A Curriculum for Anti-Racism

You could say the vast bulk of the culture of the seventies and eighties was a curriculum for racism – from the way that Adi Amin and ongoing violence in Uganda was portrayed in the paper, to the way the riots in Brixton were talked of on the television news, to the comedy of ‘Mind Your Language’ to the bewildering continuance of  ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ which was still a television staple until 1978. Things are so different now – but racism certainly hasn’t gone away? Why not?

I look back on the attitudes to race that were commonly all around me as I grew up in the seventies and eighties with absolute horror. They were evidenced through casual use of racist language, by the jokes that were told on the playground, by the nicknames that children of any race other than the dominant white-british were given. If you were there, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Those attitudes, the language, the jokes, the nick names were born out of our parents attitudes I’m sure. And I’m sure that the newspapers were filled with horrible stuff then – as some still are, and that the television casually stereotyped race for lazy dramatic or comic effects but I don’t for a moment think that lets the teenage me, or my friends who shared the jokes and the attitudes, off the hook. I knew damn well that those jokes were unfunny and that the names were unkind but I was insecure enough that I stayed around as the idea of being outside the group and on my own on the big school playground was too scary to contemplate. Yes I had black cousins, and yes I loved them – and no, I didn’t challenge racist attitudes and behaviour which I knew to be wrong because I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the language, the jokes, the nicknames, the occasional violence that was always ‘only a joke’.

B&W

Things got better for me when I got a little more confidence and found new friends who didn’t trade in racist, misogynistic and homophobic jokes for social currency but I don’t suppose they immediately got better for the children around me who were the objects of the language or the butt of the jokes – who were expected to carry the nick names with a wry smile.

It’s all too awful to think about. If anybody is reading this who was around me at Nutfield Church First and Middle or St Bede’s Secondary School in the seventies and eighties I’d like to take a moment to apologise. I’d like to own the knowledge that yes I knew it was wrong and, no – I did nothing about it.

I think my own son, now the age I was when I stood in those circles of cruel laughter on the playground, would be shocked, puzzled and horrified by the lazy stereotypes, the cruelty and the humour of those times. The Black and White Minstrel show isn’t on television any more, nor is ‘Mind Your Language’, in TV dramas, on a good day, black actors play roles that aren’t defined purely by the colour of their skin.

And yet it is patently obvious that racism is as much with us now as it was back then. So if the toxically racialised culture of the seventies has gone why has racism persisted? The answer, as I see it, is that simply removing blatantly racist aspects of culture is not enough – being neutral is insufficient – we need to create an anti-racist curriculum. Schools can’t sit idly by, proud that they are not peddling the same filth we were exposed to in the seventies and eighties – they need to work on representation and get to work building better attitudes.

Let’s play a little game. Think about the books you enjoyed as a child. How many black or asian characters can you name? Give yourself a few minutes. Come back when you’ve had a think.

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Back already? How many did you get?

I got three, Little Black Sambo from the book of the same name, Jim the Slave from ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and Donovan Croft from Bernard Ashley’s ‘The Trouble with Donovan Croft’. That’s it – genuinely. I can now name a few more characters that I might have read but didn’t, I might have found Jacob the young boy in Lucy Boston’s ‘Chimney’s of Green Knowe’ for example.

You could certainly argue that Huckleberry Finn is a book that perpetuates racist tropes though I’m quite sure that Mark Twain would have thought he was giving a positive portrayal of Jim as a man and as a person deserving of freedom. Donovan Croft in Bernard Ashley’s book is treated with compassion and empathy by the (white) author but is nonetheless a worrying  figure to the white child through whose eyes we witness the story – an elective mute from a fractured if not broken home who is healed through his experience of the white home and white friendship. This doesn’t do the book or its author justice but it’s a reading many young readers would come away with. Even books which strove not to be racist seemed to approach race from a deficit model. They  might come from poor homes, or broken homes, or tough estates, or from slavery but with white help and white grace they could aspire to a condition of whiteness. Is this too harsh? I don’t really think it is. No, I’m not getting into Little Black Sambo –  that was never ok.

The_Adventures_of_Huckleberry_Finn

Perhaps I’ve missed an important character out – can you think of  a character in children’s literature when you were growing up who had a full role in their own lives and just happened to be black?

What if there was and we never knew? Maybe George from The Famous Five was Jamaican and Enid Blyton never thought to tell us. Or Diggory from The magician’s Nephew? Perhaps he was an Ashante child – I mean, it never says he wasn’t does it? Am I making racist assumptions for assuming he’s not? Would it make a big difference if he was?

I suppose the point here is that in a children’s book written in English we presume people to be white until we are told otherwise – based on long experience that’s not  a bad assumption. In fact I can only think of one book where that turned out to be wrong. It’s a good book too and I won’t spoiler it for you by identifying it but yes – in one children’s book I – a reasonably sophisticated reader (Oxford English |Literature degree for whatever that’s worth) cheerfully presumed a child to be white and British until a good halfway through the book when the author who had been very clever with her adjectives, reported speech and use of pronouns chose to show me otherwise. When the production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in London many people were surprised, even upset, that the character of Hermione was played by a black actress. JK Rowling pointed out she had never stated in the book that Hermione wasn’t black. True enough she hadn’t – is that good enough to satisfy?

Do children from Black or other minority ethnicity backgrounds see this otherwise? Perhaps black children assume all characters to be black until they are informed otherwise. Well no, teacher and author Darren Chetty spears this one very accurately in his excellent chapter in the essay collection ‘The Good Immigrant’ – as a teacher in a very diverse classroom he found that the whiteness of characters in stories wasn’t just assumed, it was actively policed. “You can’t say that! Stories have to be about white people!”

Well, well, well – I’m sure you have seen these arguments rehearsed before and I certainly can’t stand up to Darren either as a writer or a thinker so I will urge you to buy a copy of ‘The Good Immigrant’ (edited by Nikesh Shukla and available from all good bookshops) and read Darren’s chapter. And the other chapters too of course, buying the whole book and only reading Darren’s chapter would be weird.

good immigrant

What I’m winding very slowly towards is a consideration of what we can actively do to counter racism in our pupils at school. If the removal or – shall we say – ‘toning down’ of actively racist language and depiction in our culture has not moved things on much we need to take positive action to ensure not just that children of colour in our classrooms are safe, protected, celebrated and conferred as much subjectivity as the white pupils but that, crucially, the white children who might be a majority in our classes and might in many schools particularly in rural areas might make up the whole of the class, are also able to celebrate and respect the subjectivity of black people in modern Britain.

Wow. That was meant to be an introductory paragraph and it kind of spread. The short version? Not acting like you’re racist is not the same as being anti-racist. You have to actually do something.

Ok. Like what? What do I really want the children leaving my Year Six to go on to secondary school to have under their belt and what can I do to make it happen?

Well, first of all I want them to be proud of who they are, of their skin and their hair and their voice and their family and their humour. Everything starts from the most proximal – until you are comfortable in your own skin you’ll struggle to be comfortable anywhere. And I want them proud of who they are on a bigger scale – not in a wishy washy way, I want them proud of their culture, history and heritage whether they are from Latvia, Sudan, Brazil or Bangladesh. I want them to know who they are whether they are Nua, Romani, Kurd or Catalan. The English in particular often forget that your country and your national identity are not always the same thing.

I want them to know that their place has history and identity too. And that can be complicated as they might be half Jamaican and half Irish like Jimmy Hendrix or half Brazilian and half Portugese like a good many children I’ve taught.

I want them to know that racism exists, and has existed, and will probably continue to exist but strong people have stood up to it and groups of people have stood up to it and that that has made a difference.

I want them to know that they have dignity and that they can make a difference.

Starting from our very youngest children – from nursery up they need to see themselves in books. Not as victims or as people who are bravely facing challenges but as kids. Eating apples and playing in the snow to echo Chimimanda Ngozi Adichi. Books like ‘So Much’ by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury and ‘My Hair’ by Hannah Lee and Alan Fatimarahan do that and more books are published every month it seems. A recent favourite is Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola’s ‘Look Up’ about a child who dreams of being an astronaut. The books characters are recognisable, cute and relatable. Their culture is quietly celebrated without being a plot driving feature, there is no deficit model to being black in these books.

Look Up!

No child is ‘colour blind’ – if that were possible – they see skin colour, hair colour, eye shape and lip shape. Young children need to see children that look like themselves. Seeing themselves and their families in the books they read confirms their ‘I’m OKness’, their recognition that people like them exist and do stuff. For the children of other races in the class, seeing depictions of races other than their own from an early age confirms the proper right of those people to take up space in the world.

If you have spent time with children looking at books in which there are positive depictions of diverse race, and the other work has been done to ensure we recognise the positivity of ourselves and are then able to recognise the positivity of others. We might be lucky enough to get to a place where we can start to think about the interesting aspect of race that people come from different places. That, while in our village most people look like Mrs Jones and Mary and Joe and Allen, there are places in the world where people look like me and mum and Aunt Patience. We might see books like Mama Panye’s Pancakes or We All Went On a Safari as a way towards that – and those are both beautiful books which deserve a place in your diverse collection – but there is an issue.

So many children’s books looking at Africa in particular, though books about the Caribbean and much of Asia fall into this trap too, look at countries through an othering lense. In ‘Mama Panye’s Pancakes the characters live in a rural landscape that, to most children living in the UK would seem to be the world of ‘once upon a time’. People sit on the ground, go to market with a coin, don’t wear shoes, have livestock roaming around… really one would not be surprised if they were to acquire a set of magic beans and go up a beanstalk. That is not to say that many people in Africa don’t live very happily in the way depicted in the book, nor to deny that it’s a charming book and well illustrated and told. It is, however, something to be wary of. To a child with Netflix and their own toy filled bedroom, the world of Mama Panye’s Pancakes is a million miles away and – used insensitively – risks reinforcing an idea that ‘Africa’ is rural, backward and poverty stricken.

Ask yourself how you would feel about a child growing up in Lagos, Addis Abeba or any of the many African cities learning about the UK from a book which showed them walking to school through a field of sheep and returning at nightfall to celebrate with the family by Morris dancing with the family while dad plays his accordeon. Well sure – I expect that family exists somewhere but I’m not sure I’d think they were all that representative of me and my culture. And I say that as an accordeon player.

There are not a very great many books for young children that present a recognisable picture of the modern urban africa where the majority of people on the continent now live. It’s a shame as there is a real need for them. Let me know if you know of any. One series which children from Year One upward really enjoy is ‘Akissi’ – presented as comic strips these tales are short, vivid and funny and present a picture of an urban Africa that is absolutely true to the lived experience of the Ivory Coast where author Marguerite Abouet grew up.

akissi

The Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke also does a great job of depicting a relatable child in a modern urban African setting, yes chickens do peck around but people sit on white plastic garden furniture rather than squatting on the ground, the roof is corrugated iron not thatch, dads wear shirts and drive taxis. Read these books with children and you’ll develop people who don’t think Africa is all round huts, lions and tribal masks. That’s as important for white British children as it is for any of African heritage.

anna hibiscus

We now have children who can see themselves in books and who have an understanding that people who live in different places in the world are both like me in some ways and unlike me in other ways. We might feel we are getting to a place where it’s possible to approach the subject of racism. Well that’s fine. Let’s make sure we do it through some positivity – I’d rather use a study of the transformative story of Rosa Parks than talking about segregation without that window to a brighter world – even if, at the moment, it looks like America hasn’t maybe got an awful lot further. Children can go to some pretty dark places in their learning and their reading but there must always be hope. Studying the darkest periods in history is vital but always with a chink of hope there somewhere. So let’s take Frederick Douglass as our focus when we look at slavery and Rosa Parks when we look at segregation. Not because we, as adults, are afraid to acknowledge the existential darkness of these histories but because we want to build empowered, active young people who know they are actors in their own stories and that means curating the way we present stories which will become foundational to their sense of themselves. Not to do so risks the attitude to race which I remember being horrifyingly common during the Ethiopian famine of 1984. The victims, lazy racist bastards who relied on their ignorance and the tabloid press for their information would tell you, were too lazy to help themselves – they liked sitting around in the sun so it should suit them. If it weren’t for the white people feeding them they would starve and that would serve them right. SO lets keep hope at the heart of the stories we tell. Yes – Apartheid was horrific and knowing that is essential to the story but Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela stood against it and by their very example showed up how wrong the racist rationale of the system was.

And lets also make sure we tell how it wasn’t just a handful of heroes who ended apartheid but tens of thousands of ordinary people – people thrillingly like you and me – who took action. Because it’s not enough to know that this person or that person was a hero, we need to know that we, whether in a big way or a small way, can be a hero too. We can be the writers of our own story.

There are many picture book retellings of the stories of Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks. As with any topic it’s really worth trying to take a look a range of resources before choosing one to use with a class of children – not just because the content will differ but because the tastes of different children will differ so much. Use the library rather than buying all these books yourself – it will bankrupt you! A good starter however might be the Little People, Big Dreams version of their stories by Lisbeth Kaiser and Marta Antelo. Though I harrumph slightly at the cutification (yes – thats a word) of all their subjects, the Little People, Big Dreams books always tell their stories clearly and with a sense of purpose – ideally I’d present them in a diverse unit on inspirational people including men and women and a variety of ethnicities.

rosa parks

By now your pupils are approaching key Stage Two. Perhaps now they know who they are, are able to celebrate themselves and others, understand that different peoples come from different places that are in some ways like ours and in some ways different and that that is ok. They know that society has sometimes – often -stacked up against some kinds of people but that doesn’t mean those people are weak because – Look! – here’s amazing people who achieved amazing things. They’ve reflected on how it might have felt to have lived in those times and whether they would have stacked up to stand alongside Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

At this point I’d hope we would be ready to think about the racism that people of colour continue to face in our society. If the curriculum in your school has quite intentionally worked towards this point then writing by authors such as the always brilliant Jason Reynolds or the national treasure Malorie Blackman will find a rich soil for reflection and discussion. Also – let’s hope – for action as any curriculum is only worth judging by the fruit it bears. Children who haven’t been on this journey through the school – may well simply not ‘get’ or be unable to respond appropriately to a book like – to take a well known example – Noughts and Crosses.

noughts and crosses

I’d also hope that by now we would have the curiosity to approach a more in depth study of a very specific geographical area. My heart sinks when a class tells me they are ‘doing’ Africa. “What, all of it?” I say and brace myself for round huts, Lions and tribal masks all over again. The best ‘Africa’ project I ever did with a class was not on Africa, nor on East Africa, nor on Uganda, it was on the city of Jinja. Focus in and the detail comes into sharp focus. Where did I get the resources for my unit on Jinja? Well, partly from my visits to our sister school there but also from google earth, lots of reading, curiosity, imagination. People – do your research.

My whistle stop tour of this curriculum has taken us from Nursery to upper Key Stage Two. I haven’t brought in the art curriculum – there’s another blog in there. Or the history curriculum but please please take a look at @jon_hutchinson’s encouraging work on this. I have confined myself to addressing a PHSE strand that works intentionally to foster anti-racism.

Of late I’ve struggled to recognise the British Values we are tasked with promoting in school – at least in our government. They really do seem to be unconcerned with democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Nonetheless, those values are ones which I hope all schools would be happy to sign up to – I’d quibble with the word ‘tolerance’ to be honest, it seems awfully weaselly to me but otherwise, yes. If you want to BE that school you have to DO something. Don’t just sit there not being a racist, get up and be anti-racist and do it with real intentionality because if I know anything about curriculum it’s that if you don’t plan it on the big scale it won’t happen on the small scale.

 

Further Reading and Resources

If you have read this far then, first – thank you, and second perhaps you’d like to read some more. My own learning on this is deeply indebted to Darren Chetty and his great work.

Darren, whose chapter in ‘The Good Immigrant’ I reference in the blog, is one of many people working academically in this field. With Karen Sands O’Connor he writes a regular column in the online children’s literature magazine Books for Keeps. It is always worth a read. You can find Darren on Twitter as @rapclassroom, Karen Sands O’Connor is @ksandsoconnor, ‘Books for Keeps can be found at booksforkeeps.co.uk/

A collection of Darren and Karen’s pieces for the magazine can be found here   beyond-the-secret-garden-a-round-up

Lots of publishers are working to produce books which represent a wider range of ethnicities. Two whose work I always enjoy are Knights Of and Tiny Owl. Knights of published ‘Knights and Bikes’ an exciting adventure for seven to nine year olds which sort of answers the lack of representation in the Famous Five. For older readers their ‘High Rise Mystery’ series is gripping. They are the UK publisher for the always amazing Jason Reynolds who, it seems, can write just about anything.

Tiny Owl create the most beautiful picture books in the world, all with a link to Iran – either written or illustrated by Iranian authors and artists. Look our for books illustrated  by the magnificent Ehsan Abdollahi.

Knights Of are on Twitter as @_KnightsOf, their website is knightsof

Tiny Owl can be found at @TinyOwl, their website is tinyowl.co.uk

A community of people who are passionate about this subject can be found at reiyl.com (Researchers Exploring Inclusive Youth Literature). You can find them on Twitter at @REIYL_Community – a look through their timeline will reliably turn up more interesting leads and ideas.

The CLPE (The Centre for Literature in Primary Education) has produced an number of influential reports on representation in children’s literature. This has expanded into a regular blog as well as audit tools and much more – all under the banner of ‘Reflecting Realities’.

Find the CLPE on twitter at @clpe1 and at their website clpe.org.uk the Reflecting Realities research is here reflecting-realities

The UKLA (UK Literary Association) have some useful collections of resources that are worth a look. ukla.org/resource_collection/diversity-and-inclusion/

@MissNewton91 collected some of her favourite ‘colour positive’ books for EYFS and KS1 in these powerpoints here and here

@MisterBodd made a similar collection and blogged it here

Professor Rudine-Sims Bishop is one of the most respected elders in this field – if you read nothing else read her ‘Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors’ which is almost the foundation stone for serious thought on representation. You can read it here.

People like Melanie Ramdarshan Bold (on twitter as @ilovecopyright) are making serious academic investigation of representation in literature for children and young people. The title for the introduction to her most recent book ‘Inclusive Young Adult Fiction’ made me want to stand up and clap – ‘In an era of fear and division, fiction plays a vital role in dramatising difference and encouraging empathy’. Now that’s a title.

Verna Wilkins of Tamarind Books (now an imprint of Penguin Books) is a veteran of representative publishing and oversees and exceptional list of books for children and young adults. Tamarind’s website is here tamarind and this interview with Verna is inspirational.

“The children identify. The parents identify. For the first time they’ve seen themselves validated, celebrated, beautifully – with dignity.”

 

Brew Your Own #BrewEdHomebrew

#BrewEd was devised as a format for pubs and cafes. For flesh and blood people in authentic social spaces.

Since lockdown we haven’t been able to get together in that way. Some events have been cancelled. Without clarity about when pubs and cafes will be able to open again, and when it will be safe for us to meet in large groups, it’s really hard to plan #BrewEd events for the autumn. For the foreseeable future that side of #BrewEd has to be on hold. 

Fortunately, technological solutions mean we don’t have to give up. We can still get together, share ideas, share experiences, make connections and have some laughs together even if we can’t do it in bricks and mortar pubs. The days of the virtual #BrewEd are upon us and we want to encourage you to take ownership – just as you did with the non-virtual model, and to make events that work for you.

Last weekend, on Saturday 25th April, #BrewEdIsolation organised by @GrahamAndre went live on a Periscope stream on twitter. More than thirty people spoke on an amazing array of subjects. Hundreds of people watched through the day and thousands have looked at the stream since. Due to the great generosity of Ben Brown (@edroundtables) the presentations are now hosted on a dedicated YouTube channel and hundreds more teachers have seen them there. More importantly, during the day that #BrewEdIsolation was streaming hundreds of people were discussing, participating and making connections in the comments bar alongside the stream and on Twitter on the hashtag and in DM groups. Friend of #BrewEd Ruth Swailes blogged about the day here.

#BrewEdIsolation might not have been a #BrewEd in the way that Daryn and I first imagined it but it really felt like one and it filled a lot of the same purposes. 

In another couple of weeks Daryn is taking up the reins and hosting another kind of virtual model, this time a ticketed event on zoom limited to just fifty people. #BrewEdHomebrew will have four speakers  and plenty of time for chat – we will move into break out rooms for some of the discussion just as we chat around our tables at a bricks and mortar #BrewEd, and we will end with a cracking quiz from Alan Brown. Maybe this smaller model will give speakers and participants the safety and permission we get at a #BrewEd in a pub or cafe to speak more honestly and openly than is possible in big conferences and ones where work week hierarchies are in place.

We think that both these models are great – they are both different from what happens when a few of us get together over a pint or a coffee in a ‘real’ place but they do what we wanted to do – bring people together, make connections across positionings and sectors, help support colleagues who might be feeling isolated, empower the community and the profession. We don’t mind if an online #BrewEd is huge and open to anyone in the world who chooses to tune in, or small and protected – both models have real benefits. One thing we realised from the feedback to #BrewEdIsolation is that there are many, many people who would love to be coming along to #BrewEd events but for whom geographical distance, family commitments, lack of money for travel, anxiety or other barriers effectively prevent them from attending. The number of people who commented with genuine excitement that they were coming to their first #BrewEd was humbling. We can imagine the appetite for virtual #BrewEds continuing long after lockdown ends.

So – it’s over to you good people. Scores of people have already been involved in running #BrewEd events in their home towns and cities and there is nothing at all to stop you from organising your own #BrewEdHomebrew to meet your own needs and communities. There’s a few things to think about here:

In the original #BrewEd format we thought geographically a lot – events were organised mostly in terms of local clusters – people thought about optimising morale, connections and practice for their town, county, city. Online it may be that people find it more useful to think about other kinds of links. I imagine that with this new model we might see more #BrewEds arranged around subject areas for example or addressing particular issues. Who knows what the clever hashtags and names might be but a day of talks and discussions around rebuilding our school communities when Lockdown ends would be of interest to lots of us, practical discussions around child bereavement might be important, looking at ways of engaging colleagues with the job of co-creating curriculum, effective home learning… You get the point, a #BrewEd might be a great way to explore around some of the thorny issues we are all looking at currently.

Almost in opposition to the thoughts I have outlined in the above paragraph there’s a few things to bear in mind when you are curating a #BrewEd if it is not to slip into being some other sort of conference. I’m going to bullet point these for clarity and if you attend an event that doesn’t follow this blueprint then know that it’s not really a #BrewEd – at least so far as Ed and Daryn are concerned.

  • #BrewEd cuts across sectors – we want Primary, Secondary, EY, PRU, Special Ed, ITT, governors, all in the room.
  • #BrewEd cuts across positionings – lets mix up the pedagogical and political cliques to challenge and support.
  • #BrewEd is non-hierarchical – the CEO and the NQT sit at the same table and their voices are equal, sometimes a listener might not know which is which.
  • #BrewEd is fun – it’s our social time so let’s not be boring. Let’s have fun together.
  • #BrewEd is welcoming, actively so. We go out of our way to encourage people to have a voice, to take part we strive to represent the diversity of the teaching community. We are proactive to represent sector, class, cultural and disability.
  • #BrewEd is not sponsored so, no, we won’t take money from business and we won’t put goody bags on seats. However well meant, allowing sponsorship to creep into the model would mean someone somewhere feeling that they couldn’t be openly critical or questioning about this academy chain, that publisher, that magazine, this resource company. 
  • #BrewEd is rarely about practical minutiae of teaching or school leadership. You are unlikely to go home with a handy tip for teaching your Year Four Spanish lesson – that would likely be of little use to many of the people in the room – instead you might come away with a new way of thinkng about yourself as a professional or about the relationship between what you do and the profession as a whole. To make sure talks are of interest to the wide range of people in the room they have to address bigger questions or have very wide application.

Hope that wasn’t too blunt. There’s a lot of us love #BrewEd and we want to protect its DNA from being warped out of shape. Do get in touch if you have any queries about what I mean by any of those points – I’m more than happy to debate and to clarify. Even to change my mind – it has been known!

So, what would I like to see happen? I would LOVE to see lots of messages coming into Daryn and my inboxes saying ‘We have an idea for a #BrewEd – can we make it happen please?” The answer to these queries will almost certainly be yes.

I would love to see people getting together in twos and threes to make these events happen, and – now that I can’t meet with my pal who lives three streets away – those twos and threes might well be from different regions within the UK, beyond the UK even.

I’d like to see people exploring different models – between the huge and entirely open #BrewEdIsolation and the much smaller more protected #BrewEdHomebrew there are probably an infinite number of models of varying size and privacy.

I’d love to see someone work out how to do the world famous rucksack of shite virtually – come at me with your suggestions.

I’d love to see people actively curating an exciting, provocative, diverse day – reach out and invote the people you want. don’t timidly hang back and only ask the people who were pushy enough to offer – by reaching out you make a better day for your participants. The worst than can happen is people say no.

I’d love to collect some stories, feedback and testimonies about how taking #Brew#BrewEd online has worked out for you.

Last bit from me – lots of people wanted to know what technology @GrahamAndre used to host #BrewEdIsolation – it was a web based interface called StreamYard. It’s free, very very simple to use and hugely effective. I had my first go at it last night to host my cheery and chaotic Friday Night #PandemicMusicChallenge singalong and I couldn’t believe how easy and user friendly it was. Have a little play – you’ll be amazed.

Please do comment with queries, criticisms, clarifications – this is very much a first draft.

Larkrise Video Links

Stories

The Miller That Had Three Sons

Ivan, Grey Wolf and the Firebird

The Five Wise Teachings

The Three Wishes

Singing Assembly

Singing Assembly Week One

 

Pugs of the Frozen North

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

 

Varjak Paw

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

 

Tes Education Resources: An Open Letter of Concern

I am not the author of this but I am entirely in agreement with it. TES resources is potentially an excellent platform teaching professionals to share resources but the degree of dishonesty and plagiarism currently on the site makes it one that I, personally would have grave misgivings about being involved in, either as a user of materials or as a producer of resources.

 Education Resources: An Open Expression of Concern

This post has been agreed by several teachers and is shared across several blog sites. 
In the last couple of years, we have openly expressed concern at the approaches taken by Tes Education Resources to plagiarism and copyright violation, theft of resources, and the selling of resources that violate copyright. This is not a blogpost intended to cast disapproval on those who sell resources. It is a simply an open expression of concern at the approach taken by Tes Education Resources, when these incidents are uncovered. We also wish to make clear that this is not about an individual or anybody working for Tes Education Resources. We believe that this is a systemic problem that should not fall on one person to solve.
We feel that the following issues need to be properly addressed by Tes Education Resources:
  •  The fact that people upload and sell plagiarised resources, which have been clearly copied from free shares on Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes from colleagues.
  •  The fact that although Tes Education Resources offer ‘goodwill’ gestures to those who give public challenge, and offer compensation when they recognise plagiarism, the onus is on the victim of theft to report and prove the theft.
  •  The fact that customers are being advised to buy resources to check the content if they suspect a theft has occurred, and then claim the money back.
These issues need addressing because:
Plagiarism can constitute copyright violation, which is covered by legislation in both UK and EU law, as well as being a feature of international treaties and agreements. We believe that this is not being taken seriously by Tes Education Resources, who provide a platform for the sale of resources which have been taken, copied, and presented as original resources by the thief. Tes Education Resources describe themselves as ‘one of the world’s largest peer-to-peer platforms for teachers to trade and share digital teaching resources’ (Tes Education Resources Ltd: Annual Report and Financial Statements – Directors’ Report 2017). We feel that a company of this scale, regardless of financial status, should not be placing the onus on individuals to identify instances of copyright violation.
A goodwill gesture is something given on a case-by-case basis. It means that those with the time and tenacity to challenge instances of copyright infringement are being offered compensation, but there are victims who are unaware of the issue, or perhaps who do not have the time and resources to prove the provenance of the resource. We believe that the Tes Education Resources could and should ensure there is parity here.
Tes Education Resources have conceded that only 5% of their resource downloads are purchased. The rest are free downloads. We appreciate this valuable resource, but feel that the 5% are being prioritised over the 95%. It is understood that the 5% is the download, rather than the upload, figure – but the point still stands – 95% of people downloading from Tes Education Resources are downloading free resources.
We also believe that asking people to buy resources to check for copyright issues, in order to then claim a refund, is an unfair and illogical request. Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that all of these issues are contributing to our workload. The Tes recognise this too. In fact, they have an entire section of their website dedicated to this issue – you can read this here:https://www.tes.com/news/hub/workload. In refusing to adapt their practice, either by demonetising the site or by taking further steps to prevent these incidents, teachers are being forced to spend time searching the site for their own resources. When teachers locate stolen resources, the expectation that they buy their own work and prove its provenance is onerous and frustrating.
What Tes Education Resources Can Do:
 Have a long-term aim to demonetise the site and subsidise it, to enable an entirely free sharing platform for those working in education.
In the meantime:
 Improve checks on resources to identify plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
 Allow for full download with retrospective payment, rather than asking people to buy resources simply to check for copyright infringement.
 Enable reviews of paid content without purchasing – so that copyright infringement which is clearly evident in the preview pane can be challenged in a review.
What you can do:
 Avoid downloading from Tes Education Resources until the long-term aim (above) is fulfilled.
 Use your Social Media account to inform your followers that you are doing this.
 Share your resources through Dropbox and any other suitable medium.

NEU Celebrating Education Conference

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I’m finding it hard to be my usual optimistic self at the moment – the world is in bad shape and our country is in worse, its hard to know what will become critically unsustainable first the eco-system or the school system – however, I went to the NEU’s ‘Celebrating Education’ conference at the Institute of Education in London yesterday and, on balance, I think I’m feeling a bit more positive.

I should declare a degree of interest – the organisers asked me to run a series of workshops under the #BrewEd banner which I was glad to do. I was also asked to chair a discussion on knowledge and skills between NEU co-secretary Mary Bousted and teacher and school leader Ben Newmark. Beyond that I had no involvement in the day’s programming and organisation – ninety nine percent of that was down to Jess Edwards, an exec member of the union and a full time class teacher.

I have been to more than my fair share of Saturday teaching conferences over the last few years but there was something distinctive about this one and it gives me some pause for thought and some reasons to be cheerful so I’m going to unpack that a little.

First reason to be cheerful was the size – I believe nearly 500 people walked into the building on Saturday. That’s bigger than #LearningFirst, bigger than #PrimaryRocks, bigger than any #BrewEd, bigger than most iterations of #ResearchEd I think – it’s just a lot of people giving up their Saturday to come along and join the conversation.

Second reason to be cheerful is that by my estimate more than half of these weren’t twitter users. We’ve struggled and struggled in the Saturday CPD world to break beyond twitter knowing the vast majority of our colleagues have nothing to do with it and would rather mark another class set of books than read a retweeted blog. Well, this conference did break beyond that limited set of tweeting teachers. Perhaps it was the central London location, perhaps the reach of union email contacts (I don’t know how Jess reached out) but I think the majority of people there were at their first Saturday CPD event and that made me very happy indeed.

The same went for the presenters: a few of them were friends who I have run into at a good many events in the past – its always a pleasure to run into Simon Smith, Tim Taylor, Kate Owbridge, Pran Patel, Bukky Yusuf and others – but a lot of the names were new to me and had been recruited through other channels. This made for a really exciting mix of sessions from a diverse set of people who certainly did not represent a single understanding of what education is or how it should be enacted.

Third reason to be cheerful was the range of voices represented and the respectful engagement between people. Ben and Mary modelled this in their onstage debate on knowledge and skills – it’s a subject which can and does cause tempers to fray but in this conversation Ben and Mary, who had not met in person before, showed real interest in each other’s positions and debated with clarity and warmth. This spirit was evident throughout the day, in my #BrewEd stream as well as elsewhere.

Jess Edwards deserves real applause for pulling this off – she hasn’t organised such an event before and at times I imagine it must have felt pretty scary. In the first instance she had hoped to host maybe two hundred people but the tickets kept selling and selling and with it the logistical complexity of rooms, refreshments, workshop allocations and so on. I’ve run a few events – I’m jolly glad that my first wasn’t one of this size. I was pleased and I admit a little moved to see so many of the union’s executive members supporting Jess on the day – they were helping out with the registration table, guiding participants to their sessions, helping out with technical matters where they could and so on. I sensed a feeling that the executive really wanted the day to be a proper success and that they didn’t mind getting their hands dirty to make sure it happened.

I hope very much that the union builds on this successful day and takes ‘Celebrating Education’ to different parts of the country. If they can use their local networks to reach beyond the twitter bubble and get more people involved in the big education conversations we can real scale up the proportion of our colleagues who are engaged in professional discourse. And the more are involved in the discourse the stronger we will collectively become. And god knows that we need to become stronger as a profession.

There’s something important to think about here. While the day did truly represent a wide and diverse range of voices and perspectives and the conversations were of a high quality it is nonetheless important to ensure and to assert that the NEU is an inclusive union that represents members who teach in the full range of school systems in the  systems. We have to be quite sure that a colleague teaching in a ‘knowledge rich’ school is equally as welcome and equally as representative of our union as a member from a school which bases it’s curriculum in ‘skills’ (personally I’m ever more convinced that this is an unhelpful distinction but perhaps that’s a blog for another day). I hope that every teacher who attended the day felt welcomed and included.

We are in a time when schools are suffering more than ever in my memory from savage underfunding. This is simply not news to any of us working in education. We have seen school budgets straining as they absorb on costs and pension contributions while what is asked of the schools grows. Local authorities have dropped provision which used to be commonplace – speech and language therapists, behaviour support, subject specialist advisors and more – meanwhile the closure of surestart centres and the increase in poverty has meant that families who were hanging on by their fingertips can no longer do so. We see the results of this in our schools and it is not pretty. Morale is at an all time low so far as I can see. We are losing colleagues both at the chalkface and in management.

In the discussion on knowledge and skills I asked Mary Bousted and Ben Newmark who they thought stood to benefit from the perceived division between schools and colleagues who focus on one and schools and colleagues who focus on the other. My own answer to this is that it is the current government who stands to benefit from divisions in our profession – whether those divisions are authentic or manufactured does not change this. Every tweet, blog, news story or conference speech which maintains that division diverts time, attention and energy from the vital work of fighting for the sustainability of our schools.

Let me be clear. I am not saying we don’t have a duty to speak up when we see wrong being done. Mistreatment of staff is mistreatment of staff regardless of the perceived pedagogical slant of the school. Bullying and coercion of pupils are bullying and coercion whether the school favours silent corridors or noisy hubbub. Government policies which put stress onto teachers or pupils must be called out.

In the plenary session our colleague Elaine from ‘Keep Early Years Unique’ spoke out against the incoming Foundation baseline test. I have not yet heard one Early Years Specialist of any stripe – prog, trad, knowledge rich, skills based, labour or conservative – speak in favour of this ill judged and poorly implemented initiative. We should oppose it as a union because it will waste time at a time in a child’s schooling where time is the most precious resource, because it will divert the teachers attention from forming good relationships with pupils at the most sensitive time for that in the whole of the child’s schooling and because it will produce the most useless data in the long and impressive history of useless school data. Standing against the baseline test is a campaign which brings together everyone who ‘gets’ early years it is not sensitive to pedagogical standpoint – not even to political affiliation unless we suggest our colleagues follow their political party’s ministers so blindly as to stand by while real harm is done. I credit my colleagues with greater intelligence and principle than that.

There is a dangerous and entirely mistaken view widely held by many on the so called ‘progressive’ side of the debate that teachers who work with knowledge based curriculae are likely to be on the right politically and that they are more likely to defend the governments ongoing financial attack on the state education system. This view does not stand up to investigation, is offensive to many principled colleagues and gives those who wish to do us ill great assistance. If prominent bloggers, tweeters or leaders in schools can cite evidence that our union favours one model of education over another we lose credibility, authority, influence and membership.

At this time we do not have the luxury of division. We can and should debate curriculum and teaching but we should do so in a way which aims to bring us together as a profession not to divide us. We have more in common than that which divides us. We are stronger together.

So, much credit to the union for backing Jess to run this successful event and huge kudos to her for managing to curate an event which reached beyond the twitter bubble which has up to now limited the Saturday CPD phenomenon. Let’s see more events like this going on nationwide and lets see them representing and welcoming the full range of the unions membership. We simply cannot afford not to.

 

 

Beneath the Yew Tree at Green Knowe

 “Now Tolly, you may take the cloth from the table, carefully now, and shake the crumbs outside for the birds for they will be glad of them on a hard frosted morning such as we have today.”

“And may I play outside?”

“You may, but come in when you feel the cold bite and we will sit by the fire till you warm.

Outside the air was so cold it felt it might snap. Each twig and bud was furred with a coat of fine crystals of ice. Tolly shook the cloth and a rush of waiting birds took every crumb almost before they touched the ground. Blue tits, great tits, sparrows… Tolly was glad to see his friend the Chaffinch make off with an unusually large morsel of toast with a smear of butter still adhering to it. The chaffinch sat in a low part of the spreading yew and seemed mightily happy with his prize.

Taking the chaffinch’s cue, Tolly followed his friend into the spreading shade beneath the tree and squatted down to puzzle at the heap of old stones that clustered there like bones from a long forgotten beast. Some rounded, some angled, the stones lay tumbled dumb to tell their tales. The boy scratched at the ground half thinking to uncover the carving he could see on one of the stones but the ground, frozen hard and knitted together with large and small roots of the yew was beyond his power to excavate. One of the roots caught his eye though, it had a straightness and an edge that the other roots lacked. He held it between thumbs and forefingers and worked it gently back and forth till it became a little looser and he could grip it more fully. Tolly pulled; the object resisted then slipped smoothly as if from from a scabbard of earth.

Tolly he’d the object in his two hands, it was long a straight. It tapered towards one end and, though it was rusted, it was clear it had once been sharp. A sword. Not a shiny officers sword like Toby’s perhaps but a tool for a men to strike another man with. To hurt, or to kill. Tolly looked up. There was granny sitting and writing at her desk by the window. Or if not granny, someone very like her. He waved the thing he had found and waved again but granny, gazing out at the yew and the lawn beyond, didn’t seem to see him. Lost in her thoughts perhaps. He would show her when he went in to get warm. If he did go in to get warm, it was not – he realised now – as cold as it had been. 

Looking around Tolly realised that the mornings hard frost had quite disappeared. More than that, the wintersweet bush whose bare branches had been burdened with spicy, jasmine scented blossoms, was in leaf, buttercups and daisies studded the grass. Tolly listened, the buzzing of bees and the song of the birds thrummed in the air. And not just those sounds, not far away, quite distinctly, was the sound of a child crying. Not a baby but a child of his own age judging by the sound of it. Tolly quickly climbed a little way into the tree so he could peer down like a squirrel and see without being observed.

Leaning against the trunk of a tree not twenty paces away sat a child wearing breeches of a rough cloth and a jerkin over a shirt that looked, to Tolly’s eyes, more like a girl’s blouse than a shirt that a boy might wear. The child had their head in their hands and was sobbing such that their shoulders heaved. Tolly watched until the sobbing abated but the boy’s head stayed cradled in his hands. 

Tiring of waiting, Tolly plucked a red berry from the yew and tossed it towards the child. It fell short so he plucked another and, throwing with increased confidence, landed on the back of the childs hand where it left a wet, red mark. The child looked at their hand then set to sobbing with redoubled vigour. Tolly was shocked by the reaction to what had seemed so mild a prank and slithered down the tree calling out ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt’. 

As Tolly ran towards them the child looked up and showed face. Unmistakably a boys face but pale and much bruised and battered. The boy was panic stricken – ‘I’m going! I’m going now!’ He tried to stand but his legs gave way and slumped back down against the tree. Tolly saw that the yew berry’s mark on the back of his hand was not the only red. There was a great dark patch on his britches and a stain where he had been sitting. Tolly gasped, ‘come into the house! Granny will fix you – or Come to the stable, Boggis will care for your wounds.” But the boy would not, or could not rise, he grasped Tolly’s hand and pulled Tolly’s fresh, clean morning face to his pale, tear stained one. “My father, my brothers. They are killed. The bridge. When the men came through with the plate from the chapel for the king’s funds. We went to see them pass…” The boy gasped and clutched at himself. 

Tolly said “you should rest, let me get my granny” but the boy would not let go and pulled Tolly closer.

“We stood to watch and cheer as we were told but the parley men came then and we were surprised. They must have thought we were with the militia for we were cheering for them. And when they came with likes and muskets…”

The sobbing wracked the boy’s body again and this time Tolly did not try to encourage him to stand or offer to fetch his grandmother. He did not know much of death – he who had been so much amongst the dead – but he could feel that it was near and that this poor boy of four centuries ago needed the comfort of his company more than he needed any doctor. He stayed quiet and in a while the boy continued.

“My father and my brothers, and uncle Thomas and three of his grown sons. We tried to get away it we were up against the river and the militia were holding the bridge. It happened so quickly. I saw cousin Joseph take to the water but he could not swim and I did not see him again. And we fell. All us Boggises fell. I stayed quite still and was so much amongst them, my kinfolk, that they must have thought me dead too. I waited till all was quiet and crept here.”

The boy’s voice had fallen to a whisper and his breath had become faint and irregular. Tolly held his hand and said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine, I’ll fetch a doctor” and other nonsenses. And the boy seemed to fall asleep and his head fell to the side.

Tolly held his hand a while longer then let it go for a moment and blinked his eyes once and twice to clear the tears that had come unbidden. Opening his eyes he saw the frost was back and felt his hands quite frozen with cold. He was still leaning against the trunk of the tree but the boy had gone. The dark spreading stain on the ground had gone. 

Tolly stood up and stamped his feet which felt more like blocks of ice than like real human feet. As he stumped life back into them he noticed the sword blade that he had pulled from the ground beneath those blocks of stone. With distaste he slipped it back into its earthen scabbard. He brushed the dirt and soil from his hands and went indoors to find his grandmother.

“My my Toseland, you’re quite pinched with the cold. Come sit by the fire and tell me where you have been. Look at you – you’re trembling.”

In fits and starts Tolly told his grandmother what he had found that morning and what the boy had told him. “All of them Grandmother – all Boggises he said – father and uncle and cousins and brothers’ can it be true? Would all of them die?” He looked at his dear grandmother who seemed now to have retreated far inside herself. He saw her glance for an instant toward the photographs that crowded the top of the dresser.

“We wouldn’t know” she said at last “the names of men such those your boy spoke of wouldn’t be recorded. But I’m sorry Tolly for those men belonged to this house just as you do, and I do, and your dear mother did. I am sorry, for war is a cruel thing and it takes so many that we love – sons, brothers, husbands.”

Then old Mrs Oldknow wept, and Tolly wept though he was not quite sure for whom or for why he wept. And around them the stones of the house gathered close and the eyes of the garden gathered too.

Christmas Quiz for Year Six

Year Six Residential Quiz

You can do this on scrap paper and read the questions – no need for printing. The logo round is a single image which you can copy and put up on smart notebook or powerpoint. I’ve just added a Christmas Round. I’ve spent no time on this so don’t come running to tell me about the undoubted swarms of typos.

  1. Music
  2. Geography
  3. Video Games
  4. Books
  5. TV
  6. History
  7. Logos
  8. BONUS!! Christmas Round

 

 

  1. Music – Name the artist who had a hit with these songs.

1) Thriller (Michael Jackson)

2) Bodak Yellow (Cardi B)

3) She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah (The Beatles)

4) Fireworks (Katy Perry)

5) How Long (Charlie Puth)

6) Shout Out to my Ex (Little Mix)

7) Poker Face (Lady Gaga)

8) Crazy in Love (Beyonce)

9) Youngblood (Seven Seconds of Summer)

10) Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)

 

 

  1. Geography

1)      Beginning with ‘N’. This African River runs from Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea. It is the longest river in the world. (Nile)

2) Beginning with ‘A’. These mountains are in France, Austria, Germany and Italy. People go skiing there. (Alps)

3) Beginning with ‘C’. This country in Asia is famous for a wall. It is the biggest country on the planet. (China)

4) This Italian city beginning with P is home to a famous leaning tower. (Pisa)

5) This African country beginning with ‘S’ was home to Nelson Mandela. (South Africa)

6) This flat European country beginning with ‘N’ has borders with Germany and Belgium. It is famous for tulips and bicycles. (Netherlands)

7) This Country in the Americas that begins with ‘M’ has borders with the United States, Guatamala and Belize. (Mexico)

8) Beginning with ‘E’, This city in Britain is the capital of Scotland, it has a famous castle. (Edinburgh)

9) This River in South America, which begins with an ‘A’, runs through an area of rainforest. (Amazon)

10) This very cold continent, beginning with ‘A’ is the largest desert on our planet. (Antarctica)

 

2)      Games

1) This classic console game features a jumping plumber. (Mario)

2) In this phone game you catapult very cross flying creatures to knock things over. (Angry Birds)

3) This board game features climbing equipment and dangerous legless snakes. (Snakes and Ladders)

4) This pencil and paper game based in a three by three grid features both circles and X’s. (Noughts and Crosses)

5) This playground game participants jump over a turning rope. (Skipping)

6) In this multi platform game one hundred people jump out of a bus and fight until there’s just one left. (Fortnite)

7) This game, often played in pubs, consists of two players taking turns to throw small arrows at a circular target. (Darts)

8) This computer game features a strangely blocky character makes and destroys cubes. (Minecraft)

9) The name of this card matching game is a synonym for a sharp break. (Snap)

10) This board game has two teams of sixteen pieces. Players take turn to move one until the male ruler is taken. (Chess)

 

3)      Books

1) Four children pass through a wardrobe into a world of perpetual winter where they must defeat an evil queen with the help of a talking Lion. (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe)

2) A farm boy takes care of a horse amongst the battles of the first world war. (War Horse)

3) A boy wins a Golden Ticket and gets to visit a very special factory. The owner shows him around and disposes of some other, much nastier children. (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

4) A boy goes to Wizarding school where he makes new friends and discovers a terrible terrible enemy. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

5) A pig named Wilbur has his life saved by a spider who can both talk and write. (Charlotte’s Web)

6) Lyra and Will have adventures in a strange alternate Oxford where children are being by abducted by the beautiful but evil Mrs Coulter. (His Dark Materials)

7) A hobbit travels with a wizard and band of dwarves to win treasure back from a dragon. Along the way he meets a strange creature and wins a ring from him. (The Hobbit)

9) A young boy survives the murder of his family and grows up amongst the ghosts in a graveyard under the watchful eye of his vampire godfather. (The Graveyard Book)

10) A viking boy makes friends with a dragon instead of killing it and learns how to domesticate a diverse range of dragon species. (How to Tame Your Dragon)

 

4)      Sport

1) Which football team plays at White Hart Lane? (Tottenham Hotspur)

2) Which sport is played on a diamond? (Baseball)

3) Which player scored the most goals in the 2018 World Cup? (Harry Kane)

4) What sport is played on ice using sticks and a puck? (Ice Hockey)

5) What year will the next Summer Olympic games take place? (2020)

6) How many players are there on a netball team? (7)

7) To the nearest second – how fast is the current world record for running one hundred metres. (10 seconds – rounded up from 9.58 seconds)

8) Trischa Zorn is the most successful Paralympian ever with 55 medals. What sport did she compete in? It’s one where you can win a lot of medals at a competition… (swimming)

9) How many points does a team get for scoring a try in rugby union? (five)

10) Which game is played in a swimming pool with goals, a floating ball and players of different teams identified by different coloured swimming hats? (Water Polo)

5)      History

1) Who came first? King Henry the Eighth or William the Conqueror? (William obvs)

2) Where did the Viking people come from? (Scandinavia/Sweden/Norway)

3) True or false. In Victorian times poor people ate horse poo. (false)

4) What year did the First World War finish? (1918)

5) Where in the world did the Aztec people live? (Latin America/Mexico)

6) How long ago were the pyramids built in Egypt? (approx. 4000 to 5000 yrs)

7) Who came first? The Ancient Greeks or the Romans? (The Greeks)

8) How long ago did Oxford University start? (approx. 1000 years ago)

9) Which came first – the first aeroplane or the first tank? (aeroplane)

10) What country did Napoleon Bonaparte lead?

6)      Logos – picture round.

 

logos

8. BONUS!! Christmas Round

1 – Christmas charity single featuring lots of pop and rock stars –  DTKIC (Do They Know it’s Christmas)

2 – Christmas picture book which was made into a film starring Tom Hanks and a train  – TPE (The Polar Express)

3 – Christmas song featuring a shouting man from Birmingham – IWICBCED (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day)

4 – A Christmas food consisting of tubes of forced meat surrounded by slices of porcine flesh – PIB (Pigs in Blankets)

5 – A Christmas carol featuring the marvellous word ‘welkin’ – DDMOH (Ding Dong Merrily on High)

6 – Supposed dwelling place of a large bearded gentleman who habitually dresses in red and cares for a large number aerialist members of the species Rangifer tarandus – TNP (The North Pole)

7 – Christmas movie about a man who threatens suicide but is persuaded to think again by an angel who shows him what life in his town would be like without him. Probably the best Christmas Movie ever – IAWL (It’s a Wonderful Life)

8 – A sock rammed with fruit, nuts and small gifts – CS (Christmas Stocking)

9 – A novel which has been adapted many times into plays and films – notably by the muppets – ACC (A Christmas Carol)

10 – A song which perpetuates the myth that December in the united kingdom is generally snowy and delightful rather than grizzly and grim. Propaganda for the Christmas Card industry – IBTLALLC (It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Mortal Engines’ Movie – my hot take

The movie of Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve hit the cinemas today and me and the boy went to see it. We were pretty excited – we’ve known the book for years and years and the anticipation has been building for a while since we knew that the movie was on its way.

So what did we make of it? Headline is that we really enjoyed it. The following review presumes you know the novel of Mortal Engines but contains no spoilers for the film. This is a hard line to tread so apologies if I fall down either side. If you want a proper review you’ll find loads of those online – this one comes from the specific perspective of someone who loves the book and desperately doesn’t want the film to let it down while recognising that of course some changes have to be made in adapting a 200 page novel to a couple of hours of screen time.

mortal_engines_review_peter_jackson

Ok – starting over. Yes we enjoyed it very much. The movie is fast paced and a lot of the changes to the plot have been made to ‘clean up’ the plot so it zooms along. From the pre-credit sequence onward you now you’re in absolutely safe hands.

Philip Reeve is known for his world building. A big part of the excitement for this film has been wondering how the WETA team, who created the visual effects for ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ among other films, would match up to Philip Reeve’s imaginative world. The good news is that it looks just stunning and pretty much exactly as you’d hoped it would – or better maybe. The team, led by Peter Jackson’s right hand man Christian Rivers, were careful to ensure this isn’t a steam punk world – Steam Punk is a reimagined Victorian era while this is set in a post-apocalyptic world some thousands of years in the future. There’s lots of fun to be had looking at all the bespoke props and the great costuming but the real triumph is the locations; traction London, Airhaven, the Shield Wall and other locations familiar from the book are recreated in stunning detail and look just glorious on the screen.

The casting is just great. Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmarsdottir play Tom and Hester. They are just a little older than the duo as we know them in the books but that really isn’t a problem. I understand that Philip Reeve originally wrote the pair as being in their late teens or early twenties and shifted them a few years younger at the suggestion of his editor at scholastic who thought the book would sell better at the top end of MG than at the bottom end of YA. I had been a little worried about the casting of Robert Sheehan as Tom – I wondered if he was a little too self aware but I was quite wrong – he really does a great job. The film Tom is maybe less dowdy than book Tom but I think you’d expect that in a movie. Yes it changes his character arc a little but it’s not problematic. Hera Hilmarsdottir is great too, maybe less harsh than her book counterpart but we’d expect that.

The biggest controversy around the film was Hester’s level of facial disfigurement. The book describes her as having only one eye, barely a stump of a nose, a livid scar crossing her face and so on. Early images from the film showed that this had been toned down to a great extent, she has two eyes, her nose is intact, the scar is there but it is not livid – she has a disfigurement I guess but she is very pretty indeed. Philip Reeve blogged on this, he said that to him it is not a big issue, for him the purpose of the scar is to make Hester see herself as ‘other’, that it was the effect on the character’s self image and motivation that was important rather than how other people see her that matters. He reckons that this lighter scar is still enough to impact on her self image. Obviously I’ll respect his view as the author but I do think the disfigurement is hugely important to how Tom responds to Hester in the early stages of the book and we track is changing relationship to her through the way his internal voice – through the narrator – sees her. His gaze is the primary view into the film and his vision of her does focus on the scar. My feeling on this is that a big budget movie which aims for global reach was never going to have a Hester as badly disfigured as the character is in the book. Hera Hilmersdottir does a good job of communicating some of the character’s feral harshness, she drinks muddy water from a puddle convincingly, and is lovely on screen but maybe I think an aspect of the book is lost in allowing her to be so attractive. Let me know what you think.

The other three big bits of casting are Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine, Jihae as Anna Fang and Stephen Lang (behind CGI prosthetics) as the Resurrected Man Shrike. All three of these are very well cast. Valentine is a different man from the character in the book in some ways but Weaving inhabits him with conviction and authority – fans won’t be disappointed. Jihae is just terrific, I cannot fault her in any way. Stephen Lang’s Shrike is not quite what I had in my imagination – he doesn’t match very accurately to the description in the book looking to my mind further toward the zombie end of the spectrum and not as close to the cyborg end. Lang’s performance, both the motion capture element and the voice, are extraordinary. I know Lang best from his work in Avatar – I’ll be looking out his other roles after this.

So, the look of the film is spot on. The casting is terrific. What else? The direction by Christian Rivers is super assured. Rivers directed parts of the Hobbit so is not a newcomer but not many directors can have been asked to take on a film of this scale and complexity as their first solo gig. It would have helped that he was working with a team that he knew and who knew him already but even so it’s a very strong debut.

The elephant in the room, and the one which to avoid spoilers I can’t explore in any detail, is the changes to the plot. Rivers and Jackson started with a lengthy novel and had to get it into a form that was not overlong on screen. Jackson got this badly wrong (in my opinion) in the third instalment of Lord of the Rings and must have been keen for this outing to come in on time! This obviously necessitated a few of the changes so theres a few scenes and sequences from the book that don’t make it on screen – That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Moving on from that it’s also reasonable to anyone who understands transition from page to screen that some sequences from the book end up happening in different locations and in a slightly different order to the book. The last quarter of the film goes a bit beyond that. No spoilers but the ending is not Philip Reeve’s ending. I don’t think this will or should surprise anyway. Why make these changes? Some of them make the film adhere a little more closely to the accepted structure of a family action adventure movie. There’s one particular sequence which seems to bump up the action to something which isn’t a million miles from an homage to the film which is the mummy and daddy to this sort of movie – very little to do with Reeve’s original but an edge of the seat rollercoaster ride and it would be a very curmudgeonly viewer who resented that. No doubt some will be disappointed by any variation from the source material but I’m quite happy to roll with it. If anything it makes me optimistic that we will get to see a sequel and maybe even a proper series. If we do I don’t think the next film can possibly be an adaptation of Predator’s Gold – the second book in the series – it will have to be something quite new.

In other ways the film did feel like Philip Reeve’s voice was intact. There’s a good gag with some American deities which one can imaging him shoehorning in to the book with a sidelong wink to the reader. Similarly the joke with the ‘Inkies’ feels like it might well have come from him, as does the sequence with the toaster. This may be because the film’s producer and director both share Reeve’s very British sense of humour or it may be properly due to respect for the stories origins in the books. Either way, it made this reader feel comfortable in the cinema.

I do think that some viewers who love the books may feel that the movie simply lacks some of the exploration of the book’s themes. We have to be just a tiny bit careful here – Mortal Engines was published as a children’s book and Philip Reeve distances himself quite carefully from earnest discussion of the books ‘message’ or ‘subtext’. He says that its just a story and that if readers find more in it then that is up to them. I personally don’t quite buy this. To me the stratification of society on board the Traction Cities feels very deliberately done and one can read the structure of those cities, and of Municipal Darwinism, to be in some ways a critique of the capitalist society. The sequence in the books where Katherine discovers the ‘Turd Tanks’ and Bevis Pod is hard to read any other way. That sequence is missing from the film as is her visit to the lower tiers where she gets a sense of the role of the proletariat within the traction system. Similarly the reduction in Hester’s scar, and the gentling of her character, mean she no longer repels the male gaze. it no longer allows us to dehumanise her – as we do in the books – in such a way that her half humanity matches Shrikes half humanity. The book is called ‘Mortal Engines’ and is, to me at least, partly a meditation on machines with souls and humans who lose their souls. I’m afraid these aspects of the book are almost entirely lacking in the film. There’s not much to be said about that – I wasn’t really expecting a big budget action adventure movie released over the Christmas period to go far in that direction. I suspect the majority of the book’s readers don’t pause long to consider these aspects anyway – they are an enriching underlayer that make them more satisfying for middle aged literary types like me but are not the reason that Peter Jackson thought it was worth buying the film rights. If you want a film that approaches some of the concerns I’ve briefly looked at I could recommend Blade Runner maybe, also perhaps Paris Texas. This is not the film you are looking for.

That’s enough for my hot take I guess but let me just add a sentence or two to say how much I liked and valued the diversity of casting in the movie. I was very glad to see the role of Anna Fang’s band of aviators bumped up a bit and to see men and women of a wide range of ethnicities playing the roles of these brave and intelligent fighters. It sounds odd, given that their key introductory scene took place in a floating caravanserai suspended beneath some very lumpy bumpy hot air balloons, but there was real authenticity to those characters and their relationships. I’d love to see more of them. Similarly Traction London, just like our modern day London, was home to people of a wide variety of races. I imagine if this film had been made a few years ago – or by a less intelligent team in the present day – we would have seen a more Dickensian set of Londoners. Chudleigh Pomeroy played by Colin Salmon is just one of a number of characters who are allowed to have distinct and authentic ethnicity without that being the point of their character. In this respect the film felt that it shared some DNA with Taika Waititi’s Thor:Ragnarok where the old pretence of colour blind casting has given way to a genuine valuing of diversity.

So – I had a great time at the cinema, the star of the show in the end is probably the world building and I would have loved to have spent longer exploring London, Air Haven and Shan Guo – let’s hope for some return visits in future episodes. Rivers and Jackson have not just made a carbon copy of Reeve’s novel – they have taken on the source material and made their own thing but without entirely losing the flavour of the original. Fans of Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet need not be afraid to go to the cinema this Christmas.

Finding Words for The Lost Words

The Lost Words event at The Sheldonian Theatre on Friday 23rd November was without one of the strangest and most memorable events I’ve ever been involved with. We’ve been talking about it since July but nothing prepared me for the power of event. I think it staggered us all. I spoke at the event representing people whose relatives had spent their last days at Sobell. You can read what I had to say here

The Sheldonian Theatre is a Grade One listed building on Broad Street in Oxford. It’s not really a theatre in the commonly understood sense. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, best known for his work on St Paul’s Cathedral in London, it serves as the location for Oxford University ceremonies and feels very grand indeed. It really is a charged space and I’m sure that played a part in the power of the evening. Despite living in Oxford for thirty years or so I think I have only entered The Sheldonian four times – once for matriculation, once for graduation, once when someone paid me to put leaflets on all the seats ahead of a concert and once when I heard Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes reading together – an event from which I retain only two memories; the extreme discomfort of sitting on a window sill instead of a bench as it was so overcrowded and Ted talking about hearing the lions in Regent’s Park Zoo roaring from his house not far away. The Sheldonian is simply an extraordinary space to be in – here’s what it looked like inside minutes before the evening got underway.

sheldonian

Jackie’s blog here explains the format of the evening and I very much hope that Dr Rachel Clarke who organised the evening will blog too. I want to use this blog just to think through a little of what I learned and thought about before during and after the event.

Before the show started, so to speak, I gave Jackie and Rob a charm of goldfinches that the children in my Friday class had made – each child had made a little goldfinch and we had stuck them on to a sheet of gold. The gold is actually made from the paper that lines cigarette packs but nonetheless Jackie and Rob seemed genuinely pleased with the gift and we spent a while looking at the birds and choosing our favourites. Rob reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s lines:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

rob and jackie

As a humanist I have to find ‘God’s Grandeur’ in the world, through nature, through the environment that humans have made and through human relationships. At times I find that easy and at times I find it very hard. There’s something about Rob and Jackie – just as people – which radiates kindness, love and generosity. I felt that in their books before I met either of them and the contact I have had with them since has only reinforced my feelings that these are special people. The idea of the world being ‘charged’ with glory is exciting – a charge like the charge in a battery is there, resting, ready to be accessed when it is needed. In the natural world, Hopkins is saying, is a power which is ready for us when we are ready to receive it. Of course Hopkins might be thinking of another meaning of ‘charged’ – you can be charged with a responsibility. It is the duty of the world – and Hopkins is just SO excited by the natural world, he is a vital player in the long stream of English nature writing – it is the responsibility of the world to bear God’s grandeur. The themes of the world having a charge of divine power and having a responsibility to bear it gave an undercurrent to my reading of the evening.

Hopkins came into my mind again a little later when Rob spoke about his double vision of the dandelion. ‘spin me, tiny time machine’. Rob said he’d started with the perhaps obvious thought of the Dandelion clock blown by a child to tell  time breath by breath. He went on to say that Jackie’s painting of a dandelion seen from above – perhaps as a hovering kestrel might see it – with it’s lion toothed leaves outspread, had taught him to see it as a clock in another way. As a diagram of a clock with limbs reaching out to the hours from a tap rooted centre. Rob said he hadn’t seen it that way before but for me Hopkins line from ‘Spring’ carries that meaning ;

‘When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush’

Here again is that life force which Hopkins, as a Christian, sees so vibrantly in the natural world and which I, as a humanist, sense with equal passion. On a good day. On a bad day when grief is laying me low it can be harder for me to perceive that force – to access that charge.

rachel

Without a shadow of a doubt, and I know Rob and Jackie would agree with this, the most powerful speaker of the evening was Joe, a man living with cancer who is living a life enriched by a new found love of painting despite knowledge that his time is limited. Joe spoke with quiet passion and power. We felt privileged to be in his presence and to hear his words. Joe told us that he was not afraid of dying – hard enough to say and harder to say with such apparent sincerity – and that the natural world was a great source of comfort to him. Joe talked about laying his hands on the trunk of a tree and feeling its ‘thrum’ – life energy, charge running through the living wood. My wife Diane, who died in August of this year, also said that nature was a solace to her. Diane dug a little deeper, she said that her knowledge that the natural world would certainly carry on unchanged once she died gave her a very steadying sense of continuity. As part of the evening at the Sheldonian we played a song that Diane wrote and recorded with Tom Crook, the music therapist at Sobell house a few weeks before she died. You can hear that song here. It was moving to hear Diane singing her song in the beautiful and impressive surroundings of the Sheldonian. She knew about the event and knew we planned to share her song.

Diane loved the natural world – whether it was the long tailed tits that throng in the old apple tree overhanging the fence at the bottom of the garden or the newts in the pond I dug in its shade – but she could be curiously unsentimental. Rob and Jackie spoke about this aspect of our engagement with the natural world, a great tit is beautiful, a sparrowhawk is beautiful. The moment when a sparrowhawk takes a great tit in the air is beautiful in another way. Not one which is particularly pleasant for the great tit perhaps. This sense of nature as being almost cold hearted – it will continue whether you want it to or not – comforted Diane in a way that was determinedly non-anthropocentric. She didn’t think the Blackbird that sang on the chimneypot sang for her, or that it would mourn her, or that it sang for joy or to praise for it’s maker. We had a long standing joke between us regarding what the birds in the trees would be singing in the dawn chorus if we could understand them “Fuck off! Fuck off! This is my tree! Anyone want a shag? Come over here if you think you’re hard enough.” And so on. And they’ll carry on shouting and yelling when we’ve gone. In life we often think the world is about us rather. As we approach death we have to renegotiate our understanding – soon enough it just won’t be about us. Recognising the aspect of nature which isn’t cute and isn’t kind but which is so very alive takes us some little way along that journey. Joe’s blackbirds with their quizzical look and that odd blue leg that reminded me of Cy Twombly’s colours were definitely that sort of bird. Like The Dude they would endure and they wouldn’t mind calling out your bullshit.

The week after Diane’s funeral I met this sparrowhawk on a road in Devon – she had brought down a pigeon and mantled to guard it’s prey from me and the three other people in the car. Her eye pierced us, she stood her ground.

sparrowhawk.jpg

 

Now there’s something rather hard here. Rachel asked Rob and Jackie if their engagement with the natural world and the work around the Lost Words had caused them to consider their own mortality. I thought a little of that obscured skull in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ and wondered just briefly if the loss in The Lost Words wasn’t just the lexical disappearance but also a deeper loss. Peered at from the right angle might Jackie’s work reveal a momento mori? Was there a deeper acrostic in Rob’s words saying ‘and this too shall pass’? Jackie was pleasingly direct – ‘yes. And that’s a good thing. There’s always something I need to do. Always a painting that needs to be painted. Knowing your time is short keeps you keen.’ Rob was more circumspect, he said that the work kept him focussed on a much bigger loss. Perhaps he was thinking of the dreadful culling of trees that has been going on in the city of Sheffield of late – I know he has been involved in the ongoing campaign to stop that needless denuding of a great city. Perhaps he was thinking of the global destruction of the natural environment. Perhaps he was thinking of the loss of hope that suffuses our socio-political environment at the time of writing whether it’s Trumps vandalism, Brexit’s sickening freefall, complicity with atrocities in Yemen – the list could go on. I too have been more and more aware of a great sense of loss in the air around me. As a teacher I’m keenly aware of the effects of what the government were pleased to call ‘austerity’ but which I would rather call wilful destruction of the welfare state. It is genuinely hard to remain optimistic and positive. For me finding this loss to be intensifying at the same time as I am facing this period of grief is almost intolerable. We’re it not for my son, my family and my friends (amongst them I count Rob, Jackie and Rachel) I think it would be absolutely intolerable. But the blackbird will still sing tomorrow: not because he sings for me, not because he sings for joy, or to praise his maker – but because he sings and that will do.

Of course there is another loss to negotiate here. The plants and creatures that populate the pages of the Lost Words are not critically endangered species. Some – like the dandelion – are hugely successful and have absolutely made the most of a human dominated world, champions of the Anthropocene. Others, like the otter, have been through a bottle neck in the British Isles and seem to be on the up – I’m told otters are seen in the river not far from the school I teach at in the east of Oxford though I have only seen them in Norfolk. On stage Rob mentioned the huge success of the goldfinch which has become, in a remarkably short time, one of the most common of our garden birds – perhaps due to the expense gardeners are prepared to go to in order to provide them with expensive niger seed. Despite this good news we are living in a time where creatures that were once absolutely common and a part of every day experience are becoming less and less common. Numbers of hedgehogs have crashed disastrously in recent years to the point where one wonders if the species still has a future in Britain. The goldfinch may be prospering but other garden birds have become so scarce they might as well have disappeared. I remember the starling murmuration we used to see in Leicester Square each evening, in the heart of London and unremarked by most who passed through the square though always fascinating to me. Now such a surging, whirling, melting thing is worthy of a pilgrimage to the cold heart of Otmoor a few miles to the North east of Oxford (a strange and powerful landscape threatened by construction a corridor route through to Rob’s home town of Cambridge). Loss is all around, politically, socially and in the urban wildlife of our own back gardens. The blackbird that sings on the chimney and which seemed to Diane – and which perhaps seems to Joe – to be such a sign of the permanence of the flinty life force is perhaps not as safe as we think it is. I am quite sure that Blackbirds are not as common in our area as they were a decade ago. Is this another species which seems unquestionably common to us but whose song will seem as distant to our children as the nightingale is to my generation?

More than once on Friday reference was made to walking under a sky full of larks, that power which seems to ‘rinse and wring’ the ear. I teach at Larkrise Primary school – so named we are told because the first head teacher, Mrs Whitely, driving up to the school when it was under construction would surprise skylarks on the school field who would rise up (little astronauts) and sing. We have not seen or heard skylarks around the school in my fifteen years on the staff.

The deeper loss beyond The Loss Words was a theme in my short part of the evening. I referred to Diane’s loss of speech prior to her death at Sobell House. Her loss of speech only happened in the last two days or so of her life. It was quick. Her last sentence was ‘I hate prunes’. Diane’s loss of speech hit me hard. Remember I knew her first through her letters and her songwriting. I fell in love with Diane’s language before I knew her. Losing language does feel so very close to losing the breath of life. In Diane’s case one came very close after the other.

We were blessed that Diane’s last few weeks and days were so well and wisely managed by the wonderful staff at Sobell. I bore witness to some of that in my talk – particularly to the work of Tom and Neale both of whom enriched Diane’s life so much in her last months. I regret that I didn’t make reference to the staff who opened their hearts to the possibility of friendship and connection in her last weeks knowing that the friendship would not be long and that its end would bring heartache but who, nonetheless were true friends as well as professional carers – how they do that again and again through the months and years I cannot begin to imagine. When she awoke in the night Diane was sometimes disorientated, scared and distressed. A nurse would sit with her, hold her hand, chat and maybe watch an episode or two of ‘Brooklyn 99’. These are special people. I pay tribute to them now.

Although the great loss that Rob alluded to was there, for me at least, as an undertow throughout the evening it did not cancel the joy of the evening. I was very aware of huge love in the room. At the reception afterwards and throughout the weekend I have been astonished again and again by the number of friends who were in the Sheldonian Theatre and bearing witness to the event and to the power of the Lost Words. Some knew I was speaking and came in part to support me. Others had no idea I was to speak and must have been sorely amazed when I stood up  – I hope it wasn’t too much of a shock. There is an aspect of the natural world which is not biological, not living and it ran as surely through the evening as plants and animals and as surely as friendship.

The tide of the event turned when Rachel spoke of her father’s death and of the stone that Rob sent him from the arctic circle. In Diane’s last weeks Rob sent Diane two beautiful rounded stones that he’d picked up on the beach at Orford Ness and which seem to contain galaxies (we know their atoms were put together in the hearts of dying stars) Jackie sent Diane a pebble from Pembrokeshire on which, in gold leaf, she had inscribed a labyrinth. For a while Diane pushed those pebbles to and fro, up and down the garden and into the woods in the little carrying compartment beneath the hinged lid of the wheeled walker I mentioned in my talk. These unliving things of the natural world can hold – yes, presumably through the power of the human imagination – a good dose of Hopkins’ charge of grandeur. The mineral speaks to the spirit even when the Blackbird fails. During the Q&A section toward the end of the evening a member of the audience (I almost wrote congregation) told Rob about a fossilised twig that he had sent her. The twig had metamorphosed, alchemically, through it’s process of preservation into some strange new compound which, left in the oxygen of the air in this woman’s study, had spontaneously combusted. This extraordinary and unexpected contribution to the running current of storytelling in the evening underlined the life in the land. Hopkins charge – not under the divine command of God but wild and of itself – and content to burn if burning was how it expressed its ‘isness’. Rob reminded us of the deep time of our planet – deeper than the time of the blackbird which sings on the chimney and deeper than the time of the oak tree which thrums through its centuries. In an aside he mentioned his great respect for stratigraphers, those remarkable earth scientists who map the layers and levels of the rock making up our world and thereby give us insight into the long time of our planet. A timescale in which life itself is a newcomer and in which humanity with its art, culture, ritual and belief is a barely a blip. In the record of this deep timescale Diane’s life, my life and the lives of the people in the Sheldonian Theatre last Friday will pass without making a mark.

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Jackie conjured an otter from water and stone. And I think I’m getting close when I say that for Jackie an otter is fairly close to being water with a spirit (pour your outer being into water). Water came again in my talk (the ocean in Diane’s treasured story of Sere and the Mosque Under the Island, it’s absence in the waterless seasons, the subaquatic light of the woods, my river swim) and, powerfully, in Rob’s choice of ‘Where Water Comes Together With Other Water’ by Raymond Carver.

 I love creeks and the music they make.
And rills, in glades and meadows, before
they have a chance to become creeks.
I may even love them best of all
for their secrecy. I almost forgot
to say something about the source!
Can anything be more wonderful than a spring?

Water seems to be alive, is not alive, travelled to our planet on comets, is older than life, is the bearer of life and progenitor of life. Water running with rock is the very stuff of life whether in the mountains or in the tame English river I rejoice to swim in. When Jackie grinds her Sumi Ink she is grinding the ash of pine needles, as an alchemist she grinds making the black blacker and mixes with gin clear water taken from a creek, rill, stream, spring and conjures the otter or other from the paper. On the mantel now I have a pair of hares Jackie conjured in the Sheldonian on Friday. With her combination of experience, wisdom and deep humanity she has allowed the water to carry the grain of the Sumi through the fibre of the paper in such a way as to create a galaxy in the hair and flesh of the hare. Jackie, I am quite convinced could conjure the auroch, the mammoth, the great bustard, and have them breathe before us.

hares

Friday night absolutely knocked the stuffing out of me. The sense of the great loss had been hanging over me through the week and came to a head in the Sheldonian. Thankfully friendship and love carried me through that and to a place where water, stone and great human spirit found a different sort of permanence. For me the night was some sort of ritual that carried me from one place in my grief to another. As yet it is still mysterious but I am confident that, like water, it will find a way.

(I am aware this does not make much sense – if I get any further I shall come back and update!)

 

 

Sheldonian Theatre – Lost Words Event

IMG_20181123_185616.jpgSheldonian Theatre – Lost Words Event

Diane and I met when she borrowed my guitar. A few weeks later I headed to Ethiopia and she headed for Indonesia and so, in those days before email, we spent two years writing letters back and forth.

I wrote stories of life in a mountain town – baboons in the garden and camels in the marketplace. I wrote about those nameless birds that queued to sip the last drip that collected on the tap behind the house through the long dry season.

Diane wrote letters about learning to swim in the warm sea, she wrote about the brightly coloured fish that populate the reef, just by the drop off. She wrote of a close encounter with a whale and of an old man called Sere who knew the sea. Sere paddled Diane in his boat through the swirling currents that sperate Alor from Pula Kepa. A storm plunged down – Diane cowered in the bottom of the boat but Sere stood and laughed at the storm and in a little while Diane laughed too while the white rain tore the ocean to shreds.

Sere told Diane that  one time there had been no rain for months and months. The trees stopped giving fruit and the fish stopped biting. Sere gathered the last of his strength to take a final fishing trip and took his canoe out into the archipelago. A bite took his hook – a fish! Stronger than any Sere had hooked before. It pulled hard but Sere kept hold of the line and was towed, zig zagging hither and thither. Sere kept hold. The fish dived and with a heave the canoe capsized and the old man was dragged down, down into the deeps of the ocean. Down through greens and greens and deeper blues.

Sere holds the line. He’s pulled deeper. He sees beneath the island. He sees that the roots of the island don’t widen like a mountain reaching the ground. No, the island floats on the water and has a stalk like a waterlily that anchors it to the ocean’s floor. And in the shadow beneath the island Sere sees something gleaming. A golden mosque with ribbons and skeins of coloured fish passing through and through the arch topped windows.

Sere will awake on soft warm sand the next morning. He’ll find his canoe upturned beside him and a miraculous fish – perfect, sufficient to feed the village for not one but two whole weeks till the rains break. And under the island the mosque still gleams.

******

At the moment it feels like the story of Diane and me is a story about Cancer and how the marauding cells found purchase in her breast and armpit, then thigh and spine and from there colonised her body robbing her of mobility, function, ultimately speech and life itself.

And sometimes it did seem that cancer had bulldozed our lives together. Five years of treatment – radiotherapy, mastectomy, chemotherapy. Radiotherapy again. Chemotherapy again. Five years of appointments, clinics, hours and hours of queuing to park at the Churchill hospital.

It’s hard isn’t it? A story that starts with us jetting off and crossing continents. Climbing mountains and laughing in the face of the storm ends up in a bed in Headington. With a driver pushing drugs into an arm. A tube carrying away urine. Tiny sips from a straw. Sleep and an end. What a robbery. What a betrayal.

I want to remember sitting with Diane in the Portuguese café with a coffee and a custard tart and watching a family of deer roaming in the field across the road.

I want to remember fritillaries in the meadow, seals bobbing up to peer at a boat off the coast of Norfolk.

But you know, it’s true, Cancer did close us down. It did narrow our horizons. Towards the end there was our home, the stairs getting a little harder each day. Our garden. Not a great deal more. And there was Sobell House. Diane was picked up by the lovely volunteer drivers once a week and taken to Sobell where she’d spend a while in the day centre and a hour with the wonderful Tom Crook playing on his collection of instruments singing, writing and recording. A small thing perhaps but one which gave Diane such pleasure and satisfaction.

Sobell did other great things. Neal, the physiotherapist sorted a top quality wheelchair and I could take Diane away on trips which would have been out of reach – we went to see 42nd Street in London – what luxury.

Neal got Diane a walking frame on wheels, with a seat she could sit on if she got tired. She got herself from the car down to the botanical gardens. Such a big win. I have a photograph of Diane up in Wytham Woods taken not a month before she moved into the hospice. In my photograph she sits on the seat of that walker and looks towards the camera, towards me holding the camera.

I remember that day – the sun was shining (do you remember those long hot weeks in summer?) and stepping from the force of the sun and into the shade was like plunging into cool water. Diane pushed her walker  – and herself – deeper into the woods. The sun danced on the canopy above and in the green, sub aquatic light ribbons and skeins of birdsong cascaded around us.

That walking frame got Diane down the garden to the decking. Tea in her favourite mug – the one that reminded her of my mum – a slice of cake or a couple of biscuits and the sun of that endless summer bearing down. Goldfinches brawling in the top of the silver birch, ancient newts cruising the pond. A Red Kite quartering above the rooftops it’s thin cry cutting through the hum of the cars. Time singing together on the decking. Visitors. Our son on his bicycle home at last from school.

In Diane’s room at Sobell house the endless summer went on – the golf course became tawny, the buddleia through the window started to bow. She lay on a bed cooled by a ring of humming fans. Taking breaks while others sat with Diane and took turns to hold her hand. I would go and swim in the river, kingfishers, a tern, fish darting away. The glitter of light through the alders. The glimmer of light on the willows. Back in Diane’s room I would tell her what I’d seen. Moments you hold like a smooth rounded pebble.

Diane lost her speech. She could no longer swallow nor sip from a straw. Diane slept and I lay beside her through a long, still, endless night.

One morning early in August my son held Diane’s hand, and I held his hand, and my sisters held and Steve held and then Diane’s hand again. And Diane took just one more breath and that was it. A circle. A chain. And ribbons and skeins of love.

Let’s listen to Diane singing a song she wrote with Tom Crook at Sobell, she called it ‘A little Fresh Air’.