Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Brink

Anyone who has me in their newsfeed, at that other place (Facebook) will have probably read this. It isn't an erudite appraisal of the current political situation facing the UK. It isn't a clever analysis of the history of the Middle East, and our role in it. It isn't a well informed, speculative statement about all that might go wrong when bombs are dropped in our name. It's just what was on my mind, late yesterday evening. It's what occurred to me, as a human being; a confused, fearful individual who just wants the cycle of killing to end. As a husband, father and grandfather, I just want all other husbands, fathers and grandfathers to have some peace in their lives.

After the rolling news stories, the shouting from the sidelines, the self-appointed experts that seek to steer opinion on social media, the only thing I really know, is this: in a distant land there are families just like mine. They cry, they laugh, they hope, and many of them pray for a better world. They long to prosper and grow old in the place they know and love, with those they know and love. Right now they live in unimaginable fear and anxiety, while I am confused and not a little ashamed that our elected politicians, of all persuasions, can't get a grip and come up with something other than bombs.

Surely those seated at the top table have a responsibility to pursue every other conceivable route to a peaceful solution, before voting to take more innocent lives? I'm sure someone will tell me how politically naïve this is, but it's how I feel right now.

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!

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.

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.”

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Celebration In Your Head

At a primary school assembly I was a bit taken aback when, in his preamble to announcing the team with the most house points for the week, the headmaster gently advised winning pupils to celebrate in their heads, rather than letting out an almighty cheer. I’m still not clear about the reasoning, but I guess it hinged on an intention to show respect for the runners-up. Fair enough, but whole school team efforts against other schools, are vigorously applauded. Even when the school team effort fails to make the top three, participants are told they were the best, the other schools just got lucky. There’s humour in the delivery, and I think most of the kids get that, but there’s also, potentially, a mixed message about the value of competition.

Let’s leave the Too Much, Too Soon Campaign – one of my hobby horses - aside for a while, and while we’re at it, let’s put pushy parents on hold, too. So much has already been said about them. Instead, shouldn't we be placing children on centre-stage, and fostering ideas around collaboration rather than competition? I read a really interesting piece recently, by the young writer, Chibundu Onuzo. She observes, “I am not yet halfway through my twenties, and already I am fatigued by the way the world is determined to frame my life. Someone always has more money, a better job, more vibrant social life, more attractive postcode. I am forever to be in competition with this ever elusive someone who is always a stride ahead, their shadow darkening my progress.” It saddens me to think that this is what's in store for my three grandchildren.

And it’s worth remembering that not only children suffer here. I see and hear evidence all the time confirming that many parents have already been sucked into the vying vortex. The problem is, so many of them confuse aggressive competiveness with keen aspiration. They are two different things, entirely. We all want to see our children and grandchildren realise and fulfil their potential, but surely not by viewing everyone as a deadly rival, and overlooking the possibility of a perfect working partnership.

I recall someone saying to me once, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Please don't tell me they were wrong.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A place for everything

In a few days time, Square Sunshine will have been rising and setting for 6 years, despite the odd extended eclipse when a host of other distractions have forced their way between me and it.

I have a t-shirt that I bought some years back at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It bears one of those ambiguous logos, picturing a silhouetted figure, climbing a slope with a sinking sun before him. A quasi hippie line reads’ “What a long strange trip it's been.” The romantic in me identifies with the figure. The message could easily be referring to what is archived on these pages.

There have been many moments when I’ve thought I should be concentrating my efforts on writing solely about the grandchildren. It’s not as though I’ve been hard pushed for material. But instead, I’ve wandered around the landscape of my own grandparenthood for a large part of the time, trying my hand at this and that, and representing my thoughts and observations with photographs and tentatively executed poetry, the best of which might crop up again, but not here.

I doubt if it's uncommon among grandparents, to explore what the status means beyond the relationship we have with the new additions to the family. Maybe, sub-consciously, there’s a process of checking ones credentials. I think, for me at least, blogging has provided a place where memories, partially completed tick-lists of interests and threads of talent can be reviewed, stashed and ultimately pointed to as an extension of myself. Who knows, maybe the three girls will even get around to reading some of this stuff one day? In any event, for as long as the strange trip continues, I’ll be leaving occasional stories and souvenirs of grandparenthood here, although this will increasingly become their space, as originally intended. The other stuff will eventually have a blog of its own. Until then, it’s good to travel light.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Running, Jumping, and Painting

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you'll know how much I love the artistic creations made by children. The freedom, the colour, the movement, the life that's so often splashed, dashed, meticulously drawn, and applied with the sharp pencils and broad brushstrokes of uninhibited imaginations.

To round off a week of treats - success for SW and her school in an athletics competition she wasn't all that keen on taking part in, a fabulously noisy, busy, school sports day yesterday afternoon, under pale blue sky, stretched with the 'feel' of summer - today, an exhibition of artwork produced by the children.

Paint on fabric by Imogen (Twin 1)

Paint on fabric by Iris (Twin 2)

 Something Rothkoesque by SW

Also on show, some wonderful collaborative efforts. 
A fabulous fox

A killer whale

A dragonfly

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

No Bones About the Colour Purple

I’ve never been particularly pre-occupied with body image, so it’s little surprise that details of my skeleton rarely turn up in conversation. As a kid, I don’t recall when I became conscious of the complex structure that stood between me and 'wobbly blob' status. I probably saw illustrations in Look and Learn, or maybe in one of my mother’s reference books.

Pals at school would delight in telling tales of someone who’d cracked their head open (usually no more than a small cut to the scalp) or a poor unfortunate who’d cut a finger with a penknife, right through to the bone! We constantly compared lumps and bumps, and used our elbows and knees to get the better of the more tenacious playground assailants. Occasionally someone would break an arm or a leg, and we would all gather around to ogle the plaster cast trophy, duly signed by teachers and sketched on by friends and relatives.

So skeletal matters appear to have had a higher prominence in my childhood, but only at a morbidly curious/Jolly Roger kind of level. In my experience, most adults settle for getting anxious about what hangs, and essentially, how it hangs off the frame, rather than losing sleep over the frame itself.

Martin believed the squidgy bits produced the most laughs.

Yesterday I picked SW and her sisters up from school, after Science Club. As they left the classroom, Professor Chaos was handing out laminated posters with skeletons depicted in a brightly coloured composition. No.1 twin gingerly gave me hers, with the image facing away from her gaze. SW, a little braver. No.2 twin flatly refused to accept the poster. I was left juggling all three skeleton pictures (along with discarded cardigans, rucksacks and book bags) and a fleeting thought passed through my mind, about the stresses and strains on my own chassis.

In the car I tried to explain, enthusiastically, how lucky we are to have a cage to protect our hearts and delicate organs. How great it is to know that our brains are locked safe in our bony skulls. The response was stony, until SW swiftly changed the subject and became quite animated whilst telling of a film they’d watched, shot with a special camera, of what it looks like when someone breaks wind. Uncontrollable laughter ensued, as they each took it in turn to chant, “We saw a purple parmp!”

After I’d dropped them home, and I was alone in the car, I couldn’t help thinking how stoical our skeletons are. Remaining composed and largely upright, whilst the squidgy parts within, aid and abet in the production of purple parmps.  

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Over a year ago, Ciara Brehony and I thought it might be a good move to start Another Way, a Facebook group where like-minded folk could meet up and share their views and concerns about how kids are educated today. Our blurb reads, “News and views about the way our children are educated, along with possible alternatives and changes that might benefit learning in the 21st Century.”

We now have 213 members regularly contributing to the debate, sharing ideas, experiences, concerns, and best of all, a common goal to improve the system and push for a change in the way we think about teaching and learning.

While my mind has been elsewhere of late, not just focused on matters educational, Square Sunshine has been setting in a rather slow and undignified way. Withering like a once loved, but now neglected house plant. So, before all the leaves fall off I’m changing the soil, and moving the blog to a position where it will hopefully thrive and grow. The intention is to continue sharing my observations as a grandad, but also to reflect educational developments, approaches and choices, as they come to light.

Architects take note.

As a taster, do take some time to familiarise yourself with Takaharu Tezuka’s wonderful, innovative Fuji Kindergarten. It’s a project inspired by his own children. No wonder it’s so good.

A new blog, a place for my personal expression, half-baked ideas, occasional rants, and continued attempts at poetry and photography, is a work in progress. I hope to have it up and running quite soon.   

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Red is not the only colour

Thought I'd share this little story, written and illustrated by Iris, the youngest of our twin granddaughters. I love her train of thought, and the complete absence of political correctness. 

Red Indian



In the forest, a Red Indian was calling her Red Indian friend because she wanted to play. They played climbing in the trees.

She wanted to have her other friend, but she was at school. They came down the trees and went exploring, and they saw a cat. The cat was black.

The cat said, "Miaow, come and follow me." The red Indians followed the cat, and saw more Indians. But they were blue, not red!