Rock Chorus: Big Gig 2018

Rock Chorus performing The Big Gig. Photo (c) Rock Chorus.

Last night was the biggest night of the year for our choir, Rock Chorus: the annual Big Gig, where we raise thousands of pounds for charity in conjunction with The Lions Club.

We work really hard all term refining the words and moves to 22 songs, so that we can perform them to perfection. With 160 singers on stage the sound is uplifting, emotional, and fun. To be part of such a huge group can send shivers up your spine, make you smile or cry within the space of a few minutes.

But I wasn’t on stage last night. I wanted to be there more than anything but I’ve been struggling with a virus since Easter and this week it’s decided to come back as an earache and sore throat. As I sat listening to the set list on Friday and going through the moves doubt was beginning to creep in that I was up for it and by 11 am yesterday I knew there was no chance. After shedding a few tears, I decided to buy a ticket instead and watch. In the five years I’ve been with the choir, I have never sat and listened to the whole sound, so now was my chance to experience it and to support my friends.

Big Gig set list 2018

The gig set list: songs from the 60s right up to the present day.

I met up with my friend Ann (a former soprano) and we made our way into the stiflingly hot theatre, along with my boys who are seasoned Rock Chorus watchers and know the words to our songs as well as me and a lot of the moves too. The hall rapidly filled up with friends and family and the lights dimmed for the performance. I could feel the nerves of the singers quietly waiting behind the curtain and sent them a silent prayer.

There is no other way to say this: the concert got off to a shaky start. The choir were out of time with the backing track and it took a good 8 bars or so before they came together. Apparently one of the monitors wasn’t on, so the singers at the back of the stage couldn’t hear anything. Although nerves were etched on every face, somehow they got through it.

I think I lived every bar with them. As an orchestral player of nearly 40 years (hey I started young!) I know you need a concert to start with a bang; it gives the performers confidence and engages the audience too. When the opposite happens it rapidly shreds your confidence.

Luckily the next song, Free Fallin’ (by the late, great Tom Petty) is one we have sung many, many times and I watched everyone visibly relax and begin to smile after a few bars as they eased into their groove. “That’s more like it,” I thought and glanced at Ann. She was miming away to the soprano part and I had to try very hard not to laugh out loud.

After that, the songs were performed with increasing verve and enjoyment. My particular favourites were “Who Loves You Pretty Baby?” by Frankie Valli for the amazing harmonies (and because we have finally nailed the moves) and Say Something by A Great Big World because it speaks so movingly of loss.

For the very first time, I sat and appreciated the blend of soprano, alto and tenor and I was really impressed. Not only are the arrangements rich harmonically but they give the singers a challenge too. There are so many amateur choirs these days who sing very simple arrangements and I find them so, so boring to listen too. Not so Rock Chorus!

The first set finished with an atmospheric choral arrangement of Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits) that brought a little tear to my eye.

As I waited in the drinks queue in the interval I was besieged by fellow performers:

“How does it sound?”

“Are we any good?”

“What about the first number?”

I said they sounded great and that I was proud of the way they’d put the first song behind them and upped their game.

“We knew you’d be honest,” they said and went away smiling. I’ll take that as a compliment.

And so to the second half, which began with a rousing rendition of You’re The Voice (John Farnham) quickly followed by Africa (Toto) in which I got to experience the delights of audience participation. The Lions insist we do it but perhaps we should finally be brave and tell them it went out with the ark. We were meant to provide additional percussive sounds but you couldn’t hear them over the sound track and I’m not sure how many audience members joined in: not me, I was filming at the request of friends. My older son joined in with gusto, while the younger one sat scowling as only 11-year-olds can.

Afterwards came that Elvis classic Suspicious Minds. Whereas the original version is rather ponderous, ours is far more upbeat and the audience loved it:

Video reproduced with the kind permission of Joanna Ford

The singing was fabulous throughout the second half, words and moves nailed to perfection. There was just one slight niggle: the bass on the sound system was often too loud. At times I could feel it vibrating under my feet and in those songs it drowned out the tenor section altogether. In You Took The Words Right Out of Your Mouth, you could barely hear them singing the tune even though I knew they were.

Of course we demanded an encore and surprise, surprise Rock Chorus had one ready: Love Train, that 70s classic about free love. We all stood up and did the moves and accidentally whopped the row in front a couple of times; I think they forgave us our enthusiasm!

As we said our goodbyes and I was driving home, I thought about why I’d sat there with a big smile on my face all the way through and it is this: while they may not be perfect (yet) our gigs convey the joy we all feel at performing. It’s there in the concentration, the smiles, the laughter and the huge amount of effort that goes into learning the parts. Music should be fun and Rock Chorus captures this to perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Day My Dog Got Heat Stroke

Whenever the weather is unseasonably warm, my Facebook news feed fills up with what can only be called rants about “stupid” people leaving their dogs in hot cars, or walking them in the heat of the day and other tales of woe, including the death of dogs from heat stroke. The last few days have been no exception.

To counteract the slightly hysterical, it-would-never-happen-to-me nature of these posts, I thought I would share my experience because actually, if you don’t know the warning signs, or realise that heat stroke can be fatal, then it can catch anybody out.

Last summer, I spent a week in Pembrokeshire with my kids, my friend, Anna, and her daughter. We were blessed with a few warm, sunny days and decided to spend them on the beach to make the most of the unexpected weather. On this particular day we chose our favourite place, Broadhaven, part of the huge Stackpole Estate owned by the National Trust.

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Broadhaven beach

We loaded the car up with the stove, a big cooler box of food, lots of water, swimming gear and beach mats. Everyone was looking forward to some fun at the end of the school year.

As we were going to carry so much heavy gear, we decided to park at the top of the cliff and take the short but steep flight of steps down to the sand, rather than do the mile-long walk from the church, through the lily pools. The sky was cloudless and the temperature a pleasant 20ºC.

Once we’d made our way down we didn’t walk far before setting up camp underneath the dunes on an empty patch of sand. Normally, we would choose the other side of the beach with its little shady nooks in among the rocks but it’s a wide bay and we had too much stuff to haul all the way over to the other side.

I fired up the camping stove and we were soon enjoying strips of beef teriyaki and couscous, cucumber and watermelon, to the envy of all the other holiday makers sitting nearby.

Lunch over, we headed down to the waves, the kids trying to push one another in and Callum, my cross breed swimming after tennis balls, barking at Anna excitedly to throw him another one. Penny the Podengo has to stay on the lead otherwise she’ll vanish all day hunting rabbits. She followed reluctantly and lingered on the edge not wanting to get her feet wet, fully living up to her reputation as a bit of a princess.

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Callum loves chasing a ball.

And so the afternoon wore on. The kids played football and tennis, went rock climbing and jumped the waves. Anna and I chatted and read our books. Penny curled up next to me and went to sleep, Callum alternated between staying with the kids when they played in the sea and sitting with us. If he was bored of that, he sniffed out other peoples’ picnics and raided them!

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Anna with Callum

 

It was around 4 o’clock when I began to realise something was wrong with Callum. He was sitting with me panting excessively and drooling.

“Callum’s too hot,” I said to Joe, my eldest, who was 14 at the time.

He jumped up, always eager to help with the dogs, attached Callum’s lead and jogged him down to the sea. I was alarmed to see Callum staggering slightly and reluctant to go with him. In an instant, my mind recalled all those social media posts I’d seen about heat stroke and how putting dogs in very cold water is the wrong thing to do. I realised then what was wrong with him and jumped up panicked.

“Come back, Joe!” I called but he didn’t hear me, my voice floating away uselessly in the wind.

I walked after him, cursing my inability to run after a recent knee operation, but was too late to stop him submerging Callum in the sea. As I reached them the poor dog was standing on the sand shaking violently and as I looked more closely I could see his eyes were blinking rapidly. Fear started to seep in now…

“Joe, I think Callum has heat stroke. Putting him in the sea won’t help. We need to get him out of the sun now.”

“Ok. I was only trying to help,” he said.

“Of course you were. You didn’t realise,” I replied in a conciliatory tone.

We returned slowly to our beach towels, Callum’s condition worsening by the minute and I said to Anna as calmly as I could: “There is something very wrong with Callum and I think it’s heat stroke. We need to go home now.”

 

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The symptoms of heat stroke

In five minutes we’d packed up and were heading towards the car. The kids were anxious and I did my best to tell them he would be fine once I’d got him somewhere cooler. The truth was, I didn’t know how quickly he would recover; I’ve watched my pale-skinned, blonde husband struggle with heat stroke several times and I know how serious it is.

“You’re going to have to carry him up the cliff Joe. He’s too heavy for me with my sore knee,” I said to Joe.

“I can manage,” he said, picking Callum up.

I went ahead of him, anxious to get to the car, turn on the air conditioning and cool it down. Loaded up with bags, I could hear Joe struggling to carry Callum up the steep steps but couldn’t help him.

Finally, we made it to the top and Joe sat on the shady bank while I cooled down the car and we loaded everything in.

I drove home, asking Joe how Callum was at regular intervals.

“He’s not shaking anymore. He’s put his head on my lap and I’m giving him a stroke,” he said.

“Keep an eye on him and tell me if he’s sick, as we’ll have to take him straight to the vet,” I said.

After half an hour, we were home and Callum walked normally, if a little slowly into the house and spent the rest of the evening asleep, with me monitoring him closely and giving him a small meal and a drink.

In the morning he scoffed his breakfast and ran outside to bark at the birds with Penny. I knew then that he was none the worse for his experience but if we’d stayed on the beach much longer I could be telling you a very different tale.

 

I’ve never told anyone this before because I still feel very guilty over what happened. As someone who’s always lived with a dog, I really should have known better but that very fact had made me dangerously complacent. It’s been a hard lesson but never again will I let my dog run around in the sun for too long. 

 

 

 

 

Gove’s legacy: the destruction of creativity in primary schools

The KS2 worksheet Michael Rosen posted

Yesterday my aunt shared a picture from Michael Rosen’s Facebook page of some typical KS2 homework (aimed at kids aged 10-11) on my timeline with the comment “Have you seen this?”

It was titled “Uplevelling sentences” and the aim was to get the children to improve a series of sentences by using fronted adverbials, modifying nouns and adjectives, embedded relative clauses and subordinating conjunctions.

I replied that I was helping my son with all this “nonsense” at the moment (his Year 6  SATs are looming) and commented how much he hated it and that he hadn’t read an actual book in weeks. As for the appalling use of “uplevelling” management speak, I have nothing polite to say!

And then I decided to share the photo on Twitter, with this comment:

“Uplevelling” English the government’s grand plan for putting our children off the subject for ever. (Yes I know, it would read better with a colon after “English”. That’s what happens when you post in your pyjamas without your glasses on!)

After that, my phone didn’t stop pinging for hours with reports of people commenting on and sharing my tweet and I happily joined in the good-natured debate. I’ve never been so unintentionally popular!

So why am I objecting to this teaching approach? Isn’t it good for children to learn grammar when bad examples of it are all over social media, in our shops and printed material; with misplaced apostrophes most likely to raise people’s blood pressure?

Well imagine you are a child and you sit down at the beginning of the English lesson and the teacher says “OK children, today I’m going to teach you about subordinate phrases. Let’s take a look at the explanation on the worksheet I’ve handed out and then you can do some exercises.” It’s not exactly the most inspiring start to a lesson is it?

And as the class progresses you struggle to understand what the teacher is saying because she is using all the grammatical terms you have been expected to absorb over the last few weeks, and which you really don’t understand even though you pretend to everyone that you do. You struggle through the class as best you can and come out feeling stressed because the misery isn’t over: you have to do some homework on the subject. Will Mum be able to help me with it? Why am I so bad at this subject?

This is what happens in my house week after week, and it makes me furious because this study of dry grammar terms is not what English is about, especially at primary school. What hope do we have of producing the next generation of authors if we force our children to learn English in such an uninspiring way?

The last thing my son ever wants to do is read for fun (apart from a few wonderful weeks when he discovered Frank Cotterell Boyce last autumn) and I think the way he is being taught English is partly to blame. To him it is boring and unintelligible. Can you blame him for running a mile?

If I’m not careful, he’ll grow up to be one of these people who never opens a book and the person who’ll miss out most is him. Reading opens you up to a world of imagination and possibilities; it improves your vocabulary, teaches you all kinds of wonderful facts and informs you about subjects you knew nothing of. Without it your life is poorer, if you did but know it.

So what of the solution to this dilemma? For me it is a question of balance, which for some reason, we have never got right. I went to primary school in the 70s when it was all weaving baskets, performing Jesus Christ Superstar and being allowed to wear whatever you wanted. Teaching grammar was definitely not de rigueur. I was saved from disaster by my natural affinity for the subject and by my Mum, who taught secondary Englishand realised I needed some help.

Now the pendulum has swung back so far the other way it’s hit a home run and is still disappearing over the horizon. By all means give primary school children some grammar training but only the basics. It is all they can cope with or actually need at that age. Rather than ramming difficult concepts down their throat and then getting them to practice it in boring exercises, encourage them to be better writers in more creative ways. From my time as a tutor, I can think of a hundred ways to make a lesson more interesting and fun than that dreadful piece of paper.

When they are that young, we should put all the emphasis on creative writing and on learning to love books; oral story-telling and making up poems. Save the harder grammar for secondary school and even they don’t need to understand the concepts in that homework to be competent and imaginative writers.

And what did Twitter think of the KS2 English lesson? It was roundly derided by everyone who took the time to comment and most of them were either authors or primary school teachers. A few of the teachers said they’d left precisely because they didn’t want to teach this stuff to young children and those who were still in the profession said they hated being forced to teach it. The writers all said they’d never heard of these grammar terms and wrote perfectly good books without them.

It will take a revolution to change the direction of our education system but if we don’t what kind of adults are we going to turn out? Instead of well-rounded people who can think for themselves and are confident and creative we will have a generation who have been trained only to answer tests, are stressed and have failed to understand that most important of facts: learning can be fun.

 

Five Go On a New Year’s Adventure

Five Go On a New Year’s Adventure

As a writer, I usually find that life provides me with all the inspiration I need. New Year’s Eve was no exception …

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It is time to get the train to Milton Keynes for New Year’s Eve with Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny.

“Have you got everything children?” asks Mother.

“Yes I think so,” replies Georgie, the eldest daughter, and contrary to literary expectation, the Sensible One.

“Would you like to have a name for this adventure?” asks Georgie. “You must be bored of ‘Mother’ after 20 or so books.”

“Oh darling! That would be super. Any ideas?” replies Mother.

“Maman! Nobody says ‘super’ anymore. That’s really old-fashioned,” exclaims Anne, the younger daughter.

Mother frowns. “Well what should I say then, I’m really out-of-touch as I’ve lived in France so long?”

Anne smooths her chestnut hair back into its bun. ” Well David says people his age describe things that are really great as “sick”. But I don’t understand. Les Anglais sont fous!” she replies reverting to her native French.

Mother ‘s eyebrows shoot up. “Really! Well they must be crazy. Come on then, what names do you like?”

“I like flower names,” says Georgie. “How about Rose? That’s really pretty.”

“Rose it is then,” says Mother happily

Four suitcases and four bulging backpacks are lined up in their grandparents’ hall. They are staying several days and have Christmas presents to deliver too, which they have brought all the way from their house in deepest rural France.

“Let’s go then,” says Rose, picking up the bag with the sandwiches and ginger beer and leading the way down the village street to the tiny station.

Her three children, Georgie, Anne and Little Timmy follow. They are excited at the prospect of seeing their cousins Julian and David, as they haven’t met up since Fanny brought them out for a visit in May. (Are you wondering what’s happened to Dick? Just remember it’s 2018…)

Fanny’s friend Darrell will also be there and her daughter Felicity who they haven’t seen since that crazy week in Wales two and a half years earlier. Felicity is now a demi-god, in other words A Teen, and Georgie and Anne are hoping for some make-up tips and a go on that most hallowed of objects: The Mobile.

Rose has decreed that such gadgets are bad for children and so far they haven’t managed to persuade her otherwise. Fanny admires her sister Rose’s principles and wishes she had stuck to her guns as The Rot has definitely taken root in her house.

Darrell is far too mature for her old Mallory Towers chum’s japes now she has reached her half century and accepted Fanny’s invitation a fortnight ago to join the fun and games in Milton Keynes. She does wish that dear Fanny would stop winding her up at every opportunity about How Old She Is though. What fun she will have in 18 months when it is Fanny’s turn!

“Fanny is allowing us to stay up until midnight and drink champagne,” Anne says as they board the slow train chugging its way through the Kent countryside and up to London. “What fun we are going to have.”

“And there will be fireworks!” exclaims Little Timmy bouncing in his seat.

“Mother, how tall is Julian now?” asks Georgie.

“I don’t know exactly,” Rose replies, “But Fanny says he is much taller than her and he has a very deep voice.” Julian is also A Teen and has grown so much in the last year he is always wearing trousers that are too short for him and being clumsy.

“He must be huge!” thinks Little Timmy. He can’t really understand how Julian can be so large and still be a child. As long as his cousin plays with him though, that’s all that matters. Timmy can’t wait to use Julian and David’s vast collection of nerf guns so he can terrorise his sisters even more. As the youngest and a boy, it is his solemn duty.

Little Timmy is also looking forward to seeing his aunt and uncle’s dogs, Callum and Princess Penny. After all in these adventures he usually is a dog, so he has a special affinity towards them and is going to make sure they have lots of kisses and cuddles.

Cal & Pen nose to nose

Princess Penny & Callum

“Now children, the train takes an hour to get to London. What are you going to do?” enquires Rose.

“Let’s play cards,” says Georgie getting a pack out.

After a brief negotiation, the children decide on a game and Rose gets out her book with a sigh of relief.

***

Rose is worried about negotiating the Underground with the children and all their luggage but everything goes smoothly and they arrive at Euston for the next stage of their journey. They decide to get an inter-city train going to Manchester as the first stop is Milton Keynes and the journey will be short.

After a tedious 30-minute delay, the train pulls out of the station and the children settle down to another game of cards.

***

The train arrives at Milton Keynes and some passengers begin to get off. But Rose is engrossed in her book and at first doesn’t realise what is happening. When she does, it is nearly too late and panic sets in.

“Quick children, we’ve arrived. Grab your cases and get off the train!” she shrieks.

She hurries towards the exit just as the door is closing and rams her case in the gap to stop it. A guard gives her a disapproving look but she ignores him.

Everyone gets off and Rose turns to go up the stairs.

“Mother, where is Little Timmy?” asks Georgie worriedly.

Rose looks around wildly and to her horror realises he is still on the train.

“Timmy, get off the train now!” she yells at him.

Little Timmy leaps off the train just as the doors are closing for the second time. Seeing he is trying not to cry, Rose gives him a big hug.

“Timmy where is your bag with your robot in?” Anne asks earnestly.

“I don’t know,” says Little Timmy his bottom lip trembling.

Rose realises with a sinking feeling that he has left it on the train, which has disappeared into the distance.

Hearing the consternation in the children’s voices, the guard turns to Rose and says rather archly, “What’s the matter? Have you left someone else on the train?”

Rose resists the urge to give him the finger and instead paints on a smile and says it is only a bag this time.

Poor Timmy is forlorn. Mother spent all morning constructing the robot for him and now he has left it on the train. He wipes away a tear and follows everyone up the stairs.

There is Quentin at the barrier and Rose explains about the lost present and asks if he thinks they can get it back. Quentin points her in the direction of one of the station staff who kindly says he radio the guard on the train and ask him to look for it and return it to Milton Keynes station so Rose can collect it. All they can do is hope for the best.

***

Soon they arrive at Quentin and Fanny’s house. The children greet one another joyously and decide that what they need to do right now is have a riotous game of Forty Forty In, followed by Sardines. After all, the grown-ups won’t mind and it would be simply rude not to in such a large house. They pound upstairs with the dogs bouncing after them barking excitedly.

Thoroughly traumatised by the events at the station, Quentin retreats to his favourite chair in the living room. He decides this is to be a Three Screen Night and promptly switches on the TV, opens his laptop and turns on his mobile. Fanny wisely says nothing and gives him a bottle of his favourite cider. It is New Year’s Eve after all and she has the company of two women who love to chat.

She returns to the kitchen where Darrell and Rose are already deep in conversation.

Giving her younger sister a hug, she offers her a glass of wine.

“Yes I think I need one after that,” says Rose accepting a large one gratefully.

Darrell, Fanny and Rose settle round the kitchen table for a good chinwag and the conversation grows steadily louder and the laughter more frequent as everyone relaxes.

The peace is rudely shattered by Little Timmy’s cries from upstairs and Rose climbs up to the attic to investigate.

Shortly afterwards, she arrives in the kitchen clutching two cream duvet covers.

“I’m afraid Little Timmy got Princess Penny too excited and she peed all over the beds,” she says apologetically.

“Never mind,” replies Fanny more brightly than she feels and puts them straight in the washing machine. She prises Quentin out of his chair and commands him to find two fresh covers. He gets up obediently and heads upstairs followed by Rose who is hoping to get the stains out of the duvets with some wet wipes.

“Fat chance” thinks Fanny.

Sure enough, Quentin comes back down with them and shows her the bright yellow stains.

“Just add it to the pile,” instructs Fanny. Sure she has nothing better to do on New Year’s Eve than wash piles of pee-sodden items. It’s not like this is supposed to be a party or anything!

***

Despite imbibing several glasses of wine, the women manage to put all the party food successfully on the table and the children descend and devour large quantities of it and pull all the party poppers. The floor is littered with brightly coloured stars but Fanny is surprised to find that her neat freak tendencies have been dulled by the alcohol and for once has no urge to brush them up, thinking instead that they look really pretty.

Quentin decides it is time for the children to Calm Down and suggests they watch a film together. He patiently finds one they all agree on and then continues watching YouTube and playing Clash of Clans on his mobile.

Grateful for the peace, Fanny pours herself another glass of red wine and then promptly knocks it all over the tablecloth and down the wall.

“Shit!” she giggles drunkenly and shoves a dog towel underneath to soak it up.

She realises she is in no fit state to change the cloth and leaves it for the morning. Besides, the dirty washing pile barely fits in the utility room anymore and is sneaking into the kitchen. What is the point in adding to it?

Rose and Darrell obliging clean the floor and the three women decide they should have a game of Scrabble.

***

The board is laid and the friends choose their tiles. Fanny puts hers on the rack and dissolves into giggles. She has managed to pick up 6 vowels and an L.

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Fanny’s disastrous Scrabble tiles

Now Darrell happens to be a Demon Scrabble Player and after losing countless times, Fanny thinks it is time to even up the odds. She glances over and sees that Darrell has the Q, Z, V, Y, two other consonants and one vowel.

“That is so typical,” she thinks.

It would be rude to take the highest scoring tiles, so she takes the V and Y before Darrell can stop her and gives her an E and U instead.

“Look, I’ll take these tiles and I’ll give you these instead,” says Fanny naughtily.

“I don’t really want an E can I have an A?” asks Darrell meekly, so shocked by her friend’s behaviour she can’t think of a suitable retort.

Fanny obliges and play begins.

Despite playing well and scoring 51 on a triple word score, Fanny still loses. She would have come even further behind but Darrell has been undone by the superior racks with their pegs for scoring like cribbage. She keeps moving the units peg forward instead of the twenties and has therefore lost a great deal of points.

Fanny can’t help but wind her up about this and vaguely wonders what form Darrell’s revenge will take.

At long last midnight arrives, the champagne corks pop and they all look at the fireworks out of the bedroom windows. Very soon after that everyone is asleep.

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***

Well not quite everyone. Fanny is still awake because Quentin is lying flat on his back and snoring loudly as if his life depended on it.

“Fuck!” mumbles Fanny under her breath.

She tries to get him to turn over. No luck. Resisting the urge to slap him, she strokes his face instead. He barely pauses for breath.

Gloomily Fanny runs through her options. Usually she would retreat to the peace of the spare room but Rose is using it and Little Timmy is asleep on the floor on a futon.

The office then? Nope. Georgie and Anne are occupying both beds.

David is sleeping in his bedroom and so is Julian, with the addition of Felicity who is curled up on a futon on his floor.

The playroom is also out of bounds because Darrell is in there on her blow-up bed.

Fanny contemplates the sofa but instantly dismisses the idea. Nobody ever sleeps comfortably on one and anyway she has completely run out of covers thanks to Princess Penny.

Cursing, she stomps angrily to the bathroom and shoves some toilet roll in both ears. It dulls the sound just enough so she can fall asleep.

***

The next morning, after everyone has eaten breakfast and drunk too much coffee, the grown-ups decide they should get some fresh air and take the dogs for a walk.

Trying to organise six children to get dressed and ready, never mind persuading them to come along is too much to contemplate, especially for Fanny, who is still hungover.  Instead, The Teens are given strict instructions about looking after the younger ones.

“Where shall we go?” says Quentin.

“The farmhouse,” replies Fanny firmly.

“Are you sure it isn’t too muddy?” asks Quentin doubtfully.

“I went up there the other day, it was fine,” Fanny says reassuringly.

They  put on their wellies, wrap themselves in coats, hats and scarves and set off, Callum and Princess Penny pulling eagerly at their leads. After ten minutes, they arrive at the track on the edge of the woods: it has disappeared under a sea of mud.

“Bugger, this was a mistake,” thinks Fanny but it is too late to turn back now.

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The muddy track

They flounder along the muddy track sliding all over the place, stumble along the edge of an uneven field and through the abandoned farmhouse gate which leads to many more fields and some woods. Thankfully the going gets easier and Fanny breathes a sigh of relief: the worst part is over.

She doesn’t notice the rain beginning to fall or the massive black cloud heading rapidly towards them because she is too busy chatting to Darrell and Rose. Quentin is striding ahead as he always does and is soon out of earshot.

By the time they get to the grassy path that heads in the direction of home, it is raining hard and the wind is flinging it in their faces.

Fanny yells at Quentin and indicates that the women are going to loop back home. He raises his thumb and disappears into the distance, Callum and Princess Penny trotting alongside him.

“I can’t believe he’s going on,” says Fanny. “Let’s get home girls.”

As they head along the hedgerow, the weather gets worse. Hail stings their faces as they battle against the wind, getting wetter and wetter by the second.

Once they reach the edge of the wood, they have a choice: to climb steeply up the big cornfield to the track or head into the woods and wind their way around the edge and end up on the same path.

They decide to go through the woods, as it will be far less muddy and maybe give them a bit of shelter. By now everyone is cold. Their trousers are clinging to their legs making them cold and uncomfortable. Hair that isn’t under a hat is stuck to their cheeks and the rain is starting to seep through their coats.

Rose leads the way and silence falls as the three women concentrate on negotiating the maze of brambles and fallen branches that litter the floor of the wood. After 15 minutes of concerted effort they finally push through the trees and onto the track.

“Thank God we haven’t got the kids with us,” says Darrell. “Can you imagine the complaints?”

“We’d never hear the end of it,” Fanny says, laughing slightly hysterically.

“Mine would have moaned all the way round!” Rose exclaims.

Glad to be back on flat ground the friends walk quickly towards home.

When they are almost back, Fanny rings Julian and tells him they are all soaking wet and the children must help on their return by providing dry clothes and hot drinks. Julian promises to organise them and Fanny, Darrell and Rose are cheered by the thought of sitting by the fire and drying off.

Just as the women approach the house, they are astonished to see Quentin’s red raincoat disappearing through the door.

“How the hell did he beat us to it?” asks Darrell. “He went a much longer route than us!”

“You know he walks twice as fast as everyone else,” Fanny replies.

“Even so…” says Darrell shaking her head.

The children rush to the door with towels to wrap around the dogs and dry trousers and socks for their mothers. The women strip right there in the hall they are so chilled and the children obligingly drape all the wet clothes over the radiators and on the backs of chairs.

Nobody thought to ask Quentin if he wanted dry clothes, so he slopes upstairs to change and gets his revenge by dumping all his wet stuff in the washing basket where it ferments merrily for a few days.

David proudly makes four cups of coffee for the grown-ups and pokes his tongue out at Julian because he told everyone his brother had no idea how to make it, in that supercilious tone that teenagers worldwide have perfected

***

After the women spend a couple of hours of relaxing in front of the fire, thawing out their legs and feet, Darrell rouses herself and announces that she really ought to drive home as she has the dreaded work the next day.

Fanny and Rose are downcast until they remember that somehow in all the mayhem last night, they got out their diaries and agreed that in August, Fanny, Darrell and the children would take the train all the way down to Rose’s house in the south of France for a week.

view towards Crest.jpg

View from Rose’s village

“Hurrah!” they cry. “We’ll have another week of jolly japes and unexpected mishaps.”

“Sunshine and swimming!”

“Canoeing down the river!”

“Olives at the market and walking up Les Trois Becs!”

“Card games and Scrabble!”

“Lots of wine!”

But we promise not leave anyone on the train!

La Bohème in Paris

“Houston, we have a problem.”
“Go ahead Endeavour.”
“There is a strange man in black wandering around our ship singing of his love for this chick Mimi who is dying.”
“Endeavour! Have you been drinking again? We’ve warned you about the dangers of space travel and alcohol!”
“I swear I haven’t! And now there’s this women in a red dress and and she’s singing too.”
SILENCE
“Houston are you there?”
“Houston?

Last weekend, I visited Paris with my teenage son. As part of the trip I wanted to take him to the theatre. My first thought was the ballet as we’ve seen a few and he really likes them; but there wasn’t a performance on last Saturday. After much discussion we settled on going to see La Bohème at the Bastille. His first time at the opera.

Come six o’clock it was time to get ready. I got my new red dress on and Joe donned his first ever suit, a slim-cut navy blue affair that really suits him. Thick winter coats buttoned up against the chilly wind we made our way there via the Métro.

We climbed up and up to the top balcony and made our way to our seats in the front row. I said “Bonsoir” to my neighbour, a well-dressed man with grey hair and we settled down to enjoy the performance. The overture began and I hummed along to Puccini’s lovely music. The lights dimmed and the curtain slowly rose.

What the …?

Why was I looking at the brilliant white and silver interior of a spaceship? Why was there a sign telling me that it’s 1506 days into the voyage and the situation is hopeless because the life support system has failed? Where was the bleak Parisian garret?

My first thought was this wasn’t La Bohème at all. My sluggish menopausal brain had made me pick the wrong day and this was a different production. Then my shoulders sagged as I realised this was indeed the correct opera only the director in his wisdom had decided to reinterpret it for the 21st century.

Instead of 1830s Paris, the action was now in a doomed spaceship and the well-known tale of the impoverished lovers had been reduced to the fevered hallucinations of an astronaut, Rudolfo, who knows his time is nearly up and is remembering his past life.

After my initial disappointment, I decided I really should give the performance a chance and tried hard to become immersed in the story. But as the scenery bore absolutely no relation to the action it was actually very hard to concentrate. I was distracted by figures in white space suits slowly moving across the stage, connecting up silver pipes and pressing buttons. And the subtitles above the stage constantly took my eyes away from the singers, fracturing my thought process too. I squirmed in my seat and glanced across at my son. He was finding it hard to concentrate.

By the second half, the spaceship had crash landed and the astronauts had no prospect of being rescued. They were basically sitting around waiting to die and the scenery changed to a moonscape.

Superimposed on all this weirdness, were Mimi and Rudolfo, the doomed lovers, and Marcello and Musetta, whose path through life was also anything but simple. Their tale should have been full of romance and passion but they had been cheated of any human qualities by becoming at best ghosts. They were bit players in the story, instead of being the main characters.

The beautiful music, with arias like Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, was also diminished by the bizarre stage setting. Puccini gave very precise instructions as to how this opera was to be set; take any of that away and you greatly reduce its power.

There have been some very successful updates of classic stories but this simply wasn’t one of them. You can’t have a modern-day setting but not update the characters. It may possibly have worked if everyone was an astronaut. In this interpretation the juxtaposition of the two worlds was so jarring, you couldn’t believe in either one of them. It felt like I was watching a farce rather than a classic love story.

Opera at its best should draw you into the story. You should feel the performer’s emotions: their happiness, their despair, their anger and their love. Instead I fidgeted through the whole thing.

The audience were magnanimous in their applause right at the end, sensing perhaps that the performers didn’t deserve the chorus of boos they received after the first half. It wasn’t their fault the director wanted to be “clever” and the quality of their singing and the orchestra’s playing really was first-class.

“Houston.”
“Hello Endeavour. Do you still have people singing about dying in your spaceship?”
“What are you talking about? That’s a ridiculous idea! “
“Exactly…”

DECEMBER 4TH: SHENLEY DENS FARMHOUSE

Not one photo today but several of an abandoned 18th century farmhouse that I pass regularly walking the dogs.

It was lived in until the early 2000s when it was sold to a developer. It has been empty ever since and has suffered from deliberate neglect. As it is Grade II listed they aren’t allowed to demolish it, instead they have left it empty and it has now been so thoroughly vandalised that nothing is left of the original features which were the reason for its listing in the first place.

The farmland around is still worked and the barns were used until three years ago. I wonder what the previous owners think of this neglect?

In 2014, the council, after repeatedly warning the company about the state of the building, slapped a Section 54 Notice on the house builder forcing them to undertake repairs.

When the machinery first turned up, I thought the house was going to be demolished, sad but the best plan. Then I watched with bemusement as they took off modern additions, like the dormer windows and just covered over the hole in the roof with plastic. They erected more secure fencing round the property and have done nothing since. Rather than repairing the building they’ve just made the situation worse and the council seem powerless to challenge them. The cynic in me would say this has been done on purpose so the building can eventually be demolished.

Taking care of old buildings is complex and the system is cumbersome but most of the time it protects our history. In this case it failed spectacularly.

Shenley Dens 1

The house is difficult to access as the fruit trees are so overgrown. The front is just visible here.
shenley dens 2
Hard to see through the scaffolding, it has an elegant symmetrical front.
shenley dens 4
The house is suffering from subsidence and now has scaffolding front and back.
shenley dens 3
The back, where you can see the sorry state of the roof.
shenley dens 5
Nothing is left of the front door…
shenley dens 6
The electricity poles serving the farmhouse ran up the adjacent field with a steep slope and felt the full force of the wind that regularly whistles through the valley. One night we had such a strong storm that one of the cables snapped. They removed all the wires but left this pile of wood.
shenley dens 7
There used to be two modern barns that served the farmers until three years ago. They were demolished but the spoil heap is still there.

shenley dens 8

Old barn, probably Victorian.
shenley dens 9
Wooden beams visible through the shattered windows.

Photographic advent calendar: December 1st – 3rd

I love taking photographs, so I started a pictorial advent calendar over on Facebook four days ago. These are photo(s) of something that provokes emotion: they make me smile or laugh, make me sad or angry. Here are the first three days:

DECEMBER 1ST: PEMBROKESHIRE BEACH

Barafundel beach, Pembrokeshire on a late August afternoon. The exceptionally low tide meant that we could go around the headland to the adjacent beach – usually inaccessible – and much to our astonishment there were all these caves we never knew existed. I spent a lazy hour scrambling over rocks and photographing interesting nooks. This is my favourite shot.

Image may contain: cloud, sky, ocean, plant, outdoor, nature and water

 

DECEMBER 2ND: MILTON KEYNES MOON

Leaving the sports hall last night after jujitsu, we stopped to stare at the moon, which was not only really bright but had a multi-coloured halo around it. The words to Shining Light by Ash came to mind:

You are a force, you’re a constant source
Yeah you are a shining light
Incandescent in the darkest night
Yeah you light up my life

 

Image may contain: cloud, sky, night, tree, outdoor and nature

 

DECEMBER 3RD: LILY’S BOWLS

My great aunt Lil was a small but feisty welshwoman with a wicked sense of humour who loved to chat. She was a primary school teacher all her life after her marriage was tragically cut short. First her baby David died and then her husband of TB and she was widowed with a young stepson to raise. She left Newcastle and returned to live with her mother in Pembroke Dock in the house in Laws Street.

Her first teaching job was as a supply teacher. In a rural farming community in the 1920s very few people had cars, so to reach the school she either walked or got a lift in a farmer’s cart. I can just imagine her perched up on the cart entertaining the farmer with her chatter; she liked nothing better than a captive audience.

Whenever we visited her as kids we used this set of bowls for pudding; fruit salad, rice pudding or her favourite, apple pie. They aren’t anything special but she was very attached to them because she bought them out of her first wage packet as a present to her mum.

When she died aged 98, I chose to keep them in memory of her. I love stuff that has been well used and has a story behind it for that way you can connect to your own history.

Soon they will be 100 years old.

 

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