Friday, April 21, 2006

Wee Jockey

Off next week to Scotland. Some friends are coming over from America so I am doing my famous three day tour of the Scottish highlights. Day One: travel to Edinburgh by train – see as much as possible in just 4-5 hours. To include the Royal Mile, Holyrood House and all sights in between. Day Two: St. Andrew's to see the Old Course then drive to Inverness – stopping along the way to view suitable sights. Stay in Inverness Day Three: The Highlands via the Great Glen and Loch Ness – stay in Ft. William. Day Four: drive to Glasgow via Loch Lomond. There you go. Done it. Seen it. Got the T shirt.

Of course, you cannot really do a whole country justice in just three days - but this is as close as you are likely to get.

I like Scotland. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I like it. Mind you, I have only ever been there in the summer and it's only April. I have forewarned the thin-blooded folks from Missouri to bring plenty of warm clothes. There will be plenty of snow on the hills and it will probably rain for the whole of our trip. Nevertheless, I like Scotland. I've no time for the weather, but I like it just the same. Both my grandparents on my mother's side of the family were from Glasgow. I'm really one quarter Scots – by birth.

Scots are fine people even though they talk funny. More oddly rather than actually humorously. It will be interesting to see if the home folks are able to communicate with them. It will depend on the calibre of Scot we encounter. Educated Scottish yuppies from Edinburgh should be fine. Working class scum from the Gorbals may be problematical in the extreme.

One of my favourite TV programs about Scots is Rab C. Nesbitt. I used it in English lessons as an example of dialect. Put on the video of Rab swapping places and life-styles with a Tory MP and the contrast could not be more pronounced. Also, it's one of the funniest programmes you are ever likely to see. Kids, of course, seldom get it without a translation. Then, they find it very funny. Get the video if possible. It's hard to understand, but you get a real appreciation of how difficult it is to communicate with an un-educated Scotsman.

I taught one of those as well. Name: Kevin MacFarlane. AKA: Jockey McFarlane. For some unknown reason his parents sent him to our school – hoping, perhaps, that he might learn English. He said to me one day in an English lesson, “How am I supposed to do this work? I'm no even English.” Jockey was an unintentional Scots nationalist.

He had only been at the school for a few days when I happened to discuss him with some of my colleagues at lunch. We all agreed that he was not coping too well with the idea of doing school work. It must have been an alien concept where he came from. As luck would have it, two fellow-teachers and I happened to stumble across Jockey on the way out of the lunch room. So, the three of us surrounded him and (very gently) began to question him about his apparent lack of interest/effort and progress. He stood very still – listening – for all of a minute. Then, he turned red in the face and before storming off berated all three of us in no uncertain terms by shouting, “I'm no even f***** having this!” He was a character. Hope he turned out Ok, but I wouldn't like to bet on it. He wasn't with us very long.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Schools Part Deux

As promised, some solutions to the problems besetting our schools. But first - a disturbing anecdote. Whilst the BBC's Newsnight was reporting on the teachers' conference season, they recruited a Teacher of the Year to commentate. The reporter told us how one teacher had been “mooned” in class - a la Bart Simpson. Teacher of the Year's comment: he thought it was fairly funny! Well, in my book, that just about sums up the worth of the Teacher of the Year Awards.

Teaching is hard work. Very hard work. On a day when it was reported that GP's are making 100,000 a year, teaching looks less and less an attractive career to graduates. Unlike most professions, teaching has actually become more difficult as the years roll by. Exhausted, over-age teachers are (quite rightly) queueing up for early retirement. Why should this be so?

Sociology - in one word – and demographics – a bit. The world had changed beyond recognition, sociologically, since my generation was at school. Since the 1960's parents have been able to regulate their reproduction in a way never thought possible by their parents. In the 40's and 50's family size was governed by the vagarities of human reproduction. Invariably families were larger.

What effect did this have on schools? Children arrived at school from the late 60's, 70's, 80's and onwards with a completely different idea of their position within the family and society. Because there were fewer children per family; children became, by definition, a much more precious commodity. Of course, all children are precious. But, this is a recent phenomenon. Previous generations did not become so “attached” to their children for the simple reason that they knew that most of they would die before they reached the age of five. I'm not talking about the Middle Ages! Before WWII and the advent of mass produced antibiotics children died by the millions from diseases now thought to be just an inconvenience. When a child dies of measles today - it's a tragedy. Millions died from measles, influenza, whooping cough, polio, and mumps only 90 years ago and it was an accepted part of the human condition. Children died from blood poisoning after falling down and scratching their knee.

In those circumstances it is not uncaring or reprehensible to contemplate parents who simply could not afford to become too attached to their children. It was not abuse or neglect - simple survival skills. Grief-stricken parents make poor providers for the rest of their offspring.

Teaching the children who did survive in school was, by comparison, an easier task; for they had no real concept of their “importance”. They did not think of themselves as particularly special or unique. They were much more likely to view adults as “law-givers” rather than as objects to be mooned.

Society viewed the children of the 30's, 40's and 50's as raw material to be shaped by the teachers into useful members of the community. After the 60's parents began look on their offspring as unique and a reflection of their own worth. In this new regime teachers were on a loser. Criticising children became synonymous with criticising their parents. Whilst parents could afford to have a few “also-rans” in the family success stakes this was not a problem. But, as soon as children became fewer and more precious, criticism was out. If there was a problem, it was the teacher's fault. Teachers lost their most valuable asset in the classroom - the parents.

I promised solutions. Here's a simple one: put CCTV cameras in every classroom and hold pupils and parents responsible for what the camera discloses about pupil behaviour. Following agreed guidelines and procedures expel permanently pupils who can not meet a minimum of sociability – and do not provide any alternative educational provision. Might get the parents back on board!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Foxes and Hedgehogs

An enduring constant running through all sport is the role of the pundit – or “expert” as he is sometimes known. These are the chaps who will not only tell you what is going on in your team's camp, but also provide you with in-depth analysis of the reasons why it is happening. Witness today's commentary on the betting habits of one Wayne (the Munchkin masquerading as a Bash Street Kid) Rooney. Apparently our World Cup hope is in hot water with Sven the Swede because he loses money to the bookies faster than Swen can chat up an FA Assistant. Fortunately we have the pundits of the press and television to keep us informed about these crucial developments. Football commentators are, by and large, foxes.

Unlike football, Cricket is uniquely and fortunately endowed with experts. Cricket coverage on either TV or radio features a plethora of ex-players who are ready to analyse and comment on every aspect of the game. And, they will do it in such a pleasant way as to make the commentators seem part of the game itself. Listening to their comments and explanations becomes as important as the game itself. Who could ever forget the great John Arlott? I'm sure his commentary on the grass growing would have kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Peter Aliss performs the same function for golf. For football? John Motson? Never in the same stadia – never mind the same league. Andy Gray – or, as he is better known, Scottish refugee from the boot room. Remember The Boot Room with Andy? Sky started this with its football coverage. Two hours of Andy Gray talking about football and drawing diagrams on a whiteboard could send you comatose. Lucky for the viewers they included a segment where Andy moved little Subuteo footballers around a green sheet to simulate tactics. Riveting stuff – if you are functionally brain dead. Good thing The Boot Room only lasted a season or so and no-one, I mean no-one, ever mentions it. At all. Ever.

Cricket commentators are, by contrast, almost universally admired and respected. Partly this is to with their position in the hierarchy of the game. Almost all are past players who had very successful careers. So, when they give expert opinion – the viewers are disposed to believe that they know what they are talking about. And, they are so cosmopolitan, like the game itself. Watching an England game involves the opinions of English commentators, the other teams commentators and some neutral commentators. Very cosmo and very commendable. Imagine doing this with football. About the only foreign commentary heard about a football match is that inane footage of some South American nutters screaming, very loudly, a long (and I mean long) drawn out scream that eventually ends in “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOALLLLLLLLL!” Gormless or what?

By now, the more observant reader will be asking, “What has this to do with foxes and hedgehogs?”

Well, for some unknown reason, I ran across this saying from an obscure, ancient, Greek philosopher and decided to blog about it.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Archilochus (7th-century b.c.e.)

Can you spot the connection between Archilochus and the modern pundit? Hope so, or I have been wasting my time.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Public Inquiries

Monstra mihi pecuniam

One of the most enduring, and annoying, aspects of modern life is the iniquitous and omnipresent call for a public inquiry whenever something goes wrong. Incidentally, either spelling - “inquiry” or “enquiry” are correct in general usage. Whenever there is a problem – perceived or real – you can bet someone, somewhere will be calling for a public inquiry. These calls are seldom granted. Why?

Mostly because the government or powers that be are not all that keen to spend lots of money on something that is likely to be critical of them and take a long time; thereby keeping the “problem” in the public eye for far longer than usual. There is some justification for this position as it is the taxpayer who eventually has to foot the bill. Thank the government for saving our money. Really, I mean it – thanks a lot.

There are times when the call for a public inquiry is justified and should be granted. For example, rail safety. After crashes at Ladbroke Grove and Southall, public inquiries were held and recommendations were made. How scandalous is it then that no such scrutiny into the deaths of rail passengers, whose only “fault” is crossing the tracks in an effort to reach their train, has ever been held? This is where our money could be usefully spent in exposing the monumental complacency, bordering (in my opinion) on criminality, of Network Rail. A public enquiry might shed light on how much it would really cost to ensure that there were safe crossing places at every station. Until then, we're stuck with the ridiculous estimated of the cost involved given out by Network Rail to disguise their incompetence. Let's have a public enquiry.

Another prime candidate for public inquiry status is the deaths of trainee soldiers at Deep Cut barracks. Briefly, four recruits were found dead at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. Army investigators said suicide. This is in spite of the fact that one of the soldiers was shot twice in the head (hard to do you'd think?) and another was shot twice in the chest with a shotgun. Yeah, right! This is a classic of its type. The government will not order a public inquiry because it's just possible that a) ministers may be found responsible for a cover-up and b) it could cost lots of money. It's a monumental scandal. Let's have a public inquiry.

While I'm badgering, hectoring mode, let's return (only figuratively) to the Thickthorne roundabout. Roundabout lovers in or near Norwich know this one well. Thickthorne is the most expensive roundabout in English road-building history (I bet I can prove this if tackled – anyone want to bet?). It has gobbled up more money and provided fewer ecstatic driving experiences than any other bit of road engineering in the world. Why can't we have a public inquiry into the waste of money at Thickthorne and, just for fun, throw in the lack of motorway links out of the county of Norfolk. This would be money well spent. Let's have a public inquiry.

Finally, We desperately need to find out where the news footage of coppers charging through a locked door comes from? You know the scenario. News comes on. Item reported about a drug raid/raid on a prostitution ring/Mr Big arrested/God knows what. Film clip shows many large coppers with helmets and visors charging through a door and up a flight of stairs. Come on. You've all seen it. And, the coppers are always immaculately dressed and poised for action. Now. Here's the question. Where do they get the large, metal battering ram that they use to smash the door down? Is there a company that makes these things? If so, what is it called? Rams R Us? Batter My Door Down? Wack-Um & Smack-Um? I want to know. Let's have a public inquiry.