Friday, 31 December 2010

That was the week year that was

Christmas has come and gone. I did my customary Santa act on Christmas morning with the obligatory stocking! Raggs is working her way through the treats as fast as we'll let her, which to her way of thinking is s-l-o-w-l-y! She ran round excitedly with the little white snowman-thingy before losing it on Boxing Day, probably under the bed or somwhere. The red squeaky cracker has so far survived, and she retrieves it from wherever she's temporarily hidden it to have a little game every now and then.

The remaining snow thawed during the week, leaving a damp misty trail behind it to mark the end of 2010. For all its ups and downs, it's turned out better than at one stage I thought it was going to - perhaps proving the truth of the old adage that you have to experience a few upsets and moments of despair before you fully appreciate your good fortune in life. With that in mind I might even make a few New Years' Resolutions. I always used to, but I suppose like most people I never kept them - though that's hardly a good reason for not even bothering to make the effort. So, with about five-and-a-half hours left to go of the old year, I'll perhaps see what I can come up with?

Friday, 24 December 2010

White Christmas?

After a bout of bitterly cold weather including an inch or two of snow last weekend, the prospect of a white Christmas now seems unlikely (if you judge that as getting fresh snow on Christmas Day, that is). Compared to some people we've had it relatively easy here: deliveries have still been getting through and I did all the Christmas shopping easily enough without feeling the need to stockpile bread or milk. I remember that although they didn't bulk-buy as such, my parents always used to keep a stash of tinned food in the house as well as things like toilet rolls. In the days before freezers were a common item of domestic equipment, it was a sensible precaution I suppose to make sure that if we got snowed in, we wouldn't starve!

Raggs as usual has been delighted with the blanket of snow to snuffle around in: it's been slow to melt off the garden and it's fast turning to ice instead, making it decidedly slippery underfoot. For the second winter in a row she's getting quite used to it, in contrast to all those people who seem reluctant to adapt to the reality that if it's likely to snow, then a certain degree of preparedness might be in order! All the same, while I can just wrap up warm with my knee-high winter boots, I can afford a certain element of smugness by virtue of the fact I don't have to trudge off to work in it any longer. If I did, then I'd no doubt be moaning about it like all the other hapless commuters.

Enough of that. With my little tree on the window sill, and a plate of sausage rolls to nibble at, I'm all ready for the "big day". Coincidentally, this is my 100th blog post, although it wasn't my deliberate intention to mark the occasion, as it were. Anyway.... Happy Christmas!

Monday, 6 December 2010

The brass monkey is back

After a slow thaw of sorts at the weekend, hard overnight frosts and a brief flurry of snow have left it feeling as cold as ever tonight. Raggs thinks it's absolutely wonderful even though there's not *yet* quite enough to roll around in properly. It's already looking set to eclipse last year's cold snowy winter, having started somewhat earlier, though fortunately it's still easy enough to get around in - nothing like the infamous winter of 1962-63 (for those of us old enough to remember it!)

And with that particular point in mind, I do wish those pundits on TV who are referring to the current snowy conditions as "unprecedented" would learn what word actually means before they use it!

Friday, 3 December 2010

A rose by any other name

Into December, and I'm now coming to the end of the first term in my Italian course. I sense that I'm doing pretty well: I'm enjoying it tremendously and picking up the grammatical concepts really quickly - or should I say refreshing my memory, as the deep-seated recollections of doing it some 45 years previously are coming back thick and fast now. The homework is falling into place too, as I'm regaining the intuitive ability to recognize when something looks right and sounds right. Having had as a schoolboy a definite aptitude as a linguist, it seems that it's something I evidently haven't lost.

Nonetheless, it was with some trepidation that I found out last week that today the tutor would be giving us a test - or a "progress check" as she hastily rephrased it. I did do some revision, or at least tried to fix more clearly some of the things which I'd been finding I'd mis-remembered (or which I possibly never learned the first time round). But it's not as if I were going to get a detention for not having paid attention properly in class!

The 'test' kicked off with a sort of aural/dictation test - listening to a recorded spoken passage and filling in the missing words in a transcript. I'd anticipated this as being the most difficult bit, because it's something I've been having trouble getting used to again - mainly I think due to the dialogue being played at normal conversation speed rather than being spoken deliberately slowly and clearly. But with filling in blanks, there's a surrounding context to give clues, which I've always found is a big help!

Onto the test proper: no looking things up in textbooks or dictionaries! Some grammar exercises (things like rewriting present tense as past tense) and then some comprehension exercises which consisted of four 'holiday postcards' and answering questions in Italian on which of the four holidaymakers had done what. A bit of intuitive guesswork with the vocabulary, but apart from my briefly wondering whether in a couple of instances there was more than one correct answer, it was otherwise fairly straightforward.

The big difference, I noticed, from the type of O level tests I'd done at school was the tendency to use multiple-choice answer format. With four possible answers to choose, blind guesswork will statistically score 25%, while eliminating those answers which are clearly and obviously wrong can easily improve that to a 50/50 chance. And that became even more apparent in the final set of questions which simply required a true/false answer to a statement. In fact the only time I did approach something of a total guess was in wondering if nuotare meant to swim, which I either didn't know or couldn't remember, but it seemed as if it might fit.

As far as I know we get the answers back next week. I shall be surprised if I haven't made the odd careless mistake or two: it's easy just to get a temporary mental block and give a wrong answer to something simple and basic which you actually know. But I reckon the grounding I got as a schoolboy linguist was a very solid one and I hope my old Masters at
Leamington College for Boys would not be too disappointed with my efforts today.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

So, sue me.

The snow's started early this winter. An Arctic cold spell had produced a light dusting by the time I woke up this morning, although we've only had just under half an inch compared to the heavy falls in Scotland and the North of England (after all, it's known as the "frozen North" for a reason!). Anyway, with my boots on and armed with a brush, I swept our path clear in a matter of a few minutes. It's a not a particularly steep slope up to our house, but the path is on an incline which makes it tricky to negotiate when it's icy.

I remember when we first moved in, everyone would be out doing the same, almost vying with each other to see who could clear their bit of the street first. Nowadays, we don't seem to bother overmuch, and certainly when I popped out to the shops just after nine, none of the shopkeepers had swept their entrances clear - partly down to the 'elf an' safety muppets who've decreed that it's a hazard to do so (in case anyone slips over on it!). I daresay that only half-doing it is arguably worse than not doing it at all, especially when the remaining snow gets packed into solid ice, but that shouldn't really be used as an excuse for just leaving it and moaning about how long the council take to come round with a gritter.

The forecast, I see, is for more of the same, so it looks like I shall get plenty of practice in!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Would you buy a used car from this man?

As night begins to fall, it seems apparent that today's wave of student protests have passed off in a somewhat more orderly fashion - no doubt due to a greater degree of preparedness on the part of the police this time round, the only spectacular casualty being a police van which somehow got trashed (and which the insurers will no doubt be called upon to foot the bill for).

The main 'target' appears to have been the hapless Nick Clegg. For a party which has traditionally commanded more of the student vote than either of the other two, the abandonment of his well-publicized promise over tuition fees is not going down well, whatever the rationale being offered for it. On that note, the majority of the present coalition government's policies seem to fall into one of three categories:
1. Things we want to do but can't do now because our coalition "partners" won't agree to it.
2. Things we don't want to do but must because of the mess the previous lot left behind them.
3. Things we wanted to do all along but didn't think we dared - but can do now because of the mess the previous lot left behind them.
Expediency rules! Makes a bit of a mockery of election pledges, but whoever believed any of that sort of stuff anyway? Plus ça change....

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Come back Inspector Clouseau, all is forgiven

Following their less-than-impressive policing of the G20 protests, the Met opted to go to the other extreme with the recent student protests and are now, it appears, trying to salvage what they can in the way of identifying and prosecuting those responsible for some of the excesses - in the form of issuing a set of mugshots. A couple are so blurred and grainy they could be virtually anybody. I didn't recognize anyone, and in the absence of any indication as to specifically what they're alleged to have done, I'm spared the possible moral dilemma of whether to 'name and shame', or frame a possibly innocent person. I'm not going to comment on the fire extinguisher incident other than to say it was a singularly irresponsible thing to have done, and it's more by luck than judgement that the consequences weren't more serious.

A somewhat dubious decision of the boys in blue was that to apply for the closure of an established blog site claimed to be "providing explicit advice to offenders". Like a Hydra with its head cut off, it's already spawned replicas of the offending advice, which it took me all of ninety seconds to find online. I thought most of what's there is fairly obvious and not exactly rocket science, while the remainder is simply what any halfway-decent defence brief would recommend. Once again, though, it serves only to reinforce the intrinsically uncontrollable nature of the internet.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Stating the obvious

Today's Sunday Times carries a feature rather grandiosely entitled "Definitive guide to Britain's top schools": I can't put a link to it, because their site is subscription-only. Although the introductory article by Chris Woodhead (former chief inspector of schools) takes pains to point out that exam results aren't the be-all-and-end-all of what makes a good school, their Top 100 "charts" of schools are based on.... you guessed it: exam result league tables.

The one that caught my eye out of the four published is the Top 100 State Secondary Schools, which ranks them according to A-level and GCSE passes. Of the 101 listed (two tied for 100th place), at a rough count 41 had "grammar" in the name of the school. No-one should be surprised by this: it simply illustrates the truth of the old adage that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and if you take the top x percent of junior school pupil ability as your intake, you have a head start which those schools with an across-the-board ability range simply do not have any realistic chance of catching up, however hard they might try. Incidentally, on that theme, I noticed that only one school out of the Top 100 had "Academy" in its name.

But there are uneasy questions, I think, about the value of publishing something like this. None of the dozen or so state secondary schools in the area where I live got into the Top 100. Does that make them bad schools? Not necessarily, if they make the best of what they've got. But rightly or wrongly, parents latch onto exam result successes as indicative of what they want from their child's school and many will tend to choose it on that basis. And in those areas (the majority) which don't have any form of selection or streaming, that task is arguably made much more difficult, through no particular fault of the schools concerned.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Anarchy rules... OK?

I see from the news that Rentamob have featured heavily in the recent student protests against rising fees, and - inevitably - have left a trail of damage and destruction in their wake. It's harmed their case, in my view, because however jealously you regard the right to free speech and legitimate protest as being a fundamental cornerstone of a free democratic society, the right to go out to deliberately smash things up isn't, and reflects badly on those who do it.

I'm not unsymapthetic: I was a student myself once - more than once, in fact. At the age of 19 I travelled by bus and train from home to college in Birmingham every day for two years. I was lucky in that about two-thirds of my tuition fees were paid in the form of a grant (not a loan) from the Local Education Authority, but I ate my parents' food and used their electricity at their expense and subsisted off £1.50 a week which even in those days wasn't a lot of money. I didn't have the money to go out and get plastered on a regular basis, and they wouldn't have let me back in the house if I had.

Fast forward ten years, and I was working full-time with my own home - and with a mortgage and bills to pay. Doing a three-year part-time degree course was hard going and left little time for 'fun', but I thought it was worth it. I'd got my own motorbike, so getting to polytechnic on the outskirts of Birmingham once a week wasn't problematic. I can't remember how much the fees were, but since my employers decided that getting a (relevant, job-related) degree was for my benefit rather than theirs, they backtracked on a decision to pay for me to go, and I had to fork out the several hundred quid a year myself. So much for "investing in people", "workforce development", and all that claptrap. I did one night a week as a pools collector to raise the money - the old 'working your way through college' idea.

So yeah, being a student is no picnic. There again, there's no such thing as a free lunch - and there never has been.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Chalk and cheese?

When I was digging around recently, with a view to choosing a suitable course to further my study of Italian, one of the things which struck me was how diverse study opportunities have become over the years. When I took my A levels, it was with University in view, and it was the Careers Masters at school who were supposed to guide your choice of subjects to fit whatever ultimate aim or aspirations you had in mind. I remember the then-newish General Studies A level wasn't counted as a 'proper' one towards the required grades which an offer of a university place might specify.

Alternatively you could go to college - colloquially 'Tech' - to get qualifications in engineering, or 'Night School' for commerce and business studies, which I think were in many cases sponsored by employers. Colleges didn't in most cases run O levels or A levels apart from English or possibly Maths. But then as colleges became polytechnics and then Universities in their own right, and NVQs with their levels started being equated with GCSEs and A levels, quite a bewildering array of choice has built up, with in some cases students doing courses because they look interesting (or dare I say it, easy to get on) rather than with any particular employment prospects in mind.

I don't want to sound élitist, but one of the things I noticed when I was checking around was that a qualification such as a GCSE or A level was being equated to x hours of study. Even as a crude measure of the amount of work required to attain it, it's of very limited value: it's far too dependent on things like what the study actually consists of, how well information is used and retained, not to mention whether the student has any innate ability to start off with. It just seems to me to be in danger of becoming one of those 'lowest common denominator' things which seems to plague many aspects of modern education. I can't really see much point in offering a choice unless the options are significantly different. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Flash bang wallop

Poor Raggs decided she needed to keep a low profile over the last couple of nights, avoiding the fireworks and bonfire night celebrations. It's odd in a way, because in previous years I've sometimes had to go out with her, and she seems far less bothered when she's out amongst it all than when she can only hear it from indoors.

This year, in contrast, there's seemed to be much less of a build-up to the actual night: I daresay the increasing cost of fireworks in a recession is curtailing some of the more prolonged activity - though last night in the sports ground across the way from us, I could see a quite spectacular display above the rooftops at one point. There are a few disembodied bangs and crashes around tonight, but most of it seems to be finished.

We went for a walk in the park this morning to make up for it. The weather was dry and quite sunny, but there was a distinct autumn chill in the air, and as we walked back through the woods afterwards, I noticed most of the trees were fast shedding their remaining leaves.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


As part of the Italian course I started on Friday, I had some homework to do. It may seem a little incongruous to refer to "homework" in the context of a course at Uni, but given that it consisted of three pages of written exercises doing things like conjugating verbs and inserting articles correctly into sentences - much like I'd done when I was learning languages at school - it certainly felt like homework as I'd remembered it. I even did it the night before, as I always used to, though having to get up early enough in the morning to do a piece of biology homework due to be handed in that same day lurks distantly in my memory (and may well partially account for why I failed O level Biology!)

It took me about an hour and a half, which was a lot longer than I used to spend on my school homework, but then I'm very much out of practice, of course, and I had to spend quite a few minutes doing a bit of hasty revision from the course textbook which as luck would have it arrived in the post this morning. (Unlike when I was a pupil at school, this time I had to buy my own). But I plodded on and was quite heartened when I wrote one answer which I thought looked wrong, and when I checked again, found that it actually was wrong. Instinct can be a very good sign of innate ability, I've always found.

I don't know what the tutor's going to do with the answers: it's probably very 'politically incorrect' to mark homework nowadays - some wonky theory about it being more important to do the work than actually getting it right, I daresay. Pffft.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Time zone

I remembered last night (or more accurately, my PC did it for me automatically) to alter the clock back to GMT or winter time. I must admit I was getting just a little peeved at having to get up while it was still dark in the morning and watching through the windows as the light slowly turned into day - more so than the difference between getting dark now at just past 5 in the evening as opposed to 6.

I remember the ill-fated experiment in the late 60s of a 'permanent' summer time: I was at college in Birmingham at the time, and in December it didn't get light till about 9.30 some mornings - halfway through the first lecture. And in the evening by the time I caught the train home it was almost five and already dark, so I couldn't see any benefit from the scheme at all and I was glad when it ended. "EU harmonization" or not, I hope it isn't resurrected!

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Practice, practice

This morning, I made a start on my new blog - written in Italian! Having started the course on Friday, if I'm to regain any sort of proficiency at all, I've got to practice in between lessons, and so I thought that a bit of writing - even if only a few words - is going to help. I struggled and had to look up quite a few simple words in a dictionary, as well as not remembering how you form the future tense, so I had to refresh my memory on that as well. However, considering the last time I wrote anything in Italian was forty-five years ago, I don't think I've done too badly. I deliberately kept it simple, and resisted the temptation to compose an entry in English and just translate it. No doubt it's more than just a bit stilted, and it's going to come across rather obviously as a first-form beginner practising tenses and simple nouns with articles - but hopefully it'll grow into something a bit more substantial as time goes on.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Back to skool school!

Maybe it's because I've been reminiscing an awful lot just lately, and maybe it's because the nights are really starting to draw in... but I started getting the vague feeling I ought to do something a bit more useful to occupy my time, and maybe even my brain cells as well. Without really thinking consciously about it, I started to feel drawn towards the idea of picking up the study of languages once again. Having already got A levels in French German and Latin, there seemed limited mileage in progressing any further there: I'd never really done much more than dabbled with either Spanish (which I'd done as a General Studies 'extra' for a term or two in the sixth form) or Portuguese (which I'd looked at many years ago on a BBC TV series which I don't even recollect getting to the end of). Which left Italian. In the two terms I'd spent briefly at Uni straight after leaving school, I'd got up to O level standard - or so I was told - but I'd got nothing to show for it, or at least not "officially".

So over the weekend I did a bit of ferreting around. I felt attracted to the idea of a proper class or course as giving perhaps more in the way of motivation than just doing something online - and found that
Warwick University have a 'Post Beginners' course on Friday afternoons, which sounded just what I was looking for.

As this afternoon approached, I was looking forward to it - albeit with an odd butterfly or two - and once we got underway I was surprised how easily I slipped back into the old routine. It's been thirty-odd years since I did my degree, and another fifteen previous to that since I last studied Italian (or anything else full-time), but while I'd be exaggerating to say it all came flooding back, there was definitely more than just a trickle. And I certainly didn't feel anywhere near as self-conscious as I thought I might.


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Those who can, do: those who can't, teach

I was rather touched this week to read about the poor guy who gained the dubious honour of being the first teacher "banned for life for being useless". Part of me feels to compelled to say that some of my old schoolmasters were regarded as pretty useless, but largely escaped the consequences of it - apart from being played up by us all the time! And that was the main yardstick by which we all judged a "good" teacher, basically because if the teacher couldn't keep order in lessons, no-one learned anything. Or at the very least, it was an uphill struggle.

And I'd therefore argue that it's every bit as important for today's pupils as it was for us... and for the same reason. However, that doesn't seem to have featured in the General Teaching Council's reasoning, perhaps because it's a tricky thing to measure or quantify. They cite poor lesson planning (which for us was a non-issue: all the teacher had to do was remember where we'd got to in the textbook and carry on from where we'd left off) and delayed marking (which a lot of our Masters were guilty of, although we did always get our homework back eventually).

But then - and it isn't clear what standards prevailed at the school concerned here - teaching an O-level stream or A-level set in a Grammar School would at least in theory have attracted a high standard of applicant, as well as giving our Headmaster an incentive to do something about anyone who didn't come up to scratch.

Monday, 11 October 2010

And on this day in ........

It's my birthday today! Another year older, another year (perhaps) wiser? Not especially remarkable - certainly not compared to all the excitement and magic of childhood birthdays, anyway: receiving cards, opening presents and celebrating another milestone. I can't any longer actually remember anything distinctive about any of them - just a part of the happiness of growing up, and the anticipation of getting closer to being an adult and being able to do all the things I wasn't allowed to do as a child. Though I suppose the novelty of that soon wore off!

Nevertheless, a day to relax, chill out, enjoy the warm autumn sunshine and look forward to whatever another year has in store for me.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

When in Rome.....

I seem to have done quite a bit of reminiscing about my childhood and schooldays since I started writing this blog some six months ago. It's not really a conscious attempt on my part at a 'theme', more that every so often something happens or catches my eye and gets me thinking back. Like this one, for instance.

Schools which still have the shirt, blazer and tie as obligatory uniform are probably in the minority nowadays, outnumbered I'd guess by polo necks and sweatshirts in the school colours. Although it's just like the uniform I wore (minus the cap, thank goodness!), and I daresay designed to serve much the same purpose, that hardly makes it "Dickensian". And the schoolmasters who taught me were properly attired in shirt and tie - and gown... that I don't suppose is still de rigeur nowadays.

I haven't worn a tie for many years, in fact I'm not at all sure I've still got one. But then I no longer need to: I don't have a job where one is required. There's a definite argument in my mind for saying that if pupils are required to dress smartly and correctly to the school's standards, then the staff are morally obliged to adhere to some similar sort of standard too. But the real crux of the matter is surely that if it's the stated 'custom of the house' to do something or not do something, then it isn't really incumbent on the individual to refuse merely on the grounds that he/she doesn't personally like it or agree with it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Battle of the sexes

A new survey claims today that mothers are "more critical of their daughters than their sons and let boys get away with more". I can only comment from the perspective of having been on the receiving end of this scenario, and in my case I'd say it's rubbish - from what I remember, my mother treated my sister and me pretty much equally from the point of view of getting away with anything, and I certainly don't remember her being unduly critical of my sister.

Having said that, I'd be the first to admit I was a "mum's boy". My mother and I were very much alike temperamentally: I was always given to a 'what you see is what you get' personality, whereas my sister was given more to quiet brooding and occasional sulking and in that respect took after my father. The other thing that needs to be said is that she's seven years older than me, and she doubtless compared the treatment and discipline meted out to me compared to a perhaps stricter standard which had prevailed seven years earlier. Whereas I in turn got packed off to bed earlier, and got less pocket money... always accompanied by a 'when you're her age' line of reasoning.

I did better at school than she did, putting the lie to the modern educational view which regards boys as "under-achievers" compared to girls, and got rewarded for my efforts, but neither of us got spoiled. Looking back on it all, I think it's true to say that in some ways we were treated differently, but that was as much to do with us as individuals, and how and where we grew up, than either of us being favoured over the other.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Autumn equinox

I'm a few days late with this, as the autumn equinox was actually 23rd September, but anyway it seems to me that we're well and truly into autumn now - cold nights, chilly mornings and a definite nip in the air in the evening too, even after a tolerably fine day. Time to turn the heating on, if only for a couple of hours - and time to get the plants in off the balcony to the relative warmth of the windowsill.

Time, too, to dig some winter clothes out ready: this morning my New Rock boots came in very handy as I took Raggs for our customary Sunday walk in the woods!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Just desserts?

I read with interest today that Mary Bale (the local woman who was caught on CCTV dumping someone's cat in a wheelie bin) is being prosecuted for it. Although fortunately no harm came to the cat, it was a singularly silly thing to do and it's still not entirely clear what prompted a middle-aged bank clerk to do something more commonly expected from a yob with a string of ASBOs. She certainly hasn't done herself any favours by reportedly saying earlier that she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

The extent of the reporting which has already been done I must say strikes me as a bit excessively disproportionate but the RSPCA evidently feel the matter is worth pursuing. I can't seriously imagine her getting much more than a token community work sentence - if that. On the other hand, if nothing more than a pour encourager les autres value, it still serves to debunk the idea that the "only a cat" is any sort of justification for doing what she did.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Credit where credit's due

I've had the misfortune to have to do quite a bit of hospital visiting just lately, and since I don't have a car (and couldn't afford the usurious hospital parking charges if I did) but I do have a free bus pass, that's how I get there.

So off I set the other day just after lunch, only to find that bus arrived absolutely packed to bursting point with schoolboys on their way home. Given the time of day (about ten to two in the afternoon), I'm guessing they may have got let off school early: they seemed in high spirits and quite boisterous, but in a harmless sort of way - not unlike some of my journeys home on the school bus when I was their age.

Anyway, during the course of the half-hour journey, three things struck me:

1) They were all (as far as I could see) dressed neatly and tidily in the correct items of school uniform.

2) I didn't hear the F-word once from any of them during the entire journey, nor anything even remotely close to it, and when one of them accidentally stepped on my foot, he apologized instantly.

3) They chatted amongst themselves freely and amiably without feeling the need to insert the word "like" as an essential ingredient of every single sentence.

It's probably rather a sad indictment of the low standards of pupil behaviour in public which is passed as acceptable by most schools that I find it remarkable enough to notice and comment on this in the first place - but kudos to the staff and pupils of Woodlands School. I don't have a son, but if I did I'd be more than happy to consider sending him there.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Parlez-vous français?

I read in a news article this week that the number of pupils studying French had dropped 45% in the last eight years, apparently thanks to a Govenment decision that it should no longer be compulsory to study a foreign language for GCSE. When I was at school, all of us studied French and the proficient linguists took Latin and/or German as well, though I'm not sure whether everyone took O level in it. But I've no idea about whether it was a standard CSE subject at secondary modern schools or not.

As with many news articles, I find, the interesting insight comes in the form of the comments other readers have been making. I'd certainly agree that with the focus in my day on translation and comprehension, the ability to actually speak and converse naturally in the language was not something that we aquired with any great ease or conviction: even at A level, the emphasis was on the literature rather than teaching us how to be naturally fluent. One of the things I enjoyed most about my brief period of study at Uni was practising, listening and speaking, in the language laboratory there.

As far as French being the 'obvious' choice went, in those days cheap foreign travel wasn't widely available and a day-trip or a week's holiday to the nearest European country was all a lot of people could afford. It was (and still is) one of the most widely-spoken languages, marginally more difficult than Spanish, but probably easier than German. I only did Spanish once a week for a couple of terms so I can't really remember much of it, but Italian - with my Latin background - I took to very quickly and easily. In terms of demand, there's a definite case to be made for learning Indic languages or Chinese, and while I was working at Nuneaton, we had an large influx of Polish workers as customers and so we had some little crib-sheets made with 'useful' phrases on to practice with. One or two staff went to night school: I don't know if any of the secondary schools were enterprising enough to teach Polish, but I somehow doubt it.

Quelle dommage!

Monday, 30 August 2010

Melancholy moods

I haven't felt much like writing anything much just lately - so I haven't! In fact, to tell the truth I haven't felt much like anything else either. I don't really know why: maybe it's the tell-tale signs of another summer drawing to a close. It was good while it lasted, but all too brief. The long hot spell fizzled out rather unceremoniously into the more usual British combination of cloud and rain: although as I write this it's sunny outside and the rain has eased off today, there's nevertheless a distinct chill in the air with the promise of another cold night. Autumn is not far off.

Or maybe I'm just feeling my age (more than usual). Unfulfilled promises, missed opportunities - and underneath it all the hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Perhaps a bit more of the good old 'carpe diem' wouldn't go amiss? Quite possibly.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Getting a result

This week, as round about the same time in every year, I was interested to see the publication of the A Level results. Congratulations must go of course to the 27% who scored a grade A, and especially to the one in twelve who scored the new A*. I daresay the record numbers will once again fuel the debate over whether A Levels are "easier" than they used to be. I spotted, tucked away towards the bottom of the article, a table showing that when I took mine back in 1966, I was one of around only just over 8% of pupils to get a Grade A for two of mine - a figure which looks as if it remained fairly constant for the next two decades before starting to climb steadily. There's now a huge range of subjects offered at A level - some traditional and some more 'esoteric' - compared to the academic ones in my day, for which a decent grade of O level pass was usually required before you could even start the course.

All that is small consolation for the significant numbers of students who have so far been unable to secure a university place. The pressure in that area seems to be there every bit as much ever, going to university still being the 'ultimate goal' to follow on from a successful education at school just as it used to be. And so off I went, at the age of 17, with high hopes and aspirations for the future. Fate decided otherwise, however, and after only two terms I dropped out - one of apparently around 15% of students to do so, I found out later. I've always felt guilty about it: whichever way you slice it, it was a wasted opportunity and nowadays there are a whole number of different alternative courses and other options which might've saved the day. Perhaps rather bizarrely it's something I've always avoided revealing to anybody, and I think this is only the second time I've actually written about it.

But of course life doesn't always turn out the way you plan it, and while I've often wondered idly over the years what would have become of me had I pursued the idea of becoming a linguist, or *shudders* a teacher, I don't feel I've done too badly. I've survived to tell the tale, anyway!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Will the person who has 12,000 of our books on loan please return some of them.

According to the local paper today, there are apparently 12,000 library books missing over the last three years. It's not altogether clear exactly what "missing" means, as the article starts off talking about knowing who's got them but not how to get them back, which isn't really "missing" as in 'we don't know where they are'.

When I was working in libraries, people who borrowed stuff from us generally brought it back, and most of them did so on time, although the fines levied on those who didn't were a nice little earner for the Council. The cry of "What!! I could've bought it for that amount" inevitably resulted whenever the charge rose to more than a couple of quid, and the likelihood of getting something back decreased more or less in proportion to the rate at which the fines went up. For a while, I think at the auditors' suggestion, they experimented with taking people to Court, but needless to say the people they chose to sue hadn't got any money, so it was simply an experiment in pouring further money down the drain without getting a result. Peversely enough, the one thing that did seem to work was "sending the boys round": contrary to what you might've expected, most people were quite relieved to get the books off their hands without further ado, which was the main object of the exercise.

On the other hand, the article's a bit vague over whether theft (as in taking a book without actually bothering to "borrow" it first) is included in the figures. It always used to be difficult to quantify this, as it was often simply the fact you couldn't find something when a customer asked for it which prompted the "missing?" categorization. Even then there wasn't any conclusive proof it hadn't simply been put back in the wrong place. I won't go into all the ins and outs of security systems other than to say that it's not really feasible to tag every £2.99 paperback in and out each time - any more than it is for a supermarket to tag every tub of margarine that they sell.

But given that book borrowing from libraries has been declining steadily for a number of years now, it seems logical to suppose that book losses have too, and the comparative figures they've quoted in the article do seem to bear out that inference.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Big Brother is watching... but Big Sister talks as well!

A "news" item this morning writes about the hidden identity of the 'mystery voice' behind self-service checkouts at supermarkets. Other than saying that she - it's obviously (and apparently deliberately) a female - reminds me of a primary school teacher addressing a group of slightly backward six-year olds, I don't really care who she is. But as with many such articles, the interesting part I find is the comments people have been making in response to it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it's revealing a 'love-it-or-loathe-it' pattern of comments, with rather more than I personally would've anticipated expressing opposition on the grounds of job losses. With a bank of six self-serve terminals, the "attendant", as he/she is called, can in theory serve six customers compared to the one at a staffed checkout - but not all six at the same time: it's simply redistributing the waiting. Ideally, most of the six wouldn't need help, but in practice they do - which highlights the other common type of comment, namely that they're unnecessarily awkward to use.

Having got some six months' experience of using them regularly now, I'd say that they seem to be designed mainly on the assumption that the customer is going to put a basket of stuff through slowly and carefully, one item at a time. Whacking a trolley-load through quickly and expertly does seem to throw it a bit, and 'Madam The Voice' can't keep up with you. A mismatch between how the store thinks customers are going to use something, compared to how they actually do in practice, perhaps?

But queues or not, my guess is that they have a very long way to go before they overtake traditional staffed checkouts as most customers' preferred way of paying.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Bonfire of the Quangos

Whenever we need to get a prescription re-ordered from the Doctor's surgery, I send them an e-mail: it's quick, free, convenient and - until recently - reliable. However, the chemist had apparently been told there wasn't anything ready last time they went to collect it, and the receptionists have been claiming not to have received the order. So since it was the third time this has happened, I decided I'd had enough. I don't know how reliable or otherwise the NHS mail servers are, but on the assumption that it may be an IT problem rather than any particular fault of the surgery's, I contacted NHS Coventry - the body responsible for running NHS services locally, and soon-to-be-abolished under the government's new Quango-purging initiative.

This morning I got the paperwork telling me how they're going about *hopefully* getting something done about the problem. There was also a two-page 'anti-discrimination' questionnaire. Normally I just bin these pieces of nosey politically-correct nonsense, but this particular one took the biscuit. As well as asking for my postcode (which was on the envelope they'd sent it in) and my sex (which they could have had a shot at deducing from the "Mr" it was addressed to), it asked whether I was - amongst other things - bisexual, agnostic or gender-reassigned. Huh?? What the hell has that got to do with why my e-mails are going missing? Any questions, it said, could be directed to the "Head of Equality and Human Rights". With a title like that, he or she has got to be earning more in a day than I get in a week. Whatever.... I bet they'll make a superb 'guy' with which to crown this particular Quango bonfire!

Monday, 9 August 2010

The information age

A couple of unrelated posts/messages today got me thinking about how much we take the Internet for granted nowadays as an easy way of finding out about everything.

When I was a small boy, growing up in a Wiltshire village, most of what I learned I was taught at school. I don't think I was particularly inquisitive anyway: if my parents took me out anywhere I might've asked about something I found interesting, but if they didn't know the answer that would generally have been the end of it. We didn't have any books to speak of at home: I don't know if the village had a library but I don't remember going to one, and when we eventually got a TV there was only one channel with no daytime programmes. We didn't have a phone, but occasionally sent off a coupon for something-or-other and by the time it came I'd usually lost interest in whatever it was.

Hobbies, too, were pretty much restricted in the same way. I think it was while we were still in Germany that I started an embryonic stamp collection. I liked the bright attractive design of the German stamps, and I got the occasional British one if anyone sent us anything from back home. But I suppose to have progressed anywhere with it would've entailed buying a magazine or a book, or maybe joining a club. I suppose I just wasn't that interested in the end. I don't know what happened to it, I didn't keep it - but I did start collecting coins once our travels took us further afield, and I still have a small tin full of assorted coins from Germany, Hong Kong and points inbetween, including a bundle of Hong Kong 1-cent notes, which I imagine have got to be the ultimate in "not worth the paper they're printed on". Incidentally I also salvaged a complete range of 1960s pre-decimal money (sadly not a mint set, so they're not worth anything) but even down to the lowly farthing which I remember having to use in Junior school arithmetic lessons, but not the real thing in practice. I never bothered getting hold of a coin catalogue which would've been the only real way to see if I'd got anything rare enough to be of any value, though.

And of course I wouldn't have been able to keep an online diary. I could have kept a written one - but I was certainly no Pepys, and while with the benefit of hindsight it's perhaps a shame I can't look back and see what I was thinking and doing as I grew up, in all honesty it wouldn't have much more than idle curiosity value at best and at worst might well have distorted some things into assuming much more significance than they actually had.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Rough and tumble

I was looking at an email or two earlier, when my attention was distracted by some piercing screaming in the street outside: it sounded like someone was being murdered! I got up to take a look out of the window, and saw that the toddler across the street must've fallen off his bike and hurt himself. His mother came out and correctly worked out that the screaming was almost certainly in inverse proportion to the actual physical damage and calmed him down a bit before scooping up him and the bike.

A bit later on, I took the dog out to do as nature required, and he spotted us and waved. As we waved back I didn't notice a plaster or anything: he got back on his bike and rode up and down the drive once more, apparently none the worse for the experience. I daresay it'll become part of dozens of uneventful everyday childhood mishaps that he won't even remember in years to come.

I doubtless had many of the same experiences at his age. When I was leafing through some old photo albums at my sister's at Christmas, I came across a snapshot of me on a bike (or a trike, in fact) - I don't remember having it, riding it or falling off it - yet I obviously did the first two, and probably all three. If I had an accident, my mother would apply whatever was necessary - be a it a kiss, a wipe over, or a plaster - and it was soon forgotten. However traumatic I probably made it sound when it happened, the natural resilience of a young child heals all sorts of wounds without in most cases leaving so much as a trace to remember them by.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Old chestnuts

A news article today resurrects the age-old argument about tongue piercings being bad for your teath, citing "research" carried out at the University of Buffalo and reported in the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics. All sounds very authoritative, but whatever the research consisted of, it hasn't discovered anything new - the claims of tongue piercings damaging teeth have been doing the rounds for as long as the piercing itself has, certainly for as long as I can remember, anyway.

It's fairly self-evident that if you deliberately scrape a metal object against your teeth, then sooner or later it's going to wear the enamel away: that is, after all, the whole principle on which a dentist's drill works! More spurious is the claim that "constant pushing of the stud against the teeth - every day with no break - will move them or drive them apart" You don't do this naturally, not with a standard centre tongue barbell, any more than you suck your thumb or a dummy constantly. And with more of an eye on the sensationalism than the facts, the author of the article couldn't resist the temptation to mention the alleged link to brain abscesses - an extremely rare and unlikely complication, especially when compared to the many thousands of tongue piercings performed safely and successfully every year.

My tongue piercing is now nearly ten years old. Most of the time I'm not really aware of it: it doesn't cause me any trouble. I've had my fair share of teeth problems and expensive dentistry, but that's more or less entirely down to lapses in teeth brushing and deficiencies in general oral hygiene!

Friday, 6 August 2010

A brief trip back in time

I got hold yesterday of an old copy of "Warwickshire & Worcestershire Life" - which I vaguely remember as a very expensive glossy upmarket monthly magazine, long since defunct (or at least in that particular format). What made it interesting for me is that it had an illustrated 4-page article - from December 1970 - about my old school. There was a bit of a historical introduction, but mainly it took the form of an extended interview with 'Fred' Williamson, my old Headmaster.

It was written around the time that successive governments were alternately introducing and then abandoning plans to turn education comprehensive and the article concluded (rather optimistically in the light of subsequent events) that it seemed "unlikely that there will be any dramatic change in status during the next four of five years". In fact by 1974 plans to 'go comprehensive' had been approved and Leamington College for Boys ended life as a grammar school three years later.

The Headmaster is quoted as saying that he foresaw the end of the eleven-plus in its then-current format but that he couldn't see how you could "avoid streaming in a comprehensive school with a wide IQ range". The article adds that streaming had been abandoned at the Boys College - which must've only just happened: it was still in full swing when I was a pupil there. Prompted presumably by the interviewer to sum up the school in a catch-phrase, "A good all-rounder" is used as the title for the piece. I think I'd tend to agree with that. It was an interesting choice of phrase, too, in the context of the present tendency for schools to push for some sort of particular specialism status, though I suppose arguably a grammar school is (or was) a specialism in itself?

Monday, 2 August 2010

Burn, baby, burn

Today I finally got round to backing up some of my computer files onto CDs. It's one of those things I'd been meaning to do for a while, that I used to do more-or-less regularly and got out of the habit of. I've been doing automated back-ups on a weekly schedule for some time, but of course they're not really going to be of much use if the whole machine goes wrong or the hard drive crashes and I can't access anything at all. The PC I've got now has a pre-installed version of Nero 8, which I actually bought a copy of some time ago for the computer I had before: although it's not the latest version it does the job in a nice hassle-free way, so I'm not in any hurry to upgrade it. I'm a definite believer in the theory that the easier a routine chore is to do, the more likely you are to do it!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Work till you drop

I took Raggs for her customary walk in the woods this morning: being a bright little bean she's cottoned on fast to the significance of Sunday morning and starts to stamp her feet if she thinks I'm not getting ready quickly enough. It's an innovation which I introduced in fact after I gave up work altogether in October 2008 - almost two years ago now - and certainly it's been a change for the better.

I can't say I was sorry to give up work, and I'm more than a little mystified by some of the thinking behind the government's new idea of
scrapping a "fixed retirement age". While in theory allowing workers who want to carry on working and who are capable of it is a 'good idea', it's inevitably I think going to produce a situation in which those who don't want to carry on are effectively forced to, simply because they can't afford not to - especially when the pension age starts to rise.

The other effect it's almost certainly going to produce is a worsening of the already high levels of youth unemployment as fewer jobs are 'freed up' through retirement. If you make the assumption that there aren't enough jobs to go round for everybody, then faced with a choice between bored pensioners with no job and nothing to do and bored youths in the same boat, it's a bit of a no-brainer to work out which is going to cause the most trouble!

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Double standards?

A couple of interesting news stories have caught my eye this week.

Seventeen years ago, the horrific
James Bulger killing sent waves of shock reverberating round, making people wonder how on earth two young boys could be capable of anything so wicked. They were both given new names and identities before being released on licence in 2001, but in a disturbing recent development, it's been revealed that one of them - Jon Venables - has just been sentenced after pleading guilty to having childporn on his computer. Describing it rather ineptly as "breaking the last taboo", he's made quite a few people wonder whether he didn't do that back in 1993 and appears to have learned nothing since? Either way, the trial judge is convinced that his new identity and whereabouts must continue to be kept secret for fear of retaliation.

And as if to reinforce the point that there are people ready and willing to retaliate with their own brand of rough justice, Ian Huntley, of
Soham murders fame (or should one say infamy) is reported to be suing the prison authorities for negligence after having his throat slashed by a fellow-prisoner. Given his notoriety, it's something that could and should have been foreseen - the only question now being whether his claim for compensation is legitimate or not. Perhaps understandably the victims' organizations are appalled, but I was impressed by the comment made by the Prison Reform Trust: "If a court sentences someone to custody, they are not sentencing them to be attacked."

The pitfalls of vigiliante justice are all too obvious.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

"It's Kool to go back to Skool"

I'm not too sure now how I originally came across this -but it's a school-finder website that goes by the name of My Home Town Schools, and at first sight seems to be a bit of a clone of Friends Reunited but on a much smaller scale: the vast majority of the schools listed don't (as yet) have any ex-pupils, and the database is for the most part limited to schools currently in existence. Which is odd, because they boast "we have 1000s of old long forgotten schools listed many with old photos going back to the Victorian / Edwardian era"? Nevertheless, I thought I'd submit the details and get my old school added, and was impressed when I got an email earlier this evening to say it was up.

It was quite easy to register and knock up a quick profile: submitting photos and messages requires them to be moderated, though (unlike Friends Reunited), so I'll be interested to see how long that takes: I can't imagine they're inundated with submissions to check out. I would suspect the whole site may be relatively new, in fact. I'm not expecting to get any long-lost friends turning up from it, but they were understandably keen to get a mention or a link in peoples' blogs or websites, so I'm happy enough to oblige here!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Three generations

I heard the sad news this week that my next-door neighbour has passed away. They've been living here about as long as we have - roughly thirty-five years - and we've got on well, often having a chat about this or that over the garden fence. She'd been losing the battle against cancer for over eighteen months, in and out of hospital a few times and having to give up first work and then her car, so I guess it wasn't totally unexpected. When her son, who still lives only just over the road, came over to tell me the news, he was putting a brave face on it: nevertheless the death of a wife or mother is always a painful loss however it occurs.

I was about his age - 40 - when my mother died. I went totally to pieces and I don't know to this day how I got through that week between her death on the Monday and her funeral on the Friday: nothing had prepared me for it. Perhaps I was lucky (or unlucky according to how you look at it) but I'd never experienced the death of anyone close to me.

My grandparents had both died while we were out in Hong Kong. We couldn't go to their funeral: I don't really remember how my mother coped with it, but knowing her I suspect she shielded me from much of her sorrow. In those days, air travel was an unaffordable luxury and the flights with stopovers would've taken a couple of days each way. Even international phone calls were prohibitively expensive, leaving airmail letters (or telegrams, if the message was both brief and urgent) as the only method of keeping in touch.

I wrote last month about the trip I took to Hornchurch after my mother died, and one of the places I visited was the graveyard at St Andrews Church: I was foolishly hoping to visit my grandparents' graves. But I didn't know where they'd been buried: although on our return from Hong Kong we'd visited the aunts and uncles from time to time whilever they were still living there, I was aware at the back of my mind that we'd never gone to my grandparents' graves, but it hadn't occurred to me that there must've been a reason for that. In fact it wasn't until my father died four years later and I inherited the box of family papers that I discovered two little poignant 'In memoriam' cards which had been sent out to us in Hong Kong and which showed that they'd been cremated - an option which I think was a lot less common in those days than it is now.

So, I was left with just the memories. Their flat was still there, with the iron fire escape leading from the back door in the kitchen, that I used to run up and down as a six-year old whenever we went to see them. I remember them as a kindly old couple: I liked going to visit, and I got the occasional treat - though I don't think I was ever spoiled rotten as some grandchildren appear to be!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Will the phantom penis poster kindly own up?

I spotted this intriguing little news story yesterday: apparently someone has been putting up posters of what is described rather coyly as "male private parts" (why do journalists think it's necessary in this day and age to use such euphemisms?) with a yellow ribbon tied it round and the caption "Fees set to rise later this year." Hmmm... fees for what? Perhaps it's best not to speculate!

Anyway I had to chuckle at the punch-line which quoted a Sussex police spokesman as saying - "If this is a self-portrait the artist won't be in a hurry to be identified” I seem to have done my fair share of criticizing the police just lately, so it's nice to be able to record that, in one area at least, they haven't lost their sense of humour.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Above the law?

I popped across to the supermarket earlier this morning to get the paper and a few bits and pieces, and as I walked across the car park towards the front door I noticed a police car parked in the end space. Nothing unusual in that - they seem to visit quite often, generally to buy a sandwich or something during their shift, I think. What I noticed today, though, is how untidily it had been parked, skewed in the marked space with the offside front wheel firmly over the hatched part which of course you're supposed to leave clear. The car was unoccupied, but as I passed by I saw a WPC come up to it: she must've seen the filthy look I was giving it and read what I was thinking, because as she opened the door and got in, she said: "I might have a prisoner". In fact she didn't, because she drove off alone, and as she did so I spotted that she'd been using one of the spaces set aside for parents with young children in buggies. Perhaps the expected prisoner was a toddler?

The enforcement of parking is generally now up to the local council or parking wardens rather than the police, but all the same I did idly wonder what she'd have said if the positions had been reversed and I'd been the one using a space I wasn't entitled to.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Power of the Press

During the course of the last six months or so since I first put my schooldays website together, I've had something in the region of ten or a dozen exchanges of emails from various people who'd found it and said how much they'd liked looking at it. I very much enjoyed writing my story and putting it together, but it's doubly rewarding when people take the trouble to contact me and compliment me on it. I suppose anyone who hated their time at school wouldn't feel quite so kindly disposed towards it, but then again they presumably wouldn't have bothered looking in the first place.

One of the comments I did get suggested that it might be worth getting a mention in
the local rag. It's something that had already occurred to me, especially as they have a "Nostalgia" section in which they've run stories featuring old local schools and ex-pupils, but I wasn't sure how receptive they'd be to something that was purely online. Nevertheless, I sent them an email last week, and yesterday got a reply saying one of their reporters would like to have a chat with me about it.

This afternoon, the phone rang. The woman on the other end asked if I'd been a pupil at Leamington College for Boys, and when I said yes, she said her son who now lived in Canada had gone to the school, she'd seen my site mentioned in the paper but couldn't get into it. We worked out between us that the paper had evidently already run the story, but had misprinted the URL. Duh! I thanked her for letting me know, and popped out to buy a copy - it comes out on a Friday. Sure enough, although the rest of what they'd printed was accurate enough, there was a typo: a y had become a v, effectively undoing all my good work! If I can get hold of their reporter on Monday, I shall be sorely tempted to suggest he goes back to school for some lessons in proofreading!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Manhunt or witch-hunt?

I wasn't originally intending to comment on this one, but since no less a person than the Prime Minister has seen fit to throw in his (rather ill-informed) two-cents' worth, why shouldn't I?

What drove Raoul Moat to act out his grudge rather than - as most people do - getting over it and getting on with his life - is something I don't suppose anyone will ever really know. However, the shooting at point-blank range of three innocent people, killing one of them, resulted in the UK's biggest and best-publicised manhunt of recent years, and undoubtedly the most expensive -running up a bill of millions and involving, it's been said, a quarter of all the armed police in Britain not to mention the latest sophistication in heat-seeking helicopters and heaven-knows what else. Given that he evaded this massive combination of resources for a whole week, in the glare of nationwide publicity, it's hardly surprising that he's attracted a certain following: the police have not emerged from the whole thing exactly covered in credit. It was always on the cards that the eventual outcome was going to be either a shoot-out when cornered or a suicide and I guess we should all be grateful that no more innocent lives were lost. Nevertheless it all seems a little bizarre especially in view of the several murders and shootings which occurred elsewhere at the same time and which rated hardly a column-inch mention let alone a manhunt.

Obviously his family and close friends will have seen a different side of him to the one portrayed in public and are fully entitled to pay their respects as they see fit. I'm not a devotee of Facebook and don't really care one way or the other about a 'tribute' group. That said, in a free society people are entitled to express their opinions - however flaky or distasteful - and I'm glad that the site has so far resisted the attempts reportedly being made by the goverment to censor it. He's not a martyr and it's idiotic of anyone to try and turn him into one by suppressing legitimate discussion of what actually went on over the last couple of weeks.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The scattergun effect!

One of the most annoying things about searching on the internet is the way a search for a specific subject or topic will produce a ton of unrelated material which, because of the way it's indexed, takes the right constituent pieces but puts them together in the wrong order.

To give an example, I usually check out which of my Flickr photos have been viewed the most, and how people found them. It's not much more than idle curiosity on my part, but it's a bit of an indication of the sort of stuff that it's probably not worth bothering to upload. Most searching seems to give fairly predictable results, but the one that caught my eye yesterday was "hairy beach stud" - and this is what they found:

It's an old polaroid holiday snap from the 1980s, and the caption reads: "On the beach with Sweep (the dog)- Me in tight jeans and DM boots with our first dog - a nice hairy one named Sweep. I was the envy of all the local lads in those boots: the 14-hole ones had only just come out and they all wanted to know where I'd got them from."

So the "beach" came from the title, the "hairy" from the subtitle, and the "stud" from the 'studded' tag I used to label the studded leather belt I was wearing. But rather obviously (or so I think, anyway) neither of us really fits the description of a hairy beach stud!

Ah well.... life is full of its little disappointments for someone.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Uninvited guests

I woke up this morning and made the unwelcome discovery that we'd had intruder(s) in the garden during the night. The fence at the bottom had a slat broken off, the raspberry canes had been trampled and broken as had a couple of tomato plants, the wire fence separating our garden from next door's had been twisted and partially broken - and their yucca bore signs of someoene having been rash enough to tangle with it.

We live in a cul-de-sac, and our garden gives access via the bottom fence and a block of garages with a flat roof to a close leading out onto the main road, which makes a convenient getaway route for your friendly neighbourhood burglar. With this in mind, I rang up The Bill. I wasn't altogether surprised that the guy who took the call didn't seem too enthused with interest with my piece of crime-solving intelligence, but he did check to see whether anything with a possible connection had been reported. Apparently there were some dodgy goings-on involving a car and the house at the far end of the street at around 2.30am, but it didn't amount to anything - or so he told me. I asked him to make a note anyway in case anything else came to light later, so he took my name and phone number.

Later in the morning, I mentioned what had happened to my other next-door neighbour in case their garden had been entered, but she said not. Feeling rather unnecessarily over-suspicious, I checked all round ours, in the bushes, and in the wheelie bins, in case anything had been dumped in a hurry. I noted in passing that the garden tools which I'd developed the very bad habit of leaving out all night, were still there, so I made a note to be more careful from now on!

About 5pm, the doorbell rang. It was the woman from the end house, together with my neighbours' son, who had evidently heard the story of what had gone on. There had indeed been some sort of a disturbance during the night as a result of which she'd had her bag taken with her keys in. I took them to see the damage, but predictably enough there was no sign of either bag or keys. I don't suppose I shall hear any more about it. The offender(s) in the unlikely event of being caught would only get some meaningless community work sentence. Perhaps repairing the fence and planting some new raspberry canes for me would be a suitable reparation?

Oh - I nearly forgot. Raggs must've been disturbed, because she barked in the middle of it all, but only three or four times before going back to sleep, having I imagine concluded she'd done her job as the fierce guard dog and scared them all off. Silly mutt!

Friday, 2 July 2010

Driller killer

I had an appointment at the Dentist's yesterday. Not my favourite way of whiling away an hour on a sunny afternoon - more a case of doing the dirty deed that needs to be done.

The entertainment started with a scrape and polish from the hygienist. As a yukky job, I think personally that scraping gunge off peoples' teeth all day for a living must take a bit of beating, but maybe they enjoy it - I guess it takes all sorts. Anyway, she wasn't the usual hygienist, who is quite chirpy and chatty, and her communication in monosyllables wasn't my idea of the perfect bedside manner. Coupled with some rather vicious digging with a sharp instrument which made my gums bleed. It was apparently because I didn't "floss" enough: the way she said it was more of a criticism than an apology. We got round to discussing why not and maybe it was the flippant way I said "I'm lazy" which must've put her back up, but I got treated like a naughty schoolboy who hadn't done his homework properly. Considering I was paying £30 or so for the experience, I shall be making I sure I get an appointment with the regular hygienist in future!

A check-up from the dentist himself revealed two small cavities: I don't very often escape these days without having to have some work done! Rather sadly, they're both in teeth which hadn't been filled before, and I must confess I was quite proud of having up until then still got eight totally unblemished teeth left. Nothing lasts forever, though, and I think my teeth on the whole have survived reasonably well. I remember as a teenager the familiar sight of my parents' dentures soaking overnight in their little beakers in the bathroom at home: I don't remember a time when my mother didn't have false teeth, and my father had a decreasing number of his own teeth left by the time he was my age. It may be a sign of better dental care these days, or perhaps some hereditary factor - or possibly a combination of both. My dentist, being something of a perfectionist takes the other side of the 'glass half empty/half full' thing, and sighs somewhat over the fact I don't take more care of them!

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Twisted logic

I was doing the shopping at the supermarket this morning, when I spotted amongst the deodorants and shower gels, a prominent notice (right at head height on the shelf): "For your safety and security, we always prosecute thieves". Huh? Exactly how is prosecuting someone who pinches a can of deodorant for the benefit of MY safety/security, I wonder?

Deterring shoplifters is arguably for the benefit of honest customers generally in that if, say, one in twenty cans gets pilfered, the store simply jacks up the price of the other nineteen to make up for the loss. Whether the prospect of an actual prosecution is a deterrent or not, given the sentence the Court is likely to pass, is a moot point.

I'd be slightly more convinced by the argument that CCTV enhances my safety and security, although the store of course installs it primarily for their benefit rather than mine. Pickpockets and bag-snatchers are known to target other customers, but I believe it's relatively rare for a shoplifter to do so unless the customer gets in the way or tries to stop them. I have occasionally seen notices advising customers to keep hold of their wallets, purses, handbags etc - but much more discreetly and more infrequently. I suspect the store doesn't like either the nuisance value or the bad publicity.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Short shorts Sex on legs!

Another scorching hot day today, with still more to come, hopefully! I did a bit of weeding, watering and tidying in the garden and put all the cacti from the windowsills out on the balcony in the fresh air. Nothing too energetic, but quite relaxing and enjoyable.

I've worn pretty much nothing but shorts this summer - usually my Adidas popper ones, which are quite a thick material and unlined, or my Umbro ones which are a thinner cotton, lined, and somewhat cooler. But today I came across a pair of light Adidas running shorts which I'd totally forgotten I'd got. With a split leg, they're really short, and only just fit me. I'm not sure I'm quite brave enough to wear them to the supermarket, but for the garden they are "the business" as they say. Voila!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Wot... no bouncy castle?

Today has apparently been the hottest day of the year so far, with a temperature up into the eighties. I took Raggs for a walk into the woods this morning, where it was pleasantly cool in the shade of the trees, and she had fun wallowing in the water in the little pond there.

When we got back, the neighbours were busy. Next door had got a huge tent in the back garden, big enough to throw a sizeable party in - although in fact nothing materialized, so perhaps it was just a rehearsal for something later? A couple of the front gardens across the street had little paddling pools, and we heard the shreiks of the kids splashing about, followed in the afternoon by a water slide!

And as I type this entry, I can hear the sounds of the BBQ being cleared away. Not that I'm jealous or anything: I'm sure that if I'd had kids of toddler age they'd have all been joining in, too. At any rate, it's good to see neighbours and their kids getting on well together, and it was a day of happy activities which was achieved at a tiny fraction of the cost of a trip to Alton Towers or somewhere!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Bumper crop

I went out into the garden early this morning and picked some fruit. The strawberries are still very prolific: several hot dry days (with more to come) have ripened them fast without the slugs and snails coming out to do much damage, and so I filled a couple of empty flowerpots with them. The raspberries have grown and flowered profusely this year, but it's a bit early for much fruit yet - though I did get half a pot-full. Finally, I pulled some rhubarb. This is the second lot I've had so far, and while it's doing quite well, the dry spell isn't suiting it quite as well as it does the soft fruit, so I got the watering can out afterwards and gave it a good soaking. A lot more to come yet, all being well!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Giving with one hand and taking back with the other?

So... after the much-advertised emergency budget on Tuesday, I'm just waiting to see what effect it has. I shall be better off by virtue of the extra £1k tax allowance, but worse off with the hike in VAT from 17.5% to 20%. It just remains to be seen to what extent the two cancel each other out.

All in all, I thought it was all pretty unimaginative, with nothing new that hadn't been tried before. If I'd still been at work I'd be a bit unhappy about the freeze in public sector pay: when I left I was only just earning more than the £21k threshold - it was below the National Average Wage then, and presumably still is. But there you go. Pretty much every Labour goverment since the War has financed its policies by spending money it didn't have and got into a fiscal mess as a result.

Remember Harold Wilson's famous quote about "the pound in your pocket hasn't been devalued"? Not much it hadn't!

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


I was catching up on my reading a bit yesterday - in particular Shannon's blog, probably my favourite of all the blogs I read regularly. Always inspired and interesting, and I love the way he writes about bringing up his daughter in a style which is refreshingly free from the nauseatingly gooey terms that so many parents seem to use when referring to their young offspring. I imagine she'll come to treasure the memories it'll bring back in years to come.

I remember very little of my own very early childhood - until I was about six or seven only maybe a dozen isolated hazy recollections come to mind. Even looking at the handful of photos which have survived doesn't trigger anything. Before my parents bought their first house and we "settled" when I was 14, we'd lived in a total of I think ten different places, none longer than three years and most a matter of a few months. While I was growing up it didn't seem to matter all that much: a facet of the Army life was that everyone else was in the same boat, and so the answer to the question "Where are you from?" was easy - it was the last place you happened to have lived at.

But when my mother died in 1988 I quite unexpectedly found myself experiencing an acute sense of not "belonging" anywhere. My stongest link with my past had suddenly been broken, and although by that time I'd been living in Coventry 15 years, the longest time I'd ever lived anywhere, it wasn't "home". So one Saturday, I set off on a train journey down to London - to Hornchurch - in search of my past. It was where I was born, where my grandparents and aunts/uncles had lived, and because we always used to go visiting them, it was the only place we ever went back to.

I remember on the 45-minute journey out on the District Line losing count of the number of times I nearly got off at the next station, endlessly doubting whether I was going to find what I was looking for - half-remembered places and events from thirty or more years previously. But I persevered. And I was glad I did. Although my grandparents had died and all my relatives had moved away, everywhere was just as I'd remembered it: the road from Upminster Bridge station leading past my grandparents' flat... the newsagents' where I'd been treated to an ice lolly... my aunts' houses next door to each other on Upminster Road... the fence I'd looked through as a small boy at the school where my cousins had gone... my other aunt's house just round the corner... and the church where I'd been baptised. And finally, on the other side of town, the house we'd lived in when I was just a baby, still just about recognizable from the background in a couple of old photos of me in my pram.

I took some photos to cement it all in my memory and a few days later when I'd had them developed I looked at the souvenir of my little pilgrimage. I'd found the answer to my question; I had a past; I'd found my roots.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Serendipity n. - the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident

Last autumn, when I came across the Flickr photos which first inspired me to start reminiscing back to my schooldays, there was a link to a GeoCities site on which it looked like there would be a lot more material. As luck would have it, it was just after the time that Yahoo pulled the plug on GeoCities, and the guy who'd posted the link couldn't remember whose the site was. It didn't seem to have been archived or cached anywhere and he tried e-mailing (using that part of the URL which was an e-mail addy) but without getting a reply. For some while afterwards I tried searching occasionally to see if anything turned up about it, but I'd more or less given up hope of finding any clues.

But then the other night I was looking at the updated profiles on Friends Reunited, when I spotted that another ex-pupil had put the same link in his profile. On the offchance, I shot him a message asking if he knew whose the site was, and he replied the following night that it was his! He said he wants to re-upload it when he's found a suitable ftp hosting for it: I'm not sure how keen he is, but he did say that there had been quite a bit of material on it, so having done what I assume would've been a fair amount of work, and now he knows he's got an interested reader, it may spur him on. I'm hoping so, anyway, having unexpectedly found the missing piece to my puzzle!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Free speech... but not when we're paying for it!

An odd little news item I came across tucked away inconspicuously yesterday reveals that two people were banned from using the city library's computers in the last three years for *allegedly* accessing porn. Rather oddly, I thought, there wasn't any comment on the significance of this, especially as it was in response to a Freedom of Information request which presupposes that the information wouldn't have been revealed otherwise. It doesn't say what they were looking at, but to rate a three-month ban it can't have been anything "serious" and obviously wasn't anything illegal. In any case I believe that Coventry Libraries are one of the majority of UK public libraries who use Websense to block supposedly objectionable material.

The argument used in favour of having this sort of ruling is that users are accessing material in a semi-public place and that in any case some people would not appreciate their Council Tax being used to fund the provision of free porn. On a very simplistic level, that argument has a certain degree of merit - but as an ex-librarian who always firmly upheld the principle that consenting adults should be free to choose for themselves what material they do or don't read and look at, I find this particular form of censorship - and that's basically what it is - particularly abhorrent.

Throughout the history of libraries, there's always been a tradition that access to free speech is an important right to be safeguarded against attempts by "the authorities" to censor and block it. It's rather sad, I think, that in the 21st century the very technology which should make it easier than ever before to promote the free exchange of ideas is now being used instead to stifle it.