Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Poppy I

Dressed in an egg-white vest

And a tiny pair of speckled leggings,

She was dressed as had become

Customary.  Still sprawling, underdone.


The skylight seared, acid blue

With bloated balloons, no breeze;

So tired.  Last night's support, so

Teary, bleary, blurry-eyed.


She resumed.  Presumably

Displeased; we'd never know why.

I leant over, cracked, reached, grasped

Drew her to me, tried to soothe.


Through splintered lips and gravel

Throat but, holding her at arms

Reach, felt a new steel, which

Shook me, I paused, sat down.


Within the usual jelly,

Was a strength, new today, that

Told of future days biking,

And cheering from the touchline.


Of carrying on my shoulders,

Of running down too-steep hills,

With shouts of 'careful' ignored',

Of first days at school, of life.


I held her close, enveloped this

Burgeoning being, protected this

Brittle crysalis, cleansed by the clarity

Of what the years would say.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Grandfather

I only caught the final episode.

Only really paying attention half way through,

I loved it; was desperate when it stopped

And often, now, wonder how the plot had

Developed before I tuned in, how its

Twists and turns had meandered broadly,

How faithful those final moments really were

Compared to the whole. I can never know;

But I cling to what I’d seen, a child missing part of himself.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Queensferry

It’s exactly the right colour. It’s strange how a mud

Red works so well on the scale of titans and giants.

Placed against the blossoming monochrome flood

Of a Scotch June sky it hums softy to itself whilst

Wild shouts of wind encircle it, meaning no good,

Remembering with relish how it had laid low

A predecessor; but not here, where the mud

Red stalks are planted surely, reaching deep.



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Becoming a HoD, Part 2

I've been in the job now for eight working days, and in terms of energy and the heavy weight of my eyelids, it feels more like eight weeks.  The good news is that in terms of motivation and eagerness, I'm still pretty bright and bouncy, like a mad puppy.  It's odd that the ability to make decisions and simply make things happen does this to a person, but explains where dictators get their boundless joie de vivre from, I suppose.  I am working constantly in school from 7.30am until around 4.30, and thanks to the endless multitude of different tasks, I am always able to re-energise myself with a new or more interesting job.  I must stress here, however, that for me looking at levels of progress on a spreadsheet is a genuinely interesting job.  And fun too, once you break out the conditional formatting.  It's like being allowed to use crayola when in a restaurant as a child, carefully colouring in the line drawing of a circus that the place kindly proferred on entry.  I can't get enough of it.  Someone pass me the Burnt Sienna.

So I'm maintaining a spookily high level of motivation, which is good.  But I'm also focusing even more on my lessons.  I had heard from many corners that one of the first things to suffer when you shuffle into middle management is the teaching itself.  Happily, so, far, this is yet to happen; I'm treating every lesson like a particularly vital observation.  This is bound to be down to my high levels of motivation and the strange new confidence that promotion brings.  I aim to keep it this way, but we all know an ill-timed cold or bout of insomnia can play havoc with our best teaching intentions, so I will have to see how it goes.  There is also the matter of 'setting a good example' which is now a major factor.  The reality of being a classroom teacher is that you never feel responsible for the practice of your colleagues.  As Head of Department, you suddenly are.  It is imperative to practice what you preach, and so you become even more aware of what you are doing than ever before.  I think it'd be fair to say that this week has seen some of my best ever teaching.  How exciting.

In terms of the 'other stuff' - things to keep the department running - my primary realisation is how much there is to do, and how disparate it can all feel.  One thing I'm having to do, against my character really, is be more outgoing and positive with my colleagues.  My natural habitat, or indeed my cage were I ever to find myself incarcerated in some human zoo, would be a dank cave packed with electronic gizmos and Lego.  It certainly wouldn't contain other people.  So I find myself hoisted bodily from my comfort zone, going around the department chatting away and being as 'motivational' and 'nice' as I can muster.  Joking aside, it has been very pleasant, and I have a good role model to look up to - our Head of Maths has got this aspect of his role nailed, and is incredibly good at making his department exude positivity and optimism.  Their results are supernaturally good, and I think a good portion of this success stems from this - thus, as desperately odd it must seem to anyone who knows me, I must follow in his footsteps.

More about the admin side of things next time.  Right now, I've got to get some forms filled in.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Becoming a HoD Part 1

In five days time I will be at work as Head of English for the very first time.  At results day I could still hide a little, safe in the knowledge that at that point, I was barely more than a cabin boy with some weird primary transition duties and a wee snifter of KS3 to look after.  However, come the beginning of the new school year, I have nowhere to hide.

This is an interesting position to be in, as I've never been in charge of much more than an EPQ before now.  As such, I expect this year to be jam-packed with trials and problems and issues and disasters and, with a fair wind, some successes too.  I have worked with some inspirational and excellent HoDs in my 7-year career, and would be ecstatic if I could measure up to them in any way.  I have also met some quite difficult leaders, and I hope that I may well have learnt from the experience.  Whatever happens, it will all be new and I will be under a great deal of pressure, so I think this could be the start of a healthy and possibly therapeutic series of blog-posts outlining my time as a proto-HoD, and the many adventures I have along the way.

I will attempt to blog weekly, as far as I can manage, but for now I shall content myself with outlining the focuses I have given myself for the first week, so we can track how they go over time.

1. Teach my lessons.

2. Get through the first day without forgetting I'm meant to be in charge of proceedings with my dept and waiting for someone else to start the meeting;

3. Finish the organisation for the year, including dates for CW, exams, moderation, meetings, reports and all the usual bumf;

4. Get my poor head around the intricacies of Performance Management and CPD;

5. Set my stall out re: expectations of behaviour, effort and progress;

6. Make my first major target for the dept clear: to be a 'famous' department that the students chat and yammer about, because interesting and chat-worthy things are happening there;

7. Have a chat with the new headteacher and see what he can offer English;

8. Sleep well;

9. Look after our two new starters in the dept, and make sure they know what's going on and how to get on well.

10. Minimise sobbing to around 5 minutes per day.

We shall see how it goes.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 2

Now I had managed to communicate with the primary schools and agree to work with them, what did I actually do?

As I have already said, the main reason my job existed was to push our school and make it a more attractive proposition for Year 7.  I may have managed to soften this objective for my own sense of well-being into one that was primarily about helping students, but I still had to deliver for the powers-that-be.  This meant that any time working with Year 6 was essentially time wasted, as they had already made their minds up.  Far better to work with Years 4 and 5, as the decision was still pending for them, and therefore there was plenty of opportunity to get them to consider our little school.  The trouble was, the primaries were very keen indeed for me to work with their Year 6s - the looming SATs were clearly on their minds, and my offer of helping with 'reading and writing' was very attractive.  For the first two terms of this outreach (Christmas and January terms), Year 6 was all I was offered.

Aware that it was unhelpful to my main objective, I took the work anyway.  I reasoned that many of the students I was going to work with were to end up at my school anyway, so it would aid transition (especially useful now I am Head of English, so quite a useful 'familiar face' for them to have - though I didn't know this at the time).  It was probably going to help raise my profile within the schools too - allowing me to work with the Year 4 and 5 students later on in the year.  So I planned some a detailed writing unit for these Year 6 classes.  I had them once a week, for around an hour, for a whole term.  This meant I needed seven full lessons that really engaged them with writing (the skill their teachers had identified as being weaker).  I created a unit based loosely on The Demon Headmaster and Boy, by Roald Dahl: the concept was a short story, with character development and clear structuring, about a new headteacher who turned out to be 'odd' in some way.  Each week focused on a different skill, utilising 'slow writing' techniques a great deal: cohesion one week, detail and imagery the next, punctuation a third and so on, until the students were ready to create their delightful little tales.  With a clutch of level 5 and 6 workunder their belts, the students were happy to have made progress, and the primaries were more willing to let me work with students from further down the school.

I did some reading work, again based on Boy, with some Year 5s, focusing on the skill of inference and evidence gathering.  Year 4 students worked with me on a writing topic based on the Titanic, focused on finding the 'joy' in writing and developing vocabulary and simile creation.  Some Year 3 students, and goodness me they were tiny and quite frightening at times (they are so very different even to Year 7s), worked on a speaking and listening topic, again based on the Titanic (stick with what you know, that's my motto!) where they created really quite startlingly professional TV news reports on the sinking.  Jabberwocky was a focus for another group of Year 5s, where we worked on creating meaning through language, ensuring every word counted.  All of these units were around one hour a week for about a term, and I think in total I must have worked with over one hundred students from around the town.

However, there was a problem.  I was able to collect work, mark it and share it with them, but I had no idea about progress over time.  It was difficult to liaise with their class teachers, so by the end of the year I was aware that I had no idea - really no idea at all - whether I had had a positive impact on their progress.  It dawns on me that this is likely the biggest downfall to the programme.  As a teacher who is very much led by marking and then developing work, this was hard to handle; in the end I had to content myself with the fact that I was very unlikely to be doing educational harm to these students, and to liaise with the primaries over their SATs results whenever I could.  As these things should always end with an evaluative note, checking progress would be an area of development for the next time I make it to the primaries.

So, my year was over.  I had managed to get myself promoted to Head of Department by May, so it is clear to me that I will be spending far less time in the primary schools in 2014-15.  Cross-phase standardisation, moderation and joint planning had taken baby steps, but were by no means fully implemented, and I had worked with more Year 6s than I'd wanted to.  On the other hand, the units of work had been enthusiastically received, and communication routes had been set up between the schools, and we saw a raise of around 25 students entering for Year 7, so all in all, it wasn't a bad year.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 1

Back in May 2013, I was given a promotion.  It was a Second in Department job of sorts, having responsibility for KS3 curriculum and assessment, and a 50% timetable.  This seems very generous, but I was expected to spend that time doing something else entirely - working with primary schools.

Schools try many different methods of communicating with their partner primary schools, and can spend a lot of money, or very little.  The importance of such work is generally accepted, though it is often hard to pin down exactly what benefits we are expecting to reap from transition efforts.  Often it's a simple case of attracting Year 4 and 5 students to our schools - advertising the quality of the place to the main consumers; sometimes it's a worthy desire to help the students cope with the terrifying change of scenery and routine; occasionally, and I whisper it, it can be through a need to tick the appropriate box.

Happily, in my case, the first two reasons were paramount.  We are a small school, struggling in a very competitive area with two other, much longer-established secondaries.  The work of the four Cross Phase Leaders (English, Maths, STEM and PE) was in many ways simple: attract more students to our school, to help keep it viable.  However, this is a desperately 'private sector' approach, and clashed with my woolly lefty personality of education being for the kids, so I had to smother this core concern in a more Pete-friendly smock of 'helping students'.  I reasoned we in the English department could learn a lot from our peers in the primaries, and could engage in very practical issues such as cross-phase moderation, standardisation and possibly even planning.  I also wanted to take my own particular brand of teaching down to the Year 4s and 5s, hopefully working with them on projects that they wouldn't normally get involved in.  In short, I was trying to achieve quite a lot.

Once September 2013 came along, the order of the day was networking.  It's astonishing how few contacts we had with the primary schools.  We could easily get in touch with the heads of our main 'feeder' schools, of course...but what about the other schools - the ones we were interested in, as they would enlarge our catchment?  By the end of the year I had made contact with, and worked with, about 70% of the town's primaries, but what a hell of a job this was.  The break-through came in the form of the town's primary Literacy meetings which take place three times a year.  These have a teacher from every primary, and they spend time discussing curriculum changes and SATS.  Once I had infiltrated this - actually inviting them to have their January meeting in our school library - the rest was easy.  I chaired the meeting, chatted to everyone, got their emails and that was that: easy access to every primary.  Having a key contact in every school is very useful - it may be their Literacy Co-ordinator, their deputy head, or a class teacher, but it doesn't matter.  What you need is an ally who will organise things at their end, spread the word and act as a point of contact whenever you want to work with the students at their school.

Before starting the job, we CPLs had been warned of the difficulty of communicating with primary colleagues.  We were told horror stories of teachers who never check emails, or who are actively hostile to any secondary teachers who dare to enter their domain.  I was expecting to meet endless walls of resistance, but what I found in reality were warm welcomes and eager requests for help.  Most of the primary colleagues were incredibly keen to let me work with their students on 'different' work.  Any extra input on reading or writing skills was instantly snapped up, to the point where it became difficult for me to juggle everything.  The 50% timetable began to look too heavy.  In truth, I was astonished at how willing primary teachers were to get me in front of their students; but then I considered - if someone was willing to drop in and teach my Year 10 class once a week, freeing me up, I'd jump at the chance too.

The horror stories had been over-elaborate and exaggerated.  The job of working with multiple primaries across town seemed to be a little more achievable.

Part 2 will be about what I actually did in the primaries.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A teacher and his ticks.

We teachers all love ticking work.  That green, unaccompanied tick on every page of an exercise book - a solemn nod to the Ofsted inspector that this work has been read by teacher, and that the student must, therefore, be making lovely rapid progress.

Ah, sarcasm.  Can't beat it.  But as a slightly foolish and over-excitable relative of irony, very relevant indeed.  For this week, the ticks were not a teacher's best friend at all; no, they made life a complete misery.

Exmoor is a beautiful, wild zone separating the Bristol Channel from the A361, a realm of heather-smirched rounded hills and terrifying steep descents into sleepy seaside towns.  It is famous for its scenery, its cider, its horrifying 1950s floods and its beautiful population of red deer, which have wandered the place since God-knows when.  These deer are content to bellow maniacally and smash each others' heads in, seemingly oblivious to the grim creatures that stud their exterior.  Deer, you see, are the Pearly Kings and Queens of Exmoor, studded with tiny, shiny humps of pearlescent white and marbled brown - often resembling the branch of Selfridges in Birmingham, so cloaked in blood-sucking ticks they are.  For these arachnid vampires are a very real presence anywhere that large mammals such as red deer, roe deer, dogs and people interact with each other through the medium of long grass: a lesson I have learned well this week.

Exmoor's coast, near Lynton.
A picture of a tick would just gross you out.
Pitching a tent by a river on a flattened plain of trampled long grass seemed a splendid idea at 6pm in the evening, after a long drive along apparently endless hills of 25% gradient and above.  Get the tent up, crack open a beer and sob by the camp fire - that was the plan.  And it worked.  The tent was up in no time, the beer was rivaling the stream at our feet in volume and swiftness of flow, and the exhausted sobbing of amateur campers could be heard in Tiverton.  In fact, the whole time there went reasonably well.  Maritime vistas were photographed and instantly spread by Facebook, steak was consumed in dusty old inns tucked under perilous cliffs and dogs were befriended and sat by the campfire like sentinals.  It wasn't until we had packed our tent and made our way home that we discovered we had stowaways, presumably picked up from the long grass that had become our carpet.

No red deer had been seen at all in the week, so ticks had been of little concern to us; our hubris would have made Macbeth tut and shake his head in worry.  For my part, I had never even seen a tick in the wild, and was of the opinion that ticks only ever happened to 'other people' - people who liked carrying maps in plastic envelopes around their necks and ate Kendal mint cake more than once a year.  They never happened to folk who drank lattes and drove a Fiesta.  Well, they did happen
.  Four separate ticks, all nuzzled in that peculiarly intimate way of theirs into just one individual.  Four tiny little beasts - spiders drawn by toddlers - all eagerly burrowing down to the artesian well of blood that lies beneath the skin.

Cue a brace of days frantically tumble-drying every single item of clothing taken on the trip, at a high heat, for twenty minutes.  Cue panicked research online into the order of symptoms and likeliness of death from Lyme Disease.  Cue endless - limitless and deathly boring - examinations of bare skin every time an itch was felt.  Believe me, the experience was so icky that itches were a constant, dull reminder of the body's ability to freak itself out unnecessarily.  Everything itched.  I'm fairly certain that for a short time, even my pockets were itching.

It's all over now, but I'm painfully aware that should another darling little critter rear its abdomen at any point in the next week, we'll have to go through the whole de-ticking process once more, at which point I will probably just give in to their whims and allow them to turn me into a walking nosebag.

I look forward to September, where I will once again be dishing out the ticks, rather than being a dish for them.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Minecraft - the whole span of human history in a week.

Minecraft is a game without an instruction manual.  You download it, and then you're plunged into a strange, vast new world, packed with pigs, sheep and spider-riding skeleton archers.  You have nothing to defend yourself with...you have nowhere to hide.  However, you don't know this yet.  All you know is that you can see loads of lovely, blocky trees, and perhaps a few brightly coloured flowers.  The cubes of earth beneath your feet undulate gently, forming hills and meadows.  The bright blue sky presides over a vibrant world.  You prance, quite content, through this place, taking in the strange vistas, noticing a desert in the distance perhaps.  The weather holds, and you gamely climb the nearest mountain and marvel at the view - a broad Savannah to the west, a thick jungle to the south, a vast ocean with a craggy shoreline to the north.  The sun continues to move overhead.  You see a cave in the craggy mountainsides, and explore it for a while, finding nothing more than a few black specks in the rock that look a little like coal.  Emerging from the cave, back into the sun, you realise that it is now evening.  Said sun hangs heavy in the sky, orange and raw, and the blank above is beginning to darken.  It will be night soon.  You begin to feel anxious.  All of your roaming around was lots of fun, but now it's nearly dark.  You've heard that the darkness in Minecraft is not your friend, and that monsters appear in the black of night. The sun continues to sink, digging into the horizon.  It hovers for a moment, and is then gone.  Darkness envelopes the landscape, and suddenly the inviting land around you seems alien and strange.  Odd noises emanate from the jungle.  Shapes are moving on the grey sands of the desert; you stand on your hill-side perch, and you panic.

The 'first night' in Minecraft is an experience that you will only ever have once.  Eventually, you become accustomed to the game, and any attempt to re-live that dreadfully scary time is undone by your experience.  But it shapes the player, and most Minecrafters will recall their first night with relish.  Mine was spent in a makeshift hovel made from wooden planks in the middle of swampland.  Luckily, I had figured out how to punch trees to gain log blocks quite quickly, and had crafted planks from the logs - I had just enough to build a 2x2x2 hut that enclosed me totally.  I had no torches, so no source of light.  I didn't manage to get the wool together for a bed for about another in-game week.  So I sat in my pathetic hut all night, listening to the moans of zombies as they swarmed around me, with only a thin wall of wood to protect me.  Being totally unencumbered by weapons or armour, I was the epitome of vulnerability.  If they'd somehow managed to gain entrance, I would've died a scary death.  I stayed in the hut for around 3-4 nights as I explored the area and gathered resources, and each night was the same - tedious yet strangely thrilling, like I was experiencing first hand the thrills of being the main character in I Am Legend.

But before long, you will have a secure, well-defended homestead out in the wilds, with farmland, storage space, domesticated animals and interior design.  That's the beauty of the game - you get better, and end up leading a comfortable and safe lifestyle.  You no longer fear the monsters of night, as you have a diamond sword and enchanted armour, so you focus on aesthetics and making your home a beautiful sight, adding wholly unnecessary turrets and flourishes, all to please your eye for architectural glory.  It is a microcosm of human experience, mirroring the birth of culture once the immediate dangers of starvation and being prey to toothy predators had been held at bay for good.  Your home towers, cathedral-like in its splendour.  The surrounding land is tamed and landscaped with great oaks and hedgerows.  You add stables, barns, outbuildings.  You expend once-valuable wool on trivial fripperies like picture frames and carpets, flags and portraits.  Your home is awash with colour and design.  Diamonds, once so vital, are now in strong supply as you expand your mining operations, so you create a throne built of blocks of the precious stones.

Soon, a huge stock of electronic redstone thrusts you into the industrial era.  Now application and efficiency are key.  You begin working on train networks, webs of railway lines threading between your quarries, mines and forests.  You begin to create large scale smelters, using the myriad tools available.  Now you can craft whole stacks of iron bars in moments, and those early days, spent desperately wandering caves searching for minute pockets of iron ore seem long, long ago.  You now have so much material that you no longer know what to do with it, so you make pointless diversions, crafted from various rare blocks, just for something to do.  You build a vast skyscraper out of iron blocks and populate it with furniture, just to get some kind of use out of the gigantic stockpiles of stuff you are now struggling to store.  Your cathedral home is disfigured by necessary extensions for all this rubbish, yet still you crave more, until you have utterly exhausted the world around you.  The trees, the flowers, even the mountain is now gone; they have been ground up, used to make other things.  You stand in a desert of your own making, and despair.

My Minecraft YouTube channel is here!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Vampire Slaying, fifteen years too late.

I've never seen a vampire in real life.  Apart from some questionable characters seen during various festivals at Whitby, my life has been vampire-free, and all the worse for it, it seems.  I've recently been getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you see.  The endless joys of Netflix have enabled me to scoot merrily through seasons 1-6, and it is being made increasingly clear by Joss Whedon's critically acclaimed show that vampires make your life a whole lot more exciting.

Anya's Hallowe'en suit - like Bishop
Len Brennan, she is terrified of rabbits.
I should have watched Buffy at the proper time, of course.  It first aired in 1998, when I was fourteen, sitting comfortably in its demographic; however, I somehow managed to miss out on its charms.  Being an American show at a time when  The Simpsons and Friends were still pretty esoteric and niche on this cold, huddled little island made it almost imperceptible to me.  I am vaguely aware that it was on BBC throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s, but I was busy with the grimy business of being a teenager and later a student.  I simply missed it.  But now, eager to make for lost time, I'm imbibing the contents of this macabre, funny and tightly plotted programme like a crazed man drinking Drambuie before Christmas is up.

It's tricky to define what makes Buffy such a good show.  I should confess that part of my joy is probably taken from my naive assumption that a show with a name as seemingly foolish as 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' must be awful.  How nice it is to have one's prejudices slashed like this - if only the same thing could happen to my view of Tories.  So, part of my enjoyment may stem from this astonishment.  However, the bulk of it is down to the character arcs.  In fact, they are more viaducts than arcs, given their complexity.  Buffy, for example, undertakes challenges and difficulties that shape, distort and bend her into one of the most complex characters I've seen in a TV show.  She dies at least twice (by Season 6 - I won't tell you how or why) and has family members come and go like Pop-Up Pirate.  She has a turbulent love life revolving around the undead themselves, and hates herself for it.  Her best friends are regularly put in mortal danger by her very existence.  She holds the fate of every living creature on Earth in her poor hands.  Watching her life billow and crease and occasionally fall apart is great fun.  The supporting cast have just as convoluted and myriad plotlines that weave and twirl around each other, creating a colourful, emotional and hilarious tapestry of death and despair.  The oxymorons mount up due to the very dichotomy at the heart of the show - it's a true horror-comedy.

So, a complex, involving show that makes you scream, cry and chortle in equal measures?  Yes; that's precisely what Buffy is.  A sample episode - the Emmy-winning 'Hush' from Season 4 - had me squirting hot tears of terror at regular intervals, thanks to the menacing yet oddly camp withered-headed villains that steal the voices of a population, leaving an episode almost devoid of dialogue (usually the show's strongest suit).  The characters resort to crude charades-style miming to convey the plot to each other, and to us.  Yet this is, of course, where the humour comes in - confusion, bewilderment and misunderstood gestures are always a grand source of amusement, after all.  So I dilly-dallied between fear and amusement like a man on a waltzers filled with twirling axes.


As for the archetypal Englishman, Rupert Giles... I cannot stress enough what a fine portrayal of a disconnected yet caring father figure this is.  Anthony Head gives a performance that even trumps his Nescafe adverts of the late 1980s (no mean feat, and you know it), and his departure is a harrowing moment that suggests that a vital safety net has been removed from underneath the Slayer, making her even more vulnerable.  I'm told he returns before the end, and I seriously hope he does, as watching the younger characters flounder and struggle to find answers without his wisdom and security is probably as stressful as actually trying to sort it all out yourself.

So, fifteen years late, I am discovering a show that has shocked me with its quality - a show that I am actually extremely sad to have missed the first time round.  I can only imagine how it would have impacted my impressionable little brain back then.  It even has an episode that is entirely in the form of a traditional musical...

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Titanic - stuff you should know.

RMS Titanic leaving Belfast (From Wikipedia)
As this is a subject dear to my heart, it saddens me when I peruse the concentration of nonsense around the ship and it's story.  Like most legendary events (especially terrible tragedies), it is a magnet for narrative flotsam and jetsam that has accumulated over the years, some of which so pervasive that they have become established as fact by many.  Whilst urban legends can be fascinating in their own right, I feel that an event like the sinking of the Titanic needs to be protected from a descent into this dubious genre.  Here's my tiny attempt to sort this out.  The following are five spurious stories that often find themselves shared by folk when discussing the great ship.

1. The Titanic's hull number was 390904.  It is a common tale that Catholic workers refused to work on the ship as its number was 'NO POPE' backwards (it is if you squint, a lot).  This is nonsense as the number has no connection with the ship whatsoever.  The hull number, set by Harland and Wolff, was 401.  Its sister ship, Olympic, was 400.  It's un utterly unpleasant story, fuelling the already lively and destructive flames of the sectarian problems in Northern Ireland.  It is an example of how tales can be generated from nothing, to help justify terrible acts, I suppose.

2. The Titanic was the longest ship on Earth when built.  Sadly not true.  At 882 and three-quarter feet long, it was identical in length to its sister, Olympic, which, since launch in 1910 had been the record holder.  It was not a hair longer, wider or taller than the Olympic.  What made it the 'largest' ship afloat was simply its arrangement of windows and rooms on A deck:  as part of the promenade that was fully open on Olympic was enclosed on Titanic, there was more use-able space, increasing its gross tonnage.  This is also an easy way to identify photos of the sisters - the Olympic has an entirely open A-deck, whereas Titanic's is closed forward of the third funnel or so.

3. The Titanic had the skeleton of a worker entombed within its double hull. Nonsense.  The same was said of the Great Eastern - that famous 'cursed ship' of Brunel's.  The fact is that no shipyard would be lackadaisical enough to allow such a thing.  8 workers were killed in construction - a remarkably low number, when you consider the size of the ship and the 3,000 working on its construction.  However, as a fan of ghost stories and the macabre, I can see some merit in this tall tale.  Nothing beats folklore about bricked up corpses, after all.

Ken Marshall's imagining of the wreck, observed by ALVIN
4. The Titanic held a cursed Egyptian mummy in its hold.  There is no real evidence of this in any of the surviving rosters or manifests of cargo, and firmly fits into the category of urban legend.  The mummy in question - a priestess of Amun-Ra - is still in the British Museum (it isn't, in fact, a mummy at all - just a coffin lid).  The initial 'cursed mummy' story is attributed to William Stead, a journalist with an eye for the macabre.  He went down with the ship in 1912, and so this is potentially how the two stories merged.  The manifest did include fresh feathers, two french automobiles and a prized, bejewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

5. The Titanic had been foreseen in several works of fiction in the 19th Century.  Strangely, this seems to be true, though claiming any supernatural foresight on the part of the writers is possibly a little premature.  But certainly the type of disaster that overtook the Titanic was explored in earlier works.  One, "How the Mail Steamer went down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor" by none other than William Stead, told the tale of an unnamed mail ship that went down with too few lifeboats aboard.  The similarities end there, though it is spooky to note that Stead always said he would die by either 'lynching or drowning'.  The other text - Futility, by Morgan Robertson, has many eerie parallels with the real ship.  Both were triple screw liners that struck icebergs in the North Atlantic, with the loss of between well over a thousand lives.

The fact is, the whole story of drawing-board to sea-bed is fascinating enough, without foolish embellishments such as most of these.

Monday, 28 October 2013

My thoughts on GTA Online

Good day to you all.  I've been playing a bit of the MMORPG-lite GTA Online recently, and have developed some strong and often startlingly unpleasant opinions on it.  Before I outline my violent hatred of the thing, though - a little back-story.

Around the time of GTA San Andreas (2004 - a kangaroo's lifetime ago) I spent hours daydreaming about the possibility of a proper multiplayer version of GTA.  This heady vision centred around the prospect of trying to evade a friend flying a fighter jet after me: what would I dao? What would my strategy be?  This entertained a brain otherwise fruitlessly engaged in reading Modernist literature and trying to formulate cogent arguments about the symbolism of umbrellas in A Room of One's Own.  The possibilities of a fully multiplayer map with vehicles, weapons and more seemed too good to be true.  And so it remained, for nearly ten years.  GTA IV had a game stab at multiplayer, but it was truly awful: a lazy, crusted turd of an experience, made good only thanks to the fact the single-player game was excellent.  It was this October (2013) that the dream finally came true.

And like any of my other dreams, it has essentially left me feeling frightened, miserable and totally confused.

You see, it's a terrible, frustrating and generally boring game that has still, somehow, managed to make me a total addict.  I am desperately trying to save the (fake) cash to buy the in-game equivalent of a Koenigsegg.  At $795,000, it's not cheap, even by fake-money standards; the fact that the average payout for a 'job' in-game is around $15,000 makes it a distant pipe dream, given the limited time I can invest. It's making me very unhappy.  But I feel I need to clarify to myself, and to others, what my grievances really are, so here goes...

1) Playing with other people is satisfying but hateful.

You see, it's great to have the challenge of playing real humans, with their initiative, experience, skills and unpredictability.  It's a real joy, and it's this that powers the online gaming world.  However, not only can you enjoy these positive traits of humans; oh no, you also get to wallow in the wonderful world of people's mean side.  And my word, GTA Online really illustrates the dark side to humanity.  Being shot for no reason is desperately annoying in real life, and arguably even more so in a video game.  There you are, merrily trying on hats in a clothes shop called Binco, when a guy bursts in, seemingly bypassing the game's ban on wielding weaponry in the equivalent of a Primark, and shoots you in the hat with a shotgun.  This makes me sad.  But even worse is the irritating tendency for people to stop others progressing through the loading screens.  You see, thanks to the desperately misguided touch of forcing all players in a given lobby to vote whether they enjoyed the race, or which level they want to play next, you spend hours just waiting.  Waiting for some vile little craplet to press a button.  Losing one's living moments to some imagined smirking goon who simply refuses to press the 'Y' button is probably the most egregious experience I've ever had with a video game.  The willingness of people, protected by the anonymity of the internet, to ruin others' days is terrifying to behold.

2) Money is too hard to come by.

All anyone really wants is to make tons of money and buy a fast car and a big house.  Or at least enough money to be comfortable and able to buy a new jumper when you need one.  This is a human requirement.  So why does Rockstar insist on making the earning of money in GTA Online as difficult and onerous as it is in real life?  Video games are meant to be escapes from reality.  Sure, I'll never afford an Aston Martin DBS in the real world (I'm a teacher), so I sure as hell would like to be able to get one in a video game.  What I don't want is to feel just as mediocre and pathetic inside the simulation, anything-is-possible world of San Andreas as I do in the reality of Bristol (only joking, but I'm sure you get my point).  As someone with limited time, I'm forced to race in the equivalent of a Reliant Robin whilst a dozen 15 year olds who can spend their entire lives on the game drive Bugatti Veyrons.  If nothing else, this is massively skewing their expectations of their own earning power in their real lives.  The $500,000 we were all meant to receive by way of an apology from Rockstar from screwing up the launch of the game is nowhere to be seen, so my Swedish Supercar dreams will just have to wait.

3) The missions are too hard.

Anyone who's ever played a GTA game knows that your in-game character can more-or-less take a whole magazine of bullets before expiring.  It's part of the joy of the thing.  It makes you feel like T-1000 in a denim jacket.  It's wonderful.  In GTA Online, however, my character seems to have about the same tolerance of bullet wounds as I do - essentially zero.  Before anyone says, 'Ah, but it's just trying to be realistic', let me just stop you dead with one word - Tetris.  Tetris, Pong and all the rest are proof that people don't want realism in video games.  Nowhere in the real world do the physics of Tetris actually occur.  If they did, the building trade would be bankrupt through inexplicable loss of building materials.  We want realistic graphics, yes - I'll concede that.  But we do not want realistic health systems.  The fact that the computer-controlled characters are better shots than William Tell makes the situation all the more dispiriting.  I've been shot from two city-blocks away, whilst driving, by a man hanging out of the window of a speeding Landrover.  Awful.

4) There's not enough variety.

I'm sick of racing now.  I never even began liking the deathmatches.  Parachute jumps can just sod off.  But that's it - that's the variety of jobs in the game.  No heists (yet), no utilisation of the truly incredible landscape and city they've built, nothing.  I want to see more little sub-games and treats.  Perhaps a fishing mode, or a gym, or even some more playable arcade games?  An orienteering activity or treasure hunt would be nice, or even a scavenger hunt where you have to go about with mates finding and snapping hidden easter eggs?  I don't know, but they should - it's their game and they are clearly masters of game-creation.  They should flex their creative muscles and make GTA Online the treat I always wanted it to be.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

EPQ

As you may have guessed, I've been very busy.  Not just playing GTA V - not at all.  In fact I'm playing that far less than I'd like to, thanks to work commitments.

You see, I'm now Cross Phase Leader for English, which is a new post that more-or-less combines managing KS3 (minus those dastardly Year 9s) with some really intensive outreach to primaries.  I have four primary schools currently working with me on a variety of blossoming projects, from tuition for the Level 6 exams to creative writing workshops and Spelling Bees.  I am also the Centre Co-ordinator for EPQ and the English department's PGCE mentor.  So blogging has taken a bit of a backseat this last few weeks.

But now I'm in the swing of it I thought I'd come back, all guns blazing.  As I do a lot of crazy jobs this year, I think it would be only fair for me to share these with you, so I can bore the hell out of you and possibly even discuss best practice and what to do and just how the hell I can make these things work.  So here's my first thing - EPQ.

I love the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), and I have done since first acting as Centre Co-ordinator six years ago at my first school.  I've worked on it, as Co-ordinator and Supervisor every year since, and I'm currently doing a little of both roles.  I've seen it develop as a course; I've had terrible freak outs about not delivering enough taught time; I've had my marking lambasted and yet I still keep doing it (in fairness most of these issues have now been ironed out...).

You see, it's such an enlivening and exciting qualification to teach. It gives an unprecedented level of freedom to students just as they reach the age to really make the most of that, and the results can be awe inspiring.  I've read incredibly detailed and scientific analyses of various disorders and medical problems, seen wonderfully designed dresses and heard beautiful strains of music all created by Year 13 students who have been given the freedom to do something they love for a qualification.  But there is a serious side - the administration of looking after a thriving EPQ is hard work and often challenging, so I've put together a few top tips for anyone new to the thing:

Tip 1: Make sure you can account for the 30 hours of taught time.  AQA are very hot on this, and expect a clear outline, probably pasted into the relevant box of the log book, that gives a detailed description of exactly what they've been taught.  Failure to do this can lead to moderation and a slapped wrist at best.  Failure to deliver the taught element is even more dangerous.  Sure, your students may be able to reference effectively, but can they run the gamut of online research without falling foul of hearsay and subjectivity?  Unless they're history students, chances are their research skills would be limited.  As such, teaching explicitly how to research their topic; primary, secondary and tertiary sources; evaluation of material and even Google search terms is vital.  The presentation at the end of the course (more later) should also be explicitly taught, as should academic register.

Tip 2: Ensure you force the students to maintain and fill out their logbooks.  These diaries are incredibly important in the marking process, but also help guide the students through their project.  The temptation can be to leave them to it - it's their work after all - but it will save you a lot of horrid fuss later if you essentially force them to fill it in after every meeting.  The entries should be extremely detailed too, in order to allow the moderator to get more of a sense of the work they've put in.  Basically, they should make a note of everything they've done.  And for God's sake, sign and date it as you go along - don't end up in the position of having to post date everything using a variety of different pens for a veneer of authenticity...

Tip 3: Prepare them for their presentation.  Preparation for this comes in two guises.
1) Make sure they know that it will be happening in the future, and try to give them a rough date (week beginning, for example).  Inform them of the purpose of the presentation at the same time - it is a reflective and evaluative explanation of the project's process, not an explanation of what has been discovered.
2) Use the taught component time to teach them vital presenting skills, like creating workable PowerPoints, rhetorical techniques, coping strategies and practise. This will vastly improve the nature of their presentations, which should be almost degree-level in their professionalism and content.  There can be no temptation to think that the A* grade descriptors for Speaking and Listening in English are of any use.

Tip 4: Force them to focus their topic into a question that can be answered by a Yr 13 student in about five months.  They must word their title in such a way as to give them this opportunity.  'What causes cancer?' is far too broad and impossible to complete.  'What treatments are used in the fight against breast cancer, and what appears to be most effective?' is better and more workable. 'Can I make a guitar?' is cute, and sounds lovely, but isn't focused enough.  'Can structural and electrical elements of a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul be merged to create a successful and usable guitar?' is much more useful.  Of course, large swathes of this last title will need to be clarified in the write-up, but so long as this is done, there should be no problem.

So there we are, four tips that may or may not be useful to any EPQ people out there.  Now I'm off to cry over the amount of marking I have to do.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Things to do on Results Day

Hello.  It's that time of year again - the fortnight of horrible Thursdays.  Results day scares me a great deal.  It is partly the importance of the grades on the students: have they achieved what they have to achieve in order to progress through life happily and fulfilled? This weighs heavy on any teacher's mind this next two weeks, and yet is probably outstripped by the more selfish, yet arguably more important (to the teacher themselves) question of 'how do these results reflect my ability?'  Like it or not, the grades awarded to students after one or two years of teaching from you do reflect your teaching ability.  Yes yes, I understand the old adage about horses and drinking but still - ignoring your input on their grades is foolish and would lead to a logical conclusion of removing teachers altogether if gone the full distance.  We can bleat as much as we like about the little terrors ignoring us or not revising, but ultimately, your ability to teach and aid them learn has a huge, huge effect on their results.

So this is quite a lot of pressure.

I am terrified of letting the students down, you see.  It keeps me awake at night, sometimes - the very idea that I could have explained something more clearly, or used a more effective activity to practice a skill.  This is the torture of any professional left to their own devices - I'm sure doctors and lawyers recognise the feeling.  It's an integral part of reflective practice and is, therefore, ultimately a good thing.  However, it still remains a fact that the whole thing is horribly stressful.

So, here's my tips on what to do on results day 1 or 2 (you know what I mean):

1. Only go to one of them, unless you have responsibility in that area.  This is obvious - don't go through it twice if you don't need to.  I know this seems a little uncaring, or even unprofessional, but it isn't.  Your presence on results day is far from vital, especially if you only teach Year 12 - you'll see them in September.  Wait for the email and do your analysis in comfort at home, at your own pace.  This will give you the breathing space you need to work out how the students did and what comes next.

2. When you do go in, spend most of the time talking to the students.  This is the only worthwhile way to spend results day if you're in school.  Analysis and worrying can come later at home with a glass of wine.  If you trouble yourself to go into school, you're only really doing it to see the kids, so chat with them, advise them, console them if need be.  That's the way forward.

3. Be on holiday.  If you really can't cope with the stress in the midst of your mega-downtime, then wait until September before you engage with it at all.  Unless you're a HoD or higher, you can get away with this - do it if the alternative is losing your mind.  Being away (preferably abroad, away from the British media) is the perfect way of making it so you don't even know it's results day.  It's not cowardice - just self-preservation.

4. Do not read the papers on the day.  Don't even be tempted.  It'll only make you angry and belittle your years of hard work as they bleat about rising standards, as if they're a bad thing.  Honestly, it's as if all that money and expertise spent on improving education over the last 20 years was meant to yield no results at all, isn't it?  The logic of the papers (and the Daily Hate Mail in particular) is astonishing.

So there we are, four ways to help maintain your professional sanity today and next Thursday.  I do hope they help.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Reading Festival?

This started off as a pun on the name of a fairly damp and uninspiring town in the UK, known for its vast music festival every August.  Once I had noticed the potential hilarity behind this pun, nothing could stop me beavering away on this poster for a fairly embriotic Reading Festival in my school in the autumn term.

Now I have my title, and my poster, it's time to start thinking about what a reading festival would actually consist of.  A festival suggest chaotic life and many activities occurring simultaneously.  This can be hard to arrange in the strict environs of a secondary school.  However, I am now responsible for primary transition and recruitment in English, with close working links with several primaries, so I see potential there for something really quite large scale.

What would be the aim of a reading festival?  Well, primarily it has to be a celebration of books and the joys of reading and learning from fiction.  Every teacher knows the pitfalls here, and the sadness that encroaches on us when students fail to share our enthusiasm, so I must tread carefully.  Reading challenges and competitions are a staple of such affairs, and I will endeavour to include many of these crowd-pleasers.  Public readings are vital too - potentially from teachers in role, masquerading as Dickens, Shakespeare and Jane Austen.  This would lend a sense of Horrible-Histories excitement to proceedings.  Tutor time activities and lunchtime diversions are a must, for the whole week (or two days, depending on my energy levels), and some kind of grand finale is required.

I am going to sit and ponder ideas that will be added to this blogpost, but in the meantime, if you have a cool idea please let me know.  Similarly, if you've attempted anything similar and have stories to share, I'll be happy to add them to this blog!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Lego

I just bought a Lego set, the first one paid for by myself for many, many years (my parents, bless them, got me the VW Camper van a few Christmasses ago as a surprise).  It was the brand spanking new DeLorean-from-Back-to-the-Future set, and due to its pedigree, I simply couldn't resist it.
It not the finest representation of the vehicle in Lego form, I will admit that, but it is now mine, and an official Lego product.  And this is the thing: it was designed and submitted to Lego by a member of the public, not a Lego employee.

In recent years Lego have managed to stall a rapid downturn in their affairs and have managed to turn their company around in a startlingly efficient fashion.  They have diversified their model range into movie franchises, the most popular and lucrative being Star Wars and Harry Potter, both of which display great ingenuity and quality (the Star Wars range in particular becoming a huge success with adult fans).  They have backed up their traditional stock with fantastic electronic media, including the insanely addictive platform games, at least one for each major franchise (Lego Star Wars is a true classic, worthy to join the pantheon of finest video games ever).  They have also gone for the obsessive's jugular with the mini-figure range, now up to series 11, based on the basic newsagent-collectible business model (unknown contents of silver bag, whole range to complete, see Panini stickers in 1990s...)  But I believe their finest move was to realise that adults still like Lego.

I think, as a toy, Lego is second to none.  My happiest moments as a child involved Lego in some way or another (often in fairly imaginative and sometimes unpleasant ways), and this memory sticks around.  I still get a jolt of wonder whenever I see the newly released products and, given my druthers, I'd buy them all (especially the Haunted House model from 2012 - a model I crave).  Lego seemed to realise this in around 2003 with the Lego Creator range and more so in 2007 with the advent of the Lego Modular Houses range.  These wonderful models were a response to feedback from the well established Adult Fans of Lego (AFOL - any organisation that ends up with an acronym must have clout) and have been developed ever since.  This has been supplemented by other incredible models, such as the green biplane, the carousel, the TGV locomotive and more, all found here, under 'Expert': http://creator.lego.com/en-gb/Products/Default.aspx.  These intricate models are expensive, yes, but beautiful.

Then came the Lego architecture range, bringing Lego into the realm of legitimate ornaments for homes.  This range represents famous landmarks built on a micro-scale, but keeping the requisite level of detail.  I have no idea who they have working on this range, but their eye for detail and sheer design ability is eye-watering.

But their finest move yet, in my opinion, was the Cuusoo website, which enables Lego fans to design and promote their own ranges of models.  This is precisely where the DeLorean had its birth - the model was uploaded to the site, and gained 10,000 votes of support, meaning that Lego had to consider making it a purchasable product.  Currently doing very well is the Ghostbusters range, designed by some genius of the highest order (go here to vote for it!!).  With this level of creativity, I can see Lego enjoying  their renaissance for many more years, meaning that if I ever get round to having kids, the company and their products will still be around - a prospect that was by no means certain at the turn of the century.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Headaches

I seem to get headaches a lot.  I get them so often, that I'm starting to view them dispassionately, trying to figure out what caused them, where the sensation actually is, what positions/movements affect them and why/how they eventually go off.  As such, I feel I can now publish my Headache Spotter's Guide and help out all fellow sufferers of the malady.

Headache #1

The Eye One

Centered around one of the eye sockets, epicentre usually seemingly in the very bone of the skull, in mockery of your vain attempts to massage the pain away.  A constant, dull soreness, no throbbing with occasional flurries of excruciating pain when looking at bright light or laughing.  Affected by light, thinking hard about difficult matters, blocked nose, poor eyesight.  Cure: glasses, closing eyes, time.

Headache #2

The Neck One

Centered at the base of the skull and top of the neck, epicentre is apparently your very spinal column: the very think that makes you a vertebrate fighting back.  Pain also spread around muscles in that area. Muscle pain, mostly, but with an insistence that is frankly rude, and prevents you from doing anything useful.  Affected by sleeping position, weight of head, amount of nodding, dancing wildly to anything pre-1984.  Cure: Neck brace, sleeping with only one pillow, neck massage, decapitation.

Headache #3

The Brain One

Floating freely around your cranium, epicentre is everywhere at once and makes you sad.  The entire dome of your head becomes an upturned basket of pain, spilling agony out into the rest of your head and often, if you're lucky, your teeth too.  Pain comes in many forms, but usually throbbing and inconsistent pain that will continually kid you into thinking its gone, before striking you down with a bolt of fire when you try getting out of your seat.  Affected by everything, but especially aggravated by thirst, lack of sleep, lust and needing the loo.  Cure: painkillers, silence and sleep.

Headache #4

Migraine

Different for everyone, and probably less common than you'd think.  People who've had one are obvious - you can sense it in the clear fear they show when discussing the subject, and their avoidance of anything that could possibly lead to another episode.  Pain is intense and debilitating, making you disinclined to socialising, reading or being alive a second longer.  Can be accompanied, or preceded by aura, which is an impossible term to define but basically consists of the brain going haywire and fooling the key senses into thinking nonsense, such as talking bees spreading from growing cracks in your vision, to the all-pervading smell of garlic invading your entire head.  Or just blurriness and discolouration in what you look at.  Affected by continuing to exist and all its trappings.  Cure: unknown.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

An excerpt from my travel journal:

Day 1

Having the sick bucket beside my leg is no qualification.  Upon rumour of sickness at the front of the bus, the bucket was passed nonchalantly away from me, to remove any possibility that I may become embroiled in the ensuing affair.  Sadly, I still had to report the incident to the self-appointed vomit-manager - catchphrase, 'I can do sick'.  Confused by the ambiguous nature of the verb in this sentence, I simply nodded and retreated back to my seat, humbled and strangely sad.


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Another unfinished scribble...

Grey coffee.  Proof that the glorious revolution of Technicolor of the 1930s was, in fact, simply a scheme designed to drain colour from the real world to then haphazardly paint it onto Judy Garland’s face.  This left only grey outside the cinema’s doors – a grey that had matured and spread like spilled milk over the years to the present, resulting in this grey coffee, in its grey cup, on this grey station platform, underneath this glowering grey sky.  Well, thought Jacob as he stared into his latte, fuck Judy Garland and all the glorious blue in her dress. Today was a grey day like all the rest, and there was little to be done about that.  He glanced again at the departures television, a 16-inch curved screen from the mid-1980s, and saw that his late train had been erased from it, the television na├»vely assuming that since its departure time had passed, the train must have set off on its way filled with happy travellers.  A sigh, a frown and a sip of coffee.  Weather was just so aware, it seemed.  Aware of our moods, aware of our fears and most of all aware of the fact that the 09.47 to King’s Cross is late and is probably never going to turn up at all.

The platform was busy, as usual, and filled with the sort of people you get on grey June days, waiting for a delayed train. All the benches had been filled, some to overflowing, by large families, overweight men, endless bags, suitcases and rucksacks, all stationary and wondering why they were less comfortable than they would be standing. Jacob didn’t see the point in trying this out for himself: he’d waited in enough stations to know that the seats would be uncomfortable: metal and unyielding, rather like the brilliant yellow train frontages that whizzed by occasionally.  So he stood and waited, his grey coffee going cold, his thoughts shifting as he peered down the tracks at the approaching yellow lights that would either continue down to his platform, proving it to be his train, or deviously slink off to the left to Platform Two, a feline manoeuvre designed to sap the soul.  A man wearing a hat walked past him to get a better look at this phenomenon, holding a magazine very tightly rolled behind his back.  The man peered down the tracks with an eager leaning stance and, not for the first time, Jacob considered the outcome should the old man fall from his ludicrous cranings onto the track.  This was something that sometimes held his thoughts – the reaction of your average man (Jacob was kind enough to himself to accept ‘average’ status) to such a disaster.  Would he help; could he help?  Would he spring like some kind of super hero onto the tracks, lift the man up, grunt heroically, push, heave the man from the rails; jump up at the last minute landing squarely on the platform to be worshipped by the audience - the fat man on the bench? No.  Jacob had made a decision before, some years ago.  He’d do nothing as he reasoned that he wouldn’t be able to do anything.  He’d heard things about how the human mind fails to cope with these disasters, how heroes either didn’t exist or had been around once but were now no more, dodos of humanity.  The man stopped craning and stood, rocking happily on his heels.
  The lights got closer, lighting the dark rails and breathing a tired life into the scene, life that had been fading for some days now, as far as Jacob was concerned.   Edinburgh had been interesting and even enjoyable on occasion, but it really was time to go home when you found yourself quietly ranting to yourself about the quality of your station-bought coffee, and suffering a vague feeling of discomfort whenever you thought about home, with its associated life and future.  As the lights stayed on course and Jacob gathered his bags this subtle anxiety clawed once more at his stomach, but was drowned by the last of the lukewarm coffee.  The cup, crushed and crumpled, fell beneath the wheels of the carriages; Jacob opened the door and climbed aboard, knowing that his reserved seat would be occupied, and knowing just as well that he hadn’t the wherewithal to effect any change should this be the case. He noticed the old man with the hat had got onto the same carriage as him and was sitting at a table seat, eagerly covering the table with items that were utilized to speed the journey.  Jacob sat heavily opposite him, got a quick smile – interesting smile, almost scared yet backed up by gleeful glittering eyes – and stowed his bags under his seat.  Gazing from the grimy window at the vacated platform with its innocent display boards he got another jolt of nerves in his stomach as he thought of home and the inevitable.
                “Grey day it is, isn’t it?” Waverley station began to slide by as Jacob looked back at the hat-man opposite, surprised by the sound. He replied,
                “Yes, really gives the place a charm.”  The man stared. “You know, Edinburgh’s got that quality, hasn’t it: looks good when it’s bleak.” Jacob felt a little stupid for explaining his pithy first comment but the man’s look had drawn it from him.  Evidently satisfied, the hat-man smiled again – that odd smile – and continued,
                “Was grey yesterday too; did you see the sky yesterday, about three?  Furious, it was.  Expected a right downpour, didn’t come though”.  A pause.  “Might come later, way it looks.”  Jacob nodded.  He felt uncomfortable in this exchange after imagining, in gratuitous detail, what would have happened to this man if he’d fallen in front of a speeding train.  He cleared his throat to reply, but too late, “Yep, might come later,” the man continued, gazing at the sky over Arthur’s Seat.
                “If it does at least we’ll be miles away from it,” tried Jacob, “shouldn’t cover the whole country, I doubt.”  At least this is what he hoped. This greyness, all colour sapped by Dorothy Gale and her Technicolor friends, was getting him down. “It’ll be twenty-two degrees in London, I bet, thanks to that heat-island thing.”
                “Heat island?”
                Great, thought Jacob.  Committed to prolong and intensify this conversation indefinitely.  Conversations didn’t happen on trains in Britain unless you were mad, very old or drunk and today Jacob was none of the three. “Yeah, heat islands, it’s the name given to the way large towns and, uh, cities soak up heat.  All the people, and buildings, they create their own ecosystem with their own winds,” the man was leaning on the table, truly interested by Jacob’s halting description, “and, uh, weather, almost.  Means that places like London – really huge cities – are a lot warmer than the surrounding country.”
                “Warmer, but could still be grey, eh?” was the man’s retort.  “Just because it’s hotter doesn’t mean it won’t be humid, overcast and damp.  Me, I’m going to Peterborough, a place that certainly has no heat island,” snort of laughter, “more a nasty dampness.  You’ll have to let me know about the London heat.”  The man settled back into his chair, removing his hat in the process.
                Let him know.  Yes, of course.  Jacob waited a moment, expecting more anecdotal gems from the man and, when none seemed imminent, he too settled into his seat, which was now picking up speed outside Portobello.  How would I let him know, he thought
.



Sunday, 7 July 2013

Of Colds and Summer

I have a cold.  It settled upon me on Thursday evening and has clawed deeper into my being since then.  I assume I will either recover, painfully and weakly, over the coming months; or it will kill me and probably eat me to boot.  It's a nasty cold.

I'm not going to waste my time, or yours, decrying the injustice of a summer cold.  Viruses care little for seasonal preferences.  Instead, I'm going to consider why we persist in calling it a cold.  It really is a most unsatisfactory name for the illness.  I would argue, in fact, that it removes even the connotation of disease, due to its very bland and vague nature.  What use is a name for a viral disease that makes it sound as if you simply need to put a jumper on?

Because of this, people everywhere have to pretend to be fine when they've got a cold.  They have to soldier on, and act as if nothing untoward is wrong at all.  Society, combined with linguistics, has left us powerless and guilty on those occasions where we 'catch a cold'.  I see this as wrong.  Catching a cold is horrid.  It's one of the more common viruses out there and it really lays into the victim, often for periods of a week or more.  It is usually more debilitating than a bout of tummy trouble (which, at least, people give you sympathy for as you waddle to the loo looking fraught), and is far more of a regular occurrence than, say, typhus.  It makes you feel like a slovenly furry animal has taken up residence in your sinuses and is steadily sandpapering the walls in order to redecorate.  It makes you very sleepy, and a hazard to other motorists.  It forces you to grimace apologetically to an audience of indifferent bastards as your nose transforms into a weir of snot and you desperately grasp for the loose end of the bog roll you're now forced to carry around with you.  It's a bad illness.

So, its name needs changing as a matter of some urgency.  People need to be allowed to look and feel horrific during the course of the illness, and they need to be able to garner sympathy from the multitude.  'Man flu' has had some vogue recently, mainly due to questionable pseudoscience seemingly performed by GQ magazine, but I fear that it lacks the punch required (and is still, clearly, a derogatory term).  I think most of the worst diseases have a hint of Latin or Greek about them.  Diphtheria - ends in a vowel, good move.  Typhoid - ends in an '-oid', making it sound like a killer robot.  Gonorrhea - hard to spell, a definite plus.  Legionnaire's Disease - slightly seedy sounding, with extra connotations of the French, excellent.

I think we should begin to call the common cold 'Fisherman's Grehbuloidia'.  That would work.