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.

Friday, 17 January 2014


The crematorium doesn't look like this, but it sure as hell feels like this.

On Wednesday I went to the funeral of my uncle Ken, my mum’s brother-in-law. He was 82. I was a funeral virgin, as my grandparents all died while I was living abroad, and my parents decided - sensibly, I think - that they would donate their remains to medicine rather than shell out three thousand quid to have them elaborately packaged, then incinerated. So there was no funeral for my dad, and there won’t be one for mum. There is another reason why my mum doesn’t want any ceremony: she has a horror of being overwhelmed by emotion, especially in public. I suppose this is the one streak of Britishry in her personality. There’s no lack of powerful emotion in there, but it is only given expression when she’s alone. On the eve of the do, my sister and I drove up to my mother’s from Suffolk and Lincolnshire respectively, and my niece and nephew came up by train from London and Southampton. We invited a friend round, cooked a nice dinner, and had a pleasant evening with no mention made of the obsequies to come. 

The following morning. 

We drive to the crematorium where people are gathering, some of whom I have not seen in forty-odd years and would have walked past in the street, but recognise because I knew they’d be here. Someone tells me I haven’t changed much, although I’m pretty sure I look older than eleven. Others I see occasionally. Lesley, my mum’s younger sister, mutters to me ‘I hate this bloody place!’ and reminds me of a story about my grandad, a stone mason who’d worked on the crematorium building. It seems that he’d been asked if he wanted to witness the burning of a corpse, and on the grounds that this was not an offer you got every day, accepted. He watched through a spy-hole as the stiff unstiffened and writhed in the flames like the damned in the Lake of Fire. I’m not sure if all the details of the tale would stand up in court, but whatever it was that grandad saw that day made him a vegetarian for at least a week. He declared that he never wanted to go there again - a vain hope if you’re going to live in the same town into your eighties, for the crematorium just sits here, waiting patiently. We also remember Auntie Cilla, our family’s medium manquée, who also hated the crematorium because she always heard voices calling her by name as she walked through the grounds, a phenomenon readily explicable in a place as thick with archetypes as this. Lesley herself came to sign the book of remembrance a year after grandad had undergone the same process as the corpses he had watched combust all those years before. She had walked down the long winding drive to the crem as daylight was fading, and found the place closed and the air as always heavy with loss, misery and dead meat. She turned and fled. This reminded me of a monochrome dream I had in the eighties. I was in a crematorium building alone at night. There was a horror movie feeling of don’t-look-now as I tried to escape, for then I was always creeped out by the sight of coffins, hearses, wreaths and shrouds, all the trappings of death.        
Now the hearse arrives, with the coffin and the flowers, the trappings of death. We troop into the chapel and take our seats. I have not been in a British church since my sister’s wedding thirty two years ago. Greek churches have seats only for the elderly and the service goes ahead whether anyone’s listening or not – people walk around, talk, go out into the square, come back for a bit, go out again. Here, we are seated as at a cinema, and we’re expected to listen. Looking at the coffin, I see Ken standing beside it. He’s laughing and pointing at the box as if it and the whole pricey, poker-faced rigmarole we are engaged in were one huge practical joke, and we had yet to see the funny side. Back in my woo-woo days, I’d have taken this ‘vision’ very seriously. Now I just dismiss it as a brain-fart.

A bloke in a suit closes the doors, another comes up to the mike, and we’re off. It’s a relief that Ken was not a believer, and we will not be required to pray or sing hymns. The second suited bloke reads the eulogy: ‘In life, we encounter our death only once…’ No shit, Sherlock! Well, there’s a profound observation for you! I’m tempted to whisper this to my nephew but forbear, correctly anticipating that there’s a fair bit more such stilted deepity to come and we can’t spend the next forty minutes stifling our clever-clever snickers. Actually, the whole thing is just boring. I sit counting the breaths and giving myself Alexander technique instructions: ‘neck free, head forward and up, shoulders out and down…’ obviously to prevent myself from getting in any way emotionally involved – I have a lot in common with my mother. At length, we’re informed that Ken, like pretty much everybody else who's gone on ahead, has chosen to be played out to Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way’. The ‘final curtain’ closes off the alcove where the coffin lies, and it’s extraordinary how poignant this song, which I’ve always loathed, has suddenly become.

We file out into a pleasant conservatory-like place behind the crematorium building. My mum is in tears and apologising for it: ‘I do wish I could do better than this!’ 

We reassure her that tears are perfectly OK at a funeral, and that she’s far from the only one weeping, but she’s not having it. ‘You feel such a chump when everybody else is handling it so much better.’ 

A friend of my auntie's says to her gently, 'come on, Shirley, you need to be strong for Joan.' 

'I can't help it,' mum sniffs. 'Some are just better at handling tears than others.' 

This buttoned-up attitude would be inexplicable to the Greeks, who don't think you have emotions at all unless you're playing to the gallery. Auntie Joan, in British terms at least, is doing remarkably well, accepting consoling hugs with smiles, dignity and composure. In contrast, after my dad died my mum wouldn't answer the phone for three weeks in case it was someone offering condolences, which would result in instant meltdown.  

We're a bloody odd bunch.

Along the path up to the car park there’s a wall where you can leave flowers under a plaque with the name of the person whose funeral you have attended. Ours was not the first today and it isn’t the last. There are a few hundred more people today who’ll be feeling the same heaviness on entering and relief on leaving.

There’s a reception at a nearby pub which restores some normality, but not entirely for me. I haven’t fully digested my first funeral yet. I keep going over it in my mind, and thinking how not so long ago, I was so sure that death was the start of a big adventure, and now this belief seems absurd – it’s simply illness, death, a box, a curtained-off alcove and then the flames. I know I will not have one of those dos for myself. For me as for my mum, a funeral brings no sense of closure, only a sense of brooding darkness. They can dump my corpse in an old pram and shove me over a cliff.                  

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Going for a Walk

I'm up north in Huddersfield for a few days. To bring some Mediterranean colour to grey West Yorkshire winter, I've been cooking bulgur wheat pilafis, vegetables à la grecque, fried halloumi and penne alla putanesca. This evening I'm going to make fried rice to use up some left-over ham and mushrooms, and I needed a red pepper. These are freely available here even on New Year's Day, but t'was not ever thus. I went out to get one and walk around a bit for some much needed exercise and a memory trip. I won't call it nostalgia. 

Ours is a rather run-down suburb of large industrial town. Ten minutes' drive from here there's beautiful countryside, picturesque farms, stone villages, weavers' cottages and cosy traditional pubs, a rarity in England now. However, you can't help feeling that the fact that you can get out of here easily is hardly a recommendation. In winter, it's bleak. Right now the sky's like a pile of wet floor cloths, and it seems as if water is oozing out of the garden walls and flagstones. Naked black trees line streets that are soggy with leaves and litter. Crows and pigeons skulk on television aerials and chimney pots, sodden and silent. I pass a row of shops that has been here as long as I can remember. Up to thirty-odd years ago there was a grocer's, a fish and chip shop, a cobbler's and a butcher's. At the grocer's, housewives queued for ages on Saturday mornings for spuds, sprouts, onions and carrots, and the fags that nobody then knew were threatening to kill them. Large numbers of Asian immigrants were starting to fill up the area, and some of the terrace houses were serving as madrassahs. Locals were hazy about the customs of the new immigrant population.

'Well shooley,' said Mrs Grocer to a Mrs Customer, 'a church is more holy than a house?'

'They dote worship God,' said Mrs Customer authoritatively. 'I know. They worship a prophet.'


Initially, the immigrants were reluctant to integrate, knowing how widely they were mistrusted, resented and misrepresented. To many of us, their otherness was total. 

'I saw a Pakistani ont bus!' one of my mum's friends told her in a year when this was obviously a novelty and a threat.

'What's a Pakistani?' I asked.

'Ont bus, love,' she replied, mishearing.

So for a while I thought a 'Pakistani' was a species of bus, like a trolley or a coach.

The one time as a kid I had occasion to go into a Pakistani family's house, I was suffocated by a smell so powerful and so alien it felt almost like a physical barrier. I now know it was the smell of ghee, but then it was nasty and dirty: lurid fantasies about what these people ate were rife, and at school kids delighted in trying to put one another off their puddings by whispering 'thar in't chocolate sauce, it's Pakis' diarrhea!' The headmaster would periodically try to persuade the little girls to wear skirts instead of shalwaar kameez, and the dinner ladies expressed impatience at their refusal to eat meat, but how these kids were actually coping with the strangeness, rejection and prejudice was hardly ever considered.  Still, curiosity made me want to build bridges. At the age of about twelve I took it into my head to learn Punjabi. I got a book from the library and tried to enlist some of the Pakistani kids who lived nearby to help. Initially they were very willing, but after a talking-to in Punjabi from a white-robed matriarch, they wouldn't come near me. 

I walk past a small grassy hill known as the Banking where one sunny day decades ago some of us were playing when one of our party, Carl, decided it would be a good idea to belt another kid over the head with a plank of wood. So he did. She summoned her father, who came storming up to us and bellowed ' just oo der you think you are?' 

Shocked and blinking, Carl took the question wholly literally: 'LuigiCarlGerrardToffolo,' he recited in the name-rank-and-serial-number way he always adopted when asked his name. He was about seven then. He died last year of the drink. Funny how things turn out, innit? 

There's a big grocery store here on this corner.  When I was a kid, it was an off-license run by a grumpy bachelor who bore a striking resemblance to Adolf Hitler, if somewhat more stout. He sold Vesta beef curries, which came dehydrated in a sachet: this was as culinarily adventurous as most people got around here at the time. On the shelf behind the counter there was a bottle of wine labelled 'Tiger Milk of Ranina', and it must have stood there for well over a decade, as nobody had a clue what it was. The shop later changed hands and was extended. As a teenager I was a regular customer for Carlsberg Special Brew, which the owner would sell me, no questions asked. Indeed it could be said that it was his enthusiastic commendation of this hooligan-strength lager that got me hooked in the first place, when I was about fifteen. Nowadays no doubt he'd be subject to the inquiries of assorted committees, so it's just as well he's dead. Today the place is owned by a group of hard-working Pakistani men. Under an awning, a display of oranges, lemons, peppers, ginger, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes and bunches of green herbs offers a striking contrast to the surrounding grey, and inside there's every spice you'll ever need for Indian cooking, so I'm a big fan. It's open fourteen hours a day. Strictly no booze. I buy my red pepper and a lump of ginger root. I remember my grandma suspiciously sniffing a lump of ginger I had just cut in half. The smell was obviously as powerful and alien to her as ghee had been to me. 'It smells like bleach!' she said, horrified that I was about to put it into our lunch.

Just past the shops on our right is the house where a kid I knew from infant school spent his first decade or so. Ivan had been a transvestite probably from the time he was a foetus. He was extravagantly camp at the age of six, and when not at school would be clattering along the streets, powdered and rouged, in a frilly frock and a pair of his mother's high heels which fitted his feet as turds fit piss-pots, as they say up here. He had a friend called Jaqueline whom he had determined to marry, and gender roles be damned. Ivan went to the shop across the road from school and along with a Club chocolate orange biscuit for playtime, purchased a tasteful ring in thick black plastic with a bright green skull on it. I was the officiating priest at their wedding in the school playground. Other boys as always were tearing around pretending to be fighter jets. (Yawn) Some time ago I read a review of Billy Elliot by Roger Ebert. He says: 'The character of the transvestite Michael in particular seems based more on wishful thinking than on plausible reality: would a gay boy of his age in this neighbourhood of this town in 1984 be quite so sure of himself?' I thought immediately of Ivan, who at half Michael's age in a similar neighbourhood twenty years earlier never had a daunt.

I doubt if I will ever come back to live here permanently. To be fair, it's almost always in grey, wet, windy winter when I visit. On the rare occasions that I'm here in summer I'm struck by the greenness of the streets and hill sides, and it must be admitted that the view across the Colne Valley from my bedroom window is pretty impressive at anytime of the year. 

Not my photo or the present season, but pretty much what I'm looking at now.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Eleven Answers, and then one.

Bloggers involved in the racket known as ELT (English Language Teaching) are answering eleven questions and then nominating eleven other people to do the same. I have been reading the answers of the Secret DOS (Director of Studies). I haven’t been invited to play, but I’m nicking the questions anyway, and adding one. I won’t nominate anybody else to respond to the questions, but any commenters are invited to choose one or two, should they so wish.  

1. Why did you begin blogging?

I had a ‘sent items’ box full of a decade’s worth of ELT-related moans, in-jokes and parodies, and thought they might conceivably entertain a wider audience than the original recipients. However, I soon found that I’m no longer sufficiently interested in ELT to blog about it to the exclusion of my other peeves and obsessions.

2. What keeps you teaching every year?

Back in the nineties in Athens, my job was exclusively teacher training and I loved it. I can only understand theories if I can see a practical application for them, and conducting seminars, observing hundreds of lessons and midwifing trainees’ research projects taught me much more about the theoretical background to ELT than it did the trainees themselves. For nine years at the centre where I worked I felt engaged, useful and appreciated. The cat and I lived hand-to-mouth in some pretty grotty places, but fuck it, this was the cutting-edge of the Bohemian experience, living entirely for my art while absorbing a  foreign culture! Since leaving Greece, what keeps me teaching is nothing more than the need to pay the bills and keep body and soul together - and the realisation that it's too late to do anything else.    

3. What is an aspect of teaching that you struggle with and have tried to improve on?

Standing up in front of a group of people and being presenter, director, producer,  diagnostician and counselor is not especially easy for somebody as moody and introverted as I am, and I have to deal with frequent stage-fright and a rather annoying feeling that I’m playing a character rather than being myself. So I have to work on being myself. It smacks a bit of new-agey woo-woo, but doing this involves breathing deeply, relaxing my stomach muscles and remembering my brief training in the Alexander technique from years ago. I have to make a conscious effort to dissolve the mental barrier I unconsciously set up between myself and the students. I also usually have to rearrange the classroom furniture so that there is no teacher’s desk between us.

4. What is your ideal lesson like? 

Well, first off, there must be nobody who’s under eighteen years old, and at least one specimen of male eye-candy. Once these two requirements are satisfied, we need a group of people who are present by choice, who get on well together and who have understood that they need to participate and not just sit there in respectful silence, even if that is what’s expected of them in their own culture. The students’ own input will then provide much of the material for the lesson, so that it is not just a dispiriting plod through a unit of a coursebook.  

5. What would you hope your students remember you for?

My wit, charm, good looks and modesty.

6. Why did you become a teacher of ESOL?

Yeah, why the fuck did I… I drifted into it at 22, heedlessly, as people say they drift into drugs and prostitution. Anyway, by the time I was 27 and had done a year-long diploma course, ELT had provided me with a full time job and restored some of the academic self-confidence that Cambridge had knocked out of me, contrary to its supposed aim. I wonder if I might otherwise indeed have drifted into prostitution. Now, there’s a thought; I’d probably be a lot better off.

7. If you were given a paid semester off to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?

If I’m honest, I’d probably just lie here faffing about online until I developed pressure sores. Thank God there’s no chance of my being given a paid semester to goof off.

8. Do you listen to music while grading? If so, what do you listen to? If not, why not?

I can’t ignore music: I’m either transported or irritated, so no, I don’t listen to anything while marking. I bung wax plugs in my ears and plough on. 

9. Who has influenced your teaching?

You can pick up all sorts of tips and ideas from books and colleagues, but really the only people who’ve influenced what I do in class are the trainees I’ve observed, the students I teach, and myself. I have made a lot of mistakes in my time in the classroom and reflecting on your fuck-ups is the best way to improve.

10. If you could go anywhere in the world to teach, where would that be and why?

Here the secret DOS and I are of one mind: ‘my sitting room’. Except I wouldn’t teach: I’d write, or at least edit. No stage fright involved in turning on your lap top. Bliss. 

11. What is your favorite resource (website, object, activity) in teaching?

I don’t have one. Again, I agree entirely with the Secret DOS: ‘It’s trite but my favourite resources are 1) my sense of humour and 2) the students I am working with.’ None of my students is aware of my answer to question 3.

Bonus question

12. Do you have a pet peeve? If so, what is it? If not, have you ever had one, and how did you get over it? 

I have a whole petting zoo  of peeves. Here are three, a skimming of the surface:

a) Students who chew gum,
b) students who don’t use deodorant,
c) students who hawk back snot instead of blowing their noses.

These are all culture based. Lots of students chew gum after lunch to sweeten the breath, but I do wish they’d do it quietly. Eating noisily is taken as a sign of enjoyment in some cultures, but the squelchy sound of open-mouthed gum-chewing doesn’t merely irritate me, it enrages me. 

Some (sub) cultures don’t mind B.O., others have a horror of it. I belong to the latter category. I followed a colleague down a corridor the other week as he was waving his arms as though to disperse smoke and gasping ‘fuckinelle!’ He and I had just endured four hours of the acridity of male sweat and cigarette breath from a group of a nationality I shall not disclose.     

In Japan and some South American countries, blowing your nose in public is considered disgusting, and the sight of a teacher blowing his nose in class is quite as shocking as if he were spitting on the carpet or tearing off farts. Now, after ten weeks of the porcine honking and snorting of a Brazilian lad with chronic catarrh, I feel that I probably have no unexpurgated karma.


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