Barefoot in the City.

Not so long ago and not so far away, my father was my teacher. I learned from him in different ways; through lesson, observation and emulation. Amongst so many other things, he taught me to swim, I watched him work, and I copied his writing.

His was a glinting calm presence, a wordless reassurance that all was well. There was no room for naysayers, no room for fear. Where he walked barefoot, I surely followed. Summer was no time for shoes!

So it was that, last Friday, after delivering a presentation at a City institution, I said my goodbyes, shook hands, left the building, nipped round the corner and took off my business shoes. The relief! I walked on in flip flops, surrounded by the fellow-relieved in trainers

Sadly, the streets of London are not paved with gold, happily, my flip flops glitter – and that is close enough for me. I set off towards Liverpool Street station in search of a breeze, a drink and a train home, in that order. I was rewarded with all three.

I walked into Broadgate with my iced pink wine, to watch Wimbledon on the big screen. What caught my eye, however, was not the epic men’s semi-final projected in front of me, but the man confidently striding past barefoot.

I looked down at my flip flops and up to meet Dad’s gaze. We smiled and raised our glasses in a toast to lessons learned, not lost.


Jail Time

On the way home from work on Friday, on the spur of the moment, I decided to visit Colchester Castle and make the most of my resident’s pass. It was dark, the gates to the park were barely open, and the Castle itself was about to close to the public for the night. Randomly, I thought I would shop local! in the museum shop. Specifically, I was looking for a Christmas tree topper with a difference and hoping for a Boudicca (ideally with chariot), but I would have settled for a centurion or Saint Helena (Colchester’s patron saint). Sadly, there were no such decorations, and nothing which could be adapted to suit.

As I was the only visitor, members of staff were eager to tell me what I was looking at; to act as my personal guides. I declined their help, I wanted to be alone with my ancestry, and I escaped to the Castle gaol. It ceased to be used for that purpose in 1835; but in its 600-year history, the gaol had held prisoners of war, convicted criminals, and suspected witches. A sound and light show is activated when visitors enter and reflects this latter part of the story – when Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ came to Colchester in the 1640s. He was busy here; more ‘witches’ were executed in Essex than in any other county in England. But we Colcestrians persist, as we must.

(Happily, dear reader, I headed home to make my own Christmas tree topper and – naturally – there is now a decorated dog topping my tree, to add to the two live ones ‘decorating’ its base).


My Back Yard

Long ago and not so far away, was my first home: 47 North Hill, Colchester, Essex, UK. It was there that my sister was born, and there that I was raised to realise that we are our stories. There, too, I learned to respect other stories, others’ stories: to understand that history is always in my back yard.

I was reminded of this, last weekend, when a friend and I visited Colchester on the first of this year’s English Heritage Open Days. After a backstage tour of the Mercury Theatre, and before a tour of 3 West Stockwell Street, we braved the crowds to enter Colchester Castle Museum. I’ve loved the Castle ever since I can remember, but I hadn’t been in to the museum for four years. On Saturday, entry was free for the English Heritage Open Day, but a ‘special offer’ to local residents, of 13 months entry for £6.50, was irresistible. I shall now be a regular visitor. My ancestry remains on display, here the mosaic removed from the garden of what became number 47, previously the site of an extensive Roman villa. There, glimpses of the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon, glints of the recently uncovered Fenwick Treasure, and gasps of: Colchester, surrender?

To which, of course, I answer: Never!


No-one Puts Jacqui in the Corner!

This is a guest post. Recently, I spoke with a friend about her dyslexia and the impact it has had on her. I encouraged her to write about it, and she did! Here she shares her experience of growing-up dyslexic and her enthusiasm for lifelong learning, together with her determination to succeed:

I’m coming to the end of a long hard seven years, but what an amazing seven years it’s been!

In 2011, I made the decision to return to formal education, not for career development but for personal enlightenment and satisfaction. I did it with the determination to show what I could do to everyone who put me down when I was growing-up. To all the educators who called me thick, stupid and lazy – you were wrong!

This summer I will graduate with a BA (Honours) from the Open University. When I started school in 1966, I didn’t hear the word ‘dyslexic’, I heard ‘she’s not academic’, or ‘she keeps herself to herself’. That little girl wanted to scream out ‘I want to read but I can’t make sense of it!’ After struggling through school for a few years, I was entered for the Eleven Plus examination, together with my classmates. Failing that examination, as I was bound to do, meant that I was sent off to the local secondary modern school, straight into the special needs department. Once there, I fell in love with any practical skills work I was given – metalwork, cookery, woodwork, needlework. But…I still wanted to learn those academic subjects.

Life became harder when I turned 13 and my mum and dad separated, so I had to move house and school. But, at this new school, I wasn’t sidelined into a special needs department, I was kept in mainstream education. Even better, I had a fantastic English teacher who helped me to achieve four Certificates of Secondary Education. I was able to go to college and follow a secretarial course. From the age of eight, all I’d ever really wanted to do was follow my dad into the Royal Air Force, and soon I was able to do this, too. I was 17 years old and wanted my dad’s praise.

Later, when I’d had children, I took jobs in retail to fit in around childcare. I continued to take every opportunity I could to study and to learn, taking courses in IT, employment law, and health and safety (to name a few). But I still wanted to do more and still felt the need to show my mum and dad that I wasn’t thick, lazy or stupid. This brings me to 2011, when I took the decision to start studying for my university degree. I started with the humanities – history has always fascinated me, I shared that interest with my mum. I soon changed to an open degree so I could study many more diverse subjects.

Not long after, I was finally statemented as having dyslexia, this opened the doors for so much support. Financial assistance followed, so did practical help – I now have the use of assistive technology, including software which has helped me write this blog post through dictation. What I want to say here, my message if you like, is never give up! Always go for your dreams, don’t let anyone put you down! Now, I can say to all those educators who pushed me aside, ignored me and failed to help me ‘Fuck you! Look at me now!’

I cannot wait for my graduation ceremony this summer, even though I’d love to share it with my mum and dad and they’ll be missing…


What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

Something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Carver was given his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 1987, and wrote this poem based on that fateful consultation with his physician. It begs questions of miscommunication, misunderstanding and discomfort – of what is said and not heard, of what is heard and not understood and, of course, of what goes unsaid.

“What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: Collected Poems. 


How My Father Raised Me

Nayyirah Waheed, ‘Salt’ (2013)

Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.


Waiting Room – The Chelsea Physic Garden

Four acres of heaven in the centre of London. On one perfect sunny May morning I visited, as I’d wanted to for years. I was waiting to collect my new passport in Victoria, so I took a stroll and that stroll brought me here: a garden on the banks of the River Thames founded in 1673 by The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It is thanks to the later generosity of Sir Hans Sloane, that the enterprise continues – his lease of the four acres to the Apothecaries for £5 per annum in perpetuity is more valuable now than ever. After an educational tour with two volunteers, Sheila and Eric, I wandered the property alone before sitting down to an excellent lunch in the sunshine. Two hours well spent, I left to walk back to collect my passport, stopping for a little while at the Royal Chelsea Hospital to chat to people setting up the Chelsea Flower Show. The Chelsea Physic Garden had given me perfect waiting room.

Lunch – Asparagus, Jersey Royals and Soft Boiled Egg
The Living Roof



8 March 1994/ 8 March 1995

International Women’s Day recorded in two diaries – the first, when I was teaching English in Symi, Greece; the second, when I was teaching English in Rhodes, Greece.

Tuesday 8 March 1994 – I start the day on painkillers, lack of sleep has left me with a blinding headache and work to do means there’s no chance of a lie-in. The sun is hot and the wind only light, so I spend as much time as I can outdoors. I walk to Nimborios and back for much-needed exercise; the experience is tranquil, breezy and restorative. Yet, once back in Gialos, for a reason I can’t fathom, everything seems to me to happen stupidly and in slow-motion until 6pm, when, out of the blue, V comes to school to give me wild crocuses – their beautiful scent permeates the classroom. I’d forgotten it was International Women’s Day – he reminded me. Other gifts include an octopus and the unsolicited loan of three books from a young man’s ‘philosophy’ (his definition may work with his mother, but is vastly different from mine. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?) collection. This last donation to the cause arrives in a battered supermarket bag with a large bar of chocolate, which I am told I can keep and eat. I do. I don’t touch the books. One student, who prides himself on rarely even attempting assignments, has decided his gift to me will be all work set since January finally completed and submitted. That’s my reading sorted for the next week, then. After school, I collect a cassette of music from M, take it back to my apartment, and cook, drink and sleep while listening to it.

Wednesday 8 March 1995 – Extremely strange dreams overnight, but still wake feeling rested. A soaking wet start to the day has meant that the screaming schoolchildren normally outside my window from early in the morning are all indoors. The rain soon stops and the day becomes sunnier, hotter and breezier. I head out to visit private students, before coming back for lunch, then going in to school. It’s a quiet day, the boss’s mother-in-law died yesterday, so he’s out. This delays being paid yet again. Feel fed up, am owed money by my private students, too. I resent having to ask for my earnings, as though they’re charitable donations. In a fit of pique, decide to spend my remaining drachmas on a movie ticket. At 21.15, meet up with three friends to go see ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’. The cinema is almost empty. Looking around, there are 11 other people in the auditorium – all of whom I realize I know. Six of the audience are my students, two are bar staff from the ‘in’ place round the corner, and the other three are a colleague and her sisters. We all sit together and chat through the less-than-inspiring show. I head home, broke, and spend 40 minutes on the phone to my sister having a moan. That done, I decide to read myself to sleep with a book I haven’t picked up in two months. Inside the back cover, tucked away for safe keeping, is 35,000 drachmas. I love a happy ending.


February 1, 1996

I was back in my home town of Colchester, at Colchester Institute, studying for my teaching diploma. These notes are taken from the diary I kept at the time.

Up at 5 a.m. after very vivid dreams in which I’m haunted by visions of my college tutors. Is there no escape? Spend the time I’ve gained from being startled awake on writing an assignment. As ever, I keep BBC Radio 4 on in the background – they cheerfully announce that January was the dullest since records began in 1909. Great. I’m tired, it’s cold and it’s dull (though to be fair, it does brighten up later). Assignment done, I go to get a haircut, then visit one of the tutors who’s haunting my sleep. I’ve passed my teaching practice, he tells me. Massive relief until I realize that I now have to plan the next one and finalize my project proposal. Briskly teach my two hours’ cover class at a nearby school (the extra money is very welcome). After college, I go with half a dozen other students to ‘The Hole in the Wall’ ( the nearest pub – built in a hole in the Roman Wall. The joys of living in Britain’s oldest recorded town). I treat myself to a swift tomato juice with way too much Worcester sauce, then make my excuses and leave as the assessment post-mortem begins. I can only take so much. To switch off, I head to the Odeon to watch ‘Heat’ – decide that as life mantras go: ‘Have nothing in your life you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds flat when you spot the heat around the corner’ is pretty cool. Fixate on the Pacific-view villa used as a location in the film – it’s stunning. My two hours of escapism done, I catch the bus back to my railway-view house – it’s dark. There appears to be a large black bin bag on the doorstep. Luckily, I carry a torch as there are no street lights. In the flashlight, the large black bin bag turns out to be a former colleague who has found out where I live and wants to bitch about work while fishing for it. Get rid of him sharpish as I’m unlocking the front door, though he continues to lurk, Hammer-horror style, outside for a while. Cook, eat, bath, write, then to bed – after checking the street view. All the shadows have now joined forces and there’s a blanket of darkness in the sky and on the ground. Good night.