All posts by wheatypetesworld

Golden Moments from teaching abroad : Part 1 of the short blogs series

I just happened to listen to a song tonight which brought up a memory. I was teaching in Slovakia and every morning on the fifteen-to-twenty-minute drive to work one winter, I kept on hearing this song on the radio that I really liked. Meanwhile, the thermometer in the car was regularly hitting minus twenty-two on that curious cold spot beside the VW factory in the countryside that we passed twice each day on our commute. Now I have this pleasurable sort of ear-worm going on with this song that reminds me of those times. One day I decided to play it to my class there, thinking it would get me down and groovy (sorry – I know this doesn’t work, but I am a Baby Boomer) with the upper-class Slovak element of the class.

I had to search the play lists on the radio station online to find the name of the band and the song – I only speak a little Slovak. It was IMT Smile (strange name I thought, for a Slovak band), which was founded by brothers Ivan and Miro Táslers, whose initial letters have given the name to the band. 

Little Lenka in my class was amused. “Mr, Baxter – they are singing about love,” she sniggered (don’t exactly roll the Rs – just elongate them to get the East European accent). Well, I knew that. I knew Vela Laski meant “big love”. She told me that they were singing in Czech. I never knew that. But I was amazed at the tri-lingual ability of this giggling seven-year-old. I still love this song. I think it must be a mandolin , or something similar, that gives it that agreeable lead rhythm. And at one point it builds up to the most teasing crescendo before dropping back into the verse in a way that takes you along up with it. And at that point, you find yourself on a musical precipice, just waiting to get thrown down… the timing is perfect to throw you down from the cliff-edge. Put it on headphones, loud, and you will see what I mean. The vocals take a crazy left turn into “shwa” inputs, to “wa-wa-wa” and “oh-yehs”, that should be twee and naff, but somehow manage to work along with the Czech. The milliseconds of silence speak volumes – sublime enough to grab you throughout the song. All in all, it’s a jolly song that is really nice to drive to work with in sub-zero temperatures. Here it is, for your pleasure:

Lockdown Diary 10

And it is finally done and finished…

WheatyPete's World

It was over a year ago that we went into lockdown. It was over a year ago that I dug out the sloping garden with a spade and a hearty smile. So this was the process:

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A Highland Thing Part 3 – Some random thoughts from the third time up there (from this lockdown year 2021)

When they say yellow warning for rain – they mean it will rain like buggery.

The M6 North/South – what can I say? A “4 hour” journey (according to google maps) took 10 hours. Southwards a “5 hour” journey took twelve hours. In all, there and back, we spent seven hours in traffic jams. And those damn birds blocking the way out of the service station didn’t help much either.

From the campsite you could see the wind-driven rain coming at you from across the loch. It hits. And then it goes away and you may get a beautiful sunset later.

When you ride on the Harry Potter train, keep the little windows shut if you don’t want to have little grains of burnt coal soot in your hair and on the tables. The viaduct at Glenfinnan is a stunning ride. Mallaig has ditched the Celtic trinkets for Harry Potter souvenir shops. Shame really.

In 1787, an unusual rock which had been found in a lead mine at Strontian, Scotland, was investigated by Adair Crawford, an Edinburgh doctor. He realised it was a new mineral containing an unknown ‘earth’ which he named strontia. In 1791, another Edinburgh man, Thomas Charles Hope, made a fuller investigation of it and proved it was a new element. He also noted that it caused the flame of a candle to burn red. Strontium is best known for the brilliant reds its salts give to fireworks and flares. It is also used in producing ferrite magnets and refining zinc. Modern ‘glow-in-the-dark’ paints and plastics contain strontium aluminate. They absorb light during the day and release it slowly for hours afterwards. The village is also the only place where you can buy petrol in under an hour’s drive from the campsite overlooking Loch Sunart at Resipole.

It is a lottery on the Corran Ferry. Sometimes Peaches gets charged the £9 for a car/light goods vehicle, at others £13 for a “motorhome”. It was 50/50 on the four times we used it. The £9 worth of Range Rovers were still bigger than her, the cheats!

From the train you can see what a lovely location Inverailort Castle enjoys (bottom left).

Finding a lovely stop to cook up some food is always a pleasure in these parts.

And the moral of the story? What I have learnt from all this? Simple really: the Highlands of Scotland are still one of the places I would recommend to anyone visiting this planet for the first time. Not just for how beautiful it looks, but equally for how much it beautifies your soul.

Cool camping in cornwall

Cool Camping is my go-to website when I am looking for somewhere to pitch up.  So what is it with that makes it a go-to website for campers?  It is quite simple really.  What you read is what you get.  And what you get is a campsite that for one or more reasons is out-ot-the-ordinary-exceptional.   Mount Pleasant Eco Park in Cornwall was a perfect example.  Read the review from Cool Camping here.

What I found was exactly what Cool Camping is about and exactly what they said I would find: a campsite which, for a number of reasons, lives up to the accolade of Cool Camping: something which goes beyond the expectations of a “normal” campsite.

Firstly, it is a business which is conscious of its environmental footprint.  So, half of the power used is generated by the wind turbine nearby.  It is not just a campsite; it approaches its role with an environmentally-conscious responsibility whilst supporting local artisans and craft-workers.  You will find here composting toilets, a common sense attitude towards its role in the local community (and especially during this pandemic), workshops from local artisans and a restaurant with a very chilled atmosphere using local produce.   You may be lucky and catch a gig in the amphitheatre.  But if that is not available, just go and use the pizza oven there. 

Then consider the fifteen-minute walk down an old copper-miners’ path to the village, where you will discover a surfers’ paradise and some great food to be had.  But consider equally the fact that a fifteen-minute walk down the steep valley will not be the same when walking back up the hill.  The night we were there, there was also a Middle-Eastern street market down in Porthtowan in the evening.  From the campsite there are superb views down the valley to the beach.  Or look over opposite and wonder about the lives of those who worked in the old copper mines and start to feel the history of this valley before the surfers arrived.  But most of all, just relax in a beautiful campsite and come away feeling re-energised for whatever the following week may throw at you.

Yet again, Cool Camping got it spot-on here.  The photos below will give you some idea of why this really is cool camping… hire a tent or a pod if you have not got your own tent or other accommodation; walk to the beach down a stunning valley; fire up a BBQ, wood-burner or fire pit; admire the environmentally responsible vibe; go with your pooch or your family – it will not disappoint.

Lockdown Diary 10

It was over a year ago that we went into lockdown. It was over a year ago that I dug out the sloping garden with a spade and a hearty smile. So this was the process:

So some good came out of the lockdowns. I wonder how many others have up-levelled their spaces due to lockdown? This was a true family build – all equally involved from start to finish!

And six months later we have just about got there with the garden and the build. Here are the results… a lovely place to sit and do whatever…

Lockdown diary 9 – as long as i am not free to travel, i consider it to be still in lockdown: so here’s another one.

I met a bloke in Morrison’s car park last week.  Paul, his name was.  He started to chat to me about Peaches the campervan which led to interesting stories of his experiences in Australia of buying a camper.  I had places to go and things to do, but this guy was interesting enough to spend an hour or so talking to.  Plus, I was too polite to tell him that I had places to go and things to do.

He had just recovered from a hairy Covid experience and had an amazing amount of facts and figures in his head concerning his worries about this world, in particular the increase in world population (as well as the consumption of oil by the US and a number of other things – this is Totnes after all).  We had a lot in common.  I lived in Slovakia, he had lived in Hungary.  I had lived in Jordan, he in Palestine.  We established that we had similar world views.  He told this story:

“So, Pete, imagine you live next to a beautiful lake.  Every morning you take a walk around the lake and your life is wonderful.  You walk your dog and enjoy nature.  You have a neighbour.  A grumpy neighbour, who you try to avoid.  But one morning, as you are walking around the lake he is there, but smiling for a change.  ‘Pete’, he says, ‘look at this beautiful lily I have here.  It’s one of the rarest lilies in the world.  The are only a few left today, but it can double itself every day. I will put it in the lake. Tomorrow, there will be two of them and the day after four.’

‘That’s great,’ you say.

And sure enough the next day there are two of this most beautiful and rare lily in the lake.  And the day after four of them. 

Three months later the lake is choked by the lilies.  There is no oxygen left in the water and all of the fish have died.  It is full.  My question to you, Pete, is this: when was the lake half full?   It is not a trick question.”

I could not work out the answer, because I am slightly dense when it come to maths and this made me panic as well as seeming like maths to me.

“It was the day before,” he said.  “Remember that it doubles every day.”

So I went and looked up the figures he had quoted me and the world population since 1963, when I was born and now (the nearest I found was 2020).  And then for the previous 57 years before I was born (the nearest being 1900).  Paul was of a similar age to me.  This is what I found:

So perhaps he has a point.  There must be a tipping point above which our planet can no longer sustain its human population.  And it is doubling every “my lifetime so far” (57 years).  If you want to go back one further 57ish years, it was 1,200, 000, 000 in 1850.

Paul very nearly died from his Covid infection.

You meet some interesting people in Morrison’s carpark in Totnes. I somehow think that the loss of population due to the pandemic made me think about this on some other level. You could even look at all this from a religious point of view, or you could look at this as one of the results of our lifestyles and the population explosion as contributing factors. Who knows?

Think about it: the resources available to us; world population doubling every sixty years or so. The day before…

Lockdown Diary 8

Please do not think we are out of the woods yet. OK, so the weather’s getting better. The statistics and figures are getting better; but we’ve been here before. Here are some photos from Istanbul, Amman and Totnes from exactly this time of year just to make the point. You may think of the Middle East or even the south west, as all sun, lemon trees and desert palms, but late winter and altitude slap you in the face with that one. Summer is not here yet; likewise neither have we yet defeated Covid:

Lockdown Diary 7

The Language of Lockdown.

One of the things I have noted during this lockdown is how it is influencing our use of language.  Some words, like “lockdown” itself even, or “quarantine“, or “pandemic” have stepped to the forefront of everyday language when they were formerly rarely used.  In other cases, words have been put together in a new way to name the actions or situations new to us.  “Self-isolate”, “shielding”, “social distancing” or “support bubble” come to mind.

And I have learnt some new words too: “furlough” is an example.  This word has been around since the early seventeenth century and comes from the Dutch word vorloffe, meaning permission literally, or “leave of absence,” especially in military use.  It was also applied to conditional temporary releases of prisoners for the purpose of going to jobs (work-release).  But with Covid it acquired a new nuance with the government’s furlough scheme.

In some cases, words and phrases seem to reflect a new way of seeing things that Covid has brought about.   I am thinking of the terms “non-essential retail and “keyworker“.  In the first case, it seems like a slap in the face of the excessive materialism that is part of our everyday lives and media.  And what about those people whose career is now defined as pointlessly needless?  What must this do to their self-esteem when someone asks them what they do for a living and they must reply: “I am a non-essential retailer”?  Compare these unfortunates to those whose vocations are not simply essential, they are the very key to our existence.  Perhaps this is a new leveller of social inequality?  It doesn’t matter how high class you may be as a purveyor of the finest quality luxury merchandise; you are still unnecessary now.  So this means that Bertram Burnley, jewelers by royal appointment since 1825, is now completely superfluous, whereas Chelsea Noakes, who works down the Co-op at weekends, is pivotal to the very survival of our species. 

I’d say that was Chelsea one, Burnley nil.

lockdown diary 6 – sorry i can no longer honour my intention to be non-partisan now.

Here is an interesting article from the Independent.  Apparently, us teachers should now be prepared to sacrifice our lives to prove that we are committed to our profession.  But I thought it was now “safe” to reopen schools. Have I missed something? Is that an admission that reopening of schools is not safe right now?  And since when exactly did teaching amount to martyrdom?

This is part of the article:

The former head of Ofsted has said that teachers need to show a “similar commitment” to medical professionals, who in some cases have “sacrificed their lives.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools, said there has to be a ‘pulling together’ among teachers and that they have to exhibit the same level of devotion as medics who have “gone the extra” mile during the pandemic, in order to get children caught up with their studies when schools return early next month.

“You have to compare this to the medical emergency over the last year and the commitment on the part of medical professionals and nurses and doctors.

They’ve gone the extra mile at great cost to themselves and their families, their health – they have sacrificed their lives in some cases. We need a similar commitment from the teaching profession over the next academic year.”

And out of interest: should Ofsted Inspectors be asked to martyr themselves too?  I am sure Sir Michael meant well, but the thought occurs: those wonderful people in the medical profession signed up for that and have shown themselves to be heroic.  The pandemic hit and was beyond anyone’s control.  The children being sent back into schools is not such an external factor: it is a government decision, not a pandemic beyond anyone’s control.  I, for one, have been looking after keyworker children and vulnerable children throughout, when most people were in lockdown at home and at the same time sending out/marking online learning and paper copies for those that do not have internet access.  So what is the “extra mile” the government want from me now?  If it is the idea that teachers should be prepared to give their lives to support the government’s decisions, then this is something I do not really understand. Yet this is what this man seems to be saying: the government are expecting teachers to be prepared to sacrifice their lives so that we can send children back to school.  If not, then what does the “extra mile” mean?  Does he really mean that I have to die?  Am I an uncommitted teacher if I don’t sacrifice my life for my profession? 

I know I set out with a “non-partisan” intention on these lockdown diaries, but I have had enough now: I really don’t want to live in a country like this any more. Brexit was one idiocy and made me ashamed to be British; the way the leaders are handling this crisis and the double standards between the way top government officials speak and look after themselves, flaunt the lockdown rules in some cases and what they ask the lowest face to face public sector workers to do may just be one step too far. So here is an idea: if Ofsted inspectors can not do visits to schools right now, why not send them to take the place of unpaid volunteers in Covid testing centres and vaccination centres? I am really pleased that I have not used any invective in this post. It was hard…

Lockdown Diary 5

“One big fellow box, ‘e got plenty black tooth, plenty white teeth belong ‘im, time master ‘e fight ‘im, fight  ‘im, ‘e sing out, sing out!”

From “A Young Traveller in the South Seas” (Iremonger)

The above phrase is given by the author as the translation of the word “piano” into Pidgin English.  And what a glorious way to name this object through language.  I loved it when I read it and have remembered it ever since.

I am experiencing a similar thing when I watch the Downing Street Briefings.  There is always a po-faced person on the left, gravely appraising our situation and then on the right there is what I would like to think of as the speaker of Pidgin English.  Look at the expressive faces this smaller person pulls.  He is mouthing what appear more to be obscenities than to be offering an exaggerated lip-reading synch to emphasise the speech for those who cannot hear the words of wisdom emanating from his larger friend.  Look at the evocative hand gestures that accompany the face-pulling.  He is using his whole body to communicate.

As a result of this, I find myself captivated by the visual drama of the diminutive character to the right, to the extent that I soon start to drift off and cease to listen to the person on the left at all. 

If you could take Pidgin English and put it into visual form, then this would be it. 

I wonder if anyone else has become obsessed by these rather small people who so often pop up on our TV screens and are much more interesting than the politicians and experts at the moment?

lockdown diary 4

I just started to wonder about the cost of Covid measures to our government and where all the money for this comes from.  It is not a simple thing, and for someone like me I need it grossly over-simplifying if I am even to begin to understand.  According to the BBC news, this year the government is spending £280 billion on measures to fight Covid-19 and its impact on the economy.  If you want to see it as a number here it is:


So where is it coming from?  And the entire National Debt is currently £1,876.8 billion (at the end of the financial year ending 2020).  So who has that sort of cash to lend the government? 

If you want to see what this 1,876.8 billion looks like then here it is:


Whoever lent that money will collect 23.5 billion in interest.

The government borrows money by selling bonds.  A bond is a promise to make payments to whoever holds it on certain dates. There is a large payment on the final date – in effect, the repayment.  Interest is also paid to whoever owns the bond in the meantime. So it’s basically an interest-paying “IOU”.  The buyers of these bonds, or “gilts”, are mainly financial institutions, like pension funds, investment funds, banks and insurance companies.   Private savers also buy some.

Some also end up being bought by the Bank of England as part of its current attempts to boost spending and investment in the economy.  Under this policy – known as “quantitative easing” – the Bank has so far bought £875 billion of government bonds.

Now all that seems a bit crazy to me because if you look on the Bank of England’s website it will tell you that they are “wholly-owned by the UK government”.  The Bank was nationalised in 1946, which meant that it was now owned by the Government rather than by private stockholders.  So the government borrows money by issuing bonds, which it then buys itself.  So where does that money come from to buy its own bonds?

However, not all of the above is quite true, because 3% of the bank’s shares are owned by private investors.  Just as when the bank was originally set up, the identities of these shareholders is a closely guarded secret.  In fact, when, in 2009, a request was made to HM Treasury, under the Freedom of Information Act, asking for the details about the 3% Bank of England stock owned by unnamed shareholders, the response was that their identity was something the Bank was not at liberty to disclose. In a letter of reply dated 15 October 2009, HM Treasury explained that. “Some of the 3% Treasury stock which was used to compensate former owners of Bank stock has not been redeemed. However, interest is paid out twice a year…”  But whoever that 3% are, will they be taking that percentage of the interest payments on the £875 billion, or £26250000000?

These sort of figures boggle the mind!  So, I tried to find out more online.  It turns out that most “national banks”, although they may give themselves names that sound like government departments, like “The First Bank of the United States”, are privately owned.  Even the “nationalised” Bank of England is not wholly owned by the government.  The history of these powerful institutions, who have the power to issue money, is complex.  What is certain is that some people must have made silly amounts of money out of it.

It goes back to the notion of “fractional reserve banking”.  Bankers realised that only a fraction of investors wanted to withdraw their money at any one time, so the idea came about that they could lend out more money than they actually had, making profit from the interest payments on loans.  In fact, they were allowed to lend out up to ten times their reserves under fractional reserve banking rules.  And royalty or governments were the ideal targets for large, profitable loans, underwritten by the power to tax the population.  Fractional reserve banking meant that the banks didn’t actually have to have the cash in order to loan it.

So imagine that I am a National Bank.  OK, I’m patently not, but just humour me for a moment.  I have one pound, but under the laws of fractional reserve banking I can lend out £10 (don’t forget that I also have the right to create money from thin air by printing currency if I need to).  But it is only numbers on a balance sheet, not actual cash when it comes down to it, which is transferred between accounts.  From that loan I may get back, say £11 when interest is added.  So now I can loan out £110… and so on.  I wondered why the bankers don’t just print themselves all the money they want, but putting too much money out there would only increase demand for goods and services and lead to price inflation, which would devalue the currency. If I find that there is too much money out there and inflation is rampant, then I can constrict the money supply by calling in debts or not issuing new loans.  In short, there is nothing “natural” about the cycles of boom and bust which our economies are subject to.  They are entirely manufactured by those who control the money supply: in other words the National Banks.

So back to my original question: who has that sort of cash to loan the government?   I think the answer is that that sort of cash simply does not exist.  It’s all just numbers on balance sheets, but somewhere along the line someone, somewhere is likely to be making huge profits from this crisis.  These people must love national crises like the pandemic, or wars, because huge profits can be made by loaning the money to pay for them to governments.  Historically banks have actually financed both sides (for example during the Napoleonic Wars) with clauses that require the victors to honour the debts of the vanquished. 

If you want the full story (and have some stamina – it’s three and a half hours long) give this a watch and it explains the whole sordid tale of how we have got to this stage:

Bill Still – The Money Masters

I actually had to watch this twice to get my had around it.  But now I think I need a lie down…