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.