Testing times

Today, in one of the myriad of initiatives for which this government (and its recent predecessors) are justly famed, tougher testing for new teachers was proudly announced.  Initiatives are supposed to be a prelude to action, but most of the governmental kind seem more an of an alternative to action and act as a prelude only to further initiatives.

Anyway, the latest “idea” is that new teachers should be tested to ensure that they have some basic skills in mathematics, literacy and reasoning (a suitably dumbed-down Trivium for the 21st century).  All good skills to possess and pass on to the young, but I found myself wondering why this has been limited to teachers.  I can think of a number of other groups who might benefit: MPs, those writing and reviewing tenders (or potential culls) and those hoping to work in the financial sector sprang rather quickly to my mind.

Perhaps the most pressing case might be the staff of the Daily Telegraph, who recently managed to produce the most massive fail spanning all three areas.  The dear old Torygraph manage to announce to the world that there were only 100 cod left in the North Sea – somehow ignoring the many tens of thousands caught by fisherfolk every day.  The actual number of cod left in the North Sea has been more accurately estimated at 400 million – so a mere 6 orders of magnitude out.  Their error was broadly the same as confusing the number of people aged 110 or older in this country with its total population.  Surely even the tea lady could have pointed out the idiocy of this claim before it was published.  Proper reading of the report on which they number was based, a little very basic maths or some very basic reasoning would surely have saved red faces all-round.

Talking of surprisingly large numbers, the splendid Hugo Rifkind reported – via Twitter- that the UK imported more than half-a-million ash trees from the EU in 2011.  Oddly, no-one was very interested in this stat – but ever the contrarian, I very much was.  Given their propensity to self-seed – my parents have to remove a number of imports new ash trees to match our imports from their lawn each year – it seems extraordinary that we are importing the things.  If anyone in authority is reading this blog, I can put them in touch with my progenitors who I’m sure would be willing to let a few hundred thousand ash tree seedlings go for a very reasonable price (buyer collects).  I am similarly amazed that we import mint – a plant described as mildly invasive in much the same way that the Poles would have described their German neighbours in 1939 – and rosemary which is quite rapidly taking over my garden (not down to my fingers having a particularly viridian hue and in despite of my benign neglect and attempts to eat it).  All these unnecessary imports must be doing little for local employment, our balance of payments or attempts to keep unpleasant plant diseases from arriving from overseas.  Perhaps, we should also add a little basic gardening knowledge to the new teachers’ Trivium when we make it a compulsory requirement for our leaders and policy makers.

Character investment

I could so easily use this title as an excuse to rant about the soul-less corporations (though, that may be tautology as my limited theology would suggest that all corporations lack souls) that buy up the rights to much loved characters from book, stage or screen.  This process seems particularly prevalent with those characters that we first meet in childhood – perhaps because in this arena we are must vulnerable to the limited wiles of the commercially obsessed.  The characters once sold into corporate slavery are then ruthlessly de-based and re-purposed to meet the imputed tastes or needs of a modern audience.  It is perhaps ironic that such ruthless exploitation produces such a ruthful result.

My own personal bugbear (not intended as a pun but I’ll take what I can get!) is the Disney corporation’s treatment of the works of A A Milne.  For me, Winnie the Pooh and his limited circle of friends will always be as they appear in the books, illustrated in pen-and-ink by E H Shepard – or perhaps as water-coloured (though for me, still in black and white) for Jackanory in the Willie Rushton narration of my youth (though, for younger readers, Mr Rushton may be replaced by Alan Bennett).  I have even been to the bridge in the Ashdown Forest and cast my own wooden offering upon the waters (must be a -mancy of some sort I’m sure.  Lignomancy?).  However, these whimsical tales were not enough for their new corporate masters – they must be transposed to North America with a lurid colour-palette (our poor hero is forced to wear a bright red jacket at all times: I presume that naked bears would be too much for the delicate sensibilities of our American cousins – though they don’t seem to clothe their own indigenous members of the family Ursidae).  It would also seem that Mr Milne wrote far too few stories, with an inadequate cast, and those he did write lack the excitement and drama which modern youth are being programmed to crave – but luckily this can all be fixed too.

There!  Told you it would be easy!

Equally, I could alude to the basis of the writing systems common in eastern Asia.  Many of these countries are described as having tiger economies, which I presume does not refer to their imminent risk of extinction but to some other aspect of tigerness (stripes?).  I could then segue from the writing to the suggestion that the associated economies are ripe for investment – or would be if they didn’t already have all our money (which we have swapped for the stuff we seem to need, but no longer make ourselves).

But no, that would just be another red herring or perhaps a smokescreen – or perhaps both, which would yield a red kipper or bloater given time.  No, at almost 500 words in, we finally reach the meat (and two veg) of the matter.

Over the weekend I was musing on what it is about certain characters in print, stage or screen which causes us (well, more specifically me – as I was the only one in the room at the time) to “invest” in them.  There are plenty of characters whose activities, thoughts or speech is entertaining, stimulating or interesting – and plenty more who drive you up the wall, fictitious though they may be.  Sometimes, it is the interactions between characters that excite the audience: for example, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado.  While 400+ years have passed since the play was written, these two still seem to act as the archetypes for so many (much more poorly written) romantic comedies – though, if we all stopped writing if we couldn’t match the dazzling dialogue of old Bill S, then this blog for one would be an awful lot shorter!  I’m pretty sure I can’t write believable dialogue, I’m fairly sure I don’t even speak using it.  But there are a few characters where one goes further, and starts to care to a perhaps immoderate extent about them.   As I “met” two such characters over the weekend, I was set to wondering what it was about them that has this effect?  Could I identify any common elements or themes linking them?  At the risk of rendering the rest of this post redundant, you should prepare yourselves for disappointment now (look, I’m a consultant – I need to manage your expectations ahead of delivery.  By the way, that last sentence does yield a previously unrecognised link between my job and that of a midwife).

The first was the un-named (well, he probably is named, but his name is never revealed) principal protagonist of Mystery Man.  He does suffer from a wide range of mental and physical issues (only a few of which I share), has some pretty strong views (only some of which I might admit to supporting) and runs a bookshop (whereas I’m rather reluctant to let books go).  The second is Rory Williams, who travels in the Tardis as a sidekick (I think assistant may be the preferred nomenclature) to the Doctor, who is a nurse (but I dropped biology in the 3rd form) and sometime (plastic) Roman centurion (I’m way too young and my Latin too limited) and who seems a thoroughly decent (if slightly put-upon) chap married to a dishy red-head (aha – at last some common ground.  No, I am not secretly married to a dishy red-head before the rumours start – but I do appreciate the Titian-haired and am clearly a decent cove).  Why do these two characters appeal I wondered?  I was hoping to make some sort of reference to solipsism, and claim that they must (more than most fictional characters) represent some aspects of myself.  Rory is quite well-provided for nasally and the Mystery Man does have quite an obsession with books – but it’s not really looking a terribly water-tight case at this stage.  Perhaps instead they represent some sort of Platonic ideal to which I am aspiring.  Does this mean I should go and open a bookshop for Roman nurses (whilst trying to augment my current physical and mental frailties)?  It is all most perplexing.  I feel there is an important lesson to be learned here – but any insight remains (frustratingly) entirely out of sight.

I think it is time to broaden my scholarship.  I always quite fancied the trivium or quadrivium of the classical era and perhaps now is the time to tackle one or both (or should that be all seven?).