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Thursday, 26 June 2014

Running for buses

After last weeks scare - okay, a minor palpitation - on to more mundane dreams; mundane because they're recurring; mundane because they're solely about buses. Liverpool buses.

Liverpool, in preparation for and following its brief stint as 'European Capital of Culture 2008' tarted up its sea front. It is a magnificent sea front, in contrast to Cardiff's more higgledy-piggledy affair, but in a bout of artistic feng shui the designers destroyed the Valhalla of Transport, the Liverpool Bus Terminus. It exists now only in dream, mine and perhaps those of a few others with similar, sad dispositions.

 This is how it looked once - probably before I was born. I'm wondering what that man is dreaming about in the bottom left hand corner. Note the two entrances to the landing stage. The one constant. Apart from the dreaming man.


 You can see how little the layout has changed in the pictures below, though buses replace trams.

Walk down either of those 'tunnel's and you found yourself on the landing stage for ferries or once, ocean going liners.

But back to my dream. In it I'm running for the 2 or the 30 to Aintree and I always think I know where it is but it is never, never  there. As the minutes tick by I run from bus to bus in an increasingly vain hope of finding it before the last bus goes.

At last, in desperation, I remember their route and abandon the terminus for the nearest bus stop where one of them is bound to turn up.

And here it is, the noble No. 2 that will take me to Aintree. 

In terms of dream this is a result. Huzzah!

Usually I jump on the bus but in the dream it is always dusk and usually raining. Sometimes, for no accountable reason (you want accountable reasons in dreams?) I miss the bus or I'm at the wrong stop. It's a five mile walk to Aintree and I wake up more tired than I went to bed. Still, turning into Ribblesdale Avenue and home - it's a wonderful feeling.

All these pictures have been taken from the talented and generous members of:

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Nematodes of Doom

“I’m afraid it’s bad news.” The doctor – a woman – was sympathetic but firm. “You’re going to die within the next four days. I can’t put it any other way.”

Yes, you could - if you tried hard enough. “That bad.” I buttoned up my shirt and stood, and sat down again. I felt dizzy. When woke up I was in bed staring out of a window. And the strangest thing – I was calm, working out all the things I’d have to sort out – my digital will – passwords and stuff – who was going to be my literary executor – yeah okay, okay, but the prospect of imminent death conjures up the weirdest of thoughts. 

 And yes, before you all rush to buy me flowers, or think to yourself 'Praise the Lord one less person to follow' - it was all a dream. But a vivid, highly detailed one that left me unsettled. Even waking up, I wasn’t sure I had wakened up and not dreaming instead. 

My first cup of tea didn’t entirely convince me. In fact I descended into a bit of a gloom. Whereas, in my dream, I had been quite stoic over the whole business, in real life it was the reverse. It was a dream. I wasn’t going to die in four days. 

Or was I?

My Irish and Welsh ancestry kicked in. My mind became dark peat, a hundred and one stories wriggling through it like nematodes of doom.  Dreams can be warnings. And looked what happened to Caesar and William Rufus when they’d ignored their own portents and dreams?

By my second cup of tea I was compiling a bucket list – always a challenge when you have only four days.

By my third cup of tea I had second thoughts. I remembered reading about witch-doctors who could kill from a distance by auto suggestion – the mere sending and receiving of the appropriate Juju being enough to knock a man off his perch. Was I not doing precisely this with my truncated bucket list? What would happen on my last sip of Lagavulin on Sunday night?

Still…Some of what I had planned was more than inviting. Perhaps I could sneak up on them – a cheeky sip of Lagavulin – spur of the moment kind of thing - the rare grilled steak, the vindalooo? Kick the bucket away - see what fell out – pick up a couple of things and hope the dark gods weren’t watching. 

Well, I have between now and Sunday night to see if the plan works. In the mean time what’s left of my rational mind is working overtime – death in four days - a subliminal warning that England will be knocked out the world cup tonight and be taking the Sunday flight home?

 I can live with that.

In the meantime onto happier things, and a different Sunday.
Last Sunday, being Father’s day, I received two presents and two cards, which showed me once again how well my children know me – and how I’ve learnt to live with disrespect. 

 Led Zeppelin. I could have linked Stairway to Heaven, still one of my favourites, but perhaps predictable. This is my current favourite, featuring Sandy Denny in the Battle of Evermore.

 Ah, the Lagavulin - A Birthday present from my beautiful children - and still some left for Sunday  night.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Storm in a Bookcase

We were drinking tea in a small flat in Paddington when, without thinking I asked my daughter what she thought of Michael Gove’s (Education Secretary) modification of the English curriculum. The demise of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Mice and Men’ in the C20th module has caused most excitement. The way it’s been reported and commented on in the media elevates this tweak to the burning of the Alexandrine Library.
My daughter is articulate and open-minded, a skilled debater. She is also of that generation who both studied To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed it, and so, in this respect, is positively biased. You could argue that I am negatively biased in not having studied and enjoyed Harper Lee’s book – though I still remember my set book, H.G Wells’ Mr Kipps, with a degree of affection. 

She argued that Michael Gove’s decision that the C20th module in the English Curriculum be restricted to British authors was limiting and that English was richer and greater than that.

I argued that having the same two books on the curriculum for decades was in itself limiting and deprived children from exploring the great British canon from 1900 to 1980. 

She argued that restricting children to studying their own culture only was chauvinistic and parochial. She had been stimulated and learnt a huge amount of a time and culture previously unknown to her.

I argued that American culture is more than accessible in music and film. Studying To Kill a Mocking Bird merely added another layer to an already familiar terrain. I pursued my advantage – or so I thought. It was British culture that was being submerged and hence unfamiliar. What about the great interwar novels and themes? What about Arnold Bennet, his depiction of life in the Potteries? George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in London and Paris? Laurie Lee?

She looked at me suspiciously. “Are they interesting?

Sticky wicket territory. “Orwell is,” I said. “And Lee. Anyway what about Monica Ali’s Brick Lane – modern multicultural London?”

“We don’t want to read about our own culture, and besides it gives those who live in these places-”

“What places?”

“-Brick Lane, the East End…the Potteries - the advantage over those who live somewhere else.” She warmed to her theme. “Studying 1950’s Mississippi is not only interesting, it’s fairer. It’s unfamiliar territory for everyone. And it unites generations.”

“Come again?”

“Well if everyone studies Mocking Bird you have a common reference point for people of all ages.”

Neither of us wished to draw blood and so the argument ended, and we went for a walk along Regents Canal.

It may well be that C20th American literature is more powerful and diverse than its British counterpart, but I suspect that something less worthy is at play – other than political point scoring. Gove has been accused of wanting to restrict our students to just British literature, but it seems to me that schools and exam boards have been equally restrictive. They have, in effect, shot themselves in the foot. If American and Commonwealth literature is so good, which it is, why haven’t they explored its diversity and richness instead of limiting themselves to just two books over the years? 

Inertia and playing the system comes to mind. And these are understandable motives.

I’ve taught the equivalent students C16th and C17th British and European history, C19th Economic and Social History, and C20th World History. And each time the syllabus changed I groaned, knowing I’d be spending my summer holidays reading up, studying specimen exam papers and making fresh notes. I groaned loudest of all over Economic and Social History. Economic and Social History is not sexy. C20th history is sexy. Hitler could have been made for the classroom. 

But even here hard choices are made when it comes to choosing from the various modules. There are two factors involved in that choice: ‘interest’ and ‘simplicity’. American history is a popular choice because it is more ‘accessible’ (read ‘easier’) than the Russian module. Similarly ‘Mice and Men’ is a shorter book than ‘Mocking Bird.’ 

History teachers are under immense pressure to cherry pick and ‘pimp’ history in order to maximise exam results. In this respect History has been criticised for turning out generations of school children knowing only about Hitler, World War II and Henry VIII. It’s an exaggeration but to the extent it is true you can at least argue that these topics shaped cultures and worlds. The question is whether this is true of Mocking Bird and Mice and Men or are we hearing the squeals of those who don’t like change and who understandably fear the added pressure it will bring on league tables and exam results?  And yes I've been there. I've got the T Shirt. Several of them.
These thoughts are voiced in my daughter’s absence because I know she’d have a riposte which would cause me to think again. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Kettle

  I was pouring hot water into a teapot when I noticed a small black object floating in the kettle. It was hard to work out what it was but its function soon became obvious. The kettle lid would no longer stay shut. The moment you released a restraining finger it shot up on its hinge like a jack-in-a-box. 

What to do?

String noosed over kettle and lid? Possible but fiddly. 

I decided on a saucepan lid, its weight sufficient to hold the kettle lid in place. It  was working just fine when, just before boiling point it slid off, hit the floor, and gave the game away in a clang. Metal on ceramic makes one hell of a clang.

“What’s that?” The voice of my beloved in the other room. 


Well that worked but I knew it was only a matter of time. Still, time is pretty elastic. If I could just balance the pan lid more firmly on the kettle lid…

Eventually I got it – with the help of a coffee pot and an adjacent toaster. Kettle worked like a dream and I was feeling inordinately proud. 

Only time wasn’t elastic enough.

My Heath Robinson solution was discovered and what I feared came to pass. 

“We need a new kettle.”

“We could use a saucepan to boil water. My friend Dick in Sweden used a saucepan for twenty years or more and he’s a genius.”

I didn’t wait for her obvious rejoinder. “We need a new kettle,” I said.

And that was how we ended up in a supermarket studying kettles -  and where I discovered yet another layer of human perversity. Most of the kettles varied in price between £14 and £16 and I was scratching my head trying to work out how each one was different from the other. The boxes offered clues but few that made sense. 

“That one looks nice.”

It did. It was brushed steel and it cost £30. 

My Achilles heel kicked into action – a weird metaphor unless you’re a footballer. I’m a sucker for the expensive. A natural hoarder and make-do-and mend - but a sucker for quality when pushed into spending.

We examined both kettle and box, comparing it with its competitors. Thing is, it boiled water.  Apart from its sleek brushed steel look it had nothing the other kettles lacked. Worse, it didn’t have that little blue light that shows you when its boiling and switches off when the boiling is done. Our last kettle had that little blue light and it gave the bubbling liquid an unearthly blue glow, which I liked. 

Still. £30. It had to be better. We both agreed on it, and went to Checkout. 

“That’ll be £18,” the lady said.

On a good day I’m honest. It was one of those days. “It’s £30,” I said.

“No £18.” She pointed at the barcode. “£18.” She said it again.

And therein lies the perversity. I discovered it whilst walking to the car park, holding my new kettle.  Shouldn’t I have been delighted to have got a £30 kettle for £18? Thing is, I wasn’t. I wondered what a real £30 kettle would have been like.

Update:  The filter in the spout has just fallen out and we can’t figure out how to re-attach it. 
Further update: We've just broken the filter. The water still boils. But I miss that blue light.