Thursday 27 October 2011

My song

I haven't composed any songs lately, but it was raining when I woke up. And, I marked a few exams in which the holy words of my students 'tear and fail to rhyme'. My head is full of songs I can't believe. This is the tune that has been in my head this birthday. It appears though, all these years, I have been making up a word. I was truly surprised to read: 'To England where my heart lies'. I always understood those words as: 'to inlend where my heart lies'. I must have heard this song as a small child. I thought 'inlend' meant to 'discern'. I always thought that word existed. It took me to today to discover it doesn't.  

This song is is beautiful, and it echoes my present and my childhood - it is a favourite of my parents! Read the lyrics. Listen to the song. They are beautiful.

I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.

My mind's distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you're asleep
And kiss you when you start your day.

And a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.

Saturday 22 October 2011

The thin veil of Samhain - summer's end

This is one of my favourite times of year. I love the smell of fire in the night air, coal and wood on a crisp cool wind. Retreating to the complete darkness of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds is a particular treat - walking silently in a darkness so dark you cannot see your own hand of front of your eyes. The summer has ended, a new season has begun.

There are so many traditional foods associated with this time of year, I do not know where to begin. Last year I helped to make Pumpkin Korroke for a special Japanese birthday party, and there were Soul Cakes too. It is tempting to do something similar. However, I have been thinking along different lines of late.

For me, this haunting season, which is so brief and could so easily be missed - Halloween, All Souls and All Saints - is, more than anything else, a time of preparation. The thin veil of Samhain - the recollection of the connection between the living and the dead - reminds me that life is short - sometimes cruelly so, every moment we have here is one to be celebrated and enjoyed. Samhain reminds me that our life here is a preparation for our life there (wherever there is), and the veil between the two worlds is thin. There is a beautiful church in Widford, near here. St. Oswald's is isolated, it sits lonely in a field, surrounded by a low dry stone wall and curious cattle. As you approach it, you begin to notice that the shape of the land is strange. The odd shaped mounds of grass on which the cattle graze form a pattern. St. Oswald's was once in the centre of a busy village, but it was abandoned in the Middle Ages as a result of the Black Plague. Now, the Church is all there is, built in the 12th Century and still standing strong. On the walls inside are some badly damaged frescos from the 14th Century. The best preserved is the cautionary tale of the Spectres and Kings: 'As you are, so were we: and as we are, so you will be'. Part of me would like to walk to this church in torchlight on the night of Halloween, the longest and darkest night of the year, just to sit for a few moments in the stillness and feel the past.

As the evenings and mornings have become dark two songs have been whirling around my head. The first is, perhaps, not that strange for the time of year: Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on (Newman). The other, has arrived in my consciousness a few months early: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born! (Cappeau). It is the combination of these two tunes flying around my brain that has brought me to the decision to write a recipe for Halloween that will not be ready until Christmas. Summer is over and a time of preparation is upon us. Winter is coming, but hope springs eternal.

In the fields and in the kitchen preparation begins with harvesting, and is closely followed by storing and preserving. I find that by far the best way to do this is to make delicious drinks. Today, Sloe Gin. Ruby red and sweet fruit is a potent reminder of sun drenched country lanes when you open it in front of a winter fireplace! There is something beautifully appropriate about spending the night when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest preparing a drink to toast the coming of the new dawn at Christmas. It speaks to the gothic romantic in me.

1 pint Gin (doesn't need to be the expensive stuff)
2 - 3lbs Sloes
about 1lb Granulated Sugar

You should pick the sloes after the first frost has softened them, but in the temperate weather of this year - I wish you luck! In the valley leading down to St. Oswald's there is a wealth of sloe berries, so I am going to get mine from there. Wash your berries carefully and prick them all over with a sterilised needle. Almost half fill screw top bottles with the fruit. Add enough sugar to just cover them, and then fill the bottle with Gin. Leave in  a dry, dark place for six weeks (at least), shaking the bottle and turning upside down carefully once or twice a week to dissolve the sugar. At the end of this time the juices should have run freely and the Gin turned into a warm ruby-red colour. Strain into a jug, then pour into smaller bottles to seal ready for Christmas. Do not discard the fruit! It will be liquor soaked, can be frozen for use later or used straight away. Simmer it in a pot until it is very soft and use it as a base for ice cream, make a cake with it, turn it into a rich red sauce to accompany meats, cheeses or pies!

Friday 7 October 2011

The return of a tricky customer, and welcome wind and rain.

Newman in 1889, a vulnerable venerable. 
Is it just me that is always going to associate Blessed John Henry Newman with the changing of the seasons? I remember sitting outdoors at 4am on a September morning, dressed in waterproofs, holding a warm cup of hot tea and waiting, waiting, waiting for Benedict XVI to proclaim John Henry Newman 'Blessed'. I was with my Ma, who taught Newman on the Leaving Certificate Syllabus in Dublin for 20 years, and spent another 20 teaching in his school, Cardinal Newman, in Luton. If you say Newman to my Ma, she will start reciting she knows his work so well. Despite the family memories it was the rain that caught my attention, the driving rain. It stopped the moment the Mass began.

Of course, it was raining the night Fr. Dominic, the Passionist who received Newman into the Church, came calling at Littlemore. Fr. Dominic arrived soaked and dried himself in front of the fire.

And, it was raining last year, when on the first feast of Blessed John Henry Newman, the 9th October, I wandered down to the Oxford Oratory to walk to Littlemore for the first time. It didn't rain for the walk though, for which I am grateful.

This year, I am likely to be outdoors and in the rain once again. I am going camping with some students from school who are completing their Duke of Edinburgh Award. We will have a fire, no doubt. And, I will be called upon to lead night prayer around the camp. There are many choices I could have made about a food for Newman's Feast Day, and many I would have made under different circumstances. But, as it is, I am reminded of something I wrote last year when first choosing for a tricky customer:
Whatever is chosen, I think, it has to be something you would look forward to if, having walked for miles in the cold, dark rain, you entered a room with a blazing fire, an armchair and an ambition to talk far into the night with a warm hearted friend. 

I commend to you, fresh bread toasted over a fire, and lashings of butter and Vintage Oxford Marmalade. Bring out the sweet tea, we celebrate an English saint (to be). That, in the park with many teenagers, is what my Feast will be, and no doubt we will reflect on it in our morning prayer of Sunday.

Limes, of course, were being imported into Edgebaston for the first time just as Newman was setting up his Birmingham Oratory on the site of an old gin factory. I shan't recommend Gin for today, no not even Gordon's. I can't imagine John  Henry would approve. However, do you remember Roses Lime Marmalade? That could be the way to go.

If you have the time, you could make the bread, and cover it with marmalade fresh from the oven *faints in happiness at the thought*. Here is Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's recipe to help with that. It is ace, and has never been known to fail..

500g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp fine sea salt
Approx 400ml buttermilk or live yoghurt (you can buy this from Waitrose, or make it)
A little milk, if necessary

Sift the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl and stir in the salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in the buttermilk, stirring as you go. If necessary, add a tablespoon or two of milk to bring the mixture together; it should form a soft dough, just this side of sticky.

Tip it out on to a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly for about a minute, just long enough to pull it together into a loose ball but no longer - you need to get it into the oven while the bicarb is still doing its stuff. You're not looking for the kind of smooth, elastic dough you'd get with a yeast-based bread.

Put the round of dough on a lightly floured baking sheet and dust generously with flour. Mark a deep cross in it with a sharp, serrated knife, cutting about two-thirds of the way through the loaf. Put it in an oven preheated to 200°C/Gas Mark 6 and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.

Cool on a wire rack if you like a crunchy crust, or wrap in a clean tea towel if you prefer a soft crust.  For today, you can choose, eat it warm straight from the oven, smothered in salty butter and Frank Coopers Oxford Vintage Marmalade or Roses Lime Marmalade,  or,  it makes great toast if you leave it overnight.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

On Sleeping

I have the gift of sleep. I have always had it. 

Recently, I have been asked, by several different people, about my sleeping patterns. This has given me cause for thought. 

When working I go to sleep quite early, between 9 and 10pm. I normally do not drink caffeine after lunchtime, and often drink camomile, or hot milk and honey, or hot chocolate before I go to sleep. I am so rock and roll.

'It's going to be SO cosy in bed!' That is what my Ma always told us as kids. I believe it too. Once I am tucked up under my blankets very little in the world can disturb me.

I dedicate time to winding down after a day. I have a shower, get dressed in my PJ's and drink my tea. I have a brilliant book I am looking forward to on the bedside table - this week it is Julian of Norwich. I read a few chapters before I begin to feel myself getting sleepy. 

Compline, I always say that in bed. For me, it is a way of reviewing the day with God: this happened; that happened; I said something stupid; I needed You; You were there for me. Then there is those last words: The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. I always translate that in my head, selfishly perhaps: God grant me rest. I have always prayed for sleep.

After that, if it is more that 5 minutes before I hit the world of nod I am surprised.

I sleep deeply. Sometimes too deeply. I have slept through fire drills and through teenagers having a dorm party (probably best). I have slept through a French holiday house being hit by lightening (or I would have done, had not my Ma woken me up to tell me about it), and through two day coach journeys to Poland and the South of Spain.  Noise, it seems, does not worry me that much.

I can sleep anywhere, most especially in cars (almost instantly), trains (despite paranoia about missing my stop), planes (I'll be snoozing before take off, and will see you after landing) and meetings (including Church services); indoors or outdoors, in a bed or on the floor. I am a lover of comfort, but it is not a requirement for relative unconsciousness. Neither is darkness: there have been no blinds on the skylights in this flat since I moved in. It drives other people mad! I barely notice.

Stress, such as we had with OFSTED last week, only makes me want to sleep more.

Apparently, Scientists believe the position in which a person goes to sleep provides an important clue about the kind of person they are. They have spoken about 6 different positions in which people naturally fall to sleep. Thinking about it, I can safely say that I adopt two of these positions with any regularity, the foetus and the starfish.

The Foetus: Those who curl up in the foetus position are described as tough on the outside but sensitive at heart. They may be shy when they first meet somebody, but soon relax. More than twice as many women as men tend to adopt this position.

Log: Lying on your side with both arms down by your side. These sleepers are easy going, social people who like being part of the in-crowd, and who are trusting of strangers. However, they may be gullible.

The yearner: People who sleep on their side with both arms out in front are said to have an open nature, but can be suspicious, cynical. They are slow to make up their minds, but once they have taken a decision, they are unlikely ever to change it.

Soldier: Lying on your back with both arms pinned to your sides. People who sleep in this position are generally quiet and reserved. They don't like a fuss, but set themselves and others high standards.

Freefall: Lying on your front with your hands around the pillow, and your head turned to one side. Often gregarious and brash people, but can be nervy and thin-skinned underneath, and don't like criticism, or extreme situations.

Starfish: Lying on your back with both arms up around the pillow. These sleepers make good friends because they are always ready to listen to others, and offer help when needed. They generally don't like to be the centre of attention.

I can relate to these two ideas. They make sense to me. I think that many things are taught to us through sleep.

I am interested to note though, that a gift of sleep is not complimented by a gift of waking up! My working day alarm sounds at 5am. There are 4 different alarm sounds in my room, including the radio. I regularly change both their tone, and their position in the room. I put them far enough away from me that I have to get out of bed to silence them. I turn lights on, and employ a variety of snooze buttons. But still, still it takes an Act of Will to get started in the morning, a determination fuelled by sugared tea and a sense of unfulfilled duty. If anyone has a solution to this getting out of bed problem, I am all ears. One of the most challenging aspects of my sleep pattern is people waking me up unexpectedly. I feel like I have been hauled from the depths: I do not know where I am, I get confused. It is frightening, I do not like it.  I long one day to waken, full of the joys of spring!

Sunday 2 October 2011

Guardian Angels

'Good morning, Miss. Happy Guardian Angels!! Can we get you breakfast?' I was taken aback.  I had wandered grumpily into the staff room at 7am, following too few hours sleep, clutching a report to be delivered to the OFSTED Inspectors tout de suite. But, here in the hallowed staff room, were two smiling sixth formers, with their hair in bunches, wearing angel wings, offering to fix me breakfast. The  tables were laden with danish pastries, variety cereal boxes, juices and fresh coffee.

So began Guardian Angels 2011.

The usual staff briefing was punctuated with laughs and joyful anticipation. I knew, since the Section 5 OFSTED team do not observe the teaching of Religious Education, they were likely to use the morning's Tutorial to observe the RE teaching staff. I was right. There was an inspector outside my door as I arrived to greet my form. To my delight, 7B responded to my 'Good Morning Year 7' with a gleeful, 'Good Morning, Miss. Happy Guardian Angels!' Nothing, not even a rather dour note taker would dampen their mood. We began with a prayer - it was the creed of 7B, created just last week when we re-enacted the Council of Nicea. My form had taken great care to try and express 7 things that they all, each and everyone, would agree that they believed. Then, I got on to the arrangements for this special day, and finally began the Tutorial lesson. Thirty five minutes flew by, and the most stressful part of the day was over.

After normal lessons 1 and 2, I was sent out to duty. Whilst I was out there, a group of sixth formers came to find me. They gave me some cake, a special silver pen with 'Guardian Angels' written on it, and a card to explain that as a teacher, I was called to be a physical embodiment of their Guardian Angels everyday (guiding them on the right path and showing them how to find their moral strength), and thanking me for doing so. Having only been in the school 4 weeks, I felt quite undeserving of such gifts, but traditions are traditions! :-)  Today was the day Year 13 were going to be Guardian Angels to the rest of the school community. They were taking over. They tied my hair in bunches and put flowers in it.

The bell went. It was time for me to get changed into my netball kit. The sixth form girls would play the female staff, whilst the sixth form boys challenged male teachers to a football game. The rest of the school (wearing angel wings) and the OFSTED team looked on. They were tight matches. I may have been accused of playing Rugby, not Netball. Over four games, the female staff won on goals, 5 - 4. The male staff fought a tough match, but the final result was Sixth Form 3, Staff 2. 

After all that hard work, the school had worked up an appetite, and once again, Year 13 were on hand with a feast. Everything you could imagine was served up in the staffroom, and breaking one of the long standing rules of education, OFSTED came and joined the party.

After lunch the staff were quarantined to the staff room, whilst Year 13 gathered the rest of the school in the hall. We were then invited down, as honoured guests, to watch them perform a play. The plot was a traditional 'Who Dunnit?'. Staff were being kidnapped, and the Head Teacher and two Deputies were traveling from department to department to find the guilty party. The music teacher was accused of the crime: 'How else do you get them to choir?', but proven innocent. Care and attention was paid to every member of staff, ensuring that they all felt duly critiqued! I haven't laughed so hard in years. In the end, we found out, it was those staff who had retired last year who were doing the kidnapping - they just couldn't bear to be separated from the community and felt bereft. Having reassured them that we would 'always be together, always be together' (sing it!), the play closed on a high. The end of a lovely, lovely day.

Happy Guardian Angels!