Monthly Archives: June 2012

Vide greniers

A vide grenier is a peculiarly French thing where you think you might find a Lalique vase for 50 centimes or a piece of Murano glass. You don’t. This is a small sample of some of the things I saw on Sunday.

  • a dismembered deer’s leg on a shield
  • weird old broken dolls
  • a tapestry doll
  • a ‘head’ statue that had been hand-painted by someone who either sees the world through Picasso’s eyes or was a little drunk
  • old tyres on sale for more than a new, fitted tyre
  • a broken bike tyre for 10 euros
  • a plastic chamber pot
  • one of those seats you can use with a plastic chamber pot inserted into it
  • broken wheelbarrows
  • Nazi memorabilia – still not REALLY a good look on a person
  • a broom handle
  • a dusty old computer monitor from somebody’s loft
  • old jars of half-eaten jam
  • broken flip-flops
  • more naff pottery than you could believe
  • dirty cups on sale for more than they cost
  • mismatched cutlery
  • dirty lampshades
  • old LPs for bands you never heard of from the 60s and 70s
  • loads and loads of mass-produced tourist stuff from Spain – especially ‘souvenir’ plates a bit like this one that we found in our cabin:

I’d have taken photographs but I’d probably have fallen out of favour with many of the stall holders who probably do not think that their ‘treasures’ are humorous. One day I will bravely snap away and capture all of the bizarre sights I see, but until then, you’ll have to take my word for the fact that a French vide grenier might be the only place in the whole world where you could attempt to sell a used battery for more than you bought it for. Notice I say ‘attempts’. You probably will end up taking everything home again with you. Needless to say, when a stall is set up of people genuinely trying to clear out recent additions, it’s mobbed. Book stalls also do well, for children’s books, because books are still so unreasonably expensive in France. I saw lots of children’s books for sale that were worthwhile, as well as a few stalls of mums who were selling on baby clothes and toys in excellent condition. I think, though, if you go looking for a treasure, you are only going to come home disappointed!

I also stand by the fact that young or old, vide greniers have more people with walking problems than anywhere else. A walking stick stall would make a mint!

However, what is always good at these places are the plant sales. One or two stalls had plants for sale and were doing a happy business. I’d have bought more myself but I was on a quest for perennials and most are still annuals. I don’t know about you, but if we’re half way through June, my annuals are already bought and in, otherwise there’s no point in them.

There was also a fabulous ice-cream cart with lots of lovely hand-made ice creams including my favourite caramel beurre salé – a salted caramel ice-cream. Jake had his usual mint choc chip. That boy does love mint choc chip!


Fated to pretend

A couple of summers ago, I spent the entire summer listening to this album. Couldn’t tear it off my CD player in the car, I loved it that much.

It’s from MGMT who are a lot of fun. They’re fun because they sued Sarkozy’s UMP party when they used ‘Kids’ as part of a conference without paying royalties. Sarkozy with his holier-than-thou attitude to illegal downloads. Hmmm. They won as well. Also, any band who can take on the cynical life of a music star and put it to such a cute summertime squeaky beat deserve some kudos. It’s a trippy little take on the music business. My favourite lyric is this one: “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars… you man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.” I think I like the idea of manning an island. It’s pre-recession joy.

Anyway, this Much Love Monday was almost a Forgot About It Tuesday. Or less a Forgot About It, more a Got Carried Away with Other Things Yesterday Tuesday post. This is because I’ve got two things going on – one is the inevitable marking, due to start on Wednesday, and the script I’m translating, which is very, very good. I love it when I get something really, really interesting to do – my fingers can’t go fast enough on this script. It’s true that you get ‘translator blues’ as much as you get ‘writer’s block’ – I get bored and think, ‘really? can I really be bothered to finish this?’ and then I start working backwards which seems to make the end a little nearer. I kind of kid myself I’ll revive my flagging interest that way. I can’t just write about shoes all day. And I did do some translation and content creation for a Monaco company about shoes. And believe me, it’s not interesting when you are writing ‘leather uppers’ fifteen times and trying to make up different ways of saying ‘this is a nice shoe and will look good on your foot’ when you have 100 shoes to do it for. ‘A glamorous evening shoe’ only works once.

Anyway, again, another busy week. Not only the collision of the polar ends of my work life: functional and dull compared to fabulous and so exciting I’d work on it all day, but also a couple of days out. Social life and work life collide and sleep takes a hit. I don’t really mind. Better busy than not.

However, it does make me a little grumpy and not have much love. It makes me crabby. But I like being crabby and cross. I enjoy it. I like having little mini-rants about things.

Like, why do people say they went to the ‘University of Life’? Is it because they a) didn’t go to University and somehow think that their life is empty because of it so they have to be ‘sarcastic’ about it, or do they think that I scorn them because I have University experience? Both are wrong. I know lots of wonderful non-academics just as I know many fab academics. And I don’t scorn anyone who hasn’t got a University education, though I scorn people who publish their writing and can’t use ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ correctly. That’s just simple grammar that six-year-olds learn. Some of the cleverest people I know left school at 14 or barely went at all. And some of the dullest have PhDs and other letters after their name.

What irks me about it is that they’re implying ‘life has taught them a lesson’ – and that perhaps, in contrast, I haven’t learned that lesson. Usually, the lesson has to be taught by Bad Stuff happening, as if you can only be wise and experienced if you’ve had cancer or someone has died or you’ve had a messy divorce. The University of Life seems to end up with a Degree of Bitterness and a Post-Graduate qualification in Feeling Hard Done To.

I feel the same about ‘The School of Hard-Knocks’. Oh really? Usually, the people who say they’ve been to ‘The School of Hard Knocks’ are middle-class white women who have the luxury of an education – something two thirds of the world don’t have access to beyond the age of 11, and something our ancestors of only four or five generations didn’t have either. School is a luxury, a bonus, a privilege, something most people take for granted who have it freely available to them. Maybe it should be taken away every generation or four just so we can remember that being able to read and write and moan about it on Facebook is a privilege that only landed upon us in the last few decades and in the select few countries. Now I feel a bit like the Yorkshire men from Monty Python, but it’s true that those who would so bitterly say they went to the School of Hard Knocks are usually the over-privileged minority who have the luxury of living in a G8 country, where school is a right and Hard Knocks usually means most of the people you know will live to their 70s, rather than school being something a few children have if they’re lucky and water and food aren’t a certainty from one hour to the next.

That’s a bit angry and grumpy for a Monday, so I’ll give you another clip:

That should remind you how lucky you are. School? Luxury.

p.s. if you have seen the Four Yorkshiremen before a hundred times, it’ll still make you laugh. It’s genuinely one of the funniest things ever written.

As for today’s poem, it is one that reminds me of the majesty of life:

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Miss Remiss

It’s gearing up to the very busy season again. GCSEs, huge translation projects, painting, gardening, cleaning, sometimes I wonder where my days go and why those daylight hours are replaced by night time ones. Bar the GCSE marking – which I’m doing this year out of a sense of duty and obligation – it’s all pleasant work, so I don’t mind any of it.

As for the GCSE, we used to all mark paper scripts. We’d get a huge pile that we’d work through and the pile would diminish until you posted your last script off. For a team leader, the work just begins then. You have 8 people in your team and you sample their scripts to check their marking. Sometimes it’s easy – sometimes, it’s easier than shelling peas (which I didn’t find so easy this week…) – and sometimes you end up remarking 500 scripts that have been marked badly to ensure they get the correct mark. About 20% get sampled – people mark 500 and you pick out about 100 to look at and look through. You also get them at the marking review, where we used to sit in darkened, windowless rooms for so long in the summer that it turned me into Hannibal Lecter. I just wanted a room with a view. And so in the end, you might check about 50% of your team’s work for weaker markers, and about 10% for your better markers.

Last year, it all went paperless. I was no longer a lucrative team leader. And when you read on, you’ll see why that was a good thing. All the scripts are scanned and put online. You don’t ever mark a whole script, so in theory, with seven questions, there will be seven examiners.

You still have the same number to mark, except this time I have seven questions rather than two. That in itself is a shift in quantity. Then you have to double-mark two of them – we used to do it concurrently – so that’s actually nine questions instead of two. And you get the same amount of money for a paper that was 1 hour 30 mins as you do for one that is 2 hours and 15 mins.

It gets worse, apart from the pay drop.

I used to mark in 5 slots when I taught full time. 5:30 – 6:00 am. 7:00-7:30 am. 12-12:30 pm. 7-8 pm and 8:30-9:30 pm. That’s about four hours, plus about another two at weekends. In three weeks, 30 hours a week, just about feasible, for about £1,000. It used to pay for my summer holiday. As a team leader, for supervising, leading training and spending a week and a half in a darkened room, the pay was about £4,000.

However, last year, I was maxing out at six hours a day over four weeks to do the same number of scripts. That’s 42 hours a week – another 12 on top of your work  – another full-time job, in fact, and another week of 42 hours. It’s almost double the time. For £800. 168 hours of work. That’s just over minimum wage in England.

People, quite rightly, ask why I do it.

My answer is this: if I don’t, my teaching is ineffective. I’m not teaching to the exam paper, which is what my clients want. It sharpens my focus, makes me an expert at what’s what and gives me an edge. I can’t understand how teaching and assessment can be divided, and I don’t think they should be. Assessment is a measure of learning. Learning is what teaching is about. There shouldn’t be one without the other. Bizarre, but there it is.

At first I was mad, too, that my cushy team leader number had been taken away. I was an A grade marker – good at what I did. I should have been too. I’ve been doing it since 1998. This is my 14th year.

We were promised teams and choice. I got neither. I asked for English Literature, I got put on English Language, on a paper I don’t feel as comfortable marking. I would have liked a team. I’m a good team leader, or so I think. I’m way better than some team leaders I’ve had who haven’t been able to organise themselves or ‘lead’ in a confident way on the paper.

My team leader last year was a saint. A bloody marvellous woman. I shall explain why.

Firstly, all markers are ‘paired marked’. That means every so often – like 2 times in 10 scripts, somebody else will mark the same script. They could be an E grade marker about to be sacked, or the boss. If your marks don’t match, then you are both stopped for a while. Then a team leader looks at the dispute and ‘resolves’ it by giving a mark they think is appropriate. I usually get ‘adjudicated’ twice in an hour – that means I’m stopped twice from progressing until the dispute has been resolved. More often than not – 99 in a 100 times last year – I was ‘right’ and the other person was wrong. Presumably they were stopped and I carried on. And it kept happening. And kept happening. The great marker has to double mark as many as the crummy examiner. It’s even, but pointless. The crummy marker needs more support; the good marker less so.

It gets better – I was stopped four times in four weeks – not a bad record after all, I found out. Some people were stopped 20 times. All it means is that the mark is slightly different.

Now, just to put it in perspective, English, like Art or PE or Pottery, is bloody difficult to mark. One man’s 19 is another man’s 18. I’ve seen 40 senior examiners with more than 600 years of experience between them bickering about whether something was an 18 or a 19. And then the principal examiner talked to another principal and they decided it was a 22. That’s it. End of discussion. Generally, though, marks go up, not down, and we usually agree with a fair degree of certainty. Not particularly reassuring, but there you have it.

So a mark here or there is not much to split hairs over.

But it shatters your confidence. And as an examiner, confidence is crucial. Once you start questioning your 18s and wondering if they are 15s, 16s, 17s and 19s, then you might as well stop.

It gets worse. I was stopped last year by a team leader who’d marked 100 question 6s. I’d marked 1,200 and not been stopped. Now, who’s better? The ‘team leader’ who has marked 100 and been checked 10 times, or me who’s marked 1,200 and been checked 120 times? It makes no sense.

Not only that, but the team leader gets paid a paltry, paltry sum – ridiculously low. It was more profitable to be a lowly marker on English Literature than it was to be the big boss. I get to do my six hours and stop. They have to solve all the disputes as well as marking their own. That adds a good couple of hours to the day.

Plus, you have to phone everyone to give them feedback, every single time they get stopped. You have to hand-hold and bolster confidence. All for less money than a lowly examiner.

It’s insanity.

This year doesn’t promise to be any better.

What’s that expression about paying peanuts? Getting monkeys? I think if monkeys were paid what we were, the WWF would be involved.

So, I’m sad to say this might be my last year marking. I’m sad about it because I truly enjoyed it. AQA had buildings in the University of Manchester, and being an examiner was a thing that brought great kudos. Unfortunately, I’ve made more money from revision ebooks than from marking, and they took me 40 hours to write. I have loved being part of that bigger team. The chief examiner was a wonderful man, as is the new principal examiner for this paper, and the chief examiner over all the papers. But turning the exam boards into businesses not charities has made them cut costs, cut corners and value systems over people.

But, as with everything, the people are the thing that make or break the success of an endeavour. Here, systems have been prioritised at the expense of people.

The trouble is, once I stop marking, I won’t be able to mark. There’s no going back.

But unless there is a significant shift, I just can’t afford to work for minimum wage, no matter how many deserving GCSE students there are and no matter what a wonderful woman the chief examiner is and no matter how much it benefits my students.

And then the Daily Telegraph and the Government are wondering why examiners are making ends meet by running courses and writing textbooks. Hmmm. I wonder why.