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.   

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Evidence that mirrors don't always tell the truth

I bought one of these a few years back. 

It's called a Vanity Magnifying Mirror. So, first, let's deal with the misnomer: you can either have vanity (definition: excessive pride in one's own appearance), or you can have a magnifying mirror.

Here's a description of my daily encounter with the magnifying mirror:

1. Stand it on the windowsill in the light.
2. Look into it.
3. Cringe backwards, crying, 'Surely that's the surface of the MOON! Or a shelled battlefield!'

The problem is, over the years since I've owned the mirror, I think I've normalised that image of myself so that I think that's what everyone else is seeing. That's the danger of these mirrors. And yet, the reality is this:

1. I don't get up so close to people, staring and almost touching them with my nose, as I do to the mirror. You'll know this is true already, because I am not writing this from a prison cell.

2. People don't have highly-magnified x-ray vision, unless they're aliens, in which case they'll be comfortable with the moon thing.

3. My body is usually moving around when I'm with other people, not held in the rigormortis of horrified reaction as I am with the mirror. 

4. My face is usually moving around when I'm with other people. I find this stops them from leaning over to check for a pulse.

And, more importantly than any of that ....

5. No one really cares about the surface of my face. 

In Sylvia Plath's 'Mirror' poem, she explores a woman's feelings about her image but by writing in the voice of the mirror itself. It's an astounding poem, shocking and true. I often use it at school, challenging the students to guess what the object in the poem is without showing them the title, and then getting them to write about an inanimate object in their own house, 'interviewing' it to see how it feels about its life. Here's Plath's poem. 


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful---
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Those last two lines are killer lines, and as true as the dawn. See my earlier points ...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Testing, testing ...

This is a test blog post just to check that the new 'subscribe by email' function is working. A friend is testing it for me. Sorry for lack of humour. (Whaddya mean, you didn't notice the difference?)

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reasons why an extensive vocabulary isn't always a helpful thing

When I first met my husband, Paul, I was eighteen and he was twenty-three. I was introduced to him while he was sitting on a chair in a friend's house. I sat beside him, we got talking and I asked what he did for a job. 'I'm a peripatetic music teacher,' he said.

Not knowing the meaning of the word, I was very surprised, half an hour later, when he stood up.

This was before I found out that peripatetic means 'travelling from place to place', not 'unable to use legs'.

I hasten to add that I found this out for myself later, not by asking him how dared he get up without help.

It took some readjustment in my thinking, to find he could move. I'd spent that half an hour admiring him for his courage in keeping a music teacher job going. In fact, I'd fallen a little in love with him already in an 'I can care for this tragic, creative man' kind of way. Once I realised he wasn't paralysed at all, I had to find other reasons to love him. His brown eyes helped, as did his guitar-playing, but it was a close thing.

I was pleased to find out I wasn't the only one who'd misunderstood. A few weeks later, I heard two of our friends talking. One was commenting on the fact that my (now) boyfriend had a tendency to fidget (nothing's changed and he's 60 next year).

'His legs never stop moving, do they?' she said.

'Ah well,' the other girl said, whispering. 'You do know he's peripatetic, don't you?'

I don't know what she thought 'peripatetic' meant, because she'd often seen him walking. Whatever she thought, she made it sound terminal.

I've never read this, but the title makes me want to ....

Once we were married, and the misunderstandings continued, I told Paul he'd have to add an explanation. 'You can't just assume everyone knows,' I said.

It worked, to an extent, because one or two, as ignorant of the meaning as I'd been, were helped by the explanation. Unfortunately, the rest felt patronised by his adding, 'That means I travel around schools.'

'I knew that,' they'd say, huffily.

In the end, he dropped the 'peripatetic' and just said, 'I travel around schools teaching music.'

Some said, wanting to sound informed, 'Oh, you mean peripatetic.'

You're wondering, aren't you, how we ever had time to have three children and run a family home, taken up as we were with managing this lexical dilemma day after day?

Now, he works as a gardener. Sometimes, he tells people 'When I was younger, I was a peripatetic music teacher,' and I wonder whether they look at his legs, and the way he can garden for hours at a time, then go home and Google 'Are miracle healings still possible?'

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Evidence that Fran isn't a fan of pastel colours

I'm in love with this colour. I think it's called teal. Here's a square of teal.

I have the following possessions, all in teal.

1. My laptop. (I think I told you that story. The man in the computer shop wasn't impressed that I chose a piece of kit based on its colour alone, without asking questions about megabytes or other such young-people nonsense.)

2. The cover for my Kindle Paperwhite. (My daughter gave me this. She thought my reactions overstated when I realised it matched my laptop cover, but she was probably worried I would dance on her ginger cat if I didn't calm down.)

3. Some teeshirts.

4. Some jumpers.

5. Some scarves.

6. Some socks.

All I lack is a pair of teal trousers and some teal shoes, but one can overdo things. If I went out dressed all in teal, perhaps with a teal hat, I would be mistaken for a bright summer sky and that might not end well.

What I didn't know, until a minute after I began this blog post, was that a teal was a duck and that we get the colour teal from some of the bright-blue colouring these ducks have on their feathers. The colours are more apparent when the ducks are flying; most of the time they're quite coy about their bright bits, like this one below. I can imagine them swooping up into the air and saying, 'Ha ha! And there was you, thinking I was wearing a boring brown speckled coat!'

According to www.etymonline.com, my favourite word-origin site, the colour teal was only used to refer to clothing from 1923, whereas the meaning 'small freshwater duck' was used in the 14th century.

This duck doesn't look in bad shape at all considering it was born in the 14th century. 

Now, my life's ambition is to get myself one of these ducks, add it to my list of 'Things I Have in Teal' and find some way of wearing it so that it matches my socks.

Or, I could have it on my desk in the study, so that when I'm writing on my laptop, or reading my Paperwhite, there's a pleasing amount of coordination in the room.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Evidence that Fran will never be a marathon runner - if you needed more ...

We're all wired so differently.

My youngest sister's approach to crossing roads is this:

Cross the damn road.

Mine is this:

Spot a level crossing or zebra crossing in the far distance with a pair of binoculars. Walk a mile to it. Wait, checking carefully that cars have stopped, and that the light is green/the way across is clear. Check again for feckless motorists who don't believe in stopping despite the presence of a human body. Cross the road, checking all the time. Walk the mile back to original position.

I am not a risk-taker. She is. I like to check, do a risk assessment, then move. She just MOVES.

She's the same sister who hates public transport because it doesn't go straight from A to B. For me, I like the fact that my favourite bus, which could get me from home to work in five minutes if it went directly, travels via four housing estates, stopping seventeen times to pick up locals with whom the driver has a long chat about the weather or Mrs Jones' operation before it moves on.

For me, this pace is just right. I think I was a tortoise in a former existence. One with a limp. Or maybe I was a stone. I hate to feel harried or rushed. I don't even like a stiff breeze, pushing me along the road like a nag, saying, 'Come on, come on.'

I took my sister on a long bus journey only once. Half way to our destination, she said, 'This is really annoying me. It's just stop, start, stop, start, stop, start all the way.'

'But,' I said, 'how else would people get on and off?'

'Hm,' she said.

If I hurry a little, thought the tortoise, I can pass that plump lady with the glasses easily