Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Alternative Open Days

The official university open days tend to die down over the summer, which is a pity since it’s a good time to visit the universities without detracting from your school work. 

However, some of the universities provide walking tours for your mobile phone, or leaflets in pdf or paper, and these can be followed at any time.  If you are travelling round the country for holidays or to visit relatives, take advantage of being near universities which may interest you. 

At the very least, you can get a feeling for the city itself.  However, don’t be seduced by a bright and glitzy city centre – as a student, you will greatly appreciate a town where the cost of living is lower.  Also check out the “student quarter”.  Most first-year accommodation is in halls and is quite similar from one institution to another, but you are likely to be in these halls only for your first year.  For the next two years (or more) you will be living in a rented hovel-er-house with your friends.  In some places, there are well-defined student suburbs, meaning that it’s easy to pop in on friends and the corner shops and pubs are student-friendly.

Speak to the University Accomodation Office before you visit the town and find out where these areas are and what the average rents are.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Magical Dawn

Still gradually piecing together what happened on Perran and Carenza’s end-of-exams excursion to Tenerife.  Getting the odd anecdote - like this one from Carenza:

“We’d been out clubbing until nearly morning, so we decided to just wait on the beach and watch the sun come up. 

"So we just sat on the beach looking out for the sun.  Sure enough, it began to get light, but we were peering and we just couldn’t see the rising sun.

We didn’t know where all this light was coming from.

Then we realised – we were facing the wrong way.  The sunrise was happening behind us and we’d completely missed it.  Ha, ha, ha.”

I smile and nod, but deep down I’m hoping this isn’t symbolic of something.

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Monday, 29 July 2013

Reading List

If you’re destined for a university course in the Autumn, you probably have a reading list.  The only problem is that if you’re waiting to find out your A2 results, you’re not sure yet which institution you’re going to.  However, that’s no excuse – wherever you go you’re likely to be studying the same subject – aren’t you? And you signed up to read that subject because it was something you loved?  So any reading you do around your chosen field will never be wasted.

It all adds up to making a start on the reading list now.  It’ll give you a head start when term begins.  But don’t go buying expensive books if you can help it.

Carenza visited her local library and got four books off her list on interlibrary loan, for a minimal cost.  When she’s read them, she’ll get more.  Pascoe downloaded free to his Kindle some relevant academic papers from PubMed.  Apparently Google Scholar is also good for finding papers.  In preparation for my PGCE, I accessed the library catalogue of my local university to establish which of the education books they possessed, then obtained a free day pass to their reading room and read the books – the pressure to get them read before the library shut for the day was useful.

Happy reading.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Family Holiday

Could our approaching family holiday be the last with all of us together?  In particular, Pascoe’s PhD does not offer the long summer vacations of his rosy undergraduate days, so choosing to spend a holiday with us might mean turning down more interesting possibilities.

However, this year we have agreed to holiday together and holiday we shall. 

We tend to have the kind of trip that leaves us not only with a sun-tan, but also some scratches, bruises and stings.  We like hiking and swimming and are prepared to set off with only the cheery verbal directions of locals or, on one occasion, a map so vague that, when I showed it to my friends later, it made them fall silent in mute contemplation of our recklessness. 

When we first started out, it was Nigel and I carrying the twins (and everything else) in back-packs and Pascoe marching along on sturdy little legs.  Now the kids carry my bag for me and coax me to go a little further with biscuits.  When wading into the water in a rocky cove, they hold my hand so I don’t slip on the rocks, and convince me that the water isn’t as cold as I think it is.  If only I can lose some weight, they’ll probably carry me when I get tired.

Better make the most of it then.


Friday, 26 July 2013

All Change

When you see movies of World War Two, and there’s a scene in HQ, a feature of the room is always a sort of war-gaming map laid out on the table.  Counters which represent the allied forces are moved around with some sort of croupier’s rod. 

That’s what I’m thinking of doing in our kitchen.

With four of us starting at new universities in the Autumn as widespread as Glasgow and Bristol, I had anticipated that there might be some changes .  However, I had thought that the most likely candidates for a change might be Perran and Carenza who have to score a perfect set of As in their A2s and will receive their results in August.

But yesterday, I received a text from Pascoe “Looks like I’m moving to Edinburgh, not Glasgow.”

The professor who has command of the funding for his PhD has been head-hunted by Edinburgh where a huge amount of funding has now been obtained for synthetic biology.  Her team was always the one he most wanted to work with and it looks as if Edinburgh University has made the same judgement. 

Luckily Pascoe had not yet fallen in love with the wonderful city of Glasgow, and from our point of view, Edinburgh is easier to get to.  We will miss the opportunity of regular visits to Charles Rennie MacKintosh and to our dear friend Charlotte, but once we have made the journey to Edinburgh, it’s not hard to get to Glasgow.

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Thursday, 25 July 2013


So Perran and Carenza got back from their post-exam teen trip to Tenerife two weeks ago and it’s clear from them and their friends that a good time was had.

However, as to details we’ve been a little hazy. 

We were a little concerned that there may have been an excess of cocktails and clubbing.

Now, thank goodness, Carenza has re-discovered her camera cable and we have been able to view the – er – visual evidence.

Thankfully, it’s clear now that the whole time they were busily occupied taking selfies.  They took so many that there can’t possibly have been time for any misbehaviour.

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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

What's Gok Wan got to do with my Degree?

At graduation I was surveying Pascoe’s friends and realised that although I knew they’d obviously obtained their degrees, otherwise they wouldn’t be there, I didn’t know how they’d done, so I asked Pascoe.  He replied,

“Kadija and Rebecca?  They both got Damians.”


“Damian Hirst – first.”

“What about Josh?”  I ask.

“Oh, he got a Gok.”

I see – Gok Wan, two: one.

How extraordinary – cockney rhyming slang for the different types of degree.  I ask Pascoe if there are any others. 

“Yeah – there’s a Desmond - two: two….and then there’s a Douglas: that means a third, but I don’t know why.”

“Probably Douglas Hurd.  Is there one for a fail?”

“How about a Christian Bale?  Making it up as I go along now.”

I turn to the twins.

“So, is there rhyming slang for the different A2 grades?”

“No,” they chorus.

Then they frown and walk moodily away.

Monday, 22 July 2013


 We just attended Pascoe’s graduation.  UEA is a cool, convention-busting 1960s university.  Then why did the graduands have to wear traditional robes?  Where was the bold spirit that thought up the motto  “Do Different”?

Pascoe enjoyed tremendously wearing the navy gown and mortar board and he assumed the persona of an academic superhero.  With the breeze billowing his sleeves, he brandished an imaginary staff/sword/wand?  Anything for a bit of dressing up. 

However, gowns are archaic, hot and cost a fortune to hire.  Not to mention the ridiculous mortar boards.

But then I noticed how tenderly UEA was celebrating its new graduates who were about to be launched from the comparative safety of its campus – a ceremony, photos, drinks reception.  The youngsters were being told that a huge change was happening in their lives.  Rite of Passage.  Somehow they had to understand that their status by the end of the day was different from when they got up that morning. 

If it takes mediaeval robes to make that magic happen, then robes it is.

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Sunday, 21 July 2013


The ice cube trays in my freezer have assumed central importance in our household.

The shady corner of the garden is our favourite part.

Every window is open, every fan deployed.

It’s the kind of weather when a hold-up makes motorists boil over, seething in their metal cans like stew in a pressure cooker.

It’s the kind of weather where you give short-tempered dogs a wide berth.

It’s the kind of weather where ex-year-thirteens fret silently behind their sunglasses about the A2 results that they may or may not have obtained. 

Be kind to them.

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Friday, 19 July 2013

Do Different

So today was Pascoe’s graduation and as I sat clapping faintly for the hour-long ceremony, I fixed on the University of East Anglia motto:

“Do Different”

2013 is the anniversary of a university which came into being only fifty years ago and really kicks ass.  UEA opened with tiny numbers of undergraduates in 1963 and two of them were back today – my idol Rose Tremain is now the Chancellor and John Rhys-Davies, at 6’2” the world’s tallest dwarf (Gimli in Lord of the Rings), was receiving an honorary doctorate.

Graduation is exactly the kind of large set piece event which can easily descend into farce.  The sure sign of this is that some of the mums were wearing hats – if an occasion is sufficiently formal for hats then it can slip on a banana skin.

But it didn’t: UEA “Did Stylish” and the ceremony was smooth, pacey and unpretentious with an elegant drinks reception afterwards.   My favourite part was the speech by Rhys-Davies.  It was a distillation and fusion of my two favourite speech genres: the Successful Old Boy’s Prize-giving Speech and the Old Actor’s Anecdotal Speech.  In a matter of seconds we had slid from “You should plan where you want to be in ten years’ time.”  (Successful Old Boy) to “My poor friend, John Denver, died because he was flying a plane he wasn’t used to.” (Old Actor’s Anecdotal).

As far as I’m concerned, today UEA demonstrated its ability to “Do Brilliant”.

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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Prepare for Graduation

Friends have already been to their children’s graduation.  They have warned me of over-priced gowns, sweltering queues, the overburdening of taxi services and restaurants on the festal day. 
I’m glad to see that Pascoe’s graduation will be on the verdant and expansive UEA campus.  One of my own graduations was in the SunderIand Empire – a theatre famed for its tough audience where many comics have “died”.  Luckily my task on that day was to avoid being a laughing stock rather than the reverse. 

And Pascoe’s graduation is at a reasonable time in the morning  so we don’t need to drive over the night before.   I look at the forecast.  Another scorcher – we’ll take a picnic and eat it next to one of the Henry Moores, reclining on the green lawn rather than joining the scrum for a pub lunch.   Then there is to be a civilised drinks reception in a marquee where Pascoe will collect the - ahem – George Duncan Memorial Prize for outstanding achievement.  Sounds idyllic.  What could possibly go wrong?

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At Sea

“I have to get this cake finished because we’re going to Lucy’s graduation tomorrow,” says Carol as the four of us sit washed up round her kitchen table. 

“But Carol, tomorrow’s only Wednesday,” says Diane, “Lucy’s graduation is on Thursday.”

Carol, Caroline and Diane have been my friends for over ten years – we have children of a similar age and once bonded over bizarre PTA activities – any one of us could cling-film a hundred chocolate brownies for a cake-sale or line up a mean tombola at the drop of a hat.  All these things and more we did efficiently yet with shared irony.

“I keep losing days too,” says Caroline, “Keep thinking it’s Wednesday.”

“Mmm.  I know what you mean,” says Diane.

As for me, I am secure in which day of the week it is, but today I misplaced one of my children.  It was only after Carenza, Perran and Beth and I were actually inside an exhibition at the British Library that I remembered Pascoe was currently at home too and I should have invited him.

And I think that’s what has got us women on the run – our children are all in flux – four of them have just finished degrees, four of them have completed A levels, several are looking for their next step. Combine this with their summer trips, part-time jobs, visits from friends and no wonder we don’t know which day of the week it is.

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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Being a Pupil

I attended the London Summer School in Classics in order to hone my Latin, particularly by reading un-adapted texts by great authors.  I imagined that the course would stretch, me yet still be “gentlemanly”.

However, I had not counted on our teacher, Anthony Smith, a young man from Oxford who is determined to teach us Latin composition.  When we are cross-eyed from identifying imaginary conditionals and numb from transposing subordinate clauses into indirect speech, we are allowed a yomp through a Horace Ode or small slab of epic poetry as a reward. 

But the main thing that I am learning is how to be a pupil.  I am learning to risk embarrassment by launching on a translation where I can see that some of the words elude me, and not to take it too hard when I mess up a tense, but to try again.  I feel that I am being a good pupil, and my fellow students likewise.

But wait – could it be because we have a good teacher?  Anthony expects a great deal from us and maintains a good pace of interaction.  Our successes are praised and our mistakes excused politely and because we respect his erudition, we wish him to think well of us.

Perhaps that’s what I should be taking notes on.

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Sunday, 14 July 2013

Young People Nowadays

I’ve been enjoying my London Summer School in Classics, but on Thursday there were two people there whom I hadn’t expected:

Carenza and Bethany were attending one of the classes.

Having been away on their post-exam holiday, they had got back from Tenerife at 3:30 am earlier that day. 

That’s 3.30 am!

Yet Carenza made it in on the 9.30 am train with me, and Beth, having got there by lunchtime, then stayed on for an optional lecture. 

Back home, after dinner, I was ready to sleep/die but scratched some painful progress with transposing dependent clauses into indirect statements (!). I was too tired to judge whether what I had done was accurate or not.  Looking over Carenza’s shoulder, however, I saw that she had translated a substantial chunk of Cicero.

Just the day before, the girls had been swimming from a boat in a blue, deserted bay and had celebrated sunset with cocktails, yet here they were with their sun-burned noses to the grindstone again. 

So for those of you who complain that young people nowadays don’t know what hard work is, or that they show no commitment, may I just say,

“Yah, boo, sucks.”

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Saturday, 13 July 2013

Hard Nose

Perran and Carenza got back from Tenerife at 3:30 am on Thursday, Pascoe returned from Florence at 4am Friday. 

Meanwhile, I am undertaking the London Summer School in Classics.  By the end of a day of language classes, I am tired and have discovered in myself a new Hard-Nosed Attitude.  Despite hefty hints from Nigel, I did not sit up for the children, nor did I pick them up from airports in the small hours.  Instead, I allowed them to exercise their independence and return under their own steam. 

I did feel a little guilty when at 6.45 the next morning Nigel did a tip-toed tour of the bedrooms checking for the slumbering hillocks in the bedclothes that would prove our kids had made it home safely. 

But by Friday morning the number of sleeping lumps = 3, not <3 which would have been worrying nor >3, which would have provoked questions.

By the time I got home on Thursday night, Perran had cleared most of the Tenerife washing.

By the time I got in on Friday, Pascoe and Carenza had battered some chickpeas into submission and made dinner.

I’m beginning to think I quite like being hard-nosed.  My course ends next Thursday – is it worth carrying my book bag into London for a few days more after that so I can convince the children that I’m still in need of their support?

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Friday, 12 July 2013

Tenerife Tattoo

Carenza and Perran arrived back from Tenerife in the small hours, and today Carenza had something that she needed to explain to her father.  (She had already told me earlier and having calmed down myself, I wanted to capture his reaction on film - here.) 

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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Keep the 15th Free

I have just unbooked a long weekend camping in Cornwall. 

Was it because the tent was in ill repair?

Was it because I feared poor weather?

Did I doubt our ability to get on as a family?

None of the above.

Before I booked it, I did ask my family whether there might be any problems with the dates.  They just continued silently munching on their dinner, staring vacantly into space. (Uh-oh, I wasn’t supposed to let on how mealtimes are in our house.)

It was only later that I spotted that the break included Thursday 15th August.

Results Day!

Personally, I don’t want to be trying to sort out the ramifications of a dropped grade on a phone with intermittent signal while applying extra tent pegs to guy-ropes in a gale on a cliff-top.

I find that Friesian cows are of limited help in a crisis.
Likewise sheep. 

So we’ll stay at home, within range of phone, internet, and the support of the twins’ school. 

We may fit the camping trip in later, but in the meantime, Perran and Carenza will have a more immediate reward for postponing – hopefully there’ll be a large and riotous get-together on the 15th as so many people will be around for this final fixed point in the summer.

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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

UMS Marks

Holidaying children, untroubled by UMS marks.
Does anybody really understand UMS marks? 

My name for them is “Smoke and Mirrors Marks.”

I believe that UMS marks are what is left after the raw percentage of an exam result has been tinkered with and adjusted for this that and the other.

But what This, That and The Other are, I have never discovered. 

If there had been an Exam Board in the Harry Potter books, UMamus is the spell they would have cast over anybody who challenged their decision.

I feel bad that I have never,

a)      as a parent, fully come to grips with understanding them

b)      as a citizen, never led a protest march against them.

I would happily now move on without ever having grasped UMS marks, except that I plan to train as a teacher so must address my personal black hole of ignorance.

If anybody can explain them to me, please leave a comment below.  (Except you, Michael Gove – I’m not sure I want to hear what you have to say!)


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Course Stress

Last week, I wound up my oral history group for the summer.  Yesterday saw my last sessions with the writing class I lead and with the two sixth-formers with whom I’ve been studying Ovid.  One ended with a trip to the pub, the other with a large box of chocolates.  I thanked Doug and Freya:

“I’ll have to open this when there are other people around otherwise I might end up eating the whole lot.”

And realised half way through speaking that if I am to become a proper teacher, there are some thoughts which should remain in my own head in the interests of dignity.

However, I am now free to attend a course.

The London Summer School in Classics begins today and I am very much looking forward to it.  Or rather, I am looking forward to the second day.  The first day is nerve-wracking as each student is graded on the basis of their application and placed in a class where they should be able to keep up with the level of Latin or Greek being studied.  One is free over the first couple of days move down a class if the work is too tough.  I believe some people also move up, but I can’t imagine doing that.  I am hoping both to have been graded “advanced” and also to be able to keep up.  A little foretaste of what my children will be feeling about their new universities in the Autumn.


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Monday, 8 July 2013

Miss Youuu

All three offspring are abroad.  Nigel and I nearly went away for the weekend, but there were things that needed doing, so we had a “weekend away” at home. 

We went for walks in the cool of the evening, and I prepared what seemed like microscopic amounts of salad and ratatouille, but it was still too much for us to eat.  There was time to read both my Ovid and the new Gill Hornby. 

We had a day out at Knole, stately home of the Sackville-Wests, went to church, had lunch with friends (thanks Kathy, Bill, Sarah) watched the amazing Murray match and still there was time – I cleared the washing, learnt to use my new camera, made six Latin translations and started to make arty plaster casts of grass-heads. 

So this is the shape of things to come – the children off our hands, we may resume the civilised existence that I vaguely remember from over twenty years ago. 

But as we are returning from our stroll on Sunday evening we reach the corner where I am wont to anticipate who will be at home, how much water will I put in the kettle for our cup of tea.  Only two cups full again today. 

And I start to long for a full kettle again, and a nice noisy row over ate all the biscuits.

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Sunday, 7 July 2013


Pascoe in Strasbourg last summer

Before she and Perran left for their beach holiday, Carenza asked,

“Shall I text once a day, then?”

This had been an issue when she travelled to France with just Rosie and then delayed getting in touch.  But this time, she Perran and Rosie are with a large mixed group of long-term friends.  Plenty could still go wrong, but they are resourceful enough to stay safe.

“No,” I said – “I’d like a text when you arrive, one midweek and one to let us know exactly when you’re getting in.”

Perran and Carenza looked relieved. 

Pascoe, however, is travelling in Italy.  He likes to go alone as he makes new friends.  However, when he sees something remarkable and wants to share it, usually he has no companion to hand.  So we have been receiving the most delightful communications:

“You said the Uffizi Gallery was good, but nothing prepared me for this!”

“I could never have believed there was a cathedral like this.”

“Have rubbed the nose of the bronze boar statue.”

We went to Florence once before, when I was pregnant with Pascoe.  We have been enjoying so much seeing the city again through his eyes, doubled with the pleasure that our son has grown up with the sense of wonder needed to appreciate it all.

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Saturday, 6 July 2013


I have underestimated the level of complexity.  Three young adult offspring leaving to travel abroad on the same day is no trivial whirlwind.  But I have foolishly arranged today two appointments to discuss teaching classics and the wind-up two projects at my oral history group. 

Well they have known for weeks they would be going away today – surely they will have packed.   I try to press on Perran and Carenza waterproof pouchs for valuables on the beach.  Also a snorkel and mask.  Carenza accepts, but Perran snorts,

“Why would I need that lot?”

“Because you’re going on a beach holiday?”

But there isn’t time to argue – I have to skid out the door. 

Next time I nip into the house, I have to search for:-

Nigel’s old moneybelt (Pascoe), a sarong (Carenza), and, worryingly, a European Health Insurance Card (Perran).

I find all of them – I must run an organised house after all! Hooray!

I jump back in my car.  Then I realise the twins will be gone by the time I return.  I get back out to give a kiss and a prayer for safety.

When I return later, there is just Pascoe. 

“I need a padlock for the hostel – do you have a spare one?”

“Nope.”  And I am gone again.

Back home after an evening church meeting, I pad about the silent house, trip over a rejected snorkel, and allow myself an exceptional midweek glass of wine. 

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Student Loan Declaration

This picture is irrelevant - I just happen to like it

Okay so I’ve now been caught twice by this.  You get an envelope from the student loan company and it tells you the loan you’ll receive and the size and date of the instalments you’ll receive. 

You smile to yourself that this is another vital item checked off the list, and you file it away. 

Then, weeks later, you discover that your loan is still on hold. 

The reason - right at the back of the letter you received is a declaration which you need to sign and post back.  Without it, nothing will happen!

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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Scary Teen Hols

All exams now over (except for the odd lurking driving test), Perran and Carenza are finally seizing the holy grail that has long been held out to them and are going on holiday, somewhere where there’s sea, sun and stomach upsets.  The twins are going on holiday together with the same large group of youngsters who’ve been their friends since they were eleven.  Hopefully they will all keep an eye on one another.

“Will there be much culture for you to see?” (Me, hopefully.)

“Don’t think so.  But there’s a pool.” (Carenza, firmly.  Is there no end to this education business?)

They have learnt from friends who have already been on this kind of holiday.  Their manifesto:

“We don’t want to get drunk all the time – we want to steer clear of fights in nightclubs.  We just want to have a really chilled time.”

It is at this point that it becomes obvious that I don’t watch much telly.  I hadn’t really been worried about drunken night-club exploits so much as sun burn.  I have been pressing family bottles of factor fifty sun-screen on them, slipping after-sun into their suitcases.

Oh well, perhaps they can spread it on toast to “line their stomachs” before a night out, or drink it the next day as “hair of the dog”.

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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Win Some, Lose Some

Perran was a bit down when he failed his first driving test on Monday.  Apparently somebody pulled out of their drive at just the wrong moment.  He was even more fed-up when, on his return, I gave him the task of cleaning the car up.  Harsh, I know, but somebody has to get the smattering of brains and skin off the bumper.

However, the tables were turned on Tuesday night when first his sax teacher and then his music teacher rang to congratulate him on his excellent sax exam result.  He has been grinning from ear to ear ever since (an expression which, incidentally, makes it impossible to play the sax). 

There’ll be other stabs at the driving test, but not at the sax exam, so he picked the right one to fail.

What he really needs now is a friend with an open-top sports car to chauffeur him round while he leans back in the passenger seat and repays them by tootling some mellow jazz sax.

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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Book Bound

This morning I drove Perran first to the junior school which he and Pascoe and Carenza used to attend and he hefted two large cardboard boxes into the foyer.  Next we travelled to his newly ex-secondary school and took another cardboard box into the library there.

We have now given away a large number of childhood books to good homes – through school libraries and book sales, they will reach children who want to read them.  Hopefully they will allow the librarians to devote more of their budget to specific text books.

By contrast, a boxful of vintage children’s puffins from the 1970s remains at home in the hall.  My childhood didn’t buzz with social activities, outings and new toys, so these books, read and re-read formed the framework of my inner world.  How can I throw them out, each cover illustration so evocative?  Worst of all, with their yellowing pages, their dated tiny print, probably nobody would want to read them now and even a charity shop would trash them.

Much better to do as Perran, Pascoe and Carenza have done and pass them on while they are still in good condition, attractive to other young readers and a benefit to their old schools.
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Monday, 1 July 2013

The Cane

My oral history group has made a film with talented young film-maker Phil Walker, and over two weeks, we’re showing it to 260 local primary school children.
Our senior citizens’ schooldays occurred seventy or eighty years ago.  Their young audience is fascinated by the fact that they carried gas-masks and had to take cover from bombing in the school air-raid shelter.  I am more preoccupied with the idea that by the time they reached the same age as my twins (18) they had already been at work for four years.
One thing that astounds us all, however, is the level of corporal punishment. 
Jeff describes his school where, each morning, eight boys were lined up at random at the front of the class.   If they spotted another pupil talking they were required to inform on them and that individual would exchange places with them at the front.  At the end of the session, whichever eight children were standing at the front would have their hands caned whether or not they had actually committed an offence.
A visiting teacher says, “You must have hated your secondary school, Jeff.”
“That wasn’t my secondary school – that was my junior school.”
So whenever we mourn falling standards and the good old days of rigorous education, let us remember that some things have changed enormously for the better.

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