Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Sony Awards here we come

Life moves in decidedly odd directions sometimes.

Got a tweet this morning from BBC Radio Gloucestershire asking me whether I was interested in commenting on the heady world of dad blogging. Sure, I replied, thinking they meant give us some background thoughts. Two hours later I was live on air talking about whether dads feel they have enough involvement in parenting and explaining why it is I blog.

Remember this chap?

That’s a little how it felt. But I can’t deny it was great fun, and I can see how interviewees can be gently led into saying things that later they really wish they hadn’t; it’s very easy to forget, sat miles away with a phone to your ear, that you’re not just having a cosy chat with the person at the other end, you’re actually live on air with, erm, a number of people (a ‘number’ being the collective term for local radio listeners) listening to you talk nonsense.

Having said that, I’m assured I have a lovely radio voice, and I’ve been invited back to do a regular guest ‘blogspot’. Next one is on 30 July at 1.40pm (because of course you’ll all want to listen, won’t you?) For those who might be interested, I think you can listen again to the show here. I should be around the 1.50pm mark.
I was going to leave it there, but I can't help but make one last point. I've blathered on before about how technology has already changed the way we do things, and this is just another example. A few months ago I start blogging; simple enough to do, write some nonsense or other, post it to a blog, voilá. At the same time I join twitter, talk some more nonsense, tell a few people about the blog. Then one day out of the blue get a request, via twitter, from the BBC asking whether I'd be up for an interview, then get offered a regular slot on the show talking about....the blog. I know people complain about how we're all turning into screen zombies, but I have to say that as a result of all this I've met people and discovered communities I never would have even known existed before, and it's bloody marvellous.
So whilst normal ranting service resumes next time, for now pat yourselves on your back, you lovely people, you. And listen in on 30 July at 1.40pm. You know you want to.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Philip Larkin would know what I'm talking about

So, it was Father's Day on Sunday. I tend to be busy being Daddy myself these days, so I have to confess I don't tend to think too much about my own father on Father's Day anymore. I do on his birthday, though, which usually falls one or two days before.

My father was - probably is - what's affectionately known in the business as a 'character'. Bit of a lad. Liked a laugh. Always on the cusp of saying something completely inappropriate but then always managed to pull back from the brink by wrapping it in his unique accent and a naughty wink. Total misogynist, prone to somewhat old fashioned views generally, politically his right leg was slightly shorter than his left, tended to say rude stuff about people in front of them.

Loved by all.

He was the sort of person that people wanted to have around. Whatever his views, they were neutered by his genial personality, his wit and the fact that he had probably the best accent in the world ever; Italian, via a 25 year stint living in Libya, came over to the UK in the 60s not speaking a word of English. He learned the language from Scottish and Indian labourers. At some 90 kilos and 5' 4, he was a (not so) little ball of a man, which probably helped; even when he was occasionally miserable and aggressive, he was less a threat and more just Louie De Palma. I'm not kidding, people loved him.

And yes, I realise I’m speaking about him in the past tense. My parents, who were living in Spain at the time, split up just before I got married some 13 years ago (gulp, how long? you get less for murder, etc). We've all had plenty of time to get used to the idea, but my relationship with my father became more and more acrimonious in the years following the split until eventually, about two or three years ago, he simply left. No goodbyes, no forwarding address, no contact. Could be alive, could be dead, we don’t know. Gone, disappeared in a puff of disappointment.

If he'd had the courage simply to call it quits and move out immediately then chances are we would have all accepted this brave new world relatively painlessly. But that's not what happened. What at first was an attempt by him to make it less painful for my mother became this horrible long drawn out death throes that left everyone involved exhausted and bitter. He did eventually move out, but over the next few years he’d return to take up residence in an annex to my mother’s house, staking ever more trenchant claims on pensions, endowments, savings, the house. Then (mostly because the cause of the original break up was his new found desire for a younger model, less mileage, handles better in the wet) when my mother finally made it clear that the assets weren’t about to be split quite according to his plan, things started going missing; jewellery, cash, other valuables. One day they'd be there, next day they'd be gone, always after one of his visits. Then he disappeared for the first time. He was gone two years, during which we heard nothing at all, and then out of the blue I received a phone call: 'Hello boy,' it started, 'I in trouble.' He'd been in Brazil, borrowed some money to start up a restaurant, which then failed and he couldn't pay the money back and now he had to get out, quickly. But he couldn't leave without paying a fine for outstaying his visa. I nodded along, told him I thought it was all bollocks, and then sent him the money anyway.  

That was the start of a pattern; nothing for a while, then a call with ever more outlandish problems, a request for money, threats, pleadings, cajoling, the handing over of cash, a further disappearance. If his stories are to be believed he's variously come close to death at the hands of the Brazilian underworld and the Spanish mafia, he's become involved with the Colombian import/export business, and he's an official persona non grata in Brazil after having seriously outstayed his visa not once but three times (and yet seems to have managed to get back in again, go figure). At one point he asked me for £10,000 to start a shoe making business. I laughed and it was never spoken of again.

The last time he made an appearance he ended up renting my in-laws' house - furnished - with the intention of running a restaurant, which he intended to set up with the assistance of some Colombian friends. He paid his initial deposit and the first month's rent, and then (really? No. Who'd have thunk it?) funds dried up. A year later he was gone, the house having been cleared out (literally stripped; even down to the boiler and the pipework) and the in-laws seriously pissed off. Then, two months later, after having received several visits from some Colombian gentlemen asking, politely, about his whereabouts, my mother returned to her home one day to find it trashed. Curiously, all that had been taken was the jewellery, which he had always insisted was his. No contact since.

If I'm honest I have to say I'm really not as bothered as I should be. I go a little quiet when I remember it's his birthday, but it's only once a year and it's a fleeting thing. We've had plenty of time to get used to it, I suppose; he didn’t just go from Wonderdad to Madman overnight. It bothers me is that my daughter hasn’t really had the chance to know her grandfather. She’s met him, but always under strained circumstances and about all she’ll say about him now is that she thinks he’s ‘a bit silly’ to have gone away. She doesn’t really know him, and who knows if she ever will.  
What annoys me most of all, though, is that I can understand precisely what was going through his head when he decided that he wanted to go. It was part of his character to want something more than he had. He never was a mortgage, two cars, 9-5 sort of person, and yet that's what he'd become. What he'd been forced to become in order to fund an increasingly opulent lifestyle and a son who, in his eyes at least, he had to fund through university. I think he'd put up with a life he really didn't want for years, and when he no longer had to fund his son's education or upkeep, because son had grown up and had a family of his own now, the world suddenly opened up. Except of course, being the person he was he couldn't quite manage to extricate himself without causing pain, and angst, and much gnashing of teeth.
And so we come full circle. I look in the mirror and it's my father I see. I have his features, I have his mannerisms, I seem to be staring at the same bumps in the road. I'm not about to walk off into the sunset alone, but I'd say I share my father's view of the importance of not blithely bumbling through life with eyes half closed thinking 'this is it'. This isn't it. Perhaps this was his most important lesson to me. Perhaps I should be grateful.
Buon compleanno, papa. I hope you're happy.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Cake or Ofsted Report?

This. A thousand times, this:
“Too many non-selective schools are failing to nurture scholastic excellence. While the best of these schools provide excellent opportunities, many of our most able students receive mediocre provision. Put simply, they are not doing well enough because their secondary schools fail to challenge and support them sufficiently from the beginning. I believe the term ‘special needs’ should be as relevant to the most able as it is to those who require support for their learning difficulties. Yet some of the schools visited for this survey did not even know who their most able students were. This is completely unacceptable.”

So spake Sir Michael Wilshaw this morning on the release of the Ofsted report into the treatment of the most able students in secondary schools.

Sir Michael isn’t the most popular man in the world; Chief Inspector of Schools in England, head of Ofsted, seen as many (particularly teachers) as a bully with a hard-line style and an unforgiving approach to standards, accused of instigating a period in which teachers feel alienated and in which morale is at an all time low.

But. When someone says something that makes sense, one should always acknowledge its wisdom. And by Jove that quote up there makes a lot of sense. I’ve argued for years that gifted children are every bit in need of special needs provision as are children with learning difficulties. Gifted children come with a whole host of issues: they can be relatively mild (short attention span, very little patience, poor empathy, problem with authority, quick to boredom, constant bloody questioning) or really quite serious (dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, aspergers, acute and debilitating sensitivity to noise or bright lights). And because of these issues it’s not always obvious that they’re gifted. There’s even a term for it: ‘dual exceptionality’, where a child is gifted but also has some form of special need. What happens is that the disability shines so brightly that it blocks out the light of the child’s other abilities, and either the disability is all and the child is incorrectly identified as needing SEN support, or the child’s other abilities compensate for the disability such that they appear entirely average and receive no support at all. That of course makes it difficult for schools to identify them, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try.

Some teachers have responded by saying that the problem isn’t in fact non- or mis-identification of the most able pupils, it’s that teachers simply don’t have the time or the resources to deal with them (this blog by @Bigchris_BRFC gives you a pretty good feel for the sort of environment some teachers are operating in). Class sizes are too large, abilities too mixed and disruption is rife, either because of bad behaviour or because of the need to deal with often quite serious special needs within mainstream schools. If we want teachers to spend more time nurturing the most able pupils, they say, then give us the time, the space and the resources with which to do it. 

That’s not an entirely unreasonable response, but neither is it the whole story. Non- and mis-identification remains an issue. The current method of identification is simply to look at the pupils who scored in the top 5% of the Key Stage 2 SATS, but that misses those with any form of dual exceptionality, and frankly therefore misses most gifted children.

My daughter, as wonderful as she is, is intensely frustrating sometimes. Because I know her abilities, because I know full well what she’s capable of, it annoys me to distraction whenever she decides not to bother showing anyone else. Even her current school, which is the first in a long line to even get close to providing good support for her, doesn’t really know what she can do. An example: my wife spoke to La Child’s class teacher the other day to ask roughly what level she was at (we’re going to be home schooling her from September, so we need to know roughly where to start her). ‘Oh,’ replied the teacher, ‘she at about a level [x] for literacy and similar for reading.’ Wife thanks teacher, teacher wonders off, La Child suddenly looks around furtively and then says in a whisper: ‘Actually, I’m probably a fair bit higher than that. I don’t really try very hard at school.’

How do you deal with that? How do schools deal with that? I can tell you how they won’t, and that’s by fiddling around with the curriculum, insisting on ‘rigour’ and assuming that the gifted kids will be the ones performing the best. They won’t be.

In truth we need to take a long hard look at what we want our education system to do and decide how best to help teachers do it. As long as we carry on tinkering here and adjusting there and constantly blaming the teachers for, well, everything all we’ll ever achieve is to alienate an entire generation of teachers and waste several generations of potential. Now that is completely unacceptable.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Let's all do the Gove fandango

He's at it again. You can't keep a good Gove down.

I can understand why various Sec States for Education keep harking back to O Levels. GCSEs in their current form no longer work (if only because so many children now achieve the highest possible grades that the exams become valueless as a means for employers to sift between candidates) and O Levels marked a golden age in education.

Except that it really wasn’t anything of the sort, of course.

O Levels (or GCEs) were for the already academically minded. Mainly exam based, they favoured boys over girls; the former were more suited to a cramming style exam rigour while the latter have traditionally been better at coursework based assessment (so, unsurprisingly, the change from O Levels to GCSEs meant that suddenly girls were beating boys in pretty much all subjects, including the previously male dominated sciences and PE). Anyone for whom (the school decided) GCEs might be too rigorous would be diverted to CSEs. CSEs were introduced to ensure that even the less able student achieved a qualification on leaving school - before their introduction the majority of less able students simply didn't take GCEs and so left school without any qualifications at all. But CSEs were the death knell for any ambition to the professions; yes, I know that people could, and sometimes did, go from a few CSEs to night school, further qualifications, into a polytechnic and into a profession, but... it was difficult, it was time consuming, and required a considerable force of will.

The whole ethos of 70s and 80s education was about splitting children into those who would, and those who wouldn’t. Clever ones in this pile, not so clever ones in this pile. The more able took GCEs and went to university, the less able took CSEs (often in a vocational subject like car maintenance) and went on to work. To a certain extent, I confess, I don’t disagree with the principle: of course there’s room for a more vocational path, why should everyone by necessity have to aim to become a doctor or a lawyer? But not enough was done at the time to ensure that those who ended up down a vocational path were doing so because it was right for them, rather than, say, because they were simply a personality type that didn’t do well at exams and who, if given the right opportunity, could shine by another method. And we're not just talking about those with a high learning potential, who of course often tend to underachieve; how many girls ended up forced down the wrong path simply because of their natural predisposition to do better with coursework rather than exams? Even now in 2013 we've yet to achieve real equality in the workplace between men and women. Prevailing sexual attitudes at the time, and since, have their part to play, but how far did this natural aid to discrimination push back the cause?

GCSEs were intended to fix that. Everybody would have their chance, they would be partly exam based, partly coursework based, cue an era of inclusivity and opportunity. Except that didn’t work either. For whatever reason more children get higher marks more regularly than ever before, and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s because children are getting better at passing them or the exams are getting easier. The fact is that as a measure of ability they now don’t tell employers enough to make any sort of judgement.

So, we need something different. Gove, bless his cotton socks, thinks that the answer is to introduce rigour. Hark back to the glory days, he says, when we could all recite Henry VIII’s wives in order and do complex trig on the back of a napkin when we needed to split the bill. But the glory days weren’t actually particularly glorious, and he’s fixing the wrong problem.

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that learning by rote (a) doesn’t work and (b) isn’t necessary (any lawyer will tell you that he doesn't know the law any better than anyone else, he simply knows where to look for the answer), and equally let's ignore the fact that the current education system was designed to prepare children for a world that no longer exists. We need a system that can cope with children who may be very clever indeed but just not good at exams. Employers are already educated in this – if I interview someone the last thing I’m interested in is their GCSEs; how well do they cope with my questions? how do they interact with others? would I want to share an office with them? can they do the job? – and for most professions there's far less importance placed on academic qualifications and far more on analytical skills, interpersonal skills, problem solving abilities. Employers, who more and more need to prove their social mobility credentials, are looking at increasingly novel ways to ensure that there are no barriers to entry. A return to the good ol' days of GCEs and CSEs seems to be a move in the wrong direction.

Lest I should be accused of thinking there should be some sort of free for all, a great release of entirely untested workers into the market, that's not what I'm getting at. Of course children need to be tested to see whether they have learned the skills necessary to enable them to go forth and become productive members of society. But Mr Gove, this isn't the way to do it.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Stand for Bidet

So, she’s a bit bright, then? No. No, she’s not bright, she’s gifted.

Gifted? Gifted.

What, as in really very bright? No, not ‘bright’…

Is she a genius? Well, that rather depends what you mean by ‘genius’. She hasn’t quite discovered the grand unified theory just yet.

She’s only 8, I guess. Give her time. Is her IQ higher than Einstein’s? What? I’ve no idea, don’t think so. 149 on the Stanford-Binet, if you must know.

Stand for Bidet? I’d rather sit to do that, if it’s all the same. No, Stanford-Binet. It’s a type of IQ test. Others include the Cattell IIIb, the Otis-Lennon, the Miller Analogies and the Wechsler. You have to be a little careful just saying that someone has an IQ of ‘x’, because the different tests measure it in different ways. So, for example, an IQ of 149 on the Stanford-Binet is the equivalent of 146 on Wechsler and 172 on Cattell IIIb.

That’s confusing. Yes it is.

Surely there’s a better way to doing it? Well, there might be. Most of the tests will measure where someone fits on a percentile chart. So, for example, an IQ score of 149 on the Stanford-Binet will put you in the top 99.89% of the population. Put another way, if you were to walk into a room with 911 other people in it, chances are you’d be the most intelligent one there.

So she is quite bright then? For the sake of all that’s Holy….

Alright, alright, keep your wig on. So why are we even having this conversation? I thought you’d never ask. Channel 4 is about to screen a documentary called ‘Child Genius’.

That doesn’t sound at all controversial. In fact it’s already raised hackles, but not necessarily from where’d you’d expect. It’s the parents of other gifted children (or children with a ‘high learning potential’ as leading charity Potential Plus UK would prefer you to refer to them) who have raised the biggest fuss, on the basis that the documentary isn’t going to do much to help them.

Do they need help? Well, raising a child with high learning potential isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

Get the children to do it. Oh, very droll.

What’s so difficult about it then? Well, imagine you have a child with an IQ of 149. Imagine that as the child moves through its early milestones, walking, talking, reading, it does them all much, much earlier than its little friends. You’re very proud of that fact so you start to tell your friends and to your horror you find that your friends don’t seem to be particularly happy for you. So you stop telling them, and they stop asking, and quite soon you find that they stop wanting to spend any time with you, or to let their children spend any time with yours.

That’s a bit sad. Yes it is. It’s not everyone of course, but when some friends react that way it comes as a bit of a shock. And imagine that, as the child starts going through school, she really doesn’t do as well as you think she could. So you start looking into why, and you discover that she’s bored because the school want her to do what all the other little boys and girls are doing. So you think you’ll speak to the school, they know what they’re doing, they’ll help, but then you find out that the school don’t want to know. They have lots of other children to teach, and a certain way they need to teach them, and if that doesn’t work on your child, well… she’s clever, she’ll deal with it.

I thought schools had gifted and talented policies, and stuff like that? They did have, once upon a time, but money is tight.

Ah. Quite. Funding for teaching more able children got pulled a while ago, and now it’s up to schools to do what they can in any way they decide. Most don’t bother, and those that do don’t tend to have the experience or the training to do it properly. And let’s not talk about behavioural issues.

OK. I mean, imagine having a really, really clever little girl…

I thought we weren’t going to talk about… who gets easily frustrated, and bored, and who can’t always understand why other people do the things they do, and has trouble empathising. A little girl who finds it very hard to sit still, who has very little patience. Who won’t do something just because she’s told to, but has to be told why she’s being asked to do it.

That must make her popular at school. ‘Challenging,’ according to her teachers. And it doesn’t make it easy for her to make too many friends, either.

So, to recap. She’s really clever, but you end up losing most of your friends and fighting with schools, while she has the patience of a coked-up Tony Montana, says inappropriate things and has empathy issues? Erm…, well, yes. I suppose.

Sounds fun. So why is the documentary not going to help? Reinforces stereotypes. The problem has really always been the perception of others. Genius? Clever child? You must be a pushy parent who hothouses her. You’re a Tiger Parent. She must be a precocious little madam.

I assume none of those is true, then? No, they’re not. How very dare you.

Sorry. All we’ve ever wanted – and for that matter, all most parents of gifted children want – is to ensure that she gets an education that will interest her and prepare her for whatever life it is she wants to lead. Allowing her to spending 14 years getting bored at school doesn’t strike me as fulfilling our parental duties. And for what it’s worth, just so we get this one out of the way, I couldn’t personally give two hoots whether she becomes a particle physicist, artist or McDonald’s chip fryer, so long as she’s happy doing it.

Any last words to the assembled masses? Yes. Normality restored next time. A Q&A with yourself is just a little bit weird.

How dare you…

Friday, 7 June 2013

Technology. Marvellous, isn't it?

Ah, technology eh? Eh?!

I'm a recent convert to the Twitter experience. I spent the first few years wondering what on earth it was, and then another couple of years wanting nothing to do with it, convinced that it was just a way for deluded schleb hunters to delude themselves into thinking that they had a direct line to their favourite Z-lister (who of course would be delighted to immediately befriend them and validate their existence).

I'm not a million miles from that view now, but I am mellowing slightly. It does seem to work quite remarkably well as a means for eliciting the immediate attention of organisations I can’t seem to get any attention from in any other media. To wit: I had the (dis)pleasure of having to speak to my electricity and gas provider a few days ago, and as I waited on hold listening to the dulcet tones of Huey Lewis and the News I passed the time by tweeting about how long it was taking, and asked somewhat flippantly whether anyone fancied taking bets on how long it would be before they bothered to answer the phone. Within minutes up popped a little notice to tell me that I was now being followed by that very same electricity and gas provider, who then VIA BLOODY TWITTER offered to call me immediately to sort out whatever the issue was. At this point I’d been on hold for….26 minutes. Well done if you guessed; give yourself a pat on the back and go slap a traffic warden.

Damage limitation, see. I moan, and the organisation comes on to remedy the problem before I can moan some more. And it works, that's the frustrating thing. As soon as 'Gerry' from [generic energy company] offered assistance my sails sank in calmer waters. How could I continue the rant? 'Gerry' would feel sad. Couldn't have that.

I could carry on the rant now and say that offering to placate one customer doesn't make up for the fact that average 20+ minute hold times cannot be acceptable in anyone's book, but that's not the point. The point is that actually the phone is becoming redundant. Another example to further illustrate this: I couldn't quite figure out how to do something with my mobile (phone someone, probably), so I thought I'd call the phone company concerned, and spent 15 minutes or so listening to some dirge or other and getting increasingly frustrated. Then I spotted a little button on their website that said 'chat with an adviser'. OK, thought I, I'll give that a go, all the time holding on the telephone just in case. Two minutes later I was engaged in a virtual discussion with someone who was (a) helpful and, more importantly, (b) available, and two minutes after that the problem was solved. As I closed the chat session I realised I was still on hold on the telephone.

There has to be, of course, a certain element of social (media) engineering going on here. It's cheaper for organisations to deal with their customers via twitter, or some chat system, where the bod at the other end can be involved in any number of discussions at once rather than be held up on one call with one difficult customer. But I find myself not really giving two hoots about why they're doing it, so long as it works, and by all the Gods it does seem to work.

It's all still new and marvellous to me, you know. I'm typing this on an iPad, which is doing the non-manly thing and multi-tasking by also pumping some music to me via some wi-fi headphones (‘look, no wires!’), and once I've finished typing I'll upload this to my blog, whilst all the time sat on a train accessing the interwebs via 3G. For someone born in the 70s when the next big thing in mobile communications was a telephone with an extra long lead so you could sit in the hallway and talk to your friends without your parents overhearing you, this current state of affairs is nothing short of witchcraft. I am in awe of it, something which La Child, of course, cannot understand. She was born into a world where this (iPhones, the Wii, wi-fi, constant access to everything, the ability to find anything out at any time on practically any medium) is all normal. Even my blackberry is old technology to her; whenever she picks it up she ignores the keyboard and tries to use the screen, which of course doesn't work and which leads to her shaking her head in disgust and go searching for her mother's iPhone instead. If I'm having any sort of technofear it's the 8 year old who sorts it out. "Look," I'll say to her, "marvel at this, I'm listening to Italian radio live on the iPad!" and she will smile sweetly, say "yes, daddy," and walk away chuckling at how much of a Luddite I am.

Technology. Marvellous.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Zen and the art of positivity

I'm feeling cheerful today. Don't really know why, just have a feeling of positivity about me. Perhaps it's because it's sunny (highly likely to be because it's sunny, in fact; how depressing our usual grey backdrop is), maybe it's because I know that The Annoying One is away next week and the office will be so much calmer and more pleasant without him, maybe it's because I have a particularly good tune on the go. Maybe it's a mixture of all three, maybe it has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it. Don't know, don't really care. I'm feeling less-than-depressed today, and that's good.

I quite like feeling like this because it means I actually do stuff. When I feel my usual self I tend not to want to do anything. Why is that? The more bored you are, the less inclined you are to pick yourself up and do things, even if things need doing, even if doing those things might make you less bored. Is it because actually those things themselves are inherently boring? Can't be, not everything is inherently boring. Or is it because the fog in front of your eyes is so impenetrable that the synapses in your head marked 'that'll be interesting' just don't fire? Whatever it is, sunshine, good tunes and the knowledge that I'll soon have a week off from having to deal with The Annoying One conspire to make Marcos a happy chappie. Let's strip naked and rejoice!

I do have one regret this morning. I’m a bit of an avid photographer. Like to take photos of stuff. Been doing it a while, and have a very large and heavy professional looking camera that makes me look as though I know what I'm doing. Every now and again I think to myself ‘really should carry my camera around with me.’ The only problem is that it is very large and heavy, and carrying it about is a bit of a pain (even if I'm not already carrying other things, which I often am), and this morning despite the weather being glorious and sunny, and the sky being blue, the grass being green and the conditions being bloody marvellous for a nice bit of photo taking action, I took one look at the thing and decided it was too much like hard work. Left it at home. Now of course I'm sat on the train on the way into work and getting more and more frustrated at myself by the minute as I realise what a complete tosspot I am. Lazy, weak willed, slothful. Allow opportunities to run past me with barely a look. If my headstone has an epitaph it's likely to be "Fuck it, that'll do."

Happiness doesn't last long, does it? Feeling quite fucked off now.

My life is full of little regrets. When you look at them all individually they don't amount to much, but add them all up and they lead inexorably to a deathbed revelation of despair and futility. Well, perhaps that's a bit strong. Didn't want to use 'regret' twice, you see, but it's probably more accurate: a deathbed revelation of utter regret at missed opportunities. For example, I once spent ten years learning how to fly, on and off. Ten years. Got quite good at it in the end, could fly in the end. Spent thousands of pounds on lessons, amassed about 60 hours of flying time, got as far as doing my QXC (qualifying cross country flight, for the uninitiated: a solo cross country flight from Stapleford in Essex, to Leicester, to Cambridge and back - in fact got lost on the way to Cambridge, that was a sphincter puckering moment), sat and passed five of the necessary seven written exams...and then stopped. I felt I had my reasons at the time, of course. The Child had just been born, money was tight, flying was taking up rather a lot of my time... but it's all utter tripe, really. All that time, all that money, all that effort, tossed away because deep down I'd grown tired of it and was secretly a little bit nervous at having to take the flight test.

Or playing the piano; spent years learning how to do that as well, and I really was good at it. Did my grade exams, was playing grade 8 and diploma pieces with ease, liked nothing more than to spend every waking hour tinkling away, practice wasn't a chore at all. Performing was a joy. Even got to perform my own pieces at the Queen Elizabeth Hall once, and believe me there’s no drug that can quite replicate the feeling you get when you soak up the applause of a thousand people. Then what happened? Life got in the way again. Exams took precedence. Going out with my friends took precedence. Not being arsed took precedence. Truth be told I got bored with it. I thought I'd take a break and come back to it, except of course I never really did. Now, years later, I can still play the odd little thing but not like before. All that effort, all that time.... Patterns do tend to repeat themselves, don't they?
I get bored, that's my real problem. I flit. My father was the same. He'd get really into something, spend a fortune on it, think of nothing else  and bore us all senseless for months, and then one day simply wake up and decide he didn't like 'it' anymore. Maybe I've got it from him then, this mad passion about something, this intense desire to do something, to become good at it, and then a sudden overwhelming boredom with it as soon as I have become good at it. Maybe that's why I've suddenly decided I loathe my job. Spent years on it, a great deal of effort, got quite good at it....and now I'd quite like to give it up and live in a cave somewhere.

How do you cure a problem like Marcos, eh?

Despite appearances, I am actually still quite positive. The urge to walk out in front of traffic was still there this morning (‘come on then, you feckers, prove you’re paying attention,’), but my usual desire to maim my fellow commuters with a blunt plastic coffee spoon just wasn’t. Positivity, see.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Babel Fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it?

Time to nail my colours to the mast?

I'm an atheist. A fully paid up member of the rational society. A firm believer in logic over optimism. I have so very little patience for any religion, and even less for those who choose to use it as an excuse for, say, casual bigotry, or as reason for some atrocity, or as explanation for some otherwise explicable thing or other: 'doctors said it was a 1 in a million chance that baby would survive, and she did - it's a miracle!' No, no it's not. It may have been statistically unlikely, but it was nevertheless possible, which does tend to reduce its eligibility in the miracle stakes.

See, I've always been entirely rational. Fan of the scientific method. Observe the world around you. Come up with a theory that explains what you see. Experiment with it. Check that your theory can predict future events. If it doesn't work, observe some more, come up with another theory. Repeat until you discover E=MC2, stick your tongue out at a passing photographer and retire in the knowledge that your face will adorn a million t-shirts.

Religion is the polar opposite. Belief requires trust without seeking proof. Proof negates belief. The Guide had it right -
"The Final Proof of the non-Existence of God was proved by a Babel Fish.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-boggingly useful could have evolved by chance, that some have chosen to see it as the final proof of the NON-existence of God. The argument goes something like this:

'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

'But,' says Man, 'the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don't. QED.'

'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

'Oh that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.'

This is all to explain why, once upon a time, I was predisposed to believe that to make people like each other again all you had to do was remove religion. Ban it, I thought, and you remove 99% of the world's problems. Consign it to a footnote in history, and you remove most of the reasons for people to hate one another. But now I'm no longer quite so sure.

I think that, deep down, we're just programmed to hate one another. Religion is neither here nor there. It's the excuse, the catalyst. If it weren't for religion there would be something else. Is what happened in Woolwich a product of religious intolerance? No. Woolwich is an example of two ignorant, disaffected young men who sought revenge for a perceived sleight. It was a postcode stabbing writ large. Were they brainwashed? Were they encouraged to do what they did? Probably. But what they were led to believe isn't the important thing, it's that they were in a position to be brainwashed in the first place.

The reaction to Woolwich worries me more. Not of the EDL and BNP nutjobs (idiots spoiling for a fight, come what may) but the middle class man on the Clapham omnibus who tutted in disgust at the burning down of the mosques and then viewed a couple of videos of a more presentable member of the EDL and announced 'well, not at all what I expected, spoke some sense actually.' The X Factor-watching Daily Fail-reading commuter who nods along with the perfectly reasonable leader that says perhaps greater freedom for the security services to pry into personal communications is warranted because, well, you know, particularly in the mosques bad things are being said and you need to be able to stop them, don't you? The status-updating, cringworthy poem-liking Facebook brigade, immersing themselves in grief porn over some poor boy they've never met and probably wouldn't like if they did, announcing in their droves that it's time we put a stop to all these foreign types coming over here and moaning about the place, and if they don't like it they should just bloody leave then. Down with this sort of thing.

Voltaire means nothing to these people. Memories are short. Thinking so wooly you could knit a scarf with it.

As a species we like to think that we've evolved, that we're the pinnacle of civilisation, with our jam, our toasters, our ipads and our smart TVs, but we're really not, are we? Present us with a crisis and we turn into UKIP voting automatons. And that's just annoying, when you realise that we're capable of the most remarkable acts of kindness and generosity and wonder. Tell you what, let's leave religion well alone and ban the Daily Mail. That'll do.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Licking Lamposts

Saw something in the @guardian today, gave me pause.

Top middle: ‘I need feminism because… my 12 year old sister already cares about how much she eats.’ Ah, been there. My daughter is 8 years old, and I’ve heard her complain more than once about how fat she is, about how her tummy isn’t as flat as it once was, and how she must do something to make it flat again.

She’s 8. At 8 years old I had gap teeth and bad hair and neither knew nor cared about it. At 8 years old I had just about managed to figure out that licking a lampost in winter was a bad idea. At 8 years old I spent my days thinking about all sorts of ridiculous things but I certainly never once thought about whether the Curly Whirly I was stuffing down my throat had a few too many calories.

Where does she get it from? Well, OK. In this case it’s probably me. I confess. My bad. I’ve been relatively unhappy about my own girth for a while; I’m not huge, but I am just slightly short for my weight, and I’ve reached the point where baggy t-shirts don’t quite hide it anymore. Too much beer, too great a fondness for cheese, an excessive liking for food generally. A working life spent sat on my (increasingly large) arse staring at a computer screen. As a result I have a wardrobe full of clothes I like but can no longer fit into and an increasing aversion to stairs. So I’ve been cutting down, eating less cake, enjoying (?) more salads, walking a bit more… and idiotically talking about calories and carbs in front of La Child who, being La Child, clearly picks this stuff up.

It’s no bad thing to teach a child the notion of healthy eating. And as parents we all do it, don’t we? Eat your greens; no you can’t have a pack of fizzy cola bottles for breakfast; you’ve been sat in front of that telly for hours, go outside and climb a tree. And it’s not a terribly onerous task, is it? If you have a choice between a Big Mac and fries or some pasta, you know, sometimes, try the pasta. Run around a bit. Think of chocolate eclairs as a treat rather than one of your five a day. But at what point does sense stop and Bulimia start? Is it a slippery slope to talk about this stuff in front of children? Start with the introduction of salads and the next thing you know it’s diet, Anorexia, front page of the Daily Mail.

I exaggerate, of course. I don’t really think La Child will have issues. Thankfully she’s relatively sensible and can (occasionally) be reasoned with. Yes, she tends to soak nonsense up with everything else, and being surrounded by other 8 year old girls at school doesn’t help, but she does eventually filter it out.

Makes you wonder, though.