Dear Mr Gove

I was educated in the 1970s and 80s and was not taught any grammar; yet left state school and gained a First Class degree from a Russell group university, in English.  Formal grammar was taught as part of my degree and being a logical person, I enjoyed grammatical analysis for its mathematical quality.  I loved all the round and square brackets, the labels you had to add and the fact that you could (and I did) get 100%.  But I don’t believe it made me a better writer or made me appreciate literature to a greater degree.

The first grammar tests are being sat in schools today.   These tests won’t improve standards in writing and may have a detrimental effect on the enjoyment of the literature which Gove is so keen for children to engage with.  I have been teaching grammar (in state schools) as part of analysing different texts for the past 17 years, but not in an abstract ‘feature spotting’ way.  These tests seem more designed to check that teachers are doing their jobs, than of any real benefit to the children.

And once again the tests will have taken attention away from ‘real’ learning as I have no doubt that teachers have spent many hours preparing their classes for these tests at the expense of other subjects or more enjoyable learning experiences.

Last September I joined a ladies’ social tennis group having not picked up a racquet for nearly 20 years.  And in the past few months I have understood in a very real way what it means to be back in the classroom , particularly for some of the students who struggle with literacy.  Teachers will recognise the frustration of giving students something challenging to write about and finding that full stops and capital letters fall by the wayside.  With tennis I have discovered exactly the same thing happening –   my tennis coach tells me to keep my head still, my arms fail to coordinate; I slow down my ball throw and my knees won’t bend.

But I will make progress because I enjoy it.  I am determined to improve because of the pleasure I  get when I am praised.  I am encouraged to take risks and when it goes right it feels great.  And that, I believe, is how real learning takes place.  With enjoyment, challenge and support.  My students engage with literature and language learning because I build those aspects of learning into my lessons – if you add more testing, rote learning and build in failure – standards simply will not improve.

My concerns for  English teaching are two-fold: firstly, that by building in ‘failure’ at such a young age (as young as 6 for children taking synthetic phonics tests – and yes, parents do care and will convey their anxieties to their children when they ‘fail’ to achieve the standard) we will be creating a group of disaffected children who will not be given the opportunity to read and engage with the wonders of narrative; secondly, we will create a generation of illiterate decoders – children who can work out what the words say and what parts of a sentence are, but who have no understanding of narrative, imagery, the journeys that a wonderful book can take you on.

Children should be immersed in literature from a young age without the fear of tests or failure.  My middle child didn’t want to read to me when she first started to bring books home from school.   I didn’t make her – I never made her finish a page or a story if she had had enough.  Aged 7 she is a prolific reader, who still doesn’t like reading out loud.  She is supposed to read to me every day, but I don’t force her.  I read stories out loud to her and she gets through a swathe of the library every week, happy to talk about what she has read and independently writing pages of stories which she rarely wants to share, but from which she clearly gets a great deal of (uncorrected) pleasure.

So, those are my thoughts really.  Not that they count for much.  It seems that 18 years of teaching English, 14 of them in inner city London, mean that I don’t know what I am talking about.  Unheard, alongside writers like Michael Rosen and linguists like David Crystal and hundreds of other voices on twittersphere.  Let’s hope that maybe, just maybe, Gove might start to listen to the evidence.  In the meantime I have to dash, as a class of thirteen year olds awaits me.  We will be engaging with literature in creative ways, thinking and immersing ourselves in it whilst we can.

It’s over. And I mean it this time.

Some relationships are just not healthy, particularly for self-esteem.  And my relationship with FB has been blowing hot and cold for some time.  This morning, before I had even seen her, I came to the decision that it was time I ended it.

It is not even a real relationship, yet it takes me on the same emotional roller-coaster: thrilled (someone likes my post),  paranoid (have I offended someone?), disappointed (I’ve not been invited).

It may just be me who experiences these pangs, but I suspect that FB envy is a much wider phenomenon.  And it is, quite frankly, ridiculous to put oneself through these (teenage) emotions as one approaches 40.

I am not someone who can just give it up or limit myself to one browse a day/week/month.  When I tried giving it up for Lent last year, I kept cheating and ended up guilt-ridden as well as paranoid.

As I lay in bed weighing up the idea, my biggest regret was losing all the contacts I have made with old friends and the long-distance relationships with friends abroad.  By deleting the account, will i be getting rid of all those friendships?  Of course not.  If a relationship is worth keeping, then it will happen outside of cyberspace.  The irony is that FB was created (according to the film) by people who struggled to form face-to-face relationships…

I am not saying that it has been all bad. We’ve had our highs over the years.  When I was a seriously sleep-deprived mother of 3 on maternity leave, FB saved my ‘virtual’ life providing me contact with an outside world which I was in no state to experience in person.  The summer of 2012 was a FB high – vicariously experiencing the joy of dozens of friends as they witnessed  the Olympic and Paralympic games.

But over Christmas, rather than feeling in control of my own page, I noticed that FB started asking me more direct questions and making suggestions about what I should be saying.  How are you feeling today, Nicola? How’s your day been, Nicola? What are you up to, Nicola?  What really?  You want the honest answer?   Do you really care?  That was the final straw.

When I end it, I don’t exactly know what will happen.  Will my previous posts just disappear – or remain as a permanent written record?  Will all my photographs be removed or will FB have some kind of ownership?  I guess all this is in the small print somewhere, but you don’t bother to read that sort of stuff when you first get involved in a relationship.

So, when I have deleted your virtual persona, please remember me.  The actual person rather than the little icon.  There are other mediums of communication and we could even have a face-to-face conversation.  It will go back to the old days of hearing about things a few days later, but with all the detail and gestures and story-telling.

I could, of course, be left completely in the dark.  Friendless, uninvited, uninformed and even more paranoid.  But I am willing to take that risk.  If you want to know what it’s like with feet back on planet earth then ask me when you see me.

So long, FB.

Hello world!

The Writing Thing

So, the writing thing is this: I haven’t written a blog for ages and people have been asking me why.  I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been getting on with other writing, but that would only be partially true.  Mostly it’s because life has been getting in the way.

My sacrosanct Thursday mornings – the only child-free-work-free three hours in the week set aside as ‘writing’ time – have been bull-dozered to one side by more pressing matters: coursework that had to be marked, job applications, interview preparation, parental visit, wedding stuff, a wonderfully self-indulgent shopping trip and catching up with friends.  One Thursday was ENTIRELY wasted waiting for a head teacher to telephone with the outcome of an interview I had had on the Monday.  You know there is no point sitting with two phones within sight at all times (and carrying them around, balanced on top of laundry and piles of stuff as you walk up and down stairs) or leaving the bathroom door open so you can hear them ring –  but I did it.   And lost a whole day waiting.  For nothing, it turned out:  the rejection letter was posted on Thursday and received on Friday.

But the novel has been there, making its presence known.  And (most) weeks I have managed some writing.  Not the 500 words a day needed to get it done quickly, but enough for me to be satisfied that it is still happening.

When I have had the chance to write for longer periods, it has astonished me how the characters have taken on lives of their own.  I thought I had created them, but a couple are proving to be very strong-willed (women) with stories of their own, taking the novel in unexpected directions.

Yesterday, when an idea came to me, I was in the middle of painting the garden wall.  As soon as I had finished and washed my hands of paint and cleaned all the brushes and put the pots back into position and the pork into the oven and the dustsheets into the washing machine and sat down with my pen and book, I also had a grumpy three year old who had just woken from her nap.  I managed to buy some time with an ice lolly, but then she was in my lap, pushing at my arms which couldn’t give her a ‘proper cuddle’ and write at the same time, clearly wanting my FULL attention and unimpressed by this new ‘baby’ who also required my concentration for just another five minutes , so I could squeeze all the last ideas out of it.  Lots of pages in my book look like the one I wrote yesterday – beginning in full sentences and paragraphs and then trailing into quick notes.  It is frustrating, but as a mother I have learnt that most activities in my life look very similar – at the end of the day my house is a testament to hundreds of half-completed jobs: washing half-sorted, a jigsaw half-completed, a meal half-tidied away, half-drunk cups of tea.

So the real child won (again) and the novel – my other creation, who is there, but only for me at the moment – was pushed out of the way. My novel is not going away.  It may remain a phantom for a bit longer, but it will find its voice -eventually.  It may not be shouting the loudest, but I know it is there.  Nudging me.

What did you say your blog was called?

I thought it was about time I stopped making people cry.  The trouble is, the joke I’m going to share is at my expense, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

You see, there is an elephant in the room.  I have been aware of her (for she is definitely female) for a number of weeks, but I have been less sure if anyone else out there is even aware of her presence.  And if I am the only person who knows about her, then, metaphorically speaking, she is not actually an elephant.

My reluctance to refer to her her will become obvious as soon as I name her – my simple, human need not to be laughed at.

Please don’t.  No, really.

So, the elephant.  She is the janester.  An innocent enough nickname when I hurriedly filled out the blog form in January.  A mild reference to my middle name and the name which has nothing to do with working with teenagers (Miss), mopping brows (Mummy) or my actual name – but rather something less serious and more creative – or that’s what I thought.

Little did I know that ‘the janester’ already exists as a term of reference, but with oh- such- different connotations from those I had hoped to express.

Ahem.  Are you ready?  I recently discovered, on a google search, that the janester is, in fact, “a sexy lady with a hairy ass”.  Yes, quite.  My reaction exactly.

When I stumbled across this term in the Urban Dictionary (a reference site I have had reason to use on a couple of previous occasions to check acronyms like LMAO) I went red with embarrassment and shame.  My immediate reaction was to change my blog name  to something more literary – N J Langston has a good authorial ring to it.  And then I wondered if I was the only person who didn’t know this term.  Had people been too polite to tell me?  Or did friends’ previous innocent queries about my blog name, in fact show their interest in some other life I was inadvertently living?

Once the paranoia had subsided, I decided to do a bit more research and discovered a whole load more Janesters out there.  There is a Facebook page, several twitter accounts, a Field Operative Jane “Janester” Sterling for the paranormal branch of the Intelligence Cleaner Agency and my favourites on Youtube with various janesters –  no make-up, glasses, rounded at the edges –  doing silly, very ordinary, cringe-worthy home video clips.  There is even one (with just 24 views) of a janester tapdancing in her garden –  posted horizontally. Like me, she doesn’t know how to rotate video clips the correct way round.

So where are these urban Janesters?  I don’t think they exist.  When you start to unpick the definition it really doesn’t stand up.  Is hairy sexy?  Does the woman suffer from hursuitism?  Is the lady a person of royalty holding onto her donkey?  Or is the ass her bearded idiot boyfriend?

Like all language, connotation is everything.  I have been the janester since before the Internet exited.  For now, I am going to embrace it.

And to avoid further embarrassment,  confusion or ambiguity, in the first edition of the suburban dictionary, you will find the following:

The janester (noun)

  1. an affectionate name derived from the female given name Jane.
  2. a writer fighting to get out

And the biggest irony since I posted yesterday?  Someone stumbled across this blog by typing the words sexy ass and youtube into a search engine.  I guess he will have been disappointed.

Rule the world

It amazes me how one song can have such power to affect me – and we are not talking about a great work, performed by an internationally renowned orchestra, but a corny love song by a boy band that I had no prior interest in, that manages to debilitate me every time I hear it.  When Take That sang it as the first song on their tour last year, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But I wasn’t expecting the wracking sobs that overwhelmed me.  They weren’t fanatical (although the people around me may have thought so) but cries that took me back to Watford General, Accident and Emergency department,  August 2008, 9 weeks pregnant and bleeding heavily.

I had had a miscarriage before and I knew that this wasn’t the slight bleeding that sometimes comes in the early weeks of pregnancy.  I had felt very faint whilst walking back from the library with the children and happened to be near to a friend’s house when the bleeding began.  By the time I was sitting on my own in A and E, I had already lost a lot of blood and my blood pressure was low enough that the nurse insisted on a wheelchair.  It was a mid-week morning and there were only two other people waiting – both young men, with what looked like physical work-related injuries. It was very quiet, very public and I recall sitting there, holding onto myself, desperately trying not to cry, when the song came on to the hospital radio.  I may have heard it before, but I didn’t recognize it.  The words, however, came across very clearly and stuck with me in the coming days until I found out the name of the band and the song.  I kept hearing them again and again in my head and I repeated them like some kind of mantra:  ‘you and me we can ride on a star/If you stay with me girl, we can rule the world/Yeah you and me we can light up the sky/If you stay by my side, we can rule the world.’

Unable to hold back the tears, I was rescued by the triage nurse who took me into a side room and supplied me with tissues.  I showed her the photo of my daughters that I always carry in my wallet  and told her that I was very blessed and would be fine.  Her kindness  – the fact she bothered to notice that I needed somewhere private and then listened to me and made me laugh – mean a lot to me.

An hour later, sitting in a cramped waiting room with other women in the gyne department, I knew how blessed I was.  A mother told me her daughter had had five miscarriages and this was her sixth.  She had no live children.  By the time I had been examined and miscarriage confirmed,  my husband had arrived from work and we were told they would do a scan to see if I needed further treatment.  I just wanted to go home and see the girls.  It was a waste of time.  I told my husband that although I always wanted a third child, there was no way that I could go through that again.

We were called into the room where we had had scans of our daughters in previous years.

And then, suddenly, miraculously, there she was.  Nine weeks, a fat comma with a beating heart.  Riding on a star and staying by my side.  I don’t know how she clung on whilst I lost all that blood, and probably her twin, but she did.

Today I put that song on whilst we were on our own.  Nearly three years old, but still my baby.  She clung on to me whilst I danced her round the kitchen, her eyes sparkling, her head tipped back, mouth wide open as I spun her around until we were both dizzy.  That song hits me deep in the gut each time I hear it.  But the sobs are grateful ones.  She stared deep into my eyes, head to one side, and asked “Are you crying, Mummy?”

‘Yes,” I said.  “But they are happy tears”

“You’re my friend”, she replied.

And I know that the words of the song may be sentimental nonsense, but with her by my side, who knows what might happen.

Creating childhood memories

I used to love the snow.  From the promise of it on the snow symbol stuck on by Michael Fish, to staying out playing until we could no longer bear the feeling of burning hands in sodden woollen gloves.

I remember the final assembly before we broke up for Christmas one year at primary school, sitting cross-legged on the cold wooden floors and glancing out to see the first thick flakes come swirling out from the heavy sky.  It was completely unexpected and I remember the thrill inside and the excited anticipation that buzzed around the room.  There was the time (although my sister tells me we did it more than once) when we drove up to Ditchling Beacon on the South Downs, with snow drifts high at the sides of the lanes, to a field usually occupied by sheep – going down on the sledge with my dad and wiping out at the bottom was both thrilling and frightening.  I think this was probably the first time that we used the wooden sledge with metal runners that was under the Christmas tree one year, decorated with a large red bow – it remained unused for three disappointing snowless years.

Whenever it snowed we made the most of it.  It was the only time my sister and I were allowed to play out in the road. Lines of children on sledges being pulled together and  great big snowmen.  There used to be a photograph of us in the back garden on the climbing frame in the snow – only a centimetre or two had fallen – but enough to warrant staying out and having fun.

When we were older, living in a different house, we were allowed to go over to the park on our own with the sledge.  There were two short, but steep banks which went around two sides of the park, with a cricket pitch in the middle.  These made perfect sledge runs.  If the paths in between hadn’t been gritted and you avoided the benches, you could have an impressive double run – although I also recall the pain when the sledge flipped and landed on top of my friend and I, and we lay there like stranded fish, unable to move from the pain and the laughter, tangled up in each other’s scarves. I think it was on the same day that we discovered that spitting out a Fisherman’s Friend created a surprisingly satisfying brown hole in the snow.  In my opinion, the taste of the lozenge wasn’t worth repeating the experiment.

So we reach the nub of the problem – my second daughter, now six, who has an aversion to the cold, the outdoors and specifically snow.  Where once I felt excitement, I now feel nothing but rising anxiety at any forecasts of snow.  The thing which really bothers me is that she won’t even try to like it.   She has proper Gortex gloves lined with fleece, so no chance of getting cold hands.  She has waterproof trousers (a luxury I never enjoyed), decent boots and her clothes are far more practical than the jeans that we had to wear.  And when we do have to venture out, even if she is being pulled along on a sledge, she manages to suck any joy out of the moment and ruin it for everyone else.

So it was just my eldest and I who went sledging last weekend on the field behind our house – on the same wooden sledge from Christmas all those years ago.  Having forgotten how to steer in the interim years, I resorted to girly apologetic screams of “Sorry, I can’t steer!  Sorry!” at the same time as exhorting my daughter to “LEAN BACK” so that we could go faster.  My eldest loved it – her cheeks bright red, her wellies full of snow, her hands freezing in sopping wet hand-knitted gloves.  At the bottom of the slope, all you could hear was squeals of laughter.

Should I place so much emphasis on creating positive childhood memories for my middle child? Is it something which she will grow out of? I don’t want her to miss out on having great memories of snowy days.  Or at least, that is my memory of those days. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight her memories of snow days will be good ones too – baking biscuits together, snuggling up on the sofa to read a book and watching us sledging from the safety of a bedroom window, whilst leaning up against a warm radiator.

For now though, in the words of one sixth former yesterday when I mentioned that snow was forecast again, “I am so over it”.  For this year, anyway.

Not blogging, just updating

No time to blog today as I am marking some wonderful independent coursework essays from my Y13s on the poetry of Wilfred Owen and a modern novel of their choice.  They have chosen 6 different ones.  Today is the kind of day when teaching feels so worthwhile as you see all the efforts of the past year and a half come together into some brilliant succinct, perceptive and insightful essays (and only one disappointing one so far from someone who left it all too late…)

Last night I started typing up the bits of novel that have been on scraps of paper since the summer and I have updated my profile as follows…

I have always written for myself but never thought I had anything worth sharing.  My alter-ego is single, lives in a garden flat in Bloomsbury with lots of cats and has already published several novels.  Her existence is a long way from my actual life (which, I should add, is a very fulfilling and happily married one, revolving around teaching teenagers English in a secondary school and running with/after three young children).  After eight years working part-time (and therefore finding the head-space) I am now brimming over with ideas and I started the blog as a warm up.  The ‘real’ grown-up novel kind of writing is going on privately at the moment.  If I go quiet, I hope it will be because I am getting on with it, rather than that I have run out of ideas.

Treading lightly


Last week we received a phone call from my father-in-law to say that his Auntie Joyce had late stage ovarian cancer and only had a few days left.  The thing which upset me most after this phone call was that we had been told that we shouldn’t go to see her, as she wouldn’t know us.  The part that bothered me was that no one she knew – regardless of whether she recognized them or not – would be with her in her final days.

I reckon most people have known, or still have, an Auntie Joyce in their family.   (Technically speaking, there are several Greats in front of Auntie as she was well into her 80s).  A woman who has never married, never had children and lived a relatively sheltered existence on the periphery of the wider family, without income or a career or known outside her loyal circle of friends. In photos she is often at the back, on the edge, slightly blurred or awkward, looking away from the camera.  But at every family occasion she is there.  I have several photos showing the back of her head.  On our last visit in November, she showed us some pictures of her when she was out and about on various camps and hikes with the Guides (something she did for many years in the time before Health and Safety regulations kicked in) and for the first time I saw pictures of her as a younger woman, still self-conscious in front of the camera, but relaxed, one of the group of leaders and doing something she loved.

She came to live on the Isle of Wight with her mother, when her brother married into a family who owned a property there – my husband’s grandmother.  I don’t know the full history, but Joyce nursed her own mother until she died and by the time I met my husband over twenty years ago,  she was living in an upstairs flat with black metal outside stairs, part of the converted bakehouse behind the main house, with a small walled garden within the larger garden in which she grew flowers.  The grandparents died and Auntie Joyce stayed on, with summer visitors and family visiting when they could, but increasingly isolated as it became harder for her to get out to the places she loved.  When concerns were first raised about her mental health several years ago, a carer was arranged, but this stopped as it was interfering with Auntie Joyce, who wanted to be out, not stuck at home waiting for someone to warm up some soup!

It says a lot that my nieces were in the middle of a game of ‘Auntie Joyce’ when the phone call came to my brother-in-law.  Auntie Joyce was an essential ingredient in annual visits to the Isle of Wight .  Summer holidays were Auntie Joyce turning up with a bowl of freshly picked blackberries or some runner beans from her garden, or a flower arrangement in a jam jar, picked for the children.   Until her final years she was very active, down on the beach with us, the first into the sea and initiating games.  She was swimming all through the warmer months until advised by her doctor not to, as she was getting dizzy spells and she could only go when someone could be with her.

The adults, of course, will always remember her for the runner’s up prize she received in the local village hall festival for her treacle tart.  Hers was the only entry.  And her Robin Reliant which one day spontaneously combusted and melted onto the driveway, much to the relief of her family who were afraid for anyone else on the road when she went out .  But the children (and the children that those adults were) will also remember a very kind and generous heart, who sent unusual parcels at Christmas (the chintzy handkerchiefs she sent one year are a common source of argument amongst my girls, who use them as covers for their teddies), had photographs of all her nieces and nephews through childhood, marriage, their own children and their children’s children all around her living room in between hundreds of nick-knacks picked up at jumble sales and clippings from newspapers.  Her walls were covered with her own paintings and drawings – she had an exhibition at the local library last year which she was so proud of.  We bought one of her paintings there – a view from our favourite  beach – its bold use of pastels, child-like perspective and simple shapes recall another more innocent time,  the kind of joy to be found in books like Swallows and Amazons – there is a red boat just waiting for children (and Auntie Joyce) to swim out to and clamber in.

When we go to the Isle of Wight next week for her funeral we are taking a frying pan.  And dry firewood (I can hear Auntie Joyce telling me I should collect some today so that it will be dry by next week).  We will buy sausages from the butcher next to her flat, a loaf of cheap white bread from the small co-op where she worked for many years and walk down the lane to the beach, past the remains of her little woodpile from last summer and the beach will be deserted.  We will make a fire ready, next to the groin, out of the wind and attempt with one match to light the fire.  We will cook our sausages in a little oil, wrap them in the bread and eat them – just like that.  There will be marshmallows on sticks, if we can get some and then one of us will have something else sweet in our pockets for the children, probably chocolate buttons – as dessert.  There will, of course, be a proper wake with cut sandwiches and slices of cake, but a hotel isn’t right for Auntie Joyce who always looked most awkward in that kind of setting.

We will eat our funeral feast on the beach, probably in the drizzle and racing to finish before the tide comes in, and remember Auntie Joyce, who trod lightly on this earth, but left an impression on us.  A youthful, life-giving and above all, a joyful one.


Fire on beach

Permit me a moment to cry.

Permit me a moment to cry.  My baby has stepped out on her own.  I have left her at pre-school: she is at the beginning of the conveyor belt of education and will be spat out at the other end at the age of 21, hopefully literate, numerate, clutching qualifications and surrounded by friends.

I didn’t feel quite the same sense of gloomy inevitability when my older two started pre-school. Perhaps it’s because it is January – dark anyway – and exacerbated by storms last night which kept us all awake.  The others began in September, a time of year that I have always found exciting and hopeful – fresh exercise books, colour on our faces and new stationery in plastic packets.  This was in stark contrast to leaving this morning in wet gear, avoiding debris being blown about and not fully recovered from colds.

It could simply be that she is my last.  As she starts on this journey alone, there is a clear sense of her no longer needing me in the way that she did when she was a baby.  My time as a ‘mother of young children’ is coming to an end and although I recognize that the challenges of having children becomes more difficult with greater risks, the all-consuming time where, literally, no time is your own, has come to an end.  For the first time in eight years I am able to sit down and write with no distraction.  The part of me which wants to be me again is crying out with joy– it feels like being ejected from a very long plane journey (often monotonous with little chance of proper sleep, nutrition or privacy) and seeing that there is a world to be explored.  I want to  jump, to take that leap, but I also see, with some sadness, the person left behind who, despite no experience of babies, embraced motherhood and spent eight very happy years in that apparently limited, but most fulfilling place.

As I left and asked her for a kiss and a cuddle for Mummy she said “no” and carried on cycling on the toy exercise machine.  Looking back as I walked out of the door, she was still cycling and smiling and entirely captivated by her own world.  I hope her journey takes her somewhere exciting.