Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Dark Sarcasm In The Classroom

Early September comes along and I’m looking for a course to do this year. I look at the Part-Time degrees in the free booklet from the local University and find an advert for History of Art.

Right down my street, I think – only when I go on their website I discover that the advert in the booklet is wrong: the course is only available during the day.

Instead I opt for English Language & Culture – as language is another of my pet interests. I email the department for details and they respond with a request for application a.s.a.p. as the deadline has already passed. Bear in mind that I rang them less than two days after the booklet arrived through my door.

So I rush together some references and copies of recent certificates. I have no idea where my A Level English certificate is, but as this was taken in 1996 and the course description specifically states “no prior qualifications required” and only requests “evidence of previous study” as additional I assume my maths (taken in 2007) will be sufficient.

Not long afterwards I get an email saying that my application will only be considered upon proof of A Level and spend a hurried weekend trying to find the damn thing to no avail. I have to withdraw from the course – which is probably a good thing in general as there would be no way I could afford it financially.

What particularly galls me about this decision is that I have been desperately trying to find an evening course to improve and update my A Level – but the current system seems to be specifically discriminating against me.

I look on my local college website: but in the light of recent budget and funding changes they have drastically cut back on their evening courses Рthe only way I can do A level with them is to take time off during the day: something I am unable to do because of my job. This is because the emphasis on adult education has shifted onto getting people with few qualifications back into work. As a result lots of leisure courses (such as photography, creative writing, Tai-Chi and Advanced Karate Macram̩) have either folded altogether or been forced to tack on points towards a degree in order to retain funding from the government.

So if you are already in full time work and want to improve or update your skills set you are unable to do so. Although some evening courses do offer points towards a degree they are all points at level 1. The only way to get level 2 & 3 points is to give up your job and go into full time education – presumably selling your house, car and anything else you may be working towards.

So I contact my old school, who used to do Adult Education – but they only do GCSE (the level below A Level) these days, as the colleges do the A Levels…

At the moment I am looking into distance learning: but the companies involved seem very reluctant to tell me their prices – they certainly don’t seem to advertise them on their websites…leading me to assume they are actively trying to dissuade custom. Also the nearest test centre appears to be 100 miles from me, which could cause a problem when I come to take the exam.

Meanwhile I am continuing to look into funding options for a degree, which I would love to do if only pesky bills didn’t get in the way…again I am not eligible for much of the funding available because I chose to go out and work for a living instead of being career unemployed (when you get everything for free)

The good news is that the mad Dutch woman who ran a class on life drawing a couple of years ago has emailed me to say she’s running a non-college course during October. Despite her infatuation with painting pictures of giant penguins I feel moved to support her independent non-qualifications stance and email back telling her to book me a place.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Eclectic Dreams

I get off the bus in town and head into the bus station, pushing my way through the crowds of kids hanging about in the doorway, smoking cigarettes and happy just to be bored rather than take the effort to find something to do. My connection home isn’t in the station yet: so I stand at the overcrowded stop and watch as the previous bus loads up and rolls out. The time-table on the wall is telling me the time in bizzaro world - which bears no relation to life as we know it on Planet Earth

My bus pulls in: as its rush hour they have, of course, put on a single-decker – which means I have to put my bag on my lap and sit there hunched up for twenty minutes whilst a never ending array of strangers catch my shoulder as they brush past.

The bus pulls out of the station and up the street, passing the usual array of two-bit public houses, employment agencies, mini-supermarkets and Luxury Apartments (for luxury apartments read “Luxury Rabbit Hutches”)

Then, just before we pass the next bus stop, I see it. Sitting in the window of the local Cash Converters is a battered looking Banjo. I can’t read the price from here, but I know from looking the other day that it is £79

This is the third or fourth time the shop has had a Banjo for sale and the price has ranged from £50 to £100 on each occasion. I shoot it a wistful look; thinking that if I just had some money spare…

I already play the guitar. Well, perhaps play is a strong word to use. I know my chords and can produce a song, but put me in a room with anyone else who plays and I suddenly look like a toddler bashing away at a Xylophone.

But the reality is that it’s too late now. I don’t have the training to be a banjo player. You probably need three years and a BSc in Banjo before they’ll even let you change a string. Even if I bought the banjo and took classes I would be up against younger, more agile-fingered players. Besides, with bills to pay and cats to feed I can’t afford to give up my job and dedicate my life to Banjo study for a year or two in the hope of one day finding that dream Banjo-spot in the Royal Philarmonic Orchestra.

There are so many demands on my money and time. Though I dream of a Christmas No 1 of Banjo-related-songs CD the truth is that I have already taken two jobs I didn’t particularly want just to keep a roof over my head and will probably have to do the same again and again in the years to come just to pay the bills. At the end of each month, when all the bills have been paid there is little spare for dreams of musicality. Sometimes I feel that I am sleepwalking. Sometimes I feel that dreaming is a luxury I can no longer afford. Sometimes I feel that everything I have just said is a load of cobblers and that actually, all things considered, it's not so bad. After all…while there’s life…and besides, i'd probably get bored with the banjo and want to learn the Saxaphone instead

I slump into my seat and turn away, my hope fading as another passenger bumps into my arm. I try not to listen to the argument between the teenage mum and her prison-proud boyfriend.

My thoughts turn briefly to a lad I knew, some years ago. I’d guess we first met at Junior school when I was about 8 years old – and that I last saw him when I was 17 or 18. We were never particularly close – but he was always friendly and full of talk of joining the army when he left school. He never did: all of it was talk – same as the rest of us, just dreaming of becoming something more.

He died: right about the time I was 25. A friend of a friend told me he’d been living rough, taking Heroin.

Such a shame: all that potential in life – coming to so little.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A Sponge And A Rusty Spanner...

I sometimes wonder what it must be like to be Prince Philip. I mean – how would you feel knowing that a couple of million people lick the back of your wife’s head on a daily basis? I’d certainly feel a bit self-conscious in public for a start.

OK – with self-adhesive stamps slowly replacing the old calorific versions this is less of a problem – but you still have to wonder what goes through his head when he gets his renewal documents through the post from Horse & Hound Magazine and there’s a picture of his wife right there on the envelope.

There are those in the UK who say that the time of the Royal Family is over and done with – that they cost too much too maintain (as if they’re an old car that we know we should trade in for a new, more sporty model) and we should just get rid of them and have a duly elected representative. Because clearly having a President to vote for and maintain would be far less expensive… (hmmm…)

And OK, most of them aren’t actually British anyway. I mean sure, Elizabeth can trace her ancestry back to the time of Henry VIII, but her family is mostly German (quietly dropping the surname Saxe-Coburg during the War for the more politically correct Windsor) and all her children are half-Greek – so many would argue that they have little right to be there in the first place.

At least in the USA when they vote for a President they have to be (as Springsteen would say) Born In The USA (we should be eternally grateful for this rule, thus stopping the prospect of Governator Schwarzenegger ever getting control of The Button and turning the Oval office into a pancake)

I have to say that whilst I quite like the royal family in an abstract way I do feel that maybe we could root out a few of the more useless ones and save ourselves some tax expenditure. I mean sure: we need the Queen and Philip to wave at the masses from their pearly carriages, but Zara Phillips has a successful career as a dressage rider so surely she can earn her own keep now?

But various things do concern me about their Royalness – like are their waving hands insured against Repetitive Stress Injury and if so for how much? Do they have removable legs so that they can all fit into those carriages? Has she ever been tempted to chop off someone’s ear when knighting them? Does the Queen secretly skateboard around Buckingham Palace, listen to Hip Hop and wear VW signs around her neck when she’s off duty (you’ve got to admit – if you lived in a house with that many steps and banisters you’d be looking to pull the odd vertical lift or so) - and has she ever sat down at a four-course meal and just announced “Actually, one is only in the mood for Spam and Baked Beans today”?

Most important of these worries is the Royal Seal of Approval. On certain products in the UK you will find the Royal seal. IE Cornflakes – next time you are in England ask for a box of cornflakes and look on the side – there it is: the royal seal.

The thing that worries me about this is exactly what does a company need to do to get the seal and how does the Queen go about checking that said product is still up to scratch? Is there, perhaps, a monthly task where she goes to a special Cornflake Testing Room, sits quietly at a table with nothing more than a bowl, spoon and a fair portion of Kellogg’s finest before scoring them out of ten? Does she ever send any of the lesser royals to do this for her? If so does this explain the relevantly low public profile of Princes Andrew and Edward in recent years – are they locked in a cellar under Balmoral forever quality testing Assorted Wheatie-Flakes?

Sadly the rather dull answer to this question is that there are no corridors full of footmen and conveyor belts brimmed with products for the lesser royals to wear, eat, make or wipe their backsides with (if there is a man/woman who is paid to do this for them then I do NOT want to know) and award marks – anything that is used by anyone in the royal household (yep, even the bloke who lets in the milkman) automatically gets the seal.

Sometimes this world just doesn’t live up to expectations!

Monday, 15 September 2008

Give Me Back My Name

I’m sure you’ve all seen the story: Famous celebrity couple on holiday, they find out that one of them (usually the woman) is pregnant and they decide to name their child after the place where the child was conceived.

Hence we end up with kids called Brooklyn, Cleveland and Lost Luggage Department. Others celebs may favour rhymes (Zowie Bowie), fruit (Apple) or be influenced by whatever narcotic they were on at the time (how else do you explain names like Moon Unit Zappa, Frank’s son?)

But, as with most things, this filters down the ranks and whilst it may be acceptable in the halls of Eaton, Harvard and The Skegness School For Upper Class Twits to be called Mercedes, Topaz and (heaven forbid) Cruz those of us who insist on living in White Track-suits (complete with gold chain and obligatory 4 month old curry stain) have yet to realise that the same does not apply when attending the local comprehensive.

Back in the late 1980s there was a plethora of Kylie’s entering school – it was the Teenage Mum’s Name Of Choice as Senior Minogue Sister rode the double-wave of Soap Opera and Chart success. More recently it will have been one of the Spice Girls, or the names of their kids – some (poor sods that they are) will probably be named after the Geldof daughters Peaches, Fifi Trixibelle and Heavenly Tigerlilly (admittedly the last one was down to Michael Hutchense – but seriously??)

Recently there was an article about a couple who wanted to call their child “4Real” because they couldn’t believe he was for real. When the judge (showing a rare moment of sanity for the legal profession) forbade them to do so they changed the child’s name to “Superman” (no, really)

And yet history has shown us repeatedly that names are vital.

Myth and legend are full of stories such as Rumplestiltskin – where power may be gained over a thing by knowing its name, or else stories where a demon can be summoned and controlled so long as one can name it. One of Britain’s biggest Sci-Fi exports concerns a time-traveller known only as The Doctor: who refuses to give his name to anyone because he knows that a name would tie him to a single time and space.

Although these are based in fiction there is a certain amount of truth in the real world – names matter, and the strength of your name can have a big impact on your success.

Take Stephen King: probably the highest grossing Horror writer in history, despite (in my opinion) not having written anything interesting in 15 years. If you look at his first name “Stephen” it’s quite a boring name, but backed up by the short, powerful KING it’s an immediate advertising point. If his name were Stephen Clydesdale would he still be as successful? We will never know – but the truth is that he may well have found it a lot harder to get published. Meanwhile a perfectly ordinary name can be dressed up with a superfluous middle initial – M Night Shaylayman for instance. Does anyone know what the M stands for? It probably doesn’t stand for anything – but it gives him that extra edge of mystery.

There are many various claims as to how names should be crafted for full effect – the amount of letters included having cosmic significance, the type of letters saying something about your personality. Personally I very much suspect that the people spouting this claptrap are more than slightly off the wheels in their trainers (or is it just the UK where kids slide around Sainsbury’s like the cast of Starlight Express?) - but I do believe that naming your kids is not something that should be entered into lightly.

Indeed one of the many reasons that I have kept my name off these pages is that my parents saw fit to damn me to a life of mediocrity by supplying me with a Dull Name With No Chance Of Redemption – not even adding a silent Q in the spelling would help with mine.

I keep thinking I should change it to something more exciting – but then I remember the chap who changed his name by deed poll to NAME WITHHELD Bank PLC Are A Bunch Of W***kers because he’s got so annoyed with their customer service – and I wonder what I could do that would be better than that.

Let’s face it – almost anything would be better than calling myself Superman

Or Heavenly Tigerlily…

Or Moon Unit…

Or Brooklyn…

Or Apple.

Maybe I should call myself Kumquat?? Then again, maybe not...

Friday, 12 September 2008

Additional: Nearly Famous!

Yay! I got a review of my blog :)


And thanks Lydia for the kind words

The Joy Of Computer Games In The 1980s

It seems odd to think of it now, but in its day The Hobbit (as enjoyed by myself on the ZX Spectrum) was a pretty revolutionary game. Not only did it take typed instructions, re-engage a pre-Peter Jackson interest in Lord Of The Rings and (shock horror) come with actual pictures as part of the game (admittedly they took 3 minutes to download) but it got a whole generation talking about computer games.

Here, however, is my experience of how pretty much every game ended:

>open door<
>open window<
>say to Thorin “open window”<
>say to Thorin “open window”<
>say to Thorin “please open the window”<
>say to Thorin “open the *#@$ window”<
>say to Thorin “open the window”<
>climb through window<
>say to Thorin “pick me up”<
>say to Thorin “if you pick me up I can climb through the window and we can escape”<
>say to Thorin “you useless *#@$, I just wasted *#@$ ten minutes persuading you to open the *#@$ window!”<
>say to Thorin “Unless you open the window now I will take this dagger and apply its pointy end to your nether regions”<
DO NOT UNDERSTAND “nether regions”
>say to Thorin “Just OPEN THE WINDOW!”<
>kill Thorin<

NB: If Gandalf was present things were generally a bit better, as sometimes he would pick you up and help you out – but within seconds you would be re-captured and end up back in the cell with only Thorin for company. On other occasions Gandalf would open the window and climb out, leaving you alone.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

How many fingers am i holding up?

Since it's Wednesday and its gone 9:15am UK standard time and i'm sitting at a computer typing this it's fair to say that i haven't been blown to smithereens today.

No black hole has got out of control and swallowed the Earth, we haven't just witnessed a second Big Bang and yes, i really am going to have to pay off my mortgage.

In short either the Large Hadron Collider, buried somewhere under France (NB: Why France? Why did scientists decide that France was more expendable than any other country - do they not like the wine there?), has failed to go off or the conspiracy theorists were wrong - again.

Just once i think it would be quite nice for the poor old dears, sitting in their corners with their Tupperware containers full of marmite sandwiches (no crust) and smelling vaguely of railway stations, if they could be right. Wouldn't it be nice to think that our inept governments - incapable of downloading a couple of files without leaving them on a train - could organise global conspiracies including faking moon landings, alien/human hybrid colonisation and making Jim Carrey into a movie star despite any signs of obvious talent (admittedly that one is a bit hard to explain - joke)

Except, of course, that if the Quantum Physicists have got it right - then the conspiracy theorists were right all along.

Bear with me here, because few people outside of Stephen Hawking understand the full ramifications, but the upshot is that modern Quantum Physics suggests a theory of infinite realities where every possiblity is played out. Remember that day when you woke up and couldn't face eating that bowl of cornflakes? Well, Quantum Mechanics says that in one reality you said no, whilst in another you decided you quite liked cornflakes and choked to death on them.

So with every possiblity played out it does give one a little leway in life - sure your life in this reality may not be that great, but just think - in another corner of the universe you're currently King of the Watusi (Yay you!)

But then i was discussing this very thing with the man at the train station this morning and we were talking about how some people believed the Large Hadron Collider was going to end all life as we know it by the end of the day and he sighed and tutted and said: "Typical...and i've got a new shed coming at the weekend"

Sometimes you just can't win, can you?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Train Of Thought

I’m having one of those days – the ones where you just want to go home and sit in a darkened room with a guitar and a glass of wine, maybe sing the blues for a while.

There’s no chance of that, of course, because the cats have serious issues with anything that takes attention away from them – plus I have promised myself I will go swimming and try and lose some of the gut I seem to be steadily growing.

I used to belong to a gym and my favourite time of year was always January when you couldn’t get on a machine – not because I’m lazy, but because it was always amusing to see the New Years Resolution Makers and take private bets on how long they’d last. Most wouldn’t make it past the end of the month.

But then I got a mortgage and the money was no longer there. I still miss it.

Back then if I was having one of those days I would make sure to go to the gym after work. Sure – I wouldn’t be in the mood or anything, in fact I still just wanted to go home and pick up that guitar, but I always knew that somewhere about half-way through my stint on the cross-trainer the endorphins would kick in and I would come home feeling better, if sweatier. Those days are long behind me now – I’d love to join a gym, but like most people I have bills to pay first.

This morning Furry had a good try at breaking my neck, he sat about half-way down the stairs and I only just saw his black shape in time to avoid stepping on him. He guided me to his bowl and demanded food – I pointed out that there was still food in his bowl and that he should think himself well off: “think about all the starving cats in Africa” I said, not expecting it to work any more than it had when my grandparents had tried it on me as a kid. It didn’t

I’ve got a forty page document to read on my desk at work – might as well be written in doublespeak or latin, but the basic upshot of the document can be summarised as such:
* receive problem
* copy information of problem onto computer
* decide who needs to deal with the problem and when by
* forward problem on to designated parties
* check on a regular basis that problem is being sorted
* record every stage of previous points

Another process to manage the process of process management: if you know what I mean. Shit: these days it’s not enough to do something, you have to prove that not only did you do it, but that everyone agreed to you doing it in the first place. The job requires absolutely no intelligence or part of my brain to complete. A thousand monkeys with a typewriter could come up with the same if you gave them enough time.

I think about the training my new boss has signed off and how glad I am that the old boss, Sauron the Dark Lord of Mordor, has gone, lifting a dark cloud from middle earth. He used to ask questions without even looking at you, and just storm past when you held the door open. Nobody was upset when he went.

I think about the painting I want to do, and the novel I should be writing – and decide the painting will have to wait until I’ve cleared some space in my house and the novel will have to wait and see if I’m in the mood tomorrow. I think about an old friend I lost touch with as a kid, about how it was my fault, and feel bad about that once again.

I wonder what I’m going to watch on TV when I do the ironing this Sunday morning – I’ve become strangely addicted to Power Rangers over the last few weeks, but now this is finished and I feel like re-visiting some of my favourite Sci-Fi series, or maybe listen to some Frank. Nothing suits a dull Sunday morning in September better than a bit of Sinatra.

I remember the bloke with the glasses, who was doing the backstroke in the pool last week and hit me in the face because he wasn’t looking where he was going. I actually came close to standing up for myself for a change and told him to look where he was going - but he nearly hit someone else on the next length. I imagine what would have happened to him if he'd hit one of my neighbours and hope to hell he’s not there this week.

I think about the bloke in the paper this morning who’s had his face altered so he looks like a cat (complete with attachable whiskers) and wonder about the sanity of the plastic surgeon who allowed this to happen. I pause to wonder if anyone who enters a talent show but clearly has no talent is truly deluded or just looking for a quick route to fame. Seems no one wants to work for their fifteen minutes these days.

I look on the blogspots and honour has written a new, beautiful, poem and it makes me think of an old song. I take a look at writerquake and Old Postcard Wednesday cheers me further still. Samuria gets me thinking, which i thought was going to be an impossibility today. A few others have yet to update, so I re-read what they say and allow myself to feel more hopeful. I think about holding my partner when I see her and it feels good.

This is my random train of thoughts. Today nothing is fixed in stone in my head, nothing seems to connect – but maybe that’s ok after all.