When Walls Come Down

Dry-stone walls proliferate the countryside of West Yorkshire. They dominate the landscape. They ramble over fields, moors – line the lanes – march around the edge of meadows. They’re striking in the most beautifully, arresting way. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds themselves spending time just looking at them – wonderingly. ‘How did they do that?’

In the run-up to “Le Grand Depart” of “Le Tour de France” which came to Yorkshire earlier in the year, some of the cyclists from other countries came to Holmfirth to ‘scout out’ the terrain. A press conference was held with a group from Belgium and Germany. They were asked questions about what they thought of the hills and so forth, and then one of them said “I have a question for you – about the walls. They are everywhere. Even in the highest places. How did they get there? Who put them there?”

Who indeed? A survey in 1988 recorded 5,000 miles of walls in Yorkshire. 5,000!!! That’s a huge number. They’re not the only kind of boundary of course, but they make up the most with 620 miles of hedgerow and 155 miles of fence – according to the same survey. So what do they do? They proclaim ownership. They keep animals in – and people out. Or at least they aim to. Where I live – they hold up gardens – indeed they hold back hills from sliding into roads, making it possible to inhabit these steep slopes that would otherwise render it impossible to build upon.

This one holds up a cemetery! As it’s at the end of the lane where I live, I pass it most days. I don’t always stop and look at it – of course not, I take it for granted, like most people. It’s always there – holding up the land. But when I do, I am amazed at the work it’s doing and how majestic it is. I love how the moss has gathered on the stones and how it’s all become a part of the living landscape – even though the stones themselves are dead things. No doubt all sorts of tiny creatures are making their homes in the crevices of the stones. I have to wonder if they’re watching me gazing up at the wall!

 

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But they don’t last forever! They need attention – they require skilled people to care them and ensure they remain capable of doing the job. There are plenty of them like this – with sufficient gaps in them to enable Billy and I to get into our favourite woods to chase those pesky squirrels! (It’s Billy doing the chasing, by the way, not me!!)

 

 

 

When I clambered over this one recently (see next pic), I found myself singing the lines of a song a musician friend of ours composed some years ago “When walls come down..” it was called. I remembered the tune, but only a couple of lines. The sentiment though was about the importance of pulling down walls so that people could see and mix with each other. That’s the downside of walls, isn’t it? They might make us feel safe – keeping the enemy out, but they can also prevent integration. They can fix us in one place and stop us being able to grow through exploring what’s beyond the place we’re living in. So of course, windows, doors and gates – legitimate ways to move beyond the walls are essential. But with those comes the additional problem of having to monitor who passes through them.

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I got to thinking about a book by Doris Lessing. Well, actually it was the second of a series of books “Canopus in Argos: Archives”. The book I’m thinking of is “The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five”. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about gender conflict – described by many as feminist science fiction. It is set in the metaphysical zones that circle Shikista (which could allegorically be Earth). Each zone there is a distinct system at play – ways of relating to each other and rules about living. Zone Three is matriarchal and egalitarian; Zone Four is patriarchal and militaristic and Zone Five is tribal and barbaric. The story is told through the voice of the Zone Three chroniclers and tells how a marriage was ordained between the Queen of Zone Three and King of Zone Four and later between the King of Zone four and the Queen of Zone Five. Confused already? It is not as tricky to follow as it sounds – it’s actually really good and beautifully written.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Marriages-Between-Zones-Canopus-Argos/dp/0006547206

It certainly made me think about the way we identify ourselves with place and how we are socialised into a way of behaving; how we adopt beliefs and practices, sometimes without questioning or challenging. But also how easy it is to become fearful of difference; how we might build walls to protect ourselves – but from who? Often simply from the unknown. What we do not know we cannot understand; what we cannot understand we often fail to get to know; what we cannot know we cannot get close to. Walls keep others out of our place – but keep us in ours. Is this the best place to be?

The Queen of Zone Two is changed forever by her marriage and by mothering a child of both zones and finds herself somewhat displaced and disturbed. Later in the book she is allowed to look into Zone Two…

“Into that Zone (Two) she had taken the senses of Zone Three and, of course, of Zone Four; whose citizen she now was, but had tried to take in, to assess, that high delicate place but without what was needed to assess it. Who could tell her what in fact she could have seen there, if differently tuned, if more finely set?” page 196, Knopf edition, 1980

You see how it speaks of how one changes, how one becomes different by association with people of a different place? She knows now that there is more that she could be – she could become more ‘finely tuned’ and see yet more than she already can. There are horizons that stretched beyond our present vision – there is much, much more than this.

And what of the King? Who has to endure another marriage.

“Then he lay awake in the dark, arms behind his head, thinking. Of this savage girl, with who he promised himself all kinds of pleasures, the more satisfactory because she would not be expecting them. Of Al-Ith [the Queen of 3], whose thoughts seemed to be flowing there around and near him….and there was more than a little anger in him. He knew that he was forever caught up and bound, if not to her, then her realm, her ways – so that he could never again act without thinking, or be without reflection on his own condition. And he did not regret it, not that, yet even now there was a part of him that said she had put a spell on him – and that she must be exulting, knowing that his new queen was at this moment laughing at him in her tent.

He could no longer be as he had been, the Ben Ata who had never doubted what he should do; not could her react from any higher or better centre or state. He was in between, and horribly uncertain” p 209, as before

You can’t help but feel sorry for him, can you? The queen of zone three disturbed him so much that he too is forever changed and cannot go back to how he was. A good thing? He’s now ‘horribly uncertain’, so you’d possibly say not. But is certainty always such a good thing? Isn’t it a better thing to be a little unsure and therefore cause yourself to tread more carefully – to be just that bit more cautious, and thus have a better chance of not falling down the slippery slopes? Confidence is good – but we can be confident in the wrong things and confidence without competence is downright dangerous.

He doesn’t regret his relationship, although he is conscious that his very being has changed him and he, like her, is somewhat disturbed and displaced. I love the way he sees himself as ‘forever caught up and bound’ – not just to her, but to everything from the place she came from. I feel that happening as I live in West Yorkshire now. When I go back to Marple, I know that I have different eyes – a different way of looking at things. Going across the ‘border’ of the Pennines has changed me. I’m not sure I would describe myself as ‘displaced’ but I know I cannot leave Honley behind when I’m in Marple – I’m becoming more and more wrapped up in the ways of this place. Funny how he talks of ‘more than a little anger’. There’s clearly a part of him that is resentful of the changes that have happened and of the bondage he speaks of. We’re none of us as free as we like to think we are. All of us, it seems, are bound by our obligations to people and places. I cannot do some things without a voice from my past whispering in my ear “that’s not right!” or “You go girl!”. Breaking free of those voices might be possible – but would be challenging. And do I want to be free of them?

All this from looking at walls! Not only are they beautiful, they are intrinsically linked with our very beings – in the way we define ourselves and where we fix ourselves in time, place and season. I’ve climbed over many walls; walked through gates and scrambled over stiles. I know this – there are many more walls I want to climb over and many I want to pull down. But there are many too that need to be mended and kept in place.

 

 

Who Will Bring Us In From The Cold

Imagine being out in the pouring rain, chilled to the bone and having no one to turn to. Do you ever find yourself having that sort of thought? It’s on days like today – when the rain has been almost relentless with the wind hurling all sorts of things around, paying no heed to the status of anything – that I do find myself pondering such questions. Cheerful soul, aren’t I? Well actually, homelessness can and does happen to people from all sorts of backgrounds and social strata. A manager of a shelter for homeless people told me that in recent years he has seen many more middle-aged men, who once had high-flying careers, having been made redundant and lost their homes, sleeping rough – often in their cars (all that is left of a ‘better’ life).

Sleeping rough has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In one year, records released by the Department of Communities and Local Government show a 23% increase of people sleeping rough (from 1,768 to 2,181 on any one night). http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/news.php/35/press-release-rough-sleeping-up-by-23-in-england.

Don’t get me started on the reasons underlying this increase! For now, I’m just thinking of the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next; that there is no place you can put your head.

 

You see, when I’m out walking, especially on the very worst of days, there is something so reassuring about the knowledge that, whatever it feels like now, there will be an end to it – a place that will be warm and dry; where there are towels to dry your hair; somewhere you can shake out your coat and hang it; a hot cup of tea and maybe even a bowl of soup! These things, small as they seem, are the things that drive you on; like twinkling lights in the distance.

 

When we did the Trailtrekker earlier this year (100k in 30 hours, walking with no sleep, across the Yorkshire Dales), the sight of the water-stations and checkpoints at regular intervals along the way rose up like mirages. We’d be hobbling and aching and just about all done in, then we’d see a sign “500m to next checkpoint” and suddenly our feet could move faster, our legs propelled us on with renewed vigour. From somewhere, because we’d been given hope, we found an inner cheerfulness and we could go on.

 

It brings to mind the story of Janet Dempster (‘Janet’s Repentance[1]’) who is married to an abusive husband,  who is also the town’s lawyer. She is a proud and beautiful woman, but has turned to drink to help her cope with her disastrous marriage. We’d say today that she was alcohol dependent, but then her neighbours talked of her being ‘unwell’ or ‘having headaches’ – this is a Victorian novel, you see, so the actual ‘issue’ is never really mentioned! The nearest we get to it is in reading that her beauty ‘is enhanced by the faint physical traces of her addiction’.

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Matters come to a head when Dempster comes home in a drunken rage and violently turns his wife out in the night, wearing only a nightdress. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. At one point she finds herself sitting on the freezing cobble stones and contemplates simply staying there, letting the night take her. Then, from somewhere, comes the memory of a kind, elderly friend and she makes her way through the streets to her house and manages to wake her:

 

 

‘It is I, Mrs Pettifer; it is Janet Dempster. Take me in, for pity’s sake.’
‘Merciful God! What has happened?’
‘Robert has turned me out. I have been in the cold a long while.’
Mrs Pettifer said no more, but hurried away from the window, and was soon at the door with a light in her hand.
‘Come in, my poor dear, come in,’ said the good woman in a tremulous voice, drawing Janet within the door. ‘Come into my warm bed, and may God in heaven save and comfort you.’
The pitying eyes, the tender voice, the warm touch, caused a rush of new feeling in Janet. Her heart swelled, and she burst out suddenly, like a child, into loud passionate sobs. Mrs Pettifer could not help crying with her, but she said, ‘Come upstairs, my dear, come. Don’t linger in the cold.’
She drew the poor sobbing thing gently up-stairs, and persuaded her to get into the warm bed. But it was long before Janet could lie down. She sat leaning her head on her knees, convulsed by sobs, while the motherly woman covered her with clothes and held her arms round her to comfort her with warmth. At last the hysterical passion had exhausted itself, and she fell back on the pillow; but her throat was still agitated by piteous after-sobs, such as shake a little child even when it has found a refuge from its alarms on its mother’s lap.

 

A friend who needs so little explanation; who asks no questions, but instantly responds to this desperate need: isn’t that the kind of friend we would all wish for? To know there is someone who can offer a ‘warm bed’ without hesitation or concern for themselves, must surely offer the most beautiful beacon of hope. Yet, how many of us can be sure that we have someone in our lives who we could call upon when the going gets really tough, or the night is most dreadfully cold? When I first read this, only two years ago, I recall stopping and thinking about this. Did I have that person, that one person, who could be relied upon to open the door no matter what time of day or night it was? And would they offer a spot in their own warm bed for me if I really needed it?

 

I consider myself truly blessed, because I didn’t have to think for too long and was able to list a number of people who I could confidently turn to in such a situation. Of course, we don’t want to face this really, do we? It isn’t going to happen to us. Really?

 

Sadly, many people do feel completely alone and have no one to turn to. Mother Theresa said that loneliness was the worst disease that anyone can endure and I read in the Guardian today that the “number of men over the age of 50 suffering from severe loneliness in England will increase to more than 1 million in the next 15 years”. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/13/men-face-future-loneliness-problems

 

 

Loneliness doesn’t only affect those who live alone; you can be lonely in a crowd, but also in the context of a relationship. I guess Janet had become increasingly isolated, partly due to the shame of what was happening in her marriage and of her (mistaken, but understandable) self-perceived blame in how she was handling things. She was a desperate woman and that’s seen so clearly in the way she responds to this overt display of affection from Mrs Petifer – she becomes ‘convulsed by sobs’. I just love how the older lady covers her and holds her until her sobbing subsides.

 

Sometimes that’s just all we are called to do. Offer a hug, some warmth and our nonjudgmental, but comforting silence. So, to finish, a second question – who would turn to us in their hour of need?

[1] Eliot, George, Janet’s Repentance, in Scenes of a Clerical Life, first published 1857 (Penguin Classics)

The Terrible Truth in the Telling

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“They came, the brothers, and took two chairs” (Thomas Hardy)

It’s the foulest of days! After one of the mildest Septembers ‘since records began’ (why do they insist on saying that all the time?!!), we are shocked to wake and find havoc being wreaked on our road networks by strong winds and driving rain. It doesn’t take much, does it? To shock us, I mean. The weather even made the news this morning. Have we so little interesting stuff to talk about that we have to have the weather conditions commented on by journalists? There he was, the journalist, hanging on to one of those huge fluffy covered microphones (they always make me laugh – I mean, could you really talk into one of those and not think you were whispering sweet nothings to a dead squirrel?). He was on the bridge across the M62 at Ainley Top, Huddersfield, letting us know how windy and terrifying it was for motorists. Well, I guess they hadn’t noticed that themselves, had they? They hadn’t woken this morning to find billions of wet leaves being hurled around, making it slippy- slidey and obscuring vision and the rain lashing their windscreens; they hadn’t dealt with the spray from large vehicles; they hadn’t dashed from their houses to their cars and got themselves drenched? No, they were all completely oblivious to these conditions until the BBC very kindly and sensibly went to the trouble of reporting on them for us. Bless them for that!

I shouldn’t mock, but we are as a nation, seemingly obsessed with the weather. We can’t even stand in a bus queue without longing to share our opinions on what it’s doing today. One of my favourites has to be “Can’t make its mind up, can it?”. Of course, “it” can’t make its mind up! “It’s” not a person! “It” hasn’t got a mind! “It” is simply the prevailing conditions! “We can’t grumble” – this usually said after a cold wet day following on from two consecutive sunny days. Apparently, we have no cause to complain if we have had at least one day of summer when the temperature rises above 2°C. We must not upset “It”, in case “it takes umbrage and refuses to allow the sun shine again!

Being tickled by the idea of the change in the weather making the news, I was browsing through a book that I’d used to collect together quotations and scraps of reading to return to one day. My attention was drawn to a Hardy poem – “The Announcement”[1]

They came, the brothers, and took two chairs

In their usual quiet way;

And for a time we did not think

They had much to say.

 

And they began and talked awhile

Of ordinary things,

Till spread that silence in the room

A pent thought brings

 

And then they said: “The end has come,

Yes: it has come at last.”

And we looked down, and knew that day

A spirit had passed.

It’s the way the scene is set with the ‘waiting’. Something is known to the tellers that the listeners don’t yet know, and even as they wait they hope to be wrong. But a sense of something is created in the mood of all as they wait – and it’s that, to me, that makes the poem so beautiful. The stillness of it; the wanting to hold on to the moment where that telling, and its implications, has not been told, yet knowing, really knowing that it must be told; that there is something that will happen. In all of that, there is a soft tension that can be felt by all but never spoken of.

It’s the “usual quiet way” that perhaps leads those watching to hope. So things are the same as they’ve always been, are they not? Surely nothing can be wrong? But then comes the talking “of ordinary things”. There must have something extraordinary in that ordinariness to create that tension that becomes the silence that spreads in the room that a “pent thought brings”. A thought we try to hold back from having – because once thought, once tripping delicately through our mind – we cannot take it back. Thoughts we have thought take on a life of their own and begin a chain of events that often we do not want to set in motion, but we must.

It brings to mind a memory of watching a documentary about the Hillsborough football disaster, when 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in the most horrible way. One of the mothers of two teenage girls was talking; her daughters had gone to the match with their father and she had remained at home but had watched the horror unfold on the TV screen minutes after the whistle had gone. The girls had been in the central pens but their father was in a different part of the stadium along with a friend. He tried desperately to find out what had happened to them amidst the ensuing chaos but it was hours before it was confirmed that they had been killed; their bodies taken to the school, acting as a temporary morgue. He had to return home without them and tell his wife this most dreadful of news. She tells on the documentary of how she saw him climb out this friend’s car and look towards the window where she was standing. “I ran out of the house and down the drive, but saw his face and knew what he was going to tell me. So I ran up the street as fast as I could. I thought ‘If I can just get away he can’t tell me, then it won’t be true.’”

As though she could push away the telling and hold back the horrible impact by not hearing the words. Reality cannot begin as long as she has no confirmation of the worst possible news.

There’s something of a horrible tension between wanting to know the truth but yet not wanting to hear it vocalised. When we have been feeling ill, with symptoms we cannot explain, it can be something of a relief to finally receive a diagnosis that means we can begin to manage or treat. Having a name for a condition can be helpful and at least give us something to focus our energies on. Now we can feel less helpless and get back in control.

I saw this all too often too with parents of disabled children. They would know something was not right and when someone eventually could name a condition, or identify a particular impediment, it was as though they could begin to move forward once again. For a time they had been circling, feeling as though they were going mad; feeling isolated from all those families of ‘normally developing’ children. There were differences that couldn’t be sufficiently explained. In cases of illness or disability, one has been living ‘in the dark’ quite often for so long that an announcement, although in some ways dreaded, is also welcomed, as it marks the end of what has often been a nightmare of not-knowing.

There is a difference when the announcement is about death. This is about the end of a life and there is no going forward for the person whose life it was. Where there was once a person, there is now a gaping hole. Whatever our beliefs, there is that moment, that we would rather not face, when we are told; when we come to know. For the Hillsborough mum, the ‘pent thought’ made her scream and run to attempt to stave off the terrible truth. I remember my mum’s face when she had to tell me my grandfather was dying of oesophageal cancer and had only days to live. I didn’t run or scream, but there was a mad moment where I almost covered her mouth to stop her telling me. As she was speaking I was uttering words of denial. As though only in the telling will the truth emerge.

“The end has come…at last”. Life endings are inevitable; we will all share that experience and yet none of us will be able to recount it to another and thus give the comfort that all of us, if truth were told, really desire. As each person leaves the life we know now, there is a moment that has to be marked “And we looked down, and knew that day – A spirit had passed”. Somehow it seems fitting that that is what we do. A collective sign of acknowledgement – ‘you have gone and I remain’ – and also of our helplessness. This last thing we cannot explain or control, yet must one day face ourselves.

[1] The Announcement by Thomas Hardy: p428 “The Collected Works of Thomas Hardy” 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library Press

Season of Mists and Not So Mellow School Days

It’s a time of year to be cautious when out walking. The weather, mild as it is at the moment, can catch you unawares, as clouds cover the low sun all too quickly and the day becomes cold with little warning. It’s a hassle knowing what to wear. I set off in a fleece at 7.00 am as it feels cold but 20 minutes later it’s tied round my waist as I’m sweating profusely. And if it looks like rain I’ve already got my waterproof round my middle. The answer of course is usually to take the rucksack, but I’m generally only out for an hour on the daily walk, so it seems a bit like overkill. I already go armed with a walking pole, because the ground can be so tricky with the adverse camber (now there’s a great term!!) and roots sticking up, as well as muddy paths in the parts of the woods that never see much sun, that I feel the need of something to steady me. So you’d wonder why I ever bother going if it’s such a treacherous activity, wouldn’t you?

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The thing is there is nothing quite like that feeling of freedom as the garage door lifts (we always start and finish in the garage – it’s not for cars, you know, it’s for drying off dogs, hanging damp gear and storing boots and other paraphernalia!!). I breathe in the morning air and look to the sky – whatever it’s like, we have to go – and we’re off. Following the path alongside the cemetery, dipping through the woods and down to the stream, where Billy gets his first paddle of the day. He just has to leap in and have a drink, whatever the temperature. These mornings it can sometimes be difficult to see him in the woods – him being so golden – against the brilliant red and orange colours of the fallen leaves.

The morning light, dappling on the floor of the woods is just beautiful. I suppose that’s why Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” sprang to mind today. It may sound naff to you, but I heard myself saying it out loud

                Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;    Conspiring with him how to load and bless     with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

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What a rich and sumptuous a poem it is; ripe and plump with goodness, the words capture all the tawny shades of the season. I couldn’t recall much more of it – I’m not that brilliant at remembering poems – just bits of them. But I found myself leaving the autumn morning and flying down the years to when I was at secondary school. It was where I first heard and studied Keats. In English Lit. At Marple Hall County Grammar School for Girls. And I find myself stiffening, as though ready for another miserable day there. That school did me very few favours and very likely did me a lot of harm and I’m saddened to say I hated almost of every day I was there – certainly the first year.

One of only three girls from my primary school to pass the 11 plus and go to grammar school, I was so thrilled and my mum and dad were really proud. However, after only a couple of days, I was disheartened, disillusioned, disappointed and on my way to being disinterested and disaffected. The sheer hugeness of the building was of course an issue, but all children have to overcome that at transition I suppose. It was more that I was separated from the two girls I had gone with – and was with 27 I had absolutely nothing in common with at all. Now, I didn’t think I was shy – but suddenly I found myself almost socially inept. At my little church primary, I’d been quite important. I knew everyone. I was a monitor; well thought of by the headmaster and teachers. I loved that school. I loved the little playground; the iron steps that went up to the staffroom that was above the stage in the hall; the outside stinky toilets; the cloakrooms with wooden benches and pegs; the field that was surrounded by gardens of houses where people I knew lived and which had fences we climbed through to take short cuts. I loved the milk that came in crates; school dinners with pudding and lumpy custard; recorder lessons; singing in the choir; taking harvest festival parcels to the old people’s home; reading “Treasure Island” aloud in class.

Most of all I loved Miss Briggs, my last teacher there. She was about 92 – stick thin, with wispy grey hair on her head and her chin. She terrified most children and many a boy was whacked with the plimsoll she kept in her desk (a high one, because she never sat down – ever!!) But she was also deeply respected and loved and she adored me. I worked hard, was bright and loved reading – her ideal pupil! And she encouraged me greatly. As did Mr Thorpe, our headmaster: a bit stern, but a darling of a man. He assigned the older pupils tasks of great importance – like copying out lists while sitting in his warm study (he always had one of those little five-bar electric fires in there). I was someone there – a person who mattered. I believed I could have done anything, been whatever I wanted – wonderful things like write great novels or be an actress or a teacher. Well, Miss Briggs made it seem as though they weren’t wild dreams – she believed that with hard work and a respectful attitude you could achieve your ambitions.

Grammar school crushed me. It made me small. I was there weeks before I had a real conversation with any other girl. (The 14 boys who had been with me were in another school and I never really spoke to them again). I had to catch a bus and every minute of that journey was a trial. It was noisy and horrid and took me away from the lovely place where I lived to that nasty, great building with loads and loads of stairs. Every lesson was in a different room on a different floor and everywhere seemed to smell of disinfectant. All the girls in my new ‘form’ (we weren’t in classes any more, they had to be ‘forms’, which I had always thought were wooden things you sat on!) seemed to know one another. They talked differently to me and about different things and I very soon picked up that most of these girls slept in bedrooms by themselves and had mothers who were at home when they got in from school and fathers who went to work in suits, with briefcases.

What I was seeing was my first glimpse of social class difference. At St Mark’s we were all much the same, in terms of class. Most of my friends lived on the council estate like me; those who didn’t lived in terraced houses on a main road (which I thought were tiny) and a couple in semi-detached ones. To me though, I felt the luckiest of all – living opposite a dairy farm, surrounded by wonderful fields, hedged by blackberry bushes and close to woods, a river and a fabulous canal (a great place of adventure, where once we found a dead dog, complete with maggot filled mouth, floating!!). Suddenly I was thrown into a place where differences in class were not only apparent, but where some girls were afforded a higher status because of what their fathers did for a living or where they lived.

It wasn’t so much the girls themselves – it was something about the attitude and behaviour of the teachers. They were mostly a frightful bunch. Few of them could teach well – they shouted a lot, wrote on the blackboard and dictated much, but gave out little encouragement. I don’t recall any teacher asking me any questions about myself or my life outside of school. I was very unhappy in my first year and it was only really English and French lessons that I enjoyed at all. The scariest lesson of all was Geography. We had a witch of a teacher – she was truly frightening. And she hated me. Well, it was mutual. I started to avoid her lessons – making out I was having clarinet lessons! (Honestly, I would have been ready for the Halle the amount of lessons I said I was having!!) She eventually found me out – and that I hadn’t done a single homework assignment for the whole of the first term. (I hadn’t done much other homework either actually! I hated it all so much as soon as I got home I hid my school bag and tried to forget all about it). Did the witch make any attempt at all to find out what was wrong? Did she heck! My punishment was to have to spend every single lunch period in her form room, watched by a couple of senior girls, copying out everything I had missed over that first term. The witch and I remained committed enemies for the two years she taught us and even now the very thought of her sends shiver down my spine. (My mother admitted recently that when she met this demon at a parents’ evening, she too felt quite terrified!!)

I did eventually settle down and make some lovely friends though. I had a wonderful youth hostelling holiday with three of them –an adventure that awakened my love of walking and the outdoors. One of my saviours was a fabulous English teacher, Miss Snell, who established I was good at Drama, loved reading and really encouraged me. However, I didn’t leave school with any honours and just about managed to scrape together 6 ‘O’ levels, before I left to go to college and eventually into nursing. I don’t think any teacher held any great expectations of me. I recall a careers interview I had with a charmless, chinless lady with bouffant hair, too much perfume and foul pink lipstick and wearing a revolting blue knitted suit.

“Have you thought about what you will do when you leave school, Beverley?”

“Yes, I’d like to be a teacher, Miss”

“Oh, no, no, no. I really don’t think so, young lady. You’re simply not academically capable of such a career”.

Really? And of course, I had a personality, didn’t I, so that would certainly have precluded me, wouldn’t it? Old bat!!

Somehow, despite being ‘academically incapable’, I made it through nursing, hold a good first degree, a teaching qualification and a Masters. I’ve held clinical specialist posts, management positions (was Head of children’s nursing in fact), teaching posts, project  management and government advisory roles. I used to dream of meeting this ‘careers expert’ and shoving my qualifications and curriculum vitae where they would never see the sun again! But you know what? I’m over it. I’ve let it go. I refused to let those few years of awful experiences define me for the rest of my life. I also let go of the feelings of wanting to ‘get back’ at those teachers a long time ago. I know who I am now and I am confident, not so much in myself or my own abilities, but in the One in who gave me life and in whom I placed my trust more than 20 years ago.

It won’t be the same for all kids though. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, do think on the amount of influence you have on a developing individual. You’re in a privileged position and young people, despite an often tough exterior, are fragile beings and easily knocked. Don’t step on their dreams! I give thanks for the many friends I have who are teachers – all of them dedicated and passionate about education and getting the best out of their students. It’s a joy to know you are out there working with children, helping them to be the very best they can be. I salute you!

Why Bother Blogging?

Hello to the very few who will be reading this very first of my blogs! I’m really excited – not entirely sure why. But maybe it’s about just having my very own platform, to share my own thoughts with no one being able to butt in and interrupt me! Oh I know folk will be able to comment and contradict etc, but not while I’m actually talking! I can finally have my say on something I care about without being able to see anyone pulling their face, or going “Well, that’s all very well, but…..” or “You can’t honestly believe….” – you know the sort of thing – all the stuff that can put you off your stride and make you trip up on your words or mess up your thoughts and stop you being that eloquent, erudite speaker that you know you truly are. At least deep down in your dreams anyway.

Well, you may already be asking – so why do you want to blog at all? What’s the point? I guess it’s because I know I’m opinionated (gosh, what a confession to make! My friends – quickly deny this indictment!!!). But really, it’s because I enjoy expressing myself through writing. I always have. I love to scribble or type away. I write all sorts. Creative stuff – sketches, stories; I’m even working on a novel. (Although it’s probably going to be published posthumously the time it’s taking me!). I’m a lay reader with the Anglican Church and I preach regularly – I write all my sermons. I write letters to fictional characters. I write essays about all sorts of things. (I actually loved the essay writing when doing my MA recently – though didn’t always write the sorts of essays they actually wanted!). I keep a journal and write at length in it about my feelings, my thoughts and I berate God through it too! Although of course, I also praise him, thank him, ask him for things and question him. I also write about how I think/believe he is talking to me through his word.

So, I read some of this back recently. And you know what? It’s not bad. I mean, some of it is terrible; some very average, even boring; but some is deeply moving; some very funny; some quite clever, though I do say so myself; some decidedly and expressively passionate. But much of it, I decided (and this may sound immodest), much of it is worth reading. That’s another of my passions – reading. I’ll read most things but I love fiction particularly. Most genres – although science-fiction doesn’t really set me on fire. Historical (such as Hilary Mantel), or contemporary , I enjoy both. I don’t have a favourite author of this age – although at any one time I will be delighting in a particular author. (Andrea Levy and Sarita Mandanna and Jenny Diski and Jeanette Winterson and Sebastian Faulks are just a few who immediately spring to mind among my memorable greats – but there are so many more who have moved me, enriched my life and stretched my mind). Trying to imagine not being able to read, or being prevented from reading, fills me with terror. I couldn’t bear not to have books around me; not to know what I’ll be reading next. When I’m reading something I have to know there is another book waiting for me; it helps alleviate the feeling of bereavement that comes over me as one book comes to an end. When I’m reading, if it’s a good book that is, I feel sometimes as if I am living with those characters. So much so that I have found myself wondering what they are doing when I’m not actually reading the book! Last year, I successfully completed a Masters in Reading in Practice. Two years of immersing myself in some of our greatest literature! Mostly, apart from the pressure of wanting to pass, it was just one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Middlemarch, A Christmas Carol, Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards; Wives and Daughters; Villette; The Assistant – when I saw the titles on the reading sheet for the first term I almost swooned! Forced to read a book and week and write something on it was a challenge, but an excellent discipline. Reading takes us to places we may never visit; it helps us find places within ourselves that have been hidden even from us and where the most fabulous thoughts are birthed – thoughts we have never even knew we could think. Reading helps us find a voice for our fears, our longings, our fantasies, our inarticulations (and I know that isn’t even a word!). Reading can brighten the most miserable of days. It gives us a place to run to when the world feels frightening, boring, irritating or disturbing. Without reading, the world, for me, would be a more dismal, dark and joyless place. Yet, so many people have not discovered the joys reading for themselves or, through the busy-ness of life and work, have lost the knack of reading.

In the past year I’ve set up two reading groups. These are entirely different to book clubs. In reading groups, the reading is done at the gathering of the group – and those who wish to, take turns to read aloud. We spend around 15 minutes reading a passage from a novel and sometimes a poem or two. Then we share together what thoughts that reading has led us to have. It’s not criticism or anything grand at all. Everyone is able to say whatever they want. The only banned utterance is “I don’t like that”. That’s just lazy! All reading stimulates some thought – even if it hasn’t particularly moved you, it will have led you to think something. There will be at least a word or an expression that perhaps made you slow your reading, or made you wrinkle your nose, or raise your eyebrow. We’ve found that to be the case with everything we’ve read. And there have been some great surprises. Members of the group look forward to meeting and friendships have formed. More so, people tell me they have found solace, comfort, joy and reassurance through reading in the group and, although I cannot measure this, believe it to be a great way of lifting their spirits. It has to be good for emotional health. Well, The Reader Organisation – and you could read all about this fabulous organisation at http://www.thereader.org.uk/ – certainly believe this to be the case. Through their innovative shared reading models and in partnership with Mental Health Trusts, they have seen lives transformed. Do visit their pages to read about how people have increased in confidence and improved self-reflection and self-awareness. A quote on their website currently reads “I have learned more of what it is to be a human being”. I’ll go with that. We connect with our humanity through great literature and in reading together we connect with a wider community of a piece of that humanity.

So you see what I might be blogging about? Things that I am reading, or have read, and the thought paths it has taken me on. The thoughts evoked through that reading.  Maybe we can establish something of a virtual shared reading group? But it’s not just reading – as my domain will have suggested to you. My second love is for walking. I guess it’s because I know I might get enormously fat if I just read all the time! I can’t go a day without walking somewhere. I live now in West Yorkshire – in the beautiful Holme Valley and I have walks right from my front door. But there are loads of places I love to walk and plenty where I haven’t walked yet, but would like to at some point. I have a delightful companion in my daft cocker Spaniel – Billy Bobs – and he too can walk for miles. We have some great adventures, I can tell you! During my walks I can often put the world to rights in my head – I can plan meals – plan sermons – plan what I’m going to say to someone. I can turn over things that I’ve read and make sense of them or allow myself to dream of where I might go one day. All this whilst taking in the views, stopping my dog from leaping over strangers and fighting off clouds of midges on a hot day!!

I have already rambled on too long! For now, I will say no more. but prizes will be given for identifying the photograph on this blog! Let’s meet minds again soon:))

 

 

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Thoughts and reflections on my own reading and walking and all sorts of other personal journeys!!