Number 13 in my occasional series of Empty Nest coping strategies

I started a list of coping strategies here (and continued it here) as a way to deal with the fact that my last son was leaving me for a life of academic and domestic bliss in Cardiff (he’s back now, but that’s another story). 

Here are the two sons. Obviously they don’t look like this any more or son 2 would encounter significant difficulties in reaching the door handle of his flat.

So far my list has consisted of ways to forget that one is no longer needed on a day-to-day basis by one’s spawn. Today I had a breakthrough. I found a way to make a redundant parent pleased to be free of dependents.

The secret is to go to a holiday attraction at half term.

The attraction we chose today was Paradise Park in Hayle, Cornwall. We chose it because there are otters (although it’s mainly birds) and there was a money-off voucher. I tried to persuade my friend H to come, but she said it’s a long and expensive journey on public transport from Bodmin just to look at some birds flapping. She tends to prefer animals that can kill you, so we were forced to go without her.

Once our spawn are old enough to scorch their own pizzas and disappear for days at a time, we forget what a phenomenal amount of hard work it is to look after small children. I think this is an evolutionary adaptation designed to make sure we don’t stop breeding in horror. Attending family holiday attractions is a foolproof way to recharge the memory. We stood in the queue at Paradise Park watching parents juggling chubby hands, bottles, bags, pushchairs, toys, lunchboxes and their sanity while warning, cajoling, jollying, reassuring, enthusing and willing their broods through the process of entering the park. How relaxing it was to just stand there watching. Not one shriek of distress or wail of demand was aimed at me. I was the luckiest person in Paradise Park (apart from the one who gets to feed the otters).

Lunch in the cafe was a further revelation. The entire place was rammed with families sating irritable children with comestibles. I sat with P at a sunny table peacefully supping tea and watching otters cavort outside while all around me was mayhem. Pale and rumpled parents were spooning squishy substances into gaping babyholes, picking up pieces of bashed fruit from the floor, persuading errant children to eat one more bite of sausage, begging toddlers to desist from shrieking, wiping up spills and faces and promising a go on the penny-squashing machine if brother would cease hitting sister while sister finishes her fizzy toxin in a cup. The noise of family life en masse was enough to shatter a vulnerable ear drum and cause involuntary infertility.

And none of it had anything to do with me. I am free. This empty nest thing – it’s not so bad.

Here are a few photos from the park.

Downton Delirium


I just watched the most recent episode of Downton Abbey; the one where all the ladies strike a blow for liberal post-WWI values by deciding to eat a massive pudding even though a former prostitute made it with her sin-soiled hands.

“Please don’t cook a massive pudding for my guests, they’re afraid of catching your sex germs.”

In the episode before this one, Lady Sybil shockingly died of her dad taking the word of an arrogant society doctor instead of the family’s usual homespun one who knew her well enough to recognise that she didn’t usually have fat ankles. Or, as my friend MC said,

“Clearly, Downton isn’t light on plot telegraphing so I knew the minute Pompous Childbirth Lord Plot Device made that rather revolting comment at the dinner table that something was going to go wrong. But, also being Downton, I thought it would be nothing more than a clumsy way of enabling Grantham [Lord of the manor] to realise that he must move with the times and learn to be able to say “womb” in mixed company.”

The Facebook outpourings of grief over Ladysibyl’s death were entertaining. Here is an example status thread:

H: Downton sobbing. With noise. And snot. I shall wear black for the foreseeable future.

C: I have all of the above plus sore throat.

H: Oh C. I can’t even believe it. I have a headache now. I cried solidly until the end.

C: I hate the producers, they are bastards. I actually haven’t cried this much before over a TV series. I will not sleep tonight.

H: I need a hug.

Lady Sybil dies of breeding with a chauffeur. This is a shame because she was the best sister.

Almost every woman I know watches Downton Abbey, and they all say basically the same thing: ” I know it’s terrible, but I still like it.”  The same applies to me. From the very first episode when the eldest daughter sneaks a fancy young ambassador into her bedroom, finds him dead in the morning and drags him back to his own room, much of the story has been mildly unlikely. But that doesn’t bother the likes of me. I seem to have a tremendous capacity to suspend disbelief when excellent dresses are involved.

I’ve even tried to work out logically why the damn series is so addictive, and have come to no very profound conclusions on the matter. I’ve considered the idea that we tend to hark back to the past when the present seems troubling, but nobody would really want to go back to the time between the wars, so that’s not an entirely convincing explanation. Although… perhaps our fascination does involve a sort of imagined nostalgia. After all, although human tragedies happen in the programme and there are baddies, there is also a strong code of honour among all the characters (without getting too caught up in the class politics of it all). Perhaps because we’re living in times where we no longer feel we can trust those in authority to act with honour we romanticise an imaginary past. A moderately interesting discussion of this question takes place here.

Personally, I am not sure what it is that makes this (and other costume dramas) so compelling, but I feel a similar sort of fascination when I visit historical houses; especially if they still contain the everyday detritus of the inhabitants. The most glorious one for this type of pleasure in Cornwall is Lanhydrock House. It’s a late nineteenth century country house now run by the National Trust, and what I love about it is that everything is still in it, so you can stand in rooms and vividly imagine what it was like to live there. Of course, like the viewers of Downton, we all like to imagine living only in the upstairs parts of the house – wafting around in glorious clothes and having nannies to take care of the children while we entertain our friends and participate in various dramas that involve smouldering, repressed desire and/or cliffhangers. The life of a downstairs person seems significantly less appealing.

When I was at primary school, we were taken to Lanhydrock for a history day. Our class was divided into two groups and we had to spend a morning experiencing what it was like to live in the house in one role or another. I passionately wanted to wear a gorgeous dress and parade around a drawing room, but I was allocated the role of a kitchen maid. I had to spend all morning wearing a shit cloth hat and an apron and stand at a huge oak table kneading bread dough or carrying jugs of water up and down the stairs with about 10 other girls. All dressed the same. There are no words to explain how horrified I was by the whole experience. In several ways:

  1.  It was SPOOKY.
  3. I had to look HORRIBLE.
  4. I had to eat dry bread and drink water while standing up.
  5. I HATE role play.
  6. WHO did they think I WAS giving me the role of KITCHEN MAID??!! Excuse ME.

The entire learning event was entirely lost on me through the sheer outrage at the decision to make me a menial. I have always been too big for my boots.

When, however, I visited Lanhydrock as an adult with my camera in tow, it was the downstairs that interested me most – the evidence of how life was lived in a big house like that. It wasn’t the grandeur I found appealing, it was the tiny details. It resulted in a set of photos that almost ignore the big picture altogether and just focus in on the small, domestic aspects of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Here are some of the photos I took at Lanhydrock. I hope they give a sense of the life of the place, which incidentally, is well worth a visit. If you like that sort of thing.









The future’s bright, the future’s goretex

Planning ahead is something I have always been particularly rubbish at. Maybe it comes from having grown up thinking total nuclear annihilation was immediately imminent, but it led to me living my life as if there is no tomorrow. Not in a good way – in a sort of bumbling, useless, living-in-the-moment way – like an ADHD toddler.

“There’s no POINT in doing the washing up, mum – the world is about to be wiped out by a massive nuclear war.”

So here I am in my 40s. It is finally beginning to dawn on me that there probably is some kind of old-age-based future that I should be aware of. It isn’t going to be the kind of old age that the baby boomer generation are now embarking on; my parents and spouse’s parents have paid off their mortgages, travel, go to the theatre, do Pilates and have hobbies. That sort of thing. Our old age is not going to be quite so secure – neither spouse nor I have a pension, we’ve only just started a mortgage and an ‘ISA’ is something I have only heard of because that man on Radio 4 says it a lot on that boring programme where people who have money phone up and ask what they’re supposed to do with it.

I put “investment” into Google images and this came up. This is the sort of person who invests. He looks smug because he will be able to do Pilates when he retires

(The other programme I hate is the one where people go for walks in the countryside. You can hear them doing up-hill breathing and talking about the scenery. ON THE RADIO).

Anyway, I was reading Julia Neuberger’s book, Is That All There Is? in bed last night. She was discussing a group of people who plan to sell their houses and buy one all together when they reach the official age of decrepitude so that they can support each other instead of going into a home and being fed and wiped by startled 18-year-olds saving up for their gap years. An excellent idea, she thinks; and of course it is. My friend E and I thought of it years ago. It seems an obvious solution to the problem of the gradual shutting down of brains and bodily functions. When E finally loses her marbles altogether I’ll be able to wrestle the electric mixer out of her hand before she damages the postman, and in return she will be able to fling a wardrobe upstairs when required. She has always been strong, but everyone knows that the truly demented can perform miraculous lifting feats when required.

The only problem for us will be that we won’t have any houses to sell in order to live our  dream of dementia-addled self-sufficiency, and council flats are not designed for unrestrainedly eccentric communal living. But I am not worried – I have developed a plan for my future, and it’s one that is not unrealistic: it’s within my financial reach and, although people have laughed at it and taken it as a joke, it is entirely sensible.

I’m going to be a high tech bag lady.

image by Jeff Nikon,
I will be as prepared as this lady, but more stylish

I have slept rough in the streets of a city before, and it is unutterably horrible. The grubby, creeping cold of a shop doorway at 4am seems preternaturally penetrating when all that is between you and it is your coat and a few layers of cardboard. It seeps into the marrow of your bones, tenses your muscles to snapping point and you know for a fact that you will never, ever be warm again. That’s why the homeless are often seen asleep in the daytime – at night it is too cold to sleep. But I think I could handle being a homeless bag lady if I had the right equipment. It’s the cold and the discomfort that makes it intolerable, so my plan is to start preparing myself while I still have an income. Here’s a list of what I think I will need:

  • A lightweight high performance 1-2 man tent that can withstand all weather conditions and be folded into a backpack
  • A thermalite self-inflating lightweight sleeping mat
  • An all-weather sleeping bag
  • foil insulation sheets
  • three sets of thermals
  • walking socks & waterproof boots
  • waterproof trousers & coat
  • a wind up/solar lantern
  • a storm kettle
  • warm hat & gloves
  • an orthopedic rucksack
  • an excellent knife and plenty of string
  • an all-terrain titanium trolley/zimmerframe combination
  • a library membership
  • a notebook with a waterproof cover & pens
  • my glasses

It seems so obvious now I’ve set it out before me. I can’t understand why I didn’t think of it before. Now the sons have (almost) left home for good, I have spare rooms where I can keep all my retirement preparation equipment. I still have the income to begin the necessary acquisitions, and my plan will even make it more likely that I’ll survive the apocalypse if it happens before I’m 65.



Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette

I took this photo in Plymouth today. It wasn’t supposed to be in silhouette, but I quite like it anyway. This is a skater called Nez. I asked his permission to take some photos and he introduced himself, shook my hand graciously and said I could. I watched him practicing his jumps and showing some younger kids how to do various tricks. I was struck by how warm and friendly the skaters all were to each other and to passers-by.

The second image is a picture of the main street of Redruth, Cornwall taken at dusk.

My third silhouette picture is taken at the new mining heritage site in Pool, Redruth – Heartlands.

The final silhouette is a bit of a cheat because it’s actually a reflection of a silhouette. It’s Truro Cathedral last year when it was covered in scaffolding so that stonemasons could do some repairs. It’s reflected in someone’s house window.

Is this going to be in the exam?

I wonder how many texts in the whole history of the world have begun with the phrase, “My grandmother used to say…” Probably millions. It’s probably a phrase that should be avoided at ALL costs. They probably run creative writing courses specifically to train people never to use, “my grandmother used to say” in their Great Works.

My grandmother used to say that I should be a teacher. She thought so from the time when my lifeyears could still be counted in single numbers, and she continued to think so right through my delinquency and out the other side. Or if not a teacher, she thought I should at the very least be be a journalist. One of the two.

She was quite wise, my grandmother. She did say less sage things sometimes, such as when she compared the back of my neck to a fruit and regularly observed that the best way to keep a house tidy is to take something upstairs with you every time you ascend. Small brother was troubled by the potential outcome of this – that fairly soon everything you own would be inconveniently upstairs. But still, she was mainly a fount of wisdom, just as grandmothers are supposed to be.

My grandmother and mother in the 1960s

So when I finished being a delinquent, then stopped waiting for my bewildered spouse to suddenly become a city financier and finally realised that if I wanted to have a ‘normal’ life (one with a toilet, a letter box and furniture), I would have to do something about it myself, it was to teaching I turned. In fact, I awoke one morning with an evangelical urge to save teenagers from the fate I had experienced – a decade of addled pointlessness – and immediately phoned a local college to find out how someone with a YTS in Photography and a couple of English ‘O’ Levels could qualify herself to inspire the young and lead them onto a path of righteousness. I was a Born Again Educator.

Four years later I had a First Class Honours degree and shortly after that I had a teaching qualification and a job in a college. Ok, that makes it all sound ridiculously easy, which it wasn’t, but I’m not admitting to you that I once got so knackered churning out essays that I forgot to remove my knickers in the loo. No. That’s far too personal. And anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that I became a teacher. In fact, I thought I’d landed the dream job teaching ‘A’ Levels in the FE sector. I mean, all my students were at least reasonably equipped with active braincells (surely?); I wouldn’t have to shout at kids to straighten their ties; mostly students were attending voluntarily so would be partially well-behaved (surely?) and I would get to motivate their young hearts and tempt them with the iceberg tips of knowledge that had blown me away at university. I was an eduslut. An evangelecturer. You get the picture.

For me it was all about giving young people a place to think, and to recognise that their ideas – no matter how ‘radical’ or seemingly socially unacceptable – actually have an important place in the history of thought. I wanted to show them that education is not about shutting up and believing what they are ‘taught’, but about grasping the skills to learn for themselves whatever it is that interests them.  I wanted to engage them in the history of ideas and give them chances to look at things from different perspectives, pursue their own trains of thought and to give them all the links and tools to do so. Nothing would be out of bounds as a topic for consideration. And I mean nothing.

I know I was naive, but I truly and unequivocally believed education was about enlightenment. I haven’t got a clue what gave me that idea, but that’s what I thought. My, how I laugh now when I think of my idiocy.

The first time a student ever said to me, “is this going to be in the exam?”, I took the question at face value and didn’t quite grasp the implications of it. But after it had happened more times than I could count, it dawned on me that, for the bulk of these students, none of this stuff mattered unless it would help them achieve the grade they wanted in the final assessments. The things we were ‘teaching’ seemed to them to be in a whole separate category from the lives they led outside college. The whole point of being in the classroom for them was to find out how to get grades in a process absolutely removed from anything they cared about in the real world. The kind of intellectual curiosity teachers dream of inspiring in their students was/is a very rare commodity indeed. In every class of say 24 students there are usually one or two (if any) who are genuinely interested. Many can raise some interest for the duration of the lesson and many will work very hard to learn material, but only a very few are absolutely engaged and able to bring their own ideas, reading, thoughts and experiences to the table.

I am not blaming the students for this state of affairs – not at all. Those very students who sit in classes with facial expressions resembling potatoes will often spring to life when discussing mechanics or music or flying or whatever it is they like doing outside formal education. Something has happened to them, and it’s not necessarily terminal brain damage. Our system seems to have created a disconnect between ‘education’ and genuine learning for the love of it. Somewhere along the line – as home educators have been saying for years – our young people lose the curiosity they are born with and become processed grade-churning machines, and it’s we who have made them that way.

The trouble is that, no matter how strongly we believe this, and how much we teachers want to reverse this process, the entire education system is now dependent on grades. Schools and colleges that don’t get the grades lose students and funding and can no longer continue. This leads to a vast underground of troubled teachers finding ways to get students through qualifications that they’re not really equipped for because they’ve been processed-not-educated through their formative years – in other words, we have to continue to process-not-educate.

As an A Level teacher I constantly marvel at students who come to me with C (and above) grades at GCSE and who cannot string sentences together and have never read an entire book. Speaking to teachers from the primary and secondary sector I realise that the same thing happens all the way through schools. A primary teacher told me that it starts the minute targets are set and SATS are taken. Teachers are punished if they don’t get students to meet targets, so they teach to test. Students move on to the next stage without the required knowledge and skills and so it goes on – all the way up – teaching to test and excessive guidance with coursework. Teachers have no choice. I see it all the time, and those that don’t do it are labelled bad teachers and undergo capability enquiries. Their livelihoods, sense of self-worth and careers are in jeopardy if they don’t comply.

Here’s a version of a conversation that took place between a friend of mine (L) and her manager (M):

M: This student’s only got a D in her coursework.

L: Yes.

M: What are you going to do about it?

L: Give her a D.

M: But there must be something you can do.

L: I have. I’ve done one-to-one sessions with her to help her, and she got a D.

M: Couldn’t you get her a C?

L:  She doesn’t care about the grade – she’s only doing this course because she wants to learn.

M: But you could do a couple more sessions with her.

L: I’ve done nine already. She is happy with a D. Do you want me to write it for her?

M: …

When my friend told me about this conversation I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It crystalised for me everything about where we have gone wrong as a system. L had a rare student who actually just wanted to learn for learning’s sake, and she was STILL being pressured into achieving grades. WHO was that grade FOR?

This made me finally realise I don’t believe in it all any more. So even though my grandmother was right – I probably was born to be a teacher – and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the classroom – it’s probably time to try journalism. Or something.

All offers of gainful employment welcomed.


Urban Exploration and Redruth Brewery

A month ago it was announced that the chosen site for Cornwall’s new archive and record centre is going to be the now derelict Redruth Brewery premises in the fairly derelict former mining town of the same name. Cornwall Council’s announcement is here.

This could be great news for Redruth (so long as the archive isn’t just going to be a massive temperature controlled cupboard) because it could bring historians and academics and artists and tourists and students to the town. There may be opportunities for all sorts of activities and perhaps will give people a reason to open some new businesses in the potentially beautiful but currently shabby town centre.

A charming way to hide some of Redruth’s main street problems

Shortly before this positive announcement, I had made two visits to the brewery through a hole in a fence; once with spouse and son 2 and once with some excellent friends. I was completely overwhelmed by the place – it’s a fantastic site for photographs and I took many of them. Seeing as the place is going to be changed beyond recognition in the future, I decided to post my photos in here as a record of the state it’s currently in.

The first part of the building you encounter as you clamber through the barbed wire is this:

Presumably this once housed massive vats of Newquay Steam (the brewery’s most popular beer) which stuck up through the roof. The feeling of this space is extraordinary with the brambles and buddleia growing up the white walls towards the light. It feels like some sort of theatre  or religious space, or maybe a gallery.

As you make your way out of the other side  of the building you find a huge courtyard filled with rubble, more buddleia and lined with graffiti.

Following the perimeter fence around, we found a way to climb up inside another part of the building where we wound our way through some huge empty rooms until we found an area that was partially flooded, visually stunning and once again, decorated with graffiti. To give the perpetrators their due, there was some very interesting graffiti  around the site.

More wandering (and wading) led us to what must, due to the preponderance of filing cabinets, have once been offices. More photo fodder.

On the main road side of the site there’s a house that has been burnt out. Some lads we met on our second visit claimed that some Cornish Nationalists had been making bombs in there and had an accident. I am certain this is rubbish, but it makes for good gossip, and there is plenty of Nationalist graffiti on the boards that surround the outside of the site. For example…

And judging by some of the graffiti, the perpetrators are stupid enough to make faulty bombs in a house and burn it down.

The house was an excellent source of atmospheric shots. Here are a few of them.

By FAR my favourite part of the site, however, was the next room I’m going to show you. Clearly someone had been in here before and used it for a film or some sort of art project because we found some fantastic things. Have a look.

I have no idea who made the book within a book and left it there to be found by trespassers, but like so much in life it’s much more interesting not knowing.

Finally, on this first visit, we also found our way into what must once have been the old cinema and the more creative graffitiers had been at work in there too.

We found some more exciting photo opportunities on our second visit, but it’s late and I’m tired so I’ll show you those another day.


Suck: The System

Son 2 phoned today. The conversation went something like this:

“I’m just informing you that I resigned from university this morning.”

“Ah. I see. How did you do it?”

“It’s easy; you just go online, click ‘I don’t want to be at uni any more’, and they go, ‘OK’.”

“Ah. Right…  Why did you decide to do that?”

“I’ve had enough of the education system. It’s sucking out my soul.”

Image source:

A proper parent would probably have tried to do some reasoning with him. Or wheedling. Or bribery of some kind. A proper parent would have at the very least suggested sleeping on it, or going to discuss it with a friendly lecturer; but I just said a singularly ineffectual,

“Oh. OK.”

The problem is, you see… the thing that stopped me from doing all the things a proper parent should have done is that I AGREE WITH HIM. The education system probably IS sucking out his soul. I’m a teacher and the education system is sucking out my soul as well. It’s also sucking out the soul of almost every other teacher I know.

I didn’t tell him that a couple of weeks ago I had my first ever anxiety attack and am signed off sick from the job that once made me spark like a high voltage cable. I didn’t mention to him that everything I ever wanted to do for young people is being slowly and surely booted into oblivion by the grades obsessed, bureaucratic slurry of suits who run our college. I didn’t mention that my college – a place that’s entire purpose should be to inspire the next generation to greatness – is now nothing more than a grades-at-all-costs human-crunching machine.

A few years ago I was a Grade 1 Outstanding teacher; I spent all my time reading and thinking and collaborating with friends and colleagues on ideas for excellent lessons. I loved the students and I still do. But the system has reached a point where I don’t have the strength to work in it any more; the whole thing creates massive cognitive dissonance in my brain. I no longer believe in it, and need to find a way out.

So who am I to tell my son that he can’t walk out of a system that is so screwed? Like him, as soon as I can find a way, I will go online and click ‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more’, and they will say, ‘OK’ and that will be that. There is no shortage of newly qualified and enthusiastic teachers ready and willing to take my place in the queue for grinding disillusionment.