As my son 'revised key words for year 4', it became clear that his list of spellings this week contained all the proof you need to refute the teaching of reading and spelling through phonics.
I present… five ways to pronounce '-ough' in English:
English is not a phonetic language
In the last couple of years in the UK, the methodology of phonics has, delightfully, been converted into a government-devised and compulsory 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1.
Kids who know how to read can fail this check, if they baulk at pronouncing made-up words using the rules of phonics.
They are then given remedial attention — to get better at phonics.
Which is then abandoned as children move through primary education… because it stops working once you are writing anything beyond 'cat'. For example, 'Kate'. Or 'Keith'. Or 'knight'.
I know, I know, the 'phonics method' is really about helping children put together sounds and letters as they begin to decode, but it's so limited, and seems, for all the hype and testing that surrounds it, to be valid only for a matter of months in a child's life, before being shrugged off and forgotten.
If you want to teach phonics, go to Holland. At least Dutch actually is a (relatively) phonetic language.
All the '-ough' words above come from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, Old Dutch or Old Danish roots, and all have come to be pronounced differently in modern English. I always remember a French pen friend despairing about learning English, when reading Black Beauty, and finding it impossible to know how to say 'ploughed fields'. 'Pluffed fields', and the subsequent giggling, will always live in my memory as a joyous linguistic moment. To say nothing of homophones (bough and… bow) and homonyms (bow(tie) and… bow (down)).
Stop plaguing our children with this narrow phonics ideology, which isn't historically or linguistically accurate, and tell them something about how language really works, and the amazing places it comes from. Which, along the way, might teach them something a bit more accurate about what 'Britishness' is — a composite of invading cultures, rather than Morris dancing, Wimbledon and St George and the Dragon (George was Palestinian anyway). While you help them learn to read, then spell, with all the methods that have been developed to do so. One of which is... pleasure.
Wait, just clambering off my soapbox.
PS. there's a 6th way to say '-ough': 'thorough' (-uh). And I have been. My pedantometer is all the way over at HIGH.
Otherwise I might find myself becoming complacent about being happy in motherhood.
Yup, I am that age. I cannot go out to the theatre any more, because of young children, recession (don't tell me it's over), and exorbitant ticket and babysitting fees. But I CAN go to the local cinema with a friend and some popcorn, and sit amongst a throng of grey-haired ladies and gentlemen, all pretending we are what we once were, and down on the South Bank.
It is a strange experience to hear big-voiced theatrical projection and see facial expressions meant for the back of a proscenium theatre, brought to you in close up on a cinema screen. An old friend of mine was also in the production, and frankly, looked as if he was gurning. Others have assured me that from the stalls, he was excellent.
So it is not a perfect transmission of the theatrical experience, but it would not have mattered whether Helen McCrory were on film, TV, stage or at a bus stop. She possessed and was possessed by the ghost of Medea like nothing I have ever seen before.
This is Euripides reworked by Ben Power, but so brilliantly written that, although we have the sense of being in the twenty-first century, with a posh wedding, a Chorus dressed in Desperate Housewives chic, Medea's boys watching TV lying on sleeping bags, and Medea herself wearing her husband Jason's trousers, we are simultaneously in fifth-century BC Corinth. It is also the National Theatre's first ever Medea. Could it be that both the taboo of the subject matter and the purity of the tragedy are just too difficult for modern theatregoers? All the more important in these days of working mothers, recomposed families, single mothers — families and the women in them under such pressure — that we see representations of what they might be going through inside.
Because that's what Medea is — she is nothing but her internal white-hot pain and rage, jealousy of her man Jason's new wife, fury at his abandonment and betrayal of her and their sons. This furnace of passions leads her, step by awful step, towards the mental readiness to murder what he and she hold most dear, in order to avenge herself. We are powerless to prevent it, relegated to the sidelines with the nurse and the Chorus. All we can do is sit in the dark and bear witness to what will inevitably happen.
All the power of the tragedy is in its inexorable progress from 'what is she capable of?' to 'what has she done?' In most tragedy, the wheel of fortune turns, and a fatal flaw in the protagonist plays its part in his downfall — there are extenuating circumstances. In Medea, the wheel of fortune is in the hands, not of the gods, but of her self-interested husband, prepared to drop her for a shot at personal power, and content to justify this as done in the name of his real (but abandoned) family. The wheel has turned before the play even starts, it is not part of the plot machinery. When we are introduced to Medea, she is already alone, back against the wall, to be ousted with her sons from Corinth, while her ex stays to marry into the royal family. Yet for Jason's sake, she has already murdered a member of her own family, her brother, and betrayed her father. It might make one ask whether Jason has it coming?
The real question at the heart of the plot is whether or not Medea is mad. The question subtending that one is whether all women are potentially capable of murdering their children. Is she the exception or a possible, utterly terrifying rule, the deepest fear in all of us, that our mothers might kill us?
For McCrory, playing this exhausting role in 2014, it is vital to assert that Medea is not mad. She is simply refusing the fate, the betrayal, the excommunication, that has been meted out to her, by exacting the ultimate revenge. This interpretation is not about excusing Medea, but explaining her, in order to activate the pity and awe the audience must feel. McCrory, I think, plays Medea as warning. The fact that there is precedent, that she has killed before, tells the nurse (although Jason is too blinded by his self-justifications) what she is likely to move towards.
McCrory's performance makes very clear that Medea never denies that killing her own children will also destroy her capacity for normal wellbeing. She knows very well that what she is about to do is both morally wrong, and that she will find it unbearable to live with her own action — and that she will going on living. In that sense she is Beckettian. It is impossible that she should live with her crime, but she does. The strength that Medea presents at the end of the NT production, as she heaves the boys' bodies, encased in blood-soaked sleeping bags, onto each shoulder, and labours, step by excruciating step, off stage towards Aegeus and Athens, is desolating to behold. She has her single moment of revenge — she sees the look on Jason's face — and then she faces the rest of her life, accompanied only by the knowledge of what she has done.
Is she evil? It is certainly premeditated, if only for a day, the space of the play: she has to talk herself into killing the boys, and her courage fails her many times. Nothing can justify the boys' murder, which is precisely why she does it. She believes that nothing justifies what Jason has done to her. Simply killing Jason's new wife, Glauce, daughter of King Creon, and Creon himself, with a poisoned robe, is not enough of a revenge. The only way to transmit fully to Jason what he has done to her, is to do something still more unjustifiable.
The act is evil, it speaks of evil, but she is a vehicle of the causes of evil — indifference, exploitation, the desire for power at any price. Those qualities are present in Jason, not Medea — she cares too much, loves Jason crazily, has been too completely crushed in love, is utterly bereft of power. Jason does not deserve to have his sons die, nothing redeems their death, they are crushed by her fury and thirst for revenge. At the point of committing the act, those passions have consumed her and transmuted into commitment. After the act, she returns to herself. The act itself has to remain beyond our — even her — understanding, in order to carry the power it does. This is why it takes place off stage (it must not be seen, it is literally obscene, ob-scaena). She herself is not mad as she does it, although her determination looks identical to madness.
Euripides' Medea seems to me a near-perfect example of the rules and machinery of Greek tragedy, wrought through innovations to that form (the protagonist is female, she is alone, there are no Gods, she is part Goddess).
Roald Dahl/Tim Minchin's Matilda is the index of pushy parenting for our times. Medea takes the temperature of the desperate pressure women are under to have it all by doing it all, without any guarantee of personal fulfilment or security, and shows the ultimate price.
In the wake of what I now call the Cardiff fandango, I have been having a summer of hardline parenting, research into Manipulative and Strong-Willed Children, and experimentation.
Here's what happened and what I learnt:
1. Getting the kids to do chores I don't want to do, but need to get done (aka washing the car, weeding the path), and paying them for it, can be incredibly good fun.
Learning: if it costs a bob or two, don't sweat it. They did the work, they earnt it.
2. Always seize the opportunity to pick blackberries when out and about. A sure sign that the summer holidays are coming to an end, and absolutely free.
Learning: take a hat, you never know when you'll need extra storage.
3. Put up a tent in the garden, and let the children stay out overnight. The first night son was back in twenty minutes, afraid of foxes. But once daughter had made it, he screwed his courage to his sticking plaster, and stayed put, even in the rain.
Learning: sibling rivalry ensures progress.
4. Visit cats you have catsat. Introduce your children to friend who does not have children, via peace dove of their mutual love of the cats. Strategically whisk children away before they can inflict any damage on friend's possessions. Thusly delude friend into thinking that your children are well-behaved. Build bridge to further sightings of friend in park, while children knock unripe conkers off trees, and argue about who needs to push whom on the swing, in the background. Thank lucky stars it's not raining. Laugh at shared knowledge that cat is now so overweight (thanks to combined feeding) that he is, and I quote, "too fat for his harness". Go home feeling guilty about cat.
Learning: don't express your love through overfeeding cats.
5. Buy boring mince. Make burgers, fries and milkshakes and eat them in front of Pitch Perfect with children, while husband away in untimely fashion. Try not to explain the rude words to eight-year-old son, who is very keen to know what a 'dickhead' is.
Learning: Film Nights are fantastic for defusing the tension and reminding you that you once had a life.
6. Force your mother to babysit while you go out and do back to back dance classes. Return home in very good mood to find children at each other's throats and your mother under a heap of your ironing. Reactivate no. 2.
Learning: Blackberries need a lot of sugar.
7. Have a mother who loves you enough to want to take you out for sushi.
Learning: I am blessed.
8. Go for a run with a much fitter friend, in the absolute pouring rain, then have a raucous coffee at local favourite cafe. Talk about the floodgates opening. Best conversation I've had in years. I was just explaining in a stage whisper how I felt about my husband's newly sprouted handlebar moustache, when the man at the next table turned around, sporting a beard and 'tache so bushy that he looked like a illustration of an Edward Lear poem. Strengthened by Iron Mother run in wet woods, I was utterly unrepentant. He looked like a throttled spider by the end of the conversation. Arrived home to find husband shaving off moustache. Feel the Karma.
Learning: don't hold back when you feel strongly about something.
9. Ask mother to sew on cloth name labels to daughter's school uniform, cloth name labels you bought when daughter was born, and which you have never used. Spend delightful afternoon repairing second-hand uniform skirts, squabbling over the scissors, and teaching daughter to sew. Everybody happy.
Learning: tempus fugit. But even though the cloth name label company has now gone out of business, it has brought pleasure to three generations.
10. Go out for drink with husband. Sit head in hands wondering how we are going to pay the school fees. Go home after one hour. Feel marginally better.
Learning: even if all you've got to talk about is how expensive life is going to be for the next decade, it's really nice to go out with your partner.
11. Get husband to look after children for the day while you go into town and interview people for Motherload, bump into old friend and have long coffee, then have more sushi with another old friend, and talk loudly about the decline of standards at Oxbridge, just to annoy the people either side of you.
Learning: being a dirty stopout is absolutely compulsory.
12. Take children into central London to see Horrible Histories. Accidentally arrive with too much time to spare and force children to walk to Trafalgar Square. Horrible Histories, meh, Trafalgar Square, brilliant:
The force is just to the right of him
The blue cock
Learning: I think it speaks for itself.
13. Have several days where you work, and do absolutely nothing to entertain the children. Well, ok, husband took them to the park, and son had a friend round.
Learning: it's crucial to your mental health to get the chance to do your own work in the summer holidays.
14. Insist that eleven-year-old takes bus home by herself. She will start secondary school in under 3 weeks, and will be travelling to and from school on her own. Resist all her attempts to get out of travelling on her own. Watch child succeed.
Learning: tough it out.
15. Make daughter chop potatoes into fries. Soak chicken in buttermilk all day then shallow fry in breadcrumbs, and finish in the oven with the fries. Sit back and watch children scrape plates.
Learning: tough it out, but in the name of yumminess.
16. Melt two Snickers bars with some butter and milk. Pour over vanilla ice-cream and chopped bananas. Sit back and watch children scrape plates. See 5. above.
Learning: cook fast food at home and add a salad. Your children will eat.
17. Buy books about manipulative and strong-willed children off 'tinternet. Read them in bed and feel rising anger at yourself and your sloppy parenting methods. Ask son to wash his hands after doing a wee. Do not give in when he whines, throws himself on the floor, shouts at you, hits you.
Learning: I'm not sure what to say.
18. Go downstairs and have argument with husband about going on a Family Outing to the National Gallery. Husband's POV: it'll be a fibrous muesli-eating nightmare and isn't worth it. Personal POV: husband is lazy and this is why son is a pain in the backside. Husband's rhetorical strategy: tell wife she's dogmatic, bossy, and "strong-willed". Wife's strategy: agree with everything, and then point out that husband is completely irrational. Walk out and make coffee without resolving argument.
Learning: coffee is more important than the National Gallery.
19. Go upstairs and make son get up and survey the three mouldering apple cores you found behind the radiator last night. Tell him you're taking away his new Lego sticker book for the weekend, bought with his own money, unless he clears up and apologises. Sit back with husband and watch for ten minutes as son blows raspberries, refuses to do anything, screams, swears, hits. Up the withdrawal of the new book to a week. Watch as child scrapes apples into recycling.
Learning: coldly hold the line.
20. Use Talking Spoon to reiterate your view that an educational family trip to the National Gallery, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is better than sitting around, which we've already done for the last few days anyway. Plus if it doesn't work, you can go outside and look at the blue cock again. Be astonished as husband agrees with you, daughter agrees with you, and son doesn't put up much resistance. Be even more astonished when husband hangs up washing, and repairs shed window, a job you have been looking at for about six months.
Learning: say what you have to say and stick to it.
21. Feel faintly smug for two minutes, until the next behaviour crisis. Keep tight hold of parenting book on strong-willed children, with sweaty palms.
Learning: dealing with strong wills starts at home.
We came home from abortive trip to Cardiff yesterday, where I discovered son's new vocation as a hairdresser:
Today we got up, and I promptly missed an early morning yoga class, because, despite all my good intentions (my plans to get up at 6am, my plans to re-read my manuscript, get close to my material, find points to integrate other voices), I feel keel-hauled every matins by the shenanigans of the day before. Luckily my husband was there to wake up son, before leaving for work and then a trip to watch cricket in Manchester for a couple of days, an event I have studiously failed to understand was on the horizon.
After yelling at the children to get dressed, put their stuff away, do their teeth, and stop making me say the SAME THINGS EVERY SINGLE DAY, as I am going completely bananas, I heard myself say to my son, "If you wash the car, I'll pay you £6."
Once this job had been handed out, my daughter wanted to earn some cash too, so I set her to work on de-mossing our garden path. Son needs the cash because he will need to pay for his next haircut, buy his sister the scrapbook he cut up (it's all about scissors at the moment, search me why), and buy my mum replacements for the thread he wound all round her guest room.
He's a little short on cash: the last time he had any money was after his school report, and that had to be spent on buying back the expensive, full bottle of shampoo he decided to empty into his bath.
Cleaning up our act
The sun was shining, we drove, in the car, to Halfords to buy a bucket, sponge and shampoo, to clean the car — an irony not lost on bright spark son.
Cleaning the car doesn't happen very often in this household. In fact moss grows not only on our garden path, but in the crevices of the car's window frames. Last time I saw moss on a car was on the wooden chassis of an ancient Morris Minor, beloved vehicle of my first boyfriend.
Out we all trooped, daughter to sit on a gardening pad and pick at the path with a fork, Kindle Fire blaring out the Grease soundtrack; son completely soaked after about two minutes, brandishing large yellow sponge, and occasionally touching the car with it, chatting to all the neighbours and making friends with the postman.
Once I'd finished washing the vehicle, he vacuumed the whole thing, sitting in the boot to do the awkward bits. I am minded to send him into the weaving mills — he's the right size. We washed the dashboard, polished the windows, and the dreadful old boat looks positively spiffing now.
The kids are quietly playing, one in the garden with a spider and a Scooby doo van, one in her room, endlessly drawing what she fondly imagines to be high fashion. I am sitting writing, cup of tea to hand, feeling on top of the world.
I even made a batch of flapjack while the car was being washed, thinking that low GI food would help us all along. Used all my husband's oats.
This was the year I was going to crack it. I was determined to enjoy the summer holidays and family time.
My daughter has just finished primary school, and this is her last summer before secondary. It feels like the right moment to push a little harder to get her to step gingerly out of the nest and start flapping her little wings. And it also feels like the right moment to get her to help clean the nest up, frankly. I put some activities in the diary, and sat back, thinking, "And they can amuse themselves around that skeleton structure". In those words, damn my hubris.
As I sit here this evening, catatonic, I look back at the diary, and realise we've done an awful lot, and that I am simply tired. In the last fortnight, we have been to Sussex, the Cotswolds, and Wales, our son has starred in Frozen, I've had reflexology, and started running, I've worked on a book my daughter and I are writing, picked pounds of summer fruit, gone to an urban beach, daughter has gone tree walking, we've been down a mine, and that's not counting the cooking, family time, monopoly, dancing, yoga, seeing old friends, meeting our new kittens.
At first this ridiculous over-doing of things went well, and there was I feeling utterly smug, thinking that the kids are finally old enough to be reasoned with, to help around the house. to put themselves to bed, and that I will, this summer, for the very first time, be able to complete a piece of writing, and combine this with time with the children. For the first time, it won't be 'mother does childcare' so much as simple family life. I was to get time to myself, without needing to cough up to put the children in some sports camp; I could model the writing life for them; they would amuse themselves — as they do quite a lot of the time at the weekend, these days. It seemed to be going in that direction, with a few "I'm bo-red"s along the way, but as nothing compared with the earlier summers of despair and depression I had endured. (Mine, I hasten to add, not the kids'.)
However, then I took the children to my mother's, in Cardiff, for three days. I can explain what happened next in various ways, but the basic problem is that I took my eye off the ball that is the kids' constant need for attention and stimulation, in order to spend time focusing on my mum.
So the kids promptly stayed up till gone 11pm and then slept in until 10am. They were rude, sullen, and argued back when I asked them to help clear up. In the swimming pool, they were told off for bombing, chucking things, shouting, by me, my mother and the life guard. My son, abetted by small cousin, raided my mum's sewing boxes up in the guest room, and made a kind of Mona Hatoum installation of thread, connecting toys, chairs, beds, lamps. If I'm honest I was quite impressed. But he and little cousin lied about it, and so the heavy hand of parenting had to come down. The next day it turned out they had thrown great handfuls of the thread out of the skylight onto the Acer beneath, where I found it, like fairy bunting trammelling up the twigs. When the cousins arrived, son rushed downstairs and tried to lift older girl cousin up, causing her to fall headlong against the hall radiator. Son and cousin chopped up a scrapbook they had found into paper aeroplanes, which they then flew out of the skylight into the gutters below, there to block rainwater and lead to overflow. Egged on by small cousin, my son cut his whole fringe off, right up at the hairline. That night, I found my son holding a large red wastepaper bin out of the skylight, trying to catch the rain, because he "wanted to see what it tasted like". Water was running back along the tilted window and dripping onto the books and carpet beneath. I went nuts.
In the end I cut short the trip, and drove them back to London, in silence. When we got home, I insisted that son write a letter to his grandmother to thank her, and apologise for all the damage. It took two hours of steadfast insistence, with him screaming, swearing, breaking his own pen, screwing up paper, trying to run around. I do not know how I managed to control myself, but I did. I got to a point where I was able to observe his behaviour without being drawn into it. It helped me understand how the idea of possession might have seemed plausible. He resorted to an absolutely extraordinary array of toxic manipulations to get out of taking responsibility for his actions, and making amends. But I was determined. Gradually his resistance wore down, and he eventually wrote that letter, describing what he had enjoyed, and apologising for the Mona Hatoum, promising to buy more thread.
I thought we were there, and the rest of the afternoon and early evening went well. Then I put them to bed and it all began again. I don't know about you, but the summer months this year have seen the children's sleep patterns blown to pieces. They seem unable to go to sleep if it's light. I can remember the delight of reading after lights out, standing on my pillow up against the window, with the curtains over half of me. I've tried to be indulgent about it -- my daughter had no work to do post-SATs, and my son's only 8, so it hardly seemed a crime for them to stay up a little later if they were safely in bed. My father used to beat me for reading after lights out -- this seemed somewhat excessive to my child brain, and still does to my adult brain. But although I can picture my child self, avidly reading just one more chapter, my sad adult self just wants the kids to go the f**k to sleep, aware of storms the next day, or of being unable to wake them at a reasonable time, all our days knocked sideways, my copycat somnolence… we live in such interdependence that our circadian rhythms seem as locked together as loom bands.
So there was shouting from me, and from the children. There were apologies. There was renewed storming up and down the stairs. And now I sit here at 11pm, not quite certain that my son is yet asleep, in the ruins of my bid to calm and contain his wilful behaviour, typing "I cannot cope with my children" into Google, and reading the many, many accounts of despair, guilt and grief that may be found posted online.
Looks like this summer holiday is going to follow the pattern of all the others.
This weekend, my daughter and I did the local 5k Race for Life (thank you, you can still donate!), to raise money for research into cancer. This is the third time we've done it, and it's become a bit of a tradition to see whether we can beat the previous year's time. Logically this should work, because as my daughter gets older, she gets taller and faster. We won't go into what happens to her mother.
I didn't sleep well, and woke already tired and fretful. The rain had bucketed the night before, and the terrain was soggy, so I suggested that she and I head into the runners' group, so that we'd have a fresh start — we weren't going for a runner's time, we just didn't want to be slipping over in the churn.
Within only a few moments, daughter was straggling and slowing to a walk. Not yet well breathed, I was hopping up and down and urging her forwards in what I hoped wasn't too obviously a stentorian manner. She seemed to have a stitch most of the way round the course, and as the metres dragged into kilometres, I was racing ahead, then standing still until she caught up, tapping my foot, and eventually unashamedly hands on hips. Well I say unashamedly, actually I felt rubbish. We were supposed to be running together, it was supposed to be our mother-daughter moment. But there I was with two winners' symbols instead of eyes, champing at the bit and leaving her behind in my testosterone-fuelled desire to kick butt.
In the final kilometre, my eleven year old gave it one big push, and ran most of it, and we crossed the finish line at an uphill sprint, carried along by the cheering.
As we looked up to see the time, we realised we'd beaten last year's time by over 3 minutes. We weren't going slowly at all. I was just being competitive.
In the warm-down time that followed, finally satisfied, I apologised to her. She'd known it was happening, knows she has a mad mother, puts up with it resignedly, told me off quietly. Then we went for ice cream and pick and mix, and wandered through Hampstead, browsing in the bookshop, and fingering sale price T-shirts together. She swam into my focus, my beautiful, calm, determined daughter, so much better adjusted than I am. Doing it her own way.
Three in a bed
That night, she had a the edges of a migraine, and I put her to bed in our room, hoping to distract her. Husband ended up in her bed, and I slept with her. In the middle of the night, a solid lump of boy interposed itself between daughter and me, with his habitual snuffle, and propensity to sleep sideways. Early in the morning, daughter was beside herself. Occupying fully half the bed, she screeched, "I've got no room! You're always getting in the way between Mummy and me! I can't sleep with your snoring! You always ruin everything, this is MY bed!" No amount of exhausted mumbling from me would stop her, and eventually she had to be ejected, to further screaming.
Later that day we had to go and buy school uniform for secondary school. She and I made the symbolic trip to be sized up and kitted out, me reliving my childhood, she on the brink of the next big stage of her life. I spoke to her frankly about the excruciating jealousy I had suffered from as a child with a younger brother, always coming up behind me, always edging onto my terrain. I told her very quietly that learning about how jealousy blinds you is perhaps the most important thing I learnt as a child. Understanding and living with her own jealousy was the best way to stop suffering from it — and also to prevent its excesses in other people from harming her. She sat in silence, and listened. She nodded, and we bought hotdogs and candy floss, wandering again in contentment, side by side through the summer streets. What did she hear? What did she take in? I want her so desperately not to fall into the same traps that I did, and I know that I cannot prevent it.