The Monster Blanket

My daughter came back from a camp for TCKs (Third Culture Kids) today. She loved the time away and made important new and special friendships with other teenagers who know just what it is to live in your ‘passport country’ which is simply an alien world to you.

She made a reference to a bit of wisdom she learned there which used the metaphor of ‘monsters’. It got me thinking and led to this post – even though it breaks one of my normal ‘rules’ for this blog.

I remember – back when I was very young – how I used to hide under blanket at night so that there was just a little peep-hole to look out of but otherwise my entire body remained safely inside the cover of the blanket because that way the monsters can’t get you.

It was a bizarre logic looking back on it now. If there really was a monster in the room there’s no way a blanket would protect a small boy! But, somehow, I ‘knew’ that blanket would protect me from all monsters. It was a magic blanket and, as long as no part of my body was peeping out, I was safe.

I’ve mentioned my strange childhood behaviour to many people and  was astonished that all over the world people have, more often than not, said to me “no way – me too!” Is there some kind of strange instinct left over from cave-dwelling times that makes most of us have some version of the ‘monster blanket’? It seems to cross all sorts of cultures and traditions. It’s a weird thought.

However not too many, I suspect, will have an experience similar to mine (though maybe I’ll be surprised yet again?):

It was a dark and stormy night

Well maybe not stormy – but it was a cold dark winter’s night I took a hot water bottle to bed with me and, after reading a good book for some time, I turned off my bedside light (which was on the floor for some reason) and settled under my blanket making the obligatory peep-hole so I could see out in the darkness in case any monsters did come. I drifted off to sleep.

At some point much later I jerked awake. I had been disturbed by something and I was suddenly alert.

Out of my peep-hole  could see someone had turned on the light in my room…

I waited.

And waited.

And now I knew that it wasn’t my mother (who would sometimes check on me during the night and very occasionally might turn the light on if she needed to ask me something that couldn’t wait until morning). She wouldn’t take that long to move or say something. There was only one possible explanation:

A monster was in the room.

This was it. This was the test of my faith in my magic blanket. Would it protect me after all or would I soon find the blanket flung off me before some vile creature feasted on me in a most terrible way to die? I clung to the blanket barely daring to breathe and not moving an inch.

I have no idea how long I waited for the end but it felt like hours. It must have been at least half an hour I guess. But eventually terror gave way to puzzlement. Nothing was happening. Death didn’t come.

Then I asked myself a key question:

Where’s my hot water bottle?

It took time to figure it all out but what must have happened was that in my sleep I had jerked violently and kicked the bed-warmer out of bed. It had landed on the switch of my bedside light (on the floor remember?) and turned the light on. My terror had all been in vain. There was no monster – just me lurching around in bed.

To be fair though, the blanket didn’t let me down.

Monsters in our lives

This came back to me when Thing I told me all about ‘monsters in our lives’ and God being bigger than any of them.

We do get monsters in our lives sometimes and they can threaten to devour us. I’m dealing with one now. It’s huge and threatens a ‘death most foul’ in more ways than one. I feel like the small boy again but now I’m groping around in the dark for my blanket to cover myself before the monster can get to me and kicking myself for leaving the door open so it could get in at all.

I don’t normally write about belief in God in this blog but for many of us that blanket is the belief in a supernatural and loving supreme being. If that supreme being is truly worth trusting then we have to believe he is like a ‘monster blanket’ covering us to protect us from the monsters we might face.

I’m trying to find my blanket right now but it feels somewhat like most of it slid off the bed during the night while I slept (for the last six months). I hope I do find it because I think its magic protective powers are about to be tested, just as they were all those years ago.

Posted in children, Philosophy, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Tomb of Time by Nury Vittachi & Luther Tsai

If you are living in Asia and either work with children or have children of your own you’re in for a treat with a developing book series called The Magic Mirror.

Magic mirror authors

Vittachi and Tsai – sans hair

Nury Vittachi and Luther Tsai (known as the Egghead Twins to publishing wags thanks to both somewhat lacking hair follicles on their bonces) produced their first book in the series back in 2012 and it quickly sold out. The Tomb of Time is the third of what will be twelve books in all and it is, quite honestly, excellent.

Unfortunately, the books are only available to Asian countries as yet (feel free to put pressure on the publishers, Scholasticto publish further afield too) and that’s a real shame for those of us in the West where world history really does continue to be a minor subject area. Children continue to learn reams about European and American history but little else of elsewhere and this really needs to change considering 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia and that the two largest populations (China and India) are now world leaders in every area of economy, art and science (or poised to be). If we truly want a global village, we need to introduce the next generation to their neighbours.

After working with English Medium Schools in Bangladesh, I’ve seen that the situation isn’t much better in Asia either. This is one of the reasons Vittachi and Tsai began writing the series in the first place. There are some great tales of Western explorers and discoverers which are well-known, but even more incredible true stories from Asia are unknown even among Asians themselves. These two authors want to change that.

The genius of the The Magic Mirror series is that the tales come across as pure magical fiction yet are based in solid historical fact. The premise is that two young siblings, Marko and Miranda, use their Grandpa’s Magic Mirror to travel through time and be a part of incredible historical events.

In The Tomb of Time the two young heroes travel to the time of an emperor who wants to live forever, bring clay people to life, have a huge city of the dead with ghosts who fire crossbows to prevent intruders and is advised by a wizard who needs 3000 young people to travel with him to find the potion on an island which will make the emperor’s wishes a reality. Magical fantasy?

Well, actually no.

All of the books have a section written by the authors at the end of the story explaining the facts behind the fiction. In this case all the above is true – the emperor was Qin Shi Huang and you can visit Xian, the region of China where he built his necropolis and see his famous army of clay soldiers. The wizard really did take thousands of young people away to an island but he never returned – in fact many historians think this was actually the founding of Japan.

And yes,  the Ghost brigade is true too – as is the magic mirror itself. Several exist in museums to this day.

Magic Mirror picThe books are easy to read as well as lots of fun making them great gifts for children or perfect for reading out loud at home and in the classroom. What’s more, each book comes with a great cut-out model to assemble which looks terrific – I’d buy the books simply for that alone!

I’ve known Nury Vittachi’s writing ever since I arrived in Bangladesh in 2008. His column in one of the newspapers there brought me great joy in those early days as I learned about Asian culture. He’s a funny guy and one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and make a bit of a fool of himself for the enjoyment of his readers too. A genuinely nice guy who never fails to amuse or make you think (and often both at the same time), this book series is very much in his easy-going style and I simply can’t recommend it enough to those of you who lucky enough to obtain the books.

And if you can’t, you can find Vittachi’s writings in various other places on the web. Just google his name, take a pick and enjoy!

Posted in Bangladesh, Book Review, children, Education, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Year On: Wimbledon wonders and the writing life

Andy Murray at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships.

Andy Murray at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships (Source: Wikipedia)

I’ve been enjoying watching Wimbledon for the last few days but it took a Facebook message from an ex-colleague a LAMB school for me to realise I’ve been a full-time writer now for a year!

Although I’ve been part-time writing for several years (almost as long as I lived in Bangladesh, in fact) it was when I finished my final day at LAMB school last year that I ‘officially’ went full-time as a freelance writer. Since then I’ve published Sonali and been inundated with writing work – so much so that other books have had to go on the back burner for a while. I’ve almost had to consider out-sourcing some of my work but just about kept on top of it all. It was only when a LAMB teacher posted that school had just finished for the year that I realised I’ve been building my clients for a whole twelve months.

Watching the Wimbledon tournament is really a dream come true. Last year was just the worst – not only not able to watch any of it while living in Bangladesh but then missing the historic British win for Andy Murray. My family and I effectively ‘watched’ the match through Facebook messages from friends in real time! It was like listening to the radio only in slow motion.

This year, for the first time ever, I’ve been able to watch all the tennis I want. I’ve moved out of the study and brought my ‘office’ (read laptop) downstairs so I can write and watch at the same time. I’ve never been able to do this before. Even before working I was always having exams around this time so I’ve caught some of the matches but far from all of them. Despite this, Wimbledon remains my very favourite sports tournament of all. Nothing replaces it.

I’ve been self-employed before but that was as a music tutor and that meant teaching throughout the day and early evening. I could have taken time out but that would then mean losing income and you don’t do that lightly when you’re making your way in the world! As a writer, I can really set when I work and even where. I might not get quite as much writing completed while Murry et al are playing but I can then choose to write more later on or (as seems my preference increasingly these days) earlier in the morning.

In a way, the tennis (which begins on the TV around 11:30 am) is helping me meet deadlines. Once the family have gone to school/work by 8 am, I know I have just 2 1/2 hours to complete the kind of work I would have done in 5. I don’t quite manage it, of course, and have to keep writing while the matches take place, but it does drive me to concentrate well and do all the hard work before the TV goes on. I think I may even miss the tennis when it finishes in just over a week’s time. Time management, as Wifey will tell you, is not one of my strong points.

What a difference to a year ago, sat in my house either writing, researching or (as often happened) screaming at the internet completely failing while battling the hot and humid Bangladesh weather. Only the laptop and the need for copious quantities of tea remain the same here as there.

If that makes you think I don’t miss Bangladesh though, you’d be wrong. No matter how much I love Wimbledon, I’d still give it up to be back there. For now though, this will do just fine.

Posted in Bangladesh, British, LAMB, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Very English Summer Fete

Am I the only one who gets excited by the thought of fairs, carnivals, fetes and festivals? I was beginning to think so until last Saturday.

I’ve done many, many similar onusthans and picnics in Bangladesh for numerous celebrations such as the Bengali new year, Victory Day and so on – but never (to my knowledge) an actual truly English dyed-in-the-wool village fete. It’s taken me 43 years to get there. The last time I recall bunting being up all over town was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee back in 1977.

I’ve been to plenty of church fetes and town festivals and carnivals but the village affair (which turned out to be just like the kind of thing you’d see on Midsomer Murders as I imagined it would) I’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy.

To be fair, before living in Bangladesh I probably wouldn’t have been fussed. Judging by how my teenager daughter, Thing I, reacted and how she reported what her friends thought of the annual event (“it’s really boring“) I don’t think much has changed since I was a teenager. I grew into adulthood thinking such community events were the epitome of dullness (My son, Thing II, at least is still young enough to enjoy the event – but that won’t last for long; the teenage years are coming).

But after enjoying the fascinating culture of Bangladesh and really getting in to what it means to be a community, I couldn’t wait to experience the English version; and there’s no better place to experience it than here in St. Bees. With one solitary exception (which I will come to later) I was not disappointed.

The fete began promptly at 1 pm with a parade down the single main street the village possesses. The sun came out in all its glory for the first time this year and remained out the entire day – as did all those who came to enjoy the fete. Of course, the pubs did brisk business which helped encourage the crowds to remain!

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After the Whitehaven Brass Band passed by we were treated to the fancy dress competitors. Considering this is a little seaside village I was stunned by how good these costumes were.

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We were then led up to the local school field for the fete itself.

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Especially noteworthy was the traditional Tug of War competition which, it had to be said, treated the sexes with surprising equality.

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The fete carried on into the evening with performances from Whitehaven’s Committed 2Rock Choir and various bands. Most important, however, was the traditional Hog Roast. Those who don’t like seeing pork might want to look away now. For the rest of us – it was delicious!

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All in all this was a terrific day out with everything as I had hoped and expected it would be – except for one small matter which, in retrospect, I should have seen coming but was still disappointed.

There’s a fine line between English tomfoolery and pure rudeness. There’s a fine line between enjoying a tipple or two and becoming an obnoxious drunk.

As the evening wore on, behaviour deteriorated among a few of the boys and men. Nothing so bad as to need police action or even neighbourly complaint but enough to make the environment no longer so pleasant for families. A group of teenage boys circled around the main field shouting insults and mocking anyone they could. They threw a couple of comments my way too as I took pictures and I couldn’t help but ponder the need of the English youth to try and throw their testosterone around.

We decided to leave and passed the same pub which earlier had been the haven of walkers and locals alike enjoying sunshine, beer and good conversation. Now I watched a young man attempt to kick the lights out of a taxi which was reversing in the road. He only missed because he was so unsteady on his feet – as was his companions egging him on. The expression on his face made the dead hog I’d just eaten seem more human than he and it saddened me to think how the English let themselves down across the country at the weekends – even in little vestiges of tranquility like St Bees – with behaviour betrays the lie that we’re the most ‘civilized’ in the world. What nonsense!

But no matter. Every village has to have its village idiots and clearly St. Bees is no different to any other village, town or city in the UK. But what it does have is a lovely beach – and so my family and I ended the evening with a stroll down there to watch the waves crash against the shore in sublime peace before returning home to sleep after a thoroughly enjoyable day.

The day may not have taken away the pain of no longer living in a Bangladeshi community, but it did at least show me there is a community here where I live which I can grow to love just as much. I think that’s worth celebrating.


Posted in Bangladesh, British, community, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane After Rana Plaza – Book Review

I’ve just reviewed Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane for Paste magazine. Have a look!


<i>Brick Lane</i> by Monica Ali Review

“Almost 14 months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in DhakaBangladesh, the debate surrounding the global garment factory industry shows no sign of abating.

The April 24, 2013, collapse killed more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500—making it the world’s worst industrial structure failure. Most victims were women. Most were poor. I happened to be nearby that day, but I kept a respectful distance. The rescue workers didn’t need a white guy poking his nose into the nation’s rubble.

Recently, American Apparel’s controversial “Made in Bangladesh” campaign stoked the debate about working conditions in the nation. Ads show a bare-breasted girl—Maks is her name—as the embodiment of modern Bangladeshi feminism. The campaign generated praise and condemnation in equal measure around the world. If nothing else, it reminded media that Bangladesh still exists.

Similarly, the BBC produced an exposé-style documentary from Bangladesh earlier this year, reminding viewers how the abuse and exploitation of young and vulnerable girls continue in seedy garment factories. These sweatshops produce 60 percent of Europe’s apparel exports and 40 percent of America’s. Such media attention does nothing to improve the reputation of Bangladesh.

I couldn’t help but consider all of this as I read Monica Ali’s award-winning debut novel Brick Lane. Set on and around the events of 9/11, Brick Lane primarily focuses on life in Britain for Nazneen, the protagonist. This poor, non-English-speaking Muslim Bangladeshi girl has been brought to Britain for an arranged marriage.”

Read the rest of this review here

Posted in Bangladesh, Book Review, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments