Friday, 29 November 2013

How to save money on your passport application (or not).

You have identical twins.
And if:
They need new passports.

And if:
A passport application requires two photos.

And if:
Passport photos come in over-priced sets of four.

Do I really need to pay for two sets?  

Just a thought.

ps:  And if anyone from the passport agency is reading this, I didn't. Honest.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The tooth fairy problem

While I'm on the subject of the mythical creatures that wander round my house in the dead of night (feels like Piccadilly Circus round here sometimes - I'm thinking of making sure I put my dressing gown on when I go to the loo, just in case), I've got a problem with the tooth fairy too.

I'm not going to get philosophical here - although I am utterly bemused as to who originally came up with the idea of a fairy who gives you money when your teeth fall out (you can't blame 4th century Greek Bishops for that one, surely, and entertainingly the wikipedia page on the tooth fairy (yes there is one) says that the paragraph on her (his?) origins "needs expansion") - but that aside, the problem's much less complicated.

Once you've cleaned your teeth, gone to bed, turned the light out, remembered the stupid tooth fairy, got up, tripped over the shoes someone's left beside the bed, turned the light back on, scrabbled around in the loose change to find something sufficiently generous but not excessive (there are children in L's class who get notes), crept in, felt for a tooth under a pillow IN THE DARK (and please say I'm not the only one surprised at how small the teeth are once they come out), got it out, dropped it on the floor, wriggled around under the bed, found it, realised you've left the cash in your own bedroom, retrieved it, tripped over the shoes again, gone back, put it under the pillow, got back into bed and acted surprised in the morning....

....what are you supposed to do with the tooth?

Monday, 25 November 2013

The trouble with Santa

From wikimedia commons
It's still a month away, the C word.  So I feel I can be mildly (another c-word coming up) cynical.

But I've got a problem with Santa.

Three stories:

Last year, a friend of mine's husband was away for a few days in the middle of December.  I saw her for a quick catch up during that time, and she pointed out that her sons had seen Santa more that week than they had Daddy. (Four times as it happens: two toddler groups and two different nursery parties).

Also last year I was chatting to L about Christmas generally. She was asking about Jesus and we talked about the nativity story. 

Mummy, she asked me is that true?
Well, Jesus was a real person, but we don't know how much of the Christmas story is true.  Some people believe it all, but other people believe different things.
And what about Santa?

You can't do comparative religion with Father Christmas, it turns out.

And then there's the story, probably apocryphal, about the child who, when he found out the dreaded truth, burst into tears of betrayal: "But Mummy, you lied to me".

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not going to tell my children it's all a lie.  I'm not that uncaring about every other child in their classes for a start, and even cynical old me likes seeing their little faces on Christmas morning; but I am increasingly thinking the whole thing is a bit, well, odd.  

Don't you think it's rather a weird thing to do?  Where does it come from in the first place, this big conspiracy?  What difference does it make if the presents come from people who they know and who love them rather than from a fat white man in an odd outfit?   It's strange, too, that when we are increasingly advised to be honest with our children at all times (within the parameters of what they are capable of understanding) we all, or almost all, unthinkingly perpetuate this untruth.

But, and despite the oddness, I won't tell them, and I will keep hedging my answers with "What do you think?" and "Well, who fills the stockings then?"; the same stockings that I will also keep hanging up by the fireplace.  I will keep reading the Night Before Christmas and The Empty Stocking (which I love, even with my cynical hat on).  And I will keep hoping that, for the next month at least, they'll be slightly better behaved as a result...

But at the same time, when they do find out, I'll be ok.  I just hope they will be too.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Rise of the machines

I got a tube the other day.

Doesn't happen often, but I had to go to work.

I got on at Liverpool Street, and got off at Holborn.  Three stops.  About 3 p.m.  Full but not crowded.

I've just googled how many people you get in a central line train (what the internet is for, clearly).  There are 272 seats, and eight carriages, so there must have been 34 people sitting in my carriage.  Plus another 20 or so standing.

Only one of them was reading an actual book.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Old fiddle, new tricks

I've got a new hobby. 

I fiddle with Kirsty.

No really, I do. We get out our instruments and...

Ok, I'll stop being smutty, especially given you knew it was nothing that interesting anyway.

It is interesting though, for me anyway, because I've done something I never thought I'd do.  I've dusted off my violin, and every couple of weeks I go out and I play folk music.

And it's both utterly bizarre and utterly brilliant.

It's also both much, much easier than much of the music I've played before, and impossibly much harder.

There's no written music.  They don't even call it music.  Instead, very scathingly, they call it dots.  We sit there, in someone's front room, or upstairs in a pub, and someone plays a tune, and then everyone else picks up their violins (which I am having to learn to call a fiddle, but it is, as I had to explain to a friend the other day, exactly the same instrument) and plays the same tune, while I struggle to work out what note they started on and maybe work it out by the time they've finished.

Eventually, someone says Who wants the dots? and I, sheepishly, stick up my hand and say Me!

I just wasn't taught that way.   If you learnt music in school, or with a teacher at home, or whatever, you'll almost certainly have learned as I did. I was taught to read music, and the music, like the text in literature, is the thing from which all else flows.  A friend was recently telling me that she asked her daughter's piano teacher to teach her (the daughter) to play some tunes she already knew because she thought she'd enjoy it.  He explained that he doesn't give his pupils pieces they know because then they play by ear, and don't learn to read the music.

This is the absolute opposite of how, I am discovering, folk music works.  In classical, you play what you see; in folk, what you hear. So I find myself trying to unlearn my years of training, and re-educate my ears so that I can reproduce what I hear with my fingers.

But while sometimes that feels virtually impossible, parts of the folk are easier too. If the truth be told, I wasn't much of a classical violinist (and anyway I actually abandoned it and played viola from aged 15 to 24) but even allowing for that, and in my rusty state, the folk music (when I do get to see it) is technically easily playable, at least at the level I am at (there is some fiendishly difficult folk music out there, don't get me wrong - check out this from Fiddlers Bid at the Cambridge Folk Festival).  That, though, isn't what makes it feel easy. That's the non-judgmentalism of it.  Classical musicians are very snooty about folk, probably because the notes are, mostly, less technical, but for the rusty fiddler, the fact that if I get it right or I get it wrong no-one cares because we're all having too much fun just making the music is refreshing and welcoming and inspiring.

I loved playing classical music. I loved singing classical music (it's how I met B), and I'd love to do either or both again, but it's the folk that's getting my toes tapping on a Monday night.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Bring out the books.

And sometimes, unlike in my last, things don't quite work out the way I meant them too.

Not done so well on the reading a new blog every day front, if the truth be told. It's hard enough keeping up with the ones I know already.

And I've done even worse on that promise I made way back at the beginning of 2010 - to write about every book I read as I finish it.

It's over six months since I last did so.  And that's not because I haven't read anything.  It just appears that once every six months is about my blogging about books rate.  Rubbish.

Anyway, here they are, all (or all the ones I could remember) stacked up on my lovely new floating shelves (nice aren't they - although the big one (on the left) annoyingly is clearly designed for American books and doesn't really fit British ones).

So from left to right, bottom to top:

Afternoon Tea: The only book I could find that would fit the annoying American shelf.   Not something I've actually read as such.

Bring out the Bodies: I called this post after it. How could I not? And not just because I'm dragging skeletons out of the closet and imprisoned men from the tower.  Better even than Wolf Hall.  Anne Boleyn made me cry.

Nothing to Envy: If you read one book out of this lot, make it this one.  I don't read non-fiction, and I couldn't put this down.  North Korea, in as far as we in the West can possibly know it (and before the recent escape of a prisoner from one of the labour camps).  Terrifying, amazing, made me want to get out there and do something. Though clearly I didn't. 

Instructions for a Heatwave: I love Maggie O'Farrell, and if you want to read one of her books, make it After You'd Gone, or The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox both of which will stay with me in a way this one won't (and hasn't, though I only read it last month).

Gone Girl: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I'm still not sure

The House by the Sea: Picked up off someone else's bookshelf on holiday because everything else was in Dutch. I'd have been better off with the Dutch.

The Other Hand:  This has been sitting by my bed for about three years because the cover said it was so harrowing it would change my life, and I wasn't sure I wanted my life changed.  It wasn't that bad. It wasn't that good either.  

The Group: This was the first book this year and it's one I've wanted to write about ever since (why didn't I?).  It was written in 1963, but set in 1933 about a group of women who have recently graduated from an exclusive American college (Vassar) by a woman (Mary McCarthy) who herself graduated from Vassar in 1933.  I'll say 1933 again, because it still flabberghasts me.  These women have sex, they worry about contraception, they agonise about whether to work, to breastfeed, how to raise their children, how to maintain their relationships (both straight and gay).  It could have been written in 2003 and it makes me think of my grandmother in a whole new light.   It inspired Sex and the City.  Carrie Bradshaw of the 1930s.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: More non-fiction and utterly beautiful.  An object of desirability in itself.  I loved holding it, almost more than I loved reading it.

In This House of Brede: The antithesis of The Group. In '60s London a woman leaves her career and joins an enclosed Benedictine Order.  The world it portrays (both inside and outside the monastery - not a convent, I learned) is a world away from mine.  It made me cry too.

Knackered Mother's Wine Club: Wine education for the blogging classes.  I got to meet Helen, the great and the good of Scottish letters (and Radio 4) and (sort of) Joanna Lumley.  I can't promise that for everyone who buys it, but really, it's great even without it - B's been using it for wine buying tips too.

Nicholas Nickleby: I've not been doing very well with my Dickens this year either.  I enjoyed this, but I couldn't tell you much about it now, although I think that says more about me than the book.

Best Friends Forever: Tosh.  Sorry, but it was.  She wrote one called Good in Bed  which is still one of my favourite chick-lit type books, but this wasn't a patch on it.

The Clerkenwell Tales: Too clever by half.  I kept stopping to admire how clever it was and never actually started to engage with it emotionally.  Probably my failing again.

Trains and Lovers:  I know lots of people love Alexander McCall Smith, but I just don't.  I heard him speak at the Borders Book Festival and so I bought this because I liked him more than I thought I would, but I just didn't get into it. It seemed to skate over the characters rather than drawing them out, if that isn't to mix metaphors.

The Shadow of Night: I love nonsense like this.  Vampires, witches, daemons and another book in the trilogy to come.  Hooray.

Noughts and Crosses: Malorie Blackman is the new children's laureate and this, her first book, is a dystopian, star-crossed lovers fiction set in a world where the black crosses are in charge and the white noughts are the oppressed underdogs.  I could see what she was trying to do and maybe I didn't get it because I'm not black, but I just thought this sort of thing had been done better elsewhere.  I can't be bothered to read the others in the series, which doesn't say much. It has got me interested in black history though, so maybe she's succeeded better than I realised at the time.

I read Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson too.  I don't think I was its intended audience. 

Not sure what's next...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Plans and poems

I love it when a plan comes together.

Blog more (I have) read more (I have) find new blogs (I have) get new readers (I have). 

And one of the new readers (the only one, actually, but still) writes one of the new blogs (sevenhundredwords), and she wrote recently about romance, and real life, and how the two don't often match up: and that happily ever after is often only the beginning.

And it reminded me of this, which I like so much I have kept on my pinboard, buried under takeaway menus, and old permission slips: last year's school calendar and money off vouchers, where I can see it...

It's by Liz Lochhead and it's called A Night In:

Darling, tonight I want to celebrate
not your birthday, no, nor mine.
It's not the anniversary of when we met,
first went to bed or got married, and the wine
is supermarket plonk.  I'm just about to grate
rat-trap cheddar on the veggie bake that'll do us fine.

But it's far from the feast that - knowing you'll be soon
and suddenly so glad to just be me and here,
now, in our bright kitchen - I wish I'd stopped and gone
and shopped for, planned and savoured earlier.
Come home! It's been a long day.  Now the perfect moon 
through our high window rises round and clear. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Irony in action

Two years, one month and a couple of days ago, when M was still being breast fed, I posted this Venn diagram of things my (other) children would eat.

Now M is (nearly) two and a half.  He'll eat many things: cornichons, olives and curried lentil soup included.

What he will not eat, however, are fish fingers.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

As any fule kno

But what does any fool know?

Do you know who I'm quoting? Do you know who this is, on the right?*

I can't imagine not knowing that, but then nor can I imagine not knowing, as I discovered no-one on Simon Mayo's radio show did a couple of weeks ago, that Artemis was (is?) a woman.

I can't imagine not knowing the basic plot of most Shakespeare plays (I'm a bit woolly on the Merry Wives of Windsor and Love's Labours Lost, among others), or most of the major Bible stories (at least all the ones that don't involve endless lists of "sons of").  I know my Greek and Roman myths, as you can tell, as well as which god translates as which from the one to the other.  I've got a general grasp of Norse mythology too.

I know my Kings and Queens of England, and what order they come in, though I'm rubbish at the Scottish ones.    I can put most of the countries of Europe on a map, and Asia, but not Africa.

But I don't know one end of the periodic table from the other.  I have no idea about Hindu mythology, or the Koran, or what the difference is between a Buddha and a Boddhisatva.  I couldn't tell you which were the Kings that got defenestrated, and I once went to a Norwegian independence day party in full ignorance of who it was that Norway was independent of (Sweden, as it happens).  Despite years of musical training, I have no knowledge of any music that doesn't originate in Europe or America.

Does it matter?  Does it make a difference what random facts I have and you don't, or vice versa? Why was I so horrified (lots of shouting at the radio) that no-one pulled Simon up on the fact that Artemis was unlikely ever to have been the lover of Aphrodite (although I think he called her Venus, just to confuse) - although come to think of it, the frisky types those Greeks were, anything's possible.

There's an American academic called E D Hirsch who came up with the concepts of Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge.  Paraphrasing very drastically, essentially what he says is that to get on within a society, and specifically to understand the written word, you need to have a set of common cultural references - so reading my blog is much harder if you don't, say, know who Molesworth is, and reading Shakespeare is much harder if you don't know that Henry V came after Henry IV, and functioning generally in Britain today is tricky if you have no idea who 1D or Miley Cyrus are (I may have made that last one up, but sometimes it feels true).

We've all been in situations where everyone's laughing or shaking their heads over a common cultural reference, and we're the only one looking blank.  Wouldn't it be nice if that were never the case?

Michael Gove's a big fan, apparently, and when you look at it at the outset you can see the attraction (though not of Michael Gove personally).  E D Hirsch discovered that very bright students from disadvantaged (often immigrant) families struggled to understand the literature he taught in his classes because they just didn't have the frame of reference of the other students who automatically knew that Germany was in Europe, or that Mozart was a composer and not an artist.  They understood the words, but not the references (and inferences) made.

So he came up with the idea of a list - a set of cultural facts that everyone should know.

And this, of course, is where it gets tricky.  Which facts?  And who decides?  Because it's very easy, that way, to slip into Maoist territory: to control what people know and, in so doing to expunge, delete, do away with the other stuff they don't know.  And if you're doing that it's ever so tempting to get rid of the unpalatable and the unflattering.

It's particularly easy to see how that could happen with history, but it works with literature and music too:  Don't like Wagner? Don't teach him.  Don't want children to be exposed to difficult ideas in art?  Don't let them see Guernica or the Massacre of the Innocents or the Raft of the Medusa. And what about science?  Anyone want to join the FlatEarthers?

And though the original aim of E D Hirsch's theory was, as I understand it, to be inclusive, surely the end result is the opposite.  Because if everyone knows something and you're the one person who doesn't, you're excluded from the outset. 

I don't know that there is an answer.  In fact I'm sure there's not: because you can't get away from the fact (pun intended) that we all have a tendency to assume that people have the same cultural experiences we do ourselves - I've found that out living here: people go blank when I say particularly English things, and I have to have the children's school lunch menu translated for me.  And I'm only 350 miles from where I was brought up, not a continent or a generation away.   Nor can you deny, as Hirsch identified, that it is easier to read Dickens or Eliot if you understand the cultural references they make.

So however unattractive (when you take it to its extreme) the solution he drew, and that Michael Gove has allegedly adopted so enthusiastically, there is truth in it.

But then just because something's true, doesn't make it right.

I find myself descending into trite platitudes here, trying to find a conclusion rather than limply draining away, but maybe that in itself is the conclusion.  You can't conclude any more than you can draw up a list of the things everything should know, because this issue, like knowledge itself, is open-ended.  The fact that I know who Artemis is doesn't preclude me from also finding out who Lakshmi is, and each bit of knowledge I gain leads me on to more.

Maybe actually what any fule should know is that there's always more out there to learn.

* Iota does,  she quoted it in her last post too.  Obviously something Molesworthian in the air up here at the moment.   Click over there for some light relief in the form of a video (warning: it requires an element of cultural knowledge).

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Starting small

So I'm doing this whole posting more regularly thing.  And I will; I promise.  As I will also reply to all the lovely comments on that post.

But in the meantime, this, by Berger and Wyse, and from Saturday's Guardian, made me giggle.

And so to bed.

Friday, 1 November 2013

I've started so I'll finish

Here's an astonishing thing. 

It's over four years since I started this blog.  Four years and seventeen days, to be precise.

I realised that last week, about the time I was wondering whether to stop it altogether.

Because it doesn't seem really to be working for me at the moment - I'm not even reading blogs, much less writing them (as an aside, since the demise of google reader how am I supposed to read blogs? I'm leaping from one blog roll recommendation to another at the moment, like some sort of demented frog (reddit, reddit), which isn't very efficient and means I can never remember the goodies....).  Suggestions on a postcard.

So I'm not reading, and hardly anyone's reading me.  Which  may be because I'm not writing.  Or tweeting, or pinteresting or facebooking or pinning up posters on to motorway bridges, or whatever the zeitgeisty thing to do is at the moment.

But I was feeling demoralised, and bored, and a bit meh, really.  So I went back to the beginning.  And remembered that in October 2009 I was blogging so that:

I can work out how I feel and get myself on the track to that elusive Plan B; a nirvana in which I am happy and fulfilled, still manage to bring some income into the house and have time to give my husband and children the attention and love they deserve

Now, clearly I'm not there.  Anyone who's ever seen me stressed and bedraggled, surrounded by wet, hungry children and with only two pairs of socks and five shoes in the swimming pool changing rooms on a Wednesday evening could tell you that "happy and fulfilled" isn't always an accurate description.  But I sort of am there, too. 

When I started this blog my life was in flux - I didn't know what I wanted and I didn't know how I was going to get there when I worked out where it was I wanted to go.  And now I do.  Maybe. At the very least I am, for the moment, sort of where I want to be, even if there is a constant niggle in my head about what happens when M goes to school?.   I am, mostly (touch wood) happy, and I do (mostly) have time for myself and my family, and I am (astonishingly) bringing in an income.

 So maybe I've done it.  Maybe I'm not blogging much because I don't need to.

But then I don't really want to stop.  I don't really want to write much at the moment either, but somehow stopping would seem like an admission of failure, even though I'm not sure I have failed.

Apparently November is NaBoPloMo.  National Blog Posting Month.  Which is, obviously, nearly as silly as Pizza month (October) or Camping month (June) or Talk like a pirate day (September - personally I happen to love that one), but which, silly or no, I'm going to try and get into. 

So for November, every day I'm going to read at least one new blog,  and twice a week (because I'm not going to get over-ambitious) I'm going to post (so this is the first one).  And if at the end of it, I want to stop, I will.

And I won't have failed, I'll have just made a choice.