Tuesday, December 17

Peer Pressure and The Psychology of Going to War

When I was young, I heard tales (and songs, like the one above) of the Great War from old people who had been  young when they went out to the battlefields.   The songs were resolutely cheerful, and curiously, the people I met, at least, had memories of the war that were almost entirely positive. They recalled being excited to be away from home, away from parents telling them what to do, glad they were doing a useful job instead of being stuck labouring on a farm or drudging in someone's house. They liked the cameraderie, the feeling of being caught up in something big, they travelled to new places, they met the opposite sex.  None of them mentioned the sufferings and horrors which they must have seen.  One old man even told me it had been the best time of his life.

I think now that they, like most teenagers, were just insulated from it by the self absorption and energy of youth, but it shows the value of first hand testimony when looking at the past from today's perspective. .

We have not tried to convey to the children how horrible war is, partly because some of them are refugees from countries at war, and know first hand, and partly because it is wrong to inflict horrors unnecessarily on children.  But we did discuss how the people actually involved in going to war might have felt, and what reasons they would have heard both for and against. .

We had an interesting moment when Vanessa asked those who disapproved of going to war to stand aside.  Nearly half the class did so and formed a group of "conscientious objectors."    Within seconds, those who had chosen to "go for soldiers"  had started to jeer and call "coward!"  We stopped them, of course, but it was enough to persuade half the group of "conscientious objectors" that they should change sides and be with the soldiers after all.

It taught them something about peer pressure.   And at the end, a few diehards decided to be conscientious objectors, despite everything. .

Friday, December 13

Colourful Russell

We now have a new illustrator, Russell M. Olson, since Frank unfortunately had to pull out - we will miss him. (see here).   But we love Russell too. Here is a picture of him, by the sea.

...and he's coming up with some really interesting illustration suggestion.   Above are some sketches of colour ideas for the fleas. (Of course they might change later. ) The idea of having four arms is quite enchanting.

Thursday, December 12

A Couple of Out-Takes

I wish we'd been able to use all the wonderful writing that the children produced.  Without the need to keep to strict historical accuracy, they created a surreal but endearing view of 1915 life from their 21st century viewpoint.  We had to omit so much of this material just to keep the narrative going, but it seems a pity not to use them, so here are some of them on the blog instead. 

I couldn't use Ryan's thoughts about the promoter because MABEL is the promoter of the flea circus, and so there is no room for the sinister sounding Mr. Lionel McRowan....

"Lionel McRowan was a stiff guy. He was black, with a bad attitude. He wore messy clothes. He put the posters up and asked if anyone would like to audition to be a circus animal. He got security guards. And he got audiences. They had to pay ten pounds per person."

This is how I imagine Lionel McRowan. Nasty!  

Another bit we couldn't use was how Calie got Mabel to the coast, to get the boat to France.

"When Mabel left her house she didn't have any money so she couldn't get a taxi or anything that you had to pay for. Luckily for her, her fleas could talk so she told her fleas to talk to a horse and got a horse to take her to the coast."

And so one did.  Just as well that there is sometimes a stray horse wandering around the road with nothing much to do 

Wednesday, December 11

Historical Accuracy Bites the Dust

We have finally completed the text, which is all in the Boutcher children's own words (with a few linking bits from me).

We had to decide whether to make sure the material was all historically accurate, and in the end we decided not to.   We didn't actually suggest that they had steampunk soldiers like the ones above, but there was so much that the children had to learn, and no chance of them becoming historians in the time available, so we had to let a certain amount of accuracy go.

Of course we did our best to explain how different life was then....

"So I'll put that Mabel emailed her friends - "
"But they didn't have email or any sort of internet."
"All right, she skyped her friends."
"They didn't have skype."
"All right, then, she got out her phone and - "
"Hardly anyone had phones"
(Baffled silence)

And the children did very well indeed to understand how in Mabel's day there were no modern communications. They were interested to learn that horses were widely used, that trains were powered by steam - not to mention getting their heads around the idea of a flea circus and an ambulance train.   But it was clear that their story would be much better if they could be themselves.  Which meant letting a certain amount of reality escape out of the window!

Sunday, December 8

Angels of Mercy

In the First World War, nurses like Mabel (and my grandma) were sometimes called Angels of Mercy.  I spotted these (with real wings - well, almost real) at World Travel Market in London a few weeks ago. They, and the WW1 officers behind, were promoting battlefield tours in Belgium.  I have no doubt that the soldiers who were injured or killed there would have been only too glad to go on a Battlefield Tour with a nice cosy hotel every night -  rather than experience the real thing. 

One thing that is nice, though, is the way these nurses are laughing and having a good time.  Grandma got a lot out of being a nurse, and looked back with satisfaction on her time on the ambulance train.

Saturday, November 30

Happiness, by Jennifer

The children have been thinking a lot about expressing their feelings in this project.  Good, bad, frightening, creepy, happy.   Here's what Jennifer wrote about Happiness on the last session at Boutcher..
"Happiness is baby blue and dark gold.
It is Monopoly, because everybody has fun.
It's when a trumpet plays jazzy music.
Happiness is barbecue chicken because you can smell the lovely scent.
When we are happy we go to church and we feel good because we sing.
I feel peaceful when I'm all alone."

Wednesday, October 23

Bad News and Good News

Both bad news and good news.  Bad news is that Frank has had to pull out of the illustrating, the main reason being that he now has commitments in his family life that he wasn't anticipating when he joined the project.  The good news is that the children are producing some wonderful work.  In the last couple of sessions they've been thinking about the flea characters who will accompany Mabel on her nursing expedition to France.

Of course, fleas are not supposed to be on the hospital train at all, and if anyone finds out about them, they might be cleaned away by nurses armed with disinfectant and scrubbing brushes.  But Mabel plans to hide them in her sewing box, so they can keep her company when she is off duty. And what is more, they are all part of the flea circus, and don't want to be separated!

The kids are very interested in all this and are full of ideas.  Each flea has its own personality, and they've been trying to get inside the heads of each character.

Here's "Bossy Benji," the high dive flea, describing his conflicted feelings, in the words of Siraj.

 "I was really worried because Mabel was going to go to war and leave me here all by myself and might never come back."

By contrast, Ajebike understand how "Lazy Linda"  feels because she hasn't bothered to listen.

"I am feeling confused because I did not listen to anything she said. Does this mean I am leaving my home and friends?"

Scary Simon, who rides the wall of death, struggles with keeping up a brave front and dealing with his fear.  I think Alex has really got inside Scary Simon's head, showing how he keeps his bad feelings to himself:. 

 "I felt a bit scared, what if we all get killed?    I will still be brave because I am brave and I am not scared to do anything. My heart started beating and I did not know what to do. All the other fleas felt so happy and I didn't have a choice, so I had to go. 

"I felt abandoned because Mabel is doing her nursing and she is not looking after us and she's not feeding us- we are hungry and I don't like her any more because she's not spending time with us."

And I really love Ayesha's description of Brainy Barbara's thoughts. 

"I will probably be able to read silently and write an interesting book. I've decided its going to be about medicine. I am happy and not even this dark and damp box can dampen my spirit.

"First, someone needs to watch the nurses and someone needs to change that bandage, the wound is infected and I need to find the medicine and read the labels and I need to get a scrape of paper and two scrapes of card to make my book. I have brought one of my little bottles of ink."

Great stuff!!  I'm looking forward to seeing what they write next.  

Here's our last picture of Frank, who was getting along really well with the pictures and just starting on a beautiful steam train.      Here he is with a ticket for the flea circus, which is a cut-out that will form part of a collage on one of the pages.   Russell will run with some of these ideas. 

Sunday, September 29

Nurse Deirdre

The story is set on a hospital train in a war. So the kids were fascinated to hear nurse Deirdre's stories of caring for the wounded in a war situation. She is from Northern Ireland, a Catholic, and told them how she once had to nurse a well known Unionist terrorist who would have been quite happy to see Catholics like her blown up - and had tried to do it.

You can see from the picture how absorbed the kids were.

It challenged them to consider the fact that Deirdre, trained to heal, was willing to nurse someone who was very much "the enemy" to her own side.  Children do understand in a practical sense that you sometimes have a conflict of loyalties, and it is good for them to get the chance to discuss such things.

They were, of course, very interested in the idea of nursing.  They could have sat there all day asking her their medical questions.  "Have you ever nursed one of those babies that's really two babies joined together?"  "Have you ever chopped anyone's arm off by yourself?" etc.  Some, like Frankie, whose mum is a nurse, were very proud to realise what good work nurses do.

Deirdre works at UCL Medical School, taking medical students into "hands on" situations like emergency rooms and ICUs.   She liked being with the kids, and said it was as much fun for her as it obviously was for them.

When it came to writing, they were absolutely inspired.

And they did some wonderful writing!

...which delighted Vanessa and me.

Wednesday, September 18

The Naming of the Fleas

The kids knew that the secret was something to do with pets. I thought they wouldn't be able to guess what kind of pets Mabel had. But in the end, Timothy guessed that they were fleas.  Mabel's pets are so tiny and quiet that they can all be kept secretly in her sewing box. Of course, she's not supposed to have them at all, and we did make it clear that fleas and hospitals don't normally mix.  But these are very anthropomorphic fleas, who are a bit like children with 6 limbs.  And they eat leftovers of normal food, rather than suck peoples'  blood.

The group was restless because there were only a few of them and the workshop was held in the hall, which was unusual, and without a teacher present, and with me there too, so in fact it was all a bit unusual.     Still, Vanessa kept control. She did a series of exercises to help them identify how people have different personalities from each other, and together they made up names and personalities for all five fleas.  

They are: Scary Simon, Brainy Barbara, Lazy Lara, Lively Lola and Bossy Benjy.  More of them, later.

It was warm and sunny in the hall, and directly outside the window was the relatively new chilllout garden and studio. The garden was built on an unpromising little corner of the school grounds not long ago.  I love its clever planting and inviting layout, and the studio room is clean and simple, very good for kids who are stressed.. 

Some of the children do get stressed. They have difficult lives, and several have in fact fled from war zones, which is one reason we need to be careful about how we present the idea of war.

Friday, September 13

Frank and the Old Days

Here's Frank, you can just see his pencil at the bottom of the picture because he's been doing some drawing.

He's done three background pictures so far, and is now researching what fleas look like.

Since Mabel went to Boutcher School, Bermondsey, like our kids, his pictures so far include the Alaska Building, the old factory that's very near the school.  

And here's a picture of the school itself,  shortly after it was founded by Mr. Boutcher.  It doesn't look so very different now, although the parents don't wear top hats and long dresses, obviously.

And a large tree or two has grown up, and they've knocked down the wall on the right, which I think might have enclosed what was originally the schoolmaster's house. 

Tuesday, September 10

Day 1, 9 September 2013. Finally, we get into school.....

After all the thought and preparation, we went into school for the first time today.  For me, it was all new. I hadn't been in a classroom during lessons for ....well, since I was at school myself.

Vanessa brought in several vintage items for the kids to look at, smell, touch, and (in some cases) listen to, and, ultimately, write about. The items included a vintage plate camera with leather bellows, old books, a sewing box - how many children have seen one of these?  My grandma loved knitting but she wasn't into sewing, although (or perhaps because) her dad always made her and her sister do sewing if they had nothing else to do. "The devil makes work for idle hands to do," he used to say

As well as the sewing box there was also an old pipe, and a fantastic robe with frogged fastenings.  An Edwardian man's dressing gown perhaps? I don't know.

The kids were all very interested. They put together a list of words they thought described the items, with some extra words suggested and explained by Vanessa. Then they wrote down how each object seemed to them. I was amazed at how creative and thoughtful some of the responses were. And how's this for a stunningly modelled robe?

Tuesday, September 3

Ambulance Train Coat of Arms

In a secondhand book shop the other day, I found a book made up of contributions from the crew of No. 16 ambulance train, which served in France and Belgium. The crew were Quakers, so probably pacifists, and were quite talented. One created a coat of arms for the train. If you look carefully you will see the coat of arms has interesting things in it.  I particularly like the 3 scrubbing brushes, just to the right of Number 16.  Look at the stretchers.  I don't suppose anyone imagined they'd end up as council flat railings, as described in the previous post.

Guess the crew sometimes wished their train did have wings, though.

The motto means something like "in the shadows you find friends"    I hadn't thought about this aspect of working together to help others, but it's probably the only way to deal with the horrors of war.  

Friday, August 23

Vanessa's Been Searching....

...for WW1 links to Bermondsey.  Much of it has been redeveloped since World War 2, and it's recently changed from a very poor area  into one which is very affluent in parts.   Only in parts though. Away from the fancy coffee shops and gift boutiques of Bermondsey Street and places like it, the Bermondsey of council flats and working class communities is still very much in evidence.   This is what she says about some of the council flat railings that the kids pass by every day.


In South London, round the blocks of flats, there are lots of fences that like this. These are actually recycled WW1 stretchers which were used in mobile hospitals.

WW1 is harder to 'get into' than the familiar Churchill-Hitler story. It was longer ago and attitudes have changed- people back then were jingoistic and the whole concept of empire is uncomfortable for modern kids. But I recently ran a successful series of workshops about the iron age Britons and Romans (even longer ago!) for 7 and 8 year olds. We had a series of lively debates about whether the Roman occupation was a good or a bad thing. This was really inspiring as it proved to me that even quite young children can put themselves into the mindset of someone living long ago.

I'm really looking forward to opening up the Edwardian era to modern children and hopefully making it stick in their Moshi-Monster-filled heads. I can't wait to read the stories they come up with... if they are not absolutely historically accurate they will at least be funny and thought-provoking!

Thursday, August 22

Who Are We?

Here are Frank (left) and Vanessa (right) drinking coffee and sketching out the first ideas for Mabel and her fleas.

I (Jenny) was behind the camera there, and here I am in front of it, reading a book of photos of London in Mabel's day, or just before.

So far so good...

Wednesday, August 14

And Who Exactly Was Mabel?

Well, Mabel wasn't my Grandma, (above) although like Grandma she was cheerful and joyful, and worked as a nurse in France in the First World War - just like Grandma did.

Grandma came from Seaton Delaval, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the North of England.    Our Mabel was a Londoner, though. She came from Bermondsey, the same place as Boutcher School, and we have her living in a little house that once stood opposite Boutcher school.

I did wonder if Grandma's knife had a little secret to it, and so Mabel needed a secret too.  Mabel's secret was that she took some very unusual little friends with her to France. They were her performing fleas.

And so we embarked on the story about how we harnessed the creative energies of the kids from Boutcher School to create a story with a secret, inspired by that feisty young girl who was my grandma, long ago.