Monday, November 30, 2009



I should start by confessing that maths was never my strong point at school, I struggled with algebra, logarithms, etc and although I wasn't too bad at geometry I admit to a sigh of relief on leaving school, knowing that double maths lessons would never blight my life again.
It has therefore been something of a surprise to me how much I loved reading 'The Housekeeper & The Professor' by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder). This is a perfect little jewel of a book, and I read it at one sitting.

The housekeeper of the title is a young unmarried mother with a ten-year-old son who is employed to look after an ageing Professor of
Mathematics. This brilliant man has a problem, he received a serious head injury in a car accident seventeen years previously and since that time has lived with an eighty minute short term memory. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives for work, she has to re-introduce herself to the Professor as he lives in the moment, and anything which happened more than eighty minutes ago is wiped from his mind. He has tried to develop a method of coping with this by writing little notes to himself which he attaches to the suit he wears each day. The most important of these notes reads "my memory only lasts 80 minutes". His suit is absolutely covered with these aide-memoires. Despite this handicap, his passion for mathematics is still very much alive and his mental world is composed of equations, numbers, and mathematical problems from the past.
When the Professor realises that his housekeeper has a son who is home alone after school each day, he insists that the boy come to join his mother at the Professor's house. He immediately
nicknames the boy Root, as he says the boy has a flat head which looks like the square root symbol, and with clever mathematical riddles he slowly builds a delicate relationship with the mother and son. The housekeeper who (much like myself) has not thought about maths since she was a schoolgirl, is drawn in to the mysterious beauty of pure mathematics and soon she is beginning to learn about prime numbers, triangular numbers, amicable numbers, perfect numbers, the concept of zero and complex formulae and theorems.
Root has a passion for baseball, which is the most popular sport in Japan, and he supports a team called the Hanshin Tigers. He discovers that the Professor also loves the game and is a huge fan of a famous, long retired, player called Enatsu who played for the same team - but of course the Professor does not remember that the man has retired, and Root attempts to shield him from knowing this as it might upset him.
Over time, these three rather lost souls become like a family, a family that each of them had needed in different ways.
Their story is really charming, and very touching - and guess what, I even learned some maths!

Rated 5*


In October the government's Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) became law. The scheme was devised as a result of the national panic following the horrible murders of two schoolgirls in Soham in 2002.

Right from the outset I have been very dubious as to how effective it would be in keeping children safer than they were previously. The government has ignored all criticisms of the scheme, and now it is
firmly in place and will become mandatory from next year. For those who do not know what the VBS is, or how it works, basically it means that anyone who works or applies to work with children or vulnerable adults - either in a paid or voluntary capacity will have to apply for clearance (and unless they are volunteers) will have to pay £64 pounds for doing so. Their background will be checked for any criminal records, and non-conviction information from different sources when building a view of an individuals suitability (ie heresay or local gossip) for clearance. The scheme will be administered by a new body, to wit the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA)

This new scheme covers a huge range of people such as teachers, private tutors and sports coaches but also people such as doctors and nurses, opticians and dentists and taxi drivers who regularly take children to school. It will also cover librarians, parents who help out at their children's school on a regular basis, Brownie, Guide and Scouts leaders, and anyone who takes groups of children to such clubs or to ballet lessons, football matches etc. It will cover any parents who host an exchange student for a couple of weeks. It will cover staff in children's clothes or shoe shops, Sunday School teachers and anyone who assists them, I could list more but you get the picture. In fact, earlier this week a primary school in Cambridgeshire announced that when the entire school makes the ten minute walk to the local church for its annual carol service, escorted by the police and teachers, any parent who accompanies them will have to apply for clearance. I kid you not.

In all it is thought that nearly 11 million British adults will have to go through this scheme.

Many charities are worried that they will loose volunteers who do not want to go through the hassle of this process, and school language teachers are concerned that the foreign language exchange schemes will fizzle out because of it.

The ISA has taken on 200 employees and has been set up with offices in a marginal Labour constituency which has a high level of unemployment (and there is a general election coming up in six months or so - hmm, call me cynical but....). With one in four British adults needing to go through the scheme, it will produce shed-loads of money for the government, how handy is that when the national finances need all the help they can get.

The danger with this sort of legislation is that once in place, more and more organisations seek to use it either because they are paranoid, or to cover their backs, or because it is a form of control and empire building.

The example of this purpose-creep ( I don't know if that phrase exists, but you get my meaning) which has me frothing at the mouth today, is that OFSTED (which stands for the Office of Standards in Education - yet another government body) has announced that the parents of home-schooled children will have to go through the VBS and be cleared by the ISA.

What? a parent will be checked to see if it would be a danger for them to school their own child, not from an educational perspective, but in case they are not suitable? This is crazy. What if they are not granted clearance. The child might then have to attend a local school where the staff have been cleared, but at the end of the school day they would return home to be cared for by the 'unsuitable' parents. I think OFSTED are off their heads.

But above all, I think that treating all adults as potential paedophiles or abusers is a very bad thing to do, a society where so many of its citizens are not trusted is a very damaged society, and what is more it is unlikely to achieve its aims. Of course I want children to be safe, -there are nasty people around and each of us has to be vigilant, but this legislation won't keep anyone any safer
Do you think the ISA has checked to see if Santa is registered and been cleared?


Did you know that the term Vegetarian was only coined in the 19th century? before that people who did not eat meat or fish called themselves Pythagoreans. Although I, and all my family are what can only be described as greedy omnivores - we love meat and fish - we do eat a great many non-meat meals. Recently there has been quite a bit of comment in the press about how we could stop global warming if we didn't eat meat. Hmm, I'm more than a bit skeptical. But just to show my intentions are good, here is a wonderful recipe from a book I love called 'The Greens Cookbook' by Deborah Madison; you can enjoy this dish and feel virtuous at the same time!


2 Tablespns olive oil

½ onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

¼ teaspoon dried thyme or leaves from 4-6 stalks fresh thyme

1 bayleaf

Salt & pepper

120ml dry white wine

½ teaspoon paprika (or ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper)

450g tomatoes, fresh or tinned, peeled and chopped

1½ teaspoons sugar (if necessary)

1 butternut squash weighing approx 1.3 – 1.5 kg

Olive oil for frying

120g Gruyère cheese, sliced

Fresh herbs, parsley, marjoram, thyme etc, finely chopped.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until onion is soft, but don’t let it brown; then add the wine and let it reduce by half. Add the chopped tomatoes and the paprika and cook gently for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is quite thick. Taste, add sugar if it is too tart and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Whilst the tomato sauce is cooking prepare the squash by peeling, removing all seeds and stringy bits, and then cutting into slices approx 7.5cms long and 5mm thick ( 3ins x ¼ in).

Heat enough oil in a large frying pan and fry the butternut slices on both sides so it is lightly browned and just tender. Remove slices from the pan and drain on paper towel to remove excess oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C

Assemble the gratin by covering the bottom of a large shallow oven-proof dish with the tomato sauce. Lay the slices of butternut on top of the sauce in overlapping layers interspersed with slices of cheese.

Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the gratin is hot. Serve with the fresh herbs scattered over the top, a green salad and crusty bread.


nick said...

There are so many points I could take up in your excellent rant, but I would be at it all day! The VBS is totally over the top and idiotic, as I said in a post of my own. In theory every single adult should be vetted because we all come in regular contact with children. As you say, already people with barely any contact with children or only for a very short time are being pounced on for vetting. I think mission-creep is the word you're looking for.

I live very close to several schools and there's a constant procession of pupils coming past. I use the local shops which are often full of schoolkids. How come I'm not being vetted for my obvious paedophilic opportunities?

It's just another stealth tax, and as you suggest the income will be considerable. And will the profit go towards looking after vulnerable and abused children? Somehow I think not.

The butternut squash gratin looks good (as I'm a vegetarian). I shall keep that recipe.

Ashleigh said...

I love the sound of the book and have put it on my list to get from the library (or maybe next week when in the UK). The vetting process sounds absolutely ridiculous! I'm so glad we don't live in the UK anymore and instead our children can play in the streets here in Holland, sit on Sinterklaas lap, and be talked to by strangers who haven't been vetted for peculiar tendencies toward children. Besides, if one is a paedophile wouldn't one be able to lie one's way through one of these tests?

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