Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

I'd advise checking a dictionary

There's been a lot in the news this week about Professor David Nutt.
For anyone who doesn't know he's a Government advisor on drugs who has been asked to stand down (that is "sacked")* after offering the advise that ecstasy is not as dangerous as horse-riding, cannabis should be downgraded and alcohol and tobacco are worse than LSD.

His advice may or may not be good. What's caught my ear about the piece is his reaction and the reaction of those using the incident to criticise the Government. They have constantly implied that there is something wrong with getting advice and not taking it. He, and others, have paraded across the TV screens, saying that there is no point in paying an advisor to advise if you are not going to follow the things he comes up with.
Surely this is nonsense?
Ten different advisers might give ten different answers and you can't follow them all. The purpose of advice to inform you of the range of opinions and options, to give suggestions and guidance. It's up to you whether you take them or not. It's very rare that I agree with anything that comes out of Jacqui Smith's mouth but on Question Time she said "an advisor's job is to advise, a government's job is to decide", and for once she was absolutely right.

To anyone who thinks that advice is somehow binding, I'd advise checking a dictionary.

(*Incidentally, also contrary to his post-sacking remarks and those of his supporters, he wasn't sacked for giving advice that they didn't like, he was sacked for going on television and into the press criticising the Government policy after they had said they wouldn't be taking his advice - in short, for publicly bad-mouthing his employer, something that would get most of us sacked.)

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Time for a rethink on the CRB process?

A serious post on a serious subject for a change.

Let's make a couple of things clear from the start. I'm a teacher, I have regular Criminal Records Bureau checks, I think CRB checks are, in the circumstances that they were originally intended for, necessary, useful and important things. I have, as I've said before, a few issues with the ways they are organised and administered but none whatsoever with their existence or their use.

Things are changing though. Over the last few months there has been a drip-drip-drip of stories coming through that have seriously undermined the whole CRB process.
First there was the story that writers, poets and anyone visiting schools would need to be CRB checked even if they were supervised for the whole time they were there. Personally I have no particulr problem with that, though many of the writers and poets seemed to, but it started the ball rolling on the stories.
Next came the story of the two women who looked after each other's children when they were on opposite shifts. They had been close friends for many years and trusted each other completely. They were, though it isn't actually relevent, in responsible jobs (as policewomen) in which they would already have been CRB checked. They were told that their arrangement was illegal and that in order to look after their friend's children they would need to be CRB checked as child-minders or to pay to put their children into nurseries to be looked after by strangers.
On the back of that we had a lot of press stories about how this approach to child safety meant that you can't look after your friends kids or your neighbour's kids for more than a very limited time each day, how kids sleeping over at a friend's house would be illegal, about how the rules, if applied in this way would put an end to school exchange trips and so on.

Earlier this week another new story came through. It was suggested that many more employed adults should be required to undergo enhanced CRB checks just in case they ever come in contact with children.

Now comes the news that Watford Borough Council has banned parents from entering play areas with their own children and that only council vetted "play rangers" will be allowed in to supervise the children's play.

This is an unpleasant and pernicious process of extending the scope of the CRB checks. Why don't we simply extend it to cover every adult? Why don't we set up enforced exclusion zones where every adult who fails a CRB check is forced to live segregated from any possible contact with children? Why don't we ban anyone who fails the check from becoming a parent and take the children away from any who already have them?

If you don't think the answer to those questions is obvious then heaven help us all. We don't do those things because they would be ridiculous, unworkable nonsense.

The problem is that these extensions to the scope of the CRB are just as ridiculous and unworkable. The checks are gradually encroaching into areas where they were never meant to be applied and the result is that with every new story they lose credibility. My CRB checks, and those of people like me, are important. I work in an environment that is full of children and vulnerable adults. It's important that I can be trusted with their welfare. These constant news stories undermine the value of the checks in the circumstances where they should be applied.
To suggest that you need CRB checks to look after your own kids is tantamount to suggesting that if you fail those checks you shouldn't be allowed to have the kids in the first place.

It's time to call a halt to the misapplication of the checks and the misinformation about them. Watford's case is basd on a misunderstanding of the law. Parents don't need and CANNOT get a CRB check because you can't apply for it yourself. Its applied for by your employer.

The whole scope and organisation of the CRB needs to be looked at. It needs to be returned to its original purpose of ensuring that people who routinely work with children and vulnerable adults can be trusted to do so. These oddball extensions need to be stripped away from it.
Common sense needs to prevail.


And that concludes this serious post. The frivolous stuff will be back soon.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

How to talk to a salesman

Sitting here composing something to post on a message board I was interrupted by a knock at he door. It was a double glazing salesman. We already have double glazing throughout the house, a fact that clearly hadn't escaped his attention.

The conversation went like this.

"I hope you don't mind me asking but how long have you had your double glazing?"
"I do"
"Er, pardon?"
"I do"
"Do what?"
"Mind you asking."

Funny, he seemed rather nonplussed by my answers. I can't think why, they seemed logical enough to me. When he finally caught my meaning he asked, presumably in an attempt to engage me with humour,

"You're not going to hit me are you?"

He didn't stay much longer when I replied,

"Depends how persistent you are."

Sunday, 25 October 2009

And how many is that exactly?

The sign at the rapid checkout in my local supermarket reads "about twenty items or less". As I waited in the queue I started to wonder exactly how many that is. It isn't the use of "less" that I object to, though I know some who might. I'm just wondering about that "about".

To me "about twenty" might be eighteen, it might be twenty two. Others might disagree with the specifics but I think most would agree that it includes a few above and a few below twenty.

It doesn't combine well with "less" though as I'd take that to mean 1-20 but not 21 or 22.

How would others interpret this unusual phrasing?

Curved Air at the Robin

Sonja Kristina may well be rather more Rubenesque than she once was. She may well dance about the stage like somebody's slightly mad granny after an afternoon at the cooking sherry. What's undeniable though, is that her voice is every bit as powerful as when I first heard Curved Air more than thirty years ago.
Maybe even more powerful.
Of course, with the exception of Florian Pilkington-Miksa on Drums, none of the other performers on stage at the Robin last night were part of that band - in spite of the name on the tickets. Darryl Way was billed to perform but was kept away by ill-health and replaced by Paul Sax on violin and Robert Norton on Keyboards. Chris Harris and Kit Morgan completed an excellent line up on bass and lead guitar.
None of which matters. What matters is what they sounded like and they sounded superb. Paul Sax made a particularly impressive figure on the violin but nobody put a note wrong all night in a set bursting with nostaligic favourites.
I came away wishing I'd never got rid of my albums when I had my big vinyl clearout a few years ago.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Be careful what you wish for

So, it sounds like thirty seconds of ringing, ten seconds of silence, thirty seconds of ringing, ten seconds of silence repeated until the building is empty and the alarm turned off.

At least it does when someone breaks the "in case of fire" glass.

Fire !

An email received today about a fire drill that took place this morning,

The alarms are tested every Wednesday at 9:00 am for a duration of 10 to 15 seconds. If the alarm is continuous, this is a real fire drill.

I wonder what the sound is if it's a real fire rather than a real fire drill.

Beer Names

Tonight, on the way home from a poetry evening, I accidentally called in at the pub. You know how easily that can happen.
While I was there I had a couple of pints of Dr Morton's Clown Poison. How could I not with a name like that? Anyway, it gives me an excuse to republish one my own personal favourites among the poems I've written. It's called "Clown Torture" and it may well be gibberish to anyone who isn't me. I like it though.

Clown Torture

If I live to be a hundred, and see it all before I die
Some things I'll never figure out, I'll have to let them lie.
There is no such thing as justice and no such thing as truth
There is no such thing as contact - we can't share a point of view
There is a distance that's between us that is more than miles or years
I can no more laugh your humour than you can cry my tears

In a corner of the institute
In a room that's walled in white
There is a scream that lasts for ever
From a clown that no-one likes
I thought I didn't understand
But suddenly it's clear
The dichotomy of terror
Turning laughter into fear.

If I live to be a hundred and spend every minute searching
Some secrets I know I'll never find, some pains will still be hurting
But there's no such thing as sorrow and no such thing as love
And no such thing as failure when there is nothing left to prove.
There's a distance lies between us that is more than miles or days
I can no more chose your dreams than you can guide my way.

Saturday, 17 October 2009


On the news a couple of days ago there was an item about a children's marching band in Dudley. It brought back some childhood memories for me. I was never in a marching band - the kazoo would be far too difficult an instrument for someone with my musical talent - but I do remember them well.
We moved to the house where my family has lived ever since in 1963. I was six years old. It was a very different time back then and though I don't remember much about it, I do remember the two carnivals that took place every year. There was a carnival in Coseley and another in Bilston. The venues were different but the forms were the same. A procession of decorated lorries and marching bands wound through the streets where the public, including the infant version of me holding his mother's hand, lined the pavements. We cheered and threw pennies onto the lorries and ate candy-floss and toffee apples. We followed alng the streets so that as the procession went on the crowds became thicker. Finally it finished at a park - Jubilee park in Coseley or Hickman Park in Bilston - where there was a fete with really great, sophisticated hi-tech entertainment. There was a stall where you could win prizes by throwing ping-pong balls into glass fish bowls, another where you could use a hook on a stick to snare yellow plastic ducks as they drifted by - prizes being awarded according to the number painted on the bottom. There were stalls where you could throw darts at a board full of playing cards - a prize for hitting three different cards - or try to throw tennis balls into a tin bucket. There was tombola for the mums and a beer tent for the dads.
It was marvellous fun and the highlight of the year for us kids.
But even then it was a tradition that was already dying out. My dad recalls the carnivals of his childhood and they were bigger, better, brighter and even more fun. Of course that's his nostalgia talking just as the description above is mine. Everything was always better in the past. The Golden age is always the one that was ours, the one when we were kids.
Nevertheless it's true that the carnival tradition was dying. I can't remember when exactly they stopped having them, probably sometime in the seventies, but I can say that they are no more. Who would want them now anyway? Those of us old enough to feel the sugar-rush of nostalgia as we recall the sickly sweet clouds of candy floss on a stick, those of us who write blogs using the latest technology to tell the world about how things were better in the good old days, those of us who want to be six years old again.
But that's nostalgia talking again. I doubt if such an event with it's low-brow, low-tech, good-natured amateurism would appeal to many people.
Pity really.

Anyway, as I was trying to find information about the two local carnivals I ran across something that caused the nostalgia to swell inside me again, something that, very briefly made me six years old again. And here they are, a brace of YouTube videos that someone has thoughtfully posted showing the two carnivals as they were in 1964, when I was seven. I'll bet I'm in the crowd there somewhere. Eating a toffee apple.


Coseley carnival.

Bilston carnival.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Not what I'd call great

I went to get some money from the ATM this morning. Displayed on the ATM was the message - "Great Current Account Interest Rates". This is a rather interesting message given that over the last year the interest rate on that particular account has fallen from over 4% to under 0.5% and that only a few days ago I received a letter from the bank telling me that it was being "reduced" to 0%.

They have, however, changed the name from a "High Interest Current Account" to just a "Current Account".

Apart from the need to pay things by direct debit I might as well keep that money in a box under the bed. I wonder how long it will be before they "reduce" it further and start charging me a fee to look after my money.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Gotta Take Care

I've just come back into the living room to find my father cursing me in between washing his mouth out with cold water. The trouble is that he rarely listens to things I tell him. Things like "DON'T PUT THIS CHILLI SAUCE ON YOUR SANDWICHES."
There are two bottle of chilli sauce in the cupboard. One, at the front, is a lightly spiced barbecue sauce that is for sandwiches. The other, tucked away at the back is a small bottle of Dave's Insanity Sauce. For those who don't know this is a sauce for cooking. One small drop is enough for quite a large pot of chilli.
His sausage sandwich had a good tablespoonful of the stuff on it.

Fortunately he spit it out without swallowing and only burned the inside of his mouth so there's no permanent harm done but I don't suppose it's a mistake he'll make again.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

35 ??????????

Ah, my technophobia is back. Or so I will probably be told.
I've just seen an advert for a new electric razor. It has thirty five settings for variable stubble length. This may well be the most ridiculous technological innovation I have ever encountered. I'll just about accept that some men leave a stubble on their chins out of some strange sense of "style" but thirty five different stubble lengths? Clearly the quest for new ways to sell old things has reached new heights.

Listen to the fingers

Most of the time I have my radio in the car tuned to Classic FM. This, for those who don't live in the UK, is a station that plays classical music. The problem with it is that, for the most part, it plays classical music from a fairly restricted playlist of popular and undemanding classical music. There are certain pieces that you seem to hear every time that you tune in. A few weeks ago I got fed up of hearing William Walton's Crown Imperial* every day and retuned to BBC Radio three. Once again, for those who don't get BBC radio stations, this specialises in Classical music, though taking a rather more highbrow tone about it.
I was listening this morning as I drove into town. It was the CD review program and two people were playing pieces of piano music from CD and discussing them. I was struck by the difference between Radio 3 and Classic FM. When I listen to Classical FM the links are often fairly trivial and the discussion of the music superficial but when I listen to Radio 3 the links are mostly gibberish.
Let me be fair. They are mostly gibberish to me, how they sound to people who actually know something about classical music I couldn't say. I just like to listen to it; I don't actually have any expertise in the area.
But listening to the links was a bizarre experience where all the words made sense but the actual sentences seemed meaningless.
What, for example, was meant when one recording was described by "I felt I was listening to her fingers rather than to Schubert"?
Did they perhaps expect her to play the piece with her nose?
Another piece was described as sounding "hesitant and disjointed" though I had detected nothing other than a pleasant, if unfamiliar, piece of piano music. In a longer interval it was "explained" that musicians should not feel bound by the dots on the page, that they should be more modernistically interpretive. Aren't the dots on the page the things that tell them what to play? What is "modernistically interpretive" anyway? Is it like the old Morcambe and Wise joke about "playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order"?

I suppose this is what happens when you eavesdrop on experts talking to each oter, regardless of the field. Or possibly it is genuine gibberish and they only think it makes sense.

Still, gibberish aside, at least the music is drawn from a much deeper well and in twoweeks of listening I haven't heard Crown Imperial once.

*Crown Imperial for some reason always sounds like the Thunderbirds theme tune to me anyway.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A neat turn of phrase

Good old Boris Johnson is being interviewed on television at the moment. He's pontificating about Europe and the Lisbon Treaty. It's dull stuff but I was amused to hear him describe himself as "a toenail on the body politic".

These things redefine the day

It seems just lately that every time I turn on the news there is somewhere else that I have been that is now a no go area. The latest is Kashgar, a town in northern China where I spent a fascinating couple of days visiting the famous local market. I even wrote a poem about it which is reproduced below. The title of the poem was "These Things Define The Day", which was also the title of my original brief blog. You can see from the poem what things defined the day for me but nowadays the days in Kashgar are apparently defined by ethnic violence, fear and tension and what the BBC just called "a hotbed of Islamist extremism".
It seemed safe enough when I was there, though that was before 9-11 changed the face of the world.
When I see these stories about how dangerous places have become, places where I felt safe, I feel a profound despair about the world. How have things become so bad so fast? Kashgar felt fine in 2001 and now, in 2009, it doesn't sound like a place that I'd be able to visit, let alone happy to visit. The Chinese authorities have restricted access to the city in their efforts to close the problem down.
There are other countries and cities where the same thing is true. Islamabad, for example, was in the same broadcast after a major terrorist bomb in the city. And who would even consider a tourist visit to Iran at the moment?
I could theorise but my opinion on the matter is no more valid than anyone else's and certainly no more likely to make a difference. I just feel that if I were just considering now the trips that I made between 1999 and 2001 I probably wouldn't make them. Not only that but things seem to be getting worse not better and the prospect of travelling in the near future in the places I travelled in so easily in the near past seem to be very unlikely. And that is what I feel such despair about.

Anyway, to help cheer myself up, here is the poem that I wrote about Kashgar in happier times.

The air is filled with song and sound
From birds in bamboo cage.
Bent artisans shape wood and leather,
Faces creased with age.
The lizard skins laid out and dried,
With powdered bone on wooden tray,
Strange medicines and ancient cures -
These things define the day.

The strings of horses, sheep in pens
And cows and pigs and goats,
They whinny, bleat and grunt and call
A noise from every throat.
The hill folk dressed in blue and red
The city men in grey
The children, iridescent, bright -
These things define the day.

Cows' severed heads, the charnel stench,
The smoke from burning hides,
Red rivulets that carve the dust
From road to riverside,
The withered old men gathered here,
The children at their play
Among the bloody carcasses
These things define the day.

Wonderful, marvelous, important, interesting, little adjectives

Geoffrey Pullum at language log has a brace of posts (here and here) demolishing the advice given by the Reverend Angela Tilby on Radio Four's Thought for the day. She advised that we should take a blue pencil to all our adjectives and cut them out. This is of course a piece of pernicious nonsense that self-appointed guardians of the language keep on repeating.
He does an admirable job of the demolition (in spite of a couple of problems - surely "economic" is also an adjective and though "more" is an adverb "more accountable" has to be treated as if it were "accountabler", a comparitive form of the adjective.)

What he doesn't do is what critics of the similarly pontificating Lynne Truss took great delight in - applying her own rules to her piece.

So let's have a look at some of her sentences with and without the adjectives.

Here's the opening sentence.

Today marks the birth of the Supreme Court which replaces the House of Lords as the highest court in the land, and ensures the total separation of the judiciary from the executive.
Let's ignore "Supreme" as it's part of the fixed expression "Supreme Court". That leaves us with "highest" and "total" to blue pencil.

Today marks the birth of the Supreme Court which replaces the House of Lords as the court in the land, and ensures the separation of the judiciary from the executive.

There's no great problem with losing "total" but now we have a sentence suggesting that there is only one court in the land.

Let's go on, skipping over most of the adjectives in the next paragraph (for the moment) as they are listed for discussion and alighting on this.

Yet when I was at school we were encouraged to be a bit suspicious of adjectives.
Without its adjective this becomes gibberish.

Yet when I was at school we were encouraged to be a bit of adjectives.
But perhaps we should remove the whole adjectival phrase to get

Yet when I was at school we were encouraged to be adjectives.
Well at least it's grammatical but God knows what it means.
Maybe she is thinking only of pre-modifying adjectives. Does she have any of those? Indeed she does, barely a sentence later we see

[Adjectives] are not the important words like verbs: 'being or doing words', or nouns: 'names of persons, places or things'.
or, applying the blue pencil again

[Adjectives] are not the words like verbs: 'being or doing words', or nouns: 'names of persons, places or things'.
Once again the result is rather odd.

The rest of her prose is similarly adjective-heavy, but let's return to the paragraph I skipped over and look to see if her specific objections have any substance. She says that on the Ministry of Justice Website the Strategic Objectives are full of adjectives. Civil and family justice, she says, are described as "efficient" and "effective". Actually no, they aren't. I've checked. What the website says, under "objectives", is

Increased efficiency and effectiveness of the civil, administrative and family justice systems
Both "efficiency" and "effectiveness" are nouns.

What about her claime that 'effective', 'transparent', 'responsive' are applied to criminal justice? Yes, it does say that, right there in the heading
A more effective, transparent and responsive criminal justice system for victims of the public
The trouble is if we remove these adjectives we get

A criminal justice system system for victims of the public
which doesn't mean the same thing at all. It means we will introduce one where it didn't exist before rather than improving the one we have.

On then to 'controlled', 'fair' migration. Sorry, I can't find that in the strategic objectives at all. Let's look at 'cohesive', 'empowered' and 'active' communities. Nope, that's not there either. I'll be generous and assume she's searched the rest of the site rather than just the strategic objectives, something that right now I don't have the time to do. I'll bet that wherever they occur and whether they occur as adjectives - as she claims - or in equivalent noun forms, the meanings of the sentences will be drastically altered by their omission. It would be nice if her examples actually matched the place that they are drawn from, but why ruin a good opinion with dirty, little facts?

In short adjectives are every bit as important as nouns and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn't know what they are talking about.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Etymological Fallacy

This morning there was a discussion program on television which, after two relatively sensible topics, moved on to discussing the case of the Jedi Knight versus Tesco. The case, for anyone who missed it, revolved around a self-professed Jedi who was ejected from a supermarket because he refused to remove his hood, claiming it was an essential part of his faith. He's been making a fair amount of noise ever since about how this is religious discrimination and how a female follower of Islam can wear far more concealing garb without being ejected. The stated topic was "do ALL religions deserve equal status".
For me though the interesting part came not from him but from another member of the audience, a Raelist and it wasn't anything to do with his religion it was to do with a number of decidedly dodgy linguistic claims he made. First of all he claimed that the word "religion" means "a linking together of people" and that therefore anything that is such a linking is per se a religion.This is an intriguing bit of nonsense for a couple of reasons.
To begin with the origin of the term is obscure. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that it derives from Latin religio - an obligation or a bond between man and God. Another possibility is a connection with religo - to tie fast. So it might well have a connection with a link between man and God but not between people.
He also claimed the the word "cult" means "any system of religious beliefs". This is just plain wrong. It was originally derived from the Latin past particple of colare - till and is related to the word "cultivate". The "worship" meaning developed later.

Of course, even if these etymologies that he gave were both correct and certain, he would still be committing the etymological fallacy. This is the belief that the "real" meaning of a word is somehow fixed by whatever meaning it had in the earliest form that is traceable. So if, and I stress if, the word "religion" were derived from a word meaning "link" then that is the meaning it must have now. This is self evident nonsense. Words change their meanings all the time. To insist that a word should have a meaning it had a thousand years ago, and possibly in another language, is ridiculous. What kind of communication could there be if I insisted that "acid" meant "pointed, sharp", "brothel" meant "deteriorate" or "cheap" meant "innkeeper"?
All these are given as possible origins in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, though I confess that my linguistic prowess is not up to the research to get a more detailed handle on it. If you are interested in quite detailed word origins may I suggest subscribing to Bradshaw of the Future which has some very good discussions of miscellaneous words on it.

Meanwhile, I'd like to suggest that people trying to justify their odd beliefs should stop appealing to etymology to back them up.

A brief apology

You may have noticed that my posts have fallen off a bit lately. This is a combination of two factors. First of all September was, as it always is, preceded by August. September had a scant 18 posts while August had a record-breaking 60. For most of August I was working away in Harrow with a lot of time on my hands and a couple of ongoing projects and that boosted the post-count a lot.
Added to that we have that the last four weeks have been the start of a new academic year, by far the busiest time of year for teachers.
The workload is easing a bit now so, providing I have anything to say, the post count should rise again.
Normal service will be resumed.