Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A White Knight in the South East

Whilst waiting for my roleplay to start today, I was watching a screen with rolling news on it.

Most of it was, of course, about the strike of public sector workers today.

Justin case you don't know about this, basically what happened was, the banks bankrupted themselves and lost so much money that poor impoverished Fred Goodwin of the Royal Bank of Scotland only got a bonus of about a grand a day, the poor poppet. (You may hear him referred to as Sir Fred Goodwin but when I'm in charge he won't be so I am unsirring him now, to save time.)

Anyway, the Government decided that the only way to get this money back was to nick it from the public workers' pensions, so that they will have to work more years before they retire and get less dosh at the end of it.

And the workers didn't like this - and who could blame them? - so they went on strike.

There was extensive reporting about it on the screen as I waited to work with some (excellent) radiography and audiology students.

But because the screen has its volume turned down, it had that automatic subtitles thingy turned on so that everything that was said appeared on the screen. When one person spoke, it was in white - - when another replied, it was in orange. That kind of thing.

But unfortunately, the subtitling couldn't really keep up with what was on the screen and it kept entertaining me by getting things very wrong.

"The most widespread strike for regeneration" it kept telling me. Great idea! That sounds like the kind of thing this country needs! Regeneration!

Except that what it meant was "The most widespread strike for a generation".

The inaccurate subtitling renders everything that was said slightly disjointed, and a tad comical. And when we saw Prime Minister David Cameron talking in Parliament, it came out as complete rubbish.

Oh - - wait - - -

Anyway it made me think of a suggestion I read that whenever any kind of ridiculous slanging-match is going on in Parliament it should have the comedian Benny Hill's "chase" theme played over it.

Finally we moved on from Parliament, and it looked as though finally, Britain's saviour had arrived.

"There will be a White Knight in the South East" said the announcer.

Hurrah! I pictured the White Knight on his magnificent horse, galloping along, waving his sword to rescue us from Fred Goodwin and the wunch of bankers.

Then I realised with a sinking heart that this was not the case. The television had simply moved on to the weather forecast, and was promising us some blustery and rainy weather after sunset - - a wild night in the South East. Damn.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Three Days in the Far East

I've been in Hull for three days, working. It was fascinating.

We still have all the letters which my Grandpa sent to my Grandma from the Front during the First World War.

These two statements may seem entirely unconnected but they have one thing in common and it's a lack of information.

Because of censorship, nothing of any interest or importance could be put in to Grandpa's letters.

Without censorship, he could have written,"I am a machine-gunner on the Front at a time when the average life of such machine-gunners is about fifteen minutes. We are living in trenches full of mud and many of my fellow soldiers have died this week following a German bombardment."

As it was, his letters are full of "It's been quite a busy few days".

Now then, the only thing - - yes, of course the only thing - that this blog post has in common with Grandpa's letters is that I cannot tell you a thing about what I was doing. I was staying in a very pleasant hotel with lovely food and - joy of joys! - a swimming pool - and working with some really interesting people.

And that's all I can say about the work. However, it was a real delight to be able to swim before breakfast every morning.

Sometimes the best stories are the ones which can't be told.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Knitting in Nineteen Thirty

"I was six years old, and so was everyone else," said Amy, who is now eighty-seven, "and Mrs Scott was very Victorian and had no rapport at all with young children. Mind you, teachers didn't have to have in those days."

All the class had all been shown how to cast on a row of twelve stitches, and then how to knit the next row in plain knitting. In, over, through, off. In, over, through off.

When Miss Scott thought they had all grasped this she told them to carry on with it, and to come to her if there were any problems.

Well, it's a tricky thing, knitting, when you're six and so of course there were problems. Pretty soon a long snaking line of infants stood waiting by the teacher's desk, all with dropped stitches, lost stitches, lost needles, tangled wool and any combination of all of those.

Amy was determined not to have to join this boring line. She started knitting and muttering it to herself. "In, over, through" - - and at this point she paused. She wasn't sure about the "off" bit. Surely if you dropped the stitch off the needle - - well that would be a dropped stitch, wouldn't it? And that was what half the trouble at the long line at the front was all about. Dropped stitches. She heard Miss Scott muttering about them all the time.

So she decided to omit the "off" bit of the process. "In, over, through - - In, over, through - - "

But if you miss out the "off" bit then what you're doing is doubling the number of stitches on your needle. To Amy's surprise, pretty soon there were twenty-four stitches and not long after that there were forty-eight. When she got to the next row and heading for ninety-six, she ran out of room to squash them all on the needle.

It was a bit like that old story where the peasant has won some kind of ancient lottery and the Emperor of China (or some such: I am not sticking very closely to the letter of this story) tells him he can have whatever he wants as a prize. And he asks for one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, double that on the second - - double that on the third - - and by the time the peasant has done a few rows on the chessboard all the rice in China belongs to him.

And so it was with Amy's stitches, which were multiplying at a most alarming rate. With a heavy sigh, she joined the ever-increasing line at the front of the classroom.

Miss Scott was not pleased with Amy's ninety-six stitches. She removed eighty-four of them and all the knitting that Amy had done so far, and instructed Amy to start again. Amy was to knit her twelve stitches, remembering the "off" bit, until she had three inches of knitting, measured against a ruler, and then she was to return to the teacher.

Amy was not pleased with this outcome. As far as she was concerned, she had made a lot of effort to avoid dropped stitches, and it had all been thrown back in her face. Three inches was a lot of knitting, and it was distinctly dull to do. Though, in nineteen thirty, school was not expected to be interesting, of course.

After an eternity of "In, over, through, OFF, In, over, through, OFF" Amy's knitting measured about an inch and a half. It was then that she made an interesting discovery.

If you got your inch and a half of knitting, and pulled it enough, it would measure three inches. Hurrah! Triumphantly, she joined the queue.

Sadly, by the time she had progressed to the front of the interminable line, her knitting had shrunk back to its original inch and a half, and Miss Scott was most unimpressed with it. Amy was sent back to her desk to complete her task, which, grudgingly, she did.

After the three inch hurdle was reached, they were shown how to cast off stitches a couple at a time in each row to bring it to a point. The direction they were heading in was to knit several of these woolly oblongs-with-a-pointy-end and then they were to sew them all together to make slippers for their little brothers or sisters.

It was, of course, eighty-one years ago and so Amy can't quite remember if the slippers were ever completed.

Of course, the result of this story should be that Amy was so traumatised by this early experience of knitting that she never picked up knitting needles ever again.

However, that is not the case. What Miss Scott never realised is that Amy was one of the most talented infants ever to cast on a stitch. Amy grew up to paint, sculpt, embroider, sew - and knit anything at all with consummate skill. Woodwork and bricklaying are not beyond her, either - - or most other crafts requiring a clever pair of hands and an artist's eye. I once saw her make a dress by throwing the material on the floor, looking at it for a bit, and then cutting a perfect fit with no use of a pattern at all.

And my favourite childhood jumper was originally made by Amy for her daughter Lynda, and when she grew out of it it was worn by her son Frank, and when he grew out of it I became its proud owner and wore it until I could squeeze into it no longer.

Ah! Miss Scott, if only you'd known all this. How surprised you would have been.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunrise on the Coast Road

I'm back from a lovely weekend in Barrow-in-Furness, which included a visit to Coniston.

I was taking my mother to Barrow: she's staying with Amy, wonderful Amy, her great friend since their schooldays, for the week. I wanted them to have a lovely time and they did seem to: here they are on a boat on Coniston Water: my mother's on the left.

They are both eighty-seven: my mother is just three days older than Amy.

I decided to travel back early this morning instead of last night, so we could have a full day out yesterday. I did need to be back to work in the agency's office this morning and to work with some first year medical students this afternoon.

So I got up at six and decided to travel the slightly longer way to Ulverston, along the Coast Road, as I was hoping for some early-morning light over the sea.

I could see the sea in the distance with just a slight glow of red above it as I left Amy's house and I hoped that I would get there in time.

As I neared the sea, I was listening to the traffic news on the radio about elsewhere in Britain - - traffic jams - - gridlock - - but where I was, near Roa Island, I was the only car on the road. And then I reached the sea: the tide was out and I saw this:

The colours were stunning. The round things in the foreground are tufts of grass, which is gradually invading the shoreline.

So I just stood and watched whilst the colours gradually changed:

the reds turned to pinks:

and purples and lilacs

It was a beautiful drive back to Leeds through the Furness Peninsula and the Yorkshire Dales. Some things make it well worth getting up early.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I started to watch the latest in Derren Brown's Experiments series. He had set up a fake conference in a country-house hotel with the aim of convincing a perfectly innocent man that he had committed a murder, and getting him to confess to it - - just to see whether this could, indeed, be done.

I could only watch the first five minutes. Early on, they were going to plant feelings of guilt in him by persuading him to think that he had really, really annoyed someone he admired.

And that was it: I could watch no more. I usually find this kind of thing interesting but I just could not bear the idea of this poor man thinking he'd done something to upset someone he admired.

It's one of my big worries. I think that someone I love or admire or both will suddenly be furious with me for no reason that I can think of: I simply won't understand what I am supposed to have done, and will be given no chance to explain, and they will be furious with me for ever and ever.

Has this ever happened to me? Well, no, not that I can think of. But it's such an ongoing, deep-seated fear and I can't quite put my finger on why. Just a nameless, stomach-churning guilt that I have DONE SOMETHING TERRIBLE.

If I'd been the chap in that house, I'm sure I would have confessed to the murder very easily. It wouldn't take much to persuade me it was me wot dunnit. I am constantly awash with guilt.

And yet I'm not sure why. I know such feelings are often rooted in the dim and distant past. Looking back into my childhood, did I do anything that I'm terribly ashamed of?

When I was ten - and I feel so bad about this story still that I can hardly bring myself to mention it - I loved having pets and had as many as my parents would let me have. I did always look after them myself but when I was ten I asked if I could have some mice, and they said no. They thought I had enough animals what with the dog and the tortoise and the tank of fish and the tadpoles that I was rearing and the two terrapins.

A friend of mine gave me two mice. I kept them in my den in the garage, in secret, for some weeks, until I could bear the secrecy no more and confessed.

That was the worst thing I did as a child. Any of the more usual things that children do that are naughty - - well, I never did them. I was a Good Girl.

What does annoy me slightly is that nobody seemed to notice. It was just expected of me. I was the eldest child and they had nothing to compare me with. Okay, sometimes - probably often - I said "Just let me finish this chapter" when asked to come and do some household task - - but that was it.

The only possible thing that I can remember as a cause of my guilt dates from soon after we'd moved into this house. My Grandma, who lived with us, must have thought I was being too demanding - I'm not sure what I was doing, because I was only three - and, being a Victorian, she told me that if I continued to behave in this way, I would wear my mother out and she would disappear.

Nightmares of my mother disappearing in a small explosion woke me for some time after that, and can't have been very enjoyable for my parents to deal with, so Grandma's story was really somewhat counterproductive.

When we got to be teenagers, others did drink and loud music and backchat and rebellion.

What did I do? My homework, that was what. The school I was at was all very "I got eighty-nine per cent, what did you get?" and I just worked like crazy to make sure I was up there. To me, failing an exam would have been like the end of the world and I was going to make sure I never did.

In a reversal of the usual teenage issues, I remember my mother constantly telling me to stop doing my homework (they did give us lots of it!) and go to bed. One of my favourite programmes was Star Trek - the Sixties version with Captain Kirk and Spock of course - and I have only to hear the theme music in order to feel guilty - - because I would watch it and put off doing my homework until after I'd seen it.

I tell myself that I work hard and that I shouldn't have to work hard all the time - - and yet, even now, if I'm in front of the television and not simultaneously doing a pile of ironing I feel vague stirrings of guilt. As for my guilt about my mother and how much more I could do to improve her life - - ohhhh - don't get me started, you really don't want to know.

Perhaps I did something very, very wrong in a previous life. Or perhaps it was in this one, and I just haven't worked out what it was yet.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Time Without Internet

As many of you will know, I work for an actors' agency and it's based in our house.

Our telephone lines are therefore pretty crucial to us. The agency has two phone lines: one known as The Little Phone, because - - well - - because the phone on that line's always been known as The Little Phone, okay? And it's - well - smaller than the other phone. Guess what the other phone is known as? Yes, the Big Phone, which has a fax attached. Yes, I know! A fax! Ancient history!

"Could you sent me a fax confirming that?" asked a casting director recently.
"No," replied one of our actors, "because we are no longer living in the 1980s."

The Little Phone is for the actors to ring the agency, and the Big Phone is for such people as casting directors: so we want it to be kept clear for auditions coming in and suchlike.

Towards the end of last week, the Big Phone went a bit crackly and then on Monday, when people rang it, it made a sad little beep and refused to say more.

As you may imagine, even though a lot more is being done by email (yes, email! Not faxes!) these days, the Big Phone is still crucial. In a cunning bid to find out if the problem was with the phone or with the line, Stephen swapped the phones over so the Little Phone was now on the Big Phone's line and vice versa. Then we rang the Little Phone, which was now pretending to be the Big Phone, from the Big Phone, which was now pretending to be the Little Phone - - and it didn't ring.

So we now knew that the problem was with the line, not the phone, so we rang the telecoms company, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, and asked them to come and sort it out.

Telecoms Company sent what appeared to be a PFY. In the company that Stephen used to work for, this term was used as a job description and stands for Pimply-Faced Youth.

He was perfectly pleasant, though slightly prone to telling himself everything that he was doing. "I'm following the wires back now" - - that kind of thing. Sometimes he told me things too, and one of the things he told me was "The internet might go off for a little while."

"Okay," I said in a very small voice whilst quelling rising panic and thinking "NO! DON'T TAKE MY INTERNET AWAY, I BEG YOU!"

And, suddenly, there it was, gone. NO INTERNET!

I kept calm. You'd have been proud of me. I stopped working my way through the ever-full office inbox and turned my attentions to typing up the minutes of the last meeting, whilst PFY told himself, and me, about lots of other things he was doing. "I'm removing the box. I'm putting the master socket in the cellar, instead of up here". That kind of thing. To tell the truth, I don't find this kind of conversation fascinating, but I did think that I should perhaps be listening to it.

Finally, he said "That's it, I've done."

"But - - but - - " I said in tones of suppressed horror "there is still no internet."

"Ah well, I think it just needs to be reset," he said - - and as he said it, his phone rang.

Since he was standing next to me, I couldn't really help but overhear the conversation.

"So your waters have broken? How often are the contractions coming? What does the hospital say? - - Okay, I'll come straight home."

He didn't look old enough to have a girlfriend, let alone a baby, but I thought that now was not the moment to point this out.

He explained that it was their first baby, and that she had two children already, and that his parents weren't sure about it all because he was only twenty-two, but that he'd better go now and get to the hospital quickly, as her labours never lasted very long, apparently.

I wanted to say "What about my internet? I HAVE NO INTERNET! Can't she just give birth in the living-room or something whilst you make it work again?"

But instead I said "Don't forget this box with the meter in it."

He remembered the box with the meter in it and off he rushed. When I looked under the desk, I discovered that he had forgotten his toolbox.

Stephen came home from work. "NO INTERNET!" I wailed.

Stephen knows better than to ignore such wailings. They only get louder, and more frequent.

He went and looked in the cellar.

"The internet has been wired in to an old wire and the new wires have gone, so it's impossible to restore the connection" he said, quietly but with great displeasure.

He rang Telecoms Company. They would come back this afternoon. And they did. I was teaching a group of third-year medical students at the time (that's my other job, if you are now confused) and checked my phone in the break, and a little envelope had appeared to show I had email, and my happiness was complete.


I'd like to say that it opened up a whole new world to me and I rediscovered the pleasures of life without the internet but that is simply not the case, okay? If it had been a warm summer evening - - maybe. But in November a woman needs her internet and that's all there is to it.

No, I revisited Life in the Olden Days and it wasn't fun. No wonder they all died.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Slow Train

Silverback, currently in Florida, saw an armadillo today and wrote about it, very entertainingly as usual, on his blog.

Well, this of course got me thinking of all the songs I know about armadillos. Which is a total of one. In fact, it is probably the only song ever written about an armadillo ever.

It is by the wonderful Flanders and Swann, that glorious comic double-act of the 1960s, and the plot centres around an armadillo which falls in love with an armour-plated tank on Salisbury Plain. It's all rather sad. The armadillo sings a love song to the tank, which sadly fails to respond.

"I left him to his singing, cycled home without a pause. Never tell a man the truth about the one that he adores."

I tried to find this on Youtube but it's not one of their more famous songs and sadly isn't there: at least not in their original version.

But - - ohhhh - - you know what it's like on Youtube. I found one of my very favourites of their songs which is delightful and also very typically British.

It's The Slow Train. All the places mentioned in it were real stations, sadly axed in the 1960s by Dr Richard Beeching, in an attempt to make the railways more profitable. It was a source of huge regret in Britain and to those old enough to remember, it still is.

I love this song.

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Monday, November 07, 2011

From Tough Teenagers to Student Doctors

I had a big class of medical students today - there were fourteen of them.

Yes, I know, huge! Most times, I am working very intensively with groups of four or five.

Anyone who's ever taught in a school is now thinking "WHAT? Only fourteen! Lucky woman!"

Yes, indeed. For I too used to teach in schools.

I started teaching at a hellhole of a secondary school in Newport, Gwent, South Wales. The school was a split-site school. The two sites were half a mile apart across the town centre. If - as frequently happened - I was teaching in one site before break, and the other site after break, I would spend break running as fast as possible across the centre, scattering bemused shoppers all around me, to get to my classroom for the next session before the little darlings wrecked the room.

My drama class was held in a wide piece of corridor outside the Head Teacher's room My brief for drama teaching was "Don't let them make any noise, or it will disturb the Head". A few years later, with a bit more confidence, and I would have replied to this with something much less than polite. But as I was young and keen and green, I did a year of mime in my drama lessons.

Then I taught in a school near Wakefield which was - er - going through a difficult time. Here the problem was staff politics - - basically, everyone hated the Head, because he was a very, very, very bad Head. It's quite hard to sack a Head. A specialist school-sorter-outer was sent to the school for six months to try to help the Head to sort out the problems. He lasted two days. "The conflict between the Head and the senior staff cannot be solved." It didn't make for a happy working atmosphere.

Then I taught in a school in one of Leeds' most deprived areas, for several years. Although I was technically there as a supply teacher - to fill in when teachers are absent - and was booked a day at a time, in fact I was generally there every day. The teenagers I taught were poorly fed, pasty faced, and had more important things on their minds than anything we were trying to teach them. "Sorry I'm late, Miss, but my Dad was arrested last night and I've just come from the police station."

It was tough. Sometimes very tough. Because I was on supply, I tended to get the classes that nobody else wanted.

Step One: Get all the class into the classroom, without them noticing that this is what you are doing.

Step Two: Get them all sitting down. A triumph!

Step Three: Get them all to stop hurling insults at each other, and also get their attention by trying to be both really interesting and preferably funny, too.

Step Four: Teach them something. And it must have a spin on it that makes it meaningful for them, or they simply won't listen.

There are advantages to teaching teenagers like these.

Firstly, anything you can do for them - or teach them - is a plus, as their lives are full of a lot of empty shouting and often violence, too, and not much else.

Secondly, it can be very rewarding on those occasions when they actually see the value of what you're teaching. Amazing.

Thirdly, when someone who learns very slowly finally grasps something, it can be a delight.

Fourthly, when you know that they have given you a grudging respect and you know that they wouldn't smash the room up even if you left them for ten whole minutes, it can be positively thrilling.

There are, however, lots of disadvantages. Mostly along the lines of it being very, very, very stressful and requiring you to be totally on the alert every minute - - eyes in the back of your head, all right! You need to know when they're about to kick off, a whole minute before they know it, so you can distract them.

I learned a lot from them, much of it about the unfairness and horrors of some people's lives, and the resilience and bravery of the ones who rose above it.

So - - now I'm teaching medical students.

Here the advantages are many. They come in much smaller groups. They are polite. They wouldn't smash the room up even if you left them for a whole hour. They are witty and they make me laugh: and what's more they have the good sense to laugh when I am trying to be funny. They are very, very quick to learn and if they see the importance of something they can learn it, absorb it and instantly use it.

I am learning a lot from them, too, about all sorts of things.

Sometimes I hear others who do a similar job to me complaining about the students. You won't hear me complaining. It's bliss. I am enjoying every moment.

As for teachers who teach in schools - they have my utmost respect and admiration. I did it then, and I'm glad I did: it was never dull, and I learned a lot.

I'd like to think that I could still give a class That Look that would quieten them immediately.

And I'm very glad that I no longer have to.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Mushy Facebook Statuses

I'm not one of these people who goes on and on and on about how they don't see the point of Facebook or Twitter. I am on both and like both and look at both a lot. I think they're fun and I also like the way I can now keep in touch with far-flung relatives very easily - and I DO.

I don't like the games that appear on Facebook, such as Farmville etc - but that's probably because I'm just not very into games. For those who like that kind of thing (as Jean Brodie said) that is the kind of thing that they like, and that's fine - it's just not for me.

What I don't like are what I would describe as Mushy Facebook Statuses. They go something like this:

If you think that the world should be a better place, and that poverty should be done away with, and that nobody should ever be ill, and that everyone should be really happy all the time, post this as your status for one hour to show your solidarity with everyone else who's fallen for this meaningless crap.

(Except it doesn't usually say the last bit.)

I hate it! If you want to go and do some good in the world, then kindly go and DO it. Don't just put empty guff on Facebook about it. Pah!