Swinging back to happiness

31st July 1998 at 01:00
Perfect peace; warm sun, the shade of a walnut tree, a bottle of wine, the chance to sleep and no responsibility. OK, now you know my holiday fantasy. But it's better than that, there's a hammock too and I'm in it.

This fantasy is a regularly reincarnated memory. Somehow, way back when teaching, we managed to spend the whole summer in France. All the family have good memories of this particular holiday, but I'll swear I did little else but lie in the hammock and listen to the local farmer, Madame Sclaffe. Each evening, she would bring her sheep to graze around the walnut tree from which I was suspended, and we would chat while I swung gently to and fro.

The conversation was restricted by my limited use of French, and our lack of shared experience. The interaction between her and her flock was on a different level altogether. They understood every word and sound she uttered.

More was learnt that summer than that lazing in hammocks is pleasurable. We learnt that I was pregnant, that we didn't know the French for pregnancy tester kit and that even when we had managed to acquire one (after stretching our mime capabilities to their utmost), the accompanying instructions included anatomical terms that my schoolgirl dictionary chose not to include.

If I had thought that explaining my need for a pregnancy tester kit to a French pharmacist in the early eighties was hard, believe me, it was a doddle compared to breaking the news to Madame Sclaffe. Delighted though she was at our news, she could neither comprehend the concept of the kit nor the immediacy of its results.

From tea time until sunset the sheep grazed, I swung like a pendulum and Madame Sclaffe and I persevered with our conundrum. Eventually we made the breakthrough and this woman of 70-odd years of age grasped the concept of the latest contemporary diagnostic technology.

Congratulations and hugs over, she had one final question that evening. "Pourriez-vous m'obtenir un test de grossesse pour mon troupeau de moutons?" This has been quite a different sort of summer: a deep interest in voice recognition software (VRS) has developed. My keyboarding muscles have requested a holiday, and have gone on strike until their demands are met. Soothing baths and massage have helped, and I could write any number of theses on the comparative advantages of Radox and aromatherapy oils. Enjoying herbal teas in the bath has sometimes made me wonder whether there is much difference between what I am drinking and what I am soaking in.

The acupuncturist and the osteopath have taught me a great deal and had better effect, but the problem is not yet resolved. It seems that each individual must create their own solution, and for me, it looks like that means laying off the keyboard for a while. Hence the pursuit of VRS.

The trouble with most voice recognition software is that you have to train it to recognise your voice. Pet owners may find this not unusual, but for those of us who have only owned a goldfish the thought of repeating "open" over and over again to your computer is the epitome of anorakdom.

It also has to learn when you are speaking to it directly and when you are making side comments (usually about its inability to do what it's told). On top of that there is the difference between dictating and issuing commands. All in all, a lot of preliminary work before you can begin to write an article for The TESS.

Another solution seemed sensible. The kind of facility that can already tell when you are dictating or whether your mind is wandering and considering various possibilities. And so it came to be. The pregnancy discovered on that memorable French holiday has metamorphosed into a keyboard-capable 17-year-old, keen to pick up a bit of extra cash to subsidise his holiday in the States.

My errant fingers have not once touched the keyboard throughout the production of this piece. As soon as my VRS (Voice Recognition Software) is fully trained, however, my son will have to find himself other employment.

By then, my new office furniture should have arrived, including, if the brochure is to be believed, the most versatile and relaxing chair you could ever imagine. On top of that, it comes with all kinds of promises about supporting ailing limbs. Like a kid at Christmas, I look forward to experimenting with its many positions. It will come as no surprise to learn that the one that appeals most is the horizontal suspension mode.

My dream for next term is to lie in it, hammock fashion, chatting away to the computer without lifting a finger. I wonder what Madame Sclaffe would make of all of this?

Maggie Symonds

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