Archive for January, 2012

Reading Old Favourites – better second time round?

January 29, 2012

I spend a lot of my time reading, both for pleasure, for work and these days, mostly for study. I’ve read a heady mix of titles these last few years, being immured in the world of rock n roll biography – a desperate, exciting and somewhat incredible place to be. You do live in other worlds in books and you can find inspiration and new ideas to make all your own. I just love reading – it is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

I’ve re-read a great deal too – looking at style and writer’s craft as I struggle to shape my own novel, Ophelia, who seems ever the shape-shifter. So I’ve returned to Fay Weldon, John Irving, Fitzgerald, EM Forster, Flaubert, Hardy.

Like travelling, re-reading old books can feel like going home or returning to a foreign country. Many years ago I was compiling opinions about my team’s favourite books for our end of year publication. One of my dearest colleagues sited The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (pen name of Ethel Florence Richardson, Australian writer, 1870-1946) as her favourite novel and waxed lyrical about its impact on her as a young woman. When I asked about reading it again, she shook her head. No, she couldn’t go back: it might not stand up today and she didn’t want to be disappointed now and lose the love she had for the book from then.

I’ve generally not been like this. But then I’ve tended to re-read my favourite books at intervals over the years. I return to Fitzgerald often, mostly Gatsby. I re-read God of Small Things and Sophie’s Choice, not just for my current study but for the story and the heart ache. I re-read The English Patient for its utter beauty and sadness. I’ve never been disappointed like my friend Helen feared.

Until recently. I returned to EM Forster, a mainstay of senior school and university literature in my days. I’d read nearly all of his work at some time. My favourite was Howard’s End, and in the move from one side of the world to the other I had brought it with me. Reader, I re-read it. And I should not have. It was slow, ponderous, proselytizing and somewhat pompous. There was no remembered lightness of touch, profound insight into the human heart. It seemed to be the worst of tell it all and show nothing: no respect for the intelligence of the reader to connect anything. Although I read through to the end, I was deeply saddened by this experience.

Madame Bovary too, seems is not as I remember, which contrasts to Death in Venice, both read at the same time. Death in Venice (which I could not but help read when I was in Venice and stood outside Ashenbach’s hotel and paddled in the Adriatic where Tadzio caught the eye of the old man) stood the test of time. As densely written as remembered, as dark and oppressive in 2010 as it was in 1977. But Flaubert has not weathered well. I find Madame Bovary as insufferably self centred as before but the writing is not as taught or as crafted. It’s lost its feeling of despair, now Madame Bovary, herself seems superficial and not worthy of all these words, not worthy of such an epic death.

I wonder what the deal is? Is it in the writing: some books, some writers travel well – stand the test of time for all, for all time. Look to Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. These writers (and many others) are always with us – on school reading lists, being made into films or mini series, causing the public to rush back to the book keeping it in our hearts and minds.

Is there a difference to re-reading regularly as I do with Weldon, Irving and Fitzgerald and coming back to a novel after many years? Is my friend Helen right – leaving the book alone to be remembered as it was is the right thing to do, honour it that way – not lose its magic in the unkindness of today.

Is a much loved and fondly remembered book like an old lover then – better left in their prime, clear and beautiful in your memory, than re-met in their decline twenty to thirty years later? (Images courtesy Google-images)

The Weather Girl – from Life Happens

January 28, 2012


It took 42 years for Daisy Long to realise she was a Rain God. It was only in the looking back that the pattern took shape and made sense. She remembered as a child idly saying, “It won’t rain today,” and being correct, despite the clouds and the forecast. She’d tell her mum, “I think you should bring in the washing now.” After a while her mother always checked with Daisy on all family matters where the weather was going to be a factor. Gardening, picnics, visiting the beach, as well as the washing. Daisy was their own little barometer – somewhat peculiar in her weather ways but someone her family came to take 100% seriously in all matters to do with rain.

In her university years Daisy had a collection of unreliable cars: one in particular that would drip onto her leg from an impossible to find hole in the rubber of her windscreen. No amount of sealant and repairs managed to stop the drip-drip that wet stockings, stained jeans and made her shiver through the dark days of winter. But one afternoon as she came out of lectures and looked at the threatening sky she had pointed her finger, shook her head at the clouds, saying simply, “Don’t. Not until I get home, anyway.” And the storm held off, just as she asked, bucketing down as she closed her front door. She’d smiled, remembering her childhood magic and took to being obeyed by storm clouds.

Looking back she saw that what she’d laughed at was quite special. She’d simply accepted that she had an affinity with the weather, was somehow super-sensitive to it and thus could predict, with a high degree of accuracy when rain would fall. She’d kept this to herself as she’d left her family and made her own life. It didn’t seem the right sort of thing for normal conversations. Certainly she’d never mentioned it to Ray. In the harsh light of adulthood it all seemed so silly.

Now, recalling her affinity with the elements, she wondered if she could actually make it rain. She looked at the clouds drifting over the homestead, ever threatening, but still withholding all after so many months. Daisy wondered if she could really do something: if she could break this endless drought and give them some hope of keeping the property.

Daisy needed the right moment. She needed to be alone for her experiment, so that if she failed nobody need know and she could simply put the whole Rain-God joke away again, back in the little musty box in her brain that had recently sprung open. She waited until her family was firmly asleep and went outside, where she could examine the heavens, inhale the night air and try to conjure a miracle.

She paced. She breathed deeply. She looked at the sky: scattered clouds grey and promising against the black of the sky, the tiniest glimpse of metallic moon. The place was still: no breeze, no sound. She stepped onto the dirt patch that was once lawn and reached her arms to the sky. “Hello,” she said. “It’s me, Daisy. Remember me? I reckon it’s time we had some rain.”

She waited. She stopped breathing to listen to the slightest sound. Nothing. She checked her watch and waited five minutes. “It’s not good enough,” she shouted. “This has gone on for too long. It’s time for rain. Now.” She tapped her foot impatiently. Then she felt it: oh so softly at first. The slightest breeze, a change in the air – she could smell it: the rain was coming. She looked up – the moon was completely gone. The sky was full of thunderheads. She could feel them heaving, readying to split open. “Oh, yes. Come on. You can do it. Yes, you can!”

The first drop fell on her head, a fat heavy tear of rain that slid down her face to her lips and onto her tongue. The next few fell on the ground making the dirt jump and spatter on her bare feet. The rain fell heavily on Daisy, standing there in a widening puddle of mud. It teemed, sending bullets of rain up from the desiccated earth, rattling on the roof like a machine gun. It was so loud on the corrugated iron that it shook the sleepers from deep in their dreams and brought them from the house.

Ray stood on the verandah, his face awash with relief. The kids ran into the rain and put their faces to the wet sky, laughing and dancing in the expanding sea of mud.

“What do you think you’re doing, woman?” Ray said, bringing her under cover.

“Making it rain.”

“Don’t be daft, Daisy,” Ray laughed. “People don’t make it rain. It’s the drought. It’s been hard on all of us. We’ll be fine now. As long as it keeps going, fills the damns, soaks the ground.”

Daisy shrugged, winked at the heavens and went inside for a nice cup of tea.

Story featured in e-book –  Life Happens by Jackie Swift

(images courtesy Amazon/Andrews UK and Google images)

25 Years Later – a mid week poem

January 25, 2012

A kiss, a hug like we’re old friends,

seemingly always in each others’ lives,

if not as centrally as once we were.

But we move apart and you talk to everyone

–  like you used to do –

I smile and effervesce with a few

I look at you

You look at me –  only a fraction of a moment

the tiniest glance

But I see you seeing me

and you see me watching you too.


– a smaller gathering.

We sit in a comfortable circle,

“Still a sleazy old man,” you wink after some appalling joke.

“You lived along here too,” you say

as if you might only just remember.

“You were too young for that,” you nudge.

And I smile and say little now,

just a fringe dweller of this crew.

You all remember old times, before me.

But as you talk

and you recall all these trivial, jovial events

from years long gone I realise – for the first time –

that you remember being with me

As clearly as I remember being with you.

I know now why we don’t talk together for long

or alone

or admit to much more than a passing acquaintance

–  a long time, yes –

but only through these other people,

Only ever loosely connected.

We never admit to past intimacies

but your wink,

my smile,

the things left unsaid between private glances,

tell it all to anyone who cares to look.

(Images courtesy Google images)

The Joy in Small Things

January 22, 2012

Happiness can be hard to find at the best of times, so in hard times it can be harder still! But look around, notice the minutiae of your life and you will find there is joy. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him,” says Nick Carraway of Jay Gatsby. Thus, a series of small moments of joys can lead us to happiness.

Try these on for size

A warm smile from someone you love

The smell of fresh coffee

A meal cooked by someone else

Cooking something for others – a cake, dinner


Walking your dog

Watching a silly movie

Laughing out loud

Listening to your favourite song

Singing out loud

Fresh flowers

The sun in the morning

Rain, when you’re inside and snug, looking out

A beautifully cleaned kitchen – or bathroom, etc

Putting the laundry away

Kindness of strangers

A good book

Writing your blog!

The Sunday papers


Being with your friends, your family, your beloved daughter

An unexpected email from afar

Someone ‘liking’ you on FB or your blog

Friday evening, with the weekend ahead…

Sleeping in, on the weekend

I’m sure you can add many, many more. But it’s a start and a good idea, don’t you think – look for the small joys and the big happiness will find you. (Pix – Jactherat collection + Gatsby courtesy Google images)



January 21, 2012

Being the mother of an awesome Dragon it is only right that I share with you some bits and pieces about being one of these wonderful beasties. My boy is charming, lucky, clever and destined to go far. You will too in the Year of the Dragon, because while it is the best sign to be born under, it’s also pretty good times for the rest of us. Given the state of the world at the moment this might cheer you up! So look forward to good times from Monday, 23 January 2012 to February 9 2013.

So here’s a brief heads up about the Chinese Dragon. I’ve included a couple of brilliant sites later on if you want a far more detailed run through the joys of Chinese astrology, who you are and what’s in store for the coming year.

The Dragon personality

The Dragon is one of the more famous beasts of myth and legend. It is a great symbol of good fortune and of intense power. The Oriental Dragon is regarded as a divine creature – it bears no resemblance to the evil, destructive, fearful dragon of Western Mythology. In Eastern philosophy, the Dragon is said to be a harbinger of good fortune and a master of authority. In China the dragon and the phoenix are the royal couple and can be found in art and decorations across the country. In China the year of the Dragon is considered to be the most auspicious year to be born in.

A Dragon born with Rat and Tiger parents is especially blessed and will go far.

1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024

Dragon Attributes

Equivalent Western Astrology Sign: Aries

Element: Earth

Hour: 7am-9am

Country: China

Yin/Yang: Yin

Direction: East-South-East

Zodiac Location: 5th

Ruling hours: 7am to 9am

Motto: “I Reign”

Season and month: Spring and April

Fixed Element: Wood

Stem: Positive

Lunar Month Dates: April 5 to May 4

Birthstone: Amethyst

Colors: Gold

Food: Wheat, poultry

Dragon Characteristics

  • Innovative
  • Enterprising
  • Flexible
  • Self-assured
  • Brave
  • Passionate
  • Conceited
  • Tactless
  • Scrutinizing
  • Unanticipated
  • Quick-tempered

Dragon Careers

  • Computer analysts
  • Inventors
  • Engineers
  • Architects
  • Lawyers
  • Philosophers
  • Psychoanalysts
  • Brokers
  • Managers
  • Salespeople
  • PR People
  • Advertising agents
  • Officers in the armed forces
  • Campaigners
  • Politicians

Sign Compatibility

Compatible with the Dragon are the Rat, Tiger, Rabbit, Snake, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, and Pig.

Incompatible with the Dragon are the Ox, Dragon, Horse, and Dog.

Famous Dragons

Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Sigmund Freud, Mae West, John Lennon, Bruce Lee, Keanu Reeves, Orlando Bloom, Colin Farrell, Sandra Bullock, Princess Beatrice

Some Excellent Chinese Astrology Sites to Explore & Enjoy

Kong He Fat Choy! (all images courtesy of Google-images)

Tough Talk on Teachers

January 14, 2012

Omigod, Michael Gove is now getting tough on bad teachers. Are we surprised, dear reader? Not a bit. Of course he was going to this place, of course he has to have a more direct swipe at the teaching profession. Not enough to change and review all and sundry, now we must, simply must, address the on-going problem of bad teachers.

At this point let me refer you to my blog 9 Thoughts about why Education is not as it should be, especially point 1 – ‘every new minister of education thinks they have the answer’. So Gove is doing just that. He is the master: he has the answers.

We’ve been down this road before. If only head-teachers had the power to get rid of bad teachers then everything would be fine. Well, here’s the thing – they do have that power. But most of the time they’re too casual, too lazy to follow the processes fairly to get the result they want. Most teachers in this country are bullied out of the profession, not processed out. The stress and strain of constant observations, meetings, paper-work, poorly performing and badly behaved students does take its toll.

And actually what is more important, and this is what Gove needs to understand, is that it is this process that does a great deal of damage to students’ education. Teachers go sick. Relief teachers come in, some-one sets cover – is it relevant, is it okay? But even if it is good work the students are unlikely to co-operate. Even the best kids are notoriously poorly behaved for relief teachers. They think they’re having fun, giving the teacher (or succession of teachers) a hard time, but we know (as they do, really) that the only people being damaged are themselves.

Kids need many things in schools to be successful and make progress. Good teaching is certainly one of the main planks. But consistency in teachers is another central tenant. Let me say it again, students need consistency. They need someone they know, trust and will work for. Inner-city kids are more needy: they don’t have much consistency in their lives – school is about it. Teachers are some of the few adults they can trust and rely on. Even poorly performing ones, Mr Gove.

Gove’s bag of tricks say to the profession – we don’t trust you. You need to be monitored, assessed, graded and some of you need to be sacked as quickly as possible. He also assumes that Head-teachers know enough to identify bad teachers and are professional enough not to target or bully a member of their staff simply because they can. This just isn’t true – they are many inexperienced and inept Head-teachers who do bully people out of their school and out of the profession.

As I said – processes are already in place: they simply need to be followed, carefully and properly. And, here’s a thought, if there are so few bad teachers, why the need for this indecent haste, surely a good head-teacher will want to remove bad teachers in a way that is both fair and seen to be fair? The principles of Natural Justice, surely need to apply here?

This simply  grand-standing  from Gove – “look at me, I’m tough on bad teachers”. What about bad bankers – you know, the ones who bankrupt the country? What about bad doctors who remove the wrong organ and kill people? What about corrupt policemen, who are in cahoots with the media? What about politicians who fiddle their expenses and cost the tax-payer thousands? What about all those ‘bad’ people? I think we might mount an argument that they do far more damage than a handful of bad teachers. Are we lacking some perspective here?

Why are teachers singled out for so much vitriol? Why is the profession under such constant attack? The truth is teaching in this country is seriously hard work. Read the TES subject forums, where teachers post candidly about what they do – not just in preparation for Ofsted but as part of their normal business. No other part of the community spends all day in a room with 20-30 young people – being responsible for their behaviour, their learning, their socialisation: dealing with their aggression, their ignorance, their resistance to anything that will improve their lives. Would you do it?

Here’s a suggestion, Mr Gove – sack the bad teachers, the inept head-teachers, turn every school that struggles into an Academy, but pay good teachers what they are worth. If Education is so important to the future of this country then good teachers should be paid in accordance. Surely a good teacher is worth more to the country than a footballer?


Your True Purpose

January 8, 2012

We’re several days into the New Year and a couple of weeks off the Chinese year of the Dragon – a highly auspicious year in the oriental calendar. The Chinese Dragon is their royal animal (along with the Phoenix) and a figure of extreme luck. People born in the year of the Dragon are doubly blessed and the rest of us can have a good time in that year too.

Which brings me to the question of your true purpose. We’ve started a new year, made (and by now, broken) resolutions to make us better people. But why not look deeper and consider why we are really here?

Do you have a single important purpose or a more general widely beneficial purpose? Have a little think for a moment while you consider that – go and get a coffee and let that thought swirl around your mind.

I am minded of this idea partly because it is the amazing David Bowie’s birthday today and he is the unbelievable age of 65. Surely here is a man with a single purpose – to take music and performance to places it had never been. Just like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards and of course Freddie Mercury, not to mention Brian May and his red special guitar.

There are many people like this across the world in many spheres – here to do one thing – to explore, write, think, create, challenge, be different: make a difference. Of course Steve Jobs must spring to mind.

So, what about you? Are you here to have a good time, just get on with it and mind your own business and leave as quietly as you came? Or is there something that burns within – that makes you sing, that makes the everyday grind worth it? Do you harbour creative dreams and ambitions? Are you here to paint or write, act or invent, make great cakes, have seven children, visit every continent on earth? Are you doing anything about it?

This is the time to look at your self and ask a few hard questions. Doing no harm has to be a good starting place given the on-going violence and ugliness of the world. But we can do better than that. Finding, or developing, your true purpose is central to your own well-being, to how you live in the world and how you effect those around you.

Stop and think. Look inside you. Are you happy? Are you doing what you want? I know there are harsh economic realities out there, but life isn’t just about paying the bills. It has to have joy in it and you should spend some of your life – if not all – doing things that make you feel good, purposeful, fulfilled.

Make this the year you do that. Search who you are, know yourself and then act. Attend a class in life drawing, take a photography course,  re-train, write every day, stay at home and look after your children; be the best doctor, lawyer, astronaut, teacher you can.

Know who you are, why you are here and what makes you happy – that will enhance everything around you and bring you internal peace and contentment. If we know why we’re here, and we embrace our purpose and work hard to achieve it, we elude the external rubbish in the world – we can ignore the bullying, ignorant boss, the spiralling cost of living, the fools who bring us down, because we know what matters and we focus on that. (photos – dragon & bowie from google images, family = jactherat collection)

My Marriage is like My Car

January 5, 2012

I have recently reached a significant milestone in my primary relationship and found myself contemplating its metaphorical state. To wit – what is my marriage like?

Answer: my marriage is like my car.

Once it was a wonderful and beautiful thing – my Jaguar. It made my heart sing every day. To drive it was bliss, to wash and polish it was an honour. To fill it with petrol alerted me to the envious glances of others. It was reliable, trustworthy, a thing of beauty, a thing of speed and comfort. It was something I treasured and loved and was proud to own.

Now it is past its best – it is showing signs of wear on the leather upholstery, a few scratches on the paint work that have not been attended to. It’s tyres need replacing. It has been superseded by later models. It won’t run true, it goes into fail-safe mode on a whim or a bump and needs  too much money spending on it too often.

But to replace it will cost so much and I am used to its idiosyncratic ways. I love its smell, its sound and I still love its style and elegance. In many ways it should be replaced – it is a drain on finances, I should have something reliable. I wished I cared about it as much as I did, that it filled me with as much warmth as it did. But replacing it would be too much of a wrench. I’m sure I’d always regret letting it go and surely if I just paid it a bit more attention, had its problems attended to it would last many more years?

What is your marriage like?

A fridge – cold and silent in the corner of the kitchen – messy with notes and magnets on the outside, too cool inside but still working well enough, something you take for granted?

A toaster – reliable, functional with a variety of temperatures and functions, a comfort to you but not really central to your well being?

A vacuum cleaner – purpose built, robust, takes on all comes and cleans up beautifully, essential to your sanity?

A garden full of beautiful flowers, well tended, watered and fertilised regularly so growth is assured, a place where you feel purposeful and peaceful as you dig in the dirt?

Or a tree – tall and strong, growing upwards and outwards every year – shading the surrounding area, looking after birds and other wildlife, a place for children to play, a swing. Something that gets better with age, remains a wonder to you, that always makes you feel wonderful.