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Booksleuthing: A visit to an australian colonial library

Braidwood, middle of nowhere? Somewhere between London Sydney and NewYork. Ok, 3 hours south of Sydney.

My friend Sonia’s family home of Bedervale is a mansion in the early australian colonial style. There have been parties around the folly, mystery murders in the cellar and of course, girly nights in the new part of the house.

I first visited Bedervale in the late 1980s when I joined the Spinners and Weavers. I had longed to use our spinning wheel and now here were women to teach me how. We would meet in the old kitchen and chat while we carded wool, spun or wove.

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Sonia and Margaret, daughter and mother both gogeters in their own right, with the Lesleys, in the old kitchen

It is a house full of relics;  it contains furniture and bric a brac of various importance relevant  to three families, the Coghills, the Maddrells and the Royds. My parents being antique dealers I really didn’t pay much attention to any of it; it was just more furniture and stuff. However now that I am a book sleuth, it occurred to me on Friday night while we were sipping champagne, that perhaps there was a library here.

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Interesting side of the library

As a National Trust home, this library has been catalogued. The books were brought over by the first owners of the house the Coghills. Many of the books carried bookplates from Brompton Library. We looked at a few books and many dated to 1830s or more, right when machine made paper was taking over the printing and bookbinding world.

I was anxious to see if I could find watermarks. Randomly Lesley and I pick out

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Lesley is now fascinated about watermarks. Not only does she want to read this travel guide to Syria and Egypt, dated 1788, but she wants to find watermarks as well

Unlike many of the other small books in the library it is bound in-grain, however due to its size very few marks are visible, a few circles at  the head, a cut off  fleur de lis? Unfortunately no photos because my phone ran out of juice. But as I proceeded to peer into random books, I would show Lesley the difference between chainlines and laid lines and machine made paper. She started to get excited, and now understood my fascination with watermarks.

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the effect of cheap sheep leather…

We were here for dinner, so we decided to go back to the old kitchen in order to quiz Margaret. The books, it seems, were probably first bought as a job lot – after all, members of the squattocracy had to seem reasonably well read. And then as various members developed interests, the library became populated with books that followed a purpose such as Maddrell’s medical training in Germany: so lots of medical books and german literature.

What a good excuse for returning more often to Braidwood. If you are in this part of the world Bedervale runs a bed and breakfast and week end tours of the homestead, so you could take a peek at it yourself.

Watch this space for more on the library…..

 

 

 

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Finding the Virgin Mary

Last day of the week; last book on the pile. And there she was, staring at me, the baby Jesus in her arms.

Virgin Mary holding Jesus, standing in a boat

Virgin Mary holding Jesus, standing in a boat

Found in

RB MISC 3181
Ignatii Coutino … : mariale, sive conciones super evangelia festivitatum sacratissimae Virginis Mariae:

The google translation is : Ignatius Coutino: marian, sermons on the Gospels or the most sacred festivals of the Virgin Mary.

I’m not sure whether she is standing in a boat; what else could it be. The image is fine and is located on the fly leaves.

Isn’t it just amazing? There were no watermarks that I could discern in the book.  The book itself is squarish; blind tooled leather over paste boards; 3 double cords, laced in.The text was printed in Cologne in 1661.

I just thought you might be interested…..

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What’s wrong with this book, part secundus.

Two versions

Two versions

“It’s alright like that; it’ll look handmade.”

How many times have I heard these words uttered by students, and even occasionally by myself?

The point that many people don’t make is that to make it handmade means that one wants to make it better than a machine.

I used to spin wool. I left irregular lumps in it because I couldn’t control the tension. My excuse was same as above: it would look earthy, handmade, natural. As I watched the old women around me spin fine wool, and as my control became better I realised where the challenge lay.

From a distance those two books in the picture above don’t look too bad. However  they are disappointing. I’m onto a third version now. All three are hand painted. I recently sent the last version to a competition so I can’t show it to you. It wasn’t too bad; still looked handpainted. I’ll post photos when it comes back.

I suppose it’s all about the expectations in my own head; my skills are a lot better in my own mind than in reality. I’m always flicking through fine bookbinding books; I want to do something like that one day, sooner rather than later. I am still in the practising phase, even though I learned bookbinding many years ago. However I probably haven’t even reached a thousand hours of (design) binding; I muck about in the evenings and on week ends.

I recently covered a paperback in leather. Why would I bother you may well ask; because I wanted the practise. Until recently I only used cloth and paper. So in order to practise I bought some cheap leather. I figured I would hone my skills on cheaper material before using the good stuff.

Wrong! It is not enjoyable to try to pare crap leather. I have persevered; I am putting a split board onto the paperback, but it is still not sufficiently pared at the turn ins, and looks ugly. And yet still I will continue to the completion for two reasons: firstly for the exercise. I’ll try leather mosaic. Secondly because I want to finish it. The effort I am now putting into making templates and planning the design will hopefully translate itself into better skills for the next book.

It is one of my favourite children’s books, and I’ll give it away to the Little Free Library once it is built. It isn’t as ugly as all that hopefully no other binder will see it. It’ll look handmade. Haha.

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In search of the elusive: watermarks

No doubt about it; working in a library gives me access to a great selection of books. Being a bookbinder gives me some handling privileges.

I had in my hand tonight Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 264 page mini version, 5cm by 10 cm, dated 1663. Full leather sewn on three leather tongs. It  feels much-handled, the leather smooth and shiny.

Thomas Moore's mini Utopia

Thomas Moore’s mini Utopia

Recycled guards. mind the fingers!

Recycled guards. mind the fingers!

I’ve been chasing watermarks for the last two weeks. The Library houses over 6.5 million books. Of those it may have over 70 thousand books in the rare stack.  I now know that in the catalogue there are 34 entries marked as having watermarked pages.  Surely there must be more. Who has the time to find out?

3 sewing supports

3 sewing supports

I’m working on a watermark slideshow for the reading room and I’ve been calling up random books from the rare book stack and checking them out under the light sheet.

It would of course be easier to just spend time in the stack but that is not quite yet possible.

Back to the watermarks. Let me show you those in the mini Utopia:

Arg. You can't see it well

Arg. You can’t see it well

I have a light sheet but the room I am in is quite bright. The books I pick are all within a certain  date range, 1600s to 1800s. I am betting that the papers will have watermarks. I have discovered that not all  books are equal. Sometimes the plain endpapers are sewn on cross grain; sometimes they are totally different to the textblock papers. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise; as a binder I wouldn’t use the same papers as endpapers.

In this tiny book, the printing makes the watermark hard to identify.

Yes there is one on there

Yes there is one on there

The National Archives of Australia have created a database of all the watermarks they have amongst the papers in their collection. They have put out a call to other cultural institutions to add to this database. This would prove to be a very useful tool. I’m currently using three books of watermarks to identify those I have found. Often I get close, but not quite right.

I tried using Google Image but it is not as easy to use as it may first appear. Many of my photos have undetermined splotches that I see perfectly well as watermarks, but not so the computer.

I’ll show you some more watermarks next time.

Thanks for reading.

ps sorry about the changing font.

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Watching bookbinding on You Tube

I’ve been having a hard time lately because every time I open my mouth to say something obvious, I’ve been told I’m too harsh.
I am now going to say another obvious thing: some stuff on YouTube can be terrible!
I have learned a few things on YouTube; after all I don’t actually have a regular teacher and I get my information where ever I can.

Some channels are great: Sea Lemon and Bookbinder Chronicles for example. They teach useful techniques and in the case of Bookbinder Chronicles, really good methods.

On the other hand, You Tube is filled with beginners sharing their tips about how to make a book without understanding, and sometimes without seeming to care, about the whys and hows of book making.
I want to be encouraging; really I do. Information should be readily available and free. But please, let’s make it good information. I guess you can’t trust every thing you find on the Internet.

On Sunday I watched 7 episodes of how to do a leather binding and was cringing at each episode, hiding my face in embarrassement as the well meaning young man blathered on about how badly he was binding. And was more embarrassed by the complimentary comments from the punters.

I am not being elitist, I am no master. I hear you need 10 000hrs before you can qualify for that title.

However I do think that you need more than five minutes (or having read 5 books) worth of training to teach anything! I really think that if one assumes one can teach bookbinding, one needs a mountain of experience and skill. If the people who are looking for information have no idea what they are looking for, we should provide them with  the correct information.

Enough said, I’m going back to trawling You Tube!

LOL

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Learning about medieval pigments

It’s been a while and much has happened since I last wrote. Frankly I have been less than enthusiastic about my every day life. However little binding experimentations at home have been keeping me sane.

In May I had occasion to “go back to school” as it were. Cheryl Porter, director of the Montefiascone Summer School was invited to Canberra by the Tait Bindery to give a week long workshop on the history and making of medieval pigments, entitled “Recreating the medieval palette”.

Day 1 of pigment workshop; inorganic pigments

Day 1 of pigment workshop; inorganic pigments

 

The 5 day week was broken up into morning lectures and afternoon practical sessions. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the afternoon sessions, but simply being there, taking notes and asking questions without having to hand in an assignment was heaven for me.

Cheryl knows this stuff inside and out. She has been working in Egypt of late, but has studied the history and manufacture of medieval manuscript pigments for decades. In her spare time she goes insect hunting or nut collecting in far off places, and experiments with pigment making.She knows people and places I could only dream of, and she knows her stuff inside out and back to front. For example, she knows that flesh tones were usually painted in earth colours because Adam came from the Earth, and green was also used quite a lot for this purpose.

We learned about organic and inorganic pigments, pigments from insects and finally discussed conservation issues.

Slide of manuscript                                                         Manuscript detail

 

We took in a lot of slides; slides that showed how skilled the monks were at their craft, and how laborious it must have been to get even one manuscript finished.

fibres left in the ink

This slide shows some fibres of Brazilwood not fully filtered out and still present in the ink.

To get to the nitty gritty, as it were, let’s start with inorganic pigments. These are made from rocks and minerals, and were on the whole, cheap and easy to manufacturer for the medieval colourist. These occur more often in panel paintings; examples of these would be the ochres(red and yellow), with various percentages of iron, magnesium, aluminium and silica which create different hues.

Here is a good word for all you scrabblers out there: levigation. This is the process by which powedered rock is put in water, shaken, and then filtered, ready for use.The finer the grind, the better the colour. We discussed the shapes of the molecules, their lightfastness and where were the best places to mine the various minerals.

The words ultramarine, lapis lazuli, green earth, azurite, malachite and orpiment flew out of Cheryl’s mouth and into our brains. At the end of the all morning sessions I would nod and smile, having understood every bit of the lectures, been fascinated by the innumerable slides and examples Cheryl pulled out of her hat.

Day 1: 9 pages of notes.

Day 2

Day 2

Organic pigments, on the other hand, come from plants and animals. These are more often used in manuscripts. Their problem is that they tend to turn away from their brightness to a gaudy brown.

Another Scrabble word: clothlet. This was a handy way of travelling with your pigments. Cook your colour in water. Take a plain unmordanted cloth, dip it in and then dry it, repeating as many times as the fabric can take the colour. Once dry you can roll it, fold it, do anything. If you need colour, cut a small piece off and add water; hey presto! colour.

A lake colour: this is a soluble organic pigment that has been turned into an insoluble inorganic pigment by precipitating it onto a colourless mineral base. Pigments have been used since at least the Roman period in Europe, and cochineal (from the Americas) was first used in about 1580

Who thinks these things up? Human beings have been clever for centuries!

Cheryl talked about collecting plants and insects; about how laborious each process was. Of all the medieval dyes, the insect dyes were the most expensive, probably because they came from far away places like the Middle East and the Americas. These were used for dyeing textiles for royalty. There are four main insects from which pigments are derived. Mostly this involves harvesting the old pregnancy cocoons in which the females have died.

On and on the information flowed; about inks, about the differences between ink and pigment (is there any?) Did you know that sepia comes from the ink sacs of cuttlefish and squid?

We got to touch samples of material, such as kermes cocoons, madder roots. We talked about blacks: carbon black, lamp black, ivory black, charcoal black. We talked iron gall ink, very popular for legal documents from about the 12th century as it didn’t smudge (not so good for today as old letters can attest). Iron Gall ink being a mixture of a vegetable extract, a metal sulphate (usually iron) and tannin (usually from gall or tea leaves). Yes gall is a thing: it is the egg of the gall wasp.  The laid eggs were harvested from small oak trees, soaked in water and steeped to get the tannin.

Day 2: 7 pages of notes

Amongst the slides that Cheryl showed were various details of patterns and variety of pigments and colours.

IMG_3317

islamic panel

islamic panel

one organic red one inorganic red

one organic red one inorganic red

detail of slide

The above information is a very condensed version of 4 mornings of lectures. This is just a brief overview of a most fascinating subject. I would love to visit Montefiascone in August and re take Cheryl’s course, as well as participate in the other 3 workshops on offer during the month of August. I would encourage you to get to Italy over the summer.

We were very fortunate that she visited Canberra. Cheryl is an amazing lecturer. She was really engaging as an academic and as a person.

At the end of a very satisfying week

At the end of a very satisfying week

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A year of teaching

The end of the school year is looming; this week is my last class at CIT (Canberra Institute of Technology). I inherited a class of my very own at the beginning of the year. How lucky am I?

Neale had actually thrown me in the deep end last year when he suggested to the vocational course co-ordinator from tech that I could so some casual replacements. Neale, colleague and mentor, was my first teacher in 2006. I’m still a newbie myself and so it was with some trepidation that I did a few replacements for Sally, and when she decided to hang up her bonefolder, the college offered me the job.

My inheritance included messy cupboards full of half finished work from bygone students, some sad looking brushes and glue pots and a jumble of papers and book cloth. This space is shared with the screen printers, and more often than not there is ink left on the tables.

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Cleaned out cupboards

Every Thursday Bookcraft services experienced binders who come in to do their own projects and beginners who come bright eyed to discover how a book is made. It’s been going for years, and has more or less remained in the same format. Unfortunately we are now in separate rooms and the newcomers don’t get the benefit of watching the more experienced binders at work.

I’m new, keen and have a plan. Actually, it’s Neale’s plan; I basically devised an eight week course that mirrored what he taught me. I had found his teaching schedule useful and great because it took me slowly from the basics, like finding theIMG_0548 grain of cloth and paper to making a book of my very own, like a bought one.

In my first class I inherited 2 new students. I simply continued from where they had started; the next term I had a full class of 7 plus more return students. My class plans aimed to get the students to go home with a finished product at the end of every week. The tasks get progressively harder, building on skills learned the previous week.

I love teaching beginners; I love showing them basics ways of making a book, of sewing a few folios together and getting something worthwhile.

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Throughout the year I get a different bunch of students; I teach them a bunch of stuff from my plan; I hone down the teaching palaber until I find the correct words, the words that they will understand, that will make them do the task more easily. Teaching makes me better understand what I am doing.

Mostly I enjoy meeting new and different personalities. I try to remember their names; I think the more new people you meet, the easier it becomes. Bookbinding attracts a certain type of person: not so much fussy as patient and who pays attention to detail. Some people have more hand dexterity than others; some are more artistically inclined.

I’ve learned that I can’t push the students too fast; they will work at their own pace and the class plan seems to grow organically. IMG_0550

Alf waiting for his book

Historically bookbinding was a man’s trade. Now it seems this art is, in this country at least and in my classes, dominated by women. We’d like to have more men, I think it changes the dynamic. Ultimately though, the tasks at hand make us silent. There’ll be a brief flurry of conversation, and before concentration takes over once more. Cheese is de rigueur at teatime. Here we gather with the more experienced clan: Peter and Helen reminisce over the good old days with Neale, and I talk about the future. Over cheese and a cup of tea we find out how each of us came to binding, what makes us tick.

I have further plans for this course. I’d like to start a continuing class on another day, where I would have the occasional guest teacher showing them something wonderful. I would like to make an excursion to the Canberra Bookbinders Guild (who meet on Thursdays!). I don’t want to keep just teaching beginners because I know I will reach a saturation point; if I see that they are heading in a direction, that there is a better goal for them to achieve, then we will have more and better skilled bookbinders and the art won’t die. The powers that be just need to give me a classroom.

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And finally but not least….my wanderings through bookstores

Wandering slowly through bookstores used to be one of my favourite pastimes. I would buy books just to own them; cooking,  crafting, secondhand books, new ones.  I couldn’t bear going to a library; how could you obscure a cover with a label, or worse, stamp an ugly stamp on a page?

As I grew wiser, I started collecting books. At first woodworking, specifically on boxmaking, then papercrafts and calligraphy. When I became a mother, I turned to children’s literature. My son has a fine collection of interesting books, and I do believe that reading him unusual picture books made him into the boy he is today. I would buy one book in several different editions simply for their bindings. I started buying hardcover books

But now I am thriftier; I use the library, and simply stroll in bookstores to see if I can find that special, out of print book, or perhaps some special manual. Besides, it is only when one moves house that one realises that books weigh a tonne.

But here I was in England, land of the book, of the secondhand book. What was I going to find?

Tell you the truth, not that many bookstores at all. I took some pictures of some of the more interesting stores. I suppose nearly everyone is reading ebooks on some sort of device. Not me. I still love the feel and smell of books.

On my reconnaissance day I found Treadwell’s store near Senate house. When I mentioned this to Anthony fellow student and nail biter, he laughed derisively and said : “the witches’ bookstore?”

Treadwell’s store, closed on Sundays, open for browsing

I hadn’t realised it was an esoteric bookstore behind its grills. What attracted me was the small sign in the window that said something along the lines of “ Browsing is a lost art. Please feel free to come in and browse”. Its cosy  interior was also a nook for fortune telling.

Again in my wandering I came upon “The School of Life”. Not exactly a bookstore; a self help organisation which sold books by Alain de Botton. I wished the shop had been opened because it looked like an interesting place to be.

When I asked about, the locals suggested two places: Foyles or Skoob Books. Foyles was disappointing, hence no photos, but Skoobs was the quintessential second hand bookstore, and cute to boot. It reminded me of a similar underground bookstore we have in Canberra “Q Books”.

Skoob

The entrance alone deserved a whole page to itself. It promised to be a fount, a treasure trove, and had I larger bags, I would have bought more books.

This is the type of store I can see myself owning. Tumbles of books everywhere about anything and everything. I had been expecting second hand books stores to be like pubs; one around every corner. So  it was disappointing , and a sign of the times. I still believe that people read, however access to the internet makes reading and publishing any piece of writing so much easier than having to go through a body of peers or a bunch of editors and publishing houses.

At the Last Bookshop in Oxford you can buy any book for two pounds.

How could I be in Oxford and not visit the Oxford University Press? It wasn’t a very inviting store I must say. I don’t know what I images I had in my head.

Oxford University Press; where so many books, text books, non-fiction, have been published. It is so famous. It was silly to have expected something grandiose; grandiose isn’t even the word. Possibly,  interesting. But it really was a mildly boring shop, and could have been anywhere amongst other thousands of boring shops with books whose covers left nothing to the imagination and purveyed no sense of wonder.

Maggs Brothers in London held a reception for all the students from the Rare Books Summer School. The diminutive entrance belies what is hidden behind the facade.

Mr Maggs, Ed, was a very solicitous host. It was an opportunity to talk to our class mates socially. But with every event where people are thrown together, the evening flet a little forced. Not many of the students turned up; but of those who did we had an enjoyable and relaxing evening.

We were left to wander through the one room store, perusing books from the shelf. I found out a little later that the real Maggs store was the basement warehouse underneath the large patio area where we were picking on pork pie and samosa and chatting. We were not invited down there.

Perhaps it was because Iw as travelling that I resisted the urge to buy. However I can now see that I could get a lot more out of a second hand bookstore than simply another book to read: it could be another book to rebind!

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After the course: the British Library and its conservation laboratory.

Why is it that cultural institutions world wide seem to feel the brunt of funding cuts? Who gets funding increases? Is it that the administration of things has gone viral and we are now paying more for bureaucrats than for the people actually do the work, who create the interesting stuff?

Exterior of entrance to British Library

On Sunday after my course finished I went on a bit of a reconnoitre. I knew my apartment was close, and since I didn’t want to be late for my appointment at the preservation lab on the Monday morning, I thought I’d take a closer first look at London’s foremost book repository.

King’s library near the cafe

Its exterior belies what treasures can be found in its interior. I wandered around the large empty halls, not really knowing where to start. I thought a cup of tea might be the place; and on the way I found the philatelic collection. They had stacks of pull-out drawers with English stamps. The café was located at the base of the King’s Library collection. It stands behind many feet of glass, extending beyond where I could see. Unfortunately the café was closed.

So I wandered around the building, looking quickly over the displays in the treasure galleries. Without a purpose I feel quite listless in cultural institutions. At least I knew my way there for the morrow.

Monday morning: after croissants at Les Deux Amis, I made my way in the drizzle to the British Library for my first laboratory visit of the trip.

After such an intense week in the dark looking at books and bindings, I was keen to get back to the bench, anyone’s bench.

Before the walkthrough, Robert Brodie, their public relations officer, took me through their workflow procedures: how items get to preservation, and the processes through which they go in the department. To begin, various departments whose collections need attention, work through a bidding system for time in the laboratory; based on time, a worth number is assigned to each bidder. On this basis the whole year in conservation is planned and different collections get assigned a certain amount of work time and priority. This was significant because within our library we are looking for ways to prioritize our work.

Within the library they use the PCMS (Preservation conservation management system), which keeps track of jobs and books electronically throughout their journey from one department to another.

The Conservation department consists of 6 teams of about 5-6 people. Each team has their own station and their own wet area. Each team deals with a particular collection or department within the library. The teams are made up of paper conservators, binders and all rounders, both paper and book conservators.

The conservation lab at the British Library  is located on a spacious two floors. In the two floors that Preservation cover there are specialist rooms such as the paring room for leather work,

the finishing room, with many drawers of type and tools and the expert finisher

the finisher

and the stores room.

After Robert’s whirlwind tour, he left me in the capable hands of Chris Day.

Chris and I discussed the intricacies of binding repairs. As I am fairly knew to this business I was keen to see how others did spine repairs; I was curious to see if other labs also used commercial paste, or if they solely used starch paste. Most of the repairs that passed through the lab were on major items. The British Library is also a legal deposit library, so they received  paperbacks and all manner of books.  Repairs to such items are not necessarily done in the lab.

In essence, the way they look at books is the same as us, except that their books are so much older than ours. By comparison, some of our treasures would possibly be just an average, alright  perhaps more than average, book in their collection.

Chris took me to meet with the finisher in the tooling room. Unfortunately there were visiting Russian librarians and I did not have the opportunity to talk with him. As we walked around the separate rooms that made up the laboratory we talked about binding repairs and and the state of binding in the UK.

At the end of the day, life in the bindery wasn’t so different to the one at home. It’s bigger, better equipped and has more staff. The binding techniques remain the same; the paperwork is slightly different.

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A propos of nothing bookish but everything to do with my life.

I am not where I thought I would be. To be grateful and happy that my child gets up in the morning, let alone early, is far from what I expected from my son’s teenage years.

I hoped he would be a great student, love school as I did, use his far better brain than mine to make the world his oyster. He loved reading and was so excited by school; he used to write plays and poems and draw. He still loves reading.

I am disappointed that he has not turned out as I had hoped, as I had expected. To say less, or to not pretend expectations would be a lie. Was it me? Should I have been sporty mum, done the soccer saturday mornings in the freezing cold, instead of encouraging him to read and participate in maths and science excursions and exams? He had, and still has such potential. But he is disillusioned and depressed. Anxious.

My son has been placed in the Attention Deficit box. In many ways it came as a relief to have someone diagnose something, rather than me yelling and thinking he was simply being bloody minded. Mind you, he can be bloody minded and stubborn to the point of cutting his own nose off to spite his face. As a baby he would make himself vomit food he’d just eaten.

He is Innattentive, which makes me grateful he’s not hyper; this means he hasn’t got enough brain chemicals to make connections, synaptic or otherwise. So he can’t focus on anything for very long, not unless it absolutely fascinates him. And then he might go off on tangents.

At the time of diagnosis he was in his fourteenth year. While the diagnosis may have been a relief for him, it did nothing to alleviate his lack of enthusiasm for school and assignments. So he started on a drug called Strattera. If you look this up on the internet you will be frightened and shocked at first glance. However, dig a little deeper and you realise that all the shock value “research” is in fact erroneous and misleading.  It’s worked for my son; he has more clarity and more focus at school. His marks are better. I am so glad he is no longer the bottom of the heap. It’s a bright heap, but still that feeling of being one of the worst amongst your peers is unsettling and not pleasant.

I still ask myself if it’s my fault that he became this way; did the parental pressures and expectations I placed upon him lead him to this point? Perhaps I did not understand how emotionally fragile he was. I could not understand why he was not driven (as I had been).  Therein lies the problem; that he is not me, that he is not a girl, and that I didn’t know what to do. I ran away for awhile; ran away to work, to tango, to anywhere else but home.That fourteenth year was hell; I blamed it on hormones, on his father, on computers; I cried at work. At work! I couldn’t function for a few weeks I was so worried about him.

I left him to his father; after all he hadn’t been there for the early years, so it was his turn to parent. And I don’t know if that worked. Picture this: two boys in front of their computers in different rooms, talking to each other by shouting around the house. Or not talking as the case may be, each lost in their different part of the internet. To be fair, his father is a kind boy who loves his son to bits and would do just about anything for him. How many boys have fathers like that?

But I needed a positive male role model for him. Perhaps things may have been different if I had.

No point wishing for what I haven’t got.

Make no mistake, this son of ours is clever; cleverer than his father and I combined.  But he doesn’t know how to do anything academic. He can sit exams but he can’t write essays. He would sit in front of the computer screen ‘researching’ – he was staring blankly at the screen, not really reading, not really seeing. It was so frightening to witness. It was frightening to see him descend in some pit from which there seemed no return.

Then at 14 and a half things got  better. Granted it was the holidays, but I think hormones settled, the drug started taking effect. He was his old gentle, affable self.

But he remained stubborn on the computer issue.  He spent hours in front of a screen playing sometimes, awful computer shoot’em up games. He has other games that are building games. I want to see him interacting with his friends – he does so online. I want to see bodies, hear laughter in the house. Some week ends he doesn’t step outside the house. He can go for days without washing.

And whose fault is that? Who is the parent and the adult? It’s my fault; I used the computer as a babysitter and look where it’s got me. He is completely addicted. He wants to be a games designer (I can hear Glenn Close’s Cruella DeVil  in 101 Dalmatians);  he has the brains to be so much more, so much better than a games designer.  I realised that I did not respect his computer playing abilities or the idea of computers games in general, or in fact, what HE wanted to do with his life.
But he knows so little; so little of life and of the world. How can he lock himself into a future, a narrow future at that? I want him to experience the outside world. I try to explain that all great ideas were harvested from previous ideas, from previous experiences. Is that so wrong? Is it wrong to want to give him a wide range of experiences?

At this stage however I must point out that he is a bit of a liar and an actor. Remember how he could make himself sick as a baby? He makes himself sick as a teenager when there is stuff he doesn’t want to face up to…like late assignments at school. He developped the habit of having a stomach ache when something was due. He himself would deny that anything was wrong; but I’m his mum. I know my son better than he knows himself. Denial has nothing to do with teenage hormones or attention span.  It wasn’t until his ailments became more frequent that I realised the relationship between schoolwork and his sickness. How thick was I? I also knew he did better at exams than assignments. Had we stayed with his old school would he have done better? I only wanted to broaden his horizons. We can’t go back now; we can only live in the day, hope for a better tomorrow.

So now he sleeps. Or does he? I’ve taken to coming home unexpectedly to see if he’s on the computer or in bed. Mostly he’s in bed. I feel bad not trusting him. He sleeps so hard that no matter of tickling, slapping, hair pulling or water spraying wakes him. Things came to a head this term: first week of term, 1 day at school. This cannot be right. This cannot be. This is my reality.

So I decided to take a week off work. No sugar in the diet; no computer; get him up and out of the house; get work from school and work with him in small increments.  We went to counselling. He has developped a nice rapport with our GP; he talks to her which is more than he does with the school counsellors. She is on his side, tells me he can’t help himself, that it is his brain misfiring that is against him. I kind of believe her. But she doesn’t see his behaviour at home and I still think it’s bloody mindedness. How can a person not get up when persecuted by well meaning parents? His father has been wanting me to take him to a kinesiologist for awhile now. He believes in all that new age stuff. I used to but now am a bit more skeptical. I am worried about the long term effects of this drug he is taking, but it seems to be working. Anyway, this week was the final straw. So the father made the appointment and I drove 2.5 hours with the son. We had a very nice trip, us skeptics.

Kinesiology. I have been twice. The first time helped me, the second time not so much. But I do remember that first time and I think I needed it. The child has never had kinesiology. And it turns out I didn’t know him as well as I thought. He was much more underconfident about his capabilities than he let on. The practioner boosted his confidence and when he left he was standing a little taller.

The kinesiologist asked him questions which stretched him. There were times he didn’t remember, but I could picture exactly what incidents had happened in his life. She reassured him and made him feel worthwhile. I realised there were episodes in his short life of which I knew nothing.

We came home and the son’s vibes were high. He felt like another person. The next morning he didn’t wake up so easy, but he wrote a short assignment in an hour without whining or staring. I am feeling positive. He went to school today, on his bike. Exercise and school; what more could I ask for?

Why air this all so publicly? I just needed to vent and don’t imagine many would read this. But if any of you readers know of any other family in a similar situation, and if my experience can help, please feel free to direct them to read this particular blog.  I won’t mind; if I can help someone else, then all the better. Remember, it is not your fault. It’s chemistry and genetics. With love and care it will get better.

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