Monday, 29 July 2013

Duke of Edinburgh Award

In the Easter holidays about sixty members of our school set out on an expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, otherwise known as D of E. I was in a group of seven, and we begun our journey in high spirits. We had completed our practice expedition in October, and now we were undertaking the real expedition. On the practice I borrowed my mother’s shoes and, unfortunately, they were too small – by the end of the first day of hiking I had Hematoma under my big toe. Hematoma/Haematoma is an accumulation of blood in a certain place, like a bruise, but it hurts a lot more! And so on top of the mountain I had to cut my toenails using one of the teacher’s penknives. Then proceeded one of the most horrible experiences of my life: the school doctor had to drill a hole through my toenail (sorry to be so graphic) so that the blood could squirt out. To make matters worse, I still had to finish the walk in excruciating pain.

I knew not to make the same mistake at Easter, so the week before the expedition I bought myself some new hiking shoes, and I was determined that they would not be too small. And so, in my new boots and in the cold weather, we set out on the first day of our D of E hike. We had to walk about 23 kilometres each day for three days – that amounts to about 70 kilometres with no day between to rest. And there was me thinking Bronze D of E (only 13 kilometres for two days) was hard! All of the other hikers that we passed were very kind and indeed many stopped to chat to us. One man, I remember, asked where we were staying. When we told him, he began to giggle: it was only then that we discovered the weather forecast. A huge dump of snow was forecasted that night, and it was to fall right where our campsite was!

And as we settled down for the night in our tents, we prayed that it would not snow and that we would stay warm. However alas! It was not so. I was awoken in the night by the shouts of one of my teachers:
“Is everybody okay? Who’s in here? Are you alright?”
“Y-y-y-yes sir-r-r-r” I replied, shivering.
He had been rung in the night by one of the girl’s tents requesting that he pick them up and ‘save them’. The girls were taken to sleep in the toilets, which were somewhat warmer, and typically, all the boys pretended not to be cold, so that no one person would be branded a coward. And so we soldiered on through the night, shivering and burying ourselves in our sleeping bags.

As I pulled down the zipper of my tent, I saw to my horror that my backpack had been entombed under piles of snow, even though it was under part of the tent! Eager to see the mark left by the snow, I crawled out of my tent and couldn’t believe my eyes. A carpet of snow had encompassed everything in site, and there was no inch left uncovered. A few minutes after I had arisen some teachers arrived, ordering us to pack up the girl’s tents and bags – they had failed their expedition. In the blistering cold, with no gloves, this was indeed a horrible experience. The metal poles of the tents stuck to my fingers and froze my skin! On top of this, we had to pack up our own tents and bags in anticipation of our day’s walk.

However, just as we were preparing to set off, our assessor broke the news to us: our expedition had to be called off. It was not safe to make us walk during the blizzard, and there was no other way we could complete it. And so we had endured an entire day of hiking for nothing. Not only that, but we had also completed 30 hours of Volunteering, amongst other things, just to have failed our award – it had all been wasted!

But it was not all bad! Luckily our teachers were able to organise a second internally assessed expedition at the beginning of the summer holidays. Although I had to sacrifice 3 days of my holiday, I thought it was worth it, rather than all my hard work having gone to waste. Nevertheless, we still lost one of the members of our group who wasn’t eager to go on another expedition, which was a very traumatic experience for us all.

And so again we set off, after we had completed our GCSEs and were starting to relax for summer. However I never fully relaxed until the expedition was over as it was looming over me for the first week of summer. In slightly less high spirits our expedition begun, and let me just say that for me, my spirits did not improve. In fact they steadily plummeted throughout the walk. On the first day I managed to twist my right ankle while stumbling through a quarry while my entire group were about a hundred metres ahead of me.

On the second day things went from bad to worse. As I mentioned earlier, because I was so determined not to get Hematoma this time, I bought extra large boots – what a mistake! Within the first hour of the second day I had the biggest and most excruciating blisters on both of my feet that I had ever seen. We stopped for a ‘blister inspection’ on Mycock Lane (I know: very witty), and mine were definitely the biggest, and I proceeded to cover them in an abundance of Compeed, God’s blessing to men (with blisters).

It then became almost unbearable to walk, and so I devised a way to travel the distance in the least amount of pain: this was only possible if I steadily jogged without lifting my feet very high from the ground, so that each step was very light. However as you can guess this was very tiring, and made almost impossible by my twisted ankle. My group seemed to find my plight exceedingly hilarious, making the experience all the more horrific.

At the end of the second day I also somehow managed to damage my knee in some way (I’m not sure how) which made it much more uncomfortable to walk. And as we settled down at our campsite for our second night we met some other groups from a different school, and when we asked them how far they had to walk we were outraged. They only had to walk 15 kilometres! This is because the actual requirement for the Silver Award is about six hours of walking per day – there is no set distance! This really aggravated our entire group because we had to suffer an extra eight kilometres every day because our school are really pushy. However not all was bad: the other school gave us lots of their food because they ‘felt sorry for us’.

However the two injuries to my legs, along with my blisters, were not my only problems. By the end of the second day I had tremendously painful chafing on the inside of my legs. This made any sort of walking impossible, and I ended up being laughed at by everybody I passed because I was forced to waddle like a penguin, with my legs wide apart. Therefore I decided to retire early, and lay in my tent while my group watched the football.

The final day was absolute hell. I spent almost all the day stumbling along behind my group while they shouted ‘Hurry up!’ over and over. At many points I thought, and so did they, that I would not make it. I contemplated ringing the teacher and telling him that I could walk no further, for fear of permanently damaging either my feet or my legs. Nonetheless I reached the end just as it began to pour with rain, and to my great pleasure, was provided with a box of fish and chips. We still had to wait a couple of hours for one of the groups who had gotten terribly lost, and had taken an hour or so detour.

I find it rather ironic how three of my life’s most unpleasant experiences (Hematoma, sleeping in a blizzard and chafing/blisters) all took place on my Silver D of E expeditions, and yet I still very much enjoyed them. And although the walking was somewhat traumatic I still relished the experience and look forward to Gold! And despite losing a few days of my holiday, I’m glad I have now completed the Award. However, a month on, my blisters have yet to heal, and I was unable to walk for about a week after the expedition.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Greed and Loss in 'Disabled' and 'The Necklace'

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” – William Shakespeare (Richard II)

Greed and Loss are central themes in both Disabled and The Necklace. While each writer explores these themes in different ways, both works ultimately imply that greed is apt to result in the loss of that which you desire. War may appear glorious but is in fact horrific and destructive and a sparkling necklace may appear to be made of diamonds but is in fact just glass. The pursuit of the superficial and its consequences are at the heart of both pieces. Like children’s nursery rhymes, they have an underlying moral.

Both Mathilde and the unknown soldier from the two pieces experience loss and are both ruined, one physically and one financially – and perhaps both mentally. They both start out with a desire for something superficial and not needed, which ultimately leads to them both ironically losing out.

The writer of The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant, was born in 1850, in Dieppe, France. He lived with his mother after she was disgraced and ostracised by all those who knew her, for the one reason that she left her husband. Known largely for his skill of executing denouements effortlessly, de Maupassant has often been referred to as a protégé of Gustave Flaubert, also an 18th Century French writer. He was a very secluded person, and he had a personal loathing of society. Perhaps this was a motive for his writings that occasionally villianised modern society and characterised it as superficial and corrupt. The Necklace is a direct critique of society’s fascination with glamour and jewels, and the common desire for the superficial.

Both the boy in Disabled and Madame Loisel in The Necklace are not content with what they have, even though they are both very privileged.  De Maupassant explains in The Necklace: “She was unhappy all the time...” Although Mathilde lives a perfectly acceptable life with maids and food on her table, she is not content with her lifestyle – the unhappiness she exhibits is because of her greed. To accentuate this, De Maupassant uses the words ‘she dreamed’ on a number of occasions: “She dreamed of exquisite dishes served on fabulous china plates.” To draw the reader’s attention to Mathilde’s unhappiness, many emotive words are used. De Maupassant writes: “Sometimes, for days on end, she would weep tears of sorrow, regret, despair and anguish.” Although some would argue that this makes us feel compassion towards her, it also makes her seem spoilt. She is characterized like a little girl who is having a tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants, highlighting her predominant characteristic as greedy.

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” - Socrates 

Wilfred Owen, who was born in 1893, is one of the leading First World War poets. He served in the Manchester Regiment after he enlisted at the age of 22. He is best known for his shocking accounts of the trenches, gas and the deaths of his fellow soldiers. His most proclaimed poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, explains the results of cowardice. Perhaps Owen believes that those who sacrificed nothing are cowards, and that soldiers like the ones in his poem Disabled are the real heroes of the war.

In Owen’s poem Disabled the soldier is also made to seem childlike, for quite similar reasons. He is not content with being the hero on the sports field, and nor is he content with the attention he gets from girls. He must have more glory, and he must impress those around him. Owen writes: “That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg...” Just as Mathilde wants to look like a goddess in a ball gown, the young boy imagines himself as a god in a kilt. This characteristic is somewhat childish, because he wants to be the ‘cool kid’ that everybody respects. It is selfishness and the quest for self-glorification that motivate the soldier to join the army, rather than a sense of duty to his country. He wants glory for selfish reasons, so that he can show off. The poem reads: “Germans he scarcely thought of... he thought of jewelled hilts for daggers in plaid socks.” In reality, he doesn’t care about his country, but only about himself. He takes pride in going off to join the army, but then finds that that his hopes are not wholly fulfilled when he returns home: “Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer goal.” People no longer show him the care nor the respect that he wants to be shown, and they no longer celebrate his actions as they used to, which is a somewhat ironic outcome.

Another prominent reason that the soldier in Owen’s poem joined the army was for the sexual attention he expected he would receive for it. However, ironically, the consequence of him going to war means that his now broken body will no longer enjoy female attention or ‘their slim waists’ only to be replaced by the memory of blood spurting from his thigh, which could in fact be a metaphor for male ejaculation.

“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” - Proverbs 16

Mathilde also exhibits a lot of pride in herself throughout de Maupassant’s short story. She has her moment of glory when she is at the party: “She danced ecstatically, wildly, intoxicated with pleasure...” She has reached ecstasy when she finally has what she wants. But as we see soon after, ‘pride goeth before destruction...’ Her delight is not only transient but, as the final twist reveals, illusionary.

An example of a man who lost everything because of his dissatisfaction and greediness is the mythological character of King Midas. Midas, who was the King of Pessinus, had everything he could possibly wish for. He was rich, powerful and had a family – he should have been happy. However, just as shown in both of the above pieces, he was not content. Midas wished that whatever he touched turned to gold. He soon finds that this was a huge mistake – it eventually means he cannot eat or drink, and when he comes to hug his daughter, she turns to gold too. He is then forced to beg the Gods to undo the wish. There is a similar moral exhibited in the two pieces I have mentioned, and that is to not be greedy.

Self obsession is a predominant factor of the loss that both of the characters experience. Mathilde loses ten years of her life which she spends working to repay debts she owes – her body wastes away and she loses her youth. Her self-obsession is clear from the outset of the story, as de Maupassant writes: “She was one of those pretty, delightful girls...” and almost immediately it seems as if she is talking about herself. She thinks she is better than her own lifestyle, and that she deserves more. This arrogance makes us show less sympathy for Mathilde, as it encourages us to take the view that she deserved to lose what she had. De Maupassant emphasizes this by adding the contrast of her husband’s contentment when he exclaims: “’Ah! Stew! Splendid’”. De Maupassant deploys this contrast to emphasize that it is greed and self-obsession that drive Mathilde. This same self obsession is also seen in Disabled. The soldier is now old; his youth consumed by the war that he thought would make him even more attractive. He is obsessed with himself, and loves being shown off: “After the matches, carried shoulder high.” Both the characters love showing off and clearly think very highly of themselves. They both exhibit greed for attention. The arrogance that they demonstrate makes us less sympathetic towards their characters in their sufferings.

Desire for the past that has been lost is shown in Disabled by Owen’s repetitive use of references to the past to show that it is all the unknown boy thinks about. Owen writes: “In the old times...” and multiple paragraphs are written in the perfect tense to reinforce the desire of the soldier for what used to be.

In 48 different countries there are tombs that represent the ‘unknown soldier’. The remains that have been interred there commemorate the death of all those who died in the war. Perhaps Owen’s reluctance to say the name of the soldier mentioned in the poem, thus making him an ‘unknown soldier’, is a hint that nobody really cares about him – he is just one of the many who fought in the war. Perhaps he hopes to imply that nobody cares about what he wants, or what he has lost – or even his regrets. This is somewhat ironic, because that is all he really wanted.

“Don’t sacrifice yourself too much, because if you sacrifice too much there’s nothing else you can give and nobody will care for you.” - Karl Lagerfield

The soldier has sacrificed everything. He used to have four limbs, all the glory on the football pitch he could possibly want, and attention for his attractiveness: “There was an artist silly for his face,” But now that he has sacrificed everything, he has nothing to give, and nobody cares for him: “Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes passed from him...” We feel sympathy for him, because he clearly regrets the naive choices he made when he was younger. We feel a lot more sympathy for the soldier in Disabled than we do for Mathilde because, although he showed ignorance in his youth, he was motivated by a naivety rather than pure greed, which is a much less desirable trait.

Once Mathilde realises that she has wasted ten years of her life and all the family’s money, she experiences the same regret and feeling of loss. Guy de Maupassant uses very emotive language to emphasize Mathilde’s memories of the past. He writes: “She would sit by the window and think of that evening long ago when she had been so beautiful and admired.” This regret that Mathilde feels is the more predominant impact of her loss. She feels annoyed and upset about the unlucky circumstances that she fell into. She thinks that it is unfair, as she says: “How little is needed to make or break us!” Both characters exhibit self-pity throughout the pieces of writing. In The Necklace it reads: “She had no fine dresses, no jewellery, nothing; and that was all she cared about.” She is sad for herself, and we feel not pity but anger at her for this, because she has no reason for it. However in some ways both their reasons for self-pity are somewhat justifiable, as it is a very normal desire to want to look nice at a ball or to attain respect amongst ones companions. Are they undesirable characters, or are they justifiably pitied?

It is clear from both pieces that the writer intended to underline that greediness is what caused Mathilde’s and the soldier’s loss, and that regret soon follows. The hope and desires of both characters are dashed and lost as a consequence of their greedy pursuit of the superficial. However, I think both writers also intended for society to be criticised for the way that it glorifies war and how it glamorizes jewels (which in reality are only glass). Perhaps Mathilde and the soldier were conditioned by society to act as they did and to be greedy? Maybe we are left with the feeling that we are all partly responsible for their loss by glorifying war and glamorous parties which contributed to their greed? Overall, both characters had a desire and fascination for the superficial, and although this is put across differently by both writers, the ultimate theme of inevitable loss is the same. 

A Week in Shangri La

Every year, at the school ball, my parents put a ‘week’s stay in our Spanish house’ up for auction. This year the winner of the holiday happened to be the school Under Master, quite an important fellow. And as usual this summer we decided to retire to our house in Spain. Therefore when the Under Master came to stay, we needed somewhere to go – and so we thought we’d go on a lovely beach holiday. Then began the task of picking a nice and sunny place, and a pleasant hotel.

Now I have no idea how this came about, but we ended up booking flights to go to a place called Oman. As a teenager, I had no clue where Oman was (so don’t worry if you don’t either). Bordering with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Oman is a Sultanate in the Middle East. Now this is all new to me – call me ignorant, but I’d never even heard of a Sultanate, and I almost believed my dad when he told me:
“Oman is ruled by a Sultan, who is married to a Sultana. They have two children, who are Currants.”

My bewilderment continued when, on the morning of our flight, my father told me that we had to take 3 flights, the first to Madrid, then to Heathrow, then to Muscat (in Oman). He then explained that we were staying in a hotel in Heathrow too, and catching an early morning flight. Including the night at Heathrow, this would amount to about 40 hours of travelling. This left me with one question: why were we going to Oman? We could be going anywhere! It got even worse when I discovered our flight was not direct, and was stopping in Abu Dhabi. Why were we going to all this effort? ‘It better be worth it,’ I thought to myself.

As I took my first step out of the airport a wall of heat hit me. By day, Oman is about 35-40 degrees. By night, it is about 30-40. Imagine how surprised I was when at midnight I began sweating due to the temperature – this is crazy! We were then driven to our hotel, part of the Shangri La Hotel complex.

And while I was loving the luxury of the hotel, my father could not relax one bit. When he booked the hotel, he was told that he was to be given a ‘complimentary upgrade’. So when this upgrade was nowhere to be seen, stress levels went through the roof. In the end we were shown to our upgraded rooms, and we were content – until a hotel worker, Antionette, tried to charge us for our complimentary upgrade! This is how the conversation went:

“Now you give 50 reals.”
“No, this is complimentary.”
“Yes. 50 reals.”
“Look, Antionette, do you know what complimentary means?”
“Hmmm… free?”
“Yes, so I’m not going to pay any money.”
“Okay. So you pay 20 reals?”
“No. Why am I paying 20?”
“Because I know you no want to pay 50.”
“I’m not going to pay 20 reals.”
“So you pay 50?”
“No, Antionette! I’m not going to pay any money!”

All the while, my brother and I were rolling on the floor with laughter. The thing that made us giggle the most was my father’s accent. Because he is incapable of speaking any language bar English, he speaks foreign. And by this I mean, he speaks to anybody foreign with a silly accent and in an extremely patronising tone, and makes himself sound like an absolute idiot. For example, as we have a house in Spain my father is able to say a few jumbled words in Spanish. And so on one night my father ended up speaking Spanish to an Indian woman in an Italian restaurant in Oman.

Then begun a family game: whoever could spot the first guest in the Hotel wins. This was because, to our surprise, there were only twenty people staying throughout the entire hotel. This left the corridors feeling very eerie and reminded us of scenes from The Shining.

We had come to Oman during Ramadan, the Islamic (not ‘Muslamic’, as certain members of the EDL seem to think) festival, celebrated in the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which usually falls in mid-Summer. This explains the lack of guests. This also meant that, to my parents’ slight annoyance, alcohol was not to be served until ‘iftar’ (the time of the breaking of the fast, circa seven o’clock). It also meant that alcohol could not be drunk outside, and smoking was frowned upon in public places. This is because during Ramadan Muslims fast throughout the day, and nothing is allowed ‘to pass their lips’, and many devout Muslims will not even drink water in the day. Many Muslims will also not drink alcohol throughout Ramadan, and so they prefer to not be in the presence of those who are drinking, even at night.

Our family spent almost everyday lounging about by the infinity pool or relaxing in the luxury of our rooms. One of my favourite things about the Hotel (Al Husn) is the brilliant service we received throughout our stay. As soon as we sat at our sunbeds a man would run up and give us a freeze box, which proved to be incredibly useful. It was filled with ice-cold water, which was perfect in the immense heat. And, as we were one of the few guests in the hotel, the service was even better than usual, and everybody was prepared to help, which was lovely.

I don’t know if this is the case for everybody, but one feels slightly awkward coming from an extremely Western country to a Muslim country. Their society, as my father said, is much more ‘structured’ and they follow a number of rules. It is as if I almost feel ashamed to walk around without a shirt on, while if they do so, they are frowned upon. It worries me to imagine what they think of Westerners – indulgent is at the top of my list. Of course many of these rules I do not agree with, but I have gained a lot of respect for their policies during my stay. I also very much admire them – it must be very tough having to fast in such a hot place! As we are in their country, of course their customs must be adhered to. However I have heard some quite ridiculous stories – apparently one couple were arrested in Dubai for kissing in public!

As I said earlier, the attendance of the staff was brilliant. In fact it was so brilliant that on occasion it became annoying. The Hotel cleaners must have gone round every room at least five times a day, and they were constantly knocking on the door asking if we were okay or if we wanted our room cleaning, despite it having just been cleaned. However I am not complaining, and it meant our rooms were always spick-and-span.

My mother and I also visited a ‘souk’. Souk is the Arabic word for market, and it is much like a Chinese Bazaar. We walked along a darkened street bordered with hundreds of stalls, and although the shopping wasn’t brilliant, this was indeed an amazing experience. We enjoyed diverse sounds and smells that are hard to find in England, and despite being surrounded (I want to use the word ‘harassed’ but it seems slightly too sinister!) by merchants as we browsed, it was extremely enjoyable.

The kindness and attendance of the hotel-staff deeply touched me, and it reminds me that I am extremely lucky. As they run up to offer me a towel or drink, I wonder why they aren’t in my position, relaxing on holiday. I am blessed to have been born into a well-off family in a safe environment.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Am I the Only One Who Doesn't Care?

Wow! The birth of the Royal Baby: I am ever so excited! I wonder what it will be called – because, of course, the baby’s name will be a significant difference to my life and my future as a subject of the United Kingdom. And will it be a boy or a girl? The Royal Family does so much to affect our lives, I can’t imagine what this baby will change in my life while it is breastfeeding! I’ve even been watching the live feed on The Guardian website, as I am so keen to find out the exact moment of Kate’s contractions.

What has the world come to? I have truly lost my faith in humanity. It is unbelievably embarrassing for these people. My father, a complete patriot, always enjoys this sort of thing, and has been giving me hourly updates on ‘The Great Kate Wait’ – I couldn’t care less. How will the baby’s name make any difference to anybody? And why do people want to know how much time passes between Kate’s contractions? It just seems silly! But it gets worse: I have heard of plans for Royal Baby parties. Many of you will say I’m ignorant, and that this is the birth of the future sovereign, but to me, that makes no difference. There are hundreds of reporters outside Kate’s ward scrounging on snippets of information they are given. How this birth can occupy the media I do not know. The recent earthquake in China went almost unnoticed because of the occupation of the media by a baby that hasn’t even been born yet. More than one hundred people died, overlooked by almost our whole country.

And he has been born - whoop whoop! I still don’t care! But in all seriousness, it's great that Will and Kate have had a healthy child - a life is a life.