I must not laugh at my students. I must not laugh at my students.

It’s very important, as a tutor, to remain straight-faced and encouraging no matter how hilarious your student’s efforts may be.

Recently having become a student myself, I am particularly aware of this. As I fail over and over again to play the most basic riffs and chords on my guitar, I am both mortified by and grateful for my tutor’s patient, encouraging expression – when you know perfectly well he’s thinking, underneath the smile, “how many times do I have to listen to this mess, I know 10-year-olds who could get this faster!”.

And so I smile my friendly, you-can-do-it smile at my students, even when they ask me questions I can’t believe they seriously have to ask, or say something that sounds, in my humble opinion, borderline insane.

Today, I was helping my young protégés to choose subjects for their independent projects, and showing them how to split up the work into sections under various sub-headings. Some were very creative, choosing their own topics, which ranged from Martin Luther King to the motives of serial killers. Others opted to just pick a title from my list of suggestions – which was what one student, let’s call him Jake, chose to do when he wrote “The Solar System” at the top of his page.

Great, that’ll be interesting to research! I said in my Hails the Encourager voice. He stared blankly at me. Jake’s expression never changes. He stares blankly, whether he’s bored, telling a joke, or shouting at someone. Blank stare. It’s quite unsettling.

Anyway, he seemed to be struggling with sub-headings, as there were only two on his page, so I leaned over to look at them and offer a few suggestions.

How it works, I read over his shoulder. Hmm…. well, yes, I would maybe change that to something more like “What is it?”, but that’s a good start. Great! Well done! So encouraging, you see.

Jake stared blankly, and I hastily craned my neck to see the second heading.

How much it costs, I read out. I paused, slightly confused. How much it… costs. Um…

Jake stared blankly.

Sometimes I can see where they’ve gone wrong, and gently point out their error in a way that seems like I’m praising their efforts while nudging them in the right direction.

At other times, though, I’m honestly at a complete loss.

Desperately searching Jake’s impassive face for some clue as to what he was trying to say, I wrinkled my brow and said “ummm” a few more times. Jake stared blankly.

I’m not really sure what you mean, “how much it costs”, I admitted eventually, when it became clear that no further information was forthcoming. Do you mean, um, to run? To… buy?

I mean, I hoped against hope that the boy didn’t think , at 17 years old, that it was possible to buy the entire solar system, but one can never be too sure in my job.

To buy and run, he said as if I was being purposely obtuse.

I stared blankly at Jake. Jake stared blankly at me. He couldn’t understand what my problem was; I couldn’t understand what the feck he meant.

What the f**k do you mean, Jake? piped up Karl, sitting next to him and slightly less tactful than me. How is money even involved with the solar system? It’s just, like… there, man.

Jake stared blankly. You have to install it and set it up and all that, he said, as if speaking to a couple of absolute simpletons.

I just continued to stare blankly at him. I think it’s contagious. Karl, however, gave a sudden laugh. He’s not thinking of the solar system, he’s thinking of solar panel energy.

This was obviously the moment I meant when I started this story. The don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh-don’t-laugh moment. With a miraculously straight face and the facial expression of someone who doesn’t find this amusing in the slightest, I gently told Jake to just change his title to “Solar Energy”. No big deal!

Jake stared blankly. What’s the Solar System, then?

Oh, f**k me! said Karl with deep feeling, putting his head down on the desk.

It’s all the planets and shit, like, piped up Sam.

Why’s it called the Solar System, then, if it’s not about solar panels? asked Jake, staring blankly.

‘Cause it all revolves around the sun, man.

What’s the sun got to do with it?

Karl looked up, almost pleadingly. F**kin’ hell, miss, can we go for break yet?

Yes, I said faintly. Yes. let’s go for break.

Whatever happened to “Never again”?

1938. Britain. Immigrants are flooding into the country in their thousands. The media, and therefore the public, are outraged, and ugly pictures are painted of the refugees, depicting them not as desperate, frightened families fleeing from certain death, but as corrupt, money-hungry, soulless foreigners who want to take over our country, steal our jobs, and send our crime rate sky high. They should go back to where they came from. They belong there. 

“The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to its fullest.”

– Herbert Metcalfe, British magistrate, 1938.

Photo: Wikipedia


2015. Britain. Immigrants are – wait… just read that first paragraph again. It serves the same purpose.

Whatever happened to “Never again”? How come the world is so horrified to hear of Jews being refused entry to ‘safe’ countries, yet unwilling to help the Syrians today? Why do we treat as heroes the people who risked their lives and/or broke the law to help Jews escape, but criticise those who want to take in refugees for being “left-wing liberal idealists” or “un-British”?

We create museums and memorials in honour of the Holocaust victims. We award medals to those who tried to help them. We read survivor accounts, we visit concentration camps, we shake our heads sadly, and we agree that something should have been done sooner. Someone should have helped. Such atrocities should never, ever happen again.

And yet dead children are washing up on holiday resort beaches, drowned with their families in their desperation to escape their devastated homeland. The response should be “How can we stop this? What can we do?”.

It isn’t.

It’s: “I don’t want to see photos of dead children on my newsfeed.”

And: “It wouldn’t have happened if they’d stayed where they belonged.”

When it’s a matter of life or death, nothing else matters. Save human lives first, figure out how to deal with the consequences later. Wouldn’t you like to think that if you’d lost everything and were desperately fleeing for your life, someone would take you in and give you safety and support? That you wouldn’t have to plead to be allowed a chance to live? That people wouldn’t look away, pretending they didn’t see you, and assume someone else would help you?

No, it’s not nice to see photos of suffering and death. But if you can look at such images and simply shrug your shoulders and say “well, that’s their problem”, then something has gone badly, badly wrong with the human race. Even more so in light of the lessons we’re supposed to have learned from history. We said “Never again” – we say it over and over. Is it just a meaningless sentiment we trot out when confronted with images of inhumanity from the past, if we’re so eager to distance ourselves from all the places in the world  where atrocities occur today?

And we can ignore them, if we want.

Or we can look at those pictures.

Photos: AP

We can let them burn into that part of the brain that won’t let them be erased. We can feel sick, sad, disgusted, horrified, outraged… guilty. And we can say “Hey, you know what? I can’t sit here in my safe little world, letting this happen to other innocent people. Not again. Never again.”

Iceland has set a wonderful example to the rest of Europe, and the world, with thousands of ordinary citizens offering to open their homes to refugees in response to the government trying to cap the number of immigrants. Germany has increased the number of immigrants it will allow entry to. And thousands and thousands of people are still stranded, blocked in at borders, refused freedom to seek asylum because EU laws won’t let them.

When a life – even just one life – is at stake, borders are unimportant. Immigration laws are redundant. Economic concerns are irrelevant. Saving that life is all that matters. Everything else can wait.

Can we do something, please?

Sign a petition to the government of your country. Here’s Britain’s.

Make a donation to one of the many, many groups and charities providing immediate relief in the form of food, water, clothes and so on for stranded people caught between a country they can’t get into and a country they can’t go back to.

Lobby your local council, share stories and pictures on social media, start your own relief group, organise/attend a demonstration, volunteer to help people who do manage to reach your country… do something, anything.

But don’t ignore fellow human beings who are suffering more than we can imagine. Don’t pull up the drawbridge and refuse to help them. Don’t let future generations look back at us and condemn our lack of empathy, ask why something wasn’t done, shake their heads at the needless waste of human life, and say sadly “Never again.”.


I recently embarked on a new relationship. It was never meant to be a long term thing, I must confess; more of a stop-gap, if I’m brutally honest. He wasn’t really what I had in mind, but he came along at the right time, and somehow… he stayed.

His name is Alfie, and we are genuinely happy together. He’s no spring chicken, but he’s cute, reliable, and has yet to let me down despite my initial concerns about his stamina. He was actually with The Sister first, but she dumped him for a younger model. He doesn’t talk about it, you know, but I think I’ve helped him to move on.

For Valentine’s Day he took me to Belfast to see a concert, leaving me safely home again afterwards. In return, I got him some shiny new hubcaps, as he was bound to be feeling humiliated, hanging around in the car park all day with only one rusty old hubcap, surrounded by all those other cars with their superior sneers.

Mind you, this was quite an embarrassing experience for Yours Truly, being a bear of very little car-brain. I need those silver things you put on the wheels, I explained to the guy in the auto shop. What size? he asked, as you would probably expect him to ask if you had a clue about such things. He looked at my blank expression, possibly guessing that the next words out of my mouth were about to be “wheel-sized”, and politely asked if the car was outside, as he could go and check for himself.

He returned a few moments later to inform me that I needed size X (obviously I have absolutely no memory of what should be in place of that X), and led me to a wall display of shiny new hubcaps. These ones here are the most popular for wee Clios, he was explaining, but I was not listening, as I had become oblivious to everything but the price tag on each hubcap: all of them around 25 quid!

My helpful and patient assistant observed the look of horror that had crept over my face, and paused in his sales patter, presumably trying to work out what was wrong. Um… are they all about the same price? I asked nervously. He nodded. Ummmmmm…. I didn’t realise they were so expensive… The guy looked surprised, telling me that they were very reasonably priced and I wouldn’t find them cheaper anywhere else, but the sale was now off. In my mind, I was figuring out a get-away excuse that would get me out of paying a hundred pounds for 4 bits of plastic. Alfie could just keep right on being shabby and inferior, for that price.

The assistant hesitated, and you could see in his face that he was trying to work out how much common sense I possessed, lest he offend me by assuming I didn’t understand something perfectly obvious. Evidently he decided that it had to be said. Erm, he said politely, you do know that that’s the price for four, not each? Ohhhhhhhh right.

I sheepishly selected the recommended hubcaps and went to the payment desk, where the man there asked if I knew how to put them on. The young fella who’d been helping me didn’t even give me time to answer, perhaps fearing for the car, the tyres, and the safety of the general public if I were to attempt this task. I’ll just go ahead and put those on for you, he said quickly, almost snatching them out of the cashier’s hand and running from the shop.

And so Alfie has his hubcaps, and he looks “spiffing” according to The Sister. Tough! He’s mine now! Mwahahahaha. Look at him there, with his sexy, sexy wheels. IMG_7242

Pork Scratchings

Granny and Granda are watching a genuinely bad sitcom on TV. I am not watching it, mainly because it is genuinely bad, but also because I am doing a jigsaw puzzle.

This is the latest event in my gradual spiral into Crazy Old Cat Lady territory: spending a Friday night on the sofa with my grandparents, doing a jigsaw puzzle. I started it with Granny earlier in the week, but she lost interest after a few nights. I, on the other hand, cannot leave something like that unfinished, and am therefore utterly incapable of continuing with my life until I have completed the damn jigsaw.

Anyway, I’m half-listening to the woeful dialogue on the TV as I wrestle hopelessly with 6 million identical pieces of blue sky. Two characters appear to be trapped in a lift, having one of those conversations where they take turns at beginning to speak about a different subject while the other one thinks they’re still talking about the first one, and then vice versa. It is terribly unfunny, but I hear Granny give a cackle as it happens for the dozenth time, one character saying something serious and profound only for the other one to say “Eh? I was talking about the pork scratchings!”.

They’re like us!  she says to Granda. It is quite true. Sometimes I think one of them could start talking about flesh-eating giant caterpillars, in a different language, and the other one would respond with “yes, it’s a cold auld night!”. Granny’s observation is, after all, very astute.

Yes, pork scratchings, says Granda, rather brilliantly.

Talking past each other, I mean, adds Granny.

Yes, we used to eat them, agrees Granda as I focus desperately on a piece of cloud, trying not to laugh lest I interrupt the splendor of this conversation.

Eh? says Granny.

Where was it we bought them? muses Granda, lost in a memory of pork scratchings gone by. What’s that place called?

Benidorm, says Granny, possibly referring to the location on screen as opposed to the pork scratching vendor. One’s talking about one thing and the other’s talking about something else.

Was that down Church Street? asks Granda.

Is that Church Street in Benidorm as well as here?! asks Granny, surprised by the coincidence.

It wouldn’t surprise me, says Granda, nodding wisely.

Both of them become distracted at this point, as I am in hysterics and can’t explain what’s so funny, so have to pass it off as excitement at being almost finished my puzzle. (It’s not until my amusement has passed that I will realise how tragic it is that they accept this as a plausible explanation. I’ve got to get out more.)

If I could put my family on TV, it’d be the comedy hit of the decade, seriously.

Sample office conversation

I got into the bath with my socks on last night.

I wasn’t trying a novel money-saving method of doing laundry – it was more a case of trying to have a thought process at the same time as functioning as a normal human being. This is apparently something of which I am almost completely incapable.

I tell my colleagues about this when one of them mentions that the week has dragged in and she’s tired and stressed. It seems as good a time as any to mention my alarming lapse in mental ability. I was thinking through an entirely separate issue as I got undressed, I explain feebly, and I was exhausted and tried to simultaneously have the thought that it was cold and I would keep my socks on in bed. Somehow everything got mixed up and I realised I was sitting in the bath with my thermal socks on.

Most of my colleagues laugh in an almost concerned sort of way, but one of them tells me not to worry, as she went a step further the other week and threw her socks down the toilet. Apparently it was a similar sort of thought-jumble confusion, as she had toilet roll in the other hand at the time. We don’t ask for further details.

Other toilet incidents come to light from various people in the office, most commonly the irritating dropping-a-whole-roll-of-toilet-paper-into-the-bowl-and-having-to-fish-it-out-and-dry-it-on-the-radiator and the heartbreaking I-have-to-dry-my-iPhone-in-a-bag-of-rice.

Ever thrown anything interesting down the toilet? I ask a fellow tutor as she walks back into the office. I do love it when you ask a question like that and get an answer without any hint of surprise or confusion about why you’re asking such a thing.

No, she says, but I did go to the toilet in someone else’s house once and there was bread in the toilet bowl.

That’s someone with either a serious lack of storage space or a very worrying digestive problem.

Escape to the Country

I’ve moved out to stay with my granny for the time being, and am living in the bedroom I used to sleep in when I stayed there regularly as a child. It didn’t occur to me at the time (perhaps because I was about 4 feet tall), but the room is approximately the size of a walk-in wardrobe.

It’s cosy, though, and I have this weird, almost magical feeling – not of being in Narnia, but of having returned to my childhood. The familiar creaks of the floorboards. The gurgle of the hot press in the next room. The sound of sheep and cows in the fields. The birds singing outside. My grandparents and their hilarious conversations.

There was the first of many amusing grandparent kerfuffles last night as I was getting ready for bed. It appeared that Granda bought Granny a big box of chocolates for Christmas, which she immediately lost, and had now discovered concealed beside his chair – empty.

“You bought me chocolates and ate them all!” came the indignant roar from downstairs, followed by a 5-minute rant from Granny during which Granda maintained that it was a box someone else had bought him, and not the one he had given her.

The rant was punctuated by a series of thuds which I could only imagine involved Granny either hitting him with the empty box or throwing it around the room in outrage. I was just wondering if I should go down and intervene when Granny came thumping up the stairs to get ready for bed. I listened sympathetically as she told me her tale of woe while changing into her nightclothes. The selfishness! The greed! Unbelievable!

I was just getting into bed when there was another roar (my Granny likes to roar). I opened my door again to see her emerging from under the dressing table with a large box of chocolates and a rather sheepish expression.

Sent her down to apologise to the bewildered grandfather. Heard her offering him a chocolate as a peace offering.

Another roar – this time of laughter, from both of them, as they discovered that the new box was, in fact, full of newspaper cuttings and cards as opposed to Thornton’s finest.

The whereabouts of Granny’s chocolates remain unknown. Was it Granda? Has Granny hidden them from him and forgotten? Did she eat them? The mystery continues.

It’s going to be one big exciting adventure story living here…

Christmas Gifts

I gave myself a present this year: I broke contact with people whose beliefs, comments, and opinions made me feel sick, ashamed, and angry. Thankfully, none of them were in my close circle of friends, so it was simply a matter of clicking “unfriend”, such is the world we live in.

You see, I’ve always believed in tolerance. No confrontation, live in harmony, let’s not fight. That’s not quite right, though, is it? If the world had continued to tolerate the Nazis and let them enforce their beliefs on innocent people…

I think I’ll always be a peaceful person, one who is reluctant to argue. However, the gift I’ve given myself this year is the gift of confidence. Confidence in my own beliefs and morals, confidence in my capability to discern right from wrong, confidence in my right to stand up for good, confidence in my ability to take a stand and make a difference, however small. For the first time in my life, I am choosing to be confident that my opinion matters.

evil vs good

In my country right now, a political party is trying to pass a “conscience clause” that will allow anyone to bypass certain equality laws if they claim it violates their religious beliefs. At the start, my attitude (as someone who was once a devout Christian, and was taught that God loves every person just the same) was one of disbelief. A clause that would legally allow a Christian-owned restaurant to refuse service to a gay couple? Really?! Certain that only a few right-wing bigots would ever for a moment think that this was acceptable, I posted a link to the petition against this outrage to human rights, simply to make everyone aware of it.

It did not for a moment occur to me that anyone on my friends list, Christian or otherwise, would actually be in favour of this law. An utterly mind-boggling debate erupted on my Facebook post, and a day later I got a message from a former teacher of mine, someone who I would have listed in my top ten of people who have encouraged and inspired me.


Christian or atheist, this is the sort of belief that I can’t tolerate. I have tolerated it, for the aforementioned reasons (non-confrontational, peace, harmony, blah blah), but I can’t any more. That’s my gift. To myself, and to the world! If people with these beliefs are free (which they are) to express such beliefs, then I am equally free to express my contempt, disgust, sadness, and horror at the fact that they believe such groundless, offensive, judgmental things. I am also free to hit “unfriend”. And then to take a stand against such prejudiced, damaging, potentially extremely dangerous thinking. If everyone adopted these beliefs, Hitler’s vision of a pure breed of people via a drastic solution would once again be a possibility.

The argument seems to be that they should not be forced to ‘endorse homosexuality’ – i.e., even though it’s completely their decision what to believe, and everyone knows that they believe it, they can’t be seen to be tolerating what they believe to be sinful behaviour.

Fair enough. As I said to the lesbian restaurant owner who politely refused to let my boyfriend and me eat there because it would be endorsing heterosexual relationships, oh wait, no, that NEVER HAPPENS.

What business is it of any of us how anyone else lives their life? Who cares if I fall in love with a man or a woman? Does it affect you in the slightest?

There are plenty of troubling, disturbing things in this world. Love is not one of them.

And so that’s my Christmas gift to myself. I am going to fight for good and take a stand against bigotry and discrimination. I am not going to tolerate homophobia, racism, xenophobia, or any other groundless prejudice, simply because everyone has a right to their beliefs and I don’t want to argue with anybody. Sometimes, you do have to argue.


And this post, I suppose, is a gift to the faithful readers who regularly ask me where I’ve gone and when I’m going to write again. I have my reasons for the long absence, and I’ll hopefully be back again before too much longer. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, and please accept this humble blog-post-shaped gift!