’s disappointing not to be taking the little ones on an exciting – for them -  train ride. It’s not such a let down to know that we’ll avoid the crush on the Tube, the fumes, the crowds, the noise, etc.

No doubt, after a day of running and climbing in the woods, there will be three pairs of tired young legs, not to mention the four pairs of considerably older legs. But it’s a different kind of achiness you get, keeping your balance, or testing your ability to scale fallen tree trunks that are twice your height.

Cities can leave you drained in so many ways, so we’re leaving the stone steps and concrete pavements for another day. It reminds me of a time, around 30 years ago, when we were visiting relatives near Southampton, having driven up from our home in Cornwall. We were out in the car on a Saturday morning, when our daughter – 5 or 6 at the time -  surveyed the scene before remarking that she was bothered by the constant movement of so many people. As I recall, she was most anxious about where they were all going to. It would have been so tempting to quote a line or two of Donovan’s ‘The Observation’.

On the sidewalk the people are hustling and bustling
They ain't got no time so they think on the thing
That will fill in the space in between birth and death
Who're they kidding?

Obviously I exercised restraint, on that occasion, something I can guarantee the grandchildren won’t be doing when we turn up here!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Jobs Worth

I don’t recall anyone ever asking me “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The usual, tired mantras, espoused by parents and teachers alike, were rooted in an unchallengeable work ethic. Keep your head down, keep your nose clean – easier said than done, whilst pressed hard against the grindstone – and learn, learn, learn.

Frankly, much of the last part was lost on me, as it was on many of my contemporaries. The incentives to learn were not so clearly explained in those days, and academic apathy combined with painfully narrow horizons, resulted in many of my cohort stumbling out of school, into a fug of employment possibilities filed under ‘Dead End’.

I recall someone I had an appointment with, a nonchalant woman – I don’t think the term ‘Career Advisor’ had been invented then – who offered me 17 ‘possibilities’ from her card-index of jobs. The options were hardly mouth-watering. Making wooden crates for a packaging company, creosoting railway sleepers, carpet factory, etc, etc. Eventually I settled for an apprenticeship with an agricultural engineering firm. Well, why wouldn’t I? I’d be working outside, undoing nuts and bolts and, most importantly, I’d be out of the classroom and into a world that was suddenly adorned with prospects. Although, a career wasn’t among them. Within four months of breaking free from education, I was already in my second job.

I hope I don’t come across as someone who’s feeling short-changed in any way. It was what it was, and I’d probably take the same path all over again. There have been some moments worth reliving.

What triggered this line of thought? Well, it was something that our twin grand-daughter, Thing 2, said when she stopped over, recently. “My friend told me, her mummy’s a doctor. I told my friend, my mummy’s a worker.

Great, isn’t it? Kids draw little or no distinction between the lady that saves lives, and the lady that serves school lunches. The truth is, both women play important roles, and do valuable work. It’s a thought worth holding on to, and I’m confident that Thing 2 and her sisters will grow up with a much clearer idea of how different people contribute to society, and how society regards them, in turn.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Body Parts

Of all the things we have to explain to kids, human anatomy probably ranks high on the list in terms of complexity. Starting out is easy. Teach them the common names for limbs and sensory organs, and establish a list of acceptable euphemisms for bodily functions – job done! That’s how it was for us, until our daughter brought a library book home from primary school, for me to read with her. Imagine, settling down to deliver a bedtime story, and being presented with a book about delivering babies. Yes, there I was, mentally rehearsing various character voices, only to find myself pitifully underprepared for ‘A Foetus Journeys Forth’.

Aged three, Thing 1 had formed the opinion that human anatomy
wasn't as complicated as grown-ups would have her believe.
Still, I survived that experience, and an awful lot more besides, the way most parents do. Now all I have to contend with are the occasional surprises, sprung by young grandchildren.

Why have you got small boobies, Grandad?

Why have your teeth got black bits, Grandad?
“Not black. Silver.”
“They’re fillings, where the dentist repaired my teeth.”

And the latest is, “When will you die?” To which I’m tempted to answer, “Probably when you call out some boundary-breaking question in a crowded public place.”

Our daughter, now mother of three - so the message in the library book all those years ago, must have stuck – was telling me, today, that Thing 1 sprang from the bath last evening, pointed to her distended tummy and declared it full of strawberries. She went on to explain that her head was full of fish, and her arms packed with biscuits. Beats slugs, snails and puppy dog’s tails I suppose!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Kids are all write

When I was at junior school, English lessons were divided into ‘comprehension’ and ‘composition’. In the former, we had to read someone else’s work before completing set exercises to demonstrate our understanding of it. In the latter we were usually given a subject to write about, the rest was up to us. As a ten year old, I favoured the freedom to produce something out of my own head, rather than analyse a story written by someone else.

I’ve noticed that SW is leaning the same way. Does this mean that SW is taking after her Grandad? I doubt it. She's far too sensible.

If you missed it, you can read about SW's 'Darsing Hipow', here.

The telling of a story is a very personal aspect of childhood expression. At this stage in our lives we are constantly telling, retelling, adapting and improvising. By the time we reach adulthood, we have every volume bound and catalogued in our heads and hearts. It’s a rich source to draw on when we have children of our own and, for many, it’s a safe place of retreat when the grown-up world rears, and bares its pointy teeth.

It makes no difference if the plots are acted out with a dinosaur as Prince Charming. He can still rescue the vision of a princess in distress, played by a one-legged teddy. Cushion castles can be impregnable and treacherous mountain passes often wind for hundreds of miles from lounge land to kitchen kingdom.

I watched a documentary about Judith Kerr recently. From the start of the programme, it was apparent that Judith’s passion for story-telling began in early childhood. She’s now in her 91st year, still writing and illustrating children’s books. She has led a remarkable life, and an archive of her work is kept at the Seven Stories National Centre for Children’s Books. Well worth a look.

If you’re interested in reading what kids are coming up with today, try one of my favourite places, Fighting Words. It's a wonderful initiative by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love. And for a limited time, you can read the top 50 stories in each age category of the 2014 ‘500 Words’ competition, hosted at BBC Radio 2.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

How prepared are we?

If you’re a visitor to this blog, you’re more than likely to have been on the receiving end of a child’s question that took you out of your comfort zone. I’m not talking about those whimsical enquiries about how babies are made, or why grandma has grown a moustache. I’m thinking more about those questions that cause society to stir and, occasionally, do a double-take. Subject matter that can all too easily be sprung on a grandparent who has only just discovered that Tinie Tempah is a rapper, and not a toddler’s meltdown. Yes, just as you’re giving and receiving uninhibited ‘high fives’, and discovering that ‘cool’ still resonates, even without jazz, a realisation dawns. Your grandchildren are tuning in to your world. They are hearing their first crackling transmissions of adult concerns, being broadcast over the angstwaves.     

Explaining same sex marriages, or the life choices taken by Thomas Neuwirth – alias Conchita Wurst – winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, seems pretty straightforward on the face of it. And it is, until those inevitable follow-up questions arrive in quick succession. Suddenly your well-balanced, duly considered and perfectly reasonable response is sounding a bit lame, and the calm conversational waters you were navigating threaten to become a little choppy.

But children so often come to our rescue. They come with an inbuilt instrument that measures the ability of an adult to communicate coherently. Listening intently to the stalled sentences, they stare wide-eyed, waiting for the hint of an answer. And when the stammering is over, they return to whatever preoccupied them beforehand, leaving you never fully knowing if they’re inwardly celebrating with a fist pump, or just picking up the threads of the Scooby-Doo story on TV.

I'm off for a think. I may be gone some time...

Some people have maybe taken things too far in trying to furnish children with solid perspective on the world at large. I was surprised to discover that Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher, had made a number of radio broadcasts for children, between 1929 and 1932, covering such topics as human responses to natural disasters, along with capitalism and its negative impact on the living conditions of the poor. His idea was for children to challenge clichés. In my experience, this is something they manage to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, with minimum assistance from us.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Ballot Papers and Smiting in the Writing.

It's 'Walk to School Week', this week and, in case you hadn't noticed, it's European Election Day, today! Thank goodness we had the opportunity to walk to the school - voting takes place in the village hall, adjacent - with SW and sisters. They sugared our polling pill. Things 1 & 2 were preoccupied with describing - in gory detail - a dead bird we saw at the side of the footpath, but SW pressed me on precisely what voting is, and why do we do it. I didn't have the heart to tell her that better informed people than me were perpetually scratching their heads over the same questions.

Anyway, as an antidote to politics, I thought you'd rather share SW's latest writing project. It has a slight nod to 'Peter Pan', and 'Rise of the Guardians', but there are some interesting social observations in there, too. I think that some of our politicians might want to take note of what happens to Bogey Men.

The day of the summer term holiday had finally arrived.
Anna, Emma and Rose were going to a wedding.
The wedding was in France, near a place called Gint Vill.
Anna, Emma and Rose were all fairies, and talented, too.
Anna was a slim girl, and the oldest. The others were pretty much the same.
Now, they needed to fly there, so they hurried off.
They needed pixie dust, fast.
The shop-keeper was a plump man, but that
didn't stop him from being the friendliest man in the city.
When they arrived, a terrible surprise awaited them.
'Pitch Black' was there. Now you may think this is an expression.
It's not. You'll recognise the name when I say it. Here it is, The Bo-o-g-y  M-a-n.
Yes, the Boogy Bogey Man. He was standing by a shadowy tree, and the garden gate said,
number 16, Honey Road. 
That's odd, Honey Road is where Lucy's home is.
Lucy was the girl getting married.
In the morning, they were in the swimming pool.
They had a lovely time.
At the wedding they all sat down.
Anna, Emma and Rose all sat down on
the first row on the left.
Then Pitch came.
Anna took her wand, and fired it at him.
He fired back, but so many fairies were casting spells...
They did it, and defeated Pitch.
And they all lived happily ever after!

Monday, 19 May 2014


People have constantly argued, and are likely to continue arguing, about what art is. I studied Aesthetics for a whole year, in the hope that some grounding in the philosophy of the arts would help me to arrive at an answer of my own. Nothing original, just one that I felt at ease with. In the end, I reached the conclusion that the art I admire most is raw, sometimes referred to as 'Art brut'. I mean, I can definitely appreciate the skill behind a painting of near-photographic quality, or a lifelike sculpture, but it's the manifestation of an artist's inner vision that does it for me. I want to see those thoughts laid out before me, represented in the chosen medium.

A seven year deluge of art produced my grand-daughters has played a large part in reinforcing my feelings. As Picasso said, 'It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.' I can only imagine how hamstrung he must have felt, when he made that statement. Conventions are hard to disregard, unless for some reason you are working outside of the mainstream. In fact, there is actually such a thing as ‘outsider art’, a term I was unfamiliar with until recently, when I watched a documentary about Carlo Zinelli. One female artist who was interviewed during the course of the programme strenuously resisted the idea that she was an ‘outsider’. Instead, she suggested that she and others who were labelled as outsiders, were in fact, at the very centre of artistic creativity. Another colourful character declared that no one ever learnt anything in art school. His view was that to discover your art, you need to get out in the world and connect with it.

A few days ago, SW and I were drawing. She suddenly pushed her paper to one side and asked for a fresh sheet. “Finished?” I asked.
“It’s rubbish,” she said, “I need to start again.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I wanted to draw a giraffe wrapping its tongue around some tree leaves.”
"But that's precisely what you've done," I said.

As far as I could see, she had achieved her goal, but she was far from satisfied with it. Not so long ago she would have worked away at her art, proudly presenting it once it was finished. I suspect SW may be moving ever so slightly away from that magical period in her life that Picasso spent a lifetime trying to get back to.

Of course, I quickly assured her that she may sometimes be disappointed with her efforts, but however she expressed her ideas in art, they would never be rubbish. That’s the message I’m peddling, anyway, as an 'outsider'.

Friday, 16 May 2014

What's in the basket?

Last weekend, I had a surprise email from a distant cousin. There was a zip file attached, containing a selection of photographs that had recently come into her possession. Among them was this shot of my Great Great Grandmother and her husband.

Wellington ('Duke') and Eliza Jane ('Jinny') Light.
If you haven't done so already, you can read more about 'Jinny' and 'Duke', here, and here.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Not waving...

SW has been having swimming lessons for a few months now. She's progressed really well, as have Things 1 and 2. In fact, she has moved up from 'Red Caps' to 'Orange Caps'. It's probably no coincidence that the girl in her latest (short) story, is wearing an orange cap. Hopefully, that's where the similarity ends.

(I think Molly has ambitions to swim the English Channel)

(Molly is a confident girl)

(she prepares to make a splash!)

(SW shows her darker side and places Molly in peril)

(Thank goodness for lifeguards with long, thin, stretchy arms!)

Friday, 18 April 2014

Jurassic Lark

Although dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago, there never far from a child's imagination. These sprang from SW's mind just the day before yesterday...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

In your hands

I’ve heard it said that it’s possible to tell a lot about a person by looking at their hands. When I was a boy, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s hands. They were not only huge, but the palms were calloused and stained from the wood he worked with. When he turned them over, they were tanned dark brown, veins replicating the branches of trees, nails chipped and broken like weathered shells that had dug themselves from an ancient beach.

Martin still isn't convinced that washing-up benefits his 'mitts'.

My own hands were a source of fascination for our daughter. The first contact we ever had was when she clasped her own little digits around my index finger. But even after she grew beyond losing her hand in mine, she would occasionally take hold and say quietly, perhaps reassuringly, “Daddy hands.”

Do you pay attention to people’s hands, and if so, what do you look for?

Friday, 28 March 2014

SW Snaps

SW asked me to free up some space on her camera, so I set to work. She's developing quite an archive. Here is a very small selection of some of the things (including Things 1 & 2) that have caught her eye.

Her beloved 'Monty'.
A would-be chick
A rustic riddle
Thing 2
Things and the swing