Friday, 31 December 2010

'I've never met a home schooler before'

What do I say to someone who utters these words? Should I comment on their blindness about the society they live in? Or should I think to myself, we've clearly failed to make enough noise.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Over the island

We take a walk over the island. I think it lasts about two or three hours, and while our progress isn't finely planned, it's not entirely whimsical.

We follow the paths, divert away as intriguing sights distract us, but throughout we follow an idea of a circular walk that will take us back to the beginning.

It's a strange walk, because it feels effortless. There are no great difficulties or arduous tracks, no big barking dogs or monsters along the paths, no creatures waiting in swamps or nightmares or disasters that befall us.

I am simply glad that we can stop to breathe in the whole and take a time to look at tiny features.

It's enough that I can run my finger down the striped bamboo and take the time to wonder aloud about the variety. Shark pauses to draw out the lines in her sketchbook.

We stop to look back, and I flip through it; it holds on every page clear lines where she has drawn one bamboo type after another. I resolve that soon we'll buy her the book on Hong Kong plants. Her inquisitive thoughts seem to have fixed on that direction for now, so we'll follow. It's as good a route as any, to follow the thoughts of children.

I don't believe in any god, or any supreme organising being, and anyone would have difficulty persuading me to accept there are organising principles working behind the scenes on behalf of the universe.

I'm of the mind that we face, in all plants, seas and skies, just a great quirk and happenchance. People too. I don't expect even from myself that I will create much purpose or order as I live through the days. There are moments I simply like to stop and see the colours turning around the world, listen to the sounds that slip from it, and feel the touch on my fingers. I don't need to find ways of being grateful, like praying or making any devotions. I'm simply glad that I can see, and feel, and be.

But I can't help feeling that this is a strange day. Maybe it is this suspended time between holidays when one celebration is done, but the other not yet arrived. Maybe I have lingering doubts I haven't dealt with. Maybe this year, we got lucky. Maybe I fear that we all made it this far, but if forces that I don't know - can't guess at, if you told, I would dismiss - if they are to have their dues, then we are headed for something horrible; that our small and daily disasters are not enough of an impact on our lives, that maybe next year, next year, it is our turn for calamity.

Better stop then, and before we arrive back at the beginning, enjoy the sun light, shining through a leaf.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Walking with dinosaurs

I know this site is not exactly the place to read up-to-the-minute theatre reviews. But I just have to stop everything to recommend to you the crowd-pleasing spectacle, Walking with Dinosaurs.

So what if this performance toured the UK years ago, and millions of people around the world already went? You might be one of the sixteen people still undecided! Then of course you must go and see it.

If you're in Hong Kong for the Arena, buy the cheapest seats you can (unless of course you have the corporate 500 dollar seats for free).

As a hint, when you get there, you can choose your spot. This is clearly local custom. We sat with about one hundred other people in Hobo Seats Block X. Until the lights dimmed, that is. Then all the sensible Chinese people did the pragmatic thing, which was to jump up en masse and move to Posh Seats Block B. Foolishly, I thought the usher who ran at the crowd was making a pathetic attempt to thwart the exodus. Nonsense. She was simply expediting stragglers to the $300 seats caught in the torch beam. Dull witted British dopes like us just sat there, stupidly watching, bound by I don't know what to stay in the seats we paid for. I console myself. The views at this well-designed show space are fine, really, even for cheapskates like us.

Wherever you are, the dinos in this show are huge. You cannot miss them. Unless you are looking at the T Rex with fingers over your eyes, which I totally deny. And I deny as well that there remain some moments I have not seen on Jurassic Park, even though the kids have played the film maybe two thousand times while someone shouts out teacher words like Dramatic Tension from behind the sofa.

As you can guess, Walking with Dinosaurs is a tempest of love triangles, moral conflict, psychological drama and social criticism.

Only joking! It has a lot of dinosaurs, and they're walking about.

But you still have to go. Even though you know exactly what's coming, the people in charge of this spectacle contrive to make the predictable surprising. In fact, they do it so well, it becomes ridiculously exciting. You might have to do a bit of childish squealing! So I am told. Especially if you have been looking forward to it all day, as if you are aged five. Something else which I totally deny. But really, it's true! Even the vegetation is amazing! It comes alive before your very eyes!

Ahem. It's clear that the people who created this slick stagecraft are professionals at the genre. The lighting is excellent, the set well-thought out, and the dinos set against each other in great coordination and display.

But you can't look for metaphors or subtleties or dramatic sub plots. If you take the kids along, you probably can't expect to have much of a discussion about the role of spectacle in society in your after-show dinner either. You can, however, jump up and down with excitement and make noises like little squeaky gasps when the music kabooms, the set moves and the big dinos rumble on stage. Nudging your neighbour in excitement and pointing and squealing 'Look! I can see a dinosaur!' is all permissible. I swear I did not do any of it. Anyway, here in Hong Kong, no one will mind. From what I have experienced, Chinese style is to chat, get up and make tea, wander about and generally enjoy themselves. So they cover up the childish squealing and pointing going on from seat Hobo 32 Block X.

On stage you benefit from a narrator who gives scale and human movement to contrast the brilliant dinos. A professional and capable delivery leads us through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Given the steady flow of narrated primary-school factoids on geology, geography and paleontology, you can feel extra smug if you are a British expat seeing this overseas, because you can lord it over everyone simply by coming from the land of the BBC. (Even though we all know they are a profit-driven global enterprise no different from the evil corporate financiers bent on world domination.)

But the dinosaurs! They are fantastic. They blink, which is brilliant. They also roar, fart, sway, run about, gracelessly lumber, then go at each other with tail clubs and horns. The traditional nature narrative is in there (look at the sweet baby - now it is dinner), but it is all without bloodshed, obviously, because some of us with the disposition of a five-year old would pass out.

But the real stars of this show are the huge numbers of people who have brought their problem-solving and practical skills in design and engineering to animatronics. The hydraulics required to create this lot include several thousand metres of cabling. But the skin I swear is real. They did not make it out of paint and latex. They did not use enough fabric to cover the Sydney Opera House ten times over. That is impossible. They must have found some real preserved dinosaur skin and draped it over dino bones.

Each large dino is animated in two methods. The first is by someone who may have the best job in the world, to actually drive the dino via an elongated vehicle disguised as a rock. If I had any confidence that my strategy would work, I would lie down on the floor and squeal till I went blue and was sick if only I could have a go in that little car. I'm sure I heard Squirrel say that.

The second means of animation is by the voodoo puppeteers. These people sit in high-tech command and control stations with exciting buttons and knobs and dials and light up screens. They manipulate heads, tails, mouth parts, and make roaring sounds. And I would just like to say, it is so totally not fair that ordinary members of the public are not allowed to have a go, even ones who hang around the stage pleading and looking sad after the event has long finished and they are poked at with a stick held by a frowning security guard.

So yes, if Walking with Dinosaurs comes near you, of course you must go. If you feel compelled to take a child along, grab the neighbour's. Then tell them in a serious voice, they're about to go and watch some very real dinosaurs, just pretending to be puppets.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Hong Kong history of anywhere

We take a heritage walk.

Now, old colonnaded buildings hang around inside my head.

I see them, in my mind's eye, in tones of grey and black. Arches in regular shapes lead into corridors of shadows and cool air. Legacies of distant administration, they stand determined by the waterfront. If I listen hard, I can hear the waters lapping. Walk by them today, and they would be a magnificent insight into history.

But they don't exist. They haven't existed for a long time. Only in photographs, like this, in places like Wikipedia.

The remnants of these buildings are usually cleaned away, or converted for retail and administration.

It's not news. The colonial government itself, in collusion with developer conglomerates, knocked those harbour side buildings down. I read that the striped brick GPO above, built in 1911, was demolished in 1976 to make way for the Mass Transit Railway. I guess the site now looks indistinguishable from every other MTR connection point.

Living round here, I can see that government has long had more important things to do than nostalgically cherish old buildings and look after the house of the GPO. Money drives all. The imperative is to extend the harbour front. And look what was in the way! In the face of government and commerce, what value are those nineteenth century monoliths, stretching out like cadavers, blocking the waters?

Those crumbling colonnades had to go. It's not even that they were reminders of how Britain came here in the first place - stealing Hong Kong silver and exchanging strong Chinese people for opium souls - realistically, simply, those buildings squatted on prime development land. The bricks didn't return investment for anyone. I guess the property developers and the government together said, 'We can tell history in other ways. School text books, information panels, designated heritage walk. We can write, This once was the site...'

Today, as a result, not many Victorian and Edwardian buildings stand in Hong Kong. The government occupies a building dating from 1912. I don't assume many people think it precious. I'm told it nearly fell down in the 1970s thanks to the underground construction company driving a tunnel carelessly beneath it.

Of course there are remnants not yet planned away. Sometimes, as we walk, I turn a corner and am suddenly surprised by lines of red brick, curious arches, wrought iron gates, or those beautiful colonnades. Some colonial and historic nineteenth century buildings I see are preserved, scattered around hillsides, taken over as university accommodation, administration centres, a theatre booking office. Others are prominent; held as cathedrals and museums. But slowly, those ordinary old buildings from different ages, they're disappearing.

The usual happens. It's expected. Leave old buildings to decay beyond repair; knock them down; put the land to good use. Good use follows a similar pattern: skyscrapers with a metro, three lower floors for brand outlets, upper floors to office or residential, and a top floor reserved for owner's use. MTR-shops-office. That's good use, Hong Kong style.

It's teaching me. Not lessons about colonial architecture particularly, nor whether British presence was ever defensible. It's teaching me about how history works, and how it fares in the face of power and the exigencies of government.

The first lesson is personal. It's one I knew already. I like to touch and feel history in my hands. I'm just reminded. Mud splattered with children, I travelled staccato in England with toilet stops, playgrounds, hungry bellies, bribes and promises. I was hunting down any buildings, images or landscapes that came within licking distance of Richard II. (See? I use merely home education as a cover for selfish desires.) We stumbled across North Elmham Chapel. Look at it. It's nothing more than a few stones propped up against each other. You don't need to be a member of English Heritage to wander between the rocks. As we did that, and the kids crawled and climbed and played hide-and-seek, then history became ours. It filled our fingernails, stained our trousered knees. It wove itself into our shared memories, our handling of the soil and our grasping of the rocks, and it was ours. It is ours. History stays with us. We tell it back to others.

Here, in Hong Kong, I can't experience this. Any leftover buildings are mostly cold edifices run for an economic benefit. They don't invite exploring touch.

The second lesson I'm reminded of too. It's how history fares in the face of governments and developers. Once, pre-children, we arrived at Cixi's Summer Palace in Beijing. The woman appointed to us as tour guide could add nothing to the history of the site that I couldn't gather for myself, even from a badly translated block of 1980s Chinglish. To every question I asked, she answered simply, innocently, 'I do not know'. How was that? She was raised against Mao's focused rules and Four Olds. Old habits, old culture, old custom, old knowledge. History? It's an old that can be simply smashed away.

I can see that around me now, happening in Hong Kong. History is worth little against the pressures from government and conglomerates. They focus on money, power, land. They need to connect the economies of utilities, transport infrastructures, retail, residential and administration. They need to bring together the whole in a package that makes sense for a shareholder board room. Commerce, ultimately, dictates all: the urban landscape, a mountainside, social policy. If an old building stands in the way, if it can't be turned into a profit, wait a while, knock it down. Tell history on new terms.

I take it as a warning for anyone, anywhere.

Because to do this, reshape the landscape, build it anew, create a money-led culture, those powerful conglomerates need people - ordinary people - to put up no resistance, to have no empathy with buildings, no connection with land, no determination to see ancient views. They need people to enjoy no intimate texture of an environment they'd fight to protect. They need people who are given an environment and told it's for the best. That the utilities are cheaper, the offices are new, the escalators are a benefit, the transport essential, the shopping mall a luxury everyone can afford. Those mega corporations, property developers, financiers, they need people who have no history.

I can't offer any conclusion. Except communicate how sad I feel that money drives all, and that I value more than ever how every person holds history in themselves.

Monday, 27 December 2010

You make the difference, not me

I see British Mummy Bloggers is running a promotional award. Some brave soul nominated grit's day for the Make a Difference category.

It was a kind thought, wasn't it? But let's be honest. I think my role in mummy blogland is pretty insignificant. And I'm not being modest, I'm being realistic.

I can only guess the nomination comes about because I blogged about Ed Balls, Graham Badman, the NSPCC and the DCSF in 2010.

Thanks to that foul brew - a controlling government, a national charity-business, a scattering of D-list celebrities, umpteen newspapers and some aggressive local authorities who wanted a bit more power - you all heard how parents look normal, but you must never believe them, because they're just pretending.

Really, they said, some parents are extremists. They're evangelical nut jobs. They're wild and wacko. They hide their kids, beat them up, and prevent them from getting an education. Some parents, don't you know, are just plain wrong, bad, and misguided. Worse? Their kids are failed, and at risk of abuse.

The parents they talked about were home educators, like me. The children they referred to were mine, the home ed kids.

Why did those people say what they did? I can't answer in a line, but the impact was, they were cutting back the freedom for us all to choose the education best suited to our own children.

So yes, I started to holler. About that defamation of our life. About the attack on educational styles. About that loss of freedom of choice. I hollered, just the same, along with hundreds of other people around this country.

Together we organised ourselves locally and nationally. We linked groups, created petitions, challenged 'experts' and authorities, argued calmly, went berserk, sent out spokespeople, told you what we did, publicised the laws, pursued authorities. We went out and about as normal. We went to Parliament. We made ourselves a public nuisance. And we all wrote and wrote and wrote - letters, articles, blog posts.

I don't know, as a result of all that effort from everyone, how many people thought more about what they were told - about home educating parents, about home educated children - or whether people began to be more questioning or open in their own opinions and ideas. I don't know how many people took the opportunity of information and knowledge, went to their local school and demanded action on flexischool; nor how many people looked at their own children and wondered whether a different form of education would suit them better.

What I do know, is that any parent, any adult, who did not accept passively what they were told in that hard time, but who listened and thought, for a moment, about the politics, the media, the culture, the education we all want our own children to have - you made a difference. Not me. You.

The moment any of you stopped to think about what you heard from those in power, stopped to consider options to school, did not dismiss people like me and my family out of hand - you made a difference. You made a difference to the culture we live in, to the acceptability of our chosen education, to our ability to build a lifestyle in our community, to my kids, to me.

I won't canvass for a vote. I like to see any positive publicity for choices in education. But ultimately I couldn't care less about any award culture or any tick in a box. And I don't deserve any nomination any more than any other home educator or any other thinking parent who actively chooses their child's education, whether it's mainstream, off beat or unique.

What I do care about, more than anything, is that we all have freedom to choose. I want those principled unschoolers, radical autonomous, and all their kids to be left alone to get on with life. I want the flexischoolers who need both worlds to be encouraged. I want the school-at-home to be left to choose the support they want from a local authority. I want, for people like me, who wander from one end to the other of the spectrum, who try it all, to be left without judgement to follow our path. And I want the people who choose mainstream school to choose it because they want that service, not because it's there and it's free childcare.

Probably, I'm naive. But I think, you vote for freedom of choice, not by a tick in a box, but by what you do and say, every time you meet a child outside school involved in an education which is non-mainstream, every time you meet a home educating parent, and every time you think, Yeah, all those varieties of education? That's normal.

You want to go and vote? Go and vote for someone who actually gets off their arse. Go and vote for Making it up by Live Otherwise.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Pok Fu Lam to the Peak

There is an arduous mountain trail leading to the Peak. It starts in Pok Fu Lam valley and winds uphill through the country park.

What a climb it is! So many people take that climb on Boxing Day to exercise their legs, clear their minds, renew their spirits, make those hearts beat.

We joined them. We learned about the Eagle's Claw plant, we traced the water courses, drew the ground, rattled bamboo, rested our legs.

On a clear day, the views at the top are astonishing. Some people say that alone is worth the climb.

But what did you expect? Of course we cheated! We started at the top, and walked all the way down.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Friday, 24 December 2010

You can see the relief

After yesterday's suggestion by mama, the relief is tangible.

The ritual begins.


(Thank you IKEA, 50 minutes before closing, 90% markdown on the last Christmas tree of Hong Kong. Origami star, by Shark.)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas tree

Here we are, stuck in reality, trying to execute Emergency Plan B. Create a happy and memorable Christmas for the little grits in our temporary lodge in Hong Kong. To do that, we're putting into place all the signifiers of a British Christmas. Fairy lights. Santa socks. Hints about presents.

We're putting into place the Grit Christmas too (probably anti-patriotic). Do not make a big deal. Make our own presents. Yes, we are having baking potatoes.

But there's one thing lacking. The British Christmas and the Grit Christmas share something in common, and we can't get it. A tree. We need a proper Christmas tree shape that we can bomb not with our usual range of shuttlecocks and toilet rolls, but with tasteless plastic shiny stuff we already bought from the sad cat charity shop.

I know there are trees here. I have seen them. Not jungly ones, obviously. (Although as time ticks on, I wonder about the price of chainsaws and getting caught.) I know there are proper Christmas trees here because, over the past few weeks, I've seen expats carrying them on the ferry. But until Monday we assumed we would be at home, where I could disappear into the eaves and drag out the five-pound bargain tree from Help the Aged, where I wouldn't need to join this expat game of lugging Christmas trees around the Hong Kong transport infrastructure.

Now of course, we're here, and in the market for a Christmas tree. It seems to me that the Hong Kongers are big on shopping mall trees (up to thirty foot high and difficult to steal), which are used as extensive Christmas support for the manufacturing and retail growth of China. But they are not big on propping up Norwegian fir, floor to ceiling, in their domestic interiors. Strange.

Of course we may be simply too late. There are no trees to be had at the local grocers, coal merchant, or Saturday market like in Smalltown. Homebase doesn't exist, and we couldn't find them in Wing On.

We have searched. There is no second-hand plastic tree at the Hippie Shop, because it was sold. We tracked one down on the island at the laundry. The washing lady was touting an eight-branch wire and fringe arrangement for one hundred and fifty dollars. It's about four foot high, been round the block a few times, and has a couple of branches missing. The family gathered round it and looked at it, miserably, yesterday. Dig said he thought he could do better, then crawled over Kowloon and Central, twice, and discovered he could source a decent tree for about four thousand dollars. But he is from the north with relatives as foresters and memories of taking an axe to Kielder, thus came away empty handed, except for the argument that four thousand was a little steep for Emergency Plan B, especially when you're on a UK tax rate.

Which brings us to today. And no tree.

Then I made a big mistake. To fill the gap, I offered my design skills towards decorated dried branches with tinselled twigs. I reminded everyone, as silence fell about the room, that I have a piece of paper crediting me with some basic design skills. I will create a delightful and joy-filled design, I promise!

Squirrel, in an outrage, as if I had just announced I am leaving your father and shacking up with a Philippine lady boy on the beach, put on her hat and exited the house, slamming the door behind her. Shark went white and locked herself in the bedroom where I could hear soft weeping. Tiger took the attention-grabbing route by howling at the walls and wishing she were dead. Dig went out cursing for one last crawl of the day to see if four thousand dollars on Emergency Plan B looked a little more reasonable in the light of new information.

I think I would just like to say that my design skills are not that bad.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Say nothing, I might get away with it

It's all I could find at short notice, alright? Anyway, Santa's presents are sitting on the kitchen table in England. We'll meet up with them in April and we'll have Christmas then. Won't that be fun.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Primitive need


I must have oven. I must evolve disaster. I must create Emergency Hong Kong Christmas Joy.

For that, there must be oven. What other thing can bake potatoes on Christmas day? I need oven.

But we have no oven. Nobody in Hong Kong knows ovens. What is the point of oven? Mr Chang's noodles need hot water, sesame oil, soy sauce and a wok.

But I need oven.

Option 1: Set the front room on fire. Balance potatoes on the burning flames of the upended sofa. Shout to landlord, No. This is not arson. This is cooking.

Option 2: Buy oven.

(Make slaves carry oven home. It is heavy.)

Ha! Satiated primeval urges!

Twenty four scones, one jam tart, one vegetable pie and civilisation is begun! Delirious with success! Find!

Dig says, Stop it now. There is no need to dance naked round the kitchen smeared in mud and goat blood and just put the ox bone down.

Monday, 20 December 2010

It brings us together and tears us apart

So. The consequence of a cancelled flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow is a strange out-of-body, other-worldly feeling.

A nagging voice in my head keeps reminding me that we shouldn't be here, where we are, surrounded by woolly hills, butterflies and jungly trees. But look, we are, because I can see my feet soaking in sunshine. I keep looking at my feet, definitely on the ground, my toes enjoying the warmth, and I tell myself that warm toes are a good thing. I can scribble out deep vein thrombosis on the to-do list for today.

But it was such a fixture in the diary, and has been for a long time. The return to England was written there forever, with promises to children, dinner dates with friends, meetings with families, and now they're all gone.

The children bit is hardest. I inscribed that date in my diary and affirmed Yes, there will be Christmas trees! And baubles made from shuttlecocks! Then I inked it in with my own mitochondrial DNA, such was my conviction that I could carry it through. Stupidly, blindly, ignoring those increasingly urgent pictures of England under white, I even diverted the Amazon sleigh to take a left turn over Buckinghamshire.

And now look, everything's gone in different directions. We're not there, we're here. The feet are wandering off down the family trail to Lo So Shing Beach, while the body's wandered off trying to find the head, which is somewhere lost, wondering where all the Christmas plans have gone.

Well now I've been forced to stop, and look hard, at your pictures of snow mountains, most of them it seems gathered on runways 1, 2, and 3.

I still don't blame it or hate it. Indeed, I am envious of your snow. Snow is one of those miracles. For every family it tears apart, it brings others close together. Locked out of the rooms where the heating doesn't work properly, or where the doors don't shut and the windows rattle like chattering teeth, we can all unite in the kitchen for comfort, and argue in a heap. But it's warm there, because Dig will have fixed the oven door back in its place, so we can cook spice biscuits and share out winter cakes. If we're brave enough, we can trek across the fields, and laugh at each other's noses turning scarlet.

And I know, really, lost from a flight home, I have nothing here, on the ground, to complain about. We have what we need. I'm not a refugee transiting an airport terminal wrapped in emergency silver foil. I haven't got my weeping granny in a wheelchair by my side, nor three toddlers staring uncomprehending because this year, Christmas made it only as far as Athens. If the snow loses us our time in England, we still have warm toes, night time beds, and we can mark the day when we decorate the sunshine with tinsel.

But isn't it true that we humans, we always want something different. But if we have it, then we want things back the same.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stopped by snow

There are plenty of jobs I wouldn't like in this world. One is a call centre operator, receiving the 300-plus calls from passengers booked on the flight from Hong Kong to London. I bet all those passengers were hoping to reschedule their arrival in England before Christmas.

The other job I didn't like, not at all, was telling the gritlets that our flight was cancelled, and no, we won't be going tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next. We might stagger through the door Christmas Eve, but part of me has now come to the gloomy conclusion that it would probably be better all round if we didn't.

Meanwhile, to cheer myself up, salvage something, find something positive, remember to say to Tiger, You might not have snow, but you have sunshine, here's a view from the roof.

And because it's denied me, I want to go back to England more than anything.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Here's a Hong Kong story

Seventeen market stall holders were given the option of moving to a new market at Tai Po Hui or being closed down. The new market, said the government, was so lovely and bright and shiny, that you'd all have to bid against each other to secure the best places.

Only the stall holders didn't. They organised themselves beforehand, and choose their market places before the auction, so no stall holder bid against any other. They each secured their places at the lowest costs to themselves.

The government then took the stall holders to court, on charges of conspiracy to defraud.

Not only does it tell me the government is little more than a property speculator hoping to profit by setting stall holders against each other, it also tells me how resourceful people can be when playing the big corporates at their own game. Satisfying.

(Until legislation outlaws collusion at auction for everyone except the corporates.)

Friday, 17 December 2010

Are you committed?

My BFF is fantastic. She taught me a thing or two.

Like, switch on the bedside light if you stagger out your nest at 2am. Otherwise you will be driving your broken nose to A&E by 2.30am, dressed in your jimmy jams.

That is useful knowledge. She also taught me, if you want the council to move a lamp post along your street, you have to never give up. You have to be committed.

I think about that word, and I came to the conclusion that it's no accident the word committed means:

a) being locked up in a mental institution and
b) doggedly sticking to a point of view even though everyone hates you and laughs at you.

Maybe that's why some people avoid making a commitment to any position in public. Even stuff they get angry about. It is very exposing and makes you feel vulnerable. That is not a comfortable way to live. Once you make any commitment in public, you have to be on your ready to argue your point of view at all times.

Sometimes you have to argue with any random person who is equally committed in the other direction. And, let's face it, they might be mad, taking the opportunity to have a pop at you, or simply have a better, more convincing argument than you. They might be able to use their rhetorical classes to much better impact than you, too. They might win the argument. Publicly. How humiliating is that?

Sometimes, and I speak from bitter experience, after you make that public commitment, and the equally and oppositely enraged come at you with pointy sticks and cruel words, you enter an emotionally exhausting world. Sometimes you want to have done with it. It brings out the aggression in you. You want to stick up two fingers, and yell Piss off! Other times you just want a quiet life. You want to cave and squeal I don't know! It's all too much! Leave me alone! Then burst into tears and refuse to leave the cubby hole under the stairs.

But there are many times you find solidarity with other people who think like you do, and whose views are similar to yours. You can find strength in that.

It's yet another weakness of course, because you share the support of a group of people who can be easily identified, grouped, mocked, discredited and discounted. So you have to leave that cosy warm circle, go stand in a public place again, yell out your point of view some more, and be made uncomfortable and vulnerable all over again.

Personally, I recommend it. Making a public commitment to something - anything that you feel strongly about - is a good thing. Much better than sitting at home mumbling quietly to yourself and the kid's pet gerbil.

You see a lot more of human nature, find out a lot more about how government systems and societies work, learn a great deal about your local area and about national politics, and probably become a saint and a devil in the process. That has to be a more interesting way of spending a year than staring at the TV every night.

But if I could have seen a little of what was ahead for us, when Ed Balls and Graham Badman picked a fight with home educators - when we normally quiet, left-alone parents had to suddenly overcome our differences, take to the streets, visit local authorities, organise petitions and expose ourselves to the ordinary public in ways we had never done before - maybe it would have helped.

So, if you are committing yourself to any local or national action, then I recommend you read the ten lessons here. You could substitute wind farm for any issue. There are some parts I would argue with in reference to home ed, but not of the experience as a whole. It's as good a guide as any, for what lies ahead. The more informed you are, the more you can act.

Now, who's up for getting something done about that gravelly patch of waste ground? The one that could be made into a secret community garden, an old folk's sitting out area, an urban farm, or a kid's kick about area?

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Hey! I'm joining your society!

Confession time from a home educating mother.


Never. Not once! Hang on, I think in 2008 I bought a carton of chips from Burger King! Maybe that day was it. Shark is adamant she will never eat anything from a burger bar ever again. Squirrel says she's not eating there, so just try it. Tiger says, can she go home and have pasta?

Of course we've eaten from chip shops, yes. We are British. And Indian take aways, of course. Pizza? Certainly. Lots of cafes, too. But I'm told, they're not the same. Grit, a fast food burger bar is completely different.

Now this has secretly worried me. If you're a school-choosing parent, you won't be worried, even if your kids don't eat at McDonalds either. Because you're already normal. But me, I'm vulnerable to an accusation. That I've kept my kids away from school and I've kept them from doing what all other kids do in normal society. All kids eat at places like McDonalds, right?

Actually, it gets worse. I have another confession.

I have made Shark, Squirrel and Tiger visit McDonalds to look at the walls.

I've done it now. That is fuel. What is more un-normal than that?

I won't defend myself. All I can say, is that the walls in the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre branch of McDonalds are fantastic.

Go and look for yourself! The stone used there is Travertine. Delicate ripples, thousands of years old!

When we got there, I read how the rock was made; we drew ripples in notebooks, smoothed our hands over surfaces and felt how cool thousands of years feels; we wondered about chemical properties, hit the wall with our knuckles (the stone won) and we came away with ideas about why an architect might specify this rock as the most durable and decorative for facing walls and floors of shopping centres.

I know I get carried away. I can't help it. Rock is beautiful. Intricate and ancient. But don't think that I've ever studied geology. No. I just look it up on Wikipedia! I don't understand the half of it. I don't care. I love rock. And that's why I took the kids to the Milton Keynes branch of McDonalds, to communicate a love of rock, to stare at the walls, and dribble with love.

They stared at the rock too, traced their fingers along the exquisite lines, and loved it, just like me. It's my special treasure of that moment.

But it's also my humiliation. It's my vulnerability. Anyone with half a grudge against home ed gets to accuse me. Because I'm not a geology teacher and I didn't even take my kids to McDonalds to eat! Just a half-baked idea that we'll stare at walls? How weird and out of touch can home educators be?

I don't want to be vulnerable. So, quietly, without telling anyone, I made it my mission, that at the first available opportunity, my kids would eat at a fast food outlet. If not McDonalds, then something so similar, so cloned, that no one could say, 'Get you! Going to McDonalds to look at rock?' They would say, 'What do you think of the McDoubleMcBurgMcJuicyFry?' And my kids would reply, 'Hmmm. I've heard it's not as cool as the McTripleMcDog with extra Mcs'.

If my kids did that, then everyone would heave a big sigh of relief, because it would show that my kids are normal too. Phew!

Of course I have problems.

Like the vegetarian thing. And the way that Shark shouts 'I am never eating in a McDonalds! I would rather DIE!' She did that dramatically, with scowls and hand gestures and table thumping.

But this is important. I am resolved. This is our entry ticket to normal. So today, after the home ed ice skating group...

...we followed the Americans (I told Shark they made me do it) into a fast food outlet modelled on the McMc style. Where I ordered Three regular fries to go. (Yes, I admit, I needed help.)

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, brought to this by peer pressure (I win again!) then hung around a playground, ate their McStyle chips from McStyle cartons, and declared them, 'Not as nice as Rocky's'.

And I feel pretty much invincible.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

I wouldn't normally reveal the contents of a lady's luggage

But when Squirrel has been put in charge of her homeward bound packing, I always hope to be stopped at the airport and asked, 'What's in the bag, madam?' And I can truthfully answer, 'Nothing. Except a platypus, a camel, a cat, a rabbit. And now I regret removing the headless koala.'

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cheer for the origami Christmas

Shark sits for many hours with origami. To me it's a peculiar hobby to enjoy, but hey, I tell myself it's not masterminding criminal enterprise, or dog fighting, or online gambling, or any other pointless and disagreeable activity she could fill her days with. Folding paper into strange shapes and declaring it a cricket seems as innocuous as you can get.

There's a simplicity about origami, too, isn't there? It doesn't need batteries, doesn't make noisy boom-boom-boom sounds and doesn't demand an entire month's salary to feed it. Yet you can still amuse yourself on long bus journeys, and without driving your neighbour into madness or despair. In fact, I'm now claiming that origami is social. Shark can twist your till receipt into a flying crane to amuse you, then she can provide you with a miniature lemur to slip into your pocket to take home.

Anyway, I bet she will drop origami one day, then I will feel nostalgic about it, so I'm holding on to the enjoyment of watching her now. In a few years some awful and adored teenager will sneer that it's a strange thing for a girl to spend time on, or claim is any accomplishment at all. Overnight the origami will vanish and I will be picking up yellow hair extensions from the floor, instead of the yellow folded paper some one tells me is called Derek the dinosaur.

Well, the origami kept Shark occupied today. She's obviously looking forward to the journey home for Christmas, because in anticipation she's sat several silent hours, recreating her own festive front room, complete with decorated tree, presents, mantelpiece, candles and three Santa socks. We all look at it in wonder, I declare it brilliant, and suggest she photographs it.

Yes, she's probably a better origamist than photographer. Or maybe she has the angle of that tree perfect because we never screw it in the bucket properly. And we do stick a floor mop in it, so that bit is true too.

But I remain quietly impressed by her lovely, unbowed nerdy streak. And the hours she can take so simply and gently, without rush or pressure to spoil her time.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Otherwise I might forget

Squirrel: Mummy! We saw a dog dyed pink!
Grit: Is the owner wearing purple Versace to match? ... Oh.My.God.

Grit: Psst! Squirrel! Take a discreet picture of that.
Squirrel: What?
Grit: That.
Squirrel: What?
Grit: Oh for goodness sake. Let me do it.

Grit: A worm! A worm! It's enormous!
The Americans: Nancy. Come on over here. You can eat it.

Shark: Mummy, I want to leave.
Grit: Stop bothering me. I'm busy. Look, here is a very interesting exhibit on Chinese U-bends.

Tiger: I am never coming here ever ever ever ever again.
Grit: What is wrong with you? When you see a surgical face mask coming towards you, don't you want to know what type?

Grit: Oh no! What happened? Is everyone alright? Is anyone hurt?
Shark: That is Squirrel's broken glass collection. Look! She made a unicorn.

Grit: Aha! Well done, Shark! I see you have been to collect your traditional Chinese tea cake. The lady says it is excellent. Maybe it is fermented rice with beancurd paste.
Shark: Put it in your handbag. Quickly.

(Rediscovered, one week later, in not the same condition.)

Grit: Shark! Where have you been? What have you got there?
Shark: Mummy, I added it up and it is really cheap for one hundred fish. Where can I keep them?

Tiger: Mummy? What is this?

Grit: It is a laughing corner.
Tiger: A what?
Grit: We can laugh in synchronised Cantonese, Mandarin and English every Saturday at 10am. Would you like to come along?

Tiger: Are you serious?