Saturday, 1 November 2014

Fuck ELT to Hell

Thin times at the Little CHEF. (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) Thin times, and insecure. A colleague went for an interview at another establishment. Sharon has seventeen years' experience of teaching in England and abroad, and a diploma in English language teaching. She has taught all ages and levels from little kids to university students. She has brought up two bilingual sons and is working towards an M.A. with a special interest in dyslexia. With this degree of qualification, experience and expertise, language schools should be fighting over her.

The interview, for which Sharon prepared herself thoroughly and bought new duds, lasted four hours. This must be longer than the grilling Alan Sugar has his aspiring apprentices subjected to. She was successful: indeed I'm sure they snapped her up. An institution so selective must surely remunerate its hand-picked teachers well, you'd think.

The new job pays £9.31 per hour. This is only £2.00 more than Sainsbury's pay their checkout staff. As another colleague commented on Facebook, this is 'form over substance, inflated institutional ego covering up a total lack of appreciation for their staff.'

If you know anyone who is thinking of pursuing a... 'career' (Hah!) in ELT, do them a favour and shoot them. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The little devil...

Comment on the You Tube channel of fundie wingnut Perry Stone:

'...and yes please pray for me Satan has been a bugger lately.'

Monday, 13 October 2014

Chez moi II

Five years ago I wrote a post about my flat here in Stamford. 'Budget eclectic' was the name I gave to its appointments, and I lived with B.E. for five years until this year, when a busy summer and a modest but welcome windfall allowed me to improve the appearance of the place somewhat. I'm quite pleased with it, especially when I'm not wearing my new glasses. Putting these on brings everything from mellow soft focus into cruel, blinding clarity, revealing that the carpet is worn and forlorn and the paintwork could do with touching up here and there.

1. View from living room window

OK, cut the snark, I don't claim to be a photographer. It's a wet Monday morning in Autumn, the kind of morning when it's a delight to make coffee and take it back to bed with you, knowing everybody else in the neighbourhood is dragging their arse to work in the rain. From the photo you might think there's a steaming geyser out there, but that's just light from inside reflected onto the window. 

2. Commode

Up to last Wednesday this corner was occupied by the same chest of drawers as in the previous post. I had been intending to replace it for five years. My native Yorkshire dialect has the useful verb to thoil. Used in the negative, this means 'to be sufficiently in funds to purchase an item, but feel unable to justify the expenditure'. 'A were goin to get a jar o piccalilli in fert tea tonight' you might say, 'burr a cunt thoil it'. So I couldn't thoil a new chest of drawers until last month when I had to admit that the old one did not look quaintly distressed, just completely shagged out. Anyway, I'm pleased with this one. It makes me feel more like a grown-up and less like a kid playing at house in the garden shed.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness... Actually, they're Waitrose 'ripen at home'. They usually stay hard as billiard balls for a week then go off overnight, so I don't expect to get to eat them. I think they look pretty, though.

3. The west-facing wall of the main chamber

This is where I'm lying right now, midst banks of sparkly Indian mirror-work cushions. Been intending to buy some for about thirty years. No selfie. Not since I got my new specs and faced the truth. (I'm still reeling.)

4. Gauds, conceits, knacks, trifles.

I am attracted to New Agey tat: joss sticks, crystals. tumble stones, crap like that. I suppose the fascination can be traced back to the second play I directed at school when I was 17, and searched the shops over the rehearsal period for anything that could be associated with 'magic'. At the closing of my Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon, Titania and the fairies passed through the auditorium, pronouncing blessing on the audience whilst asphyxiating them with Maraschino Cherry incense. (Why that sickly honk? Why?) This was when Richard Ridings gave Huddersfield his Bottom, and I went on to achieve obscurity.

Tall thin bottle that had posh vinegar in it.

Marble eggs I bought ages ago on Hydra,
because the night before I'd dreamed about marble eggs.

Bud vases I accidentally 'distressed'
by chucking them in the washing up.

5. That sodding fireplace.

What can you do with a fireplace like this? The landlord allowed that it is not a thing of beauty and said he would be happy for me to rip it out, but would leave it up to me to repaint the room after. Instead I decorated it like a Christmas tree with the sort of odds and sods mentioned above. By candle light it doesn't look all that bad. Honest.  

The glaring white light is actually ruby red.

6. Posh new lamp.

New reading lamp, made in India. The lacquer bowl I bought ages ago from a very friendly Vietnamese girl that used to have a stall on the High Street. She extolled it to me: 'It got a lid, yes? No nice if you soup go cold, innit?' So it's actually a soup bowl, and to Vietnamese eyes it probably looks as incongruous there as a can of corned beef would.

7. O Cloacina, Goddess of this place...

A world first, a place but few have looked upon. I've done my best with it, I suppose, hiding the ugly plastic piping with greenery, but theres something clunky about the colour and round-shoulderedness of the cistern and wash basin. I dream of a bathroom you can linger in, drinking champagne in one of those gorgeous Japanese wooden tubs, a place where bathing is a delight utterly apart from the khazi. It is not to be.

In August I bought a shower curtain in vibrant lime green. The bathroom faces east and on hot sunny mornings the light pinged and ricocheted off the curtain as you opened the bathroom door and it was marvellously invigorating to bleary eyes. Unfortunately if the weather was overcast the damn thing seemed to suck out the light and it was like falling into an algae-coated frog pond. It had to go.


Pretty kickshawses to beguile the time while at stool.

Quentin Crisp, who always lived in just one room, said 'I don't know what people do with the room they're not in.' I am much of his mind. The other room now looks like the set of 'Steptoe and Son' and makes me think of Lodovico's line at the close of Othello: 'The object poisons sight, let it be hid.'   

Friday, 3 October 2014

Waste not, want not.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

This isn't whacha want

Since April, on opening this blog I get a thirty-second blast of very irritating music:

This is whacha waaaaant
This is whacha get
This is whacha waaaaant
This is whacha get
This is whacha waaaaant
This is whacha get
This is whacha waaaaant waaaaant waaaaant waaaaant

It drives me fucking scatty and I want it to be known that it is none of my doing. I don't know if this happens only on my laptop, or if everyone who visits is being irritated by it as well. So please tell me if you hear it too (and accept my apologies) and if you can, how I can stop it. Thanks.


24th Sept: Seems it was caused by the Statcounter widget, which I've now removed. If anyone else is getting this silly jingle, try nuking Statcounter. Thanks to Keri (see comments.) 

Friday, 5 September 2014

Dome of the Rock

This is the time of year when I have to keep telling myself I am most emphatically NOT well-off, but have difficulty believing myself when I do so. We're busy between July and October and the long-deprived money area of my brain gets a bit delirious when I check my bank balance online. Way-hay! Books! CDs! Moroccan lamps and lampshades! A dark wood Indian lamp-base! Sparkly Indian mirror-work cushion covers! Then, inevitably, the parental voices you never get rid of make me think: 'yeah. Right. Did I really need to spunk so much on that shite?'

My mum would shake her head in wonder if I told her I'd spent thirty-five quid on a CD. I mean, it pains her slightly to see me tip half a bottle of wine into a stifado. I splashed out on Jordi Savall's wonderful 'Jerusalem: La Ville des Deux Paix'. This brings together on two CDs music from Jewish, Christian and Islamic Jerusalem up to the 14th century, in the beautiful and insane hope that this might help to bring about peace between the monotheisms. In yer dreams, Jordi. Here nevertheless is 'The Dome of the Rock', a hypnotic Muslim chant from a text by Ibn Battuta (1304-ca. 1377) beautifully sung by Begoña Olavide.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

How Sweet the Moonlight

This is beautiful. Composer Jocelyn Pook, countertenor Andreas Scholl.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Varia II

Odds and ends from the last ten days.

A student from Iraq who has been worried sick about her husband and daughter was recently hugely relieved when the two of them were finally able to join her in England. We were so pleased for her. Last week, just a week or two after Esther was given cause to rejoice, another student had to return to Iraq where his brother and another relative had been killed in a shooting.


The 20-year-old nephew of one of my colleagues left last Thursday morning for Australia, where he was going to spend his gap year. Unfortunately, he was on Malaysian Airways flight MH17. I didn't know before this that my colleague had a nephew, but nevertheless have shed tears for his family over the loss of this young man they loved so much.


I was marking a batch of essays this evening on the train home. Abdullah's had the usual unmotivated choices of auxiliary, subjectless verbs and hit-and-miss spilling. Speling. Spellinge. In just short of two months, he is going to start an MA in English Language Teaching, God bless and save us. I've been getting increasingly indignant about this issay / esay / essai as the evening has progressed. DAMMIT, Abdullah, when I started to teach myself Modern Greek in 1985, I pored over grammar books. I wrote letters to a friend in Greece, looking up vocabulary, checking the spelling of every word and getting the grammar as accurate as I was able. Each letter was as laborious to complete as if I were chiselling it onto a stone tablet. When I received a reply from Voula, I'd set about decoding the thing, and it was up-hill work. Voula is Greek but she completed her primary and secondary education in Venezuela, so her Greek spelling was as erratic as your own efforts in English. When you see a Greek word, you know how to pronounce it, but because there are several ways of representing the same vowel sound in writing, you don't necessarily know how to spell a word from hearing it. If I had to look up a word from one of Voula's missives and failed to find it, I'd have to try alternative spellings until I hit on a word that fitted the context. This lead to my being able to spot words derived from the same root, and these days I can correct native speakers' bloopers, but forbear. Mark that I had no ambition to teach anybody Greek when I put myself through this. So on Thursday, Abdullah μου, I am going to suggest that you get a bit more obsessive-compulsive about your Inglish, Eglish. Fuck it. You know what I mean.


Tutorial with Niki, newly arrived from Thessaloniki. She said she was worried about her spoken English. I almost said 'good, so you should be', but thought it best not to. I'm used to students thinking such deficiencies are more my problem than theirs. But Niki is sensible and realistic and she knows she has a problem. After discussing her options for improving her spoken language we turned to more immediate practicalities.

'Yeah' she mutters, rifling through a file, 'I need to activate my cunt.'

Well, you're barking up the wrong tree with me, love. Or maybe I misheard?

Still rifling, she clarifies: 'my cunt at HSBC...' 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Crossed Wires II

Stuff  teacher trainers tell novice teachers:

'Always check your instructions for tasks and activities.'

'Check that everyone understands the vocabulary you are presenting,'

'Grade your own language to the level of the students.'

That last one! Sounds obvious, right? Try it. Takes a fair while and repeated failures to acquire the knack. Every time I hear the bloke from student services address a new intake of dazed Arabic, Chinese and Thai speakers, I want to tell him to shut up, stand aside and let me make his speech for him. My favourite example of failure to grade appropriately was recorded by a colleague in Cambridge in the late eighties. A yellow-cardied and sensibly-shod trainee teacher-lady, wife of a Fellow of the University, was teaching a group of students of the level usually described as 'pre-intermediate', i.e., 'not knowing an awful lot of English yet'. They were reading a text and she was eager to move on.

'Well now,' she purred. 'If you can bear to tear yourselves away from this...'

I fear I've been less than totally successful myself this week in making sure all students understand what's being heavily piled onto them over the course of each muggy day. A colleague and I have been hammering the Harvard System of Referencing into a bunch of graduate students from Saudi Arabia, China and Taiwan. We point out repeatedly that not all departments use this system, and they will need to find out which system to adopt when they start their courses in September. Today I had the class look at the reference for the text I was using and tell me what information it gave them. This they did successfully. Then, inevitably, Badi chimes in.

'Teacher, I have quistion. How I can know how I must rifrence book?

'Like that. The one on the screen. In bold type. The one we have just pulled apart.'

'Yes, but teacher, how I can know how book will rifrence?

'Like I just fucking told you. What do you mean?'

'I mean, how I will know how I must rifrence books?'

Just before I nearly gobbed him one, the penny dropped. All the explaining Joanna and I have done about different referencing systems has been interpreted by Badi to mean that the system chosen depends not on the department but the individual book. Christ... I felt exasperated  this afternoon, but now I'm not sure if this misinterpretation is a dumb one or a clever one.

Group N were given three short texts on the evil that is plagiarism, and how it is to be avoided. They then had to write a short essay based on these texts, defining plagiarism, suggesting why students might resort to it, and ways in which they might be delivered from this evil. I marked the essays on the train on the way home. Fang Hua had produced hers by copying verbatim and without acknowledgement from source texts exhorting her not to copy verbatim and without acknowledgement from source texts.

Synthesising ideas from a variety of sources is something few of these students have ever done, despite being graduates. The colleague with whom I share Group N tried to clarify matters. 'This text presents idea A, and this one idea B, this one idea C...'

This mystified a Chinese girl even further.

'So which of those is my idea?   

Saturday, 21 June 2014

'Teacher, I have quistion.'

Every five weeks or so, tutors are required to write a report for each of their tutees. These are a royal pain in the arse (the reports, I mean) especially as summer approaches, classes get bigger and the name-to-face problem gets tougher. Is Chen Shuyue the girl who calls herself Crystal or the boy called Potato? For there was indeed a Boy called Potato once - and a Berserker, and a Styrofoam. I'm not making this up. The reports get more and more general and generic. They are mostly what you might call embassy-feed anyway. Some Saudi bureaucrat on Charles Street in London checks the name and IELTS grade, then consigns the file to darkness for the rest of time. I doubt if anybody gives a flying fuck what you write, so long as the numbers and percentages add up.

'X is an enthusiastic student who is always ready with questions to check his understanding' you over-write for the umpteenth time. Check that possessive adjective, just in case somebody actually does read this bilge: we don't want gender reassignment half way through. Willingness to ask questions is a thing we always praise, although it is not seen as a virtue by the Chinese, who'd probably feel more flattered if we wrote: 'X is an obedient student who never presumes to open his mouth in class.' I wish I could write that about Badi. Badi has nothing but 'quistions' and he drives my co-tutor and me up the wall. Yesterday as Sharon was going down the corridor to the loo, I called after her: 'teacher, I have quistion!'

'Not now, Badi, I'm... (looks over shoulder) Oh, bloody 'ell, it's you.'

'Teacher, I have quistion.' Badi, it is nine in the morning, the lesson starts at ten, and you will note that I am busy rearranging the classroom furniture.

'Teacher, I have quistion.' I am actually talking to Najla at the moment, Badi. She's just asked me something intelligent.'

'Teacher, I have quistion.' Lesson's over, Badi. I have a train to catch and I'm already cutting it fine.

'Teacher, I have quistion.' I'll be out in a moment Badi, just let me finish wiping my arse.

On Wednesday I corrected a minor but irritatingly frequent error:

*'The government must to pass a law.'   

'No to,' I said. 'bare infinitive after a modal.' And please stop imagining that the bald assertion that 'goferment must to pass law' is a sufficient, stand-alone solution for your situation-problem-solution-evaluation essay.

'Teacher, I have quistion. When I can use to after a modal?'

You can't.

'Teacher, I have quistion. What situation I can use to after a modal?'

No such situation.

I think Badi asked me the same question five times that day. When I got home I found he'd sent me an e-mail:

modal verb + to infinitive

the hot weather must to melt the ice

infinitive without to/modal verb

the hot weather must melt the ice

what is the difference? or is it right/wrong

second question...

I replied curtly that I had already answered the question several times. Then I remembered the marginal modals dare, need, and ought, which we had not dealt with, the primary modals deemed sufficient unto the day. So although he'd been a right pain in the balls, he might possibly have had a point, assuming he'd actually once met a marginal modal. Even so...

On Thursday he wanted advice on tackling a reading passage from the brain-curdling IELTS test, or 'Tist Eyelets' as it is known in Saudi Arabia.

'I read first teckerst, or read first quistion?'

In this case, I'd read the questions first.

'Or maybe bitter I'm read number one quistion, then teckerst, then number two quistion, then teckerst, then number...'

Read the questions first, then you know what information you are looking for, and what you can ignore.

'Or, teacher, maybe read one paragraph, then first quistion, then second paragraph, then number two quistion, then thered...'


'Or maybe first scan teckerst, then read quistion?'

You can't scan the text unless you know what you are looking for.

'I think bitter reading first teckerst, then after look questions.'

I didn't actually put a hand over his mouth, but assuming the manner of a headmaster of times now past, I spelled out an IELTS-busting procedure and a rationale for each step, to which he listened and murmured 'inch'allah' as the pearls cascaded from my lips. He stared intently at me. There was a long pause after my peroration. I took this as assent, and felt I might finally have got through to him.

'But teacher, I have quistion...'

By the end of the week, l had decided that all this was probably a wind-up from an attention seeker with a rather warped sense of humour. When you hear 'teacher, I have quistion' from a paying customer, you can't just say 'pull the other one' - you have to try to be helpful. The intense stare, I now reflect, may have betokened a kind of amused pity that anyone could be such a dupe. Fortunately the week after next he becomes someone else's problem, inch'allah.

5th July '14

He did not, in the end, become someone else's problem. I still have him twice a week. The other day in a discussion of graduate attributes we came across the term 'transferable skills', which nobody knew. I explained it pretty well, I thought - and surely it is not a concept entirely alien to a group of graduate students? It was to Badi, who claims to have a BA in Llama Park Management (or something) from a university in the UK. 'Teacher, what's mean transferable skills?' he asks several times after I have explained the term several times. At least the question is answerable. His other current favourite is 'teacher, when I must use preposition?'. 'When you need one,' I tell him.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Mad Metaphors #1

'Porn is a national contradiction baked into the ablutions of hundreds of millions of people.'

The Atlantic

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

On this course, ladies and gentlemen, we shall consider information presented visually.

Lying graph is show for trind for UK for buy of ice cream for J F M A M J J A S O N D. At the begin , littel ice cream . Afeter, many ice cream . We can Look the ice cream sweep dramatickelly upstairs with a peak . Neckerst tumble downstirs pipel no buying icecrem for a trough .  Then considerabel figure is rising Before deflate to tumble with at the fenesh of its period .  We can conclude ice cream go up, then falling, then rising, then plommet, go up then down then end with bottom out.   

We've been looking at graphs, par shart and pie shart on the present course. Most of the students are comfortable with numbers and charts, far more so than I am. They can describe trends, percentages and fractions reasonably well. What often confuses them is the interpretation of the figures, and when they are asked to research and find their own information to present, this throws many into their spin cycle. I get students accosting me in the corridors to show me diagrams they have found with their smart phones and ask 'is this OK?' 

'Any diagram is OK. What matters is why you chose it and what you are going to tell us about it.'

I keep forgetting they are doing this for the first time, and many are still in school mode: they see it simply as an exercise in producing mostly the right English words in broadly the right order. I had to explain to Mohammed that he couldn't simply make shit up: he'd need to choose a topic that he found interesting and hoped would interest colleagues, then spend a bit of time on Google scholar gathering information. I asked how it was going.

'I talk about women drivers in Saudi Arabia,' he said.

'How are you going to do that? There aren't any!'

'Yes, yes! Outside the city, some women drive. So I compare the city with the country.'

Think of the bar chart: Jeddah 0, place in the sticks 3, Riyadh 0, another place in the sticks 4. How interesting would that be? What would be worth looking into is the number of people in KSA who support or oppose women's right to drive.

In my point of view, female driving is not a necessity because in the country of the two holy mosques every woman is like a queen.  There is (someone) who cares about her; and a woman needs nothing so long as there is a man who loves her and meets her needs; as for the current campaigns calling for women’s driving, they are not reasonable. Female driving is a matter of fun and amusement, let us be reasonable and thank God so much for the welfare we live in.

This quote, one of several in the same vein, is from a Saudi woman in an article written - who'd a thunk it? - by a Saudi man. The writer informs us that ‘The Saudi economic newspaper El-Iqtisadiah ran a front-page news story suggesting that women’s driving is just a luxury rather than a necessity and that protesters against the ban seek to undermine the kingdoms stability and create sedition.’ Then he adds: ‘This wasn’t just propaganda.’ But of course not! Unpack that lot, and you'd have a good basis for a presentation, but I know Mohammed wouldn't touch it.  

Tomorrow is the last day for preparing presentations with a tutor present. I had a message from a colleague yesterday. Our group was up in arms because they have been told that they must make presentations individually and not in pairs as they had originally been told. A Chinese girl was in tears because she's in a foreign country and up to her eyeballs in boyfriend, money and accommodation problems. Another student, a very smart older woman who will sail through her presentation, was in tears because her husband and daughter in Iraq are living in a dangerous area and she is worried sick about them. So I do hope things will have calmed down a bit by tomorrow. This presentation is just five minutes out of your life, folks, and you still have a whole week before you stand up and deliver it.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Enlightenment Porn

Via The Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of an amazing, paradigm-shifting, life-transforming 'Spiritual memoir and dramatic journey of inner discovery' by one Ruth Angela. So urgent is Ruth's message for humankind that she has eschewed the self-scrutiny and multiple revisions that a publisher might require of her, and published it herself. You can find it on Amazon, enthusiastically recommended. Ruth has a way with vivid imagery that truly awakens the soul's yearning to achieve oneness with the universe:

When I received this gift of awakened kundalini from an Indian guru in 1979, from a dramatic two-hour meditation, I had no idea of its value. Even though I tasted ineffable bliss then, the process disrupted my marriage, family and my organised, well-controlled, yuppie lifestyle, causing great confusion and distress to everyone. Family and friends saw my former passive, compliant self dissolve before their eyes as my consciousness was overturned like a great mattress.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Στ'αρχίδια μας.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Language Nerdery II

I know this is supposed to be all in good fun, and I suppose it might make some people take more care with their spelling, but these chirpy little captions are all over the internet and boy, do they bring out the curmudgeon in me. (He's never far below the surface, I admit.) First off, 'your' and 'you're' don't sound similar, they sound identical in connected speech, even if some people differentiate the citation forms. This explains the frequent confusion in spelling, and it's spelling that's the issue here, so the comparison with a potential but improbable pronunciation error is way off beam. 'Catastrophe' is stressed on the second syllable with the first 'a' and the 'o' reduced to schwa, and in the unlikely event that you would ever need to use the term 'cat ass trophy', you'd stress the first syllable of 'trophy' and give 'cat' and 'ass' a full vowel. Let us have a few seconds' choral drilling:

Catastrophe: oOoo
Cat ass trophy: ooOo

Catastrophe: oOoo
Cat ass trophy: ooOo

You see?

So writing 'your' when you mean 'you're', or vice versa, is absolutely nothing at all like screwing up the stress pattern on 'catastrophe'.

Happy Easter.

Thursday, 3 April 2014


When correcting a piece of student writing, you have a number of options: correction codes, cheery exhortatory comments, or correcting every spelling error, missing word and misuse of those damnable electronic dictionaries. An alternative to slathering it with corrections and underlinings is reformulation. This is when you rewrite the student's work according to your interpretation of what he's trying to say, then 'conference' (FFS) with him to see if you were right. I was going to do this for Abdulrahman's latest offering, but decided it would probably violate the union's work-to-contract ruling if I did. Should anyone out there feel equal to the challenge, here's a snippet for you to work on:

At this point possible financial Police officer's salaries are not equal to the size of their large. In my opinion, the police officers safer and functionally better then the players understand the functions of its official hierarchy. Players are either laid off or fell when hit by their level. 

Don't expect an answer key: I haven't a clue.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Language Nerdery

I found this on facebook. I agree with one, three, four, five and nine and disagree with two, six, seven and eight. However, since one, three and six are not about grammar and I don't really understand ten, I'm not sure if I meet this writer's criteria for grammar nerdhood or not. I always thought of grammar nerds as those who internalise a load of prescriptive rules - don't split infinitives, don't place prepositions at the end of sentences - and then enjoy a good wince when other people break them. Or maybe you are truly a language nerd if (like me) you enjoy feeling superior to those poor saps who are stuck in their prescriptivist rut and not really quite clear about what grammar is. Number eight made me cringe for reasons other than those envisaged by the writer. There's no logical reason not to double a negative in English. Double negatives are mandatory in French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, so how can they 'cancel one another out' in English, as prescriptivist logic-choppers claim? Sixty years or so ago, you might have heard an exchange such as the following between a gowned and mortar-boarded school master and a scruffy first-former:

'Why are you not writing, Higginbottom?'
'Amp got no pen, sir.'
'Then I see no possible impediment to your commencing the test forthwith, Higginbottom.'
'Bur I amp got no pen, sir.'
'I'm simply taking you at your word, Higginbottom...'   

No, you're not, teech, you are just being a dick and a snob. Pragmatics, mate: you understand the kid perfectly well. If someone asked you to describe yourself, would you say 'well, I can't get no satisfaction!' and expect us to understand that you are a fairly contented soul? No, you wouldn't. Double negatives are a sociolinguistic matter, not a semantic one - as underlined when the school master warns Higginbottom that he's going to end up working in the mills unless he bucks his ideas up. I actually heard this warning issued to contemporaries at school in the early seventies. (If some prescriptivist is thinking of ticking me off for ending that last sentence but one with a preposition, it's actually an adverb, so there.)      

Number four, though, hell yeah. Leicester station is an endless source of irritation in this regard, but usually for misplaced stress rather than mangled grammar:

This barrier will retain tickets

This notice was posted probably because the staff got fed up of people waiting to get their tickets back and holding up the queue. They decided to underline one of the words for emphasis:

 This barrier will retain tickets

This has been causing me mild discomfort for some time. Surely the point is that 'this barrier will not give you back your tickets, no; the fact is that: 

This barrier will retain tickets'

But then I decided that from the point of view of a barrier attendant, maybe there is some logic behind this apparently unmotivated stressing of the auxiliary. 'Look, you lot, we've told you over and over, but you never bloody get it,     

 This barrier will retain tickets

so what's up, don't you believe us?' It's just that any passenger who needs this information is by definition not in on the subtext.  

I've just spent a couple of hours of a free day sounding off about matters of scant interest to non-language teachers, so I suppose that qualifies me for nerdery of some kind.  

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ave Maria

Screen showing Jesuits arriving in Japan c. 1549.

This is beautiful: an Ave Maria set to a tune by an anonymous Chinese composer from the 16th century. It's from the album 'La Ruta de Oriente' by Hesperion XXI, a birthday present from my nephew, a talented musician, Ph.D student and  too-bloody-clever-by-half generally. (Nay, lad, I'm nobbut coddin.)

Ave Maria (pentatonica) by Jordi Savall on Grooveshark

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Night Dream and a Day Dream

In his book 'Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming' Anthony Stevens uses the term 'hermeneutic frustration' as an arsy academic way to describe the feeling of 'what the fuck was all that about???' that one feels after a dream or series of dreams that seems at once freighted with significance and maddeningly cryptic. Most of my dreams are unremarkable grey affairs involving nothing more intriguing than doing the washing-up or tying my shoes, but now and then a dream of such vividness will come along that you feel it has to mean something. A little over two years ago, I resumed the habit of recording all the dreams I remember after one such dream left me feeling as though an important message had been delivered, but written in a script I could not decipher. I still can't, although I've made dozens of attempts.

I'm in a production of the Philip Glass opera 'Akhnaten', in the role of 'the Page', which is not in the real work. It's the final dress rehearsal. The set is enormous and thoroughly impractical: outdoors, half the size of a football stadium and composed of scaffolding and planks, it ensures that you will get lost, miss your cues, misplace props and generally screw up. I am wandering along its walkways, bleachers and gantries, wondering if I'll be able to locate my shoes, glasses and mobile phone after the rehearsal. There is a break in the proceedings in which my mother appears, handing out shot glasses of whisky to the cast members, and my father, who was alive at the time, is there too, now a child-like presence, almost a simpleton, and something of an embarrassment. Suddenly, I am at a distance from the set, standing on a railway station platform and telling a train driver that I need to be back over there ASAP as the rehearsal will be resuming soon. As we speak, the huge, flimsy edifice lurches sideways and collapses. I'm back there myself now, still fussbudgeting about my shoes, specs and phone, and noting that the Akhnaten is now sitting in a little teepee of fallen scaffolding and planks under a gently settling cloud of dust. He looks forlorn and puzzled, and there's a comical, cartoonish criss-cross of elastoplasts on his forehead.      

So - a performance, a public presentation of complexes and conflicts, to be given here in a setting that is utterly impractical. This is an opera about an Egyptian king who has been called the first individual, the first monotheist (although he probably wasn't a monotheist) a megalomaniac, a despot, a failure, a visionary, and so on - 3,500 years after his death he's all things to all observers. Me as a page, a boy servant , not yet mature. My mother dispensing spirit: here it's scotch, but of course 'spirit' also means soul, essence, inner strength. My father there but not there, just as he was at that point in waking life, although I'd never have felt he was an embarrassment. Then the collapse of the whole job lot and the comically bathetic ending: it's only a pretend Akhnaten, sitting there looking like more like Stan Laurel, and I'm still fussing over my handful of belongings, each pertaining to such basics as walking, sight, and communication.

There seems to be a hell of a lot packed into this dream, but even after two years I cannot synthesise all these images into a coherent message: they all lead to other images, as if I were making some sprawling mind-map as useless as that absurd set.

On Wednesday, I had a waking dream, one where I just watch images drifting through my mind as I'm washing up or hoovering the sitting room. In this, I have taken it into my head to cook a Greek spinach pie to take to work. Getting a large spinach pie to work on the train would be impractical, so I see in the daydream that I go to Leicester to cook it at the house of a colleague who's an old Greece hand. We take our masterpiece into work and wow everyone in the staffroom. Now, back on your Earth on the same day, Sharon had indeed taken a large spinach pie to work, cooked by her son, and it was going down a treat with the teachers at the very moment I was daydreaming all this. When she mentioned it on Facebook, we were amazed at the coincidence and the perfect timing, and that she too had wondered at the practical problems of getting a large spinach pie to work on the bus without ruining it. Yesterday, somewhat breathlessly, we told a colleague of the coincidence.

'Yeah' he said, totally unimpressed. 'Funny things, dreams.'

Yes, I suppose we did look like a couple of credulous idiots, acting all flabbergasted at a coincidence. And reading through my most recent dream notebook with its two years' worth of attempts to interpret their imagery, I can't help thinking sometimes 'this is just insane: they're nocturnal brain-farts, they mean nothing, why are you indulging yourself like this, imagining them to be so significant?' But the recurring image is a disquieting one of botched public performances and of being forced into roles unsuited to me, and trying to understand why this should recur is what keeps me at it.

Spinach pie, or spanakόpita.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

And Even More Cheap Chow

Today, March first, is my birthday. It's St David's Day, which is why I'm called Steven. There will be no celebration, partly because I'm a miserable bugger and see no call for jubilation in being 55, and partly because I'm trying to economise. Those who know me will incline to skepticism here, but I am - honest I am. Really. I only bought one book and one CD last month, and resisted all temptation to switch on the lights and heating on even the greyest of February afternoons. I've realised belatedly how wasteful I am, buying food on impulse and shoving it in the darkness of the fridge instead of looking in the fridge first and making a shopping list informed by what I've got in already. This inevitably leads to my chucking out quantities of furry tomatoes, bendy carrots, and plastic bags of greenish slime that might have been parsley or coriander or frogspawn. I buy wholemeal bread from an excellent local bakery. It's good stuff but it doesn't keep: after a day or two, little communities of green and white things start to form and there's nothing for it but to pitch it. I've noticed that whilst I can chuck out manky veg without a daunt, slinging out bread induces a kind of atavistic guilt, as does spilling salt or wine. So now I'm more careful to cop each loaf just before the green meanies move in, and dry it in a very slow oven to make rusks. This probably costs more in fuel than throwing away the mouldering loaf and getting another, but the feeling of virtue it occasions is considerable.

I did actually look at what I had in the other day before going up to town. Peppers, a few lemons, two eggs, a reasonably youthful courgette, some middle-aged potatoes and a geriatric lime, hard as a golf ball. With a little inexpensive supplementation, this would make chakchouka, an admirable North African dish that's delicious, colourful, healthy and cheap. (The lime's still in the bowl. It's been so long, we're really rather attached.) To make chakchouka you need at the very least eggs, peppers, an onion, a can of tomatoes and some chillis. You can play with the colours of the peppers, add potatoes and courgettes if you like, and merguez sausage if you can find any. In the Arab world there is probably much tedious argy-bargy about which country has the most authentic recipe, and streets named for the date true chakchouka was first prepared there, but sod that. Once you've decided what you're going to make your chakchouka with, proceed in this manner:

Chop the peppers and whatever other veg you may wish to include into fairly uniform pieces. Chop the chillis. A brief digression here. In the Plaka district of Athens there is a popular restaurant called Scholarcheio, and there in the nineties they would bring to your table a little spirit burner so that you could roast chunks of sausage on a fork. The waiter would always warn you not to put the fork in your mouth straight from the burner, and you'd think, bloody hell, what sort of a pillock does he take me for? Even so, nobody left Scholarcheio without a burnt tongue or lip. So here's the thing: they always tell you in cookery books to wear rubber gloves when chopping chillis, and I get impatient with this nannying. However, I invariably end up wiping away onion tears with a finger incandescent with chilli oil, so I'll pass on the advice and also warn you that if you are the proud possessor of a penis, you shouldn't go for a pee before you have scrubbed your hands assiduously. Slice the onion and don't wipe your bloody eyes, what have I just told you, for Christ's... Fry the onion in olive oil until it is soft. Throw in the chillies, a level teaspoon or so of cumin and a little more of smoked paprika, then add the tomatoes, and if using, the potatoes to give them a head start. Chuck in some salt. Add the rest of the vegetables when the potatoes have had time to soften a little.

When all the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes are getting just a little jammy, make indentations in the mixture and crack an egg into each one. Cook until the whites are set, but don't allow the yolks to coagulate. Some recipes suggest you then stir the eggs through the ragout, but I don't like that idea: I think they look more pleasing left whole, but suit yourself. Before serving, tart up with chopped parley or coriander. This will be excellent with good bread and a glass or three or four of red wine - we might be economising, but as my grandma used to put it, 'there's shiteing, and there's riving your arse'.

March 7th. A young man recently arrived from Iraq told me today he was living alone in Leicester and had to keep talking to his mum on skype to find out how to cook all the dishes he'd taken for granted back home. I thought this was quite touching, and showed the group this photo, to show that being domestically helpless is not a prerequisite for true manhood. 'That's not chakchouka!' one of the Saudi women said. 'You don't put potatoes in it. And the egg should be like an omelette.' Yawn. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Even More Cheap Chow

Tomato and cucumber salad, mujaddara with crispy fried onions and a fried egg slathered with chilli sauce.

February, called by Stephen Fry 'the Tuesday of the year', i.e., a kind of temporal no man’s land, is a thin month. The teachers at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) where I work are all reduced to eight hours a week, which puts us temporarily on the national minimum wage. This isn't going to be for long, so I'm not complaining - not too much, anyway - and once again I'm on the lookout for food that's cheap, healthy and above all not boring. So, what have I got in? It must be admitted that ‘economical’ and ‘systematic’ are not words in my active vocabulary. I looked in the kitchen cupboard: half a packet of Puy lentils, a jar of bulgur wheat and various odds and sods such as sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts in olive oil, none of them in the first flush of youth. The fridge had become a kind of gastronomic oubliette of sweaty mushrooms, yellowing parsley, half-used cans and jars of stuff now barely identifiable, and a browning, rubbery cauliflower like a monkey’s brain. All in all, the lentils and bulgur seemed the most promising. I looked on line and found mujaddara, an Arab dish of lentils with rice or bulgur flavoured with onions, and possibly a descendant of the original mess of potage that Esau sold his birthright for. From The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani:

Mojadderah,” writes Khalid, “has a marvellous effect upon my humour and nerves. There are certain dishes, I confess, which give me the blues. Of these, fried eggplants and cabbage boiled with corn-beef on the American system of boiling, that is to say, cooking, I abominate the most. But mojadderah has such a soothing effect on the nerves; it conduces to cheerfulness, especially when the raw onion or the leek is taken with it. After a good round pewter platter of this delicious dish and a dozen leeks, I feel as if I could do the work of all mankind. And I am then in such a beatific state of mind that I would share with all mankind my sack of lentils and my pipkin of olive oil. I wonder not at Esau’s extravagance, when he saw a steaming mess of it. For what is a birthright in comparison?”

Well, that’s quite a recommendation, so I had a look through recipes until I found one I liked the sound of and felt I could pull off, as my main fear was of turning the lot into a sludgy poultice - or having to plough through raw onion and a dozen leeks. You need green or brown lentils, Puy for maximum flavour and expense, bulgur wheat, a fat onion, thinly sliced, a pinch each of cumin, cinnamon, allspice and ground coriander, and some olive oil. Don’t overdo the spices: some of the recipes I consulted warned against the inclusion of any flavouring other than salt, but I thought that sounded a bit dull. Start by frying half the onion very gently for quite a long time, until you obtain almost a savoury-sweet puree. Add the spices and fry for a minute or so longer. Now tip in your lentils and something like twice their volume of water. Keep an eye on them and cop them just before they are completely softened, at which point you stir in the bulgur wheat, some salt and a little more boiling water if necessary. Cover the pan with kitchen paper and a lid (the paper stops the condensed steam from dripping back into the pan and turning the contents into a swamp) and set it aside to allow the bulgur to absorb the gently spiced, oniony liquid. Meanwhile, fry the other half of the sliced onion until it is well browned but not black and bitter. Put the lentil and bulgur mixture on a good round pewter platter if you have one, but I won’t hold you to that. Serve with the caramelised onion on top, and maybe a scattering of open-leaf parley or coriander for pretty. What I particularly like with this recipe is the contribution of the long-cooked onions at the start, keeping the whole thing moist and savoury.  

Mujadarra makes an excellent vegetarian meal eaten with a salad of tomatoes, cucumber and olives, scattered with chopped parsley or mint. A dollop of Greek yogurt on the side is nice, and a smaller dollop of sweet chili sauce on top of the yogurt-dollop is even nicer. Crisp-skinned chicken thighs or drumsticks go well with it too, or cheaper, poached or fried eggs. I reckon one frying pan of mujaddara will do you at least twice and set you back not much more than ninety pence.     

Fry, S. (1997) Moab is my Washpot London: Hutchinson 


Authoritative voice in a dream in the early hours of this morning: 'the child has been taken away for aggregated jiggling.'


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Forswear thin potations

Roger Allam here as Falstaff in Henry IV part II delivering Falstaff's praise of sherris sack with wonderful clarity and wit.

Below is an excellent performance by the same actors of Hal and Falstaff's play-within-a-play from Henry IV part I. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, is misspending his youth among the whores and drunks of Eastcheap, whose society he plans to abjure in due course, because then:

My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

This reminds me somewhat of the Evangelical scam-artist's salvation testimony: 'I was a sinner, I was a drunk, I went a-thievin an a-whorin, but Jee-sus come into my life and now I'm the father of an entire Gospel choir and CEO of twenty zillion companies, please give generously.'

In this scene, a messenger from the King has been sent to the tavern-cum-brothel where Hal hangs out to summon the prince to a bollocking from his father the following day. Hal and Falstaff both know that the King is going to require Hal to abandon his dissolute friends and shape up for kingship. After Falstaff has got rid of the messenger ('What doth Gravity out of his bed at midnight? ... I'll send him packing') he proposes that Hal rehearse his responses to his father in a role-play, or play extempore as it was so much better called back then. This provides Falstaff with an opportunity to plead his case that the future King Hal should maintain their friendship, much to the aging soak's benefit. But Hal knows even now that this will not happen.

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

'All the world' indeed. Falstaff is wit, camaraderie, irony, disrespect for poker-faced authority. He's amoral, manipulative and irresponsible. He's immensely likeable. But Hal replies chillingly:

I do. I will.

This foreshadows Hal's repudiation of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV part II:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:

Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

Yeah, well, you can really go off people, can't you? We later learn that Hal will provide for his former friends on the condition that they reform. What an insufferable prig.


And here, on the following day, Hal meets his father. His contrition is rather casual and unconvincing until Henry roars 'God pardon thee!' and Hal finally starts to sober up.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

Fuck Me In The Ass Cos I Love Jesus

Two young women of today give us here the profoundly moving lyric, 'Fuck Me in The Ass 'Cos I Love Jesus'. Listen to it prayerfully. As one You Tuber points out, 'not funny, not clever, just disrespectful'. Well spotted, Sparky!!!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


Not a lot of work for the time being, so not a lot of money. Still, as a good Buddhist, one should rejoice at the success and happiness of others, even as one accepts one’s own lack of either. It was heartwarming, therefore, to receive this communication from the union the other day, which I now share with you:

Whilst [Name of University] through their agent [Name of Agent], continue to plead poverty, now that the 2012-2013 [Name of University] Annual Accounts have been published, [the union] can inform our members that our VC, Professor [Mighty Bull, Lofty of Plumes; Favorite of the Two Goddesses; Great in Kingship in Karnak; Golden Hawk, Wearer of Diadems in the Southern Heliopolis; Great in Duration, Living-for-Ever-and-Ever; Beloved of Amon-Ra, Lord of Heaven.] took a rise of a massive 11.6% last year (a clear 3.5% above the 8% pay rise average for the Russell Group VCs). According to the annual accounts the VC's pay package rose by £26,000 to a headline figure just short of a £1/4 of a million.

While ordinary staff are being offered a miserly 1% and have experienced a real terms pay cut of 13% over the past 4 years, in the last year alone, the VC's pay package has risen by nearly 12%!

You gotta admire that sort of brass neck.

Arseholes to the lot of 'em.


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