Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The death of print - bah humbug!

I have recently reviewed a couple of books that were provided in pdf format which has given me the opportunity to really evaluate the difference between reading a physical book and a book in electronic format  (be it any brand of electronic book reader or Pads, smartphones, laptops et al). I have occasionally read short stories on my phone but am more likely to use it to catch up on emails or twitter.

Electronic books are practical for so many reasons.

Amazon Kindle
Whenever I go on holiday, half the weight of my luggage is taken up by books. And I still run out of reading material, one of the penalties of being a fast reader. The idea of taking one device with me that can have dozens if not hundreds of books so that I don't have to resort to other people's holiday books left behind is attractive.

It would save space on bookshelves. I currently have 8 bookcases at home and am constantly expanding and running out of room. Not needing to find space for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (other encyclopaedias are available) or other reference books would free up a lot of space.

It would mostly save money once the the device itself has been paid for. Books are substantially cheaper in e-format (typically at least 60% off RRP, although sometimes they are bizarrely more expensive than the printed version) and there's no postage to consider or time expended in visiting a shop or waiting for a delivery  or stock to arrive either. The thought and purchase can be virtually instantaneous.

Sony Reader
I wonder about the environmental cost though; how long would you have to keep an e-reader for and how many books would you not have to buy to make it better for the planet?

Out of print books are more readily available, although not all, and those books that are available online in non proprietary format such as the Gutenberg Project, can be instantly and freely acquired, thus upping my bibliography substantially at a stroke.

I would have said you can't read them in the bath, but several of my friends tell me they read their laptops and smartphones in the bath without consequences, so maybe you can. But I wouldn't advise dropping it in.

I was able to read my pdfs on my laptop, without my contact lenses in and without getting sore eyes, comfortably, in bed which I have to say was a minimum requirement.

So if they're so practical, what's the hesitation?

Old fashioned, cloth bound,
slightly smelly, tatty and definitely loved book
I don't want to caress an e-reader . Nor do I want to smell it.

I've recently had the opportunity to take down all my fiction and put them back up again. Any re-arrangement of books offers the opportunity to rediscover books that were hiding and to smell dusty, musty books that have been unloved. The smell of old books is unique.

I love the history of my books, remembering when I first read that copy on my shelf, and when for a few of them, I lost 'that' copy and had to buy another. Seeing the price in pencil on the inside cover, the occasional inscription from a friend who brought me a treasured gift, or the ex-library stamp which dates my purchase according to town purchased; these all give memories to the book. A forgotten bookmark, a railway ticket or a postcard all help to immortalise a particular copy. Food stains too appear occasionally as well as the greasy fingerprint.

As the decades pass and an author's popularity waxes and wanes, the style of covers changes; sometimes they become more lavish with an increase in popularity but each edition is different. The illustrator for a new author's book may be an unknown, but may be swapped for a more popular one as the author increases in popularity, or maybe the original illustrator gains his own popularity and stays. Noting how early an edition and how old the cover demonstrates how long I have been loyal to a long loved author.

Back to practical matters, you cannot flick through an e-reader, glancing at chapter headings and occasional word. You cannot visually see that you're 2/3 of the way through a book. You can't instantly tell how many inches thick a book is; somehow the number of pages doesn't feel comparable.

But it's not about practical matters. If it were I would have bought one. I love the physicality of books, holding them, seeing them up on the shelf, flicking through them, and all the associated memories they bring. Until any kindle / Reader / tablet / smartphone etc. learns how to compete with the emotional attachment of books, books are safe.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Selecting Secondary Schools: The Illusion of Choice

Having a child in year 6 means you have about six weeks to go round visiting secondary schools and finding six that your child doesn't object going to and preferably wants to go to and then putting them in order and submitting the form by October 22nd (or 31st if you're submitting it online). This is the third time we've been on this merry go round and it doesn't get any easier, with school visits taking up a good 3 hours and both evening and daytime visits recommended.

The short summary of the situation in London is that if you can get in, you don't want to go there, and if you want the school, you can't get in. Hence the illusion of choice. I have a friend in another town who sums up her school situation as "well there are 2 secondary schools: one's very good; the other is s**t; we all apply for the former and hope we don't get the latter".

Two years ago we complained to the council about the lack of schools where we live. The result eventually moved from "there's no problem as there are enough school places in the borough" to "well maybe there's a bit of a shortage in your area". Last year we submitted a petition to the council saying please do something, to which their answer was "well we'll think about possibly doing something but it's not easy you know". Technically speaking there may be enough places in the borough but most spare places are at the other end of the borough or in schools that every one tries very hard not to get into.

The first school I visited 8 years ago with my first son and it was his first visit to a secondary school and he thought it was quite amazing. Until we got to the head teacher's speech. After a few minutes he turned to me and whispered 'she's nuts isn't she?' Considering I was wondering how to persuade him that this wasn't the school for him after the head opened her mouth that was a good result. Four years ago I visited with my second who took one look at the amazing art and said he wasn't going here. Not one for art, he isn't. However they had an emergency headteacher for 3 years to turn the school around and he did, along with seeking funding for a new building. I trotted along with my third son last month and they had a new head who seemed good and the new building was very spanking new and seemed well designed. I asked one art teacher how she found the new building and her reply was succinctly "well the roof doesn't leak". We liked this school very much. However we don't stand much of a chance getting in (Distance from school: 3.3 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.2 miles).

School number 2 is where the older brothers go so the advantage is that unless there are over 200 siblings and children in care, which might happen, we're virtually guaranteed a place. So what's wrong with it? Well there's no sixth form, as there isn't in that borough, and I would not touch their local sixth form college. Also it's over 5 miles away which makes for a full hour's journey in the morning and a half six alarm call. Pick up the school, move it and add a sixth form and I'd be ecstatic. However the current head has certainly turned the school around. When I visited with number one son we both absolutely loved the then headteacher. He started in September and she left for medical reasons in December. The new head wasn't good enough, the school dipped and the current one took over. The dip was the reason I got son number two in as the gap in age was too large for sibling criteria. Now of course there would be no point in applying at this distance without a sibling in place.

The third school we visited is in the third borough we're considering. We applied for it last time and didn't get it. Very little chance of getting it this time either, but it's a nice school. It has enormous classes and a good feel to it, with improving results and the added benefit that in two years time it will have a brand new school built on the other side of the site. Not a new building but a whole new school. What a thought. Naturally there was some anxiety about whether funding would go ahead but it's happening. Bit of a trek but a hugely positive atmosphere.(Distance from school: 3.9 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.2 miles).

We went to see the next school as so many parents got it last year who didn't put it on their form at all. Not a bad school; its results were dismal but are improving rapidly (partly because it's got such a long way to go) but it's by a town centre and has a terrible reputation for behaviour outside the school and on the buses. Not necessarily all the school's fault but it can be hard to see past the reputation. The school is slowly falling to pieces as it is on hold, having applied for trust status and not knowing what's happening with that, and having a new school promised them that is no doubt not going to be forthcoming. Rumours were flying about moving the school down our end but funnily enough a readily available site was not ready or available so that's gone down the pan. The school was certainly not as bad as its reputation but that's not a great endorsement (Distance from school: 3 miles; last distance offered for Sep unlimited).

As to the fifth, well we didn't visit it last time round. Again, the reputation wasn't very good and it had a new head who was rapidly improving the school but there were a lot of changes going on and the results weren't good. Another new head this term who made a terrible and overlong speech, talking only of the value of education in terms of getting a job. No reference to life long learning, personal fulfilment, joy of learning or anything like that. Nothing particularly wrong with the school but nothing right either, no 'wow' factor and not enough on the walls (Distance from school: 2.5 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 2.0 miles).

The sixth and last school was a surprise. We went two years ago and weren't impressed. The buildings were nice. The layout was nice. There was nothing inspiring or exciting. The headteacher gave an adequate speech but not particularly encouraging. This time round, possibly due to the addition of a sixth form, there was a buzz around the school and some wonderfully enthusiastic teachers that made it very attractive indeed (Distance from school: 1.5 miles; last distance offered for Sep 2010: 1.4 miles).

So having visited all these schools we've plumped for the one that we know we can get into. We debated trying for the last one as it is so close but the chances of getting in are so dismal and the uncertainty of waiting lists so distressing that it's not really worth the effort.

The point here is that despite all that effort and research, all that talking to teachers, evaluating schools and looking at league tables, there is no choice. Once you've said no to single sex schools, no to schools over an hour's travel away and no to the ones that really are dreadful, there's not a lot left. Council admissions will tell you to not rely on distance offered last year as the number of applications can fluctuate wildly but the best schools offer places in ever decreasing circles.

And don't even get me started on faith schools.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Why Mumfie?

Katharine Tozer wrote maybe half a dozen books about the Wanderings of Mumfie, a small elephant, and his friend Scarecrow.

I had 3 Mumfie books as a child and these were the only books that were passed on to me that my mother had read as a child and then kept. For that reason alone these stories were special to me and remain so. Two of these remain with me, Wanderings of Mumfie (first edition) and a later reprint of Mumfie the Admiral. I leant Mumfie's Magic Box to a friend, now ex, and she promptly moved away to another town.

Mumfie was a normal elephant living with his family who left one day to seek adventures since one never arrived in the post. In the first book, Wanderings of Mumfie he meets his friend, Scarecrow, and together they meet up with Father Christmas and get sent down to earth to be someone's toy. They can come back and visit their family when their child is asleep so it's not a permanent parting. They then go on to have a lot of adventures together.

There is a wry sense of humour in these tales and it's not all sweetness and light. The baddies are dark, evil and I remember as a child being genuinely scared. However together Mumfie and Scarecrow vanquish all evil and while stories may have nasty parts to them everything turns out all right in the end. Mumfie is a mixture of being a brave and courageous elephant and feeling safer when Scarecrow is around to hold his hand. These books were written in the late 30s and 40s and one can't help but wonder about the parallels but I've been unable to find out anything about the author.

There was a puppet TV series of Mumfie back in the late 70s by Mary Tuner and John Read which I completely missed although many people first learned to love Mumfie here, which prompted the books to be re-issued by Carousel.

Britt Allcroft, more famously known for animating Thomas the Tank Engine, produced the animated Magic Adventures of Mumfie in 1996 which also completely passed me by. Turning it into a singing elephant who is all sweet and cutesie seems to me to take away his original identity and his owner, Selina, seems to have been lost completely.

I've spent much of my life wandering around since childhood, and Brentford is where I've put my roots down. Therefore it seems fitting that Mumfie should be my companion on this new journey into the blogosphere. I don't quite know where this is going but I'm going to enjoy the journey.

Wanderings of Mumfie (1935)
Here Comes Mumfie (1936)
Mumfie the Admiral (1937)
Mumfie's Magic Box (1938)
Mumfie's Uncle Samuel (1939)
Mumfie Marches On (1942)