Thursday 13 June 2013

You're thick

I'm not sure whether it was teenage bravado, or a feeling of social responsibility, but The Boy and his mates went off to have give a pint of blood this week. Actually, the NHS has gone metric, so they gave half a litre each. Good for them I say, whatever their motivation...I'm very pleased and proud they did it, and hope they will again. It was one of those things in The Boy's 'Now you're 18 you can' box...I never have, and a morbid fear of needles means that I probably never will - I carry a donor card, but that's not the same as giving and giving...I was standing next to a couple of women on the bus this week, and couldn't help overhearing their conversation. The one was telling the other that she was being stalked. There's a man that gets on the same train as her and they get off at the same station where their paths take them in the same direction. He has smiled at her on more than one occasion, and has been known to sit in 'her' seat on the train. Sometimes she's taken to catching a different train, but he is sometimes there too. She's worried because he knows where she works as they both walk in the same direction. She has reported him to the police, and they will visit her to get the full facts. I can only report what I heard, but on the basis of that it seems that she may be over-reacting a tad....or am I being insensitive?
This morning I think I saw a drug exchange in the local park...two men with their bikes were in a corner where there's a hedge and one of them reached under the bush to grab a small plastic bag of something. The one gave it to the other who then cycled off. Am I imagining something malevolent when it was all perfectly innocent? I don't know. Perhaps I should have reported it to the police.

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss said: "We do need to start competing against those top performing countries in the world, because for too long we've pretended that students results are getting better, when all that's been happening is the exams have been getting easier.

"It's been a race to the bottom between the exam boards and we need to stop that happening now."

There's two things that successive generations have treated as a political football....the NHS, and the education system.
So far as the NHS is concerned, it's the envy of the world. It may not be perfect, but there's always room for improvement...and it's an easy target for easy criticism. I remember my jaw nearly hitting the car steering wheel when driving through Bristol once. A local (NHS) hospital was advertising its services and claiming 'the lowest infection rates' in the area. I just want a hospital to fix me when I'm broken or ailing, I don't want them advertising, and I just want them all trying to be as good as they possibly can. The politicians should keep their noses out, as I don't want my health to be dependent on Conservative or Labour dogma.

Anyway, I'm keeping The Boy away from all news at the is he going to feel if he, and millions of other kids read that they've been educated badly, down to a level just above ignorant. The GCSE exams may need reform, but to belittle the achievements of a generation of kids is crass and ignorant.

I have been looking at some of the work that The Boy and The Cat have done for their 'A' Levels, and it is quite mind blowing...I doubt I could ever have put something like their essays together. I assume that they couldn't have done this if their GCSE's were a waste of space.

The reforms will take away the element of continuous assessment. We never had that when I was doing 'O' levels, but I can see it has real value...there are some kids who are great crammers, and get good exam results, even if they haven't done the work which will seat the knowledge for the future. there are some kids who are just rubbish at exams...even if they do retain the knowledge they just can't put it down in an exam room. Once hey're out at work, most knowledge will e gained on a continuous assessment basis, so why not start early?

What does appear to be the problem is the way school's success is measured. Living in the inner-city, as we did, we were given quite an insight into the mind set it creates amongst school management. The challenge for them was to make sure the weakest performers got up to a basic standard...the best performers were ignored, so significantly under-achieved. I assume (but correct me if I'm wrong) this happens at all ages of education. That may be where a government should focus its efforts.

I'm fortunate enough to mix with plenty of people from overseas, and their consistent comment has been that the British system of education is better than their own. I can't say one way or the other because I don't know..but it is interesting that is the message I hear time after time after time.  And as this's people's attitudes to education - a cultural matter that's key to educational success.

Anyway Elizabeth Truss...if you really think that come and say it face to face with The Boy and The Cat

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Scotch Eggs

Dear John, when you're next down in London, it will be my pleasure to treat you to a meal at this restaurant in Bermondsey Street:

Anyway, what the feck does Tom Stoppard know about the theatre?  Last night we were at the National watching what promised to be an amusing play by Gorky called Children of the Sun.  The write ups have been excellent, it's three-quarters of the way through its run, and there's never anything wrong with a bit of Gorky.  By half time, The Cat's Mother was ready to leave, and I was suffering the fidgets.  Essentially, the play is about the middle-class fiddling whilst Romeski burns and the greediness of the working classes.  We think the heart of the problem was a poor translation - not that my Russian is great - and then made worse by some pretty bland acting of characters that you really couldn't care less about if you tried.  Not to worry, the set was marvellous, and the ending included some pyrotechnics, the like of which you're unlikely to see on stage enormous explosion and flames that sent glass flying across the stage.  At the interval, we happened to be standing in the foyer, and found ourselves adjacent to Tom Stoppard, his friends and some theatre staff who were discussing the performance.  He said it was very good.  Either he is the politest man in the world or he knows nothing about the theatre.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

I can't think of a title for this one

On the one hand there's a tremendous naivety about the furore caused by the US (and UK) governments looking through everyone's personal data...after all they can only do that because we hand it over willy nilly to any old company that wants it, so why shouldn't the government take a sneak peek.  I suspect in most cases it's so tedious that all those James Bonds stuck in GCHQ are permanently asleep.  Incidentally, a friend of mine who lives in Cheltenham told me that parties there can be incredibly can never meet someone and as an opening gambit say "what do you do for a living?", because the chance are the reply will be "I'm a civil servant" other words they work at GCHQ and can't/won't talk about their job. Or perhaps talking about your job is boring anyway.

I see Thames Water is the next company to be nailed for not paying corporation tax.  They reason is that they have 'deferred' on the basis that they are investing in the infra structure.  In fact, I saw that they'd deferred to the tune of £1 billion.  It sits on their balance sheet.  OMFG (one for you Steve), every year I try and defer my tax to the tune of a few hundred quid, and the Inland Revenue go ape.  Perhaps this year, I'll explain that I'm deferring because the plumbing needs fixing....

I don't have much time for Thames Water.  In our last office, I merrily paid my annual water bill for half a dozen years before I spotted that in fact our water was part of the building service charge.  There was a common water supply for the building and the cost was paid by the landlord with the bill divided between the tenants.  When  I contacted Thames Water they promised to look into it...and over several months didn't.  I stopped paying them...obviously.  They started sending me threatening letters, ignoring the fact that I shouldn't be paying them and kept telling them that.  Eventually they started legal proceedings...I was tempted to let them go through with it, but ended up referring them to OFWAT...who managed to persuade them of their stupidity...a few weeks alter an engineer came round, confirmed we shouldn't be paying water rates.  It took a little longer to get my money back.  Anyway, another battle won.

I see it's all hotted up in Istanbul, with riot police ripping through the protesters in Taksim Square.  It would be easy to look at the actions of the authorities there, and pass judgement, but I hesitate.  You may remember Brian Haw...the peace protester who devoted a decade of his life to camping out in Parliament Square.  Yes, our police didn't use tear gas to move him on but our 'democratically elected' leaders saw fit to pass the Serious Crime and Police Act of 2005 in attempt to remove him.  I'm glad they failed, because it doesn't feel that in a 'free' country politicians should behave like that.

The Boy is relaxing without too many cares about him.  The Cat has another couple of weeks before she can do likewise.  What a truly fabulous time to have...I suspect they won't appreciate it as much as they's only when you get old and croaky like me, that you realise how precious time without responsibility can be.

We're trying without too much luck to sort out car insurance for The Boy.  He passed his test a little while ago, but hasn't been able to drive since.  We all know how hideously expensive it is for young people, so that's a challenge in itself, but what is making it worse is that he will be away for most of July, and a good deal of August, and if he is lucky will be off for a ski season starting in November as an instructor.  So what we need is short-term or pay as you go insurance, and I'm truly struggling to find anything at all.  If any one has any suggestions, they would be more than gratefully received.  My own car insurance provided a little gem yesterday - the renewal cost was quoted as £600, and I thought I ought to check out if there was anything cheaper on compare the meerkat.  Indeed there was...the same insurance from the same insurance company for just £270.  Who ever said insurance is a con?

Monday 10 June 2013

Filling a vacuum

I think of myself as pretty fit...I cycle a reasonable distance pretty often, and manage that without too much hardship.  On that basis I decided to enter the National Lottery Anniversary Run  - a five mile run round the Olympic Park finishing in the stadium itself!  And I get two tickets for family to cheer me on.

Not that I'm over-confident about anything, ever, but I thought I would simply put on my running shorts on the day and sprint the distance without breaking into a sweat.  To make sure I would do it in style, I bought myself a new pair of running shoes. Yesterday, I thought I would try them  out.  What I hadn't factored in was that I haven't actually run for thirty years.  By the time I'd reached the end of the drive (it's no longer than yours), I was out of breath...and my little practice was a half mile out and back another back.  Oh my word.  Oh my word, I thought I was going to die.  No two ways about it, it was gruesome.  I remembered now why I don't run.  I don't like it.  My legs weigh a ton each, and struggle to go one in front of the other.  The rest of my body is a lead weight...and these days, my stomach bounces up and down threatening to poke my eye out.  So there's nothing for it...I must practice...and I've only got until the 21st of July to get it sorted.  It's going to be grim.

Talking of grim...we headed off to Secret Cinema last week...rather than central London, it was being held in West Croydon, which has a number of's a bloody long way for a night out, it's a grim suburb and the trains stop running at 11.20.  That would have been fine if the event itself was good, but it wasn't.  Held over thirteen floors of a deserted office building, the production was just spread too you felt that you were wandering round a deserted office building rather than being immersed in the the film 'Brazil' by Terry Gilliam.  In the end, we left at about 9.15, somewhat disappointed.  From what I heard, the full film wasn't shown, although there was a theatrical climax...I assume a terrorist attack.  As the tickets are nearly £50 each...and then you add food and drink on top, it's an expensive evening that needs to work hard.  We may skip the next one.  Shame really, as I think Brazil is a terrific film.

There was also a Muffin birthday this weekend, the smallest one hitting the grand old age of eight.  We started off in Delauney's Cafe, moved on to the sweet shop, before going  to see the new production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is playing previews now.  Oh dear, oh dear oh dear.  Methinks the famous Sam Mendes has invested too much time and effort getting the technical effects right, completely forgetting that the show needs pizazz and oomph.  The first half is way, way too long...full of tedious songs and lacking any sort of humanity or spirit.  There were an awful lot of fidgety little bums, so it was a relief to get to the interval.  With the second half set in the factory, it was obviously brighter, livelier and more interesting....although it would be hard to say that fun crept into the equation very much.  The show opens 'properly' on 24th June, so they've got a fortnight to sort it out, but I'm not sure how they will make a first half devoted to the dreary Buckets more entertaining.  Good luck'll need it.

To round off the weekend we went to see Eddie Izzard.  The evening didn't promise much for me...I don't like the yawning aircraft hangar that is The O2 for performances, and I struggle to laugh at stand up comedy. So it's a credit to Mr Izzard, that he did bring a smile to my face...more for the clever, intellectual parts of his surreal act which appealed.  I wasn't rolling on the floor laughing, but then nor was anyone else either.  Like Charlie and the chocolate factory, the second half  was considerably better than the first, but it was not a bad evening out.

The biggest amusement for me, though, was The Cat's Mother's god son who was with us.  He's 26, just in case you thought we were taking nippers out for a late night.  He's eccentric to say the least.  At the interview for his new job, he was shown into a room, and realised that there was a ticking clock on the wall.  He was climbing on a chair to remove the battery 'because it's too loud' just as the interviewers arrived.  He doesn't start the job (yes, he actually got it) until July, so has spent his time reading the Koran.  And why not?  Last week, he needed to replace his vacuum cleaner so headed to John Lewis, where he engaged the sales man in a discussion about the merits of the new Siemens for AN HOUR.  Finally, the sales man had to say, "You know, it's just a vacuum cleaner.  It's not going to change your life."