Archive for February, 2014

The Sudden Impact of Loss

February 22, 2014

Most of you know me to be a positive, up-beat type of person where the glass is always half full, where the future is in our hands, and we can make our lives better by facing up to who we are, and how we want to be. My most popular posts are my education rants and my life-style – live better – be strong posts. You may not be aware of the extent of struggle and loss in my life, but that’s as it should be, I don’t blog to whine and moan too much without offering some sort of solution, some way to learn from adversity. But, like many of you out there, I have struggled and I have lost.

Last Saturday night I was suddenly and unexpectedly laid low by the impact of loss. By something terrible and deeply distressing that happened many years ago, that I never forget, but that does not reside at the forefront of my existence. I know that many of you out there have similar losses, something that tore you apart at the time, that you struggled to come to terms with, that changed you and your life, that bobs up from time to time to remind you, to never let you forget – as if you ever could…

In my long and extensive life of turbulence, of love and adventure, of wins and losses, there are only two things that I would change: the death of my mother when I was 17 and the loss of my baby, Grace, before she even got a chance to get started. I know, my dear friends, that many of you have trod in shoes like mine: a miscarriage, a still birth, a lost baby to SIDS, or something similarly devastating. We look at ourselves, feel our failure more keenly here than anywhere else in our lives: failure as a mother is a primal failure, the most severe stab at our essential being: how can we not bring a child safely into the world, not care for it enough? It threatens our sense of self, our sense of womanliness and it can destroy some of us. It is the hardest burden to bear: to go on living when our child does not. It is the worst punishment for any parent.

dad, dragon ,phoenix

Grace died nearly twenty years ago. She was stillborn after I spent six weeks in hospital trying to hang onto her. A tiny-tiny hole, less than a pin-prick in the amniotic sac led to a slow leak which meant the fluid was draining away and she would not have enough to grow to term. The doctor said she was doomed once the diagnosis was in, but we persevered. I lay in hospital, still and quiet, trying my best to keep her long enough to grow to be big enough to survive. But the amniotic fluid was gone at 24 weeks and she was too small, and her lungs and brain were probably already irretrievably damaged. The equipment needed to keep such a premy baby alive wasn’t in Darwin at the time, so it was hopeless. But she was a tiny perfect baby. No imperfections, nothing to say why she died, why she couldn’t make it. She had soft blonde downy hair, perfect little fingers and toes but her eyes never opened. She never drew breath, never saw us, never knew how much she was wanted or loved. She was held and sang to and baptized. But she never lived amongst us, never knew her brother or sisters.

This is not a unique story – this, or a version, of this, happens again and again across the world. Babies die and families grieve. But we move on. We love what we have more and the final addition to my family made most of the sadness in my heart evaporate. Her smile, her breath and small perfections made the ache in my heart stop and slow, her joy in life and her calm serene being made it possible for me to face the world again, not such a failure, not so heart-breakingly sad all the time.


Time passes and life moves in different directions. Children grow and the pain heals, but the memory stays, it just doesn’t hurt any more. This is what life does. It heals, slowly, without notice, and here we are in the midst of grown up daughters, having dinner and drinks, half a world away from the worst day of my life. I am happy, I am sitting on the sofa drinking champagne, having had a lovely meal prepared by my eldest daughter, my beloved sits happily beside me; life is in a good place. The girls are singing and laughing along to Bastille and there’s a lyric, a mention of Grace, walking with her, or acting with her. And it’s repeated. I look at my grown up girls, enough alike to be obviously sisters, blonde hair and smiles, hugging each other, and then I saw a space between them, a girl sized shape where Grace should have been. And I could see her, I could imagine her there, between her youngest and eldest sister, like them but unlike them – herself, smiling and happy too.

I was hit in the heart. It broke. There was joy and love in the room but my heart was empty and shattered by loss, by what should have been. Not two but three. Three golden haired girls laughing and smiling and hugging. My tears felt slowly and I couldn’t stop them. My heart was so full of love for what I had but full of pain and sadness for what was lost, what could never be. How can you be so happy and so sad at once? Out of the blue I was hit by the sudden impact of my loss, like a comet hitting the earth, reeling me off course, shattering my orbit, leaving an impression the size of the Gulf of Carpentaria in my being. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I was brutally aware of my loss, of the gaping hole in my life. A hole that has to be ignored, otherwise you go mad, you cannot go on. A hole that is, on most days, filled by what I have.

3 bewsherswans

Nowadays I don’t often wonder about Grace, about what she might have been like, how our lives might have unfolded. Like my mother, I can’t spend too much time wondering what if. Those sort of thoughts do your head in. You have to put those things behind you. It’s why we must grieve properly and fully for our losses, so we can return to our lives and live them fully, more alive because of the pain, because of what we have lost. But sometimes, like on Saturday our loss hits us in the face and we are undone by the strength of our feelings; our emotions wash over us again, drowning us.

It’s the suddenness of the experience, the unexpectedness of it that really throws you. No matter how neatly we put away our experiences, how well we package up our pain and loss and tuck them away in the darker recesses of our minds, they are always there and it’s the simplest of things that can set them off – a smell, a song, a sudden trickle of memory. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, nothing at all. It’s one of those things that tell us we’re human after all. People die, and it is right that we miss them and feel something and express it.


Love your family. Cherish them and hold them close. Make the most of what you have, every day of your life. Oh, and your pets too, because they mean the world to us as well and losing them can be too much to bear too. (Images from Private Collection)

Valentine’s Day: famine or feast?

February 15, 2014

Valentine’s Day is a bit like Xmas for some, one of those days we just don’t want to know about, whether we’re single, sad, lonely or in a long term relationship where the romance just ain’t what it used to be. The truth is Valentine’s Day isn’t for all of us. It also has a mixed history.

The original St Valentine is said to have defied the order of Emperor Claudius and married couples so men wouldn’t have to go to war, which greatly inconvenienced the emperor as there was a shortage of soldiers at the time. Keeping the Roman empire going has its expenses. Another version has it that Valentine refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. With both stories he ended up in prison and was executed, leaving a note, signed: Your Valentine.

But before that there was the Feast of Lupercalia, February 13-14, where the ancient Romans had a good old time sacrificing goats, drinking and dancing naked in the hope of increasing their fertility. With the advent of Christianity, as was the way, the pagan festivals were taken over by the Christians, and Pope Gelasuis merged the Feast with St Valentine’s Day, which celebrated the matyrdom of the aforementioned St Valentine, to make the day less about lust and more about love.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that birds paired-bonded in mid-February, a romantic notion that attached itself to February 14. Our good friends Chaucer and Shakespeare did much to grow the romance of Valentine’s Day through their writing.

And then there was the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 where seven mob associates of Al Capone were gunned down during prohibition America.

One can agree that it’s a great day for flower sellers, chocolate makers, card manufacturers and restaurants. But for the rest of us it can be a day of deep disappointment, of feeling let down by your loved one, who just isn’t romantic, or not getting your hints. Like Christmas, it can make you feel worse about your partner, your relationship, your whole life! You’ll feel resentful because you want them to do something but if they don’t do it of their own accord all the flowers and chocolates in the world become utterly meaningless. So, don’t be disappointed – do something yourself, don’t wait for your partner to take the initiative. If you want something romantic to happen on the 14th February, then you do it!

So in my house, this year it’s been a day of success – new job for eldest daughter, passed driving theory for youngest, first day of half term pour moi and all round ‘life’s not too shabby’ for all of us. I decided we’d have a celebratory dinner, something low key, but where we chatted, laughed, enjoyed each other’s company and were happy in our bit of the world. I bought a couple of modest gifts for my household and prepared a lovely, but simple feast. Yes, there were bubbles, yes there was chocolate – but no flowers. And there was a meal to thrill the tastebuds and do easily for your next special occasion. Outside the world stormed and swirled but inside we feasted and then repaired to finish our season of Breaking Bad. We had a lovely evening and I might do the same next year.


Appetizers: Olives, Strawberries, Doritos and tasty chicken bits – oven warmed. Served with long cool glass of Bacardi and Coke. Yes, dear Ozzie mates, not Bundy, because over here it is one of those lesser known brands. Indeed, how can this be????

Main course: steak with onions, bacon and mushroom ‘sauce’, French potatoes and peas.

French potatoes – adjusted from a recipe I read somewhere recently. 400-500 g of Charlotte or New potatoes, lardoons/bacon, chives or spring onion green bits. Boil potatoes until tender. Set aside til cool. Heat large pan, using oil and butter mixed, brown the potatoes, add the lardons and cook through but keep soft, not crispy. Add greenery and serve warm, make sure you spoon the oil and butter liquid over the spuds

Steak: choose a cut you like – rump, sirloin. Saute onions in pan first to give more flavour to the steak – cook on high heat to sear the outside. Turn only once, otherwise tenderness is lost. Keep your eye on the time, especially if you’re going for medium-rare, as we prefer. Serve sauted onions, bacon and mushrooms over the steak.

Desert: tonight it was chocolates, and mint ice-cream.

Ah, me, it was easy, simple, cost effective and very-very lovely.

Be happy, feel the love. Enjoy half term. (Images from Private Collection)

Character is Destiny

February 8, 2014

We like to believe in hard work getting us places, that a bit of talent and perseverance tossed in with perspiration and persistence will get us what we want in life, will make us successful, happy and perhaps rich. But we know that luck also plays her part. But more and more, dear readers, I am coming to the conclusion that our character is more defining that we realize.

As you know, I spend my working life with the teenage beast in all its glorious incarnations – amazing to awful. But what I have noticed over the years is that some kids are destined for success, in whatever field they choose, not because they are the brightest, the cleverest, the hardest working but because they have an excess of self belief, not ego per se, but a willingness to take things on board, to accept responsibility for their own lives, their own way in the world and get up when they get pushed down.

We see this sort of thing everywhere when criminals and other losers in life blame their background, their parents, their poverty and plethora of disadvantages for their lot in life, and make it their excuse for a life of crime and damage, for a life less lived. They spend their lives lost in blame and injustice – if only someone else had… what?

Successful people take responsibility for themselves. They have ambition and drive and they don’t give up and they’re out there, making their dreams come true, working hard every day to get where they want to be. They take the knock backs, dust themselves down and get up and fight on. And on and on. Not just once or twice but repeatedly. Stories of successful people are littered with set-backs and failures: no-one gets an easy ride.


Recently two things have brought this idea about character being destiny home to me. One was reading about the work habits of well-known writers: how, despite their disparate backgrounds and genres, they worked – wrote – every day and not for half and hour but for several hours and up to 5000 words or so. Every single day. Athletes follow similar regimes, training hours every day of the week, hours and hours of practice for miniscule time performing. But to be successful in any field you have to devote the time. Remember Malcolm Galdwell’s 10,000 hours, blogged about here in the past?

The other thing that happened was that a writer visited our school. Not a young self published wunder-kid but an older gentleman who has a best-seller on his hands that’s about to be made into a Hollywood A-list blockbuster. His story is somewhat incredible and except for the fact that publishing is full of incredible stories it would have been too fantastical to believe.

David Albert is the epitome of character being destiny. He and school weren’t that well suited and he left without any seriously useful qualifications. But after a while in the workforce it became apparent he needed to up-skill if he was going to get anywhere, so he went to night-school, (it was hard going back to school and working) got qualified and moved onward and upwards, from the rag-trade to stock-broking across the world. People told him no along the way but he believed in himself and was a worker and a bit of a charmer, as well as a chancer so he pushed on and was highly successful.


His book, Tentacle: Chameleon 2012, is an action thriller centered on the 2012 London Olympics and has an involved plot covering drugs, espionage, politics, murder, terrorism, spanning the major continents, finally converging on London for its climax. No, it’s not my sort of book but so what. It’s a Bond-Bourne mélange and it’s selling big time and getting great reviews, so good on him. But this is the interesting bit for me and I think for you. He wrote his book, almost got published, then got knocked back and then rejected a great many times – yes more fingers and toes than he has. But he didn’t stop. He believed in his book and himself and then luck struck. He met a man out walking his golden retriever, Honey. Well, don’t we all? But David Albert is a chatter-box, he likes meeting people and getting to know them. So he chatted away to this man, the owner of a chocolate brown Labrador, about dogs and David’s book, because it was the thing he was most passionate about and, yes, the man knew a person who could…

So David Albert got published and now he’s a best seller with a big movie deal on his hands and more books to come. And yes, dear reader, as you will have guessed, I am beastly jealous.

Why, I asked my David, didn’t you chat to a man with a Labrador when you walked Zanz in the very same wood? Why didn’t you have a casual conversation about your amazing wife and her amazing books, that would sell like hotcakes and be great movies if only she got the chance?

Simple answers:


Labradors and German Shepherds don’t mix and I don’t push myself forward and share my stories beyond my circle. I don’t have enough front to be David Albert and so I don’t have Hollywood on my doorstep. And, I think I have to face the fact, from the writers’ stories of work habits, that I simply don’t write enough. I don’t work hard enough; I’m not devoted enough to my passion. So, David Albert has the charm and push to get himself noticed. Other writers write every day.

Something in my character can’t push far enough. I have won prizes. I am published. I’ve been writing all my life. But I’m not where I want to be and I fear I never will be. Good on David Albert for making it with his first book, he had the range of skills needed to make a big break-through. And you’ll be able to say you read about him here, on my blog. Remember the title when the movie comes out next year and look out for the dashing older gentleman, with steely grey hair and glasses, smiling gleefully on the red carpet. That’ll be David Albert, who never gave up, who never blamed others for his fate, who got lucky because of his character, and is now giving some back through his talks in schools and helping students make connections too.

Is it too late to be the person you want to be? Can you make the small adjustments to get what you want? I’m hoping I can. Change your character a bit and change your destiny a lot!! (Images from David’s book and Private Collection)

If you want to know more about David Albert and Tentacle: Chameleon 2012 follow these links:

Let’s talk about reading, baby, let’s talk about a rich life, shall we?

February 1, 2014

It’s that time of year in the UK, kiddies starting to panic about their exams, about their GCSE C grades and wanting it, but not actually being prepared to work for it. There are many serious problems in Education, too many and too depressing to consider here, but the daddy of them all of them is Reading.


As an English teacher of extensive and considerable experience it is my considered opinion that the epidemic of non-readers is growing and will strangle the world, immuring us in illiteracy and idiocy. Forget global warming and the increasing divide between rich and poor, the divide between readers and non-readers will define the planet.

To read is to know, to understand, enjoy, think, consider, imagine, explore. To read is to be empowered. At its most basic and fundamental level reading = knowledge. And you must know by know that knowledge = power. Does anyone really think that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the guys from Google and Amazon don’t read, weren’t readers?


It’s time to face the facts. Reading is magic. It does all sorts of tricky and scary things to you. It helps your vocabulary, it helps you understand how language works at a fundamental level – grammar and all that lovely stuff – and at the higher level of images and contradictions and challenges in ideas, and concepts. Reading takes you on a journey, to unreal places, to facts and information, to ideas that challenge and confront; to new worlds, both imagined and real. Reading is the fortress for the lonely, for the outsider, for the lost, for the vulnerable and for the smart. Reading fiction helps you understand the world, it makes you more empathic, more able to understand and read others: it helps you to be more successful in business. Oh, yes, there are studied about this.

Smart people read. They know its power. Dumb people, stupid people would rather have their fingernails pulled out than read a book. Oh, yes, it’s true. Stupid people don’t know how stupid they are, because they don’t read. Believe me, I have met too many now – students and parents who actually don’t know what a book is – other than something they had to interact with at school.


But, more incredibly, there are schools that don’t think reading in class is a sound thing to do. Schools that think silent reading is a waste of time. I know this sounds like insane rubbish but it is true. Reading silently in class (because so many of our students do not read silently or otherwise anywhere else) does not show evidence of progress, means that some are day-dreaming, are not concentrating and simply wasting time.

These are the very schools whose results are on a knife-edge, where students can’t read for meaning or answer anything other than the most fundamental questions about the content. How can they pass an exam worth 60% (soon to be 100%), where half of that mark is based on the ability to read and understand unseen texts? Even the better students aren’t reading a wide and eclectic range of texts, a rich and varied diet of fiction that feeds them and encourages them to go onto A levels and thence to university.

But senior administrators fearful of the might of Ofsted and the madness that mandates evidence for everything cannot abide the quiet, soft, gentle world of silent reading, of a child sitting still, simply reading. Because, you must know by now, if you can’t measure something in English education then it obviously isn’t happening.


Too many young people do not have the habit of reading. It is easy to understand, there are so many distractions, so many other easier more entertaining things to be doing, why sit quietly reading a book that will take hours or days to finish? What’s the point?

Indeed, I wonder too. Why am I beating my brains out to make fools and morons understand that reading matters, that it makes a difference. Fail your exams, have an utterly impoverished life, know nothing, at all ever.

But you know what, you aren’t in the majority. People read all the time, on the trains, on the tube, on buses and planes – they read the papers and books and e-books and you know what, these people are going to work, to jobs that earn money. Reading got them there. Reading enriches their lives and they know it. (Images courtesy Google Images and Private Collection)