Friday, 2 October 2015

Evidence that if you can't get abroad this year, there are other options

Today, I challenged my Year 8 class (12 year olds) to write a piece of persuasive copy that could be used in a travel brochure. 'Imagine you are running a tour,' I said, 'to a place of interest. Persuade your target audience to sign up.'

They'd been studying travel brochures and advertisements as preparation for this, highlighting the persuasive devices used.

'The only snag is,' I said, 'it has to be the worst place imaginable. Somewhere you wouldn't dream of going to. Let's make a list.'

Among others, they thought of

1. The council dump
2. The back yard of McDonald's where the bins are
3. The sewage works
4. A landfill site
5. A stagnant pool

They were squeaky keen to read out their work when we'd finished, and there were spatters of applause after each one. Some were so funny. 

This is my version, but theirs inspired it. 

'Book now for a visit to the sewage works! You will be enchanted by a wide range of fascinating natural wildlife never encountered on your holidays in Corfu. Cobalt-winged bluebottles, giant flies, alighting delicately on your lunchtime sandwich with their gossamer wings, and - oooh, look, there's Mr Rat with his ratty youngsters, darting from place to place, the busy little creature he is. Breathe in the scent of sewage. Who needs the aroma of a salty Mediterranean ocean when here, right on your doorstep, you can experience the heady scent of sewage? It's a trip like no other. No air fares. No battling through Customs. No squeezing into a seat on a plane next to a three-year-old with the flu.  And make sure you don't miss our special Buy One Get One Free deal on BOGOF Sundays. It's your once-in-a-lifetime chance and the one visit that won't 'drain' your bank balance. Pick up the phone now. Sewage is the new Seychelles.' 

Today was one of those days I love being a teacher. 

Friday, 25 September 2015

Reasons why Fran won't be going in a certain shop again for a while

In a rush this morning, I left home without having had breakfast. But I pass a bakery on my way to work.

Today, there was a display of fresh-baked pastries in the window: almond croissants, apricot croissants, pain au chocolat, cinnamon whirls, all with that come-hither look in their eyes, like the pastry equivalents of George Clooney or Johnny Depp (the difference being that I've never been allowed to bite either George or Johnny).

I said to myself, 'Fran. Resist. Walk straight on. You know you said you were determined to -'

I interrupted myself, saying, 'Not listening. Not listening. Not listening.' And dashed into the shop before I could reply.

'What can I get you?' the shop assistant asked.

'Can you get me a body like Cara Delavigne's?' I said.

'We have none in stock, I'm afraid,' she said.

'In which case, I'll have three of those almond pastries and give up the fight,' I said.

Actually, that conversation didn't happen. It's the kind of repartee I always wish I'd thought of after the event, but didn't. I've written it here so that at least it will exist in some form.

What happened was that the assistant asked me what I'd like, and because I hadn't decided, I stood just inside the door, straining my body into the window so that I could examine the pastries again. I spent a while saying, 'Maybe I'll -' and 'Ooh, that one looks -' and 'Perhaps that one -'

The assistant kept nodding, as though in sympathy with my being unable to choose.

But then I saw she was nodding at me, and then towards the door. Outside was a man, patiently waiting, unable to get in because my body was leaning against the door, preventing his entry, while I feasted my eyes on the pastries, a bit like this.

After allowing him in, and saying sorry so many times he probably thought it the only word I knew, I had to make a quick decision and equally rapid getaway. So I plumped (Deliberately Chosen Verb) for an apricot pastry so big I'm surprised they got it in a standard oven. It took her a while to wrap it as it needed a piece of paper meant for a family-sized loaf, and I predict she'll never get bingo wings working there.

I ate the pastry with a cup of coffee when I got to work, but I waited until no one else was in the office. One never likes to be caught snaffling one's way through enough pastry to line Lake Windermere.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Evidence that Fran's view on life today is a warped, bitter one

Some universal truths

1. Disturbances to your radio or TV reception only happen at key cliffhanger moments, not in adverts.

2. Only the newest and best china mugs get dropped. The chipped ones hang on for Armageddon.

3. When your friend is 39, you will remember the birthday and send the card in time. When the friend is 40, their birthday will be on a Monday and you will remember on post-free Sunday.

4. When you need three eggs for a cake, you will find two in the box, which is even more annoying than none.

5. Your neighbour will go to Spain for a week, leaving their unadjusted alarm clock due to beep at seven for an hour, the same week you decide on a staycation.

Fran's neighbour would regret giving her a key ...

6. If you only need to buy a tin of sweetcorn or one carrot, the queue will be forty-strong.

7. Soup lands on freshly-laundered white shirts. It will always be tomato.

8. You will always be three seconds away from the bus stop when the bus moves off without you, and waving, so that everyone in the bus can see.

9. Your flu bout will time itself precisely for your two weeks in the South of France. The previous fourteen weeks at work, you'll be as healthy as beansprouts.

10. The cleaner in the public convenience will decide to service the cubicles when you're having tsunami diarrhoea and watching his mop come under your door.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Reasons why Fran is in a pickle

I bought some jars of pickles at our local Leamington Spa Food Festival last week. I felt obliged after I'd tasted all thirty-seven samples. Eventually, I had to stop sampling.  There are only so many 'I-may-buy-this-one' faces one can make and, anyway, the queue behind me stretched back to the M40 and held up traffic.

A jam caused by pickle

The full-size jars cost as much as it would to go and pick my own mangoes in Malaysia, so I opted for a set of four mini-jars costing a fiver.

I bought these flavours:

Lime Pickle
Beer and Honey Mustard
Mango Chutney
Spicy Tomato Chutney

All I can tell you is that the lime pickle is very tasty and goes well with cold meat. I almost didn't get to find that out, because the lid took ten minutes to prise off and when it did finally come free, it was with such force that I nearly lime-pickled the dining room walls. We've been talking about redecorating, but were thinking more Ivory Cream or Pale Gold than Accidental Chutney.

As for the other three jars, the lids won't shift. My husband tried - he can't get them off either.

I wrote to the lady who makes the pickles - her email address was on the card that came with the mini-jars - and asked her whether she ought to adjust her lid machine, but she tells me she screws the lids on by hand.

I replied to her email, 'What? Are you bionic?'

Her reply was quite distant, as though she'd thought our relationship of pickle-seller and pickle-customer not chummy enough for jokes. Fair enough, I thought, if you were selling haute couture ballgowns or six-figure-priced diamond watches, but I think there's room in the pickle industry for a touch of informality.

The pickle lady has suggested a) banging on the lids to loosen them and b) running the jars under warm water. I will try these tonight. 

My third option, failing all else, is c) Take up body-building. 

Four years later, Fran was in shape, but the pickles had gone mouldy

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Reasons why little children should be kept busy when out and about with their mothers

I was in Marks and Spencer today at the pay counter. At the next till stood a female customer and her little girl of about four.

In clear, carry-across-the-shop-to-the-other-side piping tones, the little girl said, 'Mummy, Mummy. Which bra are you wearing today?'

The mother was cool personified. She bent down to the child, whispering, 'It's the green one, darling. Now, sssh.' Then the mother turned to the assistant and said, 'That was a bit embarrassing. Sorry.'

'I was only checking,' said the child, who sounded most peeved to be shushed. I bet she was thinking, 'Next time, I'll ask about the knickers and see how she likes that.'

Of course, being British, every one of us - sales assistants and customers alike - looked straight ahead, searched in our pockets or checked our phones to prove we hadn't heard. That's why I'm writing about it here. That kind of suppression isn't healthy.

It reminded me of several incidents when I was a young mother.

1. I was at a wedding once, with a young breastfeeding baby son and my three year old daughter. I was trying to be discreet, feeding my son in a corner, my top half, and him, covered in enough scarf to lay across the Pennines. My daughter peered under the scarf, then announced to the whole gathering, 'Mummy, you've got BIG breasts and I've only got little breast pads.'

2. Talking of breast pads, which for the uninitiated are circles of soft material one tucks inside a bra to absorb any leaking breast milk, on another occasion I was at home, breastfeeding as discreetly as possible as we had guests round. I'd placed the breast pad on the table next to me. When I next looked, one of the male guests had put a mug of coffee on it, mistaking it for a coaster. I dared not ask for it back.

Very comfortable inside bras

Not so comfortable

3. Let's steer away from breasts, which I'm sure you're glad to do, but stay on the topic of embarrassing children. I took the same daughter with me when I visited the doctor's surgery. She was five years old. One of the doctor's first questions was 'And how's your weight at the moment, Mrs Hill?' 'Oh,' said my daughter, eager to be helpful. 'Not very good. Mummy's grown out of her diet.'

And if you're thinking Number 3 sounds just like the kind of thing that gets published as Star Letter on the Letters page of a women's magazine, it was, and I won a cracking set of expensive cosmetics that lasted me years.

That will tell you how long ago it was. These days I think you win a tube of toothpaste or a dishcloth, which is no compensation at all for having children who strip you of dignity in public.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Evidence that I can write on speed ... I mean, at speed

Well, that was odd. At 2.30pm yesterday, I'd just pressed 'Publish' on the blog post about an old article in the Times Educational Supplement.

Then, my email pinged. It was the TES. 'We need a light-hearted piece about the One Direction split and how teachers might deal with distraught pupils when term begins. Can you do it?'

'By when?' 'I said.

'By later this afternoon?'

Fran was so damn shocked, she went blonde, and pretty. 

Anyhow, I managed it. And here it is  It's not serious journalism. And I'm not responsible for the crazy pictures. But it was fun to write.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Reasons why Fran has been able to watch Flog It more often this summer

One stand-out feature of my summer this year has been something I didn't do, not something I did.

I decided not to work as an examiner, marking GCSE English Literature, a job I've done for eight years every June/July, on top of my schoolteaching.

I'm not sure I will ever sign up to examine again, even though the hefty cheque was welcome. But, during June, I kept finding myself in the garden with a gin and tonic and a book, or writing for a whole evening, or wandering around the town looking in shop windows, or watching an episode of Flog It, and thinking, 'Why does this feel strange?' Then I'd remember, and a frisson of pure delight hurtled through my veins yelling 'Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyy!'

Looking back today through my past writings for the Times Educational Supplement, I found a copy of a 'diary' piece they published in 2007, my first year as an examiner. It will tell you all you need to know about why I thought it was time I had a year off.

Here's the piece. It's pre-empty-nest stage, too, which has just given me another little frisson, only not joy this time *sobs*.

DIARY (summer 2007)


Last night I hit One-Hundred-and-EIGHT-y.  I wasn’t playing darts; I was marking GCSE English Literature scripts.  Still, I sang out the number like they do on the telly so that the rest of the household could celebrate with me.  No-one batted an eyelid.  They all know I’ve got 300 still to go and that until early July all they’ll get from me is monosyllabic grunts, the occasional yelling out of numbers and snappy orders for someone else to answer the phone.


The most popular poem students are writing about is one in which someone’s genitals get bitten off.  That’s their interpretation anyway.  The word ‘genitals’ has been spelt 43 different ways.  Some students approach the subject quite delicately, along the lines of ‘the narrator wants to do her ex-lover harm’.  Others just go for it and add unnecessarily sordid detail to the description.  They’ve probably been told they’ll get extra marks for detail.  Not from me, they won’t.


My husband has offered to do the shopping this week, but insists on planning the list while I’m struggling with a tricky script.  I’m just puzzling out the difference between the criteria ‘some comments on detail’ and ‘supported comments’ when he asks me whether ham and new potatoes will do for Friday’s tea and what should he do with the butternut squash?  I have only one suggestion to make about the squash. 


It seemed like such a good idea when I signed up.  Now, slogging through script 237, I keep thinking about some of the stories we were told at the New Examiners’ Day about scripts being found floating in rivers and abandoned in car parks.  It seemed so shocking that anyone could do that.  Now I wonder why it was only the scripts found floating in rivers.  My Team Leader rings to see how I’m getting on.  ‘Fine, fine,’ I say.  She calls me a liar.  She’s seen it all before.


I’ve now marked so many essays on ‘Of Mice and Men’ – a book I used to love - that I vow never to teach it again.  I woke sweating last night yelling ‘I want to tend the rabbits’ and my husband had to make me cocoa and put a damp flannel on my forehead.  Everyone teaches ‘Of Mice and Men’, because a) it’s short; b) it’s in the stock cupboard; c) there’s a good video, not necessarily in that order.  But it just has to stop, otherwise examiners like me will be found lurking by riverbanks clutching poorly-wrapped parcels and peering into the deep.  I hit the magic 250 and pour myself a large Pimms.  There’s no point shouting out the number.  Everyone else is out at a friend’s barbecue - in the sunshine.