Category Archives: Education

The Spice Boys

They were tricked. Lured to the Project Room under false pretenses.

And everyone else knew. The emails had suggested the weather or football if you ran into them, and actually had to have a conversation. No slips of tongues permitted. I get very nervous when words like confidential and secret are used. I mean, it’s just asking for accidents to happen, isn’t it?

So, the Spice Boys. Arne and Bjarne. It’s like a double act. They were, ever since that day back in 1889 when they first met. (I always thought they looked old. But that’s the effect of teachers. They need to be.)

So, since 1989 (which seems like a much more realistic date) Norwegian Arne Kruse and Dane Bjarne Thomsen have prodded and polished countless students in the Scandinavian languages at the University of Edinburgh, including the current head of the Scandinavian department. And now they were retiring, and there was to be a celebratory gathering and a handing over of a festschrift put together by their old friends and colleagues.

They knew this. It’s just they thought it was for the other one. They’d contributed, and they had a speech. About the other one.

But they were so touched by the surprise that the speeches suffered a little.

I thought the gathering was surprisingly full of older people until it dawned on me that the ones needing to honour these two men would of necessity be a little older than the young people who had lied to Arne and Bjarne, and tried to keep this a secret for a couple of years. Then it dawned on me that I was also an old people, permitted to be present because the editor of Bjarne’s book actually invited their mother.

Tack!

There was much chat and tea and coffee before. After there was much more chat and cake and something in fancy glasses.

The Spice Boys name is from the 1990s when Arne and Bjarne started their annual mulled wine. Glögg.

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Launching those Kings and Queens

I was standing on the pavement outside the National Library of Scotland yesterday, waiting for Daughter to join me, when someone prodded the back of my arm. I couldn’t work out how she could have snuck up from behind, so turned round and discovered a very yellow Kirkland Ciccone. One could almost have imagined it was Easter. But he was a pleasure to behold.

Almost eight years to the day from when we first met, at a Theresa Breslin event, here we were, for a Theresa Breslin event. She spent lockdown writing about some of Scotland’s many Kings and Queens, and the time had come to launch this gorgeous, historical picture book, with illustrations by Liza Tretyakova.

We started off watching Kirkie having tea and half a strawberry tart. (I mean Daughter and me. Not the whole audience.) Then we launched ourselves at the drinks table for some water. Although it’s hard to event and handle a wineglass at the same time. Said hello to Mr B, who was wearing his latest book creation t-shirt and looking great as ever. It had been too long.

Were informed we were too old for a goodie bag, so settled for saying hello to all the involved publisher people, who we’d not seen for years, either. And there was the wineglass of water, living a precarious life among people who might need to applaud.

As always, Theresa had attracted a large crowd. She began by reading one of the stories in Illustrated Legends of Scotland’s Kings and Queens. It was about Margaret in Dunfermline, and I was grateful to learn how Queensferry, both North and South, came about. This is the thing about Theresa and her many historical tales; you learn a bit of history in a very painless way. Nice story, and history.

After some Q&A it was time for book buying and book signing. Kirkie had already had to steal away to his train home, and Daughter and I crossed the George IV Bridge in search of almost invisible pizza.

It was all fine. But my foot hurt. And I managed to hurl my spectacles all over the pavement. (It seems to be all about glasses and pavements these days…) It’s very hard to see glasses on a dark pavement. Especially without your glasses on. But it all ended well, with no treading of feet on anything.

Is it?

It’s quite funny, actually. Because more recently we have dined with Grand Designs several times a week. (One runs out of things to chat about.) And he’s not bad, Kevin, once you get past the pattern of his constant incredulity over people’s house ideas.

Anyway.

You may have noticed I have a penchant for photographing magazines, like Vi. Here’s another one.

For some time now they’ve publicised an author event with Balsam Karam, whose photo is instantly recognisable, despite me never having read her. She was part of Son’s speed-dating an author event in Edinburgh a few years ago. I can only deduce that Balsam is doing well.

The photo above was the second of her in about six pages of my latest Vi. I also noted the man sitting on the floor reading. Not recognising him, I peered very intently at the very small print and managed to see that he’s Mark Isitt, presenter of the Swedish version of Grand Designs…

Any relation to ‘my’ Isitt? I wondered. Peered even more, and found that yes, David Isitt is his father. I say is, because as I may have mentioned before, Sweden is well organised for finding people, and I believe he is still alive. Which makes me happy. He was one of my lecturers at the English department in Gothenburg, and he was the one we started off with in Brighton, where the teaching took place. One subject was Phonetics, and David was unusual for an Englishman in managing a very passable Gothenburg accent. He said that’s how his children spoke.

And that’s clearly this Mark, who’s almost Kevin. In this article he describes his parents as a bit extreme; always reading.

Nothing wrong with that, I say.

And he has some rather nice bookshelves. Danish, apparently. I now want Danish shelves too.

The 16th RED award

It was the Resident IT Consultant’s birthday, and as a special treat he was commanded out of bed and reminded he was giving me a lift to the RED book award 2022. (But it was a nice drive through the countryside, and I’m sure he didn’t mind.) We even got there before the coaches bearing children, so there was no dodging about in the car park.

I can’t tell you how great it was to be out and going to an event and to almost be back to a little normality! Well, actually, I can and I’m about to.

I swanned in as the seasoned Witch I am, spying Ross MacKenzie having a coffee. So I accosted him, since we’d never met before. He took it reasonably well. Before long we were joined by Manjeet Mann, who’d come all the way from Folkestone. Unfortunately neither Melinda Salisbury or Elle McNicoll were able to be there. Coughs are unfortunate, and I suppose weddings are allowed to happen too. But it was a shame.

The front row was waiting for me, and I had the most welcome aisle seat, where I could enjoy librarian boss Yvonne Manning dancing to ABBA as she entered. As usual the children got to introduce their authors, followed by digital presentations of the shortlisted books, two schools per book. I particularly liked Bowness Academy for Melinda Salisbury, and voted for that. But the others were all good too.

No Provost for me to sit next to, however.

Ross and Manjeet introduced themselves, with Ross rather too tall for the microphone, but Manjeet compensated by being a little shorter. So that worked out fine. This encouraged Yvonne to do a rap, so she jumped up on the stage and demanded meatballs. (On reflection, I believe it was something else. You know, the background beat that goes with rap?) As Yvonne rapped what sounded like Little Red Riding Hood, a boy – let’s call him ‘Rob’ – ran up to the aforementioned microphone and meatballed steadfastly through the whole thing. Apparently it was not pre-arranged. I like the Falkirk young readers who step up so well. The rest of the audience had to stand up every time Yvonne said ‘red’. Which was often.

Coffee came next, and after a while the authors were spirited away to sign books. And a boxing glove. I chatted a bit to Yvonne, and then discovered that not only were my clothes red, as per order, but even my emergency snack was red [grapes]. Totally accidentally.

And did you know, technology is now so advanced that my phone takes better pictures than my special witch camera?? (You even get people waving. But I’ve not quite understood this yet.)

Back to the theatre Yvonne had donned her act two red wig. That’s red as in really red. There was more dancing, before Yvonne led most of the 300 children in a sort of conga line round the whole place. Ross looked baffled as he stood in the doorway. I suspect not all book awards do this. But it does wake you up if you are flagging.

More presentations followed, and then we sang Happy Birthday. Twice. None of them for the Resident IT Consultant, but it does seem to be a popular day to be born. Manjeet and Ross were invited to sit on the temporary red sofas. (They are usually blue, but always sofas.) Questions were asked and answered, with the help of what I had taken to be rolled up socks. Turns out they were mobile microphones…

Prizes for alternative book endings, book cover art and redness of dress were all handed out.

And then it was time for the actual award. And you know the irritating way they pause in Eurovision before reading out the points? Well, Yvonne beat them hands down. She had left the red envelope in her car (!) and ran off to get it, telling the young ones to come up with something to say during the wait. Before one of them told a really bad joke – or it might have been a good one – the elegant looking woman sitting next to me, who was not the Provost, jumped up to assist with this unexpected interval. She was the hander-over of the award, so this made sense.

Yvonne ran back in, gave the envelope to the young announcer who never got to tell her joke, and the RED award went to Elle McNicoll! They had one of those ‘one we made earlier’ videos, where Elle coughed her way through heartfelt thanks, and said how much she loves Falkirk.

And that was mostly it. Anne Ngabia of the African libraries and patchwork quilts had made another one, featuring all sixteen winning books from over the years. ‘Us three photographers’ took more pictures, for you, for RED and for the Falkirk Herald.

The way to the station had not changed too much during the long hiatus of live awards, so I hobbled successfully to my train home, as did Manjeet – not hobbling, and also heading for the other platform. And luckily the Resident IT Consultant had followed instructions and bought himself a birthday cake. The one I had been too busy to bake. But there was no singing. Twice in one day is quite enough.

Oh, how good it felt to have been ‘normal’ again.

Mayhem and muffins

It was mayhem. Daughter and I had driven to Fallin to extricate Barbara Henderson from the school there, where she’s doing literary things with the Primary 5 pupils. That’s good, obviously, but you know, we’d overlooked how impossible it is to move near any school at home time, and especially in a smallish, cramped ex-mining village.

In the end Daughter opted for not running over any children and to sit patiently in the car until most of them had left for home with their grown-ups, and I’d got out and found our visitor, and then she did clever things in that small space and got us out of there again. Barbara was surprised we’d never been to Fallin before, but as I said, there’s never been a reason to.

Once back at Bookwitch Towers, there were muffins waiting for us. It’s about the only thing I trust myself to make these days, and I’d made several ‘flavours’ – but not mushroom – in case of issues. No issues, and ‘more than one’ muffin and coffee later, and much gossip, the Resident IT Consultant drove Barbara to her train home. It seems he hadn’t startled her too much by launching into a rant about zoo pens almost before introductions were made.

It was a real tonic spending time with a real person again. At home. With chat and so much laughter that Daughter who had withdrawn needed to know why we laughed so much. Apart from the horizontal wallpaper, I’m not sure. I forget so fast. Oh yes, there might have been a mention of Jacobite bullets.

When Frank went to Seattle

It’s half term, and Arvon – with Mary Morris – wanted to entertain children needing entertaining, so they brought in Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is just the man for it. He was backlit by the Solway Firth, but we could still see most of him, and the internet cables were only marginally gnawed on by sharks.

Frank read a couple of excerpts from his new book Noah’s Gold, about the dangers of incomplete addresses for the GPS in the school’s minibus taking children on a trip to the Amazon warehouse. You can guess the rest. The book is about being unexpectedly marooned on an island, where there is no need to be horrid to the others when you can be nice and helpful instead.

He loves ‘ending up where you shouldn’t be’, which is why his own day trip to Oslo, allowing him plenty of time to get back to his daughter’s school assembly, didn’t quite go to plan. (The heading is a hint at what happened, but don’t ask me how. Though Frank strikes me as the kind of man to make little mistakes like that.) He has personal experience of being marooned on Muck with his children and a packet of Bourbon biscuits.

Frank’s own start on writing happened in Year 6, when his friend Graham was off sick and he ended up writing a long story in class. His teacher couldn’t have been more surprised by this ‘if he’d laid an egg’ but she read it out and it felt good.

This, in fact, is the solution to the question on how to get secondary school pupils to read. You read to them. People like being read to. You can’t teach pleasure, but you can share it. Frank acquired his own confidence when he was kept back a year – although he didn’t actually notice – and grew very confident during his second Year 6, and this has never left him.

These days he writes in a notebook, and at the end of the day he reads what he’s written aloud, to his mobile phone, which in turn saves it as text before he continues working on it on his computer. The app isn’t very good, it seems, but it only cost 59p.

It is, apparently, easy to write film scripts, which is what Frank did first. But it’s hard to get one made into a film. On the other hand, if you write a book, it’s relatively easy to get it published, because it’s so much cheaper than film making.

The last reading we got was from Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, the lightsaber episode. It’s odd. This must have been at least my third time, but I swear it sounds different every time. The thing to remember, when you are a dog from space, is that you do not eat the children. Nor should you actually make the lightsaber work, even if cutting children’s hair with it is the new face painting.

New Year’s MBE

You know how people talk about feeling old when the policemen start looking young? Or their GP? Or anyone whose business it ought to be to look ‘old.’

I was about to say ‘how about when your friends start getting MBEs and OBEs and that sort of thing?’ But I realised that this has already happened. What I actually – probably – mean is when it’s your child’s peers who achieve this. (I still haven’t quite got over the idea that Daughter’s pal from school flies commercial passenger planes.)

But as I was idly flicking through social media while waiting for 2022 to strike last night, I discovered that Daughter’s mentor from Space School – Sheila Kanani (now Pearson) – has been made an MBE for her services to educating young people about space and physics (those might not be the precise words, but you get the idea). This is a good thing. Both the teaching of STEM subjects and enticing children to take an interest in them, and for the person doing this to be formally rewarded.

Look at my own ‘child’, who was interested and who followed in Sheila’s footsteps. After seeing Sheila in action in Edinburgh a few years ago, I’d like to take similar footsteps too, because she was that much fun and made it all look easy.

Catch that baby!

Old people are said to return to thinking much more of their early days. Well, permit an ancient Bookwitch to look back on her early witch days.

I was fairly pleased about this; him learning to read, and felt that seven was a fine age, and all that. I’d obviously read to him and Daughter before this, at bedtime, and even at other times. I think.

But just as I have told myself that ‘next time round when I’m forty again, I shall do things differently’, as though that was even possible, I am feeling that next time Offspring are babies I will start their literary education much sooner.

A bit like Anne Rooney. She’s blogging on ABBA about her grandchildren. Her children too. She’s clearly someone who has been terribly ambitious and who has been able to carry through with her plans on building bookworms. I kind of envy her. Both for her stamina and her general knowledge of all that is worth bringing to a very young child. You must read her post. Because I will not steal that adorable photo of MB and her baby brother NB reading a pdf of Anne’s next book, where the older sister entertains her minuscule brother to the extent that his little eyes almost pop.

That’s early reading for you!

I did not read to Offspring before they were born. I should have. Although, there was a bath book, which got a lot of use. And board books. I hope I did all right. They can read now, if that helps. Write too.

Monsieur Roscoe On Holiday

I love Jim Field, the UK’s fifth bestselling illustrator. I also like languages and agree with him that children learn fast and that we should start early. So here is his bilingual picture book about Monsieur Roscoe, who is a dog, going on holiday with his goldfish. And everything is in both English and French.

Monsieur Roscoe has a great holiday and the goldfish looks as if he’s enjoying himself too.

But would I have read this aloud to Offspring when they were small? No. I never learned French, and I believe therein lies a small problem. Not with me. But there are many parents who didn’t, or who are anything but confident enough to tackle two languages on the edge of the bed. Many adults are not linguistically minded, and of those who are, French isn’t necessarily the first foreign language, the way it was.

Jim has a French wife and a bilingual daughter.

I am the witch who wrote to her child’s headteacher asking for the child to be excused French and to be allowed to replace it with Swedish, ‘because she will never have any use for French’. While Swedish has been far more useful, it was a mere ten years after that fateful letter that a certain someone moved to Geneva.

So languages are very useful. All of them. But it’s hard to know who is best to teach them. The natural way is best. But we can’t all be natural.

Back to Monsieur Roscoe and his happy goldfish. It’s a lovely book. Obviously it is. Read it for yourself, but think about as to whether you feel you can read it with your little one.

Filed

‘You have an Author file?’ said Daughter. Of course I do. But it’s not as voluminous, or as important, as it once was, back in my more fledgling Bookwitch days.

It rained heavily yesterday. Even the Resident IT Consultant was prepared for a wet day, possibly – horror of horrors – spent indoors. I quickly replanned the expected chores for the day and embraced the project I’d been putting off and putting off; the decluttering of the filing cabinet. I’d got far enough in the thinking about it, to decide that with three of us, two could look and chuck, and the other could ferry and shred.

It mostly worked.

It was a Very Long Day. And Daughter didn’t enjoy it, but she said it felt good that the task had got done.

Unfortunately it killed off Daughter’s beloved shredder, so I now owe her a new one. Luckily there was also a parental shredder, which had to be pressed into service. It survived. As did we. I realise it sounds like you might use it to shred parents.

But there is a certain entertainment value in sharing one’s old school reports and class photos. And Daughter found her brother’s letter to me, asking for a raise in pocket money, absolutely hilarious. I can’t recall if he was successful.

By the end of the day I could barely think, feeling as though I had been through the shredder myself. Luckily there was previously frozen soup for sustenance. And pudding.