“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

Over the summer Arthur made a Cartesian diver with his daddy.

It was part of a science experiment kit he picked up in the shop at the Eden Centre: a bit grown up for him, but irresistible for Leigh. It has sat in Arthur’s learning corner in the kitchen for the past few weeks, and every now and again he has asked for it, and tried to make it work.

The bottle has been too tough for his little hands to squeeze, but over time the tension has eased up and when he picked it up this weekend he was finally able to get the diver to sink deep beneath the surface.

Watching this nifty little science trick in action was pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as watching the wonder in his eyes.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

The joy of travelling with a three year old

The unschooling diaries: week forty

Travelling with kids gets a pretty bad press. It is, patently, harder than travelling used to be pre-parenthood: there is another person’s needs to factor in after all, a person who can’t actually contribute anything to the logistics of the whole process.

But what they might lack in organisational skills those little people make up for in a whole host of other ways.

We spent a few days in Barcelona last week. It is one of my all-time favourite cities, helped along by the fact that one of my bestest friends has lived there with her family for the past seven years. Visiting them feels a lot like going home (in an unashamed global citizen – thank you very much Theresa May – kind of way), and I love that my son is starting to get to love the city too.

The anticipation started before we even got on the plane.


We had woken early, leaving home in the dark soon after six to drive to the airport. Arthur slept all the way, and was still a little disorientated when we got to check-in. He perked up as we headed towards security though, full of questions about what the machines were looking for, and why we had to put liquids in a little plastic bag.

We answered as frankly as we could, and smiled as he bravely stepped up to walk through the scanners and waited for our bags to make their way along the conveyor belt.

On the other side: breakfast, and then the excited scramble to the gate.


Once we were on the plane, Arthur expertly secured his own seat belt, and listened intently as the safety message was relayed. He passed away the journey with a movie on the iPad, interspersed with chat about what we were going to do once we arrived and a little bit of Spanish practise.

He is so used to travelling now that he no longer needs much of our attention, at least not on a short flight. Leigh slept, and I wrote a blog post. And as we came into land we all peered out of the window with anticipation.


Our little holiday itself was fairly uneventful. We hung out with our friends, we enjoyed the cultural acceptance of children that meant we could enjoy a drink and some tapas whilst they played in the street, we noticed things in their barrio that we might previously have taken for granted because Arthur’s observations and questions threw new light on the everyday.


We had one day when we ventured further afield: we were keen to go for a swim, so planned to take the cable car from Montjuic to Barceloneta. We set off up the hill, but when we reached the station we discovered it was closed. Arthur was gutted, so there was no denying him when he spotted the cable car up to the castle even though we’d only intended to get the funicular down to Paral.lel.


It was an unexpectedly awesome trip. Whilst Leigh and I gawped at the views Arthur gave us a running commentary on the mechanics of our transportation. He was fascinated by how it all worked – and whilst I generally prefer not to think too much about that when I’m suspended high above solid ground it was strangely liberating to answer his questions.


We eventually made it to the beach, and though the pool we were aiming for was not hugely accommodating to kids the sea was fresh and clear and alluring. Our friends have pretty much finished their sea swimming for the year, but the water was warm by our standards, and Arthur delighted in playing in the surf. It was just on the edge of safe, but with Leigh and I taking it in turns to shadow him he was able to test his limits and work on his confidence in the water – one of the most crucial strands of our makeshift curriculum.


Back with our friends over dinner, it was lovely to watch Arthur bonding with their daughters. Seven and nine years old, I have known them both since infancy: they were really my first initiation into motherhood, and will always hold a special place in my heart. When we were in Barcelona last summer Arthur was still only two, and whilst they did their best to be kind to him he was not yet playmate material. This year all that had changed.

They played, and chatted, and laughed. Over dinner Arthur began exploring some Spanish words again: I love that he’s interested in the concept of another language, and I’m keen to take advantage of that as much as I can.

Our country might be tightening its borders and distancing our neighbours in Europe with every new utterance, but that is not the future that I want for my son. With this special link we have with Barcelona, and with this wonderful aptitude for travelling that Arthur is revealing, I have a feeling our horizons will only get broader from here on in.


What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.


Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.


Writing Bubble



“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

On the road again…

We got back from a wonderful weekend in Barcelona last night (more on that to follow), and are now en route to London for another whistlestop visit.

My routine is completely shot, and I’m trying desperately to reel in my to do list before it spirals completely out of control.

This one, of course, is taking it all in his stride.

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project. 

Building ideas

The unschooling diaries: week thirty-nine

Arthur is seriously into lego at the moment, and it is so awesome to watch him play.

He had been going through a bit of an in between phase with it all – his duplo was starting to feel a bit big and clumsy, but he didn’t quite have the fine motor skills to get to grips with the smaller lego bricks. He’d been bought a couple of kits as gifts, and loved the idea of the superhero worlds and vehicles he saw on the boxes. He couldn’t make them himself, but he watched enthusiastically whilst we did, and loved playing with the finished product.

I couldn’t help wonder what the point was though: lego was for creating, surely? Not just playing with things someone else had built…

And then suddenly things began to change.

It was sparked off as these things often are by a bit of a reorganisation of his toys. The drawers in his bedroom were full of things he’d grown bored of, so we decided to move the duplo up there. We grouped the bricks by colour, and suddenly they were much more inviting to play with.

The idea was that this might be a way to keep Arthur entertained in the mornings: he has a gro clock, which is set to the rather ambitious time of 7.30am to give me a chance to ease myself into the day. He’s generally pretty good at waiting till then to come and find me, but he’s often up a long time before, pottering and playing in his room. And his environment there really needed some enriching: we didn’t want to risk unsupervised play with the tiny grown-up lego pieces, particularly as Arthur often separates stubbornly tight ones with his teeth, but we thought this might just be a way to give the duplo a new lease of life.

And it’s really worked!


As soon as he’s awake in the mornings Arthur turns on the light and goes to explore the drawers, sitting happily on his rug for an hour or more creating worlds to entertain himself. When the sun comes up on the gro clock he’s quick to come and find me, but when I peer into his room later in the morning the evidence of his play is clear to see.


Last Sunday Leigh and I both went in to see what he’d been up to after breakfast, and Arthur delighted in talking us through his creations, from double-ended fire engines to a ‘sort of Snapping Banshank’, a curious creature that frequently reappears in his stories and drawings.


The early-morning exploration has given him confidence to experiment more with the smaller lego, too. That is stored in a very handy playmat that doubles up as a bag, so can move easily around the house depending on where he wants to play.


He’ll sit in the lounge whilst I’m preparing meals, or in my study whilst I write, and create robots and machines and lasers with the tiny pieces held carefully between determined fingertips.


He is loving the freedom to create exactly what he wants with his bricks, big and small. He often comes back to weapons – guns and blasters, mainly. Leigh and I were nervous when this world of violence first entered his play. We’d done nothing to encourage it, and had actively avoided stories and films with that kind of imagery. Well, until Star Wars at least…

By that time to be fair he had already begun to fashion guns from sticks or even just his fingers, and in the spirit of respect and freedom we are trying to nurture through unschooling we held back our judgement and held our tongues. My research reassured me that not only was this desire to explore the world of violence through play entirely natural, it is arguably essential for his developing brain.


And anyway, it might be that I was loading the guns he created with too much socially constructed significance anyway.

We’ve talked about why they make me feel uncomfortable, about the hurt and damage that they can cause, but that seems a bit irrelevant in the face of Arthur’s pride and delight at the creation of his colourful machines.


Especially because they might not be what they seem at all.

He built a gun the other day, a complicated construction which to me looked a bit like a dragon.


When I asked him about it he said:

“This is my idea gun. I actually made it out of ideas. It’s a gun that shoots ideas out, so you can make something.”

And I’m not going to argue with that.


Seeking inspiration

Having successfully got a lot of my antsiness out of my system last week, I have found myself since embracing the space left in my days by not currently having any writing or editing to work on. I still have milling around in the back of my brain the intention to write some short stories, but before I do I am going to enjoy gathering some inspiration.

I’d forgotten, actually, how pleasant this phase in the whole writing cycle can be.

Instead of focusing inwards on the worlds laying down roots inside my head it is a time to reach out, into the ‘real’ world and the imaginations of others, and build up my bank of ideas. It is a time to listen, and to breathe; to watch, and to consider. It is a time to learn, consciously and hungrily.

Autumn feels a particularly apt time to be doing this. It is as if I am gathering food for the winter ahead, squirrelling away supplies in my den whilst the ground is still soft enough to break through. I am looking forward, too, to the moment when I can light the fire and curl up in the darkness to nourish my creativity with the embers of my explorations, but I have no fixed intentions yet.

Lots of this preparation has involved reading. I’ve read two whole novels this week – more than I’ve managed in the past couple of months, embarrassingly!

The first is one I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months, Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith. It didn’t disappoint: I loved the dystopian premise that was woven through it, found the characters flawed to just the right degree and relished the startlingly accurate depictions of motherhood (even if the context itself was highly unconventional!) It is inspiring on so many levels to read a novel written by one of my blogging friends and to love it as much as I did, and it has made me curious to read more from Mother’s Milk Books, the independent publishers who put it out into the world.

The second novel was one I picked up at the airport in Boston in January and had never found the time to read. How to Start a Fire tells the story of three friends as they grow from college students into middle aged women, weaving a complex web of misdemeanours and mistakes along the way. I think I was initially drawn to it because of the promise of strong female characters: they were brilliantly drawn, and the fractured narrative was compelling. I appreciated too the sensitive exploration of mental health issues, something which I am discovering is a recurrent theme in my own writing.

There is also a non-fiction book that I’ve been dipping into, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which through its particular philosophies is giving me a new lens through which to look at life and the ways we make it mean something.


Outside of books, I have found myself watching the world intently.

Generally I have been tuning into other peoples’ conversations far more than I probably should, guiltily seeking treasure like a magpie that I can take back and hide away in my nest.

I was moved almost to tears by a family I observed on a bus the other day, and found myself scribbling down their narrative – what I’d seen and what I imagined was behind it – at the earliest opportunity.

The experience reminded me of a blog post that has been ringing in my ears since I read it, a scathing analysis of modern Britain by the brilliant Cash Carraway. I have often found myself paralysed by anxiety in recent months fuelled by a complete disbelief at the mess our society seems to be descending into, but this post reminded me that I could use that anxiety, and the anger that inevitably follows.

I’m still not sure how yet, or in fact where any of this will take me. But for now I am savouring the time I have until, from the spoils of all my scavenging, inspiration strikes.


Writing Bubble



“A portrait of my child, once a week, every week, in 2016.”

This one is so utterly bonkers it makes my heart sing.

We had a bit of a mission of a morning on Friday, getting the bus over to gymnastics which involves forty minutes of walking each way as well as the hour-long bus ride itself. Arthur did nap on the bus, but once we’d eventually made it home it was definitely time to chill and watch a movie.

Except, obviously, this was the position he wanted to adopt, just to get a bit of extra gymnastics practice in.

And he’s getting so tall!

But I’m trying not to think too much about that…

Linking up with Jodi at Practising Simplicity for The 52 Project.