Saturday, 31 August 2013

Death of a Naturalist

Driving home from work on Friday I heard the sad news that Seamus Heaney had died.  It was odd to feel such emotion about the death of someone whom I have never met and my attempts to explain my reaction to my daughters, and how he was such a great Irish poet, met with bewildered glances and barely concealed 'she's really lost the plot' glances between them.

My first introduction to Heaney, like many, was in the classroom but not as a pupil.  The poems I studied in school were stolid traditional dirges that I was required to recite and so as a newly qualified English teacher, fresh from my PGCE, I was not altogether thrilled at the prospect of trying to engage teenagers in what the exam boards might deem as educational. I was handed a dreaded anthology and set to reading, hoping to find something that would appeal or at the very least was short. To my surprise I spent the next two hours riveted as I turned each page of rich and expressive language.  I think it was Coleridge who described poetry as, 'the best words in the best order' which I've always thought of as a good definition but it isn't adequate for Heaney. He made ordinary words wonderful and crafted his own order. 

Born in 1939 in what has been described as 'a remote corner of a remote part' of Northern Ireland, Heaney was the eldest of nine children.  His father was a farmer and cattle dealer, not the background you might expect for someone destined to such academic heights.  But it is that rural childhood that comes through so many of his poems and the physical descriptions that make them so evocative. I needn't have worried about engaging reluctant boys in poetry when he described the frogs in Death of a Naturalist as 'great slime kings' and gave me lines like, 'Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting'!

Described by many as a 'humble and modest man' his reaction to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 was typical; he described the experience as 'being caught up in a mostly benign avalanche'. Glancing through the tributes and obituaries this weekend, the superlatives are many. Poet, Don Paterson, said his death 'leaves breach in language itself' while Liam Neeson said  Ireland 'has lost part of its soul'. Many of his poems addressed 'the troubles' and the theme of conflict but he sought to put them into a wider historical context and in so doing became a voice for resolution and a reminder to pay heed to conscience. I liked Bill Clinton's words best - "his uniquely Irish gift for language made him our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives and a powerful voice for peace".

I'll leave you with a recording of Heaney reading one of my favourites -  'Digging' :

I'm linking up this post with The Monday Club at Hello Wall and Diary of the Dad


Saturday, 24 August 2013

And so it begins...

One of the weird things about living in Scotland (and there are a few) is that we start back at school for the Autumn term in the middle of August. To me, September is firmly established in my mind as the start of the new academic year and going back when the rest of the UK, and most of Europe, are still on holiday seems all wrong like an early whole school detention or something. To make it worse we don't get the bank holiday this weekend either. My family, and friends who live in England, are confused by the differences too, seeming amazed every year when we break up at the end of June and rather resentful, believing that we have an incredible 9 weeks off!

And so it is that Tuesday 20th August the school year began and the long languid days of summer came to an abrupt end in The Little House. This year I have been determined to get off to a calm start, and be organised, avoiding the school-term-induced mayhem that usually takes over our lives at this time of year. I bought new school shoes for S at the end of last term smugly believing that I would avoid the crowds and the whole 'take a ticket' experience of Clarks. Of course, in the last week of the holidays, perhaps nourished by lots of sunshine and ice-cream, her feet have grown a whole size!

S ended up with these rather dapper
 brogues from Next instead

I made sure uniform was ready (believing it to be clean and hanging in the wardrobe) only to find mysterious pink stains on one skirt and one new school sweatshirt with what appeared to be a  half eaten sleeve (Could it be giant moths?  Did the school hamster escape and fancied a nibble?) Turns out that S had hung the skirt up dirty in the first place (pink icing apparently) rather than put in the laundry (at least she hung it up I suppose) and the sweatshirt didn't even belong to her. She'd brought home someone else's, from the name tag - a boy's of course!

We went to one of my favourite places - Paperchase,  supposedly to stock up on school supplies.  We spent nearly an hour browsing and indulging in stationery addiction and bought a selection of items that can neither be classed as essential or necessary.  Then it was time for one of my favourite family traditions - the last ice cream of the holidays. 

We sat outside in the afternoon sunshine and savoured them, discussing the best bits of the Summer and sharing school-related hopes and worries (it's an important exam year for H and the last year in Primary for S). Although I was dreading the 6am alarm the next day, I felt settled and, well, almost ready...

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Make me a German

The BBC's current obsession with all things Teutonic has spawned a most peculiar mix of programmes over the last few weeks. Don't know if you managed to catch the oddly titled 'Make Me a German' but I found it very interesting viewing. The premise was that a British couple, Justin and Bee Rowlatt, went to live in Germany and lived as the average German family (which meant, in fact, that two of the family's four children had to stay in the UK with grandparents as German families are, on average, smaller than ours). They were renamed with the most common surname, Muller, lived in a typically German (rented) apartment and Justin was given a job in a traditional industry - Faber Castell. The programmers even went so far as to provide a checklist of averages for the family to conform to - for example, what time they should get up, what they should eat and how much housework to do.  This was 6.23am, a kilogram of pork each week and an unbelievable 4 hours each day, in case you were wondering.

The programme relied on stereotypes which was bit disappointing but it did leave me pondering on the reasons behind Germany's economic prowess and the differences in attitudes to work, education and family life. 

I admired the dedication and loyalty of the workers in the pencil factory many of whom had been taken on on a proper apprenticeship scheme. Apprenticeships in Germany last three years and include training on all aspects of the industry resulting in a multi-skilled, highly-employable worker. Germany has the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe and 'a job for life' is not an outdated concept.  Wouldn't it be brilliant if we offered such schemes to our youngsters and valued practical and technical skills rather than try to push everyone through the same academic hoops. I suppose though, that that's a possibility as Germany is such a manufacturing powerhouse and there was a downside: the programme highlighted the fact that many German workers have sacrificed pay rises for job security.

In the Faber-Castell factory
The programme suggested that working hours were less for the average German but productivity was much higher.  How can this be? Yes, you've guessed it, it's all about punctuality, focus and discipline.  The factory had a Victorian school-like environment - no chatting, no slacking and definitely no checking your phone! Whilst conditions were good, healthcare excellent and the heavily-subsidised canteen much appreciated, I wondered at the nature of the average British worker versus the German.  Can we be as disciplined or are we inherently anarchic, appearing to tow the line but actually working to achieve our own ends?

I liked the emphasis on community shown in the programme with the tone-deaf Justin off to a very jolly singing club one evening after work, one of 100 such groups in the area.  If there was such a club here to join I suspect that the average age would be 85! By comparison, Justin's wife, Bee, felt she had drawn the short straw when it came to fun in their German experiment. The four hours of housework a day seemed excessive and made me reassess just how much housework I do ('Not enough,' my mother would say and she'd probably be right).  On a week day in term time I'm away from the house for around 10 hours which doesn't leave a lot of time for chores and then I want to spend time with the girls which isn't compatible with hoovering! Statistics show that on average in the UK a married woman will do 7 hours housework a week.  I think that's probably about my average too though looking at the state of the house you wouldn't think so! Considering the adherence to 'quiet laws' in Germany (basically no noise between 1-3 and in the evenings), and the observance of Sundays as a day of rest (and quiet again), it must be pretty difficult fitting all that housework in.  
(image credit:
Motherhood seems to have far greater a status in Germany and valued, as it should be, as an important job. Two thirds of mothers with young children stay at home in Germany compared with just a third in the UK. Childhood is unrushed and protected. Formal education starts at 6 years, there are no SATs or ridiculous Gove notions on learning outcomes for the very youngest members of society. Instead the emphasis is on play for its own sake and learning through discovery.  The pre-school set in a forest was as Bee described 'kid heaven' and when I think that many families spend in access of £600 a month on nursery fees in the UK they would be more than a little jealous of the 25 euros a week or around £80 a month cost in Germany. Combine the quality of the childhood experience with the very attractive tax breaks and it would be easy to assume that life is better for young families in Germany. But, there was another side to this wholesome image in that despite reasonable childcare costs, it is not easy to maintain a career as a mother in Germany. One of the mothers in the programme explained that the school day finishes at 11am three days a week and the attitude prevails that by working you are neglecting your children hence the German expression 'raven mother'. I wonder what the German attitude is towards stay-at-home dads?! To be ideal it would be nice to have a real choice about being a working parent, to be able to afford to stay at home if that's what you dearly want or choose to work, confident in affordable high quality childcare.

Well, this has been a much longer post than I intended and you can see it's got me thinking. If you've managed to read this far I'd love to know your thoughts too.  If you missed the programme I think you can still watch it here. For now though - Auf Wiedersehen!

Linking up this post, rather belatedly, with Sarah at Hello Wall

Friday, 9 August 2013

This moment...

Inspired by Soulemama's {this moment} - a Friday ritual. A single photo - capturing a favourite image from the week. A treasured and special moment that I would like to pause and remember.
You go first; no, you go!

Monday, 5 August 2013

Summertime and the living is easy

The summer holidays start much earlier in Scotland and so now we are five weeks in we are well and truly settled into a relaxed rhythm. No early morning alarms, school uniform to find, packed lunches to make and homework to do.  No commute for me or juggling childcare and dog sitting - just time...lots of it.

We did start a 'To Do' list of things to achieve this summer, hobbies to try, things to create, household tasks to complete... But. the sunshine has reminded us to stop and take in the moment; we're enjoying just 'being'.

Finances and work commitments for L have meant a staycation for us and I thought that we would feel we had missed out somehow but we still feel properly on holiday and we've really re-appreciated our home and all that we have around us.

Here's some of the ways that we've enjoyed a stay-at-home summer so far:

Sleeping in...
and leaving the chores till later. It's lovely to be able to take a coffee back to bed and do some reading - 'in the daytime' instead of last thing at night when I'm too tired to take it in and end up re-reading the same lines over and over.

 old favourites and new places we've never visited before. Too many places to mention here but two of the highlights were The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh with the glasshouses full of lush plants and towering palms.  Best of all these giant lily pads:

The National Museum of Scotland, which is free to go in (hooray!), is an old favourite. It is so vast that despite lots of visits there is still so much we haven't seen. This time we went to the Ancient Egypt exhibition  with my mum and stepfather in tow so a family outing. Reading all the macabre details of mummification made me a bit queasy, though not so much that the window of Valerie's Patisserie wasn't tempting:

Valerie's Patisserie
Talking of temptations - nothing quite encapsulates the taste of summer as strawberries do. We've been strawberry picking several times this summer, made strawberry shortbreads, had with fresh cream and meringues, but no matter how you choose to enjoy them there's nothing sweeter than the stolen one sampled during picking!

the swallows in our barn. We've watched the swallows arrive at the start of summer and now their nest is full, overflowing in fact. I can hardly believe the size of the four slightly fluffy chicks.  The picture below was taken just before they ventured out onto the beam and dared each other to take flight.

There are so many young birds in the garden that we've been keeping a close eye on Fabbydoo.  Here she is sitting on her wall surveying her garden:

summer rain. Isn't the scent of rain on dry earth a wonderful thing?  I only discovered the other day that there is a word for this unique fragrance - 'petrichor'.  Apparently, this new word was coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers. I'm not sure I understand the science behind it but I can appreciate the effects. 

Through the window when the rain stopped
at the power of a thunderstorm and the expanse of a darkening sky or the promise of the faintest rainbow:

"People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering."     St Augustine


Friday, 2 August 2013

This moment...

Inspired by Soulemama's {this moment} - a Friday ritual. A single photo - capturing a favourite image from the week. A funny and special moment that I would like to pause and remember.

Furry tails!