Oblique Aphorisms #1

Aphorisms, apparently, are pithy observations which contain general truths.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Source unknown

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, expressing in her words the view of Voltaire

“Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.”

Samuel Johnson

Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_2

Picture of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

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Why I use the Post Office as little as possible-

-is because of experiences like the one I had today. We had two small parcels and two large letters to post, so went into our local office. Inevitably there was a queue; well it was 4 o’clock.

20171017_200245There were two Post Office staff and one for the attached franchise. In between serving birthday cards and the like from the far side of the store, the latter called the next Post Office customers over to her till; that is, customers who didn’t need more complex services. Clear? No, neither were the customers. It had the makings of one of those very English arguments about queues. Then one of the Post Office staff disappeared; the other went behind the scenes for a moment. It was now our turn.

Posting items?” we were asked when the lady came back. “You could use the self-service till.” So we did.

Now I’m reasonably technologically confident, and Post Office self-service tills are, I am sure, not beyond me; but they are not designed for ease of use. Already out of patience, after navigating our way through confusing options and actions and quailing at the thought of having to do it four times we gave up. (Come to think of it now, the till seemed also to have been abandoned by the previous customer.)

We looked at the queue, now even longer. We walked out.

Yes, we could have come at another time of day. But there was another lady there who had come in two hours earlier, only to find the queue out of the door.

So we will wait until we see the people our birthday parcels were intended for. We will post the letters- oh, some time. The result is that the Post Office have lost £6 or £7 of our custom, not that it will concern them. Worse than that, they have lost our goodwill. This is not the first time we have received poor customer service; we often feel that the counter staff are brusque, and there seems to be little attempt to make customers feel they are important.

In the future, we will endeavour not to send parcels; we will send tokens or use Amazon. Yes, I know. But Amazon are CONVENIENT. We will take presents to people rather than post them. We will certainly send more e-mails at Christmas.

I’m not going to bother to complain to the Post Office,as they have never replied to my one previous complaint. (See A Capital Omission .)

I am sorry this comes across as a Grumpy Older Person whinge. I do try to make this blog positive, so my two suggestions are:

staff your offices adequately

give all your staff customer service training

Oh, our bank has just closed its local branch. They suggested we use the Post Office to pay in cheques.

‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

What a great title, I thought, as I passed this by in the book shop. Months later, having been lent it by Ms O, I can tell you it’s a great read.

It’s SF. It’s won awards. It didn’t seem to be my sort of science fiction, because it is a stream of constant invention rather than an exploration of one basic premise- like huge carnivorous plants (Day of the Triffids), or an alien artefact on the moon (2001- A Space Odyssey). After the first 20 pages, I nearly gave up, but I’m very glad I didn’t. Eventually the invention was thrilling. I’ll try to explain.

The basic premise is that a spaceship has been hired to make a long journey to a potential war zone (the small angry planet) to create a hyperspace tunnel. The ship is a motley collection of technology and is crewed by a motley collection of humans and other species, including an artificial intelligence. A lot of fun is in the description of the aliens (how can you not like a book which uses the phrase “chitinous blue exoskeletons”?), their interactions and relationships, even including inter-species sex. (No it’s not pornographic. But don’t let that put you off.) There is no real chief protagonist, though some of the crew get more attention than others.

Then there’s the technology and “science”- which eventually captivated me. Tunnelling through hyperspace- lockjaw clips- ambi- scribs- sib transmitters- voxes- modders- catastrophic cascade failures- fixbots; the list goes on and on. I don’t pretend to understand what all of it does, and especially how a spaceship can run on algae, but the creativity is addictive, without there ever being a cheap “magic wand” solution to problems.

In Ms O’s always highly intelligent opinion, a chief quality of this book is the personal interaction- the human or sapient element rather than the space opera element. There is however also a powerful plot. I have to admit that some of the personal moments actually made me cry. I feel some of the writing is a bit “young adult”, although I can’t find examples, but it’s a lovely book. Pleasingly there is a sequel, ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ which seems to pick up some of the unresolved elements. I look forward to reading it.

small angry planet

The Independent Republic Of….. Me? You? Us?

Big news this week has been the independence ballot in Catalonia. This part of Spain is apparently the size of Belgium and there is a strong urge for self-determination. The Spanish government says the vote is illegal and told police to seize ballot boxes. Awful violence ensued. (Catalonia is apparently an economic powerhouse for Spain.)

I find the regional variations of Spain interesting and evocative. I know a little about the Basque desire for their own country, now less intense and much less violent. The Basque territories do extend into southern France, which is an added complication. Books like George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and Laurie Lee’s ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ have added to the mystique. In my own experience, Mrs O’s Andalusian/ Spanish gypsy accent, acquired in her childhood, was mocked in more Madridean areas. She points out that Catalonia was treated apallingly under the Franco regime.

Despite this, it’s not my place to give an opinion on the Catalonian issue, apart of course to condemn violence of any sort. However it does have many connections with other self-determination issues, some of them closer to home. What about Scotland? What about Wales, Northern Island? What about Cornwall and Cambridge?

Cambridge? There was an intriguing little development just after the Brexit vote, in which some people in Cambridge thought they should become independent so they could stay in Europe. More widely discussed in the country as a whole was the contentious issue that although there was a majority of the vote for Brexit, this was not a majority of the electorate.

The independence movement of Cambridge might enjoyably view that wonderful film, ‘Passport to Pimlico’, which gives a great fictional account of how the Pimlico area of London declares independence. That bid failed; but apparently 30 new nations have come into existence since 1990, such as Montenegro and South Sudan. Even more fascinating is the existence of ‘micronations’, small areas claiming sovereignty but not recognised by any other nation or organisation such as the U.N. (See Micronations on Wikipedia.) Examples of these are The Republic of Molossia,  The Kingdom of EnenKio, and The Kingdom of Haye On Wye. Really. Sealand, based on a fort in the North Sea, is often called a micronation but still claims to be a sovereign state with de facto recognition by the UK and Germany.

Flags

It should be pointed out that lots of these micronations are either tongue in cheek, reactions to a particular issue, or financial operations. There are also historical enclaves. I’m intrigued by the idea that some groups declare themselves a nation across the internet, without geographical commonalities.

(The series of books starting with ‘Europe in Autumn’, by Dave Hutchinson, takes as its setting a Europe which has fragmented into small states, sometimes cities, and one which is a railway line. Recommended.)

All this begs several questions. What gives people the right to self-determination? What sort of democratic process makes the decision to leave a super-national grouping, such as the EEC, acceptable? What constitutes a legitimate majority of an area or group to attempt independence? A simple majority of voters? A majority of those eligible to vote? If there is a clear majority, what will the outcome be?

The final, huge question is of course: What is a nation?

There are no easy answers to these questions, as the people of Catalonia are finding out.

(Flags of micronations declared as free to use or share in image search.)

[Although I have said I don’t feel it’s my place to express an opinion on Catalonia, can anybody please expain why the Spanish government didn’t let the Catalan referendum go ahead and then ignore it or stall any action because their courts had said it was illegal?]

B******s Bob

Newport transporter bridge, Mr B. and Bollocks Bob….

Well, there we were, in summer 2013, having just travelled over the aforementioned Newport transporter bridge, after spending some of our holiday…… looking at transporter bridges. (Yes, really.) (Yes, we are dull.) I rarely get calls on my mobile, but at that moment it rang. That fine colleague of mine (now ex-colleague of course), Mr B. said: “Bollocks Bob has had a heart attack.”

Some background is needed here. Note the narrative device.

Our school had been, to be honest, in trouble. We had fallen from grace. Two strong heads had left their mark and left. We braced ourselves for the new head, who we thought would be a new broom, building on our success and bringing us up to date. We were disappointed. For reasons I will be tactful enough not to detail, it didn’t work. (I suppose I have to take some responsibility, as once upon a time the new head had been a probationer under my year leadership.)

We slid and fell. Inevitably, OFSTED arrived and found us wanting, despite the best efforts of the year leaders, led by Mr B, to convince them otherwise. Inevitably the head left, to be replaced by a new regime. I have summed it up briefly, but the process was prolonged and very unpleasant.

There was one light in the darkness. As the aforementioned new regime could not start for a term, an interim or caretaker head was appointed. Bollocks Bob.

He was a retired head, who had apparently been out on his bike when the call came. He came in tieless- at the time that seemed like a big deal- for the new intake (new parents) evening. I seem to remember that he was bearded, with that slight Father Christmas air some bearded men have. He said hello to everybody and took an interest in everybody, telling me it was important to make everybody feel better about themselves. He came in to our in-service planning day and acquired his nickname when he told us that, in his opinion, “OFSTED is bollocks”. Forever after he was Bollocks Bob. I can’t even remember his surname, even if I think it appropriate to give it.

We very much looked forward to working with him, even just for a term. We felt we would be well prepared for the inevitable changes.

Then came the fateful ‘phone call from Mr B. to say that Bollocks Bob had had a heart attack.

So he never arrived; we never got to work with him; we never got to feel better about ourselves. It was a very trepidacious crew that assembled for the new school year. The new regime arrived and did a very good job rescuing the school, although staff morale did not seem to be a high priority. To be told that “the school seems run more for the benefit of the staff than for the pupils” seemed neither fair or helpful. Nevertheless, OFSTED arrived again and went away as happy as OFSTED ever are. Bollocks Bob, you summed it up.

I am ashamed to say I never found out how Bob was. I don’t even know if he recovered. Perhaps he would have been rubbish, but I somehow think not. I like to imagine that we would have been more upbeat and less frightened with him in charge for a term. OK, I’m not necessarily speaking for anybody except myself. Feel free to substitute “I” for “we”. But for me, he’s the great lost leader.

Newport transporter bridge

(To be honest, Newport transporter bridge is quite fun. As the photo shows.)

P.S. After posting this, I looked up “trepidacious”. There is some debate as to whether it should be spelled “trepidatious”, or indeed whether or not it is a real word. It is real, because I just used it and you are so clever that you can understand all the rich nuances of my choice. Or something.

So, what would YOU do about education? Part 6 (the 6th and final part): who cares?

I have now been retired for more than two years. Suffice to say, I don’t miss work. I DO miss the people I used to work with, more than I can express. It’s very quiet here in Oblique Mansions at times, and I miss the camaraderie and fun. It’s lovely being with Mrs Oblique, but I miss having gossip and tales from the day to tell her.

Recently, Ms O. #1 suggested that I should utilise my services as a consultant. My one attempt at this previously was talking to a friend of hers who was having a bad time in her probationary year. With little or no thanks to me, she is at least still teaching, having moved schools. But hang on: probationary year? Do they still use that term? That’s why I don’t want to go back into education: it moves on so quickly that one very soon becomes out of date.

I don’t even want to do something in an advisory role, not that anybody would want me. Even when I was teaching, I always felt I was just blundering through. I felt very strongly about some ideas, but had no coherent view of what I wanted. I was never confident about what I was doing.

Actually, that’s not completely true. I had great lessons and great days, when I was ‘in the zone’ and everything went well. I even feel that I gave some good advice to colleagues, both younger and older. But the way that the system changed relentlessly, pressurised one into unproductive work unneccessarily and increasingly ignored people made me feel that I had nothing to offer apart from general observations on classroom practice; and that would now be meaningless, as I don’t know what the current orthodoxies are.

So I’ll be trying very hard from now on to shut up and not fall into the trap of being an old fart pontificating about education or criticising. What I would do about education becomes less and less relevant. However, I reserve the right to lecture my audience about special needs education, as I still have a daughter in the system; and I may well try to dredge up some memories and anecdotes. You have been warned.

Education 6

Sorry, this was a bit more personal than I intended it to be!

(One day, I’ll tell you the story about the Newport transporter bridge, Mr B. and Bollocks Bob…..)

Grime: An Oblique View

Grimes

I have been challenged by Mr Oblique Junior to explain why I think he likes the musical genre of Grime. I had intended to write a post about Grime anyway, but this gives me a way to approach it.

Now listen carefully if you don’t know anything about Grime. According to Google, it is “a form of dance music influenced by UK garage, characterised by machine-like sounds”. It is not hip-hop, which features “rap with an electronic backing”; but apparently, our researchers tell us, it “draws influence from dancehall, ragga and hip-hop” (Wikipedia).

Clear? No, of course not. A curse of modern music is the continual argument about what defines a particular genre, to the extent that there have even been fictional genres created and believed. I like the idea of “Progressive Death Country”, although William Gibson was ahead of everybody else with fictional bands “Dukes of Nukem”, “Lo/Rez” and their ilk. No, I won’t explain. Go read William Gibson.

Grime is a particularly English genre. Prominent figures are Stormzy, Skepta and Dizzee Rascal. To appreciate what it is actually like you of course have to listen to it. To me, after some limited exposure, it’s characterised by a very bare, stripped down musical sound, almost minimalist dance music with often clever elements of electronica, with lyrics rapped in what seems to me frequently to be a very slow style across the top. But, as I said, you have to listen to it to appreciate what it is.

What seems to characterise it lyrically is a preoccupation with sex and violence, and usually a focus on the personal life- even the life as a celebrity- of the writer. I am not necessarily referring to any of the artists  named.

There really is in some of it a very dismissive attitude towards women and what really grates on this middle-class, late middle-aged, rather liberal-minded, white male listener is the frequent use of the N-word and the B-word. Oh, go on, you know the words I mean.

I’ll probably keep my f***ing b*****s ’til I’m 49”

goes the lyric I’m being played at the moment. Although that may not be grime, I believe.

“I make her think I love her, so I can f*** her when I want.”

However, to put my point of view was not the aim of this blog. Why does my 21 year old son like Grime?

He is very open about music, and will patiently listen to my choices, to the point of planning to come to a techno gig with us. I wonder if to some extent the fact that I am uncomfortable with the lyrics is a factor in his liking for it. Although we might deny it (I certainly did- but see “An anecdote” below) there is perhaps for all of us a wish to move on from the music of our parents and perhaps to shock them; or just to find something that is our own, and definitely not theirs.

I am sure that this wish is often unconscious, and I am sure that this is not the only reason or the main reason for Mr Oblique Junior liking Grime. The music is very striking, bare, new and challenging. It is a very fresh and young form of music; I wonder if anybody over 30 makes it or really gets it. It’s rebel music for a new generation. I speculate that this is the appeal to him.

So there you are. It is of course about the music, but it’s also about the cultural aspects. Popular music is all about change, and all about moving on from the choices of previous generations. Disco (still don’t really get it), punk (oh yes), and then electronica (definitely) were all new forms of music that moved me on from the rock music of my teenage years. But certainly for me, Grime is beyond the point at which I can understand my children’s choice in music. No, I don’t really understand why Mr O. Jr. likes it. Try asking him.

Please note: I almost certainly don’t understand the nuances of the N word as used in grime and hip-hop. Apparently the spelling, with an -a rather than an -er, makes it acceptable when used by certain groups.

An anecdote: When I was a teenager, I only used to listen to records when my parents were out. When they came back from the shops one day, Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs was concluding a rather noisy feedback guitar solo on that catchy little number, ‘Split Part 4’. My father and I had a very rare parent/ teenager spat:

HIM: Do you call that music?

ME: It’s better music than your silly old Beethoven.

Ho-hum. He did later go in with me on a new hi-fi system we could listen to away from the living room.