Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Dear author, who should remain nameless

If you are writing a book for publication...

1. Can you please find out what happens when your wrods leave your tender care?

Your book is not set by tiny fairies waving wands. Not laid upon the page by naked elves yearning to exchange their midnight labour for cute green hats. Neither are your wrods magically hoof-printed by silver unicorns toiling by the glimmering light of a half-shadowed moon.

Your wrods pass through a setting and printing process which is scheduled. Those processes include drafts for you to check and correct, sometimes final proofs for you to make minor amendments, then a timetabled stage for sign off, and print.

When you are given final proofs of your book, do not say things like, I don't like Chapter 3. I'm rewriting this chapter now. I'll pass it to you next Wednesday. If you try that, I reserve the right to violate your copy. I may secretly and silently type eatshit in the second paragraph on Chapter 13.

Let's face it, for some of you, if I sneak that in, no-one would notice. Not even your mother. Even though she is getting a good discount rate on the 435 copies you are selling her direct for her knitting circle.

2. Be nice to your publisher, the printers, the proofreaders, the typesetters.

Do not think we have been sitting here with nothing to do until your book came along. You may like to imagine the day your wrods came to us was the day we knew our salvation. It wasn't. We can just make it look like that to flatter you. By this means we hope to be paid on time.

3. Please write well. We working ants, low down in the food chain, must read your wrods. Sometimes more than once.

Remember, we all like reading interesting wrods. So please do not write tedious sentences of 200 wrods without a comma. Do not use impenetrable language to show off to your mother. Try to write elegantly. Remember to close your (brackets, include full stops and generally finish your sentences in a timely manner. You wouldn't believe how many authors

Yours wearily,
A typesetter.

PS. Yes, typesetters still exist, spreading our skills across copy editing, book layout, print processes, graphic design, pre-print services. And type. We like to see nice type.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The slow road to consciousness

I have to work. Yes, I do a job still in existence, and someone has to do it. It could be counting numberplates of vehicles passing junction 23 on the M25 after 7pm. It could be wrapping myself in tinfoil and moving very slowly down a high street near you, and calling this Installation Art With Slow Moving Body. It could be stapling snails to walls. It could be academic typesetting.

About 3pm, I become aware of the fragile line between survival and death. Sat at the computer for over six hours straight, staring at commas, my mind is in stupor. I am overcome with a sensation that my face is rigid and my body hollow. I may be entering a catatonic state. I have forgotten why I breathe.

I must find displacement activity or die. The least traumatic method to bring myself back to life is visit Ikea. That is a slow nudge from the states of torpor to the place of barely conscious. Here, in a slow and painful journey, I drag my typesetter's carcass from the halls of the undead to the land of the nearly living. On the way, to mark my existence, I photograph bookshelves.

It helps. By 5pm, after a small struggle, I can photograph a tree.

By 6pm I can breathe unaided and photograph this scrap of felt. I find it on the landing, like the droppings from a crafter.

At last, I am almost fully alive! Finally, I am able to conduct a photographic session in homage to Harry Worth circa 1962.

Yes, I am recovered, but for what purpose? Tomorrow I must face the abyss of pointlessness once more, and typeset 50,000 words on validation instrument testing of instructional materials for chemists.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Day out with the rozzers, fuzz, blue meanies

Gawdhelpus here we are dahn the copshop with the ole ducks and geese farkinghell.

Can you believe that? Here I am at the Police Station in Milton Keynes! I'm not even frogmarched down there with my arm twisted round my back!

And why? It's not the day that Grit has to turn up shifty-looking and shamefaced to show her driving licence. Nor collect her Notice of Intended Prosecution. Nor deal with any summons of any kind, give a statement, or receive a ticking off. None of those. Keep guessing.

You give in, don't you? We went entirely voluntarily. And it's called educational visit.

Howabout that! Here's one in the eye for all the arsefaces that claim home educators live on the fringes of society. How many times have they visited the cop shop on an educational outing then eh? How many? Na-na-na-na-nana!

Ha! Well, now she has done a spot of righteous gloating, delighted to prove home education is nothing about being excluded from society, but all about being smackbangrightinthemiddleofit, here's a photograph of a police horse.

And after the talk down the stables about horses being police officers we were shown the riot van.

Don't look shifty, Tiger. Last time it was different. In you go.

Do you recognise it Tiger? This is probably the same one we sat in while mama was having to fess up all her criminal ways that day we'd just visited the psychologist and had the car smash. Ah! Those were the days!

Then we toured the identification suites, but I'm not allowed to photograph those, obviously. There might be crims alooking at my blog and I cannot blow the gaff on the sneaky ways the coppers have of nabbing the miscreants.

All doing, the little grits declare the visit first class, and mama says the PR was excellent. So very good in fact that it has turned me away from a life of crime guvnor that's for sure. Now we recommend you all take your kids down the cop shop as soon as you get your educational group together and have those essential life discussions about the role of the police in British society. *

It was so exciting indeed, that Grit ran red lights all the way home.

* And if you home ed, we're following last year's Mad Science workshop on forensic analysis, last month's vidi on the history of the British Police Force, and now Grit is all set to dip into a spot of Sherlock Holmes and Wilkie Collins The Moonstone.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

And we're not missing an education, thanks.

The Grit&Dig Story: Doing it our way
The GritandDigFamily have been successfully delivering topical and incisive educational events to the little grits for over 10 years, reaching communities and experts in Geology, Mathematics, Biology, Science, Arts, Crafts, Drama, Dance, Physics, Botany, Astronomy, Cultural awareness, Languages, English Literature, Cuisine, Unicorn maintenance and Running about the garden without your knickers on.

Supported by key people - including Museum curators, Gallery staff, Education officers, Community workers, Medical and Health professionals, Sports instructors, French teachers, Musicians, Artists, All the librarians roundabout these parts and Doreen at the Co-op, Not forgetting most human beings - our unique lifestyle educational events keep the little grits up to date with the key ideas in all academic disciplines, including what the bastard politicians are up to now, and best practice in home education.

Forthcoming Conference: Taking place on a field walk near you
Our mission is to be at the forefront of education, providing total opportunity for living and learning. Every day, the little grits are faced with the freedom to take to the great outdoors to learn about themselves, the world, and their society, engaging with professionals who bloody well know what they're taking about and who are not Miss Timms covering class 3D for French again because the regular teacher is still off sick with stress.

And if you haven't yet got it, here's some more.
  • We don't need a personalised consolidation learning manager to streamline the individual educational attainment target of our every child.
  • We don't need an interactive working partnership to identify re-engagement strategies for efficient and cooperative mainstream opportunity educational delivery.
  • Neither do we want effective roundtable discussion processes to better enable our informational target setting and policy sharing practices deliverable to all monitoring methods.
  • What's more, piss off with your strategic information sharing database resource.

That feels better.

Now, here's the walk over Whiteleaf Hill Nature Reserve. We took the walk with practising geologists, map-makers and botanists. We had freedom to explore soil characteristics, vegetation, and a chalk quarry. The little grits felt the clay beneath their feet and the chalk between their fingers. I watched the faces of my daughters greet the sun and the rain and the whip of the wind, and I delighted when they, wiser than I, showed me things about the world that I never knew before.

Then everyone came home covered in chalk dust and mud.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

In which I mostly say, AMAZING

OK, this is AMAZING.

It's like there is a giant eyeball and projections of snails in all these kaleidoscope patterns and colours swirling all the time to music over the eyeball and the gardens, and the bricks are lit up in rotating flower patterns, and there are streams of white wind flowing through the trees, and enormous faces hanging in the branches with flames and flares and beautiful colours, and it is so AMAZING I wander round saying AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING until two hours later I am forcibly wrestled into the car and slapped a bit to shut me up from saying AMAZING.

But it is true. It is AMAZING. And pleasepleaseplease we need to see this again because I am so pleased and happy that I can tell the gritlets now for sure that to achieve this impact in their brains they must simply use the light of this world with their own imagination, and never need resort to acid.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Now I'm in my nineties

A gentle day, in which I age fifty years.

I have visions of myself moulded to the shape of a rocking chair, twitching a knitted rug over my knees, and complaining in the midst of my dementia about all the young men called Norman who are on the lookout to steal my oven gloves. I shall put drawing pins inside those gloves. All the Normans won't try twice.

Since I often equate growing older with misery, incontinence and a face that looks like it's been scoured by glaciation, the thought of going slowly and benignly mad in a rocking chair is quite comforting. I'm almost looking forward to it.

You will never guess the reason why I was sent into the future so kindly, so I shall tell you. It was the day I installed myself in a corner of the local toy library and sat there sewing up playbags. I can't explain those anymore. If you need to know about the playbags, go over here.

Tiger helped.

Together we sat there, stitch, stitch, stitch, aging by decades, withered and worn, quiet and gentle, talking to anyone who stopped by to listen.

I could imagine Tiger aged sixty, sitting next to me, complaining that I never stitch the handles on right and Norman's not going to come and steal the oven gloves. 'No, he's not mother', she'll say. Then she'll add, 'because we sold your house ten years ago and you haven't even got an oven, never mind about the oven gloves'.

Then I shan't do any more cooking, I'll say. Not ever, not ever.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Most people stay indoors

Readers of gritsday know that we have built an outdoor out-of-school education for our primary age children.

Most days we are out in those fields and open spaces on some flimsy pretext. Perhaps to meet with a home ed group, perhaps to explore an ancient site or battlefield, maybe have maths or geography as the excuse, or just because my head explodes if I stay inside for more than four hours, conscious. But the last place you will find this home educating family is at home round the kitchen table.*

Anyway, our education is to be out, somewhere, everyday.

So this is what we did today, this normal Thursday, when any sane and rational person would not leave the house at all.

Because I can tell you that it rained. Do not imagine pitterpattertinkly rain. Not grey British soaking mist-drizzle either. No. Chucking it down. Serious rain. Business rain. Wearing bullet proof armour and lead tipped rain drops. It penetrated the top of my head for the two hours it took to walk the Art Walk, and diluted my brain. Dissolved, it is now dribbling through my nose.

I would just like to give no plug at all for Daisy's discount store down the road where nothing is over a fiver. Including their Luxury Cagoule (£2). (Don't say, You get what you pay for.)

Anyway, here is the result of the lovely Art Walk, with the obligatory Andy Goldsworthy pieces, all run for we weather-hardened home educating families by the fantastic Parks Trust of Milton Keynes.

I think I just need to say this is the life we chose, kids, come rain or shine, wet or cold, wind or fine. Admittedly we chose this way partly because of my psychosis; that I cannot function normally unless I can see beyond the walls of the house each and every day.

Maybe it's one psychosis I am quite happy to pass onto Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Although that might make it inconvenient if anyone ever wanted them to work behind a desk from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday with half an hour for lunch.

But we're not exactly growing children who have that employment in mind, right?

* Except at meal times, obviously, because we are smug bastards who eat together as a family, which in these days makes us more or less perfect. Except for the non-school thing, for which read, we eat babies.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Inspired by War Horse

The only satisfaction I can have after sobbing my way through the book, is to take the kids to see War Horse at the New London Theatre.

Truly, I want them to be bowled over by this experience and have it become their meaning of life. I want that not because I want to fry kid brains with bloodgutshorror, barbedwire, deadbodies and war.

No. There is plenty of time for me to do that to you, little grits. When you are older, come with me to make the pilgrimage to Mauthausen. Like me, you probably won't speak much about it afterwards, but to look at that place will make your soul armour deeper and stronger. Being there, walking there, you'll know, if mama ever allowed you to forget, that in your adult lives you will be as responsible for peace making as for warmongering - and you will be offered both opportunities. I want you to know where those paths lead. Choose wisely.

But like I say, it is not world war which drives me here today. I want Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to know how it is possible to make words live from a page in many rich expressions. I want them to see it here, because London Theatre is one of the most wonderful, ambitious, and inspiring human creations. I tell them it was even better before Andrew Lloyd Webber came along and made us all singalong to the French Revolution while waving flags and wearing baseball caps.

And War Horse, with the giant puppetry of Handspring and the sparse acting - showing to us types of people caught up in events greater than themselves - all puts us back where we should be, in those pre-singalong days, with drama and passion and humanity played out in front of us. And Grit kicking herself on the way out of a theatre again because she put on the mascara, so will exit looking like a panda.

The stage is minimal: black with a white gash, like a part page, ripped from a notebook, tearing across the backcloth. Onto this rough-edged gash throughout the play is projected hand drawn animations of key events. It becomes an important, immediate means by which we move location from Devon to France and then back and forth over No Man's Land.

Sitting there, with perfect seats, I can take some time to talk to Squirrel, Tiger and Shark, about how the stage looks. How nothing is a mistake: the designers, craftspeople and artists made it right. Although there is little visually, it is rich: every idea we bounce into it works. Here is a world raw, bleak, bare, stripped down, fearful, and yet we have that white tear across the back. Tiger says she thinks we're deep in a cave, but we can see light, so there's hope we get out alive.

And then it starts, and the horses appear. Against this stage, they fit perfectly. Strong, skeletal, tender, filled with life. The puppet horses - ohmygod does that word demean these engineered creations - are fantastic. I swear the bamboo breathes. These horses start and twitch; their muscles jump and their ears flicker. Their tails switch, they take perfect steps back and forth, beautifully in time. They rear, they gallop, they kick, and the puppeteers, visible all the while, must really be some strange inhabitants of horse - all horses have them, but before this, I never noticed.

There are times I glance over to Tiger and her eyes are wide; wider and she can consume the picture whole. I know when her breath stops, her brain's ticking away. She's looking at the construction of those legs, the turn of that belly, the mechanics of the ears, and I know exactly what she's thinking.

When it's over, and the horse and boy reunited, the war ended, the souls departed, and the woman next to me smothered in tissues, Tiger says that was the best play she has ever seen. And I say No. Absolutely not. We cannot make a giant horse. Not in the bathroom. Think about it. You would never get it out. Let's try making one in the yard instead.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Some days, life's just a walk in the park

One of the best things about being a home educator in this wonderful, wired world, is that you can wander over to the opinions of other people and discover what they think.

Like all things considered, taking the rational view, there's only one conclusion. You home educate, which means you are probably a child murderer.

Give someone a minute or two in an open comments box and they'll come up with the highly original explanation that we home ed types are driven by religion. And you can be sure we abuse our kids for years before we plunge the dagger in the head and reconstruct the patio. Yes! We have been indulging in years of emotional and physical abuse!

Of course nothing has been proven yet, so we could just be irresponsible parents who just don't care. Our lack of care means we're restricting the social networks, life chances and study choices of our kids. PS, we're also ignoring the human rights of our child, and no-one ever mentions their welfare!

What's the cure? Send in the good government! Set up a committee and let us try and persuade 12 rational people of the necessity of our lifestyle. Force us to do the same as everyone else. Let there be standards! Because we may be anarchists, antisocial, poor. Ignorant. Pity us. Then again, we're beneath your contempt.

When all else fails, we're turning our back on society because we are - this is the best one yet - middle class.

I can take all of this because today I got to walk with my kids in the park. I met other home educating parents. Some of them played alongside their kids. Some of them didn't. Some of us chatted about the need for handwriting as opposed to keyboard skills.

Maybe on that controversy I should be strapping a bomb to my arse and heading off down the bus station. I never like to disappoint.

But I wish that people would think things through before they pronounce judgment or make great sweeping statements about parental options. All it does is make it harder for people. It makes it difficult for kids who are terrified of school, who don't fit, who are begging to find other ways of learning. It makes it harder for parents to be bold and brave and listen to their inner voices, their hearts, their child.

Well people, listen to this.

Sometimes home ed really is simple. Sometimes it is life. Sometimes it is just a walk in the park, in the sunshine and the wind, and everyone goes home, happy.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Seven days with Spring

Oh dear people.*

It's been a while, but I must do this. The alternative is to typeset an academic article about Revised Extended Standard Theory.

I know which one I'm choosing.

We already did boxes, water, and sight. Let's seasonally adjust and do SPRING.

1. Make your own blossom.
Take your offspring walking in your local wood. Pick up thin sticks to bring home. Preferably without beating a sister around the head with them in the back of the car.

If we come home safely and everyone's in good humour, then we can destroy it all by asking the kids to do something pointless, like twisting crumpled up balls of pink, white and red crepe paper round the little twigs. Because look! You made blossom!

Because the mood is now turning ugly, stick the twigs in a vase and call it Spring Art. If you count the number of crepe balls on the twigs, call it Maths. If you count the number of crepe balls littering the floor, and add it, subtract, divide or multiply with the number on the twigs, brilliant. Advanced Maths.

2. Lambing.
Not the bloody visit to see cute little lambs again. You can't take an ex-vegan to a farm without complaints. Let's make lambs fly instead.

Attach paper wings to your lamb. Throw it out the bedroom window. Measure how far the lamb can fly. You can try timing the seconds before it hits the ground.

He says he likes to fly and he wants to go.
Even if his wings do keep falling off.

Build bigger wings. And fix them on properly this time. Make them of different materials. Like bamboo skewers and nylon. Off he goes! Measure the distance. Did the wings make any difference to flight direction? Distance? Speed? Time to impact? Is the weight or density of lamb causing a problem here? Has anyone got a smaller lamb?

Attach a selection of plastic bags, large and small. Keep throwing. Record the results.

After a couple of hours of cheap entertainment, create some theories as to why lambs don't have wings then call it Science.

3. Falala. Music!
Put on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Vivaldi's Spring from The Four Seasons. Dress up and dance along but try not to dance yourself to death.

What did you feel and hear? Dawn? Angry weather? Evening? Birds? Tractors? Flying lambs? The sound of a sister crashing to the floor when you pushed her over by accident on purpose?

4. Visit a sensory garden.
These are all over the place, so if you can't make Kew, there could be one near you. Round here there's Luton's Stockwood Park, with sensory area and garden exhibits.

You can always make your own garden sensation, even on a windowsill. Go off to the garden centre and see what they have. If you are too mean to actually buy any of the plants (and I do not blame you, having been a person that spent £3,000 on a garden only to see it systematically trashed by small people) then just let the tiddlers run around the garden centre. At the sound of smashed terracotta claim the kids are not yours and you have never seen them before.

Set your kids a challenge wherever you are to find plants that are smelly, prickly, hairy, noisy, sad, droopy, bold, dead. Call this Science. And if you come home and write a poem about the experience, English. If you can persuade Tinkertop to call her poem le jardin, you get to call it French.

5. Think big. Start your own spring festival.
Let's face it, there aren't enough spring festivals around the world. One brief scan round t'Internet shows every belief, religion, minority, nation, all human groups catered for, each using Spring for a big blow-out party. Start a trend. Make up your own.

One year we had a party called Yellow. We painted the garden tree with yellow paint, hung yellow decorations in it, blew up yellow balloons, ate yellow iced cake, wore yellow, and made paper daffodils and stuck them in the ground. It hasn't caught on, but you never know.

6. Be inspired by paint.
Off to the library for paintings research before getting out the paintbrushes and going berserk.

Berry's Book of Hours does nicely whatever the month, and you can tick Art again. And History. Or there's Arcimboldo and his Spring face, which means you can compose your own self-portraits using only flowers you hand-picked from granny's garden when she was at the shops. When she comes home, you can call it moral discussion.

7. Set up your weather station.
Stick up a dozen cheap thermometers over the house and garden, and take daily readings, if you can remember. Take the temperature of the soil in evening or deep shade and after a day of sunshine, if we get any sunshine. Any difference? More Science.

8. We're all going to die with global warming.
Perhaps not expressed quite like this if you have a three year old. Half an hour with the newspapers or radio these days and you'll know in the UK that Spring is late and we're all doomed. This may well raise some interesting discussions about ecosystems you can have with a four year old. Or not, in which you can wipe your brow in relief and get out the Lego instead.

* You can see how important is a comma.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

What story should I tell?

Today we're at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex.

This is the story. While digging a trench for a water pipe in 1960, the workmen turned up some little tiles. They led to the discovery of a sequence of mosaic floors, and the unearthing of the largest Roman palace in Britain.

Archaeologists tell us that the floors span the age of Roman presence, showing early monochrome geometric designs to later, complex colour designs. One theory is that the floors show the time flow of labour and skills - from early specialised Roman mosaicists coming into Britain, then training up the local work force, and ending with a demonstration of the accomplished skills of the Romano Britons.

But I'm sure you don't come here for that story. You can get that elsewhere.

I bet you just come here to see if I end up backwards in a ditch, swinging punches with the security staff, or whether I smuggle the kids over the barbed wire fence to avoid the £20 entrance fee.

Yes, but they're not my story today either. It's when the day is done and we are driving home. In the quiet, warm hum of the car I make the mistake of thinking.

What was today about? Was it indulging my passions for the past and communicating this to the children in the way that I know best? Like saying, Leg up Shark! If I can lever you up like last time, I save a tenner.

Was it a story right now growing in the dreams of Shark, Squirrel and Tiger? The story where the dolphin comes alive? Or Cupid shoots an arrow and pierces the heart of a unicorn? Or maybe the one where the family falls into a time hole, transplants to Roman times, and must solve mysteries before the time hole tips us back, and hopefully here.

Those are the stories I don't know yet. They might live, silently, in the minds of my daughters, and one day, blow out of their mouths and seep from their fingertips; poets, artists and storytellers.

But maybe today was a day that sounds like a good, solid education. I'm reading aloud a story about the rise and fall of Rome, narrating matters of monarchy, republic and empire; of Caesars and wars; lions and conquerors. Don't worry. It's not too text heavy. And there are pictures.

But perhaps none of these stories count. These are difficult times if you home educate. People in power don't like it, because they can't control the story. Some folks wonder if we should be allowed to tell our own stories at all.

Right now, there may be someone in the local authority who thinks my stories are lacking, because stories that can be properly assessed must be told in lines on a page, with a box to tick at the end.

He may have a point. People in power are sure that home educators can't be trusted to tell the complete story. We would miss things out. Someone needs to ask questions, lead us to the conclusion, and see the worksheet. A story can be assessed from the worksheet, you can be sure. The roundness of the letters a, b, c, as expressed in the handwriting.

And because my children are home educated and therefore unknown and hidden, an inspector must have sight of Squirrel, and Shark, and Tiger, and check them for bruising.

Finally, the story must be repeated back to us on paper in a language, not mine, and narrated in targets we have missed and the curriculum areas we might like to review. Someone will be back next year to make sure we take their advice, address our failings, and comply. After all, Article 29 says that education must conform to standards laid down by the state.

Maybe it's best to let the state tell you the story. Then it can be assessable, quantifiable, controllable. Only this story, the one someone else tells you, someone in power, CRB checked and vetted, only they can provide you with any assurance that an education was done here today.

So I'd better be careful. I won't mention the unicorns. That's babyish, and my children should be past that developmental age. And I'd better keep quiet about the republic. Children aged ten do not talk about the difference of monarchy, republic and empire. Maybe age 16. Maybe not at all. Not my class of children, anyway. Leave that to the ruling class.

Clearly we're treading on dangerous ground. Someone will say, we don't want talk like that in this country. It's not the story we want to tell. Shh! Don't speak it. Be fearful of the consequence.

Then here's my story.

I showed my daughters the world. We felt the wind on our faces, trod in the footsteps of our history, and we each owned our time.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Shut up. You're going.

After breakfast I walk the kids over to the University of Southampton.

I don't make them start from Buckinghamshire, obviously, as the distance to cover is maybe a hundred miles. Shark cannot walk that far before lunch. I did think about it, because of the cost of petrol. But no. I am indulgent. We stay overnight at the Premier Inn.

(I may write about the Premier Inn later, because I love them, and I wonder if I can do a deal where I get free vegetarian sausages for the rest of my life?)

Anyway, we have come to the University of Southampton because it's the Ocean and Earth Day. Don't say you didn't know!

I have an obvious reason to come here, at the dropping-off point of England. I gave birth to a long-haired fish fan. It's that simple. There is no option but to bring her. Soon I may receive an invite from the local library near Nether Wallop saying Hey Grit! We have a new book in the library on the black tip reef shark! Do you want to bring Shark over to praise it? And I will think about this invite for one second before replying We'll be right there! We will stay in the Premier Inn overnight and eat their delicious mouth watering vegetarian sausages for breakfast!

But I have to bring Squirrel and Tiger too. I believe Social Services might have something to say about my other idea of locking them in the house for three days with a can opener and a selection of baked beans.

Well I pay for the decision one way or another. Squirrel and Tiger have been sulking that they are forced to come and they never have anything they want and Shark has everything and we have to tour the entire universe worshipping swim bladders and that is so unfair because horses have tails and there are black holes and why can't we look at those instead?

SHUT UP. YOU'RE GOING seems to be the only answer to complaints of that sort, which I hope you do with your offspring too. Reminding kids of the time we drove 150 miles to the planetarium, or the month we put up five hundred quid to sit on a horse on the Isle of Wight - that is all totally pointless. Kids only ever remember the grudge. That time you forced them to wear clothes when they didn't want to? Outside, in the rain? You unreasonable parent!

So here we are at the Ocean and Earth Day, and Shark pushes off to do her own thing because frankly the family is embarrassing. OK, on that she is right. You should see us. And I have hair! On my head!

Somehow the rest of us end up in the geology department. Tiger spends a long time, and I mean a long time, staring transfixed at the earthquake machine. So long in fact that the guy there might start to feel it is a bit creepy and weird, having a little kid in a fluffy coat totally blown away with his construction.

But let me first say Tiger is right to be hypnotised because it was a fantastic earthquake machine. It is the sort of earthquake machine that makes me proud to be British. Two bricks joined together by an elastic connector. The sort of stretchy connector you use to keep the boot of your car held down, so you aren't stopped by the police when you drive your old wardrobe to the dump.

But I know something that the guy explaining the tension and balance of the earthquake machine doesn't know. That Tiger will be building one of these the minute she arrives home. She has been experimenting trying to make unicorns fly for something like four years and I know for sure she is staring at that contraption and thinking balance and tension and forces and SPRING and CATAPULT and LANDING. So that is a horse-shape mythical being and Newtonian forces covered all at once, thank you very much.

Then I turn round and there is Squirrel. Now Squirrel does not move for two hours, except maybe to shuffle along the benches a little. Squirrel is copying down every bit of written information she possibly can about rocks. And fossils. And more rocks. And rocks.

Hello Squirrel! What are you doing?

I must write this down!

Do you want to come over to engineering and pilot a submarine?

No! I must write this down!

And that's what she did. Till the end of the day. All the pages of information that Squirrel did not manage to write down before the security staff made us leave the building on threat of prosecution I had to photograph to write out at home.

But I do not mind. Really. Because I turn to Squirrel and say, Squirrel, why do you need to write it all out? And she shouts in total urgency, like she might explode internally with the pressure of it, Because I want to be a geologist!

And that is possibly one very proud parent moment. Because now I know I was right to drag her over the Chilterns four years ago to listen to the geology group leader for two hours explain about lower, middle and upper chalk, while she complained that her feet hurt and all the time in the rain I forced her to wear a coat.

Friday, 19 March 2010

There are Celts. Somewhere.

It is so completely typical of the Grit family that I travel miles with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to meet one of England's finest countrysides - an area of outstanding natural beauty, no less - where we may step into time-stopped ancient lands, breathe deep the air of the Celts and, now each of us is lord, feel this land of England beneath our feet - only to arrive and tilt sideways into a ditch, unable to see my hand in front of my fizzog.

We are at Butser Iron Age Farm, Hampshire, and the rolling hill fog clears...

...but not by much.

Behold, the breathtaking view!

English drizzle, there is plenty. And more mist. And rain. And more drizzle. It may be genuine Celtic drizzle.

Then there is this.

Not snow. Don't get carried away. That is chalk bashing, by mallet. It's just one of the things we English folk like to do in rainsoaked greysodden fields. Accept it, and life is easier.

Soon, because now we are socially aspirational Celts, shortly to become Romano British, we will re-engineer a Roman archway. Mostly by making Squirrel hold up fifteen bricks on one side...

...until we conclude that this is a stupid way to build a Roman arch. The Romans would never do it like this. They would never have had Squirrels strong enough.

Make Shark hold it up instead.

But then! The mists roll themselves away, folding up over the hillside, and there, in the hard set rain, unfurls before us a true iron age settlement...

...complete with the bloke who built the rooves, and who tells us a thing or two about living in the iron age, and how these poncey days we are weedy sissies who think a carpet is a minimum living standard when it is merely proof of our poncey living sissyness.

Soon, he scorns, we will be taking ourselves off to the Roman villa built next door, and then prove to all the world we are the soft bellied comfort seeking jessies he suspected all along.

But of this site, Absolutely brilliant, says Shark. Iron age and Romano British, side by side. A slice of time. In rain, mist, fog, drizzle, cold, and cloud.

Absolutely brilliant. I agree. And that too from a wet, ditch-bashed, chalk-splattered Grit. You can take that as a recommendation, and visit there, soon.

If you can find it.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The school calls this a valuable learning experience (and charges you a tenner)

If I wake up in the night screaming at the horror of what I'm about to do - and I do scream, often, because my brain routinely serves up great midnight dollops of fear - then I have only to think of the circumstance that is the school visit, and my night sweat passes.

We see school visits on our travels, often. When we home educators get inside a museum, or a gallery, or any of the theme park 'educational experiences' on offer, like Britain being bombed even while you sit there, we invariably interact with the school visit. And this is what I see.

1. A lot of queuing. Children queue, and wait. And while they queue and wait, they are shouted at. I think that's called socialisation.

2. The shouting is done by adults, and often takes the form of words like 'if you were listening you will know that you must work with a partner' or 'you have ten minutes at each table and you must share' or 'complete each worksheet before you move onto the next activity'. Nothing about the Romans, then. Nor the Tudors. Nor the World Wars, or the artist, or the science, or whatever we might all be sharing this space to see. No. Instructions about organisation of people, or the flows, positioning, queuing and movement of bodies; information about routines and requirements. Any type of social control really, usually issued by covert threats, or reminders of threats previously issued on the bus on the way in. I guess this bit is called socialisation too.

3. Movement of children to designated areas with reminders about time. Movement is usually accompanied by adults strangely waving their arms, like semaphore. I've noticed this. Some teachers lift up both arms and flap them about a bit like they are struggling to fly. They will never manage it, holding those clipboards. Since the adults are doing this and the clipboards they hold contain the day's targets, I guess this is education.

4. The students are permitted to do things (but only for ten minutes). Now, this is what I saw. A crocodile line of children came into the discovery gallery. They did the queuing and the listening to the shouting and then they were off! Freedom to discover! One little primary school kid queued at Henry the Cycling Skeleton. He wanted to sit on the bicycle and see Henry (who is a skeleton) cycle along too. Henry shows you how your skeleton articulates and how your different joints work. The little boy queued and queued. After a while, the teacher shouted to all the children to line up as a crocodile again so everyone could move to the next gallery. And the little boy went too. He never sat on the bicycle, because the queue never reached him. But now no-one was queueing for Henry, and I felt sorry for the little boy who looked glum and resigned. I would've hailed him back, out of that crocodile, had I been brave enough. And I don't know whether his experience was called socialisation or education.

5. Management of errant individuals. This is a problem. Isn't there always one? This is what I saw at the Science Museum. A secondary school party was in, and something caught a girl's eye. Not a smiling Romeo, beckoning. Not a large slab of cake, dribbling chocolate. Nor a desirable pair of sparkling shoes. None of those. A display about magnets. So she impulsively left the school group and went to it, with her arms outstretched. Seconds later, a booming voice rang out across the gallery, and she was hauled back, slinking miserably to the group, head hung, bright red face. Definitely socialisation.

6. Sometimes I earwig over the teachers talk. I know I shouldn't. But I'll use the excuse that I used to be one. I know it's no excuse really. I can't help myself. Anyway, I want to know what job they're doing. I hear different things. Sometimes I hear a member of staff really enthuse about what they're looking at, and try and communicate something that's exciting, or surprising, or wonderful. I want to hug that teacher, and give them a big smackeroo. I can tell you they're rare. Mostly the staff talk about the students, and the day, or the timetable, the buses, or the staffroom politics. Could go either way. Socialisation? Education? Luck of the draw.

7. At 2.30 everything falls quiet. The buses go back to the schools. The place closes at five. We home educators have it to ourselves, and will potter about, doing as much or as little as we need to fulfil our investigations. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are free to choose. They have time, and space. They might puzzle over exhibits, spend an hour with one display, demand photographs are taken, copy down notes, draw pictures, talk together, ask questions. Usually, at 5.15, we'll be thrown out too, by a tired looking bloke jangling keys.

If I wake up at midnight, fretting that we're doing it all wrong, worrying that our lifestyle won't help, what if my kids are destined to be forever illiterate, homeless, unsocialised, running squealers who cannot tell the difference between right and left, up and down? Well then, I'll think about the school party, and be consoled that at least I only paid £6.50 to get in.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

I think it marks twenty years

Midway through our madness, many years ago, Dig and me were still in love and thought anything possible.

Then we had the idea that from the house we would like to walk underground, to walk enclosed and yet outside, and come back through an arched frame into the warm and loving arms of the house proper. So we did that. We made that happen.

Or rather, a small part of it. We bought up the time and workforce of a local builder and they dug a trench, moved pipes, inserted walls and skylights and we called the funny shaped indoor, outdoor, underground space, a gallery. It is a short walk outside the house, underground, and back into the house.

After the children were born, I filled up the gallery with boxes and junk and wardrobe and clothes I'd never wear again and no-one walked anywhere there, inside or outside.

But I would just like to announce, if only to myself today, that now it is not filled up with those things. It is filled up with desk, and books, and games, and daughters.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Furniture took over my brain

Well I looked at Squirrel and said, That's a good idea. We can put a desk in the basement bedroom just for you. First I'll move the wardrobe.

I moved the wardrobe to the middle of the carpet. Then I brought the desk downstairs that had been a table upstairs. There was a table downstairs and I took that apart and carried it upstairs. But then I had a wardrobe in the middle of the floor.

So I took the wardrobe upstairs and wondered where to put it. First I moved two big boxes filled with fabric for sewing and I put them in the middle of the floor. That left a space. But the wardrobe was too big for the space. So I said to Squirrel, Fetch a saw.

Then I had a go at sawing off a bit of the wardrobe so that it would fit in the space but the saw didn't have enough sharp teeth after I used it last week on the tree, so I said to daddy Dig, Can I borrow your jigsaw? The one you used yesterday to cut up the bookcase I put in the back bedroom when I took down the shelf and brought the chair downstairs?

And Dig said No. I will do the jigsawing. And I hope he doesn't saw through the main gas pipe again like last time.

When Dig sawed a bit off the wardrobe I put it in the new place and it looks horrible. So tomorrow I will move it to the other side of the room where it will look nice and it will fit.

But to make both the wardrobe and the chest of drawers fit I will have to move the chest of drawers together with the box where I keep the bedding and swap that over with the box where we keep the spare bags and I will put those spare bags under the eaves but first I must move the Christmas tree and the boardgames from the box on the landing and move that downstairs along with the other chair and then I will swap over the table and move the chair that was upstairs, downstairs.


P.S. Maybe now I am not so sure about the cut-down wardrobe. Dig says with that curtain in place it looks like a confessional for dwarves.

Monday, 15 March 2010

I've been here before

After several days thinking about it, I come to the conclusion that the best way to counter prejudice, blinkered attitude, social snobbery and wilful ignorance is to go up to the rooftops and shout out what I know to be true.

That home education works, regardless of which social class you are told you belong to. That home education benefits children of all abilities. That home education creates inquiring, socially active, engaged children who know how to learn. That home education produces scholars, poets, craftspeople, engineers, all trades, all professions. That home education benefits families and strengthens communities without regulation or control by the state. That home education builds confidence, independence, and tolerance in people of all ages.

Baroness Deech, if you have a mission, then so have I.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Mother's Day reward

Remind me not to have a Mother's Day celebration 2011.

I got a pot plant. I am not complaining.

It's just that the ads say I get a smiling mother, blond, size 8 and aged 26, surrounded by adoring, cute children, expensive flowers, a handsome husband, a perfect house, and chocolates. What happened to that? Not living up to expectations, that's what.

After a week of perpetually asking Is it Mother's Day today? Shark and Tiger completely forgot about it. Until Squirrel walks in with a primrose pot plant and a smirk. She has foresight. She peeled Daddy Dig off his computer at 11 this morning for a quick trip to the local hardware store which closes just before the neighbours complain about the planks of wood and chicken wire ruining Sunday lunch.

When Squirrel walks in with the pot plant, all hell breaks out. Shark and Tiger plunge into recognition, shock and panic. Now they too must produce a present. The present must be hand made because Daddy Dig says the ironmonger who sells pot plants shuts at midday and no he's not going round the back and upsetting the neighbours and everyone shut up about the pot plants.

After that, things went downhill. Downhill mixed with flaming inferno and some circles of hell, complete with screaming, tears and heads ripped off to be eaten by demons. At some moment in the trauma there was the pause to consider embroidering a 6x4 linen tablecloth with birds of paradise. For a few moments, that seemed possible. It really did, even with no embroidery thread and no needle and no time machine to make it complete for mama waking up for breakfast on Mother's Day six hours previously.

But of course I seized the opportunity of ten seconds silence and made a peace settlement, because that is what mothers do. I said for Mother's Day I would buy embroidery thread and take a book out the library. And I'd be happy to embroider the thing myself once we bought the cloth.

Well, the peace settlement was never going to work. Tensions were running too high. It was doomed to failure; almost immediately overtaken by some bilateral Tiger-Shark agreement to blame each other for no cloth, and chase the evil sister round the house screaming blue murder.

By 2.30 it was a thankful motherly point at which I could shove a hot cheese and onion pasty at the offspring faces and wrestle the lot of them out of the house to go and hear the Bedford Sinfonia play Peter and the Wolf at the Corn Exchange. Listening to Peter's near-death experience with a ferocious man-eating wolf was light relief; it stemmed the tears, and made everyone look forward to Daddy's baked potato surprise.

I have to say, ladies, it's OK. I don't need Mother's Day to know I am your mother, and neither do you need Mother's Day to show me your love by tablecloth or otherwise.

I know I am your mother because the lot of you are as awkward, obstinate, hysterical and gripped as I am by the notion that only perfection is good enough, and nothing else will do. Anything which looks like a compromise to a one hundred per cent achievement on a minute-by-minute basis will be a total failure and the universe may as well not exist. In fact, let me press the self-destruct button now.

But I have learned a few things too, little grits. I can tell you that great personal strengths come from public failure. I can say that the best way to regain your balance is not by giant leaps from nothingness to being: from deep holes of despair to a completed, perfectly embroidered tablecloth. You can fight despair in little steps. Little steps take us to an even, steady pace, where we can breathe deep, stand up, see with perspective, calibrate success and failure, and know that even if there is no fantastic tablecloth laid out for breakfast, embroidered with birds of paradise almost living in the cloth! then that is OK. Because there are successes in its place.

For me, those successes are being here, alive, watching you grow, and knowing that you are mine, and I can wrap my arms around you, and give your wriggling little faces my big big squeezy mummy kiss, with huggy bosom and slobbery lips and all.

For you, your success will be standing still, and letting me do it. Little by little, year by year. Even though long into our futures you may be aged 24 and standing with your boyfriend at the cheese counter in Tesco, wishing Mother's Day could be quietly sorted with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocs.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

It can't be a day out in Cambridge for the science festival, can it?

Children who are not in school could be missing out on vital educational and social opportunities and experiences. Some of them may be at risk of harm or be in situations that are unsafe.
Children who are not in school are at greater risk of involvement in criminal activity and becoming victims of crime themselves. There is also a higher risk that these children will be victims of abuse.

- Local Authority guidance. Probably for a Local Authority near you.
Grit is not a lady to go out of her way to upset anyone, obviously. Therefore today I will do my best for Shark, Squirrel, and Tiger, and try not to disappoint the Local Authority. They know what they're talking about, after all. Surely they don't get called an Authority for nothing.

Here we go. I have found a vital educational experience! That should please everyone. And the children can't miss this. The park and ride bus to Cambridge city centre.

Next, I must provide a vital social opportunity. Like wait in this queue nicely for nearly half an hour and no screaming. That is quite some social skill. Then we can all see a lecture by the Naked Scientists.

Those scientists weren't even naked! You see, nothing is ever what it advertises in this weird world.

Now I know that the Local Authority says if my children are not in school today then they may be at risk of harm or be in situations that are unsafe.

I ensured my children were kept safe from harm as we later staggered about the streets of Cambridge at 6pm looking for cheap pizza eats.

Don't cross the road, Squirrel! It's harmful!

Phew. Safe from harm now.

Next, I must be aware that as Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are not in school today there may be a greater risk of involvement in criminal activity.

See that woman in the red coat? She is clearly suspicious. Avoid her. She might be a criminal and try to involve us in something. Like stealing diamonds or smuggling red coats. If she comes any closer Shark, make a citizen's arrest.

yet I must be aware that Shark, Squirrel and Tiger may become victims of crime themselves. And victims of abuse.

Oh dear. I have failed.

We all became victims of the crime known as Caffe Uno. It was not my fault. They had a lovely waitress who lured us into the lair of cheap pizzadom. She was so astonishingly patient for the 25 minutes it took Tiger to decide whether she wanted her pasta straight or curly - this alone should have given me a clue as to their dastardly plan to feed us, cheaply.

Clearly, I have failed in my struggle for the moral high ground.

The Local Authority may inspect my innards. I have caused abuse by cheese and tomato pizza in the highways and byways of Cambridge city centre. I confess.

Hang my head in shame.