The problem with fennel

Yes, I have a problem with fennel.  Every since we saw Star Wars in 1977 and wondered what Aunt Beru was cooking for breakfast, fennel has been one of those words which can make me laugh inappropriately.

(It’s also a vegetable that tastes like aniseed, and who wants a vegetable that tastes like aniseed?  I don’t even like aniseed balls much, and I have to be really drunk to start wanting absinthe or pernod.  And as for slicing it up and eating it raw in salads, are you insane???)

I forgot bloody Shakespeare, didn’t I?  There were four of us at #Hamletbatch last week, and I happened to be sitting next to my Old Friend From 1977, the person who had identified Beru’s Breakfast in the first place.

So if you were sitting behind us last week, and wondering why the two middle aged ladies started spluttering hysterically while poor old Ophelia was going off her head, well, blame Shakespeare…

…and Aunt Beru.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference…

So don’t talk to me about fennel.  Seriously.

Hamletbatch

This is not a review.  Because we went to see #Hamletbatch last Tuesday, when it was still in preview, and not tonight when it’s the press night. Although we still paid £85 a head and aren’t preview tickets usually, you know, cheap?

But anyway, this is not a review; just a few impressions.  And my first impression was the size of the Barbican stage.  I mean, it is big.  Build a castle banqueting hall and still have room for a grand staircase big.  A banqueting hall with room for a functioning antechamber off it big.  And then another room beyond that.  A staircase with a functional landing, with doors leading to other rooms or at least which are functioning entrances through which actors can come and go, big.  I mean, it’s a stage, but it’s big.

And of course this is not a review, but I couldn’t help noticing that everyone arrived and left at a rather athletic jog, because with a stage that size and a set that elaborate, you could hardly saunter thoughtfully off after a soliloquy without the audience expecting the characters in the next scene to go “Yo, Hamlet, how’s it hanging?” or the Elizabethan equivalent.

This isn’t a review, because we didn’t see the finalised production, so I can’t tell you whether “to be or not to be” finished up at the start of the play or whether it wandered back to its rightful place, but I can say that when we saw it, the opening scene was the wedding banquet.  Which, if I had been reviewing it, I’d have said was rather good: the banquet table set out with those grotesque animal relics posh people seem to collect.  Horns and antlers and an atmosphere of decay and decadence, like the production design we saw on the teaser posters.  And, if I were going to review the production, which of course I’m not, I’d say that the way Hamletbatch defied gravity and leapt up onto the table was quite… fetching <fans self>

No, this is not a review, but I have to go back to that set.  I mean, it’s BIG, I think we’ve established that.  Big enough for a banqueting table and a grand piano, big enough to bring in a toy fort big enough for an actor to play climbing up and down stairs inside it.  But once you’ve built it, it’s just there. So when you’re wandering around on the landing, doing the scene that usually takes place on the battlements, some members of your audience are going to think, well, why doesn’t he just go back to bed?  And why are there guards pacing around on the landing anyway?  And in the second half, when the same hall is ankle deep in what looks like coal and coke but which must surely have been largely foam rubber or else they must go through a lot of barefoot actresses, I kept thinking why has no-one noticed they’ve emptied a coal lorry into the living room???

But that’s just me, and this isn’t a review, so let’s move on.  I thoroughly recommend the gin and tonic ice cream.  But don’t have an actual gin and tonic, because (especially if you’re in the really good seats) there’s a hundred stairs between you and the ladies’ loos in the interval, even if you’ll move very slowly down some of them because that’s how far the bloody queue extends.

If this had been a review I might have mentioned the after-show ambience. Because the four of us decided that, as our collective ages added up to more than 200, we probably weren’t going to to and queue at the stage door for an autograph.  So we bought four drinks and found a table and sat down…

…only to find that the bar had almost instantly put its shutters down, and that, before the ice in my G&T had even started to melt, we found ourselves entirely alone in the cavernous wastes of an empty Barbican foyer.

We appeared at that point to be starring in a Pinter play as the only other life evident in the Barbican was the mouse truffling around the bins over to our left.  And then, after a Pinteresque pause, a solitary homeless man shuffled backstage right to front stage left trundling his possessions with him.  At which point we decided we didn’t want to be locked in for the night and left.

The queue for the £10 tickets for the following night were already camped out in their sleeping bags.  Who needs reviews?

Dalek

So I’m watching Dalek, the Dr Who episode where Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor comes face to face with the last remaining dalek imprisoned in a basement by a mad billionaire collector.  And, as daleks do, it escapes and a lot of redshirts get killed trying to stop it with bullets.

I mean, you’ve just watched all your colleagues get zapped and all their bullets bounce off it, but still you carry on firing?  There’s a bullshit line from the Doctor about the dalek being protected by a force field and if they concentrate their power they *might* get through, but really?  Does no-one think laterally?

What would you do if faced by a dalek?

Chuck a blanket or your coat or something over its eyestalk?

Drop a five ton weight on top of it?

Pump concrete into the room where it is till it’s encased?

Good grief, arm all your soldiers with cans of silly string and spray it till it disappears under a giant multi-coloured ball of string …

But don’t just keep firing bullets at it when you can see that it doesn’t work, OK?  Feel free to leave further suggestions in comments.

Hiatus

You might have noticed I haven’t been around on this blog for a while.  I had cancer, basically.

In February I was feeling depressed and a fellow PhD student suggested I get a sick note to take the pressure of a university deadline off me.  So I went to my doctors and explained I was depressed and they, bless their hearts, wrote me the sick note but also said they wanted to do some tests to rule out a couple of things.  So we ruled out ovarian cancer and … then we found endometrial cancer.

It was a Grade III (which means it was the tricksy kind of bugger that’ll kill you) but, after I went and had a hysterectomy, turned out to have been at Stage 1a, which means it’s wholly contained within the womb (and the womb is an organ they can take out and throw away so #fuckcancer to you, endometrium!) and hadn’t yet spread to the blood vessels.

So my fellow student and my GP between them more than likely saved my life, or at least made the difference between a 5% survival rate at five years (for a Grade III Stage 4) and a 95% survival rate at five years, which is what you get if you’re Grade III Stage 1a.

I have to go back every three months to be checked, and at the moment I’m getting over what turned out to be major abdominal surgery – they were originally hoping to do a robot assisted piece of Living In The Future wizardry but it turned out I had to have the Old Style zip-fastener-up-the-midriff version – but I’m remarkably OK.  And remarkably grateful still to be here at all.

Repeat after me.  #fuckcancer.  And, god bless the NHS.

Kobayashi Maru

The loathsome bear-baiting spectacle that is Prime Minister’s Question Time was on again today.  I don’t get it.  It’s a Kobayashi Maru for Ed Miliband.  He can’t win: if he scores a point off David Cameron he looks as sneering and supercilious as Cameron, and if he doesn’t, he just looks weak.  Why doesn’t he pull the plug and refuse to play?

I don’t mean fail to turn up (although that in itself would make a helluva story) but change the game.  Get his troops together, and ambush the tories by behaving like…

… well, like grown ups.  Like thinking human beings.  Like statesmen and women.  Be the change you want to see and actually ask sensible questions, answer points that are raised, debate like you mean it.  And meanwhile refrain (and get your supporters to refrain) from making braying noises like a meeting of the Drones Club.

The tories would walk all over him?  Well they’re walking all over him now.  He seriously needs some media training.  Hell, he seriously needs to watch a box set of the West Wing.  But people are tired of the stupid game: get into its programming and change the rules.  Live long and prosper!

Ten years ago today…

I just found my 2005 diary.  It was a gorgeous page-a-day A5 Moleskine (sigh.  Stationery fetishists-R-us) and I filled it in for exactly three days!

Mind you, they weren’t bad days.  I was living in a flat in Covent Garden at the time, and the Eurostar went from Waterloo in those days.  So I got up, walked around the corner, got on a train, and on New Year’s Day I went to Paris!

For lunch!

To meet up with techgrrl and some of her friends, because she was over from the States and the closest she was getting to me was Paris.

It seems like a hundred years ago.

The next day I apparently pottered about quietly at home and it felt like being on sabbatical again – I must have just gone back to work after my year off, when I went to Clarion and then spent 18 months in my little cottage in Wales, allegedly writing a novel.

The only other day I filled in was in spring, when I was in Barcelona for the weekend with Sandra Kirkham. I record that I had a few moments to myself as she was in the hotel gym…. and then my pen ran out and there was nothing more.

Those were the days, my friends.

Anything goes

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was on tv earlier this week, so I was singing “Anything Goes” in risibly badly remembered phonetic Mandarin-lite for twenty four hours, so it was a relief to get it out of my system and go and see the actual show, Anything Goes, at the Crucible theatre on Tuesday afternoon.

And, yes, this is the kind of review that’s going to explain why no-one will go to the theatre with me any more.

And, yes, I have issues with the Crucible theatre: I’m not a neutral party.  You see, I was here before the Crucible.  When the Crucible was a hole in the ground, trying to raise enough money to be built, I wanted it to exist.  I was an usherette there all through my A-level years.

(Old git alert: when I worked at the Crucible three evenings a week I was paid.  I also had a paid Saturday job at Boots the Chemist in Broomhill.  And then I left school, and my mother got me a temporary full time job for a couple of weeks at Lucas’ in Mappin Street (before it became one of the University buildings, when it was something to do with the manufacture of car parts).  The old git part?  I had three jobs, one full time and two part time, in the early seventies, and my ambition at the time was to earn forty pounds a week and even with three jobs I didn’t make it.  (Cue chorus of Four Yorkshiremen saying “tell the young people of today that…”))

Ahem.

Anyway…

Anything Goes is…OK.

I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but I can’t say any fairer than that.

I can’t complain about the show itself.  I hadn’t seen it before, but the book is a reasonable comedy farrago of people in disguise, in love with the wrong people, and motivated by monomania.  She loves him, he loves the other gal, she’s marrying the rich guy, the rich guy’ll marry whoever’s left over and we’ll all live happily ever after.  And the songs are mostly great: I get a kick out of you, You’re the top, It’s de-lovely, and of course Anything Goes itself.  Even the ones you can’t instantly sing along to – Blow, Gabriel, Blow – are performed with panache.  The chorus singing is excellent and a couple of the cast – notably Stephen Matthews as Lord Oakleigh and Debbie Kurup as Reno – have fabulous voices.

It’s the dancing.  I know ‘everyone’s a critic’ is a cliche, but there’s also some truth in it.  Critics had a gatekeeping function in the pre-broadcast and pre-internet age, helping people identify good performances from bad, and in signposting star quality.   Now, however, people can see, effortlessly, electronically, enough performances to form their own opinions.  There are also enough quasi-critical programmes like Strictly that people also have some idea of what makes a good performance. There is personal preference, but there’s also the difference between competence and excellence, and far more people have sufficient experience of different performances to see which is which.

So the dancing was, well, competent.  That doesn’t mean I could do any of it, or that it isn’t bloody hard work competently performed at a professional level that 99% of us could never aspire to reaching.  What it wasn’t, though, was worth going out of the house to watch because it was better/more exciting/more engaging that anything I could see on tv any day of the week.  Sorry and all that, but if I still notice the girls fumbling the scarf pull at the end of Anything Goes in Temple of Doom after all these years, I’m also going to notice that there are only half a dozen dancing sailors in the chorus on the Crucible stage and, while they were all dancing their hearts out, there wasn’t that… something extra… that I couldn’t have got from watching Strictly.

I feel awful saying it, actually, because they’re real people with real jobs that they work really hard at, but there wasn’t any… stardust.

I don’t know how you get stardust, but I know it when I see it, and Anything Goes didn’t show me any.  Sorry again.

Two things might have helped.  One is just sheer numbers.  The chorus lines were five girls and six boys and that number felt just a little mean.  I know actors cost money and an enormous chorus line is, presumably, the difference between  profit and loss.  But then I always thought the chorus line in Temple of Doom looked a bit thin, too.  I don’t recall ever thinking that in a Fred and Ginger movie.

And the other?

Sigh.

The Crucible has a thrust stage.  Like the Olivier and the Globe, the audience aren’t separated from the cast by a proscenium arch.  Now, if you want to know what a person thinks about politics, look at what was happening in the world when they were 18. For me, if you want to know my views about theatre, look at what theatre I was going to when I was 18.  For me, the Crucible is the ideal stage configuration and it makes me brain-explodingly mad to see it used as if it was a badly-designed proscenium arch rather than a brilliantly-designed thrust.

Anything Goes is going on tour when it finishes at the Crucible.  Look at the dates and the venues here.  It’s designed to tour, and to tour all kinds of venues.  It’s not designed for the Crucible.  One of my fantasy “when I win £100 million on the Eurolottery” fantasies is to buy the Crucible and run it how I think it ought to be run.  So I guess you can safely ignore my opinion of its productions.

How to revise for exams

What would happen if I locked the door, right now, and put an exam paper in front of you?  English literature, say?  Write 500 words about the feminist subtext of Vanity Fair.   Or maths.  Could you work out how much change you’d have from a twenty if you bought three pairs of socks at £6.50 apiece?  Chemistry?  What is the atomic weight of unobtainium?   (one of these is a trick question, btw)

Let’s call the stuff you know now, without any preparation, knowledge.  The good news is that, if you’ve been on a course, turned up at lectures, participated in seminars, done the coursework, you should already have some of the course material there in your head, as knowledge, alongside all the other stuff you’ve picked up from watching Pointless and reading fanfic.

Now what you need to do is revision, which essentially is taking as much of the material you’ve read, written down, heard and studied as you can, and actively getting it into your head so that it moves into the knowledge category.

How to do that?

Organise.  If you’ve got pages of notes, sort them out.  Put them in order, sort them into topics, see how the material fits together.  A useful way of doing that is to use those coloured index cards and write one card for each topic.  Write the name of the topic, and three bullet points explaining what the topic is about.  Maybe list the key names and labels and dates you need to remember.  Arrange the cards on a table or a noticeboard in some kind of logical way so you can see how the stuff fits together – it depends on how your brain works how best you can do this stage.

The key thing about the organising stage is that it has to be active: it’s something you do differently, not simply taking your notes and reading again.  A really useful tip is to do the organising in a different medium from the notes you’ve been taking as you went through the course.  If you took all your notes on an iPad and saved them into dropbox, you now need to boil them down onto separate sheets of paper or index cards, one per topic.  Conversely, if you took all your notes on paper it can be really useful to get onto a computer and summarise them into a powerpoint, one slide per topic.

After organising comes remembering.  But again there’s good news.  It’s actually more efficient to do bits of organising and bits of memorising all mixed up together in bite-size pieces, rather than sitting for three hours and telling yourself you can’t have coffee till you’ve “done” this or that subject.

Don’t be seduced into spending a long time working out a revision schedule, by the way.  You get no marks for a beautiful timetable, sorry.  And, even worse, don’t touch “how to study” or “how to organise” books – or blogs, for that matter!  Read to the end of this entry and then go do some real work.

Here’s a way that works.  Set the timer on your phone for twenty minutes.  Spend twenty minutes looking at one topic and reducing it to one index card or powerpoint slide.  Put the card, or save the slide, in a safe place.  If the twenty minutes aren’t up yet, start trying to memorise what’s on the slide.  If the twenty minutes are up, stop and take a five minute break (yes, you can have coffee, if you can make it in five minutes).  You don’t have to stop if you’re really into it, or you’ve nearly finished this topic and there’s only two pages left to go, but set the timer again and stop if it goes again.

Mix up the topics so your brain doesn’t get bored, and go on for as long as you can manage – twenty minutes of summarising, five minute break, twenty more minutes on a different topic, another five minute break.  (It’s also useful to do something physical in the breaks.  I’ve variously learned to juggle, learned to knit, and practiced the violin in five minute breaks.  No, I can’t do any of them very well, but somehow I find it helps me to get a completely different bit of my brain working in between studying.  If all else fails, do something physical like run up and down the stairs a couple of times or stand on one leg and do that tai chi exercise where you pretend to close three drawers at different heights with your other foot)

Right.  Now here’s the bit where you DO need a calendar or a blank piece of paper and a pen.

You look at your card after you’ve written it, and try to commit it memory.

Then look at it twenty minutes later.

Then at the end of the day.

Then twenty four hours after you first looked at it.

Then at the end of the day.

See?  Say you’re doing topics called blue, green, yellow, red and pink.  You spend twenty minutes summarising the blue topic onto a card, take a five minute break, and then work on the green topic – but before you take your next five minute break, you go back and look again at the blue card.  Next you might do some work on the yellow topic, and after twenty minutes you’ll have another look at your green card…

At the end of the day (last thing at night) you have another read of the cards you’e made about the blue, green and yellow topics.

The next day you’ll start work on the red topic and then re-read the blue topic, then work on pink and read red (from twenty minutes ago) and green (from 24 hours ago) until eventually you’ve got all the stuff you want to remember written onto a set of cards or slides that you’ve look at and tried to remember at least four times.

Then you carry them round with you till the exam and try to remember what’s on them.  This is not about just passive reading.  It’s actively trying first to understand and then to remember.  So if you were looking at a particular topic in law, say, you might have the most important bits of legislation and the most relevant cases, perhaps some bullet points, written onto a card that organises the information in a way that makes sense to you.  Then you try and remember it.

Methods to remember?  Try covering up parts of the card and trying to recall what’s underneath.  Try asking a friend to test you.  There’s supposed to be a strong association between scent and memory, so if you think your fellow-students can bear it, try sniffing different scents for different topics, and then putting a drop of the relevant scent on your wrist when you go into that particular exam.  But don’t get your scents mixed up!

So there’s stuff in your head that moved in on its own (did you ever actively try to remember the atomic number of unobtainium???) and there’s stuff you actively work to put into your head.  There’s one last tiny bit of space in your head, for something small like a telephone number.

You know how someone tells you a phone number or a date and time, and you repeat them to yourself till you can get to a piece of paper or the calendar on your phone and make a note?  Well you can use that in an exam, too.

How is that useful?  Let me explain.  When I trained as a tax inspector, I had to pass an exam which involved remembering a ridiculous number of tax cases.  I had terrible problems with the names (you can get most of the marks by remembering the gist of the argument even if you can’t remember the name of the case) but I got completely hung up about a case about a second hand suit.  Even though I knew I could get most of the marks by explaining the gist, I became obsessed with the idea I would fail if I couldn’t remember Wilkins v Rogerson (yes, I had to look it up to put the names in here)

If you get a problem like that, use the telephone number method.  Don’t even try to memorise it: write it down on a piece of paper.  Look at the piece of paper before you go into the exam, then screw it up and throw it away.  Keep repeating “Wilkins v Rogerson” – well, no, keep repeating whatever you’re trying to remember, but you get the idea – as you go into the exam room and find your seat.  Keep thinking about it while you listen to the instructions, and then, as soon as you’re allowed to turn the papers over and start making notes, write it down.  And then forget about it.  If it comes up in one of the questions, refer back to the front of the paper where you’ve written it down.  And if it doesn’t come up, scribble it out.

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or any other kind of memory expert.  I’ve just taken a lot of exams.  Really.  A lot.

 

 

This is what a feminist looks like

I was personally called a Stalinist by David Mellor once.

It happened when I was part of the delegation from the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations that lobbied David Mellor about the Broadcasting Act before the Broadcasting Act before this one, back in the days when Mellor was Minister of Fun and I was on the Fawcett Society’s Media Committee.  I mention this only to point out that I have history with the Fawcett Society.  I wasn’t just a pay-your-dues-and-read-the-emails member, I was an actual activist member.  It was the great and much missed Mary Stott who nominated me for the committee, in fact.

So why am I no longer a member?  It was this: this is what a feminist looks like.  She is no bigger than “X-large”, where “X-large” means a chest smaller than 44″

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant campaign!  Get some photos of people, all sizes and shapes of people, people you wouldn’t expect, and show them in t-shirts that say THIS is what a feminist looks like, and you make the point.  Feminists come in all shapes and sizes.  Feminism applies to everyone.  Even men.  Even celebrities.  Yay us!

Feminists come in all shapes and sizes.  They aren’t just middle-aged fat ladies with bad hair: that’s the subtext.  Put your stereotypes aside and see: feminism is just like you!

Which gives me a problem.  Because, you see, I AM a middle-aged fat lady with bad hair.  I exactly fulfil the stereotypical view of “feminist” – it would be criminally stupid of the Fawcett Society to undercut their campaign by making a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt that would fit me.  (Hey, you think I’m making this up?)

I would love to work with the Fawcett Society again.  But I raised the issue with them when the campaign first came out and was brushed off, twice.  I raised it with them again on twitter this morning when I saw Elle advertising a new variant of the t shirt.

Could they BE any more patronising?

There IS no way to reconcile the “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign with the exclusion of larger feminists.  That’s the point.  However Fawcett could easily show they understand the issue and the hurtfulness of it and come up with a response which explains it’s a circle they just can’t square – or at least an answer that doesn’t reek of “and we don’t care, either!”  But they haven’t.  Still.  And that’s what pisses me off.

Interesting times

Well that was… interesting. I published a piece on the Guardian “Comment is Free” website yesterday and the readership on this blog and on tiintax, my tax blog, had a sudden spike. And the comments on the piece are up to 500+ at the time of writing.

And you know when they say “don’t read the comments”…???

However. One of the things I did in my past was to edit Quarterly Record, the journal of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes and Senior Revenue Officials, in the days before HMRC. I recalled writing something there about the difference between equality and diversity. I didn’t have space to go into it in the Guardian piece, but I have just found a copy of the July 2002 QR in my cupboard and so I thought I would reproduce below the relevant extract from my editorial. I think it still works. Although goodness me, didn’t I need a decent copy editor! No, the em-dash should NOT be the most frequently used punctuation mark.

…Which brings me on to my theme – hey, you knew I’d get to one eventually – which is Diversity. Now diversity is one of those words which, like culture, seems to make some people reach instantly for their guns, so let’s begin by defining what we mean. Diversity needs to be distinguished from equality. To me equality is what you get when you apply the same rules to everyone – what we might call the “GI Jane” method. You decide that anyone can be – say – a police officer – provided he or she is at least six feet tall, can carry a hundred and fifty pounds for a hundred yards and complete an assault course in ten minutes. And if that produces a self selected group with very few women in it, well, that’s just the way things are – anyone who wants to join can try, and any woman who has the right stuff can make the grade, just like any man. The method is fair, the outcome is nothing to do with inequality. Diversity, in contrast, means you look at the demographic of the population as a whole, and the demographic of – say – your police force, and compare them – and then look hard at why you are setting the qualifications you are setting. Does an officer regularly have to carry a hundred and fifty pounds of weight over a hundred yards? Every officer? What would it mean to have a force which more closely mirrored the demographic of the population as a whole? Are there police tasks which a four foot six woman could do as well – better? – than a six foot man? It’s about looking at what each person brings to the table and valuing it. So the soccer hooligan might quieten down faster when challenged by the dazzling blonde – and the six foot rugby playing stereotype might turn out to have skills for more diverse than thumping people in any event.

Personally I routinely look around any group and do what Sara Paretsky calls an “affirmative action headcount”. In other words, when I find myself in a gathering of twenty four people I automatically start to wonder why only four of them are women and none of them is from an ethnic minority. And, yes, I’m talking about the AIT Executive Committee to which I am newly elected and which I met on an awayday the week before sending this issue to the printers.

So why are there so many of the same old faces on Committee? Well obviously to a large degree it’s because the previous committee were good guys and did a good job and people were happy to re-elect them. D’oh, as Homer might say. But I am nevertheless concerned that the committee is so white and so male, and I wonder whether the answer might not lie in the tendency to think that “the way we do things here” is “the way things ought to be done”…