Saturday, 31 May 2008

The Grit kiss of doom

We have had technological advancements here at the Pile. And I do not mean the delivery of a new laptop which is mine, and which is sitting right this moment on a table somewhere, while Dig says he is 'working on it'. This means I cannot use it until it has been 'passed over to me'. I am in anticipation of that process. Actually it will mean being taught things like how to turn it on and off.

Well the technological leap forward is not that. It is that today Dig installed a statcounter on this site.

Are you impressed? Are you impressed? Please be impressed, because this might be your only chance.

Grit, of course, is very impressed.There it is! she squeals. A little counter! Then she takes to poring over all the lovely statistics. Look! she cries! Someone just looked at my blog! Wow! It is me! That is exciting! If I look at my blog, then the little charts go up! Look, Dig, look!

After ten minutes of this, Grit has twenty hits on her blog. Eighteen are Grit, one is Dig during testing, and someone has wandered in from Bath. At this last revelation, Grit is beside herself with joy. Even though the visitor from Bath quickly exits after spending 0 seconds perusing Grit's day blogspot. She is almost ready to jump into the car, drive to Bath and go and hunt down that fella, the nearly-reader of Grit's day and give them a big old smackeroo for nearly reading, but not quite, but hey! there's always a next time, right?! And then, guess what? The site hosting the stat counter explodes.

No, seriously. There is an explosion, boom boom type of explosion, at the other end of the wire. Several large chunks of computer equipment leap several foot into the air, there is an electrical fire and my statcounter disappears. You think I'm making this up don't you, just to prove that Grit is the kiss of doom? Well here's the bulletin put out by the statcounter people:
On Saturday 31 May there was an explosion in The Planet Data Center in Houston Texas. Electrical gear shorted, creating an explosion and fire that knocked down three walls. On the instructions of the Fire Department, The Planet then turned off all power to the Data Center resulting in 9,000 servers being knocked offline.
Well, as you happy readers of Grit's day know, along with any bad news there is also good news. Because the someone from Bath who wandered in by accident is now safe from a big Grit kiss. Now I have no stat counter at all and cannot tell when you don't come back.

So I will just have to give any accidental visitors, from Bath or otherwise, your big old smackeroos right here.

Mwah! Mwah! Mwah!

Friday, 30 May 2008


Sometimes we can't help but feel sorry for the kids that spend summer days in small, hot, overcrowded rooms learning about fractions.

Today we revisit an art project that we once did years ago, when the children were little and liked eating glue and sticking sequins on their noses.

I unroll long lengths of broad, white satin ribbon, squeeze out the glue, spread out the sparkling sequins and add felt tips, the sewing box, the tub of odds and ends, beads and buttons and sticky jewels, all this to the mix, then we hunt down seed heads, petals, bits of twig, anything that might catch our magpie eyes, and we set to work.

On each long length of ribbon we follow an idea of a journey or a moment we have lived and we tell it through pictures. We spend a morning sewing and gluing and sticking sequins on our noses, and then, as the result unfurls, we have long, proclaiming banners. Each banner is a length of a picture story: about the day we watched the birds fly off from Suffolk, or the bright balloons we blew up huge for Squirrel's party day, or the fish we watched from the bridge streaming and streaking along, pink and gold.

When we're happy with our picture stories, we sew the finished telling onto long branches of trees; we hang them in the garden and they flutter and tell us back of times that we have loved to be free and able to choose our own paths.

And that's why we think of children, dressed in black and grey and white today, bending over fractions and worksheets, filling in blanks with numbers to which someone already knows the answer, right or wrong. And with the world and all its stories calling, some of those children won't want to be at school today.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Something for the hungry months

Even though Grit can be a smug git, she is sometimes buffeted by bouts of depression and goes so far as to think everything is probably useless, everything I do is a failure, and life is totally pointless! What a blast those days are. I blame childbirth for messing with my brain. And of course it could all be Dig's fault. Anyway, it is not a great day to discover, in the corner of Tiger's bedroom, this sight:

Yes, that's right. Big Ted is hanging from a noose.

I say to Tiger, trying to sound normal, facing confirmation that I have genetically passed her a depressive dominant gene which will return to haunt me when she is aged 14, I say, 'Tiger, what is Big Ted doing?' 'Smoking' she replies. Such is the innocence of my children. She does not mean he is puffing away on the dreaded weed. It means he has been hunted down by neolithic warriors or possibly a fierce Celtic tribe and strung up at the top of the roundhouse to hang over the fire. Here he can shrivel up and become flavoursome, and we can feast on him when times are hard, possibly next February. And if you are wondering about the fire, you might just be able to make out an upturned tambourine positioned under Big Ted's bottom.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

sometimes it's difficult...

...not to feel a teensy weensy bit well, how should I put this, erm, smug when one home educates .... let me explain ... I see Mrs X, who is lovely, any day of the week, and I would enjoy a visit to her house for coffee, but I can't; I have kids all day long. She sends her boys to school and she does coffee mornings and charity afternoons and well, you know, even though I like her, and could fall into conversation with her, our lives are different. We have chosen different paths, and when she meets me struggling with kids in some awkward place at some awkward time, she probably feels smug about the school choice she's made and the school choice I've refused.

But today we share a moment's chat, about this or that; we mostly avoid the subject of education, and then by mistake, she mentions, she just happens to mention that in this half-term holiday her sons will not leave the TV alone. They stare at rubbish all day long, they will watch anything she says, and they do not even choose, they watch, endlessly, and well, what can you do? and she rolls her eyes as if to say, kids! eh! what can we do with them?

But she detects something is wrong, because there's a look on my face like er, well we don't have that problem. I could add that in the home ed world, we don't have this made-up boundary between school and leisure. We don't say between these hours you are learning, which means, by implication, that there are hours when you are not learning. To our home ed family, everything is about learning, and the children learn through their own interests and enjoyments. Then she inquires, and asks directly, so what do yours watch? and then I tell her truth because it is, and I say, well, Shark this morning asked to watch her new video.

Which was? Erm, Whale and Dolphin Identification. I'm sorry? Yup, that's right. It's basically a spotter's guide to the whales, dolphins and porpoises regularly occurring in the North Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean, which translates as something over an hour of a man talking about fins.

And at that moment it's just a teensy bit hard not to feel a little bit smug at Shark's choice, which is so clearly about her enjoyment of learning, about her finding out, keen to know, and not the construction of a half-term anti-learning posture which requires loafing around on the sofa watching MTV. So I try and make it better, and say sometimes we do Nemo, and Black Beauty, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and well, you know, it could have been worse, because now we are working on a project of crime and punishment, so Squirrel could have chosen the history of the British police force.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Shark goes sailing

This is a growing up day. It is Shark's first day of sailing.

Weeks ago, I escorted Shark to the boatyard at the local lake and inquired, tentatively, about the sailing courses for children. I was told, and I said I would think. It is a big lake, and she is a little girl. Then, after days of being asked the same question, 'Can I go?' I took Shark back down to the lake. We watched the geese march up and down, patrolling the lines, kicking off a duck who had dared settle, and I said to her excited face, 'Are you sure?'

And then I did it. I wrote her name in careful ink and booked her a place on the Stage 1 course. Four days, every day, here for two hours, then she gets to join the sailing club that goes out once a week come rain or shine. Wind is the only essential.

Shark was ecstatic. Like a spring lamb, from a standing jump I swear she went straight up in the air; she ran and gambolled around the gravelly boat yard as if shooting stars were going off under her feet. Clearly, for once, mother had done the right thing. Not told her to brush her hair, clean her teeth, wear shoes, put on a coat, find knickers, get in the car, bring pencils, eat a meal, but written her name, handed over the cheque and been solemnly told that during the course the staff are responsible and I can go.

Since then I have been called upon to count down in excited chatter how many weeks and days might have to pass before the great first day of sailing arrives. Two weeks three days ... One week two days ... Tomorrow ... Today.

And here we are. The wind is cold, and the lake is grey. The water laps away into the distance and I can see little boats bob bob bob in a far off stretch, but I cannot see the little sailors inside, and I wonder, if I were to stay, whether I would be able to see from the shoreline which one is Shark. Just in case, should I need to shout out Help! or My baby! Overboard!

After five minutes from the lesson start, Shark is shooing me away. I am on her turf. This is her stuff, and she tells me that if I hang around I will get wet. It sounds like a threat, and so I agree to go, but first I make her put sunscreen on her nose, even though there is no sun, and I tuck in her jumper, which she immediately pulls about again.

She is right. Fifteen minutes later, clutching a mast and marching to the waterside, she looks like she was doing this forever, but I never noticed.

Monday, 26 May 2008

What's in your pocket?

Grit spends bank holiday Monday putting mud-smelly clothes in the washing machine and taking rose-petal smelly clothes out of the washing machine. Exciting, huh?

Well not as exciting as this. The evidence I found in the family pockets. You can probably match the crime to the criminal.

Evidence A:

Assortment of nails and screws, a Co-op receipt for a loaf of bread, hairbands, a pile of sand, lip salve, used tissues, red foil wrapper from the chocolate mint thing provided by the local Indian take away, remnant of a to-do list and, ahem, a folded up crisp packet retrieved from a jeans back pocket. Clearly the latter item has nothing to do with me and I do not know how it got there.

Evidence B:

Nothing much here, except lots of tissues for a sneezing fit and a plastic fish. I think we know who these belong to. A type of clean-living gal with a fondness for all things aquatic. I'm sure she takes after me.

Evidence C:

Hmmm. Plastic ELC credit card. And that's it. Now which of my daughters veers unerringly to the sequined party frocks for a wet day out in the zoo, chooses the sparkly strappy sandals over the sensible shoes required for a visit to a field, throws hissy fits when she cannot get what she wants, considers a credit card a suitable alternative to financial planning, and in all probability will become a good time girl with a serious spend habit. I am sure I was never like that.

Evidence D:

Assortment of gravel, home-made paper mouse, cake crumbs, hair bands, chalk, bits of leaf, wobbly finger top monster and aha! that's where the little screwtop lid of the tomato puree tube went. I think we have found the criminal of the house. And someone didn't get their nickname round here for nothing.

Evidence E:

Completely empty pockets. I deduce someone destroys all evidence before I get to it. Or possibly they are already cleaned out, thanks to maintaining the pockets of the above.

And now I wonder what can be found identifying your life and crimes in your pockets?

Sunday, 25 May 2008

A day of achievement

I am sure we have achieved things. We must have done. Here are some things, and I bet they count as achievements.

1. We eye-spied our first harlequin ladybird in the back garden, skulking behind a dogwood stem. We reported the miscreant to the ladybird police. I even filled out a crime report. Squirrel bravely captured the rascal and put it in a jar. She wondered whether to feed it, but the ladybird police say Don't bother. It deserves to die. OK, they don't quite put it like that, but that's what it comes down to. Anyway, then we forgot about it and it rained, and now it's been out there ages on the table, so let's just say today's nature studies achievement has been to drown a harlequin ladybird in a jar of rainwater.

2. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger watched Animal Farm (1955 British animation). This is part of the follow up work that we're doing with the Film Studies. (Film Studies is an excellent cover, by the way, for loafing about on the sofa when it is tipping down with rain. I cannot recommend it highly enough to fellow home educators. We turn it into education by shouting out words like Plot! Character! Theme! If we are being really smart, I shout out Protagonist!) Anyway, despite the advances and achievements in literacy, citizenship, and the discussions to be had out of All animals are equal and some are more equal than others, I cannot watch this film. The bit about Boxer makes me cry.

3. Tiger starts work on her own model animation. This is about the goings on at a Roman amphitheatre. Here she is, setting out the scene. Thanks to daddy Dig who knows about these things, Tiger even has a blue screen set up on the wall, just in case the Roman amphitheatre needs to fly over New York.

This is definitely an achievement, although it has nothing to do with me. it is all Tiger's own, and daddy Dig's, because he helped.

And here is Shark as camerawoman. She has been elevated to senior position after learning that the thing will take a picture if you press the button.

Here's one of the main characters coming into the amphitheatre now. I bet you can barely handle the dramatic tension. Although I have vetoed the explosion, so don't look forward to that.

But best of all, Tiger has made herself a storyboard. She knows exactly what she wants and when she wants it. Consequently she does the full director thing of ordering everyone about. After five minutes, Squirrel, who is production assistant, goes off in a huff, so it is probably just like a real movie making experience. Fortunately the star of the show, a Playmobil gladiator, demands no wages and smiles throughout the entire experience. He is a delight to work with. I won't spoil the show for you, because when she has finished the movie and we have contacted Empire, then we will screen it here.

4. Achieving comment of the day goes to Tiger. Mummy Grit enthuses over Tiger's scribbled picture of a gladiator crawling along the ground and, clutching this superb art to her bosom while weeping silent tears of pride, possibly elevates her daughter to a status well beyond that presently enjoyed by Tracey Emin. Tiger, who has more grounded critical faculties, replies 'Huh. To me he looks like a rat on wheels.'

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Photoblog Saturday

Grit is determined to use this blog as a means of trapping what the little Gritlets actually do in their home education, otherwise people will think I really do loaf about on the sofa all day long sinking vast quantities of beer.

Look, here's something. After their tennis lesson the Gritlets made perfume, so I can call that chemistry.

They have done this project before. That time we were cruel and made them market the stuff. We called it a lesson in business studies and possibly rambled on about language, how I reckoned you couldn't use New and Improved for perfume, but apparently now you can use it for sausages and not just washing powder, so who am I to say. Then Daddy Dig had to fork out £1.50 for three bottles of sludge and I got out the baked potatoes as a reward for effective team building.

But this time, I draw the line at dabbing the mashed up daisies and mud behind my ears.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Great wisdom

Joining the wise thinkers of the world, this is Shark.
Mummy Grit: Do not fight about that today.
Shark: Can we fight about it tomorrow?

Mummy Grit: I don't want to hear another word about it.
Shark: Can I just say two words?

Mummy Grit: Leave that there, I'm using it.
Shark: That's like putting me in a house made of chocolate and asking me not to eat the walls.
I should collect more of these. The wisdoms of Shark will contrast nicely with Mummy Grit's inanities and pompous twaddle. Evidence: while walking through the park with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, I declare 'This is because I am far sighted', and am promptly hit in the head by a football.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

I have a lot of catching up to do.

I have been rumbled by Minnie, who observes that my posts are usually a week late.

This is true, Minnie. I have a chronic lateness problem. I will endeavour to catch up and live in real time for a few hours. Although if anyone looks back over the blog, no-one will know whether I was late posting or not. Oh dear, speculating on time dimension is overloading my brain connectors. And we have not even started to explain to Tiger why her time machine will not work.

I will complete some of my dues instead.

About a hundred years ago, Brad suggested I might like to think about this:
'Books are scarce in the world. They are illegal in some provinces. They are not easily replaced, if not impossible to replace if lost in many if not most circumstances. If you can replace a book or buy one, it is usually through the black market at astronomical costs that you cannot afford. Yet you have been able to maintain one of the best collections in the world. If your entire library was about to burn up (think of the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451 invading your home) and you could only have one* book to take with you other than the Bible, what would that be and why?
I have racked my brains over this. I really have. I have finally decided. It has to be the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable.

Actually, I have struggled with my soul between the choice of the Overseas Timetable and the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. Both seem to offer satisfaction in the required department that with my chosen book I could imagine just about any scenario in any place and at any time. (And the decisive scheduling offered by both books might help too with that timing problem I have.)

After that, I could do Retired and Crazy's task. Here it is. I must blab on the blog six juicy factoids about what it is to be a Grit. Well, in these parts I am known as the triplet mum, so we'll start there.

1. People usually find not very subtle ways of asking. 'Are they natural?' 'Are they normal?' 'Was it successful?' These are questions complete strangers have asked me in public. In Waitrose. In the High Street. In the park. If the questions are not bad enough, then there are the reactions of strangers. 'Poor cow' is not too flattering, but the man who stood in front of the triple buggy, blocking the way, gleefully shouting, 'Here comes trouble. Triple trouble' stands out in my mind as deserving a good kicking, if only to prove his prophecy true. Not surprisingly, these types of experiences have brought out my bolshy side. I'm sure you can't tell that though, from the blog. So Grit factoid number 1: She is a grumpy, bolshy cow. With triplets.

2. Our wonderful and kind Egyptian baby doctor who told me endless jokes about pyramids and kings said there was about a 1 in 10,000 chance of naturally conceiving triplets. Thus it has been one of the little rays of happiness to respond, when faced with an ill-advised comment from some cosmopolitan thirty-something with a made-up face and a career, about how rather you than me, that it could very well be you, so think on't. Oh dear, Grit factoid number 2 sounds a bit like factoid number 1. I will change tack.

3. I like chocolate. Posh chocolate, so don't get me any rubbish. In fact I have worked hard and made a considerable investment in getting the children to like posh chocolate too. I want them to eschew the brown lard that passes for chocolate here in the UK. Indeed I have done my best to put everyone off the concoctions at the local newsagents by declaring loudly that it is actually dog chocolate, in wrappers.

4. I am an ill disciplined thinker. I could witter on endlessly, seamlessly and chaotically, probably about any subject. Writing is a good discipline and an excellent means of organisation.

5. I wish I could be like the woman I saw this morning in the Co-op. Six inch heels. Nipped in waist. Push up bra. Face like a car crash. Seeing this winning combination made me realise that women who give up are destined for Damart. Sadly, I suspect I am one of them.

6. I have a terrible memory. Really bad. I make lists, endlessly, to remind me about everything. Then I forget where I put the lists.

Now I've started, I can't stop, and for that see factoid number 4. And this is despite learning that self descriptions are very dangerous. For example, I once made a throwaway remark in an assessed session on literature, something self-deprecating and meant to diffuse awkwardness at that moment, like 'This poem is about, um... um... expression... um like I am having trouble expressing myself!' and this came back in an end of year report as something like, Grit has trouble expressing herself. Which is so evidently not true that even twenty years on I could take that tutor and shove several million written words right up his nose.

And did I mention the irrational angry outbursts? Perhaps not. And that grudge thing? Oh dear. Anyway, you probably know those.

Now I am supposed to pass these on. I cannot do it, even though I enjoy creeping around in blogland, reading your answers. You see I hate to inflict pain. Except, obviously, for the bloke at number 45. So I can only say if you have not done either of these little tasks, and would like to, I'll soon be over to read your thoughts.

Grit is now exhausted and going to have a lie down.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

School outing

Phew! Here we arrive at the Museum of Media!

The first thing we notice, apart from the weathergirl, is that there are plenty of school trips here today.

In the school parties, the kids do a lot of queuing up, standing, waiting, and then a lot of running about because they have twenty minutes in the gallery. Twenty minutes! roars the woman with the scarlet face who looks like an off-duty bouncer. She is strangely rectangular shaped, like she has grown accustomed to standing in doorways.

The large group of 11-year olds under her charge tear about the gallery, banging on buttons as they pass. Most don't wait to see the effect of the button pressing because there is no time and no-one can explain anything anyway. They have to be at the next gallery in fifteen minutes because the buses leave at half-past two and they must be at the gift shop at two sharp otherwise there will be no sweets shaped like bullets to fire at the back of Spotso Harry's head.

The teachers, who are all carrying clipboards, are busy ticking away at various boxes on printed sheets, probably something like Developing awareness of animation techniques. Tick! The teachers can tell which targets have been delivered because occasionally the museum offers little Key Stage instructions in small print underneath the button that Shazza just bashed with the palm of her hand as she was running past.

In the home ed world, we are privileged, bar having to eat cornflakes with forks again this morning because Mummy Grit has forgotten to bring spoons. Anyway, that is home life. But now we are doing school. And this is what we do.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger spend as long as they like on each exhibit. They have two grown up teachers with them today to help read any panel, explain any idea, wait patiently until the penny drops, and generally facilitate access to equipment, exhibits, tours, talks and the buttons on the camera. And we all had a great time and stayed until we got thrown out.

Well I know that is not like the real school experience, so just to cover myself for that short fall, here are some made up teaching goals:

1) Introduce the children to British cultural reference points.

Squirrel: What is it?
Mummy Grit: It is a Dalek! Quick! Hide! It will exterminate us!
Squirrel: What is it going to do?
Mummy Grit: It is going to fire a deathly radar out of that sink plunger or the egg whisk and make us go all red and wobbly and then it will take over planet Earth.
Squirrel: Is it really?
Mummy Grit: No.

2) Operate a big old camera for forty minutes. (Or until it is taken off you because quite frankly, you are hogging it, and there is a little kid here, waiting. Her mother is starting to glower at me.)

Shark: Is it on?
Daddy Dig: Have you pressed the button?
Shark: I cannot see anything.
Daddy Dig: Have you pressed the button?
Shark: What is supposed to happen?
Daddy Dig: Have you pressed the button?
Shark: What do I do now?
Daddy Dig: Have you pressed the button?
(Mummy Grit wanders off until she returns to suggest an activity somewhere else.)

3) Become technologically aware. (Use a green screen.)

Swim Shark! Swim!

4) Become a newsreader. (Or, make a terrible job of reading the news but look quite cute on TV.)

Six hours later, we reflect on the success of these, and all the other teaching goals. In fact I can boast that something must have worked because Shark says when she is a marine biologist she would like to help make films explaining what it is like to live at sea; Tiger insists she wants to be a film director because she likes telling everyone what to do; and Squirrel explains that she cannot wait to get her hands on some yellow plasticine to make a dancing house.

And if we did have a set of boxes, I am sure I could tick them.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Living the high life

We're staying the night in the Bradford Travelodge, off the A647.

This is not an accident. I have planned it. In fact two months ago I pinned Dig down on a diary date for this outing. Dig is driving us here, which I am sure he likes very much. He can pretend he is a pilot. Boys like that sort of thing. Next time I could get him a special hat to wear. It would say World's Best Pilot, or something like that.

You see, I suspect Dig is bored with the perpetual round that is Mumbai, Stockholm, Milan and Shanghai. I could be clever, and take advantage of this global ennui, to show him a few things about top quality UK travel with Grit and the Gritlets. We could seduce him with the delights of travelling with your family. By this cunning route, I might encourage him to travel more with us. I would like that.

I could, for example, take advantage of the fact that he is strapped into the driver's seat and I could narrate the many places of interest in the UK that we are passing, while he is driving at 80mph for three hours along the motorway. I bet British Airways doesn't do that while jetting between Germany and Japan. In fact, I have a Reader's Digest book about interesting towns and villages. I could read from that. Or there is the inflight entertainment. Listening to Matilda at top whack because it stops the screaming is certainly an insight into Grit's life of five-star luxury travel. And who needs the trolly dolly, when there is the eye-candy called Grit sitting next to you? Except for the bit between junctions 15 and 21 where I fell asleep over the Reader's Digest, lost control of my neck muscles and did some dribbling and snorting.

Well anyway, here we are at the Bradford Travelodge. We arrive hungry, hot, exhausted and needing a big cry. I bet Dig feels like a big cry too. I am sympathetic. Travel does this to people. Squirrel is having an extra loud howl, because of what I'm not sure, but suspect it is called Empty Tummy. She wipes a teary face with a grubby hand, speckled in Co-op teacake crumbs, the Co-op teacake hastily thrown over the back seat as a smart bit of inflight catering service while navigating around a Bradford industrial estate.

Squirrel says she is leaving this family as she stands howling in the car park where they are charging us £3 to park the car. £3! Can you believe that! They didn't mention this on the website. Well, I tell Dig, this is one of the hazards of travel. Unexpected taxes. I know that normally when he is about on Business class, or First class if he gets bumped, he does not pay, but I have no money on me, so it's quite lucky he's here.

Then I tell Squirrel it's time to stop crying. Not only do we want to show daddy Dig what a good time he can have with us on our five-star family travel, we will soon put Plan A into action.

At this point, let me say that I know about the eccentricities of travel. Places like the Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta get a pretty good press. I have even stayed there myself and been horribly sick, but do you know, there is something comforting about having your accommodation exactly the same no matter where you are? And Travelodge is exactly the same. There is always a big girl on reception who stares past you with complete uninterest. If I appear with six eyeballs on springs and be bright green, freshly beamed down from Planet Neuron Minor, she would stare past my left ear, just the same. She would utter the welcoming monotone yeah, we need a mobile number even though I suspect they do not and Travelodge are just stealing my phone number so they can inundate me with texts selling me an off-peak room at Scotch Corner.

I'm sure the Bradford Travelodge reception experience fits very nicely with Dig's life about the globe. I bet he's been in classier places and got the same treatment. And then there's the room, lacking in extra towels, sheets, bedding, even though I've clearly booked family rooms and for more than one person! So off I go and collect the bedding myself from the linen room which is open. You see, you might pay a lot to do that elsewhere.

You can probably guess, I am a fan of Travelodge hotels. The freedom they offer us! We can have the arguments days in advance over who is going to sleep on the pull-out bed; who gets the sofa bed, and which way round their head should go. We can argue over which order everyone has the bathroom.

Then there's breakfast to look forward to. We can argue for hours about that. Cereal is pretty controversial stuff around here, I can tell you, and on this topic there's no lack of political conversation, so Dig will feel at home. I bet Dig can barely contain himself. I'm sure I can see him stuffing his knuckles into his mouth right now. In the morning, Mummy Grit will bring in the plastic bowls, long-life milk and packet of cornflakes from the car and then look in her picnic hamper to discover she has brought forks again by accident. Never mind. You can spear the cornflakes and drink the milk, Chinese style. There you go. We could be in Beijing.

Now I've got distracted by the wonder of it all. Back to Plan A. This is when we dump the bags, argue about the arguments, climb into the car and drive back down the A-road to the nearest chippy. Here, we eat big bags of steaming chips in the car. And everytime, I tell Dig, would you believe, our view is different! First it was the Oxford ring road. Then it was a housing estate somewhere outside Shrewsbury, and this time we're outside a mosque! We arrive at sundown, so we can covertly watch the hastening men patter up the road, tunics flowing. And in the chip shop, the chips are expertly lifted, shook and flipped into a polystyrene tray while Bollywood music plays and a small girl, barely out of toddlerdom, with an armful of bracelets, stares open mouthed and unblinking at Shark, Tiger and Squirrel as if she had never seen the like. There you go, I nudge Dig, we could be back in Dhaka or Delhi. And I'm sure this culinary experience matches that time in Moscow when they force-fed you Cough balls and Cheese.

I think, when I whisper sweet good night, and Dig finally goes to sleep, that he is impressed by Grit's exotic and exciting life. I am sure the stifled sobs are just homesickness. He may even tell Sweden he cannot make it now. He might tell them he is going to spend his future travelling career on the motorway Travelodges of England, enjoying this special time travelling with his family.

Oh, and there is a point to all Grit's globe trotting, apart from a brave attempt to show Dig a good time. It is that tomorrow we are visiting the National Media Museum, for the betterment of the children's education.

Monday, 19 May 2008

In the darkest of hours

Grit rises early every day now to work in the silence of the dawn office, hours before the children tumble and crash down the stairs for breakfast.

Today it's 7am. I open the new academic workbook I have to typeset in 9pt Minion. And as I'm reading, red bleary-eyed, black coffee in hand, I am expecting the usual tombstone of text falling dead like a black lead slab down the screen. But then, what does Grit spy? A phrase which brightens her day, and brings her a smile at the innocent ivory world inhabited by the leading academic scholars of England...

To complete the research, the authors have made full use of the FANI. *

* To the rest of us non-scholars, a Fani does not refer to a lady's most tender and private part. No. This translates as Free Association Narrative Interview.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Gardens for children

Today I am not misery guts Grit. Because today we are playing in the garden. And because you people who comment have all been so lovely, today I shall give you a day off from the horrors of daily living. I'm taking you by the hand and bringing you into my garden to share with you how my garden has changed.

Only if you are nice, mind. And leave the cats and dogs outside.

But be warned. Where once there were Beth Chatto inspired pools of colour coordinated loveliness and not a plastic spade in sight, now there are children. At first I wept about that. Then, when the lilies were choked by brambles, I sang heigh ho and made bramble jam and had to be glad.

Now, eight years on, my garden is a very different place. Just like before, there is a rationale behind this garden, and an inspiration. It is a garden for learning. It is a garden for children. And this is the garden it is.

Buddha sits under the hazel tree. We didn't plant the hazel tree. It arrived one day with a squirrel and two blackbirds. Two blue tits nested last year in a box above Buddha's head and raised a cluttered family. There is a little sunken pond at Buddha's feet, which once I cleaned out and instantly regretted. Two frogs hopped out, and I killed several dragonfly larvae at a stroke, in ignorance. Now I know, so I don't touch it at all. There's a wooden garden bench just by and a tray with sand. I think the children enjoy this spot very much; we light incense here and there is a Mexican Orange Blossom and Winter Flowering Honeysuckle. Heady on perfume, then we planted Scented Narcissus. Overhead there is an overgrown Fatsia, which beats against the house in the wind and wrestles with the ivy. Oops, someone's playing here. Better not interrupt.

Two paths part here, one a straight route down to the swings. We call it the woodland path thanks to two damson trees, two holly trees and a golden elder. The ivy makes wreaths, the holly does us nicely at Christmas craft time, and with the elder, we make wooden beads. The wood's very soft and you can strip the bark and push out the middle. We're learning how to make whistles. Let's take the woodland walk.

Between the trees I've hung a swing and a hammock. The swing works very nicely for hanging about in, as you can see, although you might get heckled when you pass. Ignore it. The hammock is fine for private reading, since everyone forgets to look in there.

Against the wall you can see the story seats. Around these seats are essential storytelling items, like rocks, and chimes, and sticks, magic stones, and sunken pots. Mrs blackbird does her main foraging on this path. She runs up and down ahead of us, clucking and tutting at our approach. Sometimes we get our revenge at her curses and hide her mealy worms.

Sshh. Shark won't notice if we tip toe by.

If you look around the woodland path, you'll see many treasures hidden here. We hope you stop and wonder. Perhaps, today, at this,

Or this.

This old picture frame is a way of making sudden story happen on our woodland path. We choose some items and hang them in the frame. Now you make the story. It must include a shell, a little fishing net, and a tiny spade. We can make the spade magic if you like.

Now pass quickly by the swings, because frankly, it is a tip down here. The little girls have played with a lot of millstones recently and have been inspired to set up several rocks to crush seeds and pound squirrel's hazelnuts. Things are not looking good, especially with the mud pies. The saving graces to this vista are the Wisteria and Jasmine climbing over the swings. I planted strong perfumes of Mint here too, hoping it would brush against plump legs and send out mingling scents that would return to evoke happy memories of sunlit swings and laughter. But the little feet were too heavy and the legs too plump and not even the mint could survive underfoot. So look the other way.

You could look at this. It is Hedgehog Corner. This is where twin hedgehogs tucked themselves up last winter, pulled faded yellow wisteria leaves over their heads and snored. Here, Tiger puts out lettuce leaves to attract fat, unwary slugs.

Next stop, the vegetable area. This is where the children are nurturing courgettes, peas, sweetcorn, mint, beans, and things in pots that I forget because we run out of lolly sticks. Goodness knows where we'll put them all if they germinate. Anyway, here is a Fig tree, Clematis and Trumpet Vine. The Trumpet Vine burst into song last summer with huge and vibrant crimson but was still outdone by several early morning parties hosted by rowdy sparrows.

Foolishly, to satisfy the sparrows, next to the cloche we have put bird tables and a little pond. We're trusting our birds know the difference of seedlings and food. Anyway, we spy on them. There's a small chair that hides the viewer and gives excellent views of sparrows supping from the pond and kicking about the veg patch, looking for trouble. Which reminds me. The weather vane is a remnant of a meteorology project.

Oh yes, this is a children's garden, of course. I routinely scatter plastic lizards and snakes amongst the flowers and pots. The plastic rat on the roof was excellent fun. And I suspect Mr Pod crept up close to the parrot before hoping no-one saw.

Now, turn the corner and a choice of paths. See the golden star on the ground? That is starling's grave. I hope you left the cat outside. And ignore the pile of rocks and plastic dinosaurs at your feet. Tiger is building a scale model of the dinosaur age. She's collecting weed seeds to drop into the primeval sludge. Anyway, from here, one path leads to a ragged patch of grass that once was called a lawn, and which is now the backdrop to some tomato plants, a sundial covered in mud and a sacrifical altar. We use that for worms, obviously. At sun up we have to placate a robin.

Let's take the path picked out in white gravel and a lot of sprinkled glitter. This is much more fun. Ignore the pile of sticks on the left hand side. That's the remnants of a child sized Celtic round house under the hawthorn tree. It blew down. Anyway. Welcome to the camp of the native American Indians.

I bet that wigwam's authentic. Three bamboo poles, tied gracefully at the top with sticks and feathery twine and hanging with beads and home made dreamcatchers. The barbecue is donated. I think someone's cooking snake. Again.

Sometimes the children drape old fabric round the beanpoles and bring them crashing down. Thanks to minimal design, we can have it back up again in a trice. I leave worn out musical instruments round here in summer; shakers, whistles and tambourines, just in case anyone wants to try and create a sun dance.

There are lots of things to look at here. Climbing roses. Pansies, in pots, Jasmine. Aquilegia. And here, some of my favourite objects in the garden. They are the hanging journey sticks. And I am truly sorry about the photograph.

The journey sticks are long sticks that have been collected on our walks in local woods. They hang down from the buddleia that no-one cut and which became a tree. From the sticks we hang the natural found curiosities without which we cannot come home: feathers, odd shaped twigs, pine cones, twisted grass, daisy chains. These treasures hang here and bob up and down, swaying as we walk by, falling to the ground, decaying. I love them, because every one of them is a little memory, twirling on an embroidery thread.

Look down. Can you see snake path? The children painted stones and made them into the shape of a twisting snake. We dug the ground and the stones were hunkered in.

Oops. If you see stones like this, painted all over with chalk, you can kick them. They are called kicking stones, and if anyone becomes angry with a sister, or a mummy or a daddy, go and strike the kicking stone. You won't feel angry for very long. You may even limp a bit.

Oh look, here we are in South America and the Europeans have arrived. Tsk. We were given a wonderful clay thing - there is no other word to describe it - all the way from Peru, which, quickly dismantled and looking the better for it, now hangs in all its parts in thebuddleia tree.

Tsk. Get out the way, pesky small people.

There. that's better. I can see one now.

Off to the top of the path. We have been inspired by Gaudi.

Smashed a few pots recently? Get yourself some hardboard, grout and nails. Hours of garden play and you get a mosaic wall and a memory of a brilliant mind. We even painted some cushions to go on the chairs. And the chairs were a bargain. £1 each at the local tip!

Now follow the path and pass Squirrel's bird area. I notice the feeder's empty. Typical.

Did you catch a smell of something then? Maybe it's this. It's a scented wax block, left overs of a candle maker. When the sun shines, the smell coils up, like ripe lemons. And it makes great soft sculpting material, too.

Let's just go and have a quick look around the lawn. Ignore the table. I got that from the tip. It might be an old office table, but it's all the better for that. We use it for craft, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, wine, or beer, and contemplating the latest offerings from the barbecue. Now mind the deer. Somewhere there is a moorhen and a badger. They are large cut out shapes painted black. Don't ask any more questions. They make excellent chalkboards.

There's Shark's herb garden. She's very pleased about this because she has designed it herself.

And here's the archeology area. Tip into this gravelly, sandy patch a few pennies, an old bracelet, plastic jewels, sparkly things. On the sly, of course. Here, in my pocket I've got some coloured glass beads. In they go.

Don't be silly. The amonites come in a slab from the garden centre. Have you seen them? Good, aren't they? Keeps the children amused too.

Over there is where we learn about frogs. Better not tip out their pond again.

Of course, because it is a children's garden, I do have to put up with this.

You're absolutely right. It's a bath towel with piles of grass on it. Don't say anything. Pretend we haven't seen it. Don't look at the sun dial in the centre of the lawn either.

Let's go back past the fir tree. This is a useful place for left over Christmas decorations, isn't it? And I say again there is nothing wrong with the fairy lights. I believe they are now quite trendy. Don't listen to Dig. He says we look like an Indonesian restaurant.

And up to the house. When the tub plants have died back, it matters not. We fill them with paper creations.

Well I think that's about all now. Did I forget anything?

We didn't look at the mirrors, did we? Or the place where the mushroom will go. Or Tiger's potatoes. Not the fairy, either. Nor the green man, ribbons to catch the wind, or the plans for the alpines, climbers and new bird bath for Mrs blackbird. Never mind, next time.

Anyway, that was a long ramble. Once I get in the garden, I lose all sense of time. The clock doesn't work either.

But thank you for coming into my garden. It might be a one-off, mind. You can pick up your cat now. Has your dog run off? Sorry about that.

And I shall probably be back to normal tomorrow.