Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day off

A day without walking, of cosseting creaking joints and having a look at downtown Funchal. The sun has just set at 6.35, and it's still mild enough for us to be sitting on our balcony. A very pleasant, idle day - but I'm glad we're walking again tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


On top of the world today, far above the clouds, as we walked a fantastic path from Pico do Areeiro (1818m) to Pico Ruivo (1862m). We ate, exhausted after climbing steep rock steps at altitude, on Pico des Torres(1851m). I shall have more to say about today when I have a computer again, but this post is for our great guide, Adriano, and for Paddy - what was your real name? - who took this pic on top of Pico Ruivo. Cheers, chaps!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Levada, Levada

You can't get away from them. All life in Madeira seems to be connected to the levadas and today we walked one, starting at 1100m and ending up in a scarily dark tunnel with X-file torches. You don't get your phone out in these places - too busy watching your feet - so the pic shows the reward at journey's end. Weather remains, well, perfect.

Monday, January 28, 2008


It's true. In Madeira it is as wonderfully balmy as the blurb promised. Think the kind of day in summer when lunch in the garden goes on and on with no apparent reason to go anywhere. Sun, a soft breeze - and the awareness that Scotland is going to feel even grimmer than it did. Ah well - just have to live with it!

Saturday, January 26, 2008


I reckon I'd have blogged about this even if it hadn't been big garden birdwatch day, although because I'm not Bill I can't be knowledgeable or produce a relevant photo. But I was entranced today by a wonderful 3-way conversation among three birds, all by their song the same species, one of which was balanced on our phone line. I was hampered by myopia, floaters and lack of specs, so all I can tell you was that the bird was small, had a slender little beak and had his/her mouth wide open to sing this passionate-sounding and totally wonderful aria of repeated patterns, warbles and intervals, each differing from the last in mood and complexity. And the second bird seemed to echo our bird's song, while a third, more distant, joined in less often with a variant on the subject. Our bird seemed to turn occasionally, as if to project in the direction of each of the other birds. A magical moment, totally useless from the birdwatching point of view but electrifying none the less.

I hope to be seeing some birds (which again, I won't recognise unless I'm tellt) in Madeira, where I'm heading off to in the hope of some sun. At the moment of writing this, the webcams make it look jolly tempting. I may feel moved to moblog ... but then again, I may switch off completely.

*As opposed to birdwatching.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I've just been watching an hour or so of The Falling Man - the story of one photograph taken on 9/11, chosen by one newspaper to represent the horror of the attack on the World Trade Center and then, strangely, disappearing. This image of one man who had jumped from a window high in the tower to avoid the unspeakable horrors of fire and smoke was remarkable in that in this one of many frames taken of his descent he appeared composed and - to quote the film - "almost zen-like". It was replaced in the media by more obviously heroic images of firefighters and rescuers toiling in the wreckage, and America seemed to turn away from the knowledge that people had chosen to jump from the buildings.

I find this very strange. I think there are big bits of the American psyche I don't get, to do with the flag and invincibility and emotional reactions and self-image as a nation. But admitting vulnerability might make a difference in all sorts of ways.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Let's hear it for Twitter. I've used the app for some time - though the badge on my blog used to annoy some of my readers 'cos it took so long to load - but it's only recently I've kept a tab open on my desktop and so added to the fascinating details of my day-to-day existence on a regular basis. Best of all, however, is that I now have some sense of what my offspring are doing - because though they blog, they update small details more often and that's what gives a picture of lives unfolding. Interesting, in a Pepysian sort of way - for you tend to write such things as "and so to bed" at the appropriate moment.

Of course, the downside of all this communication is that you become unreasonably anxious when it's not available. Remember when your friends or family used to go off on a fortnight's holiday and all you got was a postcard after they'd arrived home? How did we survive?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Past catches up...

I was dwelling nostalgically (do you believe me?) on my teaching days this morning, when I happened to listen to Ewan's talk about bebo-boomers and the way teaching methods must change. And there we were: his parents, featuring this time as an example of how things were in The Old Days, when teachers put on their work persona with their lippy (no, not the men) and removed it again when they arrived home. I suppose this is retribution: payback time for all the occasions on which I used the evolving infants McIntosh in anecdotes to illustrate this or that phenomenon in a lesson - or simply because it amused me to do so. Heaven only knows what he'll come up with next.

The nostalgia arose because on my early-morning visit to the pool I had met two of my former pupils, boys from two successive (and very successful) all-male S-grade classes. One had always been an agreeable (if sexually rather precocious) chap, the other a complete pain in the neck. But both in turn hailed me with great friendliness, asking how I was doing and was life agreeing with me, making sure I knew what they were doing with their lives. This is one of the great things about living in the community served by the school you've worked in for years; you see your former pupils as adults who seem to remember you fondly, you see their children growing (very aging, that), and you see what good adults they turn out to be. It's an experience the growing number of "boat people" - teachers who work in Dunoon but won't commit to living here - will never have. Their loss, I'd say.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Extremely interesting

If you didn't watch BBC 2's Extreme Pilgrim last night, then do take the chance to see it before Thursday. I've missed the other two films in which a C of E priest looks at different approaches to spirituality, but this week's showed him retracing the steps of the Desert Fathers and experiencing three weeks of solitude in a hermit's cave in the desert.

I was very taken with Peter Owen Jones, whose seriousness and humour provided a balance and a sensitivity to the people and situations he encountered. I was very struck by the Bedouin with whom he crossed the Egyptian desert - one of whom asked him if he understood depression - and Father Lazarus, who lent him his cave for the three weeks and kept an eye on him from another cave further up the mountain. At the end of the time, I could see - as could Father Lazarus - that Jones had been changed by his experience. I suspect that he may not be the only one.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Changing horses ...

Having this afternoon posted a fairly bland response to a comment on my post about how parents help their offspring, I've done a little digging. It seems that once again we have a situation in which an academic and serious student is being sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Left alone in the Advanced Higher English class, he has now - in the run up to the exam season - been told to get on with it himself while his teacher is deployed in assisting with an S4 class. I'm willing to bet that the S4 class is not of the top echelon, and their folios are probably causing bothers. At this time of year, there's always some teacher who's let it go a bit, or who hasn't ensured the progression of the folios - and there's always some class of miscreants who haven't given a toss for the past year and a half and now realise they'd better have something to show for all this time in education before the big world beckons.

All very familiar - and all very annoying. Clever kids never seem to get the staffing resources doled out to the less able or less compliant. They tend to be in larger classes - because they won't run riot - and to be left on their own more often for the same reason. One teacher for one top-level student is seen as a sinful waste, while a disruptive or otherwise challenging pupil will often spend his days with the undivided attention of a minder who is employed to keep him on track, while another will have a scribe and an invigilator all to himself at every exam.

It is not a luxury to have a teacher to direct your studies and encourage thought and engage in challenging conversations. It is a necessity. And redeploying staff at this time of the session is unfair to the student - and to the teacher.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Well, well, well. Avid readers of my maunderings may recall my diatribe just after Christmas about the bank charges I'd incurred because there hadn't been enough money in my current account to pay my credit card direct debit. At the time, it seemed as if an unstoppable avalanche of charges was accruing despite my switching of funds to deal with the matter, and I was very fed up indeed.

So it seems only right that I should share the modified raptures with which I have been blessed this week, when I received a letter from the Customer Relations Manager of BoS telling me that I was to be refunded the largest of the three charges. This is what he says:
Having reviewed your account, I accept the application of these unarranged overdraft charges will not have a positive effect on the maintenance of your account. As a gesture of goodwill, I am prepared to refund £35.00 in full and final settlement of your complaint.
I love the admission about the effect of bank charges on keeping your account in the black - I had pointed out in a letter that it was hardly likely to assist the truly impecunious to keep penalising them. It is - though I didn't actually say this - a bit like those miserable teachers who dole out punishment exercises to a hapless kid who never finishes his homework. I'm grateful to those who reminded me that this was a good time to complain about bank charges - and exhort anyone else in the same boat to brush up their naggy-letter-writing technique. For it strikes me forcibly that there must be loads of people who lack the gall to hit back in writing and who have to put up with this sort of treatment.

But I must be humble. As the letter goes on to say,
ultimately it is your responsibility to manage your account.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Home and study

This recent line of thought about learning has taken some interesting twists. I suppose most of us take for granted our own peculiarities - until we're brought up against the effect they may have on others. I was intrigued by Katya's comment about home education for her children: how does one educate one's own? I mean, I know I chucked in the odd bit of input when my offspring were doing English, or Latin - but they were pretty young when I stopped interfering with their maths homework. My own parents helped me - I've already mentioned how my father supplemented the lamentable teaching in English that my otherwise admirable school provided, and my mother used to sit poring over passages of Virgil until she had, as she put it, "broken the back" of the nightly translation exercise for me. But how extraordinary that my father (with his 1st in English) should then turn his attention to my struggles with Physics, in order to assist me in understanding, if I remember correctly, the principle of moments.

I hadn't thought about this for years, until Mrs H pointed out that for a family of four to sit in one room every evening with the homework going on at the table while individual tuition took place at various moments between the hours of 6pm and 9pm was, to put it mildly, unusual. My sister and I had masses of homework, and yet I never, in all my school and university career, worked later than 9pm - because my father was sure that any work done past that time wasn't likely to be worth much. (And here I am blogging at midnight - was he right?) After 9pm I would look forward to an hour or so's reading before bed - we had no telly in the house until I had graduated from Uni. So structured, so easy to fall in with - would I have succeeded at all if he'd been less interested? Or would I simply have pursued my own interests and never, ever have passed higher Maths?

It's hard to imagine that happening now, and yet I still believe that if parents don't interfere in their children's education in some way these children have a much harder row to hoe. They have to provide their own motivation, find a silent space away from the telly, resist the temptation of Facebook or Second Life - or use these and other tools creatively in the educational process.

And does anyone still prepare translations of Virgil any more?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Learning patterns

Following on from my previous post, I've been thinking some more about how we learn. First there was an interesting conversation with Mrs Heathbank about the differences in our upbringing, and then a further nudge from Kimberly's little dig about a lapse of memory on my part. Now, it would be easy to dismiss such a lapse as a consequence of advancing years, but in this case it simply wouldn't be true.

I have always had trouble with remembering bare facts. I remember earnestly staring at vocabulary lists, committing them to memory only to have forgotten them by the next morning. Yet I gained such good marks in unseen Latin translation in my second year at Uni that I was given an exemption from this paper in the degree exam. You would think from that that somehow the laboriously learned vocab had stuck, but no. It was the ability to see the words in context and to make the imaginative leap to the meaning of a whole sentence, a whole paragraph, and the added facilty in reaching for an acceptably lucid and idiomatic expression of same that piled on the marks. Obviously using language in context was what I needed - and what makes me an inspired guesser when faced with a torrent of French in a restaurant.

And this is part of what we were discussing today. The difference between the kind of linear thinking that moves methodically through the stages of something to reach a conclusion, and the thinking that, as it were, makes a jump into the new idea and, having grasped its essentials, finds a means to convey it as cogently as possible. The latter is how I have worked in the past, and is still how I explore new ideas. I have a feeling that's why I write poetry rather than prose when it comes to imaginative writing: poetry is the keeper of the space between the words where the truth lies. And when I'm reading rapidly, I know I don't read from right to left, but focus on the middle of each line so that I take in the whole line in a one-er. This is not to say that this is in any way a superior way to acquire learning, but it's the one I'm stuck with.

So it's unlikely that I shall ever be able to remember J and P in a vacuum - though I may manage with Q....

Monday, January 14, 2008

Reflective pupils?

Edubloggers whom I read and admire, like Mr W and Edublogger ipse, often comment on how blogging has tended to make them more reflective practitioners of the art of teaching. Tonight I have been reflecting on how teaching has made me a more reflective student - because from time to time, in my new life, I find myself in statu pupillari in a small mixed-ability group.

I must've been a pretty awful pupil in some respects. In English, especially, I never in the whole of my six years in secondary had a decent English teacher other than my dad - and God alone knows how he found the energy to enthuse me after a day's teaching. (I taught, briefly, in the same department as one of my former teachers and confirmed my suspicions: she was every bit as dire as I had suspected) But I digress. The thing was that when I became bored I used to read a book under the desk (possible in a class of 40) and eat Mintolas. I simply opted out of the whole process - and this was in the top class in a selective school.

Back to being in a mixed-ability group. In some ways it's quite like the teaching involved when pupils are expressing their ideas about a piece of writing and you're being encouraging and trying to guide them towards coherence and actual understanding. I find myself holding back - not interrupting, for the most part, and trying not to ask the question which will destroy the idea newly presented. There is a huge temptation, when you see the "answer", to leap in with a swift summary to demonstrate your own understanding without necessarily taking anyone else with you other than the "teacher" - but because I've been the teacher myself I know this can't be allowed because the rest of the class won't all be there with you. And there's the knowledge of how irritating it is if a pupil interrupts before a teaching point is properly made - or, worse still, interrupts another pupil so that they almost come to blows.

And all this brings me round, in a circuitous sort of way, to reflecting on the problems faced by our pupils in a class, whether mixed-ability or streamed. Unless a pupil is working solo, there must be long periods of boredom, irritation, frustration - and a sense of how much more rapid learning could be taking place if the rest of the class weren't there. I know this doesn't allow for the sparks generated in a really good-going discussion - but how much of my own enjoyment of this as a teacher was because it felt as if I was doing a good job?

I am happy to report, however, that I learned a new word today: pericope. And I felt as if this was a word I have needed to know and use for all of my life. Wonderful.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Golden Compass

At last I've gone to see the movie of Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" - I suppose they called it "The Golden Compass" to be compatible with the titles of the other two books in the trilogy as they in turn become The Big Christmas Movie of the next two years? Whatever you care to call it, we braved the storms and bouncy ferry on Wednesday to visit a decently large and loud cinema to watch it, in the company of about ten others all told. (Morning movies are great)

I enjoyed it enormously. I think that having read the book, I probably enjoyed it more than if I'd come to it cold; the film lacks the depth of the original and I was, I suspect, supplying it. The daemons and the armoured bears were terrific - the bears were individually characterised, so apart from Ian McKellen's glorious voice for Iorek, there was the expression on the face of a particularly tall bear to enjoy as he watched the big fight for leadership of their clan. The big set scenes were impressive, and I enjoyed the realisation of a society in parallel with our own: the horseless carriages propelled by some mysterious (anti-gravity?) power source were a notable example.

Much has been written about the attack on the Church represented by the books and therefore the film. I know what the author has said about his original intent, and that's fair enough - but I have this to say about the film. I reckon that the only people who might feel that the authority represented in the movie was in fact the church would be people who themselves had experienced - and recognised - the church at its most repressive. People who suddenly realised that this was how their church had treated them. Because in the film, the only time I recognised any Christian reference was when the bear retrieved his armour from the Authority's storehouse - and the walls through which he burst had recognisable iconic figures painted on them. It was a fleeting glimpse of something familiar - and you had to be looking. Otherwise, the authority figures wore nothing resembling a cross or other Christian insignia, and dressed in what resembled Ruritarian uniforms of a past age rather than robes. Oh, and the Derek Jacobi figure mentioned heresy - but that's a much less specific term than it was.

I was so taken with all this that I retook my "Find your Daemon" test - and came up with this ocelot. He's got a rather Irish name, but I like him.

Monday, January 07, 2008


A day for returning our places to normality - and how drab and austere they look! As I schlepped down to the pool at 7.40 this morning the town Christmas tree was still lit up; when I returned an hour or so later the council workmen were dismantling it. I spent the morning dismantling my own tree before doing the same to the creche and the Advent wreath in church. And then I sat down to dip into one of my Christmas books, R.S.Thomas:Poetry and Theology by William V. Davis. In the opening chapter, "Poetry in theological crisis", I read this:
Religion has to do ...with vision, revelation, and these are best told of in poetry ... Jesus was a poet ... In another sense, he is God's metaphor ... [And] how shall we attempt to describe or express ultimate reality except through metaphor or symbol? (R.S.T. "A Frame for Poetry")
I have only begun to read the book, but it looks fascinating, in the detailed way that a real devotee of the poems can enjoy. But when I read the above, I felt - just a bit - pleased. Take a look at this poem and see why. And while you're at it, there's a new poem here.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A thought for the season

Epiphany. Camels swaying out of the east, over the stony desert. Starlight behaving unnaturally. Lordly strangers prostrating themselves before a Jewish baby. Revelation - and recognition. Whatever we think of the traditional images, the last is what still strikes us. In our lives, in our relationships, in our knowing.

And recognition can be the most elusive.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Art and fish in the snow

Christmas market
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
We chose the first really wintry weather to make a trip east, where the snow was, by the time I took this pic, falling in large blobs. We were visiting the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh to see the Joan Eardley exhibition, and it was from the garden room below the galleries that I caught this view.

I loved especially the paintings of the Glasgow urchins - the main attraction, as far as I was concerned - but found myself unsettled by the perspective in some of the landscape or - particularly - cityscape paintings. I need an artist to explain to me why someone who has the skills would deliberately skew the perspective on, say, an Italian facade so that it looks like a child's attempt at realism. I know that I could see the point of the increasing abstraction of the paintings of children, so it's probably ignorance on my part. Comments welcome.

Apart from this, we were drowned in slush-puddle by a speeding White Van Man (bastard), enjoyed more Catriona-visiting, and had a great lunch in the newish Loch Fyne Restaurant in New Haven, along the front from Leith. Mr B and I had the set lunch menu (£11) - we chose a pickled herring salad starter and pan-fried dorade on mash with pesto and a side order of veg. Ewan and Morgane had mussels, fish pie and amazing puddings, which they pronounced excellent. The fish was great - I've been missing fish over the Christmas season - and the veg inspired me to try this way with savoy cabbage. I like to feel when I eat out that either this is something I'd be proud to have made myself or that I would never in a month of Sundays create anything as wonderful. Yesterday's meal came into the former category, and I was well content. The service was slowish - it was quite busy, even at 1.30pm - but the surroundings relaxing and cheerful, with just the right level of background noise/music to ensure that we could talk comfortably but not worry if Catriona got fed up. In the event, she was angelic, and much admired (of course).

Now we're back in the grey, wet west and Mr B is cooking tonight. I'm already looking forward to my next trip ...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Alien identity

I've just realised that I've turned into an alien when I post comments on Wordpress blogs! Because I was one of the contributors to Love blooms bright, the Advent blog run by Kimberly, my name now links back to that rather than to blethers. And what's more, I appear in my wordpress/flickr persona of goforchris. Talk about split personality!

As I now seem to be the only blogger still using the name blethers for my blog - the other one has apparently ceased publishing - I'm keen not to have this confusion. If anyone out there has a shortcut to being plain chris/mrs blethers without rendering myself congenitally unable to post on the wordpress blog, I'd be happy to hear from them.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ancient History

When I was but a little tiny girl – see photo for charming visual aid – we didn’t really make much of a deal of Hogmanay. My parents may have stayed up to sip a decorous sherry, but to the best of my knowledge there were no drunken visits from neighbours, and I was well on in years – well, maybe 13 – before I too could see in the New Year. Later, of course, there were the years of feeling some pressure to be out ‘having a good time” – but the reality never proved enticing enough and it wasn’t till I moved to Dunoon that socialising the night away seemed feasible, with children in tow. Later still, of course, there was the dreadful night when my children seemed to tow me home after too much jollity – but we’ll draw a veil over that.

New Year’s Day, however, always seemed to have a special brightness in my childhood memories. For a start, it always seemed to be sunny and cold, so that a walk in the morning to give us an appetite for our delicious dinner seemed positively enticing. I recall one occasion when it was so cold that the pools of revellers’ vomit were frozen on the pavements, and when my father pointed out with some glee the peculiar gait of the very drunk – a sort of Michael Jackson moonwalk, performed in slo-mo with great concentration and ending in disaster when a change in direction was required. Of course, we didn’t expect our mother to come on these morning outings – she cooked, and I? we? had our father to ourselves, which might just lead to an adventure like taking a shortcut through the coal yard by the railway or an exploratious meander (and that’s a quote) through the woods of Dalsholm park.

I was recalling all this last night as we drove home after the kind of relaxed enjoyment that is possible with close friends, good food and champagne with hibiscus flowers at the bottom of the glass (I know – but it was dead festive). We passed a lone youth in a hoody, sitting on a bench near the deserted stadium in the rain. His demeanour suggested despair, and he looked about 15. Who knows what had landed him there: too much drink, drugs, loneliness, being dumped – or simply a house full of noisy adults he couldn’t bear to face. I’m glad I was so strictly brought up – it made life much easier.

Happy New Year, chums!

There are actually two literary references in the above. Usual rules apply.