Monday, 29 September 2008

Musings on an unappreciated youth!

"Jung said the greatest burden for the child is the unlived life of the parent.'

A recent exchange on Facebook, with my children and a granddaughter, reminded me of how easily we forget our own youth as we get older. It is far too easy to brush our own mistakes and embarrassments under our mental carpet, and behave towards our young in a painfully superior and repressive way. When I left school I really had no idea what to do with myself, I had been at boarding school since the age of 8, and left at 18 - ten years of taking no real responsibility for myself, totally unprepared to stand on my own two feet! So, my school, with my mother's support, arranged for me to go as an 'au pair' to a family in France, where I would help care for 2 little girls, and attend classes in French. Suffice to say it all went pear-shaped, and I ended up being left with the children and no money, so I took a job where I didn't need to speak French - go-go dancing in one of the new 'discos'! The whole thing went more pear-shaped still, and I ended up returning to England early and traumatised, unable to even talk to my family about what had happened. No-one was to blame for this situation, but it left me even more insecure than before, and led to many years of depression and emotional fragility - to a very real extent, a largely 'unlived life'.

This insecurity, or shame at our own behaviour (which also applies, in spades, to me!) can lead us to being overly strict and protective with our children - there's nothing like one's own memories of disaster to raise awareness of what could happen to one's children, and want to prevent it. This course of action can become a big mistake - if we think a little further, we realise that what we went through as young people made us who we are today, and that it was often our mistakes that gave us most wisdom. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do whatever we can to prepare our children to cope with the nasty things that life will undoubtedly throw at them!

If we have the courage to be honest, first with ourselves, and then with our children, about our own past and the mistakes, delights and joys therein, we have something of value to offer. I wish I had realised this years ago, then I wouldn't need to make so many apologies to my children! My own refusal to face my own culpability in the very deep lows of my life cost my children, and my partners and friends, deeply, and there is no way to go back and change that - they have paid the price of my self-delusion, too.

I have led an eventful life, to say the least, including marriage to a transexual (well, that was his self-diagnosis, he was certainly a very disturbed and unhappy transvestite, at least) experiments with mind-altering substances (several legal and far from welcome) one night stands aplenty and marital rape, but I wouldn't say that I had truly lived my life to the full - I was always far too insecure to be able to throw myself into life with the abandon I would have liked. Today I watch skateboarders and rollerblading, snowboarding and breakdancing with a wistful regret that I missed out on such fun out of mere cowardice. Now, my body is paying me back for not taking care of it, not taking exercise, smoking etc, and I can only watch, and be so proud of my children who have gone on to do so many things that I never dared. I got a bare 5 'O'levels, and I have a daughter who teaches English to high flying executives and another who got a degree (despite reading difficulties), a son who is heading into management in one of the UK's biggest up-market stores and another daughter who has brought up children saddled with real physical difficulties to be young people who thrill me with their courage and intelligence.

I'm still an odd-ball, but I'm now able to take a pride in it, and accept my own part in creating who I am and how my life happened, and what's more, my children seem to be shrugging off the burden of my unlived life. Very few of us have the right to stand in judgement, we all have something like promiscuity, drugs, drink, or just plain stupidity somewhere in our past, it's unreasonable not to allow space for our young people to have similar idiocies in theirs!

Thursday, 18 September 2008

This sporting life!

I'll immediately hold up my hand and state that I'm most decidedly not a sports fan, never have been, never will be, but - and it's a surprising 'but' to me, I have been entranced by the coverage of the Paralympics that I have watched.

The whole package of supporting a team, the astounding amount of TV and general media coverage of football (soccer!) etc leaves me with my mouth open in astonishment and bewilderment. I understand, in theory, the whole thing of being part of a group identity, part of a 'tribe', and the sense of security that some people get from it, and I can certainly see the business merits of encouraging that, and I'll admit to seeing that it can do alot for giving the disadvantaged support and the incentive to fight, and overcome, their disadvantages. However, this is all theory, and in my 61 years of life, I have never been able to empathise with this obsession - though I'll admit to a few obsessions of my own!

The people involved in the Paralympics have opened my eyes - not just the athletes themselves, but the myriad of support organisations, the spectators and families and even the media themselves have exuded such unalloyed and genuine joy, that I couldn't help but be caught up in it. The normal Olympics seemed, as with most professional sport these days, to be bedeviled with anger, bitterness, back-biting competitiveness and drugs and I was deeply depressed by the whole circus, not to mention the politics associated with it all. For me, it was a great relief when it was over and the TV schedules and media generally returned to their usual nauseating gossip!

I tuned into the Paralympics to give my eyes and brain something else to do while knitting - I often watch mindless daytime TV for that purpose, and am occasionally pleasantly surprised! The sheer delight in what they were doing on the part of the athletes was a joy, and their good sportsmanship, compared to the able bodied competitors, gave me hope for the world. Knowing that, in Chinese society, there was a long-standing discomfort with disability, not to say rejection of people so afflicted, I was overwhelmed by the way the Chinese people, as a whole, had cast aside their old ways of thinking and thrown themselves into supporting, and appreciating, the achievements of the 'disabled' competitors, and spectators too, was heart warming. This dramatic change in attitudes is an example to us all, and as someone newly faced with disability challenges, I found the whole thing deeply inspiring.

There were many inspiring stories, and many of the most prominent athletes will go on to follow in the steps of people like Tanni Grey-Thompson and become famous to a degree that would have seemed impossible to disabled athletes, and disabled people generally, only a decade or so ago. At last, we are starting to treat them as people first, and disability is only the door which has opened for them, to achievement in fields they might not have otherwise considered. For me, the image that will remain is the joy and disbelief on the face of 13 year old Eleanor Simmons when she won her race in the swimming pool - what race it was, her time etc, are all irrelevant, what matters is her joy in her sport and her joy in achievement, for its own sake - that, to me, is what sport should be about. Money, politics, fame, tribalism, to me, these have all corrupted sport and the Paralympics seemed, somehow, to have put them in their place, at least temporarily.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Ripples in the pond of a life.

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth." Kahlil Gibran, 'The Prophet'

In my last blog I mentioned that I struggled at school because of my inability to see the blackboard. I finally got my first pair of spectacles at about 11, and my whole world was transformed - literally. Suddenly everything was not only clearer, but apparently much larger, too, no wonder I had seemed to be so clumsy. I had probably not helped my vision by reading voraciously, with a book barely inches from my nose, from an early age - books had been the only friends to such a shy and insecure little girl, and had been vital in my many solitary stays in the sanitorium. The ripples that spread from this one difficulty spread far, although I could read, I couldn't, as I said, see the blackboard, so I only learned what I was able to find in books, thus I became an enthusiast for history, for instance, while such subjects as arithmetic, let alone maths, remained a mystery for most of my educational life, as I never had the basic grounding - no one realised, until too late (ie once I had left school and become a parent) that my limited vision had also limited my ability to learn to such a high degree.

This whole slant to what information I could access must have had a considerable influence on who I am now, by the time I could see a blackboard, or watch a film, I was halfway through my schooling, and missing a reliable foundation in several subjects. None of my teachers seemed to be aware of the effect of my visual problems on what I had been able to learn, so I was often categorised as stupid, or by the more perceptive, who recognised that I was reasonably intelligent, as lazy. I found myself on the receiving end of a great deal of anger, from a wide variety of teachers, but particularly maths teachers, one in particular of whom frequently reduced me to tears, and on one occasion I was so frightened I wet myself! To this day, the whole idea of maths still paralyses me, at times. I was fortunate in my headmistress at St Mary's Hall, my final school, in Brighton. Miss Conrady recognised that I wasn't simply stupid, or lazy, but missing out on a basic understanding of numbers. so while my contemporaries were studying for maths 'O' levels, she gave me individual lessons in basic arithmetic. For this, I can never thank her enough, without it I could not have run the small businesses I have done, or have got my City & Guilds in Dress & Design - though this was still a considerable struggle - pattern cutting is almost all geometry, which was way beyond what Miss Conrady had equipped me with!

I have also been biased in the direction of self-teaching, as I developed the habit of answering my own questions via books, and unable to follow group practical teaching, working on things by myself until I worked it out for myself. Thus, many of the skills I have have been achieved alone, with the help of a well written and illustrated book or or two - indeed, many a library full! Even once I could see a blackboard, having been unable to partake in that kind of learning for so long, I found it difficult to get involved with the process. As I was also socially inept, not to say isolated, I couldn't turn to many of my contemporaries for support, as I mostly had no friends, and most of those I did have were struggling as much as I was.

This all leaves me wondering how many other people's lives have been distorted by these kind of unrecognised handicaps to learning, we have a major problem in this country with people leaving school, still unable to read - how much of this is down to similarly unperceived physical difficulties? How many teachers see their pupils as people like themselves, rather than a challenge to their authority? Don't misunderstand, i have great admiration for teachers, they do a vital and difficult job, but every barrel has a few dodgy apples, as this kind of dodgy apple can cause problems of a magnitude that very few are willing to recognise. Perhaps, as a society, we need to be more willing question 'experts', more willing to empathise with children as people like ourselves, but more fragile and with much less control over their own experience of life.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Children learn what they live

My delightful grandaughter, Carys, having read my last burblings, has suggested I tell more about my childhood, so if you find this boring, blame her!

As you have already read (if you've read my early offerings) I lost my father at an early age, and I have few real memories of my life before his death. However, I have been told that I was very much "Daddy's girl", and if I really dig deep into my memory, I have vague memories of smells of pipe tobacco, and wet wool; and sensations of being tickled with a beard - not much for 4 and a half years. I know the silly song that my father made up to comfort me when I was grizzly, and one or two stories about my incidents of being childishly charming, but almost nothing first hand - I am deeply envious of those lucky people who have detailed memories of their early childhoods. I do remember 2 special people who cared for me when I was little, both before and after my father's death - 'Mummy' Lawrence, and her son 'Desi' ( short for Desmond) They lived at number 5, New Orchard, near the harbour front, which was demolished long ago. I recall a small, cosy house, with an outside 'loo', on a narrow, cobbled street, not far from the public baths, where we went for both baths and to get the laundry done. It was also close to the Old Custom House, on the quay, which is still there, with its graceful, curving double stairway. Apparently I was quite creative in my mischief in those days, it seems that on one occasion when left alone in the front room (the posh room, rarely used) an appalling racket caused them to rush into the room with their hearts in their mouths, only to find me running up and down the piano keyboard! Ah! Happy days!

Poole, in those days, hadn't yet had the heart ripped out of it and replaced with ghastly modern blocks, and was still a complex of alleyways and little businesses serving the shipping that still kept Poole's harbour thriving and my father in work. There were lots of little seamens pubs, ships chandlers and all the hum of a traditional working community, and we were not the only ones living on board vessels in the harbour, my parents were part of a thriving, post-war water-borne community. I can remember, just, being in a pub with my parents at about 3 or 4, I imagine, and grabbing my father's pint - apparently I downed the lot, and demanded more! That particular pub is now a chi-chi little 'styled' tourist gastro-pub, like most of those that weren't demolished in the 60s and 70s. The smell of a working harbour (not just the sea) with the mixed aromas of sea water, oil and rubbish, can still make me feel both safe and thrilled.

The period following my father's death is not much clearer, it was a muddled and unhappy time for both my mother and myself, and my memories don't really start to have any consistency until we moved into the house bought for us by my grandfather's legacy. The house, 43 Castle Street, Canterbury, was a terraced 2-up 2-down, overlooked by the gas works and cost £500, and a further £500 to gut and put into a livable condition. When it was finished it had its first bathroom and was pristine clean, with a new kitchen extension and all the 20-odd lilacs in the tiny back yard chopped down! However, the bequest didn't allow for furniture, so we moved in with one table, one chair and a large double bed in which all three of us slept. Anything else was created from wooden orange crates, which were sturdy and adaptable. By this time my little sister was about 2, and I was 7, and mummy had a struggle to support us. She took several jobs, and eventually managed to get a good one - secretary to the Headmaster at St Edmunds, a boys public school (private, if you're American!) on the outskirts of the city. With the debts my father had left, this still wasn't enough, so, in school holidays and evenings, she also worked as a waitress in the 'Castle Grill', a fairly up-market restaurant further up Castle Street. In those days there were far more small, local shops, and Castle street was almost a complete village by itself - apart from school, one could live without ever going more than 2 streets away from Castle Street.

Mummy still needed more income, and we had more bedrooms than we needed, so she struggled to furnish one bedroom and the living/dining room, and put a sign in the window, advertising 'Bed & Breakfast'. She got her self so wound up and nervous that she told the first potential customer that she was full! However, once she got into her stride there was no looking back, and soon sharing our home with a wide variety of paying guests was our normal way of life. We met some wonderful people, and some very strange ones, and I learned to take responsibility for looking after other people's needs at an early age, doing everything from cooking, serving at table and cleaning rooms, to dashing out to get extra bread or eggs! It was an exciting life in many ways, though very unpredictable and confusing, as well. I was very shy and insecure, and made few friends in the area before going to boarding school shortly before my 8th birthday.

My first boarding school, the junior part of the Royal Merchant Navy School, was in Bexhill, Sussex, just along the south coast from Hastings. It was a long way from home for a lonely, awkward little girl, and I was desperately homesick - like several other similarly orphaned children at the school. The Headmaster did his best to be a father figure for us (we had almost all lost our fathers to the sea) and used to come to our dorms, sing us lullabies and tuck us up in bed at night, a caring man, I can see with the wisdom of hindsight. I was a sickly child, and seemed to spend most of each spring term in the sanitorium, with one bug or another, and had a very sensitive digestion, with a low appetite, which made for many confrontations with the dining room staff! I couldn't digest animal fat, it made me sick, so I spent many hours sitting alone in the dining hall, with a congealing plate of fat in front of me, being told I would get nothing else till I'd eaten it - thank heaven they eventually weakened, or I would have starved to death!

At Bexhill I encoutered my first corporal punishment - often! My bottom was warmed with everything from a slipper, through a hairbrush and a plastic badminton racquet to a cane! It didn't make me do what they wanted, and demolished my respect and trust for the staff members concerned. These were isolated incidents, though, and most of the staff were caring and special people - even the ones I never seemed able to please! I was a lonely and dreamy child, with a good brain but an extreme reluctance to concentrate - not helped that I badly needed spectacles but no-one had realised it. I couldn't see the blackboard, even from the front desks, so couldn't copy from it, which meant I couldn't do most of the work, because there were not enough books to go round, in the cash-strapped post-war economy. I did get a prize, though - a book on my beloved ballet, for effort! I stayed at Bexhill until I was 11, when most of my contemporaries were taking their 11-plus exam to decide their educational fate, but I was spared that - I was destined to go on to the senior department of the school at Bearwood. Sadly, at the time I left Bexhill it closed altogether, leading to the staff, as well as the children, being scattered far and wide - there were many tears at the end of that last summer term.

Thursday, 4 September 2008


I have quite a few "grandchildren', not all of my bloodline - some are the children of my stepchildren, some the stepchildren of my own children and some the children of people who have chosen to treat me as an alternative mother, it gets complicated and expensive, come Christmas! I have 4 grandchildren actually of my bloodline, not including one charming little boy who left us when he was only 6 weeks old - I don't include him only because there is no longer anything I can contribute to his life, not because he's not important - he is still very precious. Three of these are the older siblings of our lost James Rowan - Carys, David and Bethan, the children of my eldest daughter, Annabelle. The fourth is a new arrival, the first child of my youngest daughter, Ruth, and Inga arrived early, on the 4th of July - I dread to think what her name might have been, had she been born in America!

Last week we went to meet Inga for the first time. She and her parents (Daddy is Mark, a spectacularly good History teacher and ex-Army, who is a brave and special person in many ways) live in a gorgeous old stone cottage in Pencaitland, Scotland, which they managed to move into, after 2 years renovation, the day after Inga was born! We were a tiny bit apprehensive about how things would go on this visit, as Ruth and I have had a difficult relationship in the past, and I have found it all too easy to put my foot in it - don't misunderstand, I love and admire Ruth tremendously, she has overcome enormous difficulties to achieve things that many professionals in her childhood would have believed impossible - they seriously underestimated her! However, there is considerable tension between her father and myself, and this has contributed to alot of misunderstandings and pain for both of us - and I haven't always been the most stable and strong a person myself, so I have, sadly, sometimes let her down badly. We need not have worried, Ruth seems so much happier and at peace with herself, and I am overjoyed for her.

Inga is an unusually interactive baby - at only 2 months, I found myself relating with her as I would expect to interact with a child twice her age. I suspect Ruth and Mark will have their hands full with this one! She is obviously intelligent and curious about the world, as was her mother, and her cousins. I'm really not being a soppy Granny - not all of my much loved younger generation are quite as bright and pretty (perhaps I shouldn't say the latter - Mark insists the poor child looks like me!) but this one is certainly precocious.

I find that I do feel differently this time round, though. My older grandchildren arrived when I was not that far from having had small children of my own, so they were far from a novelty in my life! Also, it has to be admitted, I wasn't really ready to wear the label 'Granny", with its image of age and past-it-ness! This time, parenting of babies and toddlers is way behind me, and I find myself able to enjoy Inga without the pressure I felt earlier - a shame, as I now see how my earlier grandchildren missed out. Not that Carys seems dissatisfied, she tells me I'm "cool' and 'fun', but sometimes embarrassing!

Having struggled as a parent, and knowing from the start that I wasn't really the ideal personality for parenthood, being a grandparent is an unexpectedly enjoyable experience. I have always valued and enjoyed children, but am not a consistent enough person to be the reliable, strong parent that every child needs and deserves, so as a grandparent I can contribute and offer what I can, without carrying a level of responsibility I am ill fitted for. Ruth plans to have more children, and since Inga was planned almost to the day, I expect her to have a couple of siblings! Ruth's brother, Nicolas, also has hopes of being a father one day - though that is not likely to happen soon, I hope that in future I can be a better grandparent, and perhaps give my children better support as parents than I was able to give them as children.