Saturday, 2 September 2017

6 Weeks of Summer: the Big Fat Review

Having ditched the blogs for so, very long, 6 weeks ago I endeavoured to spend the summer filling both pages with as much literary spiel as I could muster. And, from raving reviews to kicking mental illness up the ass, spiel on is exactly what I did, in rather spectacular quantities.

Yes, between cramming a year-long course into two months, working my fingers off to get the guitar sounding sweet and working on all manner of secret (and really rather exciting) projects, I am now getting somewhere closer to the degree of literary motivation I once held by the bucket-load. Whilst the fuel to light my writer's fire is still more of an occasional drip than a full on flow, I am now prepared to say that my life as a blogger is most certainly on the up.

But, before we move on to the slightly drab seeds of Autumn, it's time to take a look at the past six weeks in my Big Fat Review of Summer.

 Despite rain in astronomical volumes (seriously, the sky will end up having a drought!), I did manage to catch some rather lovely sunshine this summer, with views as lovely as the crystal blue sea of the Weymouth seaside:

A week's camping in the kind of temperatures we can only dream of having this far North was all the reset I needed to feel suitably refreshed and ready to resume verbal barfing on as many pages as I can get my hands on. This year, I was even treated to the sight of some rather excited, generally bald males cheerleading their way through the Weymouth carnival.

Of course, alongside the rather frightening volumes of rain, Summer brings with it many mountains of food, all of which I managed to ungracefully clamber my way through. From ice cream to the Great British Fish and Chips, my stomach has received sufficient nutrition to most probably not require any further substance until next summer. Yet, naturally, I am sat writing with the company of a beautifully large chocolate bar for inspiration. 

In between the wind, rain and gloomy skies, I managed to amuse myself in some unexpected places, including a quick visit to the Doctor Who experience in Cardiff. Words cannot express just how surreal it is to be confronted with a grown man dressed as a time-lord, animatedly beckoning you to enter the Tardis (complete with Fire exit) quickly! before the daleks consume you. Whilst it is not, I think, an experience I intend to repeat, as far as an hour's amusement goes, this was really not all that bad.

On the whole, summer has been good to me. Despite the largely disappointing weather and the mammoth workload, I have sailed my way to a fairly peaceful end. And so, fluorescent bag on my back, I'll see you very lovely people in the Autumn.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Open University: All I Know Now

This time a year ago, I was preparing to embark on the next significant stage of my life: university. But, where other students were busily packing bags, organising accommodation and fretting about who their course-mates would be, I sat, perfectly relaxed, at home, awaiting the delivery of my course materials. I had chosen to study with The Open University.

Whilst my appearance was in no way frenzied, there was, somewhere in my mind, a great deal of concern as to the choice that I had made. Unlike many stereotypical OU students, I was an eighteen year-old, fresh from college and equipped with a strong set of GCSE and A-level grades.

UCAS and the process of identifying courses and universities to apply to had been a significant part of sixth-form life and, as such, I had spent over a year carefully selecting my choice.

But my teachers and fellow students were not happy. My grades would have allowed me to go to Oxford, study medicine or some other 'intelligent' field. A Childhood and Youth Studies degree from what, to many, seems to not be a 'proper' university just did not fill the expectations set out for me by the academics there to guide me in deciding my future. The doubt that this instilled in me was in no way quashed by the fact that I did not know anyone else in my year who was taking a similar route: everyone was set to attend physical universities, with many applying for places at Britain's top institutions. That being the case, there must have been a reason why I was the odd one out.

Image sourced from here.

A year later, I have completed 120 credits and am ready to begin a second set. In recent weeks, I have seen various discussions on twitter about a lack of support for college-leavers considering OU study. As such, I would like to discuss all I know now, having stepped out of the norm very much on my own.

  1. OU study is not the easy, lazy option that was laid out to me by disapproving adults. In fact, it is quite the opposite for so many reasons. Firstly, I chose to study 120 credits a year: that is the same amount of work as any other student at a more traditional university. That work is to the same standard as that required for any other identical course, the only difference being that, where others have regular lectures and materials to support them through every single topic or assignment, I had an online information system and a tutor at the other end of an email. And, once I had managed to find the time to study, motivate myself to do so and make sense of the content that I was teaching myself, I had to word it all into an assignment that would be marked using higher grade boundaries (1st, 2:1, 2:2) than in any other university. As such, I was not conning myself out of a challenge by choosing to study with the OU, nor was I claiming a lesser degree for myself. I was signing up to work harder than the majority of my friends currently studying at other universities.

  2. Having said that, I have been repeatedly surprised by how easy I have found the course. This is not to say that I have not been intellectually challenged, and I certainly haven't aced the course so far, but I have been given an opportunity to find out exactly what I am capable of and, as it turns out, that is really rather a lot. Everything I have learnt has been taught to me, by me. Everything I have written has been proof-read and edited by me. Every time I sit down to study, it is because I have told myself to do so and that motivation allowed me to complete a year's work in just one term. Where my friends at traditional institutions are given step-by-step nurturing and a sense of immediacy that acts to motivate them, I have been almost entirely on my own. And yet, I have finished my first year with a distinction. I am capable and I do not believe that I would have known just how capable I am had I not chosen this education route.

  3. My capabilities were, unfortunately, one of the things that caused my teachers to deter me from OU study. They claimed that I was too intelligent to study such a course whilst simultaneously asserting that I was not making an intelligent, well-informed choice. In the time since leaving college, I have spoken to many people, from family to friends, employers to folk on the street and, when asked what I am studying where, my answer never solicits anything other than a very, very positive response.

    The truth is, most people very much approve of distance learning and see it as a far more practical route into further education. Furthermore, time has shown me just how well-informed a decision I made. Not only had I spoken to many past and present OU students to gain a sense of what it would be like but I had visited traditional universities enough to know that they just were not for me, meaning that I made a choice that I had the conviction to commit to. In the past year, many of my friends have quit their courses, changed universities or moved home, having made ill-informed choices that proved to be completely inappropriate for them. I cannot help but wonder how many of them would have even considered the OU when browsing for their futures.

  4. Of course, another advantage of OU study is that I have been given proper time to work, volunteer and undertake other courses alongside my study. By the end of my degree, I will also have three years professional experience in my chosen field with many professional qualifications to boot. This, I believe, makes me a far more likely candidate for future job applications than a traditional degree could have done.

  5. And finally, studying with the OU is, of course, cheaper. With the average student racking up £45 000 worth of debt during a 3-year undergraduate degree, I will be in just £16 200 (just!), with savings from the work I have done during that time. For many students, this is an essential consideration.

For some, the experience of going to university is as important as the degree they achieve at the end. For others, their career goals limit their choices as to degree pathways. But for me, studying with The Open University was by far the best option and, for any young people considering their options, I urge them to seek out the information they need because, yes, we are capable. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

6 Weeks of Summer

With #6weeksofsummer drawing to a spectacular close, this week's review has been moved to Saturday. And so, for your entertainment, allow me to introduce you to the wonderful, Melissa Newman-Evans...

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Great Challenge

I have been playing guitar for 11 years: that's over a decade of sore fingers, tired eyes and wrong notes. But still, having spent over half of my life working my hands, ears and brain off, I am only just beginning to be within reach of 'almost good'.

Learning to play an instrument is a challenge like no other. An instrumentalist's ability to succeed is reliant on a peculiar cocktail of factors, from natural talent to tutorage, family background to instrument quality. No matter how many decades of practice we give, one thing is certain, there is always more to learn.

This is something that many of my younger students really struggle to understand. When told that I, their teacher, who is an immeasurably better player than them, barely classify as a 'good' guitarist, the look of wonder on their faces is tainted by an extraordinary sense of fear.

Image sourced from here.

Fear of what? Fear of hard work? Fear of mistakes? Fear of time?

Actually, I think it's something far, far more simple than that. Humans are naturally programmed to want to feel good. To do this, we do not just seek things that make us feel great, we wait for things that will make us look great. We hunt labels down, starving for reassurance that we are amazing at something and enough so that everyone can see it. When success can be measured, 'good', 'really good' and 'amazing' are all easily identifiable entities that seem far more within our reach and the satisfaction of claiming any such title leads us to find greater joy in the related activity.

Unfortunately, no such system can be applied to the world of musical skill. Although instrumental grades and music degrees can measure some level of skills, ability can extend a million worlds beyond the highest of these and, as such, good is as subjective a measure as it is unreachable. And this terrifies many young starters because the desire to achieve is so heavily ingrained in their little minds that the whole process of learning overwhelms them.

At which point, it is time to teach each student, no matter their age, of a little lesson that, I think, is central to the successful learning of any art-form: there will always be someone better, there will always be someone worse and neither of these statements are of any importance...

The proportion of creative people at the top of their game is so, very tiny and yet, the proportion that enjoy their crafts is so, very great. Practice, pain and effort are only ever worthy of our time if we enjoy it, really enjoy it.

Being good does not matter. Having fun does. Always.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

A Thousand Splendid Suns - 6 Weeks of Summer

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Exploring concepts of female suppression, religion, child-marriage and what it means to be born unto unmarried parents, A Thousand Splendid Suns is set in war-torn Afghanistan and follows the stories of two young Afghani girls as they try to find love and friendship in a country where neither are prevalent. 

Following the death of her mother, fifteen year-old Mariam is transported to Kabul where she is forced to marry Rasheed, an older man and relative stranger to the child. Two decades later, a second child, Laila, becomes Rasheed's second wife. In the midst of the Taliban take-over, Mariam and Laila rely on their mother-daughter relationship to help them survive through starvation, torture and fear. 

This is the second novel of Khaled Hosseini and joins his first novel, The Kite Runner, in being a New York Time's bestseller. 

Image sourced from here.

Having studied and enjoyed The Kite Runner during my A-levels, I was surprised to find so many people deterring me from reading Hosseini's second novel. I was politely informed by many that I would find it to be a great disappointment, a story of clichés and empty characters. 

Fortunately, I ignored the reviews of those around me and went on to read what, I believe, to be one of the most meaningful, powerful texts I am lucky enough to have sat on my bookshelves. Where those others found clichés, I found a sense of honesty that was as remarkable as it was heart-breaking. Characters of great-depth were presented in an expertly woven narrative that creates an all-round powerful impression of what it means to live in such hardship and terror.

But, despite the many gut-wrenching scenes, each chapter conveyed something far more moving than the obvious traumas of war: it was, instead, the ability of love to change one's perspective, guiding their actions and leading them to unquestionable sacrifice that makes this tale one of true feeling.

Thus, I can disagree with the views of my fellow readers with whole-hearted conviction. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a must-read for all those with a heart and, even more so, for those without. 

Fancy a read? Click here