Friday, 20 June 2008

Where's the dog gone?

Amazon, in their quest to keep on selling me stuff, have just sent me an email about the Zoombak, which is a GPS system to help you keep tabs on your pets. Amazon say:


Is your pet the adventurous type? Do you often catch them whistling the theme tune to "The Great Escape" whilst trying to look innocent? Are they regularly found exploring the neighbourhood for treats when they should be safe indoors?

It isn't cheap, this bit of kit - £75.00 or thereabouts, and £9.99 a month for the service. My initial, possibly rather judgemental thought was that that amount would buy you a decent amount of dog training, and wouldn't it be better to tackle the problem at source, and end up with a reliable dog, rather than chuck technology at it but still have the same basic problem: a dog that does its own thing rather than yours? Plus, you may know where your dog is with this thing, but knowing isn't the same as catching up with it. They can move faster than you can.








The manufacturers also say you will know where your dog is if it's stolen. This is assuming that any thief is a paid up member of the bozone layer and will not remove that rather noticeable collar the moment they've got the dog.


I then saw that you could track what your pet got up to, and I thought it might be quite fun to know where the cat disappeared to, but the thing is recommended for animals over 7kg and I'm pretty certain cat, who is very small indeed, is nowhere near that.


Rather more creepily, the manufacturers suggest that if you have the car model in your car, you can use it to keep tabs on where your teenager is, which again is assuming a remarkable dopiness on the part of the teenager. My teenager is as likely to get a car as he is to get up voluntarily at 6.00am and greet me with a cheery hug, but it would be the work of seconds for him to decide that the car he and his mates used to go out in would not be the one with the kiddy tracker. And the manufacturers are forgetting that cars can be parked; at stations even.


A quick look at other things Amazon buyers of the Zoombak bought included child tracking systems. It does make me wonder how my mother coped, when my sister and I would pack up a picnic and go off on our bikes for the day. It is stomach churning when you send your child off out for the first time alone (though my last post might lead you to think I did this without a second thought, I didn't.) Son went to school on his own from the age of 7, though I am ashamed to say daughter was not allowed until she was 8 - for no good reason other than that she seemed more vulnerable to me because she was a girl. The first time they both went, I was hanging out of front attic window, until they turned the corner, then shooting across, leaning out of the opposite attic window until they were out of sight, and resisting the temptation to ring school to check they had got there alright.

It would have been tempting to have checked up on their transmitters that first day - no, it would have been impossible not to have done it. I've been sitting here mulling, and I don't know if it's better to let your child out with the bit of kit, if that's the only way you're going to do it, or keep them inside, kitless. Or trust them to get out there on their own and survive.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

A modern, caring parent

Is what I am not. After hours waiting for daughter's broken wrist to be assessed after the plaster came off and x-ray came back clear, "It hurts," she said, as the doctor gently felt her wrist. So, back in plaster for 2 weeks, which is going to be interesting for her dance exams, particularly the one this Saturday. Daughter rather taken aback by having her expressions of pain taken so seriously. Was just a little taken aback when I found myself muttering to her, as we were at last released to go and ransom the car, "Can't you lie next time?"

Spent much of my own childhood announcing firmly and with a perfect lack of truth that "NO, it did not hurt, and YES, I was fine," and then getting back on whatever bolshy pony had got rid of me. Besides battering my physical self, the falls obviously did serious damage to my sympathy bone. Must, must, must work on it. And doctors do know best. THEY DO.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The pot of death

This post is not for the squeamish. Scroll on, scroll on - click down to the post on Jill if rot and decay worry you.

Yesterday I read something, somewhere (could have sworn it was in The Times, but I can't find it now) about masses of food being thrown out because it is after its sell-by date, even stuff like apples. I guess it might be the way I was brought up, but I've always taken sell-by dates on some things to be purely advisory. Chicken, meat and fish I am very nervous of going over the sell by on and generally don't, and I don't visit our sell by horrors on visitors, but isn't when to eat an apple just common sense? If an apple is still firm and unblemished, it's fine to eat. And even if it's started to go squishy, it will still make apple pie. If it's beyond that, the dog will eat it.







My grandmother had a very robust attitude to food safety. "Got to eat a peck of dirt afore you die," she'd say, as my sister and I dropped yet another biscuit on the floor, dusted it down, and ate it. Mum did make sporadic protests (generally if there was a visitor) but otherwise we went on our foul, Medieaval way. We were fervent users of dog pre-wash for the dinner plates. It wasn't until a friend came for tea when I was in the sixth form, and reported back to the common room the next day: "In Jane's house, THEY LET THE DOGS LICK THE PLATES!" that I realised not everyone did this. Blimey, I thought, haven't we all got precious all of a sudden, remembering a time at Junior School when we'd had someone in to talk to us about not eating food that had fallen on the floor, and other vital matters of hygiene. I can remember the sullen silence that fell, and the universal thought waves of "Oh yeah?" that shimmered about the room at that one. The trick was not to let an adult see you do it. We obviously had extremely robust immune systems in 1960s Northamptonshire.

I'm pretty certain I've eaten much, much more than a peck of dirt in my time. Which child who spent their lives at the stables could say, hand on heart, with the perfect ring of truth, "OF COURSE I wash my hands after I've mucked out and before I eat my dinner?"

The dogs aren't allowed to lick the plates now that I have a husband who came from a better class of gutter. It is one of those wifely compromises I felt I had to make. I work though on the principle that what he doesn't see won't hurt him, and the number of tired vegetables and cheese with the mould cut off that he has eaten, and enjoyed, would I think give him pause for thought (slight dribble of concern there - am I giving myself away? But he doesn't generally read this. I think I am safe.)

He is outnumbered anyway, as our children take a certain quiet pride in our cast-iron digestions and the family's insouciant attitude to the sell by date. They have tackled the pot of death: the double cream that was way over the sell by but still smelled fine. And they survived. I feel a glow of maternal satisfaction that, on my son's year 9 French trip, all about him fell puking by the wayside after eating some pretty dubious chicken, but my son? Untouched. Whatever else I have failed in (and I think both children would argue coherently and with passion that I have a lot of deficiencies as a parent) I've given them darn fine immune systems.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The peculiarities of child growth in Chatton

In life, ponies get outgrown. It was a great sadness in my life when I could no longer cram myself onto Dini, the Welsh pony I learned to ride on. In the pony book world, ponies get outgrown too: supply yourself with a large box of tissues and read Alyssa Brugman's latest, Greener Pastures.

I don't know why it's never dawned on me before, but Ruby Ferguson's Jill goes from the age of around 11 to 17 in the books, and she still seems to fit Black Boy and Rapide just as well in Pony Jobs for Jill as she did in Jill's Gymkhana. Here is a picture of Jill from Jill's Gymkhana:



and here she is in Rosettes for Jill, at least four years older, but still on Black Boy. The hair style's changed, and she's now got a figure, but she's no taller. Her legs are just where they always were on the pony.



Caney does do some very alarming things with scale in the books. When the characters are not on ponies, they shrink. The most alarming example is in Jill's Gymkhana, where Jill and Ann, supposed at the time to be at least eleven, look to be about the size of seven-year olds:



Jill's grown quite a bit taller in A Stable for Jill:



But once she's on a pony, she's a different girl. Maybe there's some of Alice's Drink Me bottles lurking somewhere? Jill's grown substantially in a few short days in the following picture from A Stable for Jill. Perhaps it's the influence of the pony that does it. Imagine the fun you could have with all those growth charts in your children's child health records. Have the child measured on the ground, and then straightaway on a pony. I shudder to think what the health visitor would have to say about all that wild zig-zagging on the graph.



Oh dear. Poor health visitor. Here is Jill in Pony Jobs for Jill, definitely grown up, but still fitting that pony.



Then I thought well, Ann does out grow Seraphine — or at least I presume so: she's just described as being handed down to Ann's little sister. I'm sure someone, somewhere, in the books, must be described as outgrowing a pony. Mustn't they?

I do wish, though that I had Jill's ability to grow or shrink depending on whether I was on the ground or on a horse. I am middle aged and nervous now, and I feel safer when I'm closer to the ground.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

More on age branding

My last post on this has had a bit of a history: I finished the first version in a spitty rage; slept on it, and thought I had overdone it, so raked the post over and re-wrote it. For the confused, my position is this:

I don't see anything wrong in age-branding, as long as it's discreet. The scheme as proposed by publishers at the moment isn't.

My friend and colleague Catherine, over at Juxtabook has written what I think is one of the best posts I have read on this subject. This is Catherine on her year 7 (ie 11 year old) class:
They were so out of the reading loop that all the clues that a middle class kid (or parent) would use to tell them about the subject matter, the reading ability, the age range anticipated, were not there in their minds. They might pick a book because they liked the picture of a an RAF plane on the front but they couldn't tell you whether they were expecting a story, history, biography, or a fighter pilot's instruction book. They had no idea whether the content was likely to be akin to Andy McNab or Thomas the Tank Engine.

So who are books for? No doubt most of those who have signed petition would say everybody. I'd beg to differ. I'd say they were for middle class kids and their parents who use the libraries, who go to book shops, who know you can ask for help, who have the vocabulary to attempt the questions needed to find a right book.
I've worked in a library, and used to read with children at our local primary school when my children were there. One of the children I used to hear read came from a gipsy family. He and I had horses in common, and so we used to find anything on horses, and read that, as best he could. As Catherine said, he had no idea what clues to use to pick out a book. Where was he going to get them from? He was the first member of his family to read at all. Neither of his parents did. His reading record used to come back marked with crosses, but his parents were incredibly proud of the fact that he could actually read (and his parents still heard him read every night, and made their mark on his book. There were many "better" families whose children's records went unmarked for entire terms).
That family is an extreme example, but at least they were on the child's side. I've come across parents who didn't see why the child should read: they didn't. I've met parents who've come into the library because their child insisted, but who laughed at them for it. If you haven't met it, it's easy to underestimate just how book averse some families are. I've been into more homes than I care to think about where there is not one, single, solitary book on display. There are some families who are so completely, as Catherine says, out of the loop, that it is difficult to see how they can be reached. If labelling helps them to take even the smallest step towards helping their child see different worlds through books, I'm all for it.

If publishers are taking this step because they genuinely believe that it will help the book averse, then all well and good. I have my doubts though. The statistic that 40% of those questioned would be more likely to buy books if they were labelled I think is the crucial one. It's about sales. It's not about getting out there to the families who are physically uncomfortable when they come into a library, whose whole body language is saying "Get me out." Spreading the love of reading is about intervention by people; by people like Catherine who went out and worked and got those children onto the first steps of loving books:

I started looking for boy's books. I even found some, labelled as such, helping boy readers. They pounced. They read them, well a bit, and went back to look for similar things the next time we went in. Their diet didn't vary much, though we did manage the Lancashire reading challenge (certificates for reading books from 5 different genres) as a class, and some of them got certificates. But I had to get them into the library and up to the shelves to start the process.

Catherine's class were lucky to have her, and if (removable) labelling helps people like her, is it such a terrible thing?

Dog in a stream

You can tell the weather has perked up recently. The dog has taken to plunging into the stream again.


As far as we know, this is the first water she ever went into. When we got her, at the age of 15 months, she hadn't been walked for 6 months. We know she spent most of her early life in a yard. She first came across this stream when walking with my friend Dawn and her dogs. Truffle, a flatcoat, adores water, and plunged in. Holly quavered and quivered on the edge, torn between joining her friend and remaining safe on the bank. The decision was taken for her when she fell in.

She loved it, and has since developed a connoisseur's taste for the stagnant and stinking. It's lovely to see her enjoying labrador things, though as she doesn't have the labrador's double coat, we have to watch she doesn't get too cold. She is a puppy farm dog. The lack of coat is a big fault in the breed. I'd love to know how many of her litter mates had the same fault. And indeed how many of the ones that came after her did.

Favourite Authors

I've been tagged by Nigel, of Bagot Books, over at the Ibooknet blog (of which more later). I gather this is a meme. Someone did once kindly explain to me what exactly a meme was. My Oxford Handy Dictionary is silent on this point, and I can't remember what I was told, so will have a hunt round the Internet later and come back and explain.

Anyway: here is the stuff:

1. Who’s your all-time favourite author, and why?
Oh goodness. I always think if ever I am lined up against a wall and threatened with death unless I can come up with a favourite author, I will be splotted bloodily against the wall because I can never answer this.

Arrghhh. Erghhhh. Who? So often it depends on what frame of mind I'm in: if I have the flu and am incapable, it's Dick Francis. If life is Too Much and I need amusing, it's P G Wodehouse. I guess for the sheer amount of times I've read them, it would be a toss up between Jane Austen and C S Lewis. I first read C S Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe at the age of 7, and still remember the joy of discovering there were still a whole 6 other books in the series to read. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is I think, an extraordinarily hopeful book, with its redemption of Eustace. It is the one book I can read when all else fails me, even the Psalms, which are my final refuge when life is appalling.

Jane Austen I found a bit later: I can't remember exactly when, but I suspect late teens, and my first read was my mother's copy of Pride and Predjudice. I still re-read it pretty often, but my allegiance has now shifted to Persuasion. (In passing, one of the recent TV adaptations made me spit with rage with its inaccuracies. Anne would never, never, have run pell-mell through the streets of Bath). Persuasion I love because I love Anne.

There. Still haven't come up with one. The wall beckons.

2. Who was your first favourite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favourites?
Enid Blyton, without a shadow of a doubt. I first read a Famous Five, read the series, read the Secret Seven, The Land of Far Beyond, St Clare's, Mallory Towers... the only one I disliked was Noddy. I adored the Nature Lover's Book, soon to be re-published by Evans. Every year I would look out for the things she mentioned (it took me years to find some of them.) I remember hearing my mother, an Infant teacher, answering someone who took her to task for allowing me to read Enid Blyton. This was in the 1960s, when librarians and educators started to proscribe. "I let her get on with it," my mother said. "She'll get them out of her system, and that will be that."






How right she was. Can I re-read Enid Blyton? No, not at all. There are a lot of children's authors I re-read, but EB I can't. She is a wonderful story teller, but now I read her with an adult, jaundiced and critical eye and I cannot get beyond the first few pages.


3. Who’s the most recent addition to your list of favourite authors, and why?
That would be Alyssa Brugman, who is an Australian children's author. She writes pony books, amongst others, and takes what can be a very formulaic genre and subverts it. I've just read her Hot Potato, which tackles the girl finds rebel horse and reforms it theme. Other stuff I've read recently and loved are Jessie Haas' picture books - she achieves so much with such economy, and Ian Sansom's The Case of the Missing Books. His dialogue is amazing, and his characters wonderful, and through it all, his hero Israel wanders, completely phased by the strong and eccentric community he has ended up in.

I'm also reading a selection of John Betjeman, and was very struck by the awfulness of his experience in Original Sin on the Sussex Coast.

4. If someone asked you who your favourite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you’d add on a moment of further reflection?
Jane Austen, C S Lewis, William Corbin, Alyssa Brugman, Jessie Haas, Josephine Pullein-Thompson, Anthony Trollope - do poets count? If so, T S Eliot, Coleridge, Keats, Andrew Marvell - Marjorie Allingham, P G Wodehouse, Katie Fforde, Dorothy Sayers, Gladys Mitchell, Ian Rankin, Nancy Mitford. On reflection: Ruby Ferguson, Veronica Westlake, Monica Edwards, Caroline Akrill, Barbara Willard, K M Peyton, Evelyn Smith, Bill Bryson.
I'm supposed to tag someone now: but I'll only do it if you want to be tagged. Let me know if you do.



Monday, 9 June 2008

Should books be age-branded?

Firstly, sorry to those who commented on this earlier: I left it half finished before I went to meet daughter from the train, and thought I'd saved rather than published. Here is the full thing.

There has been a lot of kerfuffle in the press and generally about many of the major publishers' decisions to age-band their children's titles from this autumn. These include HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Hachette and Scholastic. My first thought on reading this was that this isn't new. I remember reading Dragon books in the 1960s, which were divided into Blue, Red or Green dragon according to age, though the divisions: Blue Dragon - for young children, Red Dragon - for boys and girls - Green Dragon - for older boys and girls, (which does make me wonder in passing if Dragon thought children only developed recognisably as boys and girls after a certain age, but I digress) were pretty vague.

Puffin Books too used to have age suggestions on them, and I can remember seeing some Blackie and other titles which suggested that title would be best enjoyed by readers of ten and over, say.
I'd like to know why this system was dropped in the first place: maybe because it was felt it was too prescriptive? Or excluded too many children? In which case, what has changed? Maybe it's the changing patterns of book buying. Who now stocks books along with the tinned tomatoes and cornflakes? The supermarkets. A former Ottakar's manager, Trish Beswick said:

"Advice for individual children is exactly what booksellers are for. Age ranging
is being introduced largely, I feel, to suit the supermarkets, not the
bookshops."
Supermarkets are always droning on about how they offer the customer choice. How about offering the time poor book buyer the ultimate in choice - a book token?

American books have used the age branding system for a while. I looked at three Jessie Haas titles (Shaper, Chase and Birthday Pony) and they are all labelled (Ages 10-14, Age 10 up andAge 7+ respectively), but, and I think this is a significant but, they are labelled discreetly at the top right of the front flap. They are not noticeably badged. The old Puffins, from the couple I've been able to check, had the recommendation popped in the prelims, or in the blurb on the back. It wasn't noticeable. I really don't have a problem with people age badging books. Sometimes a little guidance is helpful. What I do have a problem with is the way that British publishers are proposing doing it, which is to put the branding, a black and white symbol, on the back page.

I always completely ignored any age recommendations on books when I was a child (I do remember reading them and feeling vaguely surprised that anyone had bothered.) However, it is not, absolutely not, the same for my daughter. Badging matters hugely to her. Being accepted by her peers, and doing what everyone else does matters too: she really cares. And while she is more than happy to read and review picture books for me, where no one she knows can see her, she wouldn't do it in front of her friends. She'd sooner die than take a pony book for the under 7s to dance class.

Badging books on the back cover, which is what is proposed, will be conspicuous. Children are not stupid: it doesn't matter what the badging is, they will have under their belts in minutes if not seconds the difference between the symbols.

Children like my daughter, to whom appearances do matter, will loathe it if (when) they are teased because they are reading a book badged for the wrong group. It's bad enough that old favourites have to have their covers revised constantly to fit some new vision of what's cool. Publishers already know perfectly well that the right cover matters to a child, so they must be aware that the new age branding will matter too.

This says to me that it is something entirely different that is driving this decision, and that is sales figures. I notice that it's parents who seem to be finding the book buying a problem: they of course are the ones providing the money to buy the books. If they can be encouraged to buy more, publishers will make more money. An article in The Bookseller said:

"Research conducted in autumn 2006 by Acacia Avenue revealed that 86% of
book buyers would back the plans for guidance on books, with 40% saying that
they would be more likely to buy more books if they featured guidance. "

However, buying the books is absolutely not the same as reading them. You can buy all the 7+ books you like, but if they're the wrong book for your child they won't read them. Sales figures can be wonderful, but if children are not actually reading the books, that matters.


If it's such a hard thing for parents to choose books, there are several things they can do, so here is my guide for the book-challenged parent.

1. Join a library and test-read children's books. You will very soon learn which books are aimed at what age. By experimenting with the library's free books, you will soon find out what your child likes, and then if you want, you can buy it. I notice that many librarians, who spend their working lives trying to encourage children to read, do not agree with this decision.

2. Open a book in a book shop and read a few pages. Again, you'll soon be able to tell what age the book is aimed at.

3. Go to an independent bookshop, not a chain, and ask the owner. Tescos, frankly, don't know, and don't care. A book is another unit of profit to them.

4. Ask your child's teacher for recommendations. Better still, teachers could do lists of books and send them home with the weekly newsletter. You might not agree with them, but it's a start.

5. Ask your child. They might have an opinion on the subject.

6. Buy a book token if you don't know the child.

This is another of those situations which seems to me to be tackling things from the wrong end. It's profit-driven, not child-driven. If you want to encourage children to read, you need to work with parents who are scared, clueless or unbothered, so that they understand what books are out there. Teach the parents how books work, in the same way that children are (this is the blurb, Mrs Badger....)

If you think that this decision is wrong, there is a petition you can sign. The website http://www.notoagebanding.org/ had, when I looked this morning, 1215 signatures. It's already been signed by Alan Garner, Peter Dickinson and Diana Pullein-Thompson, amongst many others.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

A bit more gardening horror

Here is my adorable thistle, in what is supposed to be my lavender hedge. I hate wearing gardening gloves, and by the time I got to this thistle, when it was a seedling, it was too spiky to be tackled with bare hands. So, I left it. And left it. And left it. Yesterday evening I finally strapped on my gloves and dealt with it. If it had been in the borders, I think I would have left it: it's so splendidly vicious.



My real gardening nightmare though, is bindweed, and here it is, winding its way around the Fantin Latour:

It wasn't a problem until we had to have an epic amount of garden wall re-built. It took so long to a. argue with the insurers b. find the money when they argued more successfully than we did c. find someone who could actually do the job, that by that time a bit of bindweed had rooted in the bed next to the wall. I knew it was there. I had it in my sights, but of course was busy putting off doing anything about it. The builders were one of those excellent firms who clear up after themselves, and they kindly dug the bed in front of the wall for me. Alas, they dug the bindweed in at the same time, shattered in bits, and I've never been free of it since.
Some of my gardening friends look at me in a still and steely manner when I whinge about my bindweed. "Canes and glyphosate, that's what you need," they say. Yes, I know, I know. I even HAVE the glyphosate, and the canes, but I have never, ever managed to get the two together, let alone slip out there, armed with my rubber gloves, to rub glyphosate over the bindweed, when it has wound its way up the canes. I was bred in the gutter, and the very thought makes me giggle. Just can't take it seriously.
So, the bindweed survives, and every now and then I plunge into the bed and disentangle it from things. But not very often.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Mud, mud, mud

Following on from the previous post, I can't think of a suitable quote for slipping and sliding along the mud on our morning walk today. It has been raining all night, and the mud is at that treacherous state where the earth has stopped taking in water, and it's lying on the surface. The dog doesn't mind this: her claws seem to provide enough purchase, and she zips along as normal while I mutter, moan and skid behind her. We have two sorts of mud here: deep, claggy stuff which welds itself to your boots (no need for weight training in our bit of Northamptonshire) or this awful skiddy stuff, which I loathe. I hate the sudden whooshes along as I hit a particularly treacherous bit, but most of all I loathe the added horror of all the dog muck we acquire whenever it rains from the fair-weather dog walkers who send their dogs along the paths while they remain, reasonably dry-shod, on the road, leaving the wellied and waterproofed stalwarts to negotiate what they can't be bothered to clear up.



The wheat has suddenly grown, and all I can see of the dog when she makes the occasional illicit foray into the crops is a blonde head popping up every now and then, checking I am still where she thinks I should be. We both end up sopping wet from the walk, and as I am a noble owner, schooled in the belief that I Must Look After My Animals Before Myself, I dry dog with one of her epic collection of towels before I rescue my socks from my wellies and wish, yet again, that I had remembered to re-waterproof my coat. Dog does not think I did a good enough job, as I find her half an hour later having made herself a lovely little nest on our pillows. She always goes and dries off on our bed (strictly forbidden) rather than her own. Am miffed as I thought I had done a good job but I have obviously failed Labrador Quality Control.



But back to work now, and the epic to-do list. It's a drear and gloomy day here, and the view from the office window is shrouded with rain, though it's still beautiful. I shall miss it when we go.




Monday, 2 June 2008

But what's in their heads?

I have just dropped my son off at the station to go to what we all hope is his last ever Maths exam. He has a horrible week this week: 8 GCSEs, and most of them the hefty ones - nothing fluffy at all.

One of his exams is English Literature. Son and a friend were talking about their respective Eng. Lit exams over the Half Term. "How is the quotation learning going?" I asked. They looked at me blankly. "Ma, we take the books into the exam," said son, gently, to a mother he knows is old and incapable. Seeing my look of horror, friend added, trying, to cheer, "The books have to be clean!"

Oh good.

From one point of view (that of a mother whose son's revision has been virtually invisible) I am glad - one less thing to worry about. At least he'll be able to write SOMETHING. From another, I am horrified. For my exams, in the late 1970s, I learned epic amounts of quotations. My dear, noble, mother, used to sit there on our tatty sofa, listening to me as I paced up and down, repeating lines until I sure they had gone in (fortunately we had that hideous glass fibre carpet so there was no chance of my wearing a hole as I paced).

But the thing is, those quotations did go in: and they stayed in. Getting up one morning recently, faced with an event I really did not want to go to, I muttered to my daughter, who looked suitably horror-struck, "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk." I know my feeling of doom has absolutely nothing to do with nightingales, but that quotation to me always sums up that feeling of sleepy dread when you wake up knowing you have something to do you really don't want to. It is part of my internal landscape, and is always what I think when I am curled in my bed, wishing I could stay there instead of get up and face the horror.

There is a lot more that is part of my internal landscape too: Ozymandias, when looking at some bloated bit of architectural posturing; Wilfred Owen whenever the First World War comes up; screeds of Shakespeare, though I am not, I must admit, that good at remembering which quotation comes from where.

And none of that would be there, none at all, if it had not been for the fact that I had to learn it. My dear son, and all his peers will not have that, and that is dreadful.