It’s beginning to look a lot like………

Thank you so much for writing this. A lot of us must have been thinking of you and wondering how things were going
. You’ve bravely weathered a dreadful month and another Christmas. Wishing you and your family much less dreadful pressure and greater peace of mind in 2015 xx

Justice for Nico

If you’re ever offered an inquest 2 weeks before Christmas Day – say no.

As we walked from the train to the coroner’s court through the beautiful Christmas streets decked out with lights and with jolly Christmas songs and carols playing in every shop and on every corner, it only served to make us feel more desolate and isolated from the world around us.

I would like to apologise with all sincerity for not writing anything in the last two weeks. So many people have sent me wonderful messages of support and genuine concern in the days leading up to Nico’s inquest and I’ve hardly answered a single one of them or even acknowledged that I’m still here following the inquest.

Heart-warming tweets and some lovely blogs have been written in solidarity with us and I’ve not acknowledged a single one. This makes me feel terribly guilty. So I want…

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Starry, Starry Night and the Magic

Advent 8 On the power of story

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I was brought up in the cold, grey north where winters were dark and grim. The culture was pretty grim too, in those days. Bars were for the men and they shut at ten o’clock. Respectable children were not allowed to play out on a Sunday.

My friend told me that when she started school, it was arranged she would walk back to her grannie’s for her tea, before going home. On her second day her grannie asked her how her day had gone.

“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” she ventured timidly

“Enjoy!” said her grannie sternly. “You’re not put on this earth to enjoy! We’re here to suffer and be judged!”

That about summed it up really.

So it wasn’t until I was well into my teens that I encountered the magic of light and joy in a well enacted story.

One Christmas Eve a gang of us teenagers went along on to what was known in Scotland as the Watchnight Service. We weren’t particularly religious. It must have been because one of us was the minister’s son and was under orders to go.

I had never been to anything remotely symbolic in a church before. No gilded statues or lavishly decorated altars for the United Free Church of Scotland where I had gone to Sunday school!

But, at the Watchnight Service in this strange cold church, there was silent darkness until, at midnight, the candles were lit as the words of the King James bible were read out and the old story of new life coming into the world was retold.

It was magic!

The symbolism of the midwinter feast was lived out before us. The darkest time of the year just past and the earth turning again towards the sun with the promise of renewal, survival and spring.

Even nowadays, however much killjoys try to wean us away from magic and the power of stories, we still rebelliously trail strings of pinprick lights over our hedges and around our homes. In the midst of the shopping spendfest we still fall under the spell of flickering candles and starry skies.

Somewhere underneath all the cynical commercialism still lurks the ancient desire to celebrate new life and to welcome the rebirth of light into a dark world.

And discover, in the face of all the grimness of existence, a spark of hope.

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Skating On Thin Ice

Advent 7: Cheap and cheerful winter sports for the adventurous

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The upside of bitter weather while growing up in the 1950s and 60s was that we could go skating for free.

By the time we became teenagers almost all of us could skate.  We spent our Saturday mornings at the skating rink in the nearby town. This involved a journey on the local train, a bus ride and finally a walk to the rink, but we made the trek on a regular basis.

Skating rinks were rough places. I imagine they still are. Daring boys on speed skates wove dangerously in and out of circling youngsters wobbling on blunt, well worn, hired figure skates. Dire warnings were issued about the necessity of wearing stout gloves, because if you fell and somebody skated over your bare hand, they would cut your fingers off!

Pop music blared out of echoing loud speakers. The refreshment area served up unhealthy treats in grubby surroundings. You had to stumble there on your skates across ancient stained felt carpeting torn by generations of blades.

It was great fun.

Our ambition was to have our own skates. I got a pair for my combined Christmas and 13th birthday present. Once you had your own skates, you could skate outdoors when the ponds and fields froze.

The pond where we skated was a private duck pond in a walled estate, surrounding a large house.

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Local children were allowed access in freezing weather.  The impressive front entrance gates to the estate were at the very far end of the village from our street. It was a long walk after a day at school and a hurried tea, carrying your skates. There was however a much shorter back route.

This involved following the single track railway line which ran across the fields. It wasn’t that dangerous. There weren’t that many trains and it wasn’t far. You could time your walk to ensure the track was clear. In any case you could hear and see a steam train coming miles away.

At one point, where the field ended beside a road, I seem to remember we had to climb over quite a high back gate into the estate. In the dark. (It must have been the gate in the photo). But it did cut out a long, boring walk, so we didn’t mind, it was worth it.

At weekends in the daylight there was another place you could skate when the circumstances allowed. One of the fields in a dip some distance behind the village was prone to flooding.  When this froze you had a natural ice rink, which was smooth and unrutted. We only managed to get there on rare occasions, but it was a bizarre experience, skating in the middle of quiet, frosty, deserted fields, with no houses or other people in sight.

The only image I could find of anything approximating to it, was of winter in Lithuania, where people are apparently still in the habit of creating their own homemade ice rinks wherever the lie of the land allows.

Your own private winter playground, for free.

Happy days!

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In The Bleak Midwinter

Advent 6  On coal fires and chilblains

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The constant background to my childhood memories of 1950s winters is the cold and waking up to windows covered in frost!

I never lived in a centrally heated house till I was well into my late twenties. I relied on open coal fires or, later on in student days, to a hissing radiant gas fire for my main source of warmth.

One of the first skills you learnt as a small child in the 1950s was how to roll up old newspapers into tight little balls to set the fire each morning. Certainly by the time I was five I knew how to build a fire from newspaper, thin sticks of wood for kindling, then gradually adding small coals to form a neat pyramid in the grate. Once the fire had caught, you could begin to add bigger lumps with a pair of tongs.

I seem to remember you got a badge at Brownies for firelighting. It was a necessary basic skill.

And the only places in the house that were ever warm was the kitchen when the oven was on and whichever room had a fire. All those cosy pictures of families gathered around the hearth were not because they all loved each other’s company so much. It was because everywhere else in the house was freezing.

However, when I was a teenager I actually got a birthday present of my own electric fire for my bedroom. (I think this was intended to enable me to study in the evenings)  It was a futuristic design, like a sort of yellow and red toadstool. It smelt of warm paint and burning dust.

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How I loved my heater! I would dash out from under the covers in the morning and turn it on before diving into bed again, till my room started to get warm. The sheer joy of getting dressed in front of a personal, private source of heat!

By the time I got to secondary school, the new buildings there were centrally heated and, if you got to the classroom first, you could get a desk next to a radiator and toast your feet. The bliss of it!

Then you got chilblains, of course.

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Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam

Advent 5  Remembering a time before skinny was good

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Although I dutifully attended Sunday school throughout my childhood and teenage years, it always struck me, that when some pious person announced that God had called them to a different way of life, it was seldom a change that they didn’t actually fancy for themselves.

Should somebody have renounced a highly paid, agreeable career and a sparkling social life hanging out in fashionable nightspots, I’d have been impressed.  But when someone sitting in an uninspiring office bored to tears, suddenly heard a divine call to travel to foreign parts and serve the poor, I did wonder that the Almighty’s wish had so mysteriously presented such a convenient and welcome escape

I was always a cynic I suppose.

This occurred to me recently while talking to a young relative who was confessing how much she hated school and the exam treadmill. Learning was no longer any joy to her.

But she saw no easy way out, short of Jesus calling her to be a sunbeam in some benighted area of the world.  She was desperately seeking a good excuse to escape the oppressive, spirit-sapping slog of A levels and the module upon module examinations that university education had become.

I thought how different my experience had been fifty years ago.

To be sure school was often monotonous, but it was not a prison sentence.  Only a few of us aspired to college or university.  There was full employment, so if you weren’t suited by school, you simply left and got a job.  You didn’t need qualifications for many jobs, so there was no inescapable pressure to achieve exam success.

For instance, my best friend left school as a young teenager with no qualifications and few skills. She lied and claimed to be able to type at a reasonable speed. After a few days her employer discovered her deficiencies, but finding her a cheerful, willing youngster ready to work and learn, kept her on and trained her up.

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Neither was there the extreme pressure experienced nowadays to be physically perfect, nor the competitiveness to sport expensive designer gear. We still made many of our own clothes and, while we wanted to be like the film stars we saw on screen and in magazines, this only amounted to stuffing padding in our bras! We actually wanted to put weight on!

Until Twiggy came along, being teenage skinny was not a good look!

My young friend, however, was model thin, but still far from happy.
“I hate the way everybody just wants loads of stuff!” she lamented. “All that matters is what you have and how much it costs!”

While she might politely listen to the memories of my teenage years, they were as far removed to her own experience as the Middle Ages.
In terms of material goods and career opportunities she and her contemporaries had, and have, so much more than we ever did.

But, bombarded with the relentless advertising for Christmas stuff, all she longed for was the comparative simplicity of a different age!

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What the Dickens?

Advent 4  On shopping

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I don’t sleep so much now I’m old, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have to go to work! 

Also, since I discovered audio books, I can just plug myself into my earphones and listen. I like value for money (the influence of that thrifty childhood again) so I go for long reads – hence Dickens.

Thinking about Advent and preparing for Christmas, I quickly arrived at the topic of shopping. At this point I googled for pictures of the grocers’ shops I remembered from the 50s. Then I noticed that these were pretty thin on the ground, although pictures of older shops from the 19th & early 20th centuries were common. But, guess what? They looked much the same!

Had Charles Dickens walked into the grocers on the corner of the road where I lived at five years old, he would have felt quite at home. The dark wood fittings; the large block of butter from which a lump of the requested weight was scooped with a flat wooden spoon; the ornate cast iron till.

Most of my friends and I ran errands from an early age. Far fewer people had cars, so side roads were often empty. We children were accustomed to considering the streets our territory. All of us were thrown out of the house to play. Housework, washing and cooking were much more onerous then. Children underfoot were an unwanted hindrance.

I was scared of the grocers. It was gloomy and confusing. You had to ask for items, which meant you had to memorise exactly what you had been sent to fetch.  I doubted my competence and the grocer in his Dickensian apron wasn’t very helpful in prompting, though he must have known what my mother usually bought. She went there all the time. We didn’t have a fridge, so had to buy perishable items day by day.

My experience might not have been quite the equivalent of Scrooge sending a boy for the biggest goose on Christmas morning, but it wasn’t that far off.

Yet I’m glad I grew up in a time when children were generally expected to be self-reliant and to be useful, whether in going for messages, or in removing themselves from under busy adults’ feet.

In braving the grocers, I learnt to face up to uncomfortable situations and to put aside my own individual qualms in the interests of the general good. 

Even, if in this case, it only amounted to ensuring there was sufficient butter to put on the bread for tea!

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Simple Pleasures – A Winter’s Tale

Advent 3  Playtime BH&S (Before Health & Safety)

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This was my best primary school. I attended there after we yet again moved house.  There were fifty six in my classroom, I do not tell a lie, and one poor teacher sitting at her high desk in front of our straight rows of single desks. On Friday afternoons she used to open her desk lid and, hiding behind it, have a silent cry.

To ensure discipline when she was really stressed she would issue stern warnings that anybody who talked would get the belt. On bad days she could collect a small queue. I was only caught once. It was mostly the boys who suffered.

The great advantage of the playground was that it sloped. The building was at the bottom of a hill. This ensured that winter playtimes held the promise of unlimited joy.

As soon as the weather turned bitter and the ground icy, we would make a series of slides. At the steepest end of the playground was the most demanding of daring and skill, then there were five or six others in descending levels of difficulty. You queued up at the one matching your ability and took turns. With practice you could improve your standard and progress to a more prestigious level.

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I can’t remember any adult supervision. It was much too cold for any sensible person to leave the staffroom until the bell needed to be rung.

At secondary school we only had one outdoor area that sloped.  This was an enclosed square yard fortuitously created when a new building had been added. It was bounded by the girls toilet block, a window fronted corridor where the men’s and women’s (separate) staff rooms were situated, and the rear wall of the gym.

This was a hazard when it came to winter slides, as there was very little run-off space between the ends of the slides and the brick wall. However we had seven years of sliding practice behind us by this stage. It was just an added challenge.

Nevertheless one particularly icy winter, somebody fell more awkwardly than normal and even we could see that adult help needed to be summoned. This was a problem. There were notices on the staffroom doors threatening dire consequences for any disturbance.

Two brave messengers were deputed to knock at the men’s staff room. We watched anxiously through the windows.

A gowned figure, cigarette in hand, threw the door open. Billows of smoke issued from behind his impressive outline. The messengers pointed towards the injured figure on the freezing ground and stuttered apologies.

“How many times have you been told to be careful?” was the bellowed response. We were in no doubt at whose door the fault lay.

Nevertheless medical help was summoned and the careless culprit removed to have his leg set at the cottage hospital.

After that sliding was banned.

It posed too great a hazard to the comfortable sanctuary of the staffroom.

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