Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A Weekend Break from Clearing

Aldeburgh beach
It’s all feeling a bit gloomy with a sense of anti climax as we wind down towards the end of Clearing.  After the adrenalin rush of constant phone calls, the deafening background noise of 50 people taking calls from desperate people looking for places on courses.  By the end of last week I was feeling exhausted after battling the Clearing Lurgy all week.  I missed the Friday Clearing team party to get home to bed.  We then left on Saturday morning for a lovely weekend away with him- at –home’s family in Aldeburgh in Suffolk.  We stayed in a room overlooking the sea; so blissful going to sleep listening to the rhythmical sound of the waves breaking on the pebbly beach and waking to wide unobstructed sea and sky.  The light changes constantly so that every time you look the sea and the sky have changed colour.  It can get very windy so a walk along the pebbly beach is usually quite a bracing affair with clouds scudding along overhead.  With their frequently changing shapes, one can waste a lot of time simply sitting on the sea wall watching them!  How blissful is that after a busy few weeks in Clearing?

Every time I visit Aldeburgh I make a beeline for a very special sculpture.  Scallop is a 12 foot high polished steel interpretation of two entwined shells.  It was designed by local sculptor Maggie Hambling as a tribute to Benjamin Britten, the composer, who lived nearly and loved to walk along this beach.
The words I hear those voices that will not be drowned are from Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes
Since its installation in 2004, there has been pretty constant controversy over its siting and design. Locals are fiercely divided in their opinions with detractors comparing it to a collapsed Nissan hut while others, me included, absolutely love it.
Maybe this is the view that reminds people of the collapsed Nissan Hut!
It has been vandalised numerous times by having paint thrown over it, and graffiti daubed across it but still it stands proudly silhouetted against the sky.  I love watching people scrambling over and under I while others just sit quietly or shelter from the elements against it.  It is very tactile. Maggie designed it to be a conversation with the sea as she said:
"An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea".
Scallop viewed from the sea
Fishing boats head out daily and there is always fresh fish to be purchased from the huts along the shore.  Before we left we bought dressed crab and prawns to have a lovely fishy meal when we arrived back in London. Lobsters are very plentiful and scarily delicious but at £10 per kilo I either need to be earning a lot more or settle for cheaper varieties of seafood! 
We spent a very relaxing Sunday along the coast at Southwold.  There is a lovely pier stretching into the sea which has been recently renovated.  There is a wonderful ly mad moving mechanical sculpture by Tim Hunkin an engineer, cartoonist and artist.  It provides great amusement for those of a scatalogical nature!

Southwold is also famous for its lines of beach huts along the foreshore and it is quite a status symbol to own one at a cost of £30,000 plus.  That is pretty expensive for what looks remarkably like a garden shed that you can get from B&Q for about £150!  You can also rent them but I can’t imagine just how unrelaxing it must be to sit in your beach hut while all the tourists (including me!) wander past in droves peering in to see how you have decorated it.
View of beach huts from Southwold pier
...and finally, I had to enclose this wonderful pic of banners I found outside the art gallery in Aldeburgh.  I am always on the lookout for good ideas and these made a lovely display in quite a boring little passageway.
We came back to London on bank holiday Monday to gloomy overcast Autumnal weather with the prospect of one more week in Clearing until pack up time.  It felt wonderfully rejuventating being able to escape for two days.  Now we are busily ‘theming our team’ ready for judging on Friday.  Our theme is cloaked in strict secrecy to avoid the spying eyes of our rivals so watch this space for pics and results!!....

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Full on Clearing Experience – my diary!

21st August
It is Sunday afternoon and after 5 days of full on A Levels week followed by working on Saturday at the University Open Day I woke up this morning aching in places I didn’t know existed!
I met our new team members in team Laura on Wednesday after returning from lunch. I am now sitting next to Royalle, who hails from Jamaica and will start the final year of her BA Events Management in September. The phones rang pretty constantly that day and on arriving home I was so tired that, after eating early, I was in bed at 10 pm with the hope of having a good sleep ready for the onslaught of A Level Results Day.  I knew it was to be a 12 hour phone marathon. I lay in bed and tossed and turned still awake at 1 am. I kept worrying that I wouldn’t know anything, that I would be too slow in dealing with the volume of calls, that I would write the clearing forms out wrongly – all sorts of silly things.  When I finally dozed off it seem only minutes until the alarm went off at 6am – aaahhhh!
Him-at -home insisted on driving me in, worried that I would fall off my bicycle with exhaustion.  He dropped me by the Greenwich Observatory enjoy a refreshing early morning walk down through the Park.  You really should try it.  Greenwich Park early on a summer’s morning with no tourists, the city glistening in the distance behind the beautiful buildings of the uni –  bliss!  It was a lovely way to start a day which soon went bonkers.  People began ringing in at 7.30 and when we began taking calls at 8am, it was one call after another all day long.  The UCAS website crashed immediately.   I later heard that it had been taking 400 hits per second.  We have a rule that we cannot allow phone to ring more than twice.  Royalle and I hardly spoke to each other as we just took call after call.  At 12md we had 15 minutes break.  I ran down the eight flights of stairs to grab a coffee and order my lunch then ran back up again.  It was head down again until my half hour  lunch time at 2.40.  The chicken salad that Terry in the café had put aside for me was so welcome!  Another coffee and we were off again.  We were offered overtime and, thinking of my course fees that needed paying very soon, I volunteered.  I finally put the phone down at 10.10 that night.  I was very grateful that him-at- home had insisted on collecting me!  I returned for an 8am start on Friday and the whole day was just as busy.  People rang in saying they been trying to get through for a day and a half while others were so anxious they could hardly string two sentences together.  One guy rang asking me to find him any course for which he met the entry criteria!  We offer courses  that vary from nursing to electronic engineering,  from psychology to equine studies  so i told him that I needed a bit more to go on before I could advise!
I had another memorable call this week from Rubin who had not met the conditions of his offer for business studies.  As we talked about what he could do, I looked at his GCSEs  and  A Level results.  He had studied separate science subjects at GCSE and had passed them all at A-C but things had gone rather pear shaped at A levels.  When I asked him why he had done a business BTEC, he explained that his teachers thought he wouldn’t manage sciences at A level because he was dyslexic.  His family, that included a couple of accountants and lots of business people, had encouraged him to do business studies but his heart really wasn’t in it. As we began to talk about science, he became quite animated, telling me how much he loved it.  I told him about the extended science programme where he could do a foundation year to give him entry into a variety of science degrees.  His excitement was infectious.  I encouraged him to read up about the programme and call me back if he was interested.  A couple of hours later he rang back really happy to have found this route into the subjects he loved so much.  The next day Dan in Reception told me he had been in to hand in his certificates and had talked about how pleased he was at the prospect of being able to go back to study science instead of business.
I was delighted to give some applicants the news that we could offer them a place.  One guy offered to give me a big hug!  Hearing the excitement in these students’ voices was absolutely lovely.  At other times I felt quite sad to tell applicants that they were unsuccessful in their applications.  Although we want to recruit students and fill all our spaces, it is not helpful or, in my view right, to take students who do not meet the required grades for the courses – they will struggle and we risk setting them up to fail.  I had a call from Jamie who had failed his access to Higher Education course and tried to convince me that he could manage a three year degree even though he ‘had lost motivation’ to complete the access course and would come in to do a test to ‘prove he could do a degree’.  I explained that there is a great deal of support for people doing access courses and by the time you get to uni  you are expected to be self-motivated and get far less ‘hand holding’. The test to prove you are ready for uni is to actually pass the access course!
24th August
Well I am still up and running but my voice has nearly gone so I am becoming addicted to my throat sweets!  Most of our courses are full and ‘the criteria’, our online clearing Bible, is updated four to six times per day.  This tells us what courses are still taking applications, what the entry criteria is and how to process applications, ie whether we can offer places or whether we have to pass the applications to the academics.  The phone calls are easing off a bit now and I have had time to make colourful flowers and name badges for our team.  Our colour is lilac and I could not find lilac glitter anywhere so I’ve had to make do with lilac tissue paper and purple sparkles.  We are meant to ‘theme our team’ and there have been some interesting ideas.  Sharat is the only male in our team and the feminist part of me objected strongly to one suggestion that he could be Charlie while we could all be his Angels!  My alternative suggestion that he be the beast while we be beauties did not go down well at all! 

25th August
It is GCSE results day today and i am wondering if my friend got the C in maths she needs to take up her conditional offer to start a PGCE for secondary teaching Art and Design.  Although she has a fine art degree, an MA and 20 years experience working with community arts projects, she still needs to pass her GCSE maths!  We have had to turn away applicants with more than enough level three UCAS points because they do not have A-C  at GCSE in maths and/or  English.
My voice is continuing to deteriorate today and I am developing a nasty cough.  One caller was very sympathetic and suggested I go and have a nice spa!  I had another call from a woman worrying about sorting aout a problem with her son’s application.  I explained that due to the strict data protection laws we could only give information to the applicant. She became quite upset saying that he was cycling around the UK and she could not get in touch with him.  I explained that students are over 18 and have to take responsibility for their applications and as i talked she suddenly broke in and asked  “Is that you Alice?” 
Very surprised I answered  “Yes!  Who’s that?”
“Hairdresser  Catherine?”
How random is that?  There are fifty of us taking calls and I get to talk to my hairdresser!

*Please note: Most names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

What the Dickens! Learning bowls with Great Expectations.

Well dear reader, I am exhausted after a Sunday spent playing lawn bowls.  Now I am rather hesitant to tell my Australian rellies about this activity because no-one under the age of about 75 would be seen dead partaking in such an activity!  However this was for a special charity – Westmeria Counselling Service where I do my placement clinical hours.  We had to arrive at 9am –very early– for training, with strict instructions to wear a red top to distinguish us from the blues, and white soled shoes to avoid damaging the green.  I thought that bowls was quite a sedate game for oldies looking for a relaxing way to occupy their time.  I was mistaken.  It is very serious, with lots of etiquette involved and fiercely competitive!

I first heard about the game while studying British history at my Australian school.  In 1588 as the Spanish Armada was proceeding up the English Channel ready to invade, he was supposedly playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe and remarked to his commanders that ‘there was still time to complete his game and beat the Spanish’, which he duly did.
When I remarked on the competitive nature of the game, one senior gentleman told me in no uncertain terms that ‘you might think we are all old gits but many of us have been serious sportsmen in our time’. The balls are not balls at all.  They were originally made of wood and hence the name ‘woods’.

Antique bowling woods made of wood with ivory inserts

A modern 'wood' made of resin. The marks on the sides indicate which way to hold it to direct the curve - all very scientific!

They have to be held in a special way so they roll in the right direction.  They are weighted so that you can make it curve either left or right depending how you hold it.  The aim is to for your team to get their woods as close to the little white ball, called the Jack, as possible.  You must stand with one foot on a special rubber mat and bowl the wood underarm.  You can employ all sorts of shifty tactics including blocking the jack, knocking the other team’s woods out of the way, or knocking the jack away from the opposition’s woods to be closer to yours.  If there is any dispute about whose wood is closest to the jack out omes the specially designed tape measure from a specially designed little pouch worn on the waistband. 
Checking the distances while everyone waits with baited breath!

Fellow newbies Sue and Gemma thought, as I did, that the special little pouch was for holding your lipstick and sun cream but we were quickly corrected!  By the end of the day we had figured out many of the rules and I was beginning to really enjoy myself – especially when the afternoon tea and cakes came out!  There was a bar open to obtain stronger beverages but I didn’t dare indulge as my wood s were going crookedly enough already! We finished the day at 5pm, with the event having raised £2000 – fantastic!
We were joining a very British tradition!
I started my working week quite shattered after all that exertion bending down, rolling woods, walking from one end of the ‘rink’ to the other!
Us oldies on the early clearing team have now been invaded by all the newbies  swelling our ranks ready for Thursday’s A level results day.  We are in our new teams and have changed out team colour from pink to lilac.  We have to colour co ordinate our bay and I am having great difficulty locating lilac coloured glitter.  I have found a lilac glitter pen and purple sparkles so those will have to do.  Watch this space for the forthcoming photo gallery!
For the last two days the campus has felt like a  bit of a time warp, populated by characters in Dickensian dress,  horse drawn buggies coaches and , and all the modern paraphernalia  required for the filming of scenes for Great Expectations.  My usual lunchtime route was barricaded off and it felt like being in a time warp looking in one direction to the 1800’s and the other to the modern day – weird and quite discombobulating!

...and then there is the 1940’s D-day landing experience outside the library. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

Farewell to Team Uzma

This is our last day of working in our early Clearing teams.  The UCAS track is unavailable while being upgraded with A level results ready for A level day on Wednesday so we are having to tell everyone to call back on Monday to have any clearing applications considered.  I think it’s going to get verrry busy!!
On Monday we move into our new teams ready to be joined by all the newbies starting their first clearing.  I remember when I joined last year.  We finished our three days of training and came over  here to practise taking phone calls.  My phone rang, I picked it up and ...went blank!  I couldn’t believe it!  I was so nervous!  I had to put the caller on hold and tell my team leader that I had forgotten everything.  Luckily it was the impossible-to-fluster Spencer who calmly told me what to do and I was able to complete the call with bleeding to death, having a heart attack or anything else rather dramatic!
When we first came together as Team 3, with Uzma as our leader and pink as our colour (much to the chagrin of the boys!!) we just HAD to personalise our space.  Each of us chose a letter from our team name and made a poster.  Each is so different, expressing the individuality of the artist.
Dan who is studying games and multimedia chose a play on words for his very British cuppa T

Uzma, our very business orientated team leader chose a very neat but slightly quirky computer generated letter and then applied her delegation skills to have Rukon decorate it beautifully

Farhana our resident mathematician went all algebraic on us,after insisting she wasn’t creative!

Monique, studying tourism management showed her taste for the exotic with a very sparkly fairy

Remco, our Dutchman who has just finished his event management course and is about to start his PGCE LLS course has been accused of trying to get into Uzma’s good books with his tasteful rendition and flattering words!

This is my letter as you can see by all the glitz.  I’m not sure how this relates to my course choice but I love my sparkles!

Rukon ‘s M shows all the precision required for his chosen career in Accounting and Finance!

....while Dan remains the eternal rebel!

So good bye team to Team Uzma and hello to Team Laura!  Now we have to think up a suitably lilac theme.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

London Erupts

The last four days have been shocking with the news of violence and looting in London and other cities throughout the UK.  Having ignored my computer all weekend, I only became known of the situation on Sunday night.
As things escalated and we woke up to stories of utter devastation on Tuesday morning the mood around me was one of shock and disbelief.  How could events of this magnitude erupt in our wonderful city?  What makes people act so badly; destroying the homes, possessions and livelihoods of so many people,  mugging a young man as he staggers around shocked and bleeding from a head injury, destroying their own neighbourhoods?
My son Jack rang to say he and his fiancée were safe although they live five minutes from the centre of Ealing where their Tesco supermarket, favourite little coffee shop, Thai restaurant and florist shop were vandalised and a neighbour escaped her burnt out flat with only her beloved violin and the clothes on her back. My daughter was quite sage tucked away in the countryside of West Sussex but concerned for all of us in the thick of it.
My sister in Australia emailed to check whether we were all safe.  Now a freelance, writer and lecturer, in the 1970’s she left her job and to start her first business – a tiny shop selling second hand clothes.  She worked incredibly hard for thirty years to build a successful retail business. One reason she gave for closing it down was feeling fed up with the increasing levels of shoplifting by people who saw her as a rich capitalist and felt entitled to take what they wanted.  She expressed her dismay and sadness for those small business owners who have lost so much.  My friend in Tasmania invited me to come for a peaceful break from my London Lewisham to her Lewisham, a sleepy little Tasmanian coastal township.  I thanked her for such an idyllically sounding offer, but politely declined!
After business as usual, taking calls all morning, at lunchtime I went for a walk through Greenwich.  Rumours were rife of crowds gathering in Blackheath, Woolwich, Charlton and Deptford.  The university closed all gates but the main two, while the Maritime Museum, Chapel and Painted Hall closed early.  All the shops were either shut or being boarded up.  In the market, usually such a bustling place full of colourful stalls, wonderful foodie smalls and chattering people, the stall holders were hurriedly packing up, running to clear the site and get home before any evening disturbances.  I walked back from lunch feeling quite shaken by a strong sense of anxiety, wondering knowing what would happened next.  Over the afternoon we kept abreast of events between calls by checking the online updates.  I took a call from a woman who ostensibly was enquiring about her application status but went on to tell me of her terrifying ordeal the day before when she and her two small children were caught up in the unrest in Hackney.  The smoke had been so thick that she was only able to get home by following the canal.  She sounded shaken; still in shock.  After twenty minutes of letting her just talk, we said goodbye and I wished her well. I rang off, feeling very moved by her story and glad I was able to listen.
With all the uncertainty, many staff left early, pairing up to travel safely.  I left my bicycle at work and got a lift back with a colleague.  The streets were very quiet, almost ominously so, with most shops locked and shuttered.  We went to bed wondering what we would wake up to this morning.  We were relieved to things had been quiet in London but sadden to hear of events in the other cities.  There was a news item showing the demolition of the bunt out shell that up to two days ago had been a thriving 100 year old furniture business in Croydon.  I know this area very well having lived close by for many years.  The devastated owner remarked that the business had survived through two world wars and a depression.  I was heartened to see the organisation of the cleanup campaign organised through Twitter where crowds of people emerged onto the streets armed with brooms, dustpans and black bags, determined to show defiance to the rioters and support for those suffering.
As I walked to work today over Blackheath and down through Greenwich Park, the sun shone, the city glistened in the distance at the start of a glorious summer’s day.  It was as though nothing had happened.
Tottenham - 20 families homeless and business wiped out

Looters in Lewisham

Mac on riots

Monday, 8 August 2011

Countdown to Main Clearing, Prevention of Scurvy and the Rabbit Proof Fence

This is our last week in Early Clearing and next week we begin working in shifts to cover the hectic A level results week.

I am continuing my lunch-time ‘Cultural Enhancement Programme’ as a welcome diversion between the intensity of sitting all morning answering enquiries and busy afternoons doing the same.  I spent one lunchtime in the Maritime Museum shop and found an interesting book on the history of scurvy – an odd choice you might think,..but I am rather odd in that I find all sorts of weird information quite fascinating.
Scurvy was the major killer of sailors on long sea journeys and a ship that set off with a crew of 2000 could expect to return having lost two thirds of that number, most of them dying really horribly due to lack of vitamin C in their diets.  The idea that making sailors drink a lime juice mixture  would prevent such a devastating disease was met with scepticism for decades as the fashion was for such dodgy treatments as cupping, and bleeding.
My latest forays have been to the campus library.  My course is based at Avery hill so the books here in the Greenwich Maritime Campus are very different. With the humanities courses based  here there are lots of novels and DVD’s to borrow.  I am looking forward to relaxing tonight to watch I’m Not There– the story of Bob Dylan and The Rabbit Proof Fence – a film about the ‘Stolen Generation’ of mixed race Australian Aboriginal children who were removed from their full blood families to be indoctrinated into the white community with the ultimate aim of annihilating the Aboriginal race.

My cycling programme is going well and last week I finally managed to ride to the top of Greenwich Park without having to push the bike half way.  Browsing through the library I discovered a book on cycling that says I can burn 8 calories a minute.  If I keep on cycling regularly this adds up to about 11 kg of fat a year!  So I can look forward to ending up very svelte by this time next year which will mean more retail therapy!! you see Clearing isn’t just Clearing – it’s a whole different way of life!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Getting fit and a Glass- oholic’s treat!

We have now been based on the Maritime Campus for a week and settled into our teams with a phone and computer each –quite a change from the disruption of the previous week.  It is a good feeling to be more settled and able to get to know our team more.

The phones have rung steadily with a variety of enquiries and enquirers and just when I start feeling much more competent and knowledgeable than I did at the beginning of last week, a particularly awkward question comes up to really keep me on my toes! Remco had the best question yesterday though.  His last caller of the day asked whether we “had any courses for thick people?” Very unusually for Remco, he was left speechless - for at least five seconds!
Still no news about my stolen scooter but I am getting used to riding my bicycle from home in Hither Green.  I am determined to be much fitter by the end of Clearing and it’s becoming rather infectious.  When I first started here I had a bit of a lonely walk up the stairs to the fourth floor as most people went up the lift but now there are a few of us.  I am determined to be riding all the way up the hill through Greenwich Park by the end of Clearing! The first week I only got to the first park bench and last night I made it half way up. I have also decided to go for a walk at lunchtime to refresh my brain after sitting at the computer all morning.  Yesterday I visited the Maritime museum just over the road from us.  I don’t know why I haven’t done it before; it is so interesting.  I only had half an hour so, being a glass-oholic, I headed straight up the stairs to the Baltic Exchange Stained glass panels.

.... Wow!!!  The original Baltic Exchange stood on the site of the present day Gherkin and the stained glass work was commissioned to commemorate the sixty two employees killed in the First World War. An IRA bomb exploded next to it in 1992 and the building was damaged beyond repair and was demolished.  Only 45 of the 240 stained glass panels survived intact and it took ten years to repair and restored them before installing it into the Maritime Museum.   There is a huge half dome consisting of stained glass panels three metres high and four flat panels on the wall opposite.  It was wonderful to be able to get really close to examine the exquisite glass paintwork and leading techniques.  The colours are glorious – deep rich reds and purples, glorious blues and glowing golds. Even the repairs on some of the broken panels have been done beautifully and only add to the charm of this work of art. No photo can do it justice – you have to be there!

More about the glass can be found at:
What an amazing experience – it beats sitting in the student cafe for an hour!  I am aiming to do the whole museum in bite size chunks of lunchtime half hours, followed by Queen Anne’s house next to it.  The other wonderful thing is it is all free – how good is that?