Sunday 30 December 2012

2012 in review

Unusually for me it was events on the national and international stage that made 2012 particularly memorable. The 2012 London Olympics were a great triumph and proved to the world that we can run major events spectacularly well. The doom-and-gloom merchants plus those who exhibited total indifference to the whole event must be fuming! Later in the year the defeat of Mitt Romney in the US presidential election was a relief but the thought he was even considered to be a viable candidate by mainstream Americans fills me with horror.

It has also been an eventful and successful year in both my birth and extended families. Two babies, Grace and Nancy, have joined us and it has been lovely to see how rapidly they change in their first few months. Baby Firth is already overdue so there might be a third new arrival in 2012.
Eve and Ella (adult care-leavers I mentor) have also had girl babies – Nicola and Alice – and from what I read in the weekly email Eve sends me both youngsters are doing well. S, the university student who lost both her parents in a car accident, is my third mentee and she too has had a better year. Events with her vile Granddad are moving towards a climax and he should be appearing for sentencing at the Crown Court this spring. I genuinely hope that he gets a custodial sentence.

2012 will also go down as the year when I dropped out of one hobby (amateur astronomy) but returned to another (philatelic exhibiting) after a long break. I don’t regret either decision even though I accept that the first of the two decisions was long overdue!

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Memories

Christmas was always a difficult time in my childhood. My Mother almost never managed to buy exactly what I had asked for – nearly but not quite sums it up - and that was what made it so stressful. It was never the cost that was the issue since Dad was in a well-paid job up in London: it was that she always seemed to be taken for a sucker by some salesman who took the opportunity to offload some slow-selling stock on her.

I wanted a wrist watch. Specifically I wanted a Timex wrist watch like the cool kids had. So what did she do? She purchased an Ingersol watch instead “because it looked nicer”. Not because it was more or less expensive (I later checked in the shop window) but because she thought it looked nicer.
It was the same story with the electric cars – “Top-On Raceways “rather than “Scalelectrix”. Her version of what I had asked for didn’t work at all over Christmas and the cars went backwards and forwards to the shop several times before I got two cars that worked properly.

And again it was the same story with “Action Man”. She came home proudly bearing some substitute product that looked broadly similar but wasn’t what I had asked for.
The final horror story was the worst. My brother wanted/needed a new bike. So his old bike mysteriously vanished from the garage only to reappear shortly after as a Christmas present for me.  Repainted to look like a new bike? – no. Rust removed to make it look less like a rather battered second hand bike? – no.  A blank denial that this was Stephen’s old bike – yes.  To my Dad’s credit even he felt this was unreasonable and in January Mother found another bike for me. A second hand girls bike for which I was supposed to be grateful!

Thursday 20 December 2012

Cure before prevention - I think not!

Imagine that somebody has a nasty fall in a factory and is taken to hospital. You would take it for granted that a diagnosis – she has broken her leg – would be made but wouldn’t you also expect some form of investigation to take place in the factory to find out why the accident happened? If the factory owner said that the important thing was to look forward rather than back I suspect most people would be fairly outraged. Without some attempt being made to discover the cause what is to prevent the same thing happening again and again?  How many people would need to break their leg before something got done?

I was a fairly high-powered meeting this week where this common sense principle was roundly ignored by most of the participants. Looking backward was clearly seen as dangerous because looking at the causes of a problem might mean apportioning blame – perhaps even to people present in the room. Far safer to concentrate of putting things right rather than spending time or resources on stopping things going wrong in the first place!
The adage that “prevention is better than cure” does have some validity but when it comes to people guarding their own backs all too often it seems expedient for senior staff to do the exact opposite. I think that the checks and balances that should exist in well run organisations didn’t operate as they should and it makes me wonder if both tax payers and local residents are being well served by an organisation that puts effect before cause and cure before prevention.

When the current crisis has reached a conclusion this is an issue I intend to raise with all those concerned.

Saturday 15 December 2012

AAVSO Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database - Part 2

Henden, showing his usual distain for any view that differs from his own, thought that my previous post was disrepectful. Oh dear (not)!

So I wrote - I have enormous respect for the work carried out by the individual members of the AAVSO.

However it was not these members who made the decision to snub the international groups who have been generous enough to share their members’ data with the AAVSO. The decision by a tiny sub-group to adopt a “what was yours has become everybody’s but some of what is ours will remain ours” approach is unquestionably a spectacular public-relations disaster.
I agree that the light curve generator identifies the affiliation of the observer but, crucially, the WebObs facility does not do so. Any observer using the individual results will almost inevitably do so without regard to the affiliation of source observer. My view that the best these overseas data providers can expect from any subsequent use of their results is a generic comment along the lines of, “Thank you to those AAVSO members who provided the results” remains unchanged. That seems wholly unacceptable.

Neither by-the-way was it the ordinary members of the AAVSO who decided to move the thread on the Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database to the AAVSO Governance forum so that the thread starter (that would be me) and other non-members of AAVSO (surely those most disadvantaged by the decision) could neither see nor contribute to the debate. Sadly this is not the first time that a policy of censoring views that differ from that of HQ’s staff  seems to have been adopted. I’m thinking here specifically of the demise of the AAVSO Data Mining Section and the humiliating fiasco of the First Survey of Professional and Amateur Collaborations in Astronomy - although there are other examples.

Monday 10 December 2012

The AAVSO’s Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

The American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Bright Star Monitor Epoch Photometry Database

By any normal measure this is a fairly obscure title for a blog post but recent events surrounding this database of variable star results shows the American psyche at its least attractive.
Other international groups have been generous enough to share their members’ data with the AAVSO but when the AAVSO had the opportunity to demonstrate their appreciation for this generosity they failed dismally. Instead of doing everything in their power to make this bright star data available to the wider astronomical community they have decided to adopt a curious “what was yours has become everybody’s but what is ours will remain ours” philosophy.

I think non-members of the AAVSO who now find their results in the AAVSO database are likely to be fairly unimpressed by all of this – for several reasons.  The “word on the street” is that the source of this third-party material is very far from obvious to the casual database user. It seems that the most these overseas data providers can expect from any subsequent users of their results is a generic comment along the lines of, “Thank you to those AAVSO members who provided the results”!
That the top people within the AAVSO initially made a fairly crude attempt to censor any debate on this unfortunate affair just adds a certain piquancy to the entire business. Moving the discussion thread to the AAVSO Governance forum meant that the thread starter (that would be me) and other non-members of AAVSO (surely those most disadvantaged by the decision) could neither see or contribute to the thread. Luckily this decision was later reversed.

I await developments with some interest.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Remembering My Mother

For the last three years of my Mother's life Claire and I used to visit twice a week. Every Thursday and Saturday as regular as clockwork we used to drive over to Rugby - on the way just past the former Great Central railway station we almost always used to see a man walking his dog in the direction of Rugby and the van looking out for speeding motorists.

Cherry Trees where Mother lived was a Residential Home for the Elderly - Mother called in "The Place" or "The School" but never Cherry Trees. It was a small home and Claire and I felt it was very well run and we never had the slightest concern for Mother's welfare while she was there. For the first year or so the car park at Cherry Trees was quite often empty when we arrived but for the last 18 months there were almost always other cars parked there.

Mother lived in room 6 but although she could never remember the number she could always find her way there unaided. Her visual recall of the route was fine once she was at Cherry Trees but when she was out with us she was often very worried that she couldn't remember anything about where she lived. Another curious aspect of life with her! She was usually very pleased to see us but we sometimes had to quite firm with her about wearing enough clothes and an appropriate coat.

In the early days at Cherry Trees she seemed to use hair grips and a hair-net at night. We used to find the grips on the floor most visits and buying supplies from Sainbury's was a regular event. Then it all suddenly stopped, never restarted and was never mentioned by her again. This was one of the more curious events we experienced as her dementia gradually got worse.

I always did the driving to Cherry Trees and then on to the supermarket with Mother in the front seat and Claire in the back seat. Mother never had a shopping list but always agreed she needed one. The first of the days worries would always be about what she needed to buy. We must have visited Sainbury's about 300 times during Mother's three years at Cherry Trees. We almost always drove to the far side of the car park, turned right and then almost always turned left into a space. On reflection I almost always park this way - not just at Sainbury's but in any car park - strange!

Fruit was just inside the entrance. Bananas were the most regular fruit purchase by far. They needed to be not too green and not too hard – yes, she was very fussy. Claire sometimes left us at this point to do our shopping and I would do the rest of the circuit without support. Chocolate was next, then magazines for me (sometimes) and for Mother (rarely). Biscuits, fig rolls, were other regular purchase. When Claire turned up we would jointly check we had everything we needed and she would go off to pay and I would take Mother to the cafe. Every time it was the same routine - sit her down, "Do you want a coffee" - "Yes please dear" - then I would collect a carton of fruit juice for Claire, a diet coke for me and a coffee for Mother.

Towards the end we switched to hot chocolate instead of coffee since Sainbury's didn't seem able to make a hot coffee. We would sit down a a circular table for a good old worry session and a three question cycle repated N times. Every visit Mother complained about the size of her drink - it was too large.

Eventually our patience would wear out and Claire would take her to the toilet prior to the next part of the afternoon's excitement. We found it was less stressful for all concerned for our twice-weekly visits to follow a fairly set routine. Even before her illness she had disliked spontaneity and this character trait became more pronounced as the years went by.

The Rugby town-centre park with the circular flower beds was our most frequent walk. This was a very impressive facility and reflected well on all concerned. The avenue near the Sports Centre was less exciting but made a change and it was our second most frequent destination. The out-of-town garden centre was my personal favourite and over the last year moved into third place. We also sometimes visited Draycote Water, the cemetery gardens next to the football ground and Cock Robin Wood close by the Supermarket.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Cause and Effect

I’m always surprised when an ostensibly sensible person confines their analysis of a possible course of action simply to looking at the first stage of a multi-stage process. In my experience this is almost always a recipe for disaster.

The most extreme example of this was RD who was employed as an Assistant Principal at a Further Education college. RD seemed to regard every interaction he had with people as being totally divorced from what had happened in the past and irrelevant as a predictive tool as to what might happen in the future. Time and again he was left publically bemused by colleagues who didn’t share his view of the world.
If you were trying to write a job description for a totally unsuitable post for RD it would have involved giving him a managerial role overseeing people who were better educated and more articulate than he was. Given that he was a former woodwork teacher such people were not hard to find in a post-16 college.

RD didn’t seem to be able to get his head around the fact that people have memories – very long memories when it comes to being stitched up – and that “forgive and forget” isn’t necessarily part of everybody’s philosophy. Time and again RD would engage in the very worst forms of macho posturing as a manager and then he would act both aggrieved and sad when he found that as a result he was almost universally despised.
 Some years after I left the college I met up with RD in a situation where I was several steps above him in the educational hierarchy. I was chairing a committee on which he was a very junior member – so junior in fact he didn’t even have voting rights – and he still was the odious little man I remembered so well.   Clearly time hadn’t shown him the error of his ways.

Monday 26 November 2012

Wrong tactics by the Republicans

The most important election statistic was the large majority of women who sided with Obama. The percentage was 55%, well above the president’s margin of victory.

The Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. The Republican Party continues to proclaim it is anti-big government, and yet certain radicals in the party continue to bang the drums against Roe v. Wade and gay marriage. They say the government must actively regulate our private lives in these areas.

The right of a woman to choose is etched into our society, and it is highly improbable that it will be overturned regardless of the future composition of the Supreme Court. For one thing, it will be impossible for Republicans to fill the court with anti-abortion judges over Democratic objections and in any case  women will "punish" Republicans who support radical nominees. It seems strange to me that anti-abortion Republicans continue to showcase this issue, as opposed to just expressing their preference. The impact is that the women’s vote is essentially written off, and so their presidential candidate rendered almost unelectable, even before the campaign begins.

Romney really could not win the 2012 election. The Republican Party must move away from its anti-social agenda and be more tolerant. Right wing fanatics make up a relatively small percentage of the Republican Party but their influence over the party’s platform is huge. It is clearly not a situation that the American electorate appreciates or even understands.

Obama should have been very beatable in 2012. He won a presidential election even though his policies were unpopular and his performance was dismal but the far right, the religious right, just had to tell the world how they felt on social issues.

Monday 19 November 2012

Is this the end of the line for the evangelical Christians?

Christian conservatives, for more than two decades an important factor in U.S. politics, are struggling with the election results that clearly indicate tide of public opinion - especially on gay issues - has shifted strongly against them.

Not only did they lose the presidency but they lost fights against same-sex marriage in all four states where it was on the ballot. Add to that the defeat of anti-abortion-rights Senate candidates and successful attempts to legalize marijuana for recreational use in two states and the basis for their inner turmoil is obvious..

The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said,  "It's not that our message - we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong - didn't get out. It did get out." ''It's that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions and has rejected them."

The election outcome was also bad news and a long-overdue wake up call for the, increasingly political, Catholic bishops. The bishops and Catholic conservative groups helped lead the fight against same-sex marriage in the four states where that issue was on the ballot. They also undertook a campaign that accused Obama of undermining religious liberty, since a provision in the health care overhaul required most employers to provide coverage for contraception.

The bishops seem unwilling to take the great leap out of the middle ages that most of us managed some time ago. It is good news that most electors ignore them but it is sad that this should in any way surprise the bishops.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Consistency and truth

Conservative politicians don't seem to have the same relationship with consistency and truth that most of us have. When facts - such as the low turnout in Thursday's elections - become inconvenient they are quite content to do a 180 degree flip on their public view. When Trade Unions hold ballots the Conservatives complain when a decision to strike is  made on the basis of a 30% response. But when some right-wing political hack with zero policing experience is elected by less than 15% of the voters in their minds everything is suddenly fine!

My impression that conservatives are the architects of their own misery only enhances my liberal glee. Cameron, the Old Etonian, is still blaming freeloading Brits who want a fairer share of the wealth of the country for many of the problems we are facing. The only explanation for his delusions is that the conservative controlled media and his campaign consultants, having lied for years about everything from global warming to the causes of the deficit, have started to believe their own propaganda . Whether conservatives will now learn their lesson and exhibit more skepticism about their self-selected facts remains to be seen.

My feeling is that this is most unlikely - for one very good reason. The conservative mindset and scientific method are poles apart and there’s no real reason to think conservatives are going to sharpen up on this now.

The religious right in the US isn't much better. Most of them don't seem to mind Romney’s nonstop lying, even though his constantly changing positions made it unclear where he would have stood if he ever made it to the presidency. I've heard it suggested that republicans, after years of training themselves to enjoy the garbage poured out by their media outlets such as Fox News, now rely on openly lying as a kind of comfort blanket.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

More on governors

I’m puzzled. It is quite rare for the position of Chair of Governors to be contested. It is almost unprecedented for a contested election to be anything than polite and almost self-deprecating. For a contested election in a school with multiple challenges to become even slightly acrimonious must be almost unprecedented. An unfavourable OFSTED report will inevitably result in the “the blame game” with lots of finger-pointing being directed, from both inside and outside of the school, towards the governors in general and the Chair and Vice-Chair in particular. All the more so if the Governing Body is identified as an area of significant weakness. And yet all this is happening not so far from where I’m writing this blog.

Taking on the role of the Chair of Governors of a school involves accepting that you will need to spend hundreds of hours per year on school business.  Many of these hours will need to be during the working day. And what do you get paid for all this unpaid work? Nothing, zilch, not a penny! In practice you will be out of pocket since most Chairs don’t claim for their travel costs or for office consumables like printer ink or paper.
Add to this the almost local lack of thanks or appreciation Chairs of Governors receive from the Local Authority and you can see that it doesn’t make for a very attractive employment package.

So why am I puzzled? I want to understand why there are some governors who want to be seen as leaders but either haven't got - or at least will not share - their vision for the future of the school they seek to serve. This is bound to make people question their motivation for seeking the top job.

Thursday 8 November 2012

A successful week

It has been a good week.

Top of the pile of course must be the US election where the odious Romney was defeated in an election that should have been his to win. I would say that the Republicans will now have to come to terms with the sad (for them) fact that the party in its current form is highly unlikely to ever win a Presidential election! Romney has been described as a man who "stood for nothing and everything at the same time." I don’t reckon he is nearly that good. Many within the religious right in the US come across as totally irrational and I find myself wanting to give them a good shake - by the neck! The "Just as long as I'm OK then sod the other fellow" philosophy seems to be their mantra, a curious approach for Christians to adopt I would have thought
This week I was elected Chair of Governors of a nearby school. Those of you with long memories might raise a quizzical eyebrow at this news but the truth of the matter was that I was needed, urgently, and at the ripe old age of 58 I probably still have a few more years of public service in me. I like to work on the basis of obtaining a consensus that all the members can at least live with and I was finding the confrontational approach of two of my younger colleagues tiresome in the extreme.

My third “victory” was to be accused of manipulating somebody. I agree that I have some vices but being manipulative isn’t one of them. Indeed if there is anybody less manipulative than me I have yet to meet them. What my accuser really meant was that I expressed some mild opposition to their principle that the weighing of heads is better than the counting of them and they didn’t like it.

Friday 2 November 2012


Acting as a mediator in a family or employment dispute is very much more difficult that you might imagine. Nevertheless it is something that I enjoy doing and it seems from the feedback I receive that I am at least tolerably good at it.

For the last six months I have attempting to resolve a whole series of disputes between a university student who lost both her parents in a road accident when she was in year 12 at school and her maternal grandparents. Most of the facts are not in dispute which would suggest that my job should have been fairly simple. Sadly nothing could have been further from the truth.

In truth neither side is very good at listening to what the “opposition” is saying. The Grandfather is very dismissive of any opinions put forward by his granddaughter or her solicitor and has fairly consistently refused to explain why he did some of his more questionable actions. For example he accepts that the day after his daughter and her husband were killed he went round to their house and removed money, some jewellery and also burnt “some papers”.  He has been given many opportunities to explain why he did this but I am fairly certain that even his own solicitor hasn’t been told the whole story.
Clearly when the case comes to court he will have no choice but to answer these questions so it isn’t clear to me what advantage he is seeking to gain from his current stubborn silence.   

Sunday 21 October 2012

How not to attract subscription paying members

A few weeks ago I applied to join a small specialist group that derives almost all its income from membership subscriptions. The group had what, at first sight, appeared to be a well-designed web site that was also tolerably up-to-date. The only feature that appeared slightly unusual was that although a prospective member could apply to join the group on-line there didn’t appear to be any option for paying the resultant subscription the same way.

I filled in the on-line application and pleasantly quickly I heard back from the President. He was away from his office and so he apologised for his short and rather impersonal reply promising to get back in touch within a couple of days. So far 10/10.

Ten days passed and I still had not heard anything so eventually I got back in touch with him and he apologised (again) and he promised (again) to respond – this time it was going to be “tonight”.   The score had dropped to 8/10 because although I appreciate that people have busy lives surely he had had a 15 minute slot sometime in 10 days to deal with society matters?

Needless to say he didn’t contact me and neither did the Treasurer or the Secretary who had also received a copy of my on-line application. Well I’m not going to chase them up again for a few weeks because I’m interested to see how long it will take them to successfully complete what really should have been a fairly simple task. As of today the score is 5/10.
The irony of publically accepting the need to attract new members when at the same time appearing unable to process applications in a timely manner is not lost on me.

Monday 15 October 2012

Amateur Astronomy and the Demographic Time Bomb

This picture was taken at the recent joint meeting of the British Astronomical Association Variable Star Section and subscribers to "The Astronomer" magazine.

What do you notice?

The audience is overwhelmingly male and almost as overwhelming looking over 65. I'm left wondering what will be the fate of groups like this in 10 years time? Where are the ladies and where are the younger members?

Despite all the time, money, energy and enthusiasm thrown at "Citizen Science" we are not getting enough young people into the hobby. If I was in my 20s or 30s I'm not sure I would feel comfortable joining a group that is so clearly dominated by retired people. It would be rather like joining the bowls club or engaging in "Walking for Health".

It all serves to remind me of the fate of some philatelic groups I used to belong to - used being the crucial word. These groups faded and died because the members felt unable or unwilling to move with the times. Broadening the appeal of the group was fought tooth and nail to the bitter end and some hardliners quite genuinely preferred to see the group close down rather than compromise on any aspect of the way the group operated.

Most of these hardliners have now moved on to the great meeting room in the sky. In most cases the legacy they left has been minimal because their vast knowledge of their chosen specialism was never recorded for posterity and died with them. In far too many cases the groups they supported with time and money over decades also died with them.

It is all very sad.  

Tuesday 9 October 2012

This jumped out at me today

"External signs of wealth and success are often cheap storefronts that hide internal mediocrity or even incompetence".

When I first became a college governor I was working in Somerset. My very first Chair of Governors was a large scale landowner and a local "worthy". He had no interest whatsoever in the views of other governors from outside his small inner circle - neither were the views of the pupils (16+) or their parents worth finding out, never mind acting upon. He had none of the attributes normally associated with being a "good" Chair and I always wondered how he came to be re-elected year after year.

When I first was elected as a staff governor the Principal (a gentleman in every sense of the word whose word was his bond) warned me in a friendly way about the utter indifference the Chair felt towards staff governors and the extreme hostility he seemed to feel towards trade unionists. This was always going to be a problem for me because I had been elected by trade union activists at the college who had become bored to death with the lap-dog inaction of the "Association of Agricultural Education Staff" (AAES). I don't the Chair ever spoke to me 1 to 1 during my years as an elected representative.

It was much the same with the officers of the West Africa Study Circle during my brief spell as a member. The senior posts were almost invariably held by those members with the most valuable stamp and postal history collections - regardless of their skills in other areas. Everything seemed to revolve around their convenience with 90% of the membership being regarded as little more than a source of subscription income.

Friday 5 October 2012

Being a school governor

When I started as a school governor back in the 1980’s both the number and complexity of the responsibilities that had to be dealt with were very much less than are now the case. It was also assumed that you would be able to serve your apprenticeship before other members would even consider asking you to take on the role of chairing a sub-committee.  Chairs and Vice-Chair were usually veterans with 10 or even 20 years of experience to draw on and most of the time deserved the respect with which they were treated by the other volunteers.

Fast forward to the present day.  The quality and quantity of people prepared to take on the role of a school governor has dropped significantly - not least because Government has dramatically increased the workload and this has meant that many more people have neither the time nor the inclination to spend their limited leisure time in this way. Governors are now being “forced” to take on positions of additional responsibility before they feel comfortable doing so and, more importantly, before they have the knowledge required to do the job.

I think it is extremely difficult to do the job of Chair of Governors unless you are retired since much of the job has to be done during the working day. It is also almost a prerequisite that you have a detailed knowledge of education before you take on the role – how else can you be expected to act as a critical friend to the school?  You need to know what questions to ask and what would be a reasonable answer.
I find it very difficult to understand how any school when the total experience of the Chair and Vice Chair is only 4 years can be expected to function effectively and I think it is grossly irresponsible of the Government to allow the current flawed system to continue.

Saturday 29 September 2012

British American Football

Back in the 1980s I regularly used to go off on a Sunday afternoon with my friend Roy to watch American Football. We used to follow the Taunton Wyverns who played at North Petherton: between Taunton and Bridgwater. The Wyverns were enthusiastic but not particularly talented. I remember they lost every game they played in one of the seasons (1987?) that we watched them. At least once we ventured up to Bristol to see a game but I don’t think it can have been to see Taunton play. This was the week after a player had died playing in a league match and it was quite difficult for all concerned. I’m nearly certain that the opposition was the Northants Storm – little did I know that some years later I would end up supporting them.
When I moved up to Daventry in 1990 I wasn’t able to find anybody who was keen on the game so I used to go on my own. This wasn’t as such fun as watching a game with a friend but it was a lot better than not going at all.
The Storm played at a number of different venues. I can remember at least four, Wellingborough, Northampton University, a rugby ground “somewhere in Northampton” and finally at Sixfields Stadium. Throughout this time the paying crowds steadily declined and towards the end would have been in the low double figures.  By 1996/97 it had all become a bit of a farce. Far too often either the other team didn’t turn up, or the referees didn’t turn up or the Red Cross volunteers didn’t turn up. Once I drove up to Leicester with my daughter Sally and the Northants Storm didn’t turn up. I think they had just folded – unofficially if not officially.
I then switched my allegiance to the Leicester Panthers for 1(?) season and also made a couple of trip down to see the Milton Keynes Pioneers. One time I very nearly ran out of petrol coming back from the MK Hockey Stadium and another time I spent ages driving around Fenny Stratford looking for the venue.
I look back on this era with much fondness.

Monday 24 September 2012

Spring Cleaning – Part 1

Every few years I “spring clean” the different hobby section of my life. I’ve never worked out what prompts this sudden urge for change and I suspect it is usually caused by an accumulation of small factors that sudden reach a tipping point rather than one major event. But one thing is certain - I can still remember the broad details of all the seismic shifts in my leisure time activities right back to the 1970s.
In those pre-internet and pre-email days all my hobbies were either conducted face-to-face or via the Royal Mail. It was a very different world back in the late 70s through to the mid-1980s. Younger, less experienced, members of hobby based societies were barely tolerated by the Old Guard: many of whom were either founder members of the group or had had been in place for decades.  The groups were largely run for the convenience of this small minority and with more modern eyes the standard of customer service and the value for money they offered were extremely low.

I played a great deal of postal chess and the National Correspondence Chess Club was an honourable exception to the widespread problems I mentioned earlier. My decision to stop playing was due entirely to the ever increasing tendency of some members to use home computers to do all the brain-work with only the most minimal human intervention. Some would call this cheating! Playing under these circumstances was pointless and demotivating and I left the hobby never to return.

During the 1980s I had gradually moved into the administration of philatelic societies and into philatelic exhibiting.  I went into both with my eyes wide open so it didn’t come as a big surprise when both ended badly. I came to the rescue of the Great Britain Overprints Society by acting as journal editor for the “Overprinter” but also by selling most of my extensive collection through the society. This gave a big boost to GBOS coffers but even that wasn’t enough to stop the knife being surgically applied when the men behind the throne wanted to re-establish control. I left British-based organised philately sometime prior to 1990 and with the sole exception of a few years as a casual member of a local Northampton based group never went back. For the last 20 years all my stamp hobby work has involved groups based in the USA.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Manland School, Harpenden 1959-1966: Part 4

There were four houses at Manland School. These were Balmoral (blue), Buckingham (green), Sandringham (red) and Windsor (yellow). I was in Buckingham but I’m ashamed to say that I had left the school before I realised that the houses were named after royal palaces rather than towns. Clearly my knowledge of geography was better than my knowledge of the monarchy.

The only time I can remember house allegiance being of any significance was on sports day. I was always in the relay race and at least once I reached the dizzy heights of being in the individual sprint as well. I don’t remember any of the results from the different events but knowing me I don’t expect I had any first places.

We played a lot of football at Manland. I was almost always told to play right back with just the occasional excitement of playing centre half. I can remember scoring a goal from nearly the half-way line. I’m right footed but the ball came from my left so I just swung my leg more in hope than expectation. By some miracle the ball screamed into the corner of the net and nobody was more surprised than me. I never made it into the school team although I did once play for an “Invitation 11” against the school team the year after I went up to St Albans School. The Bell twins, one, if not two, years older than me were in our team and the game was a massacre. In the end Kingham told the two of them that they were not allowed to go over the half way line in a vain attempt to keep the score down to single figures.  

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Manland School, Harpenden 1959-1966: Part 3

One thing that I can remember quite well are the various Manland School Christmas concerts. The Twelve Days of Christmas in which I was one of the “Drummers Drumming” and the next year when I was “Duban, the King’s Advisor” were my two most significant roles.
The strangest concert – by far – was when I was in Mr Kingham’s class. The tradition in most, if not all  primary schools, was that everybody in the class had a role in the concert.  Some roles would be fairly minor, perhaps just saying a few words or perhaps singing as part of a big group, but everyone got something to do.
Except when Mr Kingham was running the show!
He divided his class into two groups. Those in the choir (about 40) and the rest (about 10). I was in the smaller group and in the weeks leading up to the concert I noticed that I was spending a great deal of time watching the choir rehearse and virtually no time rehearsing myself. Nothing was done about costumes for our group either and with adult hindsight it is obvious that it was never Kingham's intention that our short play would get performed.

When the tickets were put on sale there was no mention of our play in the programme. I know that several parents complained – including mine – but nothing changed and although we were expected to attend we never went on stage.  Unsurprisingly my Mum didn’t attend the concert which was pretty much par for the course because she seldom bothered with school events.  Mum always seemed to have some “important” TWG event on which took priority over everything else.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Manland School, Harpenden 1959-1966: Part 2

I can remember the names of my eight teachers but the exact order in which I had them and the spelling of the surnames might be open to debate - Mrs Avis-Jones (reception), Miss Searby (class ?), Miss Wade (class ?), Mrs Postlethwaite (class ?), Mrs Thorburn (class ?),  Mrs Rumball (class 5), Mr Fuller (class 3) and Mr Kingham (class 1). Mr Walton was the Head Teacher.
Physical punishment of primary school pupils was allowed in the 1960s and it was quite widely practiced at Manland School especially by Mr Fuller and Mr Kingham. Mr Fuller was “firm but fair”and only fairly rarely used the slipper. Mr Kingham was a thoroughly unpleasant person who should never have been allowed to become a teacher. He used his hand, a slipper or a cane most days and mass punishments of large parts of the class were very much part of his repertoire. He was almost universally disliked by the pupils.
The strangest aspect of my time at the school was the two terms I spent being taught by Mrs Rumball. Her classroom wasn’t in the main school but was in an old building that backed onto the railway line about a mile away from the main site. It was generally accept by the parents that “Mrs Rumball didn’t like teaching boys” so it was no bad thing that I only had her for 2 terms. She lived on Dalkeith Road, not far from my parents. I used to walk back from school with my best friend Martin Gill, except on the day when he had a piano lesson, and I remember it seemed quite a long way especially going up Station Road hill. I don’t remember much about my time with Mrs Rumball. I know I always struggled in lessons when cutting out was involved and I remember getting into trouble for leaving over large gaps between my words when doing compositions.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Manland School, Harpenden 1959-1966

We had moved to Harpenden a few years before I started at Manland County Primary School in September 1959. In those days there was far less provision for the under-fives – no such thing as Mother and Toddler Groups in the 1950s – so starting school was a really big event. I don’t have many memories of my pre-school life which is a shame as I’m sure my Mother spent more time with me during those 5 years than in the rest of my life put together. The Second World War had only ended 14 years previously and it would still have been very fresh in the minds of all the adults in positions of authority.

The distribution of primary schools within Harpenden was most peculiar. Manland, ¾ of a mile away from my home, was easily the closest school and luckily was regarded as the best in the town. There was another school in Batford (mainly catering for the large council house estate there), St Dominics (Catholic) quite close to the town centre and Roundwood on the opposite side of town to Dalkeith Road. So it was Manland or nowhere, especially as in those days my Mother couldn’t drive a car. The school on Crabtree Lane, 50 yards from home, wasn’t built until many years later.

I started school just before my 5th birthday and I can still recall odd bits of my first day. My class teacher was Mrs Avis-Jones and I sat next to a girl called Helen who was wearing a brown cardigan with flecks of other colours in it. I can remember being terribly surprised that there were children in the class who couldn’t read. I thought it was some kind of strange joke when I was the only child in the room who could read all the words written on pieces of coloured card mounted on the walls.

We sat at desks arranged in rows and teaching was rather formal. Of course it needed to be because Classroom Assistants were a long, long way in the future and Mrs Avis-Jones was expected to cope on her own all day and every day. 

Thursday 23 August 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire) - Part 6

I wasn’t sorry to leave United Biscuits. I had been there just over 3 years and in all that time I don’t remember learning a single new scientific skill. I did take away with me an absolute determination that when I became more senior I would never use the “management by favouritism” technique as practiced by my first boss. I don't even recall having a leaving event although I suppose I did?

I left to take up a lecturing position down in Somerset. It was our next door neighbour who mentioned that you didn’t need to have a teaching qualification to teach in Further Education and I can remember calling in at the tiny public library in the town to look through the Times Educational Supplement.

I saw a job advertised teaching food technology, I applied for the post and in due course I was called for an interview. Somebody clearly wanted me to get the job because when I arrived at the college I was greeted with relief because all the other candidates – I think there were 3 – had dropped out. So it was a matter of appointing me or re-advertising. To call the recruitment process casual would be a fair comment. A tour and a short chat was rapidly followed by “when can you start?”.

They actually offered me the job on the wrong money because once I had started they redid the sums and I ended up 50% better off than when I had been at United Biscuits. They even offered me a college owned house to rent while we house hunted. My holiday entitlement was 14 weeks which compared rather well with the 22 days at United Biscuits.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire) - Part 5

Towards the end of my three years with United Biscuits there was a proposal to move many of the staff from Ashby to Maidenhead. This would have involved moving from an area of relatively cheap housing to an area of very expensive housing so unsurprisingly many staff were less than thrilled at the prospect. Adding to the problems that this proposal would have created was the fact that many of the staff had partners who were also working in the Ashby area and a fair percentage also had children in the local schools. The financial and social implications of the proposal were enormous and in many cases any such move would have been quite impossible.

The explanation for this crazy suggestion was almost unbelievable. It seems that the newly appointed head of the Technical and Research Department lived – yes you have guessed it – near Maidenhead. It seems that because he didn’t want to up-route his family dozens of other families were going to be expected to face exactly what their new boss wasn’t prepared to do himself. Talk about selfish!

Predictably all sorts of other reasons were given for the move. The advantage and convenience for staff being located nearer to Heathrow Airport being one of more fatuous. Unfortunately I left before the issue was resolved so I don’t know if the wholesale movement of technical staff ever happened.

About a week before I left I was called into a meeting with my boss’s boss. He droned on for ages about some project that would have involved being based away from Ashby for months at a time. I sat there wondering why he was telling me all the details about the sacrifice that the chosen victim would be expected to make for the sake of the firm. Then he announced that following “numerous meetings” and “extensive consultation with my line manager” I was going to be expected to take on the role. His face when I told him that I was leaving the firm at the end of the following week was priceless.

Clearly the meetings with my line manager had never happened but why such a senior person chose to lie to me remains an unanswered mystery.

Sunday 12 August 2012

My review of the Olympic Games

Before they started I was rather pessimistic about the Olympic Games. I had visions of an endless stream of bureaucratic and security oversights plus “plucky Brits” coming in 8th (out of 8) in a wide range of events. Well I couldn’t have more wrong could I?

My two days as a spectator couldn’t have gone more smoothly. The train, the tube and the Docklands Light Railway, both there and back, scored a perfect 10/10. The volunteer helpers were excellent and the security checks at the venue were efficient, but also quick and friendly.

We watched judo, boxing and weight lifting and saw some Team GB success in all three. Everything ran like clockwork with events starting on time and what was happening being well explained by enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentators
The only thing that disappointed me was the Queen at the Opening Ceremony. She looked both bored and ill and was busy picking her nails when Team GB came into the stadium. We were not amused.

It was only 16 years ago when Team GB won just one gold medal throughout the entire Atlanta games. We were 36th in the medal table and it was so depressing watching some of our Olympians, particularly in some of the more fringe events, performing like novices.

I remember that Manchester had created quite a strong bid to host the games and in the first round of voting they were far from disgraced by getting 11 votes. Belgrade, who were never going to win, came last in the first round and I think it was assumed that their 7 votes would go to either Athens or Manchester. Curiously it now seems as if Melbourne were the main beneficiaries of the Belgrade votes, and with most of the Manchester support also being transferred to Melbourne, Manchester were doomed.

Things have certainly moved on since then. We are a world power and punch massively above our weight.

Go GB!!

Monday 6 August 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire) - Part 4

I think a social scientist would have had an interesting time analysing the interpersonal relationships that existed within Convenience Foods. The strangest employee of all was Linda R. She was either friendly and co-operative, usually towards other women, or she was rude and aggressive, usually towards men. It turns out that her father had been drowned not long before I first met her and I have always wondered if that was something to do with her behaviour.  Every week one member of the department was allowed to go to the other United Biscuits factory in the town to buy damaged biscuits at a heavily discounted price.  When it was Linda R’s turn to do this task she was almost invariably “forgot” to buy anything for other people although the rest of us always seemed to be delegated to buy things for her when our names came up on the rota.

I never worked out exactly what role Linda R was supposed to carry out in the department. She didn’t seem to have any obvious duties or responsibilities on either the creative side or on the technical side of the work that was carried out. She had an accomplice, July S, who was a pleasure to work with when Linda R was away but who was almost as difficult as her mentor when the two of them were together.

At this early stage of my career it was most unpleasant to have to work in the same department as the two of them and I wasn’t even a tiny bit sad when circumstances separated us. Needless to say I would have loved to have been Linda R’s line-manager when I was a bit more experienced in dealing with people!

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (leicestershire) - Part 3

Intially I had worked for United Biscuits down in their Osterley factory - just off the A4 - and I had lived in Acton. When I had been offered the UB job, following an interview up in Ashby, nothing was said about me working in London so it was a bit of a shock to receive a letter telling me of the change of plan. I enjoyed my time in London and there was always plenty that needed to be done.

I was never really clear why, after 3 months, I was moved (back) up to the Ashby site. If anything the department there was rather overstaffed even before I started work there so when I arrived in January 1977 there wasn’t much for me to do. Most, if not all, of the more interesting work was hijacked by the senior staff and as the “new boy” I either had nothing whatsoever to do and was literally sitting around all day feeling bored and demotivated or, if I was really unlucky, I was sent off on fairly pointless missions to Grimsby or Fakenham for several days at a time so I could feel bored, lonely and demotivated over there instead! I spent many nights at the Humber Royal or at the Grimsby Crest hotels and many days at the Grimsby factory for no tangible benefit to either me or to my employer.
Eventually I started working with Doctor Terry Sharp. He was OK as a line manager and I rather suspect that he shared my reservations about the department.  Most of the time he and I seemed to be working on “Lewis Wheat” products. I think the idea was to make instant wheat rather like instant rice by soaking the wheat grains in salt water, then cracking the grains open by passing them between rotating steel rollers before drying them prior to adding flavours.  I thought we made some quite good products but as far as I can remember none made it to large scale production.

During my time there we took on even more staff – including the former Nottingham University graduate Ruth Henry (was Ruth Biggin) - but without there being any increase in the total amount of work that needed doing. Even with hindsight the unrestrained "empire building" that went on was bizarre. I do think that the people that ran the graduate trainee scheme didn't co-ordinate well with the people who were supposed to supervise the graduates on a day-to-day basis. .

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire) - Part 2

I had made a number of assumptions about my new job at United Biscuits that proved to be incorrect. The combined effect of all of these was to make my time there both unhappy and professionally unproductive. Well, I say assumptions, perhaps more correctly I should say that I had expected what was told to me both at and after my interview would bear at least some resemblance to what really happened!

I had expected that the job – Product Development Technologist – would make use of the knowledge and skills I had acquired during my three year degree course at Nottingham University. It is fair to say that it didn’t. The creative side of the work was done by the departmental chef (Bill Tidman), and the scientific and technical aspects of manufacturing the tiny percentage of products that made it through the product development cycle from initial concept to product launch was almost always done by factory staff based at the relevant United Biscuits’ sites.

Convenience Foods, where I was based, was the smallest of the three product development groups and was very much the poor relation in terms of the number and range of products being worked on. When I arrived the focus of the section was almost entirely on “KP Ooodles” which was a Japanese idea with a pilot plant initially in Carlisle and then in Grimsby. It was never a particularly high quality product and since the only place it was being manufactured was 3 hours away from the base of staff tasked with over-seeing its manufacture it was rather a poisoned chalice that people were happy to unload onto me.

Eventually there was some diversification into instant wheat – a good idea that never seemed to take off – and also into pouch packed meals. These meals, initially produced under the name of Howards Haute Cuisine, had a manufacturing base in Fakenham (Norfolk). Again this was a lengthy journey from Leicestershire and it should have clear to the bosses that having a research base in the middle of the country responsible for products only manufactured on the east coast wasn’t a great idea!

As a scientific aside - the under processing of the pouch packs was potentially quite a serious issue public health issue and even with hindsight I don't understand why the quickest and easiest solution wasn't adopted.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire)

When I moved up to Ashby-de-la-Zouch from Acton (west London) I had three months living in a horrible bedsit while Claire and I waited for our house purchase to be completed - all the time hoping it would happen before our wedding in April. Claire was still living at Springhouse Farm, of Kegworth air crash fame, so she was fairly comfortable and she also had our mutual friend Ruth for company. I, on the other hand, was living in attic room with no proper heating in a massive house run by a dragon.

There was snow lying when I arrived just after Christmas and I can remember catching the bus over to Loughborough to collect my motor bike from the railway station only to find that the office was shut. I then had to repeat the journey the next day. Much the same thing happened the first day I arrived at the United Biscuits factory. The Convenience Foods section was still closed for the Christmas break and I had been hanging around for quite a while before anybody bothered to tell me. The letter I had been sent was quite clear that I should have been starting that day – I was paid for that day and it wasn’t taken from my meagre holiday allocation so it was all a bit of a mystery.

David Williams was my boss. He suffered from “small man syndrome” more than anybody I had met before or since. He didn’t ever seem to do anything and it was a mystery how he managed to fill his day. Bill Tidman was his lap-dog but at least Bill was always busy being the creative brain behind some of the projects the department was working on. I cannot recall any of Bill’s projects becoming a commercial success so perhaps he wasn’t quite as wonderful as he was always claiming to be!

Friday 13 July 2012

The New Biggles Companion.

The economics of publishing a physical, as opposed to an electronic, version of the New Biggles Companion have improved quite significantly over the last couple of years. When I first discovered Lulu I seem to recall being shocked at how expensive short run printing remained so I can only assume that Lulu have changed their business model. 
It is going to be an interesting exercise to compare the sales of the two versions over the next few months.
What is contained in the New Biggles Companion?

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 1 covers the First World War and Biggles' service in the Royal Flying Corps.

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 2 covers his "footloose and fancy free" life between the two world wars.

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 3 covers his military service during the Second World War.

The complete who, what and when of Biggles' work in the Special Air Police.

An in-depth review of Biggles Second Case.

In theory it should only take a few weeks for the physical book to be available through Amazon but it always a bit of a lottery as to how quickly and how smoothly the different distribution channels swing into action.
I would love to see the sales figures of all the different books that Lulu publish. I suspect that the median and mode sales (excluding sales to the different authors) is probably under 10 copies. "Never is the course of human history was so much written by so many to be read by so few."

Saturday 7 July 2012

No More Loneliness - Eva and Ella's book

The book I have been working on for so long with Eve and Ella's book is finished - much to the relief of all concerned - and is now available from Lulu.

“No More Loneliness”, perhaps unsurprisingly, transcends the traditional book categories used by retailers. Yes, it is biographical and yes, the two heroines are lesbian, but there is far more to it than this. One thing it definitely isn’t is "misery lit".

Two girls, one abandoned as a baby and with a whole series of failed foster placements behind her – the other physically abused for years by her sadistic father – meet in a Children’s Home and become friends and then lovers. Their true life stories, told in poetry and prose, will amuse, frustrate and inspire even the most cynical reader.

Information on the major traumas has been kept to a minimum and the focus is far more on the daily problems faced by young people who lack parental support and for whom friendships can make the difference between success and failure or life and death.

Eve and Ella are both thrilled by the final product and that is by far the most important measure of success. They are now keen to start wotk on the second volume that will cover their pregnancies and will also include contributions from a number of their friends - most especially Didi. I have asked for a short sabbatical before I start work on this as I have a number of other projects that still require marketing material to be generated.

Monday 2 July 2012

Mentoring young people (2)

You don’t normally expect to agree with everything a person writes. But when you find yourself holding no views in common with a person it is rather disconcerting.

This week I have had a series of emails from the Grand Parent of a student I am mentoring. He has been in dispute with my “client” for some months now and both parties were keen to seek help from outside the family. The only reason that I agreed to get involved was that the vast majority of the facts were not in dispute. The conflict between them seemed to revolve around why things had happened rather than what things had happened. Give me a “why” rather than a “what” dispute every time!

The Grand Parent was articulate, educated and wealthy – and most unpleasant to work with! Common sense and compassion didn’t seem to have been included in his character: neither did even the smallest fragment of empathy with either his grand daughter or with me as the mediator. His starting (and finishing) point seemed to be that both she and I had to accept everything he had said or done was 100% reasonable. If we dared to venture any opinion that differed from his we were either being “unprofessional” (me) or “disrespectful” (her).

He didn’t give any ground on any issue and it was hard to understand why he had signed up for mediation. Only once before have I ever had to work with a person so totally uncommitted to the process and in the end I had to share this opinion with him.

Sadly, I now think the matter will have to go to Court. I think the facts speak for themselves and that he has diverted substantial sums of money from his daughter’s estate into his own pocket to the substantial detriment of his grand daughter.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Looking back at my school days (2)

I played cricket for all seven years that I was at school. In that time I am almost certain that I didn’t receive any formal coaching. Nor did I have a single session in the cricket nets that existed in large numbers round the school site. So it is fair to say that “sport for all” wasn’t a philosophy that St Albans School supported. The same can be said for both rugger and hockey – no attempt was made to develop my interest or skills in these team games. If anything tennis was even worse run because there was little or no attempt made even to supervise the pupils. Providing you were physically present that was enough for the PE Department.

Looking back this was a curious omission because sport was taken very seriously by the Head Teacher. We had entire afternoons devoted to sport and the school teams achieved a number of notable successes at both local and regional level. I really would have to question how carefully the pool of available talent was examined by the school staff. While playing rugger I was top scorer for three consecutive years – playing loose-head prop forward of all positions! – without getting any recognition from the “powers that be”.

It was much the same with the Field Centre in south Wales that swallowed up vast amounts of staff time and school money.  It was endlessly being promoted and boasted about by senior staff despite the fact that many students never visited the wretched place. A few of my year visited it half a dozen times – wearing a whole range of different hats – but not one of my closest friends ever darkened its door!

Tuesday 19 June 2012

A real shock!

It was more than two years since I last heard from Tish. She was the very first Care Leaver I  had contact with as an adult mentor - she even pre-dates Eve and Ella - and it was quite worrying when she suddenly, without any explanation, stopped replying to my emails. I became even more concerned when her amusing blog was suddenly deleted. However there was nothing I could do and I had embarked on the project knowing that this sort of thing might happen.

Yesterday Tish got back in touch. She has now updated me on all that has happened to her since we were last in contact. The last I knew of her was when she was struggling with a part time job and a reasonably full time course in a Further Education college. She dropped out of college at just about the same time as she broke contact with me and at the time as she stopped writing her blog. It seems that she had a big crisis of confidence and, to quote her words, "ran away to hide". Breaking links with me was just one small part of that process.

She is now living in a different town about 30 miles from where she used to live. She is working in a supermarket and is also doing two evenings a week at college. What is far more exciting is that she is in regular email contact with her last-but-one set of foster parents. She feels that this has given her some extra stability in her life so I'm pleased for her.

Of course there is a downside. I already have my full quota of young people to help - more than my full quota if I'm honest - so I am trying to locate another mentor to take her on. If I'm unsuccessful I will of course not abandon her but it is going to be a bit difficult to give them all the time they deserve!

Saturday 16 June 2012

Mentoring young people

This week I was asked why the mentoring scheme that I have supported for some years has such a high failure rate. I think they were expecting me to say that the lack of support from the centre was the issue - perhaps hoping to use my comment as a lever to extract more funding? But to me the biggest issue isn't the lack of support but is a certain lack of common sense demonstrated by both the young people and, more annoyingly, by the adult mentors.

The student who lost both her parents contacts me on a Friday and I always try to reply the same day. If I know that I'm going to be away - for instance on holiday - I warn her in advance and I let her know when I am due back. Similarly she lets me know if she is going to be away: as indeed she was recently when she went on a study tour. This isn't rocket science but neither does it seem to be standard practice.

But where the current system really doesn't seem to be working is when there is a crisis, perceived or actual, in the young person's life. The mentor needs to give a rapid reply. This is what the young person needs and what they expect. If one of my daughters was in trouble I wouldn't dream of taking up to a week before replying to her cry for help. Yet, sadly, this seems to be a common factor in the breakdown of some pairings.

A rapid reply inplies that the mentor should monitor incoming emails on at least a daily basis. Certaintly I think monitoring as infrequently as twice a week is not going to meet the needs of the young person. I have asked before, both publically and privately, that if the youngsters needs are not being met then should the mentoring continue?

I suppose the answer is yes on the basis that any help is better than none. But to me investing a few minutes once a day to significantly improve the service is just common sense. Common sense that has very much left me in a minority within the group.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Collingwood, South Tehidy, Cornwall

The breakfasts were excellent both in quality and quantity and the staff were friendly but there are several other aspects of the business that were very disappointing. These need to be looked at urgently if the current rating is to be maintained

The bedroom was the smallest double room I have ever stayed in and the first without curtains at the windows. The very thin light-coloured blinds did almost nothing to keep out the light and this meant that as soon as dawn broke it was hard to sleep. I think to describe our room as spacious, as was done in the promotional material, was being rather optimistic. The bed was placed across the narrowest part of the room so that it was almost impossible to get from one side of the room to the other without climbing over the bed. I'm also not a great fan of the modern assumption that guests don't want to have their bed made and the room aired and tidied every day.

Equally curious was the mention of 2 acres of woodland. There was a medium sized garden at the front of the property and a large tarmac area (basically a car park) at the rear but no sign whatsoever of two acres of woodland.

However the strangest thing about our visit was the way that the owner vanished for 45 minutes just when we were trying to pay the bill. It seems that she was on the "school run" and as no other member of staff was authorised to deal with money we were just left hanging around. This was very unprofessional and rather confirmed our sense of disappointment.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Lonely at university?

Lonely at university?

This week I had a very thought provoking exchange of emails with E** about her time at university. For me the three years I spent at Nottingham University were unquestionably the happiest period of my life but E** had a very different experience. She wrote, “Most of the people on my course quickly seemed to form themselves into tight-knit groups from which I felt excluded. I always felt that I was only tolerated on the margins of their groups, just making up the numbers.” “I missed the supportive familiarity of E*** and all my other home-town friends and in the early days I didn’t make enough effort to seek out like-minded people.” “I had been very lonely as a foster child and it was horrible to find myself back in that position.”

E**’s story rather reminds me of Jenny N who was a Nottingham University at the same time as Claire and I. In the first year the groups for practical science were arranged alphabetically so I worked with Jenny quite a lot. Indeed, coming as I did from an all-boys school, Jenny was the first girl I had ever got to know reasonably well. But she was so painfully shy and, apparently, so disinterested in any of the social aspects of university life that no friendship ever developed between us. As far as I could see her life consisted of academic work and sitting on her own in her study bedroom reading magazines.

In years 2 and 3, I no longer worked with Jenny and as far as I remember I hardly spoke to her again. It was only by checking the back issues of the faculty magazine that I was able to confirm my very vague memory of her sitting next to me at the graduation ceremony! I can only hope that her life wasn’t as horribly lonely as it appeared to be from the outside.

NB - I am away next week so my next blog entry will be in early June.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

What happened next?

As a teacher and perhaps even more as a Chair of Governors I often became involved with pupils and families going through a crisis. From nowhere a name would suddenly get mentioned more and more frequently and Claire’s eyes would start to glaze over when I embarked on the latest episode in the long-running saga. Then just as suddenly it would all be over – the problem would be solved or delegated elsewhere and my life would return to normal.

But what happened next? Most of the time I didn’t know, or to be frank, I didn’t care. There were just so many half-remembered names and faces and I didn’t have the emotional energy to care about them all. But a few cases remain fresh in my memory even years later and it can be annoying and frustrating in equal measures when I realize that I will just never know what happened next.
How about the former student who came to a college reunion I helped to organize down in Somerset with her “sugar daddy” who must have been 30 or 40 years older than her. How long did that relationship last?
Or the care-leaver who I started working with at the same time as E and E? She was clearly a pleasant girl with a story to tell and, above all, she was urgently in need of adult support. But not, it appears, from me, because our email contacts gradually petered out over the first two or three months of the project and I haven’t heard anything from her for at least two years.
The saddest story is about Ruth (not her real name). She posted on a very well-known forum and, by chance, was the subject of the very first thread I read there. She was a student with an eating disorder and boyfriend “issues” and to my innocent eyes was exactly the type of person that the readers should have wanted to help. But sadly she was ignored by most of the regulars and sneered at by a few of the others. She posted a handful of times but then gave up and as far as I know never reappeared. My antipathy to that particular household name started then and continues unabated!

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Loking back at my school days (1)

Looking back at my school days (1)

I was asked only the other day what I thought were the biggest differences between the way schools were run in the 1960s and 1970s and how they operate now.

I think modern schools are far more accountable to the parents and local residents than was the case when I was at school. But it is more than that: modern schools seem to have the pupils at the centre of almost everything that happens. When I was at St Albans School (1966-1973) even the most basic, most sensible, most humane modifications to the way the school operated were viewed with deep suspicion by the Head Master. It was rather like being stuck in a bizarre time warp in which all the changes that had transformed British society since the end of the Second World War had never happened.

Purely in terms of the long-term effect it had on pupils the almost total lack of careers guidance was the strangest omission from the school curriculum. If you wanted to become a doctor or to join the Armed Forces you were well catered for. If your interests lay elsewhere you were pretty much on your own. St Albans was in the London Commuter Belt but as far as I can recall there was never any mention of careers in the City or in law or politics. All this meant that A level choices were made without any thought of what degrees and what careers would be rendered impossible by making wrong, or more likely inappropriate, choices when the pupil was a young as 15 or 16.

I was half way through my A Levels in biology, chemistry and physics before I realised that I would have been far better served by studying economics rather than biology. It was scant consolation when I realised that my preferred option would not have been possible since economics was seen as an “arts side” subject and mixing arts and sciences subjects in the Sixth Form was strictly verboten!   

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Mateo Castrillon 1993-2012

This week Claire and I went up to London to attend the funeral of my cousin Jane’s son Mateo. Mateo was only 18 when he was killed in a road accident so of course the whole event was very sad. We decided to travel up on the Monday which turned out to be a warm and sunny day in complete contrast to the previous day that was wet and dreary. The outward journey went smoothly but the first section over to Kidderminster was very slow and after an hour we had only done 31 miles. Not good when the whole journey was known to be 170 miles. Once we reached the motorway network (M40 and M25) our average speed substantially improved. We spend some time trying to remember when we had last driven on the northern half of the M25 and decided it must have been when we took Hazel down to Kent from Daventry during the industrial placement year she did as part of her degree. So a long time ago! The Premier Inn was rather soulless but conveniently situated for picking up my brother, my nephew and his wife on Tuesday morning so we could travel in one car to the crematorium. Poor old Stephen had had a horrendous rail journey up from Cornwall thanks to flooding on the line. Our new A to Z proved invaluable and we didn’t get lost once despite our unfamiliarity with east London. The service was by far the best attended of any I have been to and there were probably as many people standing as sitting. The service was entirely secular, very multi-cultural and with some of the proceedings in English and Spanish. The wake was in a nearby pub and we found the venue by the simple expedient of following the crowd. While of course the circumstances that had brought the family together were tragic it was somehow reassuring to see such a good turn-out from "Clan Nicholson". Rest in Peace Mateo.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Not quite the answer they expected!

There is nothing wrong with making astronomical observations for fun or in order to develop new skills and publishing these observations on a web site or in an amateur magazine is something that I would always encourage. Moving onto the next step, peer reviewed publication, is quite a leap upwards both in terms of the quality and quantity of the work involved but is definitely achievable.

But sooner or later you find yourself asking the question, “What astronomical observations can I make that would be of real value to the professionals?” The traditional, safe and non-controversial answer might include double star measurement or estimating the brightness of variable stars. There is just a tiny problem associated with both of these options – one is entirely wrong and the other is wrong at least 99 times out of 100!

The number of amateur astronomers I can bring to mind who have made double star observations in the last ten years that were subsequently found to be of value to the professionals is exactly zero. The situation with variable star observations is very little better. I have contributed many thousands of observations to the American Association of Variable Star Observers. While the number that have been used by professional astronomers is by no mean insignificant the number that have been used with full and detailed acknowledgement of their source is probably under 100.

In my experience it would be far better and far more honest to answer the question with the friendly warning that it is extremely unlikely that any observations you will make during your time in the amateur hobby will be of any value to the professionals. You should observe and report on objects that interest you and regard any professional use of your results as a bonus.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Facebook, blogs and an audit trail

I saw the other day that there are 35m people in the UK with a Facebook account. A more interesting statistic, which was conspicuously missing from the article, would be the number of these accounts owned by people who have died in the last year? I appreciate that Facebook accounts tend to be concentrated in the young and dying in the old but I would estimate that the number of such accounts will be increasing by between 100,000 and 200,000 every year. I must be very distressing for the parents of a deceased teenager or the husband or wife of somebody who dies in their 20s or 30s to be unable to access the account should they want or need to in the event of a sudden death.

There is also a problem that long-term users of Facebook are just starting to discover. Many people have aspects of their life that they were happy to share with the world when they were young but that they very much would not want to share with their children or second wife. It is usually possible to delete material directly under your control but it can be a very different and very difficult situation when you have posted to another person’s account. Anybody who uses an on-line resource like Facebook or Live Journal as an electronic diary is running the risk of comments or thoughts they wrote 5 or 10 years previously coming back to bite them.

Just this week I was reading a blog that E+E have discovered. The author is a university student who had a very difficult time as a foster child. I think the young lady has revealed far too much about her past but more worrying is the very serious allegations she has made about some named and some easily identified third-parties. If you are going to describe the house, identify the small town and reveal the first names and the jobs of alleged abusive foster parents you are leaving yourself in a very vulnerable position.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Hereford Cemetery and Crematorium

Hereford Cemetery and Crematorium is perhaps a rather unusual topic for a blog entry but not for people like Claire and I who survey cemeteries as a hobby. It took the two of us 4 hours to check every grave but far less time to realise that, with just one exception, this was a well-run site.

The grounds with neatly mown grass and attractively presented flower beds were a credit to all concerned - but it did leave us wondering about similar facilities in other towns, some of which come across as depressingly shabby. Simple things like providing detailed maps of the site and plenty of benches for visitors to sit on can be provided at negligible cost and it is hard to understand why some large cemeteries are seat and toilet-free zones.

Just about the only area of concern was a certain inconsistency in the treatment of war graves. Almost every cemetery we visit has war graves and most of the time the stones are brilliant white and clearly must have cleaned relatively recently. In the bigger cemeteries such as Hereford the war graves tend to be concentrated in a small area and the grass around the graves is always kept short and well-manicured. Equally well maintained war graves can sometimes be found scattered across the sites we have visited and I can only assume that this is in accordance with the wishes of the respective families.

This overwhelming evidence of the respect shown to our war-dead makes the sad fate of a few of the graves we have seen all the harder to understand. Some of these scattered graves have become dirty and overgrown and are unquestionably not receiving the intended degree of care and attention. This seems to imply that the master list of war graves, sub-divided by location, contains some errors?