Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An Awfully Big Blog Adventure Online Literary Festival

Writing Wednesday

This week, I must encourage you to plan for this:


This is a festival of 40 children's book writers blogging every half-hour over the weekend. Writers include Adele Geras, Mary Hoffman, Liz Kessler, Celia Rees and Nicola Morgan.

It promises to be a literary treat - and there are rumours of prizes and giveaways galore!

Mark it in your diary to go over and have a peek.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Frederic Chiluba

(c) The Post Newspaper, Zambia
Yesterday, Frederic Chiluba, second president of Zambia, was laid to rest. He died just over a week ago at his house in Kabulonga, Lusaka (not far from where we used to live). It is not confirmed but suspected that it was from a heart attack.

Chiluba came to power in 1991 after Kenneth Kaunda was persuaded (in the face of protests) to allow multi-party democracy. KK had been President since independence in 1964 and there were great hopes and expectations from President Chiluba. By all accounts he quickly brought some stability to the country and government which may have saved Zambia from implosion. He also encouraged foreign investment in Zambia.

But they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Chiluba sought to change the constitution to allow a third term in power, but this was defeated. Nevertheless, his protogee, Levy Mwanawasa, was elected in 2001 who, presumably to Chiluba's surprise, tried to eliminate (well, at least reduce) the corruption in the country. A large part of that was prosecuting Chiluba. They lost after 6 years of court cases in Zambia, but won a case in London (although the multi-million dollar fine was never enforced in Zambia).

It is hard to know what to say about Chiluba. Corruption is endemic in Africa, and Zambia is no exception. When we were living there the latest list of 'most corrupt nations' came out and we celebrated the increase from 9th to 11th most corrupt within the year. Not the most glorious of matters to celebrate! Yet stories abounded about Chiluba. Allegedly, when he was voted out, there was an entire container of Italian designer suits found which, he stated, had been bought entirely from his salary as President. Can that be true?

Whatever his record, he is only the second Zambian president to die (Levy Mwanawasa having died during his second term in office in 2008) and had a funeral like most of us expect: with family there, mourning the loss of a loved one. For Zambia, it is another milestone in its short history.

His detailed obituary is on the BBC here, and details about his funeral from a Zambian newspaper here

Friday, 24 June 2011

The one where I learnt new things

Family holidays actually force us to live together for a fortnight. In the humdrum routine of life, we pass by, rush around, seek our own space and generally only talk about what we need to. Holiday allows us to unwind and (sometimes) talk, and in so-doing we learn new things about each other. Here is what I have learnt.

... about my husband ...

He has a passion for fish finger sandwiches.
Where did that come from? Thirteen years of marriage and I discover that we have to experience this culinary delight. Supplemented by a healthy portion of chips and tomato ketchup, Sunday lunch was a whole new experience for us.

When he says he doesn't like slides, don't believe him. 
I spent half our time at Duinrell holding his glasses so that he could try all the water slides. And when he says he doesn't like all the thrill rides, don't believe that either. The water slides were of increasing intensity (dark, steep, fast) and then outside it was he who rushed to go with our son on the wildest rollercoasters. Meanwhile, my daughter and I watched, waited and munched our way through a packet of sweets.

... about my children ...

They actually get on very well.
All the months at home when they whinge and whine, tell takes, thump, hit, fight ... and yet on holiday they can quietly play cards together, help each other set out clock patience and invent new games between themselves. Something, somewhere, is actually working correctly in this dragging up of children.

... about myself ...

I get too tense going on holiday.
When my son said on day 3 that I was really unpleasant, I had to pull myself in check. The adaptation to a new place, the stress of having everything in place (food, car, the final night in an as yet unknown location) was making me tetchy and liable to snap. Son objected - and rightly so. I think - I hope! - I improved after that. We're still talking to each other at any rate!

... about the Dutch ...

They are, on average, the tallest people in the world.
Incredible fact I was told. In our flat, when I sat on the toilet my feet didn't touch the floor. It must have been like mountaineering for my children! They couldn't see in the mirrors at all and none of us attempted to get crockery or glasses from the top shelves. At the Space Expo, I had to lift the children up for them to see through the peepholes at the planets. There was one I couldn't see in myself. I consider my 5' 4" a fairly average height for a female so I don't think we can base this on my diminutive stature. What makes the Dutch so tall? Milk and dairy products? Sun and fresh air? Cycling? Who knows!

To end my holiday week blog, a childish joke. I don't know any about The Netherlands, but I do know one about cows and, given their export of the black and white friesian cow to the rest of the world, it is a small tribute to one of their greatest (and smelliest) assets. (And my children taught me it, of course.)

Why do cows wear bells?
Because their horns don't work.

Photo: (c) The University of Waikato 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The one with the graffiti and moonwalk

Little did I know, when I set off on holiday, that the place we were staying was known for its graffiti culture.

Graffiti is illegal and in order to limit the amount around town a 32m long wall was built, known as the 'Wall of Fame'. This is re-painted every year by a collective of graffiti artists known as 'Ga legaal' and is next to a similarly vibrantly decorated skateboard park. Other art is produced around town during certain festivals and for special occasions - and it would be fair to say I saw very little evidence of graffiti anywhere other than by this skateboard park.

Sometimes I am astonished by how life all comes together, particularly when I don't plan it at all. This term my son's topic at school is "Cool stuff" and they started by looking at (you've guessed it) graffiti. They have progressed through spies and onto skateboarding (this week's homework was to create a scale model of a ramp for a skateboard park: I think I made a jolly good job of it...!!)

 Personally I find graffiti a form of art, when it is not simply destructive, rude or obscene - or misspelt (that really bugs me!). So it was great to get a chance to walk around the graffiti centre and see some of the striking artwork.

Not to be outdone, my daughter's topic this term is "Space" ... and we found just out of town was the Space Expo. We spent a happy morning there spying on planets and satellites, the shuttle and the international space station.

It was far too high-brow for my 8-year old to do much more than enjoy the exhibits; and I found it quite depressing when a computer told me how much I would weigh if I stood on different moons and planets. The comparative weight wasn't the issue: what upset was seeing how much weight a holiday full of warme chocolademelk met slagroom can do to you!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Writing Wednesday - The one with the language barrier

The Dutch - thankfully - speak English.

Almost all of them, much to my embarrassment. I asked one or two people, "Spreekt u Engels?" but for the most part we just started in English and kept going.

One of the things I love about language is how it can be picked up by familiarity. I remember hearing that my cousins learnt Spanish by watching TV (they lived in Mexico at the time). For me, I had a quick lesson in Dutch by reading road signs as we drove from the ferry. 'Afrit' means junction; 'Uit' exit - at least, those are my (unverified) translations.

On the first evening we ate at a restaurant and foolishly forgot the Netherlands guide book. The waitress was able to translate the bits that were beyond us, but it was amazing how much I could deduce, grasping at the remnants of my 'O'-level French and German. I believe that the Dutch do a similar thing to the Germans, throwing their verbs to the end of the sentence. When you translate literally, word-for-word, it sounds like ye olde englishe... but sentences were never something we really attempted (just advertising, signs and menus!)

Thankfully, pannenkoek (pancakes) was both easy to translate, and easy for the children to choose. Over the fortnight we had quite a few of them, and almost daily warme chocolademelk met slagroom (the 'whipped cream' element of that translation amused our superficial minds).

Other words had a logic to them. Fiets for bicycle, sounds similar to 'feet', and after all we do use them in order to cycle anywhere. There may be no etymological link or derivation but it helped me to place the words, particularly as they came up on signs around the place.

Not the most challenging translation, but a bit of a surprise for me was to find that the town we were staying in was at the mouth of the 'Rijn' - the River Rhine. I haven't travelled much across Europe but to me this was a great river that ran the length of Germany that I learnt about in my schooldays. It may not be the longest river in Europe but it was certainly one I had to learn and be able to place on a map. Clearly I didn't place it perfectly as it ends in Holland (Did I ever know that? Could I have thought of that? Probably!) My excitement in seeing the end of such a vast river was tempered by my husband saying it was only one of its mouths, as it had to be split and diverted in different directions in order to prevent flooding/eliminating the Netherlands. How does he come to know this stuff, I wonder? And he was right (grrrr!!) It also wasn't particularly beautiful, blocked as it is by a huge dam and pumping station; although the photo does show that, at sunset, almost anything can look great.

Perhaps thanks to the internet, English is taking over the world. Had my teachers been different I would probably have taken languages to A-level (both my parents had language degrees) but their weakness and the maths teachers' strengths led me on a different route. But the logic of translation and comprehension lingers on. One of the things I loved about the Harry Potter books was how JK Rowling used Latin (in particular) to create words for spells, creatures and places. Seeing how words come together and evolve to create new words is a delight.

And now I am hopeful that the children will pick up a love of language too. My son sent his friends postcards with a list of Dutch words and their English counterpart. Perhaps I'll breed a linguist even if I failed myself. In my opinion words are not a barrier, but an enrichment of life.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The one in which we burnt...

The first week away we were blessed by glorious weather. Holland almost obligates you to cycle everywhere and it was a cloudless day when we cycled over the dunes and around the neighbouring villages for a day. My daughter was in a seat behind my husband; my son had his own bike and I was the packhorse (both rucksacks). I was, also, the only person who conceded at midday that perhaps a bit of sunscreen would be useful.

By the evening, my face was gently browning. My husband had worn a hat and long sleeves, my daughter appeared to have been hidden behind him, and my son wore knee-length shorts. Given all that, we burnt daughter's legs, son's arms, my arms and legs (I only protected my face...) and husband's knees. We hid from the sun for the next 24 hours and re-emerged later in the week, peeling gently...

Our second bike-ride was on a cloudy day, quite cool until after 4pm. It should simply be noted that it is possible to be quite pink even in the late afternoon sun. In four years living in Zambia we only got sunburnt once - at the Kariba Dam where temperatures can reach 54 degrees centigrade. A fortnight's European holiday and we all suffer.

We aim not to do anything by halves. If we are going to burn, we are going to do it in as many ways as possible. Firstly, my daughter drank her hot chocolate as soon as it was placed on the table, only to find it too hot and to drop it all down her front. Screams abounded. Her chest and stomach were bright red but she was saved by a can of Grolsch: straight from the fridge, its cooling effect quickly took away the worst of the burn.

Then later that day, my son catches his hand on a tray hot from the oven. He got a lot less sympathy than was fair, although there were more tears than the glancing burn deserved.

Thankfully, none of our accidents was serious, nor did they impinge on our activities too much. Hopefully we just learnt some valuable lessons. Or how useful it is to have a can of cold beer to hand ...

Monday, 20 June 2011

The one with the cycling...

Our holiday was a fortnight in The Netherlands. As it was all spent in Holland (Nord or Zuid) I feel quite at liberty to interchange the country name but before I get any criticism I am quite aware of the difference between the county and country! A fortnight in The Netherlands was just what the doctor ordered ... and in our house, exactly what the doctor booked and organised. Somehow holidays have always been my husband's job to plan and execute: as usual, it was excellent.

Holland, of course, means cycling. Cyclists get priority at most junctions, which is fantastic if you are on one (and really not too obstructive if you are in a car!) We hired bikes on two days: once to cycle across the dunes near where we were staying (which was about as hilly a cycle-ride as you can get there) and once to visit the windmills near Kinderdijk.

This is a World Heritage Site and there is a point where you can see 19 windmills at once. They are obviously old and one has been turned into a museum. I would never make it as a miller myself, with all those steep stairs, and it must have been so noisy to live there when the sails were turning. Still, I can't get away from the ingenuity of the Dutch to shift so much water around, up and over the dijks they built to reclaim land. Having watched Coast last night I gained even more insight into their engineering prowess and massive land reclamation. How long will they win the battle against the sea? The prospect of them losing is too horrific to think about, for the loss of land, life and livelihood would be immense.

Cycling does give you a different perspective on the countryside you are in. Much of it seemed to be fields (bordered by canals rather than walls or fences) and most of the wildlife we saw - and smelt - was cows. Perhaps the most amazing moment was when we found a pair of coots with their newly hatched young on a nest island in a canal. As we stood and watched we saw the chick leave the nest, and we could hear cracks as one of the other eggs broke open. Driving would never have allowed us to view such a miracle.

Cycling did bring problems with it too. Not least is my ability to wobble (I had to concentrate very hard when we cycled on a bridleway between two canals: I was petrified I'd fall off and into one of them!) My son and I are unused to cycling for long distances and became a little saddle sore. And it was just a little embarrassing to be pedaling away like mad only to be gracefully overtaken by a couple in their seventies...

And of course there was the burning ... but that is tomorrow's post...

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Writing Wednesday: Holiday books

For me, much of the joy of holidays is having the time and space to read, to be so totally absorbed in a book that mealtimes and the rest of the world can go to pot. In my romantic imagination this involves curling up in a big, soft armchair in front of an open log fire, soft rain at the window ... or maybe a thunderstorm crashing outside.

It was bright and sunny on our holiday. We spent virtually every day out and about, arriving back at our holiday home in time to eat dinner and crash. Book reading quantity: low (but holiday enjoyment very high!)

In fact I only completed two:
David Nicholls One Day, a book describing one day for the two main characters, Emma and Dexter, over the space of twenty years. I loved it. Insofar as I could, I was addicted to this and crept away from the odd family game and ignored the washing up in order to read it. As the characters were roughly my age, and Emma comes from Yorkshire like me, and they first met at university in Edinburgh, there was a lot that I could relate to. Although I must point out that Dexter is nothing like my husband.

It has been widely read and reviewed, to great acclaim, and I can understand why. I began to wonder how he was going to end the book when about 14 years through, but the twist and then the ability to intertwine the first day with last was excellent.

In contrast, The Distant Hours by Kate Morton I found hard-going. The Sisters Blythe live in Milderhurst Castle, the youngest seemingly mad, the older twins caring for her for fifty years. The main storyteller, Edie, finds out her mum was evacuated to them during the war and that the sisters' father wrote her favourite childhood book 'The True History of the Mud Man'. In finding out more about that she stumbles across intrigue and loss.

I have read and enjoyed other books by Kate Morton and this followed a similar formula. For me, there was too much description and introspective thought in the first half of the book. By the end I was gripped, trying to work out what had really happened. On the plus side, I really felt I was in the thunderstorm of 29 October 1941. On the negative, I still can't work out why the three sisters would have carried on the way they did for fifty years after that. It wasn't unbelievable, but it wasn't totally believable either.

So a mixed review for Kate Morton's book, but a big thumbs-up for David Nicholls.

And a big thumbs up for holidays. I'd far rather spend the time with my family than nose-in-book any day.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

A short gap in proceedings...

We are on holiday. I'd hoped to have some Internet connection but this is my chance to grab a couple of minutes in amongst the family mayhem.

So far we have travelled by car and boat and bus and train and bicycles. Withenay wanders indeed.

If I tell you it is a holiday of canals and cheese and bikes perhaps you'll guess where we are.

Then again, we are also spending a lot of time on the beach with buckets and spades, burying the children and paddling in the sea. (We've dug the children up again each time - though sometimes the temptation is strong...)

Writing and family anecdotes will return when we do. Now ... back to that glass of wine ...
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