Monthly Archives: July 2013

End of term feeling

Is waiting for the end of the school year better than being on holiday? You know, that whole delayed gratification thing… I am sure if you asked my children that question they would immediately say, ‘Hell, no!’

But for me, knowing that there is an end in sight, is better than the actual end. Once the children break-up – and this term has been a marathon seven weeker – it won’t be five minutes before I have to start stressing about sourcing and buying new school uniforms and shoes and P.E. kits and so on and so on. The fact that the eldest starts a Whole New School in September means we are going into uncharted waters, both logistically and physically. This is the first time that she will, for example, have to wear a blazer…

So, perhaps, the trick is to try and seize today and wring it out – slowly. Today is warm, today the work is not too hard. Tomorrow it will be different again, harder I imagine. So today, mentally, I let the anchor go. It has not yet hit the sea bed, but the wind has dropped and we are becalmed. I imagine the anchor falling, cutting through cool water; water that gets a darker and darker shade of blue as it sinks further and further away from the light. Sinking past the pretty coloured fish that flit under what’s left of the light, before you are eyeballing a pilot fish somewhere on the way down to the Mariana trench. For me, that’s always the best bit, that part in the long middle is always the most interesting – the part where you are no longer on deck and you have not reached the bottom of the ocean. I suppose, it’s the process that interests me most, perhaps even more than the final product. And that’s why I enjoy the drop, because it’s where realisations find you – when you freefall, when you aren’t even looking for them.

Unfortunately, I cannot get this analogy to work properly when flying on a plane. Then, the bit in the middle is definitely the worst – even with the in-flight entertainment. I think it has to do with passivity, if I was doing the flying, I would be fine. Anyway, here’s some more end of term work. I’m realise I am mixing my metaphors – the deep blue sea, the sky and the yellow brick road – but if you can’t do that at the end of term when can you?

By Elodie, 11

By Elodie, 11

Now we are nine

The youngest daughter turned nine today – just after 10 a.m. to be precise. On the day she was born she had an awful lot of her planets in the watery sign of Cancer: her sun and her moon for example. I need to check what her rising sign was because I have forgotten, for now. Anyway, she has proved to be a watery sort of person. We have eye-water daily, but it is like a brief cleansing of the tear ducts and then she moves on. It’s hard to believe that it was nine years ago she made her entrance into the world. My own has not been the same since.

It was Open Evening at school today – here is her black-headed gull. I was mighty taken with it. I suppose this post should’ve carried a proud parent warning sign – but there you go – too late now.

black headed gull

Artist’s note: the teacher made me go over the blue with grey to make it ‘exactly’ like the picture. I wasn’t very happy about that.

Mother’s note: I make the artist right.

Reducing Stress Through Mindfulness

This morning’s post could easily be a rant – I have two hanging around. One is about wristbands, the other about the dentist. However, I am trying to live more along the lines of a saying that goes, ‘whatever angers you, owns you.’ In that spirit, I am working not to allow petty annoyances throw my day off kilter this early. Mindfulness practice is the route I take. This non-secular meditation practice also featured on this week’s Horizon programme

For as long as humans have gone to work, they have suffered occupational accidents and diseases. From the Stone Age hunter who severed an artery making yet another flint-tipped arrow, to the high incidence of scrotal cancer in Victorian chimney sweeps, work has made us ill. Flicking through ‘Diseases of Workers’, published in 1700, shows that, notwithstanding industrial, technological and digital revolutions, certain work-related health issues have persisted, which led to the book’s author, Bernardini Ramazzini, to be dubbed the Father of Occupational Medicine. Take what we call repetitive strain injury: Ramozzini observed that clerks suffered from ‘incessant driving of the pen over paper.’ The unfortunate clerks were also, like many of us now, ‘chair workers’ and could not escape the ‘lumbago’ that he noted ‘afflicts all sedentary workers’. This is an example of 18th century occupational health advice – in Ramazzini’s prescription for a bad back

‘Take physical exercise, at any rate on holidays.’

Surely working conditions have improved over the intervening 313 years – isn’t that why elfin safety was invented? 21st century bakers no longer ‘become bow-legged’ and sewer workers are not completely blinded, so it appears we have reduced perilous working conditions and associated diseases. Modern work can still be physically hazardous, an extreme case being the Texas fertiliser plant explosion, but perhaps the most pernicious is in the invisible killer: stress. We know stress can play an underlying role in many chronic diseases. After bereavement and divorce, work is the third highest contributor to our stress levels and elevated stress levels, over a prolonged period, are seriously deleterious to health, and the nation’s coffers. Ramazzini’s lumbago now costs the UK £7 billion a year, mental health, an almost inconceivable, £100 billion plus. Only yesterday, I met a friend whose apparently fit and healthy husband, in his forties, had suffered a heart attack. The doctors attributed it to work stress. An economy in recession only exacerbates the situation and reducing stress levels should be a personal and political health priority.

Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, is sobering, ‘If you look at just children and young people and students, their stress and anxiety levels in the 1950s for example, and you track that carefully… what you find is that people by the ’80s and ’90s were now the average level of anxiety that was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s.’ And that’s before they get to work… How do we help ourselves? Relax more, certainly, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Goggling at screens might feel like stress reduction but, biologically, it’s not. There’s a more effective way of actually reducing your levels of the stress hormone cortisol: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the updated, secular take on the ancient practice of meditation and it doesn’t involve a hard floor whilst tying your legs in a knot. Instead of promising esoteric nirvana, mindfulness practice relies on a growing body of clinical evidence from practitioners like Professor Williams who, with others, has developed mindfulness techniques including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – approved by NICE in the UK as a treatment for recurring depression.

New research, published this March in ‘Health Psychology’ suggests regular practice in developing mindfulness techniques may measurably reduce cortisol levels in the body. The study, conducted by the University of California, Davis Centre for Mind and Brain, concluded that it had demonstrated a direct link between increased mindfulness and resting cortisol levels. 57 participants spent 3 months on a meditation retreat, being instructed in elements of mindfulness e.g. focusing on the present moment, mindful breathing and cultivating positive mental states and compassionate hearts. Researchers measured the cortisol levels in participants’ saliva and rated their mindfulness level at the beginning and end of the retreat.

The study reported, ‘At an individual level, there was a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Individuals whose mindfulness score increased after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.’ Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher on the project added, ‘The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.’

Regrettably, there was no control group, so one cannot rule out the possibility that simply spending three months on retreat would have had the same effect on cortisol levels… But having tried mindfulness myself, I can subjectively report that its functional benefits don’t seem to be purely confined to the luxury of spending three months with one’s feet up in California. I really do feel less stressed by just keeping my focus in the present moment. Still, this latest finding joins existing research in suggesting that far from being helpless in the face of our stressful lives, reducing its effects might be as simple as where and how we direct our thoughts.

Bernardini Ramazzini – the Father of Occupational Health


This is the name for the shots that people take of themselves to post on social media. I didn’t know that until the other week, by the way. I hadn’t had a flat white either until today. I am pretty slow. Anyway, these new-fangled smartphones have cameras that will can swivel to face you so, in theory, you see what kind of a shot you will get if you are brave enough to push the button and capture the moment.

I only discovered that my camera can do this trick by accident, and then I was so shocked to see a middle-aged woman looking back at me on my giant ‘phablet’ (phone/tablet) screen that I screeched, ‘yikes’ and turned it back to its usual setting as fast as I could. Which was not very fast because I didn’t know how it had switched round in the first place.

This is a slightly longer than I intended preamble to say: I don’t do selfies.

Which is actually a lie. What I mean to say is, I don’t really take a good photo, so I don’t take selfies because I have no need of them. Yesterday I had a go. I had a go because needs seemed to must. I have been asked to submit biography with a photo and when I looked at the few photos that I had, they were all wrong. Now I’ve tried the selfie approach, I might go back and review that earlier creative decision. They may have been all wrong, but they weren’t as wrong as yesterday’s…

Firstly, you can only take from a distance as long as your arm. That’s obvious if you think about it. I had not thought about. Now that I have, I wish I had one longer arm at least. Secondly, if you shoot away from the sun the sun will be in your face – which is inclined to make my serious having-a-photo-taken face into a squinting-into-the-sun face whilst trying-not-to-do-either face. And remember it’s all uncomfortably close up, because my arm is too short… The upshot is I look both alarmingly wrinkled in the forehead department and unequivocally cross. Then there was the fierce wind. Into the sun at least blew the hair away from my face, the other way round made me resemble Cousin It. But into the sun made me look shiny. And awful. I thought profile might be less unappealing and would allow for landscape in the background. It also allowed for a hawthorn to grow out of the back of my head and hair tendrils to whip round under my chin like a misplaced goatee.

I suppose you want to see the result now. Well, I might let it go into the public domain at some point, but I doubt it. I just look too furious. And I seem to have borrowed someone else’s nose. Here’s one I like only a smidge more. I don’t suppose they want one of me I accidentally took when I woke up in a tent in the Arctic Circle last month, but they might. I think my actual favourite ever is of me with a certain black labrador, when half my face is missing. You see, I have a theory here: if you look a bit shit in your publicity shots, or if your fizzog is severely cropped, no-one will be disappointed by a close-up 3D encounter.

blue tent

I nearly put it in thumbnail too, but that would be taking the piss…

By Gove he thinks he’s got it

Michael Gove and his cronies are unleashing a ‘world-class curriculum’ on 5 – 14 year olds from September 2014. My children will be caught in the eye of the storm, although the oldest will hopefully only have to put up with it for two years…

Although every curriculum needs regular review, to ensure it is fit for purpose in a fast-changing world, I seriously would like to know who Gove thinks his overhauled monstrosity of a baby meets the needs of: him, or the country’s children? With its heavy emphasis on old school facts and figures, it’s not unlike the education I received when I was sufficiently compliant to be given it – and therein lies a problem. Teaching is not just the mere transmission of facts and an ‘education’ is not the summative testing of those facts at the exit point.

Like Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, we now have the almighty Minister for Education descending into the midst of the mucky proletariat – tasked, nay obsessed, with giving us guttersnipes a ‘proper’ education, like wot he had. We will, he says, learn some fractions at the age of 5. There are plenty of 5 year olds who know what half an apple looks like already, believe me. Then we must have history! Yes, British, and lots of it. Of course he’s already had the book thrown back at him on that one for his backyard vision of the world. Between the ages of 11 and 14 pupils should have studied at least two of Shakespeare’s plays. Now I am a fan of Will with the quill, but really? The language is so rich and complex, it’s made to be performed. I would worry that for a lot of children at that age it would simply go over their heads, unless they are able to engage with the plot. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet anyone? Then, of course, being the taskmaster that he is, Gove is going to push accurate spelling. Rhthym anyone? I teach English and I still can’t spell the damn word. Now, I can look it up – rhythm – or I can get it right second or even fourth time around with a bit of thought, but the reason I’m not too fussed is because I don’t have to write it too often. Learning to spell words you aren’t going to use seems such a waste of precious time to me. Yes you might use them one day, you might need them a lot if you take up jazz composition and want to write a syncopated rythym – in which case, learn it then!

My fear is that in piling on the pressure to make young children become little fact regurgitators we are going to simply turn them off the whole damn thing. Turn them off the beauties of language, the amazing things that we can do with maths, turn history into dust-dry dates and places. And that, Henry Higgins, is when you will have lost them forever. When you overload children and make them shut down. With this curriculum you will shut off children’s natural abilities for divergent thinking – that creative state from where Einstein reached for the theory of relativity. The same Einstein that flunked maths at school. Prescriptive learning is anathema for many. Learning is a voyage of discovery, where you row your little boat up interesting creeks and across wild raging oceans. Learning, Gove-style, is a cruise round fixed points on the map. You never venture off the map because there might lie dragons.

I leave you with this. Gove wants all nine year olds to learn their 12 x table. I have one nearly nine year old who very well might anyway, in class as the teacher stretches her and engages her interest. I have an eleven year old who never will because if you can know your 10 x and 2 x table you can work it out anyway through partitioning. (That’s a method they didn’t teach when we were at school Mr Gove). When you think about it: why up to 12? it seems quite arbitrary – why not 13 or 15 for example. Here’s the answer from the BBC news website from The_Teacher.

As a secondary teacher I am ecstatic that we now have a wonderful, forward-thinking curriculum which will prepare our children for the modern world.

I particularly like making nine year olds study the 12 times table so they can easily work out the number of shillings and pence they will get in change from a pound.

Wait a minute..

Now tell me you are preparing our kids for the modern world?

Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!

Andy Murray: step into the light

This would hardly be a self-respecting blog if it didn’t follow a zillion other bloggers and write about Andy Murray’s scintillating and nail-biting victory at Wimbledon today. I’ll keep it brief – you know the pack drill.

I have only ever warmed to four Wimbledon champions – Boris Becker is much better for me as a commentator, apart from when he adopts that husky Teutonic tone which reminds me only of the legend about a broom cupboard at Nobu and makes me wince. The champions I refer to then are: Bjorn Borg, Pat Cash, Goran Ivanisevic and, now, Andy Murray. In my mind the Swede with the crossed-eye will always carry all before him – that’s because I was young, it was the seventies, he wore a head band and it fitted with the ABBA zeigeist. Not to mention that he had that gripping rivalry with the American brat John McEnroe, who is an amazing commentator – better than Boris and very mellow now as well. Then the Australian: the hair, the good looks, the guitar. The first one to clamber into the crowd. Nuff said. Ivanisevic, the ninety foot Croatian was a man with a vision – and many years after he first dreamed the dream of Wimbledon he defied the odds to win. I stuck his picture up in the kitchen at the time, to remind me never to give up on dreams.

And now we have Andy. I have never been a Murray-knocker, so I may allow myself a moment of quiet satisfaction now.

I made a comment earlier elsewhere on tinternet, in praise of the Scottish one, and I don’t think I can say better than that here, so I will just replicate it. I can only add, of course, that I am a tiny bit Scottish too (quite a lot in fact on days like these) and I am, therefore, biased. Today, as it does once a decade, the bias worked out well.

Well, what a match. And it is today, of all days, that those who have always had Andy’s back can feel a momentary frisson of, dare I say it, smugness. It has been a pleasure to watch him mature and it has been of equal pleasure to note that he has not entirely lost that hint of gawk that people so criticised when he was younger. It is what makes him, him. Along with all that steely determination, persistence, hard graft and also, belief.

I have not enjoyed a Wimbledon winner so much as when Goran Ivanisevic won. He was a man with a dimming dream. Andy reminds me more of a man who has got there through sheer cussed conviction that there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, he has stepped into it. Long may it shine.

The Saltire on horseback

‘On Writing’

I have been re-reading this book by Stephen King; it’s part memoir, part writing manual – if there could ever be such a thing. At the end he describes the accident that nearly killed him. A Dodge pick-up truck hit him by the side of the road – he was lucky he survived. I first read the book absolutely yonks ago – certainly before I had the children. Some of it stayed with me – more, in fact, now I read it again, than I realised. Things like, ‘only God gets it right first time’ and the idea that you have to put the first draft in a drawer. Oh yes. You walk away from it…. for like, six weeks minimum…

I had to buy ‘On Writing’ again, to read it again. (I substituted a pronoun there, the master himself would be proud.) I had to buy another copy of the book because the first copy is long since gone.

I am glad I did

I have spent today wading through my own writing treacle. Trying to make something out of not very much. Strangely, I think I have. To misquote another writer, I have applied the seat of my pants to a chair which is all writing is, after all, unless you are Philip Roth – who stands up. Anyway, after more than twelve hours at it, I finally hit something like a groove and now I don’t want to leave it. The marathon culminated with me writing the single most upsetting scene that I have ever tackled. I didn’t know I was going to do it, it just turned up in the narrative. Let me assure you, this happening in non-fiction is very unnerving. But it fits well with King’s idea that storytelling is simply uncovering a fossil – he believes it (the story – more pronoun fixing up there) is already waiting for you in the ground – you just have to brush the dust and dirt away to reveal it.

I don’t especially care for the kind of genre fiction that King turns out and has made his money writing, but I’d bet my last stake that it’s bloody well written, and ‘On Writing’ the man is on the money.

India: the road into Old Delhi

When I think back on that first taxi ride in India, it seemed to me, from the time it took, that Indira Gandhi Airport must have been about fifty miles from Old Delhi where the hotel was. Unless I was so jet-lagged and disorientated by the sub-continent that I had lost all sense of time, and I don’t think I had, then all I can conclude is that the driver took us a very long way round… all the better for his friend up front to give us some old chat.

After riding shotgun in our taxi for an extended period, the uninvited passenger gathered that not only was the taxi prepaid, so was our hotel. Although he gave every indication of being utterly convinced of his powers of persuasion, even he baulked at attempting to make some dumb tourists pay for another hotel, with no hope of refund from the one that was booked and paid for. The car stopped and he got out by the side of the road. I did not see how he indicated to the driver that enough was enough; perhaps the driver figured it out.

Shortly after his sudden departure, the front passenger door flew open. We stopped to close it. The driver banged it shut hard. Then he stood poking it with an expression of concern. My travelling companion took the opportunity to take up position in the front seat, alongside the driver. I suddenly felt conspicuous on my own in the back: a white memsahib lodged in solitary splendour on tiger-striped velour upholstery. I was told later that the front seat gave a good view of the road – from the gaping hole in the foot well.

Like magic, once the hard salesman was gone, we were into Delhi properly. Perhaps we had just been driven around and around the paddy fields and water buffalo until we caved in. If so, we had passed the first test. We reached another busy intersection and stop. I stared out of the windows. In front, a man was slowly rolling a ten foot concrete post across the crossroads, apparently unperturbed amidst the flow of other vehicles. The horn chorus has reached a pitch of communication frenzy and I guess a good proportion is directed at the man rolling the post. Behind us, the taxi has a bunch of plastic purple grapes dangling where the air freshener normally hangs. Traffic was being nominally directed by a traffic policeman in brown uniform. These officials do not object when our taxi dives past slower traffic, like rickshaws, by steering a path round them, directly into oncoming traffic. Myself, I am not so keen.

courtesy of BBC images

Growing Up

The eldest daughter has spent two nights away camping in Kent. She came back and we went straight to an open evening at her new secondary school. So far, I have been impressed with how the school is run, and especially so with the head teacher. I would have said head mistress back in the day, but it sends my mother into an apoplexy, so I’ve watched my words there…

Tomorrow she heads off for a day at the new school. We are not in trepidation because they are so warm and welcoming at the school, but still. The kids grow up every minute of every day, but it is imperceptible. It is only on high days and holidays, and days like these when you stand back and wonder where all of it went. The art at the new school is on display everywhere. Some of it looks adventurous and fun. Tonight she signed up to do an art award club – let’s hope the new school suits her as well as the old.

The tree lady, one my daughter made earlier, is crossing her fingers for her.

tree lady

Escape Artist

This picture is absolutely superb. As you see I have popped the cork on the bottle of superlatives in honour.