Headache: Birling Gap

Birling Gap yesterday. I left my camera in the car so I will tell you. I carried a washbasket (containing wetsuits, towels and dry clothes: a selection), a picnic bag, an additional picnic bag, two net-on-sticks and a large bag of wood down to the beach. This is a climb. Fortunately there are stairs. We found a hole in the bottom of the cliff and we distributed blankets and I made a fire with the wood. The kids went down to the water with their nets. The sea is milky with churned chalk at Birling Gap. Strangely, this makes it appear warm. We cooked our lunch which included asparagus from our friends’ garden and strawberries from a shop.

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Winter at Birling Gap. Not yesterday.

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Packing Tape and Cardyboard

And for family and those interested: here are pictures of Pascal’s latest creations. Until the other day, for a month, his room had been unnegotiable because there was a very complex airport and shipping arrangement everywhere. We had to kiss him goodnight in the hallway because only he could pick his way to his bed without destroying some delicate crane mechanism or precarious tower of tiny crates ready for loading on some paper, cotton and blu-tak vehicle.

And then one morning it was all gone, packed tidily into boxes outside his room. And very soon this took its place:

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This was before the roof was completed, after which there was no adult access. I wish I could show you inside. It was a home for the Teletubbies. There were beds and internal walls and all kinds of detail. You could only get in on your tummy. It was rather wonderful.

Meanwhile the trains continued to be assembled, many at a time, until we had this many:

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And then they went on a fire.

Friends were invited, marshmallows, sticks, logs gathered and so on but the point was that they had to be burned. And soon after, the Teletubby house was burnt in a similar ceremony. Internal walls with pictures and light switches and decorative shelves which no-one had really seen except Pascal himself and his fleet of soft toys – all gone. There was dancing, screeching and a large cardboard structure alive with flame toppling where it shouldn’t.

And now Pascal is building a go-kart, (we bought some plans) and planning also maybe to tackle a steam engine for his school project on the Life and Works of the Rev. W. Awdry.

Jonathan says: “If you want to get a small child’s attention, start sawing a piece of wood.” All three boys have got involved and the kitchen is a shed.

Even though I worry about where we are going to put six-foot rockets and the nine-foot dragons (really) and it is on some level a relief that Pascal has built into his building routine a little light immolation, I am sad about these things as they are carried down the garden to the bonfire. A friend of mine who is a photographer was pretty horrified about the sacrificing of all this artwork. She blogged some of his Dakotas here. Pascal is patiently building the entire vehicular cast from the Duxford Air Show in stiff card and sellotape.

At The Factory we are working on an adaptation of The Odyssey, I am loving it and confused by it. How do I process that story through my Western, contemporary, feminist, Judeo-Christian story-telling filter? What do I make of it and how do we tell it without telling things about it? I am also nearing the end of a book I am writing and as I get closer to the end I find myself increasingly caught up in how good it should be. I want it to be really, really good. I want it to be admirable. This is about as constipating a position as it is possible to find. Could I write an entire book, admire it for a bit, then throw it on a fire to clear space for the next one? Could I give it away without my name on it and never know how it was received?

By coincidence, not long ago, Pascal was also learning about Greek Myths. I didn’t really believe Greek Myths could possibly take his fancy. I was thinking what does the autistic mind do with a story like the Odyssey, when he came home with his own version – a cartoon about Agamemnon. I have to find it and scan it but until I do you have to know it was rather wonderful series of photographs of a clay Agamemnon and a ship and assorted Greek characters. The final frame was Agamemnon lying on the ground at the foot of a sticky, plasticine cliff.

And after we read his Agamemnon story through and he had showed it around proudly he went back to putting windows on his GNER 225 HST and he said: ‘I don’t want to die. I want to be alive. I don’t want to be like Theseus’ Dad. I would get dead. If I jumped off the cliff I would get dead. I want to be… (and he looks at me very cheerfully with his eyebrows raised) Yes? I am just alive.’

I thought it was a great speech.

It’s Raining Cataracts

There’s nothing between the back of our house and the coast so when it rains the house tips and lists and handfuls of weather rattle on the windows like pebbles. It’s wonderful. I leave the curtains open to get a better effect.

But there is the walking to school which is not so entertaining. We have made the decision not to get out the car because “it’s only a few days a year” and once that precedent is set… Look, guys, we say – it’s a bit of rain. Wind. All you need is the right clothing and a bit of push. Quite a lot of push when you are very small and the wind is enough to lift you off your feet and grab your umbrella out of your hands.

We ready ourselves like a little army, checking gear, counting hats and bags and pairs of shoes to go on after wellies at the other end.

This is all especially hard for (this is the pseudonym) Joey who hates rain and wind. I think it is the random nature of the rain and the wind which just bounces around him like a sugar-rushed puppy snapping at his coat and yipping in his ear. His hands get cold. It is all very uncomfortable and this is one of those areas in which he does not understand that the weather is beyond our control. It is all part of the chaos we strange Normal People choose to live with and inflict on him.

Yesterday I picked him up from school and he was shivering. He didn’t want his coat on. He didn’t want a hat. At times like these hats and coats are added sensual assaults. I was wearing my favourite hat. It is ridiculously furry and warm. I cannot manage when my head is cold. I could wander around in a t-shirt in sub-zero temperatures but I would need a good hat. The lack of a good hat really does make me cry. I wear it most of the year because “warm” to me, is “pretty cold”. I knew if I could get my hat on Joey’s head for a second he would feel much better, but I had to get it on.

Fed photographing a mirror she was thinking of buying at auction. In the hat.

So there’s me, in the playground, wrestling a large, furry, woman’s hat onto my small, resistant and squealy son, in the school playground at pick-up time. I am not sure if this was before or after the Ofsted Inspectors had left. (Oh yes. We did.) He pushed and squealed and I do the thing I normally have to do of ignoring what it might all possibly look like and doggedly pursue what I know has to be done.

Once upon a time, when he was a toddler, this was the sort of scene that would draw a vocal crowd. “What are you doing to him?” “I’m… erm… looking after him.” In those days: “What’s wrong with him?” “Well, I don’t know…” There was never, in any of these encounters, an offer of help.

A few times I have yelled at people who do this which must look very classy.

Though once – once – I was at a bus stop in Finsbury Park, Gateway to All Sorts of Places That are Less Ugly and all three kids were being their usualness at my knees. Noisy. A woman came up to me and I readied myself, I tend to look down during these encounters. Just look at the floor. It makes it go quicker. And this woman said: “Hi. I just wanted to say… I love watching you with your kids. You’re great together.”

And I don’t think I said anything at all – I had no defence for that at all.

She was Australian, wouldn’t you know.

I got my hat on Joey’s head and I was right he stopped, he loved it. That hat is magic. He pulled it down over himself (it is a full-body hat) and we were fine, in fact, until half an hour later he took it off and gave it back because he was too hot.

I am not very good at all this. Jonathan makes up for my gaps. The day he took them to school in the howling rain he discovered at the other end of their brave trek that wellies had leaked and the boys who had been exhorted to be brave and not complain, had not mentioned the water seeping into their boots. After noisily shucking their wellies off their wet feet, their socks dripped, but Jonathan – who does these things properly and quietly and without looking at the floor, who looks a thing in the eye and only then decides whether it is a problem – had a pocketful of dry socks.

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I have been a while away from the blog because I am finishing my book… in fact so near to that I am now thinking about the next. I really must learn to do several things at once.

Impossible is Not French

My friend Olivier works for an organisation that finds and returns trafficked and exploited children to their families. Olivier is used to talking about it, but even though he is used to it, his flawless English isn’t that fluent when he tries to describe this work.

Olivier is Swiss. He likes mountains and running and therefore running in mountains. Sometimes he runs a long way. Days in fact. At the end of August he will run 166 kilometres, through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland, climbing then descending 9,500 metres and he will (in fact, he has to) do this in less than 46 hours. He is doing this to raise money.

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Chamonix - Switzerland

When he is not running or in his office in Geneva, Olivier goes to West Africa where the land is flat and, in just about every way we could imagine, is the opposite of Switzerland. Mostly, he is at his desk in Geneva, but West Africa is where the work happens.

Olivier runs the international programme for the Swiss Foundation of the International Social Service (SSI).

When I ask him about his work he is not sure where to begin. He cannot find words to describe the environment, the conditions in which these people live, he can only call it “crazy”. In the very poorest countries, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, the poverty beggars belief. This year too, there have been terrible droughts which means the rain now coming is washing everything away. Not just farmland and livestock – houses, entire villages. He calls it “crazy”.

“Half the population of Niger are malnourished,” he says, “Half! It is really, really crazy. No one talks about it.”

Many families in West Africa entrust their children to people who say they can provide an education, employment and a secure future. It sounds like the best future they could imagine for their children. The children will leave home to grow up in an environment that is safer and healthier than their families can provide.

But these children are not schooled or looked after, they are taken away from their countries and trafficked. They are put on the streets in big cities as organised beggars or they are sold into domestic service and much worse. Many do not ever return. Some leave as young as 2 or 3 years old.

The SSI supports street workers and local social services who find these children and return them to their countries and their homes. The SSI takes responsibility not only for repatriating them but working with them for two years after they are returned home in order to ensure that they are safe and that they stay. As Olivier says, working in Africa, you can’t tackle just one task – you have to work on many issues to combat one. The communities need food, they need tools and education, solar phones, regular contact from local workers. Community leaders need support and resources. They need hope for the future.

Olivier explains this and then he stops. This is the litany we always hear about Africa, I think he is thinking, and he has made this speech many times in his job – and haven’t we all heard it so much we can’t hear it anymore? Then he says: “It’s also – you know – a region full of potential. Human and natural resources. You know – the children of Africa are the future (this is so obvious and frustrating to him he laughs) so we need to focus on them. They are half the population of the continent! We can’t let them down. We don’t want Africa to stay where it is now. Left over. Isolated.”

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So that is why Olivier is running. He says that the scenery and the sensation of running is so wonderful he will truly enjoy the first few kilometres. He means the first sixty or so. He talks about trees and Alpine peaks and mountain goats and other animals whose English names escape him. I know he will see two sunsets. He will probably arrive at the finish just after the second sunrise. The race starts in Chamonix on the afternoon of Friday 27th August and finishes there on Sunday morning.

“Will you finish?” I ask.

“Yes!” he says and then he laughs a lot, as though it is a very naive question. “Impossible is not French!”

Then he says, “It helps to think of the number of people who trusted you.”

“Trusted?”

“Yes,” he says, “the people who, you know, trusted you. It helps to think of all of them.”

Please visit Olivier’s site: www.run4children.ch

How to Read at Breakfast

Pazzie is reading. He is nearly 10. He has been able to read for years but that is under duress. I mean duress. I mean if we want him to practice reading he will writhe over every, single word. He arches his back and waves his arms about like he is being bitten. It is agony. He won’t read a road sign. He won’t read his name on the inside of his school jumper. He will not read because he doesn’t get it. Why read?

You can’t teach why. Not to a kid who does not learn by example. You can only try to find material that he might like to read. We try books on sharks, trains, bees and ladybirds, recipes for cakes, instructions for model aeroplanes… I swear – we try everything.

Mint, who is 7, will read the side of a cereal box. He gets it. This makes my job easy. He gets it in the same way I do. I read the back of my tube ticket. I read terms and conditions. He reads washing instructions and then he turns to CS Lewis.

Pazzie is reading. He finishes his story and (how can I tell you how incredible this is?) says to his brother:

‘Jimmy, do you want to read a story?’

(Look at Pazzie wearing his biggest smile. He has never asked to read you a story before. Please please say yes.)

‘I don’t want to read a stupid story.’

‘Why don’t you like stories?’

‘I only like fast trains.’

Actually Pazzie has not waited for an answer, he has wandered away to look at something else. It’s ok. Sometimes the world likes fast trains more than stories.


How can I explain this? This morning his reading age has leapt about two years. This is why mainstream education has such trouble with him. He is not retarded – he is autistic. Learning disabled is not a nice way of saying: “a bit slow…” it means he learns in a way that makes no sense to us. He learns in enormous, unpredictable leaps. He is motivated to learn by things that we might find odd.

He does not learn in the way that we have been hard-wired to teach. I don’t just mean our education system – I also mean as human beings.

We have seen him effortlessly perform ridiculous feats of mental arithmetic – when he needed to – but at his new school they are still trying to persuade him to add 2 + 3 cakes, to count in fives. He lies his head on his arm and says in an exhausted voice: ‘…you do it.’

At home we know this trick and we make him sit up.

But this morning – for some reason – he picked up a Thomas book (one of the ones with not enough illustration and a lot of pretty stagnant text) and read it out loud. For over thirty minutes. With obvious and slightly shy pleasure.

At first we didn’t believe he was reading but thought he was reciting and looking at the book at the same time. But he used that reading voice children have in which one word is not quite connected to the next. There is a song in the voice. He used his finger. He took a while to add up the words that were split from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. He stopped occasionally and frowned, trying out a confusing word.

We have never, never seen him do any of this before.

It might be limited to Thomas books for a while. He may not suddenly become interested in the back of a tube ticket – but we are on our way.

I try very hard to understand that he is autistic, the terminology is that he is a child with autism. It is not a disease, it is who he is. There is no autism standing between me and him. There is only him and then there is my lack of imagination.

It’s just that this morning there’s one more small thing we almost have in common and it fell – as these things do – out of a blue sky.

Leaving (1)

Very recently I was on the tube remembering another journey on the tube. On this other journey we had stopped at Baker St station and the carriage had all but emptied when I noticed a briefcase sitting near the door. No-one was near the briefcase and I was not the only one who had noticed it. There were shy, querying glances. Being a good ex-Londoner I started to sweat a little, weighed up the options, jumped up, leaned out the carriage door and yelled down the swarming platform (and I have a voice, let me tell you) :

“…has anyone left a briefcase on the train?”

A wag walked by muttering “…it’s a bomb…” without breaking stride.

I didn’t say:”…or someone’s briefcase.”

Nor did I say: “…pillock.”

No-one stopped, no-one even turned around, so I retreated back to my seat with a meek: “Well, I tried,” to the few passengers around, none of whom even broke a smile. Let’s be honest, none of whom now even dared eye contact.

With every visit back to London I thank my stars, just a little more vehemently, that we have left.

I was thinking this scenario through and collecting adjectives to describe that moment when the train pulls away – your bag on it. The cold, leaden-sick feeling, the dummy-chucking frustration, the isolation of the “…actually… hang on… where is my bag” instant. I wondered what had happened to the bag after the nonchalant TfL guy had carried it off at the next station. (“Excuse me? – hi – someone’s left their bag.”) How someone, somewhere was pulling at their hair thinking: “It’s got to be somewhere.” How they might be listing item by disposable item, the things in it.

Losing stuff – it’s finally so infantilising.

I lost my hat once, I was thinking, my favourite, my best, most happy hat – and the joy of getting it back months later, was almost worth the loss. There is a lesson in that, I was thinking. Surely it is good to let it all go? Letting go is good. Where does letting go merge with dumb, empty loss? I was wondering.

And at that moment – I missed my hat.

In my mind I saw it on the shelf on the train I had been sitting on less than half an hour ago. In my mind I rewound the insruction I had given myself to put it in my bag NOW. And how I had ignored it.

We pulled up at Warren St. I had twenty minutes to get to Euston to meet my friend. Plenty of time to get to Euston. Not enough time to go back to Victoria, chase a hat, then get back to Euston. I stepped onto the platform, did a quick sum, stepped back on the train, trailed a foot back on the platform. Make my friend wait? Make the most of my best chance to retrieve the Hat? Miss the hat, be late for friend. Hat. Friend. Hat. Friend. Then those dee-dee-dee noises as the doors shut. I stayed on the train. I jammed my hands in my pockets and regretted the breeze on my ears. I was early for my friend. Who was late.

Charleston Was a Rental Property

A friend of mine recently told me that Charleston – the farmhouse where Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and the rest of the Bloomsbury Lot lived and met, was rented.  It was only bought for them towards the end of their lives.  She said this for my benefit.

We rent.

We have sold our house and don’t want to buy a new one.  We love our house and we are free to be grateful.

Our house is beautiful and slightly shabby, large and oddly organized.  We may not, must not, change a thing here – we may not walk around the house thinking how it might be better or different.  There is no optimum, no ideal house yet to be unravelled from the tangle of this one.  There is only this house here today.

This house is not a reflection of us – it is the house in which we are lucky to find ourselves .

Like our children, like our work, we are not owners we are custodians.  Guardians.  We are looking after this old bird – keeping her warm and happily laying.

Recently, the kids celebrated Harvest at school and they were asked to bring in produce. Tins were to be donated to charity and fresh fruit and vegetables would be sold to raise money for the local Children’s hospital.  So we went into school with two large, heavy bags of grapes and apples, vine leaves with curly strings dragged on the ground.  They were so proud – they had picked this all themselves. I lifted the littlest one up to get apples, they come away so easily at this time of year.  He wants to do the picking.  The windfall is left to me.

The sharing just goes on and on and the kids don’t care that they are part of a chain of beneficence as old as the ground they walk on.

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