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.