Friday, May 29, 2009

Why buying a house should be easy, but isn't.

Of course, it's a bit silly to ever think that buying a house might be easy. And I don't have a great deal of previous experience in the matter, but I'm now in a position where, with the help of a friend with more money than me I'm trying to find a house to buy. Somewhere cheap. So far, so average.

The problem seems to be our viewpoint: we think: the housing market is screwed, no one has got any money, housing prices are supposed to be going down, sellers should be ruddy thankful that we're showing them any interest at all. We are like lotharios at a disco full of spotty virgin spinsters. We want to take advantage and have our evil way. We want them fawning over us, offering us carpets and all sorts of extras. We want flowers, we want cheapness.

On the other hand there are the other players in the market: the sellers and other people looking to buy houses.

Now the sellers are a problem, partly because there's not that many of them. No one wants to sell their house for less than they bought it - or for less than they've been told it was worth 2 years ago. If they have any choice in the matter people are staying put, building extensions or making granny live in the shed. So you would think that the few that have houses up for sale would be desperate: divorcing, leaving the country, on the verge of bankruptcy - or developers unable to sell their house for the past 6 months and ------------ this is the key bit -------- willing to drop the price a little bit... please?

That was our hope. Now is the time to get a bargain! But it's not quite working out like that. As one seller said last week, "Well I bought this place for xxx+25k so I have to sell it for at least xxx+23k." Which is fair enough for her if she can find someone to buy it. But at the depths of what is supposed to be the biggest fall in the housing market since.... whenever the last one was - do we have a right to expect that prices might be a little less than 5k of what they were two years ago? This seems like this should be our time. The one and only time it might be possible to get on the 'property ladder'. Without bankrupting yourself...

Except, at the bottom of the market - the 1st home end of town - that's exactly what everyone else is thinking. Prices aren't low, but they're not going up week-on-week - so people are buying. Houses are selling.

We looked at a house - and in our mania for a bargain - offered 4k less than they were advertising it for - they sold it a week later for the list price. Which is fair enough, but... it's not what the papers keep telling me the situation is.

It might be different higher up the market - no one selling/no one buying - nothing happening. But at the bottom of the pile things are happening. Houses are selling. Except, obviously, not to us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why you should never go to Luton.......................... on a train on a Bank Holiday weekend

O, the temptation was just to write, 'Why you should never go to Luton' and leave it there. Or why you should never go to Luton and stay in the Easy(Jet)Hotel by the railway station.

Both of those statements would probably be cruel but fair enough. Luton is one of those towns that you'd never go to 'just for the sake of it'. For a holiday, for the shopping, for a dirty weekend. No, there's always going to be somewhere prettier, livelier, more glamorous. Luton is just another one of those places that is probably alright to live in - but it doesn't show a very good face to visitors.

Nice guy but snobby Sir John Betjeman would no doubt be horrified by Luton's town centre with its overpoweringly large Arndale Centre and gigantic pedestrianised shopping centre and... well nothing else as far as I could see. In the same way that Betjeman hated Slough, I'm sure he'd want to give Luton town centre a good carpet bombing:

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.
Mess up the mess they call a town

People talk of the homogenisation of Britain's towns with their Nexts, Primarks, Tesco Expresses, and the lesser parades of Pound Shops and charity shops and closed down old Woolworths - but usually you have a few other individual local things. Some sites, some statues, some Victorian bath houses or follies. And looking it up on Wikipedia now, it does have a few bits n bobs hidden somewhere. The town hall is alright. But boy did those 1960s planners make a mess.

I walk around late at night and wasn't that scared but then I'm dead hard me, like. But I was fast asleep in my tiny iPod sized EasyHotel pod by 10.30pm. It's the sort of 'room' that encourages you to go to sleep. You can't sit there and watch tv (that'll be an extra £5 an hour for use of the remote controller), or look out of the window (errr, there is no window, it's just a teeny pod with a bed and a combo toilet/shower thingy in the corner). So that was fine except I was wearing my contact lenses and hadn't remembered to bring my case to put them in when it came time to take them off. And like I sometimes do I forgot that I'm virtually blind and I forgot that I was wearing contact lenses and fell asleep. In the EasyHotel womb room. Out like a light.

Then I heard screaming and I wasn't sure if I was asleep or awake but then the screaming continued and I knew I was awake. I remembered where I was. I scrambled to turn on the light and listened. Knew I had to do something. A woman was screaming. I had no idea what the time was, I knew where I was but my contact lenses had blurred my vision, my eyes were virtually clamped shut. This woman was shouting, screaming, "Help! Help!" Seriously. Not in any way joking. I scrambled up and rushed to the door. And tried to remember how to unlock it. She was still shouting, my heart was beating, I was all fingers, all thumbs, all idiot slow brain. I opened the door and she was already in the reception area. The 9 EasyHotel pods are formed in a horseshoe, mine was the last in the line, next to the reception area so as I stood out there in the hallway I could hear every word. Virtually every word that she panted out at loud volume. A man had locked her in her room, he wouldn't let her out. Then she was screeching and wailing. I was standing there and no one else had come out of their room. Perhaps there was no one else in any of the rooms.

It felt like I had woken up into a nightmare. It seemed like the last thing this woman and the female receptionist would want would be for me to blurrily make my way to reception in my boxer shorts and find out if everything was okay. The man - whoever the man was - seemed to have gone, cos the shouting and wailing had stopped. The police would be on their way. I waited to see if there was any movement from any of the rooms. If any man was going to appear, or if any more shouting or violence was going to happen. Minutes passed and there was just a hum from the air conditioning. Nothing. I was starting to feel silly standing there half blind & half dressed. It was too late now to go to the reception. I should have done, but I didn't.

I went back into my pod-room and waited for the police to arrive. Surely they would want to question people. I lay there with the light on and started to wonder what had happened and stupidly, started to wonder if I could possibly have been involved. The thought just occurred: if someone said I'd done something how would I be able to deny it: stranger in a strange city, on my own, no alibi. Could I have sleepwalked, sleep stalked this woman? I knew I hadn't but the lack of vision and the orange walls were giving me a mini-moment-of-crisis.

Nobody came to question me. I had a plot for a paranoid thriller in my mind. I fell asleep again and felt guilty for being asleep.

And then the next day and the conference I was attending. Bla and also some more bla. And the journey home via London via Milton Keynes via Birmingham via Wolverhampton. Normal journey time: 2.5 hours. Bank Holiday journey time: 6 hours. Yes, never travel by train on a Bank Holiday. More trouble than its worth. Although St Pancras Train Station is now officially my favourite building ever. The shops in the basement are just more posh shops, posher than Luton's but not of much interest to me, but the building itself was worth the visit on its own. I think I'm getting more like Prince Charles in my olden age - they don't build these buildings like they used to. I suspect the old Luton did get blasted by the Germans during the war, but I hope they do manage to build something new and exciting to replace their blander than bland town centre. They could have a look at St Pancras if they're short of ideas. They won't, they can't afford it, but it would be nice...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why do women like Katie Price / Jordan?

Hurrah. Jordan aka Katie Price is single. I'm single. She's rich, I'm poor. Errr - yeah. What a great couple we'd make!!! They should make a reality tv show about the two of us. *When Jordan met some other random fella* - be a big hit, I reckons! Except she's *apparently* got someone else already, so I'm not needed. He owns a horse, or has horselike qualities, so I've no chance.

Huh. Disappointment is rife. It's like finding out that Jodie Foster was gay - it's not like I fancy her that much, and it's not like we'll ever meet, but y'know, there was always the chance that Jodie'd pop into the Lidl in Rusholme & our eyes would meet on the *Weekly Specials* aisle.

"Wow," she'd say, "these hammer drills are a real bargain at only £39.49!"
"I know,
" I would reply, trying to be cool and not make it obvious that I'd fancied her a bit since Bugsy Malone. "And have you seen the step ladders? They only extend to 4 feet but still a bargain at £24.99. Ideal for when putting up a few shelves with your new hammer drill. Say, Jodie, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"Yes, mysterious stranger man? What is it?"
"Fancy goin for a pint of beer, then maybe a curry with the possibility of sexual congress at some stage down the line? Or not?"

But clearly, Jodie being a lesbian, that's never going to happen, so I'm turning my attentions to Katie Price/Jordan. (In fact, if I haven't read this the wrong way, the Pope himself, one of the world's top celibates, has indicated he has more than an interest in Katie...)

But really, back in the *so-called* real world. Katie Jordan Price? If she was sunbathing topless in the back yard, I'd close the curtains. Alright, I'd have a quick look & take about a thousand photos for mercenary reasons, but Jordan has never been the one for me. If only for that old reason that she'd probably "eat me alive". If reality TV ever plonked us together on a desert island - she might possibly eat me alive & then burp loudly. Y'know, fair enough, she's a strong woman. And very rich. Respect on some levels.

And it's sad that her possibly real relationship with her clearly unhappy husband has ended. I saw him on breakfast news before the London marathon and they asked him how hard it was to live with Katie. His poor puppy dog face smudged its way down into his chest and he talked about her being an insane amazing character or something. And that he loved her & he was really looking forward to spending almost 8 hours running the marathon with her. He was like the hen-pecked man in a Blackpool seaside post card. You have to respect the man. On some levels.

But how did she get to be who she is? This double-named person, this twice fictional character that is is now so beloved by many women and probably small girls who, like Miley Cyrus, think that '
pink isn’t just a color, it’s an attitude.' I don't fully understand it. So *feminine* and yet so utterly scary to a wimpy man like me.

How do you explain her to an alien? Or a high court judge? "Who precisely is this Jordan Katie Price creature?"

Is she a fairy tale princess? Cinderella with big b00bs? We all love a good fairy tale or nursery rhyme:
  • The Ugly Duckling Susan Boyle - *My goodness, you're not an ugly duckling - you're a beautiful singer!*
  • Ring a-ring o' roses, A pocketful of posies. A-tissue!, a-tissue!. We all fall down dead with swine flu.
  • The Three Little MP Pigs - with their houses made of straw, venality and creative accountancy.
She was a pretty page 3 girl. Then she had a massive pair of mammorials fitted. So she was very popular amongst 14 year old boys that had never actually seen an actual naked woman (which you might blame on their fathers). She had some problems with men. Then other problems with her health and her children. She kept very busy, then wrote it all down in a series of autobiographies & novels. The triumph through adversity fairy tale is always a popular one. And like other outliers and exceptionally successful people like Bill Gates & Richard Branson, she has always managed to change and stay one or three steps ahead of the competition. I don't think Samantha Fox ever got this popular or did so much.

Hey! I wonder if I might stand a better chance with Sam Fox???? Hmmm, I wonder...

Jordan just had her timing so right. She was there for the start of the lad mag revolution; she was superb for Heat & OK! magazine - falling out of nightclubs and having ill-advised relationships on a weekly basis; she got in there when misery memoirs were all the rage. And now, with the credit crunch hitting she's gonna start going out with a bloke who cleans out horses. It's so now...

And she's an icon to a certain class of women. Katie doesn't take any shit from anyone. She has nice pink clothes. I think that's about the size of it.

Sorry. I feel like a terrible sexist. She's not aimed at me and never was even when she was permanently semi-naked. And now I guess it's the fact that she had bad things happen and 'came out the other side' that appeals to women. I guess it's the fact that like Jade Goody & Kerry Katona, Katie Price is a representative of a group of working class women that aren't usually famous. They didn't get much schooling, they didn't have any singing or acting ability & yet Katie n Kerry n Jade made it into Celebrityland.

Role models: everyone has to have one. Perhaps Katie Price can teach these women not to be push-overs, to fight for what they want, to not take any shit from anyone. Is she a feminist icon or just a woman redesigned by doctors and make-up technicians to look like a parody of someone's ideal of femininity? Is she Doctor Frankenstein & the beautifully designed creature in one tiny, yet massive body? Is she as abnormal a vision of beauty as Michael Jackson, or just a pretty girl with hair extensions and a liberal coating of orange fake tan.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Why *Sophie's Choice* makes for the perfect lesson plan

So, not wanting to spoil the plot for anyone who might want to watch the film or read the book. Let's just say, Sophie's Choice is a novel by William Styron that was turned into an Oscar winning film starring Meryl Streep. A work of fiction where a doctor in a concentration camp forces a mother to make a choice.

So, as a phrase - a '
Sophie's Choice' is a tragic choice between two unbearable options.

So, where did this lesson plan inspiration come from?

If I'm honest I tend not to get most of my ideas for English lessons from fictional Nazi doctors. Or novels about Nazis in general.

I've yet to choose an extract from a Sven Hassel novel as a comprehension exercise. As much as I used to enjoy his stories of Wehrmacht heroism on the Eastern Front when I were a lad, they're not really part of the syllabus these days, for some weird reason. Of course that's not to say that Nazi based fiction and Hitler documentaries aren't popular. The History Channel may as well be called The Nazi History Channel. But quite why Nazi-based entertainment is still as popular today as it was 20 years ago is quite another question. The simple answer might be that they did utterly hideous things, but wore great iconic uniforms while they did it. And they were European so we're left thinking - how different were they from us? Where they all evil, or were some of them just misguidedly doing as they were told? And what would I have done if I had lived in Germany then?

I like to think I would have been a heroic resistance fighter or been sent to fight on the Eastern Front with Sven Hassel and all the other commies, criminals and rejects - but who can say for sure. What would I do if faced with an impossible choice? I'm no hero, as far as I know.

But before I get carried away - allow me to back track to last Thursday night. A familiar Thursday night spent leafing through books on grammar and trying to fill in my lesson plan for Friday afternoon. Surfing through my favourite English Teacher Resource websites to see if I could get any inspiration. Thinking, gahhhhhhh, can I be bothered? Can they be bothered? Will anyone turn up? It's Friday afternoon, it's a bank holiday weekend. Hmmm. Yawn.

I clicked on a lesson plan called 'The Doctor's Dilemma'. Apparently it would be ideal if you wanted to encourage students to digest and assess information, whilst also giving them an opportunity to do a bit of a group presentation and get some public speaking practice.

Fine, I thought - they're busy writing, thinking, discussing - I get to wander around a bit, dispensing my wisdom, guiding their learning and all that stuff. And look, we did apostrophes and pronouns last week and then I made em write about their childhood. Enough with the writing for a week - let's have a lesson where it's mainly just debating and forming reasoned coherent arguments. Valuable life skills they are. Everyone enjoys a good argument, right? British democracy. And these days of course Barack Obama is everyone's role model - so speaking and debating is cool. Public speaking really is the new rock'n'roll - or the new performance poetry at any rate...

So. 'The Doctor's Dilemma' lesson plan. What does it involve? Here's how it works. There are 30 patients with a fictional disease and only money enough to treat 2 of them. Students have to do a preliminary sorting exercise to find the top 10 patients that might be best qualified for treatment.

How do you decide? Someone healthy - that will survive the treatment - is an obvious first criteria. Something that British doctors consider when deciding that smokers or obese people can't have or - don't deserve? - heart operations.

How else do you decide? The students got to discuss it and were keen to treat all applicants fairly and rationally. On their merits. Before they got into it they were sure that emotions would not be a part of it.

But as part of the exercise they would be representing certain patient's cases - ones they had chosen to put forward to the vote. People who they believed most suitable and most deserving of treatment. Presentations and speeches followed in favour of a war hero, a premature baby, a mother of 3, a professor of toxicology, an athlete, a key witness in a criminal case etc. If you were a postman with no kids - you weren't going to stand a chance. You needed an excellent CV. Generally it was like having a job interview to save your own life - apart from the babies...

Here is where the arguments started. A baby, someone argued - could grow up to be a Prime Minister or a drug dealer - how can a baby get special treatment? Should a child take priority over an adult with an active, vibrant life and a family of their own depending on them?

It is a terrible exercise if you think about it too much, but the central idea is not dissimilar to the decisions that some doctors probably have to make every day. Doctors working in Africa who don't have enough drugs to go round. Who do they choose to treat? Is it just first-come first-served or do they make rational decisions based on other criteria? Which AIDS patients do they decide to save? When we're doling out flu medicine we give it to the weakest in society - on the rationale that the rest of us are strong enough to survive. But what if we weren't? What if the next flu - the next one after swine flu - super horse flu - is capable of killing us all - who gets the vaccine then. Perhaps a lottery would be the best idea - but even then the rich and people with important jobs would have to have priority.
"'We don't use the word rationing - we call it priority setting,' said the official at the Department of Health."

And the other, perhaps unremarkable factor, was that all the female students all wanted to save the premature baby. The majority of the male students thought this was irrational. There were more deserving cases - patients that were more likely to survive. Was it worth wasting the treatment on a baby that might die anyway? The debate all got a bit heated. The males were ready to make the tough decision, the women weren't. Some of them are mothers, some of them aren't, but even the idea of fictional babies suffering was too harrowing for them.

But they're all adults, and no one actually cried. I'm not an evil puppeteer, am I........? It's fiction, people! It's an exercise. You're learning to debate; learning about democracy and making difficult decisions. I think you need a mature and sensible group to use this lesson plan with but it touches on so many questions of ethics and rationality and ... ummm, life stuff. You could have the same sort of arguments about abortion, contraception, adoption, IVF or stem cell research. Who gets to play at being God and how do they decide?

This week - back to adverbs and gerunds I think.... Whatever a gerund is.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Why on reflection I think I'm British...

Ahem, I think one of the problems we have as Englishers is that we - and when I say *we*, I mean *I* can't quite separate Englishness from Britishness. It's our native arrogance I guess, but it's also the way we were brought up. England didn't reallly used to exist, did it? Back in the 70s, 80s & 90s. Not for us anyway. Apart from those friendly/ridiculously violent football matches we'd have every year. Where England would generally beat Northern Ireland and Wales and then have a war (with added ball) against Scotland. O happy days.

But it's nice to have a good ole conversation about the matter.

Maybe it was just me, but I didn't even really realise I was English - outside of football - when I was growing up. If anyone asked I was British. That's what it said on my passport. It's like those Americans that ask you were you're from when you're in Europe somewhere:
"So are you guys English? I love England, apart from the food, the food is gross, but the history is just amazing!"
"O yeah? What's your favourite place in England then?"
"Edinburgh. Beautiful. Where do you come from?"
"Me? Flixton. Near Stretford."
"Oh Stretford-on-Avon. I hear that's just amazing there. Really beautiful and historic."
"Well the Arndale Centre's quite nice. I wouldn't say it's the most beautiful place, but the bingo hall on Chester Road is quite nice, it looks like an ice cream..."

Anyway, that was an exaggerated and untrue conversation. Although the second half of it was based on an actual conversation with Germans hitchhikers. But I'm digressing....

Just like that pretend American us English still say English when we mean British and British when - well, we're just confused basically... But I'm not sure it mattered (to us) prior to Welsh & Scottish devolution. English/British - same thing, innit? Ha dee ha ha.

I grew up with Union Jack flags being put up on the Queen's birthday and on her Jubilee - and that was what patriotism was all about. Britishness. We had to Keep Britain Tidy and Buy British. Then we had Cool Britannia and Brit Pop. And before that various wars and a British Empire and a monarch that ruled the waves. As far as I'm aware (and I may be very wrong) in the 1970s when Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games they played the National Anthem - of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 'God Save The Queen'. In fact they did that for Australia as well. At least I think so.

And now everyone (else) has got their own songs; which is nice. But England still seem to think they're Great Britain. We haven't changed our tune. We still sing about saving our Queen. We don't sing about Jerusalem and our mountains green, our dark Satanic mills and our generally green and pleasant land. And I think that's a pity. You don't get many lyricists as good as William Blake. No, we still sing about supporting the Queen. And really we should save that for when we're Britain.

We're a bit like Serbia still calling ourselves Yugoslavia. We're a bit like Norma Desmond. The rest of the world has moved on, but we want things to stay as they were. We were happy then. And now we're a bit grumpy about everything. We don't quite know how we're supposed to react to things. We're England but we're also Britain. We're like an 8 year old child trying to understand why if Scotland is still our mummy why does she want to live with us any more? Well okay, we're not divorced yet, but Britain is like an open marriage of countries. Except the other countries are off enjoying themselves and grumpy old England is left confused, feeling alone and very very grumpy. We're not what we were. We're not young and beautiful any more. We don't look the same. Even our flag isn't so pretty. Just red and white? None of the pretty blue bits and the other diagonal red cross? We have to watch what we say. It's alright for everyone else to pipe up about how great they are but if we say anything! We get a right telling off.

We're having a mid-life crisis...........................

Okay, I say we, to mean England, but it might just be *we* meaning *me*...... sorry

So growing up British I'm not sure I needed Englishness. I was happy being British. But now I have no choice. It's like they decimalised the cultural currency and I just need to get used to this new set-up. The Welsh & the Scots seem to do quite well with their cultural identities. From an outsiders point of view we look at them and think: yeah, well, it's alright for them, they've got stuff in common. Talking a weird language or walking around in kilts; deep-frying Mars bars or having a deep distrust of all English people. But do they really have all that much in common? People in Liverpool and Wrexham have probably got more in common than people living in Rhyl and St. Davids.

If someone asks me where I come from I'll say Manchester. As a Lancastrian I'm not sure I've got over the War of the Roses yet. Yorkshire is a foreign country. And London is another world. I can accept it as another part of Britain but it came to a Yugoslavian style war - would I really want to line up against the Scots and on the side of Boris Johnson's London army?

So growing up I was British, Northern & Mancunian depending on the circumstances. But not really English. English was what I spoke. It was one of my favourite subjects at school. English Lit: Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Kenneth Grahame, Robert Louis Stevenson, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis. Only one of them is actually English, but I don't really fancy partitioning them out.

Wales can be proud to claim Roald Dahl; Northern Ireland can have C.S. Lewis; Stevenson is a Scot - but I'm just happy for them all to be British and Great.

So I'm quite happy to stick at being British. So I don't have to read the label on everything cultural we produce, so that we can decide who it belongs to. When the world goes crazy with whatever hideous disease or famine or climate catastrophe or war that will invitably happen in the next ... umm, 50 or a 100 years - we'll just go back to being an island. A little squabbling island full of mongrel races. Squabbling like a family does - about nothing.

So yeah, someone come up with some good St George's Day activities and I'm up for it but in the meantime I still think the Union Jack is definitely the best flag going. Look at that dress as an example, wouldn't work with any other flag...