I bet you’ve never really considered this, have you? I hadn’t either until the other day when I noticed that Son and I were stirring simultaneously in opposite directions. Most of you will perform this daily ritual stirring clockwise but for just around ten per cent of the population, the opposite will be true.

It will come as no surprise to friends and family that I fall into said ten per cent. I was born with a minority affliction. I am not disabled – I am left-handed and being so renders simple everyday tasks tricky.

Using a tin opener is a challenge; I have trouble with serrated bread knives (a beautiful loaf will end up with a 45 degree overhang); I can’t use a corkscrew and even getting into the house via the front door using a simple Yale key can be problematic. Everything has been manufactured by the majority for the majority but for us Lefties, the world is just the wrong way round.

Buying something as boringly necessary as an iron means I have to choose carefully and from a meagre selection – of those where the electrical cord emerges from the top of the appliance rather than the (wrong) side.

When I was a child my grandmother despaired because she couldn’t teach me to knit properly – I would train the wool ‘the other way’ around the needle.

Of course, there are left-handed alternatives for a lot of things. I wouldn’t be without my left-handed scissors for instance or my left-handed cheque book (not used quite so much these days but so simple – the perforations are on the ‘other side’ of the book) but most left-handed items tend to be flash-in-the-pan five minute gimmicks and of no use at all. The craziest thing I saw advertised last Christmas was SLOPED LINED writing paper. The lines were printed on a downhill slant to prevent ‘left-handers from smudging [their] writing.’ Give me strength! Firstly, whoever writes with a smudgeable pen these days – quill pens went out even before I was at school – and why oh why are we not teaching our left-handed pupils to do the simple thing and SLANT THE PAPER?!!

I’m astonished and irritated that so many left-handed students struggle with their handwriting. Most of them hold their pens awkwardly and/or “hook” their hands over the top of their writing in order to see what they’ve just written. Left-handed children should be guided, early on, to turn their paper so that in effect, they are virtually writing top to bottom, almost vertically. (I’ve always done this – I think I figured it out for myself because I don’t remember anyone suggesting it and my writing is at best stylish and at worst legible). Turning the paper negates bad pen holding habits and helps improve writing. No need for that uncomfortable hooking. I find it incredible that teachers don’t seem to be aware of the subtle and simple changes that could be suggested to make a left-hander’s life easier. I’m astounded that, once a seating plan has been devised, some pairs of students are knocking elbows. Never sit a left-hander on the right side of a desk facing forward: swap them round and instantly both pupils gain much more space. Obvious, you may think but there’s been many a time that I’ve had to quietly suggest a reshuffle.

Left-handers are adaptable by nature – we have to be. We are creative because we have had to be. We come at the world from a different angle. From learning to tie shoe laces to driving a car, our lives have been fraught with difficulties that right-handed people can’t even imagine. We have to put up with the negative connotations that the word ‘left’ dredges up – ‘left out’ and ‘left over;’ the French ‘gauche’ and the Latin ‘sinistra’ whereas the opposite of wrong is good old goody two-shoes Right.

I have to admit to a couple of advantages. I can surprise an opponent playing tennis if I hit the ball well because a left-hand spin sends the ball off in an unexpected direction. I feel at home driving in mainland Europe because for me, anti-clockwise around a round-a-bout holds no fear – in fact, it feels more comfortable.

Left handers are probably more ambidextrous as we have to adapt to using right-handed things. For instance, I was once offered a set of left-handed golf clubs (not that I play the real game – the most I’ve ever done is the crazy variety on holiday) but I did try them out and they felt just wrong. Interestingly, we know a right-handed person who plays with left-handed clubs. What’s going on there, I wonder?

I checked out a list of famous left-handers. Einstein, Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, Bart Simpson, Paul McCartney, David Bowie…the list was quite surprising. I seem to be in esteemed company so why should I worry. Truth is, I don’t. Just don’t ask me to slice your bread, knit you a jumper or open the wine and I’ll be fine.

 

Hello 2016! Over half way through January and already I‘m writing the sixteen part of the date with consummate confidence – no slipping back into last year for me. Yet what have I done so far? Nothing but feel lackadaisical, that’s what. Everything is an effort. Maybe it’s the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having that assists my sluggishness – particularly in the writing department. However, thankfully I don’t think I’m alone. Several blog posts I have read lately seem to be complaining of similar afflictions. So I’ll heave myself out of my malaise and share my recently read titles and my new book pile, purchased delightedly with Christmas money gifted specifically for that purpose.

I started the Christmas break (it seems so long ago now), by reading the book club choice – “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?by Jeanette Winterson. This sorry autobiographical tale details her early life with a monster of an adoptive mother and how, against all odds and between bouts of being locked in the coal cellar she collected a forbidden library of books, taught herself literature and wound up at Oxford University before embarking on a career as a writer and journalist while seeking her biological mother. The title refers to a comment the adoptive mother made to Jeanette when she discovered her having a relationship with a woman.

This was an interesting read if only for the fact that she and I are of similar age and my own childhood was in complete contrast to hers. While I was riding my Raleigh bike with its Sturmey-Archer gears carefree through the leafy lanes of Surrey she had run away from home ‘up north’ and was living in the back of an abandoned mini car, wondering from where her next meal was coming. I won’t reveal the outcome of her search in case anyone chooses to take this on. To sum up – it’s a quick read but not an easy one.

Next up was “A Spool Of Blue Thread” by Ann Tyler, recommended by Lisa. I had only read Ann Tyler once before and hadn’t particularly enjoyed her so this was started with some apprehension. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this family saga spanning three generations. We start and end with Denny, the black sheep of the family and Tyler’s writing is pacy, winding us through various time frames and familial relationships using mainly dialogue. Her characterisations and her descriptions of place create a vivid visual picture. It’s a very clever story and well deserving of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

After seeing the film “The Lady in the Van” I just had to read Alan Bennett’s book to find out if the film was completely true. Both the film and the book are enchantingly British, very funny and well worth a watch or a read – preferably both. I’m not saying any more than that lest I spoil it for you!

Having enjoyed the above title so much I decided to revisit and indulge in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.” This is a compilation of the series of monologues he wrote to be performed both at the theatre and on BBC television. They hark back to the early eighties but lose none of their wit and poignancy over thirty years later. I‘ve read these more times than I probably care to remember but each time I find a new gem of an observation or turn of phrase that has me laughing out loud. The book I have lists the name of the actor who originally performed each one and the cast list reads like a night at the BAFTA’s. I find these monologues highly inspiring and am hoping that by reading them again now will send a jolt of creativity across my stagnant bows.

So…that’s what I have been reading and this is what my new book pile looks like:

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Having looked at Pauline’s new year list recently, I’ve pre-ordered two titles from hers – “The Forgetting Time” by Sharon Guskin and “The Reader on the 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent. Neither title is available in the UK till later in the year so I’ll have a lovely surprise when either turns up on the doormat.

So many books…so little time. I keep the ones I might conceivably read again – the others I pass on, not minding if they are lost to me forever. Rather that than lend a precious title to a friend who returns it in appalling condition. This happened once, which inspired this 300 flash fiction. I haven’t lent anything to her since…

LENDING

As she adjusted the vertical blinds at the far end to stop sunlight streaming through the window and discolouring the books Margaret noticed with distaste that Ms Elizabeth Rivers was in again.  Only last week she had said to young David (work placement, not permanent staff); she had said to him, she said, that she would rather never lend Ms Rivers a book again.

While she tidied her pristine work area and wiped her computer screen with a vanilla scented wet-wipe, Margaret kept a disdainful eye on Ms Rivers rummaging through the shelves, opening a book, reading a page, turning it over, reading the back cover synopsis, ramming it back on the shelf, repeating the process with another title. The state her last selection had come back in had been a disgrace – corners bent over, unidentifiable smears on covers and, worse still, remnants of what looked like blueberry muffin squashed between the pages of “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.”

David arrived from the kitchenette with yet another mug of coffee which he placed with exaggerated care onto a cork mat next to his keyboard. He looked at Margaret somewhat defiantly she thought, and nodded in the direction of Ms Rivers, who by now had chosen two titles and was looking for her third. Margaret turned her attention to Mr Dawkins, another regular who had an insatiable interest in Military History, and who treated the books he borrowed as if they were precious relics. Swiping his card with a flourish, Margaret heard David dealing with Ms Rivers who was remonstrating loudly.

“I’m sorry, Ms Rivers” she heard David say, “Your card appears to have been withdrawn.”

Margaret, head down, busied herself by straightening a pile of leaflets.

oooooooOOO~OOOooooooo

 

Spreading the Light

I’m feeling festive. Term ended in a rush of noisy classroom games, chocolate prizes and hyper children. My modest little tree is outside the back door in its little red pot waiting to come in and be decorated with a string of lights and bits and bobs collected over the years.  Many of the houses locally are bedecked with lights, competing with each other as to who can be first to shut down the national grid.

This apparent competitiveness was the inspiration for a piece of creative writing I did while at my writing group. We were given a one word title  and allowed up to 2000 words instead of the 300 flash we were usually tasked with.

So to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and at the suggestion of one of my lovely critical readers, here’s a little fiction for you.  See you on the other side …

RIVALS

“Look at this, Mo!” Len exclaimed.  He was surfing the internet for new additions to his Christmas lights display.  Len’s lights had become something of a talking point in The Close over the years.

“Looks like you’ve got a bit of competition,” said Maureen, watching from the front room window as their new neighbour opposite strung fairy lights across two conifers.

“Over my dead body,” said Len, as he clicked two angels and a Star of Bethlehem into his basket.

***

Maureen was exhausted. She had spent the day taking her mother Christmas shopping, helping her buy presents for everybody and buying something for herself for her mother to wrap up. She was looking forward to putting her feet up with a cup of tea. The house was in darkness as she parked the car.

     “Silly sod,” she thought, “He’s fused the lights again.”

Letting herself in, she automatically tried the light switch.  It worked.  Where the hell was Len, she wondered, annoyed now. Her hallway was strewn with Star of Bethlehem packaging, Len’s toolbox on the bottom stair.

As she began to feel alarmed, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, hi-ya,” said the woman, standing there “I’m Cheryl Parks – just moved in over the road. My Steve has taken your hubby to A and E – he fell off his ladder.”

Maureen looked at Cheryl, slowly taking in the information.  She peered past her in the gloom and saw Len’s ladder leaning against the side of the house.

     “Oh God,” she said, “What’s he done?”

“Think he’s broken his leg,” said Cheryl, “Steve offered to help – he’s an electrician, see. Steve Parks -S Parks – SPARKS – couldn’t be anything else, could he?” and she laughed raucously, as if she’d just thought of the joke, which of course she hadn’t. Maureen had seen the name on the side of his van.

“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said Cheryl, stepping inside Maureen’s hallway, pushing the door to and making a performance of wiping her open-toed sandals on the mat, revealing bright red nails and an ankle bracelet. Maureen began feeling shaky, whether from shock or tiredness she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful to her new neighbour for assuming control.

“What about your children?” she said, aware there were several smaller versions of Steve and Cheryl across the road.

“Oh don’t you worry about them,” grinned Cheryl, “our Stacey’ll get their tea on; she’s very capable.”

Maureen had witnessed Stacey being very capable with a young man in a Ford Escort outside the house a few evenings back but she didn’t say anything.  Instead she gathered together a few things Len might need and followed Cheryl to her car.

They found Len sitting on a trolley having had an x ray and waiting for a bed.  He looked dishevelled, his hair awry, trouser leg cut up to the knee, a temporary bandage covering up his swollen ankle. He and Steve were in deep discussion.

“Hey Shezz,” Steve looked up briefly at them as Maureen dumped the bag containing Len’s things on to the trolley.

“Thank you so much,” Maureen said to Steve, while looking at Len, who winced and smiled at her sheepishly.

“No worries, love,” replied Steve with a wink.  “Good job I was there!” He stood up and shook her hand.

“Looks like I’ll be out of action over Christmas,” said Len, “it’s broken in two places.” He pointed unnecessarily to his lower leg.

Cheryl suggested that she and Steve go and find cups of tea for them all.  Maureen sat up on the trolley next to Len and patted his good leg. He looked as if he’d been through it a bit. Maureen hoped that Cheryl wouldn’t be long with the tea, she was gasping.

     “Does it hurt much?” she asked, suddenly feeling sorry for him.

Len turned to Maureen, his face happier than it should have been for someone who had recently double fractured a major bone.

“A bit,” he said, “but don’t worry, love, Steve’s going to do our lights for us. We’re getting a banner to string across the road between our houses, Mo, just like up the high street!”

     Len’s wretched lights were the least of Maureen’s priorities right now but she could see that talking about them would distract him from the pain. She wondered doubtfully what the rest of The Close would think.  She knew that some of them felt Len was already going a bit far with his luminous flashing nativity scene on the front lawn.

     “Where will you get a banner from, then?”  She said, suspicious that Len had been doing some clandestine on-line purchasing.

“Had one left over,” Steve arrived back, making Maureen jump. He handed her tea in a cardboard cup. “Did a job down in Kent. Small village. Ran out of fixing spots.” He winked again.  Steve did a lot of winking, Maureen thought. That, and talking in abbreviated sentences.

They all stayed with Len until a bed was found and he was settled. He’d be plastered tomorrow, when the swelling went down.  Cheryl made the observation that she usually swelled up after she’d been plastered which made Steve laugh uproariously and call her a daft cow.

They laughed a lot, Steve and Cheryl.

***

     “I love Christmas,” sighed Len, contentedly, from the back seat as Maureen drove him home from hospital two days later, via the town centre so he could see the decorations and the town tree festooned with fairy lights.  Steve had been busy while Len had been laid up with his swollen leg.  As Maureen swung the car into The Close, Len saw the banner, strung professionally across the road, uniting them with their new neighbours.

“Looks like a decent job,” he said, generously, craning his neck to see his angels and Bethlehem star adorning their roof. “Good bloke, that Steve,” he added, struggling with his seat belt in his haste to get out and have a better look.

 Maureen held the door open for him thinking that her husband was beginning to sound like Steve and half expected him to wink at her, but he didn’t.

     “Steve’s waiting till tonight to switch on,” she said, “he thought you’d like that.”

“Great stuff,” replied Len, hobbling to the front door on his crutches.  Maureen followed him in and went to finish off her mince pies for the festive gathering later that evening.

     Maureen’s mince pies were as much a tradition in The Close as Len’s lights, so she felt a little disgruntled as she and Len joined the gathering crowd to see Cheryl with a crate of Cava, dispensing to all and sundry in plastic cups. Cheryl, wearing flashing antlers on a plastic hair band, greeted them expansively, plonking red lips onto Len’s cheek and handing them both some bubbly.

     “There you go, Lennie!” she said, adding, “Look, the boys have found you a deck chair!”

     “Lennie?” thought Maureen, aghast, at the same time feeling grateful for Cheryl’s kindness. While Len lowered himself into the chair, she offered Jack and Darren, Cheryl’s twins, one of her pies. They turned their noses up, shook their heads in unison and ran off, grinning.

     “We ready, then?” Steve arrived on the scene in a Santa hat. “Shall I nip in to yours and switch on, Mo?”

 Without waiting for an answer, he jumped over their low wall and let himself in to their house as Paige, Cheryl’s youngest, sat herself on Len’s lap and handed him a remote control. Maureen could see that Len was loving this so she tried to muster up some Christmas spirit by handing round her pies. Just then a cheer went up: Len’s nativity scene was ablaze, the new star of Bethlehem twinkling against the night sky. It did look lovely, everyone agreed.

     “Now for ours,” Steve was back, winking again, “go on Len, press the remote!”

With Paige clapping, Jack and Darren counting down excitedly, Len pressed and Steve’s side of The Close lit up, the Merry Christmas banner sparkling above them. As the crowd watched, an enormous white inflatable took shape on Steve and Cheryl’s front lawn accompanied by an ear shattering version of ‘Frosty the Snowman.’

     “I can turn the music off it if gets too annoying,” Steve said, anxious for a moment, seeing Maureen’s face, but everyone clapped and cheered, filled with seasonal bonhomie and a second cup of Cava.  Cheryl encouraged everyone to conga back to her conservatory for more alcohol and sausage rolls.  Maureen pulled urgently on Len’s sleeve, thinking he’d had enough excitement for one night but he was having a wonderful time and despite not being able to dance with the others, hobbled behind Mrs Norris from number fifteen towards Steve’s back garden.  With a sigh, Maureen picked up the deckchair and followed.

***

     Christmas passed by in a flurry of neighbourly exchange, culminating on New Year’s Day in a ten pin bowling challenge on the Parks’ family Wii and their new forty-two inch plasma screen which Len accessed from the comfort of Steve’s multi positional armchair. Even Maureen’s mother had been invited and she sat happily chatting to Mrs Norris while Cheryl provided more party food from a never ending supply.

     “Such a shame Christmas is nearly all over,” Len said, taking a vol au vent from the plate Cheryl offered him.

“We’re off to the in-law’s villa in Spain next week,” grinned Cheryl, “to do it all over again!”

“Lucky you,” Len replied, dropping mayonnaise down the jumper Maureen’s mother had given him.

     “We’ll need to get the decorations down before twelfth night,” Maureen said, aware that with Len incapacitated, she was in danger of having an unseasonal nativity scene in her garden and bad luck for the coming year.

     “We’re back mid Jan,” said Steve, shovelling a handful of peanuts into his mouth, “No rush, is there?”

     “Here you go, Mo,” Darren said, handing her the Wii controller before Maureen had a chance to protest, “Your turn!”

Maureen was surprised to find computerised bowling quite easy and felt strangely satisfied that her name appeared on top of the leader board when Len finally called it a day and decided they should head for home.

***

     The electricity bill arrived a week later.  Maureen picked it off the mat with the junk mail and went to have her breakfast. Len was still upstairs, awkwardly showering, his plaster cast encased in a plastic sleeve. Maureen flicked through the sale catalogues that had just arrived and then opened the bill.  She couldn’t believe her eyes; there must be a mistake. She went to her home file and pulled out the last few bills. She was right; this one was more than double any of the others. At that moment, Len limped in to the kitchen.

     “Look at this!” Maureen greeted him, “your blooming lights are going to have to go!”

Len looked at the bill, a puzzled look on his face.  He shook his head.

     “This can’t be right,” he said, “all my bulbs are low energy.”

Nevertheless, he rummaged in the drawer for the torch and hobbled out to the garage.

“I’ll just check the meter, Mo.”

Maureen followed him, feeling angry. Len opened the meter cupboard and continued to look puzzled.

      “I’ll just try something,” he said, and went to the master fuse box.  He turned all its switches off, cutting all power to their house. Returning to the meter, Maureen could see in the torch light the dials still whirring merrily around at a speed much faster than any of the cogs cranking around in her husband’s brain.

“Well?” she said, arms folded, waiting for Len’s appraisal of the situation.

Slowly, he turned to her, his lights now well and truly on and with a look of complete disbelief, hissed uncharacteristically between clenched teeth: “The thieving bastard!”

LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW BLOGGING YEAR!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How’s your Christmas shopping going?

I know people (I work with them) who have bought, wrapped and labelled everything already but quite frankly that’s just not fun. What can more invoke the spirit of Christmas than panic buying, overspending, lugging heavy parcels home on a rush hour train without losing or breaking anything; feeling exhausted, flaking out at home with a cup of tea, sore feet and a crashing headache? These efficient types have no idea what they’re missing.

So I started mine this week. Having Mondays off is very useful at this time of year when weekend high streets and shopping malls resemble the frantic activity of a termite mound. We decided to make for the quieter – dare I say more select – side of town and headed off to the Kings Road in Chelsea.

However, on alighting at Sloane Square underground station I was transported back three decades to when I worked in the West End, during the conflict in Northern Ireland and a time of sustained danger from bombing or security threats which perpetually hung over our capital. As we queued to take the escalator, a piercing blast from a public address system assaulted our ears followed by an innocuous sounding message – ‘This is a staff announcement. Would Inspector Sands please go to the ticket office immediately.’ This was followed by another ear-shattering siren and the message again, repeated several times. I was up that escalator like a rat up a drainpipe.

Call me paranoid – it’s not as if Sloane Square is a big or complicated station – only two platforms with one train line passing through – where the hell could Inspector Sands have got to, to warrant such an insistent command for his presence?   This may well have been a genuine call for him to attend his ticket office – but as I shot past it on my way through the exit, said ticket office was well and truly shut. Perhaps Inspector Sands has the only key, who knows, but for me, this sounded like a coded warning to station staff that all was not well in Sloane Square and they should start checking their given areas for anything suspicious.

Back in the day, with hoax bomb calls designed to cause maximum disruption up and down Oxford and Regent Street and elsewhere, coded warnings to retail personnel were commonplace. Not wanting to cause mass panic or an exodus of shoppers unless absolutely necessary, it was the sensible way of communicating to responsible staff to check their areas, report back to a central number within a store and then for a follow up message to be broadcast alerting the workforce of the all clear. Without wanting to divulge any particular message, it doesn’t take long to work out that while one store seemed to be forever looking for a lost child answering to the same description another would be having frequent meetings with a General Manager on a nonexistent eighth floor. My lunch hours trailing round various competitors were often swiftly truncated if a tannoyed announcement interrupted my browsing.

So I hope that Sloane Square really does have an Inspector Sands. I hope my suspicions were unfounded but old habits clearly die hard. With heightened security quite rightly sweeping our cities after the appalling events in Paris it’s best to be vigilant and stay safe: but carry on.

Here’s wishing you all a peaceful run up to your festive seasons.

Reading. Books: several of them. I’ve been wallowing in my book pile and, prompted and inspired by my blogging chum Pauline from way down under who listed the titles nestling on her bedside table, here’s a little resume of what’s been distracting me the past few weeks.

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First up is The Children Act by Ian McEwan. This was a book group choice. Nice and brief and classic McEwan. You either love or loathe him and as I’ve read a fair few of his works I guess I fall into the former category. A friend who struggles with him thinks he’s pompous which I can understand as he’s quite wordy and very British but his characterisations are spot on and often humorous. The Children Act introduces us to Fiona, a high court judge who specialises in family law. She is faced with a case involving a seventeen year old boy suffering from leukaemia who is refusing a blood transfusion to save his life because of his and his parents’ religious beliefs.

Fiona, who is highly regarded amongst her peers and for whom home and work life has to this point been straight forward is thrown by the vulnerability of this boy’s situation which then begins to reflect the disharmony in her personal life.

I read this book quickly, bounding towards the unexpected ending so typical of McEwan’s work. Definitely worth a read.

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Next was The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. This book had very mixed reviews which I trawled through after I’d finished reading the novel. Set in 17th century Amsterdam I thought the author evoked the darkness and damp of a major European trading city very well. The story revolves around young Petronella who is recently married to an older, well heeled Merchant who spends much of his life at sea. He presents Nella with a doll’s house replica of their home and she begins to furnish it with miniatures created by the mysterious Miniaturist. Strange co-incidences begin to occur between events in Nella’s life and the items delivered by the Miniaturist. It’s as if the pieces are for-warning her of subsequent tragedies. This is not a happy tale, there are several despicable characters here but this all adds to the darkness and gloom. The descriptions of place are excellent and the historical facts surrounding the trading laws at this time interesting.

The main criticism I read afterwards was that the ending didn’t tie things up but in my view, that was the point. I made my own mind up about the character of the Miniaturist (who, incidentally, we never meet) and I recommend that if you read this novel you take that approach too!

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Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj was a title we nearly chose as a book group read but it was considered too long for the time we had which was a shame because I think it would have provided us with a good debate. Essentially the book deals with how the Israel-Palestine conflict affects ordinary people. The story is presented from two points of view – those of Salim – a Palestinian and Judith who is Jewish. They meet in London in the 60’s and we track them through their life together, the familial conflicts they encounter and the heart rending decisions they are forced to make when their cultures collide. It’s an ambitious task for a first novel and I found some of the subsidiary characters unbelievable which weakened the plot slightly but that said, I enjoyed the read and although the ending was predictable my attention was held till the last page.

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I’m just about to finish Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. His writing is beautiful, very wordy which slows the pace but that works well in this story of a small town Irish woman, recently bereaved, and how her life is changed. She has to become independent, find a job, sell the family’s summer house and manage her children. To be honest, not much happens but the relationships between Nora and her family and the new friends she makes through her love of singing are completely believable. The dialogue is written so that the gentle Irish lilt comes through – very clever.

Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn has recently been adapted and released as a film starring Julie Walters. I think we’ll be in for a treat.

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And lastly – I must share with you the reading material being delivered to our eleven year olds in the run up to Christmas. One of my favourite modern tales, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce can be enjoyed on so many levels. The class teacher and I are already drawing short straws for which one of us has to read out the ending. (It’s a tear jerker). The story deals with so many issues – happiness, bereavement, greed, friendships and is told through the voice of young Damian who has an odd but endearing penchant for Saints. In his quest to be ‘excellent’ he collects them while practising mortification. There are some laugh-out-loud passages (at least for the grownups in the room) and the story provides the opportunity for plenty of class discussion. Prior to beginning reading, the students were asked if we could ever care for a fictional character. One little girl answered that there would be no point in reading a book if we didn’t. She nailed it for me.

And with that in mind as well as the previous mention of the wonderful Julie Walters, here she is as one of my favourite characters of all time.

Who’s your favourite fictional character?

A Matter of Priority

Catching up with some admin work during my lunch-break the other day and unusually minding my own business, I couldn’t help but overhear part of an enthusiastic conversation. Now I know that eavesdropping is hardly ever likely to be to one’s advantage or indeed present the whole picture so to speak but the bit I did hear beggars belief. Apparently the randomly coloured and therefore offensive seating throughout the site is to be replaced with one type of ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing chair – one that can’t be swung on and comes in the colour of chewed gum: presumably so that the blobs which are frequently deposited beneath furniture from disenchanted little mouths will be less visible. There’s a sample in the corner for us to try out – hurrah – let’s hope some philanthropic furniture dealer is presenting the whole consignment  for nothing because as we are severely short on the staffing front we sure as hell don’t have funding to fritter away.

Imagine a child watching gifts piling up under the annual Christmas tree. One particular parcel catches his eye – the tantalisingly tinsel wrapped, sparkly present which had looked so promising reveals a Pound Store rip-off version of the thing his heart had most desired.

With that metaphor* in mind and with hundreds of educational establishments up and down the country opening their doors this month for Open Evenings I hope that starry-eyed parents will remember to ask the right questions and not be fooled into making choices just because they can smell fresh paint or the interiors look like an advert for IKEA.

I’ll leave you with a quote attributed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama I found whilst trawling through Flipboard the other day:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

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‘I am Mosquito’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Metaphor: one of the many language devices the National Curriculum requires  students between the ages of eleven to sixteen to cram into their writing at every conceivable opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We recently spent a few days on the Cote Fleurie on France’s north coast and apart from one spectacular thunderstorm we had good weather which should be regarded a bonus for this area – Normandy is green for a reason.

Once we’d done the beach-sitting, people-watching and strolling around the picturesque towns of Trouville and Deauville we availed ourselves of some of the freshest seafood you are ever likely to find. The Poissonerie on the quayside at Trouville is open from seven in the morning till seven at night and is frantically busy all day. Several small market stalls are crammed together side by side and compete for business, displaying the morning’s catch in ever creative ways, tempting tourists and locals alike.

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Each stall has its own tiny ‘bistro’ attached – in reality, a few stools and tall tables under parasols where you can sit and sample the shellfish, prepared in front of your eyes by friendly staff. They will supply a chilled bottle of wine to go with the food but if you want bread, you must visit the nearby Boulangerie. Paper napkins, wet wipes and an empty bucket for the shells and then you just tuck in with your fingers – delicious!

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So feeling replete, it was time to head out for a little sight-seeing – of the historical variety.

A few kilometres along the coast to the west lays the Orne River, peacefully flowing its way through lush Norman countryside out towards the English Channel, or as is politically correct from this side of the sea, La Manche. At this time of year the river-banks are full of reeds and wild flowers and the trees, heavy with leafy greenery, dip their branches into the water while fish surface occasionally, leaving lazy concentric pools.

We stopped near this rural idyll, just outside Ranville, the first village to be liberated by British forces on D-Day (6th June 1944) and whose cemetery is the resting place for many British soldiers killed in action after a short but epic battle to secure the bridge across the River Orne. This was one of the major objectives of the British airborne troops in the opening moments of the Normandy Invasion and would prove crucial in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.

Imagine flying into an area you’ve never seen – in a glider – under the stealth of a pitch black night and landing safely within yards of the river. This is what Major John Howard and his Glider Unit of the British 6th Airborne Division did. Transported from their base at Tarrant in Dorset, they travelled in Horsa Gliders towed by bombers and landed virtually intact. One plane did land some seven miles away, near Dives, but the troops made their way through German lines towards Ranville and were reunited with British forces.

There is now a memorial on the spot where Major Howard’s glider landed, a peaceful garden adjacent to the river.

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The bridge that Major Howard and his men were tasked with capturing crossed the River Orne from Ranville to the neighbouring village of Bénouville.

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Next to the bridge, on the Bénouville side, was a small restaurant, the Café Gondrée. Here Georges Gondrée lived and worked, running his small establishment but also working for the Resistance.

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Information about explosives under the bridge and the location of a switch in a pillbox was discovered by Georges, passed on to British Intelligence and was instrumental in the success of this operation.

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Nowadays, Café Gondrée is run by members of the same family and exists as a tourist attraction as well as a café serving the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in France. The staff were offhand – not unheard of in France, let’s be honest – although this, I felt, was scaling things to a whole new level. Large hand-written signs warned customers not to take photographs inside the building. (Son told us on our return that the newer establishment across the road is the place to go, and is full of friendly information for the visitor as well as decent fare).

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The bridge was christened Pegasus on 26th June 1944 as a tribute to the British troops who wore the emblem of the winged horse on their sleeves. Today the original bridge resides in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum. A new bridge, constructed in 1994, now spans the river.

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The original Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Museum was officially opened in 2000 by HRH Prince Charles and is worth a visit. Weapons, documents and photographs as well as the old bridge, a tank and a Horsa Glider are on view. Explanations of the mission are simple to understand or there is a guided tour which takes about an hour.

Heading back through Ranville it is apparent that much of this sleepy little village was rebuilt after the war. It is possible to visit the nearby Batterie at Merville where British troops overcame German forces intent on building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ – but we had done this on a previous visit and more shellfish was beckoning…

With some 4000 memorials in Normandy, commemorating acts of bravery and heroism undertaken during the Invasion, there is plenty of history here so there is always something to see, however often you visit.

The French call this area the Musée à Ciel Ouvert – ‘Open- Sky Museum.’ It makes sense.

 

 

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