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.

Before we go on

I have been reading a lot at the moment because the book I am writing is enjoying a rest and I am finishing another thing and it is Christmas which is a busy time, too busy for writing much but I can read. As long as the book fits into my jeans pocket I can read. This means that currently I am reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray which fits on my bedside table and also Goodbye to All That which fits in my pocket.

By a very strange coincidence these two books turn out to be brothers, which is not unusual. Read any two books side by side and they will talk to each other. Any book you read will talk to what you are writing too. This I find to be true often. However, Skippy Dies refers to Goodbye to All That – directly – often – which is more than just a little chatty. It is as though they are old pals.

I use some bloggy software called Ecto so I can write for the blog offline and also because you get into all sorts of difficulties if you export from Word (I believe). On this I have the beginnings of many blogs and I am going to offload some of them.

Here is the first one:

Some of us are balanced and secure enough to accept disappointments with a smile and a little sigh. My friend Olivier suffered a Major Disappointment recently when, 2 hours, 10 minutes and 21 kilometres into his Alpine ultra-marathon, a race he was running to raise money to support trafficked children in Africa, the weather turned bad and the organisers, fearing mud-slides, cancelled the race. Over 2000 runners from around the world found themselves without accommodation at 2 in the morning in a small village high in the Swiss Alps.

My brother drove from Geneva to assist many of them maintain their dignity in a local bar.

In a similar way our home-grown cucumbers were disappointing. They were bitter. This came as a surprise. So I peeled, salted and washed a bowlful to see if they got better. We made some crepes. We mixed chopped cucumbers with yogurt and dill. And it was good. Not disappointing. I wouldn’t have bothered if it had been the usual condomed cucumber from the supermarket.

Take my friend Emma, who has won a medal for her preserves. People clamber over children to get at her piccalilli which is as near perfect a pickle as you might wish for. Emma’s piccalilli is crunchy, but not demanding, and has bite enough to be assertive, without being impolite. The bits are the right size – substantial but not invasive. Emma’s Soft-Set Strawberry and Balsamic Jam is, no truly is, the kind of jam you hide from guests. It is Epic – bordering on a religious experience.

Really, this woman has a gift.

A few of us were having a chat about marketing Emma’s Incredible Preserves. None of us having this chat knew much about marketing but we knew the aim was to stand out from the crowd. But when the rest of the crowd is jars of Christmas-ready deliciousness grown on Mrs Earthy’s farm, Granny-stirred and made from Great-Auntie Whatsit’s special recipe, it’s hard to come up with appropriately competitive copy.

We gave up.

But the next day at a Foodie Fair where she had a table, Emma ended up in a St John’s Ambulance van after being stung by a wasp (no, two wasps). Apparently the St John’s Ambulance guy said reassuring things like, “You’re not what I’d call ‘severe’,” while Emma gasped for breath and her entire arm, chest and head went up in flames.

Poor Emma was unable to drive herself home and had to suffer the indignity of friends and rescuers being sent out to collect her and her car (and her preserves). One of the friends and rescuers came back with a Tupperware box of jam which had been laid out as a diversion. There were wasps inside. The wasps were quite noisy and the Tupperware box is still down the end of our garden.

This has not solved the branding issue.

 

 

My sister likes how I tend to gather the loose strands of my blog posts into one final meaningful pith. I am not sure if I am not actually a bit moralising, or worse at times, in my quest for pith. So take the above as a picture of our year. Some adventures, some ventures, some disappointments, most of which end up having at the very least, a poetic value.

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Lewes. Snow. Night.

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

On Not Frotting the Dusty Image of a Very Dead Thomas Chatterton (1)

Chatterton - Poet

I don’t often write about writing – but here we go. Not so much getting it off my chest as doing a little literary tombstoning.

This is what I have to say: Don’t tell me writing is a lonely, isolated business.

Anything is an isolated, lonely business if that’s what you want it to be. Accounting. Basketball. Gardening.

I am an actor (too) – I could choose to spend years touring a one-woman show. I know people who do. I don’t. But it’s an option. I could video myself and post on Youtube – never even see an audience. It’s an option. Some writers choose to write alone. Some don’t. Some make it work when they don’t have a choice.

None of those jobs (accounting/ basketball/ gardening) is any more lonely than they need be.

Just because you can do it in the nude at 3am does not mean writing is isolating. A writer has choices. Write in the nude. Or write in overalls and gas mask. Something in between. No-one cares. They’ll care when you come up with the writing and then they will only care about the writing. Not your gas mask.

The 19th century romance about the wasting, tubercular, attic-living, candle-eating fringe-dweller is a ROMANCE. It is useful for people who want to “be a writer”. It is easy to confuse wanting to “be a writer” with “writing”. Don’t tell me I need to live in an attic. I just want to write. I am wishing for time – not a hermetically-sealed writing-bunker.

I tell you this: I would kill for lonely and isolated. Not because it fits the image – but because I am desperate to write. But there are kids and family. Then there are the summer holidays. Then there is the world. Mostly, the world.

Mum working - photo by Joey, 9.

I applied for a grant recently, one established to assist women writers, which would have given me uninterrupted time to write. I was very, very eligible for this grant. I was recommended by a friend in the right place. All boxes ticked. Except one. For reasons I won’t go into here – but largely procedural, historical and nothing to do with my work – I was finally ineligible for the grant. Well, that’s how it goes.

But – there was a long time on the phone listening to how the grant was set up to address exactly the issues that Virginia Woolf addressed in the 1920s – conditions which still dog and disable so many female artists (the inequitable burdens of children, elderly parents, wider social expectations). I listened. I did a lot of agreeing and recognising of the issues. Finally, the CEO administering the grant asked me:

‘…and how many children do you have?’

I said: ‘Three boys. 5, 7 and 9 years old.’

‘Oh…,’ she said, ‘…you make the most of them!’

And she terminated the conversation and with it my hopes of a bubble of time which would have made an enormous amount of difference to my work. Immeasurable. The sign off “you make the most of them” is: “wait your turn – you’re not finished your day job yet…” it was: “Three kids? What are you thinking? And who is going to look after them?” It was: “…go and stick to what you know. I’ll decide when you’re ready to leave your kids.

And she knows as well as I do that she wouldn’t have said it if I had been the Dad.

Mum working (2)

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.

Getting Ready for Leaving (4)

THE STORY OF TRANSPORTATION

How big were the ships? asks my son.

They were quite small. There were hundreds of people squashed into them. It was very crowded and in those days it took nine months to sail from England to Australia. So for nine months the convicts sat in the little ship all squashed together with not much to eat and chains on their legs and – I make an effort to ramp up the drama – they didn’t even have a toilet.

Where did they go to the toilet?

They would just often have to go where they were sitting. People were sick and had diarrhoea and died and it must have been very smelly and horrible. Imagine being squashed in a smelly dark hole on a ship going up and down for all that time. And knowing you will never see England again. Never go home. Going to a country no-one has been to before that you don’t know anything about. Imagine that.

He imagines it.

So were they very hungry?

They were very, very hungry and when they arrived in Australia they made a town – which was called a colony, that’s Sydney, and they tried to make food grow but many of the animals had died on the way over and a lot of the people were sick and so hungry they couldn’t work. So they just got hungrier and hungrier.

What about goats?

Goats?

Goats are good animals to have.

Yes. Yes they are. Clever boy.  Anyway, remember they had to take all their food for the journey and then food to survive while they waited for food to grow when they got there. They thought it would be just like England and they could make farms just like they were used to in England. But Australia is very different. (I have a think here: How different? In what way different?) The soil is different and (what else?) it is very, very hot there.

Wow.

(This is good. I am getting somewhere.)

Yes. It was very hard for everyone. It took two years -TWO YEARS- for another ship to come. There was a famine. They were skeletons. Even their clothes rotted off their backs. Every day they looked out from the cliffs hoping to see another ship coming and none came. Imagine that.

He imagines a little longer.

What did they do when another ship came?

I think they were very happy. They were so hungry. They needed more food. All that time there was no way of telling anyone in England that they were hungry and things were very hard. There was no mail. Australia was still a new country. No-one went there.

(I am going in circles.)

Why did it take two years for the other ship to come?

Yes. England was at war then. But the colony didn’t know that. So England didn’t send another ship with prisoners because they were busy. All the ships were busy. War is very expensive – it takes up a lot of time and money and vehicles.

Was that in Afghanistan?

No. That’s the war we are currently fighting. That is also very expensive. No this was… well, England and France are friends now, but they used to fight a lot.

What about?

(I don’t know.)

I don’t really know.

Who won?

I think England won a bit and lost a bit.

(This is ridiculous. Perhaps I suffer from historical alexia.)

I tell you who will know: Jim (Jim is our neighbour.) He is a Professor of History at University. And that is his period.

Period! He laughs and points to his groin. Period! Penis! At last he has got some real entertainment out of this conversation.

Period just means a length of time. A menstrual cycle is a period of time – that’s why it is called a period.

Period! He rolls about in the armchair. Ha! Jim!

I think you’re being silly now.

You said period.

Period’s have got nothing to do with penises.

Oh! My penis! My period! Oh no!

Anyway, but when the boats arrived. After two years and everyone was so hungry – do you know what happened?

No.

The boats were just full of more prisoners. More sick people and not much food. So now they had even more people and less food.

(I wait a bit.) So how about that? Hey?

Stop that silly laughing. It’s not funny.

Stop it.

What do you want for breakfast?

Leaving (3)

PREPARATORY READING


M (7) is curious about the whole idea of convicts:

I say: ‘About 200 years ago – if you were a burglar in England you would go to prison but you might never come out.’

This is where I begin. I will try to explain in the simplest possible terms, the difference between our concept of criminality now and what it was in the late 18th Century. Today, I am explaining, we believe that a person commits a criminal act because circumstance are against them. We also believe that we, society, have failed that person.

I follow the work of the Penal Reform Trust. I will always remember the words of a friend of mine who works with offenders. She says: ‘There is not one of whom I do not think: “Well, what would I do? In that situation would I really have done differently?”’ She works with women.

I am trying to explain this to M and I believe it important enough to get it really right. This is his introduction to the horrors of what I like to call the Barbaric Social Experiment that was the establishment of the Penal Colonies.

‘200 years ago the prisons were so full that the English government sent boats full of soldiers and all the prisoners who did not fit in the prisons to Australia, which had only just been discovered, and made a town called Sydney.’

‘Was it a town full of prisons?’

‘No. The town was the prison. They didn’t need prisons because there was only bush and sea around – there was nowhere to escape. So instead of walls there was bush. We only build walls when there’s somewhere we don’t want… when there’s somewhere…’

I lose myself at this point. I make another start. ‘So these convicts were the first white people to live in Australia.’

‘What is white?’

(I am winded. What is white? I’ve no idea. What is white?)

‘White is – ‘ I say

‘White is – ‘ I say again.

I say: ‘In some parts of the world most people have brown skin. Like in Africa (I edit the rest of the world here) and then in other parts of the world people have skin like (I hold up my a hand as an example. Is it pink? It’s not even pink. What is that colour?) this. It’s called white. It’s not really white-white but it’s called white. We’re white.’

‘Oh.’

‘But we’re the same. We’re all the same.’

‘Yeah.’

M agrees casually. In fact he is disappointed to learn white is what we are.

‘We’re all the same shape or size. There are about 500 people that look about the same as me,’ he says and he looks at me kindly. He is trying to make my answer more interesting than it actually is. ‘Or the same as you. Or 120. Or under.’ He has grown up in London. A difference in skin colour is probably the least interesting distinguishing feature in a person.

For him, random statistics make an answer. My answer was pathetic. A prison and not a prison? White but not white? It’s all a load of pitiable, evasive, adult boringness. What did a convict wear? What did they eat? What powers did they have?

I can spit out The Fatal Shore but beyond that I don’t know a thing. I don’t even know that terribly well. Except that it made me cry. But that might have been the prose.