Saturday, 26 April 2008

Wasp season

This morning I've had to fight my way across piles of books and correspondance to reach my keyboard. It's been a funny old week. I haven't been doing much writing, hence the way the detritus of my life has begun to crowd in around my desk, like ivy wrapping itself around everything and blocking all access.

The kids were back at school this week, so the familiar routine of making packed lunches in the morning and then cycling to and from school morning and afternoon recommenced. My least favourite time of the day is between 3pm and 6pm, the time when the children are home from school and when I'm typically preoccupied with making our dinner. It's such a restless time. My son usually disappears onto his computer as soon as any homework or spellings are out of the way, and leaves me wishing that he never had a computer, and why can't he go out and play like all the other kids I see on the field behind our house...? Then I remember that he hates football, which dominates the games of the playing field kids, and anyway he prefers his own company when he gets in from school.

Meanwhile my daughter will hang around my legs as I'm chopping veggies and keep asking me if I'll go and play with her. I invariably feel a stab of irritation each time she asks, as I curse myself for not having done all the food prep sooner, before they were back from school, so I could spend some time with them when they come home.

So it's a time of day when I feel most guilty, most out of balance, most irritable, and most likely to sting.

Speaking of which I've noticed the queen wasps are back hunting out a suitable location for their nest. We've had four enormous wasps in the house over the last week, and have dealt with them with varying degrees of cruelty - from nastily spraying them with wasp killer, throwing plastic fruit at them, and squashing them, to more humanely letting them fly away through the window, or capturing them in a upturned cup and releasing them into the garden. I really don't like killing creatures as a rule, not even wasps, I think they've got as much right to life as me to be honest, but as my daughter reminded me "wasps are horrid", and I'd certainly prefer one dead wasp to a whole colony of them burrowing and scratching around inside our woodwork.

This week my son invented the sport of throwing plastic fruit at the wasp which was buzzing around in the lantern light window above our dining room. It's quite high up, so the only way to dislodge anything from it from below is to aim a carefully chosen missile at it, one that won't smash the glass on impact. Plastic food is perfect for this job, and when I asked my son why he was throwing plastic fruit at the wasp he replied that he couldn't find the plastic chicken, which is what we usually use to dissuade magpies from pecking the bugs out of the outside of the wooden window frame.

Another thing that has caused me to be irritable and more likely to sting this week is the fact that I'm off on holiday tomorrow to Turkey, without hubby and the kids. This will be the first time I've been on holiday without him since we were married. For some reason this has become a really big deal in my head, and I've been worrying about how we'll all cope. Actually I know we'll all cope very well, but the thing that has become a really big deal for me is what will the house be like when I get back? What will be all the things I'll have to do when I get home? Will anyone think that I won't want to find a pile of dirty washing that urgently needs doing as soon as I walk in? Or that I won't appreciate bringing my suitcase through the door and tripping over a My little pony tea party in the hallway? All week I've had the nagging thought - "will anyone think..."

So I'm off to pack now, and to relax into the thought that of course they'll think. They might not act, but they will think. And all will be well.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Bit of a soap-box moment....

I have recently been introduced to an excellent web-site called It comprises a selection of talks by speakers of all disciplines, on all topics, and its strap line is "ideas worth spreading". I am a new visitor to TED - my attention was drawn to it through the newsletter of a fellow coach named Mary Rosendale, and then just the other day my friends Jane and Gary Spinks told me about a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. (Thanks guys!xx)

If you are interested in children, in education, in creativity, or if you've simply got 20 minutes to spare to listen to something entertaining, then do take the time to check out the video! I tried to include a link to it in my blog but technology got in the way. Blogger wouldn't let me do it, so I have to trust that you will go and find it for yourself then come back here and read what other things I've got to say on my soapbox, and hopefully leave some comments, which I might even publish. So go to the TED web-site, search on Sir Ken Robinson, then sit back and relax for 20 minutes, and come back later!

Meanwhile, by way of an interval, here's a nice photo of some barbies on the beach:

WELCOME BACK! What did you think?

Sir Ken talks a little bit about learning disorders and ADHD. What he says strikes some as rather controversial, however I do agree with him that prescribing medication to children who are simply different, who have different needs, and who do not conform to the narrow strictures of a modern classroom, is tragically misguided, insensitive and unimaginative. These young people are far more likely to be the creative, innovative geniuses of the future than many of the "conformers", and yet we typically do not know how to deal with them.

I once saw a TV programme about ADHD and in it the mother of a young lad who was awaiting diagnosis actually said that she found her son's behaviour so difficult that she didn't know how to love him.

For me, this is precisely where the problem lies: it is our (innocent) ignorance and (innocent) lack of imagination, compassion and wisdom which causes us to get impatient with the behaviour of others. We withdraw from what we don't understand or feel comfortable with. When the object from which we are withdrawing is another human being, in fact a lonely, confused and highly sensitive CHILD, we cannot begin to know the impact of our action on that individual. When the person doing the withdrawing is the child's own mother, then the impact is magnified a thousand fold.

Actually the woman being interviewed was extremely brave to admit her feelings about her son. She didn't WANT to withdraw from him - she just didn't know what else to do. She was doing the best she could do, and she was becoming exhausted and desperate.

It IS exhausting always to be looking for something different from what we're faced with. It is exhausting always to be thinking, "I didn't want things to be this way, I wish they could be another way."

Why not just stop, take another look at what we do have, what's in front of us RIGHT NOW, what the beautiful best of it is, and work with that? It does require us to be extremely tuned in to what's going on with those around us, we need to be connected, we need to be open, we need to drop our expectations and our judgements about how things ought to be, and we need to listen and respond.

Four years ago I had a great teacher named Dr Roger Mills. I learned many things from him, and one of those things was that bad behaviour comes from insecurity. If you want a child to behave badly, withdraw from them. Show them no interest, no love. This sounds very harsh, and of course it is something that every single one of us as parents would say that we couldn't possibly do. In our own way we all believe wholeheartedly that we love our children and that we show them we love them. The trouble is, it is love by our own definition.

Instead of loving our children to the standards by which we were loved, by the confines of our own conditioning, we need to pay special and careful attention to how our children want us to love them. For my son, he wants me to speak to him honestly, without sarcasm, and to trust him. My daughter needs more interaction, she likes to play imaginative games, and she likes me to join in.

How we love our children, how they like to feel our love, is not dissimilar from how we educate our children. As they have different sensitivities so they have different intelligences.

What faces us now is how to use more of our own wisdom and creativity in designing education that will prepare our children best for the uncertainties of the future.

One thing I'm sure of is that this will be much easier if we stop trying to control and becalm everything and everyone that threatens to rock the boat. Withdrawal, exclusion and medication are cruel, inhumane and entirely unsustainable foundations for human civilisation, and yet these seem to characterise the experience of too many children.

Love, compassion, flexibility, openness and an ability to empathise and connect with others are the only ways to safeguard our children's future. Once we've got these things right, education, creativity and how to accommodate "non-conformers" will take care of themselves.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

The Wisdom of Children

Many people know that this is a particular fave topic of mine. I could write a book about it - oh yes - I have written a book about it, though this is something which I keep forgetting about because I'm too scared to do anything with it - but that's a whole different story.

Anyway, I've been reminded of this whole wisdom thing a couple of times over the past few days.

I took my ten-year-old son to see the drama production of Philip Pulman's "His Dark Materials" on Friday at the Theatre Royal in Bath. It was presented by Bath Young People's Theatre, and it was stunning. The oldest member of the cast was 19, and the youngest 10. We sat in the theatre for over 5 hours absolutely gripped by the performance, although I have to say that I'm glad my son and I were familiar with the story and the characters before we went along. I'm sure that without having read the trilogy beforehand it would have been quite tricky to figure out exactly what was going on.

Lyra Belacqua is the principal character in the story. She's a 12 year old girl brought up in the belief that she is an orphan, though the truth is much more intriguing. She is deemed to be a child of destiny, and she has many adventures on the way to fulfilling that destiny. With the help of the alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the film version, she is able to detect the truth about any situation. As a child she is able to read the alethiometer - it takes a particular state of mind, which eludes us as we grow from children to adults, and we lose our innocence.

One of the other things we tend to do when we reach adulthood is forget how wise and capable we were as children, and, in forgetting, we then develop the tendency to underestimate those who are children around us. My kids never cease to amaze me with the things they say and do, and I hope that I never lose the ability to be pulled up by them, and be reminded again of their wisdom.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, here's an example. The other day we were sitting around the dinner table and debating what we would do with the remaining days of the school holiday. We'd done golf, we'd done cycling, though to be honest hubby and I were hoping we might get to repeat at least one of these activites. Our daughter was keen on the idea of cycling, but our son would not be drawn on anything. He actually said he couldn't think of anything he'd like to do. (I wonder if this is his policy - to deliberately not volunteer any ideas in the hope that he'll be able to stay at home and play on his computer?)

After we'd made it clear that a day staying at home and playing computer games was not on the cards, our four-year-old daughter suggested that she brought her bike to the golf course and cycled round while we played golf. Hubby and I stopped in our tracks. What an ingenious solution! On the face of it, it catered simultaneously for everyone's preference who had expressed one, and cycling round the course couldn't be that different from driving a buggy or pushing a trolley round, could it?

We were amazed at how she had created a solution that would accommodate everyone at the same time - and still manage to make it so that we would be spending time together. She was able to do this because of her innocence - it didn't cross her mind, as it did ours, that other members of the golf course might not take too kindly to a child using the fairways as a cycle path. She was also able to do it because one of her main gifts is making sure that everyone's happy, and that everyone gets to join in.

In Pulman's book Lyra'a gift is story-telling, which gets her out of many scrapes. In real life all our kids have their own particular gift and motivation, just like we did. It's fun to listen out for their gifts - and to try and reconnect with our own.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

"On continue sur le sujet de Paris..."

It's really easy to get to Disneyland from Gare de Lyon. It's about 30 minutes away at Marne la Vallee. And the station out there is right next to the Disneyland ticket booths and the entrance, so it couldn't be simpler. Much better than staying out at Davy Crockett, driving to a carpark then having to yomp for miles through carparks and along walkways with giddy children.

What can I say about Disney? Disney is Disney isn't it? Lots of queuing - although this time we did take advantage of the fast pass on the Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast - by far the most fun ride we went on, especially the eight foot tall "animatronic" Buzz speaking French! We all enjoyed this ride, and even came back for more in the evening just before the closing "Candelabration" at 8pm.

We arrived at about 10.15am and took in Big Thunder Mountain, which our four-year-old daughter hated, Orbitron (a lot of queuing for little return, although our daughter loved it), Space Mountain (which our ten-year-old son declared the most uncomfortable and painful ride ever), Carousel de Lancelot (not as good as the carousels in Paris proper), Pinocchio, Pirates of the Caribbean (good fun and atmospheric sail and occasional minor splash), Dumbo (huge queue for very little but young children love it), Indiana Jones and Casey Junior (my personal favourite). We had lunch at Pizza Planet, which has got a soft play area, though this was closed on our trip, and we ate hotdogs at Casey's on Main Street for tea. (On this day I just surrendered to junk food. And mighty fun it was.)

Many of the Disney characters can be spotted walking round the park, which is great sport, especially the inevitable ensuing game of "find-your-kid" as they disappear into the throng of eager-to-be-photographed other kids. Personally I wanted to have my photograph taken with the Beast - those who know me and my hubby will understand why - and I did attempt to grab his attention as he stormed through the crowd. Unfortunately grabbing hold of his cape didn't go down too well and he shrugged me off.

One of my favourite things all day was the Parade at 5pm. It's really worth getting a good spot along the parade route to see all the floats and characters go by. Of course it is all very DISNEY, but Mickey Mouse is so cute and the costumes are ace. I got really into it, and I know the kids absolutely loved it.

Another surprising highlight of the day for me was leaving the park in the evening in a huge crowd of people, then peeling off the general throng headed to Disney Village and the carparks, to sneak into the train station. There were literally about six people doing this, including us! We went straight down the escalator to the platform and straight onto a Paris-bound train. Yee-haa! By the time we got back to our hotel we sank a well-earned beer in the bar then collapsed into our beds. A perfect day for all!

On our final morning in Paris we rewarded ourselves with a lie-in, though by 10am I was starving and peering jealously through the curtains at the cafe opposite our hotel. By 10.45 we were in there ordering breakfast - and extremely yummy it was too. (After a very dodgy evening meal experience in the hotel restaurant on the first night I had made a vow never to enter that amenity ever again. My family take these vows of mine very seriously.)

After breakfast we jumped onto the Metro as far as Champs Elysee, and continued our walk down towards Place de la Concorde and Tuileries gardens. At this point I began to realise that Paris truly is a very beautiful city, though the trees that are manicured squarely remind me of something out of Alice in Wonderland. I became aware of a real need within me to LIKE the place, to FEEL ROMANTIC there. So many other people have said hwo fabulously romantic it is, how beautiful, how mesmerising etc. Yes, I liked it, but I was far more aware of my own wish to be liking it even more. Weird.

The Tuileries were quite pleasant. A nice little cafe, with extortionate prices, an old-fashioned carousel, and a completely groovy playground for the kids to let off steam in, which had a stainless steel dome instead of a slide. How cool is that? I was so taken by the simplicity and the safety of it. First of all you've got to climb up onto the thing, which is no small challenge in itself, and I found it hilarious watching kids smack against the side of it a la Tom and Jerry!

After Tuileries we headed up to the Louvre, turned right towards the river once again and crossed onto Ile de la Cite via Pont Neuf. We were in search of Notre Dame - the place I really wanted to see before leaving Paris. I saw it, took a photo of it, and stood in front of it wishing we had time to go in it, before we had to rush off to find a place to eat. We had only 2 hours to go before we had to navigate our way back to Gare du Nord and our train home. Thankfully the Soleil d'Or cafe served us well, and we left the city feeling tired, full and happy with our Parisian adventure.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Paris in the Spring time....

Our trip to Paris was a great success. The train journey was easy-peasy - the most difficult bit of it was trying to find our way out of Gare du Nord. French mainline railway stations are enormous, and the signage is quite over-whelming - there is a lot of it, it's all in French (obviously) and sometimes the colour coding for the Metro lines varies from one sign to the next. So if you're following plum-coloured 4's for the line to Porte d'Orleans, calling at Ile de la Cite for Notre Dame, just beware that from time to time they change to pink.

Having caught the 5.30 First Great Western train from Swindon into Paddington, then the Hammersmith and City line tube to St Pancras, we made excellent time for our Eurostar departure at 7.45. The renovations at St Pancras are quite stunning, and we had a little bit of time to admire them before being serenaded onto our Paris-bound train by the Southern Ragga Jazz band in full Disney regalia. This encroaching Disney-fication seemed terribly un-British, and also tremendously exciting! Fuelled by sugary Danishes, Belgian chocolate-filled crepes and dodgy coffee, we were all exceedingly giggly as we boarded the train.

Once in Paris, and once, mercifully, out of the Gare du Nord, having got our bearings on the Metro, we found ourselves wandering along Avenue de la Grande Armee towards L'Arc de Triomphe. It was well into lunch time and we were anxiously looking for an eaterie that had a promising looking children's menu. We wandered past one or two brasseries which weren't convincing, et voila, right at the end of the block was Restaurant Le Cristal, closest to L'Arc, probably extortionate menu, but with a very friendly and welcoming waiter ushering us in. How gullible we were! How sainted he immediately became! Croque Monsieur, "steak et frites", "formule expres", and a couple of beers and Oranginas, and all was right with the world once more.

I now admit, to my shame, that although I have a degree in French and Spanish, I have hardly ever spent any time in Paris at all, and, furthermore, my French is rustier than the bolts at the top of the Eiffel Tower. So, while I have read lots of literature about the city, and while I used to be fluent in the language, I don't really know my way around, and I'm not very good at asking for directions. Thankfully my hubby is a walking streetmap, and having visited Paris as recently as last September for the Rugby World Cup, he knew all the places to walk to.

I've heard people say that Paris is a city for strolling in - and it certainly does have beautiful wide pavements and fabulous architecture to admire. However, on the Champs Elysee, if you're too busy admiring the architecture, you run the risk of being ploughed down by a car exiting or entering one of many underground carparks, or portals to parallel universes, which seem to interface with this universe along the lovely wide pavements of the Champs Elysee. Take care! And make sure any pigeon-chasing children you might have with you can be thoroughly reined in on demand.

Our plan was to stroll down the Champs Elysee, cross the river towards Les Invalides, then stroll back along the Quai D'Orsay and Quai Branly 'til we arrived at the Eiffel Tower. This part of the plan worked well. We even managed a bit of a sit down in a tiny playground while the kids climbed, slid and see-sawed. The next part of the plan was to go up the tower in the lift all the way to the top, so we could enjoy the stunning views of Paris. This bit didn't work so well. Although the cheery sign at the back of the lift queue announced "30 minutes d'ici", for some reason it took us almost thirty minutes to get beyond this point, as we kept being pushed back by straggling Italian students who were catching up with the rest of their group in front of us.

Frankly the Eiffel Tower was a grim experience. Having successfully boarded the lift to the second floor, we then had to get out and queue again for the lift to the third floor. It was extremely crowded, and very cold, and our lad began complaining of vertigo. As for me, I was just complaining about people bumping into me all the time - I HATE that. When we finally arrived at the top, the covered viewing platform was swarming with people trying to peer out of cloudy, scratched, perspex windows at the rich delights of romantic Paris below. All the time I wished that I was in among it rather than up above it.

On his Rugby World Cup trip last year my hubby had visited the Eiffel Tower, climbed up the steps to the second floor, then enjoyed a surprisingly cheap beer and baguette at the cafe, taking in the view on a balmy late summer's day. He had then thought how great it would be to take the kids there, and how they would love it. Unfortunately the experience this time was diametrically opposed to the one he had. Which just goes to show that things are never the same second time around, and I was mighty relieved when we decided to call it a day and head to our hotel.

We were staying at the Novotel next to the Gare de Lyon, conveniently placed for easy access to Disney the following morning. From the Eiffel tower it was a straightforward train ride to Gare D'Austerlitz, and from there we crossed the river on foot over the Pont Charles de Gaulle to the Gare de Lyon, and at last our hotel!!

More on Disneyland and our other Parisian adventures soon...

Monday, 7 April 2008

Spring Break

Well, it's not the Easter holiday, because Easter was 2 weeks ago, but the kids are now off school for a fortnight before the summer term starts in earnest. I haven't heard a peep out of them. They're in the playroom building a dinosaur zoo out of Lego, and I daren't go and disturb them because then they will start to squabble and bicker which, I have come to the conclusion, is all for my benefit. Best to keep my head down, providing zoo keeper refreshments and snacks as unobtrusively as possible.

There is an age gap of five and a half years between my children. My son is 10 and my daughter almost 5. For a couple of years it was quite difficult to find activities that they would both enjoy outside of the home, but now things are settling down quite well: they enjoy playing together, as long as I'm nowhere within earshot so my son doesn't feel I'm eavesdropping on their role-playing, and since my daughter has learned how to ride her bike without stabilisers and can finally get round a pitch and putt course without getting hysterical (which is, let's face it something that I've only relatively recently been able to do myself), there is more scope for the things we can do together as a family outdoors too.

But today the weather is just too cold for persuading the kids to be outside. I'm not too worried, we're off to Paris tomorrow on the train. We're going for a couple of days seeing the sights of the City of Lights and checking out Disneyland. It'll be an interesting trip - especially as it's our first holiday entirely on the train! We have to leave Swindon at 5.30 am, then we're catching the Eurostar from St Pancras. We're hoping to arrive in Paris just before lunch.

We've decided to stay in Paris itself rather than base ourselves at Disney. We've got a family room booked at the Novotel close to the Gare de Lyon, which is where the train out to Disney leaves from. So we're hoping to get a mix of culture and theme park over the next few days. I'll write an account of our trip here when we get back!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Reading, reading, reading

Quite by accident, long before I realised the significance of 2008 as the National Year of Reading - as in books rather than the capital of the M4 corridor - I made a tacit resolution last winter to become once more a serious, considered and reflective reader. What this means to me is: 1) Always finish books I've started; 2) Reflect on what I've read and review it on Amazon; 3) Join a reading group. I'm happy to say that so far I have honoured every one of these self-generated "qualifying" criteria, and am truly relishing my new literary life.

Of course I have always been a reader. My favourite outing as a child was to the library. I loved the smell of books and the feel of them in my hand. I loved being able to borrow three or four books at a time and stack then neatly on my bedside table.

Then through A Levels and at uni, books were my constant study. In English, French and Spanish I would pour over the text and then launch into numerous essays considering the style, genre, imagery, philosophical intent and historical context of what I'd read. It was a serious business - honest. At least I took it very seriously, and I can't help thinking that it has given me a smattering of wisdom, and a good ability to see things from others' points of view.

So all in all I think reading's good. These days I shiver with excitement (I really do) at the prospect of going to discuss the monthly book in the reading group. I've always been a bit of a snob when it comes to reading matter - I'm much more likely to be found reading Wilkie Collins on the beach than Elizabeth Gage - so I deliberately chose a group with a more challenging and arty reading list. It is very refreshing to be able to talk bollocks for an hour and a half each month with other like-minded lit-lovers, rather than enthusing to my otherwise adorable but totally unliterary hubby.

I've included a log of books that I've read so far, probably since November last year. My favourites so far are Howard's End, The Inheritance of Loss, The Great Gatsby and Open Secrets. And the list is growing...

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

April Fool!

As usual this morning I was making my kids' packed lunches between about 7.15 and 7.30, and catching a little bit of the Today Programme on Radio 4 before anyone came down and switched it to Terry on Radio 2. (I have two kids who are real TYGs. They even change to Radio 2 from Radio 1. How times have changed!)

When I tuned in there were a couple of young fellas talking to John Humphries about their allotments (I'm sure this was today, though it could have been yesterday now I come to think of it).

They were saying how an increasing number of young people, particularly students, are choosing to grow their own veg, and are even operating allotment-shares. I'm impressed! I come from a generation of students who felt we had to live up to the layabout image people had of us, rather than do anything too creative or wholesome.

Anyway, the guys were bemoaning the fact that so much allotment land is being reclaimed by town and borough councils as development sites. Crying shame really. I haven't got round to digging over my back garden to a veggie patch yet, though it is something I often dream about from the comfort of my armchair in front of the gardening programme on BBC 2, but I do like the look of a well-tended allotment. There's so much industry and potential reflected in it, all that tender loving care to build the bean wigwams and rotivate the soil, and all those little green shoots under cloches, and rhubarb under forcing pots... I get quite excited by it all.

So - it would be a travesty if all these plots get hidden under the foundations of yet more new builds. Apparently there's a bye-law that requires every council in the country to provide enough allotment land to satisfy local demand. Te fellas on the radio were recommending that if you're interested in having an allotment then you find six other like-minded people and form a pressure group. Or at least approach your council and say "Please could you provide us with some allotment space?" Sounds like a good idea to me.

ANYWAY, then my kids came down so we had to switch to Radio 2 just in time to hear Lynn Bowles give us the nationwide traffic report. This always makes me feel a bit bored, as we only have to go half a mile on our bikes to school in the morning, so aren't really affected by what's happening on the M8 north of Glasgow, but I guess I need to be a bit more public-spirited and send out compassionate vibes to those people who are experiencing traffic problems in those places.

SO, because my radio input takes this pattern every morning, I usually miss Radio 4's Thought for the Day and have to catch Pause for Thought on Radio 2 instead. This morning they had a London vicar talking about the importance of being silly and light-hearted, and how it's good that we've got a day in the calendar to celebrate this.

Although I had to listen hard not to get distracted by THAT TONE that Pause for Thought guests usually have - you know what I mean, that tone that sounds like they're still rehearsing their spiel in front of the bathroom mirror at home while smiling at themselves in a bit of a self-satisfied way and congratulating themselves on the dubious glory of being a regular guest on this spot - I did actually enjoy what he was talking about. It is important to be silly sometimes and not take things too seriously. I'm glad he brought my attention to it.

Personally I grew up dreading April Fools Day because I would usually be one of the class to find a flour bomb on my chair, or what's worse, not be able to come up with any prank funnier than those of Anne Devine or Shona MacCallum.

In contrast, I fear that my kids are experiencing a very sanitised version of it, as they had no pranks to tell me about at all on their return from school. The closest thing my son could describe to any April Foolery was a playground conversation about a news item someone had heard on the radio saying that Big Ben's DONG has been replaced by a DI-DI-DI-DI.

Now I wonder which station that was on.....