Friday, 22 August 2014

Evidence that I learned many valuable life lessons on a bus journey in the Cotswolds countryside

We've just got back from our holiday in the Cotswolds.  I learned some things on an afternoon out and the advice may be helpful to you should you also attempt such a bus journey.

1. What you think is an ice cream van pulling up at a country bus stop may in fact be your bus.  Keep your reactions to yourself.  

2. Before buying your £6 return ticket to a Cotswolds town you'd like to have lunch in and then explore, check that the timings of the bus will enable you to spend more than fifty minutes there.

3. When you find out that in fact you are on a tiny bus to a Cotswolds town in which you will be spending only fifty minutes, make the most of the hour-long journey.  You have paid £6 to view all that green and brown.  And appreciate each sheep you see in a field.  Wheat can get tedious.

4. When you are eating your £1.20 cold cheese scone in the street for lunch while trying to make the most of your fifty minutes in the town, remember that sitting in a cosy pub restaurant enjoying a giant steaming piece of beer-battered fresh cod and a mountain of hand-cut thick salty chips accompanied by a pint of cold, refreshing local cider would have set you back £16.95 and be glad.

5. When you only have 50 minutes in a Cotswolds town, accept the inevitable: you will see fourteen shops which are selling something you have needed for years.

6. Make the most of necessary visits to public conveniences even though they seem to chip away at your time.  Adopt the same attitude that people do before they die.  Appreciate the tiling in a way you never have.  If there is toilet roll available, rejoice and be grateful.  Analyse the flush - is it different from other flushes you have heard?

7.   On your return journey, bear in mind that the vehicle which brought you might be different from the vehicle they send to take you back.  Therefore, what you think is a family seven-seater pulling up at a country stop may in fact be your bus.

8. As your bus winds its way through the villages and a woman says, 'Can you drop me off at the Tall Tree, please, driver?' do not assume that the tall tree is the name of a pub.

9. When your bus breaks down in the middle of the countryside so that the driver has to pull up alongside a field and ring the garage for advice about how to get started again, remember everything I said in point 3.

10. Remember that it is still considered polite in British society to say, 'Thank you, driver' as you disembark, despite lingering bitterness about a dry, cold cheese scone and two hours looking out for a sheep to make the day seem more exciting.

A large enough scone, with added wheels, could even be used to transport holidaymakers from village to village

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Reasons why Fran has watched some Robin Williams clips today instead of working

Sad news about Robin Williams.   Today I watched an episode of 'Whose Line is it Anyway?' to which he brings chaos and disorder and hilarity like an untrained puppy, refusing to follow the instructions given and appearing behind desks and in front of cameras at unplanned moments.

Then I watched some clips of him ad-libbing in 'Good Morning Vietnam'.  How did he do that stuff? His brain was as quick as electricity and I don't know how his mouth kept up.

Another clip, from 'The Dead Poets Society' has him, in the role of John Keating, ordering the students to tear out a page of 'excrement' from a book on poetry in which the editor rambles on about how to measure a poem using a graph.  'Rip it out!' he cries, and the boys fall to the task with abandon, apart from one who uses a ruler to make sure he does it in a straight line.  One senses that the poor boy is having trouble taking on these anarchic ideas.

All this reminded me of something I read recently about art, whether that be writing or sculpture or dance or theatre.  It was about the element of surprise, and that it's the unexpected in art that catches the heart of the reader or viewer and brings delight.  I think this was the secret of Robin Williams' success. We love the Peep-Bo in childhood, and it teaches us to enjoy the maverick, the Jack-in-the-box, the picture of the old lady that, looked at another way, is a beautiful woman, the cheque in the post we'd forgotten was coming, the one poppy bursting out from a concrete slab, the sudden change of key in a song ....

That's why one of the most common exercises I give students at school (or in creative writing classes with adults) is to devise different endings for common clichés.  It's always said that you shouldn't use clichés, but in fact sometimes a cliché which has been subverted causes more of a surprise, and therefore more pleasure.

For instance, take 'as soft as silk'.  How could we use this in writing, or in a song, or play?  Her skin was as soft as silk is a cliché.  Her skin was as soft as silken butter?  Her skin was as soft as silk on silk?  Her skin was as soft as whipped-silk milk chocolate?

Let's take it somewhere else, keeping the sibilance, the 's' sounds from the original cliché.  Her skin was as soft and silky as submission.  Her skin was as soft as a small bird's flight.  Her skin was as soft as a sly whisper behind a hand.

It all depends what you want to say.

I'm just playing around with language here.  But I love doing it.  And so did Robin Williams.  So, that was my little tribute to him, and I pray for his family.  I know what it is to be left behind in that way, wondering.

Not all surprises are good ones.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Reasons why Fran is staying in today

Never mind 'What did I come upstairs for?'  This morning, I put styling mousse on my hair twice within three minutes, having forgotten the first application.  It's beginning to dry now, as stiff as rigor mortis with knobs on, and if I got my hairdryer out, I think I could style it any way I wanted and it would stay like that until September. 

Maybe like this .... with its obvious advantage ...

Fran had found another excellent hiding place for the chocolates her husband didn't know she'd bought

Or like this .... 

'Will people think I look silly with this dog collar on?' he thought.  'I hate to stand out.'

Or this one?..... 

Fran walked into her classroom and the kids said, 'Uh oh.  Bad mood day.  Spit your gum out, guys.'

 I've used hair mousse to 'big up' my short hair since I was a teenager, always having been self-conscious about the paucity of it.  That means I've used enough mousse in my life to style every prairie in North America and, with this morning's effort, perhaps a couple in Canada too.

You can start that stuff too early, though.  

PS  If any of you tried to vote for me in that travel writing competition, thank you so much.  There's a mighty fine humdinger of a furious discussion going on on its website because of the difficulty everyone's had in voting and the way it's been organised.  I took that post down just so that no one else suffered the pain and instead you got this intellectual treatise on hair mousse and memory loss.  I hope you feel compensated.  

Monday, 28 July 2014

Evidence that even though the kids at school see her as an ancient ruin, there are still things Fran hasn't done

A Facebook status from poet friend Martin Hodges (thanks, Martin!) inspired this posting.  It's a poem written as the result of a poetry exercise I did somewhere, in some place, at some point, with someone. It may have been the result of a session on memory or reminiscence but I don't remember that either. Errrr - what did I come upstairs for?

Martin was saying there are many things he likes the idea of doing, such as climbing Kilamanjaro.  I'm the same.


(I also fancied borrowing an idea from Piaf and calling this Je Regret Loads, but it's not really a comedy poem.)

I have never worn a ball-gown which sparkled under chandeliers
or eaten grilled sardines while watching a Mediterranean sunset.
Nor have I dived.

I have never climbed a snowy slope while attached to a rope and friend
or danced the quick-step, the tango, the waltz or the rumba.
Nor have I read ‘Gigi’.

I have never climbed into the basket of an air balloon
or thrown blue-patterned, cracked china at a wall just for the hell of it.

Nor have I sipped oysters from shells,
nor drunk tequila with my head thrown back.

But once,
at least once,
I said I would do all of these things
some day.

What do you regret not having done?  Yet.  Leave a comment and tell me.  

PS  If one of the things you haven't done yet is to read 'Being Miss', my novella in which Miss's rollercoaster teaching day finds her in all kinds of trouble, it's free on Kindle for the next few days right here  You could take it up Kilamanjaro with you.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Evidence that Fran knows what to do when a loaf isn't rising

I had an O'level Domestic Science teacher in the 1970s called Mrs Gough.  She's one of the reasons I love cooking pastry, puddings and cakes, although she owes me about £596.00 in weekly fees to Slimming World and Weightwatchers as a result.

This was before Domestic Science, in wihch you learned to cook real food, became Food Technology, in which you learn to make a cake from cornflakes and melted chocolate, then write a year-long project for GCSE about its nutritional value and how you would market it.  

One day, Mrs Gough taught us to make bread, but because there were so many of us in the class, some had to put their loaves on the middle shelf.  Half-way through the cooking, I noticed that Pauline Brown's loaf, at the top of the oven, was rising triumphantly whereas mine, in the middle, was as flat as Norfolk.  I opened the oven and switched them over.  Pauline, if you're reading, I'm really sorry about your loaf, and while I'm here, I also apologise about the chocolate cake and the cheese souffle.

Pauline thought it was just as well she was predicted As in all her other subjects.

Mrs Gough had a tongue as sharp as mustard and wasn't known for her tact.  This led to one of those 'wish-floor-would-open-up' moments that one always remembers and which still make your stomach flip with emotion.  (Serious 'miserable-childhood' incident coming up.  Fetch a Kleenex.)

I may have hinted before that I wasn't brought up in the kind of domestic environment that encouraged or taught basic cleanliness. Daily routines such as face-washing and teeth-cleaning were not established, let's just leave it at that.

Mrs Gough was responsible for teaching us Personal Hygiene.  In one lesson, she addressed my class of 15 year old girls (the boys were segregated from us and sent to learn woodwork in preparation for their lives as postmen, store managers and bus drivers).  She said, 'Girls, why do we wash our faces in the mornings?'  I put my hand up and offered, 'To wash the dirt off, Miss?' and she said, her eyebrows raised in horror, 'Wash the dirt off?  Wash the dirt off?  One hopes one did that the night before!'  All the other girls laughed and I felt shame begin at my toes and make its insidious way up to the burning face which I hid behind my hands.

So, Mrs Gough did teach me how to make pastry that puffs like a dream around a pile of stewed apple and blackberry, but she also taught me never to make assumptions about the kids I teach and what their home lives are like.

Back to funny stuff before we all go and find razors.

The other incident I recall was during our O'level D.S. exam.  We were making soup, and one girl had chosen to do tomato, but when she put it in the liquidiser, the lid came off mid-whizz and the soup sprayed up and out of it at full pelt, splatting the walls and ceiling.  It looked like a scene from a Tarantino movie, and it nearly was one when Mrs Gough came over and saw the carnage, not helped by the maniacal screaming of the girl whose O'level in Soup was at risk.

My soup was fine.  This may have been because I switched my liquidiser for Pauline Brown's, but I honestly can't remember the details ...

Pauline wasn't sure how she'd started off with a delicate green pea soup recipe and ended up with this.  

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Evidence that interviewing an inanimate object is a worthwhile activity

You don't have to be 'a writer' to do this exercise.  You do, though, have to be prepared to discover some truths about yourself.  

1. Choose an object which is important to you (or to a character in a story you are writing).

2. Ask it these questions (or any others you devise) and write down its answers.  You may find the object unwilling to speak.  In this case (where's a chatty object when you need one?!!!) imagine what it would have said, and in what kind of voice.  

When did you first meet your owner?
What physical contact do you have with your owner?
Where are you kept?
How do you think your owner feels about you?
What do you think you represent for your owner?
In what ways are you like your owner?

I interviewed my teacher's planner, made notes on the replies, and then wrote these up in the planner's voice.  Here is the result.

The teacher's planner speaks.  

She hugs me to herself because she knows what would happen if she lost me.  I am her oracle, her Delphi, and her reassurance.  

When she was a trainee, in 2002-2003, she was given an unused 2001-2002 planner which just had 'Nigel Bates' scrawled inside the front cover, and she had to alter all the dates herself.  

The first time I met her, then, was in the summer holidays before she began her first proper teaching post, and she kept repeating, 'I have my own planner!  I have my own planner!'  She did not know I would represent, in the names of 190 children written in my registers at the back, and in the six yawning spaces per day yet to be filled with lessons, a job in which she would flounder like an unpractised swimmer in an irritable sea.

She is very like me, in some respects.  Her favourite colour is purple, and my cover is purple, and although I didn't get a choice over this, I'm willing to accept it in the light of her affection.  Some planners are beige and, although the idea of a teacher's planner hierarchy seems absurd, I do think purple wins over beige every time.  Not that you'd know that from the Paris fashion shows.

Also, like me, she has blank spaces.  She knows her memory is not what it was and, just as she finds the sight of my many unfilled spaces frightening on a Sunday evening, so she is afraid when a name wriggles out of her consciousness, or someone's birthday skitters by her before she can grasp it as she used to.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

Evidence that Fran is very pleased to have finished exam marking and can now go back to faffing about as usual

One of my favourite things to do is type random half-questions into the Google search bar and see what other people have been asking.

I said ONE of my favourite things.  Don't judge me.

Here's my first search today, and its results.  What happens if you ......

What happens if you .... swallow gum
What happens if you .... miss a pill
What happens if you .... don't eat
What happens if you .... eat weed
What happens if you ....drink on antibiotics

Here's a short matching game for you.  Don't get too excited - there are no prizes except, as I tell the kids at school, a deep sense of personal satisfaction and pride.  Match the question below to the people above.

Which person has a chest infection but also a vodka habit?
Which person is a teenager whose teacher spotted them chewing in a lesson?
Which person missed all the nutrition modules in their Human Biology lessons and is near death?
Which person has just eaten some very strange cookies?
Which person has fourteen children already and is worried that she is just about to have her fifteenth?

Now, my next search.  What's the best way to .....

What's the best way to .... kill ants
What's the best way to ....cook pork chops
What's the best way to .... buy a car
What's the best way to ....clean silver

Here's another matching game.  You know the drill now.

Which person has a mother-in-law coming round for dinner and feels she ought to display the wedding present that's been in a cupboard for months?
Which person left a jar of golden syrup out on the kitchen surface while on holiday for a fortnight?
Which person has just passed their driving test and is about to inflict themselves on the nation's roadways?
Which person infected someone with food poisoning the last time they cooked and found it ended an otherwise ideal relationship?

Allow me one more.  I am having such fun.  How do I know if .....

How do I know if ...... he loves me
How do I know if ...... she likes me
How do I know if ..... she loves me
How do I know if ..... my iPhone is unlocked

Only one question for you this time.

Study the above list carefully.  What do you learn about the two major obsessions affecting today's society?

Here's a song on the same theme.

A song to go with today's tasks.