Sunday, July 31, 2011

july books

My latest books:
A Life Like Other People’s (Alan Bennett): Somewhat pathetically, when I first picked this up, I hadn’t realised that the book was taken from Bennett’s “Untold Stories” – which we already had on our shelves (and unread by me)! It’s about his parents’ marriage and the rest of his family – focusing on his mother’s depression and her relationship with her two, rather more dominant, sisters. It’s everything you’d expect from Bennett: honest, beautifully-observed, touching, occasionally waspish and frequently very funny.
A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor): This is our latest Book Group book. I’d never read any of Fermor’s books before this one and was intrigued by the prospect, after having read a couple of his obituaries (he died last month, aged 96, “a man of action and an intellectual” and once described by the BBC as a “cross between James Bond, Indiana Jones and Graham Greene”!). The book is regarded by many as being his finest and “nothing short of a masterpiece” by fellow travel writer/intellect Jan Morris. It recounts the first part of his European trek - with an allowance of no more than a £1 a day - to Constantinople in 1933/4, aged 18 (this book covers his journey as far as Hungary). He undertook the adventure with a book in mind – but, strangely, didn’t publish this first volume until 1977 (I now understand that there are THREE volumes, but that the third has yet to be published)! Although he kept detailed diaries at the time, the work is clearly one of “mature recollection” and crammed full with amazing historical, artistic, musical insights – as well as sights, conversations and drinking experiences. Rather like Jan Morris, the descriptions of his journey are fascinating but, for me, his experiences with the people he met on his trek proved to be the most enjoyable aspect of the book. The language is often very flowery (and somewhat pompous and showy) and, initially for me, rather off-putting. However, I found his style almost quaint by the time I’d finished the book. I’ll definitely read the second volume…. in due course!
WH Auden (poems selected by John Fuller): I read this short book because I’m woefully unversed(!) in “poetic stuff” and feel the need to educate myself in such things. These poems were from 1927-1973 – almost reflecting the Patrick Fermor dates above (pure coincidence)! Although I enjoyed many of Auden’s poems, I really wanted some brief words of explanation to help put them in context. I DID however enjoy his use of language and found it helped to read many of the pieces out loud.
Remind Me Who I Am, Again (Linda Grant): This is Grant’s brave account of her mother’s dementia. It’s a frank, painful (but often very funny) story of the family’s struggles with both the illness and the various health/social services authorities – along with another powerful story of her Jewish ancestry and how information withheld for decades suddenly began to emerge as her mother's condition short-circuited the barriers she had kept up all her life. Moira+I experienced a little of what the Grant family went through with Moira’s father, who had vascular dementia for the last five years of his life. This isn’t the sort of book I would normally pick up but, with my own poor memory, I felt I ought to read it! Actually, I found it absolutely fascinating.
Sahara (Michael Palin): I want to be Michael Palin when I grow up…. Yes, I know this is essentially a coffee table book to accompany the TV series (I bought a hardback copy for £2!), but he does write very well (and amusingly, of course)! One day I’d like to experience a little bit of desert(!) and this book has certainly kept the flame alive, albeit with some reservations (relating to diet, the “runs” and being constantly surrounded by people trying to sell you things!).
PS: I’m now about to embark on one of my “summer projects”: reading the mammoth “Team of Rivals” (Doris Kearns Goodwin)…. it could take a LONG, long, long time!

Friday, July 29, 2011

"if I remember correctly... "

I have a pretty poor memory. I THINK that’s always been the case (but perhaps I can’t remember?). When I was being interviewed for the school job six years ago, I was asked if I had any concerns and I replied: "remembering pupils’ names" (and I was largely right!).
I’ve just finished reading two books which highlighted various aspects of memory. The first is essentially a travel book ("A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor) about the first part of his trek to Constantinople in 1933/4. To pass the time while marching, he recited aloud "a great deal of Shakespeare, several Marlowe speeches, most of Keats's Odes" as well as "the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge"! I appreciate that times were very different then but, as someone who had severe difficulties remembering a mere SIX lines in a nativity play some 15 years ago (Mary Ayers will have an absolute field day if she reads this!!), Fermor’s feats leave me feeling totally inadequate! The second book ("Remind Me Who I Am, Again" by Linda Grant), written in 1998, is about the author’s account of her mother’s dementia - an illness which I think we all fear. This is an extract towards the end of her book: "Up to the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and America people who could not read relied on memory... Now the world is full of artificial memory: books, newspapers, films, television programmes, video-tapes, computer memory. The storage capacity of technology is illimitable. It mocks us with all we have forgotten. And we understand too the importance of forgetting lest we go mad with all there is to remember".
I struggle with remembering all sorts of stuff - names, book titles, authors, celebrities, characters from books, foreign languages, jokes, telephone numbers etc etc (the list is endless!). I know very little about the science of memory or recollection, but I suspect that I have a "visual memory". I can describe a book cover, but I’m unlikely to remember its title or the author; I can’t recall the names of characters in books, but think I recognise the names by the shapes of words and use this as a kind of visual shorthand.
No doubt, in my case, much of the "problem" is sheer laziness! People will doubtless be quick to offer advice (memory games and such like) but, unless I really felt I had a worrying medical condition, I’m happy to muddle on in my own sweet way.
One does learn to adapt, of course. Very many years ago, for example, I realised that making lists was a really good way of avoiding worrying about forgetting things – and I used to make daily lists in my filofax (I still make lists, but perhaps not so obsessively!).
In the meantime, where would I be without Google?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

the big picture

Ridiculously, apart from “The Way” that I saw with Hannah a couple of months ago (but, for some reason, didn’t blog about), the last film we saw was “True Grit”, back in February. One of my retirement “commitments” is to be a regular cinema-goer so, hopefully, this “blip” won’t be repeated. Alan, Gareth, Iona, Moira+I went to see Eric Lartigau’s “The Big Picture” a couple of days ago – described in the blrb as a “psychological thriller”. Its bizarre plot revolves around a successful French lawyer, played by the impressive Romain Duris, who rather despises his conformist life and harbours secret ambitions to be a photographer and who ends up accidently killing his wife’s lover (a photographer) and stealing his identity....
Very watchable, but I couldn’t help thinking that the film’s logic was somewhat flawed. Surely Google Images would have blown the whistle on his identity?

Monday, July 25, 2011

rosa is two!

Rosa was born on the last day of school term, two years ago. Yesterday, we celebrated her birthday with a lovely picnic in the Rose Garden at Ashton Court with a number of Ruth+Stu+Iris+Rosa’s friends (and us, of course!). The sun shone, the food was excellent (and a certain amount of drink flowed!), lots of happy smiling faces.
Happy birthday Rosa!
Photo: Rosa+Iris…. and just some of the spread (with Jen+Ruth!).

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Moira+I went to a truly magical wedding celebration party in Sunningwell, Oxfordshire yesterday. Blair and Hannah (our Hannah’s bestest friend) had got married on the shores of Loch Lomond a little while ago – with just half a dozen or so guests. They were keen to celebrate the occasion with their wider family and friends and “persuaded” Hannah’s lovely parents Sue+Tony to let them do so at their home. This doesn’t even BEGIN to tell the story, however…. S+T’s converted barn is one of perhaps half a dozen similar beautiful brick+timber clad homes and outbuildings that surround its own small, horse chestnut-treed green (quintessential English village scene!). S+T clearly get on very well with their very sociable neighbours because agreement was obtained to erect a large marquee plus several gazebos, masses of bunting, outdoor children games, portaloos etc – some gardens were used to accommodate tents (and some of the neighbours had even offered their spare bedrooms!) for overnight stays. As we entered the close (not quite the right word?), it felt as if we’d arrived on some expensive film set!
Here are just three of the many memories:
1. Hannah+Hannah (and Felix) were part of the amazing Thame Youth Theatre – from its origins in 1989. So it was lovely to meet up lots of their youth theatre friends again (lots of them were children of friends of ours) – and incredible to realise just how many of them had continued their involvement in theatre and music professionally.
2. Hannah (new bride Robertson) is a simply wonderful singer (bluesy, jazzy) and she sang three songs – accompanied by Rob Dearing on guitar. This started the entertainment off in great style (and generated a few tears from spectators in the process!).... and this high quality was continued throughout the evening. In addition to Hannah, the highlight for me was a young opera singer named Miranda (she’d been a neighbour of Blair+Hannah’s and they used to listen to her practising from their adjoining London flat!). When she hit the first note, it just took your breath away and the audience was immediately captivated (hairs on the back of your neck stuff!) and, once again, at the end, I could see a lot of people wiping their eyes in sheer joy.
3. Last month, some of you(!), may have read that I’d just discovered that a) Tom Porter, my inspirational college tutor, had died last year and that b) he+his wife had been neighbours of Sue+Tony. Well, last night, I actually met Tom’s wife Andree at the party and she seemed delighted to hear about my very fond memories of Tom from circa 1967. She took me off to show me their amazing house, including Tom’s study – and ended up giving me a copy of his final book “Will Alsop – The Noise”. All very emotional!
It was a simply wonderful occasion. S+T were brilliant, generous hosts.

Photo: regrettably and pathetically, I didn't take my camera! This picture was taken on a country walk last month and sums a happy English summer day - just like yesterday!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

shy and retired

I’m retired.

It’s a very strange feeling. I am no longer employed. This week at school has been “Activities Week” and, as a result, many staff and pupils have been out of school on various trips (school camp, Germany, France, Spain or just various day excursions). It’s meant that my final working week has been a somewhat surreal experience – LAST Friday definitely felt like the end of term. Despite managing to say my goodbyes to lots of very good friends (involving much hugging!), somewhat predictably, yesterday felt like an anticlimax…. and, because lots of colleagues on school camp had been delayed due to wet tents and general clearing up, not to mention all those en route back from exotic places, there were only a few of us at our end-of-term “pit stop” at the Warwick Arms, Clutton on our respective homeward journeys.
The day ended with another mini get-together drink at the Watershed - with my ex-boss(!) Bex and Ben (having returned from a school trip to Barcelona), Emma (back from school camp) and lift-share Andy (who hadn’t gone anywhere!).... good times!
Photo: Bex, Emma, Ben+Andy at the Watershed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

exit interview

I was granted an “exit interview” at school yesterday.
Actually, it was quite funny because, having accepted the offer of an interview by one of assistant head teachers, I was then offered another one by the school bursar (who, rather strangely, is my line manager). When I queried this, the bursar responded by saying “oh dear, communication with SMT leaves something to be desired doesn’t it” (note: SMT is the “senior management team” to you and me)! I felt like replying: “yes, precisely - please refer to bullet point 5 in my submission”… but I resisted the temptation! Actually, I did end up feeling that I’d been given an opportunity to air my views. Don’t mock, but I’d be compiling a folder of “observations” for the past several months and ended up e-mailing her with my FIVE page submission about an hour before we got together! If you’ve read any of my previous comments (on this blog or on facebook), you’ll be aware that I’ve been somewhat critical of a number of school issues over the past six years.
There are, however, several aspects of the school about which I feel very positive and, hopefully, I was also able to convey this during the course of our meeting. It would be unfair on the school for me to go into detail about our discussions. I will simply say that my principle concerns related to the very poor man-management skills of the “powers-that-be”; the lack of consultation regarding key decisions; and my huge worries about the way the school “does” sixth-form education.
I desperately hope that someone pays attention to the points I raised…. but I’m not holding my breath.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

murdoch mayhem....

People are saying that things will never be the same again.
In the past 10 days or so, there seems to have been something of a revolution. Rebekah Brooks has resigned as Chief Executive of News International (and I’ve just heard that she’s actually been arrested!); Rupert Murdoch has issued a full apology; News Corp have withdrawn their BSkyB takeover bid; politicians have apparently lost their fear of News Corp and found their voices; Milliband has called for new media ownership rules to limit Rupert Murdoch's "dangerous" and "unhealthy" concentration of power and, all of a sudden, the world seems to be a better place. It wasn’t too long ago that the likes of Murdoch and Brooks seemed to be issuing instructions via their editorial columns to the country’s politicians.
The trouble is…. I can’t help feeling that, in a few months’ time, either much of this will be long forgotten or the likes of The Daily Mail will be seeking to take advantage. I just hope that the Commons Culture, Media+Sports Committee prove to be effective interrogators when they grill Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch on Tuesday – and provide an effective warning for any future media bullies.

more from the last, mad, “proper” week of term….

The penultimate week of summer term always feels a little unreal. It is effectively the last week of school (next week is “Activities Week” – with lots of staff and students on various school trips to foreign lands, at school camp and music school etc).
Last week seemed even more frantic than usual (in addition to the stuff I mentioned in my previous blog post):
1. Sports Day: This had to be re-arranged due to bad weather the previous week. It’s always a very good event (especially since they started encouraging “proper” crowd participation). In my time at school, despite my competitive nature, our House has never come remotely close to challenging for the top slot (even though we do have some brilliant individual students).
2. Q-Factor (our version of X-Factor!): Due to a mess up by a couple of the other Houses, our House ended up having to fit its “Charities Week” activities into two lunchtimes of last week. Q-Factor has run for the past four years or so and, like X-Factor (even though I’ve never watched it!), encourages “talented” youngsters to perform before their ardent fans. The House staff are usually expected to perform too – but, thanks to Andy+Bex, we managed to get away with appearing in some very funny video clips instead.
3. End-of-Term-Drinks at The Boater, Bath: Always good fun and attended by the vast majority of staff on Friday night. There are always a number of staff leaving (or retiring!) and you can imagine that this gave the evening a surreal feeling for your truly.

As well as some lovely messages and cards from members of staff, I’ve also received some wonderful comments from pupils. These are just three of them (get your hankies ready!):
From a Year 10 student: “Thank you for all your help since Year 7; you have been a great role model and an awesome House Head” (I love the promotion!).
From a Year 10 student: “A huge thank you for all of your help and support throughout some difficult times of mine this year. I feel very glad to have come to you for help and I have found your advice invaluable and I believe your words will stay with me my whole life”.
From a Year 9 student: “This is just a quick message on behalf of my mum and me to say thanks for everything that you have done for us. When I had my operations you were amazing and you helped me out so much; I can't explain how much this is appreciated!
My mum is always commenting on how helpful you are and how quickly you reply to her emails and sort out any situation.
I'm really sad that you're leaving and you will be missed terribly for all the support and encouragement you've ever given. If it wasn't for you my difficulties from my operation would have been ten times harder and you always seem to understand everything which means a lot.
We both wish you the best of luck for the future and we hope you leave knowing how great you were. You will be missed a lot!”
Photo: Quantock athletes parading during the Open Ceremony at Sports Day!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

a very tough day at the coal face

Yesterday was always going to be a tough day.
Although there’s another 7 days before the end of term (but, hey, who’s counting?), there are so many activities happening over the next few days that the Head Teacher decided that after school yesterday was the time wish formal fond farewells to departing staff (which includes me). I knew I would be expected to say a few words – but, thankfully, there were three senior members of staff (who had clocked up over 100 years of service at the school!) who would be taking centre stage.
These are just five lovely things that happened to me yesterday:
1. Just before lunchtime, a girl who had left school a year ago and had been the bane of my life (behaviour, school refusing, exclusions, attitude etc etc) knocked on the door of the House office. “Sir, I’ve come along to a meeting about my younger brother and have just been told you’re leaving… and I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for all you did… and, sir, I’ve got a job and I’m on hairdressing course and I’ve sorted myself out and I now realise how stupid I was not to have made more of myself when I was at school. But, sir, I DO realise that now!”.
2. Just after lunchtime assembly – Bex (my 27 year old brilliant boss) told me I had to accompany her to a “little” presentation. Fine, I thought, that’s very nice of them – perhaps a handful of House tutors and maybe a bottle or two of red wine handed over? But, instead of being taken into the House office, I was directed into one of the large classrooms in the Language Block – and I suddenly realised that there were about 50 members of staff sitting waiting for me (believe me, with our school’s split lunchtime, this is pretty amazing in itself!). I was made to read out a message contained in a large envelope: “We thought that after 6 years at Norton Hill, you deserved a proper break, so…. we are whisking you and a guest away to Spain for a golfing extravaganza at a time to suit you!”. It transpired that nearly 70 people had clubbed together to make this possible.
I was absolutely gobsmacked…. stunned…. speechless… humbled.
I uttered some incoherent words of gratitude and thanks, but it was one of those occasions when words weren’t really enough.
3. A small group of Year 10 girls (some on the verge of tears) knocked on the House office door and wanted to say goodbye (and have their photograph taken with me – what a thrill for them!) before departing off to school camp the following day.
4. This involved the after-school presentations: I managed to get away with only having to speak for a couple of minutes and, hopefully, was able to convey my genuine appreciation for their tolerance, encouragement and friendship.
5. Finally, I’d put up posters in the staff room at school (and issued invites to school colleagues via facebook) suggested a fun boules evening at Queens Square in Bristol. In the event, 30 people turned (amazing considering that only a dozen or so of teachers at school live in the Bristol area) and we played boules, ate picnics and drank the odd glass of something. It was absolutely lovely.
A truly remarkable, memorable day (or, as Lou Reed would sing: “Just a Perfect Day”).
Photo: I failed to take ANY photographs of the day but these are just two of my amazing bosses, Bex and Kate (I had four during the course of my six years!).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

steve+diane’s 25th

Moira+I are lucky enough to have lots of wonderful friends who are younger than us. This policy has, of course, been nurtured over several years - with the express intention of trying to kid everyone that we’re MUCH younger than we really are (needless to say, our friends haven’t be fooled). We’ve just got back from a wonderful weekend in a massive country house and converted barn in the beautiful Staffordshire countryside. There were 39 of us in total – all there to celebrate our very special friends’ (Steve+Diane) 25th wedding anniversary. It was just brilliant – we walked, talked, ate, drank(!) and laughed our way through the entire weekend in glorious surroundings and perfect weather. Steve+Diane are AMAZING, generous, lovely people (click here to check out Steve’s 50th birthday celebrations from 4 years ago, for example!). As usual, they’d thought of EVERYTHING – two large fridges were STACKED with bottles of champagne, white wine and beer (note: when we left, the other fridge was jammed full of left-over lasagna from Friday night, copious quantities of exotic cheeses and pizzas …. along with a whole host of other stuff). Outside caterers provided us all with a superb banquet last night and this morning (because we were all clearly in need of yet more food), some of the “boys” cooked up a fantastic full English breakfast – which, of course, we ate outside in glorious sunshine (as you do)…. followed by a “serious” game of boules on the gravelled turning circle (which immediately took on the character of a French town square) in front of the main house.
Happy times, wonderful friends.
Photo: of course, I totally failed to take pictures of lots of happy people consuming food and/or quaffing alcohol. This is the nearest I’ve got – just a few of the party having reserved their seats early - in anticipation of the “Big Breakfast” (and some consuming black coffee or, in Julie’s case, water in a vain attempt to alleviate their hangovers)!

Friday, July 08, 2011

morals, honesty, integrity…. and greed

Was it really only two years ago that we were applauding journalists for exposing the scandal of MPs’ expenses? With yesterday’s decision by Murdoch’s News Corporation to close the News of the World newspaper after revelations and allegations of wide-spread phone-hacking of “ordinary people” (not just celebrities and politicians) by journalists, the boot is now definitely on the other foot. Of course, that’s not quite true – because, for example, it was only in January that Andy Coulson was forced to resign as David Cameron's press spokesman over the role he played in the phone-hacking scandal as editor of the News of The World newspaper (I could go on about Rebekah Brooks, Cameron, Blair....). The police are apparently now investigating some 4,000 possible other phone-hacking targets. Sadly, if an investigation outlined on Channel 4 News last night is to be believed (and Jon Snow is the only journalist I’m prepared to trust these days!), individuals from within the police force are thought to have been paid for tipping-off journalists on various cases.
Thanks to the greed and dishonesty of a relatively few(?) politicians, journalists and police officers, we’re left asking ourselves: “so, who CAN we trust?”.
What a tragic, sickening state of affairs.
Ironically(?), today WAS to have been the day when Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was going to issue his final definitive ruling agreeing to News Corporation’s bid to takeover BSkyB. In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that he’s decided to defer judgement (until September?) – by which time, he’ll no doubt hope that the dust will have settled.... (and he’ll give his consent anyway).
And, as far as News Corporation’s decision to close The News of the World is concerned, this seems to me to be no more than a cynical management manoeuvre. It just so happens that, only last month, News International created a "managing editor structure" at its four newspapers (a move towards a form of integration of daily and Sunday titles?).... oh, and Richard Caseby was appointed group managing editor with responsibility for The Sun and News of the World.... oh, but, of course, the plug is about to be pulled on the News of the World.... oh, will that mean the "Sunday Sun" will rise from ashes?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

june/july books

Sorry, these are my latest batch of books from the last few weeks:
Things Can Only Get Better (John O’Farrell): I first started reading this at a time when I didn’t do very much reading (if that makes sense) and ended up abandoning it – not because it wasn’t a good book, but simply because I seemed to have abandoned reading! I’ve just read it in a matter of a few days and this is a lovely, very funny book (especially if you’re not a supporter of the Conservative Party!). It tells of the “eighteen miserable years in the life of a Labour supporter” and I found it to be both hilariously funny and movingly sad. The final chapter (victory in the General Election of 1997) immediately took me back to that wonderful all-night election-watching time and the glorious, sunny dawn of a new (New?) Labour government on 2 May. How times change!
Silas Marner (George Eliot): This is one of those “classics” that I’d never previously got round to reading. Written in 1861, it’s a tale of morality, community, ethics, love and hope…. and perhaps also a critical response to the industrial revolution, class and the church. Somewhat ironic perhaps, given the book’s connection to fatherhood, that I finished it on Father’s Day!
The Pilgrimage (Paulo Coelho): I first began reading this about 7 years ago, but found it rather tedious and gave up. I decided to give it another try after recently seeing the film “The Way” (with Martin Sheen). It tells of Coelho’s journey along the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela with his spiritual guide. I was hugely disappointed in the book – a strange combination of magic, occult, mystical exercises and hocus-pocus.
Peter Cook+Dudley Moore: Goodbye Again (edited by William Cook): Essentially, this is a collection of scripts from their sketches dating back to the mid-1960s and includes some absolutely wonderful stuff. Reading the scripts immediately transported me back in time (I felt as if I could actually hear them). My favourite all-time sketch is “One Leg Too Few”: about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan! You can see the actual clip here (it’s brilliant).
South (Chris Orsman): This is a powerful sequence of poems telling the story of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. It provides a wonderful, fresh perspective to a well-known story. I found it compellingly beautiful - particularly the final days.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

light at brean

Moira+I went an exhibition of monoprints by Bedminster artist Ruth Ander this afternoon. We’d seen her work before at the SouthBank Arts Trail over the past couple of years and been hugely impressed. This exhibition was entitled “Light at Brean” and depicted the changing light and drama of the weather as it rolls up the Bristol Channel. It’s on at the Brean Cove CafĂ© until the end of July (you could combine it with a coastal walk!).
You should see it – it’s simply beautiful.
Photo: Moira talking to Ruth Ander next to some of the monoprints.