Why I’m glad that I learned languages at school

I can’t contribute much to the current debate about whether the new language exams are too hard – I haven’t seen them. I do remember though, back when I did my school exchange with a school in Germany, and based on my experience of teaching current German students, that the expectations seem lower here in terms of what students should be able to accomplish in another language. Lowering the bar might make the subjects more appealing again, but overall, English students won’t have a competitive advantage in the job market if the language qualification doesn’t count for as much, or require as much effort as other European counterparts have had to put in.

I was at school before the decision was taken in 2004 to make languages a non-compulsory subject at GCSE. I think there are individual circumstances in which this makes sense, but overall I believe this was a step in the wrong direction. Since then, take-up of languages at A-levels has also been falling overall, with German falling by 45% since 2010 *see this article from the Guardian). Still, things are looking up for Mandarin!

I’m biased, because languages were some of my favourite subjects, but here are some of the reasons why I enjoyed learning languages at school.

They opened up a new world and new people to talk to

Knowledge is only really useful when you find some way to take it out of the classroom. Many people don’t do this or don’t have the opportunity to, which is why I think some students in the UK feel that learning another language isn’t relevant.

Once I got a taste for languages though, I started finding reasons to use them. My German pen-pals. My school exchange and the lovely host family. Some German relatives of local friends. Later new people that I met online. I got to travel outside my local town and discover other perspectives, other ways of doing things, and challenge some of my own ideas.

Something I could be good at

It wasn’t the smartest choice, but at school I always spent extra time on the things I was already good at, rather than using it for the things where I really needed more practice. But I enjoyed languages and however well I did in them, there was always more to learn and discover. There were things that I needed help with in everyday school life, but I understood how the languages we were learning worked, so I had something to offer others too.

I like patterns!</h3

I have creative moments occasionally, but languages made sense to me because if you take some time to learn the rules, you will be allowed to play the game, and importantly, not make mistakes. There will always be exceptions – “exceptions confirm the rules” was one of our German conversation teacher’s favourite sayings! But rules give things structure, and if you can understand the structure, you can understand the thing. There’s a logic to it – you just need to invest a bit of time at the beginning.

My blindness isn’t relevant

Ok, it may have been relevant for picture-based learning activities or watching movies, but we didn’t do much of that at school. My listening skills probably came in useful, and as long as I had access to the texts that we were working on, it was a completely level playing field, in a way that some more visual subjects weren’t. This may not have been the case if I’d been learning languages with different writing systems – there is always a way – but for French and German it certainly wasn’t a consideration. I did both at GCSE level and then went on to do a German A-level.

I think it was one of the first times I realised I could do something that the sighted people around me couldn’t do. I remember interpreting for some friends and feeling really good about being able to facilitate the conversation between people who would otherwise not have been able to communicate. They helped me get around the unfamiliar places that we visited, but I had a role to play too – and that made me happy!

Learning other languages helps you to understand your own language better

Training to become an English teacher definitely does that as well, but when you start learning about tenses, sentence structure, and ways to communicate ideas in other languages, it helps you to understand how your native language works too. If you’re a language nerd, it’s interesting to see the differences and similarities.

They were useful for my career

Well, German was. I haven’t done anything with my French since leaving school, but I remained interested in German. For many years it was just a hobby – something I did in my free time. Originally the only suggestions people could come up with were interpreting (too stressful), sales (not my idea of fun!), and translating. Translating was the most appealing out of the three, and I do some translation now, but I didn’t want to spend all of my time doing it.

I now work as an English teacher for adults, most of whom come from German-speaking countries, so I speak and write German every day. So the basic knowledge that I picked up at school is still helping me now, though it took longer for me to actually feel comfortable speaking.

Other languages

After finding out that I enjoyed learning languages, I tried a couple of others after I left school – Hindi and Turkish. German is the only one that I really kept up with, although I can still understand a fair bit of Turkish. I keep saying I’ll maybe go back to it some day.

I think understanding basic principles of grammar – having parts of the language that perform different functions, and the fact that you have to do things in a certain order for the language to work, also makes it easier for me to understand the coding languages that I’m learning in my IT degree.

So overall, learning languages opened up a lot of opportunities for me and it was one of my favourite things to do at school.

How was the experience for you? Did you love or hate your French or German lessons, or did you learn a different language? Have you used the skills since? Let me know in the comments.

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Our visit to Island Farm donkey sanctuary

​I’ve always like donkeys. I think they’re cool and I’ve supported various donkey charities over the years, but the only time I tried to visit one, it was out of season and the sanctuary was closed to the public. One donkey came up to the fence to bray at us, but it wasn’t the same as going inside!

So one of the things I put on our list of things to do on our week off was visit a donkey sanctuary. I discovered the Island farm Donkey Sanctuary near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and we drove there on a sunny day, earlier this week.

There is no entrance fee, but donations are appreciated and you can also support the sanctuary in other ways such as by adopting a donkey, or buying gifts from the shop. The sanctuary is open every day apart from Christmas day from 11 till 4, and they sometimes hold special events. There is one planned for the 2nd Bank Holiday weekend in May (2019) so check out the site if you’d like to go!

Visitors are encouraged to interact with the donkeys, though children should be supervised to ensure they don’t scare the donkeys and any treats should be given in at reception. It’s hard to make sure that all donkeys have a balanced diet if people give them too many treats, and some of the donkeys are on special diets, which means certain foods would be harmful to them.

When we arrived, we saw a lot of donkeys out in their fields. The donkeys are in various fields with groups ranging in size. Donkeys like company!

Speaking of company – going on a weekday during term-time was great, because when we were walking around, there was hardly anyone else there apart from a couple of visitors and people who worked there. I like donkeys more than people!

There was also some information around on the walls to teach visitors about donkeys, what they like to eat, differences between horses and donkeys, and further information about individual donkeys who live at the sanctuary.

After popping into reception, we were encouraged to walk around the grounds and see the donkeys. Many of them were behind electric wire fences. I did reach across to pat one who came right up to us, but I don’t suggest that anyone else does that! Also we later found that some of the donkeys were wandering around on the path area, so I could get up close and talk to a couple of them who were grazing or standing around in the sunshine. As someone who can’t see the animals, I’m always especially happy if I can get to meet some!

They didn’t solicit attention like your average golden retriever! Well maybe they would if they know you, or if they know you’ve come to feed them! But they stood still while I stroked and talked to them, with one of them twitching his ear in my direction. I think they like to know what’s going on!

Jack was definitely up for a stroke, and stood patiently while we had a chat.

Pollyanna must have been tired, because she was chilling out on the floor, happy for me to stroke her lovely silky coat!

Many of the donkeys come to the sanctuary with problems associated with neglect, such as skin problems, parasites, and worst of all, overgrown hooves. These are very painful and if not treated, can lead to problems with walking. This of course means extra vet bills to get the problems sorted out.

The donkeys seemed content, chomping at the grass, or trying to get their friends to play!

As well as around 120 donkeys, and over 50 more living with foster families, there are other animals at the sanctuary such as a couple of Shetland ponies, some chickens, goats, and a pig!

The donkeys have plenty of space to graze and enjoy the sunshine, and as they don’t like getting wet, there are also shelters for when it rains. Some of the ones whom I stroked had been enjoying a roll around, which keeps the pesky flies at bay, and also helps to remove any loose hair.

Some of the donkeys are active in the local community, attending fairs, starring in nativity plays, or taking part in country shows. This raises the profile of the work of the sanctuary and introduces new people to the donkeys. The donkeys have also starred in some TV shows – from animal rescue programmes to children’s TV.

I wanted to support one of the donkeys and decided to adopt Loppy, a 32-year-old mare who has what are believed to be the longest ears (around 45 cm) of any female donkey in the country. She came down from Scotland in 1996 and was bought at a livestock market and offered to the donkey sanctuary where she would have a good home. Loppy is an Andalusian donkey, which is in danger of becoming extinct. Loppy is one of the larger donkeys at 14.2 hands, but she is very gentle and friendly. You can read more about Loppy here.

You could sponsor a donkey at reception, but I chose to just do it myself online because I wanted to take my time and read through the individual stories.

I could complete the adoption process using my screenreader. The only slightly tricky thing was the payment types, because they were neither radio buttons nor check boxes, so a blind user can’t be sure which payment method had been selected because there was no feedback apart from the fact that it was highlighted visually. But I chose the one I wanted and hoped for the best – and it worked!

I would recommend this as a place to visit for anyone who loves animals or who wants to learn a bit more about donkeys.

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The Body Shop – earn rewards for recycling your empty product packaging

It’s not just kitchen waste that needs to be recycled. It’s sometimes a bit more difficult with beauty products in terms of identifying exactly which bottles and tubes can be recycled, but it’s something we need to take seriously because so much waste from beauty products ends up in landfill, or even worse, in the ocean.

Yesterday I heard about someone diving to the deepest part of the ocean, only to find sweet wrappers and a plastic bag down there. We have to do better.

Some shops are going down the route of naked products – with no packaging, but this can be quite messy, and it’s not suitable for all product types. The Body Shop has a different strategy. If you have a Love Your Body® card, and it’s really easy to sign up if you don’t, you can earn £5 on your card for every 5 eligible products that you return.

Once the empty product containers have been collected, they are either recycled, or repurposed and made into new products, such as park benches children’s play equipment.

In order to receive the £5 reward, you have to return 5 eligible containers at the same time. They must be clean, so wash them out first. A shop assistant does it with you, so you can find out exactly what can go in the recycling container, and the shop assistant will update your card with the reward points. The reward could take up to 48 hours to appear on your account, but after that, your points will be available to spend.

You can also return recyclable packaging from other brands, but this will not count towards your 5 products that qualify for a reward.

Some types of packaging are exempt, such as cardboard boxes, although these should go in your home recycling. Single wrappers from things such as soaps or bath bubbles are not part of the scheme. Also, you can’t recycle perfume bottles or anything that contains alcohol.

Bottles, tubs, pots, and tubes should be fine. There is no comprehensive list on the Return, Recycle, Repeat page, but this is where you can find further information. Also, this information is correct in May 2019, but if you’re visiting my site after this time, it’s best to check the terms and conditions directly on the Body Shop site.

Most stores are taking part in the scheme, but there are a few exclusions, so check the list on the above link to make sure that your local store is taking part.

Doing the right thing for the planet should be enough of a reward, but I think it’s a great idea that the Body Shop is offering this scheme to encourage people to recycle. There are plenty of little treats that you can get for £5, or you could save up points on your card and put them towards something else (points are valid for three months).

What do you think –have you heard of this service? Will you be using it? Let me know in the comments.

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Broadlands country show a day out for all the family

Recently I’ve taken to signing up for tourist information so I know what’s going on. I can’t see flyers or adverts for upcoming events, so the alerts and newsletters work well for me because they come directly by email and I can look through to see if there’s anything we would enjoy.

That’s how I found out about the Broadlands Country show that was held in the grounds of Broadlands country house near Romsey over the bank holiday weekend.

It’s a day out for all the family. We saw lots of families with children, and plenty of visitors brought their dogs along too. Parking was free, and there were various events and displays throughout the weekend.

We decided to go on the Monday. After buying our programme and getting inside, one of the first animals I met was a very friendly Labrador. He was competing in the gun dog trials and very eager to meet some new people!

I enjoyed walking through the big tent with all the animals. I believe there were some competitions going on, and some of the animals were getting ready for those. I heard lots of chickens, ducks, and some very noisy cockerels, who sounded as though they were all competing with one another to see who could be the loudest.

S described the chickens, ducks, and fluffy bunnies as we walked past, and some of the animals could be stroked. This is how I met my first ferret – I knew roughly what shape they are, but didn’t know how big they were or what they felt like. I think the one we met was a bit shy, but he was happy enough to get a gentle stroke.

I also met some cute guinea pigs!

At lunchtime we got a table near where the falconry displays were going on. We had already walked round the falconry section and spotted a harris hawk and a very sleepy owl, but from the table I was in a good position to hear the handlers talking about the birds and how they trained them.

There were various options available for lunch from burgers and hog roast to a noodle bar.

We didn’t end up trying any of the activities, but there was a climbing wall for children, as well as things like crossbow shooting! I wonder how good I would be at that?!

As well as the displays and activities, there were a lot of stalls where you could buy locally-produced goods such as food and craft items. A bit like the kind of stalls that you see at a Christmas market. We were tempted in by the fudge stall (mmm chocolate orange, banana, and coffee fudge!), and I also stopped by the woodcraft stall to get a new fruit bowl and an owl door stop! Just because I needed a couple more owls for my collection. My grandad was really good at making things out of wood, and I guess that’s why I like them.

I also found a little donkey brooch, and S got me some owl earrings. It was meant to be a surprise, but the lady on the stall started talking about them, so I guessed there was something owl-related that was being bought in secret.

Some of the stalls were more for people interested in falconry or dog training so that they could pick up new equipment or supplies, but there was plenty to see if you were just a regular visitor.

On our way back, we stopped by at the gun dog trials to get some pictures and see what they were up to and how they worked with their handlers.

The good weather definitely helped, but it was a fun day out and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of going next year.

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How far should we really go when fixing other people’s problems?

It’s one of those rambly posts with more questions than answers, so be warned if you’re not a fan of those!

People wear me out sometimes – in a way that my dog never did!

Not all people – although having a job, which I love, but which involves a lot of people contact, I do get to the point where I’m all peopled out sometimes and just want to be left alone in the bath or with my book. This doesn’t include S – but sometimes if I’m feeling overstimulated, the last thing I want is more social interaction.

But no, I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about the comments I read on social media or blog posts.

“You should cut her out of your life”

“Demand that they”

“You need this right now…”

“You’ll never feel better unless you”

“Your problem is that you…”

“you need to eat more/less/try … and then you’ll feel better/then your medically diagnosed condition will be gone! I know that, even though I have no qualifications and don’t actually know anything about your problem or medical history!”

You get the idea.

When did we all become such experts about what complete strangers should do with their lives, and why do we have to be so emotionally charged and demanding? How can we sound like we have the definitive answer when we might not fully understand the problem? We go straight in there with our solutions, without even fully understanding the context or what consequenses our great advice might have. Hey, it might even make the problem worse – but never mind. The main thing is we were seen to contribute somehow!

It makes my head hurt!

It’s not that I haven’t fought for my rights or put people in their place or made sure that someone did their job properly. But all this advice about someone else’s life? Is it really justified, when we can never completely have all the facts from a few lines on Facebook? Isn’t there a better way to show we care?

Ok, there are stories online that just make me angry or incredibly sad. There are stories that make me want to get involved and offer up a suggestion of something that I’ve tried. There are times when I see a way out of a situation, or just want to tell someone to hang in there because I don’t actually have anything useful to add, but I equally don’t want to just click on past as ifI hadn’t seen it.

But sometimes people aren’t actually asking for our advice. They just want a place to offload their feelings, or someone to listen in a world of people growing gradually worse at doing just that.Listening. Without interrupting or offering well-meaning, but unqualified advice.

Paper, or rather a laptop keyboard, is patient. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t chime in with “yes I had a vaguely related but completely different situation like that and I…”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t empathise, but so often people don’t even get a chance to finish their story because someone else is champing at the bit to add their input, give some advice, or share how they felt in a similar situation. But it’s not about them right now. It’s about the person who wants to share.

I wasn’t going to write about this today. It wasn’t on my list of blogging ideas. But it just kind of hit me as I was reading the comments on someone else’s post. I felt a bit sorry for her.

If any complete stranger starts a comment with “you’ve got to” it immediately makes me want to say “no I haven’t”. Childish? Maybe. But I don’t like being told what to do at the best of times! Never mind by a complete stranger! You win me over with reasoned arguments. There are a couple of people who I’ll listen to just because of who they are – I value their opinion whatever it is – but that kind of respect has to be earned and that list isn’t very long!

Have you considered …? Do you think it would help if …? Have you heard about …? Did you know that …? … might help. You could try …

Sometimes I think people just want to be seen as publicly helping, or an expert on a particular topic, and it’s not even about the one who wants help.

Also, the thing I did before reading random blog comments involved offering up suggestions on a Facebook post – one that was written by someone whom I don’t know, whose child I don’t know, and who lives in a country with a completely different school system to the one I know. She did actually want advice, and hopefully mine helped, but I hope I didn’t boss her around like some of the other comments I’ve seen today.

I think most of the time we want to help. When it’s our friends, we want to be seen to be giving support. We genuinely care. Sometimes it makes us rage to see friends being treated badly or taken advantage of.

I know how that feels to want to charge in and put a friend’s world to rights. But sometimes you can push people further away if you do that. Nobody wins. As long as that friend knows they can come to you for help when they need it…

We can’t make other people’s decisions for them.

Then there are the Facebook rants where people want all their friends to agree. We only ever get one side of the story.

If a friendship falls apart and someone starts ranting on social media – is the other person really to blame, or just a bit more classy because they’re not up for a Facebook mud-slinging match? Is the person who shouts the loudest always right? How much fake news is there in our own newsfeeds because people only present the part of the problem that doesn’t make themselves look bad? How much do we question what we read so that we can get the full context before jumping on the bandwagon and condemning people who have no right to reply because they’re not even aware of what is being written about them?

I’m just churning out questions here, but it’s something I’ve kept noticing, so I decided to write about it.

It’s not that I’m anti-social media either. Yes, there are some bad practices that need to be challenged, but ultimately social media is just a tool that we can either use well or badly. The choice is ours.

People have been giving unwanted or really bad advice for years and years – think of some of the crazy wives’ tales. But social media does give us a microphone to reach further than our immediate circle of friends, and that is something new.

So yes, go and help people, give them advice if you can, show you care, encourage people to stand up for themselves when others want to keep them down. But don’t tell people how to run their lives, what diet they should try, what they’re doing wrong, or the only thing that will work if they want to fix their problems. Often there are many solutions and what worked once for you might not work this time. Offer suggestions, but the final choice is not yours to make.

The daft part about this is that people who read my blog probably aren’t the people who would do any of these things. That’s the other problem.

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Pong a monthly cheese subscription

When I was doing the “gifts that keep giving” post for Blogmas, I was intrigued by the number of cheese subscription boxes that are available. There’s plenty to choose from in different price ranges and I recently had a look at some of the options. This post is not sponsored – I just love cheese and wanted to tell you about it!

I narrowed it down to two subscriptions and the final decision was made by the sign-up process. One was accessible to me as a blind shopper using a screenreader and no mouse, and the other one wasn’t. It’s not difficult to guess which one I went for, but there’s a lesson in there about site design and customer experience. We go for the path of least resistance. We won’t necessarily say “hey your site’s inaccessible”, because it’s just quicker and easier to go to the competition!

Anyway – back to the cheese!

What did I get?

I went for the Pong cheese subscription – love the name – from Pong Cheese! You can choose how often you want your box and there are ways to customise it such as no goat’s cheese, no blue cheese, or vegetarian only. I didn’t tick any of the boxes for mine. You can also go for the premium selection to get an extra special cheese.

The box arrived by mail and it was well-packed, with a couple of cooling packs. There were four cheeses inside:

  • Petit Munster – a soft cheese made from milk produced by cows living in the regions between Alsace, Lorraine and Franche-Comté in France. It’s traditionally eaten with boiled potatoes, cumin seeds and a glass of wine.
  • Lincolnshire poacher – this is a cheddar-style cheese, matured for 15-20 months and produced in Lincolnshire. It’s made using unpasteurised cows’ milk and traditional rennet. It has a nutty taste and is somewhere between a farmhouse cheddar and a Swiss mountain cheese in terms of the flavour.
  • Cravet – a delicate, Italian goat’s milk cheese, made in the Piemonte region of Italy.
  • Roquefort – a French blue cheese that according to legend, came about because a lovestruck young farmer left his lunch behind in a cave after being distracted by a beautiful woman. He returned for it several months later, and the Penicillium Roqueforti mould had transformed his cheese sandwich into Roquefort!

The cheese comes with tasting information in the form of a leaflet. I couldn’t read this due to my visual impairment, but after contacting the customer service team at Pong Cheese, I received the information by email so I could write it up for you and also know more about what I was eating.

What did I think of the cheeses?

I’m not a professional cheese tester, but here goes….

The first to be eaten up were the Lincolnshire Poacher and the Cravet. The Lincolnshire Poacher was similar to cheddar, but with a different flavour to anything I’d tried before – slightly dryer, less crumbly.

I hadn’t realised the goat’s cheese rind was edible, but probably wouldn’t have eaten it anyway. This was the smallest cheese, with the typical goat’s cheese taste, but not too strong.

The Munster was a creamy spreadable cheese – quite spicy in flavour, but I enjoyed it. I didn’t try it with cumin seeds, though I could imagine this working well.

If you don’t like strong blue cheese, you probably won’t enjoy the Roquefort as much. I did eat some, but I can’t put it away in such large quantities as I can other cheeses!

Overall I thought there was a good mix of cheeses and I’ll be interested to see what’s in next month’s box!

What do you think?

I wanted to try this out because it’s a way to try new things that I otherwise might not think about picking up to try. The information lets you know a bit more about how and where the cheese is produced, which, as well as being interesting, might help you to discover other things that you like.

Pong Cheese also has a shop, so you can buy other things there such as a selection of themed cheese boxes and hampers.

Have you tried anything like this? Would you like to? Let me know in the comments!

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Good things in April 2019

I got a bit bored with my favourites posts because they were all quite samey, and often focussed on beauty products, which I know is less interesting for some of my readers. So I thought I’d try something else now, to make the posts a bit more varied. So here are my April highlights!

Something I bought

I’ve already been raving about my coffee machine! I’m really glad I got it!

I needed a way of keeping track of the capsules because I can’t read the pods. My first idea was to stick Braille labels on the boxes (text recognition apps don’t work so well on them). Anyway the idea with the Braille worked well enough, but it did look a bit untidy with all the capsule boxes.

Then I discovered some trays that slide out for your pods. The ones I bought hold 60 capsules each, and you can stack the trays if you want to have more than 6 types of coffee. The trays have raised squares to keep the pods in place. They might move about if you’re not careful, and you do need to put them in properly so they don’t get stuck. I now have a Braille list that sits on top of the trays. I’ve numbered the lines and written down which coffee is In each line of each drawer. I can still keep track of them, and it looks tidier in my coffee area – or coffee shrine as a friend recently called it!

Something I tried

Can you believe I’m still getting through advent calendar products? One of the things that was new to me was the almond milk and honey body lotion. I knew about the body butter and the body yoghurt, but I hadn’t come across the lotion before. It’s similar to the yoghurt, but it comes in a tube, so is arguably less messy and a bit more hygienic.

I like this gentle range and find the cream cooling as well. Sometimes my allergies cause a reaction on my skin too and I like something gentle like this for times when my skin has been irritated and needs something soothing. I was already a fan of this gentle formula, but I didn’t know about the lotion – so I’m happy they put one in the advent calendar.

Something I did

I’m all about the online networking. When you’re visually impaired, it really creates a level playing field. You don’t have to care if someone’s giving you eye contact, keep your place in the queue for coffee or see where the nearest toilets are. You don’t have to find your way to places you’ve never been before, or shell out on taxis because there’s no sensible way of getting there with public transport. I would do these things too, but I like the freedom I get from networking from my own desk, and have met interesting small business owners from other parts of the world that way. It’s less hassle, and as it’s not one of the first things I tell people, half of the people I speak with don’t even know I’m visually impaired. It’s not relevant for the discussions we’re having and as far as I’m concerned, not the most interesting thing about me.

Having said all that, I am aware that having an international business does mean that I don’t get to meet many new people locally. Yes, I have my friends, and I meet other people through them sometimes, but a lot of the people I used to meet in London were somehow either on the journey to work, or through work. I don’t have that now.

I decided to look for a local group of business owners. I quickly discounted any that sounded pretentious or that expected people to meet at 6:30 in the morning – because who can even put a sentence together at that time? I can’t! But I have found a Facebook group now and pushed myself out of my comfort zone by signing up to a face-to-face meeting too.

Something I read

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This is a series of 8 books and I originally found out about them through another blog, though it was so long ago unfortunately I can’t remember who it was so that I can tag them.

I’m glad not to be living in central London now, but reading about it makes me feel a bit nostalgic. Without giving anything away, the books are based on the life and adventures of a young police officer who ends up getting involved in the supernatural cases in a world where the gods of the River Thames are actually people some of the time, ghosts are real, and magic is a thing that can be learned.

Normally I stay away from any crime or detective books. I’ve worked in the criminal justice system and it bugs me when things aren’t true to life. It’s way less glamorous than the TV series make it out to be. But in real life there is no old house where people go when they’re working on supernatural cases, so I had no expectations of it being like real life and could therefore just enjoy it for what it was – a story.

It does make sense if you read the books in order – many of the characters appear again and you build on the knowledge as you go along. However each book is a story and a case that can stand alone.

We listened to the audio books, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who narrates the Audible versions, does a really good job.

Something I watched

Star Trek – discovery

I wasn’t a Star Trek fan before, but S persuaded me to give it a go and yes, there are action scenes, but I hadn’t realised how much more depth there is in terms of learning about the characters, understanding different cultures, moral dilemmas, and teamwork. Also, this was set before the original series, so it doesn’t matter if you start watching it with no idea what comes next!

I’m not good at TV reviews and I don’t want to post any spoilers, but I would recommend it if sci-fi is your thing – or even if it isn’t!

Something I ate/drank

Pong! You’ll have to wait to see the review, but I signed up for a monthly cheese subscription called Pong, where you get a selection of cheeses sent to you by post each month. It’s a good way to try new things.

Something I learned

In this module of my Open University course we’re starting to work with Python, which I’m enjoying a lot more than the horrid drag and drop visual programming language that we had to work with in the last module. Ok, it’s only the basics at the moment, but this makes more sense to me, and that makes me happy!

Somewhere I went

We decided to make a day of the blogger event that I was invited to in Reading, and we also visited the Real Greek for lunch.

Something random that made me smile

I know that I probably don’t drink enough water. I know that I should probably do something about that – running on coffee alone isn’t the best, especially with the hot summer months coming up.

So I had the idea of putting a pint of water on my desk in the morning and refilling it in the afternoon. If it’s there next to me, I found that I am drinking it. If I don’t make the effort to put it there, I generally don’t bother.

So just changing my habit and making the effort is actually helping me to drink more water! I also decided to get this owl drinking glass so there’s one more owl in my collection!

What have you been enjoying this month? Let me know in the comments!

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The siege of Basing House

On Easter Sunday I found myself sipping a glass of wine in a pub garden. Nothing unusual there, apart from the fact that as I sat there, waiting for our Sunday lunch to arrive, the chatter around me was of muskets, battle strategies, gunpowder, and the King.

We were having lunch at the same pub as a group of mainly cavaliers, ready to defend Basing House in a re-enactment of a battle during the Civil War.

The history

Basing House was built in Hampshire by the Paulet family, and it was a popular place for royalty to visit. Queen Mary spent her honeymoon there in 1554, and Queen Elizabeth stayed there on four occasions. You might think this is an honour for those loyal to the crown, and in many ways it was, but it was also incredibly expensive. Just imagine your guests could bring up to 2000 people in their entourage, and you’re responsible for feeding them all! It’s even rumoured that part of the house was pulled down to make it less attractive to royal visitors.

In terms of the Civil War, Basing House was under siege between 1642 and 1645. Eventually it fell to Oliver Cromwell and his roundheads, but the people of Basing House didn’t give up easily. By 1644 they had already survived one attack by Parliament’s forces, in which even the women got involved – lobbing rocks and slate tiles down on the men below. After several attempts, Cromwell’s forces gave up, partly due to the snow, and partly due to the news that 5000 troops were coming to assist those in Basing House.

That wasn’t the end of the story though and in March of 1644, the Royalist army took refuge with their allies at Basing House, following a battle that they had just lost nearby. That meant more mouths to feed, and more strain on the supplies, some of which had been intentionally destroyed in the last siege to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Better to have less supplies than to watch your enemies feasting upon them, as was the case in 1643.

In July 1644, following a fight in nearby Odiham, which resulted in many of the Basing House foot soldiers being captured, Parliament forces surrounded Basing House, bombarding it from all sides and preventing fresh supplies getting in. Things were beginning to become desperate. However strong your walls are and however well you can protect them, if your enemy prevents new supplies from getting in, you’re going to starve. Food was running very low and they had only enough left for just over a week.

The Marquess of Winchester, who owned Basing House, sent requests for assistance, but it was felt that the 40-mile round trip from Oxford would be too dangerous and that two many troops would be lost in skirmishes along the way. It was in fact the Marquess’s wife with her powerful connections that eventually got people to listen and send some aid for those under siege.

It wasn’t just a case of winning by brute force either – tactics had to be employed such as wearing the enemy’s colours, skulking through the darkness, and those from inside the walls scaring off the attackers temporarily so that allies, and later supplies (including food and 12 barrels of gunpowder), could enter.

Finally the house did fall to Cromwell’s forces, but not before it had successfully defended itself several times.

What happened on Sunday

After our lunch, we went to buy our tickets and wait in a cordoned off area for the actors to arrive. The re-enactment was performed by the Sealed Knot, which travels around the country bringing history back to life.

Soon the King’s troops arrived and stood in formation, waiting for the Parliamentarians to come down from where they had been camped the night before – or perhaps from another pub! It was a hot day after all!

After a skirmish with pikemen and musketeers on both sides, we followed them all to a field where the front of the fortress had been set up, along with cannons and reinforcements.

There was also someone with a microphone who was trying to explain what was going on. As someone who couldn’t see the action, this was particularly useful – both to understand what they were doing, but also because he was telling us facts from history, and explaining the reasons behind the decisions that each army made. Really his microphone could have done with being louder, but I caught most of it, despite the battle cries, musket fire, and roaring of cannons!

The drums were also ever-present. I believe this was standard practice anyway, but back in the real second siege, it had been foggy, so once the reinforcements had stopped being stealthy, the drums were probably also useful when visibility was poor.

S filled in the gaps by describing what was going on, and tried to warn me when the cannon was about to go off! With so much going on, it must have been so hard to make sure that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, especially when each line of musketeers was supposed to be firing together. They were close enough to hurl insults at one another, but fortunately there weren’t any women hurling roof tiles this time!!

The cannon kept going all the way through. What must it have been like to know that the walls protecting you were under constant bombardment from something like that.

The Royalist army were certainly happy when the reinforcements turned up to help them out and mean that they could hold on to Basing House for one more year.

It was loud, and it was obvious that they were fighting, but you didn’t see bodies all over the floor. I got the impression it was a balance between conveying history, whilst still being an event that families could attend, without the grim reality of war. There were people of all ages there, and even a few dogs!

I went more for the history than the battle reenactment, and it somehow feels more real when you’re standing near the place where these things actually happened. I remember studying this period of history in primary school. In those days, I couldn’t understand how a country could become so divided. Now I don’t find it so hard to believe.

Have you been to anything like this? Let me know in the comments.

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New products from the Body Shop

I decided to pop into the Body Shop the other day as I had run out of a couple of things, and I’d also heard that there was a new haircare range. I’m a fan of the banana and strawberry ranges, so wanted to try the shea one too. All of these products were bought by me. None were gifted and these are my honest thoughts.

First for the things that I wanted to stock up on. After discovering the Vitamin C skin reviver back in December, it’s now become my new favourite primer! I like the silky smooth finish either on its own or as a base for make-up, and it’s a cruelty-free alternative to some of the other primers I’ve used in the past. It’s slick without being greasy, and it promises to enhance natural radiance and cheer up “dull grumpy skin”. That just about sums up me in the morning!

I’d also run out of the mango body sugar scrub which is the only physical exfoliants that I will use. And it smells amaaazing! Like the rest of the Body Shop mango range.

I’d definitely recommend these two products!

The new shea haircare line

There were some other new shea products, but I just picked up the three haircare ones.

The shea butter shampoo does what it promises in terms of leaving the hair feeling nourished. The range is especially good if you have dry hair or want to give it some love to stop breakages or dry ends. It has a fresh but non-intrusive scent. I’m really fussy about hair products that smell of chemicals, and this range definitely doesn’t.

The shea butter conditioner is for dry to damaged hair and promises to leave hair feeling intensely nourished and richly replenished. I don’t have damaged hair, but because it’s so long, I like to give it nourishing treatments from time to time to stop the ends drying out. It definitely felt in good condition afterwards, and it was nice and silky, but I’m less convinced about the claim that it helps with detangling. I didn’t feel this and I think there are more effective detangling conditioners out there. Still, the community shea butter from Ghana is definitely something that will perk up dry hair.

The shea hair mask is similar to the conditioner, but it’s a thicker treatment to apply for longer. I actually preferred this, both in terms of the nourishment and glossiness factor, but given the choice between this one and the banana, I’d still take the banana!

So, overall, I thought the new line was nice enough, but I do prefer the fruity ones more, so I probably wouldn’t buy these again. If the banana and strawberry are too strong for you though or you’re already a fan of the shea line, you might enjoy something to keep your hair soft and with a less intense fragrance.

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Are we really aware of what is going on around us?

This is a post that I started writing last year, then I got frustrated with it and shelved it to come back to it later. It touches on politics, though isn’t a political post. It’s still somehow as true as when I started writing it last autumn…

We live in our little bubbles and are then surprised when we come across people whose experiences are so different from our own.

I didn’t think this applied to me. I have a group of friends which is really diverse in terms of people from different cultures and backgrounds, many of whom face different day-to-day challenges from my own. Nowadays my friends are more my own age, but I also spend time with people who are older or younger than I am. Previously they were always older, but that was when I thought people my own age weren’t very interesting.

I would say my friends are also pretty diverse in terms of what they do for a living. IT professionals and teachers are perhaps over-represented, and I know a lot of people working in the legal field from my past job. But other than that, my friends and the people I talk with do a wide range of jobs.

I can’t really share why I even began thinking about this post, but I was taking part in some research. Apart from the thing that we were actually talking about in the focus group, my biggest take-away was the amount of negativity some people have towards social media. And that’s fine – I wasn’t trying to convert anyone. I see problems with it too, both in terms of the way individual platforms are managed and the way in which people use them. But most of my friends are on at least one social media platform – often more. Apart from a couple of people that I know, I genuinely don’t come across that many people who aren’t present on at least one social media site.

It’s the same when you look at internet access. According to some research that I was using in one of my classes, 95% of the people in the UK have access to the internet. But what about those other 5%? Who are they? What’s life like for them without something that I struggle to go even a few hours without? (I munched through all my data the other day and had to top it up because I couldn’t go just a couple of weeks without mobile data). But there are people who don’t have an internet connection at home. There are even people that don’t have mobile phones. What’s life like for them? In Germany the figure goes down to 85%. What about the other 15%? I have no idea.

Before the 2016 referendum, I thought it would be a done deal. We would vote to stay in the EU and then we would carry on as normal. That’s what all of my friends were saying. And then I was so shocked at the Brexit referendum result. I’m not here to make this into a political post, but I genuinely thought that it would be a clear-cut win for remain. Why? Because most of the people I spoke to on a day-to-day basis agreed with me and thought that the alternative would be a disaster. So I somehow had the impression that was representative. That turned out not to be true. Maybe some leave voters were shocked in the same way that the margin was so narrow – if all of their friends felt the same, the number of people wanting to stay may have also been a surprise to them.

We’re trained to think of diversity as covering things such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation etc. That’s true, and for me at least, I don’t find that difficult.

But a key part of diversity in the wider sense that I think we often overlook is difference. People who are just different from ourselves. People who think differently or see the world differently – not because of something like another culture, but another political view or another view on what role technology should be playing in our lives, including the role of social media.

I don’t read the newspapers that those people read. Maybe I should once in a while. Not because I want to change my mind, because in many cases what these particular people believe is so different from what I believe, but at least knowing what they think and why might help me to understand them better. Or at least to be aware of their reasons. But that brings me onto the other thing that I find hard. So much now is based on emotional decision-making rather than actual facs. Article headlines and advertising are written to appeal to our emotional responses and not to our brains. I really struggle with this kind of discussion and I don’t have an answer to that!

I don’t have the energy for pointless arguments. Discussions, maybe. But they have to be built on measurable facts and logical conclusions – otherwise I get bored!

The discussion about social media and use of technology to communicate really opened my eyes. In a broader sense, the discussion was about how best to communicate information. And as is almost always the case, I think the right answer is somewhere in the middle of the scale between social media is evil and it’s the answer to everything. Use it to communicate your information to the vast number of people who will see it that way (including many people like me, who won’t see a big sign or a leaflet through my door). Don’t expect it to solve all your problems, but don’t see it as the enemy either. Take what’s good about social media, and work with that. Any kind of extreme views are usually unhelpful, whichever end of the scale they veer towards. And we as a society are becoming so divided with our us-and-them mentalities. The problem is, “they” are people too. We might not agree with them, but if we stop even listening to or acknowledging them, there are no communication channels open for dialogue. And that’s not a good position to be in. Seeing people as the enemy quickly dehumanises them.

Going back to the point about social media, or even discussions in general, we seem to be living in such a polarised society. I believe we should stand up for what we think is right, rather than trying to dilute it to make it acceptable to everyone. And there will be things that I will not agree with others on – particularly in the politically-charged post-referendum climate in the UK. There are people with whom I won’t discuss politics now because I know it won’t lead anywhere good. I’m much more likely to respond to a logical reason why my argument might be flawed than a “you’re an idiot because you think that and you must have been listening to fake news”. It’s ok to be passionate, but I find it hard when discussions become emotional rather than objective.

We had debating club in years 12 and 13 at school. I really enjoyed it, but I can’t remember whether I chose to join or whether it was mandatory. I don’t remember doing anything like that in years 7 to 11, and I think these are such useful skills. I didn’t always agree with the motions I was given to argue, but I enjoyed the challenge of looking for arguments to support or contradict them. I learned a lot from that.

Sometimes the only smart thing to do is to walk away – from the discussion, if you see it’s not going anywhere, or even from a friendship if the values that the other person is promoting are so far removed from your own.

But where did all the hate come from? Someone disagreed with us on Twitter, so we decide to make a big drama out of it. Someone has a different opinion, so that’s all the justification we need to start attacking them verbally? There are world leaders who lead by their bad example in this, but surely we can do better than that? We might still agree to disagree at the end, but there must be a way to do it that’s more classy than the mud-slinging that I see all the time on social media, and even the bad attitudes I sometimes witness in real life.

I think we all need to be aware of the echo chambers. We surround ourselves with people who think like us. Social media algorithms see what kind of content we respond well to and fill our feeds with more of that content. It feels good when we post things and others agree with us. None of these things are bad in themselves, but there is another part to our society – maybe people we go to work with or see every day at the school gates. We don’t have to agree with them, but we can’t just deny their existence or dismiss them because they don’t fit with our view of the world.

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