There are so many writers I adore and who have touched my life – Harper Lee, Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Husseini, Alice Walker, Oscar Wilde – all have touched my life in some profound and beautiful way through their writing. So much so that they were used as table names at my wedding, though the high-brow literary cache was somewhat diminished by my husband’s insistence that they be couple with the names of his favourite Colchester United players.
But there was one name I left off the list, perhaps because it wouldn’t fit in with my pretence of being truly intellectual. Yet he is arguable my favourite writer of all time…
I remember having Dahl’s books read to me as a child.
I remember devouring Dahl’s books as soon as I had the ability to read myself, sneaking out of bed to turn on the light and staying up late into the night because I couldn’t bear to go to sleep until I got to the end.
I remember the sheer childish joy of stumbling across my Roald Dahl collection one summer when I was home from university. There they were – dusty, tattered, well worn and waiting to be discovered under my childhood bed. I snuggled under the duvet and gobbled up George’s Marvellous Medicine in one gulp.
Now, finally, I have reached arguably the best stage of parenting as I get to enjoy Roald Dahl’s masterpieces all over again.
We started with The Twits; short, simple to follow and so easy to love – who doesn’t love to imagine what’s caught up in that beard?
Now I’ve passed on my love affair. We’ve cheered on Bruce Bogtrotter, meandered through giant country and learned about the joys and perils of Hugtight Sticky Glue. We’ve marvelled at George’s medicine, clung tight to the stalk of the giant peach, revelled in the misfortunes of those horrid little brats in Mr Wonka’s factory, and are now soaring through space in a great glass elevator.
No one in the world got children like Roald Dahl did, and no one else can bring back the child in an exhausted, over-worked, guilt-ridden working mum of two in quite such a wondrous way.
Reading Roald Dahl truly is a phizz-whizzing experience!
My husband has never done Valentine’s gifts or cards. In 7 years together he has stayed ever true to his convictions that it’s all a consumerist, capitalist mugs-game and that if you really love someone you’ll show it when you want to, not when you’re told to. Although I may, on occasion, have been slightly jealous when people posted of surprises they’d received on Facebook, I have always respected his determination to avoid this ‘holiday’ – if only because it means I also don’t have to bother. There has been only one exception.
Last year I asked my Cupid-hating husband for a present on Valentine’s Day – an afternoon home alone. One day, whilst whiling away the hours of my maternity leave singing about the wild adventures of some worthy farm animal and his ever-cheerful friends, it occurred to me that I had never had so much as an hour alone in our house. We had moved in one week after our son had been born and since that moment, whenever I’d been home so had he. I’d had occasional moments away from him – evening classes, book group, nights out, trips to visit friends – but I’d never so much as sat on the sofa or been to the loo in my own home without company.
As it required no involvement in the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day, my husband agreed and headed off for an afternoon of father-son bonding.
Home alone for the first time in nearly a year, and the first time ever in that house, I revelled in the silence. I lazed on the sofa and read, uninterrupted, for hours. Though at times I missed the burbling and ramblings I’d gotten used to (the baby’s, not my husband’s), it was a chance to be ‘me’ again, the me I’d been before I’d become a mum and lost the right to waste hours of my life on whatever indulgence took my fancy at that moment – be it reading Dostoevsky, watching The OC or simply doing nothing at all! When it came time to go and meet my family, I felt rested, rejuvenated and eager to resume my role as wife and mother, glad of my time in an empty house.
Fast forward over a year and I can barely remember the last time I was home alone. Returning to work largely gave me back that pre-baby identity I’d worried about losing and now that the days of breastfeeding and newborn clinginess are over I can head out to be the ‘old me’ fairly regularly (to be fair to my husband, he holds up his aim to show he cares all year round fairly well by doing more than his fair share of solo evening parenting with barely a grumble). Still, when he suggested taking the boy with him to visit a friend this afternoon, leaving me unexpectedly by myself, a small part of me lit up with selfish glee. I could get ahead with schoolwork, do the ironing that’s been clogging the sofa for two weeks and watch a whole film without worrying about burning or neglecting a child, or sack it all off completely and spend the whole afternoon buried in a book with a constant stream of coffee and biscuits at my side. Bliss!
Except…I can’t quite get used to it. I’ve read, I’ve napped, I’ve watched some trashy TV, but somehow I feel lost.
Maybe it’s because my new glasses haven’t arrived and reading is more tiring than it should be. Maybe it’s because I finished watching Gossip Girl last week and haven’t found a suitably crap America teen drama replacement (suggestions?). Maybe it’s because it’s still a little too cold to sit on the balcony and watch the world go by.
Or maybe it’s because there isn’t an ‘old me’ anymore. And there isn’t a new me. Somewhere along the way the boundaries have blurred and I can’t quite define the mum in me as separate to the non-mum me. Somewhere in the last year I’ve figured it out without ever realising it: returning to work, getting a social life and embracing motherhood have combined without me spotting it.
So I look back to the image of my lazy self, whiling away the hours watching Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice for the fifteenth consecutive time and wonder how the hell I could stand doing so little? And all the time with no one I hitting me in the face with jigsaw pieces or inexplicably piling apples from the fruit bowl in my lap and giggling? How long ago did I buy that ‘Improve your French’ book on which the spine is still unbroken? Probably because I was too hungover to bother opening it most weekends. I think back to those days not with pity, nor regret, nor envy, nor nostalgia, because they’re never coming back, and they’ve never really gone. Like my identity, they’ve subtly woven in with family life. The French book remains untouched; I still wake up hungover on occasions, but these days I get over it pretty bloody quickly or else I’d end up vomiting while changing nappies; and I still have that Pride and Prejudice box set. And, come to think of it, another hour before the boys come back…
I have little faith in parenting books.
Preparing for our son to arrive, our attitude was very much ‘We don’t need books. Let’s go with our instinct!’ A week after the birth, back in hospital because the baby couldn’t feed, I began to doubt my instincts. Maybe if I’d read a book I could have prevented this.
‘Don’t be silly’ my husband said, ever the optimist. ‘It’s just one of those things. We’re doing fine’.
We trundled along through despair to confidence, making very occasional reference to the one baby book we were given: What To Expect: The First Year. The book is very helpfully structured in a question and answer format, the answer to every question invariably being ‘Stop stressing. It’s fine! Here’s how I vaguely recollect it:
Q: I was told to start weaning my baby at 6 months, but my next door neighbour started at 5. Should I run out and by some rusks before the little one wakes up?
A: No. Stop stressing. It’s fine.
Q: My always sleeps on his left hand side. I don’t want to wake him up but I’m worried it might do permanent damage to his left arm and he’ll never grown up to be a concert pianist. Should I move him?
A: No. Stop stressing. It’s fine.
Q: A crazy old lady down the street told me that if you carry your baby down the stairs too much the gentle bumping gives them brain damage. Should I pack up, make my husband quit his job, put on a grey wig and move to a retirement village so we can live in a bungalow and avoid the horrors of the dreaded too-many-stairs syndrome?
A: No, you idiot. Stop stressing. It’s fine!
I mock, but it was occasionally useful.
On the whole we stuck with our ‘Let’s make it up as we go along’ – erm, I mean ‘Let’s go with our instincts’ – parenting approach.
It didn’t stop me occasionally neurotically babbling at my husband ‘So-and-so read 4 books on weaning before they started on solids. We haven’t read any. Do you think that makes us bad parents?’ ‘No’ he replied firmly, jamming a spoonful of apple puree into our son’s wide open greedy gob.
It also didn’t stop me sneaking off to the parenting section of the library when our son inexplicably decided aged 4 months that he no longer needed to sleep. Ever.
After about an hour of simultaneously rocking the buggy and flicking through endless pages of contradictory and often completely impractical advice, I threw Gina Ford and her patronising parenting guru-rivals down in a fit of fury and headed home to find solace in the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That was the end of my foray into parenting books. Not because I think I know everything, nor because I think parenting books have no value. I did take issue with how contradictory the advice was and I would rant about it here, but someone else has already done a much better job: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ava-neyer/i-read-all-the-baby-sleep-advice-books_b_3143253.html
The main reason I gave up on ever reading parenting books, is that I love reading too much. I love it. I’d do it all day if I could. I love reading in bed, and continue to do it even though I know it winds my husband up, because I always answer his questions with a cursory ‘hn’, refusing to tear my eyes away from the page. I don’t even know why I’m writing this now; the baby’s asleep so I could be reading!
If you’re similarly bored of parenting books and would rather indulge your literary demon, here are my top 5 books for mum (or anyone really):
1. ‘How To Be a Woman’ by Caitlin Moran.
I go on about this book all the time and people may be starting to think my admiration for Caitlin Moran is verging on obsession, but I don’t care. This book marked the turning point in my maternity leave, where I finally managed to find the balance between the new ‘mum’ me and the old me. Plus, it’s bloody hilarious!
2. ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’ by Pamela Druckerman
‘Hang on!’ I hear you say. ‘This is a parenting book!’ Exactly what I thought when it was leant to me at the start of my maternity leave, and that is exactly why it sat on my shelf, unread, for about 9 months. As it turns out, this book is fascinating. It holds no advice or suggestions on how to get your child to do XYZ, but is instead an interesting mixture of personal anecdote and well researched analysis of the differences between Anglophile parents and their French counterparts. For those who are interested in the practice and sociology of parenting, but don’t want to be told how to do it, this is a great read.
If you have not read this by now I can only assume you have been hiding under a rock. When I first read it a stranger approached me and said ‘I am so jealous. I wish I could read that again for the first time’. Now I understand. So moving I sobbed for about an hour as read the final chapters
Along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, this is probably my favourite book. I could take my socks off and still probably not have enough appendages to count the number of times I’ve read it. Plus, it gives you a great excuse to dig out the BBC box set and watch 6 hours of the best TV ever made.
I found this for a pound in a bargain bin and was amazed to discover that, despite it being a Booker prize winner, nobody seemed to have heard of it. The style and content are astoundingly original and may not be to everybody’s tastes, but it’s worth a go. Also, no matter crap a day you’ve had parent-wise, you can rest assured you’ll never be as bad a mum as the one in this novel.
On the whole, I would rather scratch out my own eyes than ever agree with anything that emanates from the vicinity of Michael Gove. I was therefore horrified to discover that, when reading his speech from earlier this week, I actually agreed with two key issues he raised:
- Many children don’t read enough
- Many children don’t really understand the basics of grammar
Just as I was picking up the phone to pre-book an appointment at Moorfields Eye Hospital, I continued reading only to discover that, while he’d finally picked up on something relevant he had, as always, completely missed the point.
Like most people, my key issue with Mr Gove (I use the formal name out of respect, not because I am in anyway incorporating a Mr Men analogy into my very serious piece on education) is that he seems to have based the education policy for an entire nation on ‘Well, I liked school and I turned out ok, so everyone should do what I did!’ He, of course, would have articulated it much better than I just have, and probably thrown in some reference to classical mythology just to prove how well educated he is.
Mr Gove believes our education system has fallen prey to a “culture of excuses and low aspirations”. There is no doubt that there are times when this is true: working in a disadvantaged area it can be easy to fall into the trap of just being pleased when certain challenging students manage to turn up and get through a whole school day. That clearly isn’t enough. However, there are issues with certain students which are complex and require more thought than Mr Gove implies.
If I attempt to engage a disaffected student with a chaotic home life and no academic aspirations by sticking them in a private school style blazer and making them read only 19th Century classics, am I really raising their aspirations? Or am I just reinforcing the idea that privately educated people are generally ‘better’ and the only way to get on in the world is to pretend to be more like them?
At the risk of ruining my eyesight forever, let’s return to the key points where Mr Gove and I do have something in common.
*brief pause while I shudder after writing that sentence*
One of his key issues is that of children’s reading. Rather than being concerned about the number of children who don’t read at all, Mr Gove is concerned that “there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer”. He is concerned that children are actively turning away from classics such as George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ in favour of teen fiction like the Twilight series. What Mr Gove seems not to understand is that it is not an either/or choice. The beauty of the advent of modern fiction, like The Twilight Series, is it engages a whole audience who may never before have considered reading for pleasure. They may not be of the same literary calibre, but if children are actively ‘losing themselves’ in a book, surely that can only be a good thing. If a child has discovered a love of reading, don’t ruin it for them by forcing them to read books they don’t like or aren’t yet ready for. Support them and let them discover it in our own time. Just because Mr Gove loved George Eliot as a teenager, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong anyone who doesn’t.
While he seems to dislike any books not written prior to the 19th Century (since when did age alone become a marker of good literature?), Mr Gove does attempt to make himself more culturally relevant by referencing popular children’s author Jacqueline Wilson to support his assertion that levels of grammar among school children are not good enough. Again, I agree. (I may have to take a shower after I finish writing this to wash off the shame!)
As a secondary school teacher, I am seriously concerned about the number of students who arrive in my class unable to properly punctuate even simple sentences. When asked what the purpose of a comma is they invariably reply ‘it’s where you take a breath’. I must therefore assume there is an uncharacteristically large problem with respiratory diseases in my classroom, as commas are thrown around in sentences like confetti at a wedding.
Part of the problem is that there was a clear hiatus in the explicit teaching of grammar, meaning we now have a whole generation of teachers who don’t really know how to teach grammar. I should know – I’m one of them! I know how to use grammar correctly, but explaining its intricacies to other people is something I have to work on constantly. I also face the challenge that, by the time students reach secondary school, many of these bad habits are so ingrained it’s practically impossible to train them out of them.
If I, as a specialist English teacher, struggle to know how best to teach grammar, I can’t imagine how primary school teachers feel. The primary school teacher is the ‘jack of all trades’ of the education field; expected to teach every subject under the sun to children ranging from those who have only recently mastered potty training to those on the cusp of full-blown puberty. Can you really expect them to be able to practically demonstrate the process of photosynthesis one minute and move on to explaining the varying uses of subordinate clauses the next with equal skill and enthusiasm?
So how does our inimitable educational leader plan to tackle the problems of reading and writing? With “a screening check at the age of 6”. Hurray! A test! Another test! Because we all know the best way to fatten a pig is to weigh it more often. Constantly, in fact. Never let the pig off the scales! Stand there, staring at it constantly, telling it to gain more weight by reading out the numbers on the scales and setting it clearly defined targets of how many pounds you want it to gain by tomorrow!
And if it doesn’t work? Well, it’s clearly the fault of all those teachers and teaching unions who don’t care. They, allegedly “have objected to our desire to ensure that children are properly literate at the end of primary school”. Yeah that’s right. We all hate kids! We don’t want them to learn. That’s why we choose to work with them day in, day out, despite being constantly criticised by the government. Because we hate them and want them to fail.
So, it seems that Mr Gove and I don’t actually agree on that much after all. Thank God for that. I thought I was about to lose all sense of who I was!
But before I throw a party in celebration of realising my true political leanings, I have to admit it makes me a bit sad. I wish I did agree with Mr Gove. I genuinely want him to succeed because, despite the massive risk to my ocular function, I really do want education to work for every child and for every child to reach secondary school fully literate.
So, on the off chance that any of you readers know Mr Gove (you never know!) and can convince him to take the opinions of someone who, sadly hasn’t been to Eton, but who has worked with primary school children struggling with literacy and young offenders who had often been excluded from school, has taught in inner London for several years, who is a godmother and aunt to primary school children and pre-schoolers, and now mother to an almost-toddler (well, he might be toddling if he wasn’t so busy sitting on his backside reading Dear Zoo for the 1000th time!) here are a few ideas for fixing the problems we both agree on:
– Reinstate funding for public libraries. You can’t encourage a love of reading in children if they don’t have access to books so they can read.
– Don’t cut funding to children’s centres and similar services. Our local children’s centre recently announced it was cutting a number of vital services because it had lost 20% of its funding. It’s ok for people like me who know about education and already read with their children, but what about parents who didn’t have a good education themselves? Where are their children going to learn good social skills and be read stories? There’s no point waiting until they’re 6 then screening them to discover they don’t even know which way the pages of a book turn. You need to intervene when they are babies and toddlers, get them reading and talking before they even walk through the school gates.
– Stop moaning about teachers’ inability to teach grammar and do something about it. Provide some training (not a boring information pack, actual training) so teachers know how to teach grammar properly and confidently. There will be plenty of people who say you shouldn’t have to provide this, and maybe you shouldn’t, but if you don’t think the teaching’s good enough, stop moaning and do something about it.
– Don’t just assess: intervene. If children are really struggling with reading and writing, they don’t need a standardised test. They need help! This takes time and resources, but it works. Look to charities like Springboard for Children and Reading Recovery. They may not have gone to Eton, and they may not even all have read Middlemarch, but they do know what they’re doing.
– http://www.springboard.org.uk/ @springboard4