Grief stinks

The day after Ascension, who grieved?

It is a very odd part of faith, the ascension. We don’t focus on it a lot in my tradition; the date falls on Thursdays. Jesus, killed on a cross on a Friday during Passover. Raised from the dead on the Sunday, marking a new celebration day in the week. A new first day. Then multiple appearances in various locations, to numerous doubters and followers. He sat and ate with them. Talked and explained. Listened and loved the lost and the confused. Those close to him were convinced that he was indeed alive.

Just like the 40 days in the desert before his ministry years began, there were 40 days in which this post-resurrection Jesus continued to baffle and bookend. Unfettered by any human control, he chose who to present himself to. He did not intend to take Israel as his kingdom by force or to oust the Romans. Instead he repeats his earliest message: the kingdom of God. The proximity! The invitation!

The kingdom of God demands an engagement with Someone and a relinquishing of Self in order to be fully Alive. It turns one’s heart’s desires from self-promotion to praise of God. And in that moment the wonderful realisation of knowing what it truly means to be Loved. Human love is just a shadow of this Love.

These turners, these followers, these men and women baffled and bruised by life choose Love. They are the start of something, but they are not enough on their own. They need a spiritual encounter and a promise of help and strength.

ascension01So God does the unimaginable – again. He separates. From day one he had been separating light and darkness. Now he separates from those who turned to follow him. A significant separation of a physical body with limits, before a spiritual meeting with his followers. The practicalities are not even that important. An ascent – lots of witnesses – and a junction in the story.

I would have grieved. Something had happened and Someone had gone ahead, calling others to follow. I would have grieved the distance and the unknowns. I would have grieved the mess remaining and the masses of unrepentant folk. I would have grieved the stench of life Without. (I would have had hope too – my eyes lifted from the past to the future and from the sticky hell of earth to the hope of heaven. But I would have grieved.)

And grief remains in our world in the mess. I didn’t know any of the celebrities who died in the past year, but I grieve at the end of opportunities, creativity, laughter. I think many of us do. The separation is out of our control and we don’t want it.

weight of grief

Two months ago my granny died.

I don’t want the separation and the emptiness when I return to her home. I don’t want the grief, though it tears through me. She was a war-time evacuee. A left-hander in the wrong era. A girl who thought her mum was her sister – raised by her granny in Notting Hill and ignored by her father. She lived most of her life in Devon and I rarely saw her out of the county. She was stubborn. Hard work. Kind, but firm and she didn’t suffer fools. Forged in her generation with scars and dashed dreams of her own, you needed to meet her on her terms, which was hard. She had a strange sense of humour. One time, for a surprise, she arranged a tour for me of the local sewage works. She had been a model. A cinema owner. A mum. She was brave, and witty, and under-educated.

But now she is dead and next week I return to Devon to sort through her clothes with my mum. A task of turning and of separating and of grieving.

I think it is ok to grieve. Even the painful things. Our hearts expect it.

I think it was ok for the followers to grieve, following Jesus’ Ascension. Things had changed.

When something changes and we feel the weight of separation we long to express that. For some it means retracing and recalling. For others it is far more private. Grief is heavy and the price is high – the BBC are saying today that broken hearts are a real thing.

But, after grief? After the initial rush of emotions? Once the pain has become more calm?

This is where Hope lives. And the Ascension gives me Hope.


I can hope to meet my granny again. She shared my faith and she lives and I will see her and talk with her again. I can place my hope in God, though I hate the separation of death. He lives and he is not controlled by death or by physical limits. I can hope for good things and know that there is more than the mess and the stink of grief and separation. There is a kingdom I am part of and my eyes are fixed on Jesus.


Where was I?

I know where I was on September 18th 1990. I know where I was because my geography teacher – a man whose name I cannot now remember – asked all of us what day it was.

We were thirteen. Our teacher seemed genuinely angry and upset that we did not know what day it was. How could we? We had no means of finding out in 1990 without leaving the classroom. So he kept asking us. He was not a good teacher and I made a mental note that this method would not work.

He despaired, shouted at us a bit and put on a video. A VHS with a fuzzy picture and trippy colours on a hulking cathode-ray machine with clunky buttons. It was loud enough to wobble the tubular trolley. There was lots of sound and anger being performed at us. Some of us were a little scared. Our class watched in confusion as Jimi Hendrix performed guitar riffs with his hands and his teeth, on his knee and behind his head. There was certainly skill being demonstrated, but like a fine wine or a decent book we did not appreciate exactly what. We were thirteen.

Happy that he had berated us enough, our teacher told us that the date that day was exactly twenty years since Jimi Hendrix’ untimely death. We looked at each other. So now we knew. Some of us still had no idea who Jimi Hendrix was, so our teacher took it upon himself to tell us. It was not much of a geography lesson. I think this was the teacher who also tried to teach us how to make cocaine from the plant, should we find ourselves in South America. (It was not the best of schools but I learned a lot about how not to teach there).

I never became a fan of Jimi Hendrix.

I never became a fan of David Bowie either, but this week I have learned why.

I judged him.

I thought of him as a provocative and promiscuous glam rocker, caught in all the trappings of fame and success and one of many provocative artists – so what was new? I was not interested in music which broke the mould because much music does that. I felt the Bowie experience was hollow and unsophisticated. Also irritating and showy. And amoral. And broken.

I judged him, and today I have understood something about myself in that and why I need to stop judging. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive others. 

I have no right to judge. I did not even realise I was doing it. Here was a guy living out his life in full colour, whatever my own feelings were about those colours. It is not for me to judge him. I can like or dislike his music, his opinions and his actions, but it is not for me to judge them. The difference is important. Do not judge others and you will not be judged.

I still do not identify very much with Bowie and I still don’t warm to his musical styles, but I have made a small step forward. A moon-step, if you like. He, like me, was only human. And sometimes all of us, as humans, recognise that we have limits. And we do ourselves all a great favour if we refuse to let our differences divide us. When we look closely, we find that we have more in common than we may have realised.


Watching out

Seems like Joseph has got his eye on Christmas.

He recently pointed out to me that if he had a security camera he could find out what Father Christmas looks like. I think it is fair to say that we all already know what Father Christmas looks like, but perhaps he just wanted to catch the guy at work. He was genuinely excited about it. I was impressed that a five year old would think of that.

I pointed out to Joe that if he wanted a security camera the best person to ask would probably be Father Christmas. He is actually happy waiting a year for the results to come in, bless his little stockings minion socks. Joe hasn’t considered that his plan might not work, but so as not to snuff out that little Christmas sparkle I did not mention any of the many reasons that came into my head when he proposed it. I played the cool mum card. The ‘Ok, well, you’d better write him a letter’ card.

And then this evening, Joe got down to business and found a willing parent for spellings, because these things matter when you really want something (it wasn’t me) and came up with this:

Security camera letter

which had been printed and folded and put in an envelope with 55p he had found and labelled:


So now I am wondering whether to arrange for Father Christmas to reply. I’m afraid to say I already took my 55p back.

In other news, the children did not complete Nanowrimo, but I did. It was exhausting, the month was incredibly busy and I am sure the writing itself is not proficient, but the beginnings are there and my next writing steps are becoming clearer. I have something to work with and am pleased with the progress I made.




This month I am putting lots of other commitments on the back burner in order to blitz-write a first draft of my book. Between Monday and Friday I wrote over 12,500 words, and then the washing machine packed up and my presence has been needed at home. I missed Saturday entirely, but I am grateful for the chance to recharge. Writing is incredibly draining, even if you are well-prepared at home and in the task. It has meant being able to get a few more jobs done and to be more present at the village fireworks (rather a good show – over 5000 attending) last night and the Remembrance Day parade this morning (also a very good turnout).

The children have got into the spirit of Nanowrimo too. Joe has written a short story, which I am publishing here for you:


(c) Joseph Robinson 2015

It reads:

Wos apon e ting thne was a Boi he was clde Joe he staivd up for a Spaiship (peje 1)

he had 2 frens he went too spais wiv his frens (pedije 2).

Here the story ends and we are left waiting for the next thrilling installment, hoping that maybe we can pre-order it on Amazung. I do detect a degree of autobiographical bias, but it is his first work of this length. I want to know more about the frens. What are their names? Did they help staiv up too? Was there a mutiny? When I find out more, I may get around to blogging that too.

Lily has also been writing a book on Mondays to Saturdays this month and is averaging over 100 words per day. I know this because she has been counting her words. On day 1 she didn’t know that you don’t need to number every single word:


(c) Lily Robinson 2015

I’m not going to give you Lily’s entire story as it is already quite long. And also because it resonates with her own life and it has broken the fourth wall quite early in the story which is frankly quite weird. Despite being set a couple of generations in the future the main characters have already travelled in time to meet Lily and me. (Reading yourself as a character in a story written by someone else is quite a strange experience, I’ll admit). Lily is keen to reach 100 words every day, and yesterday I learned a new trick – sometimes it pays to just write ‘and then another few words’ to lengthen your sentence. She has no writing scruples.

So although I’m not Nanowriting on Sundays, I thought I’d blog a little while my fingers are in full typing mode. They’ve been missing the keyboard today.

After this month, I’ll take a pause and then take the manuscript apart in every way imaginable, working it over and over to get it to the kind of quality I need it to be. I am very excited to be able to do this and to show how passionate I am to get my book out of my head and on to the peje.

Tomorrow we pick up the children (my husband and I)

Tomorrow we pick up the children (my husband and I);

They have stayed with grandparents and




Is an eternity when you are a mum.

So much time to think, to purchase, to talk, to watch films, to garden, to eat well,

Not to be interrupted, not to have to think of answers, not to have to jump out of bed.

They said they would write a book.

I decided I wouldn’t (not this month).

I can’t wait to read it. Waiting

Is an eternity when you are a mum.

Is it Jamais Vu all over again?

It being my favourite time of the year and my pills having run right down and my doctor having commented on the good progress my emotions have made [pause], I have reached another milestone in my healing. I have now been a week and a half without the fluffy support of sertraline (also known as lustral and zoloft).

Starting the tablets and increasing the dose two and a half years ago certainly took some getting used to: it was not unlike adding various colourful elements to the cocktail shaker formerly known as my brain. Then, having shaken it up a bit, looking through the eyes of stupor at Real Life and wondering whether stupor was cognate with stupid and not particularly minding about that or much else a lot of the time.

Once it did all settle into order the effect was transformative and safe. A few weeks into my full dose I felt generally positive, more prepared to handle life’s ups and downs and less confused, panicky, shaky and anxious. Big events still had the capacity to leave me stunned and weakened, but overall I was protected and ready for life. And I am very grateful that I have had this mental protection, which has allowed my thinking processes to be challenged, altered and rehearsed ahead of coming back off the medication.


I was warned that my brain would not take kindly to having the stabilising drugs removed.

Oh boy, yes. My brain is adrift, keen to engage and reeling from how vibrant and ready life is – stunned and lost in a new stupor of forgetting and confusion. I turn and the world follows pixel-by-pixel, resolving slowly and crying for attention. I sit or stand still and my mind washes with the sensation of rising suddenly. I might as well be walking on water, as I have to live in a state of utter trust that all is well.

It was alarming until we recognised why it was happening, and now it is a strange comfort too – a mellow drunken place which is gradually releasing me into a sober stew of decisions, practicalities and unusual metaphors.

My brain now feels like a lettuce dipped in water and held up high. O Happy Day, but I am dripping everywhere. And that floor really could do with a clean.

My thoughts now are like wool, shorn from a sheep lost in the wild for years and dragged through honey. So sticky and woolly and dense. I think it’s all there. I hope so. Several events in recent days have had me doubting my memory utterly. I am, at least, well rehearsed now in living in the present and making that work well. I would also love to relocate my son’s school coat, with or without the school clothes he was wearing on Tuesday which we may or may not have lost at the same time. I do know he has his entire PE kit and am reasonably certain that it is clean and back on his peg in school.

My emotions now feel like I finally own the right to use them, like jars of spices deep in kitchen cupboards. No clue what goes where, but heck, why not?

Repetition works.

God has been telling me over and over again in the past two years:

Trust Me for everything
There is nothing you cannot trust Me for

Stilling my soul and minding my mind.  This has been my song these past months and years. Figuring out what dependence really looks like and finding my true self well-fitted to the purposes God has for me; some small and some excitingly less small.

As the cushioning of mental health drugs wears off and in the shadow of insult and pain, my brain has learned and relearned to pause in God. God has proven over and over again to be utterly reliable, safe and refreshing. In the daze I see direction and in the nights he whispers stories of hope wrapped in adventure.

Back to Jamais Vu. It is a real thing. It is a strange part of coming off the drugs. I do not mind if I am undignified and lost, because I feel more found than ever.

Top Bill

I went to a film premiere a couple of weeks ago with the family at the Cambridge Film Festival. We laughed out loud at the slapstick and sniggered at the clever jokes, and one of us may have wet his pants during the Q&A session at the end.


Despite this, I urge you to go out and see Bill which is going on general release today. It is the sort of film which will appeal to fans of the zany, of exquisite timing, intelligent references, attention to detail and humour for all ages. It doesn’t patronise, however. My son gave it 5 stars and he is only 5 years old. So did I, even though I got a lot more of the references (literary, historical and movie-themed). My daughter, aged 7, knows next to nothing about Shakespeare, but loves history and wacky jokes she can’t see coming.


Thankfully, the jokes were stacked high and deep and even when we thought we saw them coming the delivery was rich and the twists were satisfying. William ‘Bill’ Shakespeare starts out in a lute band called Mortal Coil; although you may be expecting that at some point someone is going to shuffle off, the punchline is delayed and delivered brilliantly a few scenes later. It’s this kind of intelligent humour which means this film will be bought and played by English teachers for years to come for end of term treats. (“What’s that behind your back?”/”What these? Oh, some kind of rose – I don’t know what they’re called.”)


The cast play a motley bunch of sixteenth century characters, some developed from parts they had played in the sketch format of Horrible Histories, others equally silly, but all beautifully flawed and funny. Damien Lewis, Helen McCrory, Rufus Jones and others are drafted in and join in the silliness for a very rounded British comedy film experience. I have huge respect for the acting and writing and was grateful that we were able to get to the showing we did with the producers and several of the cast present. Larry Rickard and Ben Willbond have done a superb job of writing and I ‘m already looking forward to their next ideas. Mat Baynton has confidence in spades and delivers a compelling and hungry young Shakespeare. Martha Howe-Douglas is brilliant in several roles, Simon Farnaby has no scruples about playing idiotic villains and Jim Howick is an excellent Christopher Marlowe. You get the impression that this band of actors genuinely enjoy each others’ company and making each other laugh, and that this comedy of honesty and wit of every order translates to a film which families are going to watch together at Christmas, quoting lines at each other for years to come.


A top film, released in the UK today, PG rating (some language and innuendo).

A definite 5 stars from me.

Why you won’t be in my story


To follow on from my last post, I truly am fascinated by people.

And I am writing a book.

The book has characters. Each character has attributes: their looks, their speech, what happens to them, even their name.

So how do I create and fill out characters without using the appearance, words or experiences of people I know? I do not want to be sued for libel or defamation and I certainly do not want to cause upset. So I’ve been coming up with some rules for my work.

Looks and characteristics

1. I can use generic attributes. There is nothing libellous about giving a character a long beard. Or a speech impediment. Or a red face when they get angry. What would be wrong would be to associate fictional attributes with a real person (dead or alive). Details about fictional characters must not identifiably connect with any single source; no one person could claim I was writing about them.

2. I can humanise my characters. Each fictional character has a set of qualities and flaws of their own, just like each of us. Individual hurts, feelings and private agendas, along with what they value and their annoying habits. This combination of qualities and flaws need not match any person I know; I just need a good mix.

3. I can use or avoid stereotypes. So, I would avoid a stereotype where I wanted to make a point – a dramatic clue for the reader. However, I would use a stereotype to aid the flow of the story. It doesn’t need to be a bland or tired character you may have seen elsewhere. Sometimes I get ideas for a character’s personality based on the features of an animal, a musical instrument or a plant. A character based initially on a banana plant may be tall, expressive, easy to peel (an ‘open book’?), prone to pranks and with a silly sense of humour.

Speech and Dialogue

4. Where I am creating dialogue, I can produce original speech. In any case, spoken language in this book needs to be reasonably terse and punchy.

5. Where I want to use idioms resembling those of the historical period, I can alter them for my purposes. I love phrases like “in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war” (2 Samuel 11:1). My narrator sees things from a different perspective to the writer of this phrase, and will put a different interpretation on the world around her.

6. In this particular project I do not need to concern myself with linguistic details of accents or swearing, but I am interested in riddles, memory aids, parallelisms, repetition and multiple meanings. I am keen on close readings of texts and want my work in progress to unlock beautiful linguistic details for readers. The form, as much as the content, is all part of this artistic and creative experiment.


7. I could draw entirely on my own experience and memories, making it an utterly self-absorbed and painfully autobiographical tale, but we all know that is not a clever solution. My characters must be absorbing and irritating in their own right. Perhaps they have no children. Or many children. Or six toes. Or they wake before dawn. I do not identify easily with these things, but I can use observation and imagination to fill in the gaps in my experience. I can listen to those who know and keep learning.

8. My story is based on characters you can read about in the Old Testament, and it is not for me to tell you whether they were real or not. Make your own mind up on that. However, I made the conscious decision at the beginning of the writing process that I could not use a living person’s story. I value people too much to take real experiences of pain or loss and bastardise them into something I could assert was new. Elements of my story could look familiar to some who know me, but they may only be included if the experiences are not unique to individuals and families. Plot detail must be based on the text I am working to or its time period, or be original material inspired and created in the process. Many of my elements come by merging a couple of ideas together or by taking a thought for a walk. They arrive when I least expect them and need noting down before they walk off again without saying goodbye. Some of the best ideas come utterly uninvited but still stand the tests of rewriting.

9. This exercise is not about therapeutically working through a set of my own emotions (I’ve already done that) but about finding ways to express truth – using story. Healing truth. It would be rather silly therefore to create wounds in the process. When the time comes, I want to run the manuscript past people whose own experiences may come close to those I am writing about, because they will resonate the closest and can tell me where I am wrong.

Names and Naming

10. Some of the characters have names straight out of the Old Testament text I am working to (one is altered deliberately, with a shortening).

11. All names have to be appropriate for the time period, so no Jacks or Kates. Some of the names around at the time happen to coincide with names of people I know or are related to (including my mum). Where I want to use a name which happens also to be a name of a contact, I need to be wise to how it could be interpreted.

12. There is a case for inventing names – I’ve researched naming patterns in the Old Testament and the results are fascinating. I could use animal names, place names or word names for new characters and not break my own rules. I could even use the OT patterns of names closely tied with their characters’ stories if I felt that was helpful. I could translate all the names into their English equivalents (for example, Deborah: Bee), but I have decided that would not necessarily make things easier for the reader.

So I hope you will be pleased to hear that you won’t find yourself in my story. You should find truths which apply to many people and these elements are part of what makes a story gripping and dramatic. In fact, I hope you will find elements which do resonate, as I believe that identifying common experiences can help unite and heal.

Why I do What I do

I love finding out what other people do and the rich and varied life experiences of friends, new and old. People are fascinating, complicated, messy, more beautiful than they realise, irritating, funny, kind, slow and colourful. People react in a thousand ways and wear a thousand masks. We use stories to tell our truths.

Life hands out lemons and apples; 
share them if you like. Make lemonade if that helps. 
But be careful. We don't all want lemonade.
Some of us just want to throw the apples
and some of us just want to juggle the lemons.

We need each other’s stories to learn truths, and so to grow and to bear our own fruit. We learn from each other and when we read stories the truth resonates. Truth liberates us. Empowers and challenges us. Why are we so keen to read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman? We remember the impact To Kill a Mockingbird had on us – a story rich in truth.

People ask me about me too. There is so much to tell. Where do I start?

My story is messy, but no less beautiful for it. Today I am 38, a wife and a mum to two amazing children. I write and I research. I try to engage in community – online, in the children’s schools, in our church and in our village. My physical health is slowly improving, my mental health is much stronger than it was two years ago and I see purpose in my activities. Life is good.

Matthew and Lucy

Let me tell you something about how I got to this point though. There have been some very dark days.

I struggled with people – men in particular – for a number of years. It was not until I was prayed for in 2001 that my fear of men in general was removed and it was shortly after this that I met my husband.

I did well at school academically, but I was trapped in a mindset of duty which eclipsed my identity. Rather than study subjects I found really interesting, I was persuaded to do maths and engineering subjects, ostensibly because ‘there are not enough girls in the field’ and I seemed to do well at maths. Engineering is not my passion. I found sixth form incredibly hard emotionally and was fighting severe depression for much of the time.


I worked for a year in London in a large international engineering consulting company where I floundered. I began an Engineering degree at a good university: my grades sank like a pebble and my self esteem took another battering.


When I retook my exams I passed and was able to change to studying Theology, which was an amazing experience. Suddenly I was allowed to spend my time doing the thing I loved. I wanted to prove how committed I was to taking it seriously and the academic rigour of a humanities subject, so I threw in as many unusual languages as I could.

I did well and had offers to do further study at Oxford or Cambridge, but I had not budgeted for the costs involved. After graduating I discovered a seminary in Prague where I could do my Masters and I spent three years studying part time and working in a local prison in Suffolk with young offenders. I met many fascinating international students and many fascinating young criminals.


I met and married Matthew over this period too, and it became clear that prison work was not going to be a good long term career for me – I needed stretching and he needed to stay in Suffolk working. So I got a teaching qualification – learning on the job (SCITT) for a year in local schools and then teaching in a Catholic Secondary and in an FE college. As RE was not an option, I taught maths. I met some amazing people, learned a lot about myself and about educating, and we started a family.

When I announced to my headmaster that I was pregnant, his words to me were:

"you do realise that your role now is to be a mother"

even though I didn’t think heads could say things like this. He floored me. I had thought I was over my struggle with men and with reduced opportunities and could not understand why was using a truth to hurt me. Of course my role was to be a mother – but surely not at the expense of a career I had invested so much in?

squared paper

I asked to return to work part time after Lily arrived and was refused. After trying to work in FE on lower pay I realised that my time was better spent raising my family, so reluctantly I put the career on hold and had Joe. My mental health was already suffering and it took me seven months to bond with him and even to accept that he was my son.

I threw myself into trying to please, trying to serve (never well enough, I figured), trying to keep going and trying to be there for everyone. I ran a large toddler group. I helped young people. I visited folk. I listened. I learned a lot more truths and I hit a crucial junction in 2013 at a church holiday club. I fell apart. I wasn’t big enough on my own to do all I felt I should to the degree it could be done, and I collapsed under the weight of my mental baggage.

A doctor I saw assessed me as severely depressed and with huge anxiety issues. I needed to step back from everything I could and rebuild. However, in order to rebuild, I needed to be taken apart, very carefully.


The NHS were not able to provide the help I needed, but a local Christian counselling service found me an amazing listener, who heard my story and saw me through the painful process of dealing with past hurts, tears and anguishes. The counselling had a huge impact on me, and at this stage I am reducing my medication and hope to come off it completely fairly soon.

One major impact was in learning to let go of the huge burden I’d built up to please people as my source of self-worth. I now see my value as entirely tied up in God’s grace, and the healing is remarkable. Another was in discovering my passions and allowing them to flourish. Teaching is in my blood, but it is not the whole of me. I need to spend time writing and reading and making sense of the subject I loved. So I moved from teaching as my identity into a new chapter. A writing chapter.


I am writing a book, based on research I started in Prague and following the stories of some interesting and messy characters. It is academically informed and set historically. I spend time most days on it in one way or another and already have a wealth of research and ideas. Key themes in the book are relationships, raising a family, the art of storytelling and value.

I am writing with the intention of revealing truth, but also because it is something I feel passionate about. All of my own story so far informs what I can write – my fears, my learning, my healing, my disappointments, my family, my health, God’s grace and purpose.


Now that I have better focus and a rich back-story I can choose to get involved at an appropriate level in local and online activities. I have a book in progress. I have a family who need my attention. Now I have better learned limits. And reasonable responses – sometimes Yes, sometimes No, sometimes Later. God has blessed me and my family and I find peace only when I truly rely on him.

Two factors inform my decisions now. They are not about self-promotion but question whether God is at the centre of what I do and whether my choice is the right way at the right time for me to encourage, challenge, teach and inspire others.


So this is whay I do what I do. My story continues and I hope the healing truths in it will touch the stories of others.

The Taking Part

It’s the taking part that counts, right?

Not the success? Not achieving a personal aim? Or becoming highly proficient in some skill?

Taking part – that’s the thing. Right?


I heard two seven year olds sparring today. One was adamant that taking part was the main point in sports events. The other’s daddy had told him that taking part wasn’t enough if you didn’t try and win. And he agreed with his daddy and was not going to talk about it any more. The first lad returned to scratching stones out of the dirt in front of him and creating an interesting collection, avoiding all eye contact and clearly humbled by his fitter and more confident classmate. He did not try to win the point.

But he had just taken part in a tournament. He had managed to get through eleven sweaty tennis activities on a hot morning with no shade. And his team had not won. Oh, I know that feeling well. I have never achieved great things in sports. I came last in sports days every year. I had to learn to swim with small children at nearly 6 foot tall. I didn’t get picked to play for my college football team – despite the captain being my room-mate. Even my form group came last each year at sports day. Taking part didn’t wash with me. Taking part was rubbish. Taking part meant being vulnerable and inadequate in public. Not just the Not Winning, but Not Managing. Not managing to catch a ball and being the kid who chased after it twice every time – once in the general direction (it would never normally go that far!) and a second time when it rolled out of reach or some stray foot of mine made contact wrongly. Taking part in sports days was choosing to be humiliated in skills we had not been working on. Skills which favoured the naturally talented, those who liked an audience or were happy to sit in fields stewing with grass pollen and the few who had remembered sun cream.

Winning was even less of an option. I registered the probabilities and was prepared to concede the fight before even beginning. Taking part meant taking the high moral ground, because it certainly wasn’t going to achieve anything for me. Taking part meant allowing others to prove themselves though their legs were shorter, their language cruder or their times tables wobblier. Taking part felt patronising. Like being taken apart. Like some twelfth night twist. In summer. In infants and junior groups. In bright primary colours with odd names, whose allegiances was sudden and sincere and stupid because my team Never Won.

And in the 1980s if you did not win, you went home empty-handed. Or you competed against yourself. One year – trying my utmost – I did worse than in the previous year, but still got a certificate. I wished I could have refused it. Receiving no certificate would have been a better reward. My efforts had not been successful and I did not want patronising, which I decided devalued other achievements.

There are arenas in which you are not born to win, yet you are compelled to make your best endeavours – perhaps even in full view.

That stinks.

Many times in life winning is just not an option. Managing may not even be an option. Taking part carries baggage. Taking part is utterly unfair if winning is not an option. Taking part means creating a pedestal for the few, which the many uphold merely by their presence.

Most participants at most sports events lose. Is this the lesson we spend a dozen summer days lining up for in primary colours?

Most participants at most sports events have chosen to be there and have worked hard, with a goal of personal success and new best scores.

Taking part cannot be enough if you are not trying to win. So I agree with that boy’s daddy. You have to put your best into it. You have to give it everything, accept defeat graciously if that’s your lot and use your victories – if you get any – for the good of the team, the school, the nation or the almanack writers.

But I also agree with the stone-scratcher. Taking part takes real courage when you know you cannot win. Taking part takes tenacity and a willingness not to think too highly of yourself. Taking part can (and should) mean encouraging others. Taking part can open your eyes to new ways of looking after your own fitness. Taking part means seeing yourself as part of a team, and not merely as an individual who needs the kudos of standing on others’ losses for personal gain. Taking part challenges the normal hierarchies and routines of academia. Taking part can be part of a pattern of humiliation, which makes you want to scratch a hole in the dirt and gather stones.

There is a time for gathering stones. To cleanse, withdraw and reflect.

And a time to scatter them. To say how it is and how you feel, even when it makes a mess.

Lily has been involved in two competitions this month. The first involved a national search for a child to represent English Heritage. Someone passionate about history and willing to dress up as their historical hero or heroine. She did remarkably well and got through to the final 35, but the competition was very strong and she didn’t win. What struck me, more than her confidence and knowledge at interview was her resolution to do her best and to be content whatever the outcome. She understood that not everyone could win and that it was unlikely she would. She wanted to win and therefore wanted to take part to have the chance, but her sportsmanship was touching. That is what made me so proud of her. She didn’t refuse to take part (as I would most probably have done these days) – she refused to let the competition dominate her.

The second competition was today’s meet up of year two children from three local primary schools at the local secondary college. Teenaged sports leaders directed twelve groups of brightly coloured children around a circuit of throwing, running, batting and catching games. I was there to be an extra pair of hands and eyes. Our small team were not always the fastest or most accurate, but we were told to enjoy Taking Part. And that there would be only one measure of success – the team who encouraged each other the most. Sportsmanship.

My dormant competitor recognised something. Here was a talent anyone could master. All of the children could take part in Encouraging. And the act of encouraging others was to be encouraged. So I cheered the team on and they cheered each other on and we got through the heat and the running after the tennis balls (twice) and the water bottles and at the end we all sat near some shade and waited for the results. And I wanted to encourage everyone and say ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter whether you won or not; well done for encouraging each other so well guys!’ but that would have been wrong.

And finally the results came in. There were joint second place teams from Lily’s school and another school.

There were joint fourth place teams from the two other schools. And the winning team, by just two points…

…was Lily’s team.


I joined in the victory cheer and suddenly the thrill of victory made sense. It was the winning that counted for most. But of course it was not only the winning that counted. Or even the managing.

And I wish I had sat with stone-scratching-boy and told him what he needed to hear. That he was right. And also to keep his head up. And to keep trying. And to find arenas to excel in. And that he could encourage others too. And I hoped others would encourage him, because he needed it more than a lot of the others did.