Monday, March 27, 2006

Teaching as performance

Teaching is a bit like acting. Outside the classroom door, you put on a metaphorical teacher's hat and are changed into a slightly different person. One who knows all the answers! - which isn't necessarily the case in real life... .

So I become a slightly exaggerated version of myself. I become more enthusiastic, more confident, more lively - probably more eccentric. I repeat things a lot. I talk slowly. I talk fast. I wave my arms around. I hold the floor. (I hardly ever do that in the outside world.) That's why people remember their teachers as being a bit mad. They're just trying to be memorable - so that their students learn. At its most basic, they're trying to keep their students awake.

I often think that in some ways, actors have it easy. No one expects an actor to hand out all the programmes, to make up the words for the show - different every time - to perform for six or eight hours with not much break, to gather in audience responses and then to mark these responses in the evening.

I say this - but I would actually hate to be an actor. Why does anyone do it? Imagine having to audition for every new class you take. And dress up in funny clothes. And have potentially nasty comments published in the newspaper about your classes by people who've never taught, but simply watched other people teaching and think they knew all about it. Goodness, how stressful that would be.

(Talking of dressing up - I took the £60 handbag back to the shop. It was very pretty but a waste of money, since I'd hardly ever use it. I'll carry the £5 one at Daughter 1's wedding. Scottish meanness? - nonsense. Just thrift.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sparkling repartee at a ball

My son, aged 21, is a goodnatured, gentlemanly lad, who is extremely devoted to his girlfriend, a sweet, ladylike girl.

[Scene: last night, medical students' mid-year ball]

Inebriated chap: [exact words not reported, but uncouth chat-up lines directed to Son's Girlfriend]

[Son inserts himself protectively between Girlfriend and Inebriated Chap.]

Inebriated chap: I like that girl.

Son [politely] : I like her too.

Inebriated chap : I don't like you, though.

Son [firmly] : Well, I don't like you much either.

[Son and Girlfriend retreat rapidly, but with dignity, to distant part of room.]

Given time, he might have thought of something wittier, but it seemed to work well enough.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Stout lady jumps up and down with excitement

Wow! What fun! I've just been doing a little blog-browsing and found that my (and so many people's) favourite bloggers have taken notice of me! Granted, I forced myself on their attention by commenting on their very funny blogs; but Zara of Yo Heave Ho has linked to me and Shauna of The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl and What's New, Pussycat? has commented kindly. These are probably the most exciting things that have happened to me since I last gave birth - the baby son is now 21. I would put a list of these splendid people - and of various others that I enjoy reading - at the side of my page if I knew how. Daughter 1 knows how, but she's busy with Future Son-in-Law, making the orders of service for their wedding. So I'll content myself with little thrilled squeaks. Can you hear them?

Daughter 1 has just wandered in and made the links above for me. What a helpful person.

I've been very frustrated for the last few days because Blogger wouldn't accept my password when I was trying to comment on a few other blogs. I think it may have cured itself now - or some kind person in Bloggerville may have responded to my plaintive email.

Daughter 2, who is at university in England, sent me an email today entitled "Homesick". She's tired of being away and wants the term to end (though she's fine really). I miss her so much! We all do. It's really so terrible when one's children grow up and leave - not that it's happened to us all that much (only intermittently and, so far, not permanently). And of course it would be pathetic if they stayed with their mum and dad for ever. But oh dear! I think there should be a law that grown-up children should live no more than one mile from their parents.

Clingy? Me?

Saturday, March 18, 2006


I've just been looking briefly at the Commonwealth Games marathon, which is being run in Melbourne. It's strange, seeing what appears to be (but can't be) full summer there, when here, the trees are leafless, the early spring bulbs are in flower and the herbaceous plants are just beginning to sprout. It must be coming on to autumn in Australia (and my dopey brain keeps thinking things like: so it'll be October there. No, I do know it isn't).

Melbourne looks lovely- lots of tree-lined roads. Edinburgh is lovely too, for a city. In fact, some parts of it are really stunning. But we don't have many tree-lined roads, not in the centre of town, anyway. Princes Street, of course - the main shopping street - is built up on only one side; the other side is garden, with lots of trees and with the Castle rising above it on a huge volcanic rock.

I worked in the garden today for only the second time this year, which was wonderful, even though I was just tidying up, not planting anything. There were lots of dead leaves to rake up and some of last year's herbaceous plants to cut down. It's an annual mystery that I rake up all the autumn leaves in October, but by this time of year there are lots more. They look rather horrible but on the other hand, they keep the weeds down. I put the leaves into plastic bags and stand them in by the compost heap to rot down into leaf mould. Then after eighteen months, they can be put back on the beds to condition the soil.

It would be much more convenient, I always think, if leaves would just rot down where they lay over the winter. It would save all that raking and heaving of sacks full of dead leaves. It's just one of the many things in the world that could do with a little tinkering with, such as the less convenient aspects of the female reproductive system. And chocolate: why does it have to be fattening? After all, it's a fruit, isn't it? (Or so my son claims. And he's a medical student, so he must be right.)

Still, I suppose all that garden exercise must have burnt some calories.

And I love my garden so much! After the long, dark winter, it's fantastic to get out into the fresh air and to see little shoots stretching up from the earth, promising flowers in the months to come. Everything looks much tidier now; there's lots more to do but the garden's beginning to be a pleasure to look at, and from now on , it'll just get better and better. I'm so glad it's spring.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

My last word on bags

I was telling my book group about this bag search. One of them asked what make the £60 one was. I had no idea. She picked up her own bag and waved it at me. "I like nice bags," she said. I looked. Hers had a little leather tag on it in the shape of a Scottie dog.

"Oh, my £60 one has a tag like that," I said.

"Ah," she said, "a Radley!" I could tell that they all approved. It's not often that I impress people with my brand of accessories. Marks and Spencer doesn't do it for most of my smart friends.

One of the book group is particularly dressy. Some months ago - long before I'd given any thought at all to my clothes for Daughter 1's nuptials - she said to me, as we all sat round the table discussing the current book, "Are you going to wear a hat to the wedding?"

"I doubt it," I said - not feeling I was that sort of person.

"Well," she said, "you either have to wear a hat or dye your hair."

Hmm. Or stick a bag over my head, I suppose. Yes, my hair is beginning to grey a bit at the front, and no, I don't dye it. Too much like hard work to keep it looking convincing.

When I mentioned the £5 bag on Saturday, I enjoyed the look of horror on her face at the thought of my appearing in public with such a cut price item.

Daughter 1 suggests that I remove the dog label from the £60 bag, attach it to the £5 one and see if the dressy friend admires it.

Shocking idea.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Trailing round the shops

For the last three Saturdays, I've been shopping for my mother-of-the-bride outfit. I've been dreading this, and postponing it until I actually lost all the weight that I was obviously going to shed before Daughter 1's wedding. However, eventually I had to admit that time was running out.

Friends had advised me that the place to go for m-o-b outfits was a particular shop in a small town north of here which specialises in such things, so my husband decently agreed to drive me and my mother up there. I don't like driving on motorways. I had convinced myself that this shop was going to feature rows of neat suits appropriate for matronly ladies, and that all I had to do was to choose one with its matching blouse and hat and then head back to Edinburgh, stick it in the wardrobe and forget about it.

Did this happen? Not exactly.

We found the shop and it did indeed specialise in m-o-b outfits. Outfits suitable for tall, slim ladies who really aspire to stand out from the crowd in sleeveless, silk, sequinned, beaded gowns, matching coats and hats the size of cartwheels. Think Charles and Camilla's wedding. And then think fancier. Also think £700 for the outfit and another £200 for the hat.

I was traumatised. I felt a fool, totally unworthy to be there. I slunk out of the shop - "No thank you; we were just looking" - my mum behind me. My husband was waiting in the car along the street and had just settled down to do the crossword when he got the phone call to say that it was all over. We went and had coffee. Then, on the way back to the car, we passed another, much less fancy shop. We went in and there was a suit that fitted me. It wasn't all that wonderful, and it cost much more than I would ever normally spend on clothes on one day, but it was vaguely weddingy and my mum liked it so I bought it. Turquoise.

Anyway, that was the suit, but I still needed a blouse, which took all of last Saturday in Edinburgh. But I got one - cream with turquoise and pink flowers (quite faint ones). Then my mother got me persuaded that I needed light-coloured shoes, and since the mother-of-the-bridegroom (who is a really lovely person but is also slim and elegant) is going to be wearing a hat, I supposed I needed one of those, too. So that was yesterday: hat, shoes and matching bag.

The shoes were surprisingly easy: John Lewis, the first pair I tried on. Cream. £35. The hat - the smallest that Edinburgh could offer without being on of those "fascinator" things (half a budgie attached to a comb and a bit of net that you pinion to the side of your head) - I got in Accessorise. Cream. £25. But the bag. Even I, not a smart person, can see that if you have cream shoes you need a bag the same colour. And Edinburgh contains dozens of cream bags, all subtly different shades.

The last shop I went into was Debenhams. By this time I was thinking: a) I really really want to go home and b) I'm getting inexpensive accessories - good. And there was a bag of just the right shade of cream. It was even rather nice: a few little dots of coloured leather to fancy up the creamness. That'll do, I thought. Then I looked at the price. £60!!

But recklessly I bought it anyway. It was late and I still hadn't finished reading the book for the book group that evening. Then on my way out of the shop I saw another bag, almost as good a match for the shoes. £5. (How can a shop make a profit on selling a bag for £5? What does the maker get paid?) I bought it, too.

Which one should I keep?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Slaters and pinkies

Well, it's officially spring - in our household, anyway. Outside, the skies have been grey all day, the pavements are dotted with puddles and there's been a fine rain misting down. But inside - the first slater of spring.

Slater is the Scottish name for what English people call a woodlouse. I have a feeling that Americans may call them pillbugs, though possibly these are quite different beasties. I imagine that the American ones, if they are at all similar, are appropriately bigger. (Scotland is just a little country.) And Australian ones are doubtless the size of one's palm, if rumours about their spiders have any truth in them.

Our slaters are about as big as the nail on my little finger - or my pinkie, as we Scots tend to call the smallest finger. Slaters have lots of little legs and look like a tiny version of something you'd find fossilised on a coastal path. When you pick them up, they roll themselves up from head to toe - not that they have discernible heads or toes.

This one was on the bathroom floor this morning. I quite often meet one in the bathroom. Don't get alarmed: I don't mean several times a day. One doesn't have to kick piles of them aside to reach the bath. But once a week or so, in the summer time, I scoop one up and put it out of the window. Possibly it then sits on the windowsill till I've gone and then clambers back through the window, which is ususally slightly open.

I have a horrid feeling, though, that there may just be a few that live behind the bath panel. There's a tiny space at the bottom, just big enough for a small chap to squeeze underneath at the first sign of spring.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Ignorance of toads

The other day I was reading Norman MacCaig's poem "Toad" with a class of 16/17 year olds - not very academic young people, but perfectly normal ones. The poem is about a toad, as you might expect. And when I'd gone over it and explained it a bit, one of them said, "What's a toad?"

I've been teaching for several hundred years now - or that's what it feels like - and every now and then something like this happens. I've explained everything that I think could possibly be obscure about a text and then someone asks a question like this and I realise that I'm making unwarranted assumptions about their general knowledge. The awful thing is that - presumably - students fairly often have such gaps in their understanding, but I don't usually find out.

On this occasion I said to the rest of the class, "Who knows what a toad is?" and another student asked, "Is it a kind of lizard?"

I know you don't get that many toads walking along the city streets, but - well, hmmm.

Norman MacCaig is my favourite poet . He lived from 1910-1996, in Edinburgh, but spent a lot of his holidays in a cottage in the Highlands, where I imagine he met the toad. I got three comments today - how exciting! - and just in case anyone should be reading this who doesn't know his work, here is "Toad":


Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
full of satisfaction, in a man's house?

You clamber towards me on your four corners -
right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.

I love you for being a toad,
for crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
and for not being frightened.

I put you in my purse hand, not shutting it,
and set you down outside directly under
every star.

A jewel in your head? Toad,
you've put one in mine,
a tiny radiance in a dark place.

Norman MacCaig

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blogs as social history?

I wonder whether blogs will one day provide a huge source for social historians: millions of modern-day Peypses giving news of their everyday lives and spilling out the secrets of their souls. Or do blogs die if unattended, like potted plants? Is anyone collecting them and preserving them? People write emails rather than letters now, don't they? I wonder if there will be fewer published collections of letters in the future because all those emails have vanished.

I have no idea whether many more people write blogs than used to write diaries, but I'd have thought so. As a teacher who tries to get students to write, I find it interesting that so many people clearly enjoy writing. I suppose, too, that it's the two-way nature of blogging and commenting that's so appealing. No one can have too many friends.

My son has just come in. "I did 100 sit-ups and 100 press-ups today," he announced.

Ah. I didn't.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


In our college, the back walls of the lifts are mirrors. It's very noticeable that when the middle-aged staff members enter, they usually avert their eyes from the mirror, while the students often check their reflections, smooth their hair, look complacently at their lovely young faces.

And why not? Admire yourselves before the wrinkles come, kids. Enjoy it.

Of course, that's the slim ones. The fat ones ignore their reflections, hoping, I imagine, that if they can't see how fat they are, then they possibly aren't really. How well I understand that philosophy.

It's been a stressful day. I'm having to count my blessings a bit; and they are indeed manifold: wonderful children (why don't we have a word for grown-up offspring?) and a nice, kind husband to whom I've been married for 32 years. And it's nearly spring. Crocuses, snowdrops, Christmas roses are blooming and daffodils aren't going to be long. There's always something to look forward to in the garden.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Skeleton envy

Skeletons - see how thin their legs are? Who could imagine that beneath my chunky thighs lurked those stick-like bones? And the pelvis - are my hips really like that, underneath? Ah, you skinny people that I see around me every day - one day I, too, will be as thin as you. Dead, granted. But oh, how satisfyingly bony.

I fear I'll never join a gym. Too old. Too fat. Too busy. Too shy.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Blogging for the curious

Although I'm a new blogger, I've been reading other people's blogs for a year and a bit. I found the first one through browsing Friends Reunited. Someone I was at school with said in her FR message that she had a blog, and gave a link to it. So, being a deeply inquisitive person - or what I like to think of someone very interested in people - I naturally read it. Then I clicked on the "Next Blog" bit at the top of the page, and landed on Paulz Blog.

Paul is an 82-year-old chap living in California, and I was immediately taken with his off-beat sense of humour. I didn't know how to comment - I'm not very technological, hence the necessity for Daughter 1 to hover nearby to help me set this blog up. But he had an email address, so I wrote to him. And he replied, and I replied, and now we have a frequent correspondence which we both enjoy. We did both wonder for a while if the other were a 19-year-old after our money (not that I have any money) but have long decided that neither of us is.

And then I became quite a frequent blog-reader, but still lurking rather than commenting because I didn't know what all this URL business meant. Being a teacher, I'd naturally rather do anything than get on with my marking; messing around on the computer is much more fun.

One day I wondered if there were any bloggers of around my age and of my occupation, so idly Googled "Middle-aged English teacher". Result! I eagerly read it. It said something like, "That last sentence sounded like something a middle-aged English teacher would write. I'd rather stab myself in the foot and bleed to death than make that mistake again." Not quite what I was looking for; but I read the rest. Yelen is a 19-year-old law student in Singapore and she writes like a dream. She's funny and very frank in her online journal and again I wrote to her, being too thick to know how to comment. I thought it would amuse her to know how I found her. And it did. And we now correspond from time to time.

And it's so interesting! I would never have known Paul or Yelen - our lives would never have crossed in any way if it hadn't been for blogs. I've learned lots about America and about Singapore and what 82- and 19-year-olds in those places might think. I'll get Daughter 1 to add links to their blogs sometime soon, in case anyone ever stumbles across this.

I would like to point out that I do have some actual friends too... .

Meanwhile I must go and do some marking.


Today I had to go up town shopping for a blouse to go with the suit I'm wearing to Daughter 1's wedding in - help - five weeks today.

I live in Edinburgh, which is a medium-sized city with most of its shops within a mile or two of each other. Having gone into them all today, I can report that there are approximately four thousand blouses in town, that I've at least glanced at all of them and that I've bought three, to see which one looks least awful. I shall take two of them back. Not sure which two yet.

Sometimes in my life I muse on the fat person's version of the "Fiddler on the Roof" song, "If I were a rich man". You know: "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a..." slim person? But then one has to get things in proportion, I know that. One of my students is a very nice 18-year-old with cerebral palsy. He walks with difficulty, using sticks, slowly. Which is bad enough, but he has terrible acne, too. And I was looking down at another student in a wheelchair the other day and noticed that she had bad dandruff.

Enough of this philosophising into the void. It's 1.28 am and I'm not convinced that I remember how to publish this. Daughter 1 did all the technical stuff for me yesterday. Here goes.

Friday, March 03, 2006


In this life, we get no credit for what we are about to do - as I used to say to my children.

Indeed, I still do say it occasionally, though they're all in their twenties now and have achieved quite a lot. I only have to get as far as "In this life..." and they know what's coming, though they also know that I love them more than life itself and think they're wonderful. My little saying applies to me just as much as anyone else, of course, and at my age - 55 - it's about time that I did whatever it is that I really want to.

And one of those things is writing, even if no one ever reads this. I've kept a diary for forty years, so this is just a little extra journal.

So - here I go...