Monthly Archives: August 2012

How long until Spring?

It probably feels a little weird to you that I would say I’m currently preparing for Spring.

It’s true though.

I’ve got a few winter crops in, but other than that, I’m just doing nothing from now until next February that doesn’t involve preparation. It’s the best kind of paying-it-forward that I know. A little elbow grease now pays dividends next year. I’ve been digging over the used patches which are a little weed-infested, a little dry, a little uncared-for.

Digging is a very focused activity. You spend all your time focused on the ground in front of you, looking for weeds or seeds or vine weevils, volunteer potatoes and tomatoes, accidental peas. You could be anywhere.

Pruning is a little different. You’re not quite so focused. It’s not quite so labour-intensive. It gives much more time for contemplation. Then I can get my zen on. Digging’s just hard labour. Pruning, well, that’s much more uplifting.

Ironically, for these last days in August, it’s already autumn in my garden. The aspens are first to throw down their leaves. It’s funny to me that I get so attached to trees. I’m not sure why. I love my trees. I’d be a tree-hugger. Cutting them down, well, that’s tantamount to killing someone, in my little brain. Sometimes you need to do it – like tree euthanasia. Sometimes that tree is like a tyrant that’s taken over. Sometimes, it’s just past its best.

I don’t have a particular favourite. I have aspens, which I love because their leaves are just so divine. There’s nothing nicer than the wind through aspens – maybe the sea breaking on rocks, I guess (and the favourite sound of the nation, apparently) and I love that they’re called ‘shivers’ in France. Les Trembles. They’re the first to throw down their leaves and the floor is now littered with their detritus.


Then there’s the Indian Bean tree, which is the last to get leaves and among the first to throw them down. I love this because of its flowers, which are kind of orchid-y. The leaves are huge and heart-shaped, which I also love, and the tree is huge and high up.

Of course, blossom trees are my favourite, but they’re just all sitting quietly this year. It’s been a terrible year for fruit. The apples are non-existent, the cherries – well, there weren’t any. I have some peaches, but they’re small and I don’t know if they got enough water in August to make them grow. I have no plums. I’ve picked 3 kg pears today, and that’s it. Last year, I had 20 kg. I have some small quinces. No walnuts. The hazelnuts are okay, but the nut weevils have been doing a roaring trade. They just have to chalk the year up to a bad year and I hope that next year’s harvest is a better one! The cold winter, the quick warm-up, then the cold March-May meant that it was just about as bad as it could be for fruit production. Glad I don’t rely on fruit for a living!

But today, I’ve been hacking back the shrubs. If I learned anything from my mother, it’s that a hard prune never hurt anyone. In fact, you’ve got to cut away the dead wood if you want to see flowers next year. And you’ve got to cut back right to brown, bare branches, even if that means cutting off the remaining leaves. I could leave it until the leaves fall, but then it’s harder to tell where the dead wood is. I realised that there’s something been nesting at the bottom of one of my hedges – a great big flat spot. Whether it’s wild boar or just cats, I can’t tell. It’s too small to be César, but too big for cats, really. Judging by all the wild boar trails and poo around on our walks, there are an awful lot of wild boar about right now. Anyway, something’s got underneath the hedge and made a very nice floor nest behind all the branches. If it is a wild boar, it’s not very clever, because I have the dogs and the cat, so it can’t be a very restful place to spend the day.

But pruning is a lot like minimalist advice and de-clutter advice. Both kind of do the same thing. When you get down to it, you take back all the dead wood and all the branches that have gone off in the wrong direction, all the crooked, unhealthy and diseased wood. You cut back anything that’s stopping the healthy growth of other branches. You neaten it up. Sometimes, it’s a bit brutal and you wonder if it’s ever going to grow back, but it does, and it does so in abundance. Life is like that, and so is cutting out the dead wood from your life, whether it be jobs or habits or clutter. A simple life is never a bad one. Perhaps that’s why cleaning and pruning can be so therapeutic?

Having the morning off…

I never thought I’d be the type to hang a sign on my gate saying I was taking three hours off work for a little pleasure, but there you go.

I used to love the “Gone Fishin’!” signs, just for that whole thing of ‘I’m doing something much more pleasurable than working and I don’t even care if you want something or not’. Ironically, having just seen a friend’s twitter post about how France is shut at lunch times, some afternoons, Sundays and sometimes Mondays, even in high tourist season in tourist resorts, I think this whole attitude is endemic across the country. I’d be surprised if anyone did anything more than stick up a piece of paper in the window saying ‘Congés Annuels’ or ‘Fermé’.

My new best hobby is canoeing and kayaking from the little canoe place down in Mansle. I wish I had a canoe myself, but then I’d need a car that could take it and someone to help me lift it up and that’s a whole lot more effort than I’m prepared to make. I’d quite like a little wooden boat so I could put Tilly and Heston in it with me and we could sail away. Think I’m going to spend tonight reading Swallows and Amazons and dreaming of endless summers with no work and no school and no parents.

Mme. V and I have also found a very Swallows-and-Amazony kind of paradise place where we’ve decided we’re going to camp with the dogs. I vote for barbecues and camp fires. It’s a place which you’d only really know if you canoe or kayak. The Charente passes by several clearings, some of which you can get to, land side. This one is at the weir, so the Charente is slower, deeper and lazier there. Fish swim among the reeds in peace and quiet. The trees are high, so there’s a lot of shade, and you can only get to the clearing down a couple of miles of rutted trails. And there it opens up onto a wide bit of the river. A perfect pool.

I had visions of lying there in the sun, stringing up a hammock, camping and eating food cooked over the fire. Katie had visions of mosquitoes. She’s probably right. I guess I’d have to be plastered in Deet 100% and I’ve no doubt that the frogs also find it a delightful venue for camping too. The reality of the event will not be like the dream of it. It’ll be noisy and filled with biting animals and insects, and it’s probably a dogging spot for local farmers. Verity and I will be lying there in our sleeping bags with over-excited dogs, Tilly barking at everything, the puppies wanting to play, whilst every single mosquito in the Sud-Ouest makes its way towards our tender flesh for a bloody buffet whilst the frogs play out some kind of foul froggie chorus before froggie fornication and copulation, all at full volume.

Whether or not we go back to this spot next year for a bit of camping – or a pic-nic at the very least – is in the hands of the future, but meanwhile, as I search for winter wood, dig up the last of my spuds, get out my appointment book for the autumn term and rake up leaves in the garden, it gives me something to think about for next summer’s mini congés annuels. It won’t be glamping. There won’t be toilets. But what more do you need for a glorious time in the sun? A peaceful river, a secluded clearing, a picnic, some dogs, a good book, a portable barbecue, some rosé pamplemousse and a lot of Deet.

Here’s to next summer….


Much Love Monday

I’m in a much better Monday-Lovin’ mood this week, mainly because things haven’t been quite so hot or tetchy. It’s been pleasant enough for both work and gardening and play – though less of the play right now on account of a mammoth amount of digging and working.

My Much Love Monday tune is Feeder with Just a Day which is a top feel-good track. Mostly I like watching the video just for all of the crazy kids.

There are a couple of kids in there who really remind me of children I’ve taught. One boy is the spitting image of a young Mark Duckworth, and one of the girls is a dead ringer for Carla, a girl who was in my form group.

Mostly, though, they remind me of me. This is the secret life of teenagers, I think.

There is a group of four kids – three girls and a boy – and that bedroom could be Emma Taylor’s, back in the day, even down to the posters. We famously made up a dance routine to Bananarama’s Venus and were going to perform it at Bamford Cricket Club. I don’t think we ever did and I’m quite glad of that. One of the girls really reminds me of Anna Lee, the girl who shared half my name. She introduced me to the delights of David Bowie and Hunky Dory when I was 13, and I am forever grateful.

We did a lot of hanging around in bedrooms, listening to LPs, perfecting bizarre dance routines and generally entertaining ourselves. We didn’t watch TV – in the days of four channels, it wasn’t very exciting. A lot of it was fairly innocent, and much of it was a lot like this video.

We spent a lot of time hanging around the bus interchange, simply because it was the last place we all had in common before we got home.

And we took a lot of photographs like this one.

I think I must be about 12 or 13 on this. I’ve not learned how to pluck my eyebrows yet, and Emma and I are still too healthy-looking. Somewhere, this year, we fell into the Sensiq Alabastar make-up and spent as much time as we could sourcing kohl eyeliner.

We didn’t just do serious ‘friendship’ photos, but silly ones too. I don’t even know what we were all doing here. That’s the top of my head at the back left. It was a case of putting your money in and being as silly as you can. And then, like true friends, you split the four-strip up and give it to everyone in it. I guess I spent a lot of money doing this! I think this is a third-year photograph, and I’m guessing this is around the Bananarama time. I’d like to point out that Emma is wearing all her sister’s jewellery, and I coveted every single piece of it.

This is me and Danny, who died in 1992. I think this would have been about 1989 or 1990, and was taken in Bolton bus station after a headbanger’s ball. We were almost late for the bus because we were waiting for it to develop, and then it would have been a very long walk home. I love the grainy quality of them in the scans… it just adds to the atmosphere! You can even see where we tore it to split it up. Someone, somewhere just might have the other pieces of these. They always tell a story, not like the passport booths today, where all the photos are the same. It was a challenge to put on a different expression by the next shot.

And here’s one of me on my own. I was 16 here. I’d had this taken for my sixth-form admission. Bless me and my eyeliner and pout.

I had a real sultry look going on in this. I don’t know why.

So my Much Love Monday goes to all teenagers everywhere, whether you are misunderstood, crazy, bonkers, weird, normal, geeky, sporty or bitchy. I’ve got my own little teenager right now – Heston – who is still puppy enough to need a nap at midday, but a big enough boy to get on the bed. He usually has his midday nap on the duvet at the side of my bed, but not today. Today, he jumped on the bed and was asleep there. Naughty boy.

Feeder always leave a little lump in my throat anyway, just as the Manic St Preachers do. When you’ve been touched by suicide as my friends were, at such a young age, it never leaves you. For most of us, it was the first time we realised we weren’t immortal and that sometimes, life wasn’t alright.

So Much Love to Danny, my funny partner-in-crime. You’re always in my thoughts.

And Jon Lee, the drummer with Feeder, had the following poem read out at his funeral.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Mary Frye 





These vegetable days

This week, I have been mostly eating chickpeas.

I love Jesse’s Diets from The Fast Show. I also suspect I’m beginning to look a bit like him, what with the wellies and the coming out of a strange shed. His diets included bourbon biscuits, taramasalata and acorns. Oh, and prozac. 

In all seriousness, I used to be a very serious organic vegetarian. My brother-in-law calls this ‘lesbionic’ food, and yes, my cupboards were largely unappetising if you were on the scrounge for chocolate, sugar, crisps, biscuits and the likes. I ate rice cakes and brown rice and lentils and hummus and all the things that people like to laugh at. I made a pot of mixed-bean salad at the beginning of the week and ate it with brown rice or cous-cous for lunch every day. It was a finely-balanced diet and any nutritionist would have been proud, if not a little stunned. To my brother-in-law, it’s the kind of food that sandal-wearing, hippy social workers eat. Yotam Ottolenghi is the king of the lesbionic food.

But when I had to stop running, when my feet were busted for good, I fell to comfort foods. I did lots of low-impact activities anyway and lots of weights and so on, but eventually, life got the better of me. When I say life, I mean feeding boys and men who won’t eat chickpea and aubergine curry. Whilst I am proud I expanded Steve’s diet from mainly pies, chippy and huge sandwiches, taking him into the realm of risottos and cous-cous and occasional vegetarian meals, I started eating meat again, after a 20-year hiatus, mainly because it was convenient. Cooking three separate meals is something of  a chore when you’ve been working all day.

Anyway, my friend Rachel has inspired me to be more experimental and healthy again. She makes this amazing quinoa salad and I’ve been feeling more and more like I needed a break from the dairy/meat and sandwiches grind I’ve been in. Plus, when it’s just me, I eat a lot of sandwiches. Sandwiches constitute my main meals. Toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, sandwich for tea.

I’ve no allergies to anything, it must be said, but eating ‘lesbionic’ food does make you feel clean inside. It gives you back all the energy you used to have. I’m a big believer in what you put in and how it affects your mood and energy levels, but then I’m also a comfort eater who eats her feelings. So this week, I ‘ave mostly bin eatin lesbionic food.

I cut out most bread and yeast last week. I had a couple of rounds of French bread and a burger bun. This week, it’s been mostly dairy-free as well. I’m not being mad about it. It’s not a cult. It’s not ‘all or nothing’. But yesterday, I made a Keralan coconut curry with chickpeas, tofu, almonds and green peppers. And very delicious it was too. It’s nice to be able to be experimental with flavours again.

The recipe was as follows:

2 red onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tsp of fresh chili paste (from the Portuguese section in the supermarket if you’re in France) or 1 chopped chili.

1 tsp of garam masala

1 tsp powdered ginger

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp turmeric

200 g chickpeas

1 chopped green pepper

100 g tofu, chopped (from the ‘bio/nature’ section in the supermarket)

20 g chopped almonds

3 tbsp sunflower oil

200 ml coconut milk

Fry the chopped onions in 2 tbsp sunflower oil for about 5 minutes, or until they are soft. Add the garlic and the chili and fry off for two minutes. Add the spices and continue frying for 2 minutes. Add more oil, then the tofu and green peppers. Sauté until both are browned. Add 100 ml of coconut milk and stir in, before adding the chickpeas. Add the remaining coconut milk and cook for 20 minutes. Add water if the sauce becomes too dry or sticky. If the sauce fails to thicken, you may want to add some cornflour paste.

Serve with brown rice and sprinkle the almonds on top.

It’s a very mild curry indeed – very gentle. Nobody’s going to have watering eyes from it.

Having said that, Mme V gave me real English bacon butties last night and boy was I glad to break my bread and meat fast 🙂

A little of what you fancy doesn’t do you any harm, now does it? I think that’s what got my waistline in trouble in the first place!

And here’s the fast lane

Yesterday, the GCSE results were out. I had five students sitting GCSEs this time. Three got A*s. They’re bright children and it was easy for them. They were a joy to teach. An A* is usually something that only comes through examination – it’s that ability to write concisely and precisely under pressure. A*s are down, though, so I’m super proud that they did so well.

Another student, entered a year early, got great results too. He’s not a boy who loves English, but he truly did the best he could and got a great result.

And my final student… well, this is where the impact of yesterday’s news is.

I’ve been his tutor for 5 years, since he was a cute little year seven. He got a great level 6 in his KS3 exams at 14, and while English is not his aptitude (he got As in all the sciences and maths) he should have gone on to get at least an easy C or a B. He was taught by the head of department and she wanted to enter him for foundation tier.

Foundation tier is kind of the CSE paper. It can net you a C.

However, I mark foundation tier, and having done so for the last fifteen years, I can confidently say that I’ve had about 100 C grade papers, out of maybe 100,000 papers. It doesn’t really happen.

And if it does, the candidate should have been in the higher tier. I once taught a lovely girl who went to a very poor school. She was a real sweetheart. She got a ‘notional’ B as one of 200 students who should have been on the higher tier. I tried arguing the toss, but it made no difference.

I once went for a second in department job at the school. The man who interviewed me looked like Joe-90. He laughed when I told him I’d base my plans on the National Curriculum. I asked him what was wrong. He said he ‘didn’t believe’ in the National Curriculum. That’s not like saying you don’t believe in the Bible. That’s fine. But not believing in the National Curriculum, well, that’s like not believing in air. It’s there. You have to do it. There’s no option. It’s non-negotiable. I walked out of the interview and later heard he’d given the post to his best mate who looked like Penfold from Dangermouse. 

Fit to run a department?

Obviously, it’s not fair to compare people to cartoon characters based on their appearance. Let’s just say the cartoon characters were more amusing and less of a joke.

Anyway, it’s fair to say there are SOME teachers in SOME schools who aren’t fit to do the job. They hide behind weak management teams or ineffective sacking or competency procedures and unions.

However, I don’t think my student today had that against him, so much, apart from the fact his teacher’s expectations seemed to be a whole lot lower than mine. It became a battle to put him in for the higher tier, who see C grades all the time. On a good day as well, my student might have been a B. He was in Literature.

But today, he was two marks off a C.

He’s not a D grade candidate. D grade candidates, bless ’em, well, it’s a bit like knocking on wood. They often try really hard but they don’t get it. They kind of do everything a C grade does, but not because they thought to themselves, so none of it feels right. It feels rehearsed. They’re just not there yet. They write like some people drive when they pass their test – just. It’s wooden rather than instinctive. They hold the wheel at 10-2 and none of it feels comfortable. It’s not graceful. They’re not going to crash, but remembering ‘mirror-signal-maneuver’ is a conscious decision for them  and you can see them telling themselves to do it. It’s there, but it’s not an instinct.

And a C grade is a more instinctive writer and reader. They go beyond the simple mnemonics they’ve been taught. My student was like that. You could see his mind at work in his writing. It didn’t just spill out like E or F grade writing, and it wasn’t reliant on rules, like D grade writing.

And let’s be clear. English is not his thing. Maths is. And that’s a different kind of literate all together.

But his college entry was reliant on a C.

He was 2 marks off.

He has 8 A*-C grades and one D. One D by 2 marks.

Which is why it makes me incensed that from all sides of England, it seems there’s an issue with the English results. It’s been in every major paper. It’s been top of the agenda. Apparently, Glenys Stacey, the bureaucrat head of Ofqual, the allegedly non-governmental agency responsible for maintaining standards has actually not ‘maintained’ standards, but toughened them up. Randomly. Without warning. A C in January would be a D today.

Of course, this is as a result of slipping standards. Let’s see. I was the second year of GCSEs. I wrote about coca-cola and we read Macbeth. I wrote something about plus-sized people and we read Pride and Prejudice. It was all about content, not skills.

This year, to get a D, you have to be able to identify, comment on and analyse the effect of various language and presentational features. You have to be able to juggle purpose, audience and genre and create something interesting and witty in 25 minutes. Then you have to do it again in 35 minutes. For a D.

Driving a car is easier. It requires fewer skills.

So, they’re not easier. They’re complex and difficult. One lovely teacher out here had to come and ask me for advice on how to interpret the syllabus. It’s ridiculous. When a qualified teacher can’t make head-nor-tail of the mark scheme, how the hell any child makes any progress is beyond me.

And for my student, it now means a reserved place in college, possibly re-sits and being a year behind schedule. It means his parents have to work another year to support him. It means disappointment and frustration. It means lowering his expectations in science and maths because he didn’t get that all-important C. By two marks.

Multiply that by twenty students and you’ve got a school that’s failing. For most secondary schools, that would be a 7-10% dip in standards. An inspection is automatically generated and the school can be put in special measures with an order to pull its socks up and turn things around in a year. It means those poor Heads of English who have coped with the following things have to deal with another thing on top of that. The bleak prospect of a closing school.

And it’s their fault. Allegedly. They’ll be scrutinised beyond acceptability. Other staff blame them. Headteachers up the pressure, because something must be wrong.

And the Government can sit pretty saying ‘well, we said standards weren’t THAT good, when it’s their meddling that’s made this mess in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in favour of tests. It stops students having 11 years of library lessons and reading outloud. A certain amount of assessment makes sure that people are prepared for the education marathon. It puts down milestones to achieve, so you know where you’re going to come in the race. You know, if you run a six-minute mile, where you’re going to end up. And if you run a ten-minute mile, you know how hard you have to run, too. If you’re a six-minute miler, a milestone means you don’t end up dawdling at ten-minute miles for twenty miles, and then trying to make up the last six miles at a sprint.

But this is the reality of how that education marathon has been in English education. Change after change after change. Tinkering, tinkering, changing and tinkering.

And despite it all, teachers have continued to get it right. Results have gone up. Not because it’s easier. Do people run the 100 m in less than 10 seconds because it’s easier these days? Will one day the 9.5 second barrier be broken? And then the 9? Of course it will. Just as the 4 minute mile was broken and is now 3 minutes 43.

But keep changing the content, keep changing the track, keep saying ‘right, now do it in clogs’, just because governments feel the need to seem as if they’re doing something, when really, they’re doing nothing at all, that’s awful.

The problem is there are still problems. Standards haven’t slipped. Yet more and more children are disenfranchised, rude, disaffected, awkward, taking drugs, drinking, smoking. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem. There’s a generation of children who failed at school and are filling up the job centres. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high. So-called ‘NEET’ (not in Education, Employment or Training) figures go up and up and up as our children drop out and go on jobseekers’ allowances. So whilst the government tinker with targets, 1 in 5 children fall off the radar and become next year’s teenage mums, hard-core unemployed or criminals, paid for by the tax payer. And that figure is rising. They eat badly, they smoke, they binge drink. They become health problems. They need mental health support. They need financial support. They need parenting support. Their children follow the same paths. They consume massive amounts of time and resources and we still haven’t worked out a way to stop that happening.

So let’s not take the wind out of the sails of our talented youths, the Tom Daleys of the world, the Samantha Murrays of the world, let’s stop tinkering and leave education alone whilst we sort out the social crisis.

Maybe then, fewer teachers like me would quit the profession.

Because that’s what’s happening. This summer, three former colleagues have opted out and gone for a life like mine. It’s too much to bear the problems of society on your own shoulders when every single person is saying ‘this is your fault’, instead of remembering that most kids are alright, most kids are fab.

But, dare I say it, this is what you get when you tinker and tinker and tinker and use league tables as a goal.

Yes, the government will blame the exam boards, but let’s not forget that government ministers sit on GCSE syllabuses til the last minute, sometimes meaning courses have to start before the government have signed off on them. Yes, that happens. And they also like to let things fail completely by giving them to those who don’t have the capacity to deliver in order to get rid of them. See what happened with the KS3 exams. Dare I say the government engineer failure just so they can change things yet again?

And that’s why I won’t teach in schools any more. I can’t stand the tinkering and then the blame game, the league tables and the threat, the Joe-90s and the unsupportive head teachers. It’s not for me. It gives me a headache even thinking about it.

Now… to console a 16 year old boy who’s ended up a pawn in a political game…

What fun.

I’m sure the news is consolation to him.

The Independent

The Guardian

The Telegraph

Taking the slow road

It’s no secret that one of the reasons I moved here was to slow down.

I used to get to my first job about 8:20, and I was one of the first. On Friday lunch, we all went to the pub. Usually, I left work by 5pm and was home by 5:30. I did some tuition and marking, but it was a standard 8 am – 5:30 pm day. We had time off when the Year 11s left after exams, and some of us marked exams in school. I got weekends to myself and holidays were long. I kept on top of my marking and still had time to run the girls’ football club and trips to the ice hockey.

At my second job, I left for work at 6:50 because it usually took me a good 50 minutes to get there. I was always in work before 8 am and the English department were always the first in school. I usually left at 5pm and got home at 6. We had cakes after work on Fridays, and before parents’ evenings.

My third job was on my own hours. I ended up leaving at 7 am and finishing around 5 pm. I worked weekends and hours around office hours. I also wrote and marked. In 2005, I didn’t have a summer break, except a week.

Then my fourth job was again in for 7 am, leave at 6:45 am. I was usually in school until the caretakers came round. I worked long hours and my weekends were filled with marking. I was in charge of a team of fourteen people, supposed to commit myself to three hours of one-to-one mentoring. I was responsible for 1,200 11-18 students and paperwork flew through my fingers. I was working at the Department for Education, writing textbooks, marking KS3, GCSE and A level twice a year.

Needless to say, it was too much, especially without any support from the highest echelons.

I balanced out hard work with hard living. I shopped at the ever-handy Trafford Centre, open until 10pm. I went to the gym, open til midnight. I spent a lot of money and I ‘treated’ myself to good clothes and make-up and shoes. I had some great holidays, too.

But the more I worked, the more I felt like a drudge. I began to feel like Boxer in ‘Animal Farm’, the hard-working horse who they cart off to the knacker’s yard. “I must work harder” was my motto. I just sucked it up and smiled. I think you always have a six-month period where you are really, really appreciated for doing this. You clear up other people’s messes. With the exception of one job, my first, I’ve spent the first six months clearing up other people’s messes. You’re worshipped. People think you’re amazing.

And then they expect you to perform like this all the time. They give you more and more and more to do. And you do it. You do it because you’re hard working and other people slack off. You do it because in public services, it feels shit not to do it because it’s always people who suffer. You do it because your halo tells you to.

Until you get to a point where you can’t do it any more. You say ‘no’ for the first time. You say ‘I can’t do it. I don’t physically have the time.’

And then you go from Miss Perfect to Miss Stubborn and Awkward. I might as well hand in my notice then and move on to the next job.

That’s what I did.

Same cycle.

Clear up mess. Wow everyone. Go above and beyond. Work harder. Work harder still. Work weekends and spare hours. Work holidays. Get to complete and full capacity. Say no. Piss everybody off. Leave.

That’s why I decided to work for myself. I reckoned if I worked as hard as I did in school, I’d be successful. And the truth is, I don’t work as hard as I did in school. I work as much as I can without killing myself.

No, I don’t earn much money. There are days when I eat egg on toast and beans on toast and drink water. It makes me laugh that another ‘frugal’ blog mentions ‘no spend days’. I have ‘no spend weeks’.

But I’m happier for it. So much so that I’m coming out of this huge cycle of depression that’s been eating at me since 2004. That’s a long time. It’s not all been sad, but it’s all been hard-going. It’s like being forced into a boxing ring to fight when you’ve only had three hours sleep and a pack of spangles for food.

So the main thing that’s important to me here is enjoying it. I don’t ever want it to feel like a grind. I only answer to myself, so I never have to feel bad for letting people down. I had a discussion once with a man-in-black something-or-other whose job it was to give me tips on how to deal with stress. We got in this discussion about mistakes.

“So, how would you feel if you made a mistake at work?”

“I don’t know. I don’t make mistakes at work.”

“But how would you feel if you did?”

“I have no idea. It doesn’t happen.”

“Would you feel like you’ve let people down?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must know.”

“I’ve no idea. I’m Miss Dependable. I don’t make mistakes.”

This is true. I once wrote ‘Monday 14th’ instead of ‘Monday 15th’ and two senior colleagues came into my office to do a dance because it was the first slip up I’d made. And no, it didn’t bother me. But the man-in-black was trying to suggest I was being a perfectionist and that I was afraid to fail. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I just didn’t fail. Do or do not do.

And working for myself is about the first time in my working life that I could say ‘Sorry, I’m fully booked’ or ‘Sorry, I can’t make that date’ or ‘Sorry, I’ve got too much on’ without people wigging out and expecting more. It’s the first time that I’ve been able to just do my own job without people giving me all of their job as well. And I like it.

Yes, it worries me that I don’t have a big pension pot any more. If I’d kept working like I did for another 25 years, I’d have retired on a big fat pension. Maybe. But I could have dropped dead of a heart attack or been killed in a traffic accident or died the day after I retired. Being a diligent ant always looking to the future means that sometimes you don’t stop to be the grasshopper and enjoy the here and now.

But, it’s results day for GCSE today. And already my blood pressure is up a few notches. Results are down, apparently, and the mighty Geoff Barton is suggesting the exams might be to blame. I feel another post in response to that comment, but having been in education since 1995, I have taught through 12 – count em! – syllabus changes at GCSE. Now how would footballers feel if every year, an entirely new game was brought in. Let’s not play football this year, let’s go for some windsurfing competitions instead. I imagine Alex Ferguson’s head would explode. Who’d want to be a football player if one year you were top of the league doing one thing, then next year, you had to do something completely different, like hockey, and some bureaucrat said ‘well, it’s all a test of physical skill, isn’t it? It should be easy!’

See how easy it is for me to get into it? And this was my 14-hour-a-day life, fighting from the inside. For now, I’m very happy to spend days as I did yesterday. I walked the dogs in lovely end-of-summer temperatures. We played under the water sprays over the fields. Tilly ran through the corn. I talked to my neighbours. I did a bit of script work, read a book, took a nap, then I went canoeing with my lovely friend and her lovely family, and some other lovely people. We canoed down the Charente, had a glass of rosé and grapefruit juice (lethal, gorgeous new favourite drink of mine now!) and canoed back. I drove home as the sun was going down over the sunflowers and had a happy welcome from my lovely animals.

Now, you tell me… it’s not exactly Hobson’s Choice is it? Getting het up over whose fault it is that kids don’t make progress (whilst simultaneously forgetting/undermining the majority who leave with a great of results) and feeling like ‘I must work harder’ is a mantra for success, or spending the day working on a great script and having plenty of time to walk the dogs and go canoeing with friends?

Yes, I miss the kids. I miss the challenge. Sometimes, tuition is almost too easy. I miss my colleagues. I miss the laughs. I miss the great things kids say and do. I don’t miss about three hundred things. And the things I miss? Well, I still get some of those. I just don’t have to kill myself to enjoy them.



Firstly, I have to self-shame. I admit this article comes from the Daily Fail, which is the one paper I detest above all others.

Still, it’s reporting a very fantastic tumblr site, where dog people post pictures of their dogs ‘confessing’ to sins.

Between them, Tilly and Heston cover most of the crimes confessed to.

My favourite is this one.

Okay. Now for my sinners.

If Tilly were a Catholic in confession, she would say:

  • I guard the oven, even when there’s nothing in it
  • I bit Heston when he tried to get my squeaky toy
  • I hog the bed
  • I use the litter tray as a buffet
  • I like to roll in bad smells
  • I think the garbage bag is just a giant doggie bag of treats for me
  • I only do what I’m told if there’s a treat involved
  • I turn the water on in the bidet for a drink and leave it running all night
  • I hide tomatoes in other people’s beds
  • I will eat anything that’s gone past the five second rule
  • I leave turds in the dining room if I’m left out at night
  • As soon as the lights go out, I ferret for food
  • I steal old yoghurt pots
  • I bark at all cyclists that pass the house
  • I trot on the pavement unless a car comes, then I like to be in the road
  • I chase chickens
  • My farts smell worse than anything on this planet
  • I like eating things that make me fart
  • I like to scoot to scratch my bum

And Heston?

I’m Heston.

  • I chew flip flops
  • I bring sticks into the house
  • I like to splash in my water bowl
  • I tip my water bowl upside down to play in the water
  • I fart nearly as bad as Tilly
  • I chase chickens. And cats.
  • I chew toilet paper and then leave little pink piles of toilet paper vomit everywhere
  • I ate a melon skin
  • I have eaten seven books
  • I have a fetish for used underwear
  • I leave other people’s underwear all around the house
  • I have killed my teddy
  • I like pulling the stuffing out of things
  • I’ve destroyed three pillows
  • I chew handbags
  • I did a wee under the bed
  • I chase the mop and the broom
  • I drink nettle tea and sick it up
  • I humped Tilly
  • I humped my sister
  • I leave big poos at other people’s houses

I think my dogs should be very ashamed. Tilly especially. She never looks like she’s done anything bad. Molly always knows when she’s been bad. When she ate a packet of biscuits that had been left on a table, she felt so bad I feel quite confident she didn’t enjoy those biscuits one bit. She used to bring pegs to bed, and shoes and trainers and socks, and make a nest. And she’s a bed hog.

Saving seeds

It’s no secret that my favourite bit of the garden has been my flower patch, which has gone from this:

to this:



It’s not bad when you think that I only put the flowers in on May 15th, and some three months later, it’s all looking a little tired and ‘finished’, although that’s more to do with the heatwave we’ve been having. Most plants don’t like 36 degrees and dry.

The best bit about it is that many of the flowers are perennials and will come back next year – the rudbeckia, the sedum, the monarda, the dahlias, the achillea, the campanula, the delphiniums, the aqualegia and the dicentra. However, some of these beauties are annuals, which means it is a case of growing them each year – a little less relaxing!

My favourites were the scabious ‘Summer Sundae’ which are an annual.

These are just sensational.


They’ve flowered long and hard all summer and have just kept giving.

I’m going to harvest some of the seeds, which look like little badminton birdies, and plant them in September so that they’ll be ready to go out in April.

I’m also getting a bit of a scabious obsession, though. I love them with the limonium, it must be said.

So… what do I do next year?

I’m trying to harvest as many seeds from the flower heads as I got in my packet this time. Then another couple of packets next year and repeat the process. That’s the best thing about annuals. They keep on giving if you treat them right, though you have to make sure you’ve got heirloom varieties, and not hybrids, as they return to type through successive generations.

This year’s variety were ‘atropurpurea’. Thompson and Morgan do another range of the same atropurpurea called ‘Ebony and Ivory’ which are the not-so-cleverly named black and white ones. I’m planning on a ‘boudoir garden’ of frillies, and these frillies will be right at home, pink and burgundy, white and black frillies.

There’s also another perennial variety called ‘beaujolais bonnets’ and ‘Oxford Blue’. The Oxford Blue are a kind of lavender blue and would look wonderful dotted between lavender flowers, I think. The final variety that Thompson and Morgan have on sale is ‘Ace of Spades’ which I can’t help but want because of the Motorhead song.

Then they offer some true perennials which are actually a different type of flower, knautia macedonia. I’ll be throwing a few of these seeds in some soil as well, I think!

I also found a couple of different varieties at Sutton’s Seeds, including a lovely blue perennial one and a ‘chile black’ one.

Definitely my favourites!


Much Love Monday

Some days I’m just crabby. Today, I’ve had a series of ‘SECRET’ calls from some whatever. They left thirteen messages last Friday on my phone ‘Si vous etes…. appuyez …. si vous n’etes pas le responsable, appuyez…’ and it drives me mental. I usually don’t answer them, so today I did, just so that they would go away and I could give them a piece of my mind. Then I pick up the phone and they say ‘please wait while we try to connect you’ and put me on hold!

Not only that, it’s too hot, my right arm has been savaged by mosquitoes. I can’t sleep with the window open. The smell of citronella makes me gag these days and I’m tired of flies. Tilly’s done nothing but yap all morning and I woke up in the night drenched in sweat. Heston was sick. Noireau has decided he doesn’t want to eat cat food any more and wants dog food and whilst that’s not the end of the world, it’s not good for cats.

Then I had a torrent of abuse from an Australian ‘teacher’ because I’d dared to tell him that ‘habitable’ and ‘inhabitable’ are the same and ‘uninhabitable’ was their antonym. How dare I be right?!

I hate the internet for that – how people think it’s fair game to attack you personally. It’s a language forum I use from time to time. It’s usually helpful. A Chinese student had asked whether they meant exactly the same thing and he’d said they were opposites. The student knew they weren’t, yet the ‘teacher’ kept insisting they were. I said they were synonyms and that ‘uninhabitable’ was the antonym, only to then get a barrage of abuse both in public and in private. Well, it’s obviously not just me who got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning! In the end, the Chinese student corrected the ‘teacher’.

From – alongside a very good article about internet meanness

And so I’m very much in need of some Monday Love and a reminder of some of the positives in the world. Yes, I am a know-it-all, self-righteous dick. I’m sorry about that. Really, Judge Judy is missing a side-kick. She’s right about one thing, though. My favourite JJ line is ‘Being in your position, I would never humiliate myself in front of 10,000,000 people’.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

So…. I’m drawing a line under idiotic internet people today, under fussy dogs and cats, under crabby heat, under mosquito bites and under ‘SECRET’ cold calls and flies.

Here’s Bob Sinclar with ‘Love Generation’ which is just contagiously cheerful. I love the little boy on the bike. He reminds me of a student I have called Reece when he was little.

p.s. just so you know, twice during this blog, ‘SECRET’ have called, and Tilly’s gone off on a mad barking spree. Will I ever find calm?!

Much Love for birthday parties. It was Deb’s on Saturday, and even though she’d spent all day Friday tidying her garden up and making it pretty with 300 metres of bunting which she now has to press and repack and return, and with tonnelles and so on, we all sat in the basement because it was too hot. It was quite fab though. I left a good few people there when I left at 10 pm – the heat was tiring. Much Love for husbands who say they can get disco lights going and then spend hours trying to find the right cables and wires. Much Love to children who play in a paddling pool for hours and hours.

Yesterday, I took Heston to another charity dog event. I know. It feels like it’s been a series of charity dog events all week. I’d mainly taken him to get him socialised with other dogs and so he doesn’t end up neurotic like Tilly. I’d also wanted to dip him in the lake and let him play in the water, which he enjoyed very much indeed, and although he didn’t swim, he did a lot of splashing.

I also would like to have Much Love for my students who are beginning to return in dribs and drabs from les vacances and in particular to the lovely little girl who showed me her stuffed toys collection yesterday. She is so super-bright it’s untrue, and we’re ploughing through Matilda. Much Love to Roald Dahl and to Bruce Bogtrotter, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, Miss Honey and The Trunchbull, George, Fantastic Mr Fox, the Twits… I never get bored of Roald Dahl.

Much Love, too, to the web statistics behind pages. It’s always fantastic to see where people come from who read your blog. It’s nice to realise that someone in Malaysia is reading it, or in Canada, or in South Africa. I ‘lurk’ on lots of blogs and if it were not for the stats, nobody would ever know that their words were being shared by people across the globe. Of course, when people comment, it’s always easy to find out where they’re from if they don’t say, but it’s nice to be able to see that people in Germany and Switzerland, Sweden and Brazil, Turkey and Spain are reading it too – if not quite hitting the same stats as the UK, France, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. If it were not for stats, I might think I was writing to an empty ethernet.

So may your Monday be bright and cheery, not over-hot, over-tired, grumpy and grouchy. I’m going to stay in the shade today and try and stay off the internet. I’m not entirely sure I can get through the whole day without putting people straight. Sometimes, I wish I’d let it lie.



Today’s been the hottest of the year so far here – 38°C, which is 100°F.

Having spent most of yesterday in the kitchen perfecting the whorehouse burgundy chutney, I’m used to heat. You know what they say. And I can stand it. I drip a little. I also lose all sense of time, and forgot completely I was supposed to go for drinks at a friend’s. Luckily, she gave me a call and I whizzed round complete with an apology jar of chutney and a jar of redcurrant jelly. Still, everyone else was very glamorous and I was hot and sweaty. I guess that’s what happens when you spend all day either digging things up or boiling things.

The weather at the moment reminds me of the Fast Show Channel Nine weather, with the wonderful Caroline Ahearne.

I was also reminded of the fabulous ‘What did I say, Roy?’ character, complete with huge glasses and great perm. She’s obviously a precursor to Judith and Peter, two of my favourite Come Fly With Me characters, even down to the ‘Stop showing off!’ lines.

So I spent most of today inside too – in preparation for a party tomorrow. I’m taking a Mississippi Mud Pie  because when I made it for the Eurovision party, the sauce was almost inhaled by Deb and Nancy, so it seemed like a winner. It’s good, but a bit too chocolatey for me! In fact, it’s been a week of cakes, what with the fete to raise money for various dog charities. I took five cakes that I just pulled out of the freezer. That’s what I love about hard work today. It makes hard work tomorrow unnecessary, and you can look like a miniature Delia Smith without being all floury and sweaty. I’d made a batch last year when I had a glut of eggs when Steve and Jake were away. I think I’d made eight or ten or so. In fact, it must have been more because I’ve been pulling them out of the freezer ever since. Lemon drizzle cake. Orange and Lemon cake. Ginger cake. Cherry cake. Coconut cake. A sponge for a giant jaffa cake. Coffee cake. Chocolate Cake. I’d done the works and I’ve been doling them out ever since.

If I may say so, the coffee cake was supreme. I pulled out some of last year’s frozen walnuts, mixed up some buttercream and ended up with a huge coffee and walnut cake – not quite such a usual sight in France. I’d gone in to get a piece of cake, having spent the day serving in the bar, and when I asked what I should have, a lady recommended the coffee and walnut. It looked so good that I didn’t think it was mine and I was jealous of my own cake. Then it sank in that it was my cake and I realised what it must be, every day, to know me.

I jest of course.

Cake-making is in my blood, I think. It’s my Nana’s fault. She’s a cake-baker extraordinaire. She never skimps on ingredients and her Mary cake, her coconut cake and her cherry cake are beyond comparison. I have a lot to live up to. Also, I don’t have her magnificently weird cold hands. She would have made an excellent patisserie chef. Her fingers are always icy.

I wish I had a photo of that cake, but it was eaten before photos could be taken. That’s a good sign.

I’m also taking potato salad. This will be an entirely home-made production with my own onions and potatoes. In fact, only the oil in the mayonnaise is bought in. Fruits of my labours.

I did venture outside for a little while, but it was so very hot it was like being under a hairdryer and I was sleepy in minutes. The good thing about old French houses is that they regulate temperature pretty well if you keep doors and windows and shutters closed. It was a mild 21° inside, despite le chaleur. 

I’m not really one to comment on the heat or the cold. I always remember Peter Kay’s sketch about old people and heat, with him ending ‘Shut the F*ck Up and have a Solero!’. Whilst that might work in Manchester, I can’t remember the last 38° day we had, and all manner of warnings have gone out to French people, since 15,000 people died in the last canicule or heat wave. 15,000! That’s like my entire town and then some!

Here’s a dodgy ‘filmed off television’ video of that very sketch.

This is what I sound like, except not a man, apparently. I was quite heartened last night that my French friends said they always understand me when I speak English, and my French/English accent is ‘leger’ – this means ‘light’ or ‘slight’ which made me skip hoops. I do try. I don’t ever want to be anything but what I am, but it makes a big difference knowing that you don’t sound quite so ‘angry English’, especially when I used to have my London colleagues ringing me up to say the word ‘stuff’ – they say something that’s more like ‘staff’ – and that’s violent misuse of the ‘u’, which is an Uh, not an Ah.

I just knew. I’d get a phone call like this.

“Hey, how’s Manchester?”

“Grey. How’s London?”

“Sunny. I’m just going to put you on speakerphone…”

And thus it began. Can I say ‘stuff’? Can I say ‘bath’? Can I say ‘gooseberry’? Can I say ‘under’?

And so on.

They had a long list they liked me to recite so that they could all have a good chuckle.

Oh well. Perhaps in France I can shake off a little of the comedy value. I learned Spanish in Latin America and have a pronounced Latin American lilt and vocabulary, which causes my mainland Spain friends much amusement. I have a Brazilian Portuguese accent that makes me sound like a gangster from a telenovela. My Japanese is great because it’s unlike most other words and so therefore, learning it from a very well-spoken Tokyo lady, I just copied her exactly. The only trouble is that my Japan voice is about two octaves higher than my England voice.

I’m sure it’s all highly entertaining to everyone who ever listens to me.

Honestly, I don’t care. A little accent is a charming thing!

Anyway, if you’re in France, stay in the shade and try not to be too jealous of my cake-making skills. Tomorrow is going to be as hot as it was today, and since it’s a garden party, I might take my own parasol with me, just in case! I don’t want to be fighting for the one solitary shade tree! Who’d have thought that I’d ever sit out of the sun, having had so much rain and grey in my life? And who’d have thought that French is the only voice I have that isn’t comical to everyone listening?