Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Healthy ideas.

A couple of things about health in the news struck me this week.

The first is a serious one: studies show that our modern obsession with cleanliness is contributing to childhood asthma, leukaemia and allergies. Because we sterilise, cleanse, sanitise and antiseptic wipe everything to do with children to within an inch of their lives we are preventing the development of immune systems and leaving children vulnerable to diseases, especially leukaemia.

And as third world countries adopt first world practices their children too become more susceptible.

How awful!

Children who go to nursery and playgroups of different kinds are less likely to be affected as they are exposed to a range of bugs and microbes just by meeting lots of other children. Children who are encouraged to play outdoors are also less susceptible.

I notice that my daughter regularly carries around with her hand sanitiser, which she applies to her tiny daughter’s hands after she has played on the swings at the playground.

Curiously, the generation of super-sanitising mothers do not seem averse to posting pictures of their tine child snuggled up, or even kissing, to a dog or cat. Now, I would be much more concerned about an animal that licks it’s own behind giving my baby a kiss than I would about my children picking up a toy, or even a biscuit, that they dropped on the kitchen floor.

Once again I find myself grateful to belong to the fortunate generation who got to roam free, to grub around in the dirt and then, later, to have some of the best music ever to listen to.

The other health news thing seems more laughable to me. It appears that experts have discovered, or perhaps invented, things called “obesogens” which do their bit to make people fat. These “obesogens” are found in packaging, in the stuffing that goes into furniture and even in dust and fluff that collects under furniture and in corners. Wooden or tiled floors are better for us than carpets and, once again, sitting down on the sofa is obviously bad for us.

It’s a novel idea to be able to say, “I am overweight because of the obesogens that surround me. It has nothing to do with overeating.”

However, a professor somewhere or other reminds us that what makes us put on weight is putting food in our mouths. Too many calories in = more pounds on the bathroom scales. Or is it all the obesogens jumping on the scales with us?

I might well laugh at obesogens but obesity remains a serious problem. They reckon that by 2045 it is likely that one in eight people in the world will have type 2 diabetes, caused by obesity. Last year, 14% of the global population was obese and 9% had type 2 diabetes. By 2045, 22% will be obese and 14% will be suffering from type 2 diabetes, according to estimates presented at the European Congress on obesity in Vienna.

But it can be remedied by persuading people to lose weight, according to a new study by Newcastle and Glasgow Universities. They ran a trial and found that nine out of ten people who lost 15 kilos (two and a half stones for those, like me, who are metrically impaired) or more put their type 2 diabetes into remission and no longer needed to take medication.

Two and a half stones! That is a lot of weight to lose. A whole small child! But clearly worth the effort to lose it.

The fashion world may not be quite so pleased. Big bums and thighs are fashionable, so they say. However, the big bums and thighs are supposed to go with a narrow waist and many women, like me, would find that having a great big backside would mean that their waist would pretty much disappear. Consequently, some are turning to plastic surgery and implants to “enhance” their rears.

How very strange!

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Thinking about working together to combat violence.

They’re still going on about the new Duchess of Sussex, the actress formerly known as Meghan Markle, being a champion for feminism. Well, good for her. I hope she can continue to do so. Meanwhile, in France they seem to be taking it very seriously. Men can now be fined for wolf-whistling women in the street or making making offensive comments, even if they think they are paying the women concerned a compliment. This is part of new tougher legislation to combat lecherous behaviour. Those who break the law will face on-the-spot fines of up to €750 (£655). France's president, Emmanuel Macron, said the law was meant to ensure "women are not afraid to be outside." Personally I have never objected to the odd wolf-whistle but I do think measures need to be taken to prevent men from going too far, following women down the street and so on. President Macron himself, though, gets some stick for not being egalitarian enough.

The Brexit fiasco continues apace. Nobody seems to know where it will end. An Israeli academic, Yuval Noah Harari, has written a book in which he singles out the EU as a model for how national interests can be balanced and what is at stake if it fails. He doesn’t think much of the idea of Brain leaving the EU. “After centuries of terrible bloodshed, French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a spanner into the miracle machine,” writes Harari. “We have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics,” he adds. “To have effective politics we must either deglobalise the ecology, the economy or the march of science – or we must globalise our politics.”

I was a little miffed at an Israeli giving us advice on how to run things but then I went on to read that he is not best pleased with his own country’s performance lately. He lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was critical of the killing of Palestinian protesters. “If every nation thinks about itself, then who is thinking about the global problems?” he said. “I don’t see Israel making any significant contribution to confronting the main challenges of humankind.”

Here’s a link to an article about him and his book. There are some interesting bits about the failings of religious schools in Israel, in which little real science teaching takes place. Fundamentalist education of any kind is never really inclusive.

Over in Texas they have had more trouble with school shootings. The lieutenant governor of the state has said that violent video games and films, abortion and divorce are behind the US school shooting epidemic. He said: “Should we be surprised, in this nation? We have devalued life, whether it’s through abortion, whether it’s the break-up of families, through violent movies and particularly violent video games, which now outsell movies and music. Psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that students are desensitised to violence, may have lost empathy for their victims by watching hours and hours of violent video games. Ninety-seven per cent of teenagers, according to psychiatrists and psychologists, watch video games and 85 per cent of those are violent games.” 

Since television was first introduced into almost every home there have been warnings about the stuff available to watch making young people violent. I tend to agree that there is a certain amount of desensitisation. And I know that there was not as much stuff around when we were kids but when we ran about playing cowboys and Indians or Germans against English, I am pretty sure we knew the difference between games and reality.

What still worries me much more is the availability of guns. This latest troubled young man used his father’s legally-bought weapons. Why were ‘t the guns locked away where the 17 year-old could not get them. If there are no guns available to use, no matter how much influence violent TV shows and computer games have on you, you can’t actually take that violent action.

On a day when people have come together in Manchester to remember the victims of last year’s bomb, we should all be working on reducing violence in the world.

Monday, 21 May 2018

British problems!

So here we are with another day of warm sunshine. As I walked through the village centre I overheard a lady sitting at the bus stop comment, “When it’s like this, you can’t fault it!” However, we are British and will almost always find something to moan about concerning the weather. One of my acquaintances around the village, Mike the dog-walker, told me earlier this morning that this (ie the warm, sunny weather) has been going on too long now and that it’s time we had some rain. This is in line with national policy which seems to declare a state of drought if we go a week without rain. Mike also predicted that it will be raining by Friday.

Friday is Whit Friday, almost a day of fiesta around here. In the morning the local churches organise the Whit Walks, when the children from the Sunday School and regular church-goers walk through the villages following the Sunday School banner. We used to do this on Whit Sunday when I was a child. Most significant for us children was the fact that we all got new clothes for the occasion, inevitably a pleated white skirt and a demure blouse for the girls, and smart white sandals, of course. The boys outfits were less special, just a white shirt and a smart tie with their usual school short trousers.

It takes place on Whit Friday around here because in the afternoon there are the Band Contests. Brass bands, local, national and international, travel from village to village (by coach), march into each village with their banner and playing something jaunty, and then play a special piece for the judges who will award prizes at the end of the evening.

People come from far and wide and walk from village to village to listen to the bands. Years ago the pubs were open from first thing in the morning and lots of drunkenness ensued. Lately this has been more controlled but, if the weather is fine, it’s the closest thing we have to a fiesta. Usually it rains. Often it is quite cold. People turn out anyway, all wrapped up in coats and scarves in a very British way. However, this year, good weather seems to be forecast, by all except Mike.

In recent years we have been away in Spain and have missed Whit Friday but this year we shall be here. We have contacted friends who are regular attenders. Ironically, they are not available this year. So it goes!

Traffic is, of course, disrupted in a big way by the Whit Friday celebrations. When I was a professional lady I always had great difficulty parking. No such problems now. Unlike what seems to be going on nationally today. For weeks I have been seeing notices warning us that train timetables were due to change today. Consequently, chaos has ensued all over the place. This is an extract from something I saw in the newspapers online this morning:-

“Here’s a roundup of the morning’s events:
* Govia Thameslink Railway, which operates Britain’s largest rail franchise, covering a quarter of all journeys and carrying about 500,000 passengers daily, rescheduled every train as it brings in more than 400 extra services a day.
* The changes – along with driver shortages – caused delays and cancellations in the south east and north west, with commuters calling it a “shambles”.
* The RMT union branded this morning’s commute “Meltdown Monday”, claiming a lack of planning and shortage of crews was jeopardising the new timetable.
* GTR, which operates Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern trains, apologised to customers for the delays and cancellations.
* The mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, has called for the transport secretary to take action after widespread cancellations across Northern this morning, which he called “appalling”.”

It’s a good job the disgruntled commuters have not had rain to contend with as well!

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Some wedding afterthoughts!

So that’s it, another royal wedding out of the way. All over bar the shouting and we can return to worrying about Brexit, bombing places, mental illness and violence in schools.

The first royal wedding I remember is Princess Margaret’s. It may have been the first televised royal wedding but I am not sure. I read in today’s paper that “the royal wedding”, as we now know it, was born on 1922. It was Princess Mary marrying Viscount Lascelles. Five years earlier the the royal family, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had changed its name to Windsor, to distance itself from its German lineage. After all, the royal families of Europe are all related. The (executed) Russian Tsar was a cousin of the Queen’s grandfather. Our Prince Philip is related to Queen Sofia of Spain (both from the Greek royal family). No doubt there are a whole lot more interconnections.

Princess Mary’s wedding was seen as an opportunity to connect with the public - the media may not have been so omnipresent and all-powerful as now but they were still influential - and it was covered by Pathé News. Princess Mary’s brother, the future King George VI wrote, “It is now no longer Mary’s wedding but (this from the papers) it is the ‘Abbey Wedding’ or the ‘Royal Wedding’ or even the ‘People’s Wedding’.” So there you go.

Royal weddings are useful politically. When the Infanta Elena of Spain (Elena María Isabel Dominica de Silos de Borbón y de Grecia, to give her her full name - and we thought our royal family had elaborate names!) in 1995 in Seville cathedral it was probably the first big royal wedding in Spain since before the Civil War and almost certainly the first televised. And it helped cement the royal family in the country’s affections.

Similarly when her sister Cristina Federica Victoria Antonia de la Santísima Trinidad de Borbón y de Grecia) married Iñaki Urdangarín in 1997 in Barcelona, it was seen as a way if bringing together main castillian spain with the Basque Country (Urdangarín is a good Basque name) and Catalonia.

It’s rather a shame that both these marriages ended badly one way or another but Elena, once regarded by the spanish as the unattractive, rather dim princess, seems to have represented her country well abproad while her sister and her husband have been so scandalous that she has been ejected from the family.

Spain could probably do with a bit of spectacle to keep people’s minds off scandals about corruption and bits of the country wanting to break away. However, I suspect that al the younger members of the Spanish royal family are not likely to marry just yet.

I have one last thought to add today. Why do strong, intelligent, independent-minded women adopt coy, little-girl poses for photos? Among the pics of the great wedding was one of Amal Clooney (I have unfortunately forgotten her own name) doing that downturned face, looking up under her brows expression. All her body language, coy set of shoulders and that modest gaze reinforced it. Why?

Of course, I may be completely mistaken and maybe it’s just a random photo but the fact remains that it’s out there now.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Saturday (wedding) morning thoughts.

Out and about early - well, quite early - before nine o’clock anyway - I noticed that the village centre is decked all about with Union Jack bunting. There are signs that the local pubs, as expected, are getting prepared for a little bit of a pub party, if not a full blown street party. In the co-op store a surprising number of people are buying fizzy wine of one kind or another. A surprising number, that is, for before nine o’clock on a Saturday morning! Maybe they just like fizzy wine. I can think of no reason why one should not drink sparkling wine on a fine summer’s late afternoon into evening. But that doesn’t quite explain why so many are buying it before nine o’clock in the morning. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with that national distraction-from-serious-stuff that is going on in Windsor.

Over breakfast Phil speculated as to why we have not been invited to the royal wedding. This was something of a surprise as he isn’t a great fan of weddings at the best of times. I think his remark was prompted by the fact that the royal wedding was all over the internet, like a bad case of acne or a measles rash. And then there was the fact that David and Victoria Beckham seem to have been invited and Phil was finding it hard to make a connection between the Beckhams and the Windsors. I suggested that if Harry were a chessplayer then maybe Phil would have been invited. But would he have gone? I seriously doubt it!

The media have been going mad about these nuptials for weeks. One paper last weekend fan a headline along the lines of “Megan is just like Diana”. Really! Diana was a naive 20 year old who had done nothing when she married Charles. Megan Markle is in the mid thirties, wealthy in her own right, an established actor and with a record of speaking out on a range of topics behind her. On a television news programme the other evening they were debating whether this mixed-race, feminist, independent young woman, confident in her own opinions could change the royal family and, more significantly, this country. There was a lot of huffing and puffing but in the end she probably won’t change things greatly. She may be a mixed race commoner but she hasn’t had the same life-experiences as the majority of mixed race commoners in this country, or in the USA for that matter.

In the end, it’s just another celebrity wedding. Lots of commentators say the happy couple are obviously “so much in love”. Well, I hope they are. And I hope they continue to be so. I hope they have a lovely day, although I suspect that a wedding that attracts such media-hype cannot be anything like as much fun as a perfectly ordinary wedding party.

But they have a lovely day for it. The sun seems to be shining all over the country.

And in the meantime, my wild garden is coming on nicely.

My favourite tree is blooming nicely, although the lambs that I normally see ‘neath the spreading chestnut tree seem to have been moved to another field.

And the bluebells are putting on a splendid display along the bridle paths.

A day to go out and enjoy the sunshine - without a royal wedding anywhere in sight around here.

Friday, 18 May 2018

A bit of a rant about education!

I always enjoyed being a teacher. Well, okay, there were certain times with certain classes when I seriously wondered what I was doing and if I could stand it. That goes without saying really whatever kind of job you have. On the whole, though, I felt lucky that i could earn my living doing something that mostly I got a load of pleasure from.

I loved teaching those first year (year 7) classes, introducing them to a foreign language and seeing them having fun with words. Even the dreaded third years (year 9) had their moments, when I managed to get them to see the point of whatever it was we were struggling to get our heads round. I had great fun organising weekend residential courses to get a bunch of bright fourth year (year 10) kids from schools all over the borough to spend a few days doing all their activities, even eating meals and playing sports, in a foreign language. And when they put up the school leaving age and youngsters who had previously been able to leave at age 15 now had to stay on into fifth form (year 11) even though they were it academically up to taking the exams, it was an interesting challenge to devise something to keep them motivated in the classroom. Teaching sixth form was probably the best: seeing them prepared for the next stage. All good.

 However, I suspect that if I were about to embark on my working life, I might not now follow the same path. There seems to be little room left for fun. But then again, maybe I would still do it. Here, in any case, is a link to an article about the stress faced by staff and students with the new tougher GCSE examinations.  

Back when I was doing O Levels myself, only a minority of us took the exams. Those who did not do so left school at 14 or 15 and found a job. The exams we sat were tough, and some students did get very worked up about them and had some sort of nervous breakdown. But we were generally buoyed up by the knowledge that we were the bright ones who should be able to cope with it. And it has to be remembered that there were jobs available for those who ended up with no qualifications. And if the exams were tough, it was what we expected. Nobody said education had to easy or even entertaining - if we enjoyed it, then it was a bonus.

Over the years I watched the exams change. In my own subject area, Modern Foreign Languages, I watched some elements of the exams get easier - most elements to be completely honest - but saw some grow more demanding. There were students I was at school with who achieved decent grades in O Level French without being able to string a sentence together and who would have been horrified to have to go through the spoken exams that I have inflicted on later generations. And they keep on tinkering with the system.

Someone in the article I linked to questions why we still make students sit exams at 16 when we now insist that they stay in education of training until they are 18. These people claim that other European countries do not do so. And yet, in fact, those other countries do do so. Testing at 16 may not be so nation-wide organised as it is here, but if youngsters are to continue to baccalaureate level, they have to prove that they have reached a satisfactory level in all subjects at 16 - a kind of school leaving certificate. They do that by assessment within their own schools. Okay, it’s open to abuse, but so is our formal nation-wide system open to cheating.

Yet some kind of assessment is needed if students are to progress to the right mind of post-16 education. Years ago anyone who passed the Bachillerato in Spain could go to university. University courses began with huge classes, sometimes up to 100 in a class, which gradually reduced as students dropped out, realising they could not hack it. So they introduced “Selectividad”, an exam which decided which sort of university course students are suited to. There was outcry at the time but it’s accepted now. And I suppose students get stressed about it.

And unfortunately for today’s youngsters, those who have no qualifications have no chance at all. So almost every student faces more and more exams and the stress levels rise.

I truly don’t know what the answer is but maybe it is better to put the stress off as long as possible.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Some stuff about children and labelling.

It has taken me a long time to start referring to school years by numbers. The reception class has no number. I am pretty sure that this is because in most other European countries obligatory schooling starts a year later, even though most of them also have pre-school classes which most children attend. After that we have years 1 and 2 in what used to be called the infant school, years 3 to 6 in what always used to be the juniors. This is followed by years 7 to 11 in secondary school, now called high school for some reason. And finally we have years 12 and 13 which some people still call lower sixth and upper sixth, because we still talk about sixth form college, despite the fact that some people now call university “college”, American fashion.

I may have acceepted this numbering system but this does not prevent me from having to refer back to the labelling I grew up with when I want to work out how old children in a particular school year are. It’s a bit like the formulae I have to use when converting to and from metric measurements. For inches to centimetres, I rely on my knitting experience; to check your tension is correct you cast on a certain number of stitches and knit a certain number of rows, forming a square that measures 4 x 4 inches or 10 x 10 centimetres. I base my calculations on that. I then just do the maths. Similarly I know that 5 miles is 8 kilometres - another straightforward calculation. Pints to litres and pounds to kilos are both more complicated.

And although I think and dream in the foreign languages I speak, I cannot “think” in metric. I always have to translate back to the measuring system I am used to from childhood.

I feel the same about the nomenclature of school years. And I wonder, now that we are (unless someone finally sees sense) leaving the European Union, whether we can change back to the old way of referring to them. Unlikely! Too many of today’s teachers, like our daughter, have grown up in the new way of doing things.

Anyway, Year 6 / fourth year juniors / junior 4 / top juniors are gearing up for Sats this week. Our daughter has had to explain to her Year 4 / second year / junior 2 class that they must be very quiet and considerate as they go past the school hall, which they cannot use for certain usual activities, because their 10 to 11-year-old schoolmates are doing tests in there. In fact the school hall has been unavailable for most mornings for weeks because the Year 6 class teacher has had them doing daily practice tests. Surely this is not the best preparation for Sats, which I think stands for Standard Assessment Tests. Surely the word “standard” suggests that it should be a routine matter, not something to get the children all worked up and stressed out about. Surely that teacher has read some of the statistics about children’s stress!

Here is an article about letters that teachers have sent to pupils and their parents reassuring them that Sats are not the be all and end all and that they, the teachers, are aware of other qualities that their pupils undoubtedly have.

As well as finding items concerning stress about tests, I keep reading about children stressing about gender identity. Packs of advice and guidance are now being produced for teachers about how to deal with this in the school situation. Inevitably, as well of the easier question of what to call a child, it raises problems about PE changing rooms and use of toilets. This article points out the two differing views on approaching the question.  I was relieved to see that one of the experts giving advice to teachers spoke sensible from her own experience. She remembers clearly having wanted to be a boy, having indeed been convinced she was a boy for quite some time. As she grew up, she changed her mind.

She is not suggesting that we should believe that all transgender children will “grow put of it” but rather that we should not rush into too-permanent solutions such as hormone treatment and even surgery at too early a stage. Accept and respect the child’s point of view, ensure that others, especially other children, do the same, but don’t make to much fuss about it.

 Let children be children!