Monday, November 28, 2011

Quandries, quandries....

Well, it only seems like yesterday that we were angsting over schools for The Boy and packing him off in his purple blazer and cap to his first day at Big School and now, hardly a moment later,  we are looking at Sixth Forms. I really don't know where the last 10 years have gone.

We are so lucky to have a choice of two very different schools for Sixth Form. Both are rated as outstanding, one a grammar, one the comprehensive he currently attends, a school that I am passionate about. The Boy is considering medicine and feels that he would stand a better chance of getting into medical school from a grammar rather than the local comp. A sad reflection on the private/grammar/state divide in the UK but unfortunately quite likely true.

The Boys Grammar is very highly ranked in the league tables, very academic and well resourced, offers 30 different academic A levels and would, I know, push The Boy hard, which he needs. He's a typical teenage boy, struggling to find the balance between schoolwork and his addiction to his social life but who manages to get top marks by doing very little and I want him to be the best that he can be, not the best that he can be bothered to be.  Boys from the Grammar go on to the Russell Group universities. It's made very clear in the prospectus that those are the only universities they rate and consider suitable for their Old Wordsworthians.  And they wear suits in the Sixth Form, which, surprisingly, The Boy is very keen on.  The headmaster was impressive and I left his address feeling that this was probably the right place for The Boy, there was a strong sense of tradition which I love (I'm from Tunbridge Wells for God's sake, it's in the water!) and it reminded me very much of my old Grammar school which I loved and which did it's best for me.  I loved the idea of the Mentoring system there, where a member of staff mentors them all the way through Sixth Form but.... I wasn't sure about some of the teachers.

The Boy wants to do Chemistry so we made our way to the lab to meet the Head of Department.  The room was packed as you'd expect from a) a boy's school and b) a school with an excellent record in the sciences. I then listened to him bang on for 10 minutes about how hard it was, how his A* students struggled with it and how you shouldn't do it unless you were really, really clever.  Within minutes the room had practically emptied. He wasn't welcoming or particularly interested in The Boy or his friend and made no attempt to discuss the syllabus or, indeed, anything else with us.  We later discovered that more students take Chemistry than any other A level and clearly he was doing his best to try and cull the numbers a bit for next year. The Boy said he didn't think he would do Chemistry after all.

We went to Physics where they said it was expected that you would do Maths A level as well, which he doesn't want to do but Biology went better. We spoke to a current student who raved about it and we left feeling a bit more positive. In French we explained that he had spent half of his school life in France. She asked if he could write French.  I reiterated that he had been in the French public school system, not an international school as she has clearly assumed. Meanwhile the boy chatted happily with the French assistant who was from Normandy. The language department is excellent with over 30 boys studying French plus the option to study Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. There is a comprehensive programme of trips and exchanges as well.

The Boy left the Grammar feeling very good about it and determined to apply, although he had changed his plan to do Chemistry, Biology, Physics and French to Biology, Geology, English Language and French. It would mean a longer school day, a more complicated journey to school and leaving his very close group of friends, although four of them were also applying.

Then last week we went to the Open Evening for the Sixth Form at his current school. People who read my old French blog will know that one of the reasons we moved back from France was because of my reservations about the school system there. From the moment we walked into the school we knew we had made the right decision. Everything about it felt right. So I really wanted them to step up to the plate for the Sixth Form.

As it turned out, they didn't. The head of Sixth Form was a bit uninspiring and the brief talk by one of the head students saying that he managed to hold down a part time job and still go out partying was not what I really wanted The Boy to hear. The Head didn't make an appearance which was, I thought, a big mistake.The next disappointment was to find that both Chemistry and French were in the same pool which meant that he would not be able to do both. On the positive side it was standing room only in the hall so clearly a lot of people rate the Sixth Form but  I left to meet the subject teachers with a sinking feeling that this school that I love so much was going to let us down. That would, though, make our decision much easier.

First stop was the French department where they get excellent results, though they only have a very small number taking the subject. On the one hand this is good but on the other it can be quite difficult getting inspiration from such a small group. There was no French assistant and only a day trip to Paris rather than a week long exchange but then The Boy lived in France for 5 years so really there's not much he doesn't know about French culture and family life.  We talked about the clash with Chemistry and were advised to speak to the head of French for advice.

Next stop was Geography. The Boy has the most amazing Geography teacher. He's very unteacher-like and I'm fairly sure that in our last Parent Teacher meeting he used the 'f' word but it was so quick and so unexpected that The Husband and I were never quite sure if we'd heard him right. But what he lacks in the Queen's English he makes up for in passion for his subject - not to mention the blind adoration of his students. To watch him in full flow during his presentation on A Level geography was magnificent. I wanted to sign up for it! He knows that The Boy is thinking of another Sixth Form but had already said that even if he left he was welcome to come on the field trip to Iceland next year. We went to speak to him after his presentation and I jokingly asked him if he wanted to have The Boy in his class. His reply stunned me (proud mummy moment coming up......) He said, in front of the other parents and students, 'if he leaves it will be a tragedy for this school'. I looked at him blankly while The Boy went scarlet and studied his shoes. 'I mean it', he continued 'he will be a huge, huge loss. He's student leader material, he's got an amazing brain, he gets his head round complex issues easily, if there's a difficult question I know his hand will be up first. Really, we don't want to lose him'.  'Um, it's not definite he's going to leave yet', I said meekly.

On then to Chemistry where we were greeted by a young, enthusiastic teacher who clearly loved her subject. Yes, it was hard, she told him but she didn't try to put him off. She asked what grade he was predicted and said that he'd be fine as long as he was prepared to put in the work. The Biology teacher was the same.

On our way out, we were told that the Head of French was looking for us. We tracked her down in the French room. She told us that as The Boy already spoke French he and another girl (also educated in France and who's choice of Philosophy A level also clashed with French) could 'self learn' for the A level. As he would only be taking three other timetabled A levels he would have 10 free periods a week so the five of these that would normally be devoted to his fourth A level would be spent with the other girl in the library working independently or in the classroom where the French staff would put on extra lessons for them to go over the A level topics and help develop their essay writing. The Girl, who is currently doing her AS in French (in year 9) could join them to complete her A2 as once she starts her GCSE options next year she may not be able to continue having French with the Sixth Form as she does now.  'So he can still do chemistry?' I asked. Yes he could.  So once again, the school has gone out of it's way to accommodate my bilingual children.

In recent years they have started to address the problems of getting comprehensive students into top universities and now have a staff member who works just with the top students on applications for the Oxbridge and the best of the rest. They've introduced Critical Thinking as this is now a requirement by many of them as well as interview techniques and how to write a shit-hot Personal Statement.

But this, of course, has left us in a quandry.  The Boy originally was definite about wanting to go to the Grammar school but now he has extra big love for his geography teacher and is feeling more confident about doing chemistry. He's torn and so are we.  On the one hand we have tradition, a school that will ease his passage into a good university, in the top 40 state schools in the country and a very academic outlook. On the other we have a school that is not so academic, in the top 200 but that is bending over backwards to facililitate him and clearly rates him as a student. What to do?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

We'll Meat Again.....

And so it was, a few months ago, that The Girl uttered those words that every mother fears, well, every mother as disorganised as me at least. 'Mum, I'm becoming a vegetarian'.

My first thought wasn't 'well I'm proud to have a daughter who knows her own mind and isn't afraid to stand up for what she believes in'. No, it was more along the lines of 'Damn, two lots of cooking'. I struggle to come up with exciting wholesome non-vegetarian food, now I'll have to throw some vegetarian meals into the mix.

Now I should say at this point that I have previous in the vegetarian stakes (steaks...tee hee) as I myself was vegetarian for 9 years. My own foray into a meat-free world came about as a result of an unfortunate experience with zebra in Africa.

I was on holiday in Kenya with some girlfriends and our guide suggested an evening at 'Carnivore', strap line, 'A Beast of a Feast', in which you get to feast on all sorts of beasts that you probably wouldn't find on the meat counter of Morrisons. It is a vegetarian's hell, with a huge barbecue pit with assorted wild and not so wild animal parts cooking over an open fire.  The meat is on huge skewers, rather like spears and the waiters walk around and hack large chunks off on your plate.  I was never a huge meat eater and started to feel slightly queasy at the sheer, well, meatiness of it all.  I stuck to the more familiar meats but was then, as a result of an ethical argument about why I would eat cow but not zebra, I was challenged to try some zebra. I always steered clear of eating animals that I felt an emotional attachment to and having been brought up around horses I could never eat anything equine or equine-like and a zebra was like a stripy horse wasn't it? Anyway, I relented and agreed to try zebra.

Eating the sole of my shoe after a long walk through cow dung would have been a more pleasant experience. It was tough and strong tasting and with every chew all I could imagine was a baby zebra galloping around the plains calling for it's mother, whose rump was now on my plate.  I chewed and chewed but I couldn't swallow it and from then on, just the sight of meat made me nauseous.

I ate your mother
My mother was suitably horrified but I had, at least, had the decency to leave home before making this momentous decision not to eat meat. I can still remember my first vegetarian Christmas and the delicious nut roast that Mum make.  By 6pm I was poleaxed by the worst case of wind in the Northern Hemisphere and had to retire to a bed with a hot water bottle where I farted the night away. And, of course, my sister's wedding where the hotel's idea of 'vegetarian' was salmon. Err, point of order sir, salmon counts as meat in the vegetarian world.  The guest book still bears the immortal word of my friend Gerard, who partnered me to the wedding 'I hope your sister's vegetarianism gets better soon'. And it did eventually.

When I was pregnant with The Boy I had a serious craving. Not coal, not lemons or ice cream but Iceland frozen shepherds pies.... oh, and Doritos.  Every day saw me skulking guiltily around the freezers loading up my basket with enough shepherds pies to keep me going through the day. I craved them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and several times in between. Honestly, after 9 years of being vegetarian what a godawful thing to break my vegetarian vows on.

But back to The Girl. The whole vegetarian thing came right out of left field. We'd always joked that a little carnivore like her would never become vegetarian. She'd never much liked the butchery section of the supermarkets and she couldn't walk into a butchers because the smell made her feel sick but as her idea of 'Five a Day' would be a carrot and 4 tins of sweetcorn. Vegetables were just not her thing.

I tried to be supportive... well, actually I didn't. I told her that she barely ate vegetables and that she would either live on cheese and get fat or starve to death.  She told me she was prepared to still eat fish so I pointed out that fish feel pain too. Big mistake. 'OK' she said, 'I won't eat fish either then'. Damn, damn, damn.  I tried to get to the bottom of her change of heart. Was it ethical? She told me she didn't like the idea of animals being killed for food. I told her that abattoirs were very closely regulated, that vets were on hand to ensure that they animals didn't suffer, that if we didn't eat them we'd still have to kill them anyway as there isn't enough room for us all and wasn't it better that they were killed for food rather than just killed but she wasn't moved. I resorted to whining about how difficult this would make my life, having to think of two different meals every day. She offered to cook her own food. I felt guilty.

The Boy was equally dismissive. 'I give you two weeks' he said before listing all the things that she wouldn't be able to eat, jelly, haribo sweets, beef gravy, a nice juicy steak.....

I decided that the fairest thing would be for us to all eat vegetarian at least twice a week. This went down like a pork chop in a synagogue with The Boy, a compulsive fitness freak who also feels that anything that doesn't require cutting with a steak knife is not real food. He complained that being 'forced' to eat vegetarian food would have an adverse effect on his physical fitness. So far this whole vegetarian thing was a minefield!

Now, two months into the vegetarian adventure, The Girl shows every sign of keeping it up. She checks labels religiously for signs of gelatin, has restricted herself to the one type of Haribos that is veggie-friendly and, alarmingly, has started reading the blog of a teenage vegan. God forbid she goes that far.  On the plus side though, she has embraced vegetables that she wouldn't touch before and is finding out that courgettes are cool and aubergines are awesome - and also that Jaffa cakes don't contain gelatin.. Brussell sprouts are still a step too far though.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lest we forget our UNarmed forces

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day we remember those who have given their lives to protect our country and our freedom. It is right and proper that we should remember them. But what about our UNarmed forces, the men of the Merchant Navy, for example, shouldn't we remember them too? Yet they rarely get a mention.

My dad was in the Merchant Navy. He joined because he was too young to go into the Royal Navy.  He was just shy of his 16th birthday in the last years of the war but he wanted to do his part.

The UK needed one million tonnes a week of imported goods in order to continue to fight and for the survival of its population, most of it coming from North America. It was the men of the Merchant Navy, mostly in unarmed ships, whose job it was to keep the supply lines open in the face of continuous U Boat and air attacks from Germany and naval attacks from Italy. They were supported by the Royal Navy and the Royal and Canadian Air Forces. It was the longest running military campaign in  World War II, reaching its peak between 1942 and 1945. In the early years of the war, merchant ships were being sunk faster than shipyards could turn them out.

My dad was on the convoys. His ship was sunk by a German U Boat, something I only found out a couple of years ago. He still prefers not to talk about the horror of it. The chances of rescue for merchant seamen was slim When a ship was lost, less than half of the men were likely to survive. Before the advent of the small rescue ships which accompanied the convoys in later years - when they were available - merchant seamen who survived the initial torpedos and the burning oil in the sea and managed to get to a lifeboat were often just abandoned because it was simply too dangerous to stop and rescue them. They then faced a slow, horrible death from exposure and starvation. Even if they were lucky enough to have a rescue ship accompanying the convoy, the fact that it had to stop dead in the water to pick them up meant it was a sitting target for the U Boats and the Luftwaffe. My dad was, thankfully, one of the lucky ones.

He also saw action in the Pacific and Burma and was awarded the Atlantic, Burma and Pacific Stars.

Burma Star with Pacific bar
By the end of the war 3,500 merchant vessels had been sunk on the Atlantic Convoys alone, compared to 175 Royal Navy ships. The total loss of life in the Merchant Navy during World War II was over 50,000.

Winston Churchill later said "The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome".

Without the brave civilian sailors of the Merchant Navy, the war might have ended differently. 

And it was after the war that they realised that their civilian status meant that  even though they had faced the same risks as their military counterparts they would be treated very differently.  Priority for university places and apprenticeships went to the men and women who had served in the military. My dad longed to study medicine but there were no places available for him as he wasn't considered, despite his medals, to have been 'under command' in the war.

The insult continued with the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph.  The men of the Merchant Navy were not invited to attend, nor allowed to join the march past. My dad watched it religiously on television and every year he commented on the lack of representation of the Merchant Navy.  In 1999, after years of lobbying, they were finally allowed to take part, almost 60 years to the day after the first Merchant vessel, the Athenia, was lost in World War II. 

So on Remembrance Sunday, with all the talk of remembering our 'armed forces', just for a moment remember the unarmed forces who played such a vital part in the war.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Is there anybody out there....?

Hello, hellooooooo blogworld, is there anybody still out there?  If there was a 'Crap Blogger' award I'd be giving it to myself for my monstrous lack of blog posts over the past few weeks but I have a good reason. You see, I've moved. Yes, dear reader, my blog is now officially misleading as it is no longer the diary of the the incumbent of River Cottage, and me working for Trading Standards too!

I've moved a little bit further down the Wylye Valley to a lovely little village where my neighbour is my blogging pal and community chook keeper, A Modern Military Mother.

So, do I change the name of my blog or do I continue to shamelessly piggy back off the good name of a certain slebrity chef and forager of hedgerows? Let this be a warning to new bloggers, go for a generic name.

In the meantime, here's a post I did earlier for the Huffers. Needless to say, the world didn't end.

Normal service will be resumed soon