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When your child is different…

A couple of weeks ago, LD#1 went to play in a chess competition in Loughborough.

Both LDs have been playing chess since they were about 5.  Our county junior chess organisation sent some promotional leaflets around about some competitions they were running, and we went along and they’ve played on and off ever since.  Both of them played for the county girls’ Under 11s, and then the U14 teams, although LD#2 has now finally retired, as she would rather go to dance or athletics club in her spare time.

It’s quite a tough thing, playing chess and I think the kids have to be really brave!  Competitions are all day events, they have to play 6 1h games in a day!  And in an average competition, LD#1 would usually win about 3 games… but it still means that 3 out of 6 times, she’d end up losing the game after a whole hour’s tough concentration.  

The very first time we went along to one of the county competitions, LD#1 was 8 and it seemed that the whole place was teeming with hot housed kids from prep schools.  However, the Junior Chess organisation was really encouraging even though LD didn’t do very well, and we just ended up going along to more events, and she ended up improving.

It was also really important to me that LDs had the same opportunities that it seemed the little prep school children had been given, just by virtue of going to a school you had to pay for.  In those days I was only working part time and I felt all the time that there were so many things I couldn’t afford for my children, compared with what other children could have.  

It’s one of those things that time has given me perspective on.   By the time they get to 14, most of the little prep school kids (and LD#2!) have dispersed into hockey or music or whatever other interests their schools got them into at the age of 8.  The ones that are left are the ones that have a genuine interest in and ability for the game, which tends to be a mixture of state and privately educated children.  

The competition in Loughborough was LD’s first ever two day national one – this year she won the girls’ age group competition in Sussex, and then played well enough in the South of England regional final to qualify for the national.  

Here are some pictures of the nice grammar school that the competition was held in:



LD#2 stayed overnight with grandparents, and that left me and LD#1 to have a nice evening in a hotel.

Day 1 was quite successful, as LD won 2 of her 3 games. (Day 2 was another story – I think she was exhausted!) Afterwards, I had a swim in the hotel pool and then we had dinner, and hot chocolate, and we talked.  LD told me about how much she hated her primary school, and how shy she had been, which made me sad.  She got psychologically bullied by this horrible spoilt girl for much of primary school, although I didn’t find out until right at the end of primary school.  She did end up dealing with it in her own way though, which I think made her stronger, but still it’s really upsetting to know that you’ve had to send your child off somewhere they hate every day.

Yesterday, we went to the optician, and remembering how nice our dinner was, I took LD to have coffee in Waterstones afterwards.  Waterstones in Lewes is lovely.  You can sit in the window seat and drink coffee and eat cake, surrounded by books.  I said, “Why don’t you apply for a Saturday job here?  It would be amazing!” LD went all red and looked stressed and said she couldn’t do that because she would have to talk to people.

I said, “Why don’t you like talking to them?  Is it because you don’t like them, or because they make you anxious?”

In some ways, LD is really brave, like playing scary chess games and dealing with bullies.  But she’ll never give herself credit for anything, and she’s terrified that she won’t be good enough for other people.  She’s found a way of getting round her anxiety by being very terse and intellectual with people, especially adults, wearing DMs and a lot of black and thus generally discouraging run of the mill social interaction.  But she does acknowledge that her problem is going to affect her getting a job.  And as a parent, I’d just really like her to be able to enjoy social interaction so that she can make the most of sixth form and University, as I was never able to.

I think there’s always been something different inside her compared to her sister, and to other kids.  My child was always the one who was a bit odd, who would look away from strangers at the age of one if they noticed her, who didn’t speak in nursery school, who would get fixated about things in infant school and be upset if things didn’t arrange themselves the way she thought they should be, who couldn’t let go enough to join in with the other girls’ friendship circles in junior school (not helped by this other girl, who was deliberately excluding her.)  

It’s not, I don’t think, that she is on the autistic spectrum, as she shows a very mature intellectual understanding of other people’s motivations and reactions (and of her own).  She is just crippled by self consciousness and over awareness of the way she appears to others and it’s difficult to know what to do about it.  I tell her – you are the most important person in your life!  All those experiences are there for you to take, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks!  

But nothing is stronger than her self-consciousness.


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Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front… I’ve been trying to write a story, which not only takes time, but brings on all sorts of angst as you move from initial joyous moment of inspiration through dark despair at ever being able to get things down on paper the way you envisaged it.

It doesn’t help when you take a break and read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and feel nothing but hopeless inferiority beside it.

I’ve never read any Tolstoy before, but had been interested to read Ivan Ilyich since seeing it used to illustrate some points about Existentialism (by Thomas E Wartenberg, another good book).

Thomas E Wartenberg makes the point that although most Existentialists were atheists, it was possible to be both religious and Existentialist, and it’s interesting that Tolstoy went through a religious conversion after writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to an odd kind of Christianity, which wasn’t exactly the same as the Christianity of the Orthodox church.

The four stories in the book are presented in chronological order.  The first, Family Happiness, was written in 1859, before War and Peace.  It is a sumptuous examination of an eighteen year old orphan and her infatuation with and marriage to a thirty year old man.  I found it quite astonishing that Tolstoy, never having been an eighteen year old orphan, was able to get so convincingly inside the mind of his character, right down to the awful misconceptions about the world and relationships that I remember having at that age and are so embarrassing to look back on that I don’t think I could even bring myself to talk about them in public.

The second story, Ivan Ilyich, was written just after Tolstoy’s conversion and it’s brilliant, generally considered his best short story.  It stars with the announcement of the death of Ivan Ilyich, then works through his illness and life.  I’d describe it as a bit of a horror story with a three pronged attack: firstly describing our (for the most part) indifference to any random individual’s death, compared with the business of our own living.  Secondly the loneliness of being the one trapped inside a dying body.  And finally, the most terrifying of all, the question of whether we will be content at the end of our lives that we have lived it as we should have done, or whether we will think that we got it all wrong.

The brilliance of the story lies in the unremarkability of the characters – we are invited to think about we could be Ivan, or any of the observers of his death.

The third and fourth stories, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil, are works from 1889.   It’s hard to know what to say about them; they come across as slightly maniacal in the condemnation and terror that the principal characters feel in their obsession with the temptations of women and sex.  They possess a certain intensity, but when placed directly after Ivan Ilyich, I found them a bit disappointing.

They are also not as interesting as talking about the Notting Hill Carnival, which I went to on Sunday :-)

A friend organised it as his birthday jaunt and it was the best day out I’ve had in ages.

No pictures, because it was a very messy sort of a day, with more than a dozen of us trying to get through thick crowds while not trying to lose each other, and the inevitable queuing for toilets after lots of drinking in the park didn’t help.

It did make me think how strange it was that if we had all just walked through the streets, had a bit of a dance, and then left again, it wouldn’t have been such fun!  It was the staying together through thick and thin that made it so memorable (bearing in mind that most of us didn’t know each other, so it was very bonding!).  Although it did remind me a bit of a slasher movie, where every so often someone would go, “Where’s X??  Where’s Y??” and we’d realise that we’d lost a few more of our party.  And then we’d shrug and push on to our destination.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, writ large.


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Bailey’s Prize short-listed author Audrey Magee at the Edinburgh Book Festival 10/08/2014


For anyone who is interested in The Undertaking, which was a very powerful book.

Originally posted on Women's Prize for Fiction Book Reviews:

2014-08-10 18.39.04

Me at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Last night on the 10th August 2014 I went to hear Audrey Magee, author of the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction short-listed book The Undertaking, give a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I recorded the talk and below is my edited transcribed notes on said talk.


Audrey Magee

The talk was chaired by Harry Morgan. He starts by asking Audrey to talk about her book The Undertaking.

My story, The Undertaking, tells the story of Peter Faber an ordinary infantry man on the Russian front. He hates the war and he hates the war so much that he marries a woman he doesn’t know, a complete stranger to him, Katharina Spinnel. He does this because by marrying her he gets home on leave and she receives a pension if he dies.

I use this very simple framework to track…

View original 1,804 more words

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More Barcelona

I had admission to four more musems with my Articket.

On Day 2, we walked past the Arc de Triomf


and the Castle of the Three Dragons


through the park


to the Picasso Museum.


The collection began with some precocious landscapes by the twelve year old artist, through the darkly coloured and sober paintings as prescribed at the Madrid arts school, through his Blue and Rose periods, Harlequin and finally full blown cubism.  It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, with large chronological chunks missing, but it was well worth seeing and the building is absolutely magnificent.

After Picasso, we explored the nearby Gothic quarter, with its shops and narrows streets.


We found the Barcelona Cathedral


with its attendant street market

"Hmm, what shall I choose?"

“Hmm, what shall I choose?”

The next day we went to see MACBA – the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art.  It wasn’t very good!  There was only one other group there, a bunch of Chinese tourists, who were more interested in photographing the amazing building than in looking at the three baffling installations within, so I decided to join them.




Round the corner there was the much better CCCB – Contemporània de Barcelona.


Its current exhibition is called Metamorphosis and draws from many different artists, with the common theme of paintings and sculptures composed of unusual objects, or presented unusually.





The last gallery included was the Tapies Foundation.  I’d not heard of Antoni Tapies (1923 – 2012) before, but apparently he was one of the most famous modern European artists.  I really liked the different textures and 3D effects that he used in his work.


And the building was rather beautiful too


It wasn’t all art and culture though!

There were also Mojitos in street cafes


Cakes at Escriba, watching the pastry chefs hard at work creating their sculptures in the kitchens




Watching the world go by from our perfectly placed apartment on the main Gran Via, just two blocks from the Passeig de Gracia


Barceloneta Beach – I wouldn’t do this again though!  It was a fair trek from the Metro and when we got there, it was crowded and full of hawkers.  It’s also man made, so the sand is quite coarse – LD#2 poked it and said, “You can go to the garden centre and buy sand for your sandpit that’s better than this!”


Street markets along Las Ramblas



The best day though was the one when we went on our first ever escape room adventure at Roomin Escape.  You have to go into a room and search for objects and solve puzzles, which will help you to solve a crime and then get out of the locked room.  It was quite difficult, but the girls came up with some inspired answers.  The people who were running the game were brilliant at explaining it and providing useful clues as and when necessary.  Even LD#1 enjoyed it.  When I asked whether she would like a birthday party at a similar place in London, she said, “Maybe.”

The great thing about the Barcelona Escape room is what good value for money it is.  A similar experience in London would be about 4 times the price.

After that, we went across to the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral conceived by Antoni Gaudi.  We stopped off at Aitor for paella (me), vegetarian tapas (LD#1) and (sigh) burger and chips for LD#2, who doesn’t like rice, mussels or prawns.

I wasn’t sure about the Sagrada Familia when I was planning, to be honest, as it was nearly 40 Euros for the three of us to get in.  I also wasn’t that taken with the outside.  I thought it looked rather over elaborate.



However, it’s the sort of thing you have to visit when in Barcelona, because everyone does.  In real life, from some angles it’s not quite so over complicated.


Also, up close, you can see the amazing detail


Once I got inside, I realised why it was such an attraction.  It’s unlike any other church I’ve ever seen, in terms of scale and detail.



There is so much colour against whiteness.


window1For all that, it didn’t feel much like a church with all the tourists wandering around.  I also find it a very strange concept to pour so much money into a building.  It’s so huge and detailed that I can’t imagine any other religious building comparing with it.  Part of me thinks that all that money spent on one building is a spectacular, secular waste.  However, it’s so truly beautiful and amazing, pulling in so many people, that it just about convinced me of its purpose.


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A couple of weeks ago, LD#1 announced that she didn’t want to go to Barcelona because she doesn’t like hot weather.

I suggested that it might be an idea for her to wear some clothes that weren’t black.  Also to take her hoodie off occasionally.

Having said that, I don’t possess all that many clothes that aren’t black.  I do have one pair of pale jeans, which I donned on the morning of our departure, together with my one white vest top, only to come downstairs, see the puncture in Car’s front wheel and think, “Oh yes, I could change a wheel without getting mud or grease on my clothes.”

Much heaving and hefting, plus a change of clothes later, and I was the one sallying forth into thirty degree heat wearing a pair of black jeans.

Fortunately, we arrived in Barcelona in the evening, when there was a nice cool breeze.  I was too busy going “Wow!! Look at those palm trees!” (a reaction I haven’t had since I visited Devon for the first time as a teenager), to worry about heat.

Taking pictures of the airport!  How sad!

Taking pictures of the airport! How sad!

The next day, it was hot.  I’d planned quite a lot for Day 1 and 2, as there was rain forecast for the weekend.  We took the metro to Espanya, and from there it’s a pretty walk down the Avenue Maria Cristina to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in the Palau Nacional.


The Palau was one of the most remarkable things that I saw on the bus journey in and when we got up close to it, LD#2 and I got really excited and started running around all over the place taking pictures.  (LD#1 was mostly still complaining about it being hot.)




The lovely cooling fountain is called the Magic Fountain and in the evenings, there is a show with coloured lights around it (although we didn’t stay long enough to see it.)

You can get almost from the bottom to the top of the ascent using the escalators provided.  This is the view from the top.


LD#1 won’t have her photo taken any more, but I wondered if she would take a photo of me and LD#2.  LD#2 said, “But you don’t need to do that, you can just take it yourself.  Look.”


and I said “How did you do that when you can’t see the picture you’re taking?”  And then I thought, “Oh yeah, you’re thirteen years old, of course you can do that, no problem.”

Unfortunately, one floor of the museum, the Modern Art floor, was closed, but that still left plenty of Mediaeval, Gothic/Renaissance and Baroque.  History to me has always seemed pretty much relentless episodes of people a) killing each other quickly b) killing each other slowly c) being hungry d) being cold so it was an eye opener to see a more civilised side to it.  Much of the mediaeval art was painstakingly transferred from the site of discovery to new, specially built arches.


I was surprised at how bright the Gothic/Renaissance pictures were, with bright golds and reds very vivid under the bright lights.


LD#2 said, “I thought Gothic was just people wearing black who don’t like taking their hoodies off,” (honestly, she wasn’t referring to LD#1) and I didn’t really know enough about the movement to be very informative.

In the afternoon, we walked through very intense heat to the Miro Foundation up the hill.


We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so this is a picture of an alien that we found outside.


The Miro Foundation was my favourite of the six museums I got as part of the
Articket deal.  Thirty Euros for entry to six museums.  Worth it for the savings, but equally good on a hot day was the fact that it takes you past all the queues :-)

The museum in the Palau was my second favourite, due to its scope, but I enjoyed Miro the most because there was a fifteen minute film telling the story of his life, the methods behind his work, and the passion he and his whole family felt for setting up a foundation where his work and that of others could be shared with the public.  It was beautifully shot, and merged and overlaid photographs of the things that he was depicting with the painted image itself.  This helped me understand the picture of the black wing on the blue sky and the red poppy in the green field.

The LDs remained unimpressed and wanted to know why he couldn’t just paint things to look like the actual objects.

Before I am too hard on them, I have to remember that I thought that way too at their age.  Now I think the complete opposite – what’s the point of making something look exactly like it does in real life?  It made me wonder whether we become more receptive to artistic representations as we get older because we have a much richer bank of images and experiences to draw on.  So if I see an upended wooden crate, on which stands an egg, the whole thing lacquer painted black, it makes me think about functionality, and about people’s attempts to mimic functionality, and natural forms being made to look unnatural, and all sorts of other things, while the LDs are saying they are bored and can we go now?

It has to be said that LD#2 did perk up when we passed through the shop.  I said, “Why is it that you show no interest in the actual work of these artists, but as soon as you see merchandise with these images plastered all over them, it’s – Ooooh! and – Wow!”  LD#2 always did like a shop.

Therefore after we left the museums and went back to Espanya, we visited the Las Arenas shopping centre.




This used to be the bullring, but bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia, and since then, it was converted to a much better use.  The centre has a platform at the top from which you can take in views of the city.

city Inside, even better, it has a promotional statue of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon, next to which your delighted daughter can have her photo taken.


After that, we were totally exhausted and went back to our apartment.  I was however intrigued by the fact that there is no bullfighting in Catalonia, at how organised the city is, with its grids of streets and every-five-minutes-on-the-dot Metro, its manic signposting, and the fact that everyone seems so efficient.  Not how I’d imagined Spain to be at all!  So I did some Googling when we got home and read up about all the different regions of Spain, and how different they are from each other.  The Catalans are the organised, hard working ones.

Just don’t mention independence!


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Back from Barcelona

Just come back from a few days in Barcelona.

It was very inspiring.  I came back with lots of ideas of things I wanted to do and write about.  Although it has to be said that after several hours waiting at the airport and then the flight and train home, all I actually did on getting home was eat takeaway, sort out my photos and then go to sleep.

This morning I feel quite good again, although how I feel after a day back at work remains to be seen.

I will catch up with my blog visiting this evening.  In the meantime, here is a picture of the National Museum of Catalan Art at the Parc de Montjuic.


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Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Part of my meanderings around the village’s social hot spots last night (aka other people’s living rooms) involved dropping in on my buyers to see what was going on with them.  Unfortunately they haven’t had any offers yet, which leaves me with the somewhat stressful prospect of having to go through showing my house all over again.  Especially as my vendor has found somewhere she would like to move to and so would like to get the chain on the road again.

I’m really hoping that my buyers get an offer before the deadline we gave them comes up.

Apart from that minor cloud, I’ve generally been having a good time, as we broke up for the summer holidays last week.  During the holidays, I work half days, which means that I can pack in exercise, baking, reading, writing, cleaning and everything that is just a bit too much during term time.  Oh, also answering surveys in return for Amazon vouchers.  Every so often, I am asked questions about what groceries I have bought.  The survey apologises in advance for the strangeness of some of the questions, explaining that they always pose the same questions, but the products chosen are randomly picked.  This week they were interested in my views on potatoes.  (“Which of these words best describe your emotions as you bought potatoes: Excited/Delighted/Suspicious/Angry/Swindled etc etc”.   I chose “Pleased”.)

It would be nice if life could be permanently part time on full time pay :-)

On the day we broke up, I indulged in a late night reading of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.

This is the story of the daughter of a cloth merchant in Renaissance Florence, fifteen year old Alessandra, who has a talent for both drawing and rebellion.

The book begins with the most fabulous opening chapter, set in a nunnery.  There’s an atmosphere of tense repression that almost squeezes the breath out of you as you read it, culminating in one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever come across in a book and I’m pretty difficult to surprise!

After this begins the story proper.  It’s set against the backdrop of the death of Laurence de Medici (“the Magnificent”) and the subsequent rise of the preacher Savonarola in the ensuing power vacuum.  Political unrest makes life even more uncertain than it normally is for girls of a marriageable age.  Alessandra is an independent and modern heroine (is there any other type?) who has to decide whether she should marry for security, even though this goes against her instincts.  What will become of her artistic talent when there is no “proper” outlet by which a woman can express this?

Dunant does a really good job of capturing the danger of life at the time, caught between two extremes, with the ever present prospect of imprisonment and torture for those finding themselves on the wrong side of authority.  Although I’ve never had any interest in Italian history, I was prompted by the exciting storyline to do a bit of further research.  It seems that Dunant paints Savonarola in a more fundamentalist light than most historians, but I found it interesting to see her playing around with the points of view, and I imagined this view as reflecting the sympathies of Alessandra’s family and their friends.  She also makes a good attempt at using the characters’ actions to explain the way societal currents ran.

What I found less convincing was the character of Alessandra herself – I felt sceptical that a girl with her upbringing would have it in her to reject so many of tenets that others (such as her sister) took for granted, and have them replaced with so many sympathies that would directly translate to twenty-first century ones.  It felt as if the potential of exploring what it was really like for a fifteen year old girl in those times had been missed, and I couldn’t help comparing the way the character was written with, say, Sarah Waters’ characters, who manage to be independent and unconventional, but in a more subtle and convincing way that leaves you with the feeling that you’ve gained an insight into what things were really like for women living at that time.

Other aspects of the book also got me interested in researching the history of the nunnery as an all-female communal space where women did not need men for survival – it seems that this was type of set up indeed a minor phenomenon at a certain point in the past.

I was also really, really moved by the description of the mother-daughter bond and the realities of happened to these bonds in patriarchal societies, where they were not valued.

This was a complex book, meshing personal and political themes in a satisfying manner.  I admired the research that had gone into it, even though I could see that some artistic licence was applied.  This was especially true of the ending, which went bonkers in a way that reminded me of my all night reading of the Da Vinci code many years ago.   Much better written than the Da Vinci code, of course, but addictive in the same way all the same.