Thursday, 31 May 2012

An outdoors education

Probably in this camp today. But mostly as a result of a walk with old friends, eight years in the home ed life, and with a group of wise and capable kids who can intelligently discuss whether chalk is made more acid or alkaline by the presence of other soils, and what are the differences between frogs, toads, newts and salamanders, should you need to manage an environment to suit them.

(Except the toddler. She just wanted to run about and feel the wind.)

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Licking would probably be outside the rules, too

Took the kids to be part of Olivia Plender's Rise Early, Be Industrious, the installation at MKG, the small but impressive art gallery of Milton Keynes.

I say, be part of, because this type of art isn't about looking from the outside and going ooh. It's about taking part in your environment, lolling on cushions, stacking piles of bricks (or in Grit's case showing off her autism by obsessively lining them up) and rolling gold counters in a board game, wondering what they mean.

However, there are limits to how feely and transforming we can be in this space with the touchy experience. One borderline, for example, is tapping your finger end on the model which looks like a fantasy version of the Yemeni palace on a rock, to see if it's made of modroc and glue. The desk lady comes over and tells you off. I wonder if blowing your nose over the art is permissible or not. I make Dig do that so I can see what happens. (Nothing. I can take it therefore that use of space for personal emission is okay.)

But this is odd, isn't it? The artists and gallery assume we can be positioned as audience, consumers, or participants and we will obligingly follow any specific but unspoken rules about behaviour - even when the artists themselves are challenging conventional assumptions, questioning what they are, inviting different forms of physical response to the environment and, in the case of the bricks, pushing at the form of art by inviting you to pick up the installation and walk about with it.

As a visitor I'm afraid I have to confess to my sad amusement on this line: put me in an art gallery and I still get my kicks deliberately seeking those activities which don't follow any rules but don't break any either. The sort of behaviour that confounds the art guard but does not get me marched out by security.

Triplets have been a godsend to this outsider amusement. They have given me licence to squat in front of a Hockney to whip out of my handbag a pair of scissors, a tampax box and some crayons, and encourage my team to create an auto-response to a swimming pool.

But with the straw and the game and headphones, and though there are limits on the touchy-feely, Olivia Plender allows for a little lost behaviour, so I enjoyed her installation. In terms of her choice of pieces to bring together, I thought it's neither head nor tail; it's a collection which requires you to watch the video if you're to bring sense from it all.

She deals with ambitious ideas - maybe too ambitious given she has a couple of rooms and a foyer - like how does culture reproduce itself over time, and in what forms do social distinctions emerge over generations, but I admire her for taking it on and trying to represent abstract ideas in a physical way. Dig was amused to see the OU course TAD292 playing in the 1970s space, a course which he tells me set the tabloid pulse racing about summer schools and got the OU thrown out of Sussex.

Educationally the day was positive, so yahboosucks to the naysayers. I was able to reassure Shark, Squirrel and Tiger that answers to the question What is art? are still up for grabs, so never be shy of advancing an idea. Which they did, thankfully. And I wondered if the local EWO has visited the exhibition? Honestly, on the days we'd have something to say, we never get collared outside Tesco.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Woodcraft Folk made me do it

Took Shark to Woodcraft Folk. She adores this group. She stands in shining-eyed equality with all the other fervent woodies, vowing friendship and harmony for ever and ever, then skips away, hand-in-hand, to make fruit kebabs and plan world peace through cooperative camping trips where there are sharing games and wholesome camp-fire songs.

I tell Shark I am delighted. Yes, I am. I totally support her, and will drive her to the woodies and back home again even though it takes forever and there is always a traffic jam through Dunstable.

I mean it too, and I totally deny there is a tiny voice in my head wishing I were really driving her to an underground anarchist cell or an Animal Liberation Front meet-up group.

That is the problem with the Woodcraft Folk. They bring out my schizophrenic attitude to niceness.

Yes, it is a very great aspiration. To want the land washed over with courtesy and decency and dignity and love for small furry animals.

But what if we actually got it?

Life would be intolerable. We would all be nice to each other. We would be helpful. All the time.

After a couple of hours, I would have a breakdown. I need a few layers of shame, grime, dirt, indignity and callous indifference to make life worth living. So although I am totally happy to support Shark's enthusiasm with the wholesome woodies, I know I have my limits. The pressure to be good might turn me bad. Then I will be forced to chuck a brick through the Co-op window just to make a point that humans can be miserable, ungenerous, cruel, mean, ugly and unkind. And no way are they getting me to sing round a camp-fire.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Breathe some air

Went for a rambling walk through Rushmere Estate, with a home ed group of kids, parents, toddlers, dogs.

We joked about the hazards of tree climbing, conker playing, pine-cone chucking, gate swinging, fence balancing and poking out your eyes with untrained use of binoculars.

I then came home and stumbled into this document.

Leaves me thinking that pulling the kids out to breathe some fresh air is the most sane response you can give.

What are you going to do? You could make such a nuisance of yourself explaining the responsibilities to the local authority that it would be a delight to see the spinning eyeballs from two hundred yards away.

Try demanding an independent survey of material used within the school; press for safe removal and replacement of hazardous fibres; gather information about staff awareness; and assess what management strategies will keep your kids safe. No nonsense information here.

Or we could consider asbestos an unavoidable, unsolvable problem, so better support the ban on that more immediate dilemma instead.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

You can have the damn fish

Yes, you can probably now anticipate divorce proceedings. Because I finally gave in to THIS.

I have NO DEFENCE. Except that Shark has pleaded - let's say for only twelve years - CAN SHE HAVE A FISH TANK.

To which the answer is NO.

But I have to accept the inevitable. It is not just because I am spineless. It is because it is like trying to hold back an unstoppable wave of NEED, something which Dig does not understand because he has two brains and no heart.

Well, Dig can take satisfaction in my pain. It did not come without struggle. After seemingly falling into my lap from a co-home educator, I go to pick up the damn fish tank (with fish! who knew you couldn't bag 'em up and post 'em?) and I find that falling will be the right word. All over the floor. With flood, shattered glass and dead fish, if I take any part in the actual moving of something that weighs 200lbs and has components of living creatures who are stupid enough to need this ridiculously heavy water. I even pleaded with Shark, Why can't we just pour it out? They have ten minutes before we need to pour it back in again.

But I am a resourceful woman. I press into service the seller of the thing, two neighbours, a vegetable trolley, and a plank of wood I rip off the side of a chest of drawers. Moving the wretched tank and dumb inhabitants takes all day and costs me a double pack of Stella.

But IT IS HERE. And I have one happy, happy girl.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Or not

This is a question for home ed. To exam or Not to exam?

Having survived to secondary age on a primary diet of wind, rain, field, and mountainside, we have to think what to do next.

For Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, the answer is easy! Go outside and make bows and arrows. Willow, elder, ash and hazel - all good!

I can wave a blank sheet of paper at the doorway if I want. Then feebly suggest someone might pen a story about what it feels like, perhaps to find an enemy in the wood and discover they are no enemy at all? Maybe after you shot them?

My story plan, albeit brilliant, will fall on deaf ears. I have raised independent-minded children who follow their own creativities. And if there's any story in the offing, it's going to have a catfish as a Sherlock Holmes hero.

But we have reached this point, age 12, where I shall start to worry, bit by bit more, about whether to exams, how to exams, if a GCSE Maths syllabus will make me cry, or whether life after age 16 involves a park bench and a meths bottle like they say.

We have plenty of precedent in this world for the No exam route. We have home educators aplenty with anecdotal tales to tell about kids who reach university and beyond on the strength of experience, personality, contacts (deniable), smart thinking, and sometimes a string of A levels, but definitely no GCSEs. Why bother disrupting a life of finding out with a pointless ticky-box test?

A large bit of me thinks they are right.

Then the other wing, who are like walking exam advisory bodies. Between them, they know every minutiae about every exam board, mark scheme, syllabus content, recommended books, GCSE choices from Ancient Civilisation to Welsh, and whether you can take in a calculator for Paper 4 on the 2013 June CIE IGCSE (1 hr 30 mins).

A large bit of me thinks they are wise.

Well, I do not have an answer for today. And the kids have legged it. I will only say that my public deliberations on this issue will continue. I guess, in the end, the final decisions will rest with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Could make a Geography IGCSE

See? See? Hothousing towards those exams! Proving we can do it just like the schoolies!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Keep your Epipen and a sense of humour

So I need to tell you about the angioedema. Angioedema is a reaction to something. As disfigurements go, it's a good one. Your face swells twice the normal size, then your skin peels off. If the swelling moves to the throat, it blocks the runway to the lungs, then you must evolve quickly to breathe through your ears. Failure to do so results in death.

Where this has come from in me, I have no idea, but then, maybe it has been creeping up on me for the last few years? I mean, those eyes that looked like golf balls last May? The morning I woke up in the Philippines and it looked like Dig had punched me? Well, two attacks this last May and I know, something is going on.

Normally I self-medicate my way through all disasters and emergencies because I am the daughter of my mother. When the paramedics came to lift her into the ambulance she bit the head off the driver and yelled I'M WALKING.

It's not only that we are made of stuff which doesn't give in to minor inconvenience - like loss of a limb or having your entrails fall out over the floor - it's that we cannot just stop life because your face explodes. Things have to be done! The washing has to be brought in. The kids must be fed. Shark needs new pyjamas. Quite frankly, if I am not going to see to this, who is?

But even I have to recognise that maybe it is time to call upon the services of the wonderful NHS.

I can tell you, so far the reactions of the professionals have varied.

1. Adopting a very serious face with some finger interlacing, providing information of various prognosis, worst case progression, possible complications, emergency treatment, providing reference to anaphylaxis, prescribing Epipen and instructions to involve your 'loved ones'; all professionally highly competent, efficient and responsible.

2. Handing over the Epipen while bursting into laughter with the words, 'Learn how to use it, quick! You don't want to be standing, gasping your last, and you think I CAN'T REMEMBER HOW TO GET THE LID OFF.'

Yes, I probably need both those reactions, but I preferred number 2.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

What a difference a day makes

Thank goodness for a little sunshine; I can think of nothing better to lift the spirits right now.

Well, maybe a bucketful of naked man and a few bottles of wine without the facial swelling. But since that's not likely to happen, I'll take the sunshine.

And the Help the Aged furniture warehouse down the road. They do me a great deal on a suite of garden furniture and four cane chairs.

I am ridiculously proud of this area now. Where last year there was a piano, a jungle of impenetrable ivy and a broken plastic play table, I now have a quiet spot where I can escape with the ipad. It is called The Island, and no-one's invited here without invitation. So there.

It was such a brilliantly productive and focused day, that by the end there was no stopping me. I repaired the candle holder that has waited for my attention some twelve years. It now is back together, doesn't wobble, and has all the decorative glass intact. Howzat for sunshine.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

No lawnmower education either

Passing through a strange day of ennui. A bit like Flatliners, without the actual death, or the defibrillator. A sort of suspended animation. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger look about, blankly, and ask, What are we doing? I look back and say, 'I don't know.' Then, unhelpfully, I add, 'I couldn't coax you to Celebration of the Lawnmower.'

Perhaps this uncommon abeyance is post-holiday blues; perhaps it is the miserably restricted diet I'm suffering as I try to track the cause of the angioedema; or perhaps it's because Dig is returning to Hong Kong; the medication; or maybe today I feel I've not really sorted a focus for our home ed having got us back to England and over the funeral.

The local museum I'm sure would've helped. Hopefully they're launching themselves towards a new status as one of the nation's quirks and eccentrics, hosting the annual lawnmower party or organ festival. But Shark, Squirrel and Tiger were unmoved by the latest attraction, and my entreaties. 'You can see early models of lawnmowers! And there will be lawnmower enthusiasts from all over the country!'

No. They wanted to stay at home, where they drifted off and eventually joined back up together again to dig unicorn burial chambers in my lawn. That must have provided adequate focus because next they converted the barbeque into a sacrificial altar. I told them, I do not approve.

By way of atonement, and perhaps with a fresh morning eye on the savagery gone on about the lawn, Shark decided to help me out with the household chores. She went off to empty the tub that catches the rain that drip-drip-dribididrips from the roof in the garage art studio.

Unfortunately she upturned the water straight over the path outside, which immediately turned into a bog. Oh well. No doubt it will become the new experimental peat-bog burial ground and Lem the wicked unicorn will meet his end there shortly.

So I have not much news to report for today. Except I am alive. I shall be glad about that, because it's more than I have expected.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Dog therapy

Coming along nicely.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


I am on the look-out for girls again.*

This is something I do regularly, so I suppose I should tell you about it. And I thought it could help you, if you are worried about making your profound move from school to home ed, and are concerned about the S-word.

Here are the usual strategies.

1. Join the local home ed group. They meet up routinely to muck about in woods, fields and swimming pools.

This is helpful, but it can be frustrating. You can't choose whether your local group is made up of a bunch of boys, a group of girls, or a pile of toddlers who want to eat soil.

Presently, our local group contains mostly boys. They enjoy waving sticks at each other, chucking pines cones about, and making a loud noise. I have asked Shark, Squirrel and Tiger, does this matter? Because you do exactly the same. (I am unreliably informed by Squirrel, when boys chuck pine cones about, it is 'different'.)

2. Join as many interest groups, hobby clubs, volunteering groups, and after-school activities as possible.

This can be quite a useful strategy to meet girls, but there are several problems, like the after-school club closes down, thanks to the fact that no-one attends, apart from us. (Apparently, too much homework; not enough takers; parents can't afford it; the water activity centre sacked the late staff.)

Then the other problems. You obviously must have kids who are joiners; you cannot attend every club held on a Saturday morning between 9.30 and 11.30; and if Shark, Squirrel or Tiger do make new friends, then they have to wait all week or month to see them again. Because school kids can't come on a whim to footle about the garden because it's sunny.

If you overcome all these hurdles and find a group where you eye-spy a potential good few matches, then you might just face this problem: the one where the schoolies stare in bug-eyed incredulity at the home edders, and the home edders stare back in confusion at the schoolies. The schoolies are all scared to death that the home edders are an uncivilised rabble (as the for/against English debate concluded), and the home edders struggle to understand why the schoolies pay attention to anything they are told, ever. Sometimes there's no helping kids. You simply have to encourage both sides to understand that the other side is not going to eat them.

(Hmm. Ditto for the parents. If I sidle up to you, it is because I want to say, it's OK by me if Tinkertop comes over. You do not need to slide your eyes at me like I am hiding a knife and fork in my handbag.)

3. Roam the streets, visit the playgrounds, hang out.

Not a good strategy. As parents, we have specifically not encouraged Shark, Squirrel and Tiger to hang around street corners. They get bored at the playgrounds if there's no one to play with, and they are not of the age or disposition where they can 'hang out'. They like doing and making stuff and, being young women of purposes, find waiting on group decisions annoying.

4. Make compromised alliances with special interest groups.

Like the local home ed Christian group, or the nearby anarchist brigade. If there is a suitable girl in that lot, we parents have to put aside our differences, never mention God/meat-eaters/taxation/politics/the local authority/the electricity company/indeed much of any potentially interesting conversation at all, and hope the kids hit it off, somehow.

5. Skype, email, go online.

Useful, especially if Shark, Tiger and Squirrel are expecting to see remote friends soon in person, like Twiss&Flizz, hopefully to arrive in England this summer! Yay!

Of course we sanction this contact only with known friends. So if you are Mr Spooky trying to pass yourself off as the 'sad 13-year old home educated Angelica looking for friends', then forget it.

It is an unavoidable truth that home ed involves the entire family. Yes, I agree, it is a nuisance. I have tried sneaking off for years in search of easy men and cheap beer, and I haven't made it yet.

6. Make private deals.

Most of the time, this is where we're at. 'Psst! Meet you at the lake at 2pm! Bring your Jessie, Em, and Erika!'

The problem with this is that Jessie, Em, and Erika take part in a maths group until one, the Latin tutor with the head wound comes round at five, and they must bring the dog because he has prostrate problems and piddles on the floor if he's left alone.

Now, these techniques are how I have been approaching the S-word issue since we returned to England a good two months back. I have had partial success.

If any experienced home educators want to pitch in and help with a few more strategies to help me meet my responsibilities in the S-department, then I would be glad of it, since Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are clearly now missing their regular contact with the lassies up the Hong Kong mountainside.

* Girls for me, because I have girls. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger have reached the age where they confidently claim that boys are 'pointless and annoying'. I have suggested they lighten up on this judgement, because how would they feel to be judged in turn? Squirrel thought about this, then conceded that boys do sometimes come in useful if they let you chase them with sticks.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

What does he want?

Then we come home to a brouhaha! What's this about Sir Michael Wilshaw, King of Ofsted, picking a fight with bad, bad, bad, bad teachers?

Sounds like he's taking them all on. He's probably outside now, red-faced at the school gates, huffypuffing away, fists circling like spinning bowling balls. Or is he at home, shovelling dog crap into envelopes so he can post it through their letterboxes?

I wonder why he's picking a fight like this. What's the game plan? Does Ofsted really have an imagined template of 'delivery' they want to see rolled out in every classroom? Or does this government want something to happen that they need the 'independent' Ofsted to prepare us for first?

Well, I don't know what passes in whispery corners between Wilshaw, Gove and Gibb. But I would like to tell you about the worst teacher I ever had. Really. The worst. He'd fail, by every one of Ofsted's standards.

My English teacher at college. He was so bad, they wouldn't even give him a classroom! They considered it a waste! They provided him with a table in the dining room and a window sill for a bookcase. Here the twelve of us uneducated A level students would troop three times a week, wondering if he would show up.

Might do. Might not, if he'd been on a bender.

If he shuffled in, you could guarantee the stink of stale tobacco and drip of last night's alcohol; the bloodshot eyes, chaotic appearance, odd socks.

But I'm still not doing him justice. Because beyond the eccentricity and maverick style, he was a shameless reprobate.

And he was also the most engaging teacher I ever had. I remain grateful I had the opportunity to be there for his characterful blunt speaking, forthright manner and unique approach. Bill Gray inspired me to find out; to read more widely than any prescribed texts; to never be afraid of saying it bluntly; and to ask questions like, What does he want?

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews. 

I cannot think of anyone else I ever met whose interpretation of this poem was as exact and true.

Quick! Get 'em off! Drop 'em!

Friday, 18 May 2012

Planning a return to YSP

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I love you.

OK, I am not sure about the Miro. You know, the Maternity sculpture. The one where, if you are a mother, you have not much more than a gigantic gaping vagina on your womb with udders for breasts and a head like a cow with a neck like a chicken. 

I know it is meant to be witty. And usually I can see the funny side. I also know, my dearest Yorkshire Sculpture Park, that it is not your fault. So I will not firebomb you, I promise. Miro? Well, I don't promise quite so much.

And I'm also not very fond of your rabbit. The crawling one with disturbing hands and human legs. I am a bit worried about my sleeping pattern now.

Although Dig cheered me up a bit when he saw its partner, and said, Let's not split hares.

(Maybe you had to be there.)

But we all loved the playtime platform!

And the bee books! Yes! The bee books in the wood! We are inspired to make these for our garden! (I know ours will end up looking like we left out Five Go Caravanning by accident, but I will still call it ART.)

 The Lady's Bonnet was wonderful, and I might go live in it.

And Antony Gormley always stirs in me humble tears.

YSP, you can see why I love you. It is impossible not to visit you and be moved in a hundred different ways. In two hours I can run the complete state of human emotion, from jealousy and vengeance to humility and devotion.

Really, I don't think I can say more than this today, as I now feel a little weepy with your loveliness.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Geology day

We don't simply travel about your glorious planet smuggling us a cut-price, term-time holiday, while evading the truancy patrols, community police, social services, and EWO, you know.

We do all that and we provide an education. It's hard. We have to read books, talk to the children, then visit secluded little coves in the sea-beaten coasts of England to follow up everyone's fancies.

I think I should be pitied.

Take today. Squirrel, with her rock collection standing at 34,673 (not including the gravel) says she wants to be a geologist.

I must then declare today a geology day. But we are interested in history too! So we all travel to the beach underneath the Howick hut, in Northumberland, where we can find both.

We've read about this site, and learned how excavations turned up neolithic hazelnuts. Tiger wanted to come and look for some.

After a few hours at the beach, examining sand, rocks, mudstone and every pebble we can find, I say yes, we have found hazelnuts. Let's go home and eat cake, and plan to visit the museum in Newcastle where there's a Howick hut display and it's warm.

Now do you see how difficult is this style of education? It is all physical experience, this type of learning. All wind in your face, touch and feel, roll about, stare-at-the-bull-in-the-field, follow your ideas, pursue your interests, put theory into practice, and don't forget the notebooks.

So yes, I think you are right. I should be pitied. There are only some who can do it, and better not you, when you stop me to say, Home education? Rather you than me.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Photoblog Dunstanburgh

One of the most photographed castles in England.

It's almost a convention, isn't it, to put against the beautiful ruin of Dunstanburgh, a lyrical description of the ancient stones, dramatic cloudscapes, and shifting beams of light?

Best of all, I like the way it lifts two fingers up into the sky.

I like to think that's in the spirit of the thing.

Built in 1313, it spoke to Edward II, arguably England's worst king ever. You can tell from the start - those two, impossibly huge gate-keeping towers - how politically charged and significant was its construction. How Edward was meant to know he was never safe; never commanding support or respect, when his nobles built fortresses like this.

Through those masterful stone towers, rising at England's biggest, most glorious entrance, a grand and impressive gateway, bigger than anything the king or his supporters yet made, it simply spoke to Edward an unashamed and defiant, Fuck you

It still says it, with its bony fingers rising up, not giving in, not falling down.

The inspiration for this spectacular building of opposition, Thomas of Lancaster, declared more than a hostility in stone to his king. He did it in person. He laid his life on the line, took an army to rebellion, was defeated, and executed, in 1322.

When John of Gaunt took over the castle under Richard II, he showed his submission and lack of opposition to Richard - another doubtful monarch - by downplaying the grandeur of the castle, blocking up the entrance, and installing a modest way in, round the side.

That's somehow appropriate too. No-one saw power coming: John of Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke, was more discreet in his hostility. Exiled by Richard, stripped of his father's wealth, Henry came back to England, and deposed the hopeless King Richard with virtually all of England's happy collaboration. Richard disappeared from view. Some say Henry starved him till he ate his own arms.

That story of power, defiance, success, struggle, I think you can still see it at Dunstanburgh.

(Well, as a story it might remain in your head longer than my photographs.)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Ancient Northumberland

Yesterday, immersed in a city of international ambition; today, standing in deflated disappointment by the B6351. Is there no cultural experience we won't bring to our children in the name of learning?

My scholars of life, simply accept it as the mission of your parent. It'll make it easier on all of us.

Now, here is Ad Gefrin. Anglo Saxon town. Yes, without the reconstructed houses, explanatory walk, or visitor centre. In other words, a field.

But this is wonderful, my mini students! It shows that no matter where we stand, we are surrounded by history. We must simply look to see it, in the lumps and bumps of our landscape, in our imaginations, and in our empathies and understandings of those who shaped this space before us.

Then why need we a visitor centre? We have our intuitions and thoughts to guide us! Although I agree it would be nice to have a cup of tea and a toilet which is not a prickle bush. So here is a useful site the ipad turned up.

Now, further back in time! To Northumberland's famous cup and ring markings. Past that ugly sheep, the one who is growling and looks a bit suspicious, and over the hills to Doddington. Stop complaining. It's only a few miles, a few hills, and a bit of trespassing.

Yes, a bit of crawling around on all fours up hillsides, looking for a rock. That too. Aunty Dee says there's a cup and ring here somewhere. She remembers it from a school trip c.1959.

Ta-dah! Finding it only took three hours!

Called cup and ring because they can't call them cup and saucer, these markings are mesolithic to neolithic, take your pick. No-one knows what they mean, so your interpretation of the past is as good as anyone's. Use your intuitions, Squirrel! What's that? Could be marks to identify where the rocks are? Sounds reasonable.

Like I say, simply look at the landscape to know how people lived in the past, what they did, and who they were. They'd probably behave just like you. Only with less shoving of their sisters on the way down.

Monday, 14 May 2012

It's a yes to Edinburgh!

Only one day to spend in Scotland! Such a short time to form a bunch of half-arsed, incoherent, patronising opinions about the Scots.

It's tough, but I can rise to the challenge.

1. Scottish men are handsome. I ponder this problem. Would I call Alex Salmond handsome? Maybe the men I see are not Scottish! Maybe they are Italians, French and Swedes with stylish clothes and good haircuts visiting Edinburgh? Hmm. Would I find handsome men in Glasgow? Or Ullapool? I decide to keep an open mind until I can conduct further research.

2. Scotland is culturally xenophobic and schizophrenic towards the English. On the one hand, it's all front-up arrogance, with What the fuck are you doing here? And on the other, it's that creepy and pathetic I-want-you-to-like-me attitude. We're friends, right?*

3. It's a YES from me to Scottish Independence! Not that I have a vote. But if I did, I would.

Reasons: Edward I came up here as a way of deflecting home-grown hostility away from the crown to an outside enemy, and he conveniently made that enemy Scotland. I feel a little guilty about this. I think the best way to even things is to give stuff back and store our nuclear submarines somewhere else, maybe off the Falkland Islands. That's far enough away.

(But I would make a concession to the Union. I agree the English couldn't possibly agree to Scottish independence until we've spent all their oil money.)

4. The Victorians were a bad thing for Scotland. Tartan has to be stopped.**

5. The Scots should make as their marque the Scottish Enlightenment. Honestly, this is such a big thing in the whole world of human thinking! Your tourist board should do something about it. You should make me associate Scotland with the world's leading scholars, instead of midges, kilts, and Balmoral.

6. You have imposing architecture. Please please please, in a frenzy of 'new brush' management, don't knock it down, clean it up, or mess the urban scape about with ugly mismatched buildings done on the cheap.

7. You have pleasant, courteous, and friendly service staff. (Okay, the man at the pie shop was a bit grumpy. He doesn't know how choosing pies is a big thing for us.)

I was especially impressed by the staff at Edinburgh castle and in the totally fantastic National Museum of Scotland. Particularly the man who accepted my dramatic reenactment of the Eduardo Paolozzi figures. He was gracious. The fact that he could take 20 minutes of it and still remain courteous impressed me deeply.

8. Incidentally, I am also impressed by Alex Salmond. He acts like a proper politician. Deft, committed, intelligent. He makes David Cameron look like a mummy's boy.

Thanks to our one day in Edinburgh, the Scottish will be delighted to hear that la famille Grit has resolved to extend the education of Shark, Squirrel and Tiger about your lovely country! Next year we plan to explore north of Edinburgh. It will allow me to test my theories about a) handsome men b) whether on Sundays everyone still wears black and no singing is allowed c) I have to take my own carrots.

Now the photos.

*After extensive conversation with Dig, in which he reminded me what I said about the Welsh, I quietly concur the xenophobic schizophrenic traits might be mine.

** I have rethought this opinion. If the people who wear tartan are Americans - and let's face it, you're going to need their money when you're independent - then you should carry on with the tartan.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


People of Berwick-upon-Tweed? Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Maybe we visited on a Sunday? When you're shut? (Except for the bookies.)

But it was our fault! Stupidly expecting the English Heritage Barracks to be open! When people are free to visit. Like at weekends. (When it's shut.)

So we half-heartedly began the Lowry trail instead. Here we could see the delightful results of your urban redevelopment schemes.

Anyway, never mind about the depressing cheap concrete blocks of misery which no doubt replaced some character-filled architecture, we learn Lowry liked decay. 'Ugliness too' he is claimed to have said. And, 'a derelict house gets me.'

You might have done something about the Lion house, but elsewhere you're carrying on a fine tradition with sights like this.

One of your beautiful Victorian buildings. Boasting smashed windows, padlocked boards, destroyed entrance, and a garden growing old vodka bottles. The plaque outside tells us it is a Jubilee British School building 1859-1909. It suggests a sniff of scholarly history to respect, no? But well done, Berwick-on-Tweed, for ignoring the potential of that, to keep true the love affair with Lowry.

Really, I hated your town. That is sad to me, because I wanted to love it. I wanted to enjoy the history, the river, the buildings, the landscape, the junction of England and Scotland, the grey skies and your fantastic photogenic bridges.

But after an hour I couldn't wait to bypass Asda, pick up some cheese, and picnic at Etal castle down the road instead.

I think you people of Berwick are probably owed an apology. Sadly not from this hapless tourist who has no intention of sugaring the pill, but for the years of neglect you've probably suffered from local and central government and council, uncaring developers, unimaginative planners, creators of short-term don't-care schemes, and people who make the community worse by throwing empty vodka bottles about, when they should be doing something useful to build it.

Now here's Etal Castle with its exhibition of the Battle of Flodden, and the far more interesting and politically significant Norham Castle. The latter is excellent, and I'm sorry to see the EH person had to decamp due to falling visitor numbers.