Welsh Windbag

It’s always nice to get away for a few days. But it’s not quite so good when the weather is simply atrocious. It’s been pissing down with frequent bouts of torrential rain for days now, which has certainly put the cap on this summer being, to my memory, the worst ever. August has been a complete washout. July was fine for about three weeks of it, but June was a disappointment as well. And you just know it is not going to be long until we’re back to freezing cold days as usual. Sigh.

I spent the weekend with my family in Wales, and most of that time was spent holed up indoors because of the conditions. It was meant to be a celebration for my brother’s good GCSE results, but it’s hard to escape the fact that he spent most of the time indoors watching Sky Sports News or on the X-Box. It was a relief that he did better than expected, as we were all worried that his revision was not particularly extensive. I was also a bit guilty that I could have helped him out more to get some better marks, but in the end it wasn’t relevant.

I think the best part about going to Wales is the fact that where we stay there is a giant open field nearby, on which people like to camp. But they only fill a tiny amount of it, leaving the rest as a vast expanse in which to play games – namely football and cricket. Cricket in particular because of how much space it needs. Back home there is some space, but you just know that someone will manage to find the only garden wall nearby and hit it over it in a freak shot, or worse, an avoidable terribly misdirected throw. It’s just best not to risk it.

It’s only when you play it do you realise that six people is nowhere near enough to cover the areas, and a batsman can stay in for as long as they like if they’re any good. I think of myself as having some ability to bat and bowl, so I don’t mind doing either of them, but it’s frustrating that in the end, because there’s very little prospect of getting people out, you have to offer them some chances to catch in order to give other people a go. I scored 30 the other day and was already bored that no one had had a chance to get me out.

Sometimes it’s tempting just to bat on and on. So, on 30, I decided I’d go for the 50 and then retire not out. The next ball comes to me, beautifully placed for a good cracking. It is duly smashed.

To a fielder. Right down his throat. Worse, it was caught. You can normally rely on some suspect butter fingers to save the day. But not this time. Out for 30, just as I was planning a big one.

Cricket is often cruel like that. But it’s quite a fun game if you keep the pace up. Like I say though, six people just isn’t enough. With one batting, one bowling and one behind the stumps, you only have three fielders left. Nine people is probably the minimum to have a really good game. It is one of my ambitions in life to play in at least a half competitive game of cricket!

Yet, my performance was hampered this weekend by a freak running nose. There is nothing worse that a random runny nose from nowhere. I don’t think it was a cold as there were no other symptoms. My suspicion is that something there was irritating my nose a lot, but I’ve no idea what. All I know is that in Wales my nose was running all the time, and now I’m back home it isn’t. I can’t stand feeling ill.

But all in all, a nice weekend. Unfortunately, none of my supposed future housemates for London have replied to my e-mails which told them we should arrange a meetup in London to view some potential houses. This is quite bad, as it’s now nearly September, and I have nothing lined up, and with little prospect of what’s around the corner.

If I don’t hear from them this week then I’m probably only going to be living with one other person next year. Which means no house, and it will have to be a flat. I didn’t really want to live in a flat…

The Summer of Inaction, Apart From Occasional Visits to Wales to Play Cricket And/Or Watching My Brother’s Football Team Lose, Continues.

(Some) Friends Reunited

Last night I saw a couple of my friends from Sixth Form college for the first time in nearly two years. One of them had a free house so invited the six people in my former-friendship group to have a small drink. Or five. It said a lot about the fact that we were all now moving on in life that only two of us could make it. A shame, because I find it quite depressing how I’ve lost touch with people who I thought were the best friends I’d ever had.

So it turned into a fest of self-pity. I don’t normally drink – I tend to dislike the usual studenty pub crawls – but if I’m safe in someone’s house with a toilet close by (because beer goes right through me) I can relax and have a few. It’s the only time I actually enjoy drinking, because I’m in good company, with good music. Even then though I don’t go overboard. A few cans and a whisky and coke is just right – I know my limits. But last night I had one or two extra whiskys, just for the hell of it.

I’m fine this morning, apart from the poor four hours sleep. But I spent most of the night and the early hours (until 6am!) playing poker (which I’d never played before but found quite enjoyable) and putting the world to rights, as well as listening to the woes of my peers and chucking a few of my own into the mix. The difference here is that these mates of mine all graduated this year, apart from one of them, who enlightened me last night by saying he’d pissed around so much that he is going to start Uni all over again.

So it was interesting to hear people with degrees not having a sodding clue what to do with themselves. No direction, no motivation, no interest in what this country allegedly has to offer. It was all very depressing, especially when we started talking about how bad politics is in the UK, if not across the world. Things are bad, there’s no hope of change, so why bother? No wonder people are becoming more and more selfish.

I hope I don’t end up like that, but I can feel cynicism spreading. It’s why I’m not interested in a political career. But to see people with degrees not with a prospect of getting a good job any time soon is rather frightening. It’s a very different society we live in now. A degree isn’t the passport to success that it used to be.

But overall, it was a good night, and great to catch up with what they were doing. I probably shouldn’t have stayed up so late though. I’m now struggling to stay awake and the muscle fatigue is rising. I’m going to sleep well tonight.

Summer v Summer

It seems a slightly odd notion to most people when I say to them that this summer has been as good as last one, as they wonder what on Earth I’m talking about. How could a summer in Britain be as good as one in the USA?

Well, in truth it probably wasn’t. This summer has rapidly begun to fizzle away, but this could in turn be a good thing. If I had gone back to the USA this summer to do the same thing as I did last year, then I would be back home by now anyway, so I’d be in the same position as I am at the moment.

But what about a direct comparison between the two summers? It’s something I’ve been wondering in the last week or so, and it would be quite valuable for me to work it out.

Last summer I learned a hell of a lot about me. I discovered that I had a lot more confidence and belief in myself that I thought I had. It has set a very high bar which I can say to myself that it is possible for me to reach; it was a lesson to me that if I could just take a risk more often, I can actually cope with whatever is going to come beyond that, and cope well. It was also a lot of fun, and the weather was not bad either!

This summer, however, has been a different experience. I learned from last year, and took a risk on working in a local primary school. That also paid off. I discovered that it was definitely something I’d like to do. I had an idea that I would like to work with children from last year, but this confirmed it for a different age group. I had a lot of fun, but didn’t use all of my talents like I did last year. This was a bit disappointing. Also, the weather was nice for most of July, but it has been atrocious (for a summer) since then. But I did enjoy my time doing what I did; it was unique, it gave me a boost for what I want to do with the rest of my life, and it gave me something to do. On the negative side, it didn’t pay anything, whereas I did make some money out of my American Adventure last year. But it’s not just about money…

On balance, it appears the USA should win. But had I gone away this year, I would have missed my 21st birthday, my cousin’s 18th and my mum and dad’s silver wedding anniversary. This changes things a little. Then there is the fact that this summer in the USA would have been different for the key reason that the director of the unit was going to be someone who I didn’t get on well with last year.

So it’s not as straightforward as it first seems. I think, overall, the USA last summer was better than what I’ve done this summer. But I honestly don’t think it would have been good for me to have gone back again this year… it probably wouldn’t have lived up to expectations, which have now been tainted with the rose-tint of time. I think to myself “was last summer really that good as my memory is telling me?” … particularly when I read some of the posts I made from camp on this blog which are somewhat less glowing about the place than I am in my memory.

It’s tough. Last summer was better – marginally – but this summer was something I just had to do to set me on some sort of direction in life, and it hasn’t worked out too badly.

So now there is another question: should I go back to America next year? It all depends on how things work out in London now…

Media merry-go-round

Ever since the dawn of time, busybodies, armchair (or perhaps “rockchair”) critics and miserable old duffers have complained that the youth of today are whippersnappish upstarts who know too much, where “know too much” is defined as knowing more than them. It is an eternal process – each generation is smarter than the one that went before it. Not necessarily smart in terms of wisdom, streetwise common sense, but smart in terms of the ability to absorb ever increasing amounts of information. This is the so-called information age, after all.

So every year, twice a year, during the media silly season, we put up with stories about how A-Levels and GCSEs are getting easier and easier. Crazy stories are let loose about how it requires only writing your name on the top of the exam paper to score a pass. Then nothing changes.

It happened again this morning, and will happen again next Thursday. I’m sure we’re actually reading the same story every year but with a new date on it. The English-biased media of course conveniently ignore the fact that results in Scotland actually got worse this year, but that doesn’t stop a good old fashioned rant. If results go up, the exams must have got easier. Heaven forbid we would ever credit the youth of today with being pretty smart.

How have they achieved this smartness? Well, first of all, they have been working their arses off for two years, either at GCSE or at A-Level, to get the results they did. Sure there’s time to binge drink, but that makes the achievement even more remarkable. Spend the weekend pissed, spend the week immersed in textbooks, coursework and homework. Top banana. Perhaps the actual cause of binge drinking is that kids don’t have enough to do…

Secondly, they are being taught by teachers who are equally smart, if not more. They see the syllabus, and they see the exam papers, and they get the hints from the examiners meetings, and they are able to make good predictions as to what is going to come up on the exam. In other words, they teach to the test. They are not allowed to care about teaching for the sheer joy of it, or for the love of the subject, since this quickly leads to teaching things which are not “relevant” (by the judgement of the exam boards) and so would result in poor grades. Poor grades equals poor league tables. Poor league tables equals shrinking schools. Shrinking schools equals… you get the picture.

Thirdly, they have been gifted with a system that lends itself to be worked, and worked hard. It is possible to take 12 exams in the first year for 4 AS levels, then take them all again at the end of second year, minus the subject you did worst in. In fact, a lot of students do this because it’s obvious that at the end of the second year you’re more likely to have a good grasp of the material that you did right back at the beginning of the course. This allows grades to rise further, and why not? Everyone deserves a second chance, particularly with the lottery of exams when you could be feeling under-the-weather, or have just had bad luck with the selection of questions that the examiners produced.

Fourthly, there is the obvious point of the specialism of reducing to four subjects, where nothing is compulsory, and everything is picked because of the fact that you’re a) already good at it, and b) already self-motivated enough to want to study it of your own accord. This works an absolute treat.

These all combine to produce ever improving results. Smart kids, taught by smart teachers, in a slightly flimsy system. Maybe exams have got easier, but if they did, it happened a long time ago, way before the media circus on this story began. I did my A-Levels in 2003, and I look at the papers that have happened since then, and there is no doubt in my mind that the difficulty is comparable. In certain subjects, particularly subjective ones like English, Media Studies, Politics, Business Studies, etc. the questions are very similar year in, year out – there’s only so much they can ask on topics when the study of them is very specialised. Then in subjects like Maths, the questions are broadly similar, with just a rejigging of the numbers. In my experience, it happens at degree level as well.

Standards are holding, but they are being seen through too easily. The work levels are higher than ever, particularly since Curriculum 2000. But the system is not evolving to keep up to pace with the clever bastards that the schools are churning out now.

Therein lies the problem. Politicians are obsessed with the so-called “gold standard” of A-Level. Yet there is no good reason why apart from the fact that they don’t want to look like they’re heading for an embarrassing U-turn if they were to scrap the system and start again. But that gold standard has been stagnant for decades.

It is time for it to change. It is terrible for the youth of today, year in, year out, having their hard work rubbished by the media. They deserve better.

Of course, the answer was presented in October 2004 when Mike Tomlinson proposed the replacement of GCSEs and A-Levels with a new qualification which would address all the concerns, restoring confidence in the system, once more allowing for a better discrimination between students, while restoring some elements of basic skills into the system, which have definitely been left behind by the relentless teaching to the exam, narrow syllabuses and the detrimental effect of league tables.

But Tomlinson was ignored, because there was an election on the way, and it would have been humiliating for the government to admit that policy was failing when the public were about to deliver their verdict. Well, some of the public, anyway. Instead, they vowed to go on pretending that all was well when it so blatantly isn’t.

It’s not the kids fault – they can only work with what they’re given, and all the evidence is that they are. They are smarter than they used to be, yet at the same time they are not getting the education they deserve or need to cope in this world in some of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, so we need to raise the bar. The adults are to blame for not being able to think outside the box, to react to the rapidly changing world around us. They owe it to the youth to design a better system that gives them a much fairer and well respected award for all the hard work they’ve put in. Even better, they don’t need to design a system because one has already been designed for them.

They just need to grow a spine instead.

A Tale of Two Guineas

I have always been a rodent person. Animals like cats and dogs tend not to interest me at all, perhaps because of their nuisance factor. Plus, unlike most people, I don’t find either of them very cute, even puppies or kittens. I hate the use of those to sell stuff – think of the Andrex puppy. It appeals to such a base instinct that I consider it an extremely underhand selling tactic. Besides, I wouldn’t even say Andrex was that good…

Anyway, I prefer rodents. This comes as a great annoyance to my mum, who despises them. She has learned to live with our guinea pigs and the few hamsters we used to have, mainly because they don’t have tails or only have short stubby ones. But I could live with gerbils, mice, even rats, quite happily. And one of my more bizarre goals when I’m older is to own a chinchilla.

But back at home, there is trouble a’ brewin’. My sister got a guinea pig for her birthday about four years ago. Then a year later, she got another one, a baby one this time. They lived together quite happily for ages, but it was always clear that the older guinea pig, a slightly miserable duffer, was going to be a little aggrieved when the younger guinea pig finally became bigger than he was, because he liked to boss the baby around.

Unfortunately, it’s now gone too far. The younger guinea pig is now a big, fat thing, clearly bigger than the older one. And also not very pleased with its place in the hierarchy. So, after them living together for a couple of years, they have had to be separated. There is clearly a battle for status going on, as at first there was a fight, which we managed to break up when my dad stuck his hand into the ball of fur that was rolling around viciously.

It’s sad really; they used to be best friends. Now it is very amusing when you pick one up, hold it to the wire fence on the cage and listen to its teeth rattling and chattering as it issues the challenge to the other guinea to come out and fight. Of course, they can’t do anything to each other through the fence, but they give each other a good sniffing as if to say, “You stink”.

The daft thing now is that my sister barely looks after her guinea pigs, and it falls to the rest of us to do the cleaning up and swapping from between the hutch and the garden run. My sister also doesn’t look after her dog, the one she begged for by putting my parents on a guilt trip. Now the dog is a lunatic, barking like mad at anything it finds out of the ordinary, including people, who tend to wear terrified expressions as the dog runs at them, barking, on the couple of times it has escaped out the front door. It would never bite, but you wouldn’t know that. I would be terrified if a dog came at me like it did to a young couple walking past the other day. It hasn’t been trained properly, and it is never likely to be because of the way it has been tormented since we got it.

Personally, I don’t understand why any parent ever gets a pet for any child below, say, the age of 12. The stories of them getting bored with their pets are endless, and all the time the parents end up looking after them. Sigh.

Meanwhile, this godawful August weather continues…

Skin Deep

Of all the injuries that could happen, you would have thought that a small cut would be one of the least inconvenient. Being beheaded, now that would be a major inconvenience. But somehow, a small cut, on the tip of a finger, could be the most ridiculous injury possible. Let me explain…

Yesterday it was training day for my brother’s football team. My dad is now the manager of the team, and so I like to go along every week to give him a hand. It can get a bit out of hand if only one person is there, particularly as the team now has several players who have ADHD.

For training and matches we like to take a load of water bottles for the kids to drink for obvious reasons. They normally get used very well, so it’s become a custom for them to be there. So, in my nice helping way that I have, I got all the water bottles out of the shed yesterday to fill them up.

I got to the sink and noticed that most of the bottles were a little dirty. So I would wash them.

But the sink was full of soapy bubbles and crusts of bread. This was a most unusual discovery. I’ve never seen bread in the sink before. We had just had sandwiches for lunch, and I guessed that one of my siblings, or my nephew, had chucked their crusts in the sink. Why, I don’t know. Probably laziness. They normally leave their plates on the side with all the crusts on. But today, they put them in the sink.

So I had to fish them out. I stuck my hand in and whirled it around, grabbing the crusts – for there were lots of them – squeezing them and putting them in the bin. Once I’d got most of them I stuck my fingers near the plug hole to push the rest of the debris down it.

Mistake. Slash. Ow. I pulled my finger out to a surprising amount of blood. The tip of my middle finger was cut, and because the rest of my hand was wet it looked terrible as the blood had all ran down it. I stuck my other hand in delicately to find the culprit, and it was a small piece of glass in the plughole, the remnants from a broken wine glass the day before.

So my nice intentions to do the water bottles for my dad were ruined by a piece of glass. A piece of glass that I wouldn’t have had to touch if there weren’t crusts in the sink, as there never has been on a previous occasion. Now with a cut finger, bleeding everywhere, there was no way I could carry on with my job.

But this is no ordinary cut. It is on the worst part of the finger possible as no plaster will sit on it properly. It is truly awkward. Sideways, lengthways, diagonally… nope. Just wrong every time.

And it wouldn’t stop bleeding. It still hasn’t properly stopped this morning. I can’t type with it as I leave a trail of blood across the keys I used if I do. I can’t write because it is sore and in exactly the place where I hold a pen. So now I’m walking around with my right hand in an odd shape to avoid touching things with it. Plus, a plaster would be difficult anyway because it would get wet every time I washed my hands.

A minor cut causing ludicrous amounts of hassle. And all stemming from good intentions that went bad because of my lazy siblings, none of whom would admit to the crust-sink incident. And a wine glass that my mum broke while cleaning it, and claimed to have fished all the pieces out yesterday.

The worst of it all? Only one of the kids yesterday actually bothered to have a drink. Normally almost all of them do, and you can bet your bottom dollar that had we not brought water, like we forgot to do two weeks ago, there would have been plenty of moans about being thirsty and needing a drink.

The thing that amazes me about life is how lots of little co-incidences can accumulate to produce a much larger outcome, way beyond the significance it deserves…

Sympathy for the Devilog

Right now I’m utterly fed up of the dog whining. It is bored out of its mind because no one has tortured and tormented it for days.

I’m referring, of course, to the fact that my family has been away. My brother and sister can’t help but annoy the dog, and yet the dog loves it. It will end up growling and play-biting them, and will move away from them, yet it will always come back for more. It seems to be a masochistic dog.

So while they have been away, the dog has got little attention from me. I feed it, let it out for a run in the garden and occasionally make silly tormenting jibes to it myself. The dog knows what the names of my brother and sister are, and so when I shout their names, it immediately launches into a new bout of fretting, whimpering and whining.

Yet, this morning it is doing it automatically and apparently for no reason. I haven’t said anything to it, and it is moaning. Weirdly enough, the family are coming back today. Perhaps it is filled with an impending sense of doom and a grim foreboding, that it’s about to get the living daylights tortured out of it imminently.

It’s been a very dull week. I have achieved nothing but rediscover why I try not to play Football Manager on the PC… it gets me angry and wound up as it shafts me for the umpteenth time as my team, Wrexham, can demolish the best opposition in the league at home and yet struggle against woeful teams a league below in a cup game just because I’m playing away from home. There is definitely something wrong, and it is a shame that it’s taken me over 30 hours of my life to realise it. But I can’t help but want to play it… So addictive…

But there was one other thing. I went to give a blood sample earlier this week as I have been identified as a potential match for someone needing a bone marrow transplant. To be honest, I can’t help but feel selfish in that I don’t want it to match as I don’t want to have to suffer the pain of donating… But I would go through with it anyway if it did. That would at least have made my life worthwhile I suppose!

Meanwhile, I still have no idea where I’m going to live next semester, and have had no indication from my friends that we should start looking any time soon. Suddenly I have some sympathy for those feelings of foreboding that the dog is apparently going through…

Silence of the Siblings

My family have all gone away for the week, leaving just me and my 16-year-old brother here. So things are exceptionally boring around here. And quiet.

My brother spends all day playing first-person shoot ’em ups on the internet, and in the past few years has become a rather anti-social person – he won’t even answer the phone or the front door – so conversations between me and him are rather short at the moment. I hope it doesn’t last because I recall that me and him used to get on extremely well, playing games together, and generally making each other laugh.

There is also the other annoyance factor that he is somewhat incapable of looking after himself. When he comes out with the excuses like “but I might put the gas on and forget to press the ignition button!”, you would normally think it’s just the latest desperate attempt by a teenager to avoid taking responsibility for themselves, and to be as lazy as possible. Not so. When he says it, he actually means it. The times he has been left on his own he has done exactly that, or he has starved because there was no food in the house and he wouldn’t go the shop to get some. It’s almost as if he does it deliberately in order to get out of a situation and get someone else to look after him. The other day when my sister asked him to mind her house for a couple of days, he said, “You can’t trust me! I might set fire to the house!” Suffice to say, she has decided against letting him stay.

So I’m trying to show to him how to cook the most basic of foods. At the moment he is able to put a pizza in the oven, turn it on properly (the important bit!) and take it out again. Yet, the other day I couldn’t help but laugh when he asked me “What gas mark should I use to cook this scone?”. Yes. He was putting a scone in the oven. It’s going to take a while.

Meanwhile, there is something about the subconscious mind that fascinates me. I woke up at 3am this morning to the sound of my house phone. It was loud and noisy. But it rang only once. It was still dark, and because there was only me and my brother in the house, I was, to put it bluntly, terrified. I’m not used to being the only person in the house with Responsibility… and I try to put it out of my head at night that someone could burgle the house and I’d be the one who’d have to deal with it. Normally someone else would deal with it… here my mum and dad, and in Hull I had a load of housemates to help. But last night it was just me. So I try not to think about it.

So what does my subconscious mind do? Yes… it dredges out those thoughts and wakes me up at the most scary of times with the sound of the phone ringing. Just as you might see in a film as the thunder crackles and lightning flashes while the protaganists hide in the cupboards. Then the Evil Scary Man knocks the door down and the party begins…

Of course the ringing wasn’t real. It was just in a dream. But at the time I was convinced it was. It was only when I phoned 1471 this morning I finally knew that there was no call last night. But I couldn’t get out of bed to find out, I was that worried. I just had to go back to sleep.

So thanks, brain, for scaring me needlessly.