Stitching For Sanity

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I learnt to sew at primary school. We started in the infants and worked our way painfully from basic stitches and hemming through samplers to decorative aprons, finishing off with reading a pattern and making a blouse at 11 years old.

I never again bothered with these skills till I was 48 years old.

I can remember the day exactly.

I was hugely stressed. My daughter was pregnant with her second child. Instead of blooming, she was always horrifically ill during her pregnancies so my toddler grandson spent a great deal of his time in my office (I had a tolerant eccentric workplace – people brought their dogs in too).

One day I was hurrying past an art shop when I glanced at the window display of cross stitch materials and charts. I suddenly knew what I needed. On impulse I went in and bought a simple kit. Then, after a gap of 40 years I simply took up my needle and started stitching.

Thereafter I never went anywhere without my work. I stitched on the tube, on planes (it was before terrorism & no sharp objects), in hospital waiting rooms, at conferences, discreetly at the back of lecture halls and boring meetings. I entered a new hidden world of stitchers, secretly continuing a centuries’ old female tradition.

I could see why it had continued. Stitching got you through. It looked virtuous and was a creative outlet menfolk couldn’t object to. It was an absorbing object of skill and pride that let you escape the pressures and tedium of domestic life. It got you through the months when your menfolk were at the crusades or on the high seas or off hunting with their mates or about important masculine business.

It took time and patient concentration. It involved the satisfying feel of the materials, the painstaking selection and organisation of threads. There was the designing, choosing and following a complex plan. And the faith that it would come together at the end.

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Because stitching is never a complete picture until right at the end. The different parts of the design don’t achieve a pleasing balance until then. You have to struggle through the tedious, confusing, frustrating bits to reach the finished article.

But, of course, all this stopped when I started blogging for #107 days and #JusticeforLB. I now have a selection of unfinished (possibly never to be finished) work!

I have forsaken tradition for technology.

Though, on thinking about it, the actual processes of patiently acquiring the skills and faithfully sticking to your purpose in order to bring something together are still the same!

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The Pub That Time Forgot 2

On the importance of individual choice

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Fed up of Saturday stuck in the house, Wisegrannie & Grandpa ventured out into the biting wind (by London UK standards) & headed for the pub that time forgot.

An important part of traditional English local pubs was always respect for individual choice.

After you had served your probationary period (which could vary between weeks and months depending on the pub’s locality and clientele) when you walked in, the person behind the bar would greet you by name and say –

“Evening ……… & …….. , usual?”

Thus indicating that not only were you known as an individual, but your personal preferences were remembered as important and worthy of respect.

This afternoon a friend of the family was helping out behind the bar. She was unaware of all the intricacies of this demanding situation, but was doing well. She gave Grandpa a straight glass for his half (European translation – small beer) because Grandpa holds the traditional English opinion that beer glasses with stems are for female customers.

But then one of the long established regulars came up with an all time winner in the personal preferences stakes. As she was on the point of pouring out his pint, he called out to remind her of his particular individual choice.

“No, not that one, dear! I have a glass without any writing on it!”

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Being On The Receiving End – Think Before You Blog!

Another of life’s hard lessons- do they ever end?

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I have enjoyed myself so much remembering people and happenings in my past, but I am very wary of writing about memories in a way which might identify, or touch on the experiences, of the others involved. I’ll tell you why.

I was listening to Book of the Week on Radio 4 one morning as I pottered around and suddenly I began to recognise the scene that was being described. It was eerily like an event in my life.

It went on in more detail.

There was no doubt, it was my life!

I had to sit down.  It’s quite a shock to turn on the radio and hear a bit of your distant past being humourously retold for the entertainment of the respectable elderly doing their housework on a Tuesday morning.

One of my daughter’s childhood friends had gone on to become a sort of jobbing media personality and had made use of her memories as fodder for some of her writing. 

It was the most peculiar feeling.  It was the difference in perspective of the same event that shook me most.  I had experienced the incident as sad and distressing, but she had written it up as funny and laughable.  It was mocking the people involved.

For me it was one of those moments in life when the scales fall from your eyes.  When you realise you don’t matter to another person.  You are just an insignificant, but marginally amusing detail in the backdrop of their lives.

I did track her down at one point and tax her with it. 

“Oh it wasn’t you, it was someone else,” she replied, with more than a hint of irritation.

“What rubbish!” said my daughter, when I eventually told her. (I had been reluctant to mention it to her in case her feelings might be hurt). “Of course it was us! I knew the moment I read the book, but I didn’t like to say anything to you!”

It is easy to get led astray by your own desire to be witty and clever, especially if that’s what makes you a living. Even a humble blogger can get carried away with the pleasure of gaining a few extra hits.

But it doesn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end, to be valued only as the raw material for somebody else’s vanity.

Still, I’ve had that lesson, so perhaps I’m safe to continue!

Blogging for the Common Good

On finding a voice and learning by doing

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I’ve lived through an educational revolution in England and I didn’t experience it as a good one.

I trained as a teacher in 1973, and my dissertation then was on Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.  I also referred a lot to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman & Weingartner and Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Try doing that nowadays in UK teacher education. Nothing to do with delivering the National Curriculum? Forget it! We can’t waste time encouraging our teachers to think, or worse still, dream! Why, it might rub off on the pupils, and what mischief might that lead to!

Whatever and whoever I taught, I wanted them to think. I wanted them to question. I wanted them to experience places and people outside their own limited surroundings. I didn’t want them to be trapped by fear of the unfamiliar, or intimidated by dogma or deceived by marketing and spin. I wanted them to be the best they could be. To be ready to take on the world. To know they mattered. To have their own confident voice.

I still want that.

I can’t change my ways. I’m obviously a bad old person. I won’t accept that I should just bow out of active life, shut up and wait for kindly euthanasia. I still value the sheer enjoyment and frustration of learning by doing, of jumping into new experiences, of finding out with the help of enthusiastic mentors and the company of others along the way.

While I may not be going out into the forest any more to plodge around in muddy streams and discover strange living things, I’m exploring the online world of blogging and social media, and encountering all its weird life forms, its good angels and its monsters.

And, by so doing, still playing my little part in fighting the grim Mr Gradgrinds in their dingy classrooms and their endless “Facts! Facts! Facts!”. Fighting for creativity and joy in learning and in valuing others for their unique humanity, not for what they can deliver to the economy of an all consuming state.

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The Pub That Time Forgot

On community and the lost art of real life conversation
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1963 – the year Kennedy was assassinated – was memorable for me because it was the first time I went into a pub. I was eighteen years old. In Scotland, where I had been brought up, respectable women did not drink in public houses.

When I moved South to the strange new culture of England, there was a pub on the corner of the street where I lodged, built in the Victorian fashion, on the corner of a little street of terraced houses.

It was a “local”. Neighbours dropped by on their way home from work, or just for an evening chat and a smoke, or to escape the children (quality family time not having been invented then).

It had a coal fire in winter, a  faithful clientele – the ” regulars” – and it didn’t serve wine. Ales and spirits were what you got. Women drank a half of lager and lime or a gin and tonic. The bell rang for last orders just before half past ten. Perhaps it was eleven at weekends. I seem to remember it was bit later then.

And anybody from the nearby streets was accepted there. A few had their own particular seats (a bit like Sheldon’s spot) which nobody else could sit in at certain times. If you wanted somewhere to take your arthritic old grannie in her wheelchair or your 40 year old son with learning difficulties,  somewhere they wouldn’t be stared at or made to feel uncomfortable, you went down the local.

Over the years, however, the area was gradually gentrified. The pokey houses, originally lived in by locals or bought by hard up young couples because they were cheap, became highly desirable. Within commuting distance of the City the prices shot up, the upwardly mobile moved in, raving about the quaint village atmosphere – “So lovely for the children, growing up in a proper community!”

The pubs had their carpets torn up, their floor boards sanded, their dartboards banished along with the few remaining regulars, who spoiled the ambience.

All but one.

We were told about it by a neighbour who had come across this relic of the past in his ceaseless quest for real ale. Hidden away in a back street, next to the last untrendified area of social housing, was the pub that time forgot.

We went the first time apprehensively, ready to be disappointed. But as we opened the door the years vanished.

The first thing that you noticed was the noise, or rather the lack of it. All you heard was people chatting companionably, the sound of their voices absorbed by the swirly 70s carpet. No loud music, no television screens, no shrieking young professionals showing off to their colleagues.

And looking around we gradually recognised familiar faces, other refugees from the gastropub, the sports bar and the echoing scrubbed wood standing only spaces, brewery designed to discourage leisurely drinking.

I went towards a comfortable looking seat by the fire, but then I hesitated. I sensed an atmosphere and felt a discouraging stare. I read the signals. I moved away. The man collecting his drink from the bar appropriated the inviting space.

Of course he did. He was a regular.

It was his spot.
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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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