Dinosaur Fresher

The_church_of_SS_Andrew_and_Mary_-_St_Julian_of_Norwich_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1547398“I’ll just keep winging it – like I have since I got here” said the young creative writing ‘major’ as he tried to find the Julian Study Centre for his first lecture on Mediaeval history. He had come all the way from university in Kansas – though he had been born in Florida. Given his air of bewilderment, and as Dorothy would have said if she’d landed in the UEA campus instead of Oz “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. For a student from Malaysia being in Norwich is apparently like somewhere with the “air-conditioning on outside all the time” (early days).

Rather unexpectedly I find myself back at university – watching Freshers’ week unfold, though not as a real participant this time. I’ve seen the pre-loved pots and pans sale in the Union (which struck me as an excellent idea – though so many of the items looked pristine I suspect they had never been used). The houseplant sale was colourful and, judging by the overheard snippets of conversation, a great chance to understand folk in a new light. The gentle 6ft 5” giant explaining, with relish, “that plant sucks the guts out of flies while you watch” may have been revealing more about himself that he realised.

Wandering through the stands at the Societies Fair I was struck at what hasn’t changed from the early 1980’s. All the political parties were still there, dressed in stereotype (including the Marxists). There were probably more environmentally aware societies – and I don’t remember a Fetish Society at Aberdeen. Games are still popular with new options like Minecraft and Quidditch – but not bridge. Sadly there was no evidence of an equivalent to the infamous Kite Club.

I’m studying computing – and one feature of my age is that, back in the 1980’s there weren’t any laptops – or computers generally that I remember. We used fiche to find things in the library. As the lecturer started a module with a brief history of the development of the internet and the Web, I had a strong sense of being like a dinosaur sitting in on a session about the ice age.

The economics of study are not the same. How lucky my generation was to have had our tertiary education paid for by the state. Paying fees, however, doesn’t mean you automatically get a degree. As the fabulous Spanish course director pointed out “Just because you pay to join a gym doesn’t mean you gonna get a beautiful body – you still have to apply yourself, prepare yourself and participate… see, that’s an APP” (!)

The smell has changed too. The Union bar used to be a solid nimbus of smoke, hiding those in the gloomy corners completely. Cigarettes burned in saucers; the ritual shake of a beer can to check if someone had put a butt in it before your drank; the rank, stale, stink left by yesterday’s ashtray – those days are gone.

I’m a bit nervous about my new adventure and as the young American and I found the Julian Centre I hung on to her confident words from the 14th century “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”


Summer time blues

Summer bluesIt’s a mad whirl; a rush of exciting things happening; a lingering anxiety of not enough time spent finishing off work; then a grand tidying up and a recovery of items not seen since mid-September; a kissing and hugging and back slapping; and the term has ended and the summer holidays have begun.

Especially for the public exam years’ students, there’s a real need to stop and take some time to sleep, and sleep…  Adolescents tend not to sleep enough (though it can often not appear that way) and so a bit of catch up is important.

People have different rituals at the beginning of the big holiday – I know some burn all their notes (incidentally this can be ill-advised since if you don’t get the grades you needed and have to re-sit you will have to re-visit those notes). It’s quite a good moment to dye your hair, or maybe experiment with a radical cut, or even get your ears pierced. Many go away on family holiday – or head off to somewhere in the Mediterranean with friends to cause untold anxiety for parents.

At some point the summer blues can appear – after all the build up it’s not surprising. While the freedom of no timetable is wonderful, the absence of schedule – whether it is normally embraced or challenged – can leave one with a sense of loss and lack of control, then the complaints start: “I’m bored”.

Being bored is wonderful – it means that there is a surfeit of energy seeking an outlet. It also means that your brain is as an empty cavern, a void, a vacuum – and nature abhors a vacuum. Being bored in the summer holidays can propel you into a whole world of discovery, experiment and adventure. This energy can of course be a negative force (that ole devil making work for idle hands type thing), but, with a small amount of benign supervision, it can be a force for development. Many of the world’s best inventions came about from someone lying flat on their backs, watching the clouds scud by and wondering “What shall I do today?”


What to do once you’ve done your best and you’re waiting for exam results…

Cat and cube40 years ago the Rubik’s cube was invented and has been an iconic part of our culture ever since: the perfect gift for those moments when you have no better ideas and the recipient likes “maths”; a source of fun party themes; a brain tease way to pass an idle moment. On the radio* someone with Asperger’s syndrome explained the appeal to him. He pointed out that for every combination the cube presented, a set number of known moves would turn each of the six faces to one colour.  And it would work each and every time. Ask a person the same question 10 times, he commented, and there could be 10 different answers and he never understood why.

The exam results and consequences algorithm is similar to a Rubik’s cube. There are a finite number of exam outcomes from fail through to A* and, initially, a finite number of options as a consequence. Ultimately, of course, the scope for our futures is only bounded by our imaginations – but the worry of exams makes us forget this.

Once you know the results, the Rubiks moves are clear, but the waiting is without doubt stressful. During study leave and the exam schedule itself there is the whole business of revision: stocking the fridge, finding lost calculators, pens and kit. Reading through prompt cards and worrying how anyone is going to be able to read the hand-writing. Then the exams finish and waiting begins. There are days you forget, days people ask about them so you’re reminded, days you don’t care, days you check on-line just incase the results are early or the examiners have gone on strike, days spent doing trade-offs in your head with the gods of exam results.

Happily there are several proven strategies to overcome stress. These include the following:

  • Listen to classical music. Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi have been shown to be effective, but I would also suggest Smetana’s Vltara movement from Mā vlast which follows the route of a river to the sea**.
  • Spend at least half an hour outside in the sunshine soaking up the rays, less than half an hour can leave you feeling short-changed.
  • Laugh. Watch something funny, remember silly moments, share a daft story – at the very least try and fake a smile which may encourage others to laughter…
  • Hang out with the dog or cat, they will calm you down. Hugging is good too.

And when September comes and the results, for better or worse are in – the young people will move on to their next adventure and all the adults who have been doing the worrying and stressing and fretting can breathe calmly again.


*The Rubik’s cube at 40 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0217k6m

**Smetana’s fabulous music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdtLuyWuPDs


End of exams in sight? Time to get tough on kids!

children digging“It’s the worry and not knowing if I’m saying the right thing and not understanding the answers to straightforward questions” fretted a woman I overheard in Next the other day. “I know, I know” replied her friend, “but when they’ve finished their GCSEs I’m sure things will calm down”.  Exam season is hard on everyone, so many expectations ride on the outcomes. Teachers and parents want the young people to do their best, and the exam candidates not only have that cumulative worry weighing them down, but may also have suddenly realised that they simply haven’t done enough work over the course of the syllabus. Too bad, the term will end, the sun will come out and everyone can relax.

Relax a bit, I would suggest, and then get a bit tough. The experiences and adventures of the summer holidays, particularly once you are about 15, lay the foundations for what you can do in the future. Some young people seem to understand this intuitively – others need a persuasive nudge. So before they get too cosy at home, open the door and send them back out.

Let’s put to one side certain elements of concern. I am not suggesting child labour; this is not removing any rights of a child to play; health and safety principles – aka common sense – should be applied; if you wouldn’t want to work with a particular individual for whatever reason don’t encourage your child to do so. Money making isn’t the main point of this kind of work – if a job has been done well then getting paid is a good reward, but the experience also has value.

The opportunity for young people to work at something should be seized with both hands. If there is a summer job that they could do, encourage them to apply for it and get stuck in. If such a job can’t be found, depending on the person’s age, there are so many other things that can be done, for example: look after a neighbour’s pets / garden while they are away; mow the lawn for someone else; walk their dog; lend a hand at a fete (preferably at the setting up and tidying away stages as well as the middle, fun, bit); pick soft fruit; tidy up a garden shed…. one chap I know used to be paid by his dad for killing wasps round the bins at his father’s pub.

I would urge anyone who can to offer a young person a chance to do something – doing something simple, straightforward and achievable is how we all learn to work. It teaches us to arrive at the right place with the right kit. It teaches us that all tasks can have integrity and value, that many things are boring but have to be done. And it shows us that to have a sense of satisfaction in a job well done you don’t need super-top grades in written exams.

An open door and a sense of adventure are the perfect way to start to find out about the world beyond your school and family. Many school leavers go travelling – but I would suggest it is a much more pleasant experience if you have built up to it by going roaming when you were in your early teens.  Simply take a train trip somewhere new – without any “grown-ups”. And if the motivation to go adventuring isn’t quite fully functioning yet may I suggest parents make homelife very, very boring, turn off the TV and Wi-Fi and lose all the chargers.


*The picture shows two children planting spring bulbs with spoons – a job worth doing, though it might have been easier if there had been some proper tools…

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)



Cultivating different thinking

saz-up-treeDo you remember the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” when Brian tells the crowd “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals… You’re all different”. The crowd replies “Yes, we ARE all different”, apart from one wee voice who says “I’m not…”

In the future those who are prepared to separate themselves from the crowd and affirm that they are different will be increasingly important. It is by thinking “different” that new products are invented, that new services are conceived and that the “same old, same old” gets turned around. The value to European economies of SMEs, including new starts, cannot be underestimated. Two thirds of private sector jobs across Europe come from this type of business and the European commission has identified them as being primarily responsible for economic growth in Europe – rather than government spending on infra-structure. But businesses wax and wane so there is a really critical need to encourage young fresh innovative minds to take up the challenge of starting new business.

American business start-up site www.Inc.com has a list of 10 key characteristics they have decided are crucial to business success. These include management skills like goal setting and communication, and being able to learn through failure.  It strikes me that a great way to prepare young people to be the kind of people to build the kind of businesses the future needs, is to let them go wild and unfettered in the summer. Unplug the TV /playstation / PC, make sure the fridge and freezer are just full enough to prevent starvation (and give confidence that a new found friend brought home can be offered an ice-cream) and then arrange, organise and set up as little as possible. Initially boredom will make the days seem very long… but gradually some alluring plan for adventure will germinate – involving recognising opportunity, being creative, learning communication, being a leader – in fact many of the other key characteristics identified by Inc.com.  What opens endless potential is for any 13 year old to stare into the distance from the heights of a tree and wonder “what if…”, or for them to discover that if they ask 2 like-minded chaps to come and join their game of basketball they’ll have a good time (rather than having team games organised for them). These are some of the moments that form the bedrock of understanding the potential in the world – whether the outcome is fabulous or if the newcomers knick the ball.

My thoughts were focussed by a recent outing with friends. Having gone through a long queue to show our tickets our host decided he should have availed himself of the lavatories at the entrance. As he headed off to either vault the fence or squish himself between the fence and the hedge rather than re-tracing his steps his wife lamented “Why can’t he ever take the same route as everyone else?”. Her husband is a celebrated and visionary architect and his passion and ideas thrive off taking his own approach to whatever he is doing; his buildings are so successful precisely because he does not take the same route as everyone else. New business, ideas, innovation and creativity are not going to come from the young people who take the same route as everyone else, change will come from those that got the chance to think differently.

11 ¾ things to do before I’m 50

11 challengesThe National Trust have a fabulous list of 50 things* to do before you are 11 ¾ – there are loads of brilliant adventures to be had from trying to do everything on the list including star gazing, eating an apple straight from a tree or playing Pooh sticks. As a milestone birthday looms I considered how the list applies to the things I have done, and whether there were any gaps. As it turns out, I had quite an outdoor-tomboy time, albeit in foreign parts where we didn’t so much set up a snail race as watch to see which blue tailed lizard could escape the swimming pool changing rooms first.

I started to wonder, what haven’t I done that I want to by the time I’m 50? In “The Chimp Paradox” Dr Steve Peters says “the person you want to be is the person you really are”.  So, I am the person who wants to have done the following by the time I’m 50….. (few caveats here, this is not a resource-rich list more of a budget fantasy; it’s not a bucket list either so no Taj Mahal, or bathing in warm mud in Iceland, or watching the whole of the Ring (Wagner not Tolkein) and there is a time constraint of completion by 23/08/2013 so I didn’t include reading Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”).

  1.   Learn to play “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter   Maxwell Davies on the piano
  2.   Climb a Munro
  3.   Find one rap piece that I like
  4.   Swim in the sea
  5.   Paint a flower or plant, frame it and display   it
  6.   Accompany myself singing a song in front of   someone else
  7.   Learn to play poker
  8.   Make a many coloured, layered cocktail
  9.   Identify (consistently and correctly) 20   different species of trees
  10.   Swim a mile in a pool
  11.   Learn to juggle
  12.   Create a family portrait

I appreciate for some people these challenges are so everyday you might be amazed that anyone hasn’t done them – but by the same token not all children have played Pooh sticks.  I have done some of the things, I just want to do them again.

Finding time to get in enough practice for the physical challenges will be quite tricky. Getting my family in one place for a portrait over the next month will probably be impossible, so I shall have to think laterally on that one (I feel an element of collage coming on).  The other tricky element is setting myself 11 ¾ challenges – how to define ¾ of a challenge? If I’m a quarter from the top of a hill I don’t want to turn round or if I’ve only got the chorus left of a song I don’t want to stop. I might let myself compromise on the swim by technically aiming for a mile but feeling good if I stop at ¾ of a mile… but that is slightly mind-scamming.

If anyone fancies joining me – or knows how to play poker, do let me know!