Saturday, 31 March 2012

Deny me

We have been in England now over two weeks, and it is clear that in this time I have been a great nuisance to many people.

The problem is, I am still on that euphoric high after arriving home. This presents itself as boundless enthusiasm and a gog-eyed wonder at the world; unfortunately it is the same world that everyone else sees as an obvious extension of their miseries, such as grass, or the privet hedge, or the little tweety bird that sits on your windowsill at 5am. Understandably therefore, I am annoying.

I must get back into step with the national mood. Let's face it, it is impossible to live here and not be aware how miserable everyone looks.

It could be the fact that England is poor, or at least poor people are poorer. Or it could be that the Tory Party is as heartless as ever. Or it could be a realistic assessment of all our employment opportunities (nil).

Of course I could blame the national character, the duty induced in us over the years of living here, to be miserable in public.

Yes, I can see how our misery face may be part of our national in-service training, the one which starts from birth. After six weeks, the infant's mother is removed by the imperative to work away from her child whether she wants to or not. Then everyone has the same entitlement to a miserable and alienated start.

Training clearly continues from age two when we force any remaining youngsters with energy into the local nursery, calling them strange, weird and unsocialised if they do not go. Anyway, here they can be denied control over their own decision-making and looked after by holders of clipboards.

By about age 13 we must work towards the goal of having the last of our initiative removed by an institution (except the capacity to instigate violence).

The goal for ages 13-17 is to look miserable while slouching about the streets wearing overlarge footwear better suited to a gym, occasionally bringing pleasure into our lives by mugging pedestrians.

By age 20 we must have all remaining autonomy totally removed, be made dependent on others yet simultaneously be denied all gainful employment, housing, and have our family life intruded upon by more clipboards and some cameras.

By the age of 30 we must look properly beaten down, alienated, and withdrawn.

But I think this last stage is important; we need to suffer with fortitude here, because this brings out our fighting spirit all the better. (By the way, fighting spirit must be interpreted as a determination to conquer misfortune with cheeky-chappy Blighty-pluck, rather than with knuckle dusters and knives down at the local community hall.)

Without facing a truly miserable time of it about age 40, we cannot progress to become part of the chippy worse-things-happen-at-sea brigade. In that late age we enter, and can look forward to sounding like your Nan, the one who cooked her own tea-towels with a war-time economy recipe in a spirit of fortitude and endeavour, even though it was 1956.

Unfortunately by age 60 it is all too late. You realise too late how doomed you were.

Then the argument I heard expressed today in a glorious triumph of non-optimism becomes horribly true: If you were going to do anything with your life you would have done it already. Only someone truly miserable, disempowered, failed and virtually dead while living in the England of today could utter these words.

So my smile at pointless grass and privet and sparrow is truly out of place. I must regain this national outlook of total misery and abject failure.

As a first assault, I will be listening to Radio 4, eating up all depressing news stories, and avoiding anything that might bring a smile to my lips (headlines on pasty tax sensations etc).

The children have suggested I bring about my own state of misery by denying myself all pleasures left to me, i.e. coffee, red wine, making attractive soft leather notebooks, and plotting to procure small birds into the garden so I can hear them tweet while sitting on the sofa playing with the ipad of heaven.

Friday, 30 March 2012

1931/2012, it's all the same

Thanks to MKG Art Gallery, took Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to watch a film about thievery, prostitution, financial corruption, self-interest, and greed; all pursued in a criminal society with no moral compass to raise it from the mire.

Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, as filmed by Pabst (1931).

Afterwards I make everyone watch this analysis from Shooting Down Pictures, not least for another listen to Lotte Lenya sing Pirate Jenny. A beautiful song, simultaneously melancholic and sinister; foreboding and romantic. Fantastic.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger emerge from it all not sure what to think. I suggest that's probably the proper response: uncertainty and a sense of discomfort about what we thought we knew is the intention of Brecht, Weill and Pabst.

They want you to be no longer sure; they want you to observe how the morals we think we live by can be easily turned by greed and self-interest. But hey, it still creates a society we can recognise, and in one interpretation of the role of the financial industry, a society that looks remarkably similar to our own.

For my part, I loved the film. Throughout, it retains wry humour and powerful observation on us all. And it'll give me a great excuse to talk politics with the kids. Not because I want to raise mini Marxists, but because I want to give any future politician in Westminster a run for their money.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Take your pick

One of the unpleasant knowledges I live with in England is what potential damage the Local Council can inflict on my family.

Legally, a member of staff in the Council can ask me if I provide an education for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Legally, I am not obliged to tell them.

But I think silence would not serve my interests. With no information from me, a Council staff member - with not much else to do, a zealous line manager, and an annual appraisal form to complete - might quickly conclude I am providing no education for Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Within the blink of an eye they would mark my children down on some internal form or other, and there we would be, Missing Education.

This would press all the Busy Buttons. All kinds of Council paperwork would be activated. It would look very industrious on someone's annual appraisal. It might even help out in pay grade discussions or promotion.

But for me, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, such involvement would spell disaster. Once we have the administrative attentions of bureaucracy, their demands on my time and my life would have to take precedence. I would give up the maps of Mesopotamia.

When school-choosing people find out about this angle of home ed life, I have had several kinds of response. One not very sympathetic person even suggested I was paranoid! Well, I'm not making up this knowledge of my duty, nor my legal position, nor how wearing can be the knowledge that Council staff so blithely and carelessly overstep their legal boundaries.

Indeed, home education discussions are routinely occupied with people recounting their unhappy experiences of over-enthusiastic Council staff members (probably with zealous line managers, an annual appraisal form to complete, and someone's eye on a pay grade).

Hey, there's even a website for home educators to share their experiences - invaluable if you're considering moving from a benign Council to an aggressive Council. Choosing a house on either side of the county line could save you months of pain.

(You school people have been playing boundary and catchment games for years, haven't you? We alternate people do exactly the same.)

Well, becoming entangled in all this local bureaucracy is something I clearly want to avoid. We already have enough dealings with all other agencies, from the corporations tax people to the wretched accounts office. And then the voter registration staff spell my name wrong and the National Trust get the family ID messed up. Phew. I can't take on any more.

Then this blog comes in handy for me. I can save myself from the worst of my worries. I can put out pictures, crow about some latest education success, and satisfy myself with a mouthy platform from which to position myself to Maud at the Local Council who'd like a pay rise. Now if she ever comes a-knocking, I can answer, Look at the blog.

Today, Cambridge. Depending on who you are, take your pick.

If you are Maud from the Council, see us not chained to the radiators
but kneeling at the altar of culture!

Aka The Fitzwilliam Museum, Mesopotamian clay tablets.

Writing, drawing, leaving smudgy fingerprints all over the glass,
and scaring the security guards.

If you are a teacher-type, take this as evidence
that our education often looks like that provided by school.

Except my class today is 3 rather than 33,
and we spend what time we like wandering about the museum
without an attainment target / risk assessment / pre-determined tick list of objectives.

If you are an American, have some pictures of Cambridge.

If you are T&D, come over and visit us.
We'll make English ladies of you.

With tea.

If you like intriguing details, then so do I.

And if you are Shark, Squirrel and Tiger,
you might want to remember a leisurely day out in Cambridge,
where Squirrel wondered, should she should come to study at the Earth Sciences Department,
Shark mused on your river life, and Tiger drew pictures of horses.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Everyone is a teacher

Yes, you are. You are a teacher to my children. You, and you. You too.

You are all teachers to my children of something, so sodding well make it positive. No sour faces, grimaces, scowls, judging stares or irritated questions about why the kids aren't at school. Remember, I can do all that at home. We come to you for something different.

When we come to meet you all in the shops, high streets, museums, discovery centres, parks and everywhere you sit or stand, you're teaching my children something about the world you live in, and you're teaching us about you.

Enjoy your moment in meeting us. Take us to interesting and thought-provoking places when you talk. Teach us what you've done and what you're proud about. Tell us stories, and make us laugh.

Thanks to the welcoming people teaching us about lives and ways of living at Frogmore Paper Mill, my children today have their heads and hearts filled up with knowledge.

We're taken to join compositors and typesetters in the 1950s print trade; we're given nineteenth century steam presses to watch over; we're led out of the French Revolution to the streets of London; we're given vats of pulped rags to stir in our imaginings.

Thank you to the people of Frogmore Paper Mill for being the teachers of my children today.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Returning to normal (sadly)

I have realised that locking myself in a dark room, even with all the excitement and allure of the ipad, is no good for an active girl like me.

Fresh air is a positive antidote to technology, isn't it? Feeling the tingles of sun and wind on my face is bringing me to my senses.

Just lucky then, that today brings another opportunity to experience the great outdoors. Or at least the outdoor bit of the world that kids of any age think is great.

The playground. Where you may see a bunch of tots to teens throwing themselves about. Their parents sit on the periphery ignoring them and complaining about submarine sandwiches and the price of fuel (no, for us it doesn't get much better than this, because everyone complains if we climb on the swings).

Now if you see us enjoying the wind and sun and the movement of limbs at 2pm on a term-time weekday, don't assume we're all neglectful parents, shameless reprobates, or skiving truants. Some of us are recovering ipaddics and the kids are doing the S word.

(Well it had to be the playground. I couldn't photograph the swimming session in fear of being arrested.)

Monday, 26 March 2012

Clay cake, ancient civilization, maps, etc

Terrible news, my dear sympathetic reader.

Dig has taken steps to extract the ipad of heaven from my bent and twisted claws.

I know! I am bereft. GRIEF STRICKEN is not too strong a sentiment.

However, I can report that he came off worse in the violence. He never suspected the dustbin lid attack. No! And if I don't get back the ipad of heaven forthwith I shall ambush him with the creosote.

But I suppose he has assisted me through the cruelty he has inflicted. He has reminded me that today I agreed to run a home ed co-op, therefore I must put down the ipad of heaven and pick up Ellen McHenry's Mapping the World through Art.*

Well, while I now plot the return of the ipad of heaven to my winsome arms, feel at home to share what it is to be a home educating parent who has said she will do something.

Here it is.

Cake. All home educating parents know that education = cake and cake = education. They are natural partners in life's endeavours. (A little bit like Grit and her ipad.)

This cake mix makes edible Mesopotamian clay tablets. (I bet I could command all knowledge about Babylon if I had the modern-day equivalent tablet of gorgeousness.)

Spot the cuneiform and tell me this is not learning!

Then there was books, talk, and map drawings. (Alright, I admit, for this bit no-one needed an ipad. Although I think Shark choosing to use a quill pen is pushing the affection for the ancient a little.)


If there is an education point, it is that learning is easily achieved if the approach is not conducted as a laboured requirement, involving pain, suffering and misery. Learning comes easy when it is a natural, normal, activity involving play, laughter, games, and cake.

(And not necessarily with an ipad, although one would of course be preferable, if only to quietly stroke in a corner when no-one is looking.)

Satisfying education. I shall now pin up maps (and fetch creosote).

* Yes, fantastic. Buy it.

Look, let's put it like this. I respect very few people in the education world. McHenry is one woman I do respect. She's an excellent educator. She's not interested in leading the kids to pre-determined outcomes. The materials are open-ended, inquiring, and invite exploration. We could free-range with them in a hundred different ways. She's not even paying me to say this. Nope. She charges an extremely modest amount for what is clearly hours of work. And I bet her videos look lovely on an ipad.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The reason for any forthcoming silence

Oh look! Dig has brought a new gadget into the house. Tsk. It's all the same with him. Gadget this and gadget that. I bet you! It'll be on the shelf, abandoned, within two months. Just like the micro computer, palm-held doodah, and rubber keyboard.

Uhuh? It's an ipad. Okaaay. It's only a gadget and won't make my brain go funny. Nothing bad will happen. I'll just have a little look.

So yes. I can sort of see why people like their ipads! I mean, it does this and this and this. And it's so easy to use!

What did Dig say? Did he say it was his ipad? I don't think he should have it all to himself. I mean, he has a rubber keyboard.

My brain is starting to turn funny.

Did you go near my ipad? DID YOU? DON'T TOUCH MY IPAD.

THE IPAD IS ALL MINE IPADIPADIPADIPAD I LOVE YOU. Let me marry you, and fondle you and stroke you with my fingers. Look! You have a little button! Let me press your little button and together we can explore all the universe!

I am no longer in control of my brain.

I have nailed up the bedroom door and now it is just ME AND MY IPAD and if anyone touches MY IPAD then they DIE.

I think that it all for today, and possibly forever.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The world is a classroom

Yes, finally, I have decided to be helpful!

I know some folks wonder about this home education malarkey, so here comes a few posts to explain why we do what we do. It might be why you choose to do it, too.

The world is a classroom

Wherever you go, there is learning to be had, whether it's at the local park, through the woods, to the shop, at the bank, along the street.

As an adult, you're guiding, talking, offering ideas, opinions, wisdoms. You don't need to command all the answers, you don't need to feed all the lines, and you don't have to test for what went in Tinkertop's head and what fell out her other ear. Testing doesn't apply. If she's interested, she'll ask questions, listen, or suggest half-way through your analysis of the banking system that the world does away with money and trades in goats.

Trust me, this is not an age-specific activity. You can walk and talk with your child at any age (unless she's locked herself in the bathroom and is screaming obscenities at you) and you can both discover the world, all while going to buy three onions from the Co-op.

Here's our day's education in classroom world, taken at our local museum. Discussion included transport systems, World War II, intensive farming, why kids don't roll iron hoops any more, and the history of brewing (the bar was open).

Friday, 23 March 2012

Sickness benefit

I suppose I should make a home education point rise from the sick. Okay. It is that in this off-template, non-school household, sickness can take its time.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are mostly better. I've waved buckets, twitched blankets, and offered warm water scented with honey. I guessed the vomit would exhaust itself, and it did.

Admittedly the caring maternal halo began to slip a bit mid-way through the second phase (let's say the invalids were grateful to be left alone without Nurse Grit's devotions), but the point is, I could concentrate on the sick.

I haven't lived with any pressure for them to be well before their three-day deadline is up. I haven't needed to write excuse notes, nor feel defensive when I explain how it seems to be a vomit of four days, not a convenient one. I've done no telephoning, fielded no queries from a school office, neither been frightened into pushing the kids back to the classroom regardless of whether they are well.

The gloomy pressure from the school would have weighed on me throughout. I would have needed a doctor's note because the presumption would be after three days that without official sanction, my kid is faking and I am lying.

It's all in preparation for that particular brand of office misery where people must show up at ever more ridiculous times, regardless of their own health, to show how hard they are working and how devoted they must be to the job. Or else. It's a very unattractive feature of British working life. I have seen office administrators out-do each other by alternatively boasting and whining that they have been in the office since 6am, so where were you?

I'm relieved that in my world, people can fall ill, spend time recovering, feel bleugh again, lounge all day watching movies, and the worst that can happen is that I seize the opportunity, pull down the biology books and show everyone a diagram of their intestines.

There are worse futures

Good grief, with the kids out of action or in various states of recuperation, I have ticked twenty items on the to do list!

MOT, Bank, Eon, Hair, Dentist and collecting the hamster! So this is why parents send their kids to school! Now I get it! Maybe the free childcare 8-4 is not such a bad idea, eh?

But I have not much of interest to report, either, so you can see what drives this blog.

When, in a few years, the home education is all done, and I have stood the offspring close to the nest edge to give them each a shove, I shall probably close the blog down and stay at home. I will make saucy notebooks for the WI, cuddle my tiny toy fox terrier, and watch classic reruns of Inspector Morse.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sick sick nice

There isn't much education going on round here this week, is there?

That's because Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are sick with the vomiting bug. Not all at the same time, obviously, because then we could get it over and done with. No. They are sick on an overlapping cycle of 2 days vomit, 2 days stare at the wall, and 2 days lie down and groan. One after the other.

This is a benefit of having triplets. You get to run your own clinical trials. The first one that goes down, it's all let's make a fuss and run about with thermometers and blankets and make clucky mother hen noises.

The second one that starts, it's Uhuh, I know where this is going.

And the third one that goes down, you get to ignore them for six whole days while you make a lovely sueded notebook called Rock Me.

Ha! Got you there, because it's not a notebook for Heavy Metal or Abba enthusiasts. Not even some oblique reference to hard core porn! Not this one, anyhow. This one is a lovely geology notebook using the idea of an Edwardian lady rock collector.

No, that is not a spoon. It is a polished rock and a soft embroidery tassel.
The tassel just looks like a spoon handle, that's all.

Inside, marbled paper, cords and stitching.
Supplied with rock collecting bag.
And no vomit even came close.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Then I will be your friend

Ditta made me do it. She held me down in a head lock and threatened me with a Chinese burn if I didn't.

I pleaded, I really did. I whined, whimpered, and did a whole lot of whimpery whinery to get out of it.

But nothing moved Ditta from her cruel demand.

Then she made me cry and said she would never ever EVER speak to me again unless I did it.

So I did. Even though I said I never would.

I joined Facebook.

SHUT UP. SHUT UP. I know what I said. But I said the same thing over a hamster and the fox terrier and now look.

Anyway, I have taken precautions. I have adopted a false name. They are not having my soul, oh no they are NOT. And this time I have privacy settings!

Even though I set them by accident. But they're staying (and it is not only because I do not know how to change them back again).

The privacy setting is staying because it will deter the German gentleman (who does not deserve that appellation). Last time I snook on there he kept bombarding me with Will you be my friend?

Of course not. I ignored him.

Dig said I had missed the point of Facebook. He said it is a tool to manage one's international profile and promote one's latest work. He said that it is very useful to maintain contacts with people you know in Mexico because they might turn up in Australia. He glowered at me and said I'd change my tune if that happened. Then it would be all Grit whining Why can't we use your contacts to visit Australia?

Hmph. Well, me and Dig live in different worlds. I like to know the people next door, round the corner, and over by the back lane. They are useful contacts, because they might know when the council is changing the rubbish collection system again, or who keyed the cars last Friday night.

But it is also true that I feel the need to keep in contact with Ditta, and the very lovely people in the home education world. We are truly a force to be reckoned with.

To help me navigate a sensible route through the rocky terrain of social networking, I have made a rule, for which I apologise in advance to anyone who is keen with their virtual life. I cannot be your FB friend.

Not unless I have met you, face to face, spent time with you, and come away from the exchange without a black eye, busted lip, or sense of vengeance festering in my heart.

That makes sense to me.

(So, Kelly, whereabouts in Wales are you?)

PS I lied about Ditta. I fell in love with her instead. Once in that condition, I am easily led.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The 'illegal' exclusions

I hear that Maggie Atkinson, 'Children’s Commissioner' is tut tutting about the shenanigans of headteachers.

Oh dear. She is dismayed. She has discovered that some headteachers are doing a nod and a wink to get disruptive kids out of school. Amongst her shock-horror findings are that some heads are suggesting - with 15 weeks to go and a GCSE revision schedule in place - that Jemima/Jimbo give their classmates a break and please stay out of school. It results in a sort of expulsion that isn't an expulsion. And it's illegal.

(Maggie would like you to be shocked now.)

Maggie, I think the opposite to you. I think headteachers are right to use their professional judgement, and if they have to worm their way round the law to do it, that's fine. You should change the damn law.

And you helped make it like this, so stop the hand wringing. You made it so that headteachers are now running businesses. They're working against income for next year affected by pupil grades, they're fighting competition from other schools while facing uncertain variable funding, and they're at the mercy of public image created by league tables.

Education - learning - actual child development, attention to the needs of an individual, seem to have very little to do with school management. Does anyone - beyond your naive recently qualified teacher - care much whether Tinkertop is inspired by the sound of the French language? Pfft. Tinkertop is another module indicator with a pound sign attached to her grade delivery which can be measured on the international performance scale.

But she is still Person Tinkertop, even if she is a bloody nuisance. I believe that headteachers should not only have the ability to nudge her out if she doesn't fit, they should be able to nudge her towards a wide choice of educational provision, one of which will suit her unique, smash-the-furniture-up style.

I'm not pontificating entirely from the (broken) armchair, of course I'm not! I recognise the people who are being excluded 'informally'. People who aren't suited to school as it's presently run. They could be suited to apprenticeships, active in-your-community placements, or are better working alongside adults 'in-the-real-world'.

One young man I recall was open about his intention to get out of the classroom. He'd studied the route and planned his course. Create mayhem; be 'excluded'; be placed on a scheme where you were given part-time small-class tuition in English and Maths; be let free to pursue the thing you really wanted to do. In his case, become a garage mechanic. His words to me were, 'I don't fit' and his hand swept round the classroom.

So when I heard Maggie huff and puff, I thought about Neil. I thought how at age fifteen he knew himself and his goals, and he took appropriate action to achieve them. He was straightforwardly able to face being labelled 'a bad boy'; he recognised the institution needed to position him like that as a 'deterrent' and he accepted it was part of the game to achieve what he ultimately wanted.

But he couldn't have achieved his goal unless he had the following in place:

1. Educational option, including alternative provision. Neil needed a choice of routes which, if they can exist today, recognise that one school type doesn't fit every child.

2. The understanding of staff working in school. In my experience, most teachers are not mindless automatons 'delivering' a curriculum, bowing mindlessly to statutory requirements; they are thinking professionals engaged in child development, learning strategies, educational policy, society, people. I believe many of them go in with optimistic and probably idealistic outlooks. I might not agree with them, but I respect them for it.

3. The connivance of the senior management team, the pastoral team, the head, the governing body. Yes, sure, any system that is not observable or accountable can be abused. But people in a system should also be trusted to use their judgment wisely; they should be trusted to know when a kid doesn't fit and when a square peg and a round hole is an apt metaphor.

4. A welcoming and understanding local community. Neil went to work in a garage where he was immediately accepted by colleagues who knew where he'd come from, and it didn't matter to them that he'd given the local school a headache from beginning to end. He'd been lucky enough to access part-time provision. The last time I spoke to him about his job, he said, 'I love it'.

I don't know what Maggie's up to. Maybe to put the frighteners on governors, head teachers, staff; to deflect the focus away from the lack of alternative provision; the lack of apprenticeship; the lack of jobs for young people. But you should attend to those, Maggie, and not beat headteachers with exercising what judgement they can under a crap system that you helped put in place.

Phew! Got that off my chest! Still, saves standing in the Post Office queue and having a shout there. Now have this school report.

Monday, 19 March 2012

It's a quiet passion

This is how things stand. The kids are all down with sick. Dig has left for somewhere else (not England). Playing nurse means I am holed up, plotting my notebook emporium. I have already measured out the dimensions of my WI craft stand.

You trusty blog readers may as well have advance warning.

Here are some notebooks.

Sew Me. One from the Quirks, enthusiasms, hobbies and interests range.

It's very practical, isn't it? It opens out to a felt page to store needles, because I can never find one when I want one.

The scissors don't work, obviously. I can't sell sharpened blades to the ladies at the WI. They might go berserk over by the potted lavender stand.

With supreme confidence unimpeded by practical reality, I reckon I can now create a notebook for most enthusiasts, from Scrabble players, birders, cooks and nature walkers to geologists, musicians, archaeologists and paleontologists. (I have sourced bones, after all.)

Unzip Me. A notebook for the serially sexually loose. And the zip works! I've had great fun pulling it up and down.

It's in the Sins range. I'm having great fun with that too, by the way. Love Me, Revenge Me, Chain Me, Fetish Me, Don't Marry Me. That one is particularly neat, supplied with lovehearts and rusty nails. There are going to be some great Note.Me.Note.Book Sins carried discreetly in a handbag near you.

By the way, I'm not selling Unzip Me at the WI.

Cut Me. I'm not selling this one at the WI, either. This is one from the Damaged and Dangerous range; a complete line of cruel and merciless observations on your human behaviours. This one I supply with razor blades and a rather attractive sample of handmade red flecked paper.

You self-harmers, you should cut the notebook instead of your arms. Maybe the quiet violation of book slashing can bring some catharsis. I think it could be more satisfying if the blood is metaphoric and poetic, instead of all over the carpet.

That is it for today. Now I need to turn my kind nursing gaze to my needy infants, who can offer me only the sound of retching and groaning.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


Apparently it's Mother's Day. I pop out and buy my own daffs. It saves everyone else a job.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

England, you are a strange place

I am experiencing disconnect with religion as well.

Not my inner salvatory sort. On that, I'm already lost to any cause. I don't believe anything will help get me out of the problems I get into, except my own wit and wisdom.

(Okay, I allow fortune cookies. Let not great ambition overshadow small success. From little acorns grow big trees. When you're in a hole, stop digging.)

What I'm finding strange is the expression of religion on the streets. That's what I see is different, between here and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong I've grown used to the shrines at each shop, the smell of incense, the noise of banging drums. I've seen people make way for devotions, processions and shoe beatings. I've come to expect that the spiritual calender creates routine in the social. I can tell it's grave cleaning time - the weekend to sweep out grandma before she's covered up with dried leaves again - because we must avoid walking all mountain trails. They're far too crowded. Whole extended families trek up there, seeking pure air cleansing as they go. On deity days, moons and ghostly festivals, people flood into the restaurants, and the South China Morning Post floods with outrage about the mess of wax burning.

Religion is in Hong Kong a structural force; it shows in social ways. It's also political; expressing devotion marks a separateness from the rules of China, where there is no state religion outside the Communist Party.

But I can't tell from looking at a person in Hong Kong about their religious beliefs. There's nothing to signify how devotional they are. Not what they do, or wear. You can't tell whether they believe in anything at all. Look at them, and they could be just like me, and rely on a bag of fortune cookies.

So when I walk into the UK, one of the first things I notice is how you express your devotions. Through the buildings and the headscarf.

The buildings, they're magnificent. Not small shrines discreetly positioned at the foot of a plinth, not the small concrete temple at the side of the town, here you have these wham-bang places, grand statements of towers and arch, brick and stone. Today I walked past one local church that stands wallop in the High Street. I remembered I love to see it, because it's such a huge and uncompromising building. It's decommissioned and used by the council as a warehouse, so anyone can guess as to the long-term fate. But I find the Victorian architecture beautiful. If they try to knock it down, I shall tie myself to the railings.

The headscarf, it's inescapable, because to me it's unusual. Did I see more than one or two in the last few months? Probably not. I come into England, see a woman wearing a headscarf and wonder why anyone feels the need to show their personal belief to anyone else. Is that a naive thought? Maybe I'm used to seeing people around me who don't declare their views through dress.

While I have these stirs of thoughts, a young woman pulls up in her car, lowers the window, and asks brightly in a local, amiable voice, Which way to the Co-op Funeral Parlour? Then she smiles, a big, broad smile.

I smile back, and think, with that brilliant smile, there can't have been a death in the family, can there? Grief and happiness, they should look different. Put them together, and the contrast is disturbing. I can't ever forget the Evangelical Christian who laughed her way through her mother's funeral. That photograph stays with me in my mind. I see them side-by-side; she beaming her huge smile, her brother knocked sideways with loss.

But I stand there, confused by smiles and directions, making up routes to the dead, and I look at her porcelain complexion and her soft pink cheeks, and then I realise that her hair is pulled back under a black headscarf. That's confusing, too. Her smile, voice, face and manner, all combining to default state - local girl, probably (when pushed) would offer C-of-E or non-believer - but here tells me unequivocally, unambiguously, a personal declaration, she's firmly with Islam.

I feel wrong-footed, a little. I'm still feeling new here. In expat land we live with images of rural England and your staged national presentations overseas. Country churches, hedgerows, wobbling bicycles, Beefeaters, red telephone boxes. They exist and they don't. But they're a major part of your tourism marketing, and I think probably the right one. But once here, on the streets, it's a very different feel.

A part of me is glad for the mix. I like the ladies at the Co-op who wear the headscarf. Well, the new person at the till, anyhow. She's so very different from the last! The other one was sulky, and would scowl when I handed her my shopping! I always felt especially nervous, passing over my bottle of Fursty Ferret for the blip, anticipating sour disapproval. But this new lady, she's all smiles and How are you today? Last night when a customer asked for 20 Marlboro and she said What? she then tugged at her headscarf and said It's this, I can't hear anything when I've got this on. Everyone in the queue smiled.

I send the local motorist off to her business with the funeral parlour, probably in the wrong direction, but not intentionally. I feel I'm being made aware of religion in England, but not yet sure why. Am I being asked to take up a position or a view? But I don't know what. The usual English one is indifference, isn't it? That's the one I prefer.

But I feel there's a subtle change here. All your religions are mixed up together, yet people feel the need to mark their difference. Maybe you all got religion while we were out? Perhaps you've quietly become all determined and spiritual, veering to one way or another? Have I got to take sides, instead of do my usual, which is ignore it all? So what will happen? Do I have to decide which religion to declare myself to? That would be a shame indeed.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Nearly complete

Here's an odd thing about being home. One of my senses has dulled.

At first I wondered if my hearing was kaput, so I listened hard for birdsong and traffic noise and people talking as they walked together along the street.

I followed the sparrow, frowned at the car alarm, and eavesdropped on Mavis. (I'd have him put down, with a bladder problem like that.) Then no, not hearing.

I wondered if it was taste. Dig said that life lived in airplanes can do that to a person. But PG Tips and Hob Nobs taste just the same to me.

Sight? Well, I'm appreciating the shadow and light slipping about the walls. Maybe too much. Yes, it's becoming odd, my habit of staring at the wall, but I can't help myself. After the concrete of Hong Kong I can't get enough of the texture of England. The slopes and slants of light, passing slowly bright to dark across the bumps and grain of plaster, wood, brick, is quite addictive. It fixes me in a mystic trance. Sometimes I want my fingertips to stroke the wall as the light shows up the minute crumble of old horsehair plaster. So we can eliminate touch, too.

And smell. No, not that. I know it, for I'm sniffing the pomegranate perfumes of gift soap, Sapone al Melograno, effusing in my knicker drawer.

Maybe there is some other sense called English. Somewhere an intuition or a shared understanding in me got blunted. Perhaps I'm looking at the street and I'm reading it with all the wrong rules, and wrong assumptions and judgements.

It must be that. I began to be think so when I found I broke the law in Tesco. A woman customer hissed frosty words at the back of my head, something about it being nice to be patient.

In my defence, I thought I was doing normal walking behaviour. Maybe normal for Hong Kong; weaving your way through a crowded street, making no concessions for the elderly, infirm, or the beggar outside Wan Chai station. What a stupid place to sit! Of course I didn't mean to kick him. But you have to! There are six million people to get past. But I learn it's not okay to do that weave routine here, around the OAPs inspecting the sugar in the cooking aisle.

So my missing sense could be this. I need to relearn the intuitions of my behaviour; English in England, rather than ex-pat English in Hong Kong. The two are very different.

I must reacquire the ability to tut more, shuffle, and sigh while standing in queues. I must remember to raise my eyebrows while waiting at the bank, sure in the knowledge that everyone around me will understand that to be a satirical comment on the finance industry. And I should reinvigorate my dysfunctional relationship with my own wardrobe, which will result in me gaining six pounds around my middle, which I can then disguise by shapeless fleece leisure clothing. Once I have attained these, I can move on to the higher levels of English achievement, by becoming embarrassed and awkward around all social greetings and partings, including who steps first through the door of the Co-op.

Ah, soon I will have all senses intact, then it will feel good to be home.

Thursday, 15 March 2012