Nothing for a pair

…not in this game.  Where would the world of the catchphrase be without Brucie?  Do I have a catchphrase?  I suspect there are phrases that are heavily over-used in these posts, but I’m too much of a coward to check: unless anyone would care to notify me…

As some may have guessed, this is the post that no-one wants to see but I create as a way of (dolly) dealing with my sense of astonishment.  I have just received back my marked assignment on the art of Benin and my heart-rate has yet to return to normal.  This huge increase in heart rate occurs whenever an email arrives revealing my assignment has returned, marked – and then tends to become worse when I discover that I have once again fooled the Open University with a semblance of competence.  I don’t ever recall this happening at school or university – is this perhaps a normal feature of middle-age?  OK, just me then.  With each essay I grow less confident either that I am producing what is required or that I know what I’m doing.  I also become more frustrated that there is insufficient depth in the teaching materials provided to support my ambitious plans for my latest prose work.  It is often said that you learn through your mistakes and I am now becoming paranoid that I am making too few mistakes: I feel like I am fluking the entire course.  I realise that no-one else cares about my insecurity: the successful, like the thin (another camp into which I fall), receive very little sympathy for their plight.

Anyway, as the title implies (or, at least, will have led the better students to infer), my latest opus once again received 95 marks and some extremely kind comments from my tutor.  It would seem I have some future in art history (should I want it) and can construct a decent argument.  I suspect the remark about my tendency to use “elevated language” will strike a familiar chord in the hearts of readers of this blog, and may only partly be intended as a compliment.

This must all be very frustrating for you poor blog sufferers – to know that I can write half-decent prose, but never to see any examples.  Sadly, the rules of the OU prevent me: I already worry that students more generally are plagiarising this blog for their homework and failing courses as a result (and I really don’t have the mental capacity to process any more sources of guilt).  It is also quite frustrating for a chap trying to decide where to take his Arts foundation course next.  I had been leaning strongly towards philosophy, but now I’m wondering about including a bit of art and I’ve always been tempted by literature and classics.  The only issue about art or literature is that I’m (currently) a bit picky about the sort I’d like to study: basically the stuff in which I have an existing interest, but I suspect higher education doesn’t work quite like that.

I think, for the sake of variety, my next essay will be on the transmission of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to Western Europe.  Unusually, I am already full of ideas for this – which probably means it will be a disaster.  Quick doctor, bring me a leech…

On writing

I believe that professional writers, once they reach a certain level of success, are asked how to write by those who believe that a novel (or film or sitcom) lies within just waiting to be unleashed.  To the surprise of no-one, least of all myself, I have yet to be so cross-examined: but will share my modest insights nonetheless (yes, I do recognise that if my insights were properly modest, I would not be broadcasting them to an unfeeling world: I’m just ignoring this fact).

Since starting this blog, and feeling the pressure to keep producing new content, I have written more than at any previous point in my life.  This requirement to write has intensified since starting my Open University course for which I have to produce an essay (or two) every month (now up to 1500 words).  This writing has to be produced to a rather higher standard than the blog and to stick to the point substantially better.  As a result, they take a lot longer to produce – and despite the evidence to the contrary, these posts take quite a period of time to craft from the raw material of language.

I believe the most common advice to the novice writer is to just write.  In my experience, this is very much to the mustard.  I find it very easy to spend many days, sometimes well over a week, thinking about an essay – but at some point, nothing moves forward unless I start to write it.  After the first draft, I tend to be cast into the slough of despond (nowhere near Eton, whatever one J Betjeman and his entreaty to airborne ordnance might suggest) as the writing seems awful, I’m over the word limit and have still failed to cover a number of points I feel are critical to include.  I then try and leave the abomination for at least a couple of days (not always easy) and then return to redraft.  This is usually much better and covers all the bases within the word limit (though I generally require most of my 10% allowance), but still not really there.  The second redraft a day or so later, usually allows the essay to reach its apogee – it is still not perfect, but I can live with it and it seems unlikely to improve to a material degree with further effort.  Earlier this week, my opus on the art of Benin finally reached this state and was submitted – only time, and my tutor’s marking, will tell whether it achieved the required standard.

The blog is a fish of a rather different feather.  No-one provides a subject, word or time limit for the production of a post.  Nor am I required to write in the academic style or quote my sources (though I could if there were pressure from the readership).  This freedom is all well and good, but my relatively incident-free life (by design) coupled with the desire to be funny (hadn’t noticed?  Oh well…) does lead to my life being dominated by the tyranny of the blank page (or web form) somewhat frequently.  I also feel I should try and be somewhat original – though seven billion other souls on the planet (assuming humans, and only humans, are possessed of souls) makes this a challenge (and rather hard to test) – but at least I can try and avoid the merely trite or clichéd (which is doubly a past-participle: would that make it a pluperfect, in Franglais if nowhere else?).  However, I may be hindered in these attempts by my general failure to understand how other (they might like to think “normal”) people ratiocinate: generalising from myself seldom leads to as much insight as hoped.  To my astonishment, I do still seem to come up with topics on which to witter from the minutiae of my existence – despite being well into the difficult second year of the blog – though I now find myself wondering if used this idea before (and am too generally lazy to check).

I tend to feel posts are overly long, without the discipline imposed by the OU, with too much text integument needed to link the key ideas together.  Perhaps with more time, I could produce more condensed material – with less extraneous detail, though that can sometimes provide a useful diary function for me (which could be handy if I ever decide to write my Memoirs).  Despite these reservations, when I look back over the 335 back-numbers – usually in response to a post being viewed by a reader – they do still make me laugh.  (If you will indulge me in a brief divagation, why are the good folk of India so interested in a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear?  Is it on their national curriculum?  This blog is  receiving an unusually large number of hits from this search – and I’d never realised Edward Lear was so big on the sub-continent, and fear I am going to be of little practical assistance).  The occasional idea of mine really appeals to me, most recently the concordance between a rail journey and 2001: this is one of the few ideas that feels as though it could be worked up into a proper chunk of a stand-up act (most require far too high a level of general knowledge to ever work in public).

Still, it has never been my intent to rest on any member of the family Lauraceae (whomsoever claims ownership) and I seek continuous improvement.  As part of this drive, I found the excellent Comedian’s Comedian podcast: which is a series of interviews by Stuart Goldsmith (a man whose comedy and forename I admire) that provide a fascinating insight into how proper comedians come up with ideas and write material.  Reassuringly they face many of the same problems that I do; annoyingly they seem to resolve them rather more successfully.  This listening has also had the positive effect – for the world at large – of putting me off a career in stand-up: it seems to be seriously hard work with far too many late nights.  I think I shall stick to writing material for other poor saps to perform (while I am safely tucked up ‘neath a duvet): which reminds me of the very poor progress made on two other writing projects: the panto and the poesy post.  Must try harder…

Writing of distinction

I return to the theme of big heads previously explored in Stalking, though many of you may not have made it far enough through that particular magnum opus to know this: never mind the quality, just feel that quantity!  And, do remember that 1200 is the new 500 (well, it is when it comes to word count).  On this occasion, the over-sized cranium in question will be mine.  Yes, roughly a month has passed since the last use of this particular shoe-horn, so it is once again time for me to try and slip in a reference to my essay prowess.

Yesterday evening, TMA03 was returned to me by the electronic magic of the Open University: marked and commented on in the by now traditional manner.  To my significant surprise, my marks had risen once again to reach a level that would gain a Distinction, though you should not expect this quality of writing to make an appearance on GofaDM any time soon (I do only produce one post a month for the OU, and puns are frowned upon).  Plato scored rather better than the Dalai Lama (yes, I am thinking of developing AA100 Top Trumps as a way of garnering extra credit), so perhaps I did pay a price for my lunchtime spurning of the latter’s element of the Open Day back in April.  Or perhaps I’m just a natural at philosophy and it’s time to start inviting young ladies to come back to my place to see my stone?

However, this ever upward ladder of achievement is doing nothing for my performance anxiety.  I’m going to have to pull something pretty spectacular out of the hat for TMA04 (and thinking about TMA07 just brings me out in a cold sweat).  Still, I did have a small epiphany this morning as my bowl of porridge slowly rotated in the microwave, which will help to fit the Jewish element into my 1200 words.  This post is, in a very real way, a form of procrastination before I start my essay plan.  A plan!?  What have I come to?  Next, it’ll be running my life based on PRINCE, and I worry it will be the project management methodology rather than the self-help manual penned by Niccolò Machiavelli.

In other news, Spring is finally busting out all over Sawston and so my swollen cranium has had a chance to gain a little colour and my body some much needed vitamin D.  In response, I’m heading off to the seaside tomorrow: bucket and spade in hand and hankie knotted to protect the top of my head from the sun’s ultraviolet rays (it may also help to connect me to my virtual Jewish grandmother – of which more in another post).  OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but I am off to Brighton, “a town which looks like it is helping the police with their enquiries” in the immoral words of Keith Waterhouse.  I shall be visiting that city’s famous Dome to take in a performance of Shostakovich’ 13th Symphony Babi Yar (in which at least one regular reader of GOfaDM will be performing) which is (a) about as Jewish as his output gets and (b) demonstrates that symphonic composers are rather less triskaidekaphobic than hotel and airline operators appear to believe that we, the great unwashed, are.  So, my visit counts as both homework and one-in-the-eye for superstition.

Now, I really must start that essay plan…

Back to school

Last Saturday I took the next step in my cunning plan to become an expert on The Arts: Past and Present (sadly, the Open University is unwilling to offer me mastery of The Arts: Future – or not at this level and/or cost) and attended my first Day School.  This very much does what it says on the tin, in that it lasted the whole day (OK, 10:30 to 16:00 – but that counts as a long day for me) and it took place in a school (OK, a very highly rated sixth form college).  School does seem to have gone rather upmarket since I last attended, though the chair technology seems to have moved forward not one jot.  It is an oft quoted “fact” that back pain costs this nation a fortune in lost working hours each year: perhaps a modest investment in more lumbar-friendly seating for our young folk would be a wise one.

But, I seem to have divagated from my point somewhat (and we can thank my OU course for that rather handy piece of new vocabulary).  I spent a fair chunk of the day in a room that was dedicated to PE (Physical Education).  In my day, this would have involved parquet flooring, bars, mats and an unwanted requirement to engage in coordinated, physical activity – but this room had desks, chairs and a fair volume of IT equipment and, as a result, no room for anything terribly strenuous.  If PE had been more like this in the seventies, I might have taken more of an interest and who knows what sporting prowess I might have achieved.  This room also introduced me to the East Anglian pastime of dwile flonking (its name was pasted to one of the notice boards around the room, along with the names of more familiar sporting activities).  Strangely, this sport was not on the curriculum in my day – but sounds a great deal more fun than those that were, and could well be one of the few in which the UK still leads the world.

The day itself was divided into four sessions, and an introduction.  Regular readers will be pleased to know that I only attended three of the sessions (I don’t want to seem too needy): the lunch break provided was insufficient for anything other than sandwiches, and after two trips to Woking for the day job in the preceding week I’d had enough of John Montagu’s invention.  Added to this, the 6th form college was next door to a restaurant that had received very positive reviews and which I’ve been intending to visit for some time, so the Dalai Lama didn’t stand a chance.

The day (well the 7/9ths I attended) was enormous fun and it was good to meet a wider selection of my fellow students.  The feedback forms seemed to suggest the day was wholly designed to help us with our next assignment (sadly, it seems that all education – even the elective – is now skewed at passing exams rather than learning anything) at which it was only mildly successful, I’d suggest they should be seeking feedback on a wider range of outcomes from the day.

Talking of assignments, this week also brought the marks for my second assignment (TMA02)- which was basically re-writing the weaker half of the first assignment and reflecting on the comments that had been made thereon.  Once again, the author received very good marks – even better than TMA01 – yes, as before this post is just an excuse to boast about my incondign mastery of the art of essay writing.  This weekend, I need to start work on TMA03 and I’m starting to experience performance anxiety.  All these decent marks are creating a rod for my own back: do I have anything worthwhile to say about the Dalai Lama and Plato’s Meno?  Will I come to I regret my lotus-eating last Saturday lunch-time?  I’m not feeling much love from the muse at the moment, so I may just have to stop procrastinating and hope that 90% perspiration will either (a) be enough or (b) act as a spur to at least a few percent of inspiration.  Sadly, unlike Mr Edison I don’t have a large team whose combination of sweat and innovation I can claim as my own.

Sweet essay

It is now six weeks since I threw caution to the wind and attempted to challenge the wisdom of proverbs: could a middle-aged dog be taught to re-use his limited range of tricks in a somewhat new arena?

My chosen instrument was the Open University course hight AA100: The Arts Past and Present.   This is proving to be both great fun and suitably thought provoking: whilst I read quite widely for pleasure, doing so for a specific purpose does seem to augment the experience.  I think I may be tapping into the same phenomenon that leads to betting on a poker hand – personally, I’m waiting for bridge to take off as an internet craze.

Next week I have my fourth tutorial (which being in Cambridge should probably be called a supervision): well, technically it will be my second (if I make it) as I missed tutorial 3 as it clashed with a recital by the Endellion String Quartet (and you will recall, missed tutorial 1 due to incompetence involving a calendar): luckily, attendance does not count towards my final grade!

After Cleopatra and Dr Faustus have come Paul Cézanne, Michael Faraday and Josef Stalin: I am still firmly in the Reputations strand.  But it’s not all fun: today, I had to listen to two songs from the 1980s by Madonna to analyse the vocal performance and musical context.  Let’s just say her diphthongs were rather unimpressive and I haven’t been inspired to explore more of her ouevre – despite an exhortation from the OU to check out some of her videos.  However, it’s not all reading and listening to 80s pop: oh no, there have been two DVDs and an audio CD of a recent BBC Radio 3 production of Marlowe’s most famous work to enjoy as well.  The modern OU provides a truly multimedia experience – though, as a chap of some vintage, I do keenly feel the lack of the TV broadcasts in the dead of night: where are the beards and dodgy 70s fashions?

Despite its modernity, the course does still retain the rather old-fashioned idea that students should do some work and that this should be marked.  A couple of weeks ago, I had to submit my first assignment – comprised of two essays: one on screen representations of Cleopatra and the other looking at how Faustus is characterised by Marlowe in the language of the first half of his final soliloquy.  This is the first formal writing on the arts and humanities I’ve done in 30 years (unless you count this blog – and I suggest you probably shouldn’t) – and had the added challenge that each essay was limited to 500 words (including quotes and references).  As you might imagine, the word limit did rather increase the challenge presented by this particular assignment – still, I completed it and submitted it on time.  I had thought of making my essays available through GofaDM, but this is against the rules (apparently, it could facilitate plagiarism: which does make me wonder if any of this blog is being used as the basis for a student’s homework somewhere?).  Yesterday came the feedback and the marks.  Actually, I did really rather well: yes, this post exists wholly for me to boast about my essay prowess!  I was also unexpectedly impressed by the feedback.  For a start, there are a few conventions about writing in this subject area which I should now be able to follow (blogging and writing for business don’t fully equip one for everything) – though I am disappointed to have to lose the word “ditzy” (I’ll leave you to guess in which of the essays it was used).  The other thing which became clear to me – which was probably already obvious to you, dear reader – is that I have no real idea how to use paragraphs, and this lack is only made more obvious when constrained by a word limit.  I think his could be the first benefit that my the GofaDM audience receive from my return to academe – let’s face it, there’s been no obvious sign of the word count falling in these posts.

Still, given my early success and apparent ability to acquire new skills (or at least re-purpose old ones) I’m starting to think where next for my second studenthood? (it’s like a second childhood – though earlier and not requiring me to have graduated from my first childhood).  Should I aim to have a BA in an actual art, to complement my existing BA in Mathematics?

Platinoids

I realise the International Year of Chemistry is now over but, after hearing several programmes with Professors Tony Ryan and/or Andrea Sella in recent weeks, it is my considered opinion that every year should be both international and about chemistry.  As my modest contribution, I thought I’d introduce a couple of the members of the Platinoids to a wider audience.

The Saturday before last, I visited the Gallery of the Courtauld Institute, home to one of the largest collections of Cézanne’s work in the UK, which allowed me to do a little bit of homework for my Open University course.  Oh yes, I have managed to convert part of my OU coursework into the I-Spy Book of Cézanne and so am educating myself and dumbing down at one and the same time!   Splendidly, my membership of the Art Fund allowed me to enter the gallery for nowt.  Less splendidly, my mobile phone tried to auto-correct nowt to Moët when I tried to update my Facebook status with this breaking news – clearly a soft, southern device with champagne tastes.

To reach the gallery, I had to walk from Embankment tube station (as a result of planned engineering work) and passed along the side of Somerset House facing the river.  This was a bit of a struggle as the whole area had been taken over by London Fashion Week.  The place was heaving with people who looked as though they had dressed in the dark, surrounded by more normally dressed men carrying vast quantities of photographic equipment (and, in many cases, short step-ladders – it’s tragic how many ladders come from broken homes).  I have never been “papped” so often over the space of 5 minutes – though I’m sure I will be cropped from all the pictures, quick and lively.

Amidst this hurly-burly was a temporary structure, which I presume contained a catwalk (or similar), that proudly claimed to be sponsored by the International Palladium Board. As I’m sure you all know, the group 10 metal has its primary use in the catalytic converters fitted to motor vehicles – important for pollution control, but hardly high fashion.  I was thus at a loss to know how the IPB hoped to benefit from their largesse.  Upon my return from town, I was forced to seek out the IPB website to try and discover their angle: apparently, platinum jewellery is so last year and the well dressed fashionista should be wearing palladium (well, according to the IPB – who may not be entirely reliable as a source).   It may also help that palladium is only a fraction of the cost of platinum (or, indeed, gold) at present – however, I should warn you that as it can discolour above 400ºC and reacts with concentrated nitric acid it may not be the ideal choice for the chemistry teacher in your life (though, I suspect that chemistry lessons today are much less exciting than in the days of my youth).

Whilst listening to the triumphant return of Shaun W Keaveny from his break, I heard a name check for another platinoid in the music news.  Mineral extraction has not been a major theme of the rock or pop world in recent years (only Clementine and Big Bad John sprang to my mind – both of which are recent only in the geological sense), but the latest release from the Arctic Monkeys may be set to rectify this lack.  I believe their new song is about quarrying for Ruthenium – or so I assume as is is entitled Ru mine.  I’ll be interested to find what they’ve found to rhyme with Ruthenium – if you exclude other chemical elements, my rhyming dictionary only offers proscenium, so I’d be looking to introduce a theatrical reference myself (palladium would have made this so much easier…).

I bet we all wish I could have found a way to fit the RU Mine “gag” into 140 characters, but as I couldn’t we all had to endure more than 600 words.  Perhaps I should launch an appeal to fund a course in précis for the author?

Boosting Arts Coverage

Whilst the author is a frequent visitor to events that would broadly fall under the umbrella of “The Arts”, their coverage within this blog falls short of the levels of illumination and insight which would be required if the broadsheet ambitions of GofaDM are to be achieved.  Indeed, it might be thought that analysis of the comfort of the seating and the quality of the interval snacks has been the dominant theme of the arts coverage heretofore.

Well, no more.  I am taking decisive action to improve the quality of the arts-based drivel which sometimes adorns this electronic publication.  No, I am not firing the current writer and hiring a new team (neither budget nor ego permit): GofaDM will continue to follow the British (rather than American) sitcom model, i.e. it will represent the flawed vision of a single auteur, rather than the carefully honed product of a team of skilled writers.  Instead, my chosen approach is to re-train the current writer to improve his critical skills in the sphere of the arts (I will then attempt to instruct an ancient canine in the art of prestidigitation).

As the first, and so far only, step in this bold new initiative I have just started a course with the Open University entitled “The Arts: Past and Present”, aka AA100 (so, I expect a 12-step plan to be involved – still, I think this post covers step 1).  This promises to hone my critical faculties over the coming months til they are sharp enough to split any passing breeze into its constituent zephyrs.

My new life as an (im)mature student has commenced with consideration of the representation of Cleopatra (VII, for the avoidance of doubt) through the ages, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and the art of Paul Cézanne.  I can later look forward to studying the immortal Sophocles, Josef Stalin and the role of the diva among many other topics (other peanut-based chocolate snacks are available).

For the first three subjects, I do have some “form” as I believe they say.  I have seen Anthony and Cleopatra staged twice – once with an all-male cast – and have read a range of history books covering the period.  As regular readers will know, I saw Dr Faustus only last summer  – so do know what happens.  This was just as well, as the set version of the text contains extensive notes which are rife with serious “spoilers” for anyone coming to the story afresh.  I’ve also been a fan of Cézanne’s work for a while, and have seen a number of exhibitions over the years – now, perhaps, I’ll know what I was looking at!

However, there is a major challenge coming with the first written assignments (or essays as we, less pretentiously, called them when I was at school).  The first two essays I am required to complete in no more than 500 words.  As should have become abundantly clear to even an occasional reader of this blog, I am not good at keeping it brief.  The last time I had to work within a 500 word limit was for the précis part of my English Language ‘O’ Level back in 1981 – and I had 30 years less junk cluttering up my cranium (and keen to escape onto the page) back then.  Perhaps it was this worry which caused me to turn up to my first tutorial exactly 24 hours late – not an entirely auspicious start, but I was absolutely convinced that 8 Feb was a Thursday.  Things, as one Anthony Aloysius Blair tried to convince us back in 1997, can only get better!  (Though in that specific case, the evidence is at best equivocal.)

Despite my brevity trepidation, the course has been great fun so far – and I have certainly found myself thinking very different thoughts as I wait to fall asleep of a night (rather a pleasant change from worrying about the future direction of electricity markets).  I fear post quality has yet to improve (or fall within a 500 word limit) but it’s still early days…