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Friday, 28 November 2008

Bring Your Own Beer

It has been a month in building, but eventually, the dam that was frustration just had to burst, otherwise JJ, my new Uni-buddy, surely would. Our frustration is rooted in "do" words and our confused expectations of life as a mature student.

JJ is the similarly aged guy I met on my first day at Uni, someone whose experience had taught him also to sit at the end of a row of seats in the lecture theatre. Since our meeting we've stuck together like glue, experiencing the highs and lows, the struggles and victories, the confusion and angst of the first semester and together we reach a conclusion: we both want out. Not, you should understand, 'Out' of our degree course, because this achievement of attending University in the second half of our lives is to us both a sacred and noble undertaking, but only a part of it, the module we have taken to calling "Bring Your Own Beer", or "Tie Your Own Shoelaces".

The correct title of BYOB is actually Manage Your Own Learning. At a glance, the title, as part of an Educational Degree, makes sense. After all, if potential Educators cannot Manage Their Own Learning, how can they be expected to Manage anyone else's? After four of the compulsory lectures however, doubts begin to emerge. The breaking point really hits with the lecture on writing essays, a Lecture that is subtitled "Picking the title to bits", and has as a featured handout a list of "do" words. The lecturer, explains that these "Do" words, when included in an essay title, tell you (the student), what you should 'do' in an essay. For example, if the "do" word is "Describe", this means that we should, well, 'describe' whatever it is we are asked to, erm, 'Describe'. The lecturer drives home the point "Do we all understand what a 'do' word tells us to do?". JJ, in a North Dublin accent dripping with sarcasm (it is a very dry accent), sticks his hand up "When you say 'do' words, do you mean 'verbs' ?" he asks, his voice rising to a pitch that actually defines the word "incredulity". The lecturer looks at him, askance. "Well, some people call them that, but I don't like jargon", she says sniffily. In a previous lecture, the same lecturer has announced that she will not say the word "phenomenological" because she does not like "big" words. The sound of young brains being taught the reality, but not the pronunciation of vacuous, fills the auditorium.

Managing Your Own Learning, as it transpires is actually a remedial level module, compulsory in our first undergraduate year, designed to compensate for the inadequacies of the British Educational System. JJ and I have sat through lectures on how to switch on a computer, on how to write essays, on how we shouldn't reference Facebook in our essays, but the final insult comes with the introduction of the complete load of bollocks that is the "theory" of Learning Styles. This pseudo-scientific quasi -religious claptrap is presented to us as fact, and we are invited to complete surveys which will tell us which of the four 'Learning Styles' we are - reflective, tyrannical, sexual, prehistoric. Actually, I just made up those categories because I cannot be bothered to remember the teenage-magazine level rubbish that each category supposedly was. We both automatically manipulate our questionnaire to demonstrate that we are all of these styles at once, but the lecturer ignores this rebellion, explaining it away as proof that humans can be very flexible. NO SHIT, Sherlock!.

The second I find out that my assignment for this module is to compile an action plan to improve my learning skills based on the questionnaire, and that this comprises part of my Year Marks, the revolution starts. JJ. has like me has had a very varied and interesting life. More of this will be revealed as YNWA gradually catches up with the last few months over the forthcoming week or so, but suffice to say, that like myself, if there is a revolution to be had, JJ usually finds himself as the mouthpiece. We rapidly convene a delegation (me and him) and are off to see the Head of Department. Miraculously, we emerge from the meeting, with the achieved objective of being excused from the objectionable module, and we 'do' this without having to resort to any of the tactics that we had earlier discussed over a few pints - strikes, letter writing campaigns, sit-ins, demonstrations etc. We retire to Gaz's (a nearby cafe that has become an HQ for Liverpool fans in Hull) and have a slap up breakfast as a victory celebration.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

...of strained ligaments, relationships, budgets and patience...

The ligament belonging to Dazza, the brickie. Dazza looks like he never sleeps - he has dark rimmed eyes, and a stretched exression to his face, as if he is in pain most of the time. Which is all explained by his confiding in me that he has a really bad back, and has recently been finding physical work harder to do, despite enjoying his craft. As luck would have it, he texts me on Monday morning, just as we are about to build the damn extension, to inform me that his ankle ligament is injured. Dazza cancels work for the week, and the build of the extension extends.

Meanwhile back at Nickson Towers, the cheap smoke alarms in our apartments are malfunctioning like crazy. Perhaps it is just one of my own peccadiloes, but if I was a landlord, (and I was at one time), the LAST thing I would stint on would be the tenants safety. Quite aside from the potential for lawsuits that is always there, the thought of causing or being responsible for the death of my tenants as a result of being cheap is an absurd risk.This observation is brought to you without even mentioning cats, who are the principal victims of our landlord's cheapness. In our apartment, the smoke alarms go off at the drop of a hat, or the singeing of a toast, which ever is sooner. This alarms cats, who immediately hide under a bed. Unfortunately, our neighbours, experts in Szeuchan Cookery, set the alarms off with monotonous regularity.

This weekend, the usual happened, namely smoke alrms at intervals of twenty minutes during supper time. Later that evening, the cats went out for a pre-nap walk, and met Something. As yet the Something has not been identified, but it was possibly a fox, OR black mouth tabbie, a local, yet lovable hoodlum who catches squirrels for fun. Whatever the Something was, it cornered our guys, and sprayed Calli with urine. She ran into the house, stinking to high Heaven and obviously terrified. Tosh, thinking she was "Other" attacked her and a night of chaos ensued. The end of this long story is that our cats have adopted a psychological condition known to cat psychologists as "redirected aggression syndrome". Cock and bull might well spring to mind, and every time, in Canada, I saw tv adverts for 'acid reflux disease' or 'anal bad diet complex' , or 'lazy bastard condition' accompanied by a Helpline number and an advertisement for a pharmaceutical guaranteed to relieve this symptom of too much wealth and time-on-our-hands, I would laugh. But i can now, from personal experience testify that, at least as far as cats go, "RAS" is very real. End result is that we have to completely re-acquaint the little bundles of fur(and teeth) with eachother as if they are complete strangers.

The mechanism for this involves loads of time attention and strictly controlled contact, all of which means time. And time is not something that we have an abundance of, as we are trying to use this commodity to rebuild a house. The cats,as usual have thrown a rather large spanner into a gargantuan set of wheels. Never mind, it could be worse. We could have gone over budget on our project.

Oh, hang on a minute, it appears that it is worse, and we have gone over budget. The culprit is of course, Concretia. 10 tonnnes of garbage, six weeks of effort and even after we have removed her, more surprises manifest - this time a mysterious mains water supply that comes from no-where , and goes nowhere and runs right down the line of our new extension - all revealed since Concretia's demise. Photos will follow, but more costs have been added to get this situation resolved, and perhaps more crucially, more time has been spent resolving it.

Nel got me the best birhtday gift I've had for years, and a great birthday card, which read "I have a very good feeling about the next year". This sentiment, if realized is some ambition. despite Concretia, despite the Estoinians (who, we have been reliably informed have wrecked their new accomodation already), despite the change of life to being a student (and it's attendant pressure) despite too many trips to Liverpool, because for me, life, at least in England would be difficult to beat. I hope it does get better, but only because I want to see how good it can get. Thanks for the birthday, RHB.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Popularity Contests

Among the rafts of knowledge that have come sailing to my shore since beginning the process of gittin edercated, are a few gems of insider knowledge. For instance, anthropologists walk incredibly quickly. They also have a lot of urgent text messages to answer, and, due to an apparently impossible workload (as I discovered when I managed to track down Richard outside the Wilberforce Building having a quiet cigarette), do'nt even have enough time to discuss anthropology because they're too busy doing urgent Administration. Anthropologists also, as I have discovered, are NOT creatures of habit. For example, if you happened to stumble on one having a quiet coffee at 10.15 in Zucchini's on a Thursday morning, it is possible that they may be there the next day. BUT, if you then assume that they will be there every day at that time, you will be wrong. Apparently, most anthropologists have to randomly shift the location (at least), of their preffered coffee break location due to their wrokload, and, poor dears, spend most of the time during these coffee breaks on their phone.

Needless to say, this almost random pattern of behaviour has made it more difficuly for Richard and I to continue our discourse on "Civilization - Why?". The problem has been made doubly difficult because Richard's phone suddenly erased his phone number AND his e-mail address from his contacts list. Unfortunately, the same error caused my number , which I had given him, to be erased at the same time.

Still, Rich (as I have come to call him), is definitely interested in my meisterverk and his enthusiasm for me to undertake genuine field work has, if anything, increased. On my part, my mind has been blown wide apart by my anthropology course, which is, quite genuinely, miles ahead of the other courses I take in terms of quality of delivery, hardness (it is very, satisfyingly difficult), and the enthusiasm of the lecturers for the material.

Anthropology contrasts sharply with two fo my other First Year courses. Possibly the worst course I take is called Manage One's Own Learning. Actually it is not called that, and I may in future describe it by the title that my Irish friend JJ and I have given it, namely 'Bring YOur Own Beer'. Essentially, this course teaches us how to write essays, a skill (undoubtedly) that I thought was a 'given' as an Undergraduate. My 'given', though, is not the Universitys's 'given. As an example, I should point in the direction of Lecture 3, which was on the topic of "do" words and how they relate to the writing of essays. Some of you may know a "do" word as a verb, and may be as equally puzzled as I am, on why I was sitting in a lecture, at a University, the principal point of which was to describe the various "DO" words one might expect in essay titles, and then to define what we should do if our essay title included the word "Describe". This module, which I should note, is very well taught, is not why I came to University. To use the modern vernacular, IMHO, University's should be a place where people who can already write essays attend, and teaching people basic writing skills, if present at all at Uni, should be for people who are in every other respect suitable to undertake a degree, but perhaps lack, through no fault of their own, a few basic tools. Instead, this BYOB course occupies over a quarter of the required modules in my First Year.

One may ask, "Why?", and the answer, it seems, rests with anatomical posteriors, AKA 'bums on seats'. Far from the "Good Will Hunting" notion that I approached my Higher Education - namely that I would spend much time sitting round earnestly discussing deep philosophical issues with similarly cravated c-students - the reality is that Universities these days have to effectively 'earn' money, and they do this by attracting students in large numbers. I am more likely therefore, to have a protracted conversation with my fellow students about the difference between 'Far Away' and 'Small' as I am to discuss Kierkegard in any detail. The practical rollout of this is that unlike my anthropology course where my 'head' is getting daily blown apart by concepts, facts, and readings that are completely new to me, other courses I am required to do make me feel like I am going to night school.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Wicked Witch is dead the real work starts

Above is Concretia two weeks ago, below is Victory (nearly) achieved....


I feel a little like one of the World War 1 Generals who promised millions of troops "It will all be over by Christmas". The past week of sloughing through mud and digging a big trench supports this view. However, despite this, we have made some massive steps this week, and, pun completely intended, have made a huge break through in our war against Concretia. In fact, Concretia, the masses of concrete that formed an unnecessarily robust foundation to our previous extension is now gone. In its place we are now digging an unnecessarily big trench, which we are going to fill with masses of concrete, in order to build an, er, extension.

We (myself, Darren, a bricklayer, and perhaps surprisingly Carra, my former workmate from Leeds, whom I have shipped in for the dig) finally achieved the destruction of Concretia after a battle that for me had lasted six weeks of undermining the thing and then gradually sledgehammering it's surface, breaking it apart six inches at a time. Due to access problems we could not get a big digger into the yard, so in the end, this was the only way. The last pieces we rented a massive pneumatic drill and eventually reached a point where we had weakened it so much that it literally fell apart.

The picture below shows Carra, who I brought in for the next stage - the digout of the new foundations - just before the building inspector told us we needed to go another foot deeper. In fact all these pictures were taken just before we got told to go deeper, but hopefully they convey an impression. As Hull is build on clay, and as it was raining all week, it was a horrible job, manually spade digging eight tonnes of rain-soaked clay.

Below is an aerial view of our trench, a structure fit for the Somme. One part of me thinks "What's the point?" but at least half the reason these things are done, if they are done in the right spirit, is for the achievement. There is something intrinsic in human nature, I propose, that draws positively from shared experience, especially achieving difficult tasks in adverse circumstances, as a team. I might not be in this house by Christmas, but when this thing is done, we are going to have a massive party and quite a few great people, will have some great stories - the one about Craig falling into the trench, the one about Cheap Steve hitting his foot with a sledgehammer, the anxious weekly e-mails from my nephew Thomas asking how we are getting on with Concretia, the Concretia song competition, started by Joey Mac and continued here in his absence as Carra, Dazza and Mazzer fit the word Concretia into various songs, the way it pissed down with rain all week as we dug five feet (Yes! FIVE Friggin feet the Building Control guy made us dig) then suddenly went sunny almost as the last spade loads were removed, the story about how we got on site one day and found a family of about twenty frogs had taken up residence in the bottm of the trench, and I made Dazza and Carra AND the Rubbishman's team (guys who'd come to remove all the clay we had dug out) rescue the little guys and build an escape ramp every night so the frogs could get out if they later returned. Hopefully anyone from YNWA who cannot make the party will be there, at least in spirit , as well, because the telling of the story is at least part of the legend.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Just a quickie

Just a quick note commenting on the furore that has arisen in the UK over a juvenile prank played by some minor celebrity broadcasters. Russel Brand and Jonathon Ross, a 'comedian' and a talk show host respectively, have got themselves into very hot water by phoning up the answer phone of a celebrated British Actor (the guy that played Manuel in Faulty Towers) and leaving a stupid message on his answerphone.

Minor news, you may think, but not really. Bearing in mind something a French friend once said to me about' a country has the newspapers it deserves' , this insignificant, pathetic drama has actually been the most important news story over the last few days. It has claimed front page status, not only in the tabloids, but on the broadsheets, and has been the leading story on the major newscasts each evening.

I have lived in Canada, and therefore do know that the Canadian press is not perfect. Similarly, in Madrid, Barcelona and Paris, scurrilous rags exist. The difference is that they are seen as, and treated as the comics that they are, not as publications that set the agenda. The reports in other countries broadsheets may not always be earth shattering, but the level of intellect, information and debate that the British people have been trained into accepting is almost American in it's inanity.

As a protest, I have declared Large Mansions and NIckson Villas to be independent, sovereign outpost of my favourite countries, but because I do not believe in nationalism, this new entity will henceforth be known as the Federal Trans-Continental Canadian-Scouse Republic of Ireland and Mongolia.