Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


That was the year that was…

2015. The year that scarred me. Literally.

Whatever it was that bit me in Devon is still unknown, but the hole it left in my forehead remains as a souvenir of the week I went to Arvon.  This was the year I did a lot more learning about picture book writing but a lot less sending out stuff to agents. Seeing the brilliance others achieve is somewhat daunting and I feel a confidence boost is needed to go back to the things I have completed and get them sent out. That is my first 2016 ambition. I was tremendously flattered by the poem inspired by my blog post though- thanks Al!

I saw the northern lights by accident and popped over to Paris but didn’t travel as much as usual. All my spare money went into essential repairs at the tail end of 2014, but as a result I have a lovely spare room/work space with the ever ready aerobed which welcomed many visitors in 2015, including the not seen for ages Mary, Alicia and Mardi. I did finally get to the great home owning milestone of paying off the mortgage, so maybe there will be more travelling in 2016. I’m already coming up with ideas for Christmas and would really like to go back to Iceland.

I discovered I really enjoy unravelling murders. MOOCs have entertained and enlightened throughout the year and I have several waiting for me in 2016. I also walked a lot and went to places in London I had never seen before. There are still many sections of the Thames Path to tramp along and new street art to seek out, so watch out for more Streets of London reports next year.

2015 map

Finally, I achieved my blog target of at least two posts a month and more than doubled my visitors and views. A lot of people around the world came and visited me in cyberspace. If you were one of them, thank you and may 2016 be a great success for you. I would love to have more of your comments and thoughts so please feel encouraged to leave them!

I am thinking about how to refresh and build the blog next year so watch out for more doings here at Chez L’abeille in the year to come!

Happy New Year! Cx

©Chez l’abeille 2015






Mastering the MOOC: Identifying the dead

It started with a bone.

Not just any old bone. This, as it happens, was a human bone. To be precise it was a left side, human ulna, found by a dog walker in the area of Dundee known as The Law.

Fortunately the good folk at the University of Dundee Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHId) were on hand with their team of experts led by Professor Sue Black. I first met Professor Black at the recent “Forensics” exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London, where she spoke eloquently about her forensic anthropological work in Kosovo. I say met – she was on a video and I was listening intently to her incredibly compassionate description of how she painstakingly identified the individual remains of a family group, so that their father could finally bury his wife and children with dignity. I was incredibly moved by her words and it made me realise just how important it is for us to recognise the unrecognisable so we can name the un-named.

Back then to the bone. Slowly and carefully, guided by this expert team, I have been learning about the process of human identification. Six weeks ago we started “Operation Sweep”.

To begin we had to analyse the scene, and gather evidence alongside the forensic archaeologist. We were encouraged to raid kitchen cupboards so we could recreate layers of soil to investigate how burying something causes changes in the soil horizon, giving an insight into what happens to the layers when a body is buried. Curiously, in this age of digital technology, I learned it is still important to also draw the crime scene by hand – the small details and nuances can be lost when not under the gaze of the human eye.

Drawing of the skeleton in the grave - identifying the dead courseHaving ascertained that this was indeed a complete skeleton, it was time to undertake a skeletal inventory. Part of week two had me combing the nearby shops for modelling clay so I could examine at first hand the differences between blunt and sharp force trauma. Whacking a lump of clay with various kitchen implements is indeed fun way of finding out!! It quickly became apparent that there was evidence on our skeletal remains of ante mortem injury (healed bones) but more sinisterly, peri mortem (at or around the time of death). Transections of both the left and right humerus and femur made by a toothed saw were found. The added identification of a knife cut to the left-hand fifth rib confirmed one thing – this was seriously looking like foul play.

So that raised the key question – just who was the individual buried up on The Law and how would we find out? This involved a detailed review of the recovered bones to identify the probable sex, age, biological ethnicity and height of the deceased. I have to say this was the most compelling part of the course: I have since found myself sitting on trains and buses observing the shapes of fellow passengers heads, fascinated by their brow ridge or pointed chin. My own analysis of the pelvis, skull, fourth rib and tibia came up with the following: I was looking for a missing 5′ 7″, European female, aged approximately 17 – 29 yrs. On its own not enough to give a formal identification but a step along the way.

The great thing about having the skull though is that an expert can build it up using their knowledge of muscles and skin and how they work with the shape of the bones. Little indicators give clues about the shape of the eyes, or the size of your mouth. Even having sticking out ears can be determined by your mastoid process! Layer by layer, clue by clue the victim started to reveal herself.

(These images are screenshots from the activities I completed – courtesy of Futurelearn/University of Dundee)

I’ve now completed week 6. I now know who dunnit and how it was done. I’m not going to say more about the outcome of my investigation because, well you know – SPOILERS! What I will say is over the past few weeks, that bone has become a person with a past but sadly no future. That happens on a daily basis, all around the world. Thanks to the people who do this on a daily basis they can be identified and given back the dignity of a name. Those same people have shared their skills, knowledge and huge amounts of encouragement with over 21,000 people around the world in the most inventive and engaging way. If you only ever do one MOOC – do this one.

And don’t forget cake.

Update 16/10/15

The final “Hang’oot” with Professor Sue Black, Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and Val McDermid is now available – well worth a listen, particularly at 26.00″ when Prof. Black references MY COMMENT as a real mark of how succssful she feels this has been!!

©Chez l’abeille 2015

David Roberts drawing from a description in the Stinky Fingers series


In which I retreat again (but this time I’m heading in the right direction).

In deepest Devon not too far from the moors there is a place called Sheepwash.

Not far from Sheepwash there is a place called Totleigh Barton.

In Totleigh Barton something magical happens…

I didn’t plan to head to Devon. I figured I’d just dip my toe into the world of writing retreats this summer with a long weekend (near the River Avon). But somehow Totleigh Barton beckoned and I wound up immersed for a whole week at an Arvon residential (near the River Torridge).

It’s a funny old place; though as it’s been there in some form or another since the 11th century that is hardly a surprise. It’s also one of those places which simply has a name marking its spot on an ordnance survey map, which gives you some idea of the isolation it might provide. Continue reading

Lobsters ready for cooking


Something fishy going on…

Getting up at 4am is not a normal occurrence at Chez L’abeille, but when you want to see one of London’s historic markets in action it’s essential. I was heading to the Billingsgate Market Seafood Training School to take part in their “morning catch” class, which includes a tour of the market in full action, hence the (very) early start!

Having caught the first tube from Southwark (05.31am, should you need to know) to Canary Wharf, my first impression of the market, as I headed over the bridge towards the main gate, was the smell of very fresh fish. My second impression was just how busy it was at 6am, although because of the upcoming Easter weekend, today was apparently especially busy. Billingsgate is a “free and open” market, which means anyone can go there to buy fish and with 98 stands and 30 shops there’s plenty to buy.

As the rather bleary eyed class gradually assembled, we were sent off to walk around the stalls and buy the fish we would learn how to prepare later. The choice was vast*. There are stalls which focus on mainly British species and others who specialise in the warmer water fishes of the world, ones who only do shellfish or just frozen produce. The boxes of fish are often labelled with their port of origin and I did spot a little bit of Cornwall in a pile of “falfish” boxes. After much deliberation and because a cup of tea beckoned, I decided to go for the rather scary looking gurnard, a fish I wouldn’t normally buy because I know little about how to handle it. More of that later!

The second part of the class was a guided tour of the market and I was lucky to be in the group taken around by Robert, one of the market inspectors – a man who appeared to be hugely respected by the merchants and whose knowledge of all things fish seems to be limitless! Things I learnt from this part of the class: Continue reading

Mastering the MOOC: Reflections on the controversies of British Empire.

Darjeeling by moonlight

Darjeeling by moonlight. A postcard from the Das Studios, Darjeeling

I came upon the concept of the “MOOC” – Massive Open On-line Courses, only recently. I’d heard of them but they hadn’t really impinged on my day to day consciousness. However, after 2 friends recommended some courses they had completed via Future Learn, I was inspired to find out a little bit more.

I did some browsing of their list of on-line courses from a really wide range of universities. Some are very specific and suited only to people who may work in a particular specialist field. I’m not sure that “Dysphagia: Swallowing Difficulties and Medicines” would really be of that much interest to many, but one did catch my eye: Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism, run by the University of Exeter.

Keventers cafe Darjeeling

Keventers – the shop and cafe managed by my grandparents in Darjeeling. Photo by Anja Schmidt

Now, I have some quite strong links to the British Empire as several generations of my family lived in India, so the idea of a course that discussed and explored what Empire meant and indeed still means, intrigued me enough to sign up for the full six weeks. The British Empire was not an area of study I had ever covered at school. Despite doing History to ‘A’ level, the main focus was typically on the Tudors, Elizabethans and Stuarts or the world at war in the 20th Century. Empire and the role of the British Empire was rarely, if ever, discussed.

The course was structured through thematic “controversies”; money, violence, race & religion, sex & gender, propaganda and power. For me the most fascinating elements were the propaganda and sex & gender weeks.

I had not considered how much the sense of Empire filtered into the mainstream consciousness through such ordinary things as adventure stories like “Robinson Crusoe”. In his fascinating video lecture, Paul Young, a senior lecturer in Victorian literature and culture at Exeter explains: “…the novel can be read as a bourgeois fantasy, so too it’s an imperial fantasy. Robinson Crusoe heroically transforms and cultivates his island environment, subduing it and the native people he encounters in order that they serve his own ends. At a moment in history when Britain’s economic and political interests were more and more bound up with imperial expansion,perhaps most notably in the form of the slave trade then, Daniel Defoe writes a novel celebrating Britain’s rights to conquer, rule over, and draw wealth from distant lands and their inhabitants”. (Week 5, The Adventure Story)

It was with this in mind that I was intrigued to see how my changing awareness of the Empire’s legacy crept into my impressions of the images in Ladybird books of the late 50s to early 70s, currently exhibited at the De La Warr Pavilion.

Women Tea pickers in Himalayas

Women tea pickers in the Himalayas

The second week that I particularly enjoyed focused on sex and gender. The course raised the concept of “intersectional identities”, that people are “embodied beings”, who are shaped by the interactions and societal expectations placed upon them at any particular point in time. To some extent, the experience of Empire normalised the typical gender roles; it was men who joined the army, travelled and managed the colonisation process around the world. However it can be argued that women, once they also started to engage in the wider opportunities available to them, were able to experience and observe the lives and cultural expectations of women around the world. Women in fact had to learn how to navigate Empire in different ways because of the differing class, colour and power relationships they experienced once they were there.

Overarching the course, however, was the notion of controversy. I think it is easy to see the many wrongs that were committed in the name of Empire and the way the British assumed a right to rule. There are many documented incidents and events which viewed through the lens of hindsight are now seen as a the negative impact of Empire. Yet in some of the small stories shared it was also apparent that there were positives, moments in time, which enabled people of different cultures to come together in a common purpose.

1953 Everest celebrations in Darjeeling

1953 Everest climb celebrations in Darjeeling

This photo is my own small story. It shows my grandparents and great aunt, with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the Darjeeling Gymkhana club in 1953 after the successful Everest climb. The photo shows a group of Indian and European couples, all dressed up. The men, Indian and European are all in smart lounge suits, although one is wearing a turban. The women are either in richly embroidered saris or the very staid British fashion of the times. They all stand together, smiling for the camera with a palpable sense of pride in the achievement, that I think does transcend race and class.

©Chez l’abeille 2015

“Who’d be a teacher?”

I came across this Guardian article the other day and decided it was worth a share.

“My younger daughter has always wanted to be a teacher. She thinks it would be lovely to boss children around all day and have long holidays every now and then. After just a year at my job, I am pleading with her, hand on heart, to forget the whole thing.

Not that I am a teacher; nor have I ever been one. I work for one and a half hours a day at an infant’s school as a school meals supervisor. This is a cross between a mother and a nursemaid with a bit of teacher thrown in. (We have to teach them table manners.) There are between 70 and 100 children (the number varies) and three of us, with a teacher in charge. I must be frank and confess that before I started this job I thought that teachers had an easy life – short working hours, long holidays, nothing that anyone could complain of. Money, in fact, for jam, I used to think. When I get home at a quarter to two there is only one thing I want to do – sit down for half an hour and relax, with my mind a complete blank. It is not the physical strain of being on my feet for an hour and a half, after all I am on my feet for most of the day. It is just the feeling that my brain has been battered by dozens of tiny hands. My mind still buzzes with things like “No dear, not your knife in your mouth, you might cut your tongue off…who has fallen down? Don’t throw him on the floor, he’s smaller than you are…please don’t run in the corridors children, have you washed your hands? Let me see them…who threw that baked bean…Your fork should be in your left hand dear…what, left handed? Very well then…Isn’t she? Well she ought to know, what hand do you write with?” And so on and so on. Buzz, buzz, buzz. I ask myself what on earth a teacher must feel like after five hours.

I think the whole point about teaching is that you can never leave your work behind. When your mind is concerned all day with the problems of human beings and not things, you cannot shut them up in a desk drawer – they go home with you. I am sure this is why most teachers I know are so tired by the end of the day. Their minds must feel not only battered but sucked dry.

Every mother knows the infinite patience needed to teach children the elementary skills. How they long to do the things for them instead of gritting their teeth and watching them try to do it for themselves, slowly, clumsily, their tongues sticking out in concentration. But I wonder if they could be as patient with other people’s children. I do not think that anyone who did not care about children would think of going into infant teaching: she could not do her work properly unless she did. But caring about children is one thing; being a mother to them is another. Teachers in infant schools are expected to be just that. There are many five year olds who cannot cope with things like buttoning their coats. Mothers take this kind of thing as part of their job, together with the occasional hazards of wet pants and stomach upsets. Is it not expecting rather too much to ask teachers to do these things?

What a child needs at this age (up to five or six) is someone with patience, firmness, tolerance and compassion to show him gently and lovingly how to cope with life. When he has to share this person with thirty others it is impossible for him to have all the encouragement and interest that is essential to his development.

All this makes me wonder whether it is really necessary for children to start school at all until they are six or seven. Teachers spend years in training for their profession. Is there any reason why they should be use as nursemaids? Their job is to teach children to learn, to think, to read, to write, to deal with figures, not how to tie their shoelaces. If mothers want to send their children away at four or five, let us abolish infant schools and build hundreds of nursery schools.

When the teachers have a weekend off for half term so have I. Instead of thirty children for an hour and a half, I shall have three children for the whole of the day. It will be a pleasure”

There’s a lot in this article that chimes with me as an early years educator. In particular: ratios, teachers’ workload and the future of maintained nursery schools.

The issue of ratios is one that constantly rears its head in the Early Years sector. It has been discussed in the recent past by the Childcare and education minister Sam Gyimah. He is arguing that early years settings should move from the 1:8 ratio towards the 1:13 ratio for adult to children groupings – this being the same as the minimum ratio set for school nursery classes.

Children in school based provision are grouped in higher numbers per teacher, not because said teachers have extra hands or eyes in the backs of their heads. No, the reason these children have less adult support is solely because the adult with them is a qualified teacher. This clearly infers greater capacity to manage all the needs of 13 young children single handedly. As anyone who has ever spent any time with children aged three and four will know, this is simply not true. The nursery teacher however has it easy. Consider the lot of the reception teacher who might be required to manage all the developmental needs of four and five year olds in a group of 30. Clearly quality for children can be lost here in the pursuit of quantity. Young children’s developmental needs do not, generally, vary, regardless of the qualification level of the adults working with them.

Teachers’ workload is also an issue never far from my day to day conversations in schools. I think I only really realized how much time and energy Early Years teaching consumes in your life, when I came out of classroom teaching. I lost the need to rest my mind, to have only silence around me when I finally came home. Suddenly whole weekends became my own – the whole weekend, and evenings too! I found I went into shops and didn’t look at objects with the question “would that be useful in my classroom” lurking in my mind. I realized how all-consuming teaching can become. Although I missed the day to day interactions and fun with children, I didn’t miss the energy sapping, being all things for all children, that a class of thirty reception aged children and their families demands of you.

Another issue raised in the article is the role of nursery schools in providing high quality early education. Ofsted’s own Early Years Report demonstrates that maintained nursery schools “perform as strongly in deprived areas as more affluent ones”, making a difference for the most vulnerable children. Yet the future of our maintained nursery schools remain under threat because of funding arrangements which do not take into account such requirements as having to employ head teachers and qualified teachers to lead learning. Nursery schools have been closing across the country. We continue to face the threat of more of them becoming unsustainable and risk losing this typically outstanding and specialist provision as a result.

I suppose what I can also take from this article is that some things never change. Its date: January 1962.