Sunday, 25 May 2008

Birthday Madness!

Every family has a time of year when everybody's birthday seems to happen. For us it's the period at the end of May and beginning of June. This always used to be a bit of a bummer for me with my own birthday on 1st June because every year it collided with the start of school exams, 'O' levels, 'A' levels and then university tripos exams and finals.

The day of my 18th was the day before my 'A' levels started, but I abandoned all my revision on that day to be whisked off to Alton Towers to enjoy all the rides practically to myself. There was something deliciously naughty about it, and typical of how intense my birthdays have been over the years, sometimes going on for days, despite the awkward timing.

I can see my daughter developing a similarly excitable attitude towards her birthday. Like mother, like daughter. She turned five on 23rd May, which was also her last day of term at school and the day of her party at our house. The countdown to it was almost unbearable for her. "How many sleeps til I'm five?" has been her repeated mantra since at the least the beginning of April, so it has been a constant challenge to my mental arithmetic capability, which isn't good at the best of times.

We have always held our children's parties at our house, doing the usual party tea and games, eschewing the popular trend for hiring out village halls and children's entertainers. Pass the parcel, musical statues, musical bumps and "duck, duck, goose" were my daughter's games of choice this year.

During the party preparations I almost decided against wrapping the pass the parcel prize in the same number of wrappings plus one as there were children coming to the party. I almost decided against putting a lollipop inside each layer, a practise supposed to make passing the parcel as democratic and fair and politically correct as possible. But I didn't decide against these things - bowing instead to the weight of contemporary expectation that every child should win something just for taking part. So I dutifully put seventeen wrappers, including sixteen mini chupa-chups, around the prize.

What a load of rubbish! First of all, as usual, three or four kids didn't want to play in the first place - depsite (or maybe precisley because of) the predictable promise of a sweetie each time a layer came off. Then came growing disillusion and boredom with every rotation of the parcel around the increasingly restless circle of remaining children.

Where's this aversion to allowing kids the anticipation of winning by chance come from? Why are we so scared that kids might not be able to handle losing? It's clear that the possibility of losing is part of the game, and makes the idea of actually winning all the more exciting. If everyone wins a small prize anyway just for taking part then the kids start settling for less and disengage from the possibility of winning the bigger prize. Is there a more precise demonstration of how to encourage people to tolerate mediocrity?

The kids get bored and drift off, having quickly sussed, and quite rightly dismissed, the patronising strategy which we adults have come up with only because we're terrified of having to deal with a losing child's tantrums. In fact, kids who lose under normal circumstances don't have a tantrum, they just shrug and get on with something else, quite accepting of the fact that losing occasionally is as much part of the game as winning.

So next time you're wrapping a pass the parcel prize, resist the temptation to include consolation prizes and then tie yourself in knots trying to keep track of which child's already unwrapped and who hasn't unwrapped yet. Put on only a few layers of wrapping, avert your eyes from the group completely and press the pause button totally at random. Kids are not stupid, they are really quite resilient,they really can handle it, and it won't drive you quite so mad.

Thursday, 15 May 2008


There are certain places that I have visited over the past ten to fifteen years which have truly stopped me in my tracks and given me a particular, peculiar 'feeling'. It's dfficult to know how to put this feeling into words, but the overall sense I get is one of connection to other people over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. It's as if I'm looking at things through their eyes, and I certainly feel as if I'm treading in their footsteps.

The specific places I'm talking about which give me these kinds of tingles are both local to me here in Swindon and further afield. Of the local sites, I'm talking about Avebury stone circle, Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, Waylands Smithy and White Horse Hill at Uffington, indeed anywhere along the Ridgeway and in amongst the North Wilts downs.

Further afield I love to walk in the sunken paths, the ancient holloways of Dorset and Somerset, feeling like I'm continuing an ancient tradition of migration. Robert Macfarlane writes very compellingly about these paths in his beautiful book "The Wild Places":

"These holloways are humbling, for they are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Like old trees - the details of whose spiralling and kinked branches indicate the wind history of a region, and whose growth rings record each year's richness or poverty of sun - they archive the past customs of a place."

It is indeed the connection to others' habits and daily lives that gives me tingles in these places. All the hill forts, paths and monuments to ancient times either look out over, weave through or hide among landscapes that I can truly imagine others feeling every day fortunate to be part of.

When I first came to Swindon I was reading Thomas Hardy, and I felt thrilled to be walking the same Wessex routes as many of his characters. This landscape somehow captured my imagination and made me feel safe and connected to many other souls who settled here.

What is the magic that I catch in these places?

I'm not one necessarily for UFOs and Orbs and Crop Circles, although I'm open-minded about most things, but I can understand how others are driven, through their own tingles, to imagine evermore fantastical "powers" and unexplained apparitions. There's lots of video footage on Youtube purporting to reveal the appearance of orbs on the landscape, though George Wingfield, a Wessex Sacred Sites expert I was recently talking to, assured me that all these, along with the majority of crop circles, are of course the product of marvellous fakery.

Personally I believe the magic I'm catching is one of human consciousness and industry. All that has been written about these places, and all that has been constructed in these places, the remnants of which can still be traced, conveys a timeless sense of imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, response to beauty and deisre to work in harmony with the land, which is common to all humanity, as much then as now.

I wonder if the tingles I feel are at all similar to how Tim Smit felt when he first set foot, machete in hand, into the brambly overgrowth that was to become the Lost Gardens of Heligan. I went to listen to Tim on Wednesday evening as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature, and I was reminded of the remarkable effect Heligan had upon me when I first visited it 5 years ago.

It was a visit that changed my life and my outlook completely. I became fascinated by sustainability, local food production, kitchen gardens and the society they supported. On my return home I registered with an organic box scheme from a local walled garden, and stopped buying vegetables in the supermarket. As a consumer I voted with my feet, and am pleased to say that along with similar actions from other consumers the supermarkets are gradually changing their stock to be more organic, and more locally produced. But that is another story.

I was of course doing more than voting with my feet. I was also voting with my heart and my imagination, because the Lost Gardens of Heligan had given me the usual tingles. I saw so much evidence of Victorian and Edwardian ingenuity that had all been lovingly restored, the reminders of civilised and sustainable community and society before the barbarity of the First World War, and I wanted to reconnect with that ethos and that time and those resourceful human souls in a tangible way in my own life and habits. I wanted to find a way of translating those tingles, and carrying them away with me.

Like in so much of the rest of Britain, life was never the same again at Heligan after the war. The gardeners were wiped out, leaving their tools and pots and overalls to languish behind them. I guess the sadness of the Heligan story, and the triumphant regeneration of the place by hopeful and optimistic individuals, only adds to the tingles, and confirms for me that what I feel in certain places is indeed a pride and excitement about the imagination, the creativity and the resourcefulness of our forebears' consciousness.

So I'm grateful for these tingles. They remind me of my place in the human chain, and they inspire me to live my life with greater imagination and gratitude. They occur whenever I come across evidence of human relationships with the landscape, and with each other, and sometimes bring tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Family history - what's the point?

I've just been to a question and answer session with family historian Mary Turner. I was interested to hear what an experienced researcher might have to say on the subject - what she may have learned about the human condition, whether she has observed any patterns bearing out nature or nurture, and whether she might claim any other surprising benefit to doing family history research, other than just the fact that it is fun and absorbing.

Unfortunately, if you weren't already a keen family history detective, then listening to today's session was unlikely, in my opinion, to make you hungry to get started.

Since the TV programme "Who do you think you are" interest in researching our ancestors has undoubtedly increased dramatically, with web-sites such as and GenesReunited making a pretty penny out of people's curiosity, and insatiable appetite to "know".

However, apart from advice about where to look, how to interrogate records and how to embark on the detective work required to populate a family tree, then bring it to life with its history, the whole topic inspires little to talk about other than the usual platitudes about it being fun and interesting, and then endless anecdotes about everyone's various skeletons in the cupboards.

Even the therapeutic avenue didn't hold much promise, as frequently people finding out about their ancestors unearth things which run counter to their expectations to such a degree as to leave them unhinged. Just look at what happened to John Hurt. He was devastated to discover that all through his life he thought he was rom Irish stock, only to discover that he was actually from a Scots line! Imagine!

One member of the audience today did volunteer some information about using ancestral death certficates to trace congenital illnesses that those in the current generation might then use some sort of spiritual jiggery-pokery to heal and expunge from the genetic line. Though this in itself elicited a rather chilly reaction from the rest of the audience.

So, why bother with it? Does it matter that my great great great grandfather was a blacksmith, or that the man my Dad thought was his father wasn't? It's hardly going to change my life to know these things, and in some way it might even be upsetting. So why do it?

Before I go on, I should like to mention that I am interested in researching my own family history, especially the line of my paternal grandfather. His family were the Joyces hailing originally from western Ireland. For me personally the whole notion of having Joyces amongst my ancestry is too delicious and romantic to ignore, especially since what I know of them paints a colourful and enigmatic picture, and since the descendants of that clan remain warm and eccentric characters. This gives me a certain amount of pride in our association, and a desire either to know, or at least imagine, more.

But why would this personal fascination be of interest to anyone else? Maybe if I discovered an ancestor whose story was particularly heroic or tragic or impactful in some other way, then I would be justified in sharing their story with others.

Mary Turner suggests that it is very dry to look just at records, names and dates without finding out a bit of the contemporary history of the society our ancestors were part of. Ms Turner is, in her own words, a "professionally trained historian" so knowing about the historical reality is of course her main priority.

My personal view is the opposite - that history itself is exceedingly dry unless we look at it through the eyes of the characters who lived at the time. Indeed it becomes even more fascinating if we happen to share the genetic code of the individuals in question. In a similar way to how literature helps us to relate to history through human eyes, getting to know who our ancestors were makes history much more accessible to us, and helps us feel much more connected to events of the past.

Mary Turner used the example of Jeremy Paxman bursting into tears as he discovered the truth about his own Scottish ancestors. This of course made sensational TV, and also points to the power of bringing together personal, familial experience and historical understanding for a greater sense of connection and empathy. Maybe the teaching of history in school can be transformed, and the social and emotional education of young people enhanced, if students were to start with the history of their own families first.

Finding out about our ancestors also gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in the context of history, and strips away the human tendency to believe that the universe revolves around us alone. It echoes the importance that primitive cultures place on the spirit of their ancestors, whose stories are used to guide people in the present, and to give them a sense of place and belonging in relation to the past.

All in all I am persuaded that knowing where we come from is a basic and commonplace human fascination, because it underlies so much of our sense of personal identity.

Finally, you never know when knowing a bit about your family history might come in handy. Eleven years ago my husband was asked to be best man at an Anglo-Turkish/ Armenian wedding in Australia. We don't have any current Turkish Armenian connections, so the request was in itself rather unlikely. However, imagine the uproar during the best man's speech when hubby was able to declare, on the strength of his mother's family history research, that he is one-sixteenth Armenian himself. Even for a big man it didn't take long for him to disappear amongst a writhing mass of fellow male bonding, and he was made to dance all night long to music from the old country. Perhaps in hindsight it might have been a piece of information he could have chosen not to disclose, but it did make the party go with a swing!

Monday, 12 May 2008

"Most personal tragedies can be averted by better use of the imagination"

Today I attended a lecture by Laurie Maguire, English Literature professor at Oxford University, who has written a book entitled "Where there's a Will there's a way". She was in Swindon for the annual Literature Festival, (which is becoming quite a thing in these parts) and she was talking about her book which examines how Shakespeare's plays represent the ultimate in self-help.

Laurie isn't implying in her book that people who read Shakespeare need self-help, nor is her book a Shakespeare study guide. Instead she analyses what we can learn about life from reading Shakespeare.

To me this isn't at all a new idea. As a student of English and foreign literature for most of my life I have been able to defend the seemingly passive and self-absorbed activity of reading as a neat way of acquiring wisdom, of learning about life and the human condition. There is nothing more relevant to life than learning how others, be they fictional characters or not, deal with certain situations. And this is largely the message that Laurie Maguire opened her talk with this lunchtime.

The quote in the title of this blog entry, or at least a version of it, does apparently feature as a key idea in her book, which I've yet to read, and I found it utterly striking. I'm fascinated by the reasons why people read, why they go to the theatre, why they become captivated by the telling of a good story, and of course why they write. It appears that as human beings our imaginations are constantly hungry for input and expression, for a way of reframing a familiar experience, or of giving us an inkling about something we may never personally know. Shakespeare knew this intuitively, and his art bears testament to how highly he valued human imagination.

But there is another reason why I found the idea about how we can use our imagination to avert personal tragedy so touching today. As a writer I tend to deal with my own difficulties and emotional challenges through the written word. I've done this ever since I can remember, always having a diary to scribble in, or, in more recent years, a luscious leather-bound journal, or even a blog!

For many years writing has been self-help for me. The product of my scribblings doesn't stand up to much scrutiny as a rule, and I can rarely bring myself to re-read any of my previous rants, which more often that not are much too whiney and self-piteous to stomach, but nevertheless the act of writing it all down in the first place really did serve a purpose.

These days I'm getting a bit more sophisticated in my use of writing as therapy. And I guess this is again where I concur so powerfully with Laurie Maguire's reading of Shakespeare's imaginative conviction. I am acutely aware of how my imaginative abilities have developed over the past year or so, and I've finally granted myself that crucial permission to allow my imagination to run free.

I've got out of the constraining habit of thought that everything has got to be factually accurate and perfect before I can write about it. I've allowed myself to write things anyway without having a purpose to them - I mean without being hide-bound by target markets, deadlines and article proposals. I've made stuff up, and made it look like it's real. I've told stories, and attributed them to imaginary individuals. It's been OK, I've got published, and I've made progress.

Then just over the past couple of days another bombshell hit me. Another way of using my imagination better. And who knows I may have averted a personal tragedy as a result.

Since I got back from Turkey something has really been bugging me, and it's been exceedingly difficult to concentrate on the here and now, and to be present and patient with my kids. I came back to post-holiday earth with a real bump, and I've been struggling to reintegrate myself with my normal routine.

As usual I began to write down my thoughts, and just allowed my pen to move across the page and spell out whatever came into my mind. As usual this activity began to bring some relief to my emotional state, and then, as sometimes happens during this process I had a real "light-bulb" moment, a sudden insight into what it was that had been bugging me. And I felt tons better from that.

But then things got even better. My imagination started to kick in, and I started to make up a story founded in my emotional mess. I found it was really easy to transfer all my stuff onto a totally made-up character, and allow her then to take up the reins for where it all might lead. Doing this also strenghtened the permission I gave myself to explore more deeply some stuff that was previously making me feel really uncomfortable. I could pretend, through the medium of my own imagination, that the things I'd been experiencing weren't actually mine, and this made them much more accessible and acceptable to me.

How neat to get some kind of perspective in this way, to use our imaginations to create other characters who can carry our baggage for us, while we get on with the practicalities of our own lives in the real world.

This may all sound like self-denial, which therapists, psychologists and coaches tend to agree is not such a good thing. I like to think of it instead as a way of letting go, and of freeing myself from the grip of unhelpful thoughts so that I can make better use of my creativity and wisdom. I might also get a story out of it too, another product in my portfolio. And my family get me back from la-la land in one piece. So, thanks to my imagination, the situation so far is WIN WIN WIN.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Holiday Mad

No sooner have my feet touched the ground from Turkey, than my hubby has flown off with his fellow golfers, including my Dad, to Belek, just a little bit further east along the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile the kids' heads are spinning - as one parent flies in another flies out. It's a bit like March of the Penguins at the moment. Although Penguins don't fly of course.

Not only that, but when hubby gets back it'll only be another week and a bit before we all head off together to France for a week Eurocamping. When will I learn that going on holiday is not just about the actual week that you're away, it's also the week before to get ready, then the week after to recover and get back to reality? The month of May is looking like a write-off with regards to doing anything other than opening and closing suitcases.

However, nothing could be further from the truth! May is still so much more than an open and shut case. (Groan - sorry.) There's still loads happening in May. My Dad's 65th birthday, our daughter's fifth birthday party, my sister-in-law's birthday, two bank holidays, AND, last but by no means least, all the excitement of the Swindon Literature Festival, which started on May 5th, and which promises an interesting schedule for the week ahead. Add to this my fourth golf medal competition, plus my first singles knockout match, and I've no idea how on earth I'm going to fit everything in. At this rate I'm not surprised we used to have May Week in June at college - there simply weren't enough days in May to accommodate all the events.

I shall be posting my thoughts about the things I hear over the next week at the Lit Fest. I've marked my diary with all sorts of things from self-help in Shakespeare to druidry and mathematical philosophy. A glutton for punishment I am. Sometimes I think I should have gone to university at my present time of life, rather than at 19. Maybe I would have taken it all a lot more seriously, instead of spending the majority of my time looking for a husband, or, at the very least, "possible snogs".

One thing's for sure - we've certainly managed to keep up the holiday habit from our university days. It was the same there - no sooner had we unpacked all our cool posters and finally discovered the most satisfying configuration for them around the room, in a way that would look most impressive to the discerning eye of whomever we might invite round for coffee and "possible snogs", than it was time to pull them all down again, taking care not to leave scrappy pieces of Blu-tac all over the place.

So I concede this penchant for holiday madness, and cramming as much as possible into a single month - even shamelessly stealing an entire week from the following month because there aren't enough weeks available in the given month to do everything required - is a product of my rather privileged education. How on earth we're meant to achieve anything with said education is quite another question - and one that would surely drive me mad, if I had time to think about it.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Still in Dreamland

Well it's quite a while since I wrote as I've been on holiday to Turkey. And on my return the house was immaculately tidy, and all the washing and ironing had been done. Even the garden was tidy, with the grass mown and some of the more rampant shrubs given a much-needed trim. So I'm indebted to hubby and Granny Steph, who was down for the week to help out with the kids and give lots of moral support while I was sunning myself on Turkish sands.

I have to say I've been back for 4 days now and I'm still waiting to wake up from the Dalyan dream. I asked one of my friends last night when exactly I might expect Dalyan fever to wear off, so I can actually get on with my life.

Dalyan is a place I'd never heard of before last spring, when my Mum went out there with some friends who have been Dalyan veterans of some years' standing. Last year I wasn't able to tag along, but when they invited me this year I immediately said yes. I was curious to know a bit more about Turkey, to find out what all the fuss is about about Dalyan, and to spend some time just with my Mum - something that we have rarely done.

Of course since I've returned I've discovered that Dalyan has quite a posse of loyal visitors, who go back year after year, and who rave about it so much that there are numerous internet forums dedicated to lauding the place. I guess I too have been completely captivated by it.

Apart from its natural beauty, and the fact that it is amongst the top ten wildlife conservation sites in the world since it's a significant breeding ground for the loggerhead turtles of the Mediterranean, I think the thing that is so special about Dalyan is that it is a small resort still centred mainly around family run businesses: hotels, apartment complexes, restaurants and bars are all owned and run by local people, who rely mostly on word-of-mouth recommendation to keep going. And of course because they take such pride in their town and in their work the recommendations pile in, though canny tourists probably like to keep much of the secret to themselves!

We were lucky enough to be staying in the Ozalp Aparthotel with our gorgeous hosts Ozzy, Acelya, Celal and Afe. Ozzy took us on excursions to the Hamam (Turkish Baths), the beach at the mouth of the Dalyan river delta, the mud baths at the lake, and a boat trip to Bacardi Beach with swimming, snorkelling, sun-bathing and barbecue. The weather was beautiful, the sea pleasantly cool, the scenery stunning and the company delightful.

When the sun hid behind a cloud on our second day I went with Mum and one of our friends across the river to the ancient site of Kaunos, where there are Roman and Byzantine remains. An amphitheatre, Roman baths, numerous temples and an early Byzantine church are now mainly populated by tortoises, goats, and honey bees, though one Dutch guy told us he had also seen a snake as wide as his thigh up there too. Hmm. I'm glad I didn't know about that when I had to duck into the bushes for a quick wee!

Our evenings were spent in numerous local restaurants and bars; the ones most worthy of mention being Denizati for its delicious calamari and the Jazz Bar for stonking G & Ts, mellow music and its kind, attentive and welcoming host Bekir - you gorgeous man!

The Turkish language is a good challenge. I always like to try and pick up a few words, even if it's just to say hello and thankyou. I didn't do too bad, although for the first few days I was saying the equivalent in Turkish of Thak-nyou instead of thankyou. People were giving me strange looks until someone finally put me right on about the third night!

(My hubby has since pointed out that Turkish for Thankyou sounds a bit like "Takeshi's Red Herring". Check it out!)

All in all this holiday was one of my best ever. It was a treat to be able to read, laze, swim, walk, stroll and get up whenever I wanted in the mornings! I'll be back next year to visit all my new friends once again, and do all the things I didn't get round to this time!