Geology and the Solar System

I use the Grandparental Reflections pages for occasional observations about my grandchildren. Maybe they are “incidents” rather than “ reflections;” Sleeping in the Bin and other such incidents are often funny and illustrate (a bit) the quirkinesses of children’s language. What follows is a reflection that came out of playing with my 6yo granddaughter, but is more a reflection than those short transcripts.  There isn’t a whole load of geology in here, or indeed the solar system – but they are part of the starting point.

6yo, staying with us, built a spaceship out of a box, wrote and drew all sorts of aliens on it, then in due course went to bed. The next morning, she and I went for walk though the local scrubby woods and out onto a disused car park. She was in her spaceship. We collected stones from the gravel, noted the Alien Squirrel, the Alien Magpies, &c., &c, then came back to my house.  What happened then was interesting, in that, with no prompting, 6yo asked for pens and paper “to make a book,” which turned out to be a catalogue of the stones and where we had found them: Hot Venus stones; Cold JupiterE9A68576-5A5E-42A6-AD82-BE280C2CBA9A stones; Cold Venus stones. She worked through all the ones we had collected, and, with the help of a “map” of the solar system, saw were we had been. She also checked them against pictures of rocks (see the photo), although not always with a great deal of success. All in all, the project took maybe 30 mins in the evening and 90 mins the next day. We had fun.

It reminded me very strongly of the kind of work I was lucky to do with children not so much younger when I worked in nursery, in the dear days when children could stay until they were five: enough time, and space and adult interest to follow a project through for a number of sessions, with purposeful writing and reading, and bags of talk from both adult and child, and curiosity and mathematical language and perseverance at a self-chosen task.

I’m not going to be so crass as to ask that every child gets these opportunities in school, because I know schools do provide children with all sorts of ways to learn and to practise what they have learned (although If I Ruled The World I would bring back 5yo into a nursery environment). But I was struck by how easily we (me included) look to Learning Goals rather than what makes for effective learning, in other words what we want rather than how children learn.  I remember when the first Foundation Stage curriculum guidance came out we had something of a battle to move it away from simple goals to paths towards those goals. It is heartening that some years later the current EYFS (para 1.9 in the Statutory Framework) suggests that effective learning can be thought of like this:

Playing and Exploring
Active Learning
Creating and Thinking Critically.

I don’t like the phrase Active Learning, but at least it can stand for the complex mix (muddle????) of hands-on activities, persistence, learning from mistakes… but do note that “Shhhh and listen” is not part of it, any more than it was in 2002 when REPEY stated that

every effective form of pedagogy must be instructive in some way

but that

learning is an interactive event, where the child actively constructs his/her own understandings within a social and physical environment.

Wouldn’t it be good to hear more EY practitioners – and I’d include KS1 teachers – using this language? What might a parent-teacher meeting be like if, in the kind of meeting that might happen, say, in the spring of Y1, a teacher reported primarily on how Child A or Child X approached their learning? If, in other words, we looked at how children learn with a greater seriousness, and if the formative experiences of early Primary School were described to parents and carers not by what the children have (and then by implication have not) achieved but by what has excited their learning?  Would this allow us to look again at discovery as being more than “look at what I want you to see,” as a teacher suggested to me recently?

This comes back to the heart of the current debates about the models of childhood we use, and the difficult questions they bring to the surface. Should adults so set up Early Childhood education as to prepare children for the responsibilities of later study, or work?  Is relationship simply a tool to make instruction easier? A red herring when our true role is instruction to make children able to overcome barriers of social exclusion? Or are children going to be allowed to rule in some innocent-but-not-innocent kingdom where their wills are supreme? How might adults boundary their time, their energy?  What is the role of parent well-being in the healthy family? Do children have to be the key agents of their learning, their behaviour, their relationships?

The title of this blog post was deliberately misleading: my granddaughter did not intend to learn about rock formation or the planets any more than I intended to teach her. What we intended was some nice time together, a rare occasion for just the two of us in a home environment, and specifically in outdoor and indoor play.

What come from it for me is reflection on the nature of the adult-child relationship, and not just at home, but in the educational processes outside the home too.  What is the child in the family? What is the child in the family in the school community?  We are at the heart of the argument Ruth Swailes and others have tried to engage Channel 4 in this week about a programme they plan to air tomorrow. In her blog, Ruth argues (and I agree with her) that co-regulation is the effective way for children to learn how to make appropriate responses – but the reason a programme about training your child using dog-training techniques is even considered is that questions such as the above are not seriously open to scrutiny.  There is still room for discussion in lots of these areas – but TV sensationalism will not help us.

I know that with the ways we are swinging and falling and dividing among ourselves there is little or no energy for this debate right now – but when might we get the time?  Because the dog clickers are ready, and TV companies want the viewers, and will court all sorts of insanities to get them: the discussions will not wait.

 

Emmett and Caleb and

The book Emmett and Caleb is a simple story about two friends, an exploration of friendship DE186CC4-0C87-4FD2-B161-7040A806FA69not unlike DuBuc’s Up the Mountain. Hottois and Renon give us a bear and a deer who live next door to each other, and we follow them through a year and through the ups and downs of their friendship. They live in a world where a deer can check the internet in bed, and where a bear can roast chestnuts.

Ian Eagleton has already laid bare much of the complexity around this relationship in his revealing interview with the author, which is linked here. Karen Hottois says so much in her responses I couldn’t better it. There is lots more, both in the book and the interview  – nature, landscape, the seasons, freedom: I’ve tagged this post “spirituality” precisely because of this richness and the interior life of the characters it reveals.

Sarah Ardizonne the translator has deliberately chosen to use the word “love” where the French original uses “aimer, ” as an indicator of the relationship between the two characters, and Karen Hottois is clear about her intention when she talks with Ian:

To me, Emmett and Caleb are friends but I did indeed deliberately write in such a way that they might be something else. First of all because I think that the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut and because I wanted my readers (children and parents alike) to be able to interpret it as they want. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when I’m told that same-sex parents enjoy the book and can identify with it.

Let’s unpick that paragraph a moment. Hottois isn’t sidestepping the question about the relationship between the two animals at all; rather she is meeting a very big question about friendship head-on.  What language do we use for a strong male-male relationship?

To start with I want to return to this blog post from a while back. I based it on the illuminating messages of Dennis Tirsch, which I expanded to say that

The sacred is not defined by how it might be attained but by how it is  boundaried by reverence.

And this caution, this reverence, is what gives me great joy when reading Emmett and  Caleb – as much as when a friend calls me to meet.  It is there too in the physicality of relationships: hugs, the touch of a hand, whatever; and in the ways these physical expressions of friendship are like and unlike the ones that are part and parcel of being a dad, or even part and parcel of more involved romantic and intimate relationships. Except I’m not sure I like intimacy as a euphemism: Emmett and Caleb do not have a sexual relationship that we can see, but their relationship is certainly intimate. In a certain sense  whether their relationship is sexual doesn’t matter in the story: real intimacy is what is at the heart of the book.

Now, this sounds like a cop-out. “They don’t need to be gay like that, just really good friends” sounds like something from my parents, and that’s not what I think at all.  I do think that Love is a powerful word, and maybe it is scarily powerful for many men, but physical expressions of intimacy are not impossible. I take joy when I meet a friend in the Weston Cafe for coffee; likewise I have friends I can cry with, share poems with; friends I have taken a cup of tea in bed; friends I can dance with, borrow clothes off; friends I kiss when I haven’t got a cold; friends I have lent my dressing gown to (and readers of Emmett and Caleb will understand the references). With some friends I share really difficult stuff about my emotions, or about the pains of growing old, or the schlep of parenthood.  The Venn diagrams for all these would look like a kaleidoscope, and changes in culture change the patterns we discern, but it isn’t easy, because the word Love is not always accessible to men.

Sometimes that feels unfair: love is such a complex and involving thing, but it should be possible for men to use the term.  It’s there, but not nameable. It “dares not speak its name” because its meaning is so often seen as not complex, a simple dart of Cupid.  I cannot deny the two characters in this book that feeling, of course: books are interpretation places and anyone who comes to a book can approach it and savour it as they wish.   I can also see the tender and committed affection between bear and deer  at various points when they are tearful, or sharing the winter cold, or whatever – but it is as complicated for Emmett and Caleb as it is for us. I called this post Emmet and Caleb and because whatever the interpretation of their relationship, it stands for so many others.  They stand for me and my friends. When the deer and the bear struggle to express their feelings and they tussle about poems and messages, I am fully in agreement with Karen Hottois when she says that

the contours of a relationship aren’t always clear-cut.

This emerged last year in the context of professional use of the word Love, too, which I discussed and is increasingly present in children’s literature. In Keith Negley’s Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too) , which I have mentioned before, and which comes up in the work on masculinities and fatherhood Mat and to some extent I have been exploring, seriously characteristic, even caricature male figures – superheroes, wrestlers – are shown to have a similar relationship to their emotions. I am glad they are vulnerable – very glad this vulnerability is on show in a book for children.  Mat calls it an “optimistic and liberating story of starting down the road to a sense of emotional freedom for the modern man and father.“ Emmett and Caleb, too, live in a world where they enjoy the change of seasons, a last dance at the end of a party, thinking about each other’s birthdays… They do not live in a bloke culture where everything is painfully clear cut. And I am glad they don’t – and again, glad that this relationship is open to interpretation, to discussion, to ambiguity. My world is like that, too.

To concentrate on who Emmett and Caleb might be “in real life” or what that real life might consist of is to miss something important: the role of closeness in male friendship, a sustaining, honest closeness.

Emmett brought Caleb his dressing gown. They stayed there, keeping each other warm.

Together, like that, they could last the whole winter.

Yes, we read this and really believe they could.

 

Never Neat

I had a conversation the other day with one of the leaders, to my mind, of Early Years philosophy and practice, a man who describes himself as “Theorist by instinct, Pracademic by experience,” Jan Dubiel. We were thinking about how the transition into training, writing, Higher Education, &c., from Early Years is tricky because our first instinct is to think first of the wellbeing of the children in our care.  This isn’t really a high-minded and self-sacrifical statement, just that the practice of day-long working with young children is so all-engossing, it is hard to look up and see the other things looming.

I was talking to him while I was down at the allotment in the sunshine – that is, I was at my allotment in the sunshine; I don’t know where he was, but we were talking on the ‘phone, and when we had finished I watered, and netted, watered some more and picked courgettes, and I thought and thought about the lack of neatness of the professional world of what he calls the “pracademic.”   I think we crave neatness, sometimes, and whether we achieve it or not, it says something to many of us about how much we can control our thoughts, or professional lives. Maybe the single-minded, plan-ahead hunter caught the gazelle aeons ago and it stuck. I don’t know: if so, I expect my ancestors were scavengers…

But this neatness has down sides. It suggests, for example, that orthodoxy is linear, or internally consistent and somehow wins because of this. This in turn might suggest that the monolith of an educational theory or practice is valid because it is massy and impassive; those who oppose it are dashed against the rock of its certainty. I am very wary of it: life is too complicated, families are too messy; what general theory might suggest does not mean that it can be reduced to “all children must,” still less “unless you do this as a teacher, the children will fail.”

Life is not neat. If I were to extend the idea from this previous blog post I might suggest that the lived experience of the professional educator is a task not unlike the complex task of literary criticism: we might, as Margaret Meek says,

…take the simplicity of the words for granted…but each double-page spread with its three words of text is full of possibilities.

How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, p12

I worked this morning with marvellous people from Home Start, a charity working with “families who are having difficulties managing parenting for a variety of different reasons:” we read Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and (thanks to the complexity of the book, I rather think) they got my point at once.  These are people – often volunteers – who understand that all children are not the same; all families are complex, full, like a picture book, of possibilities beyond the simple statement, half-quotes from past lives, chances missed or taken.  The task of working with children and families requires a skill beyond the monolith, or beyond the first glance. This allows practitioners and practice-focused academics and trainers an interesting leeway: we are not joining a church, but enhancing the lives of children and families. Disagreement in one thing (or even a raft of things) does not make heretics, but can make thoughtful practitioners.

I did say “can…”

 

 

The Great Events?

55BCE, 597CE, 793CE, 1066CE, 1282CE, 1534CE, 1588CE, 1649CE, 1707CE, 1714CE, 1922CE…  pick your date for an event or series of events that define England, or Britain. There are others, and the ones I have chosen may say more about my poor historical knowledge or prejudice than anything. There are also occurrences which pass without comment at the time or which we cannot date certainly because no record exists: when really does Britain cease to be Roman? Or when did the last wolf die? Why does one date matter? Will the referendum on 23rd June 2016 be eclipsed by a final unequivocal date or will that be the one history picks as the The Date We Left Europe? The Date Things Changed?

We cannot dictate, and maybe can’t predict with certainty. Perhaps something else will intervene to take precedence – the failure of electricity, a catastrophic event such as the melting of the polar ice? What does strike me is that this simplistic history suggests that one date was important, and that the messiness before or after are somehow lesser occurrences that don’t matter. And that the massive changes were not contested, opposed, or that those who did contest were ridiculed, sacked, sidelined, imprisoned, killed. I feel as if I signed the Terms and Conditions for C21st without reading them, and I think of Tom Holland’s brilliant book on the Millennium, where in effect Western Europe did try and sign particular Ts&Cs only to find a new millennium just as complex and hard. A single date just doesn’t work. 1066 is one date: do we (and I need to exclude historians here, of course) consider the harrying of the North?

The counsellors in the decades/centuries of Christian consolidation; subjugated  Saxons after the death of Harold in 1066; recusant Catholics – all these people would attest that these great events are never simple. These “events that shaped Britain” were the cause of pain and unquiet: families divided, economic disturbance… and we are seeing the same in our time, in ways I never thought to see, never wanted to see. “Project Fear,” in which the UK suffers terrible upheaval, may not come to pass, or it may – but this evening I am wondering quite what will come. I suspect it’s going to be big, and an unpleasant change. I am gloomy, and predict a rowing back from liberties won, well-being improved. I feel the sharp tug of solastalgia.

Why is this part of this blog? Over the next few days I will have the pleasure of being outside with learners of various kinds. Some theory, lots of practice: a challenge for me, but a very welcome one. I will be making a plea – directly and indirectly – for the pleasure of being outside to be seen as a driver of a life well lived. Ecological wrongdoing in the Anthropocene will impact on people’s wellbeing; economic changes, greed and “austerity” planning may mean that parks and woodland will change. But I hope that people – maybe the young people I meet or the families they will work with – will still see the energy of plants and bugs and the movement of clouds and look for joy and delight and maybe transcendence.

Because all these things are transient, this Jeremiad included. And I think that with the little time I have, I want to help people find joy in the small things, and see our interconnectedness with bigger ones:

I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Yes, Mary Oliver does it again, this time in her poem Rice.

What Not to Read

Kieran Egan in his book Teaching as Storytelling suggests that topics should be chosen according to a model that starts from Identifying Importance (he is using The Vikings as an example), and asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

He is asking the teacher to question how does the topic impinge on the child learner as “they begin to understand that the conflicts they see in their families and neighbourhoods and schools, and the conflicts they feel within themselves, are analogous to those that have shaped history,” and how “that values of tolerance, self-restraint and so on are essential for all of us to practice as prerequisites to civilized life.”  Although Egan does take this a lot further (of course), there’s more than a bit of “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here” in this approach to the Vikings – but if we think about this in terms of choices of books to buy for/share with children, it makes an interesting set of questions:

  • What is most important about the themes in this book?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

What books might I put in a pile that if I wouldn’t ban them I would sigh and think “Do I have to?” I wonder if this set of questions makes me think beyond my usual repertoire, so to test it I reach behind me (with a brief look at the lovely sunset 998976B0-CB3F-4424-BD5A-EE770D074DBBand a quick compulsive posting of the evening skyline) to find a book. The first to hand is the battered (and ergo much loved) family copy of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Since I won’t be exploring this Potter in my Reading Spree talk on Saturday, it will do very well.  It is not my favourite Beatrix Potter but maybe that’s to the good as well.  Let me use these three questions on it, and see what emerges.

What is most important about the themes in this book?

Beatrix Potter’s iconoclastic red squirrel uses riddles to annoy the owl Old Brown when Nutkin should be polite. The tensions are around respect and the consequences of crossing boundaries of politeness. It seems to me that what is most important is rule breaking; tasks are not completed, authority is insulted, danger is courted.

Why should it matter to children?

Naughtiness and rebellion against authority are important themes in the literature of childhood. The Dionysian child brings Carnival and chaos to the adult world: in the Topsy-Turvy of Lewis Carroll, the child Alice is wondering but quite prosaic in the face of the Wonderland Carnival of the Hatter and the shower of cards that tries to overpower her; George brings chaos and murder by poison to his nasty, controlling Granny with his marvellous medicine. Squirrel Nutkin is a jester D4B73E98-8D7D-4D5E-A143-A529F50EDE2F.jpeg with “no nice manners” who takes his jesting too far.  These characters and situations matter to children as they explore the “what ifs” of denying respect, especially in a literary landscape where being good is rewarded.   With Squirrel Nutkin (and many of Beatrix Potter’s male anti-heroes) we are looking into the same, magically enticing world (although in reverse) as the unfortunate Bertha in Saki’s The Storyteller in that what matters is what happens on the disputed land between riot and being “horribly good.”

What is affectively engaging about it?

The uncertain territory allows for an ambiguous outcome, and thus a real sympathy emerges not for the much-put-upon Old Brown, but for his relentless tormentor. The storytellers who go down this path look for affective engagement with chaos and anti-heroes. No wonder the children in Saki are entranced; no wonder the reader delights in collapse of school authority in Matilda or the downfall of George’s grandma, or the disruptions in lives when the wind blew umbrellas inside out and whirled the postman’s letters up… In Beatrix Potter Carnival delights, but the trespassing Benjamin Bunny and the stoner Flopsy Bunnies learn their lesson. What seems to me to be engaging is the piling of misdemeanour on misdemeanour. How naughty can this get before order, tedious and safe, is restored? How naughty can I be before I get into trouble and the “mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things” (Saki again) returns?

***

So this use of Egan is part of my method for my talk at the Reading Spree. How do we look at books when we are educators?  What use is this book that I want to dismiss as anodyne, or creakily outdated? I want to explore ways we can look at children’s literature that allow a sideways glance – and particularly at stories and genres we may not like. This is not to say that any and every book is worth wasting precious story time in a pressured school day, but may be something of a recantation of my views on Blyton or Dahl or Walliams or Rowling, on the Rainbow Fairies and the Mister Men.

Or it may not. I have already Tweeted Joyce Grenfell’s devastating critique of the fake and formulaic Writer of Children’s Books who clearly has never been to Make-Believe Land, and I may have to rant. There is already a section marked NSFW.

Pottery

Some twenty years ago I used to “do pottery” at the local FE college. Two hours on a Monday evening and a kebab on the way home.  Today, courtesy of a birthday present (thank you, Lizzie), I was back – same room, probably some of the same tools, same mistakes of misplaced omnipotence and self-criticism.  Different tutor, still good: thank you Activate Learning, and thank you, Graham, for your skills as a tutor.

Tutor intro.  Tour, health and safety. “No running with scissors” was not mentioned – but beware the dangerous chemicals and the clay dust.   And then into the task. A demo which showed how very easy it was.

First attempt. IMG_0084 Dismal. In trying to make something small, I had something fiddly, and the techniques I hoped to use needed to be applied more delicately and with a more practised hand. A small pot became a pile of used clay and my ambition took a bash. Been here before.

Second go:  The longer attempt and really (with a lunch break) the work of the day, 11:00-3:30, went a little better.   A larger piece, but it still took a long time and I had to unguess shortcuts, to keep the pace, to refine and design. I watched smooth surfaces appear for other people when my effort looked like something the Beaker People would have looked at and said whatever their language had for “Meh.”

The work later in the afternoon was not without challenge but did allow a certain amount of “distract and redirect” as I used slip to decorate the misshapen vase. Plans and designs revised, the learner supported and encouraged – and forgiven, if that’s the right word – for assumptions and wrong turns.

What went right. Well, it wasn’t perfect, and I hesitate to think how I would have felt if it were being marked, and certainly on such an initial piece of learning and creation. Would I have tried harder?   Paid more attention?  Worried more? I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson’s warning (in Children’s Minds) that

” …if an activity is rewarded by an external prize or token…it is less likely to be enjoyed.”

and the next point might be (for me and the pottery) that I might have decided, given the freely chosen nature of activity, not to participate. Not everyone is the same: for some, the medal for Salsa or the position in the running club league is an important factor: but this is not universal. I am brought to consider pedagogy and curriculum because of my engagement as a learner.

IMG_0085

I wonder if every teacher/educationalist should be asked to go back to something and try to think about their learning.   The “There is Only Knowledge” team might find that no amount of knowledge organisers substitute for the feeling of clay, or the knack of smoothing a wet joint into place, and the “Experience is Everything” crew might find something too, about where clay comes from, how its history has been so close to human development, how art and colour and chemistry work together. We might find common ground; we might learn something important. So too might the pigeon-fancying behaviourists (particularly watching themselves when things go wrong) and the “It’s All About Self-regulation” group, watching how as adults we motivate and self-regulate (and help others to regulate) with breaks for a drink, chatting, swearing….  And my contention would be that when we observe our own learning we are acutely aware of the humanity of the learner. This isn’t a suggestion that everyone should take up dancing or running, or pottery, but perhaps that we might have a richer professional development experience if all CPD – or a large part of it – were directed to reflection on how we learn, and then ask how we might apply those insights to our own pedagogy.  We would have to be bold and committed for this to work as trainers or learners: genuine reflection is hard.

Observing ourselves as learners is not easy – but it has an important advantage over 4D8ACABD-AE50-4B68-BF32-406F01ED4ABCwatching our students or being observed by our leaders, and that is that we are less free to persuade ourselves “the children really love it” (or “won’t notice” in the case of baseline assessment) or “the students lap it up.”  We are certainly much less able to disentangle ourselves from the learner’s impatience, or the sense of a desire to build the perfect pot (the photos show I didn’t quite manage this) – even the sense of envy or discouragement at the gorgeous things other people produce.  And in Higher Education we might look again at our modes of assessment: writing at the same time as our students are on the essay treadmill we put them on is a revelation!

I want to conclude with praise for the kinds of tutors who work as my tutor did today: a judicious mix of direct “do-it-like-this” instruction, demonstration, leaving us to try, and advice. It seems to me the best way to respond to the humanity of the learner is by listening, responding but never letting go of the role of instructor where it is necessary. There are times when each of these is needed, and it is the professional educator (not the politician, I would contend, but that is by-the-by) who is best placed to find the way to teach. Top tips too easily become high horses (if that turn of phrase works) and teachers are better than that. As Donaldson concludes (and I will too), we have to keep trying

to help our children meet the demands we impose on them

and to do that, a deficit model of the child  learner is simply not enough:

…we must not call them stupid. We must rather call ourselves indifferent or afraid.

 

 

Family

This is me:Me, study, Christmas

 

and my brother. 3378BABA-5EAA-47A0-939F-9BA534BA2A83

 

He is quite a bit older than me, and is, in fact, my older half-brother. This is the story:

Our mum has a baby, my brother Glenn, but her husband Jack is killed at sea in WWII. Eventually (in the 50s) she marries my dad, another sailor, Ray, and I come along. A series of miscarriages and my brother being abroad mean I am, more or less, an only child at this time.  Mum dies the year I go to University and my brother and I lose touch. We are eventually brought back together some ten years ago. I am, physically at least, quite like Glenn – to be honest, a shorter and -erm – less athletic version of my brother (and of his son, my half-nephew, Ben).

(I also have another half-brother and half-sister, Mark and Hannah, who are the children of my dad’s second marriage, to Val. Hannah is only about six months older than my oldest child, Joe, but for this post I want to mention Glenn and me).

Glenn is a fool and I am not. That is to say, his role in his local Morris side is that of a fool and I am in no way nimble enough to be a Morris Man. We share common interests in folklore, although mine tend to be bookish and his practical. We are both gardeners. We both have beards and white hair. I had quite a bit of contact with Glenn as I was growing up: I loved it when he came home, loved going on his motorbike from Blandford to Badbury Rings, loved going to visit him and his family – loved his garden, and walking on the wide beaches of the North East coast. In some ways he gave me experiences of outdoors, folklore and family that stay with me. Habitus. We aren’t twins separated at birth – but I am astonished by how strong I now perceive his influence on me to be. Was it really his dancing that led me to Wild Spaces, Wild Magic? How does his social circle of beardy beer drinkers influence my choice of appearance and choice of beverage? Was it our mum’s deep admiration of him that convinced me that here (in some respects) was what growing up was about? How, in the twenty or so years we didn’t meet, did those choices Glenn had made tell me about being who I am?

I am (as I have been before) reflecting on “history’s curved shell,” as R S Thomas says in his poem Eheu Fugaces, on how pasts come together in the present, on these strands of influence, and the more I think, the more I find the Nature/Nurture argument often too simplistic. There are physical differences as well as emotional ones, beliefs and life decisions we have made that are different, life circumstances (his losing his dad so young, for example) that are just not replicated…  Where do our choices come from, and how are they determined by people we meet, or see, or imagine? How do we look back at attitudes and choices?

*

To change tack: lots of things conspire to get me thinking about my family at the moment, but (for the purposes of this blog), I want to think about the struggle for identity so vividly described in Anthea Simmons’ Lightning Mary, a fictionalised account of the early life of Mary Anning.  In it, Mary is trying, with a “head full of pain and sorrow and anger” to establish what it means to be a scientist, coming from a poor background with numerous hardships; how does she identify as a woman without being seen as a potential wife and mother?

“Did I ask to be a woman? I did not… I hate babies and husbands and men and being poor and the sickness and the toil and the injustice. What have we done? Why are we to be punished so?”

Into Mary’s mouth are put the cries of impatience of generations.  Her mother responds,

“Whoever told you that life was fair, Mary? Not I. It is what it is.”

The injustices and hardships are depicted brilliantly in the book: her clashes with the landed gentry and “proper” scientists, her sustaining but troubled friendship with the precious young Henry de la Beche…  Mary becomes a real heroine, although as Simmons acknowledges in her afterword, her story is “profoundly sad,” and the novel ends, rightly, on a down-beat.

My brother’s and my story is not (so far!!!) sad, and neither of us, I think, is a frustrated genius, “born to blush unseen” but we (all) tread the difficult line between self-identity, the urge to be Henry de la Beche’s “friend and scientist” and Anning’s mother’s line that “life is what it is.” But our similarities and differences do highlight the ambiguities and tensions of upbringing and choice, of lack of freedom in various generations, of societal expectations. For us it is just ordinary life, in so many ways, but for Anning it was painful and frustrating.

“There were days, dark days, when I felt as if I had lined up for a race and then been told to take two steps back because I was poor, and then two steps back because Father had been a Dissenter, and then ten steps back because I was not a man…”

Anning in the novel is prickly and wilful, but also determined, resourceful – and ultimately doomed (the passive voce is important, I think) to be by-passed by the scientific revolutionaries with whom she deals. The book is a rallying- cry for young woman thinking about science as a career. It is also a plea for educators to remember how complex the stepping stones of privilege and the nets of disadvantage can be.