What became of the 11 ¾ challenges?

munroJust over one month ago I set myself a series of challenges prior to my birthday. It’s been a fun few weeks and my life skills have surely been improved – though not always in quite the way I expected.

On the physical challenge front swimming in the sea was brilliant – a fabulous afternoon at Gorleston beach. Swimming a whole mile (in a pool) took a rather long time – 66 lengths of the 25 metre pool at the UEA with a couple of practice sessions first – but I did it and feel better for knowing I can.

It became evident that juggling was a skill which I was, and remain, the furthest from perfecting. Masses of people can juggle – and using the juggling balls my niece and daughter made me with odd socks and ancient chickpeas – they showed me how well they could. People had learnt for a range of reasons – displacement activity when they’d stopped smoking; envy working in the Edinburgh festival; bored at trade shows, were a few. Having watched my early attempts one son suggested I start with just one ball and, it’s fair to say, it took me ages to get proficient at that. Progress has been made and very occasionally, when the gods are feeling generous with luck, three odd-sock-balls briefly sketch an aerial figure of eight.

The day before my birthday I walked up Stob Ban. It was 3195 ft high so without doubt a Munro. The weather was dry and midge-free, the company excellent and I thought the experience was terrific. I had never walked up so high, so close to the clouds and the heavens. You could see for miles and mile on a level with all the other high places in Lochaber and the Mamores. I hadn’t realised what a heady feeling sitting on top of the world would be… I am definitely up for more of those hills.

On the social / creative side I layered up a cocktail (which looked good but I couldn’t recommend drinking). I had a couple of goes at painting and remembered again how much I love using water-colours. I haven’t quite got one to frame, but I feel confident I could. The piano practice paid off and, while “Farewell to Stromness” might not be concert perfect, I can play it better than I could before the challenges started. Singing a song, beyond my solo performance of the first verse of “Wild Rover” at the layered cocktail party, remains in the pipeline…. however a son and I spent a happy session trying to follow the Cup Song (link at the bottom). It was sooooo complicated we never managed, but I enjoyed our joint effort enormously.

I gained insight into playing poker. 7 year old daughter and I, with two po-faced teddies dealt the cards and followed the rules as provided in “The Dangerous Book for Boys”. It was all about probability and changing the odds by getting new cards … the teddies weren’t giving anything away and the book suggested it was a bad idea to even start playing if it (a) wasn’t  for decent stakes and (b) you got bothered losing.

Rap music still gives me some challenges. I have listened to lots now and, frankly, still can’t really understand a word they are saying very clearly. When I can follow the gist, I think many of the performers are whinging quite a lot. The keen rap fans who have tried to educate me point out that Blues singers are whining too – but I think they are more melodic. Forced to pick one piece I’m going for “Kick, Push” by Lupe Fiasco – mostly because I like the bit where he says “Coast” oh so smoothly.

robiniaTree identification offered me a different kind of buzz. A kind friend sent me a FSC guide with laminated pictures and I headed off into Catton Park. I found that the range in local parks and gardens isn’t a great as you might expect.  The same oaks, sycamores, birch and rowans appear often. My first go a identifying a pretty pale yellow/green leaved tree in our garden using the RHS on-line tree key produced mixed results: I thought it said it was a bean… 24ft tall? Turns out the Robinia is a member of the legume family, so that explains it. Once I told people what I was doing they started showing me their favourite trees – snake skinned maple, Harry Lauder hazel and the massive Wellingtonias to name check a few. I loved the trees and imagine starting an arboretum must be one of the ultimate future-proof projects, even if I were to live another 50 years most of the tree wouldn’t be near their prime.

handstand (2)My 12th challenge, to create a family portrait, was looking tricky since everyone is somewhere else. I have taken photos of them all in profile – including doing handstands – anticipating an afternoon of printing and cutting and sticking. Kind in-laws, however, have given us a session with photographer, Helena Gore, and so the family will be forever captured for me in 2013.

If these were the 12 labours of Hercules I’m not sure I would be in position to win immortality. If I was being used for a TV programme there would be a voice over, as the credits rolled saying “3 months after this programme Viv is still trying to understand rap and hasn’t found a real person with whom to play poker”. Nevertheless, I’ve had some moments of feeling I’ve met the challenge of doing something I hadn’t done before, I’ve had moments of reminding myself of things I haven’t found time to do for a while, and I have been reminded what a cheery and cheering group of people I know.


Lulu and the Lampshades perform the cup song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DWCOYJg9ps4

The Dangerous Book for Boys – Conn and Hal Iggulden (this should be a set text for all children and their parents, not just boys)



Fort William watch

and Ben Nevis  As the days grow imperceptibly shorter, but the holidays still have a few weeks to go, interesting traditional behaviour can be spotted in Fort William. Situated at the foot of Ben Nevis and the largest town for 50 miles in any direction, a wide and diverse range of types show up every year.  In August you get everyone: families from all over the world with school aged children; students on summer holidays; grandparents sharing time with extended families; miscellaneous house parties; fishing types; stalking types; long distance walking types.

While the specific goals of each group may vary, they all share an objective of having enough to eat and drink. So hanging out in Morrison’s super market is the optimum place to view the hunter/gatherers at work

First up are the self-contained travellers, the snails and tortoises who carry their homes on their backs (or in panniers on their touring bikes). They need maximum calories for minimum weight to fuel themselves through their adventures. Tablet, a Scottish sweet made almost entirely of sugar, is a popular choice, as are pot noodles, cold meat, rolls and wet wipes (not for eating, obvs…) A giant Ginster pasty is quite a good option – though many self-sustaining travellers appear to be very healthy types. The challenge of balancing good nutritious stuff with squish-ability into a ruck sack can reduce them to gorging themselves on jam doughnuts next to the cycle racks so they can fit two cans of Magners and an apple into the handy 7th pocket on the back pack.

Walkers, identifiable by anoraks with multiple zips, clunky boots and leathery tanned lower legs and hands, often stay in local B&Bs – so they can shop for one picnic lunch at a time. They are most commonly spotted first thing in the morning, perhaps prior to tackling the twin Munros of Aonach Mhor and Aonach Beag.

Of course there are also the residents – people who live in Fort William all year round. They bump into friends and chat about the weather; new babies; good parties; and the mountains.  “Did Donald come home last night then?” chirruped one wee lady to another, “Naw, he spent the night up the hill, again” her friend replied. Sometimes you hear the gentle tones of Gaelic being spoken, though not as much as in Oban where the ferries bring in the islanders from the Outer Hebrides.

Leading the supermarket trolley dash in terms of noise and being demanding are people in self-catering accommodation. Lots of families, foreign and British, pack-hunt the aisles.  “The place doesn’t have any matches – we’re out of loo paper – do you really think you’ll eat Wagon Wheels if I get them, you never do at home” goes the Bishop family from Shipton Mallet. “Je n’ai pas trouvee les sardines, ni le tisane, ni les haricots blancs, et que est que c’est le white pudding et le lorne sausage – c’est bizarre” mutter the De La Courts from Avignon.

Scariest of all are people catering for large house parties. There must have been a golden time when, in the manner of Downton Abbey, large house parties were looked after by a team of lovely retainers, helpers and bottle-washers. Food must have been ordered in from shops, or sent by train from London and Glasgow, or grown locally. Today, while some groups have cooks, most of the catering is done by women – determined, organised, Boden-wearing Amazons. They can marshal a couple of trolleys at a time and, long lists in hand, they swoop. Given than big houses sleep typically 10 – 16 (not counting social “everyone-come-over-for-supper” extras) and are often over an hour’s drive further into the Highland hinterlands, being good at Food Maths is really important: so that’s about working out how many boxes of Cheerios 7 adolescents (including the wayward son of some Belgian work colleague who hasn’t yet risen before 12.30pm) will need if they each have one (large) bowl  for breakfast and another as a post sea-swim snack. Or, if a full Scottish breakfast consists of 2 rashers bacon, 2 slices black pudding, 1 lorne sausage, eight mushrooms, 2 eggs and a tattie scone, how many chipolatas for 11 people having breakfast over 4 days – not forgetting 2 vegetarians and the gloriously buxom, but gluten intolerant, Alice.  Generally standards are set pretty high – you wouldn’t get away Pot-noodles in bulk (one woman I know, however, used to get a clean washing up bowl, empty a box of Frosties into it, and a couple of pints of milk and then give all the kids a spoon and tell them to eat up). Instead, the shopping lists are for roulades, curries, lasagne, side dishes for beach bbq’s and lashings of Pimms, and cider, and gin, and tonic, and lemons. Every so often a man from the troop can be spotted carrying a trophy item, “Look, I’ve got the salted anchovies, but there aren’t any jalapeño stuffed olives and apparently everywhere is out of fresh mint”.

My favourite sighting of a distinct group remains the coach party of two dozen Chinese people who, for mysterious reasons, had all piled into Morrison’s and bought cooked food from the hot section. They were sitting in the entry area eating sticky spare ribs and chicken wings as if their lives depended on it.  They weren’t dressed for walking and seemed singularly unimpressed by the beauty of the hills or loch, it was like Kowloon-side on a Sunday. Like most everyone in the supermarket, they were there for the food.

Don’t panic – they’re only exam results

Careers entry levelIt’s exam results time and, up and down the country, young people are either squealing with excitement or crawling under their duvets to text and Facebook the Disappointment Blues.  Most schools are fairly helpful now at delivering appropriate advice and support when the grades are revealed. Changed days from getting an envelope through the post – I remember believing that if I wished hard enough through the paper before opening the letter the results would go up a grade. It can be an agonising time with parents unsure of what to say and young people unsure of what to do next. If the results achieved are just what was wanted, either to progress onto A level subjects, or to get a place at university, that’s lovely – congratulations!  If they are a bit adrift from the smooth course the young person had envisaged (or the parent had been envisaging for them) don’t panic.  It could be a chance to shake up and re-evaluate.

A recent report from the CBI titled “Tomorrow’s Growth” emphatically points out that not only is a university degree not the only way to the top, but that vocational training is where we should be directing our young people.  Employers are keen to support learn-while-you-earn schemes which are genuinely and immediately useful to industry.  This would suggest that even if the results are spot on to get a university place it might be worth checking if, in the words of the Spice Girls, it’s what you “really, really, really want”.  Increasing numbers of young people are deciding not go for places at university because (1) they don’t want the debt and/or (2) can’t settle on a subject they feel passionately enough about to incur that much debt.

Analysis by Real Life Skills of what entry levels are considered appropriate for different careers show that two thirds of jobs do not require a degree. If Britain is going to compete in the international markets, however, our workforce will still need to be skilled, competent, creative, flexible, tenacious and ambitious. That means strong literacy and numeracy skills – or, to quote a wise-before-his-time 16 year old I know, “as long as your maths is fine you’re fine – isn’t that how most people see it?”

So, get the champagne, flowers and tissues ready and keep reminding oneself (and one’s young) that exam results are but one component of the jigsaw of life, a stop over on the journey to nirvana*.


*nirvana “imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion and delusion have finally extinguished”, R. Gombrich