Monday, 29 September 2008

Saudi students



‘We women feel the male teachers are avoiding us.’ This was a student comment on an end-of-course feedback questionnaire. The women were from Saudi Arabia, and of eight in the group, five were veiled, only their eyes visible in mixed company. They would sit together in a protective little cluster and exude this air of noli me tangere and unwillingness to engage with males, including my colleague and me. I felt mild irritation at the comment, partly because students so often save their gripes for the end of course questionnaires when it is usually too late to remedy matters, and partly because I was thinking, well, darling, way you all carry on, what did you bloody expect, honestly?

*****

I taught quite a few Saudi blokes in the eighties and I enjoyed their friendliness and humour. When they found out I am unmarried and live alone, they would disapprove. ‘Terrabel, terrabel!’ they said, with mixed amusement and pity. ‘Who clean your clozes? Who wash your house? Who cook you?’ I told them that I did these things myself and that for most of my life it was simply a process of elimination: the cat and the tortoise were useless at domestic chores, so of necessity they fell to me. Then they assumed that I would live out of tins, and shite you bung in the microwave, and were sceptical when I told them I am a pretty good cook. An English male cook? Impossabel. The English live on potatoes, or at least it seems Cambridge landladies in the 80s cooked nothing else. (‘When I am on bed’, Abdulrahman told me, in a discussion of his landlady’s unspeakable cuisine, ‘I put out from me gas.’) After they had quizzed me about my marital status, nobody ever put to me the question ‘so you’re a pouf, then?’, although it must have occurred to a few. Still, no one could get their heads round the lack of a female ancillary in my household.

It’s hard to take my present Saudi male students’ attitude to women, which seems to be that they are mostly flighty little airheads whose function is primarily decorative. They patronise them appallingly. The women in my group asked that their presentations be watched by a women-only audience and assessed by a female tutor, as the combination of smirks and ostentatious boredom from the men would make presenting an unbearable trial. Besides, with a mixed audience, one of the assessment criteria, eye-contact and body language, simply could not with propriety be satisfied. Saudi women do not hold eye contact with men they do not know. There is real risk in doing so.

*****

I wonder what the Saudi men think when they see the brevity of western female dress for the first time in the blatant flesh. My female colleague, in clinging jeans and a blouse showing a fair bit of cleavage, might lead them to expect a display of pole dancing rather than a session on academic culture. During a lesson early in the last course, I looked down at the courtyard while the students were occupied with some task, and noticed that one of the drama students was preparing to do a bit of performance art. I was about to suggest we take five to go down and watch, when I saw that the actress was a biggish lass wearing only a leotard and that her props included a large number of wine bottles, from which she was sluicing down great gulps. I decided the spectacle of a near-naked female piss-head may be rather strong meat for young Saudi men but recently arrived, and so did not draw attention to it. Perhaps they’d be less offended by a beheading.

*****

By the lifts, two parties of Saudi students are waiting, one male, one female, the latter all veiled and robed and looking like a set of skittles. The doors of one lift open and the ladies troop in. Noticing that I am hesitating because none of the men is entering the lift with them, one of the women says ‘come on, it’s OK for you, but not for them!’ So I go in, not sure whether to feel privileged or offended. I decide to take this as an overture, however, and in the lessons I make an effort to spend more time with the veiled women. Good move. They are intelligent, talkative women who love a good laugh, but some lack confidence in their abilities to a disturbing degree, unlike some of the boys, whose bumptious self assurance is just as unwarranted. So I regret my impatience at the comment about male teachers ignoring the women, and note its justice, and admire its boldness.

By the way, these women are quite strikingly lovely. You can only see their eyes, but such eyes! When the light allows, I try to discern the shape of the nose, the curve of the neck, the outline of lips in profile. I notice when a movement fleetingly reveals a womanly curve under the shapeless abaya. I am queer: if my curiosity is aroused, what effect does all this concealment have on the straight Saudi boys?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Falling for it - for the last time



“…the nearest simile I can find to express the difficulties of sending a message – is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass – which blurs sight and deadens sound – dictating feebly – to a reluctant and very obtuse secretary.’’

This is the classicist Frederick Myers (1843-1901) complaining to a Mrs. Holland about her inability to grasp the meaning of what he wants to convey. One can sympathise. After all, this was about 1907, and Myers had been dead for six years, and this was obviously cramping his style. Mrs. H. was a spiritualist medium, acting as his amanuensis. He doesn't sound to me like someone dictating feebly, as that description of his problem is perfectly cogent, so maybe Mrs Holland was helping him quite a bit. The quote forms part of the ‘Cross Correspondences’, the record of an experiment allegedly initiated by Myers after his death to demonstrate the survival of consciousness when the physical body has fallen away, and to eliminate the possibility that the medium was simply cleverly reading the sitter. The Cross Correspondences are records of messages supposedly communicated to mediums in different parts of the world who were unknown to each other. The individual messages are opaque, but take on significance when matched up. These Cross Correspondences provide strong evidence for life after death – google them and see for yourself. Be warned that they are also brain-curdlingly tedious, which is why hardly anybody has read them. It is in this dull, dusty, disregarded stuff from the beginning of the last century where any evidence of survival resides.

.............................................

1990. Following the death in a car crash of a new friend and potential lover, I was very much into what I liked to think of as 'serious' spiritualism, centred on the writings of those early explorers who founded the Society for Psychical Research. I liked the idea of myself as researcher rather than believer. I saw about twenty mediums do their stuff in Cambridge that year, and although I think most were deluded, I don’t think I saw one instance of deliberate deception. Perhaps five were just possibly, just maybe, just perhaps, the real thing: channels for messages from people who we, quite mistakenly, think of as dead.

If they are not dead, how do we seem to get messages from them? The explanation I was prepared to entertain was that just as the air is full of interpenetrating radio waves to which one can tune in with the right equipment, so the universe is full of similar waves of consciousness, and we are tuned into the wavelength of physical matter. The brain excludes information from other wavelengths, and when it dies, the individual consciousness does not die with it. If you drop your radio and smash it, it does not mean that John Humphreys is no more, just that you no longer have the equipment to receive him. Psychic development, then, means stilling the mind and attempting to broaden the range of wavelengths it can pick up.

I moved to Athens at the back end of 1990 to work as a teacher trainer. I was ecstatic to find an ad in an English language magazine for a psychic development circle. This was convened by a lady I’ll call Lynette, who was welcoming and talkative: more talker than listener, in fact, but humorous and friendly. When I could get a word in, I told her about Nicolas. Our first session was attended by three stylish German ladies, ex-fashion models turned photographers, and one Greek lady, and what we did has faded from memory. In the second session, which the Greek lady did not attend because her husband feared we were working for Satan, Lynette presented me with a single rose, bought for me, she said, at Nicolas’s request. I remember someone commented that I had gone very quiet.

‘He’s thinking about the rose’ Lynette said.

What I was not thinking at the time was that this was just a cheap trick to keep me coming. I was too needy, and certainly too self-absorbed, to entertain that idea. I very much wanted this rose to be a token from him. I was also probably thinking what a good story my rose from a dead boyfriend would make at dinner later on. So much then for the ‘researcher’ – I was more like a creationist looking for evidence for a set of beliefs I had already assented to.



On a subsequent evening the German ladies and I were asked to take part in a group meditation for the benefit of humanity, in which the five of us would all imagine we were floating above the earth and raining down rose petals to blanket the ground in pink, fragrant tenderness. Sitting in the candlelight pretending to shower rose petals onto the earth was mind-bendingly tedious for me. I wanted apports, ectoplasm and disembodied voices. I was restless and useless in all such meditations, especially a later one in which I had to focus positive energy on a trainee to whom I had taken an instant, visceral dislike. Far more satisfying, and true to my real feelings, was my usual daydream of working him over with an electric cattle prod.

I liked psychometry better. Here you are given an object to hold, and you just free-associate, relating whatever images come into your head. Fingering a military medal belonging to a relative of Lynette’s Greek husband, I saw an island, a house, a cuckoo clock and a jovial old man. Lynette said I was right in all details save one: the old man in question was a miserable git. I said I felt as if I were holding a shot, for the track and field event. She knew nothing of that, but said she would ask her husband. Sure enough, the following week I learned I had been right about the shot-putter as well. And sure enough, I took this as evidence of my growing psychic powers, not of Lynette’s exploitation of my gullibility.

I ran out of money and could no longer afford the sessions. By this time I had met crystal healers and past life counsellors, and lent my body to a reikki teacher for her students to practise on. Perhaps it was the sheer battiness of reikki that finally led me to see the whole racket. Five women had stood around me as I lay on a massage table, supposedly sending energies into my body. At the end, their teacher gently reproved them for forgetting to shake the energies off their hands. Sheepishly they all began to flick invisible droplets from their fingers, before depositing their five thousand drachma notes into the teacher's cashbox.

I met one of the German ladies by chance in the street a while later, and learned they too had packed it in. I dismissed Lynette as a fraud on the make, but to be very charitable, let us wonder if she really was consciously manipulative. Perhaps she believed in what she was doing. Perhaps her instincts led her to home in on what she sensed we wanted, and she supplied it. Mediums who fish for leads (‘can you give me an Edward in spirit? Or perhaps a George? Or is it Alfred?’) are not necessarily trying to fool you. They think their gropings and eventual homing in on the ‘right’ person are signs of their talent.

I did a bit of googling today to see if I could find what Lynette was up to eighteen years on. I found her website. She is still in Greece, where she prospers, aided by angels, divas, guides from the higher planes, and what-not. She has a page full of glowing testimonials, some from people I know, and she includes the phone numbers of their shops and tavernas, along with a plug, which might even be free. I wish her well, although with all that back-up from the higher plains, she hardly needs my endorsement. After all, I never managed to amass enough money to set myself up on one of the most expensive islands in the Aegean.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

EAP and Black Magic



A muggy classroom at the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. My English for Academic Purposes students are nodding off. A reading passage about dung beetles has failed, oddly, to fire them up, and some are so punch-drunk with predicting, skimming, scanning, deducing and what-not that they can hardly blink their eyes in unison. Before I bore them completely catatonic I had better do something to goose up the proceedings a bit. We shall do Black Magic.

I’ve been trotting this out for yonks. This is what the class sees:

The teacher tells the group that one of the members present is in fact a clairvoyant of unexampled mantic powers, and that s/he has consented to give a demonstration. The seer stands up, takes a bow, and leaves the room. The group is then asked to choose an object in the room – say, Siming’s pencil sharpener – and to focus their thoughts on that object. The psychic is called back in. The teacher indicates an object, perhaps the OHP. ‘Is it this?’ Psychic says no. Teacher points to a pencil case and again, the psychic shakes her head. The teacher goes on to point to various objects, all of which the psychic rejects, until we get to Siming’s pencil sharpener, when she nods and says ‘that’s it!’

Now the possibility for language production here is obvious: the class can speculate as to how the trick is done and agree upon certain conditions for the next demo. At least that is supposed to happen, and what in my experience usually does. Today was different. Some of the class were reluctant to accept that what they had just seen was really no more than a trick. Hassan, a computer scientist and a business man noch, would brook no scepticism: ‘yeah, yeah, it’s true, there really are people who can do this!’ and Sylvia the Seeress was sent out while other objects were chosen, which each time she hit on, no bother.

The following day, I met Sylvia in the cafeteria. ‘Those guys keep asking me questions! They think I’m a witch! I’m scared I’m going to get burned!’

A while ago a colleague at a different university told me how a Saudi man, who was about to start a Master’s in linguistics, had informed the group in a presentation that Arabic was God’s own language, because, as is well known, there are documented cases of people with no prior knowledge spontaneously uttering in praise of Allah, and being able to read the Koran. So maybe it was not so surprising after all that my class were disinclined to accept that Sylvia and I were just arsing about with a hoary old party trick to fill in the last twenty minutes of a long week. To think we might have a witch among us was more entertaining than the truth.

I didn’t tell you how Black Magic is done. The teacher has to prime the accomplice. He will point to the class’s chosen object AFTER pointing to something black – hence the name of the game. Sorry if that disillusions you.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Song for Athene



Yianoulis Chalepas 'Η Κοιμομένη' (The Sleeping Girl), 1877, First Cemetery, Athens.



This performance of Tavener's 'Song for Athene' reduced me to a quivering wreck when I first heard it about a year ago. (I deliberately missed Diana's funeral) Every time I listened to it I was choked. I treated myself with it homeopathically - just played it over and over until the sense of beavement it evoked in me faded, and I could listen it in peace. No other piece by Tavener has had this effect on me, although I could not stop playing Ikon of Light when I bought it in 1990-odd. I had a Tavener CD (Lament for Jerusalem) delivered from Amazon this morning. Played it once so far: it began to irritate me. It seemed prolix and repetitive, and I was reminded of a characterisation of his stuff as 'Holy Muzak', and that spoiled it for me, at least for today. I'll try again in a few days.

Falling for it 2



For some months following the death of a young man I knew carnally but otherwise hardly at all, I carried a feeling of permanent outrage at the waste: his death felt like the loss of a fortune. I had been given a whisp of evidence that death is a change of state rather than annihilation, and it was evidence I wanted to pursue.

If you are open to the possibility that consciousness might be independent of matter and that therefore human personality might survive the death of the body, you soon come into contact with a great many people who are not just open, but totally convinced. I can’t get on with the totally convinced of any persuasion. In religion I’m a lifelong fence-sitter and commitment phobic. Look what belief does to people: Fred Phelps and clan, Sun Myung Moon, Tom Cruise…

I was attending services at a spiritualist church every Sunday because mediumship intrigued me. I had read enough of the 19th century psychic investigators to believe that the phenomenon was worth observing, but observing it in a church setting was a pain in the arse. There was the Christian twaddle to endure; the prayers, the hymns, the platitudinous ‘philosophy’ that each visiting medium was required to spiel before getting down to business. You could never know if the guest medium was going to be a flake. I wanted to get one in private and watch and listen as she did her thing. I saw a flyer for a ‘Psychic Fair’ at a hotel in Cambridge some time around July 1990, and went to see if I could get a private sitting.

It looked like an arts and crafts fair, with dozens of stalls selling bells, buddhas, incense burners and similar odds and sods of uncovetable gymcrackery. You could buy feathery dangly things to hang above your bed which apparently would ensure that you remembered your dreams. There was piped music of the New Age genre: noodling on the shakuhachi over flabby face-flannels of synthesizer chords, interlarded with trickling water and squealing dolphins. This was available on cassette and CD.

I found a stall with rows and rows of small cubic bottles with cylindrical silver stoppers, each bottle filled half with water of one colour and half with oil of a contrasting colour. Sparkling under halogen bulbs, they were as fascinating as sweetie jars are to a toddler. I asked the lady in charge of the stall what they were for.



'Which colour attracts you most?' she asked.

I picked up a red and yellow one.

'Now that means you are an introverted and intuitive night-person and have an enneagram reading of four and a half. People who go for the purple and green are better dressed and will take a trip in the near future. If you touch the bottle again you will have imbued it with your energy and I shall have to ask you to buy it and they are ten pounds each.'

Remembering that this was 1990 and ten pounds were worth a lot more than they are now, I put the bottle down at once. Why was I so obedient? The silly mare could not have required me to buy any item I did not want, after all. If I see her again I shall shake up every bottle on her stall. (I still don’t know what they were for.)



Mediums had their stalls around the edges of the room, and each stall had a pile of fliers detailing the owner’s credentials. There is no Royal College of Mediums, so credentials tend to be on the order of ‘consulted by the stars of Coronation Street’ or ‘descended from a long line of clairvoyants traceable to the 15th century’. One was the reincarnation of John the Baptist. The former John the Baptist had gone out for a fag, and in any case he was forty five pounds a pop, so I booked myself in for twelve quid’s worth of a sixty-something lady called Betty. She wore a black sequined jacket and looked like a rather severe pub landlady.

The first thing Betty did was have a go at me for using one of her fliers on which to make notes. They cost so much a gross, she said, and were not for scribbling on. As with the sharp lady with the twinkly bottles, I was not quick enough. My annotated one would probably be the only one of her bloody fliers that would not end up in the bin by the end of the afternoon. Anyway.

‘Has there been a death of a young person around you in the last five years?’

‘Yes.’

‘Usual way?’

‘Car accident.’

BONG!
You fucking idiot! Ask her to tell you what the ‘usual way’ is! Car? Bike? Heroin? Leukemia? Suicide?

‘Now one thing I need to tell you is that you must have more confidence in yourself. Have confidence in your sexuality, for example.’

Well, Betty has reasonable gaydar, if nothing else.

‘There’s a lot of intuition there, it needs developing.’

You have talents you never suspected, my dear! And Betty ran a development circle at which you can bet attendance was not free.

Now up here in 2008 I can’t believe I went away from that fair in 1990 feeling ten feet tall, feeling that I had had real contact with my dead almost-lover, feeling I had joined the in-crowd of psychics. Everything about the event was as tawdry as Christmas in Woollies, but I had fallen for it. I was going to carry on falling for quite a few years to come.

How it all ended.

Falling for it 1



May 1990. On holiday in Greece, I met Nicolas, 25, handsome, air steward. (Is there such a thing as a straight air steward?) We fancied each other immediately and had a night of erotic fireworks. We arranged to meet again, both of us hoping that this might be the Start of Something. On the night of our second meeting, as we were driving back to Nick’s miniscule flat in an Athenian suburb, some idiot drove out of a side road and ignoring the stop light, smashed into our car and killed him.

Shock and grief feel like fear, and you need a sense of purpose to counteract them. As I left the ramshackle hospital where they’d kept me for the night, a purpose – batty, but comforting - formulated in my mind. If Nicolas still existed anywhere, I would find him. I had a friend back in England who, ten years earlier, had lost both her parents in separate incidents within three days of each other. She had been going to a Spiritualist group convened by Mona, a medium well known in the area for her accuracy: even the police used her when they were looking for leads. What the hell – I decided to give her a try as soon as I got back home.

Christine told me what to expect. There would be a few prayers, a hymn or two, a demo of clairvoyance by a guest medium, a break for tea and bickies, and then an ‘open circle’, in which Mona would strut her stuff. We set off one warm Sunday evening. I felt a bit of a pillock, to be honest, but despite temptation I did not wear a paper bag over my head, or even dark glasses.

There were two mediums for the first half of the evening’s proceedings, one a large lady with a pudding basin haircut, flat sensible shoes and a thick brown cardie, the other in a scarlet two-piece, black-seam stockings and her hair in a brioche, decorated with artificial roses. They took turns in playing the audience. A general question to start with: ‘I feel I’m in this half of the room… can anyone place me a George in spirit?’ There were sixty odd people there, most of them aged sixty odd. Inevitably, someone could place a George.

‘I think it’s me, love.’

‘Well, he’s sending you a rainbow.’

‘Oh.’

‘And he says you’ll be feeling better by the April, May month.’

‘Righty-o.’

‘So can I say God bless?’

‘Oh, alright, thank you.’

Both women followed a procedure that I was to observe dozens of times in the coming months. The medium gives a name, or a date, or a place name and asks if anyone can connect with it. Usually more than one person can. By adding a few details (gall bladder? Stroke? August?) the medium eliminates all but one contender for recipient of the message, which is usually an affirmation of the deceased’s affection for the sitter, and assurance of his continued interest and involvement in the sitter’s life.

Well, after about half an hour of this sort of thing, Mona announced a tea break, and said that after we’d have ‘a lovely open circle’. I felt bleak, cheated and stupid: an intelligent man sitting among a load of daft old bats and codgers while these two deluded bints had indulged their fantasies in front of us.

'What did you make of them?' I asked Christine, hoping we had not just seen the pinacle of mediumship.

'Beginners' she shrugged.

We queued for tea from an urn, had a couple of bourbon biscuits apiece, a blind man played an electric organ and people broke off their conversations now and then to sing along quietly to ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Imagine’. Then the open circle began.

It was not how you, or at least I at the time, might imagine an open circle at a spiritualist gathering. No dimming of the lights, no holding hands, no sitting in silence waiting for the departed to rap on the walls. (A bit disappointing, really.) People turned their chairs to face the centre of the room, and settled down with an air of pleasant anticipation. Mona came in from washing up in the kitchen, an elderly, motherly lady with a husky smoker's voice. She looked as though she might have come to offer round a tray of buns. Eyes shut, she negotiated the chairs and sitters, moving round the room relaying messages from spirit to the earth-bound as if she were on the phone. Occasionally the line was bad; ‘no, say that again, love’ or ‘no, tell me properly’. Occasionally the communicator was indiscreet: ‘I can’t say that in church, love!’

The difference between Mona and the pair of dotty old trouts that had preceded her could not have been greater. Where they had been fey and vague, Mona was matter-of-fact and precise. Where they had groped and fished for leads, Mona knew exactly whom she was addressing and why, whether present in the flesh or (apparently) hovering just behind her right shoulder. There were no rainbows, waterfalls and bouquets from spirit, but names, dates, recognisable people. 'Are you Lisa's sister? It were 'er oo give you them earrings, love, want it?'

She came to me (‘right, now where’s that lad?’) and rattled off a list of messages from the beyond, many of which I have forgotten and some I could not make sense of, but some of which floored me. She commented that I had not known Nicolas well, but had hoped to. She described his clothes on the night we met, (crew-neck jumper and denim jacket) and the scene of the accident. She mentioned that he had a sister, something I didn’t know at the time but which proved to be the case. She also knew that the accident had happened in a foreign country. None of this information came to her from me. As usual the communicator, supposedly Nicolas himself, seemed to be standing just behind her and to the right. This information, of mind-numbing banality to anyone else, was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear. Questions about where he was, how he got there and what his post mortem activities might be did not occur to me at the time.

After, I felt elated; maybe he still existed somewhere, somehow. I was moved to rush to the off-shop before closing time to buy a celebratory bottle of Gordon’s. This is not as flippant as it sounds, as I was gasping for dizziness and fireworks after a week of hideous, mummified gloom.

That was 18 years ago, and I am no longer as convinced of the existence of an anthropomorphic afterlife as I was to become in the five years following my first evening among spiritualists. But the horrible image that had kept me awake, the image of that beautiful, handsome, virile young man of twenty five now blown and stinking and desiccating under the hot earth in Greece, was fading. It was at least possible that something conscious, individual and intelligent survived.

But if something survives, what is it? If the dead simply continue to live in another dimension, what do they do there? Spiritualists burble about ‘learning’ and ‘progression’ and ‘unfolding’ but are short on specifics. What are they learning over there, and where are they progressing to? I wanted to get a medium on her own and see what, if anything, she could tell me.

And I did, here and here.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Dieu n’avait fait que l’eau, mais l’homme a fait le vin



Though my parents in their younger days hardly drank at all, they believed that if my sister and I were allowed the odd tipple, we would not grow up to regard booze as forbidden fruit and would therefore not abuse it when we got to our teens. But there was something they didn’t know: I had been in love with the idea of booze long before I ever touched a drop, and I intended to get as much of it as possible as soon as possible.

As a kid I looked with fascination and envy at the bejewelled wine goblets of fairy story kings and queens, at the brimming bowl of Old King Cole, and I wanted me some of that stuff. A good thirty years before they invented those flexible tube jobs that they use in pubs to pump coke, lemonade and such into Martini - which practice should be outlawed – I used to imagine such a tube attached to a small chrome vase that stood on the mantelpiece, and I would pretend to dispense from it not fizzy pop but red wine. I had no idea what red wine tasted like but I knew it would have some kick, some intensity, that other potables lacked. I wanted to get pissed; I thought it would be like when you spin round and round and fall down laughing with the room dipping and bobbing all around you. I might have been only six and totally inexperienced in getting wasted, but I was bang on – that is what it’s like. If I came from a family of piss-heads this would perhaps be easy to explain, but I did not. My niece at age 2 once picked up my sister's glass of wine and sloshed it down in one: 'lovely!'. Subsequently she developed the usual childhood revulsion for alcohol, a stage I seem to have bypassed.

Eventually I began to sample booze widely, and became the enthusiast I had always felt destined to be. In ‘Drinking: a Love Story’ Caroline Knapp tells of her love of the rituals surrounding alcohol:
 
I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler. I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me.’

Yep! White wine or vodka and tonic, like diving into a cool swimming pool after a fraught, hot day. Red wine or scotch, like a warm bath when you get home on a dark, icy night. Knapp also says she loved alcohol’s ‘ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings.’ Well, Caroline, I agree about the ritual and the sensuality, but we part company on the painful feelings bit. I just like the colours, sounds, aromas, tastes and effects of hooch in most of its forms. I love finding new tipples. I was delighted to find that the Papaioannou winery in Greece every November released a primeur that tasted exactly the way I had imagined wine would taste when I was a kid. The label went on about berries and forest fruits, but to me it was that essence of Opal Fruits and Spangles with a hint of Cherry Menthol Tunes on the finish that I had fantasized at six.

So isn’t it a bugger, such an absolute bloody fucking sod, that alcohol is so bad for you? Even if you take all those guidelines about units per day with a pinch of salt, (OK yeah, perhaps especially if you take them with a pinch of salt) it gets to you eventually. I have abstained for the last four days, because I decided that all my aches and pains, general grumpiness and insomnia, were all caused by red wine too enthusiastically taken. And it was so: I feel a lot better for the break, and a bit better off. Don’t know how long this abstinence will last, though. I can only drink so much herb tea, I can only stand so much of plain, unadorned reality, and I have the the feeling that sustains you during a power cut: normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

*****

Caroline Knapp knocked the booze on the head and took to smoking more. It was the fags that killed her in 2002. She was 43. God bless her.

(Knapp, C., 1996 Drinking: A Love Story New York, Delta.)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Onomasticating



30-odd years ago I was an assistant d’anglais in a lycée in Carcassonne. One of the teachers there, a lovely lady named Renée, had chosen English names for all her students, and by these they went for the duration of her lessons. And what names: these 15 year olds had been saddled with clunky monnickers such as Bertha and Maureen, Doris and Stanley, Enid, Florrie and Maud. Pity there was no way for Renée to tell if a foreign name was trendy or trashy, connotative of glamour or frump, before an insensitive 18 year old colleague had a good guffaw at them.

I have always resisted the idea of imposing English names on my students, unless they ask for one. Few do. Many Chinese students who come to the UK know we find their names hard to remember, and thoughtfully chose themselves an English name to help us. Where do they dig them up, though? A young man who looks like a model for a soldier in the terracotta army really should not call himself 'Gav'. And whatever it might connote in Chinese, 'Potato' sounds plain barmy in English when it designates a young lad. In one group I had Winner, Miffy, Pinky, Candy, Clover and Mo, as twee and nursery-bookish a set of handles as I have ever seen on one register. They were memorable, though, which Chinese names to some of us are not. Looking at the list of the students’ real names, a colleague remarked ‘it sounds like somebody pushing a piano downstairs’.

OK, it’s not on to make fun of foreign names. But… fuck it. A Thai boy called Pipatpong came to Cambridge in the eighties. For the duration of his stay, he could have called himself Pip or Pat but of course went for Pong instead. I think the prize for Most Unfortunate Label Ever Given the Context goes hands down to Germany’s Ms Regula Kuntz.

It works both ways, of course. In Greece I knew a Lisa and a Malachy. Lisa sounds like the Greek for ‘rabies’, and anyone who stays longer than a month in Greece knows that Malachy sounds dangerously close to μαλακία (malakia), meaning ‘a wank’. If you are going to teach Greek teenagers and your name is Malachy, change it now, or live to regret it.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Communication breakdown



EFL teachers spend a lot of time coaxing students round to the view that errors in spoken language rarely lead to irremediable breakdown in communication: you can always apologise and start again. You do this in your own language all the time, often minus the apology, for minor misunderstandings are so frequent we barely notice the routine repairs we have to make every day. Anyway, if there’s a real cock up, it’s convenient to blame the listener for being obtuse rather than yourself for not being clear. Language learners often assume that communication between native speakers is always one hundred percent successful. When you tell them that it isn’t, it takes a while for them to come round to believing you. They have this nagging worry that what they say is just plain funny.

Well, sometimes it is. I should try to keep a straight face, but I don’t always. A Greek girl was describing a photo of a bride and groom: ‘in this picture we see a man who wear a suit, and he has a carnation in his bottom hole.’ I should have corrected the error quickly and let her move on, but I didn’t. I fell about. Years later a Greek lad who had just seen that God-botherer’s snuff movie The Passion of the Christ was giving some examples of its gruesomeness: ‘you look some soldiers to beat the Christ, and bits of his meat drop off.’

Spoken glitches and howlers don’t hang around but written ones do, because teachers keep lists. My favourite ones are the ones whose origins you can trace to words once known and now half forgotten, words confused with other similar ones and words heard, but never seen in print. ‘I began to sag my bra’ puzzled me for a while, then I realised that ‘I began to say my prayers’ fitted the context. ‘If a boy have a tool, he will show his tool to his friends’ resulted from a confusion of 'tool' with 'toy'. Here's a rather sweet one from the conclusion of an essay by a Brazilian boy who obviously picks up his vocabulary by ear rather than by eye: ‘…so to sunrise all the above points…’ Sometimes students just don't use their spell-checker: 'Beijing Olympics is will be fecal point of the world'.

It can take only one or two minor additions or omissions in the intended utterance to put a new and unintended slant on a phrase. One superfluous adverb and a count noun that shouldn't have been gave us ‘I spent the summer in Spain picking up fruits’. A possessive adjective too many here: ‘boys don’t like study, they prefer to kick their balls around’. An unfortunate omission of plural 's' gave us 'my room-mate sometimes touches my thing without my permission'. Often you just have no idea how the writer arrived at a word: ‘in pregnancy period, the foetus develops inside the mother’s domestic trivia.’(Bet you've never heard it called that before.)

Learners have an excuse - they're learners. Companies have no excuse and should bloody well check. The Greek Vassilopoulos chain's own-brand of kitchen paper is labelled 'Absorbing Towels' and they used to produce boil-in-the-bag beans with the following reassurance in the cooking instructions: 'the swelling of the package after warming does not inspire any uneasiness.'

My best foreign language is Modern Greek, which has some pairs of similar sounding words well known for confusing foreign learners: boy / cucumber, earring / worm, mosquito / cauliflower, inter alia. Inter the alia are ψηλά (psila) and ψωλή (psoli). If you hand over a large denomination note for a small purchase, you had better apologise and say ‘den ekho psila’, meaning ‘I have no change’. An acquaintance of mine had only a five thousand drachma note with which to buy a small can of Amstel. He smiled apologetically and explained ‘den ekho psoli’. He’d just told the shop girl that he didn’t have a dick.

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