Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy was in Harry Potter. That’s what a lot of young people will remember him for.

But I will forever remember Sunday evenings, and Siegfried Farnon.

Sunday evenings were unmissable. I used to spend a lot of time with elderly next door neighbours (I’ve spoken about them before), and when I first knew them, they had only an old radiogram to listen to the Archers on. Then they got themselves a black and white TV, and All Creatures Great and Small became a regular part of the Sunday ritual – round there around 3pm, playing board games, dinner with them, and then watching TV before I headed back home.

The programme had an extra impact on me because it was about that time that I came across the books as well. Our teacher at school, in what would now be year 6, the year before moving to secondary school, would read us bits of All Creatures Great and Small, and I remember getting very upset because a boy in class had his own copy of If Only They Could Talk, the first book in the series, and I desperately wanted to read it. These were among the first books written for adults that I’d come across in my own reading.

I picked them up years later and looked at them, considering whether to share them with my children, and was astounded to see just how grown-up they were – no thought of reading something like that to 10 and 11 year olds these days!

So Siegfried Farnon, and Tristran Farnon and James Herriot, were all part of my childhood. Rest in Peace, Robert Hardy, and thank you for bringing Siegfried to us.

 

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

I was cute when I was younger. I was a bridesmaid a total of four times, although for the first – for an aunt – I was too young to remember.

I did eventually have my own turn as bride, but nevertheless the phrase has haunted me: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

It feels as though the phrase describes my life: all those around me are signing up for races, and completing marathons. I signed up for a marathon, but never got there; injury stopped me before training had even started properly. And yet it felt as it was meant to be that way. That while others achieve, it’s my role only to cheer on the sidelines.

It’s the same with writing. While I work on my own projects, it still feels as though my role in the writing business is to help others with their projects. I edit, proofread, format, even help with structure, while my own projects never reach that final stage.

I’m still haunted by a book idea I had thirty years ago. It was a valid non-fiction book idea. I started out researching it. And then someone else published it. The book I was planning to write. How silly I was to think I could do it myself! (why is it so silly, though?)

In life generally, I seem to fall into that support role. Even while playing World of Warcraft, I heal, enabling others to do their jobs better without worrying about their health. I love the healing role, but it means that once again I’m following others around and helping them, while they charge in and get things done.

Sometimes it feels like my role in life is as a support act for others. When do I get to take a main role? Or am I doomed to always stand on the sidelines cheering the rest?

I guess it’s not so bad. We can’t all be huge successes, at the top of our field. And I’ve a sneaking suspicion that a lot of my problem is self-sabotage.

But still, I’d really like my turn at some point.

 

I didn’t run the marathon

At some point last year, a load of friends from a Facebook running group were signing up for the Brighton Marathon. I can do this, I thought. I can be part of the crowd. I don’t want to feel left out. I want to run a marathon.

And so I paid a silly amount of money and put my name down for the race.

Then we got to September/October, when I ran a couple of 10k races within a couple of weeks, and my left knee started hurting. It hasn’t really stopped since. I’ve been attending physiotherapy, I’ve just started with an osteopath, I’ve run parkrun twice and ended up hobbling again each time, and with the knowledge that I could barely walk 5k, let alone run 42k, I finally deferred from the marathon.

So yesterday when a load of those friends were running, or attending to cheer the others on – some  nursing their own injuries that forced them to withdraw – I was doing other things around my home town.

I had a dream last night. I was in full military uniform (but that’s another story) on an assault course. We came to one of those obstacles that’s huge and needs a team of people to get you up. I looked at the others who were there with me, and I said I would boost them up. That’s great, they said, and then we’ll help you up.

And then they managed to get up, with my help and with the help of those already at the top, and they went on, leaving me at the bottom. And I just shrugged, because that’s the way it always is.

This disturbs me, more than I’d like to admit. Why does it always feel that my role is to support and help others, not to be helped myself? Is it just the result of being the much younger sibling, always left behind or dragged along reluctantly, trying to keep up? Or is it more than that?

Am I holding myself back, when I let it happen and don’t scream and kick up a fuss?

Am I truly destined to be the one left behind?

Or do I need to learn to say it’s my turn, I need help now. I’ll help you, but I expect help in return as well?

I’ve now got the link to sign up to Brighton again, with a massive 20% off the price as I deferred from this year. I won’t be signing up. I think I bit off more than I can chew, and there’s no point in spending a fortune when I’m not even back running again yet, and don’t know when or even if I’ll be fit enough.

But I think I need to figure out what other obstacles I’m trying to get over, who can help me and whether I need to shout and scream over it.

 

Diving in

I remember little of my time at school, but one incident stands out. We had an outdoor swimming pool at my school. It was always freezing cold, and I would always spend the first five minutes or so lowering myself gently into the water at the shallow end, trying to get used to the temperature. As a result, when the teacher spread the class out, with the confident swimmers at the deep end and the non-swimmers or poor swimmers at the shallow end, I was always in the poorer swimmer group, and I’m sure the teacher thought I couldn’t swim properly.

This particular lesson I remember, I think I’d been swimming at the public swimming pool in the days before – not a common occurrence, but I had enjoyed my time in the warmer pool and practised all the shallow, racing dives I’d seen the confident swimmers learning in class.

Then, on the Friday morning, I realised that my piano lesson coincided with this last swimming lesson of the term. Piano lessons were taken individually, missing lessons, and there were strict rules on which lessons you were supposed to miss. PE lessons were considered fair game.

My twelve-year-old brain couldn’t cope with this. I had so been looking forward to the swimming lesson, with all this extra practice I’d put in! I ended up in a toilet cubicle crying my eyes out.

I have no idea how this happened, but there was a knock on the door from someone I barely knew, saying that she would swap her piano lesson with me so I could still go to swimming lesson. I didn’t even know anyone knew I was there, or why I was upset, but there was this solution presented to me.

So I gratefully accepted, and at swimming lesson time I got straight into the deep end, without any of my usual prevarication, and showed off all lesson, with my racing dives and lengths. My teacher was suitably surprised and impressed and I’ve been forever grateful to whoever not only noticed that I was upset, but managed to come up with a solution.

 

Annie’s Escapades

dsc_0385I have a new project! You can follow my progress on https://www.facebook.com/Anniehasfun/. Here I wanted to explain the thinking behind it.

I’ve already spoken about some of the voices inside my head, how there’s Annie, my inner child, Betty, the nagging parent, and Charlie, who’s basically psycho. Well, I’m fed up with hearing Betty’s voice, and Charlie worries me, so I thought it was about time I really listened to Annie. My intention is to use her as my focus for getting out, having fun and being creative. Christmas presents worked together to help out, and I’m looking forward to seeing just what Annie and I are going to get up to together.

For those who are interested, Annie is a Lottie doll. I fell in love with these when I first saw them. Her dog is Biscuit, and will join her on outside activities. Her cat is Pandora, and will keep her company on inside activities.

 

Tied to the world

When I was growing up, I had a strange mindset – I felt as though I was trailing an invisible line behind me, and I had to take care not to get that line snagged. I knew that if the line snagged on too many things I’d be irrevocably tied to the world.

So I would take great care not to wrap that line around things if I could avoid it; retracing my steps out of a place, rather than going out of a different door, not twisting around or I’d get tangled. I couldn’t see the line, of course, but I could feel it, and felt uncomfortable if I ended up getting it caught on things.

Even these days, when I’m under stress I’ll take care not to twist round too much, and I’ll try to retrace my steps whenever possible. For example, if I walk from the cooker to the fridge, and then to the sink, I’ll turn back round the other way rather than complete the turn that comes naturally with the triangle of movement.

But I had a thought the other day – what if it’s true? What if, as children, we know things that as adults we forget? That part of that forgetting is snagging our invisible line on things and losing our memories that way? What if I’d been even more careful as a child? Would that connection still be strong?

When I was three or four years old, I could write. I remember distinctly being in church one day with my mother, and playing with my letter writing set – notepaper and envelopes, all designed for a child. I wrote my letters and sealed them up in the envelopes, and I knew I could write. Then I got to school, and suddenly I had to learn it all. Most frustrating.

Memory is an odd thing. If you go through an event, but remember nothing of it afterwards, does it matter? What if there’s something that all of us forget as we grow into this world, and will only be revealed again at the end of our lives? Will our lives actually matter then?

My novels, and the philosophical ideas behind them, are starting to create logjams, and I really need to get going on them.

 

Reaching Nirvana

Way back in the 80s, I owned my first computer. A ZX81, the first computer small enough and cheap enough to be of interest to the casual home user. It came with a massive 1k of RAM, expandable to 16k with a RAM pack.

As you can imagine, programming it was a tricky job. There were games available to buy, loading from a cassette tape player, and some of them were actually pretty good, keeping me entertained for hours. But there were also loads of magazines to buy, each containing listings for programs for you to type in and save on your own cassette tapes. Some of these games were pretty nifty, but one in particular has stayed with me all these years as a metaphor for life.

The aim of the game was to reach Nirvana. You would start in the middle of a grid, and could move north, south, east or west, via arrow keys. Each turn, you would move one step, with the idea of reaching Nirvana. When you thought you had reached it, you would enter a different command.

Every time you said you thought you’d reached Nirvana, guess what? You had.

So you could wander the grid for hours, visiting every square, or you could declare you’d reached Nirvana on the very first turn. Either way, you would win.

Pretty silly game, really.

And yet…

Isn’t that true of life, sometimes? That we can wander around all our lives, looking for something mysterious, waiting to discover our purpose, trying to find happiness? And all we have to do is to make up our minds that this, here, right where we are, this is where we’re meant to be, and what we’re meant to be doing.

Okay, it might not work for everyone, or all the time, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more often than not, we’re still wandering when actually we’re already there.

 

A confusing teacher

Back when I was in primary school, we didn’t have such things as substitute teachers or cover teachers – if our classroom teacher was ill or absent, we’d be parcelled off in twos or threes to sit at the back of another classroom. Usually we’d have set work to do, and would be expected to sit there getting on with it while the teacher taught his/her class, but sometimes, especially if the classroom we went in was the same yeargroup, we’d be invited to join in with their work.

These days were often a fascinating glimpse into another life; spending all your school time with one teacher, in one group of students, can be a little claustrophobic, and it was always fun to see how the rest of the school lived.

One of these sessions, though, left me thoroughly confused and a little disheartened, to the extent that I still remember the day even though it was over forty years ago.

I think I must have been in second year at junior school, which these days translates to year 4, and I and a couple of others were sent to a fourth year classroom (top of the school; these days year 6). As I worked on my own tasks, we were nonetheless invited by the teacher (a man, although his name is long shrouded in the mists of time) to join in if we wanted. I declined, as I remember.

There were two tasks I remember from that day. The first was the instruction to the class to carry out a writing exercise. The instructions, as I remember them, was “I want description of being at the seaside. And it needs to be at least 20 pages long. Seagulls crying, waves on the shore, that sort of thing.” Twenty pages? I’d never written that much in my life. And twenty pages of description? Is such a thing even possible? Even today, I wonder. Surely that was far out of reach for ten-year-olds.

The other was discussion of what the word “estate” meant. The class were coming up with all sorts of suggestions as to the meaning, but each time he would say, “No, that’s not it. No, you’re not quite right. No, that’s wrong.” I never did find out what it meant according to him.

From those two exercises I took away the feeling of being faced with an exercise that I just consider far too hard, being given without any acknowledgement that it was tough, and the feeling of not knowing what something means and being constantly wrong without ever knowing the right answer.

I’ve no idea whether these were serious exercises, or whether his class usually did this sort of thing, or whether he was winding up the visitors, but to this day I think of that lesson with frustration.

 

Seldom or rarely

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Although I could not read before starting school, it didn’t take long before I was devouring book after book. I remember my first Famous Five book – it was book eight of the series, where the children are kept prisoner within the gardens of a large house. Dick escapes by hiding in the boot of a car and sneaking out, then climbing out of the boot of the car and running, stiffly and painfully, to the nearest police station, while being chased by the bad guy.

I remember one afternoon when I read two Secret Seven books in the one reading session.

I remember one of the Famous Five books, where it said that George seldom watched television.

That particular experience stands out for me, because I had to ask what “seldom” meant. I was told it meant “rarely”. That confused me, because I found it hard to understand the point of having two words that meant exactly the same thing.

I guess that was my first real experience of the wonderful, complex, confusing world of the English language.

Another reading first was Saint Overboard, a book by Leslie Charteris. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. My father was always reading Saint books. I imagined they must be some sort of religious books. Then one day I was waiting for the bathroom and sat on the stairs. Next to me was a copy of Saint Overboard, my father’s latest read. I idly picked it up and read the first couple of pages.

I became utterly and completely hooked.

I’ve looked back at those pages since, and I’m not sure what drew me to them, unless it was just the sheer magic of discovering that a book written for adults could be just as easy and entertaining to read as books written for children.

Regardless of why I found the book so magical, I kept reading that one, read the others in my father’s possession, and for the next few years would hunt down any more in the series that I could find. When visiting secondary schools, when it was time to choose where to spend the next seven years of my life, I was happy with the school chosen because I found in their library a couple of Saint books I hadn’t yet read.

I still have a big box of Saint books upstairs, and Simon Templar is still my favourite fictional character. I never really got on with the TV series, and the movie that they attempted to make recently was an absolute farce, having nothing in relation to the book character other than the name.

Books are magic, and kids who don’t read for pleasure are missing out on so much. I’m glad to say that all our children (who are no longer children!) have grown up enjoying reading.

I don’t read quite as much these days; or at least, having achieved my childhood dream of being paid to read, I’m a lot more fussy over what I read for pleasure. It’s far rarer now for me to become so involved in a book that I’m swept along, forgetting everything but the words on the page. As a writer, I’m constantly analysing the books I do read, trying to figure out the spell that keeps me reading and involved.

But every so often a gem comes along. And I’m grateful.

 

I smuggled the book out under my coat

I had a spare half hour this afternoon, so I wandered into the local library, a place where I spent a large part of my childhood, and which opened up the world to me. I don’t often go there these days, but I wandered around looking at books on the shelf, passing time, and in the end I picked one up, sat down in a chair and started reading.

It wasn’t a fiction book; as a child I would only ever read fiction, and couldn’t understand my best friend who would only ever read non-fiction, but I have a whole pile of fiction books waiting to be read, and wouldn’t dare pick up another. This was a book called How Not to be Wrong: the Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. I teach or tutor maths on occasion, and I’ve always been interested in how numbers work and how maths is all around us – one of my pet hates is the “I haven’t had to use algebra all day today” meme – and so I started reading the introduction.

In the end, I took the book to the machine, fished out my library card and checked the book out (you don’t even have to see a librarian these days), but discovered that I was almost hiding the book away as I took it out of the library.

Why did I feel so guilty about it? Part of the problem is that I currently read for part of my living. I read manuscripts and give detailed feedback. I get free books in return for reviews, through the Amazon Vine programme. And I have a pile of books of my own choice that I’d also like to read. So adding another to the pile feels like extravagance.

There aren’t enough hours in the day already. How can I just add something else to the pile?

I guess, because I need to relax. I need to enjoy myself occasionally. I need to read widely in order to do my job – both the reading and the writing part – as well as I can. And as this is non-fiction, I’m not going to constantly picking plotholes in it.

And it’s also rather enlightening and interesting, and maybe I’ll learn a lot, and maybe what I learn will help me to teach maths better, because I’ll have a deeper understanding of how it does integrate with real life. As to the algebra – each time you work out what your change should be from a money transaction, you’re using algebra, because algebra is just making explicit the rules that numbers follow, which is that if a+b=c, then c-a=b and c-b=a.