Monday, 25 November 2013

Clarifying roles and responsibilities

I've been lucky in my teaching career that I have never had a complaint about the quality of my teaching.  This is not supposed to be false modesty: I know of some excellent teachers who have been the subject of complaints and some pretty lousy ones who seem to go beneath the parental radar.  I have been challenged over things I have said when discussing the academic progress of individual children (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) and I have defended the teaching competence of colleagues, firstly as a Head of Department and latterly as Director of Studies (mostly because the accusations were baseless, occasionally because it was simply the professional thing to do, whilst all the time trying to solve the problem behind the scenes).  In the vast majority of cases, the expectations of parents are wholly reasonable; they understand their children, their interests and capabilities and will play the Wenger role to perfection, meaning that they will defend their offspring to all outsiders in public whilst giving them a proper going over in private when the situation demands.  I don't respect those individuals who feel that paying a large sum of money for an education somehow guarantees enhanced grades and places at 'top' universities and I think that the triangle of child, parents and teacher should be close to equilateral at all times.  It certainly shouldn't be the case that two sides of the triangle ever gang up on the other side.  I have experience of all three possibilities here, but the most common side to get a bashing used to be the child, and now seems to be the teacher.  When a parent looks to strengthen their relationship with their son or daughter by picking a fight with a teacher on their behalf with no evidence of need, it is unfortunate.

In terms of education, both parents and teachers (and many other people besides) have some responsibility.  Clearly the two mentioned above are the key people, but authors, journalists, TV presenters, documentary makers, musicians, sportsmen etc will end up playing some part in the education process, whether they like it or not.  I don't think I have ever been explicit when it comes to defining my role as a teacher in the education of the pupils I teach.  No parent has ever asked me to define my responsibilities in their child's educational development.  It's as though there's always been a tacit understanding of what was offered and expected.  I suppose that my role as a teacher of chemistry would have involved (in no particular order):

1.  Teaching the contents of the exam syllabus so that it was understood
2.  Preparing for examinations to ensure a pupil's grade represented the best of their ability
3.  Exploring areas of interest and relevance within the subject
4.  Preparing pupils for challenges beyond School, which has usually meant university
5.  'Sowing seeds'

There isn't much crossover between what I would do as a teacher of chemistry and how a parent would be involved in the education of their child and I have deliberately left out the pastoral care aspect of boarding education (where I have spent 13 of my 16 years as a teacher).  The area of commonality across all Schools is the academic side of education.  The point where I think that teachers and parents cross-over is number 5: when it comes to sowing seeds.  This is also maybe the point at which parental responsibility trumps that of a teacher.

Why do I have deep interests in Art, science, cricket, music, food, wine, travel and literature as a 37-year old man?  It is because I was exposed to them as a child, and not in a manner where they were rammed down my throat.  I was taken to Lord's (when the day was sunny), the Science Museum (when it rained) and many places far from these shores.  I was read to and it was expected that I would read.  I used to devour books on holiday but when I wanted to watch TV at home I was never forced to pick up a book instead.  I was taken to concerts and I asked to be taken to more - I remember one time my father asking if I really wanted to come.  I didn't think parents asked questions like this.  When I considered it, I wasn't sure what the answer was, but I thought it was my choice and this was important to me.  I was taken to art galleries, but not dragged round art galleries, and there would usually be a nice lunch or a picnic to make the memory of the day a good one.  I was encouraged to be adventurous with food (even though I was naturally very cautious) and I was given wine which made me feel grown-up.  Each and every Welsh castle had an interesting and different story associated with it, even though they all tended to look the same.  And again, there would always be a picnic to have somewhere in the grounds.  Put simply, whereas I think that all the interests I have now are ones that I have come to myself, the reality is that the seeds were sown years ago, mostly by what happened in the holidays rather than by what happened at School.

That's the role of parents when it comes to educating children.  Leave the syllabus, exams and subject extras to the teachers.  Don't complain if the teacher is boring (children can still learn a lot from boring people, and they'll have plenty of boring lecturers at university and boring bosses later in life).  If the teacher is incompetent, that's the time to complain.  Children need exposure to books, films, walks, music, art, theatre, food and conversation.  Sow the seeds and then stand back and watch your child reap the benefit.  Some seeds will germinate immediately, some will take years and others will never see the light of day, which is inevitable.  

As a final point, it is worth remembering that financial richness does not necessarily equal cultural richness and it's a modern fallacy that art is elitist and football is the game of the people.  Last time I looked, it never cost £60 to visit an art gallery.  Some seeds take to ground that may appear stony and lacking depth; fling enough quantity and type of seed and something will come of it, be sure of that. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Desert Island Discs

1.  Dayvan Cowboy - Boards of Canada

Few songs are truly epic.  On a day like this by Elbow isn't epic, but Davyan Cowboy is.  BoC write music for the films that were never made - most of their songs have an air of foreboding, like the soundtrack to a Hopper painting, but Dayvan Cowboy is one of the few that are uplifting.  I like to think that it was the music going through Felix Baumgartner's head when he made his jump from space.

2.  Waterloo Sunset - The Kinks

Reminds me of my parents, who met in London in the late 1960s.  I hope that they met at Waterloo station on at least one occasion and I hope they walked across Waterloo bridge together, arm in arm, listening to the Kinks.

3.  3 Hours - Nick Drake

His only song with a personal friend named in the lyrics (Jeremy, who I think was a friend from Marlborough).  Voice and guitar have been done to death but Nick Drake makes voice and guitar sound like this is how it should be done.  You feel like you've already heard the songs, you feel like you know where they are going and you get a strong sense of the kind of person he was - quiet, introverted and sad.  A man not for this world.

4.  Clash - Caravan Palace

If you could be a member of any band in the world, wouldn't it be this one?  The nearest thing any of us will get to the soundtrack of the hedonistic 20s.  I like the fact that Baz Luhrmann went for the obvious choice of Jay-Z for his overblown Gatsby re-make.  Caravan Palace have a bit too much class for that.

5.  The Age of the Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets

Arctic Monkeys meets David Bowie, and what's not to like about that?  It's the music I think Alex Turner would produce more of were he a solo artist, it's got a touch of the epic about it, a very silly cold war video and one the best titles.  We live in an age of perpetual over-statement, at least where social media is concerned, and I think I wish that the title were an adequate description of Britain today.

6.  Requium - Mozart

Ok, it's a bit like choosing 'Catcher in the Rye' as your favourite book, and it looks like it's making a rather obvious nod to all things classical, but try watching Amadeus as a ten-year old and not being taken with the Confutatis Maledictis.  It's even better than Falco.

7.  King of Carrot Flowers - Neutral Milk Hotel

Reminds me of my favourite person - musically spare, mostly lyrical nonsense but these two things some together to make something that is beautiful, and seems profound, even though it's probably not.

8.  Entertainment - Phoenix

A band that makes you feel like you know them.  They don't try too hard to make perfect pop music and their 'Take Away' set of videos for La Blogoteque is the best thing you'll see on youtube.

9.  Sugar Kane - Sonic Youth

A song that you notice more things about the more you listen, musical arrangement-wise.  It's about Marilyn Monroe's character in Some Like it Hot and I think she'd have liked the overall feel.

10.  A day in the Life - The Beatles

Ahead of its time.  Lennon's finest hour.  Meaningless and sad.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Russell Brand's Televised Revolution

The modern form of political activism, involving sharing or liking on facebook, has gone into overdrive since the appearance of the darling of the unthinking classes on last week's Newsnight.  The 'Brand makes Paxman look ridiculous' youtube clip keeps appearing in my timeline, and Twitter pages roll over and over with platitudes for the man.  It seems as though the nation has finally found a champion, someone who speaks up for them against the villainous disingenuous politicians. It's quite clear that Russell Brand exemplifies a modern form of style over substance, but mention this on Twitter and you can almost hear the boing as many leap to his defence.  The standard line is that he's raising important issues that get glossed over by politicians, but this goes against fact and reason.  The news is full of copy about exactly the issues he raises: fracking, social mobility, drug crime etc.  Maybe politicians aren't doing enough, but he's doing nothing.  He's not even suggesting anything concrete.  I'm pretty sure that Kennedy didn't rely on the use of long words and antiquated English to make his point, but RB certainly does, and he's taking the country with him, onward toward revolution.  One other difference is that Kennedy had some ideas to go along with the multiple sexual encounters.

How has RB managed to win over so many?  His message is simplicity itself - "let's be compassionate", "let's share the wealth", "let's stop killing the planet".  So far, so reasonable.  But these are vague utopian ideals, hard to argue against, but rather harder to implement.  It's akin to saying that gassing innocent people in Syria is bad therefore I am against it.  Cue liking and sharing.  No need to do anything about it, because 'awareness' has been raised.  We're all about raising awareness these days, less keen on actually doing anything.  The most obvious question is "what do you suggest we do Russell?" but on that point he goes rather silent.  Apparently thinking through solutions to complex political and social problems and inequalities is a little more tricky.  Never mind that - just tell people that a revolution is coming (and it's already started in his head remember) and that'll be enough for the moment.  Like and share.

But it's not really RB's fault that the public has taken to him.  It's not really even the fault of the unthinking masses - we live in an age where most people are so busy with modern life that getting them to use a quarter of their brain to think about issues such as these is asking a lot.  I blame the BBC.  The BBC has some in for quite a lot of stick in recent months, and here's how they are to blame for the rise of Brand's brand:

1.  Paxman's performance on Newsnight was surprisingly lacklustre and when his opening salvo of "you don't vote, so you have no right to an opinion" didn't seem to work, the fight seemed to go out of him, leaving Brand to dominate the rest of the interview.  Brand is certainly articulate - no ums from him, nor pauses for breath - but Paxman let him go on, streaming verbal diarrhea at the camera without offering serious challenge.

2.  The BBC put him on Newsnight last year as an antidote to Peter Hitchens.  I'm pretty sure you could put Fred West on the other side of the table from the Daily Mail version of Hitch and at least some people watching would come down on his side.  He's intelligent (Hitchens) but lacks any noticeable humanity so that RB looks like a saint simply by disagreeing with him.  Their debate on sentencing for drug use was childish and go no further than "lock them up"/"show them compassion".  Ever since Ian Katz (he of the "innit" tweeting) took on Newsnight it's been noticeably downgraded.

3.  The BBC put him on Question Time regularly.  Similarly to the point above, he never has any genuine competition.  Just like that chap from the Beautiful South used to be wheeled out as the antidote to complicated political ideas, now RB is that Messiah-like figure (to use his own modest description).  He is never going to need to prove himself in the political arena so he is the one with the license to make broad political statements about how we can improve the country.

Put simply, the BBC put Brand on a platform so low that he is unable to fall off.  Why not give him a genuinely challenging platform, or better still, ask for some substance to go with the style people seem to like so much.

The hipocrisy is self-evident.  Happy to hawk HP tablets but rails against big business.  He's disgusted by the inequality of wealth but happy to shell out $6.5M for a Hollywood Hills mansion.  I'd start to look a little closer to home Russell, when it comes to looking at distribution of wealth, because we really didn't need to re-make Arthur, and so badly.  And if you really think that Hugo Boss "make the Nazis look ****** fantastic", how about you don't attend the GQ Man of the Year Awards, which they sponsor.

Russell Brand is on tour tonight in Newcastle, just in case that had escaped your attention.  No doubt the show will lay out his manifesto for political and social revolution.  Or maybe he'll just speak like a child from a Hogarth etching and talk about his penis.  I know which one my money is on.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A few thoughts on passion, motivation and inspiration

Passion: possibly the most overused word.  From personal statements to the Great British Bake-off, it seems that everyone is has a passion, whether it be for the works of Sartre or the contents of a muffin tray.  I don’t consider myself to be passionate about anything.  I am simply interested in lots of things and I suspect that most people substitute the word interest for passion simply because it sounds more impressive (in the same way that inn sounds more spooky and foreboding than pub).

Inspiration is another word misused on a regular basis, because admiration and inspiration are two different things.  I was recently asked for some advice from a friend who is a consultant to an ‘inspirational speaker’.  This speaker was keen to expand his repertoire to include Schools.  He has only recently become an inspirational speaker and the catalyst for his new career was having his leg blown off below the knee whilst serving with the British Army in Afghanistan.  I have great admiration for the British Army and I admire him as a person, after all it can’t be easy having your leg blown off.  Putting admiration to one side, I was unsure how such a background would be ideal preparation for a career in inspirational speaking?  He’s got a good story, but surely we could tell how it began and ended even before he got up on stage?  A comment from one School was that “previously pupils had complained that their History coursework was hard; now they know that it’s nothing compared to losing a limb in a roadside explosion”.  They are right of course, but simply being presented with a worse thing than the task with which you are currently struggling shouldn’t count as inspirational.  It could be argued that one’s own struggles have been put into perspective, but we’re generally aware of the natural order of things (losing a limb > troubles with coursework) without having it spelled out.

People who have been successful in one career can generally rely on a ready-made second career as an inspirational speaker.  Former Olympic athletes are a good example.  The general message seems to be that if you have a good amount of natural talent (at running or swimming, for example) and you nurture that talent for many years, often to the total exclusion of other pursuits, you have a chance at becoming good enough to challenge the people who are the best in the world in that field.  It’s difficult to disagree with the logic, but I’m not sure how inspiring I find it.  Essentially I’m being told that natural talent plus hard work plus single-minded determination gives good results.  It is logical but is it inspiring?

Would we not be better advised to take inspiration from people closer to home?  To quote a simple example, every year sees wild fluctuations in the academic performance of the Houses, despite similar exposure to all the external inspiration that the School can muster.  We are inspired (either in a positive or negative way) far more by our peers than by former Olympic middle-distance runners, war-hero amputees and even our teachers.  Our peers don’t tend to have the catchy back-story, but their attitude to work and life impacts upon us on a day by day basis.  No man is an island; the effect of those around us on our performance is significant.

We can take inspiration from a variety of people, but I much prefer the idea of self-motivation to motivation from an external source.  It is our duty to be self-motivated.  We should take a pride in being motivated to be the best we can be in all that we do.  I often hear that grade predictions act to motivate or demotivate pupils.  But motivation comes from within.  If you are demotivated you should look inwards to find out why rather than blaming external factors.  If your predictions are high, you’ve got high targets to aim for.  If your predictions are low, you’ve got something to beat to prove the doubters wrong. 

So, to summarise: be inspired by those close to you; have admiration for those who are successful; be self-motivated; be passionate (if that’s really what you mean) and be interested (because that’s what you probably mean).  No-one should really be passionate about bakery products, unless you’re Marcel Proust.        

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

How Twitter ruined your life

Twitter replaces an awful lot.  It replaces live sport, breaking news, your actual friends.  It's great for connecting you to people and events and it's true to say that almost everything in which I have an interest (museums, galleries, sports teams, newspapers, travel destinations) has an associated Twitter feed, in many cases a better start-point for information than the website.  I always try to explain Twitter to people as an information-filter: it's about the information that you gather in, not the information that emanates from you.  Twitter is for your eyes, not your mouth.  My own use of Twitter has changed over the 5+ years I've been a user (phrase deliberate).  I now use it in a far more professional context, which may explain why I've become more dull over time.

A recent study shows that over 70% of Twitter users check their feed within 3 minutes of waking up.  Leaving aside this most obvious way that Twitter can ruin your life (addiction), there are several more subtle negative aspects to Twitter.  Guard against them.

1.  Only following people whose opinions you agree with.

Being open to ideas and opinions is important, but following only people who agree with you is likely to cement your position even before a discussion has started.  I've had the misfortune to work with one or two people whose confidence in their right-ness was astounding.  If at any point you disagreed with them, you were either an idiot, or someone who had simply not thought enough about the argument: think it through again, and I'm sure you'll agree with me.  If you are going to argue, it's important to be open to persuasion.  It's the discussion that should be important, not the 'winning'.  It's also hard to 'win' an argument in 140 characters, especially against someone with a long-ish Twitter handle.  For every person who agrees with you fundamentally, try to follow one who doesn't, unless the first person you followed was the Anne Frank house, for example.  You'll find your feed has far more balance and you might even come to respect the opinions of those who disagree with you.

2.  The over-thought Bio.

Changing your profile picture on a regular basis is just about acceptable, but changing your Bio is odd.  You are not David Bowie and you don't need to continually re-invent yourself.  I'm not even sure what the point of a Bio is, and if you're trying to crow-bar some comedy into what you write, stop it.  Stop it now.  There are some things that shouldn't need to be written: if you have kids, we take it as read that you think they are 'wonderful'.  If you work in IT, you do not need to state that you have 2.0 kids (that joke became obsolete around the same time as the ZX Spectrum).  Stating that you are 'partial to the odd glass of wine' does not make you sound like a lot of fun, just someone without any genuine interests.  The Bio is meant for people to see at a glance if they wish to follow you or not, but reading the top 5/10 Tweets from someone's timeline is a far more reliable way of telling what you're getting.  It didn't take me long to find two examples of bafflingly pointless Bios:

'Editor and professional procrastinator.  Massively confused by the whole thing'

'Curmudgeon.  Neither in School, nor of school, but by school.  Brace yourself - there may be a kerfuffle'

No, I've no idea either.

3.  Your dinner.

No-one cared what you ate for dinner before you were on Twitter, and nothing has changed.  Did you ever take a polaroid photo of your evening meal and pass it round the office the following day? (note: this is rhetorical, I hope).  By all means post photos of your culinary creations, but to avoid a false sense of over-importance, you must first assume that no-one is going to view them.

4.  Being proud to be blocked.

Blocking people is fairly unusual.  The only people I ever block are generally spam sex-bots with alluring names like @ej35xxx80.  Famous people with lots of followers seem to have endless reserves of patience and will generally threaten blocking before actually doing so; you've actually got to be pretty offensive to have people hit the block button on you.  Being blocked shouldn't be something to be proud of, but I've seen lots of Bios where people are delighted to state that they've been blocked by someone they disagree with, which strikes me as wrong.

5.  Protecting your account.

Twitter is public.  It's pretty much the whole point of Twitter.  If you want to protect yourself from everyone but your nearest and dearest, that's what Facebook is for, your real friends.  People with 7 followers and a protected account might just be missing the point.  I'd understand if what you're writing is top secret (maybe you're working towards who really killed Kennedy), but then Twitter is probably not your ideal medium.

And now I'm off to make some truffled eggs.  Photo on Instagram in 5.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Outside In: Education, Twitter and the Herd Mentality

Outside In: Education, Twitter and the Herd Mentality: During my teacher training, Twitter proved an essential tonic. Sat at the back of the latest class in which some daft idea was ‘offered’ (I...

False dilemma

I am no expert on critical thinking, but the title of this blog post refers to a standard argument fallacy, that of the false dilemma.  It's a technique beloved of low-grade arguers, where in order to promote their line of thought, it is presented as one of only two possible alternatives, with the other option usually picked for the reason that it's totally inappropriate.

Here's a good example, about global climate change: in which the presenter limits our options for dealing with climate change as 'do something' or 'do nothing'.  Whereas I understand that 'do nothing' is a stand-alone option, a myriad of possibilities lie within the 'do something' heading.  If I were to donate £1 to climate change research, we would still be doing something, just nothing very significant and I'm not sure that many climate change advocates would consider this to be doing enough to allow them to rest easy.

Twitter is a good forum for educational debate, though as @oldandrewuk and @toryeducation proved yesterday, it's tricky to win an argument on Twitter.  It's also good for providing links to education blogs that are worth reading.  The problem with many of the blog posts, though probably not the bloggers themselves, is that the majority can be placed firmly on one side of the argument or the other.

The argument goes something like this:

Blog A: teachers are meant to teach.  There's nothing wrong with tried and tested didactic methods.  Pupils aren't in the class to have fun, they are there to learn.  Learning is characterised by good teacher subject knowledge and hard work from pupils.

Blog B: teachers are facilitators.  Pupils should work in groups as much as possible in order that peer teaching can take place.  Education is more about skills and problem solving than merely acquiring dry facts; all information can be found on google anyway.

This will generally be followed by all those who agree with Blog A re-blogging it to their own blog, re-tweeting its existence and complimenting the writer for telling the truth about education.  All those who agree with Blog B will do something similar with Blog B and will challenge (usually on Twitter) those who agree with Blog A (with the reverse also being true).

But this argument isn't black and white.  Blog A is no more true than Blog B and vice versa.  To see the debate as one with only two answers is a false dilemma and if the answer needs defining at all it's more of a continuum than a right/wrong.  Every teacher should feel happy placing themselves at one end of the continuum or the other, depending on the subject, topic, year group, ability of the class, time of day or just for the need to experiment.  

Sometimes I teach lessons which are characterised by an awful lot of teacher talking and other lessons involve pupils finding out things for themselves with very little input from me.  Sometimes the pupils walk out and I know they possess far more knowledge than when they entered the room and other times we've just had some fun (though I feel sure to be corrected on this one if any of the pupils I teach ever read this).  There isn't a right way and a wrong way to teach - I've seen superb lessons that bore virtually no resemblance to other superb lessons I've observed.  I've also seen dire lessons dominated by the teacher and dire lessons where it was difficult to know if a teacher was in the room.  One of the greatest things about teaching is the flexibility it affords and yet some people are keen to be hamstrung by their own certainty that their method is the one that 'works'.

Much as I like Twitter, some people spend so long defending their own method and attacking others that it seems as though that's all they do - defend and attack.  There are other alternatives; it's what one might call a false dilemma.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Actually, espresso seems to be the hardest word, at least to pronounce and if you happen to work as a 'barista' for any major UK coffee chain, it's nigh on impossible: hashtag eXpresso.

The need for an apology has been highlighted several times in recent months, with David Cameron's apology being the most in demand.  He's been asked to apologise for the British massacre at Amritsar, for the Bloody Sunday shootings, for the police errors and subsequent cover-up at Hillsborough.  Each time the significance of the event seems to have been lost in the desperate clamour for apology, which is unfortunate but inevitable given the need for a simple banner headline.  The events (in 1919, 1972 and 1989) have nothing to do with Cameron personally and therefore he is in effect being asked to apologise for the faults of others.  I don't think anyone would argue that British people in authority were at fault in each of these cases, and given that few if any of them are around to apologise now, it seems that if an apology is required it must carry most weight when delivered by the man at the top.  Not even the most ardent Cameron-haters would suggest that he's apologising for any wrong-doing on his part, so what's the problem?

We all apologise multiple times every day - when we hand over a £20 note to pay for a single stamp to when someone barges into us in the street - we simply can't wait to apologise.  Maybe it's because we'll never see these people again, or because we feel that it's merely customary to apologise, or because it's simply a learned reaction.  We're not really sorry of course, and maybe that's why it's easier to get the word out.

An apology should make everyone feel better, or at least make a person on one side of the apology feel better.  It's a way of drawing a line under things; it signals the time to move on.   I hesitate to use the dreadful word 'closure', but that's what I'm hinting at.  However, in too many cases it's seen as a sign of weakness to apologise; one is handing the initiative to the other person and providing them with back-up ammunition to be brought out during a later argument. 

Problems tend to arise because we feel the need to categorise apologies under so many headings, some of which are likely to inflame the situation:

1.  I'm apologising for something I have done wrong and feel that it's right to say sorry.

2.  I'm apologising even though I don't think I've done anything wrong.  This tends to be used as a way of diffusing an argument one wants to get out of.

3.  I'm apologising because you're upset with me even though I don't think I did anything to upset you.  This is usually delivered as an apology which isn't really an apology at all: 'I'm sorry that you feel this way' i.e. it's actually mostly your fault that you feel this way.

4.  I'm apologising for the situation, even though it's clearly someone else's fault.  I shoulder overall responsibility and therefore it's reasonable for me to apologise.

I'd suggest that 1 is a pretty good reason to apologise and 4 is not someone we should shy away from.  I do a fair amount of 4 in my job and it's surprising how often it catches people off-balance when they demand an apology and you give it to them.  They often seem disappointed and had hoped they would be able to get in a few jabs before the knock-out.  It's as though there's something disconcerting about the immediacy and unexpectedness of an apology.

Maybe a few people in power could learn from bogun Aussie PM Julia Gillard.  Her recent adoption apology was well delivered and fully appropriate.  It didn't make her seem weak, merely reasonable.  It may not have provided 'closure' to many, but I'm sure it increased the collective 'feeling better-ness', and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Stag Do

I am getting married in April.  I'm also in the middle of planning my stag.  This should be one of the easiest things to organise, bearing in mind that (at least technically) I have a free-rein to do whatever I want.  The main problem here is that when I have the freedom to do whatever I want to do, one of the last things I would choose is to spend an evening/weekend in all-male company, with various friends from different stages of my life.  This is the eternal quandary of the stag-do, namely that if they're so amazing, why don't we do exactly the same thing more often? There's nothing stopping us after all.  This is of course also known as the 'Christmas pudding dilemma', bearing in mind how many people claim to love it and yet only eat it once a year.

The first thing about the stag is that we are no longer in our early/mid-20s.  When men gather for stag-dos, they tend to regress into the person they were when they were about 21, which for most of my gathering is about 15 years ago.  When we were 21, we were keen to drink any sort of filth that would get you drunk cheaply, we thought shots were a superb idea (yes, even Goldschlager) and we went to dance in fairly gritty London clubs (please do not mistake gritty for 'cool' - we were firmly in the Loop/Oxygen/Crazy Larry's end of the market).  The reasons that none of us do this any more are simple and complimentary.  Firstly, no-one wants to see a group of fat, balding 35-year olds dressed in chinos and a 'party shirts' attempt to chat to women around half their age whilst dancing like Geography teachers at the end of term disco.  On the flip-side, we don't really want to put ourselves through this shame either, and this suits us (and those that have taken over residence in Embargos) just fine.  Until the stag that is, where it becomes compulsory to make this part of the evening's entertainment.  For every married man with 2 young kids who chooses to go mental at the opportunity to do a Jagerbomb, there's about another 15 looking about as awkward as those at a trappist monk convention in Vegas.

The evening entertainment of course has to follow on from the day's activity.  The word 'activity' is one to be wary of.  It generally tends to mean one of four things - off-roading, clay pigeon-shooting, go-karting or paint-balling.  These are all quite manly, but they're also things that no-one ever chooses to do unless they're on a stag.  When was the last time you saw a group of grown men go go-karting or turn up at laser-quest?  It's worth pointing out here that this is still better than the hen-do mentality, where women mentally regress even further (to approximately about age 9) and do arts and crafts stuff such as plate-painting and decoupage.

The other thing is the dynamics of the group.  Unless you've kept all your friends from School (and have made none more) you're likely to have a pretty diverse set of friends with diverse interests, few of which have even met each other.  Has anyone ever said that their best night out recently was in a single sex-crowd, where each person knew only about 20% of the gathering, but really really well?  Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, we're going to eat a pig and if this doesn't sound like fun to you, you're not invited.  


Dead Pool 2013

First post of 2013, and pride of place goes to the Dead Pool.  Here are my predictions of those well-known faces unlikely to see out the year.  I've taken a scientific research-based approach this time round since none of my picks for 2012 did the honourable thing and all are still alive and well as of today.  Fingers crossed that we haven't seen the last of the cold weather this winter.  Please remember that this is all tongue-in-cheek.

1.  Hugh Hefner.  Lorded in the 90s as some kind of new-lad favourite, it's difficult not to feel a sense of nausea as the 86-year old Hef married one of his Playmates this week, who happens to be 60 years his junior.  Going on the plot of the terrible Madonna film 'Body of Evidence', the plot of which involves her marrying older men (though they'd need to be well into 3 figures now for any re-make to be possible) and sexing them to death to claim the life insurance.  Maybe this is the plan of Hef's new bride (the rather standardly named Crystal) as I can't imagine how keen she is to rub up against something with the texture of a leather briefcase.

2.  Michael Winner.  Surely a shoo-in?  He's already been on the phone to Dignitas since doctors told him in mid-2012 that he has approximately 18 months to live.  Stoic and unapologetic to the end, he's burgled a career out of making several poor films in the 70s, some truly execrable movies in the 80s and re-inventing himself as an uber-snob food critic in the 90s.  Will probably be remembered as some sort of loveable British eccentric, but don't expect a season of films at the BFI - it's strictly channel 5 if you're lucky.

3.  Margaret Thatcher.  She's in hospital more often than Price Philip and looks a darn sight worse.  Deserves a proper tribute when she does pop off.  She's done far more for women than the Spice Girls ever did and yet she's likely to be pilloried by a load of dim folk that don't even remember her from the power days.  

4.  Clare from Steps.  Not sure if her exponential weight gain continues apace, but this chubby-chaser's dream went from size-Moss to size-Adele pretty quickly and far beyond.  She's projected to weigh more than a Caribbean island by the end of 2013.

5.  Ricky Hatton.  During his career he displayed the ability to lose (before a fight) and gain (after a fight) huge amounts of weight (a bit like Clare, only with the losing bit too).  Now that he's finally packed up from the ring, it looks like nowt but chips and diabetes for RH. 

6.  Shane McGowan.  How is this man still alive?  Does he buy a new defibrillator every Xmas when the fairytale of NY royalties come in?  He made the skeletal chap from the Stereo MCs look healthy, and that was over 20 years ago.  I've not done my research here, so maybe he's calmed down, moved to the country and is now growing his own organic veg and championing the benefits of pilates, but it seems unlikely.  I can't bear to google him to find out, lest I get a look at the teeth.

7.  Woody Allen.  Midnight in Paris was one of the most horrendous films I've ever watched, and his output diminishes with every flick made.  Extrapolating from MiP, he's likely to be making films that even Winner would disown at some point soon.  Maybe this one would be for the best.

8.  Clint Eastwood.  Shame to think that Gran Turismo wasn't all that long ago, but in those few short years Clint's gone from being hard-man Grandfather to utterly mental rambling codger.  Of course everyone's seen his 'invisible Obama' speech to the Republicans:

which at least proved that there's one more insane Republican than Mitt Romney.  It would be a shame if Clint ended up being remembered for this.