Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Fish and the People - fable by Hobbes, composed after eating trout

Many years ago, the fish and the people were friends. The fish helped the people when there was a famine and the people helped the fish when the lake dried up. Then one day a famine came that was so bad that one of the fish decided to sacrifice itself so that the people would have something to eat. The people ate the fish and it was delicious. It tasted so wonderful, and the people were so greedy, that from then on there was no more peace. The people were always chasing after the fish and the fish were always fleeing from the people.

The End

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Not Quite Wordless Wednesday: Five mile geology walk

Zig-zags in sandstone, possibly formed by an earthquake shaking wet sand, leading to sand layers slumping

Trying to see fossilised sand ripples

Checking out erosion in a wall: stone reverts to sand

Coal seam underlain by a white sandstone named seatearth; the latter has black rootlet marks from the forest that used to flourish above it

Brownish sandstone marked with the remains of tubes dug by burrowing worms or other animals

Unexpected rock monster

Calvin decides that whatever is round the next headland is not worth seeing and makes for home.

Round the next headland: volcanic plugs from ancient volcanoes.

Geology dog

Folded and tilted rock strata

Sea stack

Did we really leave the car on the other side of St Andrews?

The times they are a-changin'

It's been a strange week. On the one hand, Calvin has been embarking on new interests and courses - he and I are beginning to study for Geography IGCSE and he has begun an on line Classical Civilisation GCSE, as well as an on line ICT (computing) course. Simultaneously, we have been coming to decisions about when the boys will go to school. I've been touring schools recently and the boys came with me to visit our favourite. They won't be going to school for another two years but just as Calvin sets off in new directions I am also having to consider preparing both boys for their new adventure.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

A Blusterous day

I had washed clothes the night before, so the breezy morning I woke up to seemed perfect drying weather. I put them out on the line and, by the time I was indoors again, rain was coming at the clothes sideways. I ran out to rescue them, then half an hour later hung them back up.

Husband called from Edinburgh. He said it was a fine sunny day, but a little blustery. As we talked, I looked out the window to see our washing hanging horizontally. By lunchtime it was all dry. At about that time, the bin fell over.

Blondie likes to pee in private, so I took her out to her run for a quiet half hour to herself. When I went to pick her up to accompany me on a walk, her ears were blowing inside out.

I had meant to read from A House At Pooh Corner, but we ran out of time. Instead, the next morning, we snuggled up on the sofa and giggled through Piglet Does a Very Grand Thing.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Half term: theoretical gardening, singing, dogs and more theoretical gardening

We are having a week off school, so the boys are entertaining themselves. I write a list of (minor) chores for them each day; otherwise, they are on their own, apart from a few scheduled activities.

8-9: Calvin's still asleep. Hobbes reads in bed for a bit, then makes himself breakfast and feeds the dog. He feeds his online virtual pets for ten minutes too.

9-10: Calvin wakes up and the boys muck about in the sitting room for a while. I tell them to go to their rooms if they want to fight. I notice enormous holes in Calvin's socks:

Laura: Please take off your socks and put them in the bin.
Calvin: Yes, I quite like the way that the patch of skin sets off the colour of the socks.
Laura: In the bin please.
Calvin: Who ever looks at the bottom of my feet?
Laura: In the bin please.

The boys want to have an hour playing on the Wii. I tell Calvin to eat breakfast first. They start getting rambunctious again and I lay down rules for the holiday: I won't force them to run every day (as they do in term time) so long as they keep their outpourings of energy to their bedrooms or garden.

Laura: There's a whole world outside for you to discover.
Calvin: There are about a thousand of them in the library.

Calvin goes to the kitchen, then comes back to say there's nothing he wants to eat. He gets short shrift and is told to add any requests to the shopping list. He comes back again to tell me that I've eaten all the yoghurt. Short shrift again (mother is allowed to eat; it wasn't all the yoghurt).

Hobbes is reading a Marvel encyclopedia. He asks what 'intangible' means.

Calvin comes back and apologises for complaining. He's told it's not a big deal, but to try not to do it again.

10-12: Calvin eats breakfast and the boys unpack and repack the dishwasher. They then spend an hour playing on their Wii. I take a shower, then retire to Calvin's bedroom to practice for the concert that my choir is performing on Saturday. We are singing Bach's Passion According to St John. The choruses and chorales ring in my ears all day long ('Write thou not, write thou not....' 'Crucify him, crucify him...' 'Lie still, lie still....'). I read St John's account in the King James version with the boys last week, and was struck by how terse it is.

Calvin's bedroom overlooks the patio. I am distracted by the (lack of) planting in the garden. I've been watching Alan Titchmarsh's television series, 'How to be a gardener'. He calls this style of garden 'centrifugal' - all the plants have spun out to the boundaries. There's a thin line of planting around each obstruction (edge of patio, boundary fence, house, stray boulder) but none of it means anything. There's no shape or interest. It needs a lot of work.

12 - 3: We eat a hurried lunch (whole grain pasta mixed with tinned mackerel, along with steamed broccoli and an orange) before I take Blondie off to the groomer. The groomer is very chatty, so I call the boys when I've dropped Blondie off, as I've been away a little longer than I expected. There's no answer, so I call again. Still no answer. I realise that I'm going to have to go home straight away to check on them. It's very unlikely that there's a problem (beyond living in an old house with thick walls through which you can't hear the phone) but home I go. They are, of course, fine - reading and playing. While home I disinfect Blondie's carrying crate and wash all her bedding.

Hobbes comes with me when I go back to get Blondie; I like driving with just one of the boys - we have good conversations in between listening to my CD of the St John. Hobbes helps me to hold Blondie while the groomer gets gunk out of her ears.

On the way home, we stop off at the railway station to buy tickets for the boys to go to Chinese school on Saturday with their dad (I have choir rehearsal that afternoon). The nice lady in the ticket office works round the system so that we can get reserved seating despite using a cheap ticket. Hobbes talks to an elderly lady in the queue.

3-4:15: I work on some home education issues: Calvin's maths curriculum needs some consideration. I send and receive a few emails, and finally decide to try Life of Fred for him. I am also looking into geography IGCSE. The boys romp in the garden.

4:15 - 5:20: I suddenly realise that I will have to start cooking again at 4:30, so carve out fifteen minutes to read my How to Be a Gardener book, which arrived today; the boys received a Wii manual by the same post - they clubbed together to put their savings towards it - so they are studying that. Then it's a quick supper (shop-bought steak pudding with sugar snap peas and an apple) and we are on the road.

5:20 - 8:15: Chess club. It's a 40 minute drive each way. The boys are greeted by the high concentration of long-haired boys that constitutes the chess club; I take the opportunity to do the weekly shop. I discover a new horror in the freezer compartment at the supermarket: chips (french fries) in batter.

8:15 - 12:45: Home again, home again, jiggety jig. The boys have a snack and take showers while I go to the WTM boards. We call husband, who is in the US visiting his parents. Then I snuggle Hobbes into bed. Calvin and I stay up watching, yes, an episode of 'How to Be a Gardener', followed by The Nature of Britain. I see him off to bed, take the dog out, then type these last thoughts.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Accidentally wonderful

We were finishing up our art history book on Friday, before starting on music theory after our half-term break this week. We've been using Discovering Paintings - Myths and Legends, which we bought at the National Gallery in London. It's a little young for the boys, but we've enjoyed the link between well-loved myths and art.

The last painting in the book is Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (short digression to talk about the word 'deride' and link it to 'rire' in French) by Turner. Whilst we were at the National Gallery, Calvin chose a print of Turner's Fighting Temeraire to hang in his bedroom. I sent him to take it down and we sat with the book illustration of the one painting and the framed print of the other.

Then I realised: the layout of the two paintings is identical. Detail by detail, we went over the composition: the similarities were so great that it became easy to discuss the divergent moods of the paintings, evoked by the specific differences. I hadn't planned the lesson - our art history is a somewhat casual Friday session - but it fell into my lap and left us all excited.

I've been looking into the curriculum for the International Baccalaureate, on the assumption that the boys will go to school at some point before university. One of the subject options is art history. I wish that had been available to me at school: I had little interest and no obvious talent for making art, but I would have enjoyed studying the art of others.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Wordless Wednesday: Old wall, Fife

The Trees, by Philip Larkin

There is a wonderful recording of the poet reading his own poem here.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Wordless Wednesday: Winter fair, Edinburgh

Petition to stop the UK government review of home education

Thank you Lorna, for bringing this to my attention. If you are a UK citizen or resident, please consider signing it. It reads, in part:

We ask him to remind ministers that recent DCSF consultations have concluded that current law, when applied correctly, is sufficient to the task of protecting home educated children should parents fail in their duties, and that the law represents a satisfactory balance between protecting children and the need for privacy and autonomy in family life.

We also ask him to call a halt to the review of home education, begun in Jan 2009. Home educators have already taken part in four consultations in just over three years. New guidelines for LAs regarding Home Education resulted from one of these consultations as recently as Nov 2007 and yet we are now faced with yet another review which appears to seek to erode parental responsibilities. We ask him to remind ministers that repeated consultations infringe the BRE's Code of Practice on Consultations, Criterion 5.

Monday, 2 March 2009

2nd September, 1985, Beijing

China is so endlessly tatty. The campus [where I live and work] is a continual building site but the new buildings look no fresher than the old. Driving from the airport, after a 19 hour sleepless flight, the road reminded me of France, with its tree lining and the road itself slightly raised above fields of trees.

Mr Shen [school representative in charge of foreign teachers] attentive and kind after a sticky beginning. Not very good English. All the figures on the road started off [in my initial impression] as Western people and turned into Chinese when we approached. Warm but not too hot. The campus is about ten kilometres from Tiananmen Square - a good solid trip by bike. Is the bike which is being 'loaned' to me a temporary or a permanent loan? There are new quarters being built for the foreign teachers, but I get the feeling that me [sic] and the other girl who is coming are meant to stay put [in this building]. This block itself is quite new but so drab; the feel of it is not their fault, as no room can feel lived in that has a new occupant each year, but the loo is filthy and I have not yet worked out how to have a shower without boiling myself alive. And to get to the shower you have to climb over the loo. The kitchen, similarly, is just dirty and tatty and difficult to keep orderly......

Not feeling too miserable; just tired, clean and a little lost. Wanting something to happen and doubting my courage, in advance, to do all that I have to do....

They eat so early here: I dined in state with Mr Shen on beautiful food, but at 5:30, and it is now only 8:30.

First Sight, by Philip Larkin

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air,
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

© The estate of Philip Larkin

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Wordless Wednesday: husband's Chinese cooking

Left to right: Jia Chang Dou Fu, Gong Bao Ji Ding, Kong Xin Cai

31st August 1985

Such a perfect evening in Horley, just by Gatwick [airport], staying in a guest house before my flight [to Beijing] tomorrow morning. The journey straining, because of my suitcase, bag, and typewriter, but at Reading, an hour's wait, resting my arms on the open window. The end of one of the few real summer days this year. Blue sky with fluffy white clouds against occasional dark grey. The country so green and soft and full from the last few months of flood.

Then this evening, through the churchyard to an old pub, where I ate outside, there being no room inside; midges in the air, and the air itself just chilling but kind and very still. The clouds turning orange as I read Graham Swift's Waterland. Dreaming. Neck tingling.

After eating, walking further through the garden to the river. Cows on the far side, steep banks, a willow, thick grass, the water quite swift. Never silent because of the 'planes and the road, but entrancing. The sky shading from pale blue through white to silver, and the pink, the silver reflecting in the water.

Back to the churchyard and into the church; nice young woman explains its history, mostly medieval. There is an old man who remembers being confirmed in the church during the war. Beautiful brass of the calmest of wimpled ladies.

Back through the graveyard. Earlier, when I had been eating, there was a fair American girl who came to talk to me, and now there are Americans who overtake me wandering. The most English of days.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bird life

Hobbes has become an avid bird watcher, and we seem to be feeding half of Fife's birds through the cold weather. At our makeshift feeder, we have so far seen (European) robins, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, bullfinches (red status), treecreepers, blackbirds, wood pigeons and a pheasant.

Edited to add: yellowhammers, our second red status bird.

Decent snow at last and winter lessons

The boys have been frankly resentful of all the snow that the south of the UK has been getting over the last couple of weeks. Today, at last, we had appreciable snow here: the boys have built their first snow man and slid their first sleds. My very happy, rosy-cheeked sons are sitting in the kitchen now, eating leek and potato soup, having spent hours with local friends on the traditional village sledding field.

I've been learning new skills in the last few days too. This morning, I cleared my first driveway of snow and made a mental note to buy a lighter shovel. And having suffered another five days without central heating (we finally have it back now) I have come to grips with how to manage the wood stove. First thing in the morning, you start it up with lots of kindling and the maximum amount of air flow. You burn two or three logs very fast (field maple catches easily, because of the loose grain), until the stove metal heats up and you can feel its glow from six inches away. After that, you turn down the air flow and feed logs slowly for the rest of the day - at that point, our dense larch wood catches well, because the stove is already so hot.

I like very much the idea of growing our own fuel, but I suspect our little copse needs some managing - thinning and renewal, maybe coppicing. More skills to learn.

Monday, 9 February 2009

25th August 1985

A week 'til I go to China; I have stopped thinking about it really, stopped imagining what it might be like to live there. The only thing which keeps running in my head is arriving, being met. I am not even thinking that I will soon be teaching......

Sunday, 8 February 2009

We are getting very tired of this

Since we moved in here at the end of November, we have been without central heating three times. The first time we let the gas tank run out (we had been mistakenly informed that it would be topped up automatically). That took place during the first cold snap of the winter. Then ten days ago the motherboard on the boiler died, so we were without heat for about four days while we waited for the part. Once the motherboard was replaced the heating came on but couldn't be turned off. It turned out that the cut-off was also broken, making the whole system dangerous. So here we are, through the second cold period of the winter, without heat again.

Luckily, we have a wood stove in the sitting room and the gas oven in the kitchen puts off a good glow. This afternoon, however, I was working on the spare room, unpacking the last boxes from the move, and the thermometer was showing 4.5 degrees C (40 degrees F). Our excellent plumber/heating engineer hopes to have the part in tomorrow, but given the snow chaos in the rest of the country, I won't be surprised if it doesn't arrive. Hey ho.


Two boys, two pull-back cars and one excitable dog. I suppose there might have been hope that some science would be learned, but by the time one car developed an irreparable sideways trajectory, and the dog sat on the car, the ruler, the pencil and the results page, hilarity was the only result.

The dog was exiled to the kitchen and a little measuring took place, plus a lot of sitting-on-your-brother. We took apart the wayward pull-back car to see the spring, but couldn't break our way into the central mechanism, so contented ourselves with discussing gearing and trying to work out how to reassemble the car. Finally, we sat down on the sofa to put together thoughts on kinetic, potential, and elastic potential energy, as well as gravitational and centripetal forces.

Whenever lessons get too silly I always feel guilty; I have to remind myself that the boys would probably have learned no more in a science class at school from a teacher trying to deal with twenty or thirty pupils (all with wayward pull-back cars, if not with dogs).

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Evil tissue box

It was some time in the spring of 2008 that I made an order to the Park'nShop supermarket in Hong Kong for a grocery delivery. I asked for several boxes of husband's favourite tissues. Instead, I received a few six-packs of these monstrosities. I tried to return them, but the shop didn't want them back - they just sent the tissues we wanted in addition.

The unwanted tissues sat in the utility room, unloved by anyone until..... the movers came and packed them up. The container took about six weeks to reach the UK; the boxes then sat in storage for another couple of months, before emerging, a frightening reminder of mistakes past, onto our kitchen table in Scotland.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

20th June, 1985

Whilst moving house, I came across a very partial diary for the year that I went to China for the first time: 1985-6. I'll be posting a few excerpts here. Forgive the tone: I was 22, and very young. The first is from before I went -

Learned yesterday that I have a place teaching English in Peking for next year. I have not yet been told if I have a place in Sichuan. But I am going, most definitely going. Spending an hour each day trying to learn Mandarin. Scared, excited. It was a mindless decision, to go to China; I still don't know why, but I shall go. It is a determination with no basis. Will I find myself over the abyss with only a crumbling will to hold onto? A feeling of floating, of baselessness, but of calm. Calm in the long summer evenings. About to go to Edinburgh so stay with [friend] Peter....

We have come full circle: 23 years later it is I who live in Scotland, and Peter who came to visit me just after Christmas.

Welcome to the new blog

Darcy has kindly designed a new layout for me as one of my prizes for Best Geographical Blog of last year. Now that I don't live in China, I'm not forced to avoid the Chinese fire wall by using a less prominent blogging service. I'm still feeling my way round the new format, so please bear with me while I work it out. My old blog is still up.