Monday, 27 December 2010

From More Innocent Times

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Wishes / Ευχές


Happy Christmas, everybody.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα σε όλους.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Shortest, Coldest Day

Yesterday at four o'clock in the afternoon I walked from the station to the town centre and thence home, through dusk, frost and freezing fog. It was wonderful. The meadows were bluish white, the frosty willows ghostly in the fading grey light, the windows of shops and houses glowing yellow. How lucky I am, I told myself, to be living in a town where every street corner is Christmas card material, and every street is a perfect location for 'A Christmas Carol'. I felt all Back-endish and Yule-tidy, and desired to hear the lonely, far-away sound of 'O Come, Emmanuel' borne on the drifting grey mist from one of our fifteen churches. There was only some old git with a squeeze-box, wheezing 'and we all like figgy pudding, and we all like figgy pudding...' on the High Street. I snuffed out his wretched life there and then. Tomorrow evening, I said, kicking the corpse aside, I'll take my camera and get a few shots of all this Christmasmatic Englishry. Then I heard that not only is today the shortest day of the year, tonight is also going to be the coldest these islands have experienced since the days of the woolly mammoth, so bugger that. I went out earlier while it was still a toasty minus two.


This tree is so perfectly proportioned, so neatly balanced, you'd think it was man-made. In summer it would make the perfect set for a production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - look at those low-slung boughs and strong branches to deploy your mortals and spirits in. It might also do for 'The Winter's Tale' if anyone was daft enough to attend an outdoor performance in sub-zero temperatures. I dunno, though. In Cambridge, the end of the academic year is marked by loads of outdoor performances, and audiences endure some pretty dreadful weather with great stoicism. One year, when I was Corvino in 'Volpone', we were lucky and had balmy evenings throughout the run, and the only problem was the great mouthful of midges you got every time you had a speech to deliver. The following year I was in the ADC's May Week offering, 'The Country Wife' in Newnham gardens. It pissed with rain all day every day, puddles collected on the stage, and the wooden set swelled so that its doors were jammed. Drenched, shivering actors, supposed to exit smartish, were forced to ad lib: 'egad Sir, 'tis locked, stap me vitals. Demme me, this'n too!' before deciding that jumping off the stage was the only option. Costumes were sodden and rank, mine especially, as the table under which I had to hide for the space of a whole scene stood directly over one of the puddles. It was a thoroughly wretched week, but audiences simply produced golfing umbrellas, blankets and flasks of soup and sat and watched us suffer. No wonder foreign students think the English are barmy.



The town centre seen from the Meadows. Imagine Cambridge, remove every ill-conceived modern monstrosity, then shrink it to five or six streets and a few tiny passageways, and you have something like Stamford.


The cobbled street above apparently features in the film 'The Da Vinci Code'. I haven't seen it, so I can't swear that this is the one. It also features in the BBC adaptation of 'Middlemarch', with which I christened my first DVD player. I hired the series from the video shop in Kalamata. The Greek title, wouldn't you know it, was 'Απαγορευμένο Πάθος', 'Forbidden Passion', one of the stock of Greek all-purpose titles for imported films, and lead no doubt to much disappointment among punters. To be fair, if you just transliterate the English title, 'Μίντελμαρτς΄, it would be pronounced something like 'mindelmarts', some US DIY chain, maybe. I can't myself think of a suitable alternative title because I can't remember a thing about it.



Through the first of the arches is a conveniently placed and well-maintained public bog. Twenty pence a visit, whatever your purpose.


Just so you understand that Stamford does do naff when it tries. Christmas tat festooned across the High Street, outside a sorry building remarkable for its lack of remarkableness.


The George, allegedly the oldest inn in the country, practically on my doorstep. A sign on the door informs us that the Rotary Club meets here first Wednesday of every month, which should surprise nobody. 'Fine dining of the highest order' is offered, but I haven't sampled it, because this is an establishment that requires men to wear ties in the dining room, and I don't do ties for anybody. I did once press my nose to the dining room windows, which you see here, to see how ye Qualitie do eatte. I was soundly horse-whipped.


The building over the bridge is Pizza Express. The company was sensitive enough to the location not to display garish signage. Pictures below of the Meadows. I'm fairly pleased with the birds on the third one down, although I wasn't quick enough to catch the full wheeling flock, and it was too bloody cold to wait for them to do it again.



The Meadows.




Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Thlipsi Hotel Ξενοδοχείο ,,Η Θλίψη''



R

Cambridge First Certificate in English is an international exam open to learners of English as a foreign language. Not too long ago in Greece everyone wanted to pass this exam, or at least possess a forged certificate claiming they had. Part of the exam is an oral test, and at one time ex-pats in Greece could earn good money with the British Council in June and December doing FCE oral examining. If you were dispatched to examine in the provinces for a week or so, you could be lucky and have a good time, for along with the hourly rate there was a generous daily allowance for food, drink, mobile phone cards and what not. The nicer provincial postings, such as Samos or Crete, were reserved for seasoned examiners, and rookies would be sent to less appealing places like Agrinion, Kozani and Ptolemaida. Also, if you were very unfortunate, you might be teamed up with some of the dread Dragon Ladies, a kind of Brit Council knitting circle of ex-pat matrons who had had their feet snugly under the table of Greek FCE oral examining for years, arriving in Athens biannually by broomstick from their various Greek islands. Despite virtual tenure, they had only the haziest notion of what oral assessment entailed, as their chief purpose was to get fatter in tavernas afterwards.

Oral examining was about the most boring thing I have ever done, and I have worked at an Unemployment Benefit Office and stacked shelves at Sainsbury’s. You sat in a hotel room, and interviewed a succession of mostly teenaged candidates, using a set of pictures and pro-forma questions as prompts. I would get so bleary and punch-drunk towards the end of the day that I would often ask the last few kids the same questions over and over in the one interview. The British Council have now reduced the hours examiners may do, maybe in part because the kids complained they were being tested by rambling, glassy-eyed zombies. I think also that the Dragon Ladies have been dropped. At the last briefing session I attended at the end of the nineties, they were all having kittens at the news that lateness would no longer be tolerated, and afraid that examining might therefore eat into shoe-buying time.

*****

‘Oh, Jesus Christ, they're sending you to Xanthi? Worst hotel in Greece, that one in Xanthi.’

The Xanthi posting was a hardship posting, a place new examiners were sent to test their mettle. In the depth of winter I left Athens and flew to Kavala, whence a taxi took me on to Xanthi and the glass-and-ticky-tacky fleabag that was the Hotel Thlipsi. It stood next to a main road, shuddering as lorries passed. The hotel was built for summer, all big windows, marble and high ceilings, but this was December in Northern Greece, where the raw cold can cut you in half. I went up to my room, showered and dressed at speed before hypothermia set in, then faffed briefly with the useless rabbit ears on top of the telly. No picture, only a blizzard on every channel.

My fellow examiners, Eva, who was Greek, and Jim, a Canadian resident in Crete, were sitting in the bar when I went down, wearing gloves and scarves and probably wishing they had brought duvets as well. Eva asked Sakis the simian barman for a tomato juice. He had never heard of it: ‘you want me to squash a tomato?’ There was no humour in this, just irritable incomprehension, which was the only emotion we were to see him evince in our ten-day stay. So we had beers just to chill us through completely, and then went out for dinner.

Breakfast at the Thlipsi was a dried-up turd of a croissant, a glass of orange squash, and tepid Nescafe. The croissants were displayed on a tray on the buffet table like the contents of a canopic jar, the insipid squash in big jugs alongside. Sakis poured left-over squash back into the jugs with no attempt to conceal the action, publicly adjusted the sit of his bollocks and sneezed over the croissants. One morning, unable to face this, I phoned reception and asked if I might have breakfast brought to my room. After an interval I answered my door to Sakis, who wordlessly thrust a tray at me and stomped off. I think I ate the croissant because I would have needed the carbs. Only now do I picture Sakis dropping it on the floor and picking it up several times on his way up the stairs, or gobbing into my coffee pot because it was the nearest handy receptacle.

After each day’s oral tests we repaired to the glacial bar, where there would be a number of parents and teachers of the kids we’d examined. A large lady in a leopard skin two-piece and much clanking dangly jewelry accosted me, and in an American accent gushed ‘are YOU Steve?!?! Oh! You SO impressed my stoodent! Do you remember Costas?’ Half the male population of Greece answers to Costas, so I had to admit I did not. It turned out that Costas was a wannabe actor, and we had digressed a while from the set questions to discuss his ambitions, which I had shared at his age. ‘Oh, he was so impressed! You are sure to get an invitation to dinner!’ I didn’t hang around in the bar, just in case this actually came to pass, but I was vain enough to feel flattered anyway. Later, when I related the incident to an old hand, he said the woman buttered up examiners like this every year, in the hope it might sway them into awarding her student higher marks. In fact, the grade was irrevocably fixed at the end of each interview, so the lady had gushed in vain for years.

The catering at the Thlipsi was not at all representative of Xanthi. Northern Greece is much better fed than central and southern Greece, in my view at least, and most evenings we dined in splendour. Only two items did not please. In one taverna I asked if they had ameletita. This means ‘not studied’ and is a quaint euphemism for testicles, which I had eaten and found surprisingly good in Kavala ten years before. (A less euphemistic term for the same part of the amimal is αρχιδάκια [archidakia] the diminutive form of the crude αρχίδια [archidia], 'bollocks', which I suppose you could translate as 'bollocklets'.) Anyway, the waiter said they had none that evening, but he would see to it that there would be some the following night. And there were. They were not like the ones I remembered from Kavala, unfortunately. Either my tastes had changed, or these were the big spongy nads of some unfortunate member of a different species. The other occasion was when Jim decided we were spending too much on food and should go down-market a bit. We ended up in a dive that turned out to be a pick-up joint for prostitutes. Ladies who could not be mistaken for other than what they were on a dark night at a hundred paces came and went with their punters. We were served a great cowpat of fava, which is a puree of yellow peas, and dish of chicken livers in a yellowish stock, each bowl resembling an unemptied chamber pot.

I was taken back to Athens by taxi. The driver was a bit worried that there was a problem with the car and said we needed to get it checked before we set off. We stopped opposite a garage in front of which three blokes were smoking and scratching their balls. ‘You got an electrician there?’ my driver called. They did not respond, but instead inspected the sky, scuffed their boots in the dust, and ostentatiously ignored us. At length one ambled over to ask what the problem was, and then tell us there was nothing they could do about it. ‘Bloody provinces’ muttered the Athenian cabbie. ‘Mam, skatá, náni*, all they know about.’

(*‘grub, crap, kip’)

That is not fair, of course. As well as the Neanderthal Sakis at the Thlipsi, I remember the cheerful waiters at the taverna we frequented and their concern for our comfort and stomachs, and their generosity with the wine. There is a very strong Turkish presence in Xanthi, and I also remember the open friendliness of the Turkish kids I interviewed, and the kind old man who showed Eva and me round a tiny mosque and gave us prayer beads as a memento of our visit. So all in all, I’m glad I went.

*****

This morning I looked up the hotel on the net. It's been refurbished, and guests' comments on the website where it appears all commend the staff, who everyone says are friendly and obliging. Sakis has obviously been put out to grass.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Old Hiems



It was so bloody cold yesterday that I decided I could not get from the station to the university without suffering freezer-burn to the ears, so I went by Marks and Sparks to buy a beanie. This is the first piece of head-joy I have ever purchased, as I've always thought hats make me look a twat. I can just about carry off a beret, but they always look so self-consciously arty on blokes, so their twat factor is high, I feel. And the thing about beanies is that while they look very good on boys and young men, they somehow make middle-aged males look more emphatically middle-aged. Oh, this is such a pain. I mean, fuck it, middle age already feels like an unsuitable, ill-fitting outfit that you find yourself forced to wear, so you really don’t want accessories that abet the impression. I keep muttering about it, this outfit: ‘look, it just doesn't suit me, OK? I’m still thirty-five inside.’ But there’s no retailer to take it back to, so you are stuck with it. Anyway, I jammed my new purchase on my head as I left the store, and was immediately grateful for the warmer ears. However, I found I was walking fast with my head down, as one who does not want to be recognised. If I hurriedly doff the thing in your presence, do not flatter yourself that this is a mark of respect; it’s pure vanity. I've still got a bit left.

I don’t mind the cold, though, so long as I'm well insulated. I get SAD in reverse – summer makes me feel lethargic, and I sometimes feel alone in thoroughly disliking the insipid lingering light of British summer evenings. No, for me, winter, and the cosiness of winter. The door is bolted (why do I only think to bolt it in winter???) the curtains are closed on the world and the candles are lit. There’s chicken roasting, and wine to open soon. What’s not to like? Perfect introvert's weather. The temperature can stay below freezing forever.




Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Girly Question

If you don’t teach languages, you may not have heard of the approach to this activity known as ‘dogme’. Put simply, this is a ‘materials light’ approach to language instruction where the topic of the lesson is allowed to arise from the students instead of from some text or unit in a coursebook, and the teacher, leading from behind, decides what language work to slip in and when. It’s ‘lessons from the learner’, and seasoned teachers who are fed up with the dreary predictability of so much published material have been doing it for years. The other day, I let a good opportunity slip by.

How many times have young male students put to me variations on the theme of ‘what kind of girls you like?’ The question usually came from the kind of boys I find rather tiresome; vain young Mediterranean coxcombs, all motorbikes and basketball, convinced of their irresistibility to women. I remember the first time. I was eighteen and ‘working’ as an assistant d’anglais in France. ‘What kind of girls you like?’ a lad in my Saturday morning class asked. He was not a vain young coxcomb, not yet, but a dark-eyed, raven-haired little faun, bung full of testosterone. I was unable to give him an answer, as I had no idea what he meant. Somehow I managed to turn it round and put the question to him. Part of his answer was ‘pas trop fardées’, not too made-up. The fact that I remember his criterion thirty-odd years on suggests that I might have been squirreling away answers to trot out for future occasions. If someone at the time had asked me ‘what kind of boys do you like?’ I would have been equally nonplussed, but if the questioner had persisted and said, ‘come on now, think of so-and-so, and what’s-his-name, and this lithe little spunk-factory here, asking you what kind of girls you like…’ I’d have known what I liked much sooner than I did. Thereafter to the girly question I learned to reply ‘intelligent ones’, which usually shut the questioner up pretty sharpish.

Alexandros in my present group talks a lot about ‘the Greece women’, whom he likes to portray to the Saudi men in the class as permanently gagging for it, in marked contrast with their own invisible and unattainable females. For their part, the Saudi blokes seem to enjoy hearing about ‘the Greece women’, perhaps because they may thereby know arousal and moral superiority at the same time. Alexandros is appalled by the Muslim segregation of the sexes, and often quizzes the other men about it. Sanad is thirty-eight and was married only last year. Lifting a book to cover both their faces, Alexandros rasps in a stage whisper audible rooms away: ‘you no make sex before you are thirty-seven???’

This is the way in Muslim society, Sanad explains, with resigned piety.

‘Βρε, γαμώτο!!!** ' Alex hoots, stage whisper abandoned. 'Thirty-seven! In Cyprus, everybody, FIFTEEN!’

Back to the other day. ‘You like the Greece women?’ Alexandros asked me on my return from Athens. I think he imagines that I maintain my long association with Greece simply because of the nooky he claims is more readily available there. Even thirty-two years after I was first asked the ‘girls’ question, I did not answer truthfully. Had I done so, I would have said:

‘Well actually, Alexandré*, I do like Greek women, but if it’s rumpo we’re on about, and I assume we are, then I have to say that I go exclusively for blokes. I like lean lads up to about thirty, smelling of citrussy perfumes, with a whiff of cigarette smoke and warm male packet. No taller than me, dark hair, dark eyes, a day’s worth of scruff, a dusting of hair on the sternum and a little fleur de lys round each nipple. I like the tactile contrast of smooth buttock and hairy thigh. A sturdy pair of bollocks is always nice to get your hands round, especially if the lad shaves his sack, and although I don’t go for huge dicks, I do find thin ones something of a let-down. Well, that’s me. Have you met anyone nice lately?’

Instead I just muttered ‘yeah’ and changed the subject.

Pity. We could have had a long discussion about sex, morality and religion, leading to a bit of work on modal verbs and a whole swathe of very interesting vocabulary. I would almost certainly have been fired, but answering the girly question truthfully for the first time would have been worth getting the boot for.

*****

A bit of him would do me nicely.

* Vocative form of the name.
**'vre gamoto' = fuckinelle!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Psalm and Hymn



Jan Garbarek sax, Agnes Buen Garnås vocals, from the album 'Twelve Moons', which I was given as a birthday present about seven years ago, and pulled out to replay last night. I wanted to hear this particular track again. It's a hymn that is still, cold and eerie, suggestive of vast and unexplored spaces, of a piece with the icy night and the glassy, impacted snow all around the house and as far as you can see, glowing bluish in the moonlight. The perfect antidote to the worm's eye view of mankind and God presented in the post below this one.





While we're 'Guhkkin davvin, dávggáid vuolde' ('Way up north, under the Great Bear' - first line of the Sámi national anthem) here's the hymn 'Mu Vaibmu Vadjol Doppe', sung by Mari Boine. This is the Sámi version of the Norwegian hymn Mitt Hjerte alltid Vanker i Jesu Fødte rom, 'My heart always wanders where Jesus once was born.' Boine finishes the hymn with wordless Sámi joik singing, the singing that the Christian missionaries said was of the devil, and banned from church and god-fearing company. I don't know if the inclusion of joik is intended as reconciliation or defiance, but I do hope it's the latter.

What a feeling it'd be, to stand alone on a frozen tundra and belt that out to the dying light.



Thursday, 2 December 2010

That's you lot told

Align Left

This is Jay, husband of Paula, a kind lady who engaged patiently with my anti-evangelical rants on You Tube, but failed to bring me back to Jesus. Paula was 'rescued' by Jesus from Wicca - draw from that whatever inferences you will. Mine would include extreme credulity along with a heavy dose of control freakery. Jay and Paula and their fellow evangelicals think the world outside their particular interpretation of Christianity is peopled solely by junkies and sexual insatiates who merely use others, imposing their lustful desires on them and chucking the resultant foetuses into the flames or, if they have not succeded in conceiving a child for Satan, at least passing on a very nasty bug or two. This imagined imposition of the will on others is of a piece with the hectoring street preaching to which Jay and Paula are called.

Imagine being told all your life that eating is disgusting. Food is greasy and gross and foul, yet you cannot avoid it; by your nature you desire it, and must needs ingest it, slurping and farting and rotting your teeth and loathing yourself for satisfying the persistent urge. Curse your nature, therefore. Vomiting is a virtue. You do not suspect, and nobody around will tell you, that there are cuisines and commensalities, techniques, arts and refinements, that have long been cultivated beyond your limited horizons.

Then you discover the Jesus Diet. It doesn't open your eyes to the delights of food, but it does allow you to turn all that self-loathing outward.

*****

Repent, for the end is nigh.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Giants in the Oven and Kitchen with Potatoes


I bought a packet of rocket from Marks and Sparks yesterday, one of those little inflatable cushions stuffed with leaves. They are weedy affairs, the leaves, thin and soft and tasting of not an awful lot. A week ago in Athens I had a salad of tomatoes and rocket, the latter brought over from Dida’s garden in Corinth. Each leaf was dark, crisp and punchy, each an athlete next to the bunch of drippy nerds from M&S. Greece is not a gastronome’s paradise, but I’m convinced that almost all food out there tastes of more than most food does here. Sailland’s aphorism ‘la cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu'elles sont’ is taken for granted in Greece. Here, unless you search hard and pay transnasally, most food tastes of bugger all.

Gigantes, pronounced (more or less) YEE-gan-dess, are fat white beans frequently on the menu in tavernas as part of a meze, a selection of little appetizers presented all at once for your picking and nibbling pleasure. I’m very partial to gigantes plaki, a recipe for which is provided below. Eaten with salads and bread and dips such as tsatsiki and taramosalata, they make you feel replete and healthy and with all that fibre, they fairly plummet through the system. I’ve brought some back with me to cook for myself. You can buy them in tins, and they are not so bad, but you miss out on the virtuous glow to be had from taking something bubbling, aromatic and garlicky from the oven.

You must soak your gigantes overnight before you even think of cooking them. Someone I knew in Kalamata, dragged over to Greece from Australia by her parents to marry a man from the old country, decided one day to show willing and cook Sunday lunch for her extended family. She planned to serve gigantes, but omitted the soaking. Thus the assembled in-laws and cousins were presented with a tureen of aromatically sauced marbles which, stabbed at with forks, pinged and ricocheted off the walls and light fittings, smashing people's dentures and spectacles. So mind you bloody well soak them. You also need to watch them as they cook, and catch them at the point after they turn soft but before they disintegrate. Insufficiently-cooked gigantes are murder on the digestion and will turn your gut into a fizzing, bubbling Kipp’s apparatus.

So, take your gigantes, or butterbeans if you can’t find any, and soak them. I suspect butterbeans would need less soaking than gigantes. Fry some onions and garlic in olive oil, and when these are soft, add some chopped tomatoes, some oregano and bay leaves, and your beans. Barely cover with water and simmer until the beans begin to soften. The skins will split: what matter? Be unperturbed. Back in the nineties, the Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos sold boil-in-the-bag gigantes which carried this reassuring notice in English: 'the swelling of the package after warming does not inspire any uneasiness'. When your beans begin to soften, you can add salt and pepper, a little dried mint and some lemon juice, then finally a teaspoon of sugar. Transfer the pot to the oven where you finish the beans off. The sugar will caramelize and form little bits of crisp crust on top of the sauce. Serve at room temperature, with a little chopped parsley scattered over. Eat alone, or with someone whose bodily functions you are prepared to put up with afterwards.


My own efforts coming along nicely.

Kitchen with Potatoes

If I asked the kids I taught in Kalamata what they had been doing before the lesson, the stock response was 'I go my school, after I go my house, I eat kitchen with potatoes, and I read.' 'I read' is usually to be understood as 'I did my homework', and 'kitchen' is of course chicken, a favourite metathesis among foreign learners. Greek-style Kitchen with Potatoes is easy, cheap and cheerful, which explains its lunchtime ubiquity, and you make it in this wise, or at least I do:

Get yourself a chicken, or if eating alone, a chicken's leg, or such other parts of its anatomy as excite your desire. Do not even think of removing the skin. Peel some spuds and cut them into chunks or thick chips. Combine some olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard, some freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice and some Aromat or Marigold Swiss Bouillon powder. Your spuds are then tossed in this mixture, and thus anointed, disposed around your chicken. Cook the assemblage until you are really quite utterly delighted. Strew with chopped parsley or dill, if desired. I actually prefer the potatoes to the kitchen.

Monday, 29 November 2010

An All-Time Low for Heights



I’m scared to death of heights. I’m queasy standing on a chair to change a light-bulb, so you can forget about asking me to get on a ladder to wash your bedroom windows, and you can fiddle with your own television aerial, because I’m not bloody going near it. I have these dreams where I’m ascending a fixed ladder on a bell tower or industrial chimney, and towards the top, either the distance between the rungs increases, or they turn to warm plasticine as I grasp at them, and I end up a hundred feet above the ground, paralysed with terror. You know that famous photo, 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper'? You can have a look at it here. I don’t want to, even though the link suggests a certain amount of trickery was used, and producing it wasn’t actually as dangerous as it looks. Merely thinking about it makes my palms sweat. I think it’s a good job I’m not very tall.

I stayed last week in a fifth floor flat in Athens. A narrow balcony overlooks the street and at the back there is a large terrace. I did not venture out in either direction and wouldn’t have looked over the railings without considerable financial inducement. Irritatingly and rather worryingly, a fantasy, or rather a waking dream, stole unbidden into my head: the walls of the building began to soften, causing the floor of the flat to tilt and everything in it to slide slowly across the slippery marble floor until furniture, books, cats and people were tipped out of the French windows to plummet into the street. As this vision unfolded, I sat at my laptop in the dining room, involuntarily tensing my buttocks as if to… well, I don’t know. If the building were indeed softening like hot plastic, how would clenching your bum help?

This intrusion of fantasy into waking life is something that bugs me. Melting flat-blocks belong in dreams along with the useless plasticine ladders. They seem real there, for everything in a dream seems real. They should not be oozing through into daytime consciousness and demonstrating their power to disquiet me as I sit in a solid dining room that I know cannot melt.

On the plane home, I booked a seat by an exit, because some five feet separate that row from the one in front, and thus people cannot recline their seats into your book-holding zone. It occurred to me mid-flight that the door looked rather flimsy, an assemblage of squares and lozenges with a thin-looking porthole through which you could see the cloud cover over Switzerland stretch to the horizon like a vast trifle. What if some loony took it into his head to try to open it? We’d all get sucked out and splattered over an Alp like raspberry vinegar on an ice-cream. Again I got this sensation: the aircraft walls were softening and thinning, and I leaned across my two seats as if bracing myself for a very long fall. Dammit, I had to give myself a very stiff talking-to. I am a seasoned air traveller who knows you can’t open the plug-door of an emergency exit at 30.000 feet. I have flown perhaps a hundred times without a daunt, so why this irrationality now? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want a seat by the exit again, and that this new crackpot fear will resurface when I go back to Greece in January. What a bleeding nuisance.

*****

Surreal moment from 1995 or so. I was examining for the Cambridge FCE oral tests at the Park Hotel in Athens. My room was on the second floor, commanding a view of Areos Park. With my back to the view, I was sorting out my papers when there came a knock on the window. This is the second floor, I thought: nobody can possibly be knocking on the window. But I turned, and sure enough, a young man of stunning good looks was standing in the narrow window-box, two storeys above the street and inches away from a horrible death. Notwithstanding, he smiled and indicated cheerfully that he wanted me to open the window. He had the body of Michelangelo’s David – I could tell, because he was wearing only a pair of tiny red shorts. I slid open the window and he jumped into the room with a lithe, muscular, masculine grace not hitherto brought to the vacating of a second-storey window-box. He said ‘ευχαριστώ’, thanks, and loped off into the corridor. I followed, transfixed by those flowing muscles and the perfection of his proportions, almost expecting that he would not take the stairs or the lift, but dematerialise or be assumed into Heaven instead. When he disappeared unmiraculously round a corner, I went back into the room and looked out at the window-box. It appeared to run the length of the building under the window sills, and was perhaps three feet deep. Nothing would have induced me to walk its length – not even if I had had a body like his and could entertain myself by appearing like an angel on gobsmacked poufters’ window-boxes to flabbergast them with my daring and beauty. My palms are sweating now at the thought.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

See me!

My new classroom persona

Alexandros has just e-mailed me his homework. The set task, after four hours in class of reading, language work and analysis of several model paragraphs, was for each student to produce a paragraph - paragraph, mind, not essay - of their own, introducing their country, mentioning the location, main attractions, natural resources and language or languages spoken. This is what seventeen year-old Alexandros took a weekend to come up with:

Greece is a small country in Europe. It has borders many countries, including Bulgaria, Turkey, and Albania . Greece has good natural resources marble .The capital of Greece is Athens . Many tourists stay in the city to see the Parthenon. There are also lots of other things to do outside Athens . You can go for swimming in the very good beach! Although the official languages is Greek.
As he was preparing a first draft and cawing 'I dunno! I dunno!' as if this were my fault, I went to help him get some facts together. Thus the info about marble and which countries border on Greece came from me, after I told him that he couldn't include souvlaki as a natural resource. I thought I might excuse his ignorance of which countries border on Greece on the grounds that he lives in Cyprus, but then I though, no, the hell with that. If at ten years old I could locate any country on a world map, having lived nowhere other than Huddersfield, he ought to bloody well know at seventeen which countries share borders with the country he visits most often. Once, when I was teaching kids of twelve in Kalamata, I devised a general knowledge quiz for one of my classes. It was intended as a bit of a laugh for a Friday evening. I had chucked in what I remember from childhood as the staple of kiddie-wink general knowledge: biggest this, smallest that, location of this river or that mountain, where you find such and such an animal, that sort of thing. Well, they knew sweet bugger-all about anything. They offered wild guesses: the Amazon runs through London, the capital of Spain is Paris, Canada is a town in the USA. It was not a laugh at all, it was sphincter-squeezingly embarrassing, and I had to put the proceedings out of their misery after two rounds. The kids were not stupid, far from it, but they were quite extraordinarily incurious. The same must apply to Alexandros, who after all had the internet at his disposal and forty-eight hours in which to check his facts.

Although the official language is Greek. Eh? Although the official language is Greek, what? The thought is dangling there unfinished because Alexandros has remembered he is supposed to chuck in a few althoughs and howevers, but he can’t remember what they mean. I had demonstrated the use of these linkers and found then that the entire class was starting and ending sentences in their drafts with one or the other, as if they were perhaps rest-points for the eye, or like selah in the Psalms. We went back to the whiteboard to sort them out. The sorting-out may have coincided with Alexandros’s visit to the bathroom or disappearance for a fag, but he has a dictionary, writing a hundred words is hardly an onerous task, and he could have checked the bloody meaning. Ρε Αλέξαντρε, πολλά ζητάω; Am I asking too much?

When I was seventeen and a sixth-former, I wrote three essays and three or more prose translations each week in French, German and Spanish, each task taking up about two sides of foolscap. We ‘ad no internet i’ them days, us, and none o’ them fancy e-lectronic dictionaries. Ours were Cassell’s bilingual dictionaries hefty enough to stun a swaledale. I can’t pretend I was a hugely conscientious student at that age, because I relied far too heavily on a good ear for idiom, a capacious memory for vocabulary and on Sprachgefühl generally rather than on solid graft, but I mean even so, kids these days, eh? Get away with murder.

‘This is adult education,’ I say to my Algerian pilots when they complain that they cannot write self-assessments and should not be expected to, as assessment is my cabbage patch, not theirs. ‘Self assessment is exactly what you need to be able to do.’ Still, adult education or not, I feel like giving Alexandros some demeaning punishment such as lines:

I must not submit half-arsed, unedited twaddle to Steve’ x 200

But this would not inconvenience him much – he’d simply copy and paste it then e-mail the result off to me.

He's a nice kid, I must point out. He's lively and quite a handful in class because of his energy, and because he's a good decade younger than almost everyone else in the group. But the total helplessness some students display when it comes to working independently drives me round the bleeding twist.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Careful with the Chandelier*


I’m only writing this as a delay tactic, so ignore me. When I have a teacher training session to prepare, I arse about interminably before getting down to it. The flat is never cleaner and the cupboards never more orderly. Today, the place gleams. Then again, I tend not to wear my glasses around the house and thus I miss detail. To the clear-sighted, the bathroom may look as if a horse has been stalled in it.

On the twentieth of the month I’m off back to Athens to do a few lesson observations and a couple of teacher training seminars. Last month out there I did a long session on teaching pronunciation. I am so far into my comfort zone with ‘How to Do Phonology’ that it was like teaching in jim-jams and slippers with a snoozing cat on my lap. I asked my friend out there who runs the show what subjects she’d like me to address this time round. ‘You could do something about metaphor and idiom,’ she suggested. I immediately agreed, not because I was bursting with ideas on the topic, but because November 21st seemed a long way off, and I can usually manage to cobble something together eventually, whatever the brief. Now I'm wishing I had iffed and butted a bit, because I am – temporarily, I hope – stumped. It’s not a lack of ideas that’s hobbling me now that I’ve done a bit of reading and thinking on the subject, but how I’m going to turn this into a deftly stage-managed five-hour session involving discussion, discovery and stacks of practical teaching ideas.

The course participants are a sharp and enthusiastic bunch, and their energy put me, who late am fallen to jadedness and grumpery, to shame. They love teaching, and they love finding out more about methodology and language. ‘This,’ said one lady fiercely, in reference to the stuff we did on intonation, ‘is really interesting.’ My initial reaction was something like ‘ ‘tis new to thee’, but then I felt suddenly as pleased and proud as if I were the inventor of English intonation patterns rather than merely the passer-on of stuff I’ve read and observed. Anyway, the Athens group gave me a good kick up the butt and a shot in the arm, and shored up my sagging ego with their feedback. Ευχαριστώ, παιδιά.

What the bloody hell are we going to do about metaphor and figurative language for five hours, then? Well, first off, we tend to think of metaphor as the concern only of writers and poets and them as is bookish, but everyday speech is chock-full of metaphors and figurative language. In the preceding paragraph, I waffled on about 'bursting' with ideas, 'cobbling ideas together', 'kicks up the butt' and 'shots in the arm', all of which might make intermediate learners of English wonder just what the hell we get up to when I sod off to Athens for the odd (probably very odd) week. Every-day metaphors, then, are ten a penny and can be classified. Take ‘argument is war’, for example:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked everything I said.
The criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his arguments.
He shot me down in flames.
She marshals her arguments well.

Almost any word that collocates with money will collocate with time, wherefore truly is it said that ‘time is money’:

You’re wasting your time / you’re wasting your money.
This gadget will save you hours / this gadget will save you pounds.
I spent a year in London / I spent a fortune in London.
'Hey, Big Spender, spend a little time with me...'

Then, ‘anger is a hot fluid held under pressure’:

She got all steamed up.
He just exploded!
I blew my top.
I flipped my lid.
She blew up at him.

Up is good and down is bad:

He’s in top condition.
He’s at the peak of his game.
He’s sinking fast.
She's on top of the world.
He’s down in the dumps.
'The only way is up, baby, for you and me now...'
'How can you laugh, when you know I'm down...'

I put it to you, then, ladies and gentlemen, that metaphor is not the icing on the cake of language, but one of the organising principles. You wouldn’t think so from much of the commercially available teaching material, so I am probably going to be chucking into my session another diatribe against the bland literalness of so much of the language presented in EFL course books. If so much of the choice of words in language is dictated by metaphors and imagery shared by members of a given culture, ignorance of those metaphors is going to exclude learners from a hell of a lot of what’s being said. That’s one strand of the session at least, and might take us all of twenty minutes to cover. I have to sort the implications of all this into a coherent five hours both profitable and entertaining. Suggestions welcome, especially from people whose first language uses different similes and metaphors from English. For instance, for English speakers, ‘love is insanity’, and you are crazy about someone, madly in love, delirious with passion, head over heels, absolutely nuts about somebody:

'Im feeling quite insane and young again / And all because I'm mad about the boy'

I have read that in Arabic, though, ‘love is thirst’. Can anyone confirm that or put me right?

*****

I’ve been a collector of figurative and fruity language since I was a kid, and used to piss myself laughing at the way my grandparents talked. (No, no, of course I didn’t really piss myself, this is the bloody point I'm making.) Back in my grandparents’ childhoods in Yorkshire, if someone was especially defensive or sharp of tongue, people would mutter ‘by ‘eck, she’s more edge ner a dozen brokken piss pots, has yond.’ I tried this nice simile out on Spanish colleagues in France back in 1978 and it translated perfectly into Spanish, with no loss of meaning, rhythm or conciseness: ‘más borde que una docena de orinales rotos’ if I remember correctly, where ‘borde’ means literally ‘edge’ and figuratively ‘strop’. I don’t remember if we successfully translated the phrase my grandma always used about her wealthy but miserly allrightnik of a brother when she said that ‘he wun’t part wit reek off ‘is shite’ or the related ‘he wun’t give yert steam off ‘is piss’, but I do remember we tried. If my mum or aunts were sulky as kids, my grandma would accuse them of having ‘a face as long as t’ gas man’s Mac’, which I find much more apt than the more conventional comparison with a fiddle. (The gas man, for those born later into more prosperous circumstances, was the man from the gas board who used to come each week and empty the shillings and half crowns from your pay-as-you-go gas meter. The uniform consisted of a peaked cap and a calf-length macintosh, then a species of raincoat, not a computer.) We describe two good friends in English as ‘thick as thieves’ but for me, it’s not as knapp as the Greek simile that has two such as ‘κώλος και βρακί’ [kólos ke vrakí] ‘arse and knickers’. My grandma’s stock of phrases for characterising her brother also included ‘tight as a mackerel’s arse’, (i.e., water tight) which is quite nice, and I really sniggered over the Greek description of someone either very mean or forced into frugality: ‘κάνει το σκατό του παξιμάδι’ [káni to skató tou paximádi] ‘he makes his turds into rusks.’

The Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos has the slogan ‘…και του πουλιού το γάλα!’ [ke tou poulioú to gála] which translates somewhat enigmatically as ‘…and the milk of the bird!’ I discovered there’s a related idiom to do with ‘bird milk’ in Arabic, which I speculate may be the origin of the Greek idiom, slipped in via Turkish**. I leave you to decide what you think it means.

*****

* The post title is a translation of 'σιγά το πολυέλαιο', [siga to polyelaio] a verbal shrug, meaning something like 'big deal'. My thanks to Theialina who put me right. I thought it was a deliberate non-sequitur in response to an apparently pointless remark, and I was basing this on an addled memory of a book of Greek idioms I had back in nineteen ninety-splunge. The real non-sequitur-in-response-to-a-pointless-remark is 'από την πόλη έρχομαι και στην κορυφή κανέλλα' [apo tin poli erchomai kai stin koryfi kanella] 'I'm coming from town with cinnamon on top'. Moral: with foreign languages the same holds as for your post office and the potency of your penis: use it or lose it.

** This sort of speculation gets you into deep dung in Greece, the source, after all, of every language, as many a Greek erroneously believes. The other day I got this comment an old post, Πας μη Έλλην βάρβαρος: ‘You just wish you were Greek. Apart from being a nationality, being Greek means much more than you think.’ No elucidation was forthcoming.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Déjà Vu



‘Tis upon us once again, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and pre-intermediate students from Saudi Arabia. The other day I was walking down the street and saw coming towards me one of my Saudi students from last year. It’s amazing how good you can get at recognising individuals from a distance, despite their shapeless swaddling and muffled face. We drew close and Manal emitted a sudden, blurted, over-loud ‘hi!’ as she passed, which made me think that she had been nerving herself up to greeting me ever since she had become aware of my approach. Twelve months into her stay in England, it still goes very much against the cultural grain for her to greet a man in the street. The recent arrivals are still at the stage where the ladies are uncomfortable in a classroom with men and slightly resentful of the arrangement, and so they occupy a table of their own and spend most of the lesson chatting in Arabic.

After a frustrating few weeks of the same situation last year, I decided to force the issue and get the class to do a ‘Find Someone Who’. This is a bewhiskered bit of EFL teacherly schtick, aimed at getting the whole class talking. You give everyone a questionnaire something like this:

FIND SOMEONE WHO…

1. Has been to the USA
2. Has eaten Chinese food
3. Has studied a language other than English

…and so on, up to fifteen or so categories. Then you get everyone to stand up, circulate, and see if they can find a class member who has had each experience. If they find someone, they can request further details. This usually produces a most gratifying buzz, and if the teacher joins in, the students can ask him questions and learn that he has a life as well and doesn’t simply turn to dust, vampire-like, at three o’ clock each winter afternoon. During the lunch break I explained to Khalid and Nawaf what I had in mind, and asked if they thought we could make it fly. This is a tried and trusted activity for maximising student talking time, I said, and should not be interpreted as an incitement to carnal impropriety. They iffed and butted for a while and then decided it would probably work, so long as the ultra-devout Faisal was not present. This is because everyone must defer to the scruples of the most pious member of any group, and Faisal did not really approve of females being allowed out of their kitchens, far less occupying the same classroom as him. Later, much to my satisfaction, he was put in a class that had three female teachers.

Well, I suppose Faisal must have been absent that day, because the Find Someone Who, that oldie but goldie, worked a treat. I might even have put on a CD for a little background music, a classroom habit of mine that has incurred the displeasure of the pious on occasion. I was crowing inwardly, and couldn’t wait to report to my colleagues who shared the group with me that I had finally overcome all resistance and integrated the sexes. I crowed too soon, though. The activity was like the Christmas Truce. The following day the women had reverted to type and resumed their self-protective huddle on the left side of the room.

History is repeating itself in the classroom this year. The women behave as if the lesson were not aimed at them, but rather as if it were some blokish discussion of cars or football that they cannot reasonably be expected to enter into. The lessons are no such thing, obviously, but we cannot expect these ladies to put aside years of conditioning and enter whole-heartedly into our way of doing things within a month of their arrival, or indeed within a year. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that if the university bowed to the Saudi women’s frequent requests for single-sex classes, the ladies would make faster progress. The class would have to be for Saudi women only, though, as women of other nationalities are hardly likely to take to the idea and, pace Faisal, most Saudi men love to have around a few (relatively) scantily clad young ladies they can chat up. If anyone reading this has any suggestions as to how to integrate Saudi women into mixed-sex classes, do please let me know.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Unsplendidness in the Classroom


A colleague of mine had a pet theory. People who are good at language learning, she said, often don’t make the best language teachers and teacher trainers, because they have never experienced the learning difficulties faced by those not so gifted. She was not especially good at language learning herself, which I suppose explains the attractiveness to her of the hypothesis. There’s some truth in it. People often become teachers because of their enthusiasm for a subject, and their enthusiasm may well be born of a facility with that subject. In my experience of school, sports teachers were the most likely to be blinkered by their own zeal. To a man, they seemed to me humourlessly competitive Neanderthals who lacked any capacity for empathy with those of us for whom sport is a mind-numbing bore. My hatred of sport as a kid was so strong that I managed to be the only able-bodied schoolboy in British history to avoid compulsory games completely for my entire secondary school career. After a protracted period of non co-operation in games periods, I was finally allowed to go and teach myself Spanish in the library while my coevals went out onto the playing-fields in blizzards to break their noses, legs, collar bones, etc. I did eventually take up weight training in my thirties, but that was no thanks to the eyeless, deep-chinned, track-suited bone-heads who taught games at school. OK then, facility with a subject does not automatically confer the ability to teach it effectively.

I have always been quick at language learning. I’m a good mimic and I have a capacious memory for vocabulary items, chunks, collocations and colloquialisms, so way back in the early eighties I expected that this would make me able to teach languages pretty effectively. If nowadays I have any talent as a teacher of languages and trainer of language teachers, and I think I do, I reckon it has been honed largely through contemplating my own fuck-ups. I am not naturally endowed with great sensitivity to others, and such sensitivity as I have developed has had to be learned consciously through observation and deduction and negative feedback. In 1982, then, I got taken on at a summer school for adults in Cambridge, and although I wasn’t exactly bursting with self-confidence, I was ignorant enough to imagine I wasn’t doing too bad a job, God help us.

One hot August afternoon in 1982, the 23 year-old me decided that with my upper-intermediate class I would make use of a text by Alan Coren that had amused me greatly the previous day. So I went in, and read it to them. I think it ran for about five pages. I was sensitive enough to mood to be aware as I read that nobody was beating their fists on the floor in helpless mirth. In fact, nobody reacted in any way until about half way through my recitation, when a Spanish woman stood up and through tight lips, excused herself on the grounds that she had headache. I let her go – her loss, I reckoned. She never came back, ever. At the end of the piece, I asked detailed questions about the text but nobody seemed to have an awful lot to say, the miserable gits. I don’t know how we made it to the end of the lesson, but after a while the next teacher came in to take over. I hadn’t noticed it was time to wind up. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun!’ he quipped, whereupon I jovially told him to piss off, and skimmed an exercise book at him, but missed and hit a student instead. Later, I used the same text in the same way with another group, but didn’t whiz any exercise books at anybody on that occasion, I don’t think.

Quite a while later, the school principal invited me to his office to discuss 'the incident with Miss S.', a German member of that first group that had so pathetically failed to appreciate the wit of Alan Coren, and the one whose head had stopped the exercise book in its trajectory. It is shaming to confess that no event with that class had stuck in my mind as an ‘incident’, and not until the principal read me the lady’s complaint about how the class had been bored comatose, left uncomprehending, sworn at and had exercise books shied at them, did I have any inkling that matters might have been handled more delicately.

I must say that the principal, a man renowned for being autocratic and high-handed, was very understanding. He probably thought the woman was being too touchy (I don’t) and being a linguist, he mused that ‘piss off’ is a perfectly natural rejoinder in a number of possible contexts. It just happened that that very morning I had found in my pigeon-hole a letter from another summer school student, a French gentleman who had been in one of my lower-level classes. In it, he thanked me for my lessons and commended my humour and patience. This I was able to produce for the principal’s perusal. ‘Well, that puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?’ he said. Now, I think the French bloke’s interest in my twinky self probably had little to do with my teaching ability because at the time I didn’t have any, but I agreed eagerly that that did indeed put things in perspective, and the ‘incident’ was not alluded to again. Only after I had become a trained teacher did it begin to haunt me along with other three-in-the-morning memories and guilts.

I learned over fifteen years in Greece that many teachers there don’t seem to have much understanding of the concept of development: for them, either you are a born teacher or you aren’t. Trainee teachers I have worked with would often fall into depths of self-recrimination over minor mistakes and misjudgements they made during observed lessons, and have to be dissuaded from quitting the course lest they screw up again. They really do think that their tutors are, and always have been, perfect teachers. Well…

An Invitation

…a while ago a colleague proposed that the trainers in our centre should produce a paragraph each about their most ignoble hour in a classroom. These would be placed in a file which would be at the disposal of our trainee teachers, just to prove to them when they feel bad for misspelling a word, giving a silly explanation of a vocabulary item in class, or over-estimating their students' level, that they are not alone and we have all been there. We never got round to creating the file, so I’m starting one now, and I invite those of you who teach to submit an entry. Here is the task:
Write a short description of the most stupid, insensitive thing you have ever done in a classroom. Describe the most avoidable-by-an-empathetic-human being, toe-curling, sphincter-clenching act of unsplendidness you have ever perpetrated.
I’ve started the ball rolling, but I know I am not alone in holding such secrets as this, so fess up, now, mes semblables, mes frères. I want to take a few paragraphs from you back to Greece with me in November to show the DELTA candidates just how awful we can be when we try.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Find the ring-leader and...

It's tempting sometimes.

I left work last Monday feeling quite cheerful because I was pretty sure I wouldn't need to teach Sa'ad again. He’s a petulant little know-all of thirty-five going on sixteen. He speaks pretty good English but has the infuriating custom of cracking jokes in Arabic to the other members of the group, who then respond in Arabic, with the result that I often feel rather like a TV set in the corner of a bar, there to be watched or ignored depending on whatever competing stimuli might present themselves. Attending English lessons and speaking in Arabic for their duration is pretty silly, I tell them. It’s like paying for a big meal in a restaurant and sneaking out without eating it. I’ve been trotting out this analogy for years. All analogies break down at some point, I suppose, and maybe I haven’t examined this one sufficiently for cracks. Sa’ad at least has not found it particularly telling.

What was I on about? Yes, Sa’ad’s departure. It has been postponed, and he will be with us until the end of the month. I had been told that today he would be away for a medical, and rejoiced at the news, but somebody got the date wrong, and there he was. Sigh. Why do I let these individuals get to me, I wondered. Old-time school-masterly thoughts come to mind: ‘any sign of trouble, find the ring-leader and jolly well crush ‘im’, but it’s too late, and Sa’ad’s low-key sneeriness is rubbing off onto some other members of the group, though fortunately not all.

The first task today was a lead-in to a reading text which required the students to look at a bunch of statements and separate them into facts and opinions. For some of those present, this was a novel idea. After all, if you have Sa’ad’s mindset, ‘my opinion’ equals ‘fact’ and that’s all there is to it. After allowing time for cerebration, I asked Mahdi to chair a discussion.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘for sentence number one I get opinion. You?’

‘Opinion’ they said.

I was about to screech ‘WHY?’, but Mahdi was moving on.

‘For two, I get fucked. Do you get fucked?’

‘Yeah’

‘Do you get fucked with the next one?’

I couldn’t help it, I should have corrected his pronunciation, but I just fell about, and on realizing what I was laughing at, so did everyone else. After that brief jollity, it was back to the usual level of discussion and participation where it’s like pulling teeth or using benzocaine cream as a sex lubricant. OK, analogies break down, but you get the idea.

*****

I’m going to Greece for a week the day after tomorrow, for a desperately needed change of scenery. Sa'ad and crew are someone else's problem next Monday.

Τα λέμε αργότερα.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Fog patches



My mental weather is exceeding bleak at the moment, and I can’t see the point in anything. Books, music, food, getting up in the morning – I mean, why? All the world’s a stage, and the production is a tatty one. I went up north last week to my mother’s. With my customary reluctance and guilt for same, I went just once to see my dad in the nursing home. He was always active, immensely practical, a joiner and builder who made furniture, built extensions, tiled, plastered and painted – all things I’m hopeless at – and now he can’t speak or move, feed or bathe himself. I think he recognised me, but I may be wrong. I hope I am. It would comfort me in some small measure if I could be sure there was nobody home, because to be stuck immobile but conscious in that bed for however much longer is left to him, unable even to switch off the relentless twaddle of daytime telly, must be hell. It wouldn’t be so bad if he were ninety, for then we could be reasonably confident that he would not have to endure this for long. In fact, he’s only seventy-five and has the constitution of an ox. All my mother’s contemporaries are aging and ailing to some degree, and so naturally much of her conversation is devoted to who is taking this or that medication or undergoing this or that medical procedure, and there is a constant undercurrent of apprehension - who's next? Even if I get away to see a friend of my own age up there, the conversation hardly changes, as her father has had two massive strokes and so our discourse is of aging and disability, digressing occasionally but inevitably returning to it. Oh, yes, and then my sister’s partner’s mother died last Wednesday and the funeral’s on Friday. I’m going over to Suffolk on Thursday to look after my sister's menagerie while she and Pete attend it.

So, what with one thing and another, it’s been pretty damn gloomy around here this last couple of weeks. There is still no certainty of more teaching work, and so tonight I cancelled a rendezvous for dinner at the local Thai. Bloody hell fire. Things are getting bad when I start entertaining notions of thrift.

So. Reasons to be cheerful? Well, today I do believe I saw Sa’ad for the last time. Next Monday he is going for a medical. All the pilots have to get one before they leave us. I once saw the checklist, and it’s quite a going-over. I was curious as to why a helicopter pilot needed a rectal exam, but I suppose helicopters are so dangerous and accident-prone that ace sphincter-control is required. I asked the admin assistant if I could put forward some suggestions as to possible medical attentions that might be necessary. I had in mind anything terminating in ‘-ectomy’, but my request was turned down. Still, this means that his sulky, resentful presence has been removed from my life. They’ll be poking things up his bum round about lunchtime on Monday the eleventh, and I’m going to Greece on the twelfth.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Joining the Leisured Classes


I have bugger-all to do at the moment. The new term begins on Monday the fourth, but as things stand, it hardly involves me. After two bumper years when students from Saudi Arabia descended on us in heavily-perfumed droves, the department has reverted to normality and only fifty students have booked places this term, which means that in all probability about sixteen will actually show up on Day One. Unless at least as many more come trickling in through October, there will only be one group and I will not be teaching it. I was scheduled to teach on the MA in TEFL, but that has gone by the wayside too, as again there will only be one group, and Johnny-Come-Latelies like me don’t get to muscle in. I still have my Algerian pilots twice a week, but they won't net me enough to live on if things don’t look up a bit before Christmas.

But are we down-hearted? Well, not yet. Popping over twice a week instead of dragging my arse there every day is quite a pleasant prospect in the short term. Even teaching Algerian group C is something I can do with equanimity in the circumstances. I’m going to Greece for a week on the 13th of this month to bash a few teachers into shape, and again in November to do the same thing. I’m reasonably confident that enough students will join us during the term to necessitate the setting up of a second group. I do hope so, because otherwise not only will I be forced to look for work in some crappy language school (and all language schools are crappy – there are no exceptions) but I won’t have anything to write about. Where will there be Divas, Hassans, Nouris and Larbis? If things don’t improve by new year, I shall probably decamp to Greece for a few weeks and look for things to amuse or infuriate me over there.

Meanwhile, I am a gentleman of leisure. I got up absurdly late this morning – six fifteen – and am sitting here in my bathrobe, the umpteenth cafetiere of tarry black coffee to hand, at ten to ten. On non-work days, my levée usually takes about six hours. I have only three days of teaching in the next two weeks. I ought to be worrying, I suppose, but it is such a mechaieh not to be in the unvarying routine of train-teach-train-cook-bed for a while that I can’t find it in me to be too concerned.

But what can I bloody write about???

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Homosexual Agenda

I just saw this over at Pam's Houseblend. David Pakman, of whom I had never heard, here offers a compilation of moments from interviews with the nuttiest of the faggot-hating nuts. Here are some of your fervent anti-gay faves, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Paul Cameron, along with up-and-coming humourless hate-filled whack-job Pastor Terry Jones of the handlebar moustache, he who threatened to burn copies of the Quran on the eleventh of September, cuz obviously that wudda solved a whole bunch o' problems straight off, right?



Closer to home, in reply to a comment of mine on his blog, a young whippersnapper who followed mine replied today:

No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or
murderer. People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and
education. It is a main cause of one of the most harmful and fatal diseases. It
is disgraceful for both men and women. It degrades a person. Homosexuality
deprives a man of his manhood and a woman of her womanhood. It is the most
un-natural way of life. Homosexuality leads to the destruction of family life.
The young man in question is normally unable to produce a coherent sentence or spell more than three consecutive words accurately, so as an ace plagiarism detector, I googled the paragraph and was not surprised to find it reproduced more than forty times by Muslims, Catholics and Jews, now an all-purpose, multi-faith meme for the righteous, originally the words of Dr Muzzamil Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America. Few people will fail to note that there's enough that is morally and logically objectionable in that paragraph and the above video to keep us occupied until way past bed-time, but for all these people who just do not get it, let's spell it out once again:

There is no such thing as the 'homosexual agenda'. Attempting to get people to see that you deserve respect and equality does not (necessarily) imply that you wish to convert everybody else, subvert religion, destroy the family, or make bench-presses and pedophilia compulsory.

The phrase 'gay lifestyle' is deeply irritating. I assume it is used to refer to the social lives of that minority of young gay men in the developed world who frequent gay clubs and saunas in large cities, as if the visible gay members of the population were the only gay members. It excludes from consideration those who might just occasionally visit such places, those who are too poor to get in or too old to fit in, and those thousands of people that are simply not interested in clubs, bars and saunas. It excludes those who fit into any of the above categories and do not live in the developed world.

If you think human sexuality is disgusting, seek professional advice. If you think certain practices are disgusting, recognise that your tastes and aversions are your tastes and aversions and nobody else is required to share them.

Define 'manhood' and 'womanhood' and state exactly how these concepts can be degraded by same-sex desire, but WITHOUT reference to your favoured holy book.

AIDS is caused by a virus, and viruses don't give a stuff if you are male or female, gay or straight. We had all the 'Judgement from God' routine with syphilis five hundred years ago, and eventually decided it was just a bug and we'd better get on with fighting it.

If your God is exercised about who sleeps with whom on this spinning mote of dust, question His priorities or your concept of the deity. He/She/It has at least one vast universe to maintain, and in all probability is not especially interested in you.

*****

"When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes" From a lesser hadith. You bet it does!

Here are my rules about sexual practice:


1) All participants shall have attained the Age of Consent as prescribed in the country where the rumpy-pump takes place.

2) All participants shall be willing participants.

3) Persons shall not knowingly spread diseases, and shall take every precaution to avoid so doing.

4) Persons shall not cause unwanted pregnancy.

5) Persons shall not poke other persons with sharp sticks, save where consent be explicitly given to such poking.

6) The number and combination of gender of persons engaged in any sexual act, so the above strictures be obeyed, shall be nobody else's fucking business.

7) Persons may follow the dictates of their own conscience governing their own participation or non-participation in erotic acts, but shall not assume that others must follow those same dictates.

8) Adulterers and bigamists shall sort themselves out, or go on Jeremy Kyle. I'm not interested.

9) So there.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Deadlines, Schmedlines


The pre-sessional finished on Friday. This is a five-week course, the final one of the academic year, which prepares overseas students for study at a British university. Some five hundred students attended it. To pass, they didn’t need to do an awful lot beyond making sure their bum was on a seat for 80% of the course and meeting the deadlines for the essay and report. They needed to be present for the end-of-course tests, but were not called upon to actually pass them. Thus theoretically you could start the course, sleep through every session, balls up the listening, muff your presentation, dive-bomb on the reading, hand in a toilet roll just before the essay deadline, and emerge at the other end with a certificate. Of course nobody did that, and had anyone done so, they would have found a diplomatically understated comment on their certificate to the effect that this student is perhaps not quite ready for a university course yet. Even so, it was hard not to pass. For the five weeks I had a group of twenty-two students, most of them Chinese, and of the twenty-two, twenty-one were bright, hard-working, self-starting young people who got on well with one another and were a pleasure to teach. Then, of course, there was Sanjay.

Sanjay was from India and he arrived late, which automatically granted him an extension on the essay deadline. He was hardly ever seen in class, never on time when he did show up, and when physically present, very much in the class but not of it. Three days after his graciously extended essay deadline, he turned up at the mid-morning break to hand me the finished chef d’oeuvre, his deep thoughts on the institution of marriage. I told him I could not accept it. He was dismayed. He assumed a posture of supplication. He had attended the previous year's pre-sessional, he said, and not been allowed to proceed to his department, and could not wait another year, so please, please, please, would I accept his essay? Deadline’s past, mate, I gave him to understand. Can’t mark it, sunshine. But he had had so many problems in the UK, he said. He had had to move several times. His present landlord was a drunk who abused him. Before he could tell me that he had suffered an acute case of death but recovered just in time to finish his essay, I told him to go and see the course director. That’s how you deal with anyone who is being a pain in the butt and hogging your coffee break - let him hog hers instead.

I got to the course director before Sanjay did, to warn her of his impending visit, and that he had more sob stories prepared than Mills and Boon. She was already dealing with queues of Saudis who all needed to leave the course early due to the urgent problems of family members, usually involving their indisposition or impending or actual demise. Our Saudi students have more dead or moribund relatives, sick children and GP appointments per head than any other nationality. They are really quite extraordinarily prone to misfortune, especially towards the final week of any given course. Mam'selle la Directrice dealt firmly with them: they must bring in doctor’s notes, letters from their embassy, sputum samples or death certificates, and she’d think about it.

I thought how maddeningly obstructive and heartless we must appear to so many of these people. Deadlines especially appear ridiculous to many nationalities. Greek trainee teachers had great difficulty getting their heads round the idea. Why couldn’t we just mark their assignments as and when they decided they were ready? In a country where students drag out their degree courses for years, it seemed absurdly officious and inhumane of us to allow them only two weeks per assignment. On one occasion, the number of complaints from those who met deadlines about those who ignored them led us to ask the whole group to take time in part of the input session to thrash it out between them, no tutors to interfere. The deadline observers complained that the deadline ignorers were taking unfair advantage, spending three weeks or more on their essays when the observers were only taking the specified two. The deadline ignorers agreed, and so more fool the observers. The argument was never resolved, and given that Cambridge ESOL, (quondam UCLES) who moderated the course were such a bunch of pussies, we had absolutely no way to enforce compliance.

Eventually I did read and mark Sanjay’s essay, and it took me five minutes - two to ascertain that it was 100% plagiarised, two to satisfy my curiosity as to the source (Times Online - impeccable) and one to wonder yet again if he really thought I could be fooled so easily.

The five hundred students have now gone. Tomorrow the place will be silent, except for our handful of Algerian pilots. As from Tuesday I get a week off, and for the coming term I have only two days teaching a week so far, which isn’t enough to live on. I’m off to Athens for a week training teachers in October and another in November, two stints planned originally as busman’s holidays but now a real necessity. I might spend a month or so there in the new year if things don’t pick up at the university, although I’m pretty sure they will. I ought to be worried, I suppose, but I’m not. There’s a whole lot of goofing-off time ahead, and I’m not complaining.

Dawkins has a Go

Now that His Popeship has gone home to get on with his popage, we can breathe a relieved sigh that we will not have to listen to any more hymn singing and gush from those who inexplicably revere the old buffer. Here is Richard Dawkins putting the case for the opposition. While I was irritated at the moronic all-mates-together whooping that greets every other statement, I did mutter the odd 'hear, hear' as I listened.

Friday, 10 September 2010

I said I wouldn't...

...but I couldn't resist this one. Happy Eid.




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