Saturday, September 30, 2006


Car Deck
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A quick thank-you to all who sent me cards, presents and texts to wish me a happy birthday today. I had a great day over on Bute with a picnic - we've never walked there before - and came home to drink a bottle of champagne and collapse comatose in a manner suited to one so aged.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Teacher training – some questions

What, exactly, do they teach young teachers in teacher training colleges? That isn’t a rhetorical question, however Victor Meldrewish it may sound: I’d really like to know. Because I don’t know about other subjects, I’ll stick to my own – English – because it’s in English teaching that I’ve become aware of some of the horrors.

I’ll come clean right away and admit that my own recollections of my PGSE course (not that we called it that – I can’t recall that we had a name for it) are hazy. I remember some apparently despair-crushed lecturer telling us that it was a good idea when confronted with a wildly unruly class to “exhaust the response”. I also remember that at the time we found that hilarious. The reality, of course, is far from hilarious, and with hindsight I know what he meant. But I want to talk today about the actual subject-teaching content of these courses.

This is the scenario: a new teacher (male, youngish); a supposedly Credit S4 class. Many of the people in the class have already had two such teachers in their school career to date; both have moved on. They are still doing Standard Grade, so five months from now they will have to submit a folio of their best work, according to tightly specified guidelines. Ideally at this stage they would already be in possession of such a folio, requiring only to upgrade and/or replace pieces that they can improve upon. But this is not the case – for it takes someone who really knows what they are doing to ensure that they have accomplished this in S3.

They need to know exactly what they are doing, and why. At this stage, it is not ideal to dabble in randomly-chosen pieces of literature, doing a vaguely-targeted critical appraisal of this and that, not really having it assessed, not really being told how to improve it, not actually knowing if this could be a folio piece or not – and if not, why not. And yet I know for a fact that I am describing a real situation, one which will affect the future paths of many bright students.

So what should be happening? The teacher needs to be very clear in his own mind at this stage what exactly he is trying to do. He has two tasks: (1) to prepare his pupils for an exam and (2) to encourage them to widen their horizons while at the same time equipping them to deal with any text they will come across. This will, in time, include tax returns and passport applications, financial documents and their wills – we’re not just talking Shakespeare here.

I realise I could go on about this – and may well, in a later post - but I want to come back to my original point. Are student teachers told clearly what they must do at different stages in a school? How specific are the lectures they attend? I know from my own recent experience that students are encouraged to be innovative (at least in some quarters) – but what about the clear vision of what a teacher of English is actually trying to do? And then how to do it? And what to avoid? Perhaps then we wouldn’t have the pitiful spectacle of bright kids with a pathetic bundle of inadequate work and no sense of direction – and by that I mean not actually knowing if they have to finish a piece of work or if it will ever be assessed.

From what I have seen on the blogs of student teachers, there is a tendency to high-flown academic language about texts and teaching. I think there is a real need for telling it like it is – and equipping young teachers with the tools they will need when the future of 100 or so kids will depend on their abilities. We don’t expect our young doctors to mess up for the first year or so of solo work – we expect them not to kill us as they learn. Is teaching less important?

After all, you may have an aspiring brain surgeon in your class ….

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A special place

A break from thinking about education today. Instead we were up at the crack of dawn and off to spend the day on Arran. My favourite glen - probably anywhere - is Glen Sannox, a perfect glaciated U-shaped valley. Until recently, it was also an extremely muddy hike, as the water drains off the surrounding hills on its way to the burn and sits in the peaty hollows on the floor of the glen. However, it has in recent years been attacked by the National Trust, who have made a wonderful job of creating a natural-looking gravel track over the bogs, with drainage ditches channelling the water to the burn and huge rocks ensuring that the channels remain firmly defined. So now a walk that used to consist of much leaping and cursing among the tussocks has become a pleasurable experience - and the state of the boots at the end of the day is noticeably cleaner.

Perhaps it is the extreme wildness of the glen which has always attracted me, or the looming shapes of Cioch na h-Oighe, Caisteal Abhail and Cir Mhor which bring the cloud hanging over the centre of the island, or the thrill of finding the excavated whinstone dike which is the key to the route up The Saddle at the head of the glen - I can't pin it down. But I know that today, when we had only a few hours on the island which I regard as my other home, it was Glen Sannox that I wanted to spend these hours in. I have never been there so late in the year, when the bog myrtle is losing its heavenly perfume and the bracken is turning, but I should like to return in winter, to see the mountains under snow.

Living here in Dunoon, Arran is always visible, filling the road through Innellan, looming above Bute when seen from Toward. I never see it without wanting to be there. Today, I was.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Class blogs: the flies in the ointment

I’ve done a good deal of thinking recently about the practical uses of blogs as a teaching tool in the English classroom, and a summary of this will be appearing shortly in Coming of Age #2. But having arrived at the stage of seeing so clearly how such a tool could save hours of repetitive note-making for formative assessment, I began to look at why it doesn’t seem to be taking off. After all, it’s not exactly rocket science (no pun intended, but I quite like it)

Let’s postulate an English teacher, with a pretty academic S4 class. She sets up a class blog for working, say, on a Critical Essay. (During the S4 course, she may set five such essays) The pupils use the blog to assemble their ideas, collaboratively at first, but gradually moving towards the point where each individual is working on his/her own essay. And gradually the teacher’s comments will become the kind of thing that in the past she will have been writing on the pupils’ scripts as they submitted them – formative assessment.

Now, as I see it, part of the joy of this is that the comments will be available for others in the class to see and benefit from; in fact the teacher could highlight points which were more widely beneficial by putting them in a post instead of a comment, with indication, perhaps, of exactly which pupils need to heed this post. But there’s the rub – maybe. For the comments are there for not just the class to see, but the teacher’s line manager, the headteacher, the parents, other teachers ….. and so on.

If a teacher doesn’t really go in for helpful comments on a pupil’s work, if she merely ticks and grades and throws it back for the hapless pupil to make it better all on his own, then that kind of teacher isn’t going to want to blog. If a teacher is uncertain actually of how to tell a pupil to improve their writing and prefers to leave a vague comment rather than expose her own uncertainty, then that teacher isn’t going to want to blog. Most principal teachers in fact have little time to inspect the ongoing assessment within their department, and laying down ground rules about how teachers actually assess individual pieces is all very well but hard to enforce. But if each teacher in a department had their assessment in the public domain – indeed, their whole year’s work in literature and writing on record for all to see – who is the winner there?

The answer has to be the pupil. Not just because of the benefits I’ve already discussed elsewhere – the permanent record, the sense of audience – but also because their teacher will be equally aware of audience. There will be no chance to shut the classroom door and hide the evidence in the cupboard. And it may be that this is the big fly in the ointment for the teacher unwilling to go public. Maybe blogs are just too open – not for the pupils we spend so much energy “protecting” from the big bad cyber-public, but for the majority of teachers who prefer to keep their work within the four walls of their classroom.

And now I’ll go nail this to the edublog door …….

Monday, September 25, 2006

Brambles in the blogosphere?

Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I've just had the interesting experience of being interviewed for an embryonic local radio station - "someone creative" was apparently the remit. This resulted in an entirely enjoyable morning talking about my poetry and reading a few of them, including this one, which I wrote last year on National Poetry Day.


Today I found five brambles
Dangling carelessly on a branch
Miles from their roots
Invaders in my garden
Hard little things
Dull-eyed and gritty
But now I should wrestle
Not with a bank of weeds
But with an online bank
Prune some debts
Tidy loose ends
And instead of working
I am writing about brambles
Because a friend told me
That this was a day
For poems to grow in.

© C.M.M.
It feels somehow self-indulgent to be given the chance to talk about my own writing - normally it's something I do and offer without comment, as if it was bad enough to be inflicting the actual writing on folk without discussing it as well. In fact, a blog is about the only place where such self-absorption seems acceptable - until you start wondering about audience. I've touched on this before, here, but I've been forced to think again about audience and responsibility in blogging as in other areas of my life.

I find myself slightly resentful at the thought that a blog which began as my little-read online maunderings should have prompted someone to question the wisdom of posting what comes up my back. Is this what happens when people actually read what you write? You become anwerable?

Well, if so, I'm about to do some more serious (educational) thinking online. And if someone doesn't like it - tough. But I will think about what I write first. And that's a promise.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


In response to the encouragement from my comments page, a brief report on last night's gig. What do I recall today? Two things stick in my mind. First, we sang a storm. Confident, swinging, dead in tune. And I mention this first because the other memory is negative: the noise of the audience. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that two thirds of the 750 people reputed to be there couldn't be described as "audience" because the word implies a degree of listening. No, they were the punters; and it was like performing in a massive pub.

Other memories? Standing on the stage blinded by the lights so that I could see nothing but blackness in the auditorium. Squashed in the backstage area clutching stands and water bottles while large stagehands squeezed apologetically by and Fred Macaulay kept the patter flowing. The gaffer tape on the maestro's pedal sliding on the wet stage and needing running repairs mid-set ..... and the continuous racket from the darkness tempting me to seize the mike and bellow. (I didn't)

Do it again? I'd rather not. But I'm glad the Three Dolphins Trust got off to such a good start and that people seemed to have fun. I'll find my fun in a freezing half-empty church somewhere ....

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Fly me to the Moon .... please

Find today completely hijacked by the fact that I'm taking part in a charity concert in the Queens' Hall tonight. It's not as if I'm a solo turn - just Five of Eight (Borg afficionados will get this) in the singing group 8+1 (eight women + one man, our director), in a show full of rock groups, the school jazz band and Fred Macaulay the compere, but in a way it's even more frustrating.

For a start, we were promised a sound check with the "professional" sound man coming down "specially" - and now he's later than expected and the sound check is "aff". So we've had less than ten minutes on the stage last night and tonight we go on and whether or not we can be heard is in the hands of someone we've never met and who doesn't know anything about our sound. He's checking the jazz band and a rock group. We sound like neither of these. We are not amused.

If I survive the event I may blog more - or I may simply choose to forget it. Depends how it goes for us, I guess. It's more my cup of tea to sing Byrd in a lovely resonant building, with no sound experts within miles, but tonight it's "Fly me to the Moon" or nothing.

Let's hear it for the oldest swingers in town .....

Thursday, September 21, 2006

TeachMeet06 recollected in tranquillity

Looking back at yesterday’s visit to TeachMeet06, what are my impressions? Last night I was full of it – and out of my skull with exhaustion by the time I came to blog about it, so that my posts were full of broken links and I wasted ages deleting multiple posts. Actually I think some of that was Blogger rather than me, but I can’t be sure…

Anyway, a nos moutons. My over-riding impression was of people who were very much alive – and hugely enthusiastic about what they were doing. There was none of the world-weary disdain for the work of teaching that is such a depressing feature of some staffrooms and many in-service courses. And no-one was taking the piss out of the enthusiastic. It was great. And more – I found I’d forgotten that I’d actually retired, and that I’d gone back to thinking about education again, seeing how the new stuff on display could be used in my own area.

Maybe teaching has been static for too long. I know there have been so many new initiatives that we were all sick of them – but were they actually new? It’s not really new thinking to tweak an exam or two, or decide that work should be done in text-based units, as we did when Standard Grade came in. Remember these interminable units that would sicken anyone of the most riveting book by spreading it over months of trivial tasks? How many boxes of paper and comb-bound booklets ended up collecting dust on the topmost shelves of departmental store cupboards? This stuff is new thinking, encouraging a fluid and open approach which involves everyone, pupils and teachers, in working collaboratively – and not in waiting for Course Outlines decided by someone higher up the tree with a career to carve.

Yesterday I felt a bit of an anomaly in that company – I really only use the tiny fringes of the technology on offer, and am not really geek material. I learn as I go along, but slowly compared with these guys. But I am a teacher – and as I made clear in what I said, a good tool is a good tool and should be seized and used.

But now I really must try to sort out my tags……

Blogging and Creative Writing

Originally uploaded by Edublogger.
Text of presentation at TeachMeet06

Ok. I found the pearls. The twinset eluded me. I’m a recently retired English teacher – and yes, I found the time to explore the uses of blogging once I was out of the classroom, but then no-one had told me what I’m about to tell you. I used a blog to improve the Creative Writing skills of two private students between their Standard Grade prelim and the final exam – and it’s a big task to improve writing in 3 months.

And you might well dismiss what I say because I’m not doing it with a whole class, but I’m not going to be dismissed so easily. That’s because when I was teaching I really worked my socks off on formative assessment. That often meant writing much the same thing on up to 30 essays at a sitting – because as you presumably all know, children tend to make the same mistakes or need the same tips when engaged on a task. And that’s the first thing I’d say about blogging when teaching creative writing: you can blog a point and have all the pupils read it and refer to it when needed – because it’s there for all to see.

Process Writing is a method of encouraging “real” writing – of getting students to open up and express genuine emotions through writing that is at once spontaneous and well-controlled. In the classroom until now, it has involved each student in writing on six small pieces of paper, each following on from an initial idea based on “a place, a person or an object important or familiar to you”. They consult in pairs after each one, then use the ideas generated to build a piece of writing – or to reject everything done so far and start again. After a fortnight of writing and conferencing and editing and redrafting the final piece is written – and then physically cut, using scissors and sellotape. Really.

Are you beginning to see how much tidier – and less noisy – this would be if it were the subject of a class blog? Process Blogging, in fact. This is what I did. The students set up the blog – named it, thought up a user name and password – and they wrote the posts. Each post was identified by the student’s initials or nickname. It might be the opening paragraph of a novel based on the beginning of one of Graham Greene’s stories or a descriptive paragraph trying out the use of effective imagery – or any of the areas explored in Process Writing.

I did most of the commenting – the usual pernickety stuff I’d been accustomed to scribble on their work about comma-splice, layout of dialogue, dead metaphors – you name it. Every thing an English teacher needs to point out, depending on the stage and ability of the student. Sometimes they’d come right back: “What do you mean by comma-splice?” “Why is that a bad word to use there?” Other times there would be a rewrite and :”Is this better?” I’d also suggest prompts – because that’s a big part of the conferencing in Process Writing. So I might ask: “What is the heroine going to do now?” or “You haven’t told me how she got to this stage – put in a paragraph to get her down the road” And they’d do it – perhaps in a five-minute interval after I’d commented.

But I wasn’t alone in the Comments section. Other bloggers joined in – friends of mine, other blog-savvy educators, my former students. So my current pupils realised they had a real audience – not just each other, not just me, but people they didn’t know, “out there”. Their writing became more focused, more intense. They worked on it every day – a little at a time, or a whole essay in a night for a time trial. Often I’d comment on it before I went to bed – a much more instant response than waiting for the English period or till I’d finished the S1 jotters.

And it worked. By the time of the Standard Grade exam, the two girls who’d been disappointed with a level 3 in the prelim both gained Credit grades for writing, and one of them got straight 1s. You can check her response on - the blog is called Progress Report.

Blogging of itself isn’t the answer to every English teacher’s prayer – a poor teacher or a lazy one is not going to have a miraculous effect simply because he uses a blog. Blogs are merely a tool. But it’s a sad day when good teachers aren’t given access to all the methods available to them – and sadder still when they themselves put up the barriers.

By the way: I have some great ideas about writing Critical Essays using blogs – but they’ll have to wait!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Originally uploaded by DavidDMuir.
Having just got in from aquaplaning over the Rest and Be Thankful in driving rain - strange, isn't it, how fierce rain always seems to originate from a point six feet in front of the windscreen - I don't feel like the brightest blogger on the block, but I can't end the day without pinching one of David's pix showing the gathering I attended today: TeachMeet06.

That wine you can see on the table went down a treat - I hadn't tasted Stormhoek before, but may well again - and I felt that the crowd issuing forth from the Orkney Room in the Crowne Plaza hotel seemed considerably jollier than anyone else we met in the corridor. It almost made me wish (again) that I was still in the classroom, but after that journey home I'm glad not to have to be out for 9am.

I had a ball, chaps - great to meet you, David, Andrew, Neil, and the crazy American lady who came over from New York specifically to attend TeachMeet06 (really). Tomorrow I'll put up the text of what I said, but right now bed seems more inviting.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Another new Edublog

A quick welcome to a new edublogger over at
wildbanks. Over the academic year we'll be covering the Standard grade coursework, starting with a look at constructing a good Critical Essay. Later we'll go onto Creative Writing - and who knows what we could do with tackling Interpretation?

I hope my usual suspects will join in with the constructive comments.

Prep time

Originally uploaded by Edublogger.
Preparing to make my own fairly minimal contribution to Teachmeet06 tomorrow, I find myself wondering about the phenomenon of actually doing just that - preparation. For years I taught more or less on the hoof - any preparation would come if I had to study a new text myself first - not knowing what I was going to say until the occasion arose. At least, that's what it felt like, especially on the days when I'd say to a class: "Well: what are we doing today?" Ok, with a Higher class I'd have an idea of what I wanted to cover in a given period, but it was pretty fluid.

So why am I doing this preparatory stuff? Partly, I suppose, it's because of the time limit on the presentation - I can't say "Ok ,we'll finish this next time" and I want to ensure that I say what I want to. And partly, I suspect, it's because the past year I've been doing sermons and stuff, and out of my comfort zone, with a silent audience who won't give me any input. But I'm looking forward to it - and to putting faces to some blog-names.

And what do I hope for? Well, I've been so appalled by the low level of tech-use in my own area (academically and in my old haunts) that I'd like to think that I could influence at least one more person to try blogging to develop Creative Writing for senior pupils. I'll not hold my breath, though.

And back at The Blethers I have another private student coming today for a first meeting. Guess what I hope we'll do first?

The nights are ....


Tonight we lit two candles
against the Autumn gloom
- cool jazz on the music deck,
cold rain a counterpoint –
and ate the comfort food
that warms on winter’s night.
Such cocoons we build ourselves
snug against the dark –
I hear the sax’s moaning
like wind beneath the door
and think of being out there
and flinch, and draw the blind.

C.M.M. 09/06

Monday, September 18, 2006


It's a rocky road for the religious these days. I laughed aloud at this from youtube (thanks, Neil) the other day, and followed with some irritation the story of the Pope's supposed blunder - and yet I'd just been to church, and felt involved/affected/whatever it is we feel when faith is an active feature of our lives. I've always wondered if it were somehow feeble of me not to be a fervent door-banger or street-corner evangelist, but only in a detached sort of way. For in reality I always knew these activities made me cringe.

Today I had further thoughts on the matter, during a training session for lay leaders. While exploring just how much (or how little) we knew about the Old Testament (or indeed the entire Bible, but the OT more so, or less so) I came to the conclusion that I am a Christian despite the bible. Now that's an over-simplification, but there is so much written about which I feel sceptical or even - in the case of stories like Jael and Sisera - repelled that the outsider would wonder what remained for a faith to be built on.

And it's there that poetry comes to the rescue (again). I've just been quoting this over on Following Columba, and it gave me the third leg for today's thought to stand on. R.S.Thomas, in his poem "The Absence", talks about "a vacuum which he [God] may not abhor" - and that's it. Not so much something to build on, but something breathless which is kept alive by faith. No dogma, really, just emptiness. And the words of Christ to give form to the God who comes.

All a bit vague for bashing people with, really. And you should try explaining it to a fundamentalist ....

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Stating the obvious?

After a day spent at a meeting of people involved in the next Cursillo weekend in Scotland, I am left with two thoughts. The first is that I am still amazed at the power ordinary people have to be extraordinary - to do things way out of their comfort zone when the need arises.

The second is to do with how we confront our own mortality. It seems to me that acceptance of the one inescapable fact of our own eventual demise - as distinct from simply avoiding contemplation of it - is perhaps the greatest step we take along our spiritual road as mature thinkers. And it's interesting how possible it is to share this journey with others when an atmosphere of trust exists.

And it's salutary to think of the countless millions who have considered this reality - all the way down to someone sitting at a laptop publishing her thoughts in a manner inconceivable to the ancestors at the other end of the chain. We're very small, really, and life is very, very brief.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A view from the stalls

Oh, the joys of a life of freedom. Today I went to a matinee at the theatre for the first time without a gaggle of weans in attendance - to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow to see the delectable George Irving in "the French Lieutenant's Woman". Now, I have to admit that I booked the tickets because of the aforementioned George Irving - Holby City hasn't been the same since Anton Meyer's departure - but I enjoyed the whole experience much more than I expected. The staging and lighting made a huge contribution to a production which gripped me far more than the film ever did (I haven't read the book) and led us through the complexities of a story which unfolded "live" from the mind of "the writer" (Irving).

I loved the way the writer didn't know how his characters were going to turn out, and how we were shown alternative endings when the heroine refused to submit to a conventionally "happy" ending. And I was fascinated by the way in which an actor like Irving can dominate a stage, even when sitting quietly in the shadows as "his" action unfolds. I can't imagine how the performers rev themselves up to do it all over again at the evening performance. I could be getting a taste for theatre after all.

On our way through the heavy traffic after the performance we were stuck behind a throbbing stretch Humvee full of over-excited and farily obnoxious small boys, hanging out of the windows gesticulating and yelling at all and sundry. This must be the party choice for small boys, rather than the limos the girls go for. I suppose I hope none of them fell out or had their heads chopped off by a passing bus.

On a more edifying note, I am delighted to welcome Bishop Martin of Argyll to the blogging world. I look forward to the development of this blog and to the conversations which will arise through it.

A good day all round, I'd say!

Consider the Lilies?

Garden 9 - lilies
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I came upon something I'd scribbled in my diary in July, when this photo was taken. It reminded me of a wonderful morning spent reading poetry, in particular the work of Jane Kenyon, which was new to me. I reproduce it here in tribute to her poetry and to friends who grow a wonderful garden and ply me with poems to read in it!


This morning I sat and saw the lilies
which yesterday had grown at my back.
They are arranged in tiers, like a school photo,
the tallest at the rear. Their scent
is everywhere, seducing me to stay
as I sit in a white canvas chair
reading your poems and feeling
welling up within at last the need to write again.
I am surrounded by rushing and the sound
of multitudes of hidden birds who
splash and scurry, and the strange
interrupted cooing of a dove whose song
repeated twice is silenced when he sings
the first note of the opening phrase
and I smile at this casual reordering
of all my trained perceptions
as the sun strengthens and the lilies
poise to open new faces to the day.

© C.M.M. 07/06

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A grand graduation

Statues and sky
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A family graduation? Need a good background for the photies? Nae bother - Versailles seems a good venue. I don't know if that's how the OU decide where to hold their ceremonies, but it was an excellent excuse for the Blethers family to go on an absurdly OTT trip last weekend to see Neil graduate MBA. Clicking on this photo will take you to all the others taken on the day, as well as to some of the rather super hotel we stayed in.

I was incredibly taken with the atmosphere at the ceremony; "ordinary" graduations are exciting enough for the families of those involved, but this was an occasion celebrating the enormous achievement of completing arduous courses of study while - in many cases - holding down an equally arduous day-job. No wonder there was a big round of applause for the families and partners who had supported the new graduates. It was also noticeable that many of those graduating were, well, old. In fact, the effect was that of being surrounded by University dons of the old-fashioned variety - all those gowned figures well into their supposedly declining years.

We personally enjoyed Neil's moment of confusion over French gadgetry in the plumbing at the venue, when a venerable gent in the dark blue of a first degree was heard to remark to his wife that "That chap may have a Master's - but I'd to help him turn the tap on!" The speeches were excellent, demonstrating pride in the achievement and purpose of the OU, and I was delighted to find that the honorary graduate of the day was Quentin Blake, the illustrator of, inter alia, Roald Dahl's books for children.

Versailles was very grand, treacherously cobbled, and crawling with tourists who seemed bemused by the growing number of gowned figures in their midst. The sun shone, a gentle breeze prevented said gowned figures from keeling over with heatstroke, and the kir they served at the closing reception hit the spot admirably. It even crossed my mind that I should stop wasting my time on blethers and try some course of study for myself.

But it sounds rather like work, somehow.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Rubbernecking in a DUKW

What fun we've had today - real tourist stuff. Probably the most eccentric was to go for a tour round central London on a DUKW - they don't call it that, they call it a "Duck tour", but I've seen these things being used by the army (they landed on Brodick beach in my childhood, but that's another story) and knew better. For the uninitiated, DUKW is explained thus:
D=First year of production code "D" is for 1942
U=Body style "U" utility truck (amphibious)
K=Front wheel drive. GMC still uses that on trucks today (K5 Chevy Blazer)
W=Two rear driving wheels (tandem axle)
The truly enthused can discover more here, but if I tell you that it drove around Trafalgar Square and other tourist sights and then plunged into the Thames beside the MI6 building, you'll get my drift. We did drift a bit, come to think of it - the tide was racing brownly and scarily upriver and chugging broadside on as we did at first was quite hair-raising. You'll see from the photo that we were quite close to the water - it looked so soupy that the thought of falling in was remarkably unattractive.

We trundled/scooshed (more scooshing) past several places which looked somehow expectant, waiting to hear when the PM was going to move on, so to speak. So it seemed fitting to complete the day with a tour of the Parliament buildings - a an oddly familiar place, actually, though it was my first visit. We followed the route to the Lords taken by HM the Queen when she goes to open Parliament, passing through halls of enormous splendour with a faint whiff of public school. I was glad to see that The Woolsack has a cunning back support provided for the Lord Chancellor (I used to worry about that. I shan't any more), and amused by the constant exhortations that we should not sit on either the red benches of the Lords or the green benches of the Commons. Instead, we huddled obediently on the steps and heard how Dennis Skinner always reserves his seat with a prayer ticket, which seems to be the Commons equivalent of a German's beach towel. Apparently turning up for prayers is the only way to be sure of your place. Interesting, the place of religion in today's society.

We saw the plinth reserved for Margaret Thatcher's bust, rather insensitively placed next to Edward Heath's, though apparently they can be moved around. The guide allowed herself a brief speculation as to where a certain T. Blair would end up, but at that moment I was more struck by the oddity of seeing busts of such familiar people - Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan especially. And then we were outside again - no tea and buns because of renovation work in Westminster Hall. I realised too late that I hadn't visited the loo which the leaflet mentioned as being available - but then HM apparently has never used hers. Fifty-odd years of State Openings and never a visit.

An example to us all, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Oil on troubled waters?

I can't let yesterday's journey go unremarked. Flying to London from Glasgow should be a scoosh - right? Well, we did indeed scoosh along the M8 in the driving rain, and scooshed into the airport from the inadequately covered walkway provided at Glasgow for courtesy bus passengers - but there the scooshing ended. Our flight had been cancelled. (I've just discovered an email telling me of this. A tad late.) Actually it wasn't quite as final as it sounds- we were hustled onto a BMI flight and left 45 minutes earlier than scheduled. Only snag? Actually there were two, but the greatest was that we were now heading for Heathrow, not Gatwick. (The lesser was the absence of complimentary food) Had we been making a connection at Gatwick, we'd have been in trouble - they told us we could go in a complimentary bus and it'd take an hour, but having seen the traffic on the M25 I hae ma doots. However, we were being met by a saint who came all the way out to Heathrow instead. Phew.

I had a hilarious conversation on the plane, however. The Scandinavian woman next to me had no hand luggage at all - just a wallet. I commented on her travelling light - to be told that actually she'd had a cabin bag but hadn't been allowed to bring it into the cabin as she had holy oils in it. She had remonstrated - presumably in her socks, as you have to put your shoes through security - with the staff, but they were unimpressed. (You can't be effective in your socks. Really.) No holy oil allowed.

In fact, it looks as if religion and flying just don't mix. Any angels out there?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Greenham remembered.

Newly arrived in London's leafy (and warm - ten degrees warmer than it was in Dunoon today) southern suburbs, I find that Neil has been reminiscing about the Greenham Common days , when he was a small boy and I was heavily involved in the local CND. It is 25 years since the establishment of the Greenham Common Peace Camp, and 22 years since the big Greenham demo in Dunoon and the subsequent events which saw me as a frequent witness in the local Sheriff Court ("my" women all got off) and my consequent emergence as persona non grata in local Episcopalian circles - perhaps because there was about to take place a high-profile visit from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA.

When I look back on that time in the 80s, I remember primarily how the arrival of the women and the increased attention on the local CND at that time intensified the feeling of being somehow an outsider in this town where no-one outside a small circle of "incomers" seemed aware of the implications of the American Nuclear Submarine Base - "Site One" - in the Holy Loch. At the time, I was subject to feelings of guilt at having produced a family to live in such proximity to these subs - a proximity which, I learned, would never have been allowed in the States. I did what I could to alleviate such feelings with action - appearing on TV and radio, speaking in public, demonstrating, supporting those whose convictions led them into breach of the law - or "the peace", ironically enough. I even went to Greenham Common myself, though only for a weekend, and experienced the same abuse from the soldiers on duty as the resident protesters.

Now the Holy Loch is home to a marina and the American housing is available for locals to buy. And more people tend to criticise our allies, even if our Government won't. Life in Dunoon is altogether more staid than it was in the days of sudden demos and confrontations with the local police - always very civilised, but with the frisson of breaking with a normally law-abiding existence. And we are all considerably older. But would I do it again?

Yes. I think I would.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Apostrophe disease - a new strain.

I've just been reading a wonderful blogpost about the death of the apostrophe. At first I thought I'd discovered a kindred spirit - anyone who knew me in the classroom will remember my repeated rants about Apostrophe Disease. Now I find that not only is the apostrophe under threat grammatically - there are typographic problems as well.

And I'm pleased about that. It seems somehow fitting that as fewer and fewer people actually have the least idea about why they should stick commas in the air in the middle of words there should be a companionable decline in the typography used for this threatened punctuation mark. And I welcome anyone to the declining number of apostrophic ranters - we learn from one another, and we are fast approaching extinction.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Toadstools 2
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Isn't this marvellous? The Bishop's Glen is full of these architectural clusters of toadstools; if you click on this photo you'll go through to others, including one of a veritable Minas Tirith of the things. I always feel faintly creepy about them, and this was no exception - they glisten damply in a way I find sinister.

Blue water

My bathwater is pale blue. This is not as a result of any fragrant additives introduced by me, but, I suspect, of the chemicals which Scottish Water use to ensure that we are all kept pure and spotless within and without. In fact, in recent weeks I have noticed that there is a strong smell of chlorine while the hot tap is running, and - worse - a strong smell of chlorine from my newly-bathed skin.

Now, I am a frequent visitor to our local public swimming pool, where I appreciate the need to zap any bodily unpleasantness that finds its way into the water in which we all swim. However, I am not so aware of the need to disinfect our every ablution - unless the water supply is so contaminated with unmentionables that we'd all be dead in our baths before you could shout "plague!" And I do resent the fact that at certain times whose governing criteria I am as yet unable to discern our drinking water should have its very own chemical taste which can only be disguised by a strong coffee. In a society where we are increasingly admonished to drink plenty of water it is surely supremely important that the water in question should be .....tasteless?

When in the past I visited rellies in Leigh-on-Sea, we drank bottled water because the tap water smelled and tasted as if it had been stored for along time in an old rubber hot-water-bottle. There was the suggestion that it had been recycled seven times before we drank it - or is that merely a mystical number? But the point is this: in the West of Scotland we still have a great deal of water. Some of it is tumbling from the heavens even as I write. Is there no way it could arrive in my tap in a rather more virginal state?

And now I'm off to search for a water-butt .......