This has been one of those weeks when – by the time Friday came around – I felt as if I’d been put through the washing machine on top spin and hung out to dry. At least I can never say my job is boring…
Monday was spent catching up with the hundreds of emails that had come in over half term, having what felt like about a dozen meetings. Taking a week off always seems to result in a lot of things that need doing, and not enough hours to do them in, as there is a whole new week of things to do when you get back. On Wednesday we were interviewing for a new role in the team, which meant another day of not getting things done (but meeting some interesting people, which is always a plus), and on Thursday we had a ‘Town Square’ event in Bethnal Green in partnership with St Margaret’s House. Friday was a day on trains: six hours, altogether, on public transport. I was speaking at Brunel University in the morning, then went back to South Kensington for a meeting and then headed home which took many hours thanks to train cancellations.
The Town Square event was a gathering of creative people held at the Tramshed, a converted (yes, you guessed it) tramshed whose architecture echoes that of our own Victorian pile – high ceilings, open space, big windows and no flipping insulation. It was cold, but we did get to hear from Maraid McEwan, our recent inclusive designer in residence and also Kazuko Hohki, who enchanted us with her tales of growing up in Japan believing in The Borrowers. We ate posh biscuits, drank a lot of coffee and brought some of the objects from our growing Learning Collection along with us – echoing the new galleries, we brought Froebel’s Gifts One and Two from the Play gallery; a maquette of Joey from the play War Horse made for us by Little Angel Theatre (Joey will be on display in the new museum, and he can currently be seen in the theatre and performance galleries at the V&A) from the Imagine gallery; and from the Design gallery we brought an outfit by Petit Pli, who feature in the case study ‘Design makes things last for longer’.
The sharp-eyed among you will be saying ‘but what about Tuesday?’. Ah, Tuesday. Tuesday was great. Despite swearing off ever getting on a coach with children again after the Spotlight trip to the V&A last February, with the mash and liquor and projectile travel sickness (amazingly, the two were not connected), I brought a class of Year 5s and their associated adults to the V&A for a very special visit.
The V&A and Penguin have published a book called Jim’s Spectacular Christmas, written by Emma Thompson (and yes mum, she did write it herself!). The star of the story is Jim, who was V&A founder Henry Cole’s dog and who is buried in the museum garden. Jim was immortalised by Henry Cole himself in a set of sketches made in Broadstairs in 1864 – a scruffy terrier type, he became the inspiration for the book. Emma Thompson met all the children, and read some of the book to them (and they all had copies to take home as well as a copy for the school).
I had told the school that the children would be meeting Emma Thompson and would be having a ‘Jim experience’ as well as being in the photoshoot (all I can say is thank heavens for this school, as they are pretty much up for any mad schemes I suggest to them) but what I hadn’t told them is that the ‘Jim experience’ was going to be a drawing workshop with the – as it turned out – completely adorable Axel Scheffler. Probably most famous for his work with Julia Donaldson- The Gruffalo, Stick Man, Zog, Room on the Broom, Monkey Puzzle, Tabby McTat and so many more – he’s an absolute legend with those of us who spend a lot of time reading bedtime stories or doing story time with small people.
The kids loved it – he showed them how he had drawn Henry Cole and Jim, and then they drew along with him. He signed the two large pictures he’d drawn to the school, and signed the school’s copy of the book, answered questions and – as far as the children were concerned – he was a much bigger celebrity than the actual author. Oliver the teacher was literally hopping with excitement at meeting Axel. I packed them all back onto their coach and apparently it was ‘the best school trip ever’. I do love my job! Organising the trip (I was just in charge of locating and transporting the participants) had taken several months of back-and-forth with Penguin, our comms team, the learning team and the school, but it was worth it…
Other things making me happy this week:
Fun at Fireworks night – helping behind the bar at a local event
A very rainy but glorious swim at 10 degrees c this morning
Lunch at the Japanese Canteen with the team
Catching up with The Power of the Doctor
The flock of parakeets in the garden this week
Not making me happy is the pile of ironing in my very near future….
This week I celebrated not only the 4th anniversary since our stroppiest cat and this week’s cover star, Lulu, came to live with us, but also my 20th anniversary of working in museums – a long time, I agree, but a decision I have never regretted since making the leap out of the classroom way back in 2002.
One question I get asked a lot, usually by teacher training students who are already looking ahead in terms of their careers, is ‘how did you end up in museums?’ ‘By accident’ is my usual answer. Back in the heady days of properly funded Education Business Partnerships, when teachers not only got to go and do CPD but had supply cover paid for by the EBP as well, I went on a couple of training days – one at the Golden Hinde, where we got dressed up in Tudor sailor gear and spent the day doing the sort of thing children got to do on a school trip, and one at the National Army Museum where we experienced object handling and various other aspects of museum learning. I don’t think I had realised that working as an educator in museums was an actual career choice until the then head of education there, Andy Robertshaw, said that they were recruiting and on the off-chance I applied. I had just started an MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at what was then the Institute of Education (now gathered under the wider UCL umbrella) but not with any intention of moving out of teaching, more as a way to be a better humanities co-ordinator. I moved house a month later, and hadn’t heard anything, and a few months after that in February half term I had an irate phone call from the HR team there asking if I’d be attending the interview the following day. Somewhat bewildered and battered from OFSTED the week before and – quite honestly – out of my head on Benylin Day and Night tablets from the inevitable half term germs, I went for the interview. To this day I remember very little other than ranting about the marginalisation of history in the curriculum but something must have worked as they gave me the job.
I loved it. I got to teach the subject I loved but without parents evenings, PE or music lessons in the week, and on weekends and in the holidays we did family events, live interpretation, talks and conferences – in that team, we all did everything. Interminably, at times: if someone gave me the kit and the powerpoint I suspect I could still do the Florence Nightingale session, fondly known as the Mary and Flo Show, or the Civil War. I moved to Museum of London Docklands three years later, where I got to learn a lot about London (one of my other great loves) and create a lot of sessions, and then to the V&A Museum of Childhood in 2017 (now the Young V&A, of course) where I am helping create a new museum.
There have been tricky moments, I’m not denying that: the repeated restructures of the last few years and seeing the impact of these on colleagues has been really hard. Every so often I throw my toys out of the museum pram and declare that I can’t possibly work for them any more and last year that tantrum lasted about six months instead of a couple of weeks, but then I remembered that I actually do love my job and want to see the project through.
I still tell those teacher training students and serving teachers who ask me that it’s the best job ever, and happily attend careers sessions and work weeks to talk about what not only I do but all the other people who make a museum work: kids assume that the only staff are the ones they see, like the security, shop and front of house teams, and are amazed when they hear about the back of house team who make sure everything runs smoothly. Mine’s the best job, though.
As if by magic, the Shopkeeper appeared
This week the great shopkeeper in the sky appeared to take beloved author David McKee off back to reality. Those of us of a certain era will remember the bowler-hatted and suited Mr Benn and his visits to the fancy dress shop where he was cast into a series of costumed adventures before heading back to his peaceful existence on Festive Road. King Rollo was also his creation, and younger children will know Elmer the Elephant, the mischievous patchwork pachyderm.
My favourite, and one which I have read literally hundreds of times to both my own kids at bedtimes and to classes of children at storytime, is Not Now, Bernard, the story of a boy who finds a monster in the garden. He tries to tell his mum and dad about the monster but they’re too busy to listen. Poor Bernard gets eaten by the monster, who proceeds to go into the house and create chaos, but the parents don’t even notice their son has been eaten. The bemused monster finds himself tucked up with milk and a teddy bear.
This was a wonderful book to read aloud: the children recognised the distracted parents and gleefully acted out the repetitive ‘Not NOW, Bernard’ lines as we read through. I can still hear Thing 2’s baby croak as she joined in. Thank you, David McKee.
See you next week,
What I’ve been reading:
Dry Bones That Dream/Innocent Graves/Wednesday’s Child/Dead Right – Peter Robinson
Well, that was a week of unparalleled misery, quite frankly – topped off by Thing 3 testing positive for Covid on Thursday. Thing 2 was off with the dreaded corona the week before last, I was knocked for six by labyrinthitis (which is not, sadly, a surfeit of David Bowie’s startling trousers) and now Thing 3. Enough already!
Labyrinthitis is a definite -1,000,000/10, do not recommend. It was so horrible I didn’t pick up a crochet hook for a week, or even a book for several days. That bad. NHS 111 recommended taking something called Buccastem, which is supposed to relieve nausea and vomiting related to migraine, and other people recommended Stugeron which made things infinitely worse. A tweet from a lovely museum person crediting my blog from a few weeks ago with making her feel reassured about her upcoming colposcopy made me cry, but so did the lovely Norwegian postal system’s Christmas advert celebrating 50 years since Norway decriminalised same-sex relationships.
It was Wednesday before I started feeling semi-human again, and Friday before I felt safe to go out of the house. My Beloved did a most excellent job with laundry and keeping the Horde alive, and the furry fiends did an excellent job of keeping me warm. Friends were amazing at relaying Thing 3 home from school, which at least we don’t need to worry about this week as he’ll be off with me isolating.
Lack of new output does, however, mean I can share a piece I finished a while ago but which only got handed over this week – despite the fact that I have seen Heather several times. We were supposed to have a ‘Grumpy People’s Supporters Club’ night out on Friday (well, they did, I stayed on the sofa watching Cowboy Bebop): the last time we saw each other all together was on the hen night back in June! The pattern can be found here and the seller was kind enough to offer to chart the names for me to personalise it as well. I’m told the bride liked it – she loves Art Deco and had a 1920s car to take her to the service, so it should be a good reminder of the day.
When I did manage to pick up a book again, it was with the intention of working through some of the digital shelf of shame on the Kindle – in the mood for something easy, I chose Colin Watson’s Flaxborough novels which were published between 1958 and 1982. Police procedurals which would probably be tagged with the awful ‘cosy mystery’ label these days, these are witty and terribly British, featuring the Viking-like Inspector Purbright and the eastern town of Flaxborough. I had three on my Kindle already and luckily the rest were cheap as I quickly got addicted.
Lying in bed unable to do anything meant I had a lot of time to do mental crafting, which is at least cheaper than the normal kind. I have a head full of ideas and no way to get to them, as my crafting space (OK, the dining room) is still full of stuff we haven’t put back after the heating was put in. My beloved has taken the opportunity to do small jobs upstairs while the place is already in chaos. I’m not saying I’m getting itchy fingers here but I have things that need making! Things 2 and 3 want new pants and there’s Christmas making to be done. This Hobbit Hole piece needs finishing, too: the pattern is by Vetlanka on Etsy. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on such a high count fabric, but the effect is so delicate.
I’ve taken the opportunity to set up a Facebook page for this blog as well, where I can sell the various bits and bobs I make that aren’t destined for gifts, at least from me. You’ll be able to find it here and I really need to take some photos to get things online! Watch this space.
Anyway, I must head off – there’s PCR tests to do and a book to get back to.
What I’ve been reading:
Speaking in Bones – Kathy Reich
Coffin, Scarcely Used / Bump in the Night / Hopjoy Was Here / Lonelyheart 4122 / Charity Ends at Home / The Flaxborough Crab / Broomsticks over Flaxborough / The Naked Nuns / One Man’s Meat– Colin Watson (Flaxborough series)
Sometimes you get handed a book, or a recommendation for a book, that a friend or family member has loved and you read it….and it’s okay. It’s not life changing, and you probably wouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s readable. There have been many books like that- and that’s fine, because there’s a lot of different authors and tastes in the world and as Terry Pratchett says many times it would be a funny old world if we were all alike.
Sometimes the book is so terrible you question why you’re so fond of that person.
Sometimes you recommend a book that you have absolutely loved to people you like and they think it’s….okay. Not life changing, not great but…okay. I find it’s best not to take these things personally as clearly those people are wrong, or just need to read it again properly, or aren’t in their right minds.
Sometimes a book has rave reviews, and/or a massive marketing budget, and shoots up the bestseller lists, and films are made of them starring people who you may or may not have heard of, and that’s fine too. Sometimes these are good books and terrible films, sometimes these are terrible books and okay films. Sometimes they are terrible books and you can’t bring yourself to watch the film.
Sometimes – just sometimes – you get given a book and it’s wonderful: it keeps you awake long after your bedtime and stays with you so you can’t wait to pick it back up in the morning. This can be for many reasons: the adventure, the need to know what happens next, the lyricalness of the writing, My recent read ‘Once upon a River’ by Diane Setterfield was one of these books. Others include:
Boy’s Life – Robert McCammon
Hearts in Atlantis and The Body – Stephen King
The Once and Future King – T.H. White
The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Stardust – Neil Gaiman
The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa
Ring the Hill – Tom Cox
The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Nieffenegger
This week I have added another one to the list – a birthday gift from my colleagues but I detect the hand of my wild swimming colleague in this one. Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper, which is a journal kept over five years of wild swimming in West Country waters. It’s a poignant read: Roper took up wild swimming after a double mastectomy and built a community of swimmers around her, as well as becoming a key member of the Outdoor Swimming Society. Sadly she died five years later of a brain tumour, but she filled those five years with adventure and wrote about them in exquisite, immersive prose. I’ll be recommending this one to friends, but I might not lend them my copy….
There may be many more of these magical books on my shelves of shame, or lurking on my Kindle, and I really ought to get round to reading them. I always swear I won’t buy any more books until I have finished the ones I have (I know, I laugh too) and then the BookBub daily email comes in, or I find something wonderful in a charity shop, or someone recommends a book they have loved and suddenly there’s a new addition. Perhaps I need to make a reading resolution that every other book I read is one from the shelf…. that sounds more realistic, at least!
In the meantime, if I promise not to buy them, will you tell me which are your favourite books to recommend to people?
Trial and error, error, error
You would think that if you have sewed a neckband onto something the wrong way up that it would be a straightforward job to unpick it and put it on the correct way. This was not the case with the blouse hack of the McCalls 8104 dress, which I had to unpick three times before I worked out which way was the right way, and which bits I’d sewed together wrong in the first place. I also managed to sew the bodice and lower bodice pieces together upside down when I started it on Monday, so I am amazed I got it finished at all.
The lovely turquoise cotton fabric is from Higgs and Higgs, and I bought it with my birthday Amazon vouchers – I love the statement sleeves and the slightly fitted waist on it, and the fact that there isn’t a standing collar. I’m not sure what it is with sewing patterns, but every collar I have made is just too seventies – indie or big four, it’s a bit of an issue. I shall just have to learn how to redraft them.
In the name of sorting out my shed I have gone through the hundreds of sewing patterns (mainly free magazine gifts) with a view to handing them over to a friend who has just qualified as a DT teacher – if she doesn’t want them herself she can donate them to school! My August resolution is to have a good tidy up in the shed and donate anything I really won’t use to people who will make good use of them. Things 1 and 2 have just had their ears pierced, so Thing 2 has been making earrings and jewellery with one of her friends which is making a dent in the stash already!
I haven’t done a lot else, really – my sourdough starter has been in heavy use this week as Thing 3 has decided he really likes the bread, and with the discard I have made pizza (always a hit) and cinnamon rolls which were soft and delicious. I’ll definitely be making those again!
So that’s my week! I’ll be off now to do a bit of reading over lunch and then start constructing the jeans I cut out last week….
What I’ve been reading:
Wild Woman Swimming – Lynne Roper
Raising Steam/The Truth – Terry Pratchett
How to Sew Sustainably – Wendy Ward
The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook – Susan Briscoe
Visible Mending – Arounna Khounnoraj
Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee (Audible)
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Audible)
Regular visitors to my little corner of cyberspace will have spotted that I am a big fan of books and reading in general. I love fantasy, and magic, and supernatural thrillers; different worlds, sideways views of our own world, the idea that there are things we can’t see (and, in the case of Stephen King, that we don’t want to see). I don’t love it when some bright spark decides to take one of these books and turn it into a film or a TV series, unless they are people who can be trusted to do it properly. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I think, can be trusted with Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, but the teams responsible for The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (from the novel by Susan Cooper) and Midwinter of the Spirit (from Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series) should never have been allowed near the productions.
I can almost imagine the conversation in The Seeker‘s production meeting: “Yeah, so we’ve got Eccleston as the bad guy and McShane as the wizard, right, but we gotta make it relevant to American kids, we can’t have another magic English kid, Harry Potter and all that, let’s make the kid and his family American, let’s transplant them to England, fish outta water stuff…”. Just, no. You killed the story. Suffice to say they didn’t get the go-ahead to film the rest of the novels.
Midwinter of the Spirit suffered from some of the same problems: the brilliant Anna Maxwell Martin cast in the main role was a great choice, but they hammered a long novel into a short series in a very heavy-handed way, losing a lot of the suspense and also – by choosing not to start the series with the first novel – a lot of the context. Shame, because these are brilliantly written, unputdownable books.
The one notable exception is William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, possibly because by 1973 when the novel was published he was already an Academy Award-winning screen writer for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Best Original Screenplay) and he also adapted the novel for the screen. It’s still one of my favourite films and books, and finding another fan almost always means finding a new friend. Not that having the original author on board is always a good thing, of course, because then you run the risk of making, say, eight long films from seven long books (I’m looking at you, J.K.Rowling, you and your ‘direct assistance’ in the screenwriting).
(As an aside, Twilight and The Vampire Diaries were actually better than the books but only because they could not have been worse. So it does work both ways. Sometimes).
It was with some trepidation. therefore, that I headed to BBC iPlayer this week to check out The Watch, ‘inspired by’ characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. BBC2 has the tagline “In a world where crime is legal, a group of chaotic misfit cops rise up to save their city from catastrophe. A punk rock comedy thriller inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.” The buzz on the Pratchett fan pages has been almost entirely negative. Outrage around the casting has been prominent: a woman as Lord Vetinari (Anna Chancellor)? A short person (Marama Corlett) as Angua? A tall person (Jo Eaton-Kent) as Cheery? A black woman (Lara Rossi) as Sybil Ramkin? Other than Carrot, who remains true to Pratchett’s vision, the casting producer has created a hugely diverse and entertaining ensemble. Richard Dormer, cast as Vimes, is guilty of gurning too much and perhaps too much comedy has been written in for him, but he was a good choice. Matt Berry and Paul Kaye are always good value, too.
Part of the outrage has also come from a fierce loyalty to Terry Pratchett and, latterly, to his daughter Rhianna. She very diplomatically tweeted that “It’s fairly obvious that The Watch shares no DNA with my father’s Watch. This is neither criticism nor support. It is what it is.” Den of Geek has more on the controversy here. Funnily enough, Good Omens wasn’t criticised in the same way, perhaps because Neil Gaiman is Pratchett-adjacent and David Tennant is similarly adored for his time as the Tenth Doctor. The news this week on hearing that a second series of Good Omens in in the works should probably have provoked outrage as there isn’t a book, but once you’re in the Pratchett family, you’re in and you can pretty much do no wrong.
Previous big-budget adaptations of the Discworld novels have tended to be by Sky, who filmed the first two novels as The Colour of Magic, then did Hogfather and Going Postal. These weren’t perfect in terms of casting, either, but also weren’t terribly revolutionary. Charles Dance was perfectly cast as Vetinari, Tim Curry made an excellent wizard. Sean Astin was OK as Twoflower but David Jason was utterly wrong for Rincewind (he did make a great Albert in Hogfather, to give him his dues). The problem with filming such beloved novels is that readers have a very clear vision of who they think would be the best actor for the role, and are vociferous on the subject. The constant ‘casting posts’ on the various fan pages are annoying in the extreme, so one learns the art of scrolling.
Suffice to say that none of the actors in The Watch have featured in any of these posts. Was this possibly a deliberate decision, in the sense of ‘we’ll never get it right, so let’s have some fun’?
So, I went into the series knowing that the production company had played merry hell with the storylines, the characters and the sacred Discworld canon. And, you know what? I really enjoyed it. I left my Discworld expectations back on Roundworld and went along for the ride. The writers have picked bits from any number of the novels, not just the Watch series: Soul Music, Guards Guards, Night Watch, The Light Fantastic, Thud! to name a few, and they really have had fun with them. Many of the puns have been lost, and the addition of a gloriously camp dance routine came a bit out of leftfield, but it’s still thoroughly bonkers, funny and sweet in places. It does look as if most of the filming took place in the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, but you don’t get much more dystopian than that. The soundtrack is great, Cheery is an absolute delight, and the ending leaves it open for more….though as yet series 2 hasn’t been commissioned, sadly.
We’ve also watched Katla this week – gloomy, spooky and Nordic – and a 2018 series called Requiem, chosen because we like most things Joel Fry does.
What is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?
A surprise birthday present arrived this week from my lovely work colleagues, combining Pratchett, cross stitch and cats – three of my favourite things! I love getting handmade gifts and, believe it or not, it’s quite a rarity. I don’t know who made it but I LOVE it.
I also packed off the gift I couldn’t share last week: I could not get it straight in the hoop, so I gave up in the end. The pattern is by Climbing Goat Designs on Etsy.
This week I have been working on another gift, and another Totoro baby lovey – this time a commission. My cross stitch is on 18 count fabric and it’s getting to the point where I can’t see the holes in the fabric any more so may need to invest in one of those magnifying lights! Old age is creeping up fast…
This week I am looking forward to doing some delivery in schools, which I have really missed, and hopefully the sun will come out at some point!
See you next week
What I’ve been reading:
The Museum of Broken Promises – Elizabeth Buchan
The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes – Ruth Hogan
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar
Guards, Guards – Terry Pratchett
Lundy, Rockall, Dogger, Fairisle – Matthew Clayton and Anthony Atkinson
Yesterday was my 48th birthday, and among the presents I requested from the various people who asked was an Ordnance Survey map of Chelmsford and the Rodings, and one of their Pathfinder books of circular walks. I bought another map (Chelmsford, Harlow and Bishops Stortford) with one of the Amazon vouchers I was given as well. Those of you who have ever been anywhere with me and experienced my sense of direction might wonder a bit at this, of course, as I am the adult who once got so hopelessly lost in Sainsburys in Whitechapel that I handed myself in at Customer Services and waited to be collected. I am also regularly flummoxed by Google maps on my phone: it’s all very well showing me where I am, but it still takes a few false starts, watching the direction the arrows are moving when I walk, to work out the direction of travel.
Still, you all know I love a good walk, so my thinking is that with the aid of these maps I can explore a bit more of my local area. North Weald sits on the border of both these maps, rather than conveniently in the middle, hence needing two of them.
I have a vague plan that for my 50th birthday I will walk the whole of the Essex Way over a series of weekends, in the company of whoever I can persuade to do various stretches with me. I have a couple of years to plan this adventure, fortunately! I have done some of the local stretches on training walks, and I am keen to do the rest. If I was the sort of hardy hiking person who could be bothered to carry lots of equipment on my back I might do it all at once, but that’s never going to happen!
I like marking big birthdays. I haven’t worried about my age since I was 27 and I cried all day as I was so old. Back when I was still in infant school in Cardiff our class teacher, Mrs Price, asked us to work out how old we would in the year 2000, and 27 was the answer: it felt such a long way away, and such a vast age to a six year old, that I never forgot it. No other birthday has ever felt so traumatic!
My 30th was a mad evening out in London with friends, where we did the Jack the Ripper walk after a few drinks in All Bar One at Tower Hill (chosen as it was formerly the Mark Lane underground station, and I am nothing if not a nerd). My 40th was a barbecue in the back garden, with a ball pool for the kids and surrounded by friends. So I am planning an adventure for my 50th: it’s a big birthday, so I ought to celebrate it by doing something interesting with people I like. Volunteers for future weekends on the Essex Way welcome!
Other gifts included yarn, rhubarb and ginger gin and books: you all know me so well!
There has, of course, been other things in my week: my second Covid vaccine, so I am now fully 5G enabled or something (I don’t care if it causes me to pick up Radio Caroline, quite honestly, as long as it means I can see my parents and sisters). It was the monthly sunset/full moon swim, and this month the moon was up but covered in clouds so I still didn’t see it from the lake. There has been lots of making, but nothing I can share yet!
There has also been a lot of reading: a book that had me grabbed from the first page, and which would have kept me awake into the early hours to finish it if the battery on my Kindle hadn’t died. Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, was one of those 99p Kindle deals that’s been lurking on the virtual shelf of shame since then. I finally got round to it this week. It’s one of the best books I have read for a very long time – if you haven’t run across it already, go and grab it. History, magic, mystery, the Thames: what else do you need?
And now I must head for Tesco, as the cupboard is mostly bare and the Horde need feeding! Same time next week?
What I’ve been reading:
Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield
Madame Burova/The Keeper of Lost Things/Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel – Ruth Hogan
This week’s ramblings have been brought to you because I have been listening to the audiobook of Cider with Rosie, read by Laurie Lee himself: lush, sunshine-drenched prose, set in countryside not so very far from where I grew up in Monmouthshire. There are some books which, if you mention them to people of a certain age, elicit an instant response of eye-rolling and and ‘urgh, I hate that book, we had to read it in school, it’s so boring.’ It’s true, a terrible English teacher can ruin a wonderful book (equally, a good one can bring it to life: I’m looking at you, Mr Bradley, you and your passion for Jane Austen).
Prime candidates for this, at least for people of my generation, seem to be:
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
All of which are classics, of course, and I love them all, but ‘studying literature’ as opposed to just reading a book can really ruin it for people. Second-guessing what the author meant, analysing their intent in using this word or that, deconstructing poetry often means that you can’t see the story for the words, to paraphrase that famous saying about forests and trees.
My own GCSE texts included a story or two from Leslie Norris’s Sliding, which I still love, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and probably some other ones but, amazingly, none of those listed above featured – probably because of the move from O-level to GCSE the previous year.
A badly-chosen text can have the same negative impact: for me this was Graham Swift’s Waterland, set in the Fens and with content so far out of my sphere of experience as an A-level student that I couldn’t engage. Mr Mills tried his best, bless him, but it was hard going. Ten years later, I found myself spending a lot of time in the Fens around March and Ely, so I went back and read the book as an adult: it’s brilliant, frankly, but it took an understanding of the area and the concerns of an adult to understand it. My youngest sister had The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro as one of her A-level texts: my mum and I loved it, she didn’t – presumably for the same reasons I couldn’t get to grips with Waterland. It doesn’t matter how much you love books and reading, if you can’t engage with the content then you’re unlikely to enjoy it.
I suppose the point of teaching literature is to inspire a love of reading in children, but I do wonder occasionally who chooses the texts. Thing 1 is in her first year of GCSEs and is doing Macbeth and A Christmas Carol and doesn’t like either of them: she loves analysing text but hasn’t engaged with either of those. She’s just said that she likes book she can relate to: she read William Goldings Lord of the Flies before being given it at school and loved it.
I love reading, I don’t understand why they can’t just let us read it, they keep stopping us every five seconds to make us analyse why Lady Macbeth is a symbol of patriarchal society. What if he just liked Lady Macbeth? If they just gave me ‘The Outsiders’ or ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ I could analyse them in about five minutes cos I can relate to them.’
The school Things One and Two attend practise DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) so they are expected to have a book of their choice to hand at all times, and the teachers have door signs saying what their current book is as well. I love this idea, and it’ll probably go further to instilling a love of literature in children who aren’t growing up surrounded by books than if their first encounter with great books is stripping them into their component parts without ever getting to enjoy the stories first.
The year of the handmade gift
Back to a bit of crochet for the latest gifts: I made the ladybird a leaf sleeping bag, and also made this Totoro baby comforter. Both will be going off to a colleague whose wife is expecting. The ladybird is for his older daughter, as big sisters need a present too! It’s back to the cross stitch now, while I carry on listening to Cider with Rosie even though the sun has gone away again.
Another gift is with its new owner today – I have just this minute had a text message to say thank you, so happy birthday Gina! We have always had a resident fox at the Museum, with cubs most years, so this seemed like an apt present. The pattern is from MaxStitch.
I am off now to get on with things….see you next week!
And small books, and middle sized books. Audio books, graphic novels, comic books. Fiction and non-fiction, picture books and wordy books. I just like books. The house is full of them: the two things I have far too many of, according to my beloved and the kids, are books and shoes.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Some shelves are more organised than others, of course: Terry Pratchett (although he has started to roam), Charles de Lint, Phil Rickman, poetry, the shelf(ves) of shame waiting to be read, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, my childhood favourites, crime novels by author, Penguin classics. Leave me alone in your living room and I’ll hit the bookshelves first and then your music collection. Leave me alone for longer than the time it takes you to make a cup of coffee (instant is fine, thanks) and I’ll start reading. A question I have heard more times than I can count is, ‘what a lot of books! Have you read them all?’ and the answer is always ‘no, and that means there’s something new to discover’. I keep books I love, and if I know I’m not likely to read them again I pass them on to friends or send them to the charity shops so someone else can discover them.
I grew up surrounded by books and was rarely told what I could or couldn’t read, which means my taste is eclectic, to say the least. I love discovering new authors: I have devoured Tom Cox’s books – even the ones about golf – this year, having picked up one of his cat books in Oxfam. Being able to order new books in advance on Kindle and have them appear as if by magic on publication day is like having many Christmases and birthdays every year. The only problem is that often you get two or even three books appearing on the same day, and then you have to decide which to read first. That happened last week, with Ben Aaronovitch’s new Rivers of London novella What Abigail Did That Summer and Tom Cox’s Notebook arriving at once. Both were very different but equally delicious. Kindle is also wonderful in that if you really love a book and know that one of your friends will like it too you can buy them a copy as well. I subscribe to BookBub, who send me an email every day with daily 99p books that you can filter to the genres you want.
I am not precious about my books. I bend the corners down on paperbacks, and use the slipcovers as bookmarks on hardbacks. Books are meant to be read, not idolised: sometimes they are both. I have some books that have been read so many times they are quite literally falling apart. I possess a lot of bookmarks but can never find them. I love finding fellow fans of series: there are a lot of Discworld fans in museums, I have found, and then you know you have a new reading enabler who you can swap new finds with.
I disappear into books. Once I’m in the story, the kids know that if they want me to hear anything they need to get my attention first, or they have no chance. A good book, for me, is one that makes you want to go and find everything else that author has ever written and read that too, even if its about golf. Some books blaze across your imagination, burning in images that stay with you long after you’ve put the book down. Some authors excel at short stories, others at full length novels. Some do both: Stephen King is one, and Joanne Harris is another.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
When I was a Key Stage 1 teacher I loved the moment when a child suddenly clicked with reading, and started to work their way through books for pleasure and not for phonics. Some children needed more help than others: one little boy wasn’t interested in the Oxford Reading Tree so I lent him my own book of children’s Arthurian legends because he was obsessed with King Arthur. He started reading them with his mum, and by the final story he was unstoppable and reading independently. I loved story time at the end of the day, and when I had the same class again in year 3 we read a chapter a day before home time. I read to the children nightly, in the same way that I was read to by my parents, and read many of the same books to them as I had as a child. I can’t bear to part with these childhood treasures, even now.
You can learn to do pretty much anything from books, too: over the years I have taught myself to crochet, to (sort of) knit, to sew, to quilt. When I was growing up my Dad’s household manual was the Reader’s Digest Repair Manual (I believe he still has it) and when anything broke he would refer to this bible. I was overjoyed to find a copy of the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing the other week, and then I tracked down the Guide to Needlework on Amazon. I may never need all these techniques – I can’t see myself doing bobbin lace or tatting, for example, but I’ll know exactly where to look if I decide I want to give them a try. A colleague asked me (as I carried my treasure off in triumph) how many sewing books I had. I don’t know, but I did organise them by craft a few weeks ago so at least I can find them when I need to!
I like to crochet or cross stitch and listen to audio books at the same time: that’s multitasking at its best. My book is the last thing I put down at night: sometimes I wake myself up when the book falls out of my hand. My commute is pure pleasure as long as I have a seat: a Central Line delay? No problem, there’s time for an extra chapter. If I have a rough morning at work, you can find me and my Kindle in KFC – the ultimate lunchtime cure-all.
So if you need me, I’ll be reading….
…and/or making stuff
This week I have handed over a handmade gift to a friend who’s just moved house, combining her family with her mother-in-law and taking on a renovation project. 3 adults, 2 kids and 3 hounds! I designed this one, using an alphabet from Lord Libidan and DMC Coloris thread. I’m working on two other gifts as well, which should be finished and sent off soon!
The Tunisian sock is coming on nicely, and is starting to look a bit more socky, which is reassuring! I like this stitch as it’s really easy to count the rows! The fabric has a more knitted look than normal crochet, so these will be stretchier, I hope.
This week’s cover photo is the museum fox sunning herself outside my office window – when we lifted the containers this week we discovered five cubs, which we think she’s found a new earth for. She’s so confident: the grounds are her territory, and since the building is closed she must feel very safe.
So that’s it from me for the week! Looking forward to the lake reopening tomorrow and getting back in the water and to seeing more than one friend at once as restrictions start to lift.
What I’ve been reading:
Cold Case/Flashpoint (Carlotta Carlyle) – Linda Barnes
London Particular (BBC Radio Drama) – Nick Perry (Audible)
What Abigail Did That Summer – Ben Aaronovitch (Audible)
After last week’s grinching, dear readers, the tree is up and the festive fireplace is decorated. If you look closely at the cover image you can probably spot that bloody elf lurking among the tomtes (Nordic gnomes – the pair on the left are from this patternand the new addition on the right is here).
I love my fireplace at Christmas: pretty lights and candles, and this year I have chosen to use my late mother-in-law’s angel chimes as a centrepiece. The Google clock is there to play Christmas music, of course. This year I have built a Spotify playlist, which means I am in no danger of being forced to listen to Mariah Carey, Paul McCartney or John Lennon’s Christmas offerings but I can include Kate Rusby, The Black Crowes, Bruce Springsteen, The Killers and The Dropkick Murphys alongside Slade, Wizzard and co.
We have an artificial tree rather than a real one as its a few years old now. We’ll keep using it until it’s too tatty rather than send it to landfill – it’s so covered in decorations as Thing 2 doesn’t like leaving anything out that you can’t see much tree anyway. It sheds a bit, but so do the cats and the three long-haired people in the house!
Remake, refashion, reuse
I love charity shops, I really do. There’s nothing I like more on a Saturday morning than a mooch round the local town, preferably solo, exploring book shelves, bric a brac and the clothes rails. There are such treasures to be found: a new craft book, picture frames, a pair of curtains that can be turned into skirts and quilt backs, a vintage dress or sewing pattern, or a pretty bowl for the frivolous shelves in my shed. Yesterday I spotted dresses from Coast and Cos (sadly not in my size) and gorgeous ’60s glassware (sadly no room in my cupboard).
We are very lucky in Epping, as we have an excellent selection ranging from the well-known Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation to more local ones like Haven House, St Clare’s Hospice and Eco. The last two have giant versions in Harlow as well, which yielded two giant beanbags and an Ikea cupboard for the conservatory. We also have a branch of Oxfam Books and Music, which I can spend ages in, usually emerging clutching a new art book in the hope that one day I will be able to draw, a craft book, or a classic from my childhood.
Back when I was at university in Preston there was a wonderful shop called Jet Trading, packed with vintage dresses and accessories, and some of my favourite student dresses came from there – 1970s florals, worn with para boots and a biker jacket. My first LBD came from a charity shop in Monmouth – a 1960s grosgrain cocktail dress.
One of the wonderful things about learning to sew is the ability to hack and alter these charity shop treasures: like the fabric but not the length? Chop it and redo the hem. Looking for something with a bit of weight for a structured skirt? Polished cotton, double wide, full length lined curtains – done! The world is your mollusc, to paraphrase the legendary Terry Pratchett.
And then last week I got my hands on a book called Crochet Hackingby Emma Friedlander-Collins. I have been following her on Instagram for a while now, and thoroughly enjoying her hacking of clothes with a crochet hook and whatever yarn comes to hand. Anyone who has seen my shed knows just how desperately I need stashbusting ideas to get rid of all the ends of yarn from various projects, so this is a much needed addition to my craft library.
It’s a book designed to inspire confidence. It’s colourful and friendly and does not require you to buy anything new – not clothes, or specialist yarn, and for those of you going ‘ah, but what if I haven’t got a crochet hook!’, go and ask in your local charity shop as they are an excellent source of crafting materials as well as everything else. And yes, that usually includes odds and ends of yarn too. It starts by explaining why it’s better to remake than to buy new, and gives a few startling facts about how many clothes end up in landfill every year. It’s a LOT.
The book is divided into sections, showing you how to crochet into denim, jersey, wool and other fabrics – basic instructions and a few projects for each. I really love the custom sleeve stripes and the Fairisle-style cuffs, which both make the sleeves of a top longer in different ways, and the gorgeous kimono style wrap. Some projects require a bit more skill than others, but all of them are achievable.
Thing 2 has been a fan of refashioning for a while, as it happens: earlier in the summer she persuaded me to chop a skater dress that she’s been wearing for years into a crop top and skirt, as it was just too short for her. When she loves an item of clothing she tries to make it last as long as possible: this particular dress had been her older sister’s and I think was aged 5-6. It’s lasted really well, and now has a new lease of life. Last week she chopped a pair of pale grey leggings (really, what was I thinking?) into a pair of shorts, and rather grandly handed me the legs with a ‘here you go mum, I saved you the fabric’.
So I have had these legs sitting on my sewing table (oh, OK, the dining room table) and during a meeting I tried them on my arms. I have mentioned how easily distracted I am, haven’t I? They were the perfect length for arm warmers – working in what’s essentially a Victorian cast iron and brick greenhouse, as I do, means you develop a fondness for a handy layer. Armed with the Crochet Hacking book, some variegated sock yarn, a wool needle and a crochet hook I spent a few hours while in ‘receiving mode’ at some meetings jazzing up my new accessories with a few rows of crochet, some truly awful blanket stitching and some simple embroidery. The instructions in the book were really easy to follow, and now I’ll have warm hands in work!
The rest of the crafty week has been spent weaving in the ends of the nine-patches for the Zoom baby blanket, ready to put them together, and I started a pixie hat to go with the blanket as the baby in question is due in January.
The cross stitch is coming on – I am working on fabric with 18 squares per inch, and my eyes are not what they used to be so yesterday I gave in and bought some of those magnifying specs from the chemist. I really must organise my eye test….
So that’s been my week. We are counting down to the end of term now – I failed as a parent on Friday and forgot it was Christmas Jumper Day, only realising as I was leaving school after drop-off that no one else was in uniform. Thing 3 seems to have forgiven me – I had it in my head that it was next week, when they have their Christmas dinner! Things 1 and 2 will be remaining at home after their isolation period ends on Tuesday: Welsh secondary schools are all moving to online teaching this week in a bid to stop the spread, but once again the English government is failing to act and is forcing them to remain open despite advice from the scientists to close.
Today Things 2 and 3 have asked if we can make stained glass biscuits – I have said yes, on the understanding that they don’t take a bite out of each one on the tree as they did a few years ago.
Let’s see what week 39 has in store!
What I’ve been reading
Gobbelino London and a Contagion of Zombies – Kim M Watt
Well, this has been a pretty miserable month so far for those of us working in the museum sector. Last week the V&A announced redundancies as part of the ‘recovery programme’, and this week the Museum of London followed suit. They aren’t the first by any means, and they won’t be the last: the Museums Association have a redundancy tracker on their site which this morning stands at just under 3,000 across the UK. Thank heavens for the unions – if you aren’t in one, join now.
These initial phases overwhelmingly affect the front of house, retail and visitor experience teams: the most diverse, the lowest paid, the ones who were on the front line longest at the start of lockdown, and the ones who were first to come back when we reopened.
You know, the ones who greet you on arrival, help you around the museum, take your payment in the shop. The ones who interact with you and share their vast knowledge: not just about exhibits and displays, but where the best places are for lunch with your fractious kids, what there is for you to do, and what else you might like to see.
And they are so versatile and talented: they research objects for ‘objects in focus’ talks, based on their own passions and interests. They develop and lead family and public tours. They tell stories. They run activities. They manage school groups in their hundreds, juggling the ones who are late for their sessions with the ones who came too early, and they mop up the ones who’ve been stuck in traffic. Spare pants for a damp child? Somewhere to empty the sick bucket? No problem.
They are also the ones in the line of fire when the building is evacuated, when there’s a first aid emergency, when the object they came specifically to see is no longer on display, when the café is too expensive, when the toilets aren’t working, when the school groups are too noisy, when there’s too many children in the museum. They smooth ruffled feathers with a smile on their face (even if they then come to the learning office for hugs and emergency biscuits).
Outside their museum jobs they are artists, illustrators, poets, designers of all types, PhD students, writers, jewellery makers, textile artists. Those beautiful props and puppets that support the stories you bring your kids to? Chances are they made those.
Some are hoping that the VE role is the first step onto the museum learning ladder, and some of my favourite colleagues over the years have started here. They are the ones who have the greatest understanding of the visitors for whom they are programming content, and who are the most outward facing.
We understand that these are strange and difficult times and the choice is to shed staff or potentially face the closure of museums across the country, possibly permanently. This week the Culture Recovery Fund announced lifeline grants awarded to smaller organisations – up to a million pounds – which will make a huge difference to their survival. I was really pleased that the Epping Ongar Railway, in my village, is one of the recipients.
It seems particularly insensitive, therefore, for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to announce this week that MPs would be receiving a £3,360 pay rise next year ‘in line with growth in public sector pay’. It will be interesting to see if other public sector workers – nurses, police, fireman, culture and heritage workers, street cleaners etc – are awarded rises at the same scale. I don’t think I’ll put money on it.
Seeking comfort in the familiar
Its been suggested that people with anxiety disorders or depression seek comfort in rewatching familiar films or TV series. You know what’s going to happen and you don’t need to process any new information: which, this year, when we have had so much to take in, has been particularly important. My version of this is re-reading books, and probably explains why I can only listen on Audible to books I have already read!
So this week I have been thinking about books from my childhood that I still go back to now.
I’m going to start with the wonderful Dido Twite books by Joan Aiken. Officially this series starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, but I was introduced to them with Black Hearts in Battersea. These have elements of steampunk, mystery, adventure, the Arthurian legend and more. I was really pleased to discover a few years ago that there were some later books in the series that I hadn’t read. Joan Aiken also wrote magical short stories – I loved the collection A Necklace of Raindrops, illustrated by Jan Pienkowski.
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There’s eight of these in the original canon, and some that were published posthumously which were based on her diaries. Highly romanticised ‘autobiography’, these books follow Laura and her family from the little house in the Big Woods (Wisconsin) to the wilds of Dakota, through to her marriage to Almanzo Wilder and their move to Missouri. I introduced Thing 1 to these books when she was in primary school, and she loved them too.
The Railway Children by E.Nesbit. First serialised in 1905, this story dealt with some quite adult themes for the period – the imprisonment of the children’s father for spying, Russian dissidents – and I cry every single time I read it. Don’t even get me started on the film – I love both versions. The Psammead books are great too (Five Children and It, for example), as is The Book of Dragons.
The Anne books by L.M. Montgomery. Starting with Anne of Green Gables and finishing with Rilla of Ingleside when our disaster-prone, red-headed heroine is all grown up and sensible, I love them all. So do my youngest sister and my niece, and I have started reading them to Thing 2 when she feels the need for a bedtime story.
The Moomin books by Tove Jansson. Thing 2 is named after the author. Moomins are small, hippo-like creatures who inhabit Moominvalley. The Moominhouse is always open to wanderers and people in need – mischievous Little My, who gets left behind by the Mymble who just has too many children; Thingummy and Bob, who find the Hobgoblin’s treasure; free-spirited Snufkin; the Hemulen; the Snork and the Snorkmaiden. Moominmamma’s heart and handbag are big enough for everyone.
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. Arthurian legend brought into 1960s/70s England and Wales. Magic and legend. Good versus evil. Don’t watch the film, not even Christopher Eccleston could save it.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. I do love the way magic appears in the real world – whether that’s fairies at the bottom of the garden, or the urban fantasy that I love now, I like the idea that there’s more to the world than we can see. I recommend The Owl Service by the same author, too.
The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea. Pidge accidentally releases an evil serpent from a book, and he and his sister end up involved in a battle between good and evil. There’s lots of help from Celtic mythological characters, it’s funny and touching and I really, really wish the author hadn’t died before finishing the sequel.
The Sword in the Stone by T.H.White. More Arthurian legend. This is the first part of The Once and Future King set, and it’s the one most people are familiar with from the wonderful Disney adaptation. The story of The Wart, an orphan looked after by Sir Ector and bullied by his foster brother Kay, this is the early days of King Arthur, before he pulls the sword from the stone. The rest of the books are pretty wonderful too.
Honourable mentions go to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White, C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, the Green Knowe stories by Lucy M. Boston, Stig of the Dump by Clive King (and more – oh, so many more!)
There, that’s made me feel much more cheerful!
I finished the crochet cardigan this week, and I LOVE it. It’s so cosy and warm, and the alpaca in the yarn makes it very soft. It’s oversized so I can fit layers underneath, and I can see this getting a whole lot of wear this winter. Thing 1 kindly modelled it for me, even though she protested as it wasn’t Goth enough.
The (Corona)Virus Shawl is also complete, using three balls of Drops Fabel – it’s not huge, so will be more of a scarf. What am I going to do in queues now?
I have started a stashbuster blanket for my new portable project – tiny (three round) granny squares in DK, using up leftover yarn from a couple of other blankets. I’m going for a patchwork effect this time, with lots of bright colours. My Coast blanket has another couple of rows – it just needs to be a foot or so longer, I think. The trouble with making giant blankets is that you get so toasty that you need a nap…
As you can see from the link, the Coast blanket is by Lucy at Attic 24 who designs the most gorgeous colourways and blanket patterns. It’s a shame to keep them in the house, really, so I am tempted to make one of her bags to carry around.
Thing 2 has been going out for walks this week with some of her friends and their dog – she’s growing up and is enjoying being a bit more independent. Yesterday they were out with other friends so she went for a walk with me instead. Her only stipulation was that it had to be a muddy walk, so we duly donned wellies and headed off in search of puddles.
We ended up by the rope swing after tramping through the fields, and after a bit of play we wandered back through the woods. Thing 2 spotted some hearts in the trees while I was looking at textures, and then we started seeing lots of tiny things – tree fungi, mushrooms and moss that we enjoyed taking close-up photos of.
It was lovely to have some time with her. We crunched through leaves, looked under fallen branches and she even wanted to hold my hand occasionally….
This morning the intrepid Perimenopausal Posse headed off to Redricks for our second week of winter swimming – 11.8 degrees in the water, and sunny. Colder but less rainy than last week which really made a difference! Apparently we should be practising with cold showers in between swims….ha!
So that was week 29. I wonder what week 30 has in store?
What I’ve been reading
A Song for the Dark Times (Rebus) – Ian Rankin
The Postscript Murders (D.S. Harbinder Kaur) – Elly Griffiths
The Accusers/Scandal Takes a Holiday (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)