Thoughts of an amateur cellist (1)

After a break of several years, I have just picked up my cello once more; a few minutes ago, I finished my first lesson and quite frankly I am feeling exhilarated at the prospect of returning to playing, albeit in a wholly amateur way. We started this week with Bach’s cello suites which I was tackling the last time round; it is hard to convey the sense of satisfaction that playing this work provides. It is a feature of Bach in general, of course, but I love the insistent repetitions, its proximity to (but utter difference from) scales. At the same time, these routine phrasings allow an underlying and more complex set of rhythm, repetitions and melody to emerge.

One more thing: after years of cajoling and not always successfully persuading my daughters to practise every day, if only for a short time, I have a greater understanding of the value of daily practice, of how important it is and how satisfying to go over and over difficult passages; how useless it is to simply skate over the parts one can ( sort of) play already. Then, like a jigsaw, one can start to put the music back together. I think I am even going to enjoy the sensation of not appearing to improve, because I better understand now that the work has been done at some level and cannot be erased. In fact, one of the most extraordinary things about starting to play again, after a long break, was the amount of knowledge – of a sensory and intellectual kind – that I had retained. It was all there, just below the surface. It may even be re-beginner’s luck, but I would say my playing sounded richer than it did before.

So from now, instead of trying to get other people to practise, I will try to suggest it through example. And if I fail, then I will just go off and play myself. Sighs of relief all round….

And the winners are…………

…………….the parents of Queens Park Community School for our brilliant writers’ project, honoured today, at a special ceremony at the House of Commons, as an outstanding achievement in terms of ‘changing the life of a school.’

Given the incredibly high standard of all the entries for these annual gold star awards, we feel particularly pleased. For more details of our project and today’s award ceremony see my last post and go to the QPCS website.

Right now, I’m celebrating and thinking about ways of spending the generous prize money in order to bring in yet more inspired individuals to our school.

Thanks to all parents, teachers, students and all the outside writers who have brought us this far. Brilliant.

Meeting Mr Balls.

I am very much hoping that today, at around one thirty pm at the House of Commons, I will get to shake the hand of schools secretary Ed Balls and even receive a generous cheque from him.

How and why? Well, the parent body of our local school, Queens Park Community School (which my two daughters attend) is one of several contenders for a national gold star award as part of the National Council of Parent Teachers Association (NCPTA) annual awards scheme. We are one of four finalists in the ‘Making a Difference in the Life of a School’ category.

QPCS has been shortlisted for the The Write Stuff (TWS), the writers programme that myself and a group of QPCS parents have been running, in conjunction with the extremely tolerant English department, for the past three years. As a result of TWS a stream of brilliant novelists, non fiction writers, feature and news journalists, publishers, script writers and illustrators have come into QPCS and talked to students from year 7 to sixth form about aspects of their craft.

It is the kind of visitor programme that many students in private schools, beneficiaries of at least twice the pupil per head resources compared to state school students, can take for granted but which schools in the state sector have to struggle to set up and sustain.

I have sat in on some of these sessions and they have been truly inspiring; and while getting ‘ better exam results’ was never the aim of The Write Stuff programme, QPCS students are doing better at English, as judged by GCSE and sats scores. But the main idea of TWS was – and remains – to help enrich the life and minds of the students, to show them what the life of a writer is like, to help them think about how a story or poem or cartoon or feature article or a book is made and to encourage everyone to read as well as write.

I’ve no idea if we at QPCS will win or if I will get to shake the hand of Mr Balls, who is handing out the award which includes a generous cheque (which we will plough straight back into TWS initiatives planned for next year) but for the moment, I am simply proud of what we, a group of determined parents, have achieved in one London comprehensive.

Below the official press release from the NCPTA


19 March 2009


THE PARENTS, TEACHERS and FRIENDS ASSOCIATION (PTFA) of Queens Park Community School (QPCS), has been selected as one of 14 finalists in the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA) Gold Star Rewards scheme.

The WRITE Stuff (TWS) project, submitted in the Changing the Life of the School category, is an innovative programme, which complements the work and wider literacy efforts of the school’s English department. TWS, which is run entirely by parents, liaising closely with the school, brings writers, poets, journalists and other creative professionals into the school to speak to the students and to run workshops.

Mike Hulme, Headteacher, said “The whole programme of workshops, talks, lectures and in some cases, personal conversations, between experienced writers and enthusiastic students continues to be a resounding success throughout the school and wider community. It’s the people that make a difference in this case, and the gifted visitors we have welcomed into our school have made a tremendous impact on the students in a number of ways”.

The PTFA has been invited to attend a presentation ceremony, being held at the House of Commons on 29th April 2009, where two winners in each of the three Gold Star categories, will be announced. The winning projects will each receive a £1,000 cash reward.

“The Gold Star Rewards are a way for the NCPTA to recognise and reward the everyday achievements of PTAs around the country and to share this good practice with other schools,” said Yvonne Treves, NCPTA regional adviser. “It’s a real achievement to be selected as a finalist, as the standard of entries this year was extremely high, we wish the PTFA the best of luck” concluded Yvonne.


Note to editors: The Gold Star Rewards, held annually, aim to recognise and reward outstanding achievement in three categories: Achievement in Parental Involvement, Changing the Life of the School and PTA Fundraising Achievement. Two £1,000 cash rewards are made in each category. Details of the NCPTA Gold Star Rewards 2009 can be found at

For further enquiries please contact: Jane Galbraith, NCPTA membership development manager / 01732 375464

How sad am I?

I am a sucker for information served neat as spirits, particularly of the historical/geographical/political kind. So the new Guardian World FactFiles series, providing digestible A4 length sets of facts on every single country in the world ( and I mean that excited emphasis most sincerely) including rates of literacy, mortality, GDP, indices on press freedom etc is manna from heaven for me. I fully intend to survey every page – that is, country – and am sure I will eventually feel a swell of tremendous satisfaction at having ‘travelled the globe’ in this easy way, cup of coffee in hand, safe in my Kilburn kitchen.

No child in my vicinity is safe from the impact of these info-digests; on Saturday morning, when the first supplement arrived, it was only a matter of minutes before I was pestering my girls to test me on key facts in the A-B section ( and that didn’t even take in Burundi, which arrived this morning as part of supplement number 2 taking us up to Eritrea.) It’s all proving about as fun as a crossword or sudoku puzzle. Make of that what you will. What I mean by it, however, is that I find it really fun.( Oh and I love the world map that comes with it. It’s just such a pity that everything is printed on such flimsy paper as I fully intend to keep all this stuff for years and have already earmarked a blue box file for that very purpose……….)

Faith schools: the latest news………..

Faith schools fail to improve standards and create “social sorting” of children along lines of class, ability and religion, researchers said yesterday.

Academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, both part of the University of London, found no proof that providing parents with the choice of a religious secondary school either raised results or helped drive up standards in other local schools.

The research suggests that government policies to promote a market in education – by promising parents a choice of school in the belief that the competition for children will improve standards – only create a more socially fragmented system.

( Read on here..………

On an unexpected meeting with a batch of football fans………..

Today, I travelled to Bristol for a memorial service for the much loved mother of an old friend. Towards the end of his very moving oration, her son happened to mention that his mother nearly acquired four different passports, that is citizenships, throughout her life.

Born in India, she became a citizen of the newly created Pakistan and then later, of Bangladesh. In the last years of her life, she divided her time between a flat in Dacca, her son’s home in Bristol and her daughter’s home in Philadelphia; in the last months, frail and unable to travel, she was based in America, and so was very nearly granted US citizenship: her fourth passport.

Mulling over this very modern story – an elderly woman who found herself at the centre of a family far flung around the globe – on the train from Paddington to Bristol and back, I was distracted by the presence of a batch of Millwall fans, on their way to – and back from – an away game with Bristol Rovers.

Despite my initial Pavlovian reaction to the opening hiss of early morning beer cans and – more understandable this – loud conversations about threatened violence on a mobile phone, the fans we sat near on the way down to the west of England were pretty considerate, even charming to surrounding passengers: certainly far less annoying than the didactic middle class mother, instructing her child in the wonders of art and geography for all to hear. The Millwall group we encountered on the way back – a couple of kids with a group of disparate adult men, including a soldier who had encountered the Taliban – were louder but even sweeter. And Millwall lost the game.

But I couldn’t help thinking about this weird place called the United Kingdom, where one minute you’re sitting in a community hall in Montpelier thinking about the twenty first century Indian diaspora, the next you’re listening in to white working class Britain talking to itself.

It’s encounters like this which explain why I’m coming to appreciate public transport more in my middle age. On trains and buses, you get to meet the strangest, the noisiest, the most irritating, the kindest, the most different-to-yourself people………..and because you’re stuck with whoever it is, often for hours at a time, it means re-examining old prejudices in the light of new information.

At a later date, I may tell you about the final leg of our journey this evening on the Bakerloo line from Paddington to Queens Park……………..the gang of boys running from platform to platform, the drunk with the M and S sandwich, and the five girls and a boy, screeching all the way to Kensal Green and beyond. And I’ve still got £5.30 left on my oyster card.

Hands up those who oppose a generous pay rise for teachers………

I am currently obsessed with a book about Abraham Lincoln and his presidency by Doris Kearns Goodwin. (“Oh oh…….. here we go again! ” said my baby brother kindly, when I quoted from the book during a discussion the other day. Well……we were talking about slavery. )

Anyway, at the risk of arousing his amused brotherly ire once more , there’s a reference in Goodwin’s book to the spouse of one of Lincoln’s rivals, a woman of great intellectual power, who was always reminding her husband of the importance of keeping what should be done to the fore in politics, when there is inevitably so much concentration on what could be done; in other words, she was warning of the risks of compromising for short term political gain.

I was reminded of that crucial distinction when reading an article by Jenni Russell today, a fierce critic of most aspects of state education, about teachers demanding a pay rise just at the point that they seem likely to win a victory over KS2 sats tests. Russell derides the teachers’ pay claim as a just cause put forward at an inopportune political time.

Meanwhile, on Comment is Free, Francis Gilbert, a teacher, not known for his irresponsible radicalism, supports the claim.

Here is his last paragraph, slightly edited:

‘There are no such things as good schools, only good teachers. If we are going to fill our classrooms with the most talented, creative and forward-thinking graduates, we have to be willing to pay for them as a society. …………. if we are going to lift our society out of this recession, we need to educate our young people off the dole queue. Good teaching is the main route out of the mess we are in: our society desperately needs to invest in it. That’s why the NUT’s call for a 10% pay rise is fully justified.’

So who is right? Should a wholly just and rational claim ever be shelved due to unfavourable circumstance? Of course, Britain’s overpaid bankers are always brought into this argument. But isn’t that fair enough? Why reward or rescue the money makers ( who don’t even make money!) and scold the value makers, who struggle with so much of the fall out of our imperfect society?

Back to Abraham Lincoln…………..

Twitter power in Moldova

For anyone who doubts the importance of the new technology to modern politics or the continuing emergence of brave individuals prepared to stand up for justice, I suggest they read this story, about twitter power in Moldova, in today’s Guardian.

The kindness of strangers

Last night I watched an amazing film, The Edge of Heaven, a Turkish German co-production about six characters in contemporary Europe, several of them first and second generation immigrants, whose lives become entangled and whose fates mirror each other in various clever, poignant ways.

There are some unbearably sad moments: a mother and daughter, both searching for each other, pass on a motorway; one, in a bus, the other in a car ( going in different directions.) We know that the mother is soon to die and that the daughter will never find her………..ever. ( At this point, I started to shout at the TV set like a child at a pantomime: “She’s in the bus, she’s in the car!” etc)

Characters fleetingly pass each other, unaware, unlike the audience, of their relationship: a device so common in so many modern films, such as Babel, and TV productions, that try to depict global connection and chaos simultaneously.

A university professor lectures to a half empty hall while a young woman sleeps, obviously utterly exhausted, right at the back; later in the film, the academic tries to find this same woman. Two of the main characters briefly coincide, at immigration. One is being deported from Turkey, for having accidentally killed his prostitute lover; the other is arriving in Turkey, looking for her lost daughter. Neither knows the other, but we know their relationship to each other.

The Edge of Heaven tackles modern life in a rather beautiful glancing way. There’s no great song or dance about fundamentalist Islam, just a low key but rather terrifying scene in which an ageing prostitute is quietly threatened on the top of a bus by two men who tell her she is betraying the religion of her homeland ( they are all Turks and Muslims, living in Germany.) 

The film’s title has multiple meanings, including the constant nearness of death. Its original title in German was Auf der Anderen Seite: On the Other Side. But both new and old title still refer to both mortality and the imminent entry by Turkey to the European Union.

It’s a story of sadness, ageing, loss, love and the constant, frenetic movement of peoples within contemporary Europe. But it’s also about the kindness of strangers in this hostile, fast moving world. A simple gesture – the offer of a meal, a place to stay, a willingness to listen, with genuine interest and humility, to the story of another human being – can be truly transformative. The saving grace of a cruel world.