Monday, 25 August 2014

Creative Family Home by Ashlyn Gibson

I really want to hate this book.  It's full of smugger than smug families, with wonderfully romantic sounding jobs and huge loft apartments.  "It's just... gah!  I mean, all the names are so trying to be so horribly trendy!", I said to A as I was explaining why I kept tutting and sighing at the book.  I mean, one of them has the same name as my Nan, which all of my cousins and I spent much of the 80s and 90s laughing at secretly.  Karma struck when I turned to a page describing a family of four boys, two of whom had virtually the same names as my boys (different spellings, but essentially the same names). I had to admit that maybe the book was aimed at people like me. Except that, though I liked the party hats that the Dutch lady makes her kids wear for dinner every night ("to spread the celebratory joy of a party throughout the year" gushes the book), I wouldn't pay six quid each for them.  Also, can't you just imagine the kids rolling their eyes as they don the hats once again to tuck into their Wednesday night quinoa? It's all a tiny bit bleak and try-hard.

I think what annoyed me the most is that the message of the book is trying to be "everyone can be this trendy and creative!".  However, although lots of the homes are decorated with kids drawings and stuff picked up in a flea markets for a few centimes back in the 80s, these are "interspersed with design classics". For this, read "I've put a selection of enamel plates I bought in the charity shop on an achingly trendy sideboard which was custom-built for the space and cost me £15,000." I mean, anything would look good on that dresser.  And yes, you let your child paint onto a canvas and put it on the wall.  But you put it on the wall surrounded by bespoke oil paintings custom-made for your apartment by your friend who sells prints for 2 grand a pop.

This was followed close behind by phrases like "Jurgen's high-tops left artfully in the hallway provide a utilitarian reminder of the necessity of wearing shoes for a busy family".  No, Jurgen has left his shoes under a stool in the hallway.  That's not a design statement; that's shoe removal. This is the book for you if you have a spare £500 to spend on cushions that look like pebbles (why yes, I am bitter because I couldn't afford them), and you make lifestyle statements out of things like taking off your hat and hanging it up on a (£67, bespoke) peg.

That said, I did actually get a lot out of this book, other than feelings of rage, envy and a slight sense of hopelessness.  There are some really nice ideas that anyone can use and that make any space look instantly better.  For example our Shelf of Stuff I Don't Want to Get Rid of but Don't Know Quite What to Do With looks a million times better now that things are grouped according to colour and size, in easy-on-the-eye groups of three or five, and the clashing photo frames are arranged in a fetching group.  This has made me feel better about the distinct lack of pebble cushions for my trendily-named children to muck around with, "providing a whimsical note of the great outdoors in this loft-apartment in one of the trendiest districts of Barcelona".  Mine can play with actual pebbles in their garden. AND I don't make them wear party hats to eat their scrambled egg on toast.  Take that Jurgen and Marta.

isms... Understanding Modern Art by Sam Philips

"I bet it's because we've got a membership", is a familiar phrase from C when I cheerfully announce "We're off to [X] gallery in [Y] town (which is generally not really all that close to where we actually live) to see [Z] exhibition of the work of someone we've vaguely heard of, and who the kids might have studied at school.

Well, yes.  I do like to get my money's worth out of these things.  This is why we've explored every square inch of the Tower of London over the past 18 months, drinking it all in until BabyM is old enough to appreciate it, and then we'll probably get another membership.

I had membership to the Tate galleries for my birthday.  A is absolutely thrilled about this, being a bit of a proto-art critic.  She collects exhibitions in her memory, and, even if she doesn't particularly like the art, enjoys adding another exhibition to her list (I used to enjoy visiting football grounds in deeply unpromising parts of the UK, watching extremely average football for the same reason.)

Anyway, it turns out Liverpool is a bit too far from where we live for a day trip on my own with three children.  Lesson learned, next time we'll book a travel lodge.  We were also a tiny bit unconvinced by Mondrian.  "It's kind of like, meant to be the city, and one plane is horizontal and one vertical, so it's kind of showing how the city is a bit bleak", said A, trying to get her proto-philistine brother to show a little bit of appreciation.  "Yes", he replied "but he even used masking tape, which is really, properly cheating.  If he'd have done it without a ruler, I'd have liked it more. Now can we go and do the craft activity?" The craft activity turned out to be C's saving grace, as they had Sharpies in all sorts of different colours, which was worth the two hour journey each way alone. 

I found myself agreeing much more with C's assessment of Mondrian than with A's, which prompted my purchase of the above book in the gift shop. I love visiting the Tate galleries with the kids - the activities for the children are absolutely great.  For this one they made Mondrian pop-ups and acetates to put in their window.  Once at the Tate Modern I had to show them how to record their voices on an old cassette recorder ("Now hold and press play and record at the same time.  No, I don't know why, it's just how you do it.  No, I don't know why you don't just press record - technology was more complicated in the 80s").  They recorded a story which became part of a sound installation, and they were both so excited about it, they still talk about it fondly now. I also love looking at the exhibitions, although I often haven't got much of a clue what I'm looking at.  This book is great for putting many different modern art movements in context.  It will come in very handy for secondary school art homework, and it gives suggestions of where to find out / see more.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Toy Stories by Gabriele Galimberti

As well as being a jolly good museum all round, the V&A Museum of Childhood had one of the most tempting shops of any museum I've ever been in. I had to use every modicum of self-control not to just yell "ONE OF EACH, AND THREE OF THOSE OVER THERE PLEASE!" at the very nice lady at the till.

I was relatively restrained, in the end.  I did buy one or two books, including the very lovely Toy Stories by the photographer Gabriele Galimberti. I bought it for me, but actually have caught the two older kids looking at it for a surprisingly long time, given that it has very few words.

For a book with almost no text, it taught us an awful lot about parents and children.  The book consists of photographs of small children with their favourite toys arranged in front of them, usually in a room in their house.  Our favourite is the Zambian girl who has no toys, but who does share a box of sunglasses that fell of the back of a lorry with all of the children in her village.  They use the sunglasses to play "markets" where they pretend to buy and sell the sunglasses, before putting them all back in their box at the end of the game.

We all felt a bit sorry for her, and then realised that this was a patronising attitude, since actually, they all appeared to be having quite a lot of fun! It's apparent that, even for the children from very rich countries, there are not all that many "favourites". There is, after all, only really space in your heart for a few very special toys.

The book prompted some really interesting questions about cultural values, ownership, and the concept of play.  We also decided which toys we would (have for me!) picked as our favourites.  For A it was her cuddly puffin, musical instruments and notebooks.  C said his teddies and his Lego, and perhaps a slinky (good choice). I'd have gone for my Care Bear, Wuzzle, a couple of My Little Ponies and a Flower Fairy (she smelt of lovely plasticy chemicals, and I used to chew her foot, which was strangely comforting).

Anyway, it's a great little book for flicking through, and has earned a place in the top rank of books in the household - the mooching shelf in the living room. Writers vie for that honour, let me tell you.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What we learnt in London: books can be benches, but, mainly, they are things you buy in gift shops.

We've just got back from the annual long stay in London to look at stuff.  I try to make this looking at stuff which is inspiring and enriching. I like to attempt to ensure that we spend at least twice as long looking at the actual exhibits in a museum than we do in the gift shop.  Sometimes this works. Rather wonderfully, my struggle to make our trips about the culture, rather than about the shopping, was exemplified in a visit to Lucy Sparrow's Cornershop art installation at Bethnal Green.  Lucy's shop stocks items entirely crafted from felt.  She explores the objectification of art, and the concept of gentrification through the replacement of traditional useful shops with art galleries and workshop spaces in traditionally working class areas.  Obviously to show off our understanding of this concept, we bought a felt Boost bar.

We were mainly outside on our first day, dipping our toes in the fountain at Hyde Park and sheltering from the wild winds at the Princess Diana Memorial park in a rather wonderful wigwam.  We did venture into Kensington Palace though, where I bought the Historic Royal Palaces Guide to Kensington Palace and a rather wonderful guide to the Georgians, which I am not convinced even really exists, because I can't find it on Amazon.  The Historic Royal Palaces books are all rather well written and interesting - a rare find in a guidebook, and help to bring the places wonderfully to life.

On our second day, we visited an exhibition about the Russian Revolutionary artist Malevich purely because BabyM was getting fractious, it was 10am and I knew that the exhibition would be virtually empty, given that the gallery had just opened.  I had a membership of the Tate for my birthday, which was wonderful, as it means we go and see as much as we can, in order not to waste it.  Malevich turned out to be pretty interesting, and BabyM was placated.

We went on in search of the National Literacy Trust's Books About Town benches.  There were some rather wonderful ones.  My favourite was "Great Expectations". We did feel that the benches were not very well spread out, however.  There seemed to be about five in one place, and then none for rather a long time, which is a little tough on small bench seekers. I am disappointed to say, that although I should have preferred these to the Wenlock and Mandevilles that were in London for the 2012 Olympics, given that they were all about books and reading, I felt that the Wenlock tours were somewhat better thought-out.  Having said that, they were probably a bit better funded, to the tune of a few bijillion pounds.  There was no gift shop here, but I did manage to go into the Tate bookshop without buying anything at all, which was an achievement.

We had never visited the V&A Museum of Childhood before, but will definitely be going back.  It is absolutely wonderful. Currently, there is a touring exhibition about the writing of Jacqueline Wilson there, among many other attractions. It's free, and really interesting, even for Mummies and perhaps brothers, who are not really all that into JW.  There's a great deal about the process of writing, and about imagination, and the set is interesting and inspiring. We took part in a brilliant story-building session run by the talented people at Discover! in Stratford, which is well worth a visit.

The highlight (well for me anyway) of our cultural adventure was the British Folk Art exhibition at the Tate Britain,  (Actually, that's not strictly true - the highlight was drinking some extremely exciting cocktails and eating a rather lovely French meal with my in-laws, but that's not really relevant or appropriate for a blog about children's books). British Folk Art is a paid exhibition for adults, although children go free, and are presented with a leaflet on which they can record their thoughts.  Not for teeny children, but this was a wonderful illustration of human ingenuity, and what effort and time can help people to achieve.  Highlights include a cockerel carved from button bones with rudimentary tools by a prisoner of war, and a huge quilt crafted from Crimean War uniforms by ex-soldiers. It was wonderful to see craft celebrated. I loved it so much, I even bought the book (British Folk Art by Martin Myrone and Jeff McMillan), so that I can remember it forever.  Time well spent.