Friday, 26 April 2019

Holy Shit

An inspiration indeed! Let's make Notre Dame look almost as magnificent as Meadowhall. In that glass-covered nave, let there be built, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, a mall. We could have The Transfiguration cosmetics and perfumes boutique, The First Stone jewelers, the Loaves and Fishes lunch counter, The Hoc Est Corpus Meum gym and spa, real ales at The Lamp and Bushel and Il Cenacolo for fine dining. You know, I'm beginning to suspect there might be money to be made from religion.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Early Spring. I do not like this time of year. It's like being woken up at the crack of dawn by an irritating, bouncy games teacher or pestered by one of those friends of your mother's who thinks it's a lovely day and nags 'shouldn't you be playing out?' when she sees you with your nose in a book. The clocks go forward tonight. I'm a nyctophile and I find the lingering, insipid light of northern European summer evenings really quite depressing. Cannot wait for October when the clocks go back to where they belong and proper time of day is restored.

I do like my new campanula while it lasts. It'll be withered and gone in a couple of weeks. Pulvis et umbra sumus. Right, I'm the kiss of death today so I'll shut up.

 Image may contain: plant and indoor

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Piscean Pig

Friday March the first was my sixtieth birthday. The sun (or is it the moon?) is in Pisces and this is the Chinese Year of the Pig, as it was when I was born. My thoughts on the matter were conventional: I used to think forty was old, so how the fuck did this happen? Answer: don't get killed between the ages of 40 and 60 and it'll take care of itself. There is so much more time behind me than there is in front! This has been the case for some years now, but only last week did I fully (and glumly) look the fact in the face. I'm broke and can never retire. Then again, life with no work would quite literally bore me to death, even if I had millions stored away.

So I'm old, it's official. Senior rail pass, free prescriptions... I bought a ticket for my commute to work tomorrow with a seven quid discount, picked up my first free prescription from Boots and in total saved fifteen quid that I'd have shelled out for the same stuff only last month. But am I happy??? In a pig's arse! I flash my senior pass at the conductor as if it were a notification that I had cooties. I'll get used to it. (No fucking choice) Naturally I bought a bottle of wine with the money saved, but I'd have done that anyway.

I did have a nice birthday, though, on the first of the month. I took a train up to Glasgow where my nephew lives and was greeted at Glasgow Central by him and my sister, who'd flown up to surprise me, which was incredibly touching. Glasgow is remarkably well fed, and we had tapas on the Friday evening and a fantastic meal at Mother India on the Saturday (fish pakoras, then monkfish and king prawn with ginger and dill - brill). Bloody arse-numbing train journey (as long as a flight to Abu Dhabi, I imagine) but next time I will at least get a big chunk of money knocked off.


Reasons for feeling old:

1) I had a look online to see what they're offering at Shakespeare's Globe this summer. They're giving us the Henry IV plays and Henry V. It was not  total surprise to learn that the King, Prince Hal and Falstaff will be played by women. (So far as I'm aware I am not misgendering them.) So I've decided to give the Globe a miss this year. Now, Maxine Peake was great as Hamlet, Polonius was played as Polonia in the same production, and the gravediggers were women and were very funny. Fabian in Twelfth Night has been Fabia, the RSC has given us a female Cymbeline and a female Duke in Othello and the Globe an all-male Twelfth Night. But an important theme of the Henry IV plays is the relationship between fathers and sons, you know, blokes. Is not Hotspur's ideal of honour, the desire that an avenged slight be publicly acknowledged, very much a male thing?  And does not Falstaff's contempt for that ideal come from a man who has been fed the notion throughout his life as a nobleman, and seen how much hypocrisy lies behind it? I absolutely cannot countenance a female Falstaff. Call me all the dinosaurs you like, these three plays belong in the late 16th century. The male actor who played Ophelia at the Globe last year (to a female Hamlet) said in an interview that 'we're kind of beyond gender now', which seems to me to be a denial of a fact basic to being a member of a sexually reproducing species on this planet. I suppose everything I've just written is contradictory and inconsistent, especially as I enjoyed Peake's Hamlet so much, but in its inconsistency it is at least on a par with the gender / race / identitarian / intersectionality tripe being pushed by Humanities Departments these days.  

2) Just seen on Twitter that Stanford University is offering a course called 'FEMGEN 238: Men's Violence Against Women in Literature: A Critical and Social Analysis', Those who take it will enjoy (?) the opportunity to 'inform and deepen [their] understanding of oppression'. Sounds like a blast! Given that course description -  or maybe prescription would be a better way to characterise it - you can bet that diversity of viewpoints will be zealously discouraged, as this seems to be the aim of a university education in the 21st century. What you do now is take books, sculptures and paintings that people produced in time gone by and pick them over for signs of racism, sexism, misogyny, assorted -phobias, marginalisation of identities and all that. Do not even think of actually enjoying the work of art you are pulling to bits. Most of this poker-faced stuff seems to come from the United States, but I'm seeing signs of it in the place where I work. From a paper I found on the windowsill of a classroom last week:

Media, Gender and Identity

Assignment 2: Research Project Proposal 

1) Which group are you going to study? [seems you can't study individuals] How are they stigmatised or marginalised in the media?
2) Explain the role the media play in characterising/stereotyping the group with examples.
I wonder if you'd be allowed to choose men as your stigmatised demographic? I suspect we are the last demographic you can openly mock and stereotype without releasing the social justice furies.

3) They start them early on this. My niece told me yesterday she'd had to sit through a talk given by a sixth former who argued that Friends is racist and transphobic, and she had detected some 'problematic' elements in Disney films as well. I don't know what these were, but there's a killjoy article here that may have been one of her sources. Well, I don't teach this stuff. Maybe it's fascinating and I'm pretty sure it engenders in its students a pleasant feeling of self-righteousness and superiority. But watching films and reading books to sniff out reasons to despise them seems joyless and pointless to me.

4) A young lady photographer has put up posters around the 'uni' to recruit female models whom she will photograph 'honestly, to protest today's airbrushing culture'. Has she only just noticed that artists and photographers have been improving on nature for rather a long time? Nobody depicted on an Ancient Egyptian wall has acne or a club foot and almost every human body in Ancient Greek or Roman art is idealised. Now, the young lady can of course photograph whom she wants in whatever way she pleases, but why such drab resentfulness of physical beauty? It's magnificent, it's transient, hence poignant, 'youth's a stuff will not endure', and all that. I'm a gay man and like most gay men, I'm all for it. Here you go:

To cheer us up (?) here's the oldest known melody in Europe. Don't kvetch, 'cos there isn't time.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Campery and Condoms in the Foreign Language Classroom

I'm off sick today. Back, legs, feet, everything south of my waist aches like fuck. Not complaining. I can go to bed when I please, get up when I please, have a doze in the afternoon if I feel like it. I'll be going stir-crazy by Sunday but hope to feel more like getting up at 5.00 and dragging my arse to... No, I'm not going to think about that right now. I'm in bed with coffee at 9.30am, a gale is lashing the windows with rain and I don't want to be anywhere else.

I have at the moment one of the nicest groups of students ever. A group of nine Chinese, Thai and Portuguese graduates grew to twenty earlier this month, with the addition of a few new Chinese and Thais and one each from Saudi, Kuwait and India. It was lovely to see how the new arrivals were welcomed and fitted in so quickly. They make life so easy! You simply set an activity in motion and they run with it. It's more like switching on the telly than managing a classroom. The other day I had to do a reading text from the ineffably tedious IELTS test. It was about moribund languages and how these might be salvaged. As a starter, I proposed that each nationality should teach everyone else in their group how they say their own country, nationality and language. Whay!!! Brilliant idea!!! I might have proposed we all go out on the razz and to hell with lessons. There followed a good twenty minutes of hilarity as Chinese students tried to get their tongues round Arabic and Thai students attempted Chinese. Thai was disappointingly easy, at lest to me: the same word, thai, does duty for country, nationality and language.

'So, I am from Thai, I am man Thai, I'm speak Thai? Wossthiss?' says K, our most voluble Chinese student, in mock-serious deprecation of what strikes him as want of linguistic sophistication. I wish I had chosen some rather more complex items to see how the speakers of four-tone Mandarin might cope with six-tone Thai.

One of the Thai contingent is a very camp young man called Tom, which is one syllable out of a given name that has quite a few more to spare. Early in the course I trotted out that old chestnut 'Alibis' for the millionth time since I first adapted it for large-ish groups circa 1983. As always with this group, the levels of enthusiasm and hilarity grew as the lesson progressed and Tom whooped 'this lesson is sooooooooooooo exCIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIting!'

I can't remember how the item came up, but I had to ask Tom to explain to the class what underwear meant. He stood on his chair, gyrating his pelvis and stroking his packet like a stripper and purred 'is wha you weah for covah you eggs!' The same action pretty much, accompanied with pelvic thrusts, was necessary when he proposed that the most important human invention ever is condoms. Nobody knew the word. 'Is what you wear when you fuck-keeeeeeeeng, so you don't born!'  

After this group I have an hour's break before I go to the (to me) detested Fred West building to teach two or three shy and silent Chinese undergrads in a room that could accommodate a performance of Starlight Express. I wish these few young ladies could see my graduate group and realise they need not adopt this mild and modest mien. In my classes, you can stand on your chair and gyrate your hips, shouting 'fuck-keeeeeeeeng!!!'

Well, usually. On Wednesday, Tom was on about condoms again in relation to a task that required students to recall the items they had bought over the week and classify them. I was joking about whether they were for him an impulse buy or a staple. This didn't go down too well with Ahmed from KSA. He didn't say anything but I understood from his facial expression that he found it strange that I should engage in, rather than silence, Tom's campy banter. Perhaps he was right. I don't know. I left work early because I was feeling like death. Ahmed has probably forgotten about the condoms by now.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Free Speech Police

This has saved me a lot of typing.

Friday, 12 October 2018


I've just deleted my Facebook account after thirteen years as a regular poster. I reckon that's probably the best way to stay on good terms with the handful of Facebook friends I see regularly in the flesh. I'm fed up of preachy, finger-wagging environmentalist doom mongering and endless feminist whining about how awful men and boys are to the fragile, frangible female sex. These videos you are posting, mes amis, are videos: scripted, acted, carefully lit, edited. They don't prove that one in three, or one in two, or every girl gets groped and jeered at by 100% of boys, they merely advance a narrative, and an ugly, male-hating narrative at that. You really ought to know better. 

OK, I'm tired and fed up with a streaming cold and everybody is getting on my wick, so I'll keep this short.    

Saturday, 6 October 2018

'You perceive [s]he stirs:'

I've been to the theatre three times this year, quite the giddy social whirl for me: I'm almost in danger of getting a life. There was the train wreck of a Macbeth at the National on my birthday in March, a competent Richard III in York in June and most recently, The Winter's Tale at The Globe, which I saw with my niece and her man while visiting a couple of weeks back.

I live in a small, pretty, very English, Twinings-tea-and-green-wellies market town with a centre consisting of three streets, so you can imagine what London feels like to me. I hit Kings Cross on the 26th of last month just in time for the rush hour. It took 15 minutes to get through the barriers and onto the Northern Line, where I and some 15,000 others boarded the tube to London Bridge. Imagine trying to preserve some sense of detachment, some notion of personal space, during a game of Twister. I kept my gaze downcast and avoided, as I thought, any direct physical contact with anyone else in my centimetre or so of circumambient space. 'Listen, mate, seriously, I don't want your arse in my face' snarled a beardy, aggressive little troll whom I had not noticed was sitting behind me. I thought, I've had far better faces in my arse, sunshine, and would prefer not to have my nose in this bloke's earhole, but what do you want me to fucking do? 

Eventually I got to East Dulwich where the three of us had far too much wine and a delicious lamb curry and so to bed.

So anyway, The Winter's Tale. I've got all the Globe Theatre DVDs but this was my first time there in the flesh. We had drinks in a lovely bar (The Swan) served by a very tasty young barman (don't know his name, sorry) and a had a fabulous view of bepinked sunset clouds and the buildings across the river, the Walkie Talkie, the Gherkin, the Stiffy and all those oddly shaped edifices lighting up as the sun sank. The theatre is hellishly uncomfortable, though, with bus shelter benches instead of seats and I felt forced to adopt a tight, compact posture so as not to kick the back of the woman in front of me, tip my pint over her head or lurch forward and plunge three storeys into the yard, something more suited to Titus Andronicus.

I also wanted to be closer to the stage to fully appreciate Will Keen as Leontes. He was quiet, tense, tentative, discovering something inside himself that appalled him and not knowing what to do with it or what it would do to him. Maybe the people leaning against the stage in the yard felt the tension radiate from him more strongly that I did up on the third tier. Or maybe I had the advantage and they could only see his ankles. 

Sirine Saba was brilliant as Paulina, fearless and truthful in polite, frightened, tight-arsed Sicilia, but I don't know why she had to wear a robe that looked like it had been knocked up from the matching curtains and bedspread I chose for my bedroom back in 1974 
when I was fifteen. She looked much classier in the second half in black. Was this intended to show her as older and wiser, counselor to Leontes rather than accuser? This has just occurred to me and I may be wrong. I can't otherwise explain the naffness of her costume.

The notorious stage direction 'exit, pursued by a bear' was underwhelmingly realised: a flapping piece of cloth with a crude picture of a bear's snout and jaws on it unfurled from the flies and as Antigonus left the stage, a door frame fell over. Anyone unfamiliar with the story wouldn't have had a clue what was supposed to have happened. I've no idea how this could have been done more convincingly, but then I'm not the one getting paid to stage it.

Now in the final scene, you can't be asking: 'OK, why do Hermione and Paulina collude for 16 years to let Leontes think Hermione is dead, and how come nobody got suspicious and how the hell do they justify treating a guilt-ridden man so fucking shittily anyway? Let him stew for a year or two by all means, but then put him out of his misery.' This is not playing the game. A winter's tale was a fire-side yarn spun to beguile a long, dark evening: question it too closely and you kill it dead. In the final scene, Leontes is introduced by Paulina to what he thinks is an astonishingly lifelike statue of his adored wife who died 16 years before from the shock of his rejection of her. Imagine his emotions: he has had only his fading memories and now she seems to be standing before him again: 'Would you not deem it breathed,' he gasps, 'and that those veins did verily bear blood?'  This scene, where Hermione, posing as a statue, descends from her plinth to embrace her husband and daughter after a sixteen year separation, is one that always reduces me to a gibbering wreck when I read it, and I really resented the way the actors allowed Leontes to look a bit of a fool here.  His several references to the life-like appearance of the 'statue' elicited knowing giggles where I wanted gobsmacked awe, but I still had tears rolling down my face at the end, so I suppose I'll let them off. 

Overall I really enjoyed the show. I'm conscious when watching productions of Shakespeare that I usually have very little to compare them with, and delivery and business I'm taking innocent delight in may well seem trite and hackneyed to someone who's seen or read the play dozens of times, but I suppose in that case I'm getting my money's worth and the more experienced playgoer isn't.


'Tis but three days since I said I probably wouldn't update this blog again. Shows how wrong you can be.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

'What am I going to write about next?'

That question has bubbled up in my brain several times a day in the ten years since I started this blog. I haven't been able to answer it for months now. I used to write about what amused, intrigued, moved or incensed me but since February this year, when I was maliciously accused of being a 'fascist' and a person 'I would not want to be taught by' for using the word 'Muslim' instead of 'Islamist' in a social media post, I've hesitated to write anything. It's my belief that the two people who lodged this complaint with HR did so because they had seen an opportunity to get at me for being gay, but of course I cannot prove this. I wrote a longish post in July about that whole tempest in a teapot, but was advised by my niece to trash it, because you never know who'll be trawling through your social media posts in search of matter they can claim to be offended by and use it to try to get you fired.

So, just to make it clear, these are my views on the current obsessions of the permanently offended. I'm speaking entirely for myself here.

If you are of any religious persuasion, the chances are I don't like your religion and find your apologetics ridiculous. We will have to agree to differ on this type of thing and I'm quite happy to do so.

If you disapprove, on whatever grounds, of homosexuality, feel free to say so to my face, because as a grown man I know that words cannot hurt me. British railway stations these days are defaced by a poster bearing the ridiculous slogan 'sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can really hurt us', suggesting that station staff  might be more traumatised if a bellicose drunk called them a cunt than if he physically assaulted them. Imagine someone in a hospital bed, all bandaged, plastered and splinted, surrounded by colleagues bearing flowers and grapes, all reassuring him with the words 'at least he didn't call you a faggot.'

If you believe it's a good idea to have 24-hour hotlines at universities to allow people to anonymously report 'hate speech', I think your proposal is cretinous, censorious and dangerous, even if it did get you elected to some students' union committee. Speech is speech and voice may be given to good ideas and to bad: let's hear all ideas and counter the ones we think are bad without fear of being snitched on, called every -ist and -phobe in the book, then fired and blacklisted.

I think your skin colour and sexual orientation are very probably the least interesting things about you. Nor do I care which gender you 'identify' as. Third person pronouns are not yours to choose. If you disagree with that, make your case and I will listen, but I reserve the right to disagree and to say that I do.

Criticism and mockery of a regime are not the same thing as racism, and the fiercest critics and mockers of shitty regimes are usually to be found among the people forced to live under them. Raif Badawi is a true patriot and Muslim, yet his masters have had him banged up for the last six years for criticising the way they run things. Shame on them.

By the way, I lived in Greece for fifteen years, and spoke to people there who had lived through the seven-year fascist police state of 1967 to 1974. The Greeks then had no civil rights and no free press to report on the imprisonment, torture and disappearance of anyone brave enough to oppose the rotten jingoism and cronyism of their masters, who in 1973 put down a student protest by turning the military on their own citizens. So don't be calling me a fascist: if you do, you demonstrate that you don't know what it means. Go and find out, then make sure you save the word for when you really need it.

That's all.

I don't know if I will ever update this blog again. The self-censorship imposed on one by the current climate of grievance and victimhood in education knocks all the pleasure out of writing. It was nice while it lasted.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Birthday # 59

It was my 59th birthday on the first of the month and a friend was to treat me to Macbeth at the National Theatre. The country was like Antarctica, trains were few and where running, jammed. I got to Kings Cross on the 28th of February on the only train of the day to make it there from Peterborough. I needed to get to my niece Danielle's place at East Dulwich, and queued to buy a ticket.

'You want a ticket to East Dulwich?' the bloke at the counter asked, mystified. I might have asked him for a sedan chair.

'Er, yeah...' 

He explained patiently that I could 'use my debit card like an oyster.'

I hadn't a clue what he meant by this and asked for elucidation. So, for other provincial innocents: you tap your debit card on a yellow blob at ticket barriers, and are granted instant access to trains. You don't need a ticket. If you lost your debit card, presumably the finder could happily tour London at your expense for hours until you noticed it was missing.

I got to East Dulwich and waited in a cavernous, open-plan bar for Danielle to come and meet me, foolishly ordering a glass of well-chilled Pinot Noir in a glacial pub on the coldest night since the woolly mammoth died out. Then we had a home-made Thai curry for dinner and I thawed out.


I was far from the happy 59th Birthday Boy this March 1st. There is something stressing me out at the moment which I have to keep quiet until it's resolved and there are times when it occupies me to the exclusion of all else. So I set forth rather reluctantly for the National, wearing a T-shirt, a shirt, a pyjama top, a jumper and a heavy jacket, enabling me to roll to East Dulwich station and fetch up in the National Theatre foyer encased in a ball of ice. I explained to Lorraine the reason for my preoccupied demeanour, we drank an extortionately expensive (but palatable) glass of wine apiece, then took our seats.

This was without rival the worst production of a Shakespeare play I have ever sat through. I spent the first half wondering where the hell we were, and who all these people could possibly be. The set was a black nowhere, dominated by what looked like half a black railway bridge adorned with tall, black dish mops. All this stood before a backdrop of shattered black bin liners. Black, black and more black. Subtle, huh? Everyone wore layers of shabby combat gear except King Duncan, who looked like an Italian pimp in a red suit, black shirt and red shoes. Pretty much every UK regional accent was employed as if the National operated a quota system, some mad notion of 'diversity and inclusion'. What in this bleak nowhere was there to covet? Why were Mr and Mrs Macbeth so eager to rule over  it?

Lady Macbeth read her husband's letter as the Olivier's revolve trundled her on. She appeared to be living in a bleak cell painted institution buff, full of mismatched plastic folding chairs and open suitcases spilling clothes and shoes. Other such modules appeared, each as cheerless as provincial train station waiting rooms, making a total bollocks of Duncan's line about  the castle having a pleasant seat. It didn't: it was a shit hole. The Macbeths gave their dinner party in an ugly canteen with two formica- top tables and grub in billy cans. This scene did actually come to life, despite Banquo's ghost meandering round like a sleep walker, because the embarrassment created by Macbeth's behaviour and his wife's attempt to make light if it was genuinely sphincter-winking and after the departure of the guests, the fear the couple exuded was palpable. I felt it was, anyway. Lorraine was underwhelmed as we went to the bar at the interval, where a glass of wine and a stewed coffee cost eleven quid.

After the interval, Macbeth's motivation for butchering Duncan finally became clear: it was to nick his trousers.

The evening's proceedings dribbled on. In a drab room with a grubby sofa and tatty rug, Ross - here a female thane with a Yorkshire accent - broke the horrible news to Macduff of the massacre of his family. I found this quite moving: how many people in Ireland, Syria, Libya and God knows where else have received similar intelligence in such ordinary surroundings, when everything familiar suddenly drains of colour and significance... or maybe the interval wine was getting to me.

At length it was over, and we got up and stretched as if a boring meeting had finally broken up. After a journey through what looked like Siberia, I got back to East Dulwich, sank a bottle of wine, and so to bed.


The following evening was delightful. Danielle and I had a few drinks at a cosy pub, and she treated me to dinner at a lovely Chinese restaurant, bless her. After, we drank a great deal more wine at home. The following morning she said she felt rough but texted me as I was on the train home to say she felt better and had been to the gym. Only then did I reflect that I'm forever 28 years her senior.


Bonding with my niece's cat, who's as appalled at the threat to free speech on university campuses as I am.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Come Again?

It's  always gratifying when students spontaneously make connections between the vocabulary you presented today with words and concepts introduced in earlier lessons: shows that some people out there are really taking in items of language and weaving them together. Today we came across the idea of 'upgrading the infrastructure of a city'.

'There was a word like that a while ago,' Coco (Chinese) said. 'What was it?'

I said I couldn't remember and asked for a clue.

'Taking something. Taking the piss? I think yeah. Taking the piss.'

Stumped, I said I'd have to think about it. A few moments later, after rifling through her notebook, Coco showed me the phrase she'd been trying to recall:

'...and keeping pace with recent developments...'

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elina Duni Quartet

The Albanian language has held a fascination for me for some time - I'm always attracted to the obscure. When in Greece I met Albanians and told them I was learning their language, their initial reaction was usually one of suspicion, then once they realised I was not a spy or a member of the Albanian mafia, more like 'whatever for???' I don't speak Albanian well and can read it with only moderate success. I can only pick out odd words from the stream of speech unless an indulgent native speaker is prepared to slow down and repeat stuff. But as I said, it fascinates me with its mix of home-grown, Latin, Greek, Turkish and Arabic vocabulary all transformed slightly to conform to Albanian rules of sound combination. 

This is the wonderful Elina Duni, whom I only discovered last week, performing in Tirana a few years back. The song is Ka nje mot e gjysem viti, 'it's been a year and a half', i.e., since we fell in love. Hope you like it.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tell me if I'm missing the point.

In the abstract reproduced below, Swedish gender scholar Åsa Carlson seems puzzled that most women think they're female and most men think they're male. This egregious failure to understand the way things are requires explanation. There are, admittedly, among male / 'male' and female / 'female' non-human animals differences in body size, in markings, in plumage and in pre-coital display, and mate selection based on this. Then there is the matter of which parent guards the eggs, tadpoles or cubs, and which one might snack on the placenta, or the offspring or the sperm donor, and what atavistic impulses might prompt such behaviours, but worrying about whether they are male or female is silly because the animals blindly performing these acts have no words for male or female, so these cannot be natural categories. Obviously.

Maybe there's room for a paper on what we shall term dendrism, defined as the human projection of the categories 'evergreen' and 'deciduous' on a diverse range of woody life forms whether they self-identify as such or not. Then there could be a new field, Emancipatory Dendrology, to keep a few more academics off the dole queue for a while.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

A Day In The Life V

Last month I went with a friend, Lorraine,  to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra. Well, does you good to get out once a decade or so. Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre go fast and the B&Bs are much contended for, wherefore get ye fixed up with your earliest, ye were best: we booked in January for April 10th, which was none too soon. 

We put up at the sign of the Travelodge. The man at reception was a cheeky cockney sparrer type, tiresomely bantering and chortling as he signed us in and handed us our swipe cards.

'Dashed familiar, that chappie at the desk, I thought,' I said to Lorraine as we rode the lift to our floor.

'Dunno what things is coming to, truly I don't,' she replied.

The hotel was a newish building that looked like lots of places you've been in before. With its blue-grey carpeted corridors and floor-to-ceiling windows on the landings, it might have been a health centre, a university admin block or... where do I know that faint, soap-powdery smell from?... the nursing home where my dad spent the last three years of his life. Shit. Still, we would use the rooms only for showers and sleep, the beds were comfortable and you can put up with Nescafe for breakfast once in your life.   

I hadn't been to Stratford for ages. I saw Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard do the Peter Brook Tony and Cleo in 1978. I remember in the bar at the interval overhearing a lady offer a trenchant observation on Jackson's performance: 'well, she's very good, isn't she, but she's not wearing all that Egyptian jewelry Cleopatra should wear.' In the early eighties I led at least three trips of overseas students from Cambridge every summer. In 1983 a colleague and I took a coachload of adult students to see a matinee performance of Twelfth Night. The students had been well-prepared by their teachers for one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. On the outskirts of Stratford we decided to distribute the tickets, and Lynette and I each took a wad to hand out. They were for Henry VIII, one of Shakespeare's least popular histories. I don't know who'd fucked up and never found out what any of the students thought about sitting in the Stratford dark for three hours on a sunny afternoon, in utter incomprehension. Or maybe I've erased it from memory.

Anyway, apart from that occasion, I always liked visiting Stratford. This time, I hardly recognised it as we walked into town. The hotel was quite a bit further from the town centre than its publicity would have one believe, situated on a charmless dual carriageway lined with terrace houses, Subways, KFCs and other franchises with garish signage. My mental image of a small town of half-timbered houses, their gardens teeming with delphiniums, hollyhocks, lavender and phlox was way off beam, probably deriving from repeated visits to Anne Hathaway's cottage. The town centre was dull as beans. Everything on Henley Street was closed and had anything been open, we wouldn't have wanted anything that was on offer. Shakespeare place mats, Shakespeare pencils, Shakespeare pens, key-rings and pessaries, all manner of Shakespearey tat to be carted off to Italy, Spain, China, Japan.  (I made up the bit about the pessaries.)

Not much like this at all, really.
Feeling the shakes coming on, we looked for a pub and found one which purported to be Stratford's oldest. It had a very snug snug: ten or so people felt like a dense crowd. Lorraine had a G&T, this most curiously served in a great balloon of a glass, wherein the barmaid sloshed such quantity of ice that the niggardly British pub measure of gin must needs be drowned. I had to ask her to remove some lest the gin have no effect. Is there no respect for alcoholics left? I had a pint of Guinness followed by a glass of utterly dog-rough red wine that cost seven bloody quid. At the adjacent table, an ineffably tedious old git with a deep voice and posh accent was regaling his lady companion with his views on the productions on offer at the RSC this season, all of which he appeared to have seen several times already. How did she manage to stay in her seat, smiling and nodding through this? I should have offered to punch him, and feel ungallant for not having done so.           

We wandered over to the theatre where heaps more Shakespearoid tat was on offer (L:'Who the hell wants this stuff?') and took our very good seats in the stalls. The production was a good one if a little on the tame side. (One reviewer characterised it as 'all dressed up with nowhere to go.') I couldn't make my mind up about Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Why, alone among the Egyptians, did she employ an unidentifiable foreign accent? Why the odd inflections and swoops in her delivery? Why was she so like Eartha Kitt? I prefer, overall, Eve Best in the Globe production of 2014, which I have on DVD. Her Cleopatra is like a nice Rodean girl gone Alternative, and she handles the dynamics of the Globe space beautifully.

Back in Stratford, in the final scene just after she gets the old immortal longings in her, and between becoming fire and air and giving her other elements to baser life, Cleopatra was briefly naked. In his review on Tripadvisor, an American visitor thought this was a bit near: 'well, I guess they do it to pack in the punters'. I'm sure they do. No doubt every straight male in the auditorium had booked in advance and made the pilgrimage to Stratford merely to cop that five-second leer at Josette Simon's tits and snatch in the last five minutes of a three-hour performance.

I don't know how well fed the citizens of Stratford-upon-Avon are; there might be some fantastic spots to eat, but why, in a town where several hundred hungry visitors are emerging from the theatre at half past ten every evening, is only one bloody restaurant open? We had booked our table weeks in advance at the only establishment willing to feed you after ten in the evening, this an OK but unremarkable curry house. The alternative would have been to go back to the hotel where they could do us a microwaved spud with baked beans, so to hell with that.

'Well,' said Lorraine as we drove home, 'was that a worthwhile expedition or not?' 

Overall, I think it was. At least we know that if there's a next time, we'll do a matinee and be able to choose a better place for dinner. We'll take our own wine rather than pay the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's absurd prices for interval drinks. And most importantly, we will not stay in a hotel that reminds me of my dad's nursing home. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Toilet Paper

Manchester Metropolitan University's Department of Toilet Studies and Intersectional Plumbing Research Unit find that school toilets are ableist, sexist, westist, adultist, classist, white supremacist and heteronormative. Smash school toilets with the iron fists of the peasant masses.

Friday, 28 April 2017

La Semana Pasada

I've been teaching Spanish teenagers this past week. This was for want of other work, not the desire to educate the young generation: others are far better qualified to do this than I am. The colleague with whom I shared the classes is the mother of teenage kids and knows what tends to enthuse fourteen year-olds, how to react to their rapid alternation of reasonable and obnoxious, and how to impose discipline when necessary. The two lovely Spanish group leaders were likewise of maternal generation. They obviously love the kids and the kids love them back. Me, I felt a bit out of it. I last taught teens in 2005, did so reluctantly and never felt good at it. My classroom persona developed for a grown-up audience. He's quick-witted and funny, knows a little bit about a lot of things, and is able to combine these things to create an illusion of greater expertise on this and that than is actually the case. He asks the question 'why?' more often than any six year-old and I see him sometimes as a sort of budget Socrates but more often as P.T. Barnum. It would take longer than a week for me to learn to see through fourteen year-old eyes, and the course finished today.

Yesterday I had the kids preparing poster presentations about London, in anticipation of their visit on Saturday. They had downloaded and printed photos of all the usual tourist sights, researched online and written short texts about them, and in a small room full of pens, scissors, pritt sticks, stacks of discarded sandwich wrappers and plastic bottles, eleven kids were assiduously cutting out their pictures and texts to make posters. On You Tube they played ad nauseam the irritatingly catchy aural bubblegum hereto appended, joining in the chorus:

Tenor: Shimmy shimmy yay, shimmy yay, shimmy ya 

Omnes: Swalla-la-la

'Steve, what is mean 'swalla'?'

'I believe we are being invited to consider the act of fellatio, interrogating and problematising the fellator / fellatee power imbalance in relationship to the ejaculate.' 

'OK. Jew can giff me a pen?'


This kiddie-pop they would alternate with patriotic military music and funereal Semana Santa marches. Standing amid this mess and racket, I felt I was slumming it until I saw how carefully most of the kids were making their posters, and what pains they took to design them well. I had asked the two Spanish group leaders to come in at the end of the lesson to give the posters a wider audience than just me, and the kids' pride in their work and need of our approval was palpable. I stopped feeling like a baby-sitter and realised I had been an educator after all.

Not all of the time, though. José is boisterous, noisy, disruptive and unfocused. He was a pain in the arse for much of the week, alternating manic clowning with loud complaining: 

'Steve, theece compyooder iss a SHEET! Nothin is gwork! (slamming keyboard with open hand) See? ¡Joder!'* 

The other kids thought he was a hoot, ('teacher, this is very crazy boy!') which encouraged him to be more like himself than ever, and half an hour before lunch he'd be bouncing off the walls. On Tuesday I tried working closely with him, sequencing and scaffolding and all that stuff, trying gently to bring him to heel a bit. I didn't manage it very well. At one point he shot out of his seat as if released by a spring, leapt across the room and tipped Elena out of her chair, his motivation presumably that it struck him as a wizard wheeze at the time. When the hilarity this occasioned subsided, he was once again playing to the gallery as I was trying to set up an activity and finally I fucking lost it. I roared 'SHUT UP!!!' at a decibel level that would have been audible three doors down the street. Well, it seemed to work. He apologised, calmed down, stopped pulling Aisha's plaits, and we proceeded relatively peacefully for the rest of the lesson. I thought, sod the caring and sharing: let's reintroduce matutinal five mile runs, cold showers, fagging, detention and the tawse.

The group leaders contacted José's mother to inform her that he was driving us nuts and could she please advise. This is how we learned that he had been diagnosed with ADHD and had not been taking his medication. There was some odd back-story to this, a matter of his having been told that the pills were vitamins and he didn't think it necessary to take them. Or something.  Anyway, his mother said she would call him every morning to tell him to take his tablets. On Thursday he was a different kid, calm and biddable, or a least as calm and biddable as most fourteen year-old boys get. The teacher who was responsible for the social programme told me today that the effects of the medication were clearly wearing off by early evening. I am grateful that I was not expected to join the group for dinner at Pizza Express.

I worry a lot about teaching (boy, do I worry) and spend a lot of time preparing for MA sessions and EAP classes. This past week was no less worrying, because I find teenagers so unpredictable. Something will seem to be going swimmingly, then one kid will suddenly turn sulky and down tools and the lesson will start to go down the shitter. Things I thought would work well would be glumly received and stuff I was afraid would bore them to death would fly. This morning at break my colleague said of José 'I think he's only taken half a pill this morning', and my heart sank: what was I going to do for ninety minutes with a group already in end-of-term mode and José like a wasp in a matchbox? Friday is market day here, with three streets of stalls. I cobbled together a swift task sheet: what vegetables and fruit can you see? Find one you don't know the word for and ask the owner what it is. Find a stall that sells Spanish produce: does the owner speak Spanish? Ask the bloke who sells samosas where he's from, (Pakistan) and what's in a samosa. Interview some people: do they come here every week? Do they live locally or drive in specially? ¡Vamonos!    

It was the best 'lesson' of the week. The sun shone, the five kids talked happily to stall owners and passers by, had a natter in Spanish with the bloke who sells Spanish produce, and Aisha, who is of Moroccan heritage, was pleased to learn that the samosa seller was a 'muscle man'  just as she is. The stall holders were all very good-humoured and the elderly people the kids button-holed were kind as grandparents. Everyone was thoroughly delighted with the whole thing. I should probably - no, certainly - have completed some lengthy form detailing every possible problem a teenager might encounter in broad daylight in a pedestrianised area of a small market town well-peopled mostly by pensioners, and what plans I had to troubleshoot and fire-fight, but sod it, I didn't, and we survived.  

'Teacher! Selfie!'

'Teacher, write, please!

I posed for photos, wrote valedictory messages in notebooks, and left 'em laughing when I went. Now, just as souls are said to desire reincarnation, I feel the desire to go back and do it again, properly this time.

* Spanish for 'fuck!'. You probably deduced this from context.


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