Thursday 28 October 2010

Bye for now

We are moving house tomorrow and will be offline for a couple of days. It is all very scary now, too much to do and too little time, but at least I finally have a confirmation that I have a job to go to on Monday. Am going to be concentrating very hard on not getting tearful on my last day tomorrow, I have been in this office for nearly 8 years and am more fond than I care to admit of all those infuriating blokes.

It took me and M ten minutes to take all the magnetic poetry words off the fridge, but some bits have to be saved for posterity:-)

Sunday 24 October 2010


'My Name is Mina' by David Almond is a prequel to the much loved 'Skellig' published back in 1998. I remember being so excited to find a book that had a home educated character presented so positively and my children remain very fond of the story. As soon as I heard that he had written a story specifically about Mina I ordered it for M (and myself of course). I have not read all his books but have loved all the ones we have. David Almond is a brilliant writer and I like him particularly because he doesn't patronise children when he writes for them, nor does he moralise (like Jacqueline Wilson, who I really do not like), nor does he try to be funny. 'Skellig' is a wonderful magical realist story where Michael and Mina discover an angel in his garage. 'My Name is Mina' is the story of how Mina came to be home educated and the background to her slightly strange life, right up to the moment when she meets Michael.

This book is written in a diary form, with Mina describing how she spends her time (mostly up a tree), her relationship with her mum (both grieving the recent death of her father) and recalling the events leading up to her leaving school (the dreaded SATs day!) but also interspersed with 'Extraordinary Activities' and little poems and thoughts about words. Although the book is partly about home education, as an alternative approach to school, it is not preaching nor particularly taking sides. Mina paints a very unsympathetic picture of her time in school, she is obviously very bright and the teacher lacks any empathy with her unconventional learning style, and Mina is not prepared to compromise or jump through the hoops that are expected of her. Almond presents a very positive image of an autonomous, child-directed education that Mina's mum provides for her, giving her time alone to just think and absorb her experiences, and spending meaningful time together talking about things that interest both of them. He then puts the (boringly predictable) negative side into the mouth of the mum when she expresses concern about Mina not having any friends and maybe she will think about going back to school later.

I have to say that although I loved the book, and I hope people will read it and be provoked by the ideas, I was not totally convinced by the way it was written. I felt a little bit like he was trying too hard. It is a very difficult thing to do for a grown man to write as a little girl, even quite a precocious one, and I am not sure he pulled it off. Some of the time she came across much older than she is meant to be, not just precocious but more seriously reflective and mature than a girl of 12 could be. Then at other times I think he pitches it just perfectly. He has a scene where she tells the story of the day she runs away from school and goes down into a tunnel under the park, believing she is going down into the underworld to bring back her father, and it felt very real. A young child grieving might have all sorts of strange notions about their loss and what has happened to their lost parent, and the need to feel they can change things, and how vividly they can imagine something.

"Sometimes I think that Heston, the place where we live, is like ancient Greece, and that the Underworld is in the earth beneath us. I think of the King of the Underworld, Pluto, sitting on his throne deep down below. I think of his queen, the kind Persephone. Sometimes I think that I really did see something down there, something deep and ancient, and I wonder what would have happened if I'd kept on going, if I'd crossed the stream, if I'd walked towards the shadow in the shape of a man, if I'd said, 'My name is Mina McKee and I'm searching for my dad.' " (p.61)

I don't read much children's or young adult fiction any more so it was lovely to enter into this story, I am going to have to re-read Skellig now. I would highly recommend any of his books to anyone with kids 8+, definitely good for reading together as there are always ideas to discuss. Almond doesn't shy away from tackling challenging subjects, but without making you feel that the book is 'tackling a challenging subject', the story is the important part, the issues are secondary.

Uncommon Reader

Most of my books are now sealed in boxes but I left myself a select few to keep me company over the next week. I did end up at the library yesterday, 'One Day' by David Nicholls had finally arrived after a three month wait, plus 'Of Bees and Mist' by Erick Setiawan, so they may have to be returned by post.
'The Uncommon Reader' by Alan Bennett was a nice little treat. I recall reading 'The Lady in the Van' many years ago and so enjoying his wonderful observational skills. Where that one was a true story about a woman living in a van at the bottom of his driveway, 'The Uncommon Reader' is an imaginary tale who's central character is the queen. Pursuing the corgis one day she finds a mobile library visiting the back door of the palace and being habitually polite decides to take out a book. Over the next few weeks, following the advice of Norman, a young man from the kitchens who is the only other customer at the library, she begins to delve into the extensive pleasures of literature. Her new hobby begins to dominate her life, to the consternation of Sir Kevin, her private secretary. She takes less and less interest in her royal duties and engagements, secreting books in her handbag that are consumed ravenously at every available moment.
What is so lovely about this little book is the mixture of reality with fiction. The queen is such a public person, we know what she does, all her comings and goings, but we have no idea who she really is or what she really thinks about anything. Alan Bennett is taking literary licence here, creating a persona for her, and one that is totally believable, I found myself becoming quite fond of her, but also quite sorry for her, she seems to be quite lonely and isolated, insulated from people by her inescapable social position. You see both sides of her existence, the confined and quite rigorously controlled life of public duties, and the private side of life where everything is done for her, if something inconveniences her it is simply and efficiently dealt with by an almost invisible army of staff. You also get the politics, both within the royal household and the government, and her role within international relations. Her newfound passion for reading begins to have an impact on all these things, and on her attitude to her job, until she reaches quite a momentous decision.
An intriguing little book, well worth the reading, so short it could be a pleasantly spent afternoon.

Friday 22 October 2010


For that small minority of sensible people who own a Mac you can pop over to the Apple site and download FaceTime so you can talk online to your similarly sensible friends and family. Less sensible people can use Skype of course, but it's not quite the same.
So here are me and Tish having our first FaceTime chat this afternoon; that's little me in the corner looking askance at Dunk who is messing with the keyboard to take this screenshot of the momentous occasion. It was fun, kind of like a cross between a real face-to-face conversation and a phone call.
Now back to the packing.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The big ONE SIX

We had a very quiet 16th birthday for M on Monday, just the three of us eating a weird cake. I intended it to be like children's building blocks and build a little tower, unfortunately they kept falling over so had to stack them up. She had planned to stay up for 24 hours from her birth time of 5.07am, so we got up for pancakes very early, but then decided it was a bit silly so we went back to bed, I don't normally get up until after 6. We had pressies and cake when I got back from work. Today she says she doesn't want to be a grown up, it's too scary, when I threatened that she had to go to the bank by herself to pay a cheque in:-)

Sunday 17 October 2010


Am still worried about all the things that could go wrong between now and 1st November but we are on the verge of a relocation and a new chapter. Tish has flown the nest and now her lovely purple room has to go too. There were too many greasy blu-tac marks and I don't want to have to pay for someone else to come in after we are gone to cover up them up. I did the first coat in about three hours, then M and I have just done most of a second coat, til the paint ran out. It is definitely going to need three ... the down side of trying to cover such a dark colour. And then there's the huge red pentagram on the wall of the front bedroom, Lewis insisted on doing it, and now I'm wishing we had just bought a poster or something.
So, that's the second job nearly done, only 9,998 to go.

And Dunk, in his own inimitable style propped a camera in the doorway as we worked and produced this work of art entitled Painting Patterns

Friday 15 October 2010

Another day

I read about this book, The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind, on Jim Murdoch's blog a few weeks ago and I was intrigued, and for a change the library managed to find it for me pretty promptly. Now it is a really interesting parallel and contrast to 'One day in the life...' that I read and reviewed last week. This brief novella is also the story of a single day in the life of a man; his situation could not be more different from Ivan Denisovitch but in many ways his concerns are strikingly similar.

In a matter of a couple of pages the whole of his life is summed up bringing us up to the day of the pigeon incident. He lives out his existence in a rented room, 11 feet by 7, containing the barest essentials for life. He goes from there to work as a security guard at a bank, returning at night to a solitary routine of food, sleep and avoiding his fellow inhabitants. We get a detailed description of his room, including the books on his shelf. His attachment to his tiny personal space is evident in the care he lavishes on her (yes, the room strangely is allocated a gender), to the extent that he is scrimping to purchase the room from his landlady, to secure their lifelong bond.

"He had already paid forty-seven thousand new francs. The remaining eight thousand were due at the end of the year. And then she would finally be his and nothing in the world would ever be able to separate them - him, Jonathan, and his beloved room - one from the other, until death did them part." (p.7)

But his precisely controlled and uneventful life is upended one morning when he opens the door to go and use the communal toilet and finds a pigeon in the hallway. Now where Ivan Denisovitch was clever and adaptable, turning new situations and events to his advantage, Jonathan Noel is stopped in his tracks by anything out of the ordinary. It's as if the world has come to an end. It was slightly disconcerting because we had not learned enough about him to quite understand why he reacts so violently so you have to just go with the flow of his extreme panicked reaction to the event. So he packs some possessions and pretends to just go to work, with plans to live the remainder of his life in a cheap hotel until his savings run out.

The day goes from bad to worse. He used to bear the tedium of his role with a sphinx-like trance but today he cannot concentrate and his usual calm controlled demeanour is gone and he finds himself neglecting his responsibilities. After he fails to open the gate for the boss's limousine he has almost begun to give in to the collapse of his world:

"He had arrived at the lowest of the marble steps; he stepped up on to it and tried to stand to attention again. He noticed at once that he was not succeeding. His shoulders wouldn't go square any more, his arms dangled at his trouser seams. He knew what a ridiculous figure he made at that moment, and he could do nothing about it. In his despair he looked at the pavement, at the street, at the café opposite. The shimmering in the air had ceased. Things stood on the plumb again, the lines ran straight, the world lay clear before his eyes. He heard the noise of the traffic, the hiss of the bus doors, the shouts of the waiters from the café, the clattering of the women's high -heeled shoes. Neither his vision nor his hearing was in the least affected. But sweat was running in streams from his brow. He felt weak. He turned around, climbed the second step, climbed the third step, and took up position in the shade of the column beside the outer doors of bulletproof glass. He crossed his hands behind his back so that they touched the column. Then he let himself fall gently back, against his own hands and against the column, and leaned, for the first time in his thirty-year career of service. And for a few seconds he closed his eyes. He was so very ashamed of himself." (p37-8)

It is interesting how such a description can speak volumes about the person being described, "for the first time" tells you exactly what sort of man he is and how he has lived his life and just why he feels such extremes of despair.

At the end of the day he walks for hours and then takes himself off to a cheap hotel room even smaller (if possible) than the room he usually lives in. It is described as coffin-like, which is somewhat symbolic, as he has an experience akin to resurrection, and he gathers all his strength to risk a return to his room, and the dreaded pigeon in the corridor. I was left wondering if he life would ever be the same again, what the long term consequences might be of this 24 hour exile from everything that gave he life meaning and structure. In a way that is what was so good about this story, it left you with much to ponder. It is a story told without pretension. It also made me think about the fragility of existence and the whole thing could easily be read as an extended metaphor. Or maybe just a story about a pigeon.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Work Perk of the Week: My Colleagues

There are some days when I am driven mad by the men I work with and then there are others when I stand quietly at my frame and listen to them with a smile on my face. The last few days for some reason they have been having a nostalgia session. Most of them have been working at the office for many years, several well over 20, and most of them have lived in the area their entire lives. Simon followed his dad into the business and they used to work here together until Geoff retired a year or two after I came.

When I was first here I enjoyed the fact that they mostly forgot I was there and talked blokey stuff and it gave me a window on a whole different world I knew nothing about, it is so different from the way women talk to each other. Anyway this week they started on a conversation about people who'd come along and spent sometimes as little as a single day on the job before quitting. I think they like the idea that people look from the outside and think that this job is a bit like a walk in the park, and then they come along and find it is a lot harder than they anticipated. The stream of managers who have come and gone (four or five even in the relatively short time I have worked here) are a constant source of amusement, and especially Willy, who used to be a very strict and slightly autocratic Postmaster and who still lives locally. Then yesterday it moved on to stupid accidents; the time Lebby came back with the whole bumper in the back of the van, Geoff walking away from his van only to have it roll down the hill into someone's wall, and the first day Tim was allowed out by himself (after a mere four weeks of training!) and he hit the stone pillar of the gate on the way out, panicked and reversed into the old petrol pump.

Friday was the most disgusting day of incessant rain, the kind that makes you seriously reconsider your choice of career, and yet at the end of the day there is still always good humour in the office. And then yesterday one of the Daves called in sick. We have had a hard time recently with people off sick, lots of extra work for everyone else and I warned the manager that the duty might fail. But in the end, after a bit of moaning, they all pulled together and the whole duty was delivered. They know that their work is undervalued and mostly unacknowledged and yet they still take pride in it and I feel glad that I work with people like that.

(Photo from a lovely little local interest website with their own bit of Royal Mail history, Angmering's Post Offices and Postmen)

Banned Books Week

It is Banned Books Week this week, the purpose of which is to highlight the freedom to read what you want without restriction. It is based in the US and came about because of the number of books that are being 'challenged' and removed from use in schools and libraries all over America. I decided to read 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch' by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn which was banned in the Soviet Union in 1964 for it's portrayal of labour camps under Stalin's rule. I partly chose it as it is a stark contrast in environment and social class to 'War and Peace', which is set 150 years earlier and written about 100 years earlier, they both contains a strikingly similar attention to detail.

Where 'War and Peace' is a cumbersome 1400 pages, 'One day in the life' is a mere 143 and covers one single day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov who is serving a ten year sentence for unspecified crimes in one of Stalin's 'special' camps, where inmates endure the harshest of regimes; extreme cold, deprivation, hunger and hard labour. The writing draws you in right from the first page with the minute by minute exposition of his existence. Everything about the prisoners lives is designed to grind them down, to destroy their sense of humanity, and yet you get this spark of determination within Shukhov, to work the system, to get any little advantage he can to help keep himself alive. Firstly there is the complex system of rules governing their every waking moment; their movement about the camp, their food allocation, their access to privileges or allocation of punishment, and then there is the way the camp really functions, by bribery and corruption, with the 'teams' having a bond of loyalty that puts them at odds with each other as well as the guards. Although it is written third person you get right inside his head because it describes his decision making all the way through, how he weighs up each situation and tries to find the best outcome for himself. Sometimes this involves appearing to do favours for others, but these are contrived to ensure some comeback, which although not guaranteed, within the give and take of the life that the prisoners share the interdependence between them creates a system that, if you work with it, ensures mutual survival. The third person style however also gives a measure of distance from the situation, as if the reader is looking in, not forcing you to experience it first hand, because of course what these men go through it so extreme it is beyond the true comprehension of people outside. There are moments of real camaraderie where you feel that the men are bound together by their shared experience, but then in the end you know that they are all isolated inside their own heads, shutting themselves off to present an invulnerable front to the outside. The sense of injustice pervades the book; there have been no trials and sentences are arbitrary, and can be increased on a whim by some anonymous official. Their lack of contact with the outside world increases their collective and individual isolation. Their institutionalisation is so complete you wonder that anyone who experienced this could ever go back to a normal life.

I am going to quote from both books to highlight the contrast, firstly 'War and Peace':

"Entering the drawing room where the princesses spent most of their time, he greeted the ladies, two of whom were sitting at their embroidery frames, while the third read aloud from a book. It was the eldest - the one who had come out to Anna Mihalovna - who was reading: a neat, prim, long-waisted maiden lady. The two younger ones, both rosy-cheeked pretty little creates exactly alike except that one had a little mole on her lip which made her much prettier, were busy with embroidery. Pierre was received like a man risen from the dead or stricken with the plague. The eldest paused in her reading and stared at him in silence with eyes of dismay; the younger one without the mole assumed precisely the same expression; while the youngest - with the mole - who had a gay and lively disposition bent over her frame to hide a smile evoked, no doubt, by the amusing scene she saw coming. She drew her embroidery wool down through the canvas and lent over, pretending to study the pattern, scarcely able to suppress her laughter." (p.58-9)

Secondly from 'One day in the life', where Shukhov is observing a fellow prisoner eating his skilly (cabbage soup):

"Now Shukhov looked closely at the man. He held himself straight - the other zeks sat all hunched up - and looked as if he'd put something extra on the bench to sit on. There was nothing left to crop on his head: his hair had all dropped out long since - the result of high living, no doubt. His eyes didn't dart after everything going on in the mess hall. He kept them fixed in an unseeing gaze at some spot over Shukhov's head. His worn wooden spoon dipped rhythmically into the thin skilly, but instead of lowering his head to the bowl like everybody else, he raised the spoon high to his lips. He'd lost all his teeth and chewed his bread with iron gums. All life had drained out of his face, but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone. And by his hands, big and cracked and blackened, you could see that he'd had little opportunity of doing cushy jobs. But he wasn't going to give in, oh no! He wasn't going to put his three hundred grammes on the dirty bespattered table - he put it on a well-washed bit of rag." (p122-3)

This quote near the end of the book kind of summed it up for me, that the prisoners were powerless to prevent what was happening to them, that all that remained for them was to stay alive and preserve what little integrity was left to them. The book has this slightly strange upbeat ending, that Shukhov reaches the end of the day and sums it up thus:

"He'd had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent the team to the settlement; he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled a bit of hacksaw-blade through; he'd earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day." (p.142-3)

You are left with the feeling that for Solzhenitsyn, in spite of the terrible experience that he endured, he felt that the human spirit could survive.