Friday, 24 June 2011

And ABC of bees in the garden.

I am too angry at the moment to talk about the vanishing of any sort of social conscience amongst members of the government, and so instead will blah on about bees, and their vanishing. This film is available to view online, and is a compelling documentary about the vanishing of bees, and the implications of their demise. Approximately 3 quarters of the plants in Europe require pollination from bees, butterflies, moths, bats or hoverflies to bear fruit, and later, seed. Many species of plant are in a symbiotic relationship with one particular type of bee, and without the bee, and only that bee, there is no plant. Without bees, in short, the prospect for succesful crops and fruit is very bleak. No-one seems quite sure of the cause. It could be varoa virus, mites, monoculture of crops,changes in weather, beekeeping practises, pesticides, or mobile phone masts, or all of it.  Either way, it's odds on it's our fault. The bees will not have been planning their own destruction. My own feeling is that it's bound to be a combination of things. The vast monoculture swathes of oilseed rape in my own area must be wearing to a bee, and combined with everything else, it's no wonder the creatures are knackered. It's a measure of the straits they're in that when son discovered a swarm earlier this Spring, a quick phone call to local bee keepers evinced 8 phonecalls desperate for the swarm within 10 minutes, there was practically a fisticuffs over them. Keepers are losing hives, and grieving.
 It's not just hive bees either, even though most of the fuss in the media centres on honeybees. The solitary bees and bumble bees are affected too. Bumble bees (those furry min chinook helicopters of the insect world) are popping off just as quickly, and the variety of bumblebees in the UK has sharply declined. There are 24 varieties in the UK, and all are suffering. 2 are extinct in the last few years, another 6 are on the at risk list. Because they don't produce commercial amounts of honey, their demise hasn't hit the headlines. For me, a Summer without these drunken fliers , lazily buzzing like crazy and bapping into me and the windows isn't a Summer.  I will never forget the moment I was summoned by son to "look at my new pet!", only to find him stroking a massive sleepy just woken up Bumblebee, with both of them enjoying the experience. The Bumblebee Conservation trust is a mine of information and will give you the info to go and identify what's in your garden, as well as advising on how to encourage them in.

But the best thing you can do is to plant some stuff. Not posh flowers, not fancy flowers. Many of these have negligible nectar, and are useless for the bumbles. What bumbles need is old flowers: old fashioned, cottage garden and wild flowers. Big flowers, tasty flowers, with lots of nectar, open, easy access petals, and they need them from early on after they wake in early Spring , thorugh till September and beyond. Here is a list of plants they adore. This year, my borders were sown, early on in February, with seeds of these annuals and perennials, all adored by bumblebees and other pollinating insects. In a nice ABC vein, I now have a border brimming with Aquilegia, Bugloss, Borage, Cosmos, Deadnettle, Everlasting pea, Foxglove, Geranium, Hyssop (also keeps off cats), Lupin, Marshmallow, Poppies, Rosemary, Sage, Snapdragon, Thyme, Wisteria, and more. The Bugloss in particular has been a joy, surrounded constantly by bees and hoverflies, and producing a neverending bunch of flowers that start off pink and change to blue, then purple as the nectar diminishes (see pic above,with happy hoverfly).  Basically, the cottage gardeners were onto something. They knew their stuff.

If you want to do something extra, provide a nesting site. You don't need to buy a bee house. You can knock one up yourself out of wood, canes, pretty much anything. Again, the Bumblebee conservation society has some plans for you. But the most important thing you can do, perhaps, is tell your kids about them. Bees are important, lovely things. Teach your children to love bees and leave them alone. Observe, don't squash. Be still, don't flap. They're not wasps (which are EVIL), they're useful little things that add colour, sound and beauty to any garden.  (See here for my children explaining the difference between bees and wasps). Buy local honey, seed your grass verges with bee friendly flowers. Tell your neighbours to let that hive be for the Summer, don't use pest control. Don't use pesticides. Use that patch in the shade where nowt grows for a bumble house. Make a little space in your garden for bees, they need it. Your garden is better for bees in it.

And my next post, i'll write about how to help your local Conservative MP become extinct.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Why teachers darn well need to retire

It's a bit of a moot point, since I never intend to return to teaching while Gove is alive (evil cackle, strokes cat, plans, plans), but if I were, I would now be expected to work until I were 68 to claim my now reduced pension. Leaving aside the argument that we're all younger now, we all live longer now, people want to work, etc etc, here is one simple fact. If teachers work till they are 68, then the youth of today will soon be getting re-aquainted with the traditions of laying out corpses, and CPR will creep onto the curriculum, as a blind necessity. "Sir! Sir! Ms. Kirby has collapsed! Kyle is giving her CPR by the whiteboard, but we think she's weed herself and Skler is vidding her on her iphone! Come quick!". Oh yes, it will happen. Because if ever there was a job, (although firemen also fits, really) that is manifestly not suited to past 60, it is teaching. Here's a few reasons why.

You know how annoying it is to listen to your own kids whine? Times that, by 35 + per class (Gove has just removed the maximum class size agreement, lovely man, and so now we will all be teaching to even more kids in even more out of date classrooms), by 6 per day, 5 days per week, less holidays, for 40 plus years. Expect to see some major Falling Down moments.

Memory: you need to recall a LOT as a teacher. Aside from having to know pretty much all of human history from 1066-1978 in my subject, I also had to learn the kids. Sure, I attempted to learn every kids name and remember their own traits, strengths and weaknesses. But it was HARD. Here come parents evening, and I have the name Keisha in front of me as next up. Thinks, thinks,  "Keisha: big hair, too much make-up, smokes at lunchtime, poor spelling, talks too much, sits by the door, never does homework, confuses Right Wing with Left Wing and whilst strongly supportive of Martin Luther King in Year 8, has since let slip that Hitler was "Right about the Jews". Note to self: avoid talking about this with parents, as they seem rather odd and are large. Handed in a nice coursework piece directly downloaded from the internet, 48% in mock, possible grade C if she pulls her finger out and stops reapplying lipstick and listens" All this in 30 seconds. I could do that then because I was still under 35 and hadn't yet had the lack of sleep known as kids. I would struggle now. I would definately struggle at past 60. At past 60, I probably would't even be able to pronounce the names on my register. I sometimes struggled at 30. Yes, I mean you Ozibamwamwye.

Classroom presence. At 30, you are OLD. At 68, you'll be DEAD. 13 year olds in my class were amazed, as, as a precursor to explaining hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, I regaled them with tales of what things cost when I was their age. They flatly refused to believe that a packet of crisps EVER cost 5p until I told them that this was 34 years ago. Then they were, like, "oh, yeah, that's like, so long ago. Did you have the decimals then?"  Imagine their respect for you when you are as aged as the dinosaurs. And imagine how madly removed they would seem from you, as the teacher. They'd be like little aliens. Christ, I had to ask them what "bare good" meant, and was it BEAR or BARE, and they actually looked as if they pitied me. It might not seem important, but it is, because a crucial part of teaching well is about making connections that can bring a subject alive. Hence, when discussing the use Elizabeth I made of portraiture, we also looked at media images of modern rulers and celebrities.I knew who the celebrities were.  The age gap at 68 is too big. The points of reference are too disparate. X Factor and Preparation H.

It's fucking knackering. The job starts at 7.30 in most secondary schools, ends at teaching last lesson, in theory, by 4, prepping and out the door, excluding meetings, by 5, followed by a few hours marking and prepping at home, probably a day every weekend, holidays during coursework and exam season, meeting with parents, year meetings, subject meetings, coursework moderation, mocks, parents evenings. Standing on your feet pretty much all day (you can't teach sitting down now. It's not like my school days, teachers cannot sit at a desk and set exercises while nipping out for a fag now. It's all leaping around to interactive whiteboards and walking between desks). Not to mention the intellectual tiredness engendered by teaching 6 lessons a day and having to remember it all. I am tired just thinking about it.

Sodding have some respect. Teaching is not a job for the faint hearted or less than committed. It's a rare teacher that teaches for 40 years, and they bloody deserve to retire when they want to, on a decent sodding pension. It's a low paid job compared to other equivalently qualified positions, it demands vocation and care. They are not just teaching, although that's hard enough, they are cheering your kid on on Sports day, running after school clubs, being kept up all night on school trips, picking up naughty kids from the corner shop for shoplifting, mopping up blood, listening to stories, helping, drying tears, stopping fights, building confidence, doing the same assembly EVERY YEAR, saying the play was brilliant when it wasn't, watching out for bruises, buying shirts for the kid that comes in grubby, and telling jokes to make the form group smile. Many teachers work themselves into the ground and thank the lord for their pension, which is now being reduced for them. This particularly affects women, who have taken career breaks to raise children, and will now have to have an average pension, instead of final salary. For many women teachers, this has halved their pension. Teachers now face working longer, for less. You may say, fair enough, I have to. But this is mean  spirited. These people teach your children because they want to. How will teaching attract graduates now? 4 years of study and debt, no teacher training funding, for what? A low salary, a reduced pension, and working till 68. What graduate with a decent degree will choose to go into teaching now? If I were in the same posistion again, I would not.

And the argument against final salary pensions for teachers is disingenous. The government pretends that they are bankrupting us, but in fact the latest ONS stats show that the pension bill from public sector pensions is falling. The majority of public sector pensions are small, because the majority of public sector employees are women, and low paid. The average public sector pension is less than 4K pa. The average public sector wage is less than 16Kpa. The average teaching wage, after 5 years is 29K. The average teaching pension is 10K. Compare this with the bank bonuses meted out this April, of 75K plus. Or the tax breaks given to large companies by Osbourne.

Now go up to your childs' teacher and say you support their strike.

Barbecue widowhood and weight gain.

Well, I am a barbecue widow this weekend. Husband is finally realising his dream (and that of approximately 85% of men) and trying to make a go of cooking huge chunks of meat over a large grill.So he's off to Stowmarket Food Festival as Bubba Grills UK,  (see here for where else he's going, I lose track) to punt his ribs and flash his pork butt at people, hoping against hope that they will love his vinegar based sauces and actually allow him to make some money out of meat and fire. I am praying too, as setting up a new business, not to mention a catering one, is not cheap, folks, not at all. And while he is out flaming things and worrying that we'll be eating the leftovers all week, I am the one doing what I always do, Monday-Friday, namely get kids up, deal with kids all day, put kids to bed. Only now I do it on Saturday and Sunday too. (Truth be told, it is mostly me that deals with the kids Saturday and Sunday anyway, but at least I get to stand in the kitchen cooking with the radio on while he plays the annoying dinosaur game, and I get to go to the loo alone while he distracts them).
The only real difference is in the evenings. I am used to either fiddling on the PC or sewing machine once the kids are in bed, not just because I like it, but because husband likes to watch unmitigated crap on TV. We have no real mid-ground here, aside from the History Channel, and even I, as an ex-history teacher, can have too much of Hitler and Tony Robinson. I cannot watch anything involving cops and cameras, I detest talent shows and live scenes of nonentities caterwauling/dancing/doing whatever, and we can't watch the news because we argue. Newsnight has been known to reduce us to mean silence with each other for over a week, but that's my fault for marrying a Tory. There is some mild agreement on cookery shows, but only in that we both agree we can never, ever watch Masterchef without wanting to punch those blokes whilst saying to them "Punching doesn't get tougher than THIS". But when he is absent, oh yes......
Now, now is the time I can watch costume drama without havng to explain which period things are in or him pointing out the cars are actually wrong. I can watch as MUCH CARY GRANT as I like (which is a lot), and admire handsome vampires without having to hear that really, they wouldn't be able to do that. I can cook meat-free meals (husband always looks up from a meat-free plate with a sad little face) and eat nothing but pudding for my tea. And herein lies my weight gain. Or at least, it will by the end of the Barbecue Season. Because last weekend, all I ate for my post-kids bed tea was jam roly poly, a 'la Hairy Bikers. Tonight, I have dined on Lemon Pond Pudding, a'la my nan. Next weekend, I fully intend to eat Eve's Pudding all night. Because normally, I can't be bothered to do a pudding. Nobody in my family eats them. They all eat cheese instead. Nary a sweet tooth or suet love between them. It seems greedy to knock a pudding up, just for me. But as there's no-one around but me this weekend, I don't care. Here is a recipe for Lemon Pond Pudding, and jolly good it is too. I can't show you a photo, because I ate it all. You can also use oranges instead of lemons.

You will need lots of eggs and arm strength for this, if, like me, you are blender or mixer less. I have plenty of eggs, thanks to my hens, and tonight used the monster shown in the photo, proud possessor of 3 yolks. Poor Boo-Boo, that must have hurt.

4 eggs, separated.
5 tablespoons lemon juice
zest of one lemon
30g soft butter
300g caster sugar
4 tablespoons plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
350ml milk
Oven at Gas 4, no idea about electric.

Beat the egg yolks, lemon juice, lemon zest, and butter together until it is as thick as you can get it. Then gradually add the sugar, flour, salt and milk until you have a thick batter. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. This took me sodding ages by hand and made me swear to fork out for a mixer again. Fold this into the other mixture. You want to retain some air in it all. Cook in a shallow dish, in a tary of hot water, or Bain Marie, as proper cooks say, for between 45-60 minutes. You are aiming for a fluffy sponge on top, and a lovely lemony pond underneath. Eat it. All. Now I am off to watch "North by Northwest" and burp.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Pretend that you are calm, and you are calm.

When I was teaching, I had as a mentor a veritable dinosaur of the Secondary system, a teacher who had been teaching for over 25 years and was, amazingly, still not weeping every weekday morning. He gave me much advice, some of which I had to disregard if I wanted to keep my job, and one bit which stuck with me, because it worked. He told me never to loose my temper, even with a class of 35 Year 9's, last lesson, and that before I lost my temper, the best thing to do was to act loosing your temper. Because once you've lost it, you're not in control. But whilst you are acting loosing your temper, you get all the benefits of the shock and awe response, but you can also add little Bette Davies touches that will add to your mystique and legend, and you will be in control. So, before the Year 9's tip you over the edge, pause, and go scenery chewing crazy, stop them in their tracks, and then calmly switch into neutral and carry on. Pretend you haven't done it. You will only ever have to do this with each class once or twice a term. Particularly if, as I did, you misjudge quite how much slamming a door can take and the pane of glass falls out and smashes everywhere. They never played up again.
What has this to do with my usual blurbs, which are usually about parenting, eating, hens, with the occaisional Conservative hate mail? Well, I have of late been losing my rag. It comes in cycles, and I have found that when son develops a new skill, daughter will quickly develop a rival skill or whine to compete. I have weeks that go like this:
son: "Mum, MUM, MUUUM! Look at me do this!" (recites entire Quentin Blake book at me without looking at pages, just holding it above his head)
daughter: "MUM! Mummmmeeeee! Look! Look! I can do this!" (does inexplicable Haka like dance with ugly toy dog she got for her birthday before throwing it at son)
son: "Nooooo! I was READING! You are a stupid stinky bum head!" (sings stinky bum head song repatedly)
daughter: "I am NOT you are and that is not reading it is STINKY like your BUM!"
Slight pause while both of them decide whether to cry to gain most attention or fight. Fight. Pause while they examine themselves for wounds, as wounds command high Mum Attention points, especially if there is blood. Hence, son has stopped screaming if daughter attempts to scratch or bite him, as the end result of the scratch or bite is more pleasing than actually stopping it would be. All this while I am on the loo, trying to have a poo. Now, I have had a few moments of late where I have flared up at this, and ended up shouting the mum equivalent of "stinky poo bum" at them, and we all end up shouting, weeping and feeling bad. I did try to separate and calm them, using the divide and conquer rule, but this fails as it only adds to their sense of injustice, and whilst moments before they were mortal enemies, once in their respective rooms, they become allies, cruelly separated by their Nazi of a mother, and tap the dividing wall, whispering messages to each other. I fully expect to see a Poster of a Honda Fireblade on his side and a pony on hers hiding an escape route. Thing is, they just annoy me. They know how to do it really well, and which whiny voice is going to get the most response the quickest, like they have a little ipod of whines in their heads and they're there thinkg "Hmm, it's almost teatime, and I want some attention. Shall I go for the feeble voiced, weak sounding whine and plead for a snack? Or shall I revert to baby speak, and introduce a sad sob effect, implying I have been abandoned, and then ask for a biscuit?" And I am, by 4pm, cooking, end of tethered, and very liable to explode easily. It couldn't go on.
So I decided to go back to my teaching books. I re-read the very useful "Getting the Buggers to Behave" and various other tomes and I can honestly say that I'll be able to make them behave beautifully when they are 11+ in a classroom setting. But really, it's my old mentors advice that has been useful. And not only in acting mad, but in acting calm too. I decided to reverse things and pretend to be calm when I wasn't. I have spent all week pretending calm and responding calmly, acting calmly when really I wanted to yell. I've been anticipating flare ups and out-calming them. I have been unruffled by the fights, I have NOT yelled. And it has totally freaked them out. Initially wrongfooted by my zen-like responses, they were flustered. But then they calmed down. They've had a good week. And so have I. I am calmer. Maybe there's something in Zen and all that, because by pretending calmness, it has actually, in part, descended upon me. Of course, it helps that I have earplugs.

Friday, 3 June 2011

I am alone! So alone! Oh well...

I've been silent for weeks as a)i've been making the most of family time and b) any spare time has been spent harassing local councillors about local issues re: ANOTHER FUCKING TESCO. I will get onto the Tesco (I have to sick the word up) but for now, this is a quick post to say that rest assured, many, many posts will be coming your way very shortly. Why? Because for the forseeable my evenings will not be spent in sofa tv watching with spouse (me: "Is this some sodding camera and cop thing again?" him: "Yes, it's good, look the fucker is..." Me: "i'm going to bed with my big fiction book of murder"), or concerned conversation with spouse (him: "Do you think every boy is like that?" me: "yes"), but alone. I will be alone because husband is off barbecuing, baking, frying, whatever you do with ribs and half a pig. He's at Bjorn Again, he's at food festivals, he's at fairs, he's at concerts, music festivals and a 4th of July celebration. He's pushing the power of the rib to people and thoroughly enjoying preaching the pork to meat eaters. He's tossing them, basting them, doing all sorts of things at all sorts of festivals for weeks on end while I do not attend. I do not attend because 3 and 4 years olds get bored pretty quick at country shows and do not find barbecues that interesting for, like, 4 days. So we stay home, and eat salad. If he ever makes it big and does Glasto, then we'll go. Me, i've got weeks worth of Bogart films stacked up, a stash of pear cider and some good books. My intention is to spend the lone evenings reading, sewing, watching bad sci-fi and writing increasngly psycho letters to the council/MP, and blogging, oh yes.I will need patience in buckets, not for when he's gone, but for when he gets back. For it is then that the kids start reacting. Some time end July. He has a week off. Then flat out till September. He still has a day job.
I let him go. I encourage it, provide balm. Because he's going to be knackered, the family will recover some time in October. He's going to be grumpy, the kids are going to wonder about the bearded man who wants to read them stories, and they will be SICK of me.But, he wants to be head of his own thing. He wants to have a job he likes, and a timetable that will, eventually, be family friendly (so in 4 years time he might be able to take the kids to school while I do the rest), and that I applaud. But, I don't even like ribs. And i'm going to be very, very bored of reading a Suzuki GSX manual to son as a bedtime story.
Good job I have a big fucking Tesco opening near me soon. And a planning permission for 1,000 homes. That should give me direction for my barbecue widow anger. Oh yes.
Note to people: Sane(r) Sheridan will be back soon.