Monday, February 20, 2012

Knitting Update

It is an age since I posted any knitting pictures, so here is an update on recent projects.

I finally finished the aran cardigan that I started the Christmas before last (apart from buttons). The pictures aren't great but they give an idea of the end result. 

This was an awful lot of cabling but the end result was worth it. A cosy, classic cardigan, which will be warm enough to wear instead of a coat in spring and autumn. 

Another successful project for myself was this green lace vest using Wendy Bernard's Jordan pattern. I haven't worn it yet as I finished it in October, but I think it will get quite a bit of use in the summer. The yarn was discounted end-of-line Jaeger Trinity. This is a very simple lace project knitted as a tube and two flat rectangles.

There have been smaller project too. These are my third pair of skew socks (for me!):

And I knitted this Bella's mittens pattern for Helen for Christmas in Rowan Cocoon. Gorgeously soft and warm. I shamelessly borrow them!

My current projects are a grapevine sweater in the same yarn as the Jordan vest and a pair of Jaywalker socks in Noro Kureyon sock yarn. I like this wavy pattern and it works beautifully with the colours of the yarn. I am being very brave and just knitting the socks as they come rather than trying to match the colour sequence on each socks. The anal part of my brain really feels that non-identical socks is a radical move! This is the first time I have used Noro. Having read lots of comments about its shortcomings - scratchy and uneven texture being the usual criticisms - I was very unsure whether I would like it, but I picked up a couple of balls in our local yarn shop's January sale. Although the thickness variations are crazy (in places it is more like one ply than four ply and in others there are thick clumps of badly spun yarn) I actually like it better than I expected. The colours really are lovely and I am very happy with the way it is coming out. 

I have another ball of Noro Kureyon that I am thinking of turning into an Ishbel shawl. I am also seriously considering making this beautiful St. Ninian's Scarf in one ply Shetland yarn. It looks challenging but well worth the effort.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book 7: G is for Ghosts

Ghosts of SpainGhosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one just squeaked up to four stars. Written by a British author who lives and is raising his family in Madrid, it looks at modern Spanish culture and how it has been shaped by history. Although I have studied bits of Spanish history, I have only visited Spain once and didn't have much of a sense for how Spain and its people tick. Much of the book was fascinating and I now feel I know a lot more about the country, including certain aspects that were a complete blank to me before - flamenco, Basque separatism, and the establishment of democracy after the death of Franco, to give a few examples. There was also a section on contemporary morality which was pretty graphic! The style is quite easy to read though I did find the book a bit over long - the final chapters on different regions were still interesting, but my focus was slipping by this stage. I found the author's casually anti-Catholic attitude a bit irritating and the close association of the Church with the Franco regime uncomfortable. I also couldn't help wondering how much things have changed in Spain in the light of the financial crises fo the last few years.

Next on my list for 52 Books in 52 Weeks is The Help. I didn't see the movie so I am coming to it with no preconceptions.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Diamond Queen

I meant to post last week to comment on the 60th anniversary of the Queen succeeding to the throne. It was a royal-ish sort of week. Rose's school had a Diamond Jubilee themed day on Wednesday - they decided to go with the date of her accession rather than the official celebrations in June which coincide with the school's summer half term break - and the BBC started a three part documentary called the Diamond Queen. Two things in particular struck me watching the programmes that have been shown so far:

(1) Duty. If there is one word that sums up the Queen it is duty. Thanks to the sense of duty inherited from her father - who became king as a consequence of his brother Edward VIII putting personal interest first - she has spent sixty years, day in and day out, doing a grindingly hard, relentless job in which she is constantly on display. Just imagine. And she doesn't do it because she chose to live such a public life, but because it was thrust upon her. If Edward VIII had remained King and had children of his own, she would have spent her life as a comparatively minor royal.

(2) The incredible knowledge of the world and public affairs the Queen has amassed over those sixty years. Every time she meets a visiting leader or dignitary or travels abroad she is briefed and given the opportunity of conversation with them. Every week she meets the British prime minister to discuss current affairs. She takes all this seriously. Imagine the depth of personal knowledge and experience of someone who has known such an extraordinary list of world leaders: Winston Churchill, Eisenhower, John F Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Charles de Gaulle, Pope Benedict XVI, to name just a few. It seems to me that this continuity is one of the benefits of monarchy - rather than a head of state changing every few years and having to get up to speed from a standing start, the Queen is able to consolidate and increase her already extensive experience year on year. Her political neutrality means that every prime minister and his government is able to draw on this, as are the heads of state of the Commonwealth countries.

Personally, I'm very much a monarchist. Here in the UK we have an old and in some ways odd political system, with no written constitution. While in matters of day-to-day government the Queen is essentially a figurehead, she is also the guarantor of the system. If, to take an extreme scenario, the prime minister decided to suspend future elections and turn himself into a dictator (though I can't say I see David Cameron as a dictatorial type!), the Queen could force an election, at least in theory - in the most extreme case it would depend on whether she could carry the army with her, which is quite likely as their allegiance is to Queen and Country rather than to the government of the day. I once had an interesting conversation about this in the House of Lords tearoom, but that is a whole 'nother story! The bottom line is that without the Queen (and her future successors) this country would not only be poorer in many ways, it would also be less stable.

God save the Queen!

(I also picked up the tie-in book for the TV series as a Kindle deal of the day yesterday, which is now waiting for me to get to Q for Queen on my A to Z reading challenge.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

School Report

Rose ... is as good as gold at school, bless her. (Actually she is pretty good at home too!) She is very proud of the fact that she has never, ever misbehaved at school or been told off for anything by her teacher. She likes learning, and her teacher describes her as "a little sponge". Everything just soaks in. Reading is coming along fast, though she tends to need a bit of coaxing when she is ready to move up a reading level as her confidence lags behind her ability. On the whole, though, she is getting steadily more confident. She was actually excited instead of nervous about getting to collect a merit certificate in front of the whole school (at her school the kids get stamps on a merit card for good work, and after 25 stamps they get presented with a certificate). On the other hand, when the school had a professional theatre company in to perform a pantomime, Rose took one look and bolted straight back to the classroom! Fortunately her teacher had more sense than to send her back and she apparently had fun helping to do "jobs" while everyone else watched the show.

Marie ... her new school still seems to be a good fit for her and most of her teachers were complimentary, though a bit more focus and a bit less day-dreaming would be good.  She is now at the stage of choosing GCSE courses. Compulsory subjects are English Language, English Literature, Maths and Science, for which Marie has been put in an advanced group where they take three separate GCSEs in Physics, Chemistry and Biology; she then gets to do four more subjects of her choice. Her options form had to be in by the end of last week and her final choices were Art, French, History and Business Studies. Art she has always enjoyed. Her choice of history surprised me as she has always complained she doesn't like it. Apparently "history is much more interesting at this school". Glad to hear it! Business Studies is her makeweight, as there was nothing else that particularly wanted to do. French has become a favourite since she started at this school in September. I can't say enough positive things about her French teacher, who has somehow managed to enthuse Marie into working hard and using what is turning out to be a latent talent for languages. The UK National Curriculum is graded in Levels, with the average rate of progress being one full Level every two years. At the end of last school year Marie was graded as Level 4b for French (below average for her age). Suddenly she has shot up to Level 6a/7 (well above average) - in theory that is 5 years worth of progress in 6 months! At the parent-teacher consultation I said how impressed I was with how well she was doing given that she had only been at Level 4 last year. Bemused teacher said that simply wasn't possible! Amazing what a bit of effort on Marie's part can achieve.

Helen ... is also still loving the new school but had a disaster with her Product Design course when she lost a folder containing an entire term's coursework. Faced with the near impossibility of catching this up we have come up with a Plan B. She dropped Product Design - a shame in a way as she was good at it, but she did admit that the amount of work was beginning to overwhelm her even before she lost the folder - and is planning to add in Maths and ICT (information technology) next year. Usually young people in the UK who take A level course take three subjects at A2 (advanced) level and one at AS (advanced subsidiary) level. Helen will end up with two A2s (English Language and Media Studies), two ASs (Photography and Maths) and a BTEC (technical / vocational qualification) in ICT. If she decides she wants to go to university she may need to take a second year of Maths to boost that up to an A2, which she could do during a gap year, but currently she thinks she would rather look for an apprenticeship in something media or ICT related, possibly web design.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Too Much Stuff, Too Little Time!

Life here is busy! On that edge between very busy and crazy busy. My mum is waiting to have her second hip replaced, which will probably happen either the end of this month or early next. Meanwhile she has been needing more help than usual. She had a stairlift fitted in her house on Monday which should make life quite a bit easier for her. Getting upstairs had become a mountain to climb. We weren't sure how easy it would be to fit a stairlift as her stairs are narrow with an inconvenient bend at the bottom. After consultation with the nice man from the stairlift company I (yes, me! Apparently I missed my vocation as a stairlift engineer!) came up with a neat solution that worked - so I am feeling quite pleased with myself now it is successfully installed.

The last couple of weeks have been a marathon of school appointments for Marie and Rose (still can't get used to this name change!). There was an information evening about how Rose's school teaches numeracy, a GCSE options evening for Marie, and parent-teacher consultations for both. I'll write about those later. In amongst that, Marie has been having trouble with the wires on her braces, requiring two extra visits to the orthodontist. Helen is in a state of wild excitement as she heads off on a five day school trip to New York today.

Meanwhile I have been busy with work and study. I am still working an extra day a week, which for complicated but good reasons may increase in the spring rather than decrease as I expected. Fortunately my current archive course module is palaeography (reading old handwriting), an area where have already have a fair amount of experience. As a result the course is not too time consuming. Just as well!

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Book 6: F is for Five

Anna of the Five TownsAnna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The suggested theme for 52 Books in 52 Weeks for this week is Dickens. I am almost there as Arnold Bennett is an author who has been compared to Dickens. I remember reading and enjoying Clayhanger maybe 30 years ago but haven't read anything by Arnold Bennett since until I picked up this free eBook. I had forgotten just how good a writer Bennett was. Like Dickens he was a journalist who also wrote fiction. Like Dickens his work has a very strong and acutely observed sense of place - Victorian London for Dickens, the early 20th century Potteries for Bennett (the Potteries is an area in Staffordshire which was traditionally the centre of - duh! -English pottery making). Bennett's fictional Five Towns based on "Bursley" are in reality Six Towns centred on Burslem.  Like Dickens, Bennett is a master of language. What in a lesser author could be dense and turgid text in Bennett's hands becomes finely crafted description. In some ways very little happens in Anna of the Five Towns, a coming of age story in which the heroine Anna begins to break away from her miserly father and experiences the first stirrings of romance, but I found I couldn't put it down. My one disappointment was in the ending. It seemed to stop very suddenly without any of the subtlety that is characteristic of the rest of the book. Maybe it was because this is one of Bennett's early works.

As a flavour of his style, here is the first sentence:

The yard was all silent and empty under the burning afternoon heat, which had made its asphalt springy like turf, when suddenly the children threw themselves out of the great doors at either end of the Sunday-School - boys from the right, girls from the left - in two howling, impetuous streams, that widened, eddied, intermingled and formed backwaters until the whole quadrangle was full of clamour and movement."
I have a sense that Arnold Bennett's works have fallen out of fashion among the classics. It's a shame as they deserve to be more widely read.


After a bitterly cold week we finally got our first (and only?) real snow of the winter, with three inches or so falling overnight. Rose and Marie built a snow-girl. As Rose pointed out, "you should know it is a snow-girl because it has plaits".