Babies project takes a step forward

I’ve been playing around with a specific project for several years. I’ve done two very different complete drafts for nanowrimo, a few years apart, and I keep coming back to it. I have a whole document full of news links that are relevant to my novel, and every time my interest dwindles another news story comes up.

This project is along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale – taking all sorts of stories and projecting the sort of world they are leading to. It started along the lines of thinking about Babies R Us, and imagining it as a kind of pet store but for babies – go along and choose your baby. Then it developed away from that. But it always suffered from lack of direction, and that was reflected in – and was caused by – the lack of a proper title.

So for years it was “that thing about the babies”, or just “babies”. But without that focus, the project floundered.

Then recently it came to me. I know what the title is, or at least one or two variations on what I want, and with that title comes the whole theme and purpose of the novel.

Ladies and gentlemen I present: A Perfect Childhood.

The novel seeks to explore the idea of state as parent, and how eliminating the variation in parenting quality, and providing a consistent, expert parent in the state, would theoretically solve the attainment gap and ensure that every single child would have the same opportunities in life.

Of course, being a novel, things don’t go quite according to plan…

So now I have a title and a focus, I really need to get on with a new draft. Although there’s still Abandoned to work on for writing group, and Life Lessons, my romance, is nagging at me. And Gods V Heroes will need another draft at some point soon…

If only I could get Dropbox working again on my laptop, I could get on with all of these. Otherwise I face the prospect of either carrying a memory stick around and running several different versions, or having to retire to the study rather than sit with my feet up in front of the TV while writing.

 

Betrayed

Please note: this is rather different from my usual type of post…

In the news today is the story that Rolf Harris has been convicted on charges of sexual assault on young girls, with more cases possibly in the pipeline.

My reaction to that is to feel totally betrayed. I believed in the man. I loved his music, and his art, and thought he was an all-round good guy. All the way through I was thinking that it was a mistake; that the accusers were making things up, that they had misunderstood, exaggerated, were trying to cause trouble.

I mention my reaction because it’s exactly the reason why this sort of thing can happen; it’s so easy to make excuses, to turn a blind eye, to not believe it, to trust someone.

When someone you know is accused of something, it can be hard to accept. But it’s important that we do accept it. Sure, there are the odd cases where someone makes an accusation out of malice, but there are so many times when kids speak up and aren’t believed, because of all the reasons I’ve given, and that’s why it can continue. Because not believing the accusation means that we can carry on the way we are, without causing trouble, losing a friend/family, or experiencing major upheaval.

This is the reason, too, why I’m opposed to things like Sarah’s Law, the law allowing people to find out if people close to their children are on the sex offenders’ register. Because it lulls us into a false sense of security: they’re not on the list so they must be safe.

In reality, those known sex offenders are not the worst threat. An abuser is far more likely to be a family member or family friend, someone who is trusted and loved.

Not all people are abusers; of course not. But very few of those who are abusers are actually caught. Far more manage to continue their habits because of who they are.

This is why we need to empower children to know they’re allowed to say no where their bodies are concerned – yes, even to great aunt Aggie who insists on a kiss every time you see her – and allow cases like those we’ve seen lately to be discussed openly. Because only when the stigma is removed, awareness raised and when children expect to be believed is there any hope of stopping things. Children have very little power. Let’s at least grant them the right to be listened to, and believed, and protected. Otherwise they may struggle with these issues for the rest of their lives.

 

 

A workhouse holiday

rear view of the building showing garden and red brick building

The rear view of the Red House Museum – a lot more welcoming than I’d expected!

I went away for a week recently with my family, and I just had to do a little bit of work while away, so we visited the Red House Museum in Christchurch, Dorset, an ex-workhouse that’s now a local museum.

The Red House was built in 1764, and the building was really not at all what I had expected. The Blean workhouse was built only thirty or so years later, in 1791, but the buildings look nothing alike. This made me focus on what I imagined the workhouse to be like, and I decided that most of my ideas probably come from Oliver Twist and the few photos I’ve seen.

I guess I imagined a large, dark, cold building with high ceilings and plenty of space for people. Instead, the Red House was small, with low wood-beamed ceilings and small rooms – it was hard to imagine that a large number of people would have lived there at a time. I was sorry that there was so little information about the workhouse itself; there was a display of the fusee chains, the tiny watch chains that the people – including children – would have sat making for hours at a time, and there were a couple more displays, but the museum covered all aspects of the area’s history, not just the workhouse.

The study room within the museum

The study room within the museum

At this point I started to feel indignant that those who lived there were so unrecorded, but at least the workhouse stands in their memory. In fact research is encouraged, with a small room in the building itself devoted to local study. Still, I’m glad that I’m researching our workhouse, and I’d like my work to stand in memory of the poorest amongst us, the problems they faced and their fate.

Children were encouraged to explore the museum, with activity packs designed to help them learn more about the life of a specific child, or about the master of the workhouse, and I read these with interest. I had always assumed that the life of the children would be similar to the lives our children lead now, but according to their records the children had about ten minutes of schooling a day and the rest of the day would be spent working, particularly on those tiny chains that I would strain to see properly, let alone assemble into watch chains.

The yards were divided into men’s yard, boys’ yard, girls’ yard and the laundry yard – presumably the women spent their time working on the laundry rather than marching round the yard exercising. The gardens are very pleasant to walk around and sit in now, but I wondered just what they would have been like in workhouse days – did they do any work in the garden? did they grow their own food? did they get to play games out there?

The master's desk

The master’s desk

Another feature of the museum was the master’s desk. He originally had his own office, but when the poor law came into effect and the board of guardians needed somewhere to meet, his desk was moved to the half landing, where I admired his collection of books and papers.

Probably the part I found most interesting was the kitchen, being forced to consider the practicalities of feeding such a large group of people efficiently. The workhouse at Blean was criticised for its poor diet, with the meat being mostly fat and gristle, and recommendations being made for improvement of diet, but I can’t imagine it would be easy to feed so many people. The kitchen at the Red House was fitted out with all sorts of Victorian paraphernalia, and I tried to imagine the groups of people rushing around preparing meals – did they have a rota? did the people cook for themselves, or did someone come in to do it? I gathered they were in charge of doing their own laundry.

large fireplace with victorian artefacts

Fancy catering for large numbers on this?

I’ve reached the point where the research on the inmates is going well but I really need to start focusing on the workhouse itself, and on life generally in those times, to get a better idea of what conditions were like, what happened on a day to day basis and what their lives would have been like inside the workhouse and outside.

Some new software is helping me to organise my research and notes into something resembling a book, so I’m starting to feel I’m really making progress. Now I need to transfer the information that’s in family tree form into text and start playing with it and working out how to make it interesting for the reader, and to start the more general research. I also want to get back to the archives and continue my work there. Next time I’ll be taking the laptop, as I’m starting to want to record more than pencilled notes. I’ll also look into paying for a camera licence for the day, so I can keep pictorial records as well as written records.

 

 

A different perspective

Have you ever had one of those moments when you realise that someone else sees the world in a completely different way from you?

Let me describe a time when that happened to me.

First I need to set the scene. I live on a bus route. To one side of my house is a footpath that leads to the local primary school. On the other side, a little way down the road, is a public car park, where many parents will leave their car in order to walk up to the school and collect their child.

One day many years ago I was walking back from picking a child up from school. I had that child walking, another in a pushchair, and there may or may not have been a third; I don’t remember exactly.

What I do remember is the little boy, who must have been between two and three years old, and who got the idea that his mummy had already walked back to the car park, leaving him behind.

This child ran just ahead of me, crying, and as he rounded the corner at the end of the footpath I saw what he saw: a group of people blocking the pavement in front of him, with a garden wall one side of them and a big open area on the other side.

I also saw what he didn’t: the double decker bus just coming down the road.

In that moment, I understood that while to me the road was a danger zone, a no-go area, somewhere that you never ever step into even if your way is totally blocked, to him it simply offered an obvious way past the people who were obstructing his route to his mummy.

I cried out. I never thought I’d be someone to shout out like that, but it wasn’t anything I could control. I think I was the only one who saw and understood; the lollipop man stands on the other side of the road and so his vision would have been blocked by the bus, and no-one else had the same view as I did, just behind the boy.

The bus driver – much to his relief as well as mine, no doubt – slammed on the brakes and managed to avoid the boy, who continued down the road totally oblivious to the danger he had just been in. I pushed my children in the front gate with firm instructions to not move, and ran on down the road to the car park, where the boy stood crying.

“Is your mummy here?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“Come on, then, I think she’s still back at the school.”  I took his hand and we walked together back up the road. Just as we reached my house, I saw someone I recognised: it was one of the Aunties from the local playschool. I told her what had happened. She didn’t recognise the boy, but offered to take him back up the path to find his mummy so I could deal with my own children.

I never heard any more about it, and to this day I don’t believe the child or his mother understood just how close they came to tragedy that evening. But I always try to bear in mind that what can seem completely obvious to me can, from someone else’s perspective, seem completely different.

 

Writing exercise 1.15

Just looking through my notes, I found this piece, which I believe was written for an Open University exercise. I know one reader who might remember the event it was loosely based on!

Kids today, they’re so badly behaved. I mean to say, I met a couple of young louts yesterday. At the castle, it was. We had such a lovely day. The flowers were just perfect. Well, most of them, but there was one bed that had been so neglected it was a crying shame. “Look at that, Ethel,” I said to my friend, “such a crying shame.” Of course, Ethel’s garden isn’t much to speak of. How she lives with it, I don’t know. Her arthritis plays her up, I know, but still, you would think… anyway, I was telling you about those appalling louts. We had been in the shop, and then realised we didn’t have much time to get back to the coach before it was due to leave. And that driver can be so miserable! When we had a sing song on that last trip, he was so rude!

Where was I? Oh yes, getting back to the coach. They run what they call a land train, to ferry people between the castle and the car park. Well, when we got there, it was already full, and I thought for one horrible moment we would have to walk all the way, but then I saw these two youths taking up the front seats, looking smug and comfortable. Just fancy, two hulking great lads like that riding, while poor Ethel’s arthritis was playing up!

“Come on boys, we need those seats,” I told them, and do you know, for a minute I actually thought they would sit there and refuse to move! One even had the cheek to claim they’d been queuing for hours, obviously trying to play the sympathy card. I was just about to go and fetch the driver, who I could see was gazing into space instead of doing his job, but one of the boys spoke to the other and they slowly climbed off. I pushed Ethel on, and then climbed on myself, and as the train moved off I saw the boys talking to a woman. I just hope they weren’t going to mug her for her bag! Nasty pieces of work, they were. One even looked as though he was pretending to cry, no doubt trying to distract her while the other grabbed her purse.

That train was terribly slow, I told the driver as we got off that if the coach driver was grumpy all the journey home it would be his fault for making us late. I didn’t hear what he said in answer, but I accepted his apology anyway.

 

 

From the workhouse to the lunatic asylum

Now this story is one that I’m really fascinated by. Having researched the Newing family from the Blean Union Workhouse because the name Philadelphia Newing caught my eye, I was wondering who to pick next. Purely at random, I picked John Hearnden, who was listed in the 1881 census as aged 49, a labourer, and a lunatic.

Working forward, I next found him in the 1891 census, where he seemed to have grown worse – he had moved from the workhouse at Blean to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum at Chartham. This was somewhere that really rang a bell with me, as my father used to work at St Augustine’s Mental Hospital. This was the successor to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum at Chartham, which opened in 1872 when the original Lunatic Asylum at Maidstone was full to overflowing.  As frequently happened, the building continued with a similar purpose under the new NHS.

I think I’ve traced his death to 1902 in Faversham, but I’ll have to see if I can confirm that.

Going backwards, things get even more interesting.

In the 1851 census he is listed as aged 19, living with his family in Staplegate, Kent (listed as in Sturry). He is again listed as a labourer.

His family at that point consists of his father William, and his brothers and sisters: Esther aged 25, a servant, Eliza, aged 15, Thomas, 13, a scholar, and James aged 11, another scholar. His mother had died around 9 years earlier, in 1842 (the tree I’m linking to lists an older sister also called Sarah, who was born in 1821 and also died in 1842, but I’m not convinced by this).

Further digging provides more information on the family: he had more sisters, including Emma and Elizabeth. In 1843, when John was 11, Emma was aged about 9 and had been living in Blean Union Workhouse for about two years. Elizabeth, aged around 15, went to visit her sister, and was shocked by what she heard about her sister’s treatment there. According to Emma, she had been punished frequently for wetting the bed, and on several occasions this punishment had been in the form of being shut up in “the dead-room”. On one particular occasion this had been with a body laid out in the room, with a sheet over it but with the face uncovered. There she had to stay for most of the day, and was returned there again the next day, still with the body present.

A complaint was made, but the guardians of the workhouse declared that although Emma did occasionally wet the bed and had been reprimanded for it, she had never been actually punished for it. She had, however, been threatened with being sent down to “the straw-room”, which was a couple of doors away from the dead-room.

The Poor-Law Commissioners were not happy with this report and commissioned a full enquiry, at which witnesses were called on both sides. The story does not relate the result of the enquiry, but the tone of the article definitely seems to suggest that the Commissioners believed the girl and other witnesses rather than the Master of the Workhouse.

My enquiries into John Hearnden will continue – I still want to confirm his death place and date, and find out the full story of him and his family – but I was so thrilled by this connection between the inmate I picked at random and the most famous story in the history of Blean Union Workhouse that I just had to share.

 

Storytime at school

Hearing the new children’s laureate talking about her aim to encourage storytelling at school and membership of libraries made me think back to my days at school, particularly primary school. We always seemed to have a class book on the go, with a few minutes here and there spent listening to the story. The first ones I can remember was from a teacher in what would now be year 3, who loved Rupert Bear. She had a collection of annuals, and she would read them to us, but with a twist: the stories were told in three ways, with images, with traditional stories and with rhyming couplets, and she would read out each rhyming couplet to us minus the final word, which we would then have to guess/fill in. Mostly it was obvious from the context and the rhyme, but other times it was a challenge. Either way, it was a way of engaging all of us in storytime.

Another teacher once read Stig of the Dump to us. I still associate that book with being read out in class and having to listen; as a bookworm, I was always very happy to read them myself, but still the pleasure of sitting listening brings back pleasant memories.

Our teacher in what would now be year 6, the last year at Junior School, read the James Herriot books to us. Again, I was totally entranced, and loved the stories about the different animals. This was about the same time as the TV series was on, and I gladly got my hands on the other books in the series to read as well – probably my first official introduction to an adult book rather than a children’s book.

At secondary school we would read a book together, which meant each person in turn would be expected to read out a page or two. I would usually try to read to myself far enough ahead that the voice wasn’t a distraction, because by then I was too impatient to listen. One book I remember this way was a book called The Gift, which featured a boy called David who was telepathic.

When my own children grew to the age where I wanted them to eat at the table but they didn’t want to wait until their Dad came home late in the evening, I got into the habit of sitting reading to them while they ate. We enjoyed many a book that way: after watching a TV series about life as a pioneer we read Little House on the Prairie, we worked our way through the Dark is Rising series, a few other fantasy books like Garth Nix, Adventure books like Swallows and Amazons and far too many others to mention. It was always fun to debate what book to read next (incidentally I did once try to interest them in James Herriot, but despite being of similar age to when I heard it, they just found it too hard and were not interested, sadly).

Even as an adult I love it when hubby agrees to read to me in bed – one night our sons had to knock on our bedroom door and tell us to be quiet as he’d got too carried away – Pusey Ogg was the guilty party, I seem to remember, yelling “Wanna soldier! Wanna soldier!” The only problem comes when I fall asleep – as I usually do – and the next night we have to figure out how far I actually remember.

In short, my love of reading is mixed with a love of listening to stories, and I’m glad that there’s going to be a push to encourage children to listen to whole books in a large group again; there’s no finer way to encourage a love of books.

 

To those in charge of education

I’m currently trying to study a course on gamification. I say trying, because although the course involves only a couple of hours a week I find I’m too tired and busy in the evenings to concentrate on anything outside the work that I need to prepare and/or mark.  You see, I’m a teacher, and I’m starting to apply theory of gamification to what I see around me.

You know what happens if you make a game too hard?  the players learn that it’s not worth the effort, that they’ll never be able to reach the target, and so they give up. I can feel that happening in education.  Those at the top of the leaderboard can see they do well and are spurred to do more, while those way down know they’ll never catch up and have it constantly drummed into them that they’re not good enough.  The rules are being changed so they find it harder and harder and they’re getting disillusioned.

I’m talking of the kids here, but the same thing is happening with teachers: all we seem to hear is that our teaching isn’t good enough, we don’t work long enough hours, we don’t deserve the holidays we get, we’re failing the kids and we’re responsible for their bad behaviour.

And as a result I’m starting to feel that I’m doing it wrong: I’m spending a large proportion of my waking hours either working or doing something work-related, but apparently that isn’t good enough. I can’t give any more than I can, so what’s the point in even trying?  If I’m going to get criticised in the public press by those in charge of education anyway, then why don’t I take all this free time they obviously believe I have and make good use of it?  If I’m going to be judged on a very small part of my job, which can so easily be either misjudged or unrepresentative of my work as a whole, then what’s the point in worrying over inspections?

Yes, we just had around six weeks away from school.  I spent most of that time working on my skills so that I was ready to teach a new topic, and the rest recovering mentally and physically from the demands of my job.  Why did I bother? Because I enjoy what I do and take pride in my work.  But if it’s going to be constantly criticised, if I’m always going to be looking over my shoulder to see what the latest beef against my profession is, then that pride is going to ebb away, and that enjoyment will fade rapidly.

Please, let’s start working together for the sake of the kids, and start being supportive rather than critical.  And to all those who complain about the long holidays teachers get, well you could always get a job as a teacher yourself and enjoy the holidays!  Can’t bear the thought of teaching?  Well then, if you can’t take the pain, don’t complain about the rewards!

As to me, I’m off to watch this week’s lectures on gamification, because I believe in encouraging the kids to do better by finding ways to link it in to games and fun, and use game techniques to produce a better experience in the classroom.  Like providing clear ways for them to see they are making progress, and not continually knocking their confidence and enthusiasm.

Scarred for life by children’s books

I loved to read even when I was young – I remember when I was seven I sat and read two Secret Seven books in an afternoon.  I read fast and voraciously, and anything I could find.  So even with the library available, I would often reread books, several times over.

I had a particular box-set of short story books, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories.  This was a set of around five books of short stories, all with a heavily religious (Christian or Jewish) theme.  All had some sort of heavy moral theme, and the combined effect was to scar me for life.

In these stories, disobeying your parent would lead to disaster.  Any kind of wrong behaviour would lead to serious permanent consequences. What’s more, you would always, without fail, get caught.  Ninth time around – when riding her bike round the top of the hill where she lived, she insisted on one more go around, despite mummy telling her to go in – the bike swerved and she bounced down the hill and was seriously injured.  Donny and the Door Handle, where little Donny would always play with the door handle in the car, and it swung open and he fell out of the car while it was moving.   The boy who longed for an air pistol, and promised not to touch it when unsupervised, but sneaked out to look at it and managed to shoot himself in the face.  The little girl who was nosing around in her aunt’s drawers to see what exciting thing was in there was caught because it was full of feathers and they all came floating out.  The girl who forgot to take her watch off in the bath and then didn’t own up until her parents noticed it was rusty and wet inside, then had her parents’ disappointment and no watch.  The girl who told lies dreamt of lies running all over her as she lay on the grass, and woke up to find ants all over her.  And yet when the little boy who was ill still struggled into the church for Christmas mass everyone heard the bells ring for the first time in years as he got to the altar.

Some of them were worthwhile – the story of minimising Milton, who would always run down what other people did while magnifying his own achievements.  The stories of children who would keep trying and eventually succeed because of their own determination.  Some of them were downright bizarre, like the story of the boy who helped push home a disabled man whose battery had gone flat on his wheelchair, and then got into trouble because he hadn’t told anyone where he was going.  But most have left me with a paralysing sense of fear, that any time I set a foot wrong the universe will crash down on me and make me pay, like the girl who liked her mum’s sun lamp and set the house on fire.

Not that doing wrong is something good, but if fear of doing wrong leaves you terrified of trying anything, or sticking to the rules because you’re afraid of the consequences rather than because you believe in the rules, then yes, I feel that’s bad.

And it’s not just my generation with strange children’s stories – my son had a set of Alphapet books, which went through the alphabet with animals and character traits. Most were obvious, like Sylvester the Stubborn Squirrel who learnt not to be so stubborn, but the positive traits were seen as negatives too:  Perry the Polite Porcupine was shown as being far too helpful to others and should say no more often, while Tina the Truthful Tiger was too truthful and should learn little white lies to get on with people better.

But there’s only been one book I’ve downright refused to read to children – it was a book that belonged to the young children I was babysitting, and featured some children and some elves or similar.  The elves had something the children wanted, and when they wouldn’t hand it over the children used brute strength to destroy the elf house and get it for themselves.  That one I refused to touch as soon as I understood where the storyline was headed.