Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lucy in the sky...

I've had to mark 80 essays since last Wednesday, annotating them in detail to show all the numerous errors in punctuation, spelling and expression so that the students can redraft them. My brain is somewhat frazzled.

I'm not alone in this, mind you. Below is what one student produced in the two-hour slot available to write this piece. He knew he was going to have to write the essay, knew the criteria and was supposed to have thought about it. It's not exactly a long essay, is it? But it does have a certain individual - um - tone.

Our streets are flooded with drugs, we are told. If this is true then society basks on the riverbanks of self-righteousness and misinformation scares those who would benefit from taking a swim. It seems so long ago that my veil was lifted and I married “the high” and began exploring a galaxy of experiences that society would rather I never had the opportunity to have. The majority of my relationship has been forced full of wonderful feelings and paradigm shifting relationships, love, laughter and happiness. But every relationship has its downs. Mine was the day I stumbled across MDPV.

Fairly conclusive proof, I feel, that mind-altering substances do indeed stir the neurons about a bit. Interestingly, maybe. But not necessarily in a way conducive to academic endeavour.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Waving to Alice Thomas Ellis

One of the sad and yet wonderful things about life (I find) is that words last longer than we do. I read a lot of published letters and diaries, and often I want to write to the person and say, Yes! I know exactly how you feel! - or, I did enjoy that! - and I can't because they're long dead.

When we were on holiday, I was in an antiquey/junk shop and found "Home Life Four", an anthology of "Spectator" articles by Alice Thomas Ellis. I was immediately charmed by them and Mr Life kindly Amazoned for me and acquired the other three in the series. They're more or less early blog posts, but from before the invention of blogging, and they detail the various events and non-events of her household. They're often funny, sometimes sad - she had five sons and two daughters, but one daughter died soon after birth and one son was killed at the age of nineteen when he fell through a roof .

Anyway, she died in 2005 so I can't write her that letter, but I thought you might like an extract from one of her articles. This is for my crafty-bloggy friends - I myself don't do much sewing but I do understand how twenty years can whizz by while one's meaning to get round to something.

I have just resurrected a piece of embroidery Рwell, appliqu̩ mainly Рwhich I began about twenty years ago. It represents Persephone and Pluto and is crammed with mythical characters.

Now I’ve forgotten who most of them are. The distraught-appearing piece of pink cotton in the middle distance must, I think, be Demeter searching for her daughter (I do know the feeling: the school hols find me constantly on the phone tracking my own one down) but I haven’t yet given her a head or hands. The three ladies in black on the right are almost certainly the Furies because one of them has got hair made of bootlaces (adders?). And who are the three ladies on the left wearing white and all so far bald?

I obviously chickened out of putting Cerberus in my picture. According to some versions he had three heads but according to others he had a hundred. Even three is too many for me and anyway I don’t think I’ve left room for him.

There are three streams of Lethe emerging from under the throne, which suddenly causes me to see this piece of furniture as a commode. These streams would be quite easy to unpick, so if I pulled myself together I could replace them with a horrendous three-headed dog. Maybe I could make him out of fake fur or would it look too poodly? I see Cerberus really as one of those sleek-coated, short-tempered hounds who tear you limb from limb before you can say “Good boy”. Velvet, I think. Black. Where am I to find a piece of black velvet without cutting up my good skirt?

There’s a nice little Doric temple made of white satin, but I’m not altogether satisfied with the clouds of pale grey tweed. I think I may replace them with a bit of foam from a shoulder pad. I have got less purist with the course of time. If I do start doing all this fine stitching again I shall have to cut my fingernails. I could paint the clippings white and use them for Cerberus’s teeth.

First I shall have to consult Someone
[her husband] about the ins and outs of the legend and then I’ll have to ask if I can have most of his old ties to cut up and create fields of asphodel. I’ll probably lose the sight of my eyes with all this fiddly work but it would be satisfying to finish it. Twenty years is a long time to leave unfinished business.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thank you, bloggy friends

Thank you so much for your kind responses to my pathetic demand for sympathy. They did make me feel better, though if you could please round up our offspring, tie them hand and foot and deliver them home, this would be very nice too. Actually, Daughter 2’s flatmate is away so she’s back with us for a week and we’ve been having lots of her company. Which is wonderful but – how perverse am I? – the trouble with seeing them a lot is that it reminds me of how lovely they are and how much I’ll miss them once I’m not seeing them so much again.

In the case of Daughter 2, London looms because that's where her actor chap is based.

As for those of the kind commenters whose children are in a completely different country or hundreds of miles away in another state – I just don’t know how you do it. Or, I do. You get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other. What choice is there? In fact we see Daughter 1 for a large chunk of most Sundays, Daughter 2 for a larger chunk – she usually stays Sunday night and often comes down during the week too – and Son every few weeks. So I shouldn’t grumble. But I do, as you may have spotted.

Anyway, let’s look on the bright side, like a lady at the bus stop the other day. “I’m glad,” she said pensively to her friend, “that we cremated her before burying her. It means that when it rains I don’t worry about her getting wet.”

I do actually know what she meant.

Monday, September 20, 2010


This is an Edinburgh holiday and I'm sitting in a cold study making up schedules of work. If I finish this any time soon I shall go into the slightly warmer kitchen and do lots of marking and make up some lessons.

Outside, the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming, approximately as above. I would rather be there. Or almost anywhere.

I am feeling very sorry for myself, not only because of the above but because various things are a bit rubbish at the moment, mainly connected with missing our children and wishing they would all come and live the rest of their lives next door to us. Which isn't looking likely.

I know lots of people have vastly worse lives than I do and that I have no real justification for feeling particularly sad, but I do. So if you can be bothered, I'd like some sympathy.

Thank you.

Back to work.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hard work

My my, teaching is hard work. But it can be fun. And one of the things that you learn early on is that there are many different kinds of intelligence. Knowing how to use a colon doesn't necessarily rank high up the list, though it's a handy skill from time to time.

This year I have a class of adults who, for one reason or other, slid through school managing not to attend very much. The other day I asked them to do a bit of writing. They were mainly rather anxious about this but gamely settled down to it. Some of them decided to use one of the college laptops, others pens. The laptops aren't in their first flush of youth and can be a bit slow to load up.

One of the students sighed in frustration: "This computer's taking ages to get going."

A large, tattooed young man with his legs crammed under an adjacent desk gazed sorrowfully at the few words he'd so far written on a piece of paper. "This pen," he muttered, "isn't awful fast either."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gardens and guinea pigs

On Sunday, very unusually, we were childless: Daughter 1 on holiday in Northumberland with her husband and his parents; Daughter 2 in Nottingham with her fiance visiting his parents; and Son in Perth, where he currently works. So Mr Life and I took my mum to visit a garden open under the Scotland's Gardens scheme, where ordinary householders open their gardens to visitors to raise money for charity. Here are Mr Life and Mum having a bit of a seat in the sun.

The garden, while not big, was packed with plants which were kept well under control, unlike in my garden where the thugs are currently smothering the more genteel plants. I need to dig things up and thin them out, but this is going to have to be a retirement job.


Lots of island beds. Clearly someone has lots of time to mow round them.

As I said, Daughter 1 and her husband are away on holiday this week and we have the alarmingly responsible task of caring for their three guinea pigs, Cupcake, Brownie and Pumpkin. Some bloggy friends may recollect that these furry little ladies are deeply beloved by their owners and that, when Brownie and Pumpkin got ill, much expense was lavished on saving their lives. Since then, their health and well-being has been a constant concern. So we’ll be relieved when we can hand them over, still alive and trotting about, on Saturday.

They have their own bedroom at Daughter 1 Towers and now at Life Castle. Their run is a palatial 4 x 6 feet and they have a cunning arrangement whereby instead of sawdust, their run is lined with a fleece on top of a thick layer of newspaper. The fleece acts as a wick for their pee and stays remarkably dry, while the dampness is soaked up by the paper. Because the run is so large, the proportion of pee to paper is small so that, amazingly, the room isn’t smelly and we have to change the fleece only every four days.

What we do have to do, morning and afternoon, is vacuum up the poo. Yes, you did read that correctly. They have a hand-held little vacuum cleaner which sucks up the little pellety poos amazingly efficiently. The guinea pigs aren’t particularly keen on our doing this but they do exhibit more fortitude than Sirius and Cassie, who vanish behind the sofa at the mere sight of our big vacuum.

Apart from supplying them with food and water, we also have to give them vitamin pastilles and cranberry juice with probiotic powder in it. Yes, this is a 5-star guineapiggery. According to our son-in-law, you put the one-sixth of a pastille on your finger and the pig will rush across the run to devour it. Well, sort of. I don’t think they trust us quite as much as they do their doting owners, so we have to get near enough for them to smell the pastille, whereupon they do consent to eat it, first having an experimental nibble of the outstretched finger. This may be easy enough for a 6’2” chap with long arms, but a 5’3” (at a stretch) woman can’t reach across the run (it’s 4’ by 6’, remember) so has to get into it and chase. (It’s all right, though, SIL. They seem to enjoy the pursuit.)

Then there’s the cranberry juice with probiotic powder. You mix this and then give them two syringefuls each. “They’ll run over and take the syringe in their mouths,” said SIL. Well, again, this is an approximate description of what happens. On my first try, I stretched as far as possible into the run, waggled it temptingly and one pig eventually came and had a suck. Then she took it firmly between her teeth and backed resolutely away.I gently scooshed cranberry juice while attempting to hold on to the retreating syringe and not to fall face-first into the run. Then, triumphantly, she pulled really hard, whereupon the syringe came to bits and the remaining juice spilled out. At which point I kicked over the supply glass of juice which I’d foolishly put on the carpet.

Revised method: what you do – should you ever need to – is to pick a pig up, tuck her firmly under your arm, and hold on till the juice is administered. And make sure you’ve put the supply glass on the dressing table out of way of flailing legs (yours). Or better still, get Mr Life to do it. His hands are bigger.

They also like treats such as cucumber.

Ah well, they’re very cute, THEY’RE FINE, son-in-law and we’re getting more expert every day.

You can't see them, can you, because they're HIDING? Well, I admit I took the roof off their little house for the photo. Must be cosy in there.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Birthday time

It’s the end of birthday season in our house and this is a self-indulgent little post to remind me of the last two. Starting with Mr Life in May, the five of us have a birthday each month till September. Son's and Daughter 1's were at the end of August and last Thursday. One’s children’s birthdays always make one remember their births and the joy that these brought – happy memories and yet rather sad ones as one thinks of the soft little faces and chubby limbs and the central part one had in their lives. It’s good that they’re all grown up and independent. And yet it was lovely when they came home for tea every day and we could tuck them in at night.

Still, they do come home - we see the girls at least once a week and the boy some weekends. Above and below, Son and his lady friend with his (apple sauce) cake.

Here they are smiling at Sirius, whose ears are just visible behind the plates.

Daughter 1 knits in the sunshine as the cake is cut.

Sirius has been captured. He's always a co-operative chap. As is Son.

Daughter 2 communing with her little brother.

The next birthday: Daughter 1. More cake. Plum.

Still in love, four and a half years into marriage. Aah!

Son couldn't be with us, mid-week, but here he is on the phone to Daughter 2 as we all sing "Happy Birthday" to Daughter 1. I take a photo of Daughter 2: singing, listening and showing off the not-very-impressive engagement sort-of-cake that I produced on the same day to celebrate her engagement to A the Actor. Multi-tasking on both our parts.
Yesterday: Mr Life is at the kitchen table, fiddling with a lock that he's about to take up to my mother's to put on her door as a replacement for a faulty one. "Do you want a cup of coffee?" I enquire.
"Oo..." he says vaguely, concentrating on his lock. "Don't ask me complicated questions when I'm doing this."
I feel this is taking to an extreme the rumoured male inability to multi-task, but never mind.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ode to Autumn

It’s lovely September again, sunlit but poignant. Golden light bathes us by day and yet the sun has slipped down the sky: autumn and then winter lurk just round the corner, sickles at the ready. Those of us in our seventh decade (yes, look at that half-empty glass) are aware that if we’re still in the September of our lives, it’s the 30th. If not the 31st… or 32nd…

The poignancy is intensified for us teachers. Yes, I know we had six weeks of glorious holiday and you don’t really feel sorry for us. But six weeks is enough to slow down our pace of life. We do the whole crossword (well, with a bit of help from Mr Life). We sit in the sun while we drink our coffee. We see friends. And then – back to work. It’s like letting a prisoner out for the weekend and, just as he’s started to relax, clamping the chains round his ankles once more.

So here I am again, trying to attach 200 names to 200 faces in a couple of weeks (lots of Kimberlys, Kimberleys and Kymberlys this year).

Not that I’m exactly complaining. Work is work and one can’t reasonably expect to get paid simply for having fun. I’m lucky to enjoy my job well enough. But outside, September glows.

The tender plants which got such a shock when first left out on chilly May evenings have long ago toughened up and are swaggering now, exploding with colour and fizzing with blossoms. Begonias, busy Lizzies, fuchsias – the days are still long enough to encourage flowering. The plants don't suspect that slowly, slowly, the darkness is encroaching on the evenings and that one day in the not-too-distant future, frost will cut them down. Much like me.

I’m so tired! The first couple of weeks with of students pass in a whirl of smiling, photocopying, listening to problems, making up lessons, rushing to classes, fetching extra chairs to seat the extra students. I’m spending my evenings either making up schedules on my computer, or at my kitchen table, marking the same mistakes as I’ve been correcting every year since 1973. The youngest pupils I taught in my first year as a schoolteacher will now be forty-seven and they probably still get their apostrophes wrong.

Ah well, it’s the weekend. As long as I spend it most of it working, I might be ready when Monday morning rolls round again. And so the world keeps turning and, improbably to me, the cherry trees burst into bloom in Australia and New Zealand.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The perils of the glottal stop

On my walk home from work I pass Scotmid Funeral Directors, which got a new sign the other week. It was made of plastic-covered boards with letters sort of sunk into the surface and it was in several sections. They’d just put up the first section, which said SCOM. Three chaps were standing on the pavement looking at it and stroking their chins doubtfully.

I didn't have my camera with me and the next time I passed, it had been fixed, as above.

I imagine the signmakers were Sco'ish.

(I appreciate your kind and sensible words about our daughter and London but - no. It's 400 miles away. Not as good as 4 miles away, as she is now. Better than Australia (in distance, I mean - I'm sure Australia is a fine place). But - too far.)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Possession and loss

I thought our picture deserved a better photo and here it is. Thank you, Mr Life. The painter is Ian Parker. I love the way he's even painted a crack down the rim of the bowl.

My non-confused aunt and a friend have been dismantling the flat of my confused aunt, who's now in a care home. We took some of her things to put in her room, but it's felt awful to get rid of everything else. It's strange, is it not, how our stuff tends to last much longer than we do ourselves? The painting is with us only for the start of its life. We might have it for twenty or if we're lucky twenty-five years and then someone else will become its custodian.

Much the same can be said of children.

Daughter 2 will have to live in London if she wants to be with her actor chap. Which she does. And which we really, really, really regret. We know she loves us too, though, and we know that that's life. But it makes us very sad.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Well, it was interesting to read your responses to the £795 handbag. Of the eighteen responses, sixteen boggled along with me, one had expensive-bag leanings and one, Linda, saw beautiful bags as craft items which are well worth the money. And I do see her point of view. It’s just that bags do nothing for me personally. Nor shoes. Nor clothes. Though I do like cloth, its colours and patterns and textures, and artefacts made from cloth.

It’s made me think about what I’m happy to spend money on and of course I do have my extravagances. Holidays, for example. We don’t go on terribly expensive ones, but they do cost more than that handbag and yet we manage to justify them to ourselves. The garden… I don’t spend hundreds at a time, but over the years it’s not been a cheap hobby. Maybe handbags feed some people’s souls as my garden does mine. And I do like pretty objects – as I said in a recent post, our house is not without stuff. If someone made me spend £795 or more on an object (and if I had anywhere to put it) I might buy a craftsman-made chair or table, a piece of antique furniture or porcelain or glass or a picture.

Last year when we were in Devon – it’s confession time - we bought a very expensive painting. Above you see a really rubbish photo of it. I must get Mr Life to take a better one Anyway, I absolutely love it. As you would be able to see if I had a better camera or possibly knew better how to use it, you feel you can reach out and touch the bowl, eat the cherries. I know some people would see this as too photographic, but I much prefer this to the sloshy-slosh school of art.

This painting cost – well, not twice the handbag, but not far off. I justified its purchase by thinking of all the birthday money my parents have given me for years that I haven’t spent. But while this is true, no one could say that we needed this picture. I wanted it. Not the same thing. And there are people starving in the world as I am only too aware.

So there we are. I suspect that a lot of the people who were of my mind about bags may have their own extravagances. Material stashes, anyone? Cats or dogs with the food/injections/insurance/beds that go along with them? Cars? Flowers?

Just as I was about to publish this last night, Daughter 2 phoned to say that she and her actor chap have got engaged. We're glad she's happy but we wish he had a steady job.