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A few days ago, I went to London with my Brownies.

GirlguidingUK’s ICANDO centre is just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, and we took the girls up for a badge day to earn their Healthy Heart badge.  The day was full of exciting activities, involving running around carrying balloons pretending to be blood cells, poking fruit with sticks, putting on plays (about how to resist peer pressure and not start smoking, although you would hardly know that from the results), and so on.

So afterwards we asked them what they enjoyed.  Here’s a selection of the answers (suitably edited to provide context!):

“Going on the train.”

“Seeing the pelican in St James’ Park.”

“Seeing Prince Harry!” (For the record, we’re not certain – but how many other young men who look extremely similar to him would be driving a black range rover into the grounds of Buckingham Palace?)

“Seeing Paddington Bear!”

“Going to the shop.  I bought a teddy bear with a Brownie jumper on!”

“The underground.  Except there were two people snogging!

Hmmm.  No mention of the activities that we actually went there for?  Interesting. Next time, perhaps we could just take the train to London, hang around outside the palace for a while, and then go home.

A survey which was released recently has discovered that “middle age” is now later than we previously thought.  Almost 20% of people said that middle age is a state of mind, but of those who specified an age, the average was 55.  Previous estimates have been around 36.

The thinking is that people are living longer, so the boundaries are having to be redrawn.  One statistic in the article sprang out at me: there are more people over 65 than there are under 16.

I have a habit of taking trends to their extremes to see what would happen, so naturally this statistic reminded me of Children of Men, a film in which no children have been born for 18 years.

The film is a loose adaptation of a PD James novel by the same name.  I’ve seen the film but not read the book, so I decided some research was in order and hunted up a copy to read.

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for major plot points).

The Film

It’s been a while since I saw it, which means this section is mostly focussed on the points which are easy to remember.  The UK is one of the last remaining functioning governments in the world, partly due to their extreme stance on immigration.  The chaos is immense.

In the midst of all this a man, Theo, is kidnapped by activists and asked to accompany a young woman on a journey, as protection for her.  He agrees, and it’s not until after quite a few shenanigans that he discovers why she is so important: she is pregnant.  The activists are planning to use the child as propaganda, so the two of them run away with the intention of delivering her to a group of scientists who are trying to cure the infertility crisis.

The baby is born on route, and Theo is gravely injured in some fighting.  The pair are last seen in a small row-boat, Theo slipping into unconsciousness as the scientist’s ship approaches through the fog.

There was one scene in the film which I think will stay with me for many years to come.  The baby is born during a battle between the activists, immigration prisoners in a prison camp, and government forces.  The building in which they are trapped is surrounded and under heavy gunfire.  Suddenly the sound of a baby’s wail fills the air.  Nobody has heard this sound for two decades.  The fighting stops as people look at each other in bewildered awe.  The young mother carries her child out of the building, through the surrounding army to the relative safety of the rest of the battle.

And then the fighting recommences.

The transition from awed silence to deafening gunfire is instantaneous, as if someone has thrown a switch and recalled all of the soldiers to their duty.  It is a stark reminder of something – something which I am having trouble putting into words, and which is perhaps best left as an unstated feeling.

The Book

The book, as I was warned, is much more cerebral than the film.  The film was, for the most part, strict action-adventure.  The book, in comparison, gives detail on the political structure of the country, and even hints of the way the rest of the world is coping.

The book is written partially as a third person narrative, and partially as a series of diary entries by Theo, who in the book is the cousin of the Warden of England and therefore slightly more immune to punishments than the average person.

The differences were not limited to the amount of background detail that was included.  There were differences in plot, both major and minor.  The ending, in particular, was radically different, with Theo killing his cousin and taking on the role of Warden to protect the newborn child and his mother.

One of the minor differences was the way the infertility presented.  In the film, the women are barren; in the book it is the men who suffer.  The book also came up with both a sensible response from the government (compulsory sperm testing of all healthy males in an attempt to find someone who could father a child) and a way that the pregnancy could have occurred without them knowing (the father had epilepsy as a child and was exempt from the testing).

I was impressed with the way the details were doled out at just the correct pace, interspersed with enough action to keep me interested.  Some of the details of social response to the situation were fascinating just from a psychological viewpoint, though they added very little to the plot.

All in all, I would recommend both the book and the film, for different reasons.  I may have to investigate and see if other books by PD James are equally enthralling. 

There is a council estate in Scotland where 80% of the primary school children play musical instruments.  It started as part of an experiment when Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, noticed that although the council were putting lots of effort into physical regeneration of the area, there was almost no spend on spiritual regeneration.  He had seen a similar scheme in Venezuela, La Sistema, and decided to try it in Scotland.

So now 450 children practice musical instruments after school three times a week, are in an orchestra, and are demonstrating increased confidence, better concentration in school, and all sorts of other benefits.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose own musical education began in a Sistema when he was five years old, is patron of Sistema Scotland and has been keeping a keen eye on its progress.

The charismatic 31-year-old says: “Music can change society. It changes family and community because they have access to beauty, to sensibility, to creativity and to discipline. These are elements for a good citizen of the world.”

The benefits are not just limited to the children – the adults are getting involved as well, with their own orchestra and music lessons.

The organisers expect many more Big Noise orchestras to errupt over the next few years.

I wonder what the world would be like if in some estates and villages everyone was in an orchestra?  If the trend was not limited to the musical arts, but grew to include dance, drama, painting, sculpture, and writing?  What if, in the future, every estate, every village, had a focus?

I could see it being an interesting place to live.  Your neighbours would all have similar interests to you, and moving house would be a lot more complex as you would need to consider the artistic focus of your new area as well as what the houses were like.  And then of course there would be the pushy parents, who would choose where to live based on what they thought their children should be learning, not just at school like at present, but in the arts.

If the foster care system did not adapt with it, imagine the fate of a child who lost their parents.  Not only would they have to deal with emotional trauma from that, but every time they moved foster carers they might end up in a different artistic focus area.  There’s a story in there somewhere, I’m sure!

Putting Children Off

Teachers are concerned that children in primary schools (that’s age 5 to 11 for those from foreign parts) are being put off reading for pleasure by the time they reach the top end of their school.  74% of teachers polled said that children did not spend enough time reading outside of the classroom.

The article also gives some guidance on what types of stories those readers are likely to enjoy – action, crime, fantasy, horror and adventure.  No surprises there then.

Another ariticle on the BBC talks about the low literacy rate in Welsh secondary schools (that’s age 11 to 16).  Apparently, most of them can read – although up to 40% start secondary school unable to read “properly” – but not fluently enough to really apply the skill in other subject areas.  I only hope that the literacy co-ordinators that they will be appointing have read the first article and don’t limit themselves to actions in the secondary schools!

Teaching Reading

A third article examines the system of Synthetic Phonics, which is the current government-approved method of teaching reading.  Phonics is contraversial, as some believe it doesn’t teach children to “read” but to “decode” writing, which is less fluent.  Not only that, but

The books that have been devised in order to support synthetic phonics offer a restrictive diet, says Lambirth.

So here we have a contraversial system for teaching reading, with a limited selection of books that they can use to learn with.  No wonder children aren’t learning to read for pleasure.

One of the contraversial things about it is the use of made-up words to test whether children can decode properly.  Children will be asked to read words such as “terg” or “thazz”.  It might confuse some children, but it does provide an early look at reading scifi… maybe they could include “grok”.

Some Thoughts

Clearly more, better books are needed for children in all age ranges.

Not only that, but books which are phonics-friendly will likely get used more in schools, at least in the UK.  If you’re planning to write something for children, it’s a good idea to do some research.  How are children taught to read in your country?  Are there any special considerations you should think about because of that?

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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