Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Happy Christmas

So presents are wrapped; Last Minute Christmas Pudding steamed and ready to go and Chocolate Roulade is only a little singed around the edges.  Thought I'd take a moment to compose a brief post since I've only managed to blog once in December.  We're going to Scotland today to spend Christmas in Alloa with husband's family this year.  But I did see my family - three of my four sisters, my aunt and uncle and the English cousins the weekend before last so I don't mind.  Here we are in our sparkles celebrating my cousin's (centre) 50th birthday.  I bought a proper long dress for the occasion, the first one I've owned since the navy blue flowery one I used to wear for dances in the Woods Parish Hall with The Reflections playing.  We had a great night - my cousin's sons have a band; their dad also joined them to entertain us. They played quite a few old favourites as well as their own songs and I haven't danced so much in ages. 

I'm also including  a picture of my only attempt at Christmas craft this year  - a slightly wonky wreath made with gold sprayed dried hydrangeas - I'm quite proud of it really. 

I'm hoping to catch up with my favourite blogs over the holidays though I've noticed that quite a few I read have like me not been posting so often - busy times.  Happy Christmas to everyone who does visit here. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Year in Books: December 'Us' by David Nicholls

I've been neglecting the blog recently: it's three weeks since my last post.  I've been trying to think why as I'm not really any busier than usual.  Mainly it's because I've been hibernating!  I sleep much more when it's dark or even if I don't sleep I spend more time in bed as it's too cold to get up.  This is a good thing, I suppose, as I generally feel less stressed and grumpy after a good night's sleep, but I do miss the long quiet weekend mornings I get in summer when I wake at 6am and can blog undisturbed by the rest of the family.  But I'm up earlyish this morning and joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees for the Year in Books, my favourite link up.

My November read was the Booker nominated 'Us' by David Nicholls, pictured above.  I had high hopes for this novel, having enjoyed 'One Day' a lot.  Reviews were good and the subject matter appealed to me as he was writing about the marriage a couple in their 50's with one teenage child.  Now I am not so narrow in my reading habits to simply want to read about people like me but, even so, the similarity to my own family situation did appeal.  I'd expected, and hoped for, a book which explored the complexity of a long term relationship from both sides.  Unfortunately I was disappointed, as it really doesn't do this at all.

'Us' is written from the perspective of Douglas Petersen whose wife announces in that she thinks their marriage has run its course and she intends to leave him when their son goes off to university.  He desperately wants to keep her and plans a long road trip to Europe for the family, a kind of Grand Tour, visiting key works of art in major cities, in the hope of saving their marriage.  Douglas is socially awkward and introverted whereas Connie is his opposite: attractive, amusing and extrovert, only marrying him in the first place because she needed more stability than her previous partner had offered.  Douglas also feels a little jealous of his wife's close relationship with their son, Albie.  He has a rather troubled relationship with his son and the book is as much about this as it is about the marriage.  Douglas tries hard as a parent, advising his son and doing the things he thinks he ought to do such as forcing him to eat his greens, doing his maths homework with him and encouraging him build Lego according to the instructions. He doesn't understand his son's distress when he 'helps' by gluing the completed Lego models together.  Albie turns out to be more a of free spirit with artistic leanings like his mother and he falls out spectacularly with his father during the trip, going off travelling with a girl he met busking.  Much of the book tells of Douglas's attempt to find his son and bring him home.

It was all very readable and you cannot help but sympathise for poor Douglas.  I was reminded a little of Harold Fry from Rachel Joyce's book.  My problem with it was that I expected something different.  As a portrait of a marriage in crisis it failed: it was too one-sided.  We don't get to know Connie at all: she seems too perfect and all the 'blame' for the relationship breakdown is heaped on Douglas.  There are much better portrayals of long term relationships in crisis in Ian McEwan's novels. Both 'Enduring Love' and 'The Child in Time'  do this well.   Also it just didn't ring true - Douglas and Connie are just too nice too each other when breaking up.  From what I have seen in observing friends and acquaintances going through divorce, it's rarely 'amicable'.

So for my last book of the year, I'm avoiding the best seller list and going for a book lots of people have recommended, 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' by John Irving.  I hope it's good as recent books I have chosen have failed to meet my expectations.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Bad Grammar

Last night I spent an hour or so reading my favourite blogs on my I-pad, adding the occasional comment, while sleepily watching tv at the same time.  This morning, I noticed that there are quite a few typo and spelling errors in these comments and, in one of them, I have muddled my homophones using 'to' instead of 'too'.  Somewhat ironic, since I spent quite a lot of time on Friday afternoon telling students about the importance of proof-reading their work to avoid errors just like this.

Looking back over my previous blog posts I can see other errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar (or SPaG as the exam boards call it) and am aware that I am setting myself up for criticism. How can I, as an English teacher, publish writing which contains errors?  Shouldn't I be ashamed of myself?  I've been asking myself these questions recently.  Perhaps I shouldn't blog at all, when I don't have time to construct careful sentences or proofread properly.  And I compare myself to other bloggers: two of my favourites write flawlessly, despite having English as an additional language.  Why can't I manage this?

Before half term our Year 10 students, including my daughter, completed something called the Spoken Language Unit for their GCSE.  Their task was to produce an essay in which they analysed examples of their own use of digital communication and considered whether they were similar to spoken language.  This meant collecting examples of their texts, Snapchats or other messages and commenting on them. A pointless, time-wasting activity in my opinion: I am not sorry this particular part of the English Language GCSE has been dumped in the latest rewrite.  However what emerged was quite interesting.  My daughter and her friends use a whole range of techniques to make their 'chats' similar to spoken language:  repeated !!! or ???, capital letters to suggest tone of voice and emojis to suggest gesture and facial expression.  She doesn't worry about sentence punctuation much but does make an effort to use the apostrophe distinguish between words like 'your' and 'you're'.  The important thing for her is communicating and the speed at which she does so astounds me: she can type accurately on the tiny I-phone keypad without looking.

And so, like her,  that's what I've decided to do: focus on communication. So forgive me, dear readers, for the occasional error.  This blog is a record my thoughts and experiences: it is not perfectly crafted prose. Blogger allows me to share these thoughts and experiences with others who can respond, if they wish, just as I can respond to their writing. I love being able to do this.  As E.M Forster said in his preface to Howard's End: 'only connect.'  That's what matters.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Year in Books - November: Reading 'Best Sellers'

My October read was this Booker Prize nominated novel, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  I noticed yesterday that it is number 3 in the best selling paperback list published in 'The Times'.  In fact quite a few of my recent reads are on there (The Chimp Paradox, The Goldfinch) as well as my November choice Us by David Nicholls.  This has lead me to consider how much I am influenced by marketing in my choice of reading: the book promotions and displays in Chester's only bookshop, Waterstones; the reviews in the papers; the radio interviews; and even the appearances at literary festivals: all of this is marketing.  And even though I know this, I am still easily influenced. It makes me a bit uncomfortable: how will any new writers get on the shelves if booksellers fill them up with these heavily promoted books, often written by those who have already had a best seller? So I am going to make a deliberate effort to avoid such books in the future, basing more of my reading on recommendations like those on this link up The Year in Books by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

I quite enjoyed We Are Completely Beside Ourselves which I chose initially because of the intriguing title, though possibly also because of its position in the Waterstone's display.  (I didn't actually buy it from Waterstone's but did my usual library order.  It's usually either that or a Kindle purchase for me so I am guilty, I suppose, of contributing to the demise of independent bookshops and their support of new writers.)  It was another book which was really promising in the first few third, but then lost pace later on.  It's in the first person again, like many books I have read recently, and tells the story of a young woman who is the daughter of psycholgist parents and how the family breaks down because the father chooses to experiment with his own family. There's a major twist which I won't give away, but after that is revealed, I think, the book goes downhill and I felt sometimes that the writer's research was a bit intrusive - more scientific detail than I wanted. Perhaps others like this: I noticed it had a rave review in The Guardian. (Don't read this if you want to discover the twist yourself).

I have started Us, by David Nicholls.  It's about the marriage of a couple in their fifties whose son is about to go off to university and so interests me as I'm not so far from that stage.  But so far it seems depressingly similar to One Day: the main character is a kind of older version of Dexter,  Anyway - will reserve judgement until I read some more.  I have also tracked down the book I referred to in my last post and I have ordered it from the library.  It is 'Happiness by Design' by Paul Dolan.  I'll be reading this too.  And now I am off to rake up leaves in the garden, an activity which makes me happy.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Doing Too Much

Thank you to all those who commented on my previous post.  After a week off school I am now feeling more relaxed and on top of things.  I've been thinking about why I got myself into such a state: it's because I always end up taking on too much,  It's a mistake I make again and again. I agree to do things too easily, without thinking of the consequences for me and the rest of the family.  A recent example was editing our school magazine,  a demanding task which I ended up doing in evenings and at the weekend, snapping at anyone who interrupted me.  It has now been printed and distributed and I am pleased with the results.  But was it worth the collateral damage to my mental health and relationships at home?

This week there's been another example.  In the summer I was offered the opportunity to host a Boden clothes party.  I like Boden clothes - pricey but good quality - and I have bought a few items recently. So when the email arrived, I signed up for it and was offered a date in half term.  I liked the idea of hosting an all female party and trying on the clothes.  Of course, I didn't consider the downside - the huge effort required to set up all the clothes and pack them away again.  Did I enjoy it? Yes - it was lovely seeing my friends and I quite enjoyed transforming our living room into a clothes shop. Yet it really wasn't lot of fun getting up early yesterday morning to pack it all away. My daughter helped - she set up and put away the accessories you can see below.  But, because I was so busy, I got stressed and snappy with her again and angry words were exchanged; too many fluctuating hormones in our house at present.

I read this article in the press recently about happiness. I meant to cut it out and try to get hold of the book it was promoting but the paper got recycled. If anyone knows the book I am talking about, please tell me.  The basic idea was this: you conduct a happiness audit.  Write down all the things you do - work and leisure activities - and how long you spend and then award a score out of 10 for each activity according to how happy it makes you feel. I'm planning to this for the next month.  I hope I will be able to break the 'doing too much' habit and spend more time on what I really enjoy.  Now I am going to stop blogging and go for a walk, one thing that does make me happy - it's a beautiful autumn morning.

PS - Camera playing up. Photos not uploading.  No pics of Boden party pics then.  Am I going to waste precious daylight hours struggling with technology? No  - will walk dog instead. Here's a picture of us on my birthday in July when we found a Gruffalo on a walk in Delamere forest.  He knows how to be happy and doesn't do too much ( the dog, not the Gruffalo.)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Not Blogging, but...

struggling to cope.  Work demanding; not sleeping well; house a mess and depressing me.  List of things to do seems insurmountable.  Everyone grumpy at home.  And the things I enjoy are getting squeezed out.  This poem in my head a lot:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Half term soon.  Will return when I'm in a more positive frame of mind.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Year in Books: Easy Reading October

I've been on an enforced blogging break recently - busy with work and barely getting to essential household maintenance never mind blogging.  But time this morning for a quick books post, joining in again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

In September, I eventually finished 'The Goldfinch'.  It was hard work in the end and I didn't enjoy the last 300 pages much.  I ceased to care very much for Theo and skipped over the rather complex business of how the painting was found; lost again and then returned for a large reward. There were too many characters; too much violence for my taste; and the aspects of the novel I was enjoying, such as the Theo's relationship with Hobie and Alice, were not really developed.

So my October choices are much lighter, easy reading.  Many other readers who post on The Year in Books have recommended 'The Rosie Project', so I'm now reading it too.  I love it and am already nearly half way through.  Don is utterly charming and a much more pleasant companion than Theo (Is it just me who considers characters in books in this way - especially when there is a first person narrator?)  But I am a little uncomfortable with the humour in this book.  Should we be laughing at the results of Don's social blunders because of his Asperger's Syndrome?  My experience of teaching children with Asperger's suggests that their lives are much more challenging than this.  My other September read was 'The Reason I Jump', which was written by a Japanese boy and translated by David Mitchell, gives a better insight into autistic spectrum brains.

I have also borrowed from the library 'How to Build a Girl' by Caitlin Moran which I'm looking forward to - I love her writing.  And I have reserved  'We are all Completely Beside Ourselves' by Karen Joy Fowler . I know nothing at all about this book but the title is intriguing.

Nothing too demanding then: I'm beginning to wonder if my capacity to cope with more serious intellectual books is declining and that is why I didn't like 'The Goldfinch while others loved it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014


After a very relaxed summer, I am now up to my eyes in school work and have little time to myself to write my blog or comment on others. So forgive me if I go a bit quiet for a while.  That's the problem with teaching - yes you have long holidays but it's full on in term time: I am working evenings and weekends even though officially I only teach half a timetable.  And you can't really get ahead in the holidays - you can design 'schemes of work' but I find rigid planning in advance doesn't work and you can't mark writing until they have done it!  I know, whinging teacher... Despite this I am enjoying the new term, getting to know new classes and new routine.  I spend quite a lot of time driving back and forward from my school which is 3 miles away and not accessible by public transport as I also need to drop off and pick up my daughter and  go home to walk the dog at some stage when I have a full day.

Do have a little oasis of calm mid week. I don't work on Wednesday mornings and this week it was a gloriously sunny warm day so I took the dog for a long walk with my neighbour.  We explored a new park which has been created in unused land between the local hospital and the canal.  Access isn't that easy from our village: we had to walk down a narrow footpath by the side of a busy main route into Chester.  But when we left the road it was wonderfully peaceful there even though it is so close to the main road.

Another highlight this week was a school trip to see NT Live production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the local Vue cinema.  It was a fabulous production with Gillian Anderson very convincing as Blanche. I always identify a bit with Blanche as she is like me an English teacher with rather fanciful romantic ideas about things, though I certainly don't chase after young men like she does or drink quite as much.

I did manage to stop and stare occasionally this week - at the butterflies and bees all over the ivy in the garden.  Glad I haven't bothered to get rid of it if it attracts them.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

How Long is a Good Book? The Year in Books: September

I've been delaying this month's Year in Books post in the hope that I would manage to finish my August read, 'The Goldfinch'.  I'm now admitting defeat - there are still over 300 of the 771 pages to go.  Yes I'm enjoying it and I will finish it: the first section was really good.  Others have said it was unputdownable and at this stage I tended to agree.  It's another book with a young male first person narrator - the fourth of this kind in a row for me, by accident rather than design.  As a 13 year old, the boy's life is shattered when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing of a New York gallery they are visiting.  Donna Tartt's description of this is really vivid and her characterisation superb - I have a full picture of the world she created in my mind.  He tries to help another injured victim, a character called Welty, who he had noticed with his granddaughter just before the explosion.  He dies but not before telling the boy to take the painting of 'The Goldfinch', which his mother loved, out of the gallery.  This is the central plot device and the reader looks forward to seeing what the boy does with the painting - you suspect that he will hang onto it as the book begins with him hiding from police in Amsterdam for an undisclosed crime.  But then she kind of wraps the painting up for a bit, just like her character does, and digresses: he moves to Las Vegas to live with his father, meets Boris, another fascinating character and they grow up drinking, discovering girls, drugs etc.  All very well written, though rather too much vomiting for my taste,  and again she draws you into this desert and sun and casino world.  But there is, frustratingly, no plot advancement.  Then his father dies in a car accident and he's back in New York, at first as a teenager and then as an adult in the part I'm currently reading I'm starting to lose sympathy with him now, always a problem if you have a first person narrator, and I want the real story to start.  I checked out what others on The Year in Books thought and Lifechimes seems to agree.

Basically this book is just too long.  I caught the end of an interview with Ian McEwan on the radio a week or so ago and he was discussing this   He says that "very few really long novels earn their length", and "my fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil".  I tend to agree.  Yet short books are not to my taste either.  I found McEwan's Booker prize nominated 'novella', 'On Chesil Beach' disappointingly brief.  He says that he likes the idea of a book that you can read at one sitting, like his latest 'The Children Act'. (A man's comment - few women of my acquaintance have the luxury of reading even a 203 page book in one go.)  It sounded good when I caught a bit of it Book At Bedtime but I won't be buying it.  Not enough reader satisfaction for the £6.45 it costs on Kindle.

And so to answer my own question.  For me a good book is usually at least 300 and no more than 500 words long.   Just like my other August book which I did finish: Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (469 pages), first read with Mrs Neill at the Rainey Endowed school in 1974/5 for my O Level English Literature.  I haven't read it since and  I really enjoyed it.  Hardy may digress into descriptions of rural Dorset but he never forgets to keep the plot going for the reader.  Like Donna Tartt, he has that skill of drawing you into his world so that you live it for a while. 

I also think everyone should read this book before choosing a life partner. Listen to these wise words at the end of the novel. 
They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably un- necessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — CAMARADERIE — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.'

 Hoping I can persuade my daughter to read it so that she's not taken in by some Troylike flashy scoundrel in a red jacket showing off his fancy sword work. Or its modern equivalent.

So in September for the Year in Books, I won't be too ambitious. I will finish 'The Goldfinch' along with a couple of non-fiction library loans pictured below. Joining again with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

End of Summer Outings: Coronation Street Tour and Kate Bush Concert

If I were ever to appear on Mastermind, like Mr Johnson from the Rainey Endowed who reached the final answering on various obscure French writers,  I would choose as my specialism.... 'Coronation Street', 1970- present.  I was the group expert last week when my daughter and I went to Manchester to do the tour of the set at the old Granada Studios, as I knew the answers to the guide's questions on details like the names of Gail's former husbands.

This is not to say I am a huge fan of the original 'soap' - when I'm on my own I don't usually bother to watch. It's just that I always seem to be around when it's on the TV: my grandmother watched it; my dad did in later years and mum when she sat down.  My husband's family watched it - his mother was a huge fan.  And most weekday evenings when it's on, Kate and her dad watch it together while I potter about.  It's one of the few things they do together. The soap is pure escapism and bears no reflection to any kind of working class reality. But she has grown up watching it and sometimes it has been the catalyst for discussions about issues that perhaps would not have arisen naturally.

When the tour was advertised after the show recently, Kate said she wanted to go.  I am forever dragging her round gardens etc. so I agreed to her choice of outing this time and we joined other fans for the tour on Thursday. This set was used until December - now the show has a new home at Media City in Salford.  Backstage on the set was far from glamorous - we had a peek in dressing rooms, the wardrobe and saw the sets for some of the family homes and the Rovers Return.  It was all much smaller than we'd thought.  Then we went outside to see 'the street' itself.  Good fun and out tour guide was very entertaining.

Then at the weekend my husband and I caught the train to London to go the Kate Bush concert at the Hammersmith Apollo.  He's a huge fan - has all the albums and his screen saver on his tablet is a photo of her. That's why he was prepared to fork out a huge amount for the tickets.  She hasn't toured since 1979 so they were much sought after.  I'm not so keen on some of the music but I loved this show - it was more of a theatrical experience than a concert with film and puppetry and acting.  There is a kind of narrative which links some of the songs and this was developed further. I liked the 'Hounds of Love' sequence which shows a woman -a mother whose family are waiting at home - who had fallen from a ship and floats about, hoping to be rescued.   Some of the imagery was quite disturbing - she transforms herself into a bird at the end of Aerial.

These outings mark the end of our long summer holiday.  Now I must move. Because today I have to go to work.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ice Cold Charity

You are probably aware of the current Ice Bucket challenge craze: a charity fundraising drive for ALS or Motor Neurone disease which has swept the nation this summer.  Nominees film themselves having a bucket of iced water thrown over their heads, post the video on Facebook and then donate to the charity.  Or don't in some cases.  My daughter completed her challenge in Brittany last week, nominated by the friend who went on holiday with us; her cousins in Ireland have done it and various otherwise sane adults of my acquaintance have also posted their videos on my Facebook page.  I haven't bothered to play them.

You may sense my cynicism about all this.  It's not that I object to fundraising, it's just that I dislike the tactics used by some charities.  They are 'competing' for a finite amount of money - the amount of a family's disposable income that they are willing to give to charity  And why should this charity receive a bigger share because they have come up with something which appeals to our 'selfie' obsessed society?   The Cancer Research 'no make-up' Facebook selfie was similar.  No doubt there are charities around the country meeting in attempts to come up with the next craze.  The adult version of 'loom bands' perhaps.

Charity fundraising is an emotive issue and people usually donate or raise funds themselves to charities which mean something to them. A number of my friends raise funds for cancer charities because of their personal experiences.  And when my husband rode from London to Paris he fundraised for the Alzheimer's Society because his mother had suffered dementia in her final years.  There's nothing wrong with this, yet I suppose it highlights the fact that there is a element of charitable giving which is about making ourselves feel better.

When my daughter was younger I worried that she was rather spoilt: as an only child with lots of relatives the stack of toys and presents at Christmas and birthdays was immense.  So I decided to join one of those schemes where you sponsor a child in a developing country- pay an amount every month and you help a named child, getting updates on her progress etc.  Our child was Awa Ba from a rural part of Senegal: we received photographs of her, letters from the person who worked with her and the occasional drawing from Awa herself.  My motivation for doing this was twofold - Kate would learn that not all children were as lucky as her and I would be helping another child rather than spending more of my income on my own.  I succeeded to some extent though, believe it or not, Kate aged 8 actually envied Awa because her ears were pierced, something I had forbidden until secondary school.  But then my working hours were cut and I had less money to spare so when the project in Senegal ended we decided not to sponsor another child, giving a smaller regular amount instead.  I feel a bit guilty about this -  there are plenty of things I could do without and still sponsor a child.  But child sponsorship is, in fact, really another gimmick.  The money given doesn't go directly to the child, but to the project and all the costs admin, photographs and postage associated with the sponsorship programme will reduce the funds available for the community

Kate has not made her Ice Bucket donation yet.  I am insisting that she does.  However I want her to make an informed decision about which charity she wants to support rather than automatically giving to the ALS.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Holiday 2014 Part 2: Home from home in Brittany

Brittany is my favourite part of France - we have been on holiday here many times. I think this is because it reminds me of Ireland - it's very green - it rains quite a lot as we discovered this week - and there's all that Celtic culture.  It is our dream to one day buy a house on the South coast along from La Baule, which is where the weather is best.  So we travelled there again last week - me, husband, daughter and her schoolfriend, carefully vetted by us as being a. a keen reader and b. not a fussy eater.

Allotments seen from the city above - very green as you can see.
This time we stayed in Dinan, just south of St Malo where the ferry comes in from Portsmouth.  We stayed in a gite overlooking the Rance river.  Not the best holiday home we have ever had - uncomfortable bed and the shower could only four dribbly jets of water. But a great location, just after the end of the main road in Dinan port, overlooking the river. It was quiet without being too isolated with a little bar/restaurant between us and the river.  Fifteen minute walk to the town itself, a pleasant stroll along the port, past privately owned boats and quayside restaurants and then a steep climb up the hill, occasionally pausing for breath at little art galleries and craft shops. Dinan is a beautiful preserved medieval town with a long history but, true to form, we didn't really bother finding out anything about this and concentrated on our usual holiday pursuits: eating, lazing around and reading books.  There was also a cycle path running along the river just outside our gite and I went on a couple of bike rides with my husband, a very unusual occurrence as I go much too slowly for him and won't ride far at home because of my fear of traffic.

The girls did their usual stuff - talking till after midnight, sleeping till ten, two hours of 'getting ready', then outside to link up with the bar's free wi-fi so they could catch up with Snapchat and Facebook and 'update their stories' with holiday pictures.  I wasn't terribly pleased to find out about the free wi fi and wanted a total break from the internet.  So I didn't bother. But the girls are lost without it.  One day when it was raining heavily they even stood outside sheltering under the restaurant's canopy so they could connect.  At least they found time for reading - their current favourite being the 'Divergent' series by Veronica Roth. I watched the DVD of the first book with them and quite enjoyed it.  It was better than 'The Hunger Games' anyway.  They also liked eating crepes and exploring the market.  I quite like this necklace and bracelet with the Breton symbol which my daughter bought and might borrow it sometimes.

So a good holiday, even though the weather was a bit mixed. We got to the beach in St Cast one day and sat outside most evenings to eat even if we had to wear jumpers and shelter from light rain under the big umbrella.  And we had some lovely meals out.  My favourite was a little restaurant on the quayside called LesTerre-Neuvas where we sat out side for lunch on our final day when the sun shone.  This meal below cost 16 euros and was absolutely delicious: crevettes roses with mayonnaise; scallops and salmon gratin, and something called Assiette Gourmand (greedy plate?) with cassis sorbet, chocolate mousse and far breton - a kind of egg custard with prunes.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Holiday 2014 Part 1: Breezy Ballyronan

Family Portrait by Hannah
I've just returned from a short break in Northern Ireland.  A couple of days for me and teenager in the Lisburn area visiting my sister and her family: the big boy cousins on holiday from university who sleep til lunchtime and then emerge to eat huge bowls of Shreddies on the sofa while skyping or messaging distant friends.  Shreddies are often the only food in the house since this sister is no domestic goddess and rarely shops for food or eats anything more than M&S pre-packed salads. We had a good time though - twin boy nephews aged 5 and their big sister, the portrait artist, were also over from England and the small boys enjoyed torturing the big boy cousins and the cats, Jensen and Rossi.  Their dad and I shopped and cooked spag bol. for everyone while sister was at work. So we ate that and then we played Monopoly, one of our favourite board games when we were children, though this time she didn't rob the bank as she used to.  I was very disappointed as this was a souped up version of the game and instead of building hotels in Pall Mall you had to build things like piers on 'Vista Beach'.  We played in pairs and sister and I did well at first but eventually went bankrupt because of the devious and ruthless actions of the biggest boy cousin: I predict future business success.

All three sisters then went back to Dad's house in Ballyronan which is now empty apart from the spiders. Cobwebs in your face as you open the door for no one has been here since my last visit at the beginning of June.  It was sad at first, but soon the children had created chaos and it felt more like home.  We didn't go far - it was freezing in NI.  We put the heating on and I'd had to purchase a furry hoodie as I hadn't brought enough clothes in my Easyjet permitted hand luggage. So we caught up with extended family - cousins my age visited and we had the old photos out reminiscing.  We pulled weeds in the yard and examined the state of the garden.  The greenhouse is choked with weeds and there are lots of broken panes of glass.  No tomatoes this year - the twins were disappointed.   There were lots of plums though, slightly underripe, but very good in the crumble I made after Sunday's roast dinner.

Our only outing was to the marina down the road with the younger children and my daughter to feed the ducks and play in the playground.  There was a weather warning in place, and it was more like winter so brother-in law was a bit chilly in his shorts.  Good fun for the children as a flock of Canadian geese had taken up residence and the children enjoyed chasing and being chased by them.  Only my teenager showed any fear, even when one of the boys had his finger nipped by a particularly greedy goose.

On my trip I made a rather shocking discovery.  It seems that some people I actually know read this blog. Although I now have had over 10,000 page views according to Blogger stats, I assumed that most were people who came across the blog by accident when looking for something else, not bothering to read.  My all time top post is about Michael Kors handbags, for example.  I suppose if I put Ballyronan in the title, then I'm bound to attract local readers. It's not that I mind people reading really, but I am a little concerned that I may have offended someone with my half-formed views on events in NI etc.  So please forgive me, reader, if that is you.  And if you are an ex-Rainey pupil of my era, yes, I was that slightly mousy one you didn't really talk to much.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Year in Books: July reads and August plans

We are well into August and I still haven't written my Year in Books post.  I love this project started by Laura at Circle of Pine Trees as it has been a good way to find other bloggers who enjoy reading as well as many books to add to my wish list.

This month I read three books, not a lot considering I've not been at work since mid-July.   My chosen book was 'The Goldfinch' but I just didn't get to it.    I did read 'Perfect' by Rachel Joyce which was, like Harold Fry her previous bestseller, a little slow in the middle and perhaps too long but well worth it for the ending.  It has two narrative voices, one in the present and one from a child's perspective in the 1970s.  The period detail was really good as was the portrayal of the narrator's mother.  Like several other books I have read recently, such as 'The Shock of the Fall', it explores mental illness: the central character suffers from OCD.  Although it was sad, it wasn't depressing and I loved the ending.

I also read 'The Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys.  This is one of these classic books I've been meaning to get round to for years.  I knew of the connection to 'Jane Eyre' and its status as a kind of feminist response to JE.  So I was expecting something different.  The story of Antoinette before she became Rochester's mad wife Bertha was powerful and evocative.  Rhys drew on her own experience of growing up in Dominica and it's the description of the island and the beauty that has stayed with me.  Again the narration is shared between characters - from Bertha to Rochester and on one occasion to Grace Poole who cares for Bertha in England.  I think I was expecting more reference to 'Jane Eyre' and more focus on Rochester.  Actually I felt a little sorry for him at times and don't think he is portrayed as a total villain.  I'm not that keen on him in 'Jane Eyre' anyway.  Jane herself doesn't appear in the novel, unless I missed something.  A pity as I'd have liked to hear Bertha's opinion of her as she is annoyingly prissy in my view.

I also read 'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe' by Frannie Flagg, my bookclub read.  It took me a while to get my head round the huge number of characters and narrators but in the end I enjoyed it.   Others have recommended the film which was very popular when it first came out - quite a while ago.

In August I am eventually going away on holiday and have set aside 'The Goldfinch' until then. I have purchased a hardback copy with a birthday voucher and it is as heavy as a brick.  Good job we we are travelling by car and ferry.  I also have to reread 'Far from the Madding Crowd', my own 'O' Level text many years ago, as I am teaching it to an 'A' level group next term.  Don't mind really - I enjoy Hardy as the plots are always strong and at least this one has a happy ending.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Flying the Flags - culture and identity in Northern Ireland

So Northern Ireland, my home nation, has eventually won some gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. Two young boxers were doing the rounds of the post-games chat shows last night clearly delighted with their success, as was the Scottish postie boxer who also won gold and amused everyone with his enthusiastic rendition of 'Flower of Scotland', the chosen anthem for his country, during the medal ceremony.  The two boxers from Northern Ireland may have felt  less enthusiastic when their medal were being awarded.   The radar that all those who grew up in NI acquire tells me that these young men are probably Catholic (the names give it away) and might not have much loyalty to the 'hand of Ulster' flag used to represent Northern Ireland in the games, nor for Northern Ireland's chosen 'anthem' 'The Londonderry Air' or 'Danny Boy' as it is better known.  In fact, Paddy Barnes was heard to say 'that's not my anthem' when it was being played. But he later defused the row by making a comment on Twitter.  He said he 'won the medal for everyone, Catholic and Protestant alike, I don't care what your religion is!  Some clowns out there.'  Good for him.

People in mainland Britain cannot believe what a fuss is made about flying flags in Northern Ireland.  There were violent protests last year about the council's decision to limit the number of days the union flag would be flown over city hall.  Thankfully this has died down, but Paddy Barnes is right. There are still 'clowns' around and a sickening new twist is that some of the loyalist extremists seem to be supporting Israel's horrendous bombing of Gaza. Read more about this here.

In Ballyronan, where I grew up, it became a kind of sport at one stage for the young men in the village to erect either a tricolour (what we called the Irish flag) or a union jack and take down the one erected by the opposition. These days no one bothers.  Most people are ready to live in peace with each other and get on with their lives. My brother in law who lives in NI showed me this clip from a show called 'The Blame Game' which sums up the attitude of most sane people to the flag issue.

Last week I had to complete and sign a form related to our farm in Ballyronan. It had to be returned to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  I noticed that the address on the form said Derry/Londonderry.  This use of the / alternative is new to me and is I suppose another official attempt at reconciliation since the name of NI's second city is another contentious issue.  When I was young, I always talked of Derry and used Co Derry when writing my address.  It was only later that someone told me that Protestants like me said Londonderry.  Really?

My own cultural identity is a bit mixed.   I don't feel any real connection to what is 'traditional' Irish culture - the language, the dance, the music and I can't even spell ceilidh without looking it up.  Nor do I see parades like the Twelfth, which I blogged about here,  as my cultural heritage: it's time to move on from all that. I never know what to put on those Ethnic Diversity forms you have to fill in at work sometimes.  Am I White Irish or White British?  Sometimes I tick both.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Liebster Award Part 2

    So here I am again with the answers to Christina's questions and some questions and nominations of my own.

    What or who inspired you to start your blog?
    I read an article in a magazine about fashion blogger Beth Gooderham who writes Style Guile.  I checked out her blog and thought I'd start my own similar one.  I soon gave up writing about fashion, though I still enjoy reading her blog.

    Do you have any pet hates?
    Jeremy Kyle and the way he exploits unfortunate people for the entertainment of viewers.

    What magazine subscriptions do you have?
    None.  I used to have 'Woman and Home' but got fed up because it kept repeating the same things. Magazines are just advertising in disguise.

    Do you avoid walking under ladders or do you have any other superstitions?
    I'm not at all superstitious but not walking under ladders is just common sense, I reckon.

    Describe the art on your living room wall.
    There is a large canvas over the mantlepiece called 'Beauty in Breakdown' by a young artist called Joe Simpson, showing a couple embracing in a night-time city centre street scene.  People have said it looks like Leeds.  We also have a poster for a Magritte exhibition we went to at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1992 (!) which also, by coincidence, shows a man and woman kissing but their faces are obscured by cloths over their heads.  I'm not sure what these choices say about us...

    What was the last concert you went to?
    The last concert I went to was Eddy Reader which I blogged about here.  I really enjoyed it.

    If you could invite one well known person for dinner, who would it be and why?
    If Seamus Heaney were still alive, I would invite him because I love his poetry and he is also from the same area as me in Northern Ireland so we could share memories.

    What are you wearing just now?
    Pyjamas, a spotty dressing gown, bronze sequinned Fitflops with chipped silver nailpolish on toes.

    What type of holiday do you enjoy most?
    I like 'gite' holidays in France most.  I don't like hotel holidays as I like to get up and potter before everyone else and we enjoy having our own space.  Ideally it would be on the coast and in a little town with good restaurants and boulangerie within walking distance.  And not too hot - can't cope with high temperatures at all.

    What is the naughtiest thing you have done as a child?
    I was sickeningly well behaved until I was about 14 and it was my younger sister who was the naughty one so I can't really think of one incident.  As a teenager I was a total nightmare, disappearing with unsuitable boys etc.

    Do you, or did you ever have a role model?  Who and why?
    My role model as a teenager was my cousin who was two years older than me.  I was always in awe of her as she went off to study in England at 18 and then got a job at the EU in Brussels.  She is still there.  It was because of her that I too decided to go to university in England rather than remain in Northern Ireland like most of my school friends.

    I'd like to nominate the following 4 bloggers.  Others who I might nominate have already participated so I can't make 11:

    Isabelle at Notes from Delft.  Isabelle is a fairly new blogger and writes beautifully about family life in the Netherlands.  Like me she is an English teacher.

    Mairead at As I Roved Out.  This a  really stylish blog with stunning photographs of Ireland.  Mairead doesn't post often but it's worth the wait.

    Gillian at Hookin' a Yarn.  A blogger from Northern Ireland who posts lovely pictures of things she makes and grows.

    Anne at ganching.  Another Northern Irish blogger. This is my favourite blog.  Anne writes in a very entertaining way about her life in London.

    My questions
    1. When do you write your blog posts and how long does it take you?
    2. Which television programme/s do you watch regularly?
    3. Describe the last meal you cooked.
    4. What is your favourite item of clothing?
    5. Your all time favourite book and why you have chosen it?
    6. Describe your usual sleep pattern - i.e time to bed up, how many hours, any middle of the night wake ups etc.
    7. Which line from a poem/book/play or famous speech appeals to you most?
    8. The city/town you have enjoyed visiting most?
    9. What is the last film you went to the cinema to watch?
    10. My current favourite nail polish colour is silver.  If you paint your nails, what colour do you usually choose?
    11. If you could award your own Oscar or Bafta to an actor/ tv performer, who would you choose and why?

    I was going to illustrate this post with a picture of my feet in Fitflops but it looked too revolting so I've added the Magritte instead.

    Sunday, 27 July 2014

    Liebster Blog Award Part One: 11 random facts about me

    Christina at  A Colourful Life has nominated me for a Liebster award.  Thank you Christina and thanks for your kind words about my blog.  Christina's life is certainly colourful and her energy levels astound me - she has four children and still manages to read loads; design and knit her own colourful socks;  make tricky things like Rose Petal Jelly and write regular blog posts.  Check her out if you haven't done so.

    So I'm returning the the autobiographical nature of my previous blog post to provide you with 11 random facts about me, which is the first task of the Liebster award.

    1. I have regularly written a journal/diary since 1992 and now have 22 of them stored in a bag in the spare room.  It is heavy - I am quite literally weighed down by my past.

    2. Yesterday I walked 13422 steps.  I know this because of the new activity monitor superfit husband bought me for my birthday.  If you do not hit your activity goal, it issues commands like 'walk' or 'up'. This is why I was doing circuits of the garden at 10.30 last night.

    3. My favourite flower is the Stargazer Lily.  I love the colour, the scent and the name.  These are flowering in my garden at present.

    4. I like eating in good restaurants.  Before we had our daughter and had two full time salaries, we used to go to Michelin two star and even three stars places.  These days we seek out  more modest establishments which often serve food which is just as good quality without the pretentious service.

    5. I have taught in 9 different schools in different parts of England: several large comprehensives (some in leafy suburbs; others in less affluent areas);  a girls' grammar and two small independent schools. Although the schools are very different, the children aren't, though some clearly have better opportunities than others.

    6. I love cheese - my favourite is Bleu D'Auvergne, sold here as St Agur.

    7. My favourite chocolate is Lindt Orange Intense which I try to limit to one square a day when I have it, but rest of family usually get there first.

    8. All my predictions and objections to owning a dog have proved to be true: he smells; leaves hair everywhere; I do most of the walking.  I wouldn't be without him now.

    9. I tend to run about 5 minutes late for everything.  A bad habit which I try to eliminate.

    10. Despite many years of teaching, I am still unable to write in a straight line on a blackboard/whiteboard.

    11. This poem makes me cry:

    'Futility' by Wilfred Owen
    Move him into the sun -
    Gently its touch awoke him once,
    At home, whispering of fields unsown.
    Always it woke him, even in France,
    Until this morning and this snow.
    If anything might rouse him now
    The kind old sun will know.
    Think how it wakes the seeds, -
    Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
    Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
    Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
    Was it for this the clay grew tall?
    - O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
    To break earth's sleep at all?

    Ness Garden's poppy field tribute to fallen soldiers in WW1

    Wednesday, 23 July 2014

    56 Up and 55 Down

    Last night I caught the end of  Michael Apted's fascinating documentary '56 Up'.  I have always been particularly drawn to this programme because the children originally chosen were just a couple of years older than me.  So I've decided to join in.  On Friday I celebrated my 55th birthday - I am now old enough to cash in my pension - how did that happen?  Apted films his subjects every 7 years so I'm going to do the same in photographs, but go backwards in 7 year blocks. Indulge me, readers, if you are still here.

    55 in 2014.  Chester.  Mother of teenager, part-time English teacher, still married to Paul. Missing my father who died in November last year.

    48, 2007. This photo of me and Kate aged 8 was taken on holiday to Venice.  We'd moved to Chester in 2001- Paul's job again - and I'd spent a bit of time as a full-time mum before returning to part-time teaching. Here I am enjoying life again after a bout of serious illness in 2006.  Loved being a mother, but missing my own mother who died in 2004.

    41 (Well actually still 40 here), 2000.  Diss, Norfolk.  Evening of the Millennium.  A happy time - the baby we'd hoped for eventually arrived.

    34, 1993.  Actually I think this photo might be 1994.  We'd moved again my then to East Anglia with Paul's job. I'm with my mother at UEA Norwich receiving my MA in Education.  Career success - I was about to start a new job as Head of English at Stowmarket High School. But not a happy time - longing for a baby but no success.  

    27, 1986.  Saltersland Presbyterian Church and then Moyola Lodge, Castledawson.  I got married to Paul who was from Liverpool and the friend of my sister's boyfriend.   I had been teaching English, a bit of French and some Drama since 1984, after a short spell of working for travel companies in London which I hated. Office work not for me.  Started to teach in London then moved to Luton where we could afford to buy a house.  It cost £25,000 and had one bedroom.  We sold it a couple of years later for twice this and moved to Burnley in 1988.

    20, 1979 Photo taken in Paris on Bastille night.  I was spending six months there as part of my joint degree course in English and French at Salford University.  I had a great time but didn't learn much French as I spent all my time with English friends, also in Paris.  Sadly I've lost touch with these two. Those purple dungarees were my favourite item of clothing at the time.  Oh dear!  

    14, 1972 Ballyronan. With sisters Diane and Pamela.  Actually it can't be 1972 as Pamela looks about 3 so it's more like 1974.  But it's the closest I could get.  Note the 'bell bottom' trousers as we called them.  I was studying for my 'O' Levels at the Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt.  But I was more interested in hanging around the marina in Ballyronan with my cousin Lorna looking for boys.

    7, 1965 On holiday in Portrush.  I'm on the right with my sisters Diane and Sylvia, the one sticking her tongue out.  This photo clearly illustrates our family roles: I was the good girl (look at how I am crossing my arms); she was the naughty one.

    That's taken me all morning: dog unwalked, bathroom not cleaned, garden unmowed.  Would anyone like to join in my 55 down project?  If I was clever with technology I could set up a linky thing.  But I'm not, so I'll leave it to you.

    Saturday, 19 July 2014

    Summer Holiday Sloth

    After two weeks of frenetic end of term activity, the summer holidays have now started.  Last year year we went on holiday immediately and had quite a busy summer visiting relatives and also doing a bit of redecorating at home.  This year we don't have so many plans and to be honest I don't mind.  It's relaxing to potter about in pjs all morning and achieve nothing more in the day than making something nice to eat for tea.

    I'm enjoying spending time with my daughter, aware that the long slow summers with her will come to an end in a few years time.  We are less likely to clash when the pressure of school isn't there and she can sleep as much as she wants.  I'm not booking her into any of those activities she used to do like Stagecoach drama. She's not so keen and is happy to entertain herself.  Unfortunately this usually means watching rubbish TV. (The latest dreadful programme is something called 'I Wanna Marry Harry' - fake prince, gullible American girls competing for him.)  She also spends a lot of time watching a girl from Brighton called Zooella on You Tube. She 'internet famous' according to Kate because she makes video logs of her life which loads of teenagers watch. Should I be restricting this and insisting that she takes more exercise and does improving reading like Jane Eyre?  No, I'm no tiger mum - I'm going to let her take the summer at her own pace.  It's her last chance because GCSEs begin for her in September so she'll be on the exam hamster wheel for the next however many years.  Let it go...

    Our sloth contrasts with husband's very busy life.  One of the reasons we haven't gone away is that he has just returned from a trip to Italy.  With his nephew, he drove 2,000 miles across Europe and back to compete in the Maratona, a challenging cycle event in the Dolomites.  They did it but it was tough with lots of climbing and they struggled to cope with the altitude.  And now he's back at work, up early every day for his long commute while I'm still in bed.

    Yesterday was my birthday and I had a lovely day.  It started with a morning walk in Delamere Forest with husband, who'd taken the day off, and the dog.  Then a relaxing couple of hours at the hairdresser's eliminating my grey roots.  Kate and her friend who slept over on Thursday evening had made me a Lemon Layer Cake and in the afternoon a few friends called for tea and cake.  Moved on by 5pm to the bottle of champagne husband had brought back from his trip - he'd stopped off en route to Italy at a vineyard in Reims.  Then out to our favourite local restaurant where I had aubergine parmigana which was delicious.

    My present from my husband was a Polar Loop activity monitor.  So next week will be able to measure just how idle I am.   

    Saturday, 12 July 2014

    The Twelfth

    Today is the Twelfth.  Most of you won't have any notion what I'm talking about.  When I was a child in Northern Ireland the twelfth of July was a big day out.  We'd go and watch the bands parade, the flute and accordions and even pipers in kilts.   There were banners showing a man with long curly hair on a white horse.   We'd eat strawberries from little wooden boxes and follow the bands and the men in their bowler hats and orange collarettes to a field where some men would make speeches we didn't listen to and we had a picnic.

    It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realised that this big day out wasn't for everyone in Northern Ireland.

    This morning on the news there was an item on the news about the Twelfth in Northern Ireland and the likelihood of sectarian violence later today because of disputed routes for the parades.  The presenter on the BBC could hardly disguise his contempt for the marchers and how he considered it ridiculous to be making a fuss about walking along particular stretch of road.  They had an 'expert' from Liverpool University who explained that the community is still largely divided into Catholics and Protestants with few integrated schools or what he described as 'mixed' marriages.  Sad but true.

    When I meet new people in England and they realise that I'm from Northern Ireland, they often ask me if I am Catholic.  I'm always a little embarrassed to admit I'm from Heaney's The Other Side.  No one from Northern Ireland ever does this.  We don't need to: things like names or schools give it away.  As Heaney said in 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', ‘the rule/ that Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ and Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape’.

    This  article by Jenny McCartney  published in 'The Spectator' last year, 'Seamus Heaney's poems are for Protestants too',  explains what I'm trying to say better than I can. And, as I can't seem to stop myself these days, another poem:

    The Other Side
    Seamus Heaney

    Thigh deep in sedge and marigolds
    a neighbour laid his shadow
    on the stream, vouching

    'It's poor as Lazarus, that ground,'
    and brushed away 
    among the shaken leafage.

    I lay where his lea sloped
    to meet our fallow,
    nested in moss and rushes,

    my ear swallowing 
    his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
    that tongue of chosen people.

    When he would stand like that
    on the other side, white-haired, 
    swinging his blackthorn

    at the marsh weeds, 
    he prophesised above our scraggy acres,
    then turned away

    towards his promised furrows
    on the hill, a wake of pollen 
    drifting to our bank, next season's tares.


    For days we would rehearse
    each patriarchal dictum:
    Lazarus, the Pharoah, Solomon

    and David and Goliath rolled 
    magnificently, like loads of hay
    too big for our small lanes,

    or faltered on a rut - 
    "Your side of the house, I believe,
    hardly rules by the book at all."

    His brain was a whitewashed kitchen
    hung with texts, swept tidy
    as the body of the kirk.


    Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
    mournfully on in the kitchen
    we would hear his step around the gable

    though not until after the litany
    would the knock come to the door
    and the casual whistle strike up

    on the doorstep. "A right-looking night,"
    he might say, "I was dandering by
    and says I, I might as well call."

    But now I stand behind him
    in the dark yard, in the mourn of prayers.
    He puts his hand in a pocket

    or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
    shyly, as if he were party to 
    lovemaking or a strangers weeping.

    Should I slip away, I wonder,
    or go up and touch his shoulder
    and talk about the weather

    or the price of grass-seed?