December 2013

3:52 pm, 31st December 2013 by Rachel

The year ends in a swamp. It’s very muddy out there. What appears to be a significant fraction of the soil of West Yorkshire is in our hallway stuck to various footwear. Some further significant fraction has been washed off the boys’ clothes over the last few weeks. They don’t simply play outside when there happens to be some mud around; they embrace the mud. Sometimes literally.

The weather affected my life rather more dramatically on the first of two spectacularly bad train journeys in December. That was the day of what they called the “St Jude storm”, most of which I spent sitting on an East Coast train waiting for a trampoline to be removed from some overhead wires near Newark. When I told the tale to the boys afterwards, Peter was very sad on behalf of the children whose trampoline had blown away. (Second disastrous train journey was just a common-or-garden broken train, or as the announcer put it, a train that was “declared a failure”. Compensation for that one was being in the seat behind Ed Miliband and getting to watch him and his team re-planning their day and handling the media).

Gavin had more success travelling to and from his regular appointment with a very large concrete box and some very large experimental equipment.

Back at home the boys did Christmas at school all month, or so it seemed. They sang carols at home and at school, a lot. Peter practised for the Christmas show (in which he was a brown stable animal of somewhat indeterminate species); Matthew was for the first time in years only a spectator at the Christmas show. Then school finally finished and we did Christmas at home with family and friends, and after-Christmas away with more family. We reaped some of the many benefits of living in a city by going to two gloriously unique, very different and entirely under-the-mainstream-radar Christmas theatrical productions: The Narnia Experience at Left Bank Leeds (complete with huge lion puppet) and Hansel and Gretel In Jurassic Hyde Park (aka the Hyde Park Unity Day community pantomime with added bingo. You kind of had to be there. Oh yes you did).

2013 goes down as the year in which Peter learned to swim and to read. (Matthew of course learned an enormous number of things – most notably, perhaps, to read music – but Peter is the one who’s at the age for enormous step-changes). As we get to the end of the year it’s clear that they’re both, basically, happy.

And we’re very aware of how fortunate we are. I hope this blog reflects that. Gavin has had a difficult work year. I’ve spent a lot of the year getting angry with various aspects of the state of the institution we work for, the country and the world. But any serious counting of blessings rapidly loses count. Happy new year, and we’ll see you in 2014.

November 2013

9:14 pm, 4th December 2013 by Rachel

Apologies for the delay. I got back a week ago from the American Academy of Religion conference (in Baltimore – where everything seems to have pictures of crabs or ships on it) and have been running round in small circles to catch up. And also recovering from jetlag.

So I can’t really remember what else happened in November.

The Rugby League world cup happened. We went to Headingley stadium, together with some large proportion of the pupils from the boys’ school, to cheer Papua New Guinea on as they lost very badly to New Zealand. It was impressive to experience the capacity crowd deciding, more or less as one, to throw its weight behind the plucky underdogs. Who still lost, but never mind. Matthew, especially, took great interest in the progress of the competition. I still don’t understand most of the rules.

Gavin went to Bath to plan next year’s Yearly Meeting Gathering and to see the building sites that are going to be (some of) the venues. Nice of them to construct new buildings specially for us. Repeated assurances forthcoming that all will be ready in time.

Sorry, out of energy. December’s update will be better.

October 2013

9:49 pm, 1st November 2013 by Rachel

As I type this on Thursday evening (to be posted to the blog when I’m back at an internet connection) I am on a train from Edinburgh, having spent two days learning about how theology and religious studies is taught north of the border; the boys are in Rugby, having spent several days playing lots of sports and picking up lots of fallen apples with Granny Jane and Grandpa Robin; and Gavin and Copernicus are, I assume, at home. Probably hard at work at their usual evening activities – Gavin doing some of the vast amount of teaching preparation and teaching admin by which his October has been dominated, and Copernicus attempting to stop anyone doing anything other than paying attention to Copernicus.
The boys were definitely ready for their half-term break. They’ve continued to have busy lives with a lot of sporting activity and a lot of birthday parties. And cooking and drawing and making mysterious constructions and taking the cushions off the sofa to bounce on and playing complicated games with their vast number of soft toys.
They’ve been given mental arithmetic tasks to practise at home, so we’ve varied reading practice with maths practice. It’s slightly duller for parents than the reading scheme books. Gavin makes it more interesting by introducing negative numbers. I make it more interesting by introducing songs with vague mathematical references.
We’ve read our way at bedtimes through most of “Swallows and Amazons”. Matthew likes the maps. Peter, I suspect, likes the very detailed child’s-eye view.
Spotted in Peter’s school “writing book” (topic: food, sub-topic: bread): “I am not aloud to eat weet bread bicos I am glootn free but I am aloud to eat some bread. My bread gives me enerjee”.
Other things we learned this month (other than in our day jobs) include:
– Gavin has a drop of (very sterile) machine oil inside his eye.
– Our mystery apple tree, which produced a substantial crop for the first time this year, is called Tom Putt.
– The way to get a mystery apple identified is to take it to an Apple Day, so that an apple specialist can look it up in his big book of apples.
– A very small part of the land occupied by our Meeting House is going to be subject to compulsory purchase for the construction of a trolleybus route. That’s if the anti-trolleybus campaign that currently surrounds us in Headingley is unsuccessful.
– I’m quite good at hollowing out pumpkins, Gavin’s quite good at carving pumpkins, but none of us are much good at thinking of things to cook with pumpkin. Other than toasted pumpkin seeds.

September 2013

6:59 pm, 6th October 2013 by Rachel

Errr sorry about that, is it really 6th October already? September always seems both very long and very fast. We now know the routine. Back to school, Matthew’s birthday, Matthew’s party [see previous blog], couple of weeks to get used to which days are now swimming days and library days and bring-scruffy-clothes-so-you-can-have-lessons-outside days, and then freshers’ week, freshers’ flu, university computer systems fall over when subjected to the same unexpected demands as last year, and we plunge headlong into October. Via large numbers of other children’s birthday parties.

Except that this year we had the added complications of Gavin’s second vitrectomy (look it up if you are not squeamish) and gradual recovery of binocular vision; Gavin’s European conference in Leeds, my European conference in Tuebingen; and one way and another hardly ever seeming to sit down at a meal together as a family.

Many good things happened meanwhile. There’s been an unexpected extension of summer. The conferences and the operation in fact all went well. The boys like their new classes, I think. Matthew likes being in key stage 2 and learning bits of French. Peter has clearly picked up that the work has got harder and more serious, and with his characteristic empathy has found this a bit difficult; he sees that other people get told off for doing the wrong thing, and becomes fearful that this might happen to him. He is, however, now old enough to go to after-school football club (and to have his own football shinpads, which seems to be one of the most exciting aspects).

Peter’s bedtime stories: Having stopped Harry Potter towards the end of book 3 (when Peter declared “I don’t like this any more because everyone is being horrible to each other”) we have been through all the “Humphrey” books by Betty G Birney (life in a primary school from the point of view of a classroom hamster). We then branched out a bit. Just finished “Emil and the Detectives”. Just starting “Swallows and Amazons”.

Matthew’s Horrible Histories party games

7:17 pm, 7th September 2013 by Rachel

It seemed to go pretty well. Attempts to get feedback from Matthew failed – he insisted that he liked “everything” and would want to do “everything” again. In case anyone out there is running a HH party:

– Treasure hunt: Clues are letters with dates on them (and the historical event corresponding to that date, and a picture). Kids search the house to collect the letters, put them in date order (with help), and it spells where the treasure is. We picked some extremely famous dates (1066, 1215 etc) and some silly ones (date the first public toilet was opened, date the song “Happy Birthday To You” was published). And 1966 for the many football fans who were invited. Ending of course with the date Matthew was born, complete with cute baby picture. In retrospect I’d have picked more silly dates. But it worked pretty well. Two teams, two lots of treasure, all have prizes.

– “Gong farming”, outdoor game. Copied from HH Gory Games. Story is about transferring poo from a cesspit to a bucket. The offending substance is represented by jelly (mixture of colours adding up to brown). And it’s a jelly-carrying obstacle course in teams.

– “Who ate all the pies?”. Outdoor game, also nicked from Gory Games. Big picture of Henry VIII with lots of artistic licence, with big hole cut out for mouth. Game is to throw sponges dipped in poster paint into his mouth. If they go in, you win. If they miss, his face gets paint on it, which is if anything more fun. Hint: take away the jelly from the last game before starting this game. Or someone will decide it’s a good idea to throw jelly at Henry. Which is fine, until they also decide it’s a good idea to throw jelly at each other.

– Then we played tig with some sort of “being taken prisoner in the castle” story. And then the chocolate game, for which I didn’t even try to make up a HH story (though with better planning I could have got a vaguely historical hat to wear while eating the chocolate).

– Stupid Deaths game. Variant of wink murder. With children who can’t wink, the murder technique is to stick out your tongue at somebody; and you do it so that everyone except the detective knows from the beginning who the murderer is (they eventually get the idea that it’s not a good idea to stare fixedly at the murderer). And the detective is the Death character from HH, and enters the room for each round with a dance and a chorus of the Stupid Deaths song. Very pleased with this one.

– Mummy game, competition to create mummies by wrapping each other up in very cheap loo roll. Kind of wild and crazy and quite difficult, but if you’re liberal in giving out sweets as random prizes to everyone, it works ok. And degenerates rapidly into a loo-roll war.

– We also had a hide and seek game with an outlaws-and-sheriff theme.

– And we did “horrible cocktails”. Always a winner. This is when food colouring really comes into its own.

August 2013

9:55 pm, 3rd September 2013 by Rachel

Apologies for the delay. The August-September transition has been complex.
We spent a lot of time on trains in August.
We went to Heath Cottage in Studland again. The boys now know that that’s where summer holidays happen. The sun shone, the sea was remarkably warm, the beaches were busy, the buses were open-top double-deckers, the sand got everywhere. We did all the normal things. Peter swam 12 1/2 metres (approx) when taken to a swimming pool with no shallow end. “In at the deep end”, “sink or swim”, etc does in fact work. In certain carefully specified conditions.
The boys spent a lot of time playing outside with the children next door, and several days at playscheme, and generally a very large proportion of their time in motion.
Matthew went to Edinburgh with Grandpa Martin and had a very good time, despite once again failing to see the pandas (who had temporarily cancelled all public engagements).
Peter’s new favourite train-journey entertainment is the game of Consequences, which he calls Coincidences (it makes just about as much sense). I’m surprised, especially as he’s not particularly good at reading or writing yet (it goes slowly). But it’s a low-hassle way of making up vaguely amusing stories.
Was also quite impressed with Peter’s nearly-independent contributions to the book game “bookathletics” (weekly twitter game run by Foyles bookshop; you change titles to fit with a theme): prompted with “100 metres” and “sprint” he came up with “100 Metre Dalmatians” and “The Frog Sprints”. (Our family favourite, which we’re saving for “booksweets” if they ever do that one, is “Harry Potter and the Deathly Marshmallows”. Last train journey Peter made the book, and drew a deathly marshmallow for the cover. I’d be scared).
(Great-)Grandpa Morris died. Both boys came to Dumfries for the funeral/memorial. They now have no surviving great-grandparents. But they will certainly remember their Dumfries great-grandparents.

July 2013

10:05 pm, 31st July 2013 by Rachel

“In July the sun is hot…”

But this year it really was. Until the school holidays started. Of course.

Matthew finished Key Stage 1. Peter finished his reception year. There was the usual stuff – sports day (with the sun cream actually required for a change), end of term reports showing that various semi-arbitrarily defined targets had been met, visits to next year’s classes. Matthew is going to be in Rhine class. He liked the idea of finding out more about the Rhine. Coincidentally, Gavin and I spent a few days in the first week of the school holidays beside the Rhine, on our annual child-free break. It was even hotter and more humid in Cologne than in Leeds, but I think we sat around a lot more than the children did. While marvelling at the scale of both the river and the cathedral.

For old time’s sake I brought back a copy of “Der Grueffelo” [“Die Maus spazierte im Wald umher…”]. It’s an impressive translation, especially given the limited range of possible rhymes for Grueffelo auf Deutsch.

Cricket continues to absorb a lot of energy and interest, especially for Matthew. Tennis balls are a consumable item in our household. Except that occasionally they seem to return en masse from their travels and appear together on the lawn.

Peter likes making things. I have in front of me a spider that he made by colouring a piece of paper black, cutting it into four strips, gluing them together in the middle, making a hole through the middle and threading it on a string. I believe he did the whole thing unaided and unprompted apart from making the holes (which is tricky with a child’s scissors). I’m quite impressed. It’s what he generally does in odd half-hours while Matthew’s reading.


9:25 pm, 2nd July 2013 by Rachel

Quite a lot always seems to happen in June. Summer arrived, more or less; stuff grew in the garden, I was pleased. The garden operates on the Mr Micawber principle, and something always comes up.

Meanwhile Peter turned five. Nine friends, from school and nursery, came and bounced around the house and garden. Fortunately (see above) summer had arrived. We attempted a dragon theme; there were dragon masks and dragon stickers to hunt for and a dragon-tail-chasing game. Matthew helped to keep everyone in order and provided a more-or-less-continuous running commentary. For Peter’s actual birthday he got a new “high-up” bed, with storage space and a desk underneath it – our attempt to (a) stave off the day when he starts to complain about having a small bedroom and (b) have some hope of keeping his bedroom tidy. The bed transition did involve Gavin measuring Peter’s old bed and Peter’s room and establishing that it was technically impossible for the bed to have got into the room. We survived that small glitch in the space-time continuum.

Matthew went away for his first young Quaker weekend, thanks to Quakers in Yorkshire Junior Holidays. He liked the visit to a chocolate factory (in York), the wide games, judging the talent show, and helping with the washing up. He seemed completely unconcerned about spending the weekend away from home with people he (mostly) didn’t know. I suppose this is probably encouraging.

Peter continues to be interested in philosophy:
“Everything has to have edges. Otherwise it would just not be anything”.
“If things didn’t have names that you call them, all the letters in the alphabet would just go ‘…'[gestures silence] “

What I’m Really Thinking: Reading Harry Potter at Bedtime

9:38 pm, 23rd June 2013 by Rachel

They wrapped the Invisibility Cloak around them and headed for Hagrid’s hut…

OK, JK, I like Hagrid as a character, but his dialogue as transcribed fits no regional accent I can think of; every line seems to have a new pronunciation problem. And unfortunately when I started to read these books I gave him the deepest voice I could manage. He also shouts a lot and expresses a great deal of emotion. And occasionally gets drunk, and keeps talking while drunk. All of which is hard work for extended dialogue after a long day. Do you think sometime you could arrange for him to keep quiet for, say, half a book? Just for the benefit of parents who have to read this stuff aloud.

You can put in more Quidditch matches instead if you like. I quite enjoy doing those. Plus it’s OK to read them very fast, so we get through a whole chapter before the kids are overtired. They may or may not have a clue what’s actually going on during the match, but at least they get the result. Quite realistic, I suppose.

While I’m here – it would help if you didn’t end your chapters with a threat of death hanging over an animal. Even a very bizarre fictional one. The five-year-old was entirely oblivious to the deeply scary voice-in-the-pipes in book two, but can’t cope with the Hippogriff plot in book three. And it doesn’t really help when my quick reassuring “spoiler” explanation about how it’s all OK at the end of the book has to involve trying to explain time travel to a half-asleep five-year-old. Yes, I know he’s not the target audience, and nor am I.

I suppose the target audience also doesn’t include people who have to work at keeping a straight face as they read aloud sentences like “Harry fumbled with his hangings” or “Angelina streaked across the pitch”. Look, it’s been a long day. Just as long as Gavin doesn’t overhear my stifled giggle and start laughing as well. At that point we’ve lost it and the kids are going to notice.

I’m enjoying this, I really am. It’s something of a highlight of my day.


10:57 pm, 2nd June 2013 by Rachel

May seemed relatively eventful, with the two bank holiday weekends away. We went to Cousin-Once-Removed-Mariah’s wedding in Kent on the first bank holiday weekend, and stayed overnight in London and saw Cousin Marcus, and besides time with assorted relatives that weekend also involved games of croquet, the consumption of an unfeasible volume of strawberries, a trip on the London Eye and a look at the Diplodocus in the National History Museum. Just to check that it’s still there.

And more recently we were at Yearly Meeting. Matthew was being a Penn Friend; Peter was being a Friendly Fry; I was helping draft the epistle (none of the bits you disliked were my fault, honest; actually I think it’s not bad); Gavin was being pleased that the agenda had worked the way he hoped it would, sessions were not overrunning and there was some genuine “as led” (as opposed to “as compelled”) time at the end. And we were sitting for the last time in the east gallery, before the refurbishment of the large meeting house. Matthew expressed dismay at the impending loss of the galleries. Gavin and I are also quite sad about it. But as a Friend suggested, perhaps the new large meeting house will have an Upper East Side.

Peter also went to Edinburgh to stay with Grandpa Martin for a few days, all by himself. This was a great success. He thinks the swimming pool with water slides was the most exciting bit, narrowly ahead of the castle with a trail/quiz that involved finding nine medieval toilets. (Thank you Horrible Histories).

Matthew and I went to the final day of the Headingley test match, thoroughly enjoyed all of the couple of hours’ play and the presentations, and – we later learned – appeared on the highlights programme surrounded by empty seats (exhibit A: brave/foolish/hardy Yorkshire folk who braved the rain). There can’t be many people who can watch international sport for free, twenty minutes’ walk from their front door. Provided it rains. I think they’d have charged entry if they thought anyone would actually want to be there.

Meanwhile, the weather has in fact occasionally been sunny, and whenever it’s been sunny the boys have been outside running around. Mostly I’ve been outside planting small plants and hoping that a few of them will avoid getting squashed by tennis balls, footballs or feet. The “lawn” has a muddy/bare strip with extra muddy/bare patches for the bowling stump and the wicket. A further excuse not to get the lawnmower out.

And they still play a lot with the boys next door. They seem to have reached the age where, given a sufficient number of children, the main social activity is discussing, at great length, what they are going to play and who is going to take which role. Playing, as such, seems secondary. It has to be said that warfare (historical, magical or intergalactic) is a major feature of many of the games. Yesterday there was a very extended discussion that ended up with the decision to play at the Hundred Years’ War – featuring a Roman emperor (a concession to one participant’s favoured historical period), as well as assorted numbered kings specified by Matthew. I pointed out that that this game might take quite a long time, and hoped they would compress and periodise history enough to allow a lunch break. In the event they quickly lost interest in warfare and started playing football. “With a pig’s bladder because we’re medieval” said Matthew. “What’s a bladder?” “It’s where you keep your wee”. “Eurgh – so are we going get pig’s wee on us if we play football with a pig’s bladder?”