A thousand word story illustrating character development (OU FutureLearn)

“Where are you going, Eileen?” queried George

“What’s it to you?” she answered indolently.  She was in a bad mood, and had been on and off these last couple of weeks.

“Well, nothing, but I worry about you.  It’s late and you’ve been out the last four nights and haven’t told anyone where you’re off to.  Fanny mentioned it and you know she worries more than I do.”  George was beginning to sound school-masterish. He never got really angry and was known to be the most level-headed in the family. At least, nobody had ever witnessed anger.  But with such a determined face and strong beleifs and very little fear of anything, it is quite possible to imagine George furious and lashing out in a way he’d regret.  Perhaps like a schoolmaster who loses his temper with a recalcitrant boy.  Maybe his temperament was due to his being a refugee.  He didn’t think that plausible either, but he couldn’t really look impartially at how well a Civil War orphan could or should integrate satisfactorily into English society.

“For heaven’s sake, George, lay off!”  She was irritated now, and this was not usual for Eileen.  Her family made excuses for her irritability.  It’s her red hair, they’d say.  Makes for a wild child, Fanny had said it since her birth.  Eileen’s sibling Billy was anything but irascible and the contrast between them had often been made.  In any case, this was uncharacteristic: she’d outgrown the tantrums of her childhood.  “You know who I’m going to see, so why ask?”  She didn’t expect and answer.

“Because he’s going to hurt you, Eileen.”

“You’re just jealous, George, because you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“He isn’t your boyfriend, and you know it.  He’s just an airman you met at a party.  You know what he’s after, Eileen.  They’re all the same, these American GIs.  They’re supposed to be her to fight for us and they spend their time getting English girls pregnant.”

“I’m not listening to this anymore.  You are just prejudiced.  He actually loves me, he said so.”

“So that means it’s true, huh?  He told you he loved you.  Ha!  Grow up, Eileen, love; can’t you see he’s stringing you along? He’s probably got a wife and kids in Iowa.  He wants to get you into bed that’s all he’s after.” George wanted the best for his step-sister and wasn’t going to allow her to get hurt in the way he had.

“You don’t know Eugene; I do.” She said firmly, putting her anorak on and fishing in the pockets for her gloves.  Her eyes were blazing with indignation at George’s impudence, to try and interfere with her love-life.  Or indeed with her social life: it wasn’t even love yet.  Even though it was now too late to talk about Eugene getting her into bed.  She’d already been there.  Quite some weeks ago.  She’d told nobody that she’d already missed a period, and was beginning to wonder if this was significant.  She wasn’t really au fait with the signs and symptoms and her sex education was limited to what she’d picked up in the schoolyard.  Pretty much like everyone her age.

“Look, just take care, alright?  Look after yourself.  Don’t come back late: your mum and dad will go spare if they think you’re meeting this Eugene guy.  Try to get back before they go to bed.”  George had relented and in a flash, Eileen had forgiven him his intrusive and prying concern.

“OK, George” She flashed him a smile; her usual warm smile. “For you”  She loved George more than anyone she knew.  More than Billy, even though Billy was her blood-brother.  And more than Eugene, of course, but with Eugene it was different.  With Eugene it was about excitement and dancing and fun.  Fun she never got at home.  George wasn’t fun: he was staid and reliable and solid.  And wonderful.  But she couldn’t marry George!  Perhaps she would marry Eugene.  She hoped it were possible.  And travel to Iowa and live in the great prairies, in a log cabin.  Eugene had made it sound romantic and exciting all at the same time.  She didn’t know yet whether she’d been fooled as George obviously thought she had.  But she did suspect that she’d past a point of no return.  A girl knows her own body and this body was telling her it carried a foetus.  Anyway, she was taking the body out for a night with Eugene, whatever George said. “I’ll be careful and I’ll not be back too late.”  She stood on tiptoe and planted a wet kiss on George’s lips.  He smiled, and was happy for her.  Happy that she was his sister.  Well, half-sister.  She put on her bonnet, admiring herself in the hall mirror, and saw George in the reflection, standing behind her.  She knew he’d always stand behind her and by her if anything happened.  He’d be the first person she told if she really was pregnant.  She tucked her vivid curly red hair under her bonnet.  She liked her hair, nowadays.  She used to hate it and had it cut really short, like a boy, when she was ten.  Surrounded by boys, she had been desperate to identify with them.  Now, she was happy to play the femme fatale, with her cheeky freckled face played to advantage.  She didn’t need to be a boy, when American boys chased her seduced her and wanted to sleep with her.

George really did care about Eileen.  Since his arrival in the family, he had felt protective towards both Billy, his half-brother and Eileen, his half-sister.  His gratitude at being adopted into this family had been boundless, and though it was many years ago, he felt every day the same gratitude welling up. George is a little stocky but the stockiness was muscular rather than the effects of good food and little exercise.  Even so, he could have lost a few pounds without missing them.  He was tall, much taller that anyone in his family.  When he walked, it was a solid, determined gait, as if he knew exactly where he was going.  There was no uncertainty in his step.  His confidence and genial smile with everybody belied the fact that he had once been the shy and uncertain immigrant and refugee from the Spanish civil war.  His coal black hair and his swarthy complexion gave him the look of a pirate, and he seemed to have a swashbuckling temperament to match, but a humorous one, like a cartoon pirate.  He could be fiery and furious if he witnessed injustices such as he himself had suffered.  But he felt free and valued freedom; the kind of freedom a pirate would enjoy, sailing the seas in search of adventure.  Free of the usual foibles and frets that people have over property, possessions, ownership, proprietorial limits and rights.  This blessing, if blessing it was, probably resulted from his having nothing to call his own when he arrived on the ship that had brought him from the port of Bilbao to Bristol.  Only his clothes that he stood up in.  He was not ashamed to be as penniless as his empty pockets revealed, or as dirty as a gypsy.  Poverty and gypsies were a part of his heritage and he would not disown them.  His browned skin, burnt by the remorseless rays of nine summers, and an outdoor life in the fertile fields of Vizcaya in the Basque Country, was covered in a fine hirsute layer of black fur.  It was difficult for him not to have a beard like a pirate; even as a youngster he started growing facial hair when other boys developed only pimples and acne.   It was this strongly masculine image which was to lead George astray in a similar way to Eileen and also with a GI.

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“And another thing …” – originally blogged Dec 2011

Why is school so excruciating? (and I’m the Head…)

Perhaps I ran away with the strength of my own feeling in the last blog. But I don’t think so. I picked up The Observer from a couple of weeks ago, and was reading the Review, when I came across a spirited interview with the zesty and gutsy Joanna Lumley. What balls that woman has! Her encounter with the pathetic Labour politician Phil Woolas a year ago is now legendary – she virtually established government policy, live on TV, by facing down the craven Woolas with the conviction and rightness of her cause: justice for the Gurkhas who fought for Britain, for heaven’s sake. My own outrage pales beside hers – and I quote: “ … when things come up out of the blue, when some cruelty or abominable act like the bankers giving themselves bonuses … I can’t believe it! I can’t believe you boys. You! Boys! You! You are accepting money that we gave you. And look at her. She can’t even afford heating. She’s bailed you out. And you’re giving yourselves a prize? Where’s your fucking shame? ” God, she’s good.

But, it’s schooling that’s vexing me now. This scandal with the exam boards amazes me. It’s not the fact that it happened, and so publicly, that takes your breath away but the fact that nobody seems to have woken up to this before. To recap, an examiner from the Welsh Joint exam board was filmed by a hidden camera giving a workshop to teachers – a paying audience – in which the question-setting strategy was laid out and teachers were effectively told what topics would come up in what exam sessions. Why does nobody see the bigger picture here? This has been going on for years in one form or another – that is, teaching to the test, and practising tests for their own sake. The US has been doing it for years: the drudgery of standardized testing: the only thing it tests is the ability to take and pass tests. It’s nothing to do with performance, less still of aptitude and it certainly isn’t predictive. Baron’s plethora of SAT primers are supposed to be indispensible for helping kids pass the SAT. So what happened to school? I thought good teaching was supposed to help kids pass the SAT. How has the book become primordial? And now, the Brits are at it with their (completely different) SATs, their GCSEs and their A-levels. Can’t anyone see that we are doing nothing more than training seals to jump through hoops? So much political power lies in educational systems and of course commercial interests too – Baron’s publishing for a start, along with the now privatised exam boards in the UK. Of course it’s in their interests to make their tests ‘easier’ and sell them to gullible schools who want a high pass rate to satisfy paymasters and customers. Hard to believe the officer from Edexcel – the old London University Board – who calmly admits to the hidden camera that their programmes are so devoid of content that and are a cinch to pass, that they can’t believe that the national qualification authority actually gave them the go-ahead.

I get so depressed when I see these stories. I used to think that one day, the educational world, particular its leaders, would begin to see the light about what learning really means: goodness knows, the research has been out there for ages; the neurological evidence about learning, the action research on intelligence and testing, the desperate pleas from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, talking to the RSA, for example and his TED Talks, calling for creativity, more emphasis on the arts and more recognition that kids are not commodities to be processed according to date-of-manufacture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U) The passing of these exams demonstrates nothing more than an ability to take tests. After all, the curriculum has been transparent: learn what is on the test, because it’s on the test, and you’ll pass it if you do! But that skill has little to do with real life, nor with earning a living, nor with creative problem-solving, demonstrably the skills needed today and more so in the future. Exams are exclusively tests of individuals (and of their knowledge retention) rather than of their abilities to solve problems. As everyone in the workplace knows, real issues are solved in teams, collaboratively. This is how the workplace works. But in schools it rarely if ever is allowed to happen: – it’s called cheating when people work together in schools, and it’s discouraged as if it were a moral defect. In fact, it’s punished as a moral defect, as it might have been 100 years ago. For people to work collaboratively in teams they need at least to be able to reason, argue, criticize, listen and discuss – skills rarely if ever presented as valuable at school.  Creativity and innovation are stifled – not allowed because it can’t easily be tested in a standardised way. Kids older than around 7 years old are not curious because curiosity is not on the school agenda. The Robinson Report into Creativity in Schools was published by the DfEE (in the UK) in 1999. Did anyone read it? They said it was revolutionary in 1999. What changed as a result? Nothing.

And where does the blame lie? It’s easy to say Society, though it’s one way to describe it. It’s the political class – spineless, leaderless, vacuous, devoid of moral compass, blind, venal and self-interested. That’s why we never have change. So deeply wedded to short-term political gains that secure them re-election (only to repeat the same short-term goals). Its the same syndrome that has infected all modern capitalism – the desire for short-term returns, self-gratification and to hell with the future and our children. The same as climate-change deniers? I should say so. Care nothing for the future; care only for the present, care only for oneself. Listen to no counsel but one’s own. Greed, wilful blindness, is what it is, not Society.

Samples of Writing Exercises

Audrey picked up the phone, tentatively and hesitantly, as if it were a bomb that might explode if mishandled.  The ebonite receiver felt smooth, warm even but in its shape lay mischief and malice.  Audrey felt as if it were threatening her, even before she spoke to it.  The atmosphere was cloying and the air thick with the sound crickets and cicadas.  Her hands, already damp with perspiration from the heat of the darkening evening became clammy in contact with this instrument, this bearer of tidings.  She caught her breath, at first unable speak, then almost choking in her desperation to utter something.  “Yes?”, she said to the inert mechanism that would bring her the news she desperately needed, or would send her crashing to the depths of despair.  She cradled the receiver, as if all the love she could give it would make it love her back, and would reward her with the response she wanted to hear, the two words: “I’m coming”.

Emma said that her boyfriend was acting strangely.  She began to cry as she told Marjory about what had happened on the Thursday evening.  Alexis had been at home, supposedly waiting for her to come back from work.  He’d not been alone; his friend Nikolai had been with him.  They both seemed embarrassed when Emma arrived, as if they had been up to something.  Emma got the feeling that they had been having sex.  Marjory said “That’s just silly Emma!  What evidence do you have of that?  Nikolai is straight – Doreen went out with him for six months!”

Julian looked the kind of man one could pass the time-of-day with.  But, head buried in the Guardian, one would feel reluctant to disturb him. “Excuse me”, one would begin, the voice falling on the last syllable to indicate there was more coming, “but do you have the time?”  The Guardian crinkles as Julian’s head emerges, and he looks up, faintly irritated to be disturbed mid-paragraph, and by a stranger too.  “This bus seems awfully late doesn’t it?” one continues.  Julian rolls up his puffy blue sleeve and consults his watch.  It’s just a cheap Seiko, nothing flashy.  “It’s ten past and yes, it’s late”, replied Julian rather abruptly before disappearing again deep into his socialist world.  One thinks: he’s rather over-clad: a puffy anorak-type jacket, which would be warm even in the dead of winter – and it’s just a chilly-but-sunny late October day.  He doesn’t have a lot of dress sense: maybe because other things preoccupy him or maybe he didn’t really think about the weather until the last minute before leaving.  At any rate, his red trousers are rather loud.  A younger man might get away with it, but Julian can’t.  And the hat? Well, the hat …. Julian knows that few people wear hats these days, but he still wears the one his Dad gave him 20 years ago.  Julian likes to think that his hat is a fashion statement, though that would be news to the fashion industry.

Julian left his house in Ealing on a pretext.  “I’ve got to get away”, he said to himself while he was cleaning his teeth.  It’s got to be today.  Today’s a good day, he thought. Gloria would be home this morning and her husband would be at work.  Unless he was sick.  Julian stopped brushing for a second as the heft of that thought struck him.  What would he do if George was ill and hadn’t gone to work?  He had that sinking feeling again.  “I’m just going out; shan’t be long” he shouted airily to no-one in particular but hoping that everyone heard him anyway.  He grabbed his hat.  He wasn’t late for the bus, but he was anxious to be alone with his thoughts and try to solve the problem which had not yet materialised as a problem: what if George was sick?  But then, Julian was a born worrier, and nothing had changed since his birthday.  Even when he was reading his Guardian, he looked worried, and people who stopped him to ask directions were startled to see Julian so worried that they would think they had really upset him.

Gloria sat at the breakfast table, staring at the jar of marmalade. She was old enough to remember the Golliwog on the jar, that nowadays is not considered PC. Gloria preferred the world as she remembered it, when things were simple and straightforward. Her eyes finally came into focus, and she noticed the waitress standing by the table. Would madam like anything else? And as Gloria looked up, she noticed something she would like. It was a clean-cut young man sitting alone at a table close by the window. The morning sun fell on his fair hair, and he seemed deliciously unaware that anyone might be looking at him, particularly with the greedy eyes that Gloria had. “Er, no thank you”, she said to the waitress, although she had considered asking for his room number.

Open University Course “Writing Fiction” – Course Blog

The wire snapped.  It was the first success that Hakim and his family had had for days.  How could they have closed the border like this? wondered Hakim.  His three-year old son Adnan was crying.  Hakim’s wife supposed it was the cold, but it could have been the rain, the lack of food, no water to drink, their exhaustion, the constant arguing with the rest of the group – their group was 150 or 200 strong.  Strong is hardly the word to describe these pitiful, weak, straggling travellers, already at the dark edge of a normal existence, ready to die in the attempt to find a way back from the edge and save themselves.  Hakim was dressed in what he stood up in when the big blast had hit their small house in Aleppo: jeans, well-worn; old trainers, no socks; a shirt and an anorak with a hood.  His wife Safa had her headscarf and a long garment of the kind she wore every day.  As Alawites, they were rather more liberal in their dress than other Syrians and both Hakim and Safa shunned the idea of the naqib.  They were worn-down with walking, the boy’s shoes had already fallen apart.  Hakim had spent money on a pair of American Nikes and these were holding up to the tough trek well.  Safa’s shoes were traditional, and were more used to the dusty streets and markets of Aleppo than the muddy fields of the Hungarian countryside.  How did they end up in the god-forsaken place?  Hakim swore quietly and the blade dropped from his hand.  His breath, visible in the cold night air, came in short sharp gasps.  He wasn’t used to this exertion or this temperature.  He wasn’t used to running away, or fleeing for his life.  When he left Aleppo and took control of the flimsy boat to cross the dangerous waters to the Turkish coast, he knew that it was the end of a life-chapter for him and his family.  He had led the group that had managed to secure this boat, and though he had no sailing skills and even less navigational experience, with God’s help they managed to avoid the people-traffickers who demanded far more for their unreliable services than he earned in a year.  It was freedom or nothing for the family and his group of close friends that he trusted, and that trusted him.  He never wanted to be the leader, but sometimes one has to pick up responsibility when it falls on one’s shoulders.  All this passed through Hakim’s mind as he tackled the cold stiff unyielding wire with his simple tools.  Cutting barbed wire was no easy task for cold hands, especially when the hands had been up to now, those of a baker in another land, another world.

The fighting seemed a long way away, now, but Adnan would be carrying the memory and the pain of it for a long time yet, Hakim was sure.  He himself could not get the brutal death of his father out of his mind, and he cursed once again, the thousandth time, the infidels who had wreaked havoc and misery on their land and on his people.  Hakim hoped that a fresh start in Germany would eradicate the pain, the noise, and the memories of the shelling and, above all, the brutal killing of the Adnan’s grandfather, which the boy had witnessed in all its hot-blooded reality.  Hakim quickly cut into another wire, and it yielded.  It was getting easier, but neither he nor his friends who crowded around knew what they would do or how they would make their way once they were across.  Hakim´s blood froze as in the distance, in the frosty night air, he heard the barking of dogs.  Syrians do not, in general, like dogs much and the idea of dogs as pets was alien to him.  The bark of a dog meant only one thing: danger and, moreover, the proximity of police or guards with the dogs.  The dogs got louder and nearer and in the distance they could now hear the shouts and commands of men.  Flashes of light lit up a ridge not 400 meters from the border where they were barely half-way across.  They froze, all of them, and stood stock-still.