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.

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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’.

Free Writing Time

Yesterday I gave year six some free writing time. Initially twenty five minutes but they campaigned for more and, as I wasn’t going to argue with that, they ended up writing happily – and in near silence which was a big win for this class – for nearly forty minutes.

This is not something they are used to and they were absolutely gleeful with the excitement and freedom. Not one under challenged themself or got silly. Amazing.

In case any felt stuck I said that, if they had no other ideas, they could borrow my plan to write a story about getting lost in the woods – we’re just back from residential where getting lost in the woods was a delicious possibility. Other than that it was ‘make sure you have a pen or a pencil and away you go’. And off they went.

I saw a couple of stories about getting lost in the woods, a fan letter to the new head teacher, some ‘Who Let the Gods Out’ fan fiction, an extraordinary prose poem about  Ice.p, a non chronological report about shield bugs… All sorts of varied writing linked only really by the enjoyment of writing. Heavens what fun.

To show them just how ‘hands off’ I intended to be I told them that I wanted to write a story too. Here’s my story – or at least as far as I got with it. Just for fun why don’t you tell me how you would finish it? I bet year six would like to vote on your ideas.

Lost in the Woods

It was a crisp, cold winter day but the day was still bright when I stepped into the woods. Above me the sky was as blue as robin’s egg – and just about as perfect – and the low sun sent long shadows across the winding path. Mum had said I could play for an hour or so before it got dark, she hadn’t actually said that I could go into the woods – but then again, she hadn’t said I couldn’t so that was ok. Surely?

We don’t usually go away for Christmas, usually we spend it at home with dad, his brother and the cousins. But this year dad wasn’t around and mum said she didn’t want to spend the holiday in our house without him. She said it would remind her of all the other Christmases so she looked on line and found this little cottage with its log fire and its funny little rooms and its twisting creaking stairs that hid behind a door next to the fire and the woods a few steps away across the shaggy uncut lawn. It was a bargain, mum said, to find a place like that – and at that price – so close to Christmas. It was a wonder that no one had booked it already.

The path into the woods took a turn just after you went in, it jinked behind a clumpy mass of blackthorn then turned again deeper into the trees. The path was narrow and the branches of the trees joined up overhead: so much that, even though the winter had stolen the leaves from the trees, their interlaced fingers joined up and blocked the light making the bright day gloomy. The path was slippy with fallen leaves, roots lumped their way across it and you had to keep your eyes where you were going or you’d trip. Beyond the first few metres the blackthorn, hawthorn and hazel gave way to different more stately trees. My dad had taught me some of their names, larch and pine – there were more trees I couldn’t name, if dad had been there he could have told me their names but he wasn’t there so they remained nameless. Their trunks were black with the damp, their bark was rough – in places almost scaly.

A path crossed the one I was walking on, without really thinking about it I made a decision and turned left. This path twisted too. Round a kind of pit filled with fallen branches and through a boggy place where the thick mud had an oily sheen and made sucking noises as it pulled at my shoes. A puddle filled my shoe with icy water and wetted my sock. 

While I’d been walking the sun has started to set. Maybe from the top windows of the hill the sky was a carnival of reds, oranges and yellows. Certainly the sun was setting. In the woods all I knew was that without me noticing it had started to get dark. Mum had told me to be back before dark. I had better start moving. I turned around to return the way I’d come and started back, the cold was nipping now and I put my hands into a fist and shoved them deep into my pockets. 

The boggy place again, I hadn’t noticed that just by the spot where my foot had got wet there was a spot where a path joined the one I’d been on. Or my oath joined the other one, it was hard to tell. But I knew the dark scaly tree bark on the left and went that way. I walked a while – shouldn’t there have been a pit filled with branches. Had I passed it without noticing? Maybe it was further than I’d thought. A cross roads in the paths. I remembered that. I’d turned left hadn’t I? Or right? The night was falling now. Where you could see the sky between the skeletal branches it was dark  blue now, and even the blue was fading. I turned left – was that the way I’d come? It felt right. Mum would be worrying, I started to run. Another cross roads – I was sure that I hadn’t passed more than one, I turned left again and speeded up. It was dark, I had lost myself. Mum would be worried. Tears pricked at my eyes. Thorny vines reaching across the path clawed at my Skin and tore my clothes.

 

#GoldenSentences

22DDDE6D-F22F-4195-A1A6-3733985AC05DSpotted a brilliant sentence? Let me know and I’ll pop it up here. Maybe we’ll collect enough to provide a source of great exemplar sentences that we can use as models for our pupils. To get your sentences up here just tweet them with the hashtag #GoldenSentences and tag in me, @MrEFinch, and @_MissieBee please. Xox

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

(George Orwell, Animal Farm)

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.

(George Orwell, Animal Farm)

With a sniff of my armpits and a wink in the mirror, I was good to go.

(Pupil in @RosemaryCalm’s class)

Whenever she smiled at me Heaven blew in.

(Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch)

The thought of her flooded every corner of my mind with light and poured brightness.

(Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch)

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

(Jack Kerouac, On The Road)

He made all his feelings go inside the suitcase; he stuffed then in tight and then sat on the suitcase and locked it shut.

(Kate DiCamillo – The Tiger Rising)

Time snored like old Uncle Goodman after dinner.

(Leon Garfield, The Wedding Ghost)

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

(Terry Pratchett)

It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

(Charles Dickens, Hard Times)

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

(Iain Banks, The Crow Road)

Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.

(Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.)

Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.

(Katherine Rundell, Wolf Wilder)

Lloyd runs like a spider on its back legs, arms waving free.

(Chloe Daykin, The Boy Who Hit Play)

It was at that moment…that his tame patience with the grey of his life had smashed and spilled him tumbling towards his future.

(Laini Taylor, Muse of Nightmares)

My grandmother made dying her life’s work.

(Hugh Leonard – Home Before Night)

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. (Christopher Isherwood – Goodbye To Berlin)

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

(Antoine St Expury, The Little Prince)

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite”

(Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower)

“Not all those who wander are lost”

(J R R Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)

His eyes got bigger as he looked at her, almost like he wanted to see as much of her as he could.

(Sinead O’Hart, Eye of the North)

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aleptta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

(Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners)

Conjured balls of starlings rolled out and up, shoaling from their descending lines, thickening and pulling in on themselves – a black bloom burst from the seedbed of birds.

(Tim Dee, The Running Sky)

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

(Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials)

His life had not been the shortest distance between two points.

(James Joyce – Dubliners)

Call me Mr Flintstone, I can make your bed rock.

(Rachel Rossiter, from Twitter)

Illuminated soldiers guard the streets.

(Robert Barnes, school essay)

‘Nights beyond darkness and the days more gray than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world’

(Cormac McCarthy, The Road)

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though.

(Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel)

A report on the incident was entered in the records, and because no-one knew the strangers name, a cheap wooden cross was placed on his grave, one of those little crosses marking a nameless soul which now cover our continent of Europe right from one end to the other.

(Stefan Zweig, Incident on Lake Geneva)

But he did not die.

(David Gemmel, The Last Guardian)

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

(Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

(First line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Facts are friends, not enemies of the truth.

[Sutton, M. (2014) ‘Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s greatest secret’ , p. 1. Vae Victus. ]

I realised that in a few minutes I might see the fire. I imagined it like a tongue, licking at the inside of the building.

(Robin Stevens, The Guggenheim Mystery)

Aunt Gloria opened her mouth then closed it again, and expresssions chased themselves across her face like clouds in a localised gale.

(Robin Stevens, The Guggenheim Mystery)

I’m not Bernard I’m a monster , said the monster .

(David McKee, Not Now Bernard)

Frodo was alive, but taken by the enemy.

(JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)

I know what you look like, for God’s sake I know what your soul looks like so half way there….

(John Byrne while drawing Billy Connolly)

Happiness rushed in like a gust of wind blowing a door wide open.

(Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns)

The season comes to the mannequins first.

(Alice Spawls, writing in the London Review of Books)

The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.

(John Edward Williams, Stoner)

I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together.

(Megan Abbot, Give Me Your Hand)

Let the sunshine be every corner of the toilet.

(unknown copy writer, amazon listing for a toilet bowl night light)

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.

(Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)

People who didn’t need people needed people around to know that they were the kind of people who didn’t need people.

(Terry Pratchett,  Maskerade)

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks.

(Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things)

The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey)

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey)

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong the boots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and the solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices.

(Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things)

I think gentleness is a mighty word because you have to be strong of heart to be kind.

(Abi Elphinstone, Sky Song)

And with that comforting idea, sleep rolled over him, stifling all further thought.

(JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)

Long before midnight, Fionn sank into a dream where the sea climbed up the cliffs and spat it’s guts onto the land. Marrows with bloody tails and black teeth clawed at his ankles, crooning as they peeled their scales off and stuck them to his skin.

(Catherine Doyle, Tuhe Storm Keeper’s Island)

He was the answer to something but he didn’t know what.

(Tom Hopgood, Little Answer)

The cat watched the dog like a hawk.

(Written in a child’s literacy book)

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.

(Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

(Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility)

A tornado of questions swirled in her head, and all she could do was try to grab at them as the flew by.

(Jessica Townsend, Nevermoor)

My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows, shoving and spit.

(Sara Collins, TheConfessionsOfFrannieLangton)

He was, and is yet most likely, the W earisomest self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbours.

(Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

(Lord give me grace and dancingfeet and the power to impress.

(Bloc Party, The Prayer)

We would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.

(Ernest Hemmingway, A Movable Feast)

Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you. Because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.

(Roald Dahl, The Minpins)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Easy Pieces

Not many weeks ago, sitting on the decking at the bottom of our garden, Diane sent me in to fetch her a guitar and something for myself. I brought her the little Spanish guitar that she’d borrowed from me on the day we first met two decades earlier. She played some chords and waited for the old songs to come back to her, and sent me in to fetch something to play. My ukulele wasn’t good enough and I was sent in again to fetch my accordeon. For an hour or so we stumbled our way through the songs we used to play, in Edinburgh then down to Oxford, in pubs and cafes and occasionally on stages, in the flats of friends and family parties and on quiet nights together. Songs as familiar to us as we are with each other.

Some of the words had gone but Diane was ok, she could make her own. And if the chords had slipped form her mind she knew I’d find a way to fill them in. And when she ran out of the old songs she strummed patterns and made new tunes from the things she could see around her: the long tailed tits in the apple tree, a plastic bucket, me sitting with an old accordeon on my lap.

I didn’t know that would be the last time we’d play together. I’m glad. We played till our boy came home from school, then chatted with him for a while. A little later I made the tea and we ate at the table.

*****

For a week or so after she was taken into the hospice I would arrange for one of Diane’s friends to sit with her in the morning and I would take myself to the river to swim. School was still in session and I had the Thames to myself. I could find a quiet backwater each day and take time to unloose my mind and fold into the arms of the water. Later I would tell Diane where I had been and what I’d seen. A heron raising its head and stepping away as I approached, one foot at a time; a dozen jewel like damsel flies dancing over my head as I swam; a tern skimming the water; two kingfishers streaking like blue gold from bank to bank. Diane, bound fast to her bed, would smile and share my joy and maybe journey with me to swim the cool blessing of the river.

Yesterday, three days from her passing, I went to the river again and slipped into to its embrace. I oared myself through the stroking weeds and into the cool midstream. A mother duck moved amongst the willow branches followed by two three-month ducklings and I thought for a moment how Diane would smile to hear about them before I remembered and paused, and swam on. Around the turn of the river an angler pulled a perch from the river and light glittered through alder leaves. Geese. A dragonfly overhead. And how could I ever tell Diane how the feathery stars from the dandelion clocks skipped, jumped and rolled across the surface of the water before they soaked and sank?

****

A few days before the end, the staff at the hospice moved a second bed into Diane’s room so I could sleep there and be there for her if she woke in the night. She would fall asleep early, around eight, and rest peacefully till the morning. I would lie on the bed and watch TV on my iPad, scroll through messages or just stay quiet and listen to her breathing. Two figures lying side by side on a dais, one holding the other’s hand.

The day after she had been admitted a doctor asked Diane how she was so calm and positive, despite having lost her mobility and despite the certainty of her approach to death. Diane said she knew that she was surrounded by love, that she was buoyed up by it. She said, “I am sustained by love”.

In her last night Diane slept through and I lay and listened to her breath. I held our peace as something precious and was reminded of Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and its central image of the two alabaster figures on the tomb, side by side as years flicker by like shadows, the funny little carved stone dogs sleeping at their feet – just as our dear son was sleeping bundled in a nest of cushions at my sister’s feet not many minutes away. And, as in the poem, one hand crossed the gap between the bodies to hold the other and mentally I erased Larkin’s world weary trail and held only to his tag-line. “What will survive of us is love”.

****

We heard of a friend’s father who, knowing himself close to the end of life, came to treasure a stone sent him as a talisman from far away. The stone had been picked up on  an arctic coast and carried for the feel of it’s smoothness. And now it was passed on, from hand to hand, and carried a step or two farther along the road. 

Diane treasured that story. Towards the end of life she developed a sort of echolalia where phrases would stick and turn in her mind and her mouth. ‘Hand to hand’ she’d say in wonderment, ‘hand to hand’.

Stones came to us unbidden. From Pembrokeshire in the west, a hard smooth stone inscribed with a golden labyrinth. From Orford Ness in the east, three rounded flints with a velvet touch and galaxies imprinted from their millennia of sleep. From Brighton, awkward knobbly beach pebbles with pleasing weight, shaped well for the grip. Each was turned over, examined, held and valued in wonder. Each tried for its form in the hand. And books came, and poems, and they too were also tried for their heft and fit.

As Diane’s physical world shrank down to the room she lay in and the people who came and went from it she grew a need to have her hand held. A favourite brother in law was the acknowledged master of hand holding; enough pressure, still but not too still, warm. Earthed by a hand held, Diane could sleep peacefully. Earthed and loved and held. Hand to hand.

****

A friend gave Diane a blanket. It became the presence of that friend and its touch reassurance of love not far away. It covered Diane as she lay in the recliner in the living room at home, it comforted her when she moved to the NHS bed upstairs. It wasn’t with her when two ambulance people carried her down the stairs, strapped into a carrying chair then lifted her into the ambulance. But I packed it in a bag with a toothbrush and a change of nightie and drove quickly enough to have the blanket ready for her in her new room at the hospice before Diane even got there.

The summer was as hot and dry as any we could remember. Out of the window and across the road the grass of the golf course parched and browned in the sun making new and tawny figures in the landscape. Two fans swirled the air in Diane’s room but her blanket was still on hand. Comforting, familiar in colour, pattern, weight and touch. With the blanket nearby her dear friend could not be distant.

Diane’s blanket is home again now. It’s folded on the back of the sofa. I’m not sure how I feel about the blanket without Diane. We have a formal relationship, we nod at each other. My plan is to light a fire in the dark outside, wrap the blanket around me and my boy until it is filled with again with warmth. We’ll see if we can feel all the love that’s been left inside it, and together we’ll fill it with more.

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#BrewEd101

I think we did a post like this before but I can’t find it so here’s the quickest guide to setting up and running a #BrewEd…

1) Are your values in line?

#BrewEd is about debate and about breaking down silos. It’s about listening to people younwouldnt usually hear from, whether that’s because they’re from a different sector of education or maybe because they have a different political or pedagogical philosophy. We look to be challenged. We don’t do sponsorship and we don’t do product placement. No one makes a profit. Rule of thumb: if there’s a goody bag on the seat it’s not in the spirit of #BrewEd as Ed and Daryn set it up all those years ago.

2) Find a decent place that will have you.

You’re probably looking for a back room or a function room, maybe with its own bar. You might prefer to run your event in a cafe instead – while the conviviality of the pub is part of the DNA of #BrewEd we do acknowledge that not everyone feels confident in a pub. There has been at least one alcohol free #BrewEd and it was very successful indeed. You don’t want to pay too much for your venue as that’ll bump your ticket sales way up. Will they do a deal so you can offer a drink on arrival? Make sure they can cater for your group – maybe people will order food on arrival if you ask, that makes th8ngs easier for a pub with a small kitchen.

3)When?

Up to you. So far they’ve been on a Saturday from about 10:30 to about 4:30. You can check if there’s already a #BrewEd running that day but, honestly, if you’re more than an hour’s travel from the next nearest event it won’t make much difference unless there’s someone very particular you hope will agree to speak. If you want to do one after work on a Wednesday go ahead – we’ll be interested to hear how it goes as a whole day on a weekend is genuinely a very big ask for a lot of people.

4) Contributors

Ideally we’d like people to be excited to come to a #BrewEd because they know it’ll be a fun and provoking day – not for the supposed twitter celebrity status of one or other of the contributors. We certainly want to ensure that every #BrewEd has voices from a range of sectors. If you’ve already secured two speakers from mainstream schooling why not approach someone who works in a PRU, or a special school. If you’ve got someone who teaches in an initial teacher training institution why not get an NQT to speak too. Remember it’s about breaking down silos and you’ll be ok. Yes, we want to be diverse but there’s a lot of ways to look at that – are we talking BAME diversity? Are we talking about gender balance? What about age? It may be impossible to cover all these bases but it certainly is possible to bear it in mind and it’s definitely possible to ensure a range of sectors/voices are represented.

5) What should they speak on?

Something they’re passionate about. Something that maybe isn’t clear cut. Something that will have a good chance of sparking a debate. Because we are hoping to attract a cross sector crowd, we are not looking for tips and tricks. Attendees aren’t looking to go home with a new teaching strategy they can try out in the classroom on Monday morning, much more they are looking for an idea which might challenge or change their professionalism long term.

6) How do you build in discussion?

A rough rule of thumb is that you want to leave as much time for debate as for presentation. So for each ‘slot’ I suggest half the time is presentation and half is discussion. This can work a few ways. If you give someone a half hour slot they could run that whole slot in a workshop style for half an hour – Jean-Louis Dutaut of Flip The System does this really well – another presenter might give a tight fifteen minute presentation then field comments and questions for the remainder of the slot. Often whoever is MCing the day can do a great job by running the discussion after a speaker has given their presentation. So long as you agree what model is going to work with each presenter before they speak any of these can work well. Other ways might work too – so if you’re organising with a team you could divvy up the discussion facilitation.

7) What does a typical programme look like?

There has been a range of programme models but one that has worked for me a few times now looks like this.

10:30 venue open to participants, welcome drinks available.

11:25 Brief welcome from organiser/organising team

11:30 to 1:00 Three half hour presentation/discussion slots

1:00 to 1:45 Lunch

1:45 to 2:30 Longer slot

2:30 to 3:15 Pub Quiz

3:15 to 4:00 Panel (usually everyone who has presented and is still there plus a couple of interesting people from the audience.

4:00 Rounding off, Thankyous, prizes if you’re into that sort of thing, the rucksack of shite.

8) Pub Quiz?

yes, pub quiz. It’s fun, it breaks down barriers, people bond over pursuit of a shared goal, people have to get together to make a team so they talk to people they might not have talked to, it makes it feel less like work…. all sorts of reasons. Don’t make it too hard, you want most teams to get most questions right.

You could have:

a picture round, a music round, a sequences round, a movie round, subject knowledge for the national curriculum, questions about your town or city, a fun physical challenge, crisp tasting… whatever you like.

9) What’s the rucksack of shite?

I’m afraid that @HYWEL_ROBERTS has that copyrighted. If you haven’t seen it you’ll never know.

10) Who do I need to tell?

Let Daryn know you’re running a #BrewEd so he can add your event to the master list. He might be able to help you out with a nice graphic for your event courtesy of our pal Stan Dupp but we can’t guarantee that.

11) How do I sell tickets?

We’ve used eventbrite in the past and it’s never been to much of a problem. Other ticket selling sites exist and may well be better. Charge enough to cover your costs which shouldn’t be much more than the venue hire plus the ‘free drink on entry’ usually this ends up being about a fiver a head. When  your tickets all ready to go tell Daryn and Ed and we’ll help tweet it out there. When there’s a bit of hype ahead of the launch tickets can sell out in minutes which is gratifying.

12) Any other questions just ask @MrEFinch or @darynSimon and we’ll do our best to help.

#SummerEngines

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It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

It’s hard to believe that it’s seventeen years since ‘Mortal Engines’, Philip Reeve’s epic, steampunk flavoured adventure first met its public. The book was a success straight away winning the Smarties Book Award and being nominated for the 2002 Whitbread award. For many of us the book has become a real ‘touchstone text’. Some of us remember eagerly lapping up each instalment of the quartet – and then the three prequels – as they came out, others treasure memories of reading the stories to our children at bedtime.

This month sees publication of ‘Night Flights’ a set of stories that flesh out the back story of Anna Fang – a key character in the series. Later this year we will finally get to see the film adaptation that Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings team have been working on – the footage released so far makes it look absolutely epic. I for one just cannot wait to see Reeve’s world brought to life on screen.

All of this makes the summer of 2018 a brilliant time to be reading ‘Mortal Engines’ together as a twitter reading group. Whether you have read the entire series over and over, or have resisted the temptation to get sucked into the world of Municipal Darwinism, you are welcome to join us through a month of chat, laughs, sketching, modelling and celebration as we travel with Tom and Hester on their journeys through London and beyond.

When is #SummerEngines happening?

Formally we’ll be convening from Saturday 28th July to Saturday 25th August, there’s nothing wrong with joining in and using the hashtag in the build up however and I wouldn’t be surprised if the conversation rumbles on for a while afterwards too.

Do I have to have read the books already?

No. We’ll assume that you haven’t read it yet and we’ll try not to spoiler the plot or characters for you. The book has roughly 300 pages so for the first week we’ll chat quite generally, in the second week we’ll assume you’ve read at least the first 100 pages or so (up to the end of Chapter 12), in the third week we’ll assume you’ve read about the first 200 pages (to the end of Chapter 22) and after that we’ll assume you’ve read to the end of the book. We won’t set a daily reading challenge, experience tells me most people don’t read that way. If you’re at all like me you’ll probably find that once you start the book you won’t want to put it down till it’s done.

Am I supposed to be involved every day?

Of course not, quite apart from anything I expect lots of people will be having holidays over the time #SummerEngines is running and it would be fairly tragic if you spent the whole time tapping at your phone chatting to strangers about a children’s book. Unless you really want to. Most people will drop in and drop out as the month goes on. That’s fine. Just don’t leave me all by myself ok?

What sorts of things will we do?

Every day I will tweet a thought, question, challenge, provocation or non sequitur. What you do with these is entirely up to you. I hope to have threads of discussion, threads of memories, threads that ramble way off the subject, sketches, Lego models, songs – whatever you can bring to the party is ok with me.

Does Philip Reeve know about this.

He does indeed and he seems maybe flattered and possibly a bit nonplussed by the whole thing. We won’t ‘@ him in’ as he’s got rather a lot on and we will maybe be a bit puppyish and tedious but I suspect he might drop in from time to time. Philip has offered to partipate in a twitter chat late in August. Presuming we find a time that suits to make this happen we’ll focus the chat on the character of Anna Fang as she’s been in Philip’s head recently due to the publication of ‘Flight Nights’ which explores her back story. If you enjoy Mortal Engines you might enjoy reading ‘Night Flights’ ahead of the chat. We’ll confirm a date and time for that a little closer to the time.

How do I get involved? 

If you’ve read this far you’re already involved! To stay involved follow @MrEFinch on twitter, check out the #SummerEngines and #MortalReaders hashtags to see who else is getting involved (why not give them a follow too?) and maybe get hold of the book if you don’t have it already. No one will judge if you start reading before the starting gun fires!