Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Nothing of significance

Freecycling, i.e., gutting cupboards, amassing broken household objects, staring at them with alternating states of curiosity and indifference, then wondering whether the neighbours would conclude it as rubbish as I do, or maybe my gift will be the answer to all their prayers. If they are praying for a non-suck vacuum cleaner and a selection of storage jars without lids, then I can deliver.

So far I have done quite well. I have answered the prayers of six people with a bag of fabric offcuts, a garden swing without a frame, an unused breadmaker, a kid's playmat, a box of musical instruments, and a plastic bag of Duplo supplied with resident spider. We are simple folk in our happy town.

But I suspect the breadmaker. It is merely surfing our neighbourhood. We aspirant bakers are passing it from one kitchen to the next until it reveals our inadequacies. I expect the latest recipient will do exactly what I did. Read the instructions, think them very complicated when everyone says they are easy, then stick the breadmaker in the cupboard and forget about it for 18 months before putting it back on Freecycle.

So that is it. Nothing of consequence. I am occupied mentally and physically by broken material items for which I ultimately have no affection or interest. I am considering stuff without concern, managing objects with no future and am building up for myself an enormous state of disconnect, as though I am turning out the guts of the house so I can leave it.

In this emptied-out frame of mind I must remember the things to which I have great attachment. I must remember to collect Shark from the lake. She is there this week, taking various levels of windsurfing courses, for which I must also remember to amass important and much-needed stuff such as 2 metres of rope and 3 bits of paper.

Squirrel and Tiger are doing I don't know what, but it involves an extremely important house brick which I must not make the mistake of moving a second time, and a hole in the ground. The hole is very important too, and I must remember not to keep pointing to it and saying, on behalf of my ankle, it is an accident waiting to happen.

I wish I had a life of greater significance to report, but maybe that is enough broken emptiness for one day. Anyway, I have a saucepan without a handle to dispose of.

Monday, 30 May 2011

No other ending

Candidate for Golden Grit Award, Worst Day of May.

There was no other outcome, really. Early on I recognised the signs - long before Tiger locked herself in her bedroom, and Shark and Squirrel traded emotionally wounding insults before locking horns and attempting a duel to the death. So hurtful were these preliminary battle words that if they were practical weaponry they would be banned as cruel instruments of torture. Kebab skewers, say, additionally laced with an electric current, then stabbed slowly under your fingernails. That sort of torture.

But I knew it would happen. It was a day lost from the start. I woke up sad and that was that. Maybe it was the result of a dream sequence involving a slipped Mr Softee ice cream, pure sweet delight lost forever against the hard pavement, and maybe a delicious bottle of always desirable Pouilly Fume, shattering against the ground, soaked away forever and never coming back.

Anyway, at some point in the afternoon I had a big shout and went to Bletchley. All the other options had run out.

My first option - the one booked for us to attend, the one I had foolishly anticipated - was a fantastic geology tour of Buckinghamshire. It was cancelled.

I looked for an alternative, but the endeavour was doomed. Luton's carnival, which would have been a riot, probably. To the south, Queen Victoria's army. To the north, Medieval peasantry. I couldn't be bothered to drive to either. The local museum had an insect day where you could take a snail for a walk. That sounded promising, but last time I brought a general air of disappointment to the proceedings when I stood on the snail.

So I ignored how Bletchley carries a name that sounds like the actual process of vomiting, and I drove Shark and Squirrel, separated by an electric fence, to their bank holiday day out.

Like I said, Tiger was not a problem. She locked herself in her bedroom and refused to come out.

Here then is Bletchley Park - inside, because by now it was pissing down - and their tableaux of family life 1940, looking a lot like our house. We amused ourselves by locating the bits of furniture we own thanks to a dead grandmother.

When I tired of that game, I photographed the prohibition notices. More fun than weeping.

Outside, in the rain, Bletchley Park was having a fun 1940s festival, where all the reenactors hid to escape the downpour and Glenn Miller was never going to lift my spirits.

I would show you a photograph of the events, which we missed thanks to our late arrival, but by the time I remembered about a visual record, I was already soaked to the skin and had almost lost the will to go on. Had it not been for the need to go home and rescue Tiger, I might have sunk to the ground forever and never stood up again.

By the evening, there seemed little to do but end the day appropriately; by having a big self-pitying cry with snot, mis-shapen mouth and bloodshot eyeballs and everything. It was a moment elevated slightly by spying a moth on the ceiling, which necessitated climbing on the table to smack it with a shoe. Attractive, no? It is fitting I feel, on this particular anniversary day.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Shut up with the missionary zeal

Let us sing it out loud, we EDUCATION CONVERTS!

For we happy brethren, we know already what others seek to find!

While the world worries, wondering on its way about the right way of learning, we know what it is to walk in the light of alternative educational choices!

And it must be my mission to share my testament of my truth with all non-believers - those nay sayers and truth-deniers - wherever I may find them, and wherever they cannot run quick enough.

And yea, I know this is a bit creepy for those who know of my past evil teachery ways, and it is downright terrifying for those unsuspecting members of the public who must meet me off my chains for the first time, but truly I have seen the light which I MUST SHARE AT ALL COSTS.

Here! Today! Another fortunate opportunity to convert the unbelievers!

For here is the happy group leader on the parks walk-and-talk, thinking she is merely put on earth to lead a group of elderly walkers on a four-hour history totter down the Grand Union Canal!

I observe, of course, that my children are the only children attending this walk-and-talk probably aimed at the over-70s, but this PROVES ME RIGHTEOUS somehow, and anyway makes me feel entirely justified in sidling up to her, and explaining our presence as the children being interested in these things because they are home educated!

After twenty minutes with Grit skipping along, happily narrating the life of eternal learning bliss, the group leader is striding a bit faster. I have legs that might be short but they can move quick. I can keep up with her easily!

Well of course it is not long before I ask, as if in all innocence, CAN YOU LET HOME EDUCATION INTO YOUR LIFE?

And when she starts walking a bit quicker, some people might say almost running, and certainly losing half the old folks along the tow-path, then be assured! I can match that pace! I can begin to explore her doubts with my certainties about how happy anyone can truly be when they have been led from the true path of learning by common schooling sins.

But I detect she is not quite convinced! What of socialisation? she cries. I volunteer to show her the sort of well-rounded, socialised children that can be brought up in this life of learning happiness!

I grab Tiger by the coat, and propel the daughter to the front.

SEE! SEE HERE! The living proof!

Tiger is merely scowling like she has not a friend in the world and doesn't bloody well want one either, and this proves what a perfect state we have achieved, because my daughter is FREE to express herself wholeheartedly and fully as a rounded human being, so I can have it all ways matey, which is another damn good reason to home educate, because you get used to arguing your way out of a minefield surrounded by the enemy.

But I am not finished yet. NO WAY. Even though the leader is running quite a bit now. I can keep up NO PROBLEM, and by the time I have finished outlining the GLORY that is home education I notice that strangely she wears an expression of total fatigue and we have returned to the car park over a full hour earlier than scheduled!


And what a lovely walk.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Have all my money, yes take it all

The Grit kingdom is living under austerity measures.

Sadly it is unavoidable, I inform the citizenry, sat round the kitchen table looking distinctly ugly about the pocket money reduction. But it must be done. Let's call it an investment in our education!

No Shark, it is certainly not because I have a crush on Kevin Spacey. I totally deny that. Only a little bit of one. Okay then, quite a big crush. But listen to that voice! That is a beautiful voice and I could listen to those melodic tones for hours.

Anyway, shut up about Kevin Spacey's gentle, soothing voice. That is not the reason I spent the entire monthly household budget on four seats to see him play the lead in Richard III. I am quite sure about that! Possibly.

It was because the woman at the other end of the theatre seat telephone line gave me no option. She said these are the only four seats left and stop trying to cut a deal. Then she grew quite cross and hissed, Do you want them or not? Obviously I had to take the seats, although for that price I want to see Kevin Spacey without his trousers on. And that is why we have no money left.

Now, citizens of Gritland, we must all pull together, be in the same handcart, travel the same grinding road to educational nirvana, and let me feast my eyes upon what is sure to be a solid performance of a fine play, even though it is costing me an arm, a leg, and a kidney.

Just don't tell Daddy Dig. Don't make a sound if you see me wave my hand in a casual fashion and murmur, What? Those tickets with all the zeros on them? Oh those! We have had those for AGES.

And now there is one last instruction. If I suddenly go pale or breathless or slump over in my seat, please throw water over my face and slap me. Because of course it is not really the ticketing cost that is worrying me. It is the fact that as the curtain goes up at 5pm, what with this dreadful crush I have on Kevin Spacey's voice, I may just pass out at 5.01 and miss it all. And what if he takes his trousers off?

Friday, 27 May 2011

London interlude

My spanking new Friends of the Globe card is now clutched tightly in my grubby little paws, so it's farewell to the garage clean-up for the day, while we eagerly away to grimy old London in the early sixteenth century for some real-life rumbustious entertainment.

Yes, I am completely won over by the seductions of the Globe.

My only observation is that we, the audience - probably made up of tourists, middle-class theatre goers and Eng. Lit classes on a day out from the private school - are far too well-mannered and tied to our safe and social culture of post-Victorian primness.

We should escape our manners and bring a little frankness to this theatrical exchange. There are plenty of bawdy jokes in All's Well that Ends Well to set the scene for us. An occasional loud ruckus, boiling over from some background disorderly folk engaged in lewd conduct, spiced up with some choice obscenities and a passing of the piss bucket, would serve me well: I could then truly join the pitful of penny stinkers, belly pots and bosom barers for a good afternoon at the theatre proper.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger put their noses in the air and say primly, not likely. They are here for Helena and Bertram, and to see the stage and costumes and maybe titter at the sight of Parolles with a bag on his head.

Shark says she wants the audience to stay nicely in 2011 thank you very much, where everyone says after you; where it is safe and there are clean toilets, and where there is a Pizza Express right next door for the after-show dinner. Here we can puzzle out why Helena likes Bertram in the first place.

Pah. This is not Jane Austen, I say. Let's face it, the love interest in this one is a bit far-fetched and probably not going to sustain the analysis. Let's enjoy the vulgar instead. How many of Shakespeare's audience came for the filth and the fight?

For which I get, mother, stop slapping your thighs, do up your blouse, and stop offering round that thermos flask, because no-one's ever going to accept your offer and wee in it.

Hmm. I shall just have to go into town on a Friday night instead, and take up a street-side seat outside the Slug and Lettuce.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Excavating the cardboard and papier-mâché layers

Readers with insufficient occupation for their waking hours - those who are now following the great grit garage turnout - will surely be delighted to learn that the archaeological excavation of the site has revealed, hidden under the plant and animal residue, evidence of a primitive cardboard enthusiasm c.2006.

Could be ritual artifacts connected with ceremonies of the craft altar, otherwise apprentice pieces, possibly incomplete replicas of Iron Age shields. I may seek a professional opinion from the British Museum.

More exciting, if your heart can bear it, is the discovery, in the next layer down, of the papier-mâché moon surface c.2005.

This is the very one chewed by a rat. The rat, I hope, suffered mortal injury hastened on by a smooth-operating rat killer from the council.

With her softly spoken voice and quiet demeanor, she could have been the sort of middle-aged woman offering you tea at your local village fete. You would have accepted it too, until you saw the contents of her blue, unmarked cloth bag, filled as it was with the chemical agents of death.

After blitzing the cavity under the floorboards where the destroyer of my papier-mâché moon surface project was hopefully cowering, she quickly departed, advising the children not to chew the carpets or skirting boards.

Anyway, because I did not give in to the rat, and was driven in pursuit of a papier-mâché moon surface suitable for five-year olds to use for their Playmobil space rockets (while I covertly taught them astro-physics from a Teach Yourself library book), then here it is, reassembled after the rat, completely finished with multi-sized craters and paint, and proudly displayed for the final time before it is placed in permanent archival storage at the Museum of Rejected Artifacts (the tip).

Rescue archaeology is sad, but it is a necessary part of redevelopment, is it not?

Now, having emptied the space next to the inexplicable metal tank in the garage, I can fill it up again. This time with some home-made shelving*. Storage room, appropriately enough, for the means to make exciting new papier-mâché craft items and paint lovely new cardboard creations.

*Well, not exactly 'home-made shelving'; I merely placed some timber through those metal thingies.

Incidentally, those metal thingies cost me three pounds down the tip two years ago. Unfortunately, they also cost me an additional one thousand pounds against my car insurance, thanks to me reversing at speed into the driver's door of an Audi just after I had loaded my lovely new shelving into my boot, assured of a bargain.

I still maintain he was in the wrong. He was not parked in a designated bay at all, but had pulled in by a plasterboard heap for his own convenience. Stupid prat. He probably deserved to have his driver's door smashed in.

Very useful shelving though. And proving that everything round here comes with a history all of its own.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

For the educational record

I see that yesterday I was aspiring to the society of the local tip. Sadly, I must now come home and know what riches I already possess to make my life complete: age (old), circumstance (unemployed), status (housewife), husband (gone) and skills set (zero). That wealth I must reconcile myself to enjoy, and consider it a satisfying meal, albeit served humbly (yesterday's dried toast salvaged from bin).

I must remember that I am set on earth not to enjoy the fine company of our young men down the tip; nor to savour the gracious living next to the asbestos bin (yes, really!); nor experience much of good company (not these days, what with Squirrel pulling that lip at me).

I am here with other, worthier goals.

To wit: discover what a child's education can be, if it is not made up of conventional school.

Yes. That is it. You see, me and this blog must be focused on our principles and endeavours. We must together chronicle the wonderful, daily, educational learning environments of Shark, Squirrel and Tiger. Our liberating, inspiring, and truly worldwide education! (The Local Authority EWO and Social Services woman might come knocking.)

So, there must be an education, happening somewhere round here today, that I can report.



No, don't worry! I'm sure I'll find it in a moment.

It's in here somewhere. Give me a minute. I'm sure we've all done something. Of course if I look hard, I'll find it! Talk amongst yourselves while I sit here and have a think.

That is the problem with house tidying, isn't it? Nothing else happens, except that which makes sense in house tidying. Clearing up, throwing out, clearing out, throwing up. It all leads me to nowhere, except into long pointless arguments with the inside of my head about how I would secretly like to throw out those painted babies with the missing legs.

Frankly it would be easy to do because I don't care a jot about them. I mean, would you? They are hardly the stuff of romantic childhood. I can't tenderly bring Dolly out the cupboard in ten years to recall, fondly, Ah, that was the day Squirrel painted her face blue, then we put her in the washing machine, and one leg fell off. As I remember, Shark filled it with mud and buried it in the garden.

Well, I can't report that. I must instead find something worthy and educational. It is my mission.

Otherwise, someone will stumble by this blog looking for supportive messages of educational salvation and moral endeavour, but come across nothing more than the prattle of an ancient, hopeless old crone, pathetically seeking companionship down the local 'community recycling centre' and wandering about a gutted garage bumping into pianos with her jaw clacking away to herself. I mean, I have to do some incoherent arguing with myself whether to chuck out a plastic dismembered doll; whether this counts against me as another instance of motherhood disloyalty; and whether Little Eric at the tip would find it really funny if I hid her in garden waste and let him discover it as he's turning over the top layer with his pitchfork.

And we wouldn't want that scenario, would we.

Anyway, I have now found something.

Thank you for waiting.

The other evening, we attended an independent cinema screening of Our Hospitality (1923), complete with piano score played by living pianist.

We discussed the development of cinema from silent to talkies, the comedy of Buster Keaton, and what an audience can enjoy about slapstick with a piano accompaniment in these post-structuralist, post-modernist, 3D cinema days.

Then I came home and discovered this. Satisfying. And undoubtedly I can call this an education in media studies, film history, critical thinking, emotional expression, cultural awareness, visual literacy and how we can laugh at the same thing at the same time thus, human bonding.

Ha. Now I can return to my endeavours at the tip with a clear conscience.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

To The Tip

After yesterday, when time stopped still and I got no further than 5.15, I decided that overthinking a cloud costume until it reaches nihilism is a pointless waste of time.

So this morning I exchange Squirrel's ballet froth for a bottle of beer; I throw in a witch outfit, Snow White, sundry Cinderellas, and a plastic ironing board.

Then I get serious with the chucking out, and begin a marathon 8-hour relay, steadily driving the contents of the garage to the tip.

The first time I get there, I start to feel nostalgic for the days when I could drive up, drop the car's contents onto a stinking heap of landfill, then quickly scarper, burying my conscience along with the refuse. Not now, not any more. In these eco-friendly days, everything must be recycled, which means dividing and sub-dividing the universe into metal/electrical, chipboard/wood, fabric clean/dirty and so on.

Each journey, thanks to this divisionary labour, thus takes no small amount of time. It involves me in a lot of matching my garage junk with their correct container, then staggering left-right, round the corner and back again, bent-backed and filthy, under the burden of wet chipboard, old duvets, and the metal legs of a broken bed.

The first time I do this, it is under the watchful and slightly menacing stare of the staff, employed, it seems to me, to lean on railings. I am sure watching me takes quite a bit of effort. I can only assume they are there to make sure I don't try and evade my ethical duty and dump the lot in garden waste.

I didn't get any help to carry the bed lengths around. None at all. I did note however that the young, lithe, blond twenty-something female wearing a low-cut sleeveless top with wobbly bosoms - the one who, as if she needed to, waved her arms feebly about - well, she received quite a bit of assistance in lifting a puny few bits of timber. Just saying.

I thought I might try her technique, but that idea was never going to get anywhere. I turned up each time in a more dramatic fashion than the last. By the second trip I managed a pair of savagely torn jeans and soot over my nose, and by the third I sported a green and purple bruise over one entire upper arm thanks to a collision with a piano. I thought I couldn't top that, but by trip four I wore a finger bandage made of a cut-up sanitary towel and some duct tape, thanks to nothing of any use whatsoever in the first-aid box except for a plastic ear thermometer. By trip five I carried several spiders in my hair, plus their entire housing estate, and by trip six I had lost the lower left leg of my jeans completely.

At the end of the day's tip experience I looked a little like some monobrowed cave dweller jettisoned through time to the medieval age: hunchbacked and broken, staggering haphazardly about under a layer of grimy robes, garage dust and century-old cobwebs.

But I was high on a combination of the cleaning experience and the excitement of seeing my remodelled garage/craftroom appear under my very nose. Taken to the edge of nervous exhaustion with the physical labouring of the day, I also began speaking in a strange, high-pitched squeak. I think it was then, at the final visit to the tip, that I started leaning on the rails alongside the tip staff, cracking jokes about bottoms and dart boards, the like of which might be suitable for an 8-year old. Gratifyingly, they laughed. I have found my level, and possibly my new vocation.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The great clean up begins

Spend the day throwing stuff out. Hurtling worn objects (torn coat, size 4 wellington boots, broken picture frame) into various bins (giveaway, recycle, charity shop, landfill). The experience of shedding these old layers unveils a delight that bursts quickly into exhilaration. This is emotional cleansing indeed. Too long have these objects surrounded me, showing me my own inability to act. But finally, finally I am taking control!

So I embark on the next step: emptying shelves, the ones bending under the weight of my ancient abandoned craft items. I look at boxes filled with unfinished objects and shake my head at my past self in pity. These boxes each speak of my determination at some moment in time not to give in. One day, I would have consoled myself while shovelling book craft into a cardboard box, I will finish making that!

No I won't. I can see now with my elevated gaze that the half-stitched book cover made of carpet tiles was doomed from the start. I punctured two fingers, bled all over the bathroom and dropped the pokey tool down the back of the toilet. I hardly think I'm going to revisit that particular craft project. It speaks now not of hope toiling under adversity, but of misdirected energy, blind failure and misery. In the bin it goes, and joy flows into my heart.

If I throw out all stuff like this, I think, soon I shall leave everything clean and bare!

But something bad happens as I mine down into each heirloom bag and box, finding all the totems of the family past (child dressing-up clothes, ballet costumes). Is this great throwaway at too much of a heady, reckless pace? At what cost?

I start to panic. Maybe I am making bad purging decisions, using all the wrong judgements!

Here is Squirrel's cloud outfit, made for stage performance. I hated the build up. The endless Tuesday ballet groups for 7-year olds, my showing up used as evidence of my parental devotion or damnation. I routinely failed the test. Into the giveaway bag I shove the perfect white tulle.

Then again, I might have not a ballet gene in me, but Squirrel is my little girl. Out the bag pops the sparkly net and nylon.

But I didn't, couldn't, fit. Each week, while the piano tinkled, I found myself locked in a dark, back room with five women driven by the power of sparkly hairgrips. I wanted to scream, kick furniture, smash windows. Into the bag I press the sparkling silver sequins.

Then again, how could I forget Squirrel wearing this? Think of the future! Each time I will fetch it from the cupboard, where it will hang for all my life, I'll touch the tiny sprays of pearl cream beads like raindrops and remember how my little girl wore her most intense, serious expression, her footsteps measuring out her responsibility to be a cloud, three steps left, two steps right. Remembering which is left, and which is right. Out the bag I haul the silver-lined cloud.

I run my fingers over the white edged ribbon. And I really, really hated how I was forced to endure every weekend, evening, and waste the contents of my bank account. Squirrel was never thankful for that type of devotion. She chucked up all the dance the week after I bought the sodding tap shoes at forty quid a pop. Into the bag goes the stiff white net. I push it down hard, and squash it with a witch's hat.

Before I can think again, I quickly shove in three princesses, a torn clown and the red love-heart costume that made my stomach turn, then tie the bag and Hurrah! I broke some sort of barrier.

But, if I can throw out each totem with these fond memories, what else am I capable of casting off? What if I find I can jettison every object? What if, in doing so, I discover I can steadily denude every emotional attachment I've ever made?

What if I leave myself so clean and bare that I will discover I'm not anything at all? That I am all filled up with empty. Gone will be my supporting objects of history, experience and meaning, gone will be all my memory, distress and affection, and I will find I am a floating hollow, and all this clutter only served to wrap around a person-shaped space, one who isn't there, not in any way, any where, any more.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


I have suffered a slight setback in my secret plans to take North Norfolk by surprise and storm Castle Rising.

I was looking forward to that. A quick round trip; besiege a castle, sniff the salty sea air of the blown coast, and give those cheating nightingales one final, very last, ultimate, this is it chance to burst into glorious song before they all push off in June. That trip would have suited me just fine.

But then the children came over all bolshy-mouth and foot-draggy and do we have to.

Shark declared she wanted to stay at home and work on her pond. Tiger said she wanted to do some digging if Shark can dig up the garden and she can't. Then Squirrel weighed in with how they can never play in the garden, not ever, and the last time they played in the garden I said it was time to come in. That is nonsense. They spend hours out there. She has a worse memory than I do.

Of course I was outnumbered and gave in. Well, I am one smart negotiator and I have wrestled a pretty fair deal. I have provided spades and conceded the entire garden; I will stay at home for a whole week and clean out the moulded cellar; and we will go and see Castle Rising some day.

There. You better see what they did.

Shark's pond. She is extremely proud of this, and quite right too. Though I said No Fish Absolutely not. No way.

Tiger's dug up hole. She is making a Jurassic landscape and is going to fill this with dinosaurs. Don't ask. You get a thirty-minute explanation of where the mud slide will take place and where the lake will be and what time the extinction will happen when she drops a rock on it.

Squirrel. Having made her swing she has become distracted and is peering into the hedge. Looking for faeries, probably.

Me. Of course I lied. I'm not cleaning out the cellar. I crept upstairs and tried on some old clothes I found in a box. Here is the brown sueded silk number. I'm not throwing this one out. Shoulder pads are coming back.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Stowe walk

I take it all back. Everything I ever said about the National Trust.

This is all thanks to Sue.

Sue is brilliant. Sue is fantastic. Sue is an ordinary, everyday person. Today she leads a story walk and talk with the National Trust, guiding us round the history of the fields at Stowe Landscape Gardens.

She takes us on a six-mile hike towards the outer reaches of the estate. I would show you a photograph of Sue, and the far-flung fields of Stowe, but I forgot the camera.

I am cross about that. I rely on my camera. Without it, I can't show you a picture of Sue, who brought all this land and history alive with her lovely oval smiling face and fair wispy hair. And I don't have the poetry to convey to you how barley moves with the wind across a field, rippling and swaying, like a green living sea. Except for the cut through the centre. I like to think that before we came, a giant hand took a pair of scissors to the field of bristling barley hairs and snip-snip-snip cut a wobbly swathe from the stile at the bottom of the hill, all the way to the five-bar gate at the top of the hill.

How I wanted a photograph of that moment, on the path between the green barley and tan earth, topped by a bright blue sky. Shark, following on behind me, charming another gentleman with her tall Chinese tales. Squirrel, walking silently by my side, her face a picture of concentration on her outstretched hand, feeling the stiff prickling hairs of coarse barleytops on the skin of her fingertips. Tiger, striding ahead. Unusually for Tiger, telling someone she's never met before about all the important things, like how horses trot, canter and gallop.

That is how much this walk brought out something in all of us. Past the farm, by the pond, through the village, down the dip and up the rise, then through the rippling green barley field. As we walked, Sue talked about people near and far; people in the past, people she knew, people she'd heard of. She told us about the year the reggae came, the pearls and the twinset, the farmer's compromise.

She had plenty of stories to tell: a history of powerful, wealthy families wielding great political power along with their estate. Ordinary stories like that. You can see the remnants of the dynasty in the ambitious and ruthless landscaping here; labourers dug a valley out by hand to achieve a perfectly composed, idyllic vista of England.

Extraordinary tales too, of night-time poachermen, wives waiting at home for dead husbands, silent cousins brought into the family, and all the everyday people who were swept away from their homes hundreds of years ago in order to establish a great landed estate with a perfect view.

Yes, go on this story walk and talk, when Sue takes you round again in autumn. We won't be there, but I'll remember how the people I meet make all the difference: they can bring a history to life, show the children new horizons, change my opinions, refresh our ideas, swap the ordinary for the exceptional, and make our everyday timeless.

Friday, 20 May 2011

If primary schools were like this...

We home educate because we're smart-arsed, up-ourselves smug bastards.

Yeah. We provide our kids with more challenging experiences of the world than any school can match. We offer the little grits more autonomy and greater creativity than institutions allow, and we dump our juniors in a wider range of contexts with a wider society of people than they're likely to encounter huddled in a corner of the school playground.

So there. I never did aim to please.

But we chose this life not only because we are smug bastards. We looked around at the educational service offered by the state and thought Nah. Then we assessed the costs of private, rolled our eyes, and said, Let's have an adventure.

The state made the choice easier for us. Look at the last few years. Governments approached primary education by steadily taking away the person and replacing it with the performance. They took control over teachers, encouraged rote learning, linked child performance to school income, and hammered parents about the importance of exams. For 7-year olds.

That didn't seem a great service. Especially for the ages 5-11, when kids want to run about getting mucky and messy, and especially when we considered the alternative we could offer: skipping off into the countryside with a pack of other home ed kids, learning about wool by grabbing hold of a sheep.

Well, that's what we do today. With the Warriner School Farm Trust in Oxfordshire.

This is a place which starts to look like Grit's vision for primary schools. In that vision, kids don't wear uniform, we choose our topics, the classes are mixed-age and small, the rooms are cosy, the parents can join in, the leader's called Bev, and the premises are open but the day's sessions don't start until 10am.

The activities today are wool watching, sheep stroking, farm walking; then dyeing, spinning, and felt making. Practical, hands-on activities led by someone who never mentions key stages or worksheets. They simply have experience of their craft, know what they're talking about, and are communicating their ideas with passion, energy, and involvement.

We parents can bring into this day's theme anything from our strange and wide assortments of knowledges: science, maths, art, chemistry, the history of Anglo-Saxon sheep farming.

Wouldn't kids be happier, their learning more enjoyable, their experience of the world more satisfying, if all primary schools could offer more of this?

If all primary schools came closer to Grit's vision - and let's imagine that next week we signed up for the day of butterfly art, led jointly by a butterfly expert and local artist - then we might never have home educated, and that's the truth.

We'd still be smart-arsed, up-ourselves smug bastards though.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Watching the children pass through their stages of life has been a fascinating experience.

Admittedly, I wasn't saying the same a few years ago.

When they were aged two; when the moon shine had worn off the baby years; when I came out from the high of infant love; when I saw the truly irreconcilable difference that three children had wrought, and the long, bleak crawl ahead of me at the rate of one godawful minute every hour, then it seemed as if I'd woken up inside a life sentence. One that required the renunciation of every moment along the way that had made life pleasurable, and which involved instead a daily ritual trampling on body, mind and spirit.

Now I can see, me and the kids, we've weathered that stage. It was just a transition, and a moment in time. We got to this point; we're used to each other and, in these pre-teen days, we're all growing up okay.

Next, I'm looking forward to the rites of passage in the teenage years proper. The kids are probably thinking the same.

We're already beginning to practise our irrational body-image anxieties and our phobic self-obsessions. We're exploring silent techniques for harbouring rage-filled grudges, and discovering the range of house-rattling impacts to be had when slamming bathroom doors. Yes, we're even experimenting with new inventive ways to exit rooms and hide away pretending indifference, when really we're thinking how on earth do we make up before tea-time, without losing face or descending into mortal combat?

The fact that I have a memory of passing through some of these moments with my own mother is, of course, standing me in good stead; I'm grateful to her, even though I can't tell her anymore, for being around in all my growing up stages, and not chucking a bottle at my head when I thoroughly deserved it.

The fact that she always was around, right up until the day she dropped down dead in a fit of fury about having to depart just when life was taking another interesting direction, makes me a bit more sanguine about the days ahead. I think that whatever growing up angst is thrown at me (literally) by Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, I can probably face it.

I think all this today because we finally make it into the Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums in Oxford.

The last time we tried this was a few years ago. We never made it inside.

It was a watershed moment: the end of the disastrous au pair summer; the beginning of the new-start autumn. The one which involved a child psychologist, a dramatic car smash and the intended prosecution.

But the days are different again now. As I poke about the ancient stuffed animals, old carved wood relics and dusty tribal objects hoarded by anthropologists, I reflect how, over the last few years, we've changed and yet we've stayed the same. We're all different people, but we're all still here managing life together. We're all talking to each other, negotiating each other, and working through those changes that time brings.

It's a mark, isn't it mother, of a relationship that can endure? If it is always able to change with each new circumstance, weather the experiences good or bad, and always accommodate new difference?