Thursday, 21 May 2015

School Daze

It's been a while since I have visited Blogland, although Fogland (lack of sleep) and Frogland (hallucinations - see the latter) have been familiar terrain. Thank you nippers.

It is 'A' Level season and our eldest is currently being squeezed through the last of his square-shaped holes - he has never quite fitted into the square-shaped mould of school. And neither have I, frankly. Primary School promised to be a breeze, though we had to find a school outside our area as the one on our doorstep was full. His first teacher assured me son was gifted and he would ‘sail through, given he was light years ahead of everyone else.’ Those light years came to an abrupt end a few years later when bored, he began staring out the window and doodling all over his work. There were still flashes of brilliance: his drawings, the music he played by ear, the poems; but there was no way I could get him to play the game. His heavily tutored peers (offspring of Hampstead Socialists bent on getting their kids into the best schools in the land - I could elaborate on 'bent' but I won't; suffice to say, I don't blame them for wanting the best for their kids, it was the methods many of them employed and the hypocrisy and pretence that I hated) steamed ahead.

Somewhat hypocritically, I also found myself a part of the social conditioning that's rife in state schools in 'good' areas. When Camden Council told me son wasn't able to get a place in any of the state schools, my choices were this: try for the private exams that were coming up in a matter of weeks, despite the fact that he was untutored, or teach him myself. I panicked and went for the exams. Son said there was no way he was going to a private school, he complained about the elitism, and the fact that it went against everything that he was, but when I said that the only other option was to be taught by me, he relented. I paid the gobsmackingly high entrance fee for two of the schools and he sat the two exams. He didn't have a chance, given one of the key aspects of the training for the exams is time spent on each question. I thought his natural intelligence would be enough - but it's not, these schools want kids who can jump through hoops, they don't look for kids who are creative or simply naturally intelligent - though obviously the kids who are getting in are not daft. Put it this way, there were boys in our son's year that were not as bright as him who passed the exams - and their parents were able to pay for the full spectrum of exams at the various grammar (grammar, my foot - don't even get me started on the grammar issue!) and private schools. There were a couple of others, who were, one in particular who was very bright. But it broke my heart that I did that to him - like throwing him to the sharks without the cage that the others had had years to fashion. The gloating from a few of the more competitive mothers (there were lovely mother's too) was hard to take, they really rubbed it in in various ways: "Oliver was offered all the schools he went for..." Well given 'Oliver' had been tutored since year dot, it would have been pathetic had he not, didn't come into it. I comforted myself that their offspring were not as not as good at the arts, or sport - or nice looking [!] or nice frankly - yuck, I know, but this is what that whole system does to you! I’m not proud of any of that.

Anyway, our kid hated going through that but he was just relieved not to be going private, and took the mick out of me for going down that road in the first place - making me laugh over the social conditioning of the whole thing, I wish I'd just trusted that something was going to come up, as it did, straight after the dreaded exams, when he was offered a place at a brand new academy that many parents would not touch as it was untested. Son wanted to enjoy life and have a laugh as well as go to school - and if he hadn't been able to make me laugh as much as he does, I possibly wouldn't have laughed it all off as quickly as I did, given that the whole period was horrid. And isn't laughter the best medicine? Just last week I was doubled over in Sainsbury's, holding on to the freezer handle with a bag of peas in my hand, because son was singing "Here comes your man," perfectly by the Pixies, except he was singing: "Here comes your nan." Okay, perhaps I can't grow up either, but therein lies our connection.

I took our eldest out of primary school for several months to take him to the Thai-Burma border where he played football with Burmese orphans who had seen unspeakable things. He sat in on the classes I taught and widened his horizons in so many ways. I’m glad we did that. Over the years, we spent hours playing music, drawing and discussing books and all manner of things, including faith. I’m glad we did that too. These are the things that made him who he is and who he will be.

Some kids are just not suited to school. I'm still battling to get our eldest to "just give them what they want (art criteria) not what you want to do!" I keep saying: "You can do what you want in three weeks time!" My three youngest are home-schooled. Two of them would be fine in 'regular' school, though, in my view, it would not be the best option for them; the other, well he'd be crushed, and I'd sooner lie in front of a steam-roller than send him. There are some wonderful teachers in the state, and I am told, in the private system, but the system does not work for everyone, home-schooling allows the parent to tailor education to fit the child and their abilities. 

Looking back at my school career, I was just like my eldest. Only worse! But I have still painted my pictures, sung my songs and written my books - eventually. Thanks to my parents, I was fortunate enough to have gone to The National School of the Arts, in Johannesburg, where my creativity was encouraged - as it was at home. My eldest has had some incredible people along the way - his wonderful piano teacher, who refused to force him to sight read because she said it was crushing his natural ability, and who taught him for free for a time because of his 'amazing musical mem-o-ry,' as she put it in her wonderful German accent, when I, a skint single mother, was going to have to take him out of lessons for while - and some wonderful teachers at his state academy - his Geography teacher who said how sad he was that our son had stopped asking "the questions that turned the tide in the classroom." (He was in the middle years in a state school and had to rap his responses at the time.) At the parents meeting when he said this, we both turned to our eldest and said (me tearfully, he with emotion, like we were all suddenly in an Alan Bennett play) "Why don't you ask the questions any more?" Or his art teacher who told me that she has only taught two students with our kid's level of ability - our son and another boy who is now a renowned artist. 

I am convinced that if our son does ‘go the distance,’ it will be along his own path and in his own way, so for all of you parents out there who are freaked out about these finals, fear not, I'm not anymore; it's the beautiful oddballs that 'make the music that makes us dance.' And we want our kids to be happy, well rounded, caring individuals, regardless of what they choose to do, or whose yardstick they are supposed to measure up to. And they will learn to be those kids in our own back yards.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Penrhyn Bay

The Penrhyn Bay Hair Massacre

My hair is looking particularly ridiculous at the moment. Actually I just typed ‘monument,’ instead of moment, and though my hair is certainly having a moment (an unmentionable one) and as if my computer colludes with me, my latest hack job (not computer hacking) hair hacking, has been a monumental or frankly just mental, disaster. The other night, my beautiful, blonde (the perfect shade) pastor’s wife came round with another friend whose gifts as a raconteur render her sparkling silver hair a fitting halo. My friend coloured the upper parts of my hair a fetching blonde, which I initially liked, but on waking the next day, I found I looked like a BBC blonde. The problem was, as fine a job as my friend had done, my hair was just too long to be that blonde, and the shade I had needed to be shorter. As there were no beautiful blonde pastors wives, stroke hairdressers in the house, I had to use the available options, which were: three children under six, a husband stroke doctor of engineering and a novel writer stroke ‘I can cut my own hair given enough incentive’ type person. The incentive was that though I am grateful for the BBC, particularly Front Row, BBC Radio 4 and The World Service, I prefer my female broadcasters to look like Stewarts. Yes, the tartan surnames types: A. Moira Stewart or B. Fiona the Bruce. I shan’t ask the doctor of engineering whom he prefers, lest he becomes more shorn than anticipated – yes, he’s next on the list for the chop; no, not divorce, one does not cull saints, for a haircut. The children don’t count because they are only just learning to. Actually, the five year old is splendid at maths – she must have got that from the doctor of engineering, it wasn’t engineered from me, unless it was in the miraculous sense. Besides, she thinks I currently look ‘brilliant.’ Perhaps she means so brilliant in the shocking sense that her retinas have let her down. Bless her. She is very clever though. 

Anyhow, and you will see how appropriate that word ‘anyhow’ is. The morning after the night before, I did not like my long hair blonde, the shade I had required more of ‘a look’ and not the one of horror that stared back at me from the mirror. Thus it had to come off posthaste. I rummaged in a drawer and found some (possibly blunt) scissors and pulling my hair into a pony tail (sorry to insult you, ponies), I hacked a good three inches off and chucked them into the trough – not really, just staying with the pony theme. I chucked the hair ends in the bath (empty) where they landed on the head of a yellow rubber ducky, rendering the little chap freakish – better he than me. He doesn’t have to venture into the world outside the tub. I then gave myself some layers, or ‘framed’ my face with some feathery action (sorry birdies). I even gave myself a fringe (sorry theatres – okay, a joke too far). The problem was the back. How to hack the back? I called in the reluctant engineer (what else was I to do? Call in the recalcitrant toddlers, or the too eager five-year-old, who was that thrilled by the spectacle, she would have been only too pleased to add to the drama-rama. I reminded initially not keen engineer (husband) that he was a doctor of engineering, and that given the former, he could doubtless wield the latter (the scissors) and follow the line, or the curve, or whatever. Like Frankenstein being brought to life, he was initially reluctant, but soon became over enthused and began wielding those scissors like a maniacal doctor from the Penrhyn Bay Hair Massacre. His response to my suggestion that he cut off an inch was to cut off three miles – okay an exaggeration – three or four inches; four at least. “I’m just trying to get rid of the mullet,” he said, with the confident air of a fishmonger selling five-day-old red mullet at whiffy prices. I reminded him that hair springs upwards, but he paid no heed. 

The result is that if I am feeling buoyant, unlike the reality of my hair, at least after I have made the short walk through the elements to the car, I now look like a Channel 5 Blonde; which is not too bad; or, if I am being realistic, an eighties suburban housewife. The long and the short of it is that the next day, the beautiful blonde pastor’s wife agreed with me that it needed to be shorter, but not that I (and the engineer) should have been in charge of the hack job. Another friend said I looked ‘punk rock’ which of course I like (punk rockers die hard). In fact I was so thrilled I almost booked a Holiday in Cambodia: Had I not been in church, I would have pogoed. Actually, pogoing is perfectly acceptable in our church, which is why I go there. I initially speculated (I was in Phil Spector mode/delusional) that I looked like the blonde replicant in Blade Runner; you get the gist. Only, though my legs are long, I may not be quite that athletic anymore. But therein lies another blog. Kajagoogoo from me for now.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Victual and Grog; and Obama's Pauses

It's been an interesting week really. I have been cutting back on my ludicrously high doses of caffeine with hideous results - a headache like the black plague ascended from Hades via Bolivia and gave me several rounds in the ring before I was knocked out and had to take some paracetamol. I read a book that enlightened me about what was in my food and drink which was motivational on one level, and downright scary on another. Suffice to say, I am trying to be more mindful as to what I put in my body, rather than making merry with it in the victual and grog department - so I feel less groggy and more sleek moggy? Agog? Just less groggy. Although until the nippers start sleeping through the night that may be lottery thinking.

Perhaps I am having some kind of mid-life crisis, assuming I live to be 92, but I have shelved my third novel and been writing songs instead. No I have not been having fantasies of rocking out on stage to whistles and applause, as I did for a time in the grunge and various other things, fuelled 90's. The most my imaginings stretch to at the moment are strumming in the lounge while the kids mosh around on the floor hurling the odd fishfinger. However! Writing songs is fun. They are alternative gospel, protest songs if you must know. I know I'm in a genre all of my own.

Oh, and I listened to Obama's prayer breakfast speech, which left me speechless - but not as speechless as him in places. Did you clock those lengthly pauses coupled with an ever so patronising head tilt, designed to tilt you down his road of 'many roads lead to Rome' wisdom? Those pauses were so long you could have recited the American national anthem whilst knitting a complicated jumper. More on the actual post-pausal content another time. 

Anyway, I'm off to eat dinner and watch Buzz and Tell - have you watched it. Bleeding hilarious. Better than Gigglebiz even. And after a day that featured gnashing teeth, being kicked in the face by a flailing toddler, bawling and near hysteria, you can't say better than that.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Flickering memory reel

I've been trawling through old photographs and reliving fragments of the past through them. Like lit up images of a vintage film projected onto a grey screen, on an otherwise blank reel of time, memory, like bits of old film, must be spliced together, in order for the narrative of the film to be viewed. Bright sparks of remembered faces or events: of joy, trauma, sadness and laughter, on otherwise reels of dark film: memory is mercurial and often unexpectedly selective.

As such, I am happier than a sandgirl given caffeinated pop for the first time, to have wonderful friends, past and present, who remind me of events, only part of which I remember. My secondary school days at the Art, Ballet, Drama and Music School were shot through with such kaleidoscopically vivid life experiences, that were I to remember them at once, would be like walking through galleries hung floor to ceiling with Picasso paintings. If you went to that exhibition at the Tate, you will know what I mean. I had to sit down and close my eyes for ten minutes every several galleries or so. These photographs are some of the most potent of all.

Wild, untamed, talented, and often brilliant, I have stayed in touch with many of the friends I made at ABDM, though they have exploded like fireworks all over the globe. One is a fantastically creative chef in South Africa, another is an internationally recognised and awarded costumed designer, another runs an inspired pre-school from a wooden schoolroom in her garden. Still another studied in France, producing brilliant figure drawing after figure drawing, became a make up artist and then a home designer - she is one of the funniest, honest, adorable people I have ever met and I cling to her like a rabid dog might to your arm. Just this morning she reminded me of how we used to escape our first school hostel using an old tennis net - how did we find that? Often she, or others, will remind me of things I have forgotten and the flickering images become a part of a more cohesive narrative reel.

Friends, seemingly randomly, picked up like gems, along the darkly unusual paths that we light up momentarily through life, are indelible markers of time and we cherish them, the ones from the past that remain, and whose facets continue to reflect our own as parts of our very selves; and the ones that are new, from diverse and often unexpected situations, such as a new friendship made through accidentally meeting someone as I nipped to the loo during a church service, who introduced me to his wife who nagged me (thank you so much for doing that B!) to go to a home education meeting, where I met a mum and then some, from Zimbabwe whose first name is the same as my own, who is writing a book that we are now in process to publication with.

Friends, I salute you.

Only last night, I reconnected with a brief friendship (we met on a girls night out but lived in other parts of the country) that has now restarted due to the fact that we are writing similar material, and are currently in the same part of the world, though we are north and south, and now we marvel at old and new connections, too ‘coincidental’ to document here. Today I salute friendship and all the friends who have adventured with me: from Courtenay Selous School, Zimbabwe, ABDM School, Johannesburg,  through life in London in art, music, writing and teaching, being a single London and then a home schooling mum in Wales, and also my Christian Kingdom friends, with whom relationship is multi dimensional! Life would be a flicker of what it is without you all.

Friday, 9 January 2015

January Dreaming Spires

It's January 2015! Time to reflect on achievements and not quite achievements and what to build on for this year. We have spent the past couple of weeks emptying our container and problem solving. The puzzle has been: Why do we have so much stuff? Why can't we get rid of more stuff? Where can we stash remaining stuff? Gosh that thought was a blast to the past. Amazed I got away with it. But back to the present.

It seems that to fully live in the present, one must not be surrounded by 'stuff' from the past - this may not be volcanic news, but it can be a helpful NY reminder and a useful trigger to get going on new projects or clearing one's space, physical, mental (gosh that's a busy space) and spiritual, in order to think (and be) more creative/ly. Of course one wants to keep photographs and a few precious reminders, but reams of reminders (stuff) are unnecessary and can be hampering, and I don't mean in the Fortnum and Mason sense, if only I were that bling. 

Tip: As one goes about shunting boxes or trying to diminish the pile up in the garage or loft, or both, in our case, one can reflect on what bad (or dire) thought processes need to go to the great dung heap below, as it were. Sometimes this might be letting go of old (possibly ancient) grievances and learning to forgive and forget - the latter part being the key part of forgiving and which is often more 'Escape from Alcatraz' than 'All that Jazz.' It might mean letting go of any habitual behaviour that is unhelpful or just trying to be kinder to yourself (and others) or caring less about what others think.

Tip/sy: Last year I gave up alcohol for a year as a kind of extended lent.

"Golly!" I hear you shriek. "What happened?"

The main thing was that I discovered that alcohol was unnecessary. This also may not be blast your ears off news, but it like Christianity, is something that needs to be experienced rather than just read about - before and after experiments need to take place. Although Hubster and I don't drink very much or very often, we usually take a glass or two when offered and find it is rather relaxing (“You don’t say,” I hear you say). Upshot: (rather than down shot) save your pocket, your waist and your brain cells. You need them in fat, slim, fat order.

I am pondering what else to give up this year. As I have more brain cells now, there is more suff to ponder...

So in January, I am reflecting on what to leave behind and on constructing a new foundation for the fabulous 'building' I hope to construct this year. This building will have many facets that reflect the aspects of my life: being a wife, homeschooling mum/mum to an almost school leaver, writer, teacher and publisher amongst many other things. I'm hoping my building will be made of (toughened) glass. I want my life to be transparent in that I want it to be authentic, truthful and honest - a building of beauty - in the internal, eternal sense. Dreaming spires.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Home hairdressing is like novel writing (probably) best left to the professionals...

This is a post about DIY hair hacking from a few years ago. I re-read it as a warning to myself as I contemplate shelling out for a pro hairdresser...

Me about ten years ago - when did you wed Robbie? At my brother's wedding. The last time I had long, natural, rather than luridly coloured hair.

I have been wearing my hair scrunched into something resembling a knot (a not?) for some time now. Mostly because with the terrific-ten-week-old, the tremendous-two-year-old and the teenage-cash-demander-stand-up comedian there is not much me time, never mind ‘hair-time,’ left. I exist in a vortex of activity in which ‘me’ doesn’t often come out - except via the occasional shout. Today I decided that I needed a sea-change and it was my hair that was going to make waves. 

Brandishing my bluntish hairdressing scissors; the ones that have attacked the locks of my fifteen-year-old for years, and latterly my trusting husband and a few brave (drunk?) friends, I set to. The only thing sharp about my scissors have been my words to my son hovering above them like blades Just lift your chin off your chest before I cut off your ear. Yes, I transform into a Van Goughian madwoman when the subject is my son and my canvas is his hair. Anyway, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror in the gloom (the light obscured by the hanging – yes it looked dead – washing that dried three days ago). First of all I layered the sides. I could still see at this stage. Then the thought occurred to me that I might try layering the back. It was like playing blind-man’s-bluff with my hair as the opponent, as I groped around the back of my head, pulling up layers and hacking away. Before long (there was short) I was in the bluff. Scissor-happy, I liked what I saw – at this stage my hair had gone from long and lank to mid-length and nicely layered. 

My two-year-old, who was taking full advantage of my distraction by emptying ‘things’ into the bathtub and over the floor, said that I looked ‘gorgeous’ and that she ‘liked it,’ I think she may have been ‘liking’ my ignoring her activities with the perfume bottle, canny kid that she is. This tick should have been my cue that the session was over, but the scissors were hot in my hands and I thought I could ‘style’ it some more. Pause for a moment (as I should have) and imagine a sped up film of a person cutting their own hair. This was to become my mode in the minutes that followed as I lost all sense of time and proportion. Soon I had cut a wedge from the right-hand side that had to be paid for by the left and so it went on for some time like a bizarre hair politics show, until eventually my daughter who prefers to play than eat demanded lunch. My hair, like a novel, or rather now, a short story, was forced into conclusion by events outside my control, which was just as well, otherwise I may have continued cutting, cutting, cutting, shaping, shaping, shaping until someone said stop.

*Happily that novel has now shifted over two thousand copies - all word of mouth too, apart from some good reviews/press early on - yes, I know I am mouthy and a bit trumpet-blowy. But not bad for a girl who ditched (nicely, she was lovely) her agent and the publishing industry (when they asked her to change the ending) to go it alone...I have to remind myself about previous successes when I feel a bit down that the current one is not finished yet...