Sunday, 31 October 2010

Stop everything and watch Mr Panda

I know I shouldn't be rolling about clutching my sides like a ten year old but I am. Just shut up, OK? And if you get the ads, turn them off, because I can't. (Except for the ad about the cheese, obviously. Just forgive me.)

(It's especially for Ellibee)

Saturday, 30 October 2010

You know a way of living when it goes

Finally, I found the island bakers. Turn off the road through the village, follow the pink concrete wall of the toilet behind the hole in the road. There's a little baker's counter hidden beneath the overhanging green awning that reads Beerlao. For the past two months I thought it was the hotel Bali breakfast bar.

That's what I'll answer, if anyone asks. I'll also say that, for my taste, their bread's too salty, six raisins do not deserve the title raisin bread, and I miss Dove's Farm wholemeal something chronic.

The fact that it took me over two months of living here to find the bakery tells me something too. It's another of the difficulties I discover, half-way perched up a hill on an outlying island in Hong Kong. I have few neighbours, fewer I can call on as friends, and fewer still to whom I can remember to ask, as we cross paths on the ferry pier, By the way, is there a bakery on this island?

I can talk to people like that at home. There, we live along an ordinary street; across the way I can turn here, there, and ask, Will you help us out? Are you going in that direction too?

By the way - and despite what you read in newspapers and popular books - never for one moment think that people who choose a lifestyle built around an alternative education somehow lack friends. That we stare mournful and listless out the window and wonder, What's going on? How can I ever meet anyone again? No. I don't do that at home, in England. I do that here, in Hong Kong. Along with the wish that someone would stop me in the street and give me a leaflet for a local baker.

There's one group of people who are - by their language and looks - obvious targets for new-found island friends. The ones like me. The expats.

But it is hard. I am not a good expat. Walking back from the ferry pier in the early evening, through the small town where I pass the English bar with the blowsy blonde tipped at the front seat on the corner, the seat that comes accompanied with a red-faced beer-bellied man pitched forward on his elbows, I shudder. I think, I hope I never become like her. Somehow, I do not think that sudden response is a good basis for friendship.

I have met people here of course, but mostly they are off the island, working, busy with their own families, filled with the concerns of their own lives. I have made friends Hong Kong wide, too, thanks to our home educating ways, and they grow more valuable to me as the days pass by. We can talk about bread as suitable fodder for hungry kid bellies. But they can't tell me where the island baker lives, nor whether they have bread by 1pm on a Saturday afternoon. (No.)

Perhaps it's a reflection of my own shortcomings. I cannot say I am totally alone on this island, nor that I recognise no-one here. In passing on the street to buy eggs and pak choi, it feels lovely to raise my hand, smile, wave, and in recognition, shout Hi!

I admit, sometimes I may do that a little too enthusiastically. I did it once by accident, when I wasn't wearing my glasses, and assumed the long hair and slender frame belonged to someone else. As I grew closer and her face fell into focus, I thought, Bugger. I've never seen the woman before. I'm glad she smiled and waved back though, even if she did look puzzled.

But I found the baker's. At last. The bread's too salty, the raisin bread is disappointing, and can you air-lift emergency supplies of Dove's Farm? You see, there's a missing bit of my life. Another bit gone. A comforting bit about knowing where I am, where things are, people I can reach out to, places I can touch and, without a moment's hesitation, find bread that tastes good, and that I can just take for granted.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Winter in the tropics

Jane, the children's art teacher, tells me it's winter. She must be right. Under my stare, the humidity needle slid back down to 40%. The temperature needle followed suit and backtracked too, then steadied itself defiantly just below red.

If I doubted the dials, the evidence is in front of my eyes. On my morning shop I watch the fashion girls stride past in their wraparound woollens and thick lined military boots. Their dark eyes are fixed ahead to their own distant horizons.

They stride past me, as I stand at the corner shop, and I can see they ignore it all. The broken up pavements of the island, the holes in the road, the narrow streets with tin roofs and plastic flapping awnings, the free ranging dogs, the grubby road workers in hard hats, and the young men who sit astride their village vehicles in the way Clint Eastwood might straddle a horse: one hand on a thigh and a downward glance of cool contempt.

The girls march right past them. They pass the elderly woman with the crumpled face who sells beancurd and onions from her squatting position on the corner; the waiters lifting breakfast dumplings from wet bamboo steamers; the old men in torn cotton tee shirts who sit of a morning on the steps of the place that I can never tell: I don't know whether it's a local bar, a shop, or a community meeting point.

Those fashion girls march through it all. Shoulder bags swinging, hands in pockets, faces expressionless. Their course is set for the island's pier. Here they catch the half-hourly boat for the glitzy life on Hong Kong Island. It's a mere twenty-five minutes away by ferry, and the sea route's the only way to get there. But what it is to be over there! There you can live out a life on the parade paths of the shopping malls.

And the huge public information display at the island pier ticktocks between the time and the temperature. 8.35: 29C.

These Hong Kong girls in their dark tights, heavy coats, fur lined boots, striding through the morning heat haze. I think, you need to be in a northern climate to wear your belted booted wool. You need to feel where the mulchy end of autumn meets the sharp edge of winter. You need to feel real, raw air on your face; not the synthetic cold dry wind chugged out from overworked beige air conditioning units set to high cool, with a thermostat dial fixed to 3, and the air swing jammed on.

In England, at this time, I bet it's cold. You breathe it in, that cold; feel it like a slice to the inside of your nose and cheeks and throat. It's exhilarating. You need your fingers held then in gloves and mittens, and all the better if you have a child hand to grasp. Their hands are warm and you get to laugh at their red button noses and pinked cheeks as you make your way gingerly down the frosted back lane.

I hold that thought in my head for a moment while I lift six eggs from the basket at the grocer's and watch the Hong Kong glamour girls stride past. This year, that's all an English winter is: a memory. And I've probably made it better than it is. The children don't let me hold their hands now, not even when I put out my outstretched fingers to cross the icy roads.

Making things better than they are is what fond memory and homesickness does. I know that by an English February, I'm weary of the limitations made on me by short days, cold mornings and permanently wet wellingtons. I'm wishing it would end and I'm willing spring would come. Respite comes in the form of birthdays. Other celebrations I make up deliberately to pass the time.

But I'm missing some of it. The first days of winter in England are chilling and thrilling. The best days are spent crunching across some field where we can examine frozen clumps of soil, bare twigs, rocks, and tilted horizons meeting a bright blue sky. I can point and say, that's our destination, and it's hidden only by the clump of trees on the left and the dip and curve of land to the right.

Better still, I don't much care what we wear, so long as it's dry and warm. I pick up old jumpers from the one pound bins at the charity shops and think, those will do well for muddy field walking. I can throw them in the back of the car and keep them there for when we set our sights on that direction and I need another layer; one more to add to the two and the woolly vest already padding me out. With two pairs of socks and the scarf Squirrel brought home one day from the market, that will make an outfit, and it won't matter that the socks are odd.

I have to let it go, just for this year, and only imagine the cloud of ice air forming from my breath in an early morning. The children are still happily dressing in their English summer frocks, careless of the thinning, fading red print roses, now creeping up from their knees to their thighs. Me, I'll put on the same worn cotton tops and the brown linen skirt where the stitching is unpicking at the hem. It's lasted all summer. No matter. In this Hong Kong winter, it probably has a few more months yet to run.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Me and Vladimir, we have the same problems

I look like Vladimir Putin.

His is black. Mine is red. I don't know how he sustained his injury. I like to imagine. Mine, I know. I was in a punch up with a mosquito. The sly cheating scoundrel, it waited for my off guard in the night, then skewered me just below the left eye.

I bet it's the sort of miserable cheat who hovered there, taking its time to choose a final victim. It looked at us both, me and Dig, and decided to choose the juiciest and most attractively tender of the pair. The one whose perfume was sweetest, and whose non-whistling, non-hairy face was a joy to destroy.

Well, you can see I look on the bright side. There is one, even to a night time penetration by uninvited enemy who inserts poison fluid by mouth part, because there is always a bright side, you can be sure of that.

For once, I have cheek bone. OK, maybe not the actual bone, and more the swollen, outward turning, high born appearance of a bone somewhere in the vicinity of a cheek. If you look at it from a distance, with your eyes half squinting. Close up, it looks suspiciously like someone punched me in the face.

These days I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I bet I'm right when I say that while the world speculates what happened to my looky-likey Vladimir Putin, no-one round here will notice any difference in me.

Dig certainly won't notice, until he reads this, then shuffles out from behind the mound of printed paper in his office to find me and peer at me. The children won't notice, unless my new grown distinguishing feature is shaped like the absence of breakfast. And no familiar friend will stop me in the street to express concern, lay their hand on my arm and say, Good grief, what happened to you? No. No one will do that. To people round here, I'm just another foreigner face and an ugly one at that, with wild hair, big nose and rolling goose eyeballs.

So I've come here for an online cuddle. I would photograph my bashed up cheek and show you the full horror, but it would put you off your breakfast. You might never come here again.

I'd say it's always worth popping back to grit's day. You never know what happens round here. One day it's a mosquito, and the next it might be news that I've been in a bar room brawl with a political aide in a naked drunken vodka fight over who has the supreme right to rule Russia.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Park day

A home education group met at a park today. The children ran off to play, and we mothers laid out blankets on the grass, propped up flasks, steadied picnic tubs and handbags, and settled down to talk over all the important stuff. Strange food, smelly drains, trains that don't run and kids who won't eat.

We must have looked like any group of ordinary women, sitting and chatting in the park for hours. But a passer-by could never tell that no matter how easily we sit together, we're brought here from many different places.

From the inside of that circle, I thought, is it unusual to come and live in an unfamiliar place, meet very different people, yet find women with whom you immediately feel comfortable and strangely at home? Why is that?

Our common bond is that we're all outsiders. These women know what I know; that travelling around the world to be dropped in new continents, while simultaneously following a husband and towing along kids, is a strange off-balancing experience.

Move from one country to another, and you find that somewhere between the times and cultures, both your feet are lifted off the ground. Maybe that air-lifted displacement is still a honeymoon romance. Maybe not. It could be single-minded determination to keep children with their fathers. It could be resolving to bring families together, or guarding against the months sliding by before the person you married drops back into your world, and you catch yourself wondering, Who on earth is he? And what does he think he's doing here?

There are other things we women in this park group know too: the direction we set our faces sometimes means work we sacrificed, friends we left behind, familiar and safe routines of hours and climates and foods given up. They gave us our sense of home. Now, we have to recreate home comfort from scratch.

It all messes with your who-you-are. Here, I simultaneously have the daily responsibility for the family well being. Yet my significance is taken away. In this world, I'm just another ex-pat foreigner wife. I can be easily defined and looked beyond; tagged like another baggage item moving on the conveyor belt of a man's working world.

And there is the other thing. The children we don't send to school. We women sitting in this circle know what it is to experience all this loss of anchor and change of status, yet we still have that imperative to navigate competing kids between learning everyday in strange places, through new people, books, places to visit, and things to know.

But this off-balanced life, what does it do to us? You're not allowed to say, I've had enough. I'm homesick. I'm fed up of the price of breakfast cereal. I hate the way people shuffle along the pavements in flip flops. Why do they have to crawl along at the speed of a turtle scaling a cliff face?

You're not allowed to say those things. You have to say, Isn't this fantastic? What would you like to eat? Shall we go shopping, but this time let's give it three hours and make a day of it! Not one hour for a quick dash! Sometimes I practice quietly saying these words in my bedroom first. I worry that if I say them without care I'll hit the wrong note for conviction.

I'm glad I can share those doubts and feelings here. This is an open space in the park to talk, miles away from listening ears. We get to confess and best each other in betrayals and crimes and evil ways. Who yelled hardest, loudest, longest. The women who are there, what enormous and profound depths of goodwill they have. I can hear laughter, and that feels best of all.

It's a relief, and all the better for a cool sunny day with clear blue skies, fragrant flowers and children who don't keep running up to listen in and ask, What are you talking about? Those children are always mine. But not today, which makes the afternoon as near as perfect as it gets.

But sad too, because some friendships, you wish you could keep them and nurture them. These women, they're my type of women. They're resourceful, determined, and strong. They're made like that. They don't give in. They stand on their terms. They are unique and individual. You can't pigeonhole them, tell them they're 1950s pinny women, ex-pat wives, women who probably have it all, nor that they're subservient to anyone. They've made the space they're in.

Over time, I'd like to find out which of these friendships would last, which ones would fall away to a distant nod, and which ones I'd suffer for. I probably won't get that far. In this thin slice of world - the expat home ed global wandering world - I know that people will come and go; one day I'll turn up at the park and wonder, Why don't I see so-and-so? Then someone will say maybe they put the kids in school, the contract finished, the kids needed to go back home, grandma is ill, or another country promising a different life took them away.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Living in the past

Today, the Hong Kong Museum of History.

I love it, even before I get though the doors. I say to the children, If you would prefer, we can spend the afternoon at the Science Museum. I will take you to see Doctor Death and his safety data sheet. Remember? He orchestrates all the singing chemicals. Brother Corrosive, Aunty Acid. That sort of thing. You can learn about different ways to experience mutilation on building sites in Hong Kong, and then find out how an escalator works. Or, and here is your other choice, you can spend the afternoon with me at the Museum of History. I will buy cake on the way, give you spending money, show you where the gift shop is, and you can do what you like once we're inside, because this time I'm having the audio tour clamped to my head. No pressure either way. It's totally your choice.

As luck would have it, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger made the right decision. The museum was quiet and spacious and crowd free. The children went on ahead. They can direct and control their own histories. Left to my own devices, I got to play all afternoon with my geological time blocks. Then I chose some new neolithic buddies - the ones found on Lamma Island - and I added more play pals to my gang from the Shang to the Q'ing. I had tea-time around the Opium Wars before spinning forward into the twentieth century. There's a street in the Museum of History, and when I'm grown up, I'm going back to live there. I can spend all afternoon between the strange curiosities of the herbal medicine shop and the familiar smells of the tea shop. And I like staring at the ancient Singer sewing machine on display at the tailors, thinking, we've got one of those at home. Wait till I tell my mum.

By five o'clock, Shark has found me in my hiding place round by the Japanese Occupation and she's tugging at my sleeve and reminding me about going home and eating more sticky buns like I promised.

I have to crunch the gear changes in my head to bring myself back to responsibility again. I have to give up the narrator who's happily wandered in and out my head all afternoon from the audio headset, and I'm given control of things and moments when bags and water bottles are thrust at me. Then I must be in charge of people when demands are made of me to show everyone where the toilets are, and explain how the taps work. Worse, I have to change my whole step and speed and focus when I leave one of my most favourite museums to enter the teeming Hong Kong street. From here, I have to navigate three other bodies back to the Star Ferry. It's also my job, apparently, not to lose anyone on the way.

Hong Kong, Kowloon side - one of the most densely populated and busiest commercial areas in the world - is thronging. I'd call it rush hour, but it's difficult to find an hour when the streets aren't pulsing with people. They are lifeblood to the city; they bring it alive. And there are thousands of us on the streets at any one time, this, our here and now.

I lose the children the moment we join the people flow. Or, rather, I set off travelling down the street and hope my children are following close behind. Sometimes I quickly glance behind me and check; often I cannot. This is one reason why London in their early years remained out of bounds: I have two hands and three children. We had to wait for the point where they no longer needed to walk side by side, and didn't reach out for a hand to hold.

Now, in Hong Kong, they are older, and I trust them not to demand their own pace, but to fit the crowd and follow. There are safe moments when I can turn to check my foot passengers; mostly when we all slow our pace uniformly to a shuffle. Not otherwise. I daren't, in full people flow, try any sudden stop, backward turn, or overtaking manoeuvre with fancy side-stepping footwork. I would cause street wide mayhem. People travelling towards me could not predict my sudden change of sideways direction; those at the side of me would startle with my sudden change of speed. We would all crash in a heap. Then let me see how far my Cantonese for sorry sorry sorry takes me with several thousand crumpled bodies.

I suspect this is the Hong Kong that drives Tiger mad. You have to fit in. You have to travel this length as everyone else does. Step foot on these streets and you simply have an unspoken obligation to the rest of the seven million people sharing this communal space. That is, do not overtake each other. Move politely in a socially minded citizen manner at all times and you will arrive safely at your destination.

This can be awkward. I can find myself walking step by step, in time for a whole street's length, together with a young Asian girl who is more beautiful, taller and elegant than me. By far. In England if we were moving on the street squeezed tightly this close, someone would imagine I was trying to be her boyfriend. Here, she won't be intolerant, tut, bat an eyelid, nor flick her head to stare at you suspiciously. Neither will the other several thousand people moving slowly with and around you. They're walking ridiculously close to you, too. We are all just people moving, and we all move like this, shoulder to shoulder, step in time. It's the only way to walk.

Thanks to the enormous tolerance despite our diversity, we make our final destination maybe an hour later. The timings all worked and the travel went smoothly. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger tell Dig over dinner what bits of Hong Kong history we learned today and how the gift shop is too expensive, although the pandas are reasonable.

I can say, well, today I saw the future. One day, we'll all be so crowded together on this planet, you'll navigate like me. Not by stars, but by neon signs. I shout backwards to my fellow street travellers, Turn right by the pink Wah Cheung! Cross the road by French Connection! Turn left by the red Wing Fook! Stop at Loo's Fat Eats! I can tell you now, it seems to work. My tribe make it across Kowloon like that. My tribe, me, and thousands upon thousands of others, all moved in time, but no-one else listened, and if they did, they didn't show, because I didn't pick up anyone else along the way.

Monday, 25 October 2010

That question I'm ashamed to ask

Today I finished reading David Almond, so I can put the tissues away.

It reminded me how a little while ago, I posted a question on a parenting forum, then sat back and watched the tumbleweed roll across the screen. If it could be so, the response was less than zero. Which made me think, how out of the world I really am. I must be spinning off for my own planet of one. I am disconnecting, living this, with not one foot in England and not one foot in China.

Anyway, the question was, what books for children make you weep?

I'm almost ashamed to admit it. There I was, blubbing over Michael Morpurgo and weeping into my arms thanks to John Boyne. Mostly, it is true, while Shark, Squirrel and Tiger sat on the sofa rolling their eyes and urging Just get on with it.

I have no defence. I thought it was normal. I may have been doing it for years. I probably shed a tear or two over Eeyore and even blown my nose with Dr Seuss. Don't tell me that the soup snoopers passed you by!

Maybe I have some sort of emotional trip hazard. But don't think all books for kids do this to me. Certainly not the Magic Kitten. I so mercilessly mocked that one, it has become part of the family retelling. Remember the pain we all had to suffer when we made mother read the Magic Kitten? And the fairy trash? And the pony trash?

But I can't be alone. Can I? I hardly dare ask, but are there any children's books that make you weep? But I might not check the comments for two years, so I have time to come to terms with life on a solitary planet.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Errors of judgement

Today I abandoned the children. That's one judgement I don't regret.

I left them at home, playing a game called Time Zone. It's the one where baby animals live different realities. They must meet each other and, at the point of their lives crossing, tell each other to perform bizarre activities.

The game took an ugly turn when a player pretending to be a kitten thought it was a capital idea to instruct a rabbit to throw dolly off the roof. That idea didn't go down well, even though last week it was a fine idea to launch dolly naked from the top floor strapped to an umbrella. That, apparently, was good. This week, tying her to a length of nylon cord and launching her off the roof, hopefully towards a distant banana tree? Certainly not.

Stupidly, I tried to muscle in. I suggested, to appease all parties, that dolly could wear a parachute. It didn't help. I offered my reasons because, and made the argument worse. In a huff, I said maybe it was better then to absent my reasons completely. As all eyes turned on me, there was no option but to take a walk, one which usually lasts no more than thirty minutes at a quick step. That should be just enough time for dolly's fate to be decided one way or another.

I left the players arguing about kittens and rope, and climbed up the steep path behind the house. If I turn left, then left again, and keep going, I reach the hill top, where I can watch the blades of Lamma Island wind turbine shush shush shush the air.

It's not the only attraction. There are panels, instructing me in worthy environmental messages, and an electronic counter, which proudly displays the electricity created by a tropical wind. It's a popular spot. Don't mention this is Hong Kong's only large-scale wind turbine, and they need ten dozen more. The views, anyway, are beautiful, across the bays and inlets, to distant mountains, towards the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island.

There's something else too. Behind the stall of the man who sells chilled drinks and souvenir kites, there's a plunging pathway. No-one's walking it today. Impulsively, I can't resist it.

Follow it, and you're launched straight downhill, towards the bay. You'll feel, as your feet beat against that hard concrete surface, how the grey elevated path with its neat linear edge is strangely at odds with this green tropical island world. The spilling out banyan trees, hibiscus flowers, bamboos and banana plants deserve, in my fantasy, chipped stone and dry soil, or waxy grass, bent by the memory of the walker who went before you.

But here, through this jungled, wooded stretch, it's practical concrete. Bicycles must travel this way. Once you turn uphill, with this heat, wheeled hand carts must be light work. When the flooding rain comes pouring down, the paths must be secure against damage and landslip.

Sense tells me that concrete might not look beautiful, but it's sensible, citizen, and social. And really, would I dare try my fantasy grass and stone footpath for long? A path like that belongs in England, when the worse you can expect is mud, stinging nettle, and hawthorn, out of flower.

Here, there are yellow banded spiders who spin their invisible webs between trees and wait in the middle, with legs that spread the size of your face. There are snakes whispering their presence by the glimpse of disappearing tail and the rustle of leaves, and there are stinging tropical hornets as fat as your fingers who follow you, purposefully.

So I chose to ignore the concrete, and the bruising on my sandled feet, and simply enjoy the views and the risky thrill of the jungly woods.

Once you're on that path, there are plenty of possibilities and directions to take. There are narrow paths sinking down to the bay, steps pulling up around the mountains, curving routes through the trees that might stop at a hidden pink tile house, or might take me to another path around the hill. I won't know unless I take them.

I took one route I thought would take me round and back to my beginning, although by then I had lost a sense of the minutes ticking by, and felt only how my legs ached. But there is the dip and curve of that path which is so very tempting, and there might be stories to tell of the woods you pass and the view from the peaks.

But after a time, I thought, I'm heading on a route I just have a feeling might be the right one, but I don't know, and have no reference for it. Once that doubt pops into my head, I think, even though the island is small, there are no streetlights pinging a way home from here. The coastline I can see is unfamiliar; the lights I might later catch are of a little village I don't know. I have no water with me, no phone, no watch, no mosquito repellent for the biting dusk, and stupidly, I've brought only sunglasses and wearing a sleeveless top. I'm badly equipped for exploration. So I went on a little more, just round the curve, just to see what lay ahead.

A choice faced me: a battered metal sign I nearly missed, with letters barely visible, pointed me left up the hillside when I thought it should be right.

I started to follow the route I wasn't certain of, but the light dimmed as the trees wrapped round the path. Then what, if my clumsy body fails to miss the tree spider? So I stopped again and thought, I'm sure it would be wise to backtrack, and retake the route I'd already come. But I don't like to give in and turn back.

I stood for a while, wanting to go on and beat the light, then remembered that here in Hong Kong we do not enjoy long drawn out English summer evenings, but short, sharp, dusk with a quick descent into night.

So I turned back, retraced my route, and climbed the grey concrete back to the hill. Cross with myself that I gave in, ticking myself off for always doing this: try to go one further than my talents and resources truly stretch; contrive to bring about circumstances that are beyond my capacity to control. When I do that, then I render myself incapable, make my purpose in the enterprise frustrated, and become foolish and chastened in defeat. That's a condition hard to admit. Sometimes it's easier to go on, even in a foolhardy way, than give way to a better argument, one that has more pragmatic sense.

I decide to quietly admit defeat, and accept yes, it's sensible to carry water in tropical heat. But I have to save face somewhere, so I resolve that next time I will outsmart defeat, and plan better, start earlier, and equip myself.

Then I return home, in the hope that the argument there is resolved without my intervention, and I can find out what life choices were made for dolly, and whether she ever made the banana tree.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Typhoon Megi

Typhoon Megi passed us by.

There we were, lashing down the furniture, taking our cue from the local restaurant. In a quiet time, the staff steadied step ladders under the ceiling fans, wrapped up the blades in black plastic, and strapped them to the roof joists with red nylon rope.

The tree cutters were out in force this week too; lopping off overhanging branches and cutting back the green twines, all along the routes that might speed the island's little emergency vehicle that has space for a driver and a stretcher.

All around the island there has been activity and anticipation of one sort or another; the office workers who work on Hong Kong Island but live out here, disconnected from sky rise blocks and overhead walkways, who still plough their way off the ferries at predictable times, have been full of the coming storm. Listen to them and all the talk has been, When will it hit us? Thousands of people have been evacuated south from here. Will there be flooding? Will it break on Friday? Friday would be good I hear, because at Typhoon warning 8, all the offices shut down, the workers are sent home, and everything fastened up. We've been at warning 3 all week. There are no numbers 4 to 7.

But, all week, while we've heard rumours of a 500-mile wide impact zone, and glimpsed photographs of the torn apart Philippines, with its bashed up roads and swept away cars, here in Hong Kong we've had a simple breeze; indistinguishable from the normal tropical wind that ruffles your hair and flaps the washing. On Tuesday, it rose, and we all looked to the doors. The landlord hastened round, wound back the awnings and secured them to sturdy metal frames with yards of cord. Then he said everything would be alright if we locked up and sat tight.

The loss of our awnings left us exposed only to the fierce sun which the next day penetrated the tops of our heads as we sat outside to eat breakfast and muse over how many tins we had to stock in the cupboards. We drew out extra housekeeping and bought tinned fruit.

But the winds didn't come. By Thursday, there was rebellious talk that it would miss us completely. The Hong Kong Observatory played it cool, said little, drew 6-hour pictures of the typhoon's track without much comment. We chased the typhoon on blogs and news sites in cyber space.

By Friday, still nothing. An irresponsible part of me was a little disappointed. Everyone remembered the night of the tropical storm when the lightening flash was so strong and long it lit up the sky like a flashbulb someone couldn't turn off. From a guarding place at the window, Dig conveyed reports of branches blasted by wind and turned out to the rain like broken elbows and knees threw into a torrent. I sat on the bed and gave Tiger a cuddle while Shark and Squirrel gripped the duvet.

But now, nothing. All typhoon warnings, off. Hong Kong is missed. The restaurant unwrapped the ceiling fans and set them whirring as normal. The office workers tutted. We resolved to call the landlord to have the awning put back, so we could sit and gobble up tinned fruit salad outside all week. Then we walked through the normal everyday of the local town to stare at the TV screen in the vegetable shop and watch, instead, what a typhoon does when it meets tree, and road, and house.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Hong Kong Wetlands

A few days ago, we visited an area of the natural wetlands left apart in Hong Kong and made accessible to the public. It was a pre-arranged visit with a local home education group. We missed the time for the meeting. I have no excuse, beyond the fact that I manage triplets before breakfast and, even ten years on, have a chronic sense of how much time an argument over three pairs of the same size shoes can take.

But we got there in the end. We usually do, steaming and breathless, and with a fresh squabble brewing at the back.

To calm us all down, even though Dig started to pick a fight with the ticket seller over the five application forms needed for a six-month pass, the Chinese authorities had dealt a stunning blow for natural causes: an enormous steel and glass building with fantastic light and sound theatrical galleries straddling over the wetlands, an alligator in a glass surround and, before us, a set of pre-organised, informational loaded boardwalks, suitable for leading group parties across the natural diversity that is lakes, pools, mangroves and mudponds.

Discontent at something and everything was murmuring already. Foolishly, I tried to pour soothing oil over the rumbling in the family party, and said I expected we would bump into our education group at some point. Even though we were late to arrive, and must set off adventuring alone, I can see that the Hong Kong wetlands park is not a place where you can become lost. You simply follow the given routes.

Of course you can't please everyone. Dig said he was disappointed. He wanted to photograph wilderness, sea edge, wading birds, and lapping estuary waters.

Not in this zone. This orderly education site is at the edge of a world protected wetland. Access stops here. We can only stand at a viewing platform and point to where we can't see: somewhere over there, in that direction of China, where migrating birds come and holiday.

I console Dig and say there must be a protected site, and quite frankly, in China that seems pretty rare. If they don't fence off that area, there's nowhere else for those battered birds to land in safety, recover from their flight, and chatter about the journey back again. They need that unhuman site to be there, or they die.

Right too, I tell the children, who are now complaining that nothing is ever fair. To enter further into bird land, we have to apply for group visits and no children under 12. Unkind, says Shark, pointing at herself. I look at her, and think briefly she's right. But the argument escalates - the one about which way to go - and the fingers point at each other, the feet descend firmly, the voices rise, and we all become intemperate while not walking anywhere. Then I think that excluding children from a world protected wetland site is a fair policy after all.

So here are some photos of the Hong Kong Wetlands before the family outing became irredeemable and went bellyup.

I recommend you visit, if you're passing through. Even though you won't hurl yourself into the wild, wild, wilderness, you get a managed slice of it, and you can gain an education via the extensive information panels on birds, shoreline, mangrove, water crops, lakes, streams and rivers. If you miss seeing the actual kingfishers and otter poo, the Hong Kong authorities kindly supply concrete replicas, which you can examine under pretend telescopes from the safety of your boardwalk.

And the fact that we missed our group was probably for the best.

The argument over which pre-managed boardwalk we should take transmuted into who has the right to read a brochure first and which shade belonged to whom.

Then it all went to a territory beyond the point of no return, and certainly lost us our weekly ice cream, when it ended in two resounding slaps from one sister to another. One ran off and sat in a boil of furious misery at the discovery centre, Dig took himself off to a bird hide, and I sat down and crossed my arms in a sulk that nobody works harder to bring a discordant family together than me, and look where it got me.

When we did locate our education group - as they were just about to make the journey home - the prime culprit slunk off to contemplate the proper way to resolve arguments and consider the icecreamless perils of physical violence. The other two just looked miserable, and I couldn't really advance our cause by admitting why, or by consoling the organiser that we could have made the group all the more burdensome, by turning up on time.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'm in the middle, sat on the fence, a leg on both sides

One of the nuances of this world - one that slips by the general public - is the difference home educators mean, when they use the words, home education and home schooling.

I know that home schooling is the common term in the USA and in international places. I am surrounded by it. Well, here I am, in a proper pool of one, bravely pipping up, waving my overseas flag for the English philosophical pronunciation of home education.

But I'm not surprised that most people see no difference between education and schooling, even though I see chasms.

I blame the education journalists, who should know better, because they write the words as if they are simply interchangeable; like a reversible coat. They think one means the other; but maybe with a different colour trim.

They write the article about the non-school chooser, then get the photographer round to take the obligatory picture of the kitchen table. There's mama, open book, smiling child. Not surprising, most people see that and think, that's what it's like, this home education; this school at home.

When Shark, Squirrel and Tiger reached the dizzy heights of the Sunday Times, I cheated. I made that innocent photographer stumble with muddied boots around the onion fields, then track down three faces hid in the cornfield. I finger pointed to the sky and pontificated, this world is our classroom. Where is your school at home now? Remember that, young man, for your next assignment in the land of home education!

In reality, I'm probably failing to teach anyone much difference about those words and worlds. But there is a difference to me: home school means a curriculum that comes from somewhere else, outside of you both. Home education means a curriculum you make yourself and, with your children, build it up between you.

Home school means bringing into the home some of the practices of school. Time tables, breaks for play, pages completed, marks given. There are pages to show.

Home education, by contrast, means observing and discussing what just happens. How fast can a mosquito fly? Why do their wings make the sound of a zip, pulled through the air? We can build that up, add it to our knowledge, use it for physics, insectology, story. There may be nothing to show, except a dead mosquito clapped between the palms of my hands.

But don't hold me up as a fine example of an autonomous educator. (Oh how I just bamboozled the edujournalist!) Sometimes I try swapping methods. I try school at home, even without a kitchen table.

I covertly find maths websites, locate geography pages, draw up spelling lists. I don't wait for the little grits to find them, with their open inquiring minds. I go after my children, hunt them down and suggest now would be a good time for mama to work out long multiplication with somebody. Anybody.

Mostly they scarper. But I have a weapon. I have a purse that buys ice cream.

So here, in grit's home educating world, I want to say, we are a bit of both, all, and everything. In any one week, the children home educate; I try school; I tell them to run off into the world and experiment; they ask for spellings. I feel the difference when we shift positions. The house changes dynamics. We end up, meeting somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes, we trade places completely. Shark, with a determined mouth and a freshly sharpened pencil, writes out a timetable and places her ticking alarm clock on the kitchen table to watch over her like an eye. I creep off and hide in my bedroom.

I have three very different girls. One is my bluestocking, another my oddbeat, a third keeps her head firmly in the clouds. As they grow, they may want very different paths, which may include examinations and strict teachers and timetabled hours. As I go forward, I can't close anything down; I have to keep my options open; I join while it suits us; we leave when it doesn't.

I'm thinking all this today, because on the discussion list I receive - one that the general public never sees - there is some debate about the place and the role of the Local Authority in our home educating lives. Why should anyone sign up to them? How much say should the authority have? How can they be made not to expect school at home? How many strings are attached to the monies you can draw? How can the officials be made to disappear when their presence is an intrusion and not a support? How would it help, to leave your preferences with the authorities? What would it be, to be free of all state presence in your child's education?

I read all of this, and all of the practical steps everyone takes everyday to realise a future they can live with, and I find it difficult to ally myself to any one position. Not because I'm not the sort of person who can't make up their mind (OK, I'll decide later about that), but because I want all of those positions to be true in our society.

At any point in the future, I may want to take refuge in each of those places, and with a different child. I might want the Local Authority to support five GCSEs. I might have a child decided upon them, and on her flexischooling terms.

Simultaneously, I might need the welcoming hands and the understanding of the autonomous educators. I'll get a hug there for the child who's locked herself away at the slightest hint of a classroom pressure.

The third, I just hope there's a course in fairyology run by pixies. Maybe I should write letters, and try and get that one state funded?

I know, in reality, that I need freedom. Freedom to move between those very different states home education: home school as the children grow, and as suits our needs. I can't be ideologically hard wired into one way or the other. I want to home educate: home school our way. That freedom is important and is what I defend. Even if the general public can't tell any difference, and even if the edujournalist hasn't a clue what I'm saying.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Photoblog Hong Kong: Heritage Museum

Whoopee! Off we go to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum!

Cheer up, ladies! Things can only get better, eh? Like, we might be greeted by a soulless empty block of a Chinese government edifice, with the sole attribute that it has an escalator in a grand hall. The whole ground floor might be guarded by a wild looking Chinese lady with chaotic hair and rudimentary English who nonetheless has a nylon uniform! That will qualify her to extract a couple of hundred dollars from me for a family museum pass! That might happen yet, eh?

Once you get past the escalator guard who's trained to point at you and examine your museum sticker, you can travel in style on the glorious multi-speed escalator up to the top floor. There you'll find the real fierce looking tomb guardians, dragons, and pottery monstery creatures who've been recently exhumed from the yellow earth, now hungry and looking for blood. We might find those, what?

Or what about wandering off between the ceramics? I'm learning my Zhou from my Yuan and my Ming from my Shang.

That'll come in handy when we pass the local village cancer charity shop, and eye spy the Song dynasty celadon in the 50p bucket. I'll bargain the old woman down to 10p, then quick as a flash I'll be standing in a queue at the Antiques Roadshow, clutching my old green vase and blubbing how my grandfather passed it down through the generations, and how we used it for my grandmother's ashes. I'll tell the bloke at Sotherby's that grandad always said, keep the proceeds in the family.

Anyway. I'm wandering. Slap me about with some Cantonese opera. This museum is the world centre for that happy oddity.

Hey! We can be virtually made up!

My turn! I look fantastic. I shall start my Cantonese singing career immediately! How do mean, shut up screeching. Squirrel, I am enthused. This museum may have all the charm of an aircraft hanger, but look! It has amazing stuff in it! Me, Cantonese made up!

And then they have art! I'm sure we could bash out some squiggles. I like that. Squiggles with red hat. Only we are not allowed to take photographs. There are plenty of guards patrolling round the art. They probably outnumber me 3 to 1. Just a sly snap. Then runforit.

And I am glad to find Shark studiously copying down every display panel in the entire museum. She is into this government sponsored fun. One day I bet she marries someone like a corporate lawyer.

Tiger taking notes too! Get that! One day she might emerge from that state of childhood madness and become a fashion designer or textile artist. Her key influence she will cite as the pink sparkly Cantonese opera costume of Sha Tin. You never know. That's the glory of home ed. You're free to wander into a Hong Kong Heritage Museum, as severe and as heavy a building as you could think up of brick, marble and concrete, then do whatever takes your fancy with Hong Kong heritage, so long as you don't nick it, photograph it, or cross one of the 2,300 patrolling heritage guardians in blue nylon.

But thanks to the family museum pass, we'll be back soon! We have yet to see the history of Sha Tin and 100 years of Chinese railways! Whoopee!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Awake or asleep

I'm having nightmares. I wish I could say they are the stuff of Steven Spielberg. They are not. Last night I was trapped in a bath with a dead otter.

Sometimes the otter scrabbled its sharp brown claws, and tried to live, but I knew it was already drowned. I couldn't escape, couldn't move, and only sat there, tied up by cold bathwater, praying the otter would find life, leap up, and flee, even though I knew it wouldn't, and we'd both be locked for all eternity, me and otter, trying to live.

I'm sure that dream was not prompted by being woken at 3am the other night. It was a dark shape above me who stroked my shoulder and who, on waking, I thought was a poltergeist, shifting shape into hairy face and arms. After the first heart-pumping moments, it revealed itself as a daughter of the human type: she'd heard someone bouncing a basketball in the bathroom, and wanted a grown up to throw them out.

I found the basketball player. It was the wind, tugging at the door, and softly bouncing it back into the frame with a bump bump bump.

I'm sure it wasn't that moment which set off my nightmares. Maybe it was the person I live with, the one disguised as a grown up, the one called husband, whose words echoed in my head all afternoon. Foolishly, I laughed at them.

Daddy, daddy, what shall I draw? Those words had been circling around in the same form some 500 times in the last half hour, drawn out of three competing voices; maybe the husband had grown tired of saying a butterfly, a horse, a dinosaur, a flower. Because then he quietly said, A vampire unicorn. No, make that a zombie horse, a vampire unicorn and a flower. With fangs. I heard only the sound of me laughing.

Maybe the nightmares and dead otters don't come from that. Maybe they are found from our very own kouklitas, our arseface versions, those visions of decaying loveliness.

I discovered them on my camera. They'd taken themselves there in photographs of their day, so they could linger over happy times in holidays. Those are the days when it is a duty to be free ranging and irresponsible. Bubblewrap serves as bikini tops; our bottoms go free. Spas can be taken in a sink, and it is a right to be photographed splayed out naked under an umbrella.

The nightmares might not be any of those. They might be the failures of my aspirations and my endeavours, who turn into otters. In the daylight then, I need to laugh at those. Or they might be the consequence of a troubled daughter, who beats at her body with a waterbottle, where her tears soak her clothes and her howls fill the room; who claws at her own face and whose impact on me is such that sometimes I forget what is life normal and what is strange. What I do, and what I do not do. When I start up, punch drunk, at 5am, nightmired, asleep-awake, do I stumble out of bed to wash my face in battery acid or not? Which is normal, and which is not? Bewildered by shapes, confused by time, forgetful of what I do next, I can't remember. But I can always hope. I'll wake up in daylight and know these are just dreams, and find the otter was never dead at all.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Everyday ordinary. Dismembered rats, competing ideologies and speculums

OK, back to a written record of home education.

I must write it down. I have a terrible memory. I may forget I have three kids if I do not write that down too.

I also have to write down the gruelling day by day practice, because I need to remember what hard work it can be, how fantastic it is, how much involvement we have in society and where our communities are. Then, when I am confronted by those who think home education is an opt out, a denial of society, a 'hiding away', I can say grit's day is my evidence. Go there.

There are other pragmatic reasons too, of course. The welcome you get, if you decide to live Ken Robinson's philosophy, means you can be stopped by the police and an EWO in Tesco and made to account for yourself. You can be sent a letter demanding to know whether you educate your kids, or chain them to the radiator. You can be doorstepped by an official thanks to a neighbour who sees your kids sauntering along Bash Street in their own choice of clothing at 11am on a Monday morning.

To arm myself against that sort of caring sharing way of seeing home educators, I need to have a quick access to the range of education I actually offer to my driblets of joy, Shark, Squirrel, and Tiger. I may need to write letters, argue my case, point to examples, show evidence.

My blog is also the place where I strong arm myself. I need to see my rights, injustices, failings, weaknesses, indignities, successes and triumphs for myself. A blog helps. You, lovely people, can tell me this isn't good enough, show me different ways of thinking, point me in new places. I didn't handle the police and EWO combination well last time. Next time, I want to face them better. I will, with your thoughts behind me. A public blog is a way of gaining personal perspective.

None of that is, in the longer term, affected by which country we're in today.

Which means I must take the little grits to the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences, and I must write it down.

You would think that the tender little grits would be horrified by the visual display of medical gore, wouldn't you?

You would be right. We found the rat autopsy conducted by waxy effigies with shiny scalpels and glazed eyeballs, and the little darlings legged it.

But I did get them past the WHO Pandemic Alert System (levels 1-6). I steered them through Night Bright Arenaceous (medicine from bat shit). I just managed them past the examples of spinal deformities, bone clamps and callipers.

But not, sadly, the informative display on the 1950s Chinese government approved gynecological speculum. Only Squirrel, and she had her hands clamped over her face.

However, I will not say this museum did no good at all for our home education journey. It gave me a whole new perspective. I found informative panels which contrasted the philosophy which underpins traditional Chinese medicine with the medical philosophy of the West.

How the West falls short! You people, you wait until an individual shows visible sign of a disease, then you galvanise all your E-numbered chemical pills and potions with machines that go ping. You assault the individual until they no longer show distress, or they die.

Chinese medicine, by contrast, focuses on the well being state of us all; on our winds and our waters, on maintaining health, creating harmony, developing a social state of constancy.

There, I think, is my revelation. There is our home education. This is how it is done. I read those panels, go outside, and talk to Shark, Squirrel and Tiger about competing ideologies, political systems, the Chinese reaction to disorder, the culture of individualism in the West; the benefits and drawbacks of both.

All and everything in fact.

Except that the design of the speculum hasn't changed in centuries, and having one shoved up your doodah is possibly one of the most uncomfortable experiences you will ever have. No. I didn't tell them that.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Why doesn't Ken Robinson say the words at the RSA?

Ooer. Ken Robinson's at the RSA!

Part of me is glad to see poster boy Ken aired at the RSA. If reservations about rigid schooling regimes are widely shared and up for discussion, I'm glad.

But part of me is deeply frustrated.

Because isn't one of the next steps of Ken's educational argument blindingly obvious? I've heard these ideas talked over a hundred times before, sitting around park benches, waiting for kids to finish workshops, standing in cold fields while a park ranger points at a moth.

His discussion clearly leads to home education. Indeed, those words could be dancing around on the RSA podium stark naked waving purple banners.

Yet no-one there mentions home education. Not as a model. Not as a route forward. Not as an option. Not even as a possibility! I find that amazing. And frustrating. Because the thoughts provided by Ken Robinson - regarding human behaviours, institutions and clapped out educational systems - are exactly the same ideas that led us directly to home educate our own children. And we're not alone. Thousands of people home educate for the reasons Ken mentions.

In other words, we actually DO what we THINK. We put ideas into practice. We talk the talk and walk the walk.

But Ken Robinson doesn't mention home education. Of course not. It would be ridiculous, wouldn't it?

If he dared, my guess is he would never be invited to the RSA.

My guess is, if he had mentioned home education, he would not be taken seriously at all. He'd be just another fringe voice not worthy of serious discussion. Despite the fact that the ideas promoted by Ken Robinson actually inform many home educators living their choices in life; despite the way home educators are indeed jumping up and down, pointing the way forward, showing you all the big fat educational sign GO THIS WAY. In fact, I might try doing the walk, stark naked with a purple banner, just to see if anyone says anything.

But Ken Robinson doesn't mention it. And no one says 'hey look, home educators are living the ideas he proposes. Why don't we treat them as pioneers? Why don't we seek their advice? Why don't we ask them what they notice about child development, learning, education, and fitness for society?'

No. I haven't heard anyone say that. I've heard teachers on education discussion lists say home education should be banned; the Labour Party work to bring us to heel; the NSPCC suggest we're abusing our kids; social services staff claim we hide away; Roger Bolton remind everyone we're evangelical nut cases, and Fern Britton say we don't live in normal society.

Why, why, why is that? Why is there this yawning gap between the ideas people will praise about education when they come from the platform at the RSA, and yet reject when they see them being put into practice by the home educators who live next door?

Those ideas raised by Ken Robinson are here, all around you, in the heart of the society. Down the local community hall, in the swimming pool, at the dance club, at the park, in the local libraries. We're not exactly difficult to find.

But I can think of plenty of answers to my question.

For a start, there's an inexplicable social prejudice towards home educators, fuelled by ignorance in politics and media. Mention you are a home educator and it immediately translates in the ears of some listeners as I am a Christian Evangelical Right Wing Home Schooler and I know how to use a cane. Or, I am a loony, worship the devil, beat my kids, and need locking up. Maybe, at best, I am a self sufficient goat-slaughtering liberal farm-based hippie and my daughter aged 11 got her PhD in Maths at Cambridge. You can supply your own stereotype. They're useful dumping grounds for prejudice and ignorance and help discount home education altogether.

Or maybe the public fails to see home education as pointing a potential route forward simply because of a failure of imagination. People can't imagine an educational future for massive numbers of children based on allowing children to follow through their passions, ideas, creativities and inquiries. Don't call it our shortcoming. That's the failing of your imaginations, ladies and gentlemen. As usual, the home education world is miles ahead of you. Yes, people can imagine different educational states. Bloody hell, even Grit can manage a fancy or two. It's not impossible.

But maybe I'm being cynical. Maybe politicians and journalists can drop their attitudes and open their ears. Maybe prejudices can be overcome. Maybe we can all help create a kinder, more creative future for kids informed by the ideas espoused by Ken Robinson. Maybe this government could go back, and pick up the one that Bully Balls and the Labour Government dumped; the Cambridge Primary Review.

I'd be glad of it, truly. I have sad memories of the faces I have seen walking into school each day, year on terrible year. So, maybe, it will come true. Schools will not crush creativity; they will not divide, standardise to a norm, prevent play, medicate for control, arbitrate on failure, pressurise, drive kids to suicide, bring families to their knees, create unhappiness, and end in unsuitability for employment. Maybe they can be places we'd all want to go.

You can hope, right? Even if a system woken up and changed would have to be acceptable to corporates, and would have to be supported by the political will to achieve it. You can always hope.

But please bear something in mind. People are already living these ideas. You won't see us on the stage at the RSA. But we're showing you a way. Don't dismiss it. Those ideas are home education.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Eric, this is for you xx

Eric contacted me. He wants to feature grit's day on his home and lifestyle website! Like Ideal Homes. Only better.

Eric suggested he would link to me, then I'd link to his. That's the way we modern bloggers live, yah? I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

For a moment, my head turned. Eric didn't only suggest a quick link. Eric murmured to me how he loved my stylish photography of my swanky Hong Kong lifestyle. So much, he'd followed my blog, gazing at it from afar, for months!

I was flattered. Can you imagine how my heart melted as I fancied him plucking up courage to speak!

But then I thought some more.

I think Eric lied. I feel it in my heart.

I don't think Eric has followed my blog at all. I think Eric said nice things to get his way with me. I think he doesn't care about my blog in any special relationship. I bet, to Eric, grit's day is just another boring old blahblahblah. He can see the grey hairs, distress and emotional disturbance showing everywhere. Let's face it. You can too. We all can. Even the look of it reminds you of a pair of pants when the elastic's perished. Doesn't it? Eric saw that too. He thought women like me would respond; that with a bit of attention he could make us think we were special.

And he was right.

Which is why I weakened. But listen! Eric didn't only say he's followed grit's day for months on account of the stylish home and lifestyle! He said my blog was so good he would make grit's day a Best of the Web! Howabout that! Grit's day would be best at something!

Then I felt, yes yes YES! I would like to be best at something! Considering how crap I clearly am at most things, it would be a very warm feeling inside to be made best at something! Anything! Even a blog post!

So I did stop and think. For a moment.

Eric knew I would be tempted. He whispered sweet nothings. Then he got out his desirable traffic, and waved it in front of my face. Two thousand people regularly drop by when Eric's around! Wouldn't that be great for gritty no mates! I could hear him whispering, Dear and lovely Grit, come with me. You would be best at something! And POPULAR!

It's tempting, isn't it? Tell me you too would stop and listen to Eric!

But I knew it was all a lie. He only wants me for one thing. My ad space. When he has me, he just wants me to sell something for him. Then I'd be just another working girl at the keyboard, and Eric would be my pimp.

Oh the cruel way of the world! My mother warned me. And she was right.

Is it senseless that I still like Eric? I really do. He was so nice to me! He put such effort into it!

It's difficult not to be seduced by the Erics of this world. After all, there is a grain of truth. Eric is right. I'm just a sadandlonelymiddleagedgreyhaireddroopybelly Miss Jones of a woman who yearns only for a bit of attention.

Don't blame me, but the lonely heart of grit wants to respond. Then I can thank Eric for working so hard at lying in a nice way. And I can be dignified when I smile gently and say Eric, put your enormous traffic away. Dangling it there will lead to nothing. Intelligence and gentlemanly charm seduces me Eric. Not your flattery. Not your promise of all the best of the world. Not your inflated statistical enormity.

Eric, this must be my parting gift. A personal tour of my stylish home and life in Hong Kong. For you.

Might we pursue a more careful relationship Eric, if I show you my stylish kitchen with the pottery garlic hanging in the window?

Don't look at the loaf. It's difficult to buy good bread in Hong Kong. The price! That measly loaf with added E102 cost about two quid. I think fondly of sending the kids down the Co-op at price reduction time. 8p for a roll there, Eric! What a bargain.

A stylish hob, Eric. Gas comes in bottles. They're driven up the hill track on a village vehicle. But there's no oven! Life is hard without an oven. We manage. I know deprivation. The oven at home never really worked after the door fell off in 2004.

Now, Eric, here's the Baygon. You need this for killing roaches. They are in all the best houses. You just don't see them cross the floor of the Governor's Mansion. You see them here, Eric. Enormous, with long waving antennae. The lantern is a bit of discarded craft. Ignore it, and the tissue. It contains a fly carcass. I had to kill it at midnight last night in Tiger's bedroom. I'll get round to clearing it up, Eric. I promise.

Here's my stylish storage solution Eric, for old copies of the South China Morning Post. Shove them in empty cereal packets and dump them by the front door! Yes, it would be easier to dump them in landfill. I cannot bring myself to do it. I must walk to the paper recycling bins. Taking them in old cereal boxes is as convenient as anything. I forget, Eric. Do not blame me. Age is terrifying.

Here is the downstairs bathroom. See the plastic flowers in the corner? Vulgar, I think you'll agree. Classy homes like ours do not compose plastic flowers in pot tubs. Clearly, they are nothing to do with us. I can't say the same for the plastic bags.

Another ornamental disaster Eric! The previous tenants had NO TASTE. The hats are ours, obviously. And the swinging thing. And the origami.

It's a cricket, Eric. Shark made it. Stupidly, for a while there, I thought it was a caterpillar.

And finally. My best friend. I killed him, Eric
, I killed him.

He was the first little creature to welcome me to our stylish home in Hong Kong. He was standing on the steps, waiting for me to come home. You have no idea how hard this is for me. I stood on him. By accident.

What do you mean, you cannot recognise him? Eric, please be respectful. He is a praying mantis, Eric. And he is DEAD.

Eric, I think our relationship may be doomed. Let us say, we were just ships in the night.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Calling in between dimensions

Reader, if you are trying to contact me, Apologies. I may not respond. I am gone to 1325.

It is very exciting. But dangerous. Even to type this auto reply I have had to leave the future King Edward III, travelling in France. I must return to him, otherwise disaster could happen. He might fall from his horse, or suffer other fatal damage on page 40. If I am not there to remedy it with reading onwards, compelling him to stand up bravely again and meet King Charles of France as is his destiny, then the whole course of English history could change. It would be all my fault.

If you need the children, they are busy too. One is enmeshed in Victorian England, and must confound the dastardly beggar she fears will bash her on the head as she pedals her bicycle along a lonely country lane. Peddle quicker, Shark!

Tiger is off with the unicorns. She is lost to me, in a place I cannot reach. If you meet her, remind her that unicorns have many magic powers when up against the wizards, but they still cannot cook her a pasta dinner. Send her this way. I know that when she is hungry, she will need me. I will be here then for her.

Squirrel, I admit, I picked her up and set her down in nineteenth century Libya. On a roof. I thought it would be good for her. She did not object, too much. She settled in quickly. When I meet her again in twenty-first century Hong Kong, we will discuss twentieth century politics, religion, women, and power. Which I think shows the enormous flexible minds of squirrels in general and the talents of Stolz and her careful translators in particular.

If you need Dig, he's out. He lives permanently inside other dimensions. He wanders there for days, weeks, and sometimes months. But I know he has recently entered planes of conscience, freedoms, autonomies and powers and declared it works 'very well'.

If you want, you could come and join us.

Grit, Shark, Tiger, Squirrel, and Dig.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

I can see advantages to a broken wireless connector box

Like swept floors, washed dishes, cooked meals, laundered clothes, filled cupboards, disinfected sinks, emptied bins, and scoured toilets.

Maybe I should spill beer over the computer desk more often.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The University of Grit. For ALL your learning needs!

Thanks to the news, I told Shark that her degree from Southampton University is probably in the balance.

It depends how many tenners I can stash in my knicker drawer. I warned her. Debts of 30K do not happen to a child without a lot of parental involvement. It's probably not going to be that high if she carries on munching her way through the Pricey Ricicles. Sacrifices from us all are in order.

But I'm offering consolation. Because, from what I can make out, Lord Browne's just waved a big green flag for private companies to expand into UK Higher Education.

Shark, think about it. I can make a company happen and put on a degree course in fish and water, no problem. With the fees you now owe me, I could buy a paddle pool, fill it with water, chuck in a few mackerel, and Bob's your uncle. I mean, what more is there to a marine thingy course? A couple of waves? A few graphs in an exercise book? I could do those.

You want a teacher? I could stitch together a private contract and get Squirrel to turn up every Thursday and draw a picture of the Lesser Known Fairy Fish then you could go and research where it lives. How about that?

Obviously, I will take into account the cost of all this to you. It's no good charging you too little for my marine thingy course, because everyone would think the course I was offering was crap. No. I have to charge you A LOT. Then everyone will think I'm offering a really fantastic course!

Think about this, Shark. With your support to get me started, I can attract proper research. Like, how many Sainsbury's mackerel fit in an average-sized paddle pool from Tesco Direct? You see? Fair and balanced. I'm bound to find a starving lecturer to do that one for me. Some desperate geezer who needs a job and a 5-minute slot on BBC Radio 4 morning show.

Once I've got the research in place, then I'll rise up the rankings! I'll join the UK equivalent of the Ivy League! Serious money will pour in. Research funds from Tesco Direct. Promotion from the Eat More Mackerel Board. Endowments from Sainsbury's. They'll be falling over themselves to get at my door.

Shark, don't interrupt. I'm on a roll. We'll advertise overseas and milk the foreign students. Especially the loaded ones who are as dim as a bucket of rock. Better still, ones who are both dim and don't speak English. I'll sell them pre-sessional foundation courses, English language support sessions, and fish identification modules.

Yes, the dim ones will need somewhere to live while they're in the UK. Good thinking. I'll chum up with a property developer, build a few tower blocks with a toilet on the 10th floor, then we'll rent the accommodation to a university that's been around a bit. I don't know. How does Sussex sound?

But it won't stop there! The world's wide open! I'll only need a few quid more from you, Shark, to make a pitch for educational database management, learning platform co-ordination, educational software support and student administration. I'll have to fight off Capita. They'll be sniffing round, now they're at a loose end what with the Labour government contracts going up in smoke.

But just imagine what this could all lead to Shark! It's what Lord Browne wants me to do! It is my calling! My very own properly funded private university!

Shark, let's get started. You give me the 30K now, and I'll roll out the advertising banner.

Thank you Mark Steel and the Joint Venture Watch from UCU. Apologies, probably in perpetuity, to Southampton University.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

I know how I live at the maritime museum

Everyone who visits grit's day will, at some point, become painfully aware of the indestructible optimism with which I must travel to view all the world.

You, fortunate reader, can take it or leave it; come and go as you please. Me, I am stuck with it. If I do not travel with a bucketful of look on the bright side, I will kill myself.

I do not know why particularly I am affected by my grin-and-bear-it disposition today. There is no special reason for it. We catch the bus which chugs over Happy Valley where the cemetery is located. Then we labour on upwards towards the knife-edge of a Hong Kong mountain road.

At the top slice, where the ridge of land parts the sky, I think for a moment I may be cured of my affliction and now actually will myself towards life. Indeed, I fall to praying that the driver has years of experience, and did not eye up the Number 6 over-the-top route this morning at the depot, and laugh, Give me a try!

But the driver must have driven it before, that tilting, creaking double decker, and I must have survived the fifteen hundred foot plunge because when I open my eyes we're at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum in Stanley.

I can only say, with my optimistic outlook renewed daily, sometimes hourly, now restored fully to a glad-to-be-alive moment, this museum is fantastic. It is worth the near-death experience brought on by being too mean to pay for the bus route that takes the sensible tunnel through the mountain.

Because, at this museum, are lots of painstakingly made model boats, carrying explanations about shipping routes and why China would have captured world trade in the fifteenth century if it had wanted to. With ships that might have looked like this.

Instead, it opted for roundabout seas and local sails with boats that looked like this.

I think it is of especial credit to the Chinese that the words Portuguese bastards never once appeared in any caption describing the fifteenth century naval choice of the Chinese not to sail the world. Neither was much reference made at all to the circumnavigatory trickery of the dastardly greedy money stealing devil worshipping Europeans. No, because China has the future, and all your 500-year old sailing skills round the world won't help you then.

But out of everything in this museum, including Tiger crashing a container ship into a dockside ...

... there was one exhibit that I loved more than all the rest. It is this.

There! Do you see it?

Yes. It is that. The fence. I hope I have photographed the right fence. From what I can see, boats are filled with fences. Otherwise people would continuously be throwing themselves into the welcoming arms of the sea.

Why, you ask? A fence? In the pride of place position? Let me read you the explanation from the brochure. I cannot better it.

'The most interesting feature of all... It is a fence. An anti-piracy fence. ... A preferred tactic pioneered in the late 19th century was for the pirates to board as passengers with their weapons hidden, and then storm the bridge, take over the ship, steer it to an out of way spot and pillage it and the passengers. The fence around the bridge was aimed to frustrate this'.

There you have it. It captures something of my perilous existence. All the dangers, hazards and disasters in the world can be held at bay by a fence. The fence prevails. It is not because pirates are too stupid to climb over a fence. It is the power of the fence. The indestructible, unscalable fence. I realise today, I know that fence. I carry one with me, daily.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Wow! The Hong Kong Planning and Infrastrucure Exhibition Gallery!

Another visit! Hey, we must be getting back to the good old ways of pounding the ground in search of the God of Education!

All this outdoorsy tells me Tiger must be settling in. Or it could be that mama is a shithotteacher of epic monstrosities, inspiring her vulnerable charges with the rewards of learning. Plus a toffee ice cream if you show your face on Hong Kong Island.

Anyway, I know how to show my students a good time, right? Down the Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery of old Hong Kong.

Probably not that old, if a heritage building dates from 1902. But very forward thinking, as we discover. When we find it. It's a little tricky to get into. You have to choose the right walkway, keep your eyes open, and recall where you saw the sign.

There it is. The door behind the miniature palm trees. Ground floor only. The rest of the building is a car park. I agree. It's not that prepossessing. Don't worry. They have plans.

Inside too, they have the plans for this town, late of Britain, now of China. And not just for the former Kai Tak airport strip into a leisure, commercial and residential development. Nope. Hong Kong is destined to be a city hub in the megalopolis that is the PRD, or Pearl River Delta.

If the future fits, Hong Kong will be the city linking the manufacturing sprawls of Guangzho and Shenzhen, providing freight handling of China to the world.

It's a fine place to find an education. We talk about high rise, cityscape 2030, architecture, international planning, infrastructure, population density, land reclamation, manufacturing, export, import, global shipping, and should it be toffee or strawberry?

But it's clearly successful. Some of the superteacher Mama Grit's charges even take notes!

How amazing is that? I can only recommend it. And the strawberry.

Now, if you visit, you'll find the gallery at the bottom of a multi storey car park, just behind the bus stop and round the corner from the tram rails. But do not be deceived. We've seen the plans. The future's Chinese.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

We have ways of making you happy

I have warned everyone within the gritty household. If they do not take up my kind incentive to be healthy, happy and harmonious, they can always experience the intervention project.