SallyP

Retroladytyping …

The inspirational Mr Neate

my-english-teacherBack in the days of ‘O’ levels, my English teacher was a very unusual (for those days) teacher.  He was a teacher of the old school, complete with cap and gown, in an era of freedom of expression, freedom of thought and when conforming meant not conforming i.e. the 1960s.

Mr Neate wore a cap and gown when other teachers were wearing scuffed suede shoes, brown corduroy jackets and jeans.  He was always dressed in a dark suit, with worn through elbows and chalk dust on the lapels.  His shoes were always extremely black, extremely polished and extremely tip-tappy. He swept into assembly every morning like a short, round bat – sleeves flapping, shoes tapping,  as he marched through groups of students who were asserting their individuality by all looking the same – rolled over skirts, luminous socks, the whole 1960s look – and this was in a Grammar school, where our skirts were measured for length weekly by the Senior Mistress.

More important than his appearance, however, is that Mr Neate was a truly inspirational teacher.  He ruled by his short, round presence.  When he entered the classroom, silence reigned.  He rarely shouted.  When he did, it was because a pupil wasn’t venturing an opinion.  Whether we were discussing Keates, Chaucer, Maugham or, my personal love, Coleridge,  Mr Neate really, really loved a good argument.  His only proviso was that opinions had to be backed by evidence.  Not for him any woolly-minded ‘because I think so’ discussions.  We needed evidence; even if in his view, our opinions were misinformed.

I often took issue with him about our favourite poets:  I loved then, and still do, Kubla Khan by Coleridge.  In his view it was a drug-fuelled rambling dirge.  I disagreed, quoting lines such as “Through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea” to back my opinion.  He disagreed, quoting what I thought then was over romantic slush from Wordsworth.  I still think he was wrong.  Kubla Khan is sublime.  He preferred Wordsworth.   I disagreed again,  pointing out that Wordsworth knew Coleridge and joined him in his drug-fuelled ramblings on the Quantock Hills.  I think I win that one.  Who wants daffodils when you can have a cavern leading to a sunless sea?  Not me.

On some topics we did agree.  He loved Chaucer.  I loved Chaucer and still do.  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is always a good read, funny, challenging and bawdy.  What else, apart from a little drug-fuelled rambling, can a reader want.  Suspense?

There’s plenty of that in Shakespeare, but that was where Mr Neate failed.  Those were the days of ‘O’ levels and we were in an academic environment.  Instructions  from the Headmaster meant he had to be seen to teach to the curriculum and Shakespeare was on that curriculum.  He had to provide proof that we had studied it ‘properly’, rather than spending whole lessons arguing having a reasoned debate. Hence, it was taught by reading around the class in turn, then answering past exam questions.  Killed it, stone dead, for me.

That is until I had the good fortune to meet another inspirational teacher, as an adult, and to be able to work with him.  He teaches in the same inspirational way as Mr Neate.  He encourages argument and debate, as long as it is backed by evidence.  I  argue with him, often, just as I did with Mr Neate.  I hope most of my arguments are backed by evidence; I hope they encourage the students to realise that there is no correct opinion in English  literature teaching and learning, as long as it conforms to that prescribed acronym beloved by AQA examiners, PEE – Point, Evidence, Explanation.

Teachers have to conform; they need their jobs.  However, sometimes it’s desirable to stray from the script to encourage creativity, love of literature for its own sake.  Forget the exams (just for a while), forget targets, forget homework, just enjoy words.  My friend, as he now is, does deviate from the script, but he encourages and nourishes a love of words, admiration for the different ways they can be put together to arouse emotions and the fact that English Lit lessons can be fun and, more importantly, they make you think.

He also awoke in me a renewed interest in Shakespeare, so undoing any damage caused unwittingly by ‘O’ level teaching.   That is no bad thing.

Mr Neate was different from the conventional 1960s teacher, who thought they were pushing the boundaries.  He was truly pushing the boundaries, dressing as he wanted, not as  the other  trend-setting teachers did.  He set his own trends, taught in his own way and inspired in me  a love of the written and spoken word, albeit killing Shakespeare through no fault of his own.   My friend does the same, doesn’t always conform to the prescribed structure, but his students enjoy that; they think and are encouraged to express those thoughts, as long as they conform to the  PEE structure, of course.  Not everything can be jettisoned in the days of SATS, 5* GCSEs (including English, of course) and league tables – unfortunately.

Mr Neate ignited my love of all things word related.  My contemporary friend fanned the flames.  Thank you, both of you.

 

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Memories, walking, talking – shared experiences

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Liz, Sally, Jenny and Kathryn and a cast of hundreds walk to remember …

Yesterday, in Bath, a very memorable event took place.  Among all the Georgian, Roman, retail and various tourist activities, hundreds of people assembled on Bath Rec (the home of Bath rugby – another of Bath’s claims to fame) to walk 10K (6 and a bit miles in old money) to achieve three things:  to raise awareness of dementia in all its forms, to remember those affected by this awful illness and to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society.  The Society does valuable work to support people who have dementia, their families and friends, to fund research into causes and, hopefully one wonderful day, to find effective treatments and a cure.

I have taken part in two Memory Walks before this one, which was the inaugural one in Bath.  The Bath Memory Walk  was  extra special because I had the company of my friend, Liz, the other proud Grandma of our shared grandson, also Jenny and Kathryn, walking in memory of their Nan.  We didn’t see too much of them after the start – they are young, so went at a pace which we didn’t attempt to match.  We know our limits and keeping up with two twenty-somethings is probably several steps too far and fast.

I do these Walks, as well as volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society, mostly in memory of my Mum, who died with dementia just over two years ago.  As a family, I know we, being ignorant of what dementia actually means, didn’t  always do the right things by our Mum.  We didn’t know, so how could we?  However, leaving aside any regrets, I am determined to do what little I can now, as well as finding out as much as I can about dementia, its progress and what can be done to help.     I’ve also, again with Liz, done a couple of 10K actual RUNS.  Those hurt and may not be repeated, so onward with the Memory Walks – they are doable and relatively pain-free.

Back in Bath, on a beautiful, sunny Autumn morning, so perfect for walking and an all-round feel-good day, we arrived, did the hug thing, didn’t take part in the crowd warm-up as we were so busy chatting about said shared grandson, looked at the Memory tree and added my leaf,  met up with Jenny and Kathryn,  my nieces, two of my Mum’s grand-daughters, who walking in memory of their Nan, my Mum, and … off we went,  shuffling through the Start line, in the midst of the many walkers with a shared aim – to do something to remember and  support those with experience of dementia.

Before I write any more, I must mention, again, the Memory Tree – at the site of all Memory Walks there is a Memory Tree – a large white leafless twig, with  img_0375many fluttering labels attached.  Walkers and friends are encouraged to write the name of a loved-one,  a memory and a reason why they are walking that day on a blank label, then attach it to the Memory Tree.   It may sound a little twee, but it is a very moving sight.  Some labels  mention a person’s name, some mention more, but all are special.  To see that, on a sunny day, with the label-leaves fluttering memories of so many people is very moving, as is hearing people reading out the thoughts of others.

Returning to the Walk … after the initial shuffling past the Start, participants spread out and followed the guidance of the wonderful volunteer Marshals.  We haven’t been assisted to cross the road for quite a long time, but we were very grateful to  those high-viz ladies and gentlemen who  were great at holding up traffic, directing us across and thanking each and everyone of us.   The drivers must have wondered at the diverse group of white t-shirted people walking in a  disorderly procession with accompanying dogs, toddlers and a couple of people with zimmers – Memory Walks are like that.   Hopefully, those car-bound people  will find out more and maybe even support us next year, as might the slightly bemused shoppers and tourists.

The rest of the Walk went in a sort of haze … Liz and I had lots to talk about:  our Grandson, including the showing of photographs of course, our parents, our philosophy of life  – stuff like that.  We are never short of a word or seven are Liz and me. We  passed some wonderful architecture in the city and  saw some nature in the parks among other  delights which Bath has to offer, including a great many tourists, but we were too involved with chatting and the purpose of our day to take much notice.   All around us were people supporting the same worthwhile and meaningful  cause, all with a tale to tell, some chatting amongst themselves, some quietly walking, most with personal experience of dementia, some directly, some through their loved ones, some through their patients.   Everyone was wearing a placard saying why they were walking, some with photographs, some saying “For everyone with dementia.”  Mine was personal – my Mum, of course.  IMG_0367.JPG I have worn this one for each Memory Walk, although we receive a new one to personalise each year.  Seems wrong to throw it away and start again.   I was really touched that Liz’s sign said “I am walking for Sally’s Mum.”  That was lovely.  Thank you Liz.

As well as Mum, I was thinking of the people I see weekly in our local hospital, who are coping with the multiple and unsettling difficulties of being physically unwell and  in hospital, while having dementia.  Another person who came to mind often was the amazingly brave, stoical and feisty lady I visit, also weekly, at her home.  This lady, as well as living with dementia, is a demon Scrabble player.  The Memory  Walk was for you too,  and I will beat you one day.  My hospital and home visits are each part of the Voluntary Befriending Scheme run by the Alzheimer’s Society – another example of the support they offer, along with Memory Cafes, Singing for the Brain and on-line support through its Talking Point Forum.

I like to think that we were also walking for our shared Grandson and our children, in the hope that, soon,  the shattering effects of dementia and the erosion of personality that it brings are no more.  I wish … and hope.  Meanwhile, we do what we can to just do something, however little, so that those with more knowledge and power can do more of what they already do so well.

At the finish, we collected  our medals and a free bottle of water, which we certainly needed after all that talking walking.   My medal will go in my Mum Box, with photos and other treasures, the label I always wear on these Walks and the other Medals from past Walks.

Afterwards, back to normal everyday Sunday life – we met with our husbands and went to the pub for Sunday lunch.  The day was completed when Liz’s husband, Phil – our un-official photographer, posted some pictures on Facebook.  Thanks for that Phil.  For once, I shan’t delete any unflattering shots.  Liz and I are proud of what we did.  It was ‘just’ a Walk, no more than a long stroll in the park really, but it carries so much meaning and purpose, so is special to us and, I think, everyone who takes part.  There are others throughout the Autumn at other countrywide venues if anyone else is interested in taking part.

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We did it (and will do it again next year)!

 https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/MW16sallypillinger 

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/

https://www.memorywalk.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Legacy

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Near our back door we have a broken pot which contains various gardening implements.  These are proper implements, some dating back to the 1950s, as their cracked handles and rust illustrate.  They have been used, neglected, abandoned in the rain, buried in mud and rescued, but never replaced.  Some may be  vintage; some are just plain old; all are useful and are used – frequently.

We acquired them from our parents, now sadly no longer with us.  (Sad, but not tragic – they all lived into their 80s and 90s).  They were all keen gardeners and we were lucky enough to be given free run of their garages and garden sheds.  We toyed with the idea of a car boot sale but these, and other,  old, damaged, but still useful tools now stored in the garage, had much more than monetary value for us, and still do.  I’m not sure where old ends and vintage begins, but these items are more valuable than they look.

Young and old hands have grasped those handles over many years, dug, tugged, raked and hoed to produce gardens which, we think, were worthy of more than a Chelsea medal.  Those gardens  fed us, entertained us while we ‘helped’ as children, kept us busy and out of mischief and gave our parents a hobby well into their old age, as well as providing a sanctuary  when indoor life became too much to deal with.

Now they are used by us and our siblings in an attempt to create a similar place, with varying degrees of success.  It can safely be said that I am an enthusiastic gardener, but will never have the skills demonstrated by my parents, or in-laws.  However each time I grasp one of those muddy damaged handles and use that rusty trowel, I remember them and their gardens; each time I use that extra large, and very strong, yard broom, I bless them; each time my husband uses his work bench, customised with old lino,  and vice  – old and very, very heavy – which he inherited from his father, he remembers his dad.  I’m not quite sure why he needs a vice; I’ve never seen him use it, but he loves it and insisted on transporting it and the workbench from his dad’s garage to ours, enlisting the help of a neighbour to heave it into position.

There is a rusty sweet tin in our garage,  which used to belong in the Aladdin’s cave of my father-in-law’s garage.  It contains all manner of nails, screws, tacks and even the occasional rusty coin.  I have briefly considered going through it, sorting out what is useful, and replacing the rusty tin, but I can’t; I just can’t, any more than I could replace the several trowels, rakes and forks which we have by the back door.

 

forget me not

 

 

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Dr Who, dementia and an orange

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Those who know me will not be surprised to see the word dementia in the title of this piece, but probably not Dr Who or an orange.  I will attempt to explain:

My  Mum had dementia and my family witnessed her decline from this awful illness at close quarters.  At first we thought it was part of old age:  memory problems affect most of us to some extent.  However, it became clear that this was more than ‘old age’.  Her memory lapses were only part of the illness.  Anyone with experience of dementia, either personally or as a relative, will know that the person as we know them i.e. their personality, what makes them their unique selves, gradually disappears.   This happens while their physical self seems unchanged, for a time at least.    Mum was still Mum on the outside, but parts of her brain were gradually becoming damaged, so she did not seem like Mum.  We didn’t realise what was happening inside her.  We just knew that she was behaving differently and, above all, was frightened and confused. We saw her fear in her eyes, but we couldn’t deal with it.  We were frightened too; the unknown is frightening and our Mum wasn’t behaving as our Mum always had anymore.

The point of this post is to highlight a video made by Christopher Eccleston (hence the Dr Who part of the title) with Aardman Animations,  using an orange to illustrate the physical nature of this awful illness.

Each segment of the brain (orange) gradually becomes damaged until there is nothing left.  The presentation of the illness depends on which part becomes damaged and so affects perception, memory and behaviour.   When the illness becomes apparent to others,   there may be the feeling that, if only the person tries harder, calms down, rests, or just damned well listened to those caring for them, they could ‘sort themselves out’ and stop being ‘difficult.’  That was our experience, but I know, from talking with others since,  that it’s common to think that people with dementia can be reasoned with.  It’s not the illness; it’s them or, even worse, us.  We certainly used to repeat things many times (trying to conceal our sighs)  to Mum in the hope that we could convince her of reality.  You develop a lot of patience when you know someone with dementia, alternating with periods of complete exasperation for Mum and us.

I wish we had realised  that dementia is an irreversible physical illness then, rather than several years too late.  We would all have had a better experience of its effects, Mum most of all, because we wouldn’t have argued with her or tried to convince her of unimportant things like the correct day of the week.  Did it really matter?  Probably not, no, but we felt it did then.  We needed our Mum to be our Mum,  as she always was.  No matter how grown-up and seemingly mature we were, we still needed to be sure of our Mum.  Anything else is frightening.  It was for us; I can’t begin to imagine how it must have been for her.  Terrifying I would think; I fervently hope not, but I fear it was.

I think that the realisation that it is a physical illness, caused by damage to the brain, might help to remove some of the fear and exasperation.  In the same way as you wouldn’t expect an orange to reverse its decay (I was trying to avoid using that word, but I can’t think of a better one to illustrate the permanency of dementia),  it is far better and less stressful to accept the way things are and focus on what is left, so everyone benefits.  Physical illness is, arguably, easier to accept  practically and emotionally,  than an illness which shows itself as a change in behaviour with no visible cause.  That’s why the image of an orange slowing losing its segments is so powerful for me.

One (wonderful) day a cure will be found for dementia.  Until then I think that understanding it as an irreversible progressive physical condition is a huge step towards dealing with its effects.

Understanding and acceptance doesn’t mean giving up though … the Alzheimer’s Society website, link below, is full of information,   resources and coping mechanisms,  as well as offering unconditional understanding and support through its Talking Point forum.

http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/8203-Christopher-Eccleston-stars-Aardman/story-28547938-detail/story.html/

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alchemy

“Alchemy: a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination … with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.”

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To me, baking  is alchemy, not in the sense of transforming base metals into gold, unless I have been misreading the recipe,  but in the sense of taking individual chemicals, combining them and adding  heat   so transforming them into something  unique and desirable.

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My mother had magical powers.

She  knew when I had had a bad day at school: had fallen out with my best friend, been told off by my favourite teacher, or been caught in the rain on the way home and just needed something to make me feel the world wasn’t totally against me.  While I trudged home, I just wanted to feel comforted, loved and warm inside and out.

As I opened the back door, I would  be greeted by a wave of  sweet spiced, vanilla warmth; the kettle would be on, my favourite willow patterned plate would be on the table, almost covered in a crispy edged (I still like it like that) slice of dried fruit speckled, sugar topped cake. On a particularly bad day, she would have left a few spoonsful of uncooked mixture which just had to be removed from the bowl before it was washed.   I can see, smell and almost taste it as I write.  The fire would be lit; drier clothes would be airing.  There was no need to talk or even think about my day.  How did Mum know what I needed before the days of mobile phones?  Magic.

Today, while The Husband was carrying out his festive hunter-gathering mission, I was at a loose end and feeling just a little lonely.   I wondered, did I have the makings of a cake in the cupboard?  Yes.  Apron on, baking tins lined, food mixer rescued from the dusty depths of the cupboard behind the back door.  Now to recreate that magic.

I did it all just as Mum did:  chose my elements, mixed, stirred, beat, whisked, spread, applied heat and waited, while the chemical transformation took place.   The smell was the same, the result appeared to be  the same, but it wasn’t  the same.  I’d even sprinkled edible golden glitter on the top  (Well, it’s nearly Christmas); it was crispy at the edges;  I’d  ‘accidentally’ left a spoonful of mix in the bowl to taste, but something was different. There was a missing element.  I can’t find it in any recipe book or periodic table.

My mother would have had that missing element.  I don’t.  I do, however, have that willow patterned plate.

willow_plate

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