The World According To Fred is my blog, although no, my name is not Fred - but don't worry, that's a common misconception... My posts are a compilation of all the things that pass through my mind - a running commentary of my view of the world. Please feel free to comment and please say if there are any subjects you would like Fred to take a view on - I really do want to know!!!! In the meanwhile enjoy:
The World According To Fred

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Nightmare Months Before Christmas

Bah Humbug. I blame genetics for the fact that I am a giant green Grinch, but Christmas does not help itself. Or rather, every store across the country does not help Christmas.

I am a November child, and don’t appreciate my birthday being overshadowed by loud loathsome music, glaring garish lights and overly cheerful adverts. But this is not where it starts. Christmas now begins months before the occasion, to the point where I am bored of the 25th December at the beginning of September. It starts with the little baubles in the corners on the TV, or snow throughout an advertisement and then BAM full blown annoying kids in stupid costumes singing irritating songs about how their mother can miraculously buy every single thing in a catalogue whether relevant or not – yes Littlewoods, I’m talking to you. These children do not induce sympathy or make me want to buy from this store, but run. Run as far as possible as I can away from this store, for fear that if I do go there the children will follow me and torture me until my ears bleed from pain. Every single advert on TV is about Christmas. Stores bragging about the ridiculous amount of money you can spend on items that will end up in the trash after Boxing Day. I’m sorry but the only commercial allowed to signal the beginning of Christmas is the Coca Cola advert, which in being so honoured retains its glory until due time. But the misery does not end there, oh no.  It’s every channel displaying their Christmas specials: or basically, exactly the same shows just with all the characters wearing Christmas hats. Except in Friends, where Ross stars as the Holiday Armadillo instead. Another thing - I don’t get why The Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music are heralded as the great Christmas movies – what exactly do they have to do with the season at all? Nothing says happy Christmas like a collection of Nazis and people dressed in green. As of now, the only films that are acceptable at this time of year are The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Muppets’ Christmas Carol and Love Actually. End of story. Except of course you can watch “Christmas 24” – one channel dedicated entirely to Christmas movies and other unnecessarily chirpy trash. It’s enough to make me want to grab a stocking and stick it over my head until the holiday is over.

Yet the travesty extends further than the simple four walls of a TV screen. Each year Christmas grows, but only in the necessity for the need to buy presents. It's a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every December the 25th, but I seem to be the only one who knows. Everyone spends an absurd amount of money on gifts that either have had no thought put into them or are absurdly hideous. I’m not going to be a hypocrite – I get as excited about opening presents as the next person (providing the next person is a six year old child), and most of the time my presents are perfect. But when the number of Impulse, So…? and Charlie fragrances I have outstrips the number of weeks in a year, I begin to think that the season of giving has gotten out of control. And let it be said for the final time – the horrendous Christmas jumpers are not wanted, welcome or winning. I try and restrict the number of people who I give presents to, but every year it seems to spiral out of control, costing me more than I ever wanted to spend on people who I probably won’t know in a few years except on Facebook. Logical.

And then comes the music. The endless drones of pointless sentiments that clearly haven’t been thought through – nobody wishes it would be Christmas every day, unless we couldn’t remember the day before, otherwise we’d either be bankrupt faster than St. Nick can travel or opening the same presents for the next millennium yet never having time to enjoy them. Then there’s the whole dilemma as to whether people age if there is only one day each year – see? This whole can of worms that was clearly not considered when the song was written. And don’t even get me started on Jingle Bells. The only song I can stand is Fairytale of New York for the epic moment after an assembly in primary school when the song started playing and my Headteacher informed me that this was her favourite song and started to sing along, at the exact moment where Kirsty McColl sings “You scumbag, you maggot, You cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it's our last” – well, some moments stick with you forever.

Nevertheless, my favourite part of Christmas is the flowing amounts of food. A magnificent opportunity to eat till you’re sick, put on a ton of weight and then break that easily formed new year’s resolution to lose the mass when you find the leftovers of your stocking. A true yuletide miracle!

Still I think it’s safe to say that there are many pre-Christmas Spirit Scrooges that would love for the Noel celebrations to be toned down a bit, so we’re no longer affronted by tinsel everywhere we look. This year, the anti-Christmas begins. Game on. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Just Can't Dance

Just Dance. The promise that with a small white remote in your hand and a miniature neon person on the screen in front of you, you can become an elite dancer. Yes, this sounds legit. Add to this already threatening mix a video camera, competitors who have already learnt the moves and the inability to realise which player you are and you have a dangerous recipe for humiliation. Namely mine.

The delicacies that are involved in the game are so much more complicated than those suggested by the name “Just Dance”. You do not “Just Dance”. You make wild movements that are not even remotely close to human moves and invariably end up punching someone in the face. Twice. I would even go as far as to suggest that all these games have been sold under false advertising. In no universe created does anyone step up to the Wii for the first time and perform perfectly these extra-terrestrial moves like the dancers on the TV adverts. Nor are we smiling. Unless we are mocking someone else’s failed attempts. To summarise, I am never smiling, but those who are watching me are. And of course, my friends’ inability to refrain from putting videos of my dancing onto Facebook means everyone can share in my degradation. Oh the joys of camera phones. And yet it doesn’t end there! If you have an Android or iPhone, you can install the "Autodance” app, film your friends doing ordinary actions and remix them to Duck Sauce’s Barbara Streisand, until they look like a high speed chicken on drugs, to be shared once again with Facebook but also YouTube. It is a rather false hope that this game will enable us to learn new dance moves which we can crack out at the next shindig to impress stacks of people with our newly discovered talents. No – do not be enticed by this gross exaggeration! This game does not create talent nor fun but pain, ridicule and a vague resemblance to a duck in the presence of a drunken fox, who – being drunk – tries to pet the duck before eating it and said duck - being unsure whether to run or stay still - as a consequential compromise tries to do both. When you can picture this happening, you know what most people look like partaking in “Just Dance”. Such blatant lies. I have been told that if I stopped singing and concentrated on the moves I would do better – but if anyone can listen to Outcast’s Hey Ya and not sing along, they are clearly not human.

Then again, it is better than some of the games out there. Though many say that computer games will improve communication skills and reaction times, I say that this is a simple disguise behind which hide unnecessarily enhanced violence and mild resemblance to the speech and social capabilities of and unevolved caveman. My English class is not filled with intelligent and deep conversations about the moral messages of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird - it is filled with the crude comparison of how many kills they got last night: “Yeah I got this guy last night and now I’m on level 48, is well cool”. Yes, your grasp of the English language definitely grants you a spot in the top set. What gets me is that they get home from spending a whole day in the company of these people and then think that it’s a great idea to spend eight hours online with these same people. Do you hate your own company? Do you loathe yourself so much that the idea of just an hour alone is terrifying? This isn’t about having a social life, this is about having such a low self-esteem that it becomes a real life version of Don’t Let Me Get Me. And yet such a high price is put on these drainers of life! I guess I understand when the game costs £40 but spans 3 discs, like murder mystery game La Noire; but when you pay the same price for three hours of merciless killing it becomes senseless. “The most realistic war games to date” – yes because when you are killed you can always just restart at your last checkpoint. Seems like every guy – and a lot of girls – have one or even many of these games, encouraging bad language and the inability to compromise and discuss as opposed to shooting. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s ridiculous that grown men should be being beaten online by ten year olds; news flash - you pre-pubescents aren’t allowed near these discs for another eight years. When you stop sounding like your sister you can try again. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Little Benefits

Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase! Hakuna Matata – it ain’t no passin’ craze. It means no worries, for your DofE days… So for some insane reason, having completed Bronze, I decided to continue with Duke of Edinburgh and enrol in Silver. Utter madness.

For those of you who follow my ramblings, you’ll know that on my Bronze training day, I lost my phone.  Well, unfortunately it seems to be a regular occurrence. On the way to Exmoor – where our three days of torture was to be hosted – we stopped at Fleet Service Station and, to cut a rather long and worrying story short, my phone and iPod were recovered by me and my dad Saturday night after a cleaner had found them in the toilets and handed them in to lost property. Excellent job well done, I think. I wrote on my previous DofE blog that the moral of my phone troubles is not to “put your phone in the front pocket of your hoodie, especially if you are walking through large fields”. I think the moral of this more recent episode is not to trust Fred with anything valuable whilst on an expedition. And that the idea of learning from your mistakes is really a lot easier in theory than in practice. Still, a month without your phone and Facebook proves that communication is underrated. And that half term can induce lunacy and an (increased) obsession with One Tree Hill.

Needless to say, it kind of marred the rest of the experience, though that was kind of done anyway by the three days of hill climbing and two nights of sleeping in a cold tent. I really shouldn’t be complaining as I did volunteer for this – an oversight explainable for Bronze, but not so much for Silver. Then again, what else is a blog for, except complaints and warnings? But to whichever genius told me and my team that Exmoor is “really flat” – let me ask, do you think Mount Everest is just a little hill? Either that or we got exceptionally lost and ended up near Snowdonia. Flat, yeah right. Let’s hope that New Forest is better.

A lot of your mood is based on sleep, food and weather. We were incredibly lucky to have enough sunshine to be dry but not too much to be uncomfortable. Well as unnecessarily uncomfortable as you can be when you are carrying around your own weight on your back and walking 13 miles uphill each day. At least it wasn’t the torrential downpour of my Bronze assessment. Food checked out, though I don’t think I’ll eat pasta two evenings in a row again, being a rather tedious meal, and I’ve definitely learnt to put my custard creams and Jaffa cakes in boxes rather than bags to ensure they remain separate and don’t merge to become Jaffa Creams. Oh, and if I find that in Tesco next week, I am claiming plagiarism. But snacky food is always good fun. In the words of a great team member “We’re so British, sitting on a hill side eating digestive biscuit”; I suppose you have to find a light in everything, even if that thing is being stranded in the middle of nowhere. Sleep, however, was an entirely different matter. On our first night, we were placed on a hill and ended up all rolling into each other. On top of that, I had issues sleeping and spend most of the night trekking between my cold tent and the warm, rather decadent-for-a-campsite toilets. At least I could see the stars, which literally lit my path. Clich√©, I know.

However, it certainly taught me (again) how a little team work can go a long way, and lacking it can pull you to pieces. On a high, we roamed the hills singing a combination of Busted, “The Power of Love” and – our theme tune – Hakuna Matata. We made as many ginger jokes as possible when in the company of our red-headed teacher (especially when he got us lost in a field and we thought we were going to be shot by a farmer) and ridiculed a particular person who thought that Free Willy was a dolphin. On a low, there were tantrums and yelling and foot stamping. Not to embarrass anyone, of course. I think DofE is one of those rare moments in your life when you get to see someone as their raw selves. When you have no make-up to hide behind, are sleep deprived and hungry, your real self unwillingly slides through, sometimes surprising even yourself. You have heart-to-hearts with the people who normally wind you up; you re-connect with the best friend that you haven’t spoken to in far too long and you bond with the people who you thought you’d never know.  Yet it works the other way too – you don’t speak to someone for three days and despite the fact that you’re physically closer than you normally are, you’ve never been further part. Most of the time it’s the pressure of the situation that causes irrelevant fissures to appear; but sometimes this strain can simply reveal the underlying issues, and you can realise that people aren’t who you thought they were. Not negatively, just different. Especially when they haven’t seen either mascara or eyeliner in three days and look like a zombie. I guess that just shows the reliance we place on little Benefits.

Taste of Texas

Anyone who has been to America (and even those who haven’t) knows that the USA is famous for its restaurants and therefore, food. So, instead of trying to cram a full and proper summary of everything consumed in the states into my Kids In America, I decided instead to create a blog as a food critic. A Taste Of Texas, if you will.

Applebee’s
***
I think that Applebee's is one of those great icons of American food, alongside McDonalds and Subway.  It was also the first time that I learnt the difference between English and American “Lemonade”: ask for it in England and you’ll get Sprite or its equivalent; ask in America and you’ll get what we Brits call still, cloudy Lemonade. However, when it comes to drinks you've got to hand it to them – free refills on soft drinks really make you love going out, though when one glass is the size of a bucket, you don’t really need more than one.

What to eat: Fiesta Lime Chicken

Baskin Robbins
****
So I know how Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream ultimately rules the frozen confections, but when faced with a countertop of 31 different flavours, you have to admit that Baskin Robbins forms a close second – not to mention the variety of ways it can be served to you. Being a pig, and momentarily forgetting the American size definitions, I ordered two different scoops of ice-cream. I won’t make that mistake again.

What to eat: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

Billy Bob’s Texas
***
The World’s Largest Honky Tonk! Although we weren’t able to hang around for the rodeo held inside the enormous room, we did stop to shop and eat. We thought that we would attempt three starters for our lunch, not realising that a Honky Tonk starter was a very large English main.  Three very large English mains. For lunch.

What to eat: Chuck Wagon Nachos

Chilis Grill and Bar Restaurant (Detroit Airport)
**
Well, as we were leaving our holiday, this was never gonna be a “happy” meal. Yet even under the circumstances, this was probably the worst meal of the holiday. Although the food itself was good, in comparison to other delicacies I had eaten over the previous ten days, it was like dry toast compared to caviar. If you like fish eggs, of course. But it was the service that really put a downer on it all - everywhere we had eaten, we had been waited on like demi-gods, but here we were basically ignored. Go figure.

What to eat: Big Mouth Bites

IHOP (International House Of Pancakes)
****
 So it’s probably quite wrong that at the International House of Pancakes I didn't have well, pancakes, but there are certain things you just get a craving for. What I didn't know was that my breakfast came with eggs, hash browns and sausages. I was acceptably full afterwards, to put it simply.

What to eat: Biscuits and Gravy Combos

In-N-Out Burger
***
Quite jet lagged and gasping for anything to eat, we stopped at a drive-through for dinner on the first night. I would say that the burger was outstanding, but I was really quite tired. And realistically, it was a burger. What else is there to say?

What to eat: Cheeseburger

La Hacienda Ranch
***
A Mexican restaurant built on its origin’s borders, La Hacienda is the real deal. As tasty as it was, this for me was not what I had anticipated. When it comes to Mexican, it means Old Es Paso’s box sets which, frankly, are just Tex-Mex and the urge to yell “No Burrito for you!” a la Ugly Betty So when I was served two rather odd looking wraps, I was wondering where my Enchiladas were. Not saying it wasn’t good, just… unexpected.

What to eat: Chicken Enchiladas

Le Peep
***
You would’ve thought that after ten days in the states that I would’ve gotten used to the portion size (and you’re probably sick of me mentioning it), but when I ordered two pancakes I didn’t expect two inch-thick, dinner-plate sized cakes. That together with their extraordinary sickliness tied to make too much for one meal. My dad joked that no-one took a doggy bag for breakfast. I said that I had two mornings worth of pancakes. Win-win.

What to eat: Blueberry Pancakes

Papa John’s
**
I don’t think there’s a lot to say – it was order in pizza, and to be perfectly honest, I prefer Domino's and Pizza Hut. Plus on my last night, I was kind of fooded out, so I didn’t eat a lot. Trust me, it’s very rare.

What to eat: All The Meats

Rafain Brazilian Steakhouse
*****
This is the single most value-for-money occasion I have ever experienced. All you can eat of 16 different kinds of meat, all served on a service of waiters who pounce competitively every time you switch a small card on your table from red to green to signal that you want the food to flow. From Garlic Picanha to Chicken Breast wrapped in Bacon, I ate the most out of everyone I was with, by quite a bit. Then again, I wasn’t about to let food (literally) walk by when there was no extra cost involved in me eating it. Bizarrely, the best dish was the roasted pineapple. Doused in cinnamon, spit roasted, then served still warm - it was ambrosia. Even after I had “finished” eating, I would still scan the room for the pineapple and flip my card over whenever it appeared. After rounds of beef and lamb, the waiter came over and asked if he could get us anything and I requested some chicken. The same waiter then saw me mid-pineapple-hunt and said “Can I get you anything? Some pineapple? Or some chicken perhaps?” I was sufficiently embarrassed, but not enough to say no.
What to eat: Roasted Pineapple

Red Lobster
*****
For me, Red Lobster only means Happy Gilmore. It’s one of those bizarre cases in which you think that something is made up only for TV or Film and you think you’re hallucinating when you see it for real. For fish, it was great value for money (but then everything in America is) as well as absolutely delicious. Just glad I didn’t have to pick out a lobster from a tank.

What to eat: Seaside Shrimp Trio

Taco Bell
****
Ah the definition of Tex Mex! The best burrito I have tasted, I think I could’ve eaten ten more. So it’s probably a good thing I didn’t, unless I wanted to role onto the plane. Still – this is definitely the one American chain we need in Britain.

What to eat: Grilled Chicken Burrito

Texas Land and Cattle Steak House
****
Land and Cattle was the first restaurant we ate out at on our arrival in the US, and my first experience of their enormous portions. The food was delicious, and being a lover of fish I ordered the tacos and was then treated to the complaints of the waiter who said that I was in a steak house and should therefore be eating meat. Still, peer pressure has never stopped me eating what I  wanted before. Or stopped me eating at all in fact.

What to eat: Mahi Fish Tacos

The Cheesecake Factory
***
Admittedly, I’m not a massive fan of Cheesecake – dairy products are a massive no-no for me and although most people will plague me to say that there isn’t really cheese in cheesecake, there’s something really not right about it. Nevertheless, I’d thought I’d try some from the biggest house of cheesecakes in America, and I was pleasantly surprised. However, I think they gave me the whole cake, as it was enormous slice and even for me it was quite sickly. And insanely filling.

What to eat: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cheesecake

Kids In America

America – the land of the free, the home of the brave and a great big tourist attraction all rolled up in one. Aside from price of tickets, immigration and the excruciatingly long plane journeys – made bearable only by the free food, drink and inflight movies – travelling there is virtually pain free. Especially when the only alternative to flying is still tarnished with the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet floating around on a piece of wood.

With simple roads the size of an English motorway and no roundabouts in sight, driving on the opposite side of the road was the least bizarre thing about American traffic. As we drove towards Dallas, we passed under a freeway – for those of you who don’t know what a freeway is, think of the moment in Transformers with Optimus Prime, the unsurprised child and the mother with a serious delayed reaction; a giant web of bridges, criss-crossing over one another, like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie. 

Needless to say though, the most confusing thing about America is going from air-conditioned indoors to gorgeously warm outdoors. In England, you trade stifling hot indoors for icy cold outdoors – even in summer. However, when you visit a country for its warm weather and therefore pack for it, it is a little disconcerting to be sitting at dinner wishing you had brought a jacket for the cold indoors. You may think I’m mad for wishing for the heat – it was after all averaging around 42° every day. But in America, it is not the sticky, stifling, suffocating that the Brits see briefly in that day we call “summer”. It is a comfortable warmth, that still manages to give you the stupidest tan lines, making you look like Neapolitan ice cream whenever you try and amend them. It was quite funny – when we got home, I had several people telling me that it was the warmest day in ages. It was 15° and I sat wrapped up in bed in a woolly jumper, freezing cold.

However, there is never a more satisfying sight than an American Outlet Store on sale. It’s a triple discount. I’m not exactly a fan of the brands, simply because of the outrageous prices the sell their clothing at – but when it’s half the price, there really is nothing harder to resist. The funny thing is walking straight out of Hollister into Abercrombie&Fitch and seeing the exact same clothing throughout the store with just a different logo on. I envy whoever produces the plain versions of it all – they must make an absolute fortune. Alike with stores, it is fun driving around and seeing all the American commonplace items that are well known to everyone simply because of their feature on American TV shows and films. Walmart, 7 Eleven, Red Lobster – despite the amount of them that there are in England, I actually smiled when I saw the first American McDonalds.

However, the accent is something else. I still don’t understand how people with the same origins can sound so completely different – the same goes for Australia. Still, it was relatively fascinating to have our accent loved and thought of as part of the cast of Eastenders. And they were polite as anything – it was all ma’ams and sirs. Not exactly the slating and swearing you hear in England. If there could be only one thing I miss about the States, it has to be the manners. You know you’re back in Britain, when you get shoved out of the way in a hallway and thrown filthy looks for every necessary question you ask of someone who’s “Happy To Help”. I guess the weather’s just pathetic fallacy.

The USA is a big and beautiful land – and that’s from the miniscule portion that I saw.  Hopefully England will see how successful its neighbour is and get its act together, preferably in my lifetime.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Standing In A Big Crowd, Everybody Scream Their Hearts Out

For me, summer means three things: a spatter of sunshine, a wave of wasps and a torrent of festivals.  Having only seen highlights of performances on TV before, I was thrilled to be able to go to this year’s V Festival in Chelmsford with one of my best friends. With headliners such as Eminem, Rihanna and the Artic Monkeys, V Festival is undeniably one of the biggest galas around. Add to this the onslaught of stalls, food bars, comedy tents and a Just Dance bus and you have the makings of an unforgettable weekend.

Olly Murs set
It has to be said that the headliners had amazing performances – if they were anything less their prominence would be questionable. However, for me it was the smaller performances that demanded greater credit. Olly Murs was for me one of the best there, especially for entertainment value. The X Factor runner-up presented a mixture of his own chart-topping singles and a hilarious dance routine to some of Madness’ better known songs. His cheeky-chappy-smile is infectious even from a distance, and having seen him live I genuinely cannot understand how Joe McElderry beat him to claim the shows top prize. And naturally, my friend and I spent hours entertaining ourselves with impressions of the X Factor announcer calling out his name. Oh, and quoting Hot Fuzz with the accompanying accents. It’s bizarre the kind of things that just get funnier the more times you say them.

Ricky Wilson, Kaiser Chiefs
One thing that festivals are well known for are their ability to turn from serene one minute to bone-crushing and deadly the next. Although it was rumoured around camp that moshing had been banned for safety reasons, naturally there were still cases of drunken morons thinking that jumping and landing on relatively small people (such as myself) was an excellent idea. Then again, when you make the effort to make it to the barrier for acts like the Kaiser Chiefs, Lost Prophets and Razorlight, you really can’t expect to be left in piece. Ricky Wilson, lead singer of Kaiser Chiefs was particularly entertaining. Running along the border of the public mass, and at points jumping in amongst them, he really put on a show. Although it must be said he did look high. Still, when they played ‘I Predict A Riot’, they certainly started one where we were standing.

Lostprophets set
Another danger of being so close to the artists is not actually being one of their biggest fans. It may sound strange that we would have fought our way to the front when we weren’t actually so ‘hard-core’, but festivals are a display of artists you like, love and want to get to know. But the proper fans don’t seem to appreciate that blossoming interest and are decided instead to crush it under the intensity of their disapproving glares. I’m just beginning to get into Lostprophets, and so decided to go along to their performance; but I was surrounded by their true followers and I could feel their irritated glowers burning into the back of my head as they registered my lack of knowledge in the band’s music. Despite my effort to disperse this image with my enthusiastic dancing, they weren’t convinced. I felt like I was being watched by several angry teachers whilst I had a private rave in their office. Worse was not knowing the lyrics; and then managing to get the ones I thought I knew horrendously wrong. As I write this, my iPod is playing Lostprophet’s ‘Last Summer’, proving my point perfectly: learn their words before you see them live in order to avoid extreme discomfort and embarrassment.

You Me At Six set
The highlight of any festival is being able to see your favourite artist, and I was fortunate enough to see my favourite band You Me At Six. Of course I’m bias because of my love for their music, but they were undoubtedly the best act there. Right on the barrier, and caught sparingly on screen by the great overhead camera that swept across the crowd, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed music so much. What’s funny is the fact that bands like You Me At Six and Lostprophets even played at V Festival. They wouldn’t be classed as ‘Pop’ bands and V Fest isn’t exactly Reading & Leeds. Like Josh Franceschi said as they played: “If you guys could see what I can see… the amount of people who have turned up to see a rock band at a pop festival”. Why he seemed surprised though I’ve no idea: the power and intensity behind their songs is enough to bring a tidal wave of adoring listeners towards their shows. My only complaint is their miniscule 30 minute set – they deserve so much more.

You can always tell when an artist is a genuine performer. It’s not about the lights or the costumes or the set – they’ll interact with the crowd. Rihanna’s music is beautiful, but her set was cold; she sang, she danced, she left. But bands like The Script and Scouting For Girls, they talked to us and they sang with us, until we felt like another member of the band. And it’s that kind of atmosphere that makes live performances. It also showed the difference between those who had worked their way up from playing small clubs and earned a record and those that had gotten a record and been given a live slot.

KT Tunstall
Naturally, the weather greatly impacts the mood of everyone. We were incredibly lucky to have glorious sunshine for nearly two whole days. I say nearly – the heavens opened midway through our first day and drenched everyone during KT Tunstall’s set (best known for ‘Suddenly I See’, which will only ever mean the Pilot episode of Ugly Betty to me). We were immediately surrounded by complainers, covered in plastic anoraks. Having judged that the rain couldn’t do any more damage than it had already, we continued to enjoy the performance without cover, deciding to allow the rain to enhance the show rather than drown it. The rain certainly had one positive effect though – it managed to persuade half-naked men to put their clothes back on, to the relief of many who did not appreciate the sight of those that really need to be wearing a bra.

Anyone who has seen any music live will know that its recorded equivalent bears no comparison, and I think everyone who truly loves music should be able to attend a festival – at least once. So bring the love, love the wellies and sing it out loud to the rain.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

I Predict A Riot

I’m sure that most, if not everyone, of you reading this are aware by some degree of the ‘August Riots’ that are happening up and down the country. A few years early perhaps, but the Kaiser Chiefs were certainly right when they predicted a riot.

A compilation of violence and thefts, these raids are concreting into the minds of the general public the image of teens and youths. Now it seems that all teenagers are to be regarded as yobs and hooligans. When a country chooses a foreign ambassador, it chooses the best of the best – someone who epitomises all the quality that that nation has to offer. Yet the teenagers’ representatives are nothing more than the worst that our age group can offer; looters and those that wear their ASBOs like crowns. And yet when one of our youth Olympic Ambassadors is charged with two counts of burglary, violent disorder and attacking a police car, we have to question whether this actually is the best we can offer – or whether people believe fame can buy them a get out of jail free card. Either way, now everyone of the same age can be assured that they will be tarnished with the same brush that was used to smash shop windows and take goods. Sure – why not browse the clothes section before grabbing the t-shirt in your favourite colour and running. It astounds me that people think that this is in any way acceptable. I don’t know whether it’s the parents, the schools or what they see on TV but somewhere along the lines these teens missed a vital lesson in what’s right, wrong and against the law. And I’m sorry but who the hell do they think they are? Apart from the exceptionally rich, everyone is struggling at the moment. But they deal with it maturely and respectfully, rather than as if they are above the law and better than anyone else. These people seem to be unaware of the consequences of their actions: they say that there are not enough jobs for them – so in order to make this right, they burn the businesses that may have given them jobs, and then ask why no-one will offer them a job. I wonder… could it possibly be that they are law-breakers and do not deserve the positions? No, of course not. They ask for respect – well maybe it’s time that they earned it.

However, the situation wasn’t exactly perfect before this whole debacle kicked off. Any teen wearing a hoodie was assumed to be hiding a knife, despite the fact it was just generally cold out. We were already being treated like a contagious disease – I’d hold doors open for strangers, and they’d look at me as if I was something nasty they’d stepped in. So in a way, it’s no wonder the youth populous acts the way they do – they say that if you treat a man like a criminal, before long he will begin to act like one; and that’s exactly the case here. Stuck in an endless, unbreakable circle, with no offered opportunity to change the stereotype. Needless to say however, this in no way makes the behaviour of the last week acceptable. It just condemns the use of assumption. “To assume is to make an ass out of you and me,” I was told once when I was younger, to help me learn the word’s spelling – but that’s exactly what it does. I’ve already written about the use of stereotypes, and we have arrived right back at it again. I just hope that in this case it doesn’t lead to the creation of an entire generation that is out of control. Those of us that don’t spend out spare time destroying our home towns are sick of being treated as if we do.  I don’t think a little differentiation is a lot to ask for.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Only Way Is America

As I’m watching yet another re-run of the same episode of Scrubs on Comedy Central whilst eating my lunch, I contemplate again the utter rubbish that plagues our TV screens. Normally, I’ll say “I realised” or “I began to understand” but in this case, this does not fit: bad TV is an existential dilemma.

Now I know that I am about to open an enormous can of worms, especially considering the fact that it is a topic surrounded by greatly diverse opinions. Then again, most of the topics I write about are like that and this is, after all, The World According To Fred. So.

I will openly admit that I’m a teleholic. I follow nine TV shows, and that’s without mentioning those that I just watch every now and then, like Scrubs, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. And apart from Dr. Who, Torchwood and Outcasts all the programmes I watch are American. We as the British people seem to have resigned to the fact that everything America produces is flashier and cooler than what we can do (except for cars and biscuits. The Mini and the custard cream outstrip anything the USA has. Oh, and Harry Potter of course). And yet when it comes to television, we aren’t even putting up a fight. Our answers to the hit shows Glee, One Tree Hill and Desperate Housewives are The Only Way Is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore. I mean seriously? If I wanted to watch a load of narcissistic, untalented morons prance around then I would watch the auditions for the X Factor. The programmes seem to be a cross between a reality TV show and a scripted drama, which creates more of a train crash than anything else. I mean, if it’s a reality TV show, where is my option to have them all shipped off and hidden from society? Please, enlighten me on how these all work, because I have never been more confused to see an ignorant bunch of egotists on my TV screen. I haven’t watched the shows, no, but the trailers that interrupt my viewing of better programmes tell me everything I need to know. What qualities do these excuses for entertainment actually bring to the table? For example, Ugly Betty teaches that the beauty on the inside is more important than the out; and Glee teaches that you have to love yourself whoever you are – because of your faults, rather than in spite of them. The Only Way Is Essex? Ah, that takes loving yourself to a whole new, but entirely superficial level. The Only Way Is Essex teaches you that the real you is not someone worth being, but with a religious appliance of oompa loompa make-up, you can be someone worth knowing. Yes, this is exactly the kind of lesson we want to be putting out to the nation. The funny thing is, when I was at the Harry Potter premier in London, Ollie from Made In Chelsea befouled the red carpet by turning up. And then he had the audacity to reach for and try to sign my Harry Potter book. No! I am sorry (well actually, no I’m not) but these pages were reserved for my childhood idols, not some washed up idiot who got lucky by wondering in front of a camera without having ever cut or washed his hair. Not only now have we made these cretins famous, but now they believe that they are as important as the real actors that have slaved away for years to portray a message worth repeating, rather than which hair product is best for slimy egomaniacs.

Now for a TV show that gets the heart pounding in an entirely different way: as in, not from anger and frustration, but from excitement. The Vampire Diaries. For those of you who I know who are reading this, yes I can hear your sigh of exasperation. But why not! The show is amazing, gaining better lines, better plot points and more fans by every episode. It epitomises what modern TV should be about – love triangles and cliffhangers and characters so lovable that you fly the highs and scrape through the lows with them. Of course, the bountiful plenty of hot shirtless guys doesn’t hurt, but what I’m saying is that it’s about much more than a spray of fake tan and a false smile. I am one of those people that openly weeps at films, but it takes a true masterpiece to do that, and The Vampire Diaries managed that. I highly doubt that Made In Chelsea could pull that off, except for those that are mourning for the bygone era of decent TV. And for some unfathomable reason, despite the fact that it revolves around vampires, witches and werewolves (not to mention the mortal relationship issues that are sometimes just as perilous) TVD is somehow more believable than a group of people prancing around like ignoramuses. People love to watch what we all once or maybe still aspire to be – and I can guarantee that people will rather be the heroine in a fairy tale than a faker in real life. Which is why something made in Mystic Falls will always be more realistic and more enjoyable than anything Made In Chelsea.

Monday, 1 August 2011

So This Is What The Barrier Feels Like

Since the very day I started this blog, it has been a guarantee that I would write something on Harry Potter. I’m not talking about a mention or even a paragraph that happens to tie in with other subjects: prepare for a full on Harry Potter fest. Any of you who follow my musings regularly (and, seeing as I am doing this entirely differently, I’d like to take the opportunity to say thank you to those who do – it is very much appreciated!) will know that my blogs are my (mainly critical) comments on the world. I decided that I was never going to write anything that accounted to a day in my life – I figured that would be boring for anyone reading and entirely unproductive in my reach for a future in journalism: the closest I have come to it was my review of the Glee Live! Tour. However, I am (over-dramatically) about to make a rather large exception.

Thursday 7th July 2011, and I was right behind the barrier at the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 World Premiere. Yes indeed, my friend and I were some of the screaming mad people right at the front of the crowd, albeit we were in Leicester Square instead of Trafalgar and we had arrived in fact on Thursday morning rather than the Monday before hand. I shall spare you the long-winded version. It’s likely that many people reading this have already caught my monologue in person and are tired of hearing it already. However, by the time we got to Trafalgar Square at about eight that morning (with permission from school; we weren’t truanting) the place was already packed. After a mistaken attempt at trying to get into the square itself (genuinely, we had no idea we couldn’t get in) we were informed that without a “red wristband” we could not get in, and that these had all been given out days before. To cut a very long story short, six security guards (we were inquiring, not in trouble) and countless “Go home. You have no chance without a red wristband”s later, we were a mere step away from leaving. But I wasn’t quite finished. I walked up to who we think was the head of security and begged him. Was there no-where we could go?
“Leicester Square.” he said.
“We were there half an hour ago,” I replied “The place is dead and the people we met told us that we were better off watching the premiere on TV.”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Part Two
“Leicester Square,” he repeated, “They’re letting 800 people in before shutting the whole place down. Get there quickly, and keep it to yourself. Run!”
Outside the biggest premier London
has ever seen
So that was it. We ran to Leicester Square as if we had just performed a whole bout of underage magic and the entire Ministry of Magic was hot on our heels. When we arrived we headed for the biggest cinema out of the three there (which were all showing the film, there were that many people). After asking a woman what exactly was going on here, and gaining the response “This is the Harry Potter premiere” in a thick Scottish accent, we decided to stay put. We made our way to the front of a crowd of people and were effectively penned in. We had initially been scared that the barriers would be cage like and that, despite the fact we were at the border of the civilian collection, we would be unable to see the cast. Yet, amazingly, they put up the waist high barriers that you see in videos of the premiers. Prime position for autographs.

Having stared at this image for nearly nine
hours, I think it will be embedded in my
brain forever.
It is surprising to state that the next six hours went by quite quickly. You make friends in these situations; it’s impossible not to. Crammed into a tiny space and rain cascading down in torrents over our heads – you end up as if you have known each other all your life. Of course, leaving to find shelter was simply out of the question. Once out of the “pen” you’re not allowed back in, and even if we’d just moved backwards to get underneath the ledge of the cinema, we’d have never regained our phenomenal position. So there we remained, with the sound of building works echoing around and the only thing to look at being the enormous poster opposite us or each other (which realistically, got a bit creepy after a while. At one point I had to explain to someone behind me that I did not have a twin sister called Ola, nor was I Swedish). However, we were entertained by several TV crews, and I await to see myself appear on Polish, French and Spanish news channels. Plus, apparently we were on CBBC Newsround, though I’ve been unable to find it on the internet just yet.

The Red Carpet
By about six o’clock, the actors began to arrive. For the previous hour, a bunch of what can only be described as “nobody’s” had been prancing up and down the red carpet. Most had clearly had either bought their way in or were friends of the cast and crew , although some seemed to have won themselves tickets in (I dislike them thouroughly). However, a few clearly thought they were the stars themselves; they kept waltzing up and down like prize turkeys the day after thanksgiving. Fortunately the woman whos skirt was so short absolutely everyone was able to see her underwear (as well as some other things that should never be displayed to several hundred people in public) only walked past us once. It was funny – as people we didn’t know rounded the corner on to our portion of the red carpet, those closest began to scream in anticipation. The first twenty minutes were funny and even cute, especially with the children, but nearly an hour on when every time a slight scream went up about fifty people behind me would surge up and ram me and everyone else on the front line into the barrier; yeah, that’s when it started to get a bit tedious. It was like the film world’s equivalent of the front of the moshpit, with all the injuries that accompany it. I have bruises all along my arms, knees and stomach from where I was repeatedly and incessantly pounded into the barrier; at points I was almost doubled over the top of it. You musn’t think that I’m complaining though – I would do it a million times over if I could have that day again. Though I have to say that I am glad I was at the front: if I had been caught in the middle of everyone with my claustrophobia and having people pressing in from all sides; well, lets say I would’ve definitely made it onto the news then.

Bertie Gilbert, aka Scorpius Malfoy
Julie Walters, aka Molly Weasley
(in the golf buggy)
Anyway, at about six the cast began to arrive. I don’t think it’s harsh to say that they seemed to arrive in order of importance, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes, who turned up rather early in the evening. Nonetheless, the first to grace the scene were the children of the epilogue. For those of you who – for some strange reason – have not read the final instalment of JK Rowling’s predigious creation, then please be aware that there are some plot points about to be revealed (though I doubt it is anything that you would be unable to guess).  The first people we saw  were Ryan Turner (Hugo Weasley), Helena Barlow (Rose Weasley), Will Dunn (James Potter), Arthur Bowen (Albus Potter) and Bertie Gilbert (Scorpius Malfoy), the children from “Nineteen Years Later”. It was funny – they all looked astonished to be there, as if one good pinch and they would wake up in their beds entirely anonymous. After that followed nearly every member of the Harry Potter cast that you could possibly mention. Not all were signing – and even those that were couldn’t stop to autograph everyone’s – and some were cruising along in golf buggies, like Julie Walters (Molly Weasley). It’s actually probably a good time to mention that all the pictures included in this blog were taken with my own camera. I just realised that it’s probably strange to a reader that in a article on Harry Potter that there are no pictures of the boy wonder himself, nor his two best friends. However, I thought that it would be better to show you what I could see rather than just downloading something off of Google Images. It also gives me the opportunity to show really how close we were to everyone there: after all, not one of these pictures are zoomed in. I was mocked at school on Friday when I told people that but hey. When they are that close to their favourite celebrities, then they can judge. I did feel a bit bad though about the people I did photgraph up close, which in my defense does explain the lack of them. These poor people had to deal with physchotic fans screaming for their signature on a piece of paper like frustrated bank managers past their boiling point. Then suddenly BAM camera in the face and a photo filched before they have any chance to react. However, when Helena Bonham Carter arrived, I was unable to resist and thus my best picture taken. I think my only regret of the day is that there was not enough time for me to have my picture with any of my idols – but having been luckier than I could ever have imagined, I’m  not exactly grumbling. Anyhow, I gained nineteen autographs, a high five off of Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and conversations with the likes of Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Miriam Margoyles (Prof. Pomona Sprout) and Darren Criss (Blaine from Glee. I know he’s not from Harry Potter but he did star as the Chosen One in Starkid’s A Very Potter Musical, so he had a perfectly valid reason to be there. I’ve also just realised that I wrote about seeing him in my last blog too, and would like to point out that I am not stalking him and his supermegafoxyawesomehotness. Much.). Despite the fact that neither Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) nor Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) got out of the car to greet the fans in Leicester Square, I left London happier than Hagrid surrounded by dragons.
Helena Bonham Carter, aka Bellatrix
Lestrange

It was an unforgettable day; an experience that mirrors the effect that the Harry Potter series has had not only on me, but across the world on so many people. As I write this I realise I’m already on 1,788 words and I haven’t actually begun to talk about the sensation itself. It’s bizarre. It took me until this morning for the truth to sink in: that it’s all nearly over. I’ve been convincing myself for weeks that it’ll never be over, that I will continue to re-read the books and re-watch the films and of course I will do (that for certain will never change) but as I listened to Glee’s cover of Landslide, it hit me that there is nothing more coming.
Well, I've been afraid of changing
'Cause I've built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older, and I'm getting older too”
It fits perfectly. People my age have grown up alongside the cast of our beloved films, and it is a genuinely frightening thought to consider life without them. Harry Potter isn’t just a series of books: it’s a way of life. When I was upset I wouldn’t turn to music or TV like others might; I turned to my HP books. When I woke up in the middle of the night after a nightmare, I didn’t hug a teddy and hope the shadows disappeared; I flicked on a light and read until my head was filled with thoughts of Hogwarts. On a holiday in Cornwall one year, having read my other book, I spent the remainder of the break reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on loop, and still laughed at every joke like it was the first time I had seen it. I’ve said before in a previous blog that a good book “should transport someone so drastically into another world that leaving it behind makes you feel homesick” and that’s exactly what the Harry Potter series does.

I shall put this bit as bluntly as possible: the films do not compare. Admittedly, they are amazing pieces of art (despite the fact that they grieviously messed up Half-Blood Prince), and they did an incredible job of creating sets like Hogsmeade and Weasley’s Wizards Wheezes; but nothing could ever cover the depth and intensity of the books. They create a whole world so extraordinary that it feels real; people may joke about receiving their Hogwart’s acceptance letter, but I genuinely thought it was coming. I am proud to be a Potterhead, and I want to thank JK Rowling for seven exceptional books and Warner Bros for ten unbelievable years. But after all - it will only truly be gone when none here are loyal to it.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Some Call It Bravery, I Call It Insanity

 As I stood outside the main entrance to Alton Towers Theme Park, bouncing up and down like a small child outside the biggest sweet shop in the world, I realised that amusement parks are one of the stepping stones of growing up.

The incomparable thrill of a rollercoaster is something that everyone has to experience at some point. Once you reach that long awaited height of 1.4m, it’s like crossing into an elite society of queuers. For me, it took a little longer to reach than my friends, as I am – how to put it? – vertically challenged. Yet upon that moment where the top of your head graces the tip of the measuring ruler, a whole other world blooms before your eyes: a world full of breakneck speeds, corkscrew coils and dizzying heights. I decided the morning of my trip to Alton Towers that I would not “chicken out” of anything; and regretted it the second I saw Oblivion. For those of you who don’t know, Oblivion consists mainly of a 150ft drop, whilst facing downwards. I mean, this thing is the incarnation of pure evil. Merciless, relentless and as unforgiving as a summer heat wave, this ride builds the childhood fear of falling. Except post 1.4m-hood, instead of childhood. The rest of the big five at Alton Towers (Nemesis, Air, Rita and Thirteen) include a range of unique rollercoaster feats, although none of them gave me the urge to cry as I reached their peak the way Oblivion did.
 
The pictures on this blog are scans from the cases on my own photos that you can buy after the ride. I did momentarily consider posting the photos contained inside, and then decided that in order to preserve my own dignity and any respect that you readers may have for me, I would not put my screaming face on the open internet. A genius money making scheme though: take pictures of someone in a moment that they cannot really remember as it has gone by so fast, and present them afterwards with an entirely “mug-shot” photo. Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure how it makes its money, except in the hilarity and humiliation of others.

Of course, the one thing that does come to mind when you mention theme parks is queues. Endless winding nightmares that seem to extend further into more coils just when you think you’ve reached the end. Filled to the brim (although some are virtually empty, depending on the time of day and quality of the ride) with people in varying degrees of appropriate dress, nauseating smell and ability to recognise other’s personal space boundaries. Oh, and then there were the remarkably wet people who had evidently just survived the Flume. The Flume made me look like I was wearing tie-dye jeans; fortunately we had the foresight to leave the wet rides until the end of the day, rather than walking round like penguins for eight hours. However, those eight hours were mainly filled with queues. Even when optimising time, we rode nine rollercoasters (two of them twice, so eleven rides in total) out of 24 and had lunch in eight and a half hours. Now this may not seem that bad considering how busy theme parks can get, especially since we are now in their peak holiday season. But you would think that with the extortionate prices that are paid to get in, that they would be open a lot longer or at least give out a few free Fast Track tickets, without having to pay more on top for them. Of course there is always the help of vouchers and discounts, but even then it’s still quite a lot. Yet for some incomprehensible reason the short thrill is worth it every time. The questioning of your own sanity as you begin to climb the steep track and feel the frame of the seat shuddering around you; the combination of adrenaline, fear and hopelessness as you approach and hover over the edge of the drop; and the loss of stomach as you plummet unremittingly into the black abyss, not knowing in the moment if you’re going to appear out of it again.

Well. On a lighter note, there is nothing more exhilarating or frankly refreshing than screaming at the top of your lungs whilst refusing to hold onto the handles. And while I remember, I’d like to apologise to anyone next to me on any rides – especially my uncle who sat with me on all of them. I hope the damage to your ear drums was not too significant.

I eagerly await the next time I can go on a rollercoaster ride: in the meantime I hope that they can only reduce prices, queue times and amount of people there. 

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Loser Like Me: Glee Live! Tour 2011

“I am like Tinker Bell Finn: I need applause to live” Well, it can’t be denied that Lea Michele (Rachel Berry) and the rest of her fellow Glee cast certainly got their applause when I went to see them perform at the O2 Arena last weekend. Walking out of the stadium in a wave of people after the show had finished, I knew that I had just seen something unforgettable.

Introduced via VT by a hysterically funny Jane Lynch (Sue Sylvester), she – alongside Matthew Morrison (Will Schuester) – popped in and out to talk to both the audience and the performers as their characters throughout the evening. The artists then opened with their most famous song, Don’t Stop Believin’ to tumultuous applause which continued right through to their cover of Queen’s Somebody To Love with which they finished. The concert included an appearance from competing show choir the Warblers, with Darren Criss (Blaine Anderson, only called Blaine Warbler by everyone else), singing three of their songs from the TV show.

It is undeniable that the most entertaining actor of the night was Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel) – in between amazing solos, he performed hilarious skits with Criss and Heather Morris (Brittany Pierce) as well as dancing to Single Ladies as like in season one’s ‘Preggers’. However, the best act of the night was Amber Riley (Mercedes Jones); her voice is ten times as powerful and beautiful live than any recording equipment can convey, without any background performers or flashing lights needed to impress. Kevin McHale (Artie Abrams) staged the first season phenomenon Safety Dance, including him leaving behind his beloved wheelchair behind in order to dance. Morris also soloed, with her cover of the real Britney Spears’ Slave 4 U, stunning the entire audience with her incredible dancing and scant clothing. As for Cory Monteith (Finn Hudson) and his rendition of Jessie’s Girl: well, I may seem relatively well controlled, but I was willing – and about to – jump on to the stage (from my very high seat) in order to get closer.

Though the performance itself was incredible, certain aspects were a definite let down. Although I knew what to expect price wise after having seen Paramore in concert last November, I was shocked by both the lack of variety and lack of stock with the merchandise. After the monumental amount of costume changes present in the show, I anticipated a vaster amount of T-shirts available to buy; but aside from the minimal amount of “Glee Live Tour 2011” tees there were only the Born This Way shirts. Yet even then they stocked only a few of the original ones, so that instead of Finn’s “Can’t Dance” tee, I chose to have Kurt’s “Likes Boys”, which needless to say, doesn’t have exactly the same affect. However, they were selling the “^ I’m With Stoopid”, so my companion was satisfied at least. Yet once we had decided on which ones we wanted, they were out of any of the smaller sizes. I had hoped that with such a large scale tour – internationally known – that they would be better prepared, but evidently not. My only other criticisms of the actual tour were that we saw neither enough of Michele or Monteith nor were there enough entries from season one. Thankfully however, we were spared the agony of having to listen to any Justin Bieber covers: the Glee cast are highly talented, but I’m afraid one song alone would’ve been far too much to bear.

Glee in itself is an amazing contradiction to so many popular TV shows airing at the moment. A rant on other programmes shall be saved for another occasion, but Glee brings a welcome change to the idea installed by other shows that happiness blooms from beauty and popularity; it does not pretend that bullying doesn’t exist but accepts that it is a part of life that needs to be dealt with, not ignored; it represents nearly every culture, religion and sexuality and all the difficulties that accompany every aspect of being different, but still fights to tell you that that is perfection. Most importantly, it tells you that your dreams are only just out of grasp: all you have to do is reach. Oh, and that if you can sing, belt it out to a Wicked number.

A Question Answered

As I sat in my final science module exam of the year, I began to be nervous; but not for the reasons you may expect. I was scared not that I would be disappointed in my results or run out of time, nor was I worried that I would entirely lose my head, freak out, hit head on my desk and end up in a twelve year self-induced coma. No, I was worried that after months of hard effort, thanks to AQA I would open up my paper and see unanswerable questions and have to re-sit the exam months later.

The problem started with a few unanswerable questions in an A Level paper, and then progressed to the June GCSE Foundation Maths paper where although the start and end of the paper had the correct June questions, the middle section of the exam contained questions from the March test: an entirely different module. As it is, one of the science papers sat this week at my school (although not mine) had several misleading spelling mistakes; and if this were not frustrating enough, those of us who were fortunate to have a correct paper were left to watch those with issues “turn to the correct page only” to edit the mistake. However, I myself saw several people glancing through the entire piece, gaining a slight yet undeniable advantage, whilst we had to sit with our papers and our mouths tightly shut.

So why is it happening? I mean, of all the details to get sloppy over (and let’s face it, they’re getting sloppy over a lot of things), can it please not be something as important as education? Some may say that everything is equally important in its own way, but without intention to offend: is the select time-tabling of bin collection really more important than the education of the next generation? It may not be lack of spending but lack of care that has resulted in these slip-ups. Unless only one person checks the questions before they are printed – which I highly doubt – then I cannot fathom how these mistakes have slipped through so many supposedly tight nets. Maybe we’re looking at it all wrong: maybe the government and AQA have deliberately placed these mistakes as a new GCSE of detective work, and we are all secretly being trained as an elite society of agents. As intriguing an idea as this may be, I doubt that this is actually happening; instead we are the collateral damage of a badly done job.

Yet maybe these mistakes are guaranteed to keep happening if the exams are changed as frequently as they are currently. Next year, they are getting rid of multiple choice answers in science, as they think it is “too easy” (I’d like to thank anyone and everyone who made it possible for me not to be just one year younger) and as of 2013 all subjects will be non-modular, meaning that all exams will be taken at the end of year eleven. For some this may mean that they have two years to learn everything they need to and will supposedly be at the top of their game at this point; for others this means that they have a few weeks of stress with more exams than could be prevented and hours spent trying to remember something they were taught two years ago and was left without assessment at the time where it was best known. And how will these modifications affect the new English GCSE, which was only changed at the beginning of this (nearly finished) school year. Many are anxious to know whether this will remain the same or whether they will be expected to write essays on half a dozen texts, as well as an anthology exam in the same time frame. These quick changes impact the teachers just as bad: at least the students only have to understand and cope with the system they are sitting, whereas their teachers have to deal with the structure just gone, the one coming in and the one that is most likely to change it all again in a few years’ time.

It seems foolish to think that my opinions will alter the government’s upcoming policies or even the way in which AQA works. The best we can do is hope that in the future they are a little more careful, both with what they choose to keep the same in unchecked papers and with what they choose to change in a process that may already be as good as anything else.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

There's No Such Thing As Waterproof

Whilst watching the news in the morning a few days ago, I saw an interesting segment on the Ordnance Survey maps and their history. Created in 1791, the government –fearing a French invasion - wanted to map the south coast of England. Although the maps are no longer used for the singular military function, the organisation is still in practice. However, what I found most interesting about the report was its inability to reflect on the fact that sometimes these OS maps are mistaken, misleading and always awkward to use.

Having done my overnight Duke of Edinburgh assessed expedition only recently, I am fully aware of the fact that the maps – even the most updated ones – seem to be lacking in the basic necessities. For example, having pre-planned our route down what was seemingly a large, public path, it took us until we reached the large house and the sign saying “Private Property, Guard Dogs Around” that we realised we needed to leave, ASAP. As amusing or dangerous this incident may be it highlights the fact that these maps aren’t just getting it right. My team and I had a lucky escape, but someone else could easily have walked down there unknowing and been attacked by several  vicious guard dogs. Or Chihuahuas. The sign may also have been just as erroneous. 

What the map makers also seem to fail to realise is that these maps are not waterproof. Some of you may be thinking that this is relatively obvious, as paper isn’t waterproof, but you’d expect some form of keeping these tools dry, considering the modern technology at our fingertips and the fact that this is England. England that has an annual average of 57cm of rain, meaning that paper maps are highly unlikely to survive any month of the year. There is of course the solution of a “waterproof” map case. But the truth is that there is no such thing in existence as waterproof. Showerproof maybe, but torrential, unavoidable, drenched-to-the-skin English downpour proof? You’re as likely to find this in a shop as you are to bump into Hermione Granger in the street and she is kind enough to cast Impervious over you and everything you own. Despite the fact that neither our economic climate nor our global emissions are in any desirable state, we are wasting money on so many other pointless things, I don’t see why we can’t invest money in creating a waterproof material; it would certainly make me a lot happier.

Added to this is the fact that these maps are gigantic, inflexible and costly. I understand that if you go for longer walks then you don’t want to keep changing maps and buying more to simply cover your area. But when the map itself just about takes up the entire room you’re planning in, so that you can’t actually see half of it; or when in order to fit it into said un-waterproof map case you have to fold it over and over in so many awkward places that you can no longer close the map case: well that’s when I think we need to find the happy middle ground. As well as this is the fact that if you are trying to get the whole map out to try and find where you are amongst several trees, a bush and some grass, you stand there with your arms wide open like a penguin trying to fly whilst the flimsy yet awkward piece of paper flaps around refusing to behave. I never thought that paper could be so infuriatingly impossible to handle, yet OS maps seem to do everything except what they’re supposed to. To top it all, despite the fact that these charts are not waterproof, flexible or made to a sensible size that satisfies everyone, they are extortionately priced. Around about £5-£8, OS maps are apparently determined to make you pay ridiculous prices for something that is likely to only last once if you go out walking in England. Perhaps if they were made of this seemingly invincible material then this pricing would be appropriate; then again with the usurious valuing of everything now a days, anything as valuable as that would be available only to lottery winners.

Hopefully Ordnance Survey will attempt to create better maps at a more acceptable amount; if not, they should expect their sales to fall in favour of people walking around on Google Street View from the comfort of their own, dry home. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

An Ode To A Cherry Bakewell

As I sit on a long-distance train on my way home from Somerset, I truly begin to understand the stigma attached to public transport. Overheated, over-crowded and dirty, trains and a selection of their passengers epitomise why people have, for as long as the option was available, preferred private travel.

After struggling aboard the vessel, we made our way to our seats with bags that contained way too much for a double-overnight stay (what can you really expect? It’s the unstated rules of holiday packing – for every night or day, twice as much as necessary must be squashed in, as well as an ridiculous amount of shoes of which only one pair will be worn). Needless to say, even when the seats were marked with unavoidable ‘RESERVED’ signs, they were filled with people who point blanked refused to move, despite our proof of several pieces of paper, tickets and our names on the seats. Having evicted them mumbling from our rightful chairs, the next challenge was to place – or should I say forcefully and mercilessly ram – our suitcases in the overhead compartments. Train-competent readers are likely to question our actions, puzzling as to why we did not just place it at the end of the carriage with most people’s possessions. Well, having discovered the pram, several guitars and what resembled a small lion’s cage (contents included) in this afore mentioned section, we decided that the overhead unit probably was the more sensible option. And yet despite the obvious struggles I was having in getting our luggage settled (My travel partner was – how to say? – at a disadvantage when concerning lifting objects onto higher shelves), not one person offered any form of assistance. I wasn’t exactly expecting some knight in shining armour to appear and profess with many ‘thou’s that I should not be attempting such laborious work unaccompanied; but some help would not have gone amiss. Instead I received several demeaning looks from surrounding passengers over whose heads my bags’ straps dangled (well. Serves them right really); shoves and bustles from people behind who were eager to help my head gain contact with the overhead section, but not so much my baggage; and an impatient ticket collector who seemed frustrated at  my inability to multi-task like Wonder Woman. After reprimanding my companion in her attempt to place a glac√© cherry on top of the head of one of my not-so-ardent admirers (it’s really best not to ask), we settled down for what we hoped would be relaxing train ride home.

However, for such a long-distance train, this was not to be. A few seats down a rather large family (in both senses) had an unfortunate incident including baby vomit, no wipes and a lack of nearby toilet facilities, providing the entire carriage with the privilege of that most delightful smell. Meanwhile at the opposite end of the coach was a child that decided that now was evidently a good time to explore the capacity of one’s lungs, and screamed at optimum volume and pitch the entire hour and thirty minutes that we were on the train. Despite the fact that this may seem like some scene from a comedy, I was – and still am – convinced that this is a conspiracy to see which snapped first: my patience or my sanity. The surrounding passengers were as equally delightful: in an attempt to outdo each other in how loud and irritating their laptops and TV screens could be, I was caught listening to a bizarre combination of Winnie the Pooh firing a shotgun and singing show tunes. These TV screens managed to land themselves on my bad side alongside their viewers. Tantalisingly filled with a variety of my favourite programmes and films, it decided that it would wait until I had gone through the painstaking selection process and arrived at my favourite Glee episode of the second season (“Britney/Brittany” undoubtedly) before it decided to tell me that I couldn’t in fact watch this without paying extortionate prices. Disgusted, disappointed and distressed, I turned my attention instead to writing “An Ode To A Cherry Bakewell” in order to disgrace public transport and its facilities.

Added to this seems to be the train’s inability to function properly at all. Perhaps it seems too much to expect, but during a boiling hot day on a train stuffed with too many people, I would like to have a little bit of air conditioning; or even a window in the carriage that opens beyond a millimetre. Yet when I located the minimal amount of air right at the end of my journey through the window by the door, I saw the unbelievable sign: “make a small change: Closing the windows saves energy and improves the environment for customers”. Yes I’m sure that an environment with the temperature of the inside of a volcano is perfect ‘for customers’, providing you like Southern Fried Humans. The fact that for some reason we were crawling along at one hundredth of a mile an hour so that we missed the next part of our journey (I’m not a train driving expert, but I know we could’ve have gone faster than that. I saw snails on the ground outside overtaking us) coupled with the suffocating heat managed to set off my previously secluded claustrophobia. This meant that by the time we had come to the end of our journey I was ready to scream and rip the heads off of anyone close enough to me, proving that it was indeed my sanity that snapped first.

Naturally, trains are not the only perpetrators: buses too have wormed there way to the bottom of the list of favourite things, beneath wasps, BO, and the person on the infernal bus itself that takes the last window seat. Reliably late, you pay overpriced fees to ride on a vehicle so covered in bacteria that it’s close to being green with slime, and are bounced around on rock hard seats so that you are forced to hold onto the hand rail that is guaranteed to have been shared by at least ten people who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet. The government are constantly trying new techniques to get the country to ride public transport, from allowing the Mayor to drive a bus to reducing fare prices (but with bizarre timings and conditions) and yet seem oblivious to the fact that no-one wants to use them due to their appalling conditions.

I hope that at some point in the near future, someone will change the way our public transport operates. In the battle against climate change, reduced use of individual vehicles is a key factor; but until better options become more accessible, there is no hope for change.