Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Christmas Letter 2020


'Holly Night' by Abigail

Dear Friends,

I told myself that I would try to avoid words such as 'unprecedented', 'lockdown' and 'Zoom' in this Christmas letter, but since such things seem to be unavoidable, you are welcome to make yourselves a bingo card and cross all such predictable words off as we go.

March (because who can remember anything that happened before March?) found Amy sitting in a Premier Inn in Coventry with a puppet, watching the news and wondering whether this might have been a bad time to attempt a tour of schools to promote her Gladstone the Gargoyle books. (Narrator: it was, indeed, a very bad time, and she got no further.) Tiffer, meanwhile, spent the month on the phone, working out how church was going to happen not just in his own four parishes, but also across the deanery. We both learned to use Zoom.

The children dealt admirably with lockdown learning, managing a daily dose of numeracy, English and what we called 'Project' which covered everything else. We did not watch Joe Wicks. Amy was reminded daily of why she gave up teaching in the first place. One of Jeremy's fractions worksheets received dozens of comments on Facebook from baffled people with degrees in mathematics.

Red, white and blue for VE day

All travel plans cancelled, we managed a few lovely outings on the boat, fell in love with St Ives (Cambridgeshire, not Cornwall) and learned all the places on the Great Ouse where you have to watch out for swimmers. Tiffer, ever handier with the old engine, fixed an oil leak and fiddled with the stern gland. We 'drove to New Wine' by packing the car, having a drive through Macdonald's, driving home again and putting up the tent in the garden.  We transformed our patio into a socially distanced outdoor living room. Jeremy and Tiffer made a Hero's engine out of a beer can over the chiminea. It exploded.

'Driving to New Wine'

Man in his element

With every change in restrictions, Tiffer, now known to many as the Covid-19 regulation geek, went back into interpretation of guidance and reimagination of services. He produced a hybrid weekly communion in which the Zoomers, plugged into the church sound system, could participate fully with readings, prayers and songs for the Roomers, masked and distanced in the building; and the whole thing is simultaneously streamed to Facebook. There's nothing like preaching a sermon in the knowledge that it may well last forever on the internet.

Amy, whose muse jumped ship very early on as a result of being surrounded by children 24/7, was pleased to be able to sign a two-book deal with Lion for work already half completed, and to continue writing an occasional Diary column for the Church Times. The last couple of months of the year were taken up in sharing Advent poetry written for Engage Worship, which has been used by many churches looking for online resources.

Jeremy has continued his trombone lessons with his long-suffering teacher over video chat, despite his love of pulling faces when he sees himself on screen, and here he is performing a carol; and Abigail, now a year 6 and deputy head girl, skilfully led her hybrid congregation as Girl Bishop at the St Nicholas' Day service, the recording of which can still be seen on the church Facebook page (6th December).

And thus finishes this unprecedented (Bingo!) year. May the next one bring good changes.

Lots of love from all we Robinsons xxx

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Plenty of ears

We're walking home from school.  As usual, Jeremy is talking constantly on one side of me, and Abigail is keeping up her own monologue on the other.

Me: I really can't listen to both of you at the same time!

Abi: But you have two ears.  Use one ear for me and one ear for Jem Jem.

Me: My ears can hear you, but my brain can't sort out what you're saying!

Abi: Well, use your ears inside that.

Me: I don't think I have any more ears inside that!

Abi: I have a whole museum of ears.

Me: A museum of ears?!  That may be one of the strangest things I've heard all day.

Abi: It's an ear room.  I can hear the wind rustling AND that car driving at the same time.  So you see, I have plenty of ears.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Half term on the boat

We're just back from a lovely half term holiday on board St Hilda.  We went all the way from Beccles to Wroxham and back, and met up with some lovely friends too.

 It's the first time that we've spent four nights on board. Hilda doesn't have a shower, so TheRev and I used expensive ones at marinas and the children stayed grubby until the last day, when we went swimming.  They didn't seem to mind...
Abi enjoyed being tall enough to see out of the hatch! Maybe next year, Jeremy?
 We had mostly warm weather, some blue skies and one torrential downpour.

Jeremy with Nanou's blanket
While the children coloured and cut out almost incessantly in the cabin, I spent my time with my head through the hatch, attempting to get some decent photographs.  TheRev gave me a camera with a super zoom for my birthday last year, and I'm determined to make a well-photographed catalogue of Broads wildlife.

Unfortunately, all the Broads wildlife have got wind of this, and they operate a simple rule.  If they can see the camera, they hide.  Birdsong falls silent.  Even the omnipresent seagulls go to their roosts.  Whenever I am busy doing something essential inside the cabin, however - preventing the children from killing each other, for example, or lighting the gas to make a cup of tea - the skies suddenly fill with marsh harriers which swoop low over the roof of the boat.  Seals and otters swim merrily alongside us.  Grey herons and little egrets pose along the riverbank, flanked by curlews, oyster catchers and avocets.  Reed warblers put on a concert. Kingfishers flash by.  TheRev shouts, "There's a tern out here that has just caught a fish RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!"

This is only the slightest of exaggerations.

Also, TheRev takes a much better picture with my camera than I do.  After all my poor efforts, he captured a marsh harrier hovering above a windmill in a single shot that encapsulates the Broads so well, it ought to be published.  I won't share it here, because it hurts my pride.

We're all a bit sad to be back to school tomorrow.  Roll on the summer holidays!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Where have I been?

This is one of those shamefaced blog posts.  I don't know whether anyone really follows this blog any more, but if you do, then I apologise that I haven't written in it for eight months.  Where have I been?

I've been setting up a new, working-life blog for most of my writing, because bits of writing-related stuff here that I wanted to share more widely were getting muddled up with family-related posts that, while entertaining, were somewhat less professional and relevant.  If you'd like to see or follow that new webpage and blog, it is here:
I've also become a regular on the ACW blog, every second of the month here:

I've been chasing after my children as they grow up far too fast, zooming through stages and phases before I've had a chance to document them properly.

Abigail is now in her final term of year 2.  She continues to be the best seven-year-old storyteller I know, and she sings perfectly in tune, but only when she wants to and not if anyone else is joining in.  She's just started to be interested in the sounds that different letters make, and in trying to write things down.  She gets frustrated, as she only knows half the letters of the alphabet, but she'll get there.
She has gone through some very deep iPad-related interests, especially Minecraft (at which point she was literally living in her very own world, and only those with compatible devices could visit her there) YouTube (wicked Mummy took it off all the screens in the house in the end) and, up to the present, some hideous game starring a small and overly cute panda bear which seems to download a new version of itself every time you complete a game, filling the iPad with the wretched things.  However, at least some of them are genuinely educational, requiring basic letter and number knowledge.  She's clearly learning from it, as despite not officially recognising numbers, she's worked out how to put my passcode in.

Jeremy is about to turn 5 and finish his reception year.  He has asked for a Space-themed party, as he is now heading for NASA levels in knowledge of the solar system.  I prefer this fascination to his previous Paw Patrol one, and we are currently redecorating his bedroom with stars, moons, planets and astronauts everywhere.  For Christmas he was given the Playmobil rocket launchpad, which is the most complicated piece of kit I've ever seen, better suited for scientific demonstrations than playing.  He took it off to Show and Tell and I think gave his classmates some sort of a lecture on how to blow up asteroids.
Second only to space, his other love is anything that goes on a track.  Yesterday, we counted his track-related toys after he asked for yet another one for his birthday.  We found three train-related sets, two car-related sets and had a discussion about whether the marble run should count.

As a family, we now have guinea pigs.  We have guinea pigs in perpetuity, because apparently you have to replace the one that dies or the one that's left will pine away and follow it to the grave.

I will start blogging about family life here again, now that I have put other things into other places.  It just might not be as frequent as I'd like.  I must do it for myself, because reading back over all these posts shows me how much I have already forgotten.

Friday, 30 September 2016

After school chat

Today I had Jeremy to myself for a bit after school, as Abi was at the dentist with TheRev.  I opened his book bag to see if he'd brought any homework back fr the weekend, and found a paper covered with lines of squiggles.  (Note: Children's names have been changed in the following conversation. I don't *think* there is a Christine or a Davy in Jem's class, but if there are then I apologise to them. It wasn't them!)

The List

Me: Oh, this is good.  You've done some writing today?

Jem: I maked a list.

Me: I see!  A list of what?

Jem: It's a list like Father Christmas.  I putted Christine on the naughty list.

Me: Oh...kaaaay...Who is on the good list?

Jem: Everyone in the class except Christine.

Me: Oh dear.  What did Christine do to be put on the naughty list?!

Jem: She stole mine and Davy's chicks.

Me: Your chips?  At lunchtime?

Jem: No, CHICKS.  They were having a bath, but she thought the cup we was using was not a bath so she took them and I putted her on the naughty list.

Me: I see you've put yourself on this list, too.

Jem: No. That's just so people know it's MY list.

Me: Ah.  Right.

Jem: Did you know school has rules?

Me: I expect it does, yes.  What are the school rules?

Jem: They're the same as our rules.

Me: For example?

Jem: No hitting and no kicking and no bubbling in your juice and everything.

Me: Of course...

Jem: But that's not how the school rules song goes.  And at school there are more rules.

Me: What's a school rule that isn't a rule we have at home?

Jem: No lying down on the floor.

He then asked to go round to a friend's house and disappeared.  Apparently, having a schoolboy means I never get to see him.  I hope he's forgiven Christine by Monday...

Monday, 16 May 2016

To the young author who was worried by SATs

Dear Young Author,

I read about you on Michael Rosen's Facebook page, where I found a link to this article.  I read that you were worried, because you thought the kinds of questions that baffled you in the SATs tests might mean you had to give up on your dream of being an author.  I was pleased to see that lots of authors have already responded on that page.

Perhaps I'm too late, but here's my message to add to the others: I'm an author. I always knew I would be one, because I spent my childhood telling stories to my friends, my sister, my parents, my teddies and anyone else who would listen.

My English teacher at school used to put ticks next to the bits he liked best in my stories.  If there was one tick, it was something quite good.  If there were two ticks, he was seriously impressed.  Any more ticks than that, and he had probably done a victory lap of the room and opened a bottle of champagne before sitting down to continue marking.  Once, I wrote quite a long story about a girl who had to run up a mountain and warn some people hiding in a cave that there were soldiers coming to get them.  When he marked the story, my English teacher put THREE ticks next to the sentence 'Rocks, lots of rocks before the cave!'

Now, I know what you're going to say, or at least I know what the person who set the SATs tests would probably say.  That isn't a sentence - it hasn't got a verb in it.  Also, it has an exclamation mark where there should have been a full stop.  It uses the word 'rocks' twice when it could have used an interesting synonym, and it has no 'wow' words in it at all.

The reason it got three ticks, my teacher said, was that taking the verb out and repeating the word 'rocks' gave the sentence a breathless, hurried, stumbling feeling, which helped him to imagine how the girl looked and felt as she raced up the mountain and was faced with climbing over loads of rocks when she was in such a hurry.

My English teacher knew what he was talking about.  Every now and then I still check over my writing for a 'three ticks' moment.

There isn't actually an exam type of test that can test good writing.  The only way to test good writing is to see whether people enjoy reading it.  If you can write a story which makes people want to carry on reading it, which makes them worried about the character in it, or which makes them feel breathless or excited or happy or sad, or which makes them laugh until they cry, then the story has passed the test.

It's never about YOU passing the test, by the way.  If the story doesn't pass the test, it doesn't make YOU a bad writer.  It just means that the story needs polishing, or that you could try writing a different story until you find one that works.  I have notebooks full of stories that didn't quite pass the test, and I think every good writer probably does.  Each one helped me to become a better writer, not a worse one, because that's what good testing should do - unlike the SATs.

I look forward to reading one of your books one day.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Traveller and the Wise Man

In which I tell stories in protest, and inadvertently answer a question about the role of imagination in storytelling.

This is a tale of two parts.

In the first part, I was recently at a retreat day led by Malcolm Guite.  There was a discussion about imagination - Guite has written about theology and poetic imagination at length in his wonderful book Faith, Hope and Poetry, which I finally finished reading in February - and at one point, he asked me to say something about the role of imagination in storytelling.  Taken by surprise, I talked briefly about how, in storytelling, the audience does at least half of the imaginative work by creating the story visually in their own minds, which was true, but a little garbled and possibly not very relevant!

In the second part of this tale, I was asked to do some storytelling on the 3rd May at an outdoor event for the Let Kids Be Kids campaign: children and parents who were protesting against the emphasis on SATS and testing in education by taking a day off school to do fun learning out of doors.  I went along very gladly, because I agree wholeheartedly with the campaign and have been following the news about the SPAG tests with growing horror (have a look at Michael Rosen’s blog for a good commentary on the whole thing).

I chose two stories to begin the session.  The first was Peg Soup, a story which I have recently added to my repertoire: it’s a version of the well-known folktale in which a traveller claims to be able to make soup out of a peg, and so persuades previously poor or selfish people to add the few ingredients they have individually as ‘flavouring’ until a real soup has been made which everyone can share.  The second story was one I’ve been telling for years, in which Ming Lo visits a wise man to ask him how to move a mountain, and the wise man responds with various ridiculous and ineffective methods before relenting and telling Ming Lo to ‘dance the dance of the moving mountain’, which turns out to involve walking backwards with his eyes shut.  When he opens his eyes, the mountain is far away.

After telling both stories, I asked the children whether they’d noticed any similarities between them.  This is usually a good way of opening up a general discussion about storytelling.  What tends to happen is that a few tentative answers will focus on the method: “There were bits that repeated” “There was a rhyme” or “You did actions”, for example.  As the children learn that there are not really any wrong answers, they become more confident and we can start talking about the stories themselves, at which point they might notice that both stories contained a trick, that they both contained people who believed that the impossible was happening.  Then we could start to talk about what role the trick played in the story.

This time, however, one of the first answers came from a girl who confidently said the following: “Both the stories were about how if you think you can’t do something, or don’t have something, the answer is actually inside you all the time”.

I was stunned, because it is very unusual to find a child - or an adult - who can leap straight to the heart of the message of a story like that, and I can only assume that she has been steeped in folktale since infancy to do it so instinctively!

It was only when thinking about her surprising answer later on that I realised that the two stories perfectly answered the question about the role of imagination in storytelling.  In fact, the traveller and the wise man both embody the role of imagination within their stories.  Instead of giving an instant solution to the problems of the other characters - in fact, instead of pointing out that the things they want (a meal out of nothing, a mountain to move) are impossible, they both respond by imagining what would happen if the things were possible and teaching a lesson that way.

And this is precisely the kind of teaching which is hampered by the mindset of a Gove or a Morgan or a Gibb who thinks that learning must be rote and precise and testable, and that teaching must have a measured outcome.  Neither the wise man nor the traveller point out that they have been teaching a lesson all along.  They leave their pupils to work it out by themselves - and even if they never do, even if the trick is never revealed, the villagers will still get together to share their goods when they make ‘peg soup’, and Ming Lo will still know which dance to do when he is next faced with an immoveable object.  The fact that they won’t know how they are achieving these impossible things won’t actually matter to them.  They have learned something all the same.

Let’s have Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who could believe in six impossible things before breakfast, for education secretary.  It’s only by imagining how the impossible could happen that we can ever achieve it in real life.