Sunday, 29 April 2012


I love to watch fish swim. I find it calming. They move so gracefully. There are no sharp corners or emergency stops and they all seem to anticipate everyone else's moves in a way that I rarely see in humans.

Obviously my preferred method of fish watching is to be in a tropical ocean with them but in the absence of that an aquarium or even a fish tank will do.  I recently saw the most beautiful one. It was in a hotel lobby, huge and blue and teaming with fish and coral. Breathtaking.

So when my friend said she was getting some goldfish recently I was interested. A large bowl appeared in her kitchen and then two elegant fish made it their home. I watched them swim in and out of the weed as I drank my tea.

The next time I visited, the bowl had been ungraded. The lucky fish now had an orb complete with bubble tube, heater ( should future inhabitants hail from sunnier climes) and a light. Now I wanted one. It looked so beautiful.

I told the children about my tropical fish tank plan at teatime. We've been here before. When the builders ripped my home apart, I was desperate to build a tank in somewhere but, practicality fighting dream, let the idea hit the cutting room floor with so many others. But the children were not deterred by my track record and we spent an entertaining meal discussing how and where and how many and suitable names.

The next day I was on a course. I felt my bag vibrate at my feet and surreptitiously retrieved my phone to make sure that no disaster had befallen anyone. It was a message from my eldest:
"Can we get a sea cucumber?" I quickly typed an appropriate response.
"How about a mollusc?"

Anyway. yesterday I went to the shop to look at the fish. And there they all were swimming round their holding tanks varying in price from about £1.99 to £79.99. And suddenly I realised that my dream tank and what I could hope to achieve given the restraining factors of my knowledge, space and available cash were oceans apart. I left.

I dream. I plan. I get carried away but I am ultimately pragmatic. I can have an orb. I can get a couple of goldfish who will swim round elegantly but what I really want  is to live by the sea and watch  the fish whilst I'm right in there with them and a tank, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, is no substitute for that.

Monday, 16 April 2012


So the Easter holidays are over and everyone has gone back to school. As usual, I check over the diary for the coming weeks to see what I need to be preparing for. A new word is featuring on my calendar  - one that I haven't really given much thought to since 1989 - examinations.

Of course we've done exams already. Oodles of dance ones, a bunch of music ones and even a couple of swimming tests. But formal exams that require real revision? This is a first.

Eldest child, she who will sit her first tranche of GCSEs in a matter of weeks, seems scarily relaxed about the whole situation. There's been some indication of awareness over the holidays. New stationery was purchased for example - always a good start in my book. We have a Revision Timetable as well, although I do have to say that it is somewhat rudimentary in comparison to the colour coding with minute by minute precision and running countdown that my own revision timetables were graced with. And there are some handwritten charts appearing on her tastefully decorated bedroom walls.

But as yet we have no sense of any urgency and certainly no tears and sleepless nights. There is no suggestion of sweaty palms or any of the other physical manifestations of stress with which I was all too familiar at this point.  Part of me thinks that is a good thing. I would love to believe that the Youth Of Today are far more in control of their own destinies and not about to be spooked by their parents or, heaven forbid, their teachers.

The problem is that I don't really believe that. I am reminded of a woman about to have her first born. She remains relatively calm about what lies ahead because, as they say, ignorance is bliss. She knows it's going to be bad because everyone tells her so but in her heart of hearts she can't believe that it's really THAT awful and suspects the pain is exaggerated for effect. She only learns the truth when it's too late to do anything about it! So it is with exams. My child has never sat a school exam before. Other people, mainly me, have talked to her about how hard it is and how important it is to be prepared but she doesn't really believe it because she has no experience on which to base her views.

This worries me. By the time I reached her stage, I had taken exams in every one one of my subjects at least four times. I knew how to revise and what happened if you didn't. I could deal with that heart sinking feeling when you open the paper and can't remember anything. I could sit at a desk for two hours at a time and not let my concentration wander. I was prepared. My child isn't even really sure what revision is. "Reading through is not revising," I tell her. "You need to be able to recite the facts as if it were a poem." I'm not sure she gets it - and why should she. Like a lamb to the slaughter she has no idea of her fate.

So, in the absence of her worrying about it, I have taken it upon myself to worry for her. I am aware that this is a ridiculous strategy but one of us needs to take this seriously! And I might as well get used to it. From this point on my family is likely to have major exams to deal with every June until at least 2025!
PS. Did I mention that I have an exam too? I think I'll save that for another post.

Monday, 9 April 2012


I've just finished reading a book about a Ukrainian emigrant, her experience in the war and later in her new life in America (The Silence of Trees). In it, the writer twists stories and traditions from her own culture with the tale of her protagonist until the two become so intertwined that it is hard to tell them apart.

As with all good books, this one made me think. If I had to tell tales from my own culture to my children which would I choose? Well, there's the great literature. I could pick Robinson Crusoe or Narnia or Winnie the Pooh. They are all wonderful tales that have stood the test of time and improve with retelling but they belong to someone else. Whilst they may have entered into our cultural mixing bowl so that many people would recognise a passing reference to them, they were penned by a single person with a story to tell. That isn't the same as stories being passed down from generation to generation. I don't have that in my world. I have family anecdotes, some a few generations old but no stories that are part of who or what I am.

Linked to the story telling in the book is a huge sense of tradition, of food that is eaten and rituals that are executed at particular times and for particular reasons. This is something that is more familiar to me as a concept but not something that plays a part in my life. Other than turkey at Christmas and eggs at Easter there are no food rituals in my house. I do not have a recipe book bursting with tasty treats that have been made by generations of women in my family and handed down to me so that I can, in my turn, hand them down to my daughters. We don't really have meals where everyone knows what happens next and everyone plays a part.

Of course, there is an obvious way that stories and rituals and traditions are passed down the generations, something that has been going for as long as man has stood and stared at the stars and wondered. But this plays no part in my world either. Tempting though such a belief system may be, I cannot take the step that is required to buy into it so a missing sense of ritual isn't going to come from there.

So, is it just me, I wondered, or is my culture one that is lacking in tradition? The question seems a bit ridiculous. Of course the English have traditions - just look at our Monarchy or the Houses of Parliament. As a nation we are awash with the stuff. But that isn't the same. These are not the kind of traditions that shape how normal, every day life operates.

I suspect that in order to have a rich tapestry of stories and rituals behind you, you or your ancestors have to have been displaced. You need to have been unjustly deprived of everything that you knew and held dear. Then stories take on a new meaning. They become a way of connecting with your history, a means by which a home or a way of life can be preserved. They allow you to make sure that the generations that come after you are able to connect with what was lost even though it may never feature directly in their life.

And that may be why I don't have it. Every drop of my blood is English and it has been safe and unthreatened for as far back as I can look. Of course it may be good that my nation has no need to tell stories to hold on to a homeland or a way of life that has been lost but this morning, after finishing the book, I feel a little bit emptier and, ironically, a little bit envious.