Dot writes: Hugh had just been jumped on by Frank and was cast into deep woe. Weeping, he spoke in full-throated tones:

“My brother is a man without a heart, a man without a soul. He hurt my neck… I am nothing in this family. I am just sand in the fireplace. I’m a thing left to be burnt.”

I’ve left a few bits out that I don’t remember properly, but he genuinely said all this. He’s seven.


In which Dot finds she has a future as Norman Bates’s mum

Dot writes: Hugh likes to become sad and tell me how much he loves me. He is melancholy about my absence from his school sports day (I had to meet the Vice-President of Memorial University, Newfoundland, but I still feel guilty). He wants to be assured that I will continue to live with him after he gets married. (I tell him I will if he wants me to. That seems safe.) Also, he talks quite a lot about my death. I rather wish he wouldn’t.

A couple of nights ago he told me that, if I died early, he would put my grave in his bedroom and sleep next to it. He would go out to earn money and use that money to buy me breakfast, dinner and lunch. “And maybe God will help you eat them.”


Hugh (singing): The crocodile was chasing the boy, de doo bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp, he chased the boy across a bridge, de doo bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp bomp, he was snapping the bridge and breaking it in half [and more in this vein]
Dot: Are you making this up?
Hugh: Yes. But write it down.

Grandma wins

Dot writes: when I was a girl my mother made amazing cakes for my birthday parties. I remember a marvellous one that was constructed to look like a swamp with hippos in it with grass stems made of angelica, and an even more marvellous one in the shape of Blickling Hall. When my boy, then boys, started to have birthday cakes I made it a point of principle always to make the cake myself. The cooking I can manage, more-or-less. (I struggle with tin sizes. You can’t buy a new tin for every cake, but why are cake recipes apparently never designed for the tins I happen to have?) The decorating, however, is a headache.

My sons have wonderful faith in my ability to produce cakes in the shape of the Gup-X or a spinosaurus or Batman or whatever. I rarely attempt anything quite that fancy. However, for Hugh’s party tomorrow I thought I would have a go at a castle. Three separate cakes (one of them – shh – a Betty Crocker instant mix) and a bit of a disaster with the buttercream later we now have this:


It is, I think, recognisably a castle. Inside it has alternating layers of chocolate and madeira cake, partly to make it tall enough and partly to satisfy Hugh’s friend Douglas, who, I was told by Hugh, requires something with “chocolate and lots of sugar”. But Blickling Hall it ain’t. Sigh.

Meanwhile, here is Hugh modelling the fabulous cardigan that my mother made him. That’s a triceratops on the right and a diplodocus on the left.

P.S. Since my mother is my mother I don’t feel I have to compete with her and I certainly don’t resent her talents. It’s only in the slightly competitive atmosphere of party-giving that I wish I had inherited a few more of them. I do have talents of my own, of course; but I have to work quite hard to engineer opportunities to show off to the other mums how well I translate from Old English…

Hugh is six

Dot writes:
From this…

to this:

And here he is with a complicated lego thingy that we gave him and that he constructed himself, entirely without parental help:

I wish the second picture wasn’t blurry, because I prefer it.

What to say about Hugh at six? He delights me and drives me bonkers in equal measure. He can be staggeringly unco-operative – we’ve just given up on his after-school music class because he refused to join in and spent each session with a book in the corner – and tremendously sweet. He is moved by the lives of cartoon animals. He loves books but hasn’t really learnt to read yet, though he’s getting there. He climbed Great Sugarloaf with enthusiasm. He asks me to tell him stories but always takes over and ends up telling them himself. He loves monsters, knights and dragons, but the monsters are always the heroes and the knights are the villains. He is less interested in dinosaurs than he was though still quite knowledgeable. At Boys’ Brigade – the activity he chose himself, and in which he does join in – he did a show-and-tell about dinosaurs and impressed the leader by his ability to talk about the Compsognathus. He seems to have a reasonably settled group of friends at school now, after an initial period when one week’s best pal seemed to be the following week’s worst enemy. He remembers our last trip to New Zealand and wants to go there to see his Uncle Mat.

I asked him whether he was going to do anything new now he was six. “Always flush the toilet,” he replied, which seems like a pretty achievable ambition. I also asked him if there were anything he’d like me to put in this post. “To all the other people who have birthdays,” he said, “wishing them a good life.”

Happy birthday darling Hugh.

An unexpected triumph for the team

Dot writes: today was the day of the annual Halloween Fancy Dress Sponsored Walk at Hugh’s school. I took the boys last year and quickly realised that a couple of masks coloured in with felt-tips really didn’t cut it (even though Julie drew the outlines and did a beautiful job). There were some astonishing costumes, including a boy dressed as a truly gruesome hunchback, a child disguised as the Empire State Building, and another as a washing machine with her head sticking up through the clothes basket on top. This year we needed something a bit more high concept. Hugh proposed the idea himself: “Why don’t I,” he said, “why don’t I have a box in the shape of a plane, and I can have it on straps over my shoulders and wear a swimming hat and goggles?” I’m still not sure whether he had this idea spontaneously or had seen it somewhere, but, either way, it seemed like a jolly good one.

Everyone contributed to making the plane. I found a large stout box in the attic and stared at it for half an hour trying to work out what to do. Eventually I drew some pencil lines on it and, with Ken’s help, began to shape it into the plane. Ken did the majority of the construction work during the week, making the wings and tail and covering everything in brown paper. Then Julie came round last night to babysit while Ken and I went to The Irish Pub (film, not place: though it was at the Lighthouse Cinema which allows one to take beer into the screening), and she and the boys decorated the plane with stickers, glitter glue, streaky paint and a rather delicate pink and purple propellor made out of paper. Oh, and I bought a hat with ear-flaps and made some goggles out of cardboard and insulation tape.

We almost didn’t go, though. Half an hour before the walk it was raining quite hard and Hugh wasn’t feeling well.


But he was determined to show off his plane. And with his blue jacket and a scarf the whole ensemble really worked, I think.


Again, there were some fabulous costumes. There was a child with trousers on his/her arms, boots on the hands, cardigan on the bottom and false head dangling below, pretending to be someone walking on their hands. There was an amazing gargoyle costume: the wings actually spread out when the wearer raised his arms. There was a robot in silver paper with LED lights. There was even an accompanying Dad in a huge box disguised as a milk-carton. The rain eased off briefly and we all went for a token walk of about four hundred yards just round the road directly outside the school.

Afterwards about eight prizes were given. The junior infant dressed as a carrot got one, as did a boy in Hugh’s year who had come as the old man from Up. Two particularly deserving prize-winners, to my mind, were a girl dressed as Marie Antoinette with her own guillotine (complete with a head in a basket and an artistically-placed rat) and another as Barbie, in the box. We had pretty much got to the end when the judge announced “The child dressed as a plane”.

Hugh was awfully pleased.

Now, I don’t actually think it was one of the best eight costumes there. The gargoyle was definitely robbed. But it was Hugh’s own idea, and he carried it like a Trojan,* even though he wasn’t feeling that good and it was quite heavy. And we all worked hard on it, especially Ken. So well done us, and hurrah for the sponsored walk.

*or maybe more like a Greek, given that it was a hollow model of a contemporary mode of transport and he was inside it.

Them as can…

Dot writes: you have to be able to do something to teach it, but being able to do it doesn’t enable you to teach it. I encounter this from two ends these days – the beginnings of formal learning with my sons, in which I have to get past the very effortlessness of my own reading or basic maths to help Hugh and Frank, and a much more advanced stage in my job, for which I’m currently deep in preparation for a new course on History of the English Language. The right tools help, and a bit of patience. Hugh’s reading practice is going well, with a lot of help from the books, whose authors have worked wonders in finding interesting stories in very simple vocabulary. On the work side, I’m doing the approved thing and putting together an online resource for my course, with links to e-lectures, scanned articles (saving the poor darlings the trouble of going to the library – for selected popular items, anyway), reading lists and so forth. It’s helpful for me to collect this stuff together, and it will save the students time and make sure they have access to key items. But I know I need to do a lot more than chuck materials at my students to actually help them learn.

I’m not one of those university teachers who refuses to be told how to teach, or who doesn’t think it’s worth going on teaching courses. I’ve benefited from the courses I’ve been on and I’m keen to get better. But I can’t help noticing two things: (a) our own systems conspire to stop us following a lot of the advice we’re given; (b) a really good teacher can be good while not following the advice, and a bad one can be bad while following it.

Take lectures. Every teaching course I’ve been on has insisted that lectures are the least effective way to teach. At least, standing talking while others listen is ineffective, certainly when the others have iPhones. However, the majority of our courses are built around lectures, for simple reasons of numbers and timetabling. I’ve been on courses on large group teaching that have suggested ways to jazz up lectures and make them more interactive, and I do try to follow that advice; but there are limits to what you can do and it also eats into the available time to an amazing degree. So, knowing that lecturing isn’t much good, I spend a fair amount of my time lecturing. At least the students can see I’m working for my pay packet.

Yet, one of the best and most popular teachers I know lectures through a high proportion of classes as well as formal lectures, and the students seem to come out knowing a pretty high proportion of what they’ve been told and feeling excited about it. As they say, go figure. I think students respond to a remarkable degree to being given a sense, which a really knowledgeable and enthusiastic lecturer can give, that they are being offered a wonderful glimpse of a new world of the mind, and that the lecturer has not the slightest doubt it’s a world worth entering.

And then again, there’s a part of any learning process that a teacher simply cannot do for the students. In arts subjects in Higher Education, the really important thing is simply that the students read a lot. Of the right stuff, ideally (thus my web resource). But basically, if they aren’t putting in the hours on their own, there’s not a great deal I can do for them. One of the great evils of high fees is that it encourages the attitude that learning is something that is transferred from the teacher to the student, rather than something that is structured and guided by the teacher but that has to happen through the student’s own work. But even at primary level the most crucial stuff doesn’t happen in school. OK, in school they get the phonics worksheets, but at home they learn that reading is just something you do every day, both for fun and out of necessity, as an essential part of life. Seeing Hugh sneakily turning the night-light on so he can look at a book after bedtime, even though he isn’t anywhere near being able to read the words yet because the book is much too hard, I feel that basic lesson is being learned.

Just another brick in the wall

Dot writes: poor Hugh. He is pleased to be back at school, but not at all pleased to be returned to playschool each afternoon. Unfortunately this is what has to happen, since Ken has another three weeks to go on his placement and until it finishes we somehow have to patch together full-time childcare. I’ve already taken as much time off as I can possibly justify.

The arrangement is not ideal: every day I leave college at 12.30, cycle or DART home, take the car or cycle the mile further to Hugh’s school, and then bring him back to the creche, which is in our street. When I meet Hugh at his school the first thing he says is “At least I don’t have to go to that horrible creche,” to which of course I have to reply that he does have to. Then he spends the journey asking WHY does he have to go, and why can’t I take time off, and why do I need to work if Daddy is working, and why can’t he just come to work with me, and failing that why can’t he have Julie (who’s in Italy right now, I think, and then about to start a PhD). Today I pretty much had to drag him across the road, and then for about five minutes he refused to go through the door. The creche is a good one, small and friendly with well-qualified staff, and he attended it for a year before starting school and has just been there for most of the summer, but he seems to have had enough of it. Poor boy. I daren’t tell him that when I drop him off I just go home to work, only a few hundred yards away from him.

I don’t think anybody ever feels they get the childcare question right. With both of us working this summer the boys haven’t had much time off, and I’ve noticed the want of that time: it would have been nice, for example, to spend more time teaching Hugh to ride his bike (as it is he’s still on stabilizers, but at least, thanks to Grandma, he now has a bike that fits him). One thing we have managed to get going since the start of August, when I stopped being at conferences all the time, is reading practice. I learnt to read very young myself, and I can’t remember what it was like not to be able to, but it isn’t coming that easily to Hugh. However, in early August I started doing a daily reading exercise with him. I began with a story that I was writing a sentence at a time: each day he had to read the new sentence and copy it out, so I cleverly got in some handwriting practice for him as well. There was some resistance, especially to the writing part, but we kept it up to the end of the story (a bad monster stealing another monster’s cake). Now I have started anew with a reading chart. Every day he does some practice he gets a smiley face on the chart, and at the end of the month I buy him a Lego Chima toy that he covets. We’re using Usborne Very First Reading books and he genuinely seems to like them. So at least I am being a Good Mummy in some respects.

Some stuff, mostly boy-related

Dot writes: it’s really astonishing how much Frank can talk when he gets the chance. Today I took him for his follow-up appointment at Crumlin (no further surgery advised for the present, hooray) and then it occurred to me to drop in on my friend Sinead, who lives in that area and is expecting a baby in a few weeks’ time. We managed a brief discussion of birth and a viewing of the newly prepared nursery, but mostly Frank talked about the Octonauts, in great detail and with rather the air that Sinead was going to be tested on it afterwards. Normally Frank has to contend with Hugh, who has a lot to say for himself, so I think he relished the opportunity to capture ALL of our attention. Even though we did quite want to talk to each each other. Never mind.

We are counting down the days to when Ken will come back permanently from Edinburgh. The magic date is 2nd May and it can’t come soon enough. Frank is sure that Ken will be bringing some Octonaut toys with him. Hugh wants to play Monkey Quest. I want to sink back gratefully into the library, having had a rather good week’s work immediately after we came back from Norfolk, when Ken was still with us, and since then an unsatisfying period broken up with hospital appointments and other little engagements. I find it hard to get properly absorbed in what I’m doing when I have to keep stopping, and I really notice how much tireder I feel when I’m the sole parent in charge. Hugh had a rather changeable weekend – sunshine interspersed with strops and sulks – from which I emerged feeling battered. (I also have a cold.) I do wish Hugh and I could have a less tempestuous relationship; I love him so much, but he makes such outrageous fusses about such minor things, which is dreadfully draining. I spend a lot of energy worrying about him, even though deep down I am quite sure he will turn out fine, if I can just refrain from murdering him. This evening he was being very funny and charming. He was dancing to Buena Vista Social Club: dancing rather well and clowning around to entertain us. Also, yesterday he expressed warm appreciation for my home-made fish fingers (actually salmon steaks cut into strips, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried), which pleased me.

Some little pieces of progress can be noted. Hugh now almost always dresses himself. He’s been capable of this for a while, but though the flesh was strong the spirit wasn’t willing. Frank is reliably dry at night. We took no pushchair on our Norfolk trip and didn’t really miss it; the only regular use of the pushchair now is when Julie takes Frank to pick up Hugh from school, a journey that has to be done a bit more quickly than Frank can walk. Before Ken went back to Edinburgh we had our friends Niall and Meredith round for dinner, and not only did I do all the cooking (glow of pride) but Niall said he thought Hugh had calmed down, which was a nice indication of improvement. (Often hard to see this from close to.) Hugh is getting reading homework from school and can definitely read a little now. (I’m bemused by the idea of giving five-year-olds homework, but on the other hand it’s nice to get a sense of what he’s doing.) Hugh has also rather taken to maths and likes to do sums on the way to school. Sometimes I ask him the questions and sometimes he asks me. When he’d asked me three in a row and I’d dutifully answered them he remarked, “You know, you’re very good at this, Mummy.” Frank has made some friends at playschool and dreamt last night that one of them, a girl called Chloe, was in our house and wouldn’t go home. The boys are also getting better and better at playing with each other. And we are very pleased with the trampoline Grandma bought us. It has been bounced on right through the winter, whenever weather vaguely permitted, and now the air is finally warming up it is in daily use.

Ho-hum. Because this post has no single topic it’s rather hard to know how to stop it. I think I’ll hit publish and burble the rest to myself on my way to an early bedtime (with book – Baugh and Cable’s History of the English Language, which I’m reading for teaching purposes). Night night.