Monday, 18 August 2014

St Nicholas Cole Abbey

There is that scene near the end of ET where the FBI arrive - big burly men shouldering in, the house taped up, a kind of tunnelled life within what had been the comfort of the home  - and this is what our life feels like at the moment except much, much smaller, with more dust and dirt and East European accents not American.  Our kitchen and bathroom are being replaced  ( which I keep reminding myself will be great ) but life is meant to carry on, everything dirty, everything boxed up, nothing where it should be, most things coated in plastic - still getting the boys off to school ironed and pack-lunched with homework done, me to work for a national newspaper smiling.  All of this living out of one tiny room with dust and dirt everywhere.  As if matter itself has been released - there is a pointlessness, a futility to the human endeavour of a dustpan and brush and something in me feels as if it is giving up, needs a flying bmx bike, to find a good and solid home.

The weekend before the work starts I am packing the kitchen into boxes I bought from Rymans with the boys away when it dawns on me - we are too stressed for this - how are we going to cope.

My eldest son did not get the secondary school choice he/we wanted (despite a slightly odd certainty he would.)  I did not get a Jerwood/ Arvon writers mentoring scheme award - though I was of six to be interviewed for three places.  I am waiting for the tax credit tribunal though bailiff letters still arrive.  I have got used to them but it is still frightening as I fold them away under an increasingly dusty pile of papers .  You are trying to bully me.  I think.

On the first day of the works - when every part of the kitchen and bathroom was ripped out - it is as if our family wounds are re opened -  anxiety is very high - the boys are angry that we live in a tiny flat - that the home that has been made has been trashed that something about our lives is broken.
I put up the camping table with a brightly coloured table cloth in the crowd of boxes and stacked furniture of the main room - and think of the invention and courage of the make shift shelters of disaster zones, refugee camps and at the edge of war.  Women making a kernel of home in the chaos.  I know I am lucky, that this is temporary, that we are safe but can see the trauma that being without home brings.

The results of both the school application and the mentoring award came through on the same day. I had hoped for good news.  ( after all the last post was so  bleak a friend texted support as if I was on suicide watch )  I had thought we have been through enough - this is the day the tide turns:   At about 4.30 I hear I haven't got the mentoring.  ( I knew by then I hadn't -  I just knew you would leave the bad luck calls to late )  An earnest and kind young woman keeps telling me all the positive things about why and how I haven't got it.  I just want to get her off the phone with her lingering good luck messages sticky as a boiled sweet found in a pocket.  Oh, oh.  I don't care I think  - bartering with who? - I need the school place most - I will settle for just that - though I am crazily confident he will get it.

That night I sit up keeping vigil to the secondary school application email.  The cutoff is midnight but at midnight no e mail has come.   I stay up - slightly manically but repeatedly hitting the refresh button - but nothing comes through.    Oh I keep thinking.  I need to know.  hit refresh nothing hit refresh nothing.

Eventually at 3am I think to try the edu site - where there is a note saying yahoo sites are not working and I obtain access with an old stored password to find out my son has got his third place school.  Out of the upset of the day and the confusion of the night it is like seeing the world through a tangle - not what I thought would happen at all.

I absolutely thought that this day our luck would change.

I have been reading a biography of the writer Penelope Fitzgerald.  I borrowed it from work - exhilerated to find the story of a woman who had her first book published at 60.   Clever, from a clever family,  she married a man who became an alcoholic then brought her children up in baffled but stoic poverty.   Though they lived on a boat and it sank.  My life has felt like that boat but it isn't literally true.   I start to read the novels and the writing is sly but perfect,  I don't always love it but I am always impressed by it - she just hangs characters a little bit out of reach, doesn't explain too much.   She also loved the writing of Samuel Beckett ( I used to struggle to get a character through a door then reading Beckett realised a reader will believe much much more than you think, that the narrative can be almost abstract, suspended in space - a mound of earth, one room with wind at the door.)
I have promised the woman I borrowed it from that I read fast/will bring it back but I thought I had read that PF believed you can't work off your bad chance - there isn't a finite amount - you have to just accept the load you are given but I can't find the quote.  I had marked the things I liked with tiny torn scraps of paper and copied them in my notebook but couldn't find this one.  I keep dipping to find it, then start to read the book again, what I do find is:
'The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one's own independence and to do only what we are expected to do.  At the same time it is a mistake to expect anything  specific from life.  Life will not confirm.'
and 'Experiences aren't given to us to be 'got over', otherwise they would hardly be experiences.' is the nearerst I can find.

 I had hoped that I would remain calm and pragmatic throughout secondary school applications - the finding what is best for my very bright, wild, creative, angry, enquiring son and obtaining it.   Though most children just want to be with their friends - he was adamant he didn't want to go the local and assured place comp.  So I started reasonably early with an application last year for a really exceptional public school - working with my son night after night on practise papers - though discovering on the internet that this preparation that I  started a month before the exam - should have been worked on for years with a tutor.   wa wa waaa I thought - though we did it together - enjoying the process - reaching a regular score of over 90% on the vr. It wasn't enough and i knew he cldnt alwys spell v well  and the phone call to interview never came.  Later I thought  about the braying parents and slightly odd staff -  the stooped and over-charming, the aneroxic and the florid and it made me think of the wounds of public schools, the damage done to boys and I didn't trust the process - though the facilities and ambition was incredible - I felt sheepish I had put my son through so much - after all we didn't just need a place but a 100% bursary too ( filling in forms of financial details that would have made the stooped and thin wince at the bravery and madness of my life.  )  What I really wanted and liked best was the access to the Thames - the freedom for a boy to explore the river, to feel free alongside the moorhens and strong currents.

I spent hours and hours and hours researching schools on the internet - though the truth was there was very little choice -  but at the last minute I found an across the border-borough-option with an art scholarship exam to take and my son went and took the exam.   That morning after dropping him off for the test I bumped into the Momdel - a beautiful Russian mother that I used to talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevesky in the playground after school though my certaintity that she had been a model had been confirmed when she took her daughters out of our school when she got a job presening ' Next top model' in Georgia.   She introduced me to her companion - a Russian artist that had been tutoring her daughter for the art exam. Oh I thought glumly I am so naive.   Then I found £15 pounds in the gutter and met a friend for breakfast.   I could see that this was the best option we ( it would mean my younger son could get in on sibling policy ) had by miles.

Afterwards when I met my son at the school gate in the hoards of tense parents ( I saw others I knew or had known - a girl I had waitressed with, a newspaper editor )  he was excited and confident - look he said as if bringing out a bag of brightly coloured sweets for a  greedy toddler - I took a picture on my phone - OH - I say - I am certain you are not allowed to do that - yes, but no one saw he said and look -  my hands clamouring he showed me a really beautiful drawing of his hand drawing on paper - the task he had been asked to do - the determination of the drawing, the confidence and variation of line - oh I thought - there is no way he won't get a place with that drawing.     All the art teachers came and stood behind me to look at the drawing he said then described a girl the only other one he thought  had done a good drawing - getting frustrated and scribbling over her work.  Maybe they will be able to see how good it was underneath her scribble he said with concern.

I can't really explain my certainty - though I do have an MA in fine art - but I thought he was sure to get a place, though I understood and indeed accepted that the test was to cook the books of a truly 'comprehensive intake' and to design the school to be middle class.  Somehow - our address?  being a single mother? we didn't add up.

Ironically the head teacher at my son's primary school tells me that it has been  'an astonishing year of 100% bursaries for private schools from this Y6' - she thinks it is because the charitable status of public schools is under attack - and the disadvantage of the children from our school is exactly what they want to look philanthropic - but children that do not get the results of my son have obtained them. I still don't think that this would have been necessarily the right option for my son but I feel sick that I have failed to obtain a secondary education that will suit him.

PSM says she chanted OM  every day for the 100% bursary place her son has received.
wa waaa

On our street, the dark cut through once known as Duck Lane, a camp of homeless guys has set up.   More organized than the normal sleeping-bag-solo-sleepers they have mattresses and layers of cardboard and somehow their structures remain even when they aren't there.  When I close my bedroom curtains one night I see them all tucked into sleeping bags but clamouring around a box of beer like a Daumier sketch, faces lit by street light, though in the morning when I walk past the sleeping forms I see a pair of shoes like slippers laid neatly at the side of the bed, a water bottle and a book nearby like items placed on a bedside table.

I also read that Penelope Fitzgerald writes notes of herself as a Becketian old woman called Mrs Thing 'Nietzsche complained of the 'smell of failed souls' in modern civilisation.' And yet is is all the same - so terribly the same, every morning one must get one's body up, consult it, wash it, somehow.....'
'When Mrs Thing was 47 years old a fairy appeared and said 'You need never do anything you hated doing again: you need never find on catching sight of yourself that your face is red and foolish, you need never not quite catch what is said, never try to keep up with things........'

I feel like Mrs Thing.   An old woman working hard, failing to quite pull off the normal things of life, a fool. Now squandering the assets of my son not just myself.

On the day I go to find a city church I catch myself thinking unexpectedly if I get into church today I will pray.   That morning I had run and caught up with a mum whose son already attended the school my son has a place for.  Her son too is bright, confident, slightly warrior and I thought her reaction would be a good gauge.   Her face distorts - it is a terrible school she said, terrible, there is trouble and bullying,  and fighting, they give no homework and they have all had letters to say year 7 is failing.   Oh I say not quite expecting this onslaught.  Oh. 

I cycle close to St Paul's Cathedral - there is a church close to the river I think - remembering yellow spots on the map I have by my computer marking the churches.   I find the austere Welsh Church dipped down from the road by steep steps but it is closed.   Back up to the dual carriageway I find a church further up on the side though it no longer seems to be a church but a cafe  - The Wren. I have to go I think, it is a Christopher Wren church - but I feel a bit disappointed - just today I was prepared to pray.   I think it would have been a quick fumble - an embarrassed crouch to the knees and some muttered words - but I was prepared to do it.    I walk up the steps - into a beautiful airy white space with wood pannelling and stained glass windows -  people milling around, tables and a wooden counter with coffee machine, and cakes on glass stands.   The room is beautiful - but but but - It all looks so 'lifestyled' - the fetishism of those bloody artisans I think grumpily, just walking round the edges looking at the original carved garlands left on the walls.  It isn't that I don't like nice things - I just want things to look insouciant - or more exactly - where they should be.   I don't even sit for a coffee though later I read the cafe has won an award for the best new cafe, that the coffee is very good.   But again - I like a casualness to excellence and there is something over done to the over-crafted modern intervention to the beautiful space.

Researching later I find out it is still a church  -  but it seems to be an experiment - a very good cafe that hosts talks about God at lunchtimes - like an instagram version of a church it looks good in pictures travels well by social media and via wedding pictures.

Though I also discover it has been a church that attempted ( and suceeded ) in obtaining huge congregations in the past by such radical moves.   In 1881 the congregation was down to one man and one woman but when Henry Shuttleworth, a Christian Socialist was appointed in 1883 - installing a bar, a huge music programme and making the church a centre of debate the number attending grew to 450 on a Sunday evening.

The first recorded mention of the church was in a letter from Pope Lucius II in 1144-5.   Named after St Nicholas of Myra the patron saint of children and fishermen, Cole Abbey was a derivation from Coldharbour - a traveller's shelter or shelter from the cold.  Deeds in the time of Richard I report a new fish market close by and during the 16th century several fishmongers were buried here.  John Stow reports during the reign of Elizabeth I that a lead and stone cistern, fed by the Thames was set up against the the north wall 'for the care and commodity of the Fishermongers in about Old Fish St'.

During the reformation protestant worship was decreed though when Mary I came to the throne returning Catholicism to England it was the first church to celebrate Mass.  The incumbent Rector Thomas Sowdley had in the meantime taken a wife in the reign of Edward VI and lost his job only to be reinstated under Elizabeth I.

The church was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren between 1672- 1678.  Noted in the building accounts are 'Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company - £2 14s 0d and 'Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren's coachmen - 6d.'

Destroyed again on May 10th 1941 in the worst air raid of the war.    The church remained a shell until restored by Arthur Bailey in 1962.   Recently restored it opened as a coffee shop and lunchtime meeting place for office workers to hear the word of God through 'Nick's talks in 2014.

Weeks later  - I don't even remember how we hear about it but we go - on the last day - to Selfridges temporary skate park.  This is London I think!  This is amazing!  Watching one son skateboard and the other rollerblade down Oxford St then turn down Orchard Street at the side of the huge department store to find the entrance.   I skateboarded as a kid.   My childhood next door neighbours ( one dead, one a heroin addict, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh I miss them both so much though one was always absent ) and my younger brother skateboarded.  We bought skateboards through classified ads, started on a small slope infront of the next door neighbours house then graduated to a really steep street nearby.  We went to the empty multi story car park every Sunday.  It was just us  down the spiral curve.  We skateboarded and skateboarded - though it was surburban hills and carparks and the only time we came to London to Skate City we didn't know the basic flip turn to be allowed on the bowl.   All that money for the train and the skate park entrance and we just mooched round the periphery-  hicks from the sticks.  But here years later- just after 10 in the morning my sons and I go up some abandoned hotel stairs at the side of Selfridges and into a temporary but huge skate park on the first floor.  No rollerblades allowed though so my younger son  who is always sensibly defining himself as 'other' from my eldest can't skate.  Though they have skateboards to hire but not until after 12 when the lessons finish.  My eldest son skates and skates - he is very good - and it is a beautifully designed space and almost empty to begin with - though later it fills up.  My youngest son and I mooch around - go to Selfridges foodhall and have an ice cream, then back again.   At 12 we go back to the desk to rent a board for him. There isn't a queue but it feels like one because I am thinking - ask for one for yourself - go on, go on, go on, go on.   I get the board and helmet for my younger son, then just as I am about to turn away - funny mrs thing - I turn back to the pretty blonde girl and say - could I get another board - could I get another board for me.

On the smooth concrete I start to skate.   I can do a very old fashioned but I believe very elegant skateboarding - and when I start my heart is banging - I feel it is a performance  ( because there are dads watching from behind barriers and young people surprised as I weave around corners )  oh oh I am worrying I am de masculating my sons oh oh I think I am embarrassing them/myself  the funny Mrs Thing is now on a skateboard  oh oh - but then the music starts and the dj has put on I guess for me - old woman - when I'm 64 'When I get older losing my hair many years from now.....    I feel I am flying.  The park is beautiful -  the concrete so smooth that I can go fast, pick up speed lean into  the corners.    I say to my sons am I embarrassing and they say - you can skate a lot better than most of the kids here - then the eldest trys to teach me to drop-in and I fall - Mrs Thing without dignity and bashing my elbow.

It doesn't matter for a brief time I lose her - I  feel really free - really happy.

Things are about to get better I think.

My son gets a place at a newly opening Free School - I dust off my principals and accept the place.  I worry and worry that this post is boring that what I have to say is only the grouching of a failed pushy mum.   Then I think I wanted to write about London and the madness of education is part of it.  Something is wrong though I take part in it.


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