Friday, 9 December 2016

Equality matters!

Last night, amidst reporting on the Supreme Court meeting about Brexit - all rather inconclusive since they have heard all the evidence and now need to go away and deliberate on it - BBC's Newsnight did a feature on Supreme Court judges.

They began with the profile of a Supreme Court Judge: old, white and male. Old is understandable; growing older goes alongside gaining experience. The young may have a mass of knowledge and lots of great ideas but amassing experience takes time. White and male, however, are categories of a different kind. Among the 11 Supreme Court Judges there is only one woman, Lady Hale. To a man (and one woman) they seem to have studied at top universities: mostly Oxford and Cambridge with Queen's University Belfast and Edinburgh in there as well. Ethnic minorities are not represented at all. Since women and ethnic minorities are apparently increasingly well represented in lower echelons of the justice system, it could be argued that in time the situation will remedy itself. However, those involved in the discussion felt that this might quite simply be too slow. Some kind of positive discrimination may be needed to speed up the process of change.

Rajesh Agrawal, London's Deputy Mayor for Business (who knew that London had a range of deputy mayors?) argued that even though the Supreme Court Judges may be very learned and honest and truly strive to be unbiased in their judgments, they still can only see the world from their own perspective. Their predominantly white, male, expensively, and often privately, educated perspective. His experience as a member of an ethnic minority makes him see the world differently. Similarly a woman sees the world from another, different perspective. For the Supreme Court to be truly representative of our modern UK society, it needs to have some Justices who see the world from those other perspectives.

Coincidentally, on the subject of equality, I was talking to our son last night. The purpose of my phone call was really to do with arrangement for their Christmas visit and a check to see if there was anything specific that they might like us to buy for their small daughter. As regards that question the answer is nothing too big as they have to carry stuff back in quite a small car. Anything to do with arts and crafts will go down a storm. Also appreciated are things involving construction; she likes to build. And books, of course, but stories in which the prime mover and shaker is female. None of these females who rely on being pretty and need rescuing by the prince!

In fact, at not quite three years old, she has begun to alter the stories she hears. Heroes change their names and become heroines. Events are turned around. Dragons become more believable dinosaurs. Reading bedtime stories to her has become more complicated as you have to remember the changes that have been worked on the storyline in question. She has been adapting the male-dominated world to her own specifications.

Fantastic! At almost three she is already determinedly protesting about gender inequality!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Maintaining standards!

I understand that cricket is going through a behaviour crisis. One part of a report says, “The decline in behaviour in the recreational game is having an adverse effect on the availability and willingness of people wanting to stand as umpires." And so there is a plan to introduce a red-card penalty into the laws of cricket, giving umpires the power to send off a player in the most extreme cases of on-field breaches of discipline. They want to be able to give red cards for “threatening an umpire, physically assaulting another player, umpire, official or spectator, or any other act of violence on the field of play”. Do such things really go on on the cricket pitch?

Who knew that things could come to such a pretty pass? Cricket has always seemed to me such a gentlemanly game. Of course, I am still thinking of long-lasting games on the greensward, with players in their cricket whites, ladies in sunhats and sunglasses watching the proceedings, perhaps doing their knitting or reading a novel in the quiet times, and a genteel tea being served to players and spectators at some point half way through the game.

And now, of course, we have teams who play in all sorts of colours and, apparently, there is bad behaviour on the pitch. It's rather like having people boo at Wimbledon, something which has also happened. Cricket and tennis always used to be above that sort of behaviour! Such a shame!

One of the sixth form colleges where I used to work introduced a red-card system as part of disciplinary practice. Students who were frequently absent or late, failed to pull their weight in class or to complete homework assignments, or committed much more heinous crimes were given a yellow card as a warning and then a red card if they failed to improve. Continued failure to improve could, in the end, lead to suspension or, in extreme cases, expulsion. Mostly it seemed to work. Sixth form colleges, after all, are made up largely of youngsters who have chosen to be there. Some have had their arms twisted by parents to persuade them to attend but, on the whole, they are voluntary and just need a bit of a reminder to stay on the straight and narrow. But if you can't rebel a little when you are in your mid to late teens, then it's a poor do. Most of us have to conform to life's expectations for such a long time after the teenage years are over!

As regards conforming, we should try to keep up good old British traditions, such as dunking biscuits in cups of tea and coffee. Once long ago, returning from a college trip to Spain with a bunch of students and teachers, I sat in an airport cafe, possibly at Barcelona, absentmindedly dunking my breakfast croissant in my coffee - actually a very French thing as well as a British thing. One of the younger teachers looked at me in horror, unable to believe that a respectable, fairly senior teacher could be setting such a poor example. And yet it is such a quintessentially British thing to do. However, according to this article the custom may be in danger of dying out because too many people are buying inferior imported American biscuits such as Oreos instead of good old British digestive and rich tea biscuits.

It's just not cricket!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Leaves and grass and photos.

This morning Phil looked out of the window and stated that he wanted to look out on green, not green with brown splodges. And so, after breakfast, we went out with rakes and gathered together all the fallen leaves. Now they are all in a soggy pile behind the fence at the bottom of the garden. Of course, we could have a dry spell, so that they can all dry out, followed by a windy spell and the leaves could end up all over the grass once again. Perhaps we should have organised a smoky bonfire.

Raking leaves off grass is not unlike combing tangles out of a small girl's hair. Slow and gentle works best. If you try to go too fast, you end up pulling out great clumps. Not good in either case. Although the grass does not protest quite so loudly as the small girl. The grass - I hesitate to call it a lawn - looks a lot better. Well, a lot greener!

Someone who has been trying to look her best is our PM, Theresa May. Ready to have her picture taken for the Sunday Times, she donned a pair of leather trousers (£995) and a pair of Burberry trainers (£295). The article which gave me this information did not mention how much her jumper cost; I can only assume it was equally expensive. She has been criticised for wearing these items, on the grounds that this shows she is out of touch with the general public. There is a part of me that agrees with this. Our parliamentarians - and those of all democracies - should not be spending huge amounts on clothes in times of austerity. There is absolutely no need for politicians to be wearing designer clothes! However, if you are going to wear leather trousers - never a good idea in my opinion - then they have to be good quality. And here's another "however": I have yet to hear of a male politician being criticised for wearing a suit that cost over £1000!

Here's a bit more nonsense. Yesterday an Italian friend of mine told us, in despair and incredulity, that she had heard on the radio on her way to work that Nigel Farage was going to appear on the cover of Time Magazine as their "Man of the Year". I checked: the former UKIP leader featured alongside the likes of US President-elect Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, scientists who have developed technology to edit DNA and Beyonce among the finalists for "Person of the Year". It seems that the American news magazine gives Mr Farage much of the credit for Brexit. Well ....

My investigations also revealed that Nigel Farage has been named “Briton of the year” by The Times, which hailed his “game-changing” politics. I wonder if they also hailed the role of the media in giving him lots of publicity! So much for British values!

There was a hiatus in production of this post while I sorted put a load of financial paperwork. As sometimes happens - too often for my liking - when Phil asks me to verify something about our finances, I go to the files, only to find at they are inexplicably in a mess. Loads of stuff has not been put where it belongs and needs sorting. Phil then laughs at me for getting somewhat stressed about this. He does not, however, volunteer to sort it in my place! This happened again today!

During that time, it transpires that Donald Trump is the one to appear as Man of the Year on the front of Time Magazine. How did that happen? Does he have shares in Time Magazine?

2016 has been quite a year. And there are still a few weeks to go!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Remembering stuff.

Over breakfast we usually catch up with email, Facebook (just me, as Phil is still a Facebook refusenik), the newspapers and suchlike. No, we are not completely antisocial; we are not one of those couples who sit in restaurants so busy with their mobile phones that they never say a word to each other. We comment on items of interest that we find, recommend articles to each other and generally swop and share stuff. All of this while consuming coffee and cereal and toast. We can multi-task!

And so this morning Phil informed me that chess Grand Master Timur Gareyev had broken the simultaneous blindfold chess-playing record. As a rule he does not share chess news with me but we met this odd young man in Portugal last year so he knew that I would be interested.

For those who do not know, playing blindfold means that you do not look at the board while playing. Your opponent tells you his move, you remember the state of the board, perhaps visualising it in your head, and then tell him your move. And so on. Doing this with one game at a time is clever stuff but over the last weekend young Timur Garayev played blindfold simultaneously against 48 opponents, winning 35, drawing 7 and losing 6.

Now, I call that pretty impressive, considering that some people have trouble remembering what they upstairs for!

We met Timur Gareyev, as I said, in Figueira da Foz in Portugal last year, when Phil was playing in the chess tournament there. I immediately thought he fitted into the category of "slightly odd chess player", although not as odd as some I have met. (No offence to chess players is intended ; every sport has its obsessives and eccentrics. I just happen to have met a fair few of the chess type.) Quite tall and skinny, he was full of a nervous energy, verging on manic, and frequently grinning. He seemed to be full of a sense of fun and appeared to be really enjoying life.

Looking up details of his record breaking, I came across this description by an American called Eric Vigil:

 "I had met GM Gareyev at the US Open in August in Indianapolis, Indiana where he had punked me out on Monday morning. He was wandering around the lobby at 7am. I had just gotten back from my daily constitutional, and he asked me where the Hotel’s restaurant was, as he needed to get some breakfast. He was an awful skinny guy and I thought he needed some food.

He then noticed my shirt with the Weber Elementary Chess Club of Iowa City, Iowa on it, and asked if I coached chess. I answered yes and we started off on a chess discussion. This young man seems very interested in chess I thought. I offered to buy him a US Chess membership and provide him with the tournament entry fees for the Quad.

He looked at me and in a very serious tone said, “Those crooks at US Chess would just be stealing your money!” then went on to say he would just win all the money at the quads and it would not be fair. I thought this young man is pretty full of himself. “Are you sure?” I asked, “Do you have something against playing rated chess?”

At that point another person came up and asked GM Gareyev for a selfie picture… DAWG! I was just swindled as GM Gareyev was pretending to be an average Joe. GM Gareyev was very gracious and came back with me to the breakfast area of our hotel and played my roommates in some blitz chess and talked up many of the delegates to the US Chess meeting."

That sounds just like the young man we met!

Memory is a strange thing though. It can be trained and improved. Phil said his personal record for simultaneous blindfold chess was five games at a time. I have seen his perform this party piece. Who knows how many he might have managed if he had decided to train himself up to it? I am always impressed at the way he can remember details of the moves in games played years and years ago.

But then, people have often asked me how I remember the grammar rules and vocabulary for the various languages I speak. It's just one of those things I can do; my brain and memory have programmed themselves that way. When I have been asked how I manage not to confuse the languages - a problem I have never really had - I explain that I think of it as having separate compartments in my head: a kind of box for each language I speak.

We see musicians playing lengthy pieces of music without reference to the score. Singers go through a repertoire of maybe twenty or thirty songs in a performance, without a songsheet there to remind them of the words. Only once or twice have I heard a singer say they did not know the words and in each case it has been a new song.

All of these feats of memory impress me greatly, especially as I sometimes fit into the grandma stereotype of having to go through the whole list of family names before coming up with the correct one!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Education and results.

Our daughter-in-law has been teaching their small daughter Spanish. All was going well. The little girl was having fun. This morning I received a text message. One stage of the learning had gone like this:

Mummy: Grandma speaks Spanish, doesn't she?
Little girl: Yes.
Mummy: Hola, abuela.
Little girl: Hola, umbrella.

I love the logic of the small child's brain. Faced with a new-sounding word, the brain substitutes a familiar word. Fantastic. Years ago, when our first granddaughter, now a very grown-up 19, was just a little, two-year-old dot of a thing, there was a song around called "I need a miracle". The small person, nicely in tune, sang out, "I'm in America". Brains are wonderful!

On the subject of education, Phil read out a headline to me: "Graduate sues Oxford University for £1m over his failure to get a first".

Well, I thought, it was bound to happen sometime. We live in a litigious society. I have to say that I thought the first case would be a pushy parent suing a sixth form college because their super-intelligent offspring had not achieved high enough grades at A-Level. I was really only surprised that it had not happened sooner.

And then I read the article. It turns out that the graduate in question received his degree 16 years ago. He then trained as a solicitor and did not have so successful a career as he expected. Apparently he believes he would have had a career as an international commercial lawyer if he had been awarded a first rather than the 2:1 he achieved 16 years ago. And he blames his teachers! According to his lawyer, he suffers from insomnia and depression because he did not achieve his first class degree. 

Oxford is largely dismissing the charge since it all happened so long ago. I tend to agree with them. Surely, if he was going to suffer from insomnia and depression because he did not do well academically, his symptoms would have manifested themselves long ago.

A rather more important court case is going on at present. The government is trying once more to sort out the rights and wrongs of the methodology for getting us put of the EU. We wait to see the outcome!

Meanwhile, I was beginning to feel a little more optimistic about things when Austria did not vote in the right wing candidate. But then the results of the Italian constitutional referendum came out this morning and it would seem that the lunatics continue in charge of the asylum. My mother always said that bad things come along in threes. 

The writer of this article believes that Renzi's defeat is not in the same class as Brexit and Trump but my Italian friends are very upset about it.

Once again, we shall wait and see.

Sunday, 4 December 2016


I have listened to several items on the radio this last week about boredom. The general consensus seems to be that being bored is good for a body. It gives you time to think, to reflect, in some cases to write poetry. Writers they spoke to said that it was in those moments of "boredom" that they had their best ideas. We are told we should not fill children's time up with wall to wall activity; they need some time to invent their own activities, to play imaginative games.

 Okay, this is all well and good but I don't think they are talking about boredom. You can be very busy, have a load of stuff to do and be bored out of your tree. Or you can snatch a period of time out of your busy schedule and do nothing. That is not the same as boredom.

I don't think I have been bored for a long, long time. I can remember as a young child, in summer holidays, telling my mother I was bored. What it meant was that I had not decided what to do with myself and my time. And since then, I have never really been bored, occasionally frustrated but never bored. Waiting in an airport because your plane has been delayed is more frustrating than boring. You just have to make sure you have reading matter, stuff to think about.

It's a bit like sadness. How much of the great poetry or beautiful songs would have never been written in there were no sadness in the world. Maybe we just need some down time to appreciate when we are really feeling good.

And certainly we need some time to do nothing so that we can appreciate the stuff that we fill our busy lives with.

That's my take on it, anyway.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Knowledgeable gnomes and speedy Santas.

Yesterday evening I was invited to a friend's birthday celebration in Manchester. So off I went, despite the fact that, like Cinders, I would have to leave the party early, not because my frock would turn to rags and tatters but because of the stupid bus service, of which more later, although not MY rant this time. The pub was noisy, as you might expect, but it was good to catch up with old friends and colleagues. 

As I left the pub and walked along Deansgate, I serendipitously came across another group of old friends and colleagues, who had been having a departmental Christmas meal and were on their way to greet the birthday boy. Lots of grown-up people getting excited and hugging in the middle of the street! Splendid!   

I scuttled away to catch a tram to Victoria station, followed by a tram to Oldham Mumps, keeping my fingers crossed that I would manage to arrive there before the last bus left. With only two minutes to go when I reached Oldham Mumps, I was a little anxious that the bus might have left early, not unusual on our route. But all was well.    

At the stop was a small, rather gnome-like gentleman. Now, I will happily initiate conversation on public transport, on  train platforms  and at tram and bus stops. This gnome-like man was clearly of the same turn of mind. He enquired which bus I was waiting for - the same one he was planning to catch - and, after reassuring me that it had not yet gone, went into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that the last bus from Oldham centre to Saddleworth leaves at 10.28. After all, they have just opened a new cinema complex in the town centre and their last showing finishes at 10.30!!! Why is this allowed to happen? Thus he ranted on and on until the bus arrived.   

On the bus he continued, to my amusement. He asked if I knew who owned the local bus companies. No idea! Not something I have researched! Well, he told me, one of them belongs to an American company, the one that runs Greyhound buses all over the States. Billionaires! So any suggestion that they don't run more frequent and later buses because few people use them and they can't afford not to make a profit is a lot of nonsense. Another company is owned by the German public transport network. They can afford to subsidise their transport system, he told me, because they make a profit from the privately-owned services they run in the UK!    

All of this I took with a pinch of salt, especially as he further went on to tell me that the bus company does not bother to train drivers who are new to a route but simply tell them to work it put and, if they are stuck, ask a passenger; they usually know the route! Now, this I know to be untrue as I have travelled on buses where new drivers are accompanied by a trainer. However, it was an amusing bus-ride home!    

And it would not really surprise me to discover that our bus services are foreign-owned. After all, EDF is a French electricity company and the Chinese are building a nuclear power station here. So it goes!    

Today I walked to the local supermarket at Greenfield, another of the Saddleworth villages. All along my route I kept coming across masses of skinny Santas! What was going on? Then I remembered that today there is a fun run: the Saddleworth Santa Dash. Consequently, there were Santas of both genders, of varying heights and ages but almost all skinny runners; very few traditionally plump Santas. They seemed to be organised in teams according to the area they came from. Near to the supermarket, the Greenfield Santas were busily donning orange beards. Look carefully at the photo. Perhaps they have discovered that Santa has Celtic origins. Perhaps they want to counteract the prejudice against ginger folk.    

Despite the fact that my bus journey back from the supermarket was somewhat slowed down by this surfeit of Santas, I can only applaud the Christmas spirit and hope they made a lot of money for charity!