Monday, 3 August 2015

Acid Test

I have a week off. It feels unearned, despite the last five weeks being full-on, for there hasn't been much work this year. Anyway, the break comes between two five-week blocks of teaching known as Pre-sessional A and Pre-sessional B, courses on which students from China, Brazil, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and I know not where else beside are taught how to write an academic essay, participate in a seminar, listen to a lecture and make sense of a journal article or chapter in a learned book. That’s the idea, at any rate.

I’ve been teaching for thirty-four years and trained scores of teachers, but pre-sessionals always make me feel like a rookie. I frankly haven’t a clue how to transform the word-salads churned out by our Mohammeds, Salehs and Saeeds into coherent essays, but I go sailing in there with my PowerPoints and task sheets, bossing, coaxing, cajoling and joking, and by pretending to know, somehow I persuade (or dupe) them, and they do usually improve somewhat. I have decided that Blagging Your Way Through is an indispensable ingredient in language teaching, and training courses really ought to include modules on ‘Looking the Part’ and ‘Sounding Like You Know What The Fuck You Are On About’ and 'Getting 'em On Your Side'. I taught a one-off lesson with a group of Chinese kids on the Friday in July that was Eid, when Muslim students and staff had the day off. The last hour in the muggiest room of the Hugh Pokemon building was a slog, and they hated me. Epic chutzpah fail there: I hadn’t convinced anybody that they were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. I texted a colleague: ‘went on last act Friday at the Hugh, and I fucking died, darling.’

To be fair to myself, most of the Chinese undergraduates sit in ostensibly respectful (but more likely resentful) silence for 20 hours a week while their teacher uses everything short of thumb-screws and branding-irons to get the buggers to talk. The post-grads are usually slightly older, more confident, more forthcoming and more independent. I always make a special plea early in the year to be assigned to the post-grads come pre-sessiontide, as these days silent Chinese kids who are culturally and linguistically at sea try my diminishing reserves of patience: enough already. So I had an easy time of it with my Group 1 post grads, most of whom have been with us for quite some time and are used to the way we do things. I had a less easy time of it with the Group 2 post-grads, most of whom have been with us for just as long, but never really got it. Of them, more anon.

Every course ends with tests, one per skill: listening, reading, speaking, writing. Testing is always a headache. What do you test? How do you test it? How do you present the fact of testing to students without exaggerating or trivialising it? All our students come from learning cultures that are test mad, and many of them expect a course that ends with tests to have no aim other than to equip them with the complete linguistic wherewithal to pass them – not just the skills, but the exact vocabulary and grammar. I did three lessons with one group on critical thinking, introducing them to logical fallacies and getting them to spot strawmen, red herrings, slippery slopes, poisoned wells, question begging and all that good stuff.

‘Will this be in the test?’ Abeer wanted to know.

Stupidly, I said it wouldn’t, and omitted to point out that while there would be no requirement to spot and name examples of dodgy reasoning, being able to avoid them in one’s own writing would surely be a good thing. So I left Abeer with the impression that I was wasting her time, and handed her ammunition against me should she fail the tests.

Group 2, then. It fell to me to do quite a bit of essay writing with them. They were a lively, humorous bunch, and not terribly conscientious. I hammered introductions and conclusions, topic sentences and supporting evidence, a bit of sequencing (firstly, secondly, finally) and a few discourse markers (although, however, despite) You don’t want to overdo these: students tend to see them as indispensable to sounding sophisticated in writing, and cram their paragraphs with on the one hands and on the other hands until the ideas are completely obscured by the glue that links them - and there are usually few enough ideas without drowning them. We spent whole days analysing sample essays, noting how ideas from source texts were incorporated and moreover how they were evaluated. We saw how the writer didn’t merely use stock phrases and as many linking words as she could bung in there, but actually constructed an argument. At the end of the last lesson, several students came up to me to thank me for all my help. This is gratifying, but it must be borne in mind that it’s at least in part intended to secure your good will when you mark the essay. Then everyone went and did the writing test and dive-bombed spectacularly.  

Christ, but the essays were awful. I am a generous marker as a rule because I know how difficult it is to write, and how much more so in a foreign language, but, well, even Mister Niceguy had to acknowledge that to say some of these essays were crap would be to malign faeces. The aggregate test scores for all four skills meant that we would be losing about half of Group 2.

Last Friday was the day we handed out the students’ reports with the scores. Group 1 was my main group and only two of thirteen had failed the course. ‘But it was very difficult, everybody thought so!’ said Reham, shocked and tearful. I tried to persuade her that starting a Masters next month with her present level of reading and writing would be very stressful for her and she would probably end up withdrawing. Abeer was equally upset though less surprised. I bundled both of them off to the centre director, assuring them she would have helpful suggestions, although if pressed I couldn’t imagine what these might be. I felt like a cruel landlord turning penniless tenants out into the snow.

On the train home I texted the colleague with whom I shared group 2, imagining the scene when she broke the news to the perpetrators of those bloody essays. ‘Did you have a nice afternoon?’ I asked, flippantly. Her reply:

Good god. U are a shit teacher, Laurent is a shit teacher and all the tests were too hard is all I heard for an hour. Hani shouted at me so I shouted back saying he is a child and needs to grow up and stop blaming everyone but himself. Nearly walked out on them. Just had Sami on at me too saying his essay was amazing and structured with lots of ideas – he got 34%! They are deluded!!

So from thanks-for-all-your-help-Steve last Monday, by Friday I’m a shit teacher. Well, did I not spend all the last five week plotting their downfall? Did I not tell them to cram their essays with stock phrases and to hell with the ideas? I dismissed concerns about accurate spelling and grammar – who cares! Bugger analysis, sod evidence, screw referencing, I said, we’ll see you all OK. Suckers!  
Naturally they all summoned a huff and went off in it to tell the course director how they had been cheated of their hopes by a bunch of incompetents.  My suggestion by text that he have them all shot was considered but probably rejected, so I await further information now he’s had the weekend to think it all over.

Next course, I have my nice group 1 again three days a week, plus two days with a new group not yet arrived. I really, really don’t mind if they are silent Chinese kids. Once I’ve confiscated their phones, we’ll establish a modus vivendi whereby they won’t think my colleague and I are their best mates who’ll scrape them through, whatever bollocks they produce.     

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

From a You Tube thread

As some of you know, I can't stop myself getting into (largely pointless) arguments with US Jesus People on You Tube, some of whom are more convinced than ever that the end-times are upon us. Christians in the US, they assert, are an oppressed minority (despite being the majority) and soon the queers will have outlawed Christianity, and they'll be forcing everybody to collect porcelain, serve pureed salsify, worship Barbra Streisand and introduce water sports at church weddings. Be ready now for much fizzing of Evangelical mouth-froth, for the fags have won. Here's part of an exchange I had with one Scott Payne, servant of Jesus and gob-smackingly presumptuous twerp. Scott opens the conversation.

Well, I take it you are a little gay?

Not a little, totally. Do you know what that means? I have no interest in women sexually. That doesn’t license any other inferences on your part about my life or beliefs.

Ok, I Iived in San Francisco from 1982-2008, and one of the jobs I had took me though The Castro on my way home. You know what The Castro is?

Vaguely. I don’t live in the same hemisphere as you, so why should I?

My opinion's (sic) are based on first hand experiences. No I did not meet every gay person in SF

I’m sure you didn’t.

but having lived in a "gay city" I've had enough of an experience to decide on an impartial basis

Impartial basis? (Quote: 'Sir after I die, I will be with Jesus.') First-hand experience of some denizens of the Castro does not equal first-hand experience of ‘gay life’, whatever that is. It’s like claiming you know all Christians from having lived near the Amish. Do you know anything of how a homosexual man or woman might live in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Uganda or working-class Glasgow? Or anywhere else far removed from the Castro?

My decision is not my own, and I will be happy to tell you how I arrived at it,

OK, go on then. So long as you realise how ridiculously parochial you sound already.

but, first if you are gay, I want you to explain in explicit detail what does really happen in a gay relationship in the bed room,if you will?

If I asked you to tell me in explicit detail what you do in bed, you would quite rightly think me an utter creep and tell me it was none of my business, so why do you imagine it's OK to ask me that question? If I asked you what happens in heterosexuals’ bedrooms, I hope you’d have the intelligence to tell me that that is a stupid question, because there is far too much variety, and anyway, what consenting grown-ups do in the sack is of no interest to anyone else.


That last line was a mistake. People like Scott are obsessed with what other people do in the sack, as obsessed with sex as anorexics are with food. I hope that after a brief period of hysteria, gay-hating evangelicals will in due course back off and quietly die out.  

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Oh noes! Not the BUMBLEBEES!!

I do so admire a well-crafted argument.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Humour failure

I saw the above on a friend's Facebook timeline the other evening and attacked it with all the Merlot-fueled contempt at my disposal. Well, I'd been reading Irish Catholic priests talking about how their message will now have to be reworded, and how they'll have to find new, more loving ways of calling gay people disordered, and my sense of humour had evaporated. Almost every other commenter and clicker 'liked' it and I was chid for not being able to see the joke, or rather, for huffily refusing to laugh at it. But I thought then, and think now in sober daylight, that it is thoroughly offensive. I'm not so priggishly PC that I'd write to the Beeb to complain that there was no validation of LGBT rights in the shipping forecast, or that as a short gay man I feel marginalised whenever Stephen Fry appears on the telly without mentioning that not all gay men are as tall as he is, but dammit, this one pissed me off. Women experience the gamut of emotions through the course of a day, but men know nothing but smug entitlement from waking to sleeping? Men are simple-minded, one-dimensional creatures whose reactions are wholly predictable - and we are supposed to find that funny?

 Fucking hilarious.

Seems I'm in a minority and I promise I'll get my sense of humour back soon.


As Scarlett's Mum points out in her comment, the message could just as well be anti-women, portraying them as emotionally incontinent flibberty-gibbets. That reading hadn't occurred to me.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Two things life has taught me

1. Wear your glasses more. Soft-focus is attractive but deceptive.

2. Don't leap too quickly to worst-case scenarios.

Passing unspectacled through the sitting room en route to the bathroom, I notice a small white stain on the floor. It looks as if someone's heel has forcefully ground approximately three and a half  Mint Imperials into the carpet. I don't eat sweets, so I know this cannot be the cause, but am temporarily stumped. It can't be soap powder because I use liquid. It isn't flour, because I don't bake. I get a cloth from under the sink and start to scrub the stain, which is unyielding. I apply Vanish and more elbow-grease, to no avail.  I decide that somehow I must have splashed the carpet with bleach and that I am therefore stuck with this blemish for good. Shit. How to cover it? A rug would look ummm, unmotivated in this spot, but I go and dig out a throw and a large cushion to experiment with. I arrange the throw and cushion as if for a picnic. They do not cover the stain which now appears on the throw, even brighter against the dark red.

I realise that I have just spent ten minutes trying to wipe up a patch of sunlight.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Happy Easter

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lost in Translation

In which I'm a complete spoil-sport. Tell me if you think I'm missing the point.

Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary [whatever that means] renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, [it's easily forgotten, after all] that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:

These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.

Yawn. You can appreciate the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees whether you call it 'komorebi' or ‘the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees’. But amateur language fanciers are usually more impressed by words than by phrases, subscribing to the fallacy that one word always equals one meaning, and that if language A lacks a word found in language B, then that concept is lost to speakers of A. The fact is that one meaning potentially gives rise to many words and phrases, and this Japanese word is not a single block of meaning like table or milk. Ko-more-bi can be analysed as ‘tree-leak-sun’, i.e., ‘sun leaking through the trees’, a phenomenon frequently observed and appreciated by people who live where there are trees, whatever they choose to call it. 

The Yiddish word Luftmensch ‘air person’ is one of the more interesting words in the collection, because it immediately brought to my mind the English ‘airhead’. But beware connotation: the English word means a person with not a lot up top, whereas the Yiddish means an impractical dreamer. I think connotation might be a bit too prosaic for Sanders: she’s for awe, life-affirming interconnectedness and umm, stuff like that. In search of these, she often homes in on a single use of a common word and presents it as an amazing affirmation of the fundamental intrinsic human bonds and what-not that she’s blathering on about. I submit that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the rest of the words in her book are as easy to demystify as komorebi and these five after the jump. (Go on, jump.) 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Of Aging, Yoga and Demons.

It’s my birthday again today. I’d swear that this is becoming a biannual event. (Christmas, too.) ‘It’s only a number!’ people tell you cheerily. Yeah, yeah. I mentioned the other week that a student told me he was forty-four, and added ‘I think same like you?’ thus underestimating my age at the time by eleven years. I felt quite chuffed. Then last week a dental hygienist making small talk asked me ‘so what do you do then? Are you retired?’ effectively transposing the digits of my real age as they stand as from three o’ clock this morning. I wanted to tell her that holding hairdresser-like conversations with people whose mouths are full of tubes and mirrors is pretty pointless, but couldn’t because my mouth was full of tubes and mirrors.

I decided last week it was about time I started to take more exercise, so I dragged my yoga mat out of the cupboard and began once again to yoge. Nine years ago in Kalamata I had a private teacher and was quite good. Nothing rubs in the fact of aging like restarting yoga after nearly a decade off: I felt as if I were wearing full armour. The pose janusirshasana, or head-to-knee forward bend, is one I could do quite comfortably back then but is now among the many I can’t even contemplate for the time being. The site from which I took the photo lists diarrhoea among the counter indications for the pose and it’s easy to see the logic here, though why anyone with afflicted with the shits would even attempt it is harder to fathom. 

You might think that the risks of yoga would be confined to trying too hard and thereby pulling muscles, snapping tendons or stippling the wall with your channa daal. But you’d be wrong. Some grey-faced drama queens in the Catholic Church have warned us of the unsuspected dangers of trying to put your forehead on your knees. Gabriele Amorth is the Vatican’s chief exorcist and so presumably has lots of spare time to think on these matters. He says that yoga is of Satan and it leads to evil ‘just like Harry Potter’. (He's not mad keen on sex, either.) One Fr Roland Colhoun has recently made a tit of himself by telling his flock that yoga may lead Christians to the Kingdom of Darkness. Apparently ‘there is a great body of research (theological, spiritual and psychological) already done on it.’ I’m very curious as to what ‘theological and spiritual research’ might be, and how it is undertaken and especially how it is peer reviewed. Do they have evicted demons on the panels?

Well anyway. Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Four o'clock this morning. I'm on my way, via innumerable detours and delays, from city A to city B. City B seems to be Leeds. To cut a very long dream short, I arrive in the nick of time on a station platform where my boat is almost ready to leave. (It's a dream, remember.) But drat and dash it, I have no money on me. Fortunately, in the entrance just before the ticket barrier I spot my mate Christopher Hitchens, looking youngish and healthy in a smart grey suit. Great, I can tap him for a loan. Cheerfully he agrees to bale me out and gives me a pair of smart grey underpants. These I hand over at the ticket office, where the two Greek blokes that man it are amused but put up no objection.

'Ο κύριος είναι γνωστός στην Αγγλία! (The gentleman is well known in England!)' I tell them brightly. 'Δημοσιογράφος!'(Journalist!)'

On the boat are people known to me in the dream, colleagues and students all bound for the same unspecified purpose to Leeds. I cannot wait to announce to general mirth that I bought my ticket with Christopher Hitchens's underpants. But when I do, nobody's listening or interested, and the big joke falls flat as a fart.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Kalenda Maia

Kalenda Maia is a favourite melody of mine, and this gently undulating account by Hesperion XXI is one that I frequently play in class as students are discussing some issue in pairs or groups. I don't know if it relaxes them, but it certainly helps to keep me sweet, so if they don't like it, tough. Lyrics (not heard here) were composed by the Provençal troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, (c. 1180 - 1207) although the melody may not have been his. The tune is possibly the only surviving piece of pre-13th century instrumental music.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

It'll End in Tears

Today was my first day of teaching since mid-December.  I have the same group as before Christmas, with five Saudis and one Libyan. They’re a nice bunch of people ranging in age from twenty to forty-four. Ali is the forty four-year old.

‘I’m forty four,’ he told me before Christmas. ‘I think same like you?’

This was most flattering as he had underestimated my age by more than a decade. Of course it’s always possible I misheard him or that he needs new contacts.

‘Today, ladies and gentlemen, we turn our attention to verbs that are followed by an infinitive or by the ‘-ing form’. For the time being, only eight of these need detain us. I am not going to tell you that there are plenty more where these came from and it all gets maddeningly complicated round about April.’

Once the verbs had been introduced, the students were given the following sentence halves and asked to complete them in any way they wanted before putting their questions to colleagues:  

What do you want…
Do you like…
Why did you decide…
What do you hope…
Have you ever thought of…
Do you enjoy…

‘What do you hope to do for your society?’ Manal asked Ali. Unfortunately I didn’t hear his plans for sorting out Libya. Then she asked me. I said I hoped to persuade as many people as possible not to vote UKIP. I can do this at no great personal cost, as none of my acquaintance would dream of it. I asked Manal what she hoped to do for Saudi Arabia. She said she wanted to be a good mother and a good teacher. (She’s a university lecturer.) Nothing wrong with that, but I’d rather hoped for a bit more fire – I dunno, bring about an Islamic Reformation, push for public debate instead of conformity and obedience. Bit more of a challenge than my heroic stand against UKIP, admittedly. I asked for a start if she thought that the women of the Kingdom of the Two Holy Mosques should at least be allowed to drive.

‘Oh, no,’ she said, dismissively. ‘I’m much too busy.’ She made it sound as if we were talking about something faddish and silly, such as bungee jumping.

‘Yeah,’ Shaden agreed. ‘In the car is the only time I get to relax.’

Ain’t it the bitter truth. They’re so busy looking after their kids and husbands they can’t see any necessity to drive, let alone feel indignant that they are forbidden to do so.

‘But it isn’t illegal in KSA,’ I persisted, ‘the ban's just traditional.’

‘In Saudi Arabia,’ Shaden said, ‘tradition is the law.’

OK, Steve, drop it.   

‘I have question I want ask everybody,’ Manal says. ‘’What do you want to say to your mum?’’ Hamid?’

Hamid goes misty-eyed and gestures expansively, to express the inadequacy of mere language to convey the depth of his sentiments. The question elicits the same breathless aphasia from everyone and in attempting to answer her own question, Manal breaks down in sobs. Bugger me if soon there isn't a dry eye in the house.

‘Right, okaaaaay… Do you err… like, umm, want to take a break?’ I ask, meaning ‘I’m British and I don’t do this sort of thing and I think I’d rather leave you to it for a bit.’

I go and make a big mug of rooibos and sit at my computer in the teachers’ room for such time as I deem sufficient for Manal to repair extensive damage to her mazzy and false eyelashes. Was it all for real, I wonder, or is it just a cultural expectation that mention of your mother should reduce you to a blubbering wreck? Even if it is a cultural expectation, does that make the reaction any less real? Maybe it’s like the way the British think understatement is funny, when hardly anyone else seems to.


A colleague told me at lunchtime that she’d stayed with her cousin at Christmas. ‘I can tell you’re a teacher.’ the cousin had said. ‘You don’t close the toilet lid after you’ve been.’ We are both still puzzling over that one.    

Friday, 26 December 2014

He came down to Earth from Heaven...

Monday, 22 December 2014

Season's Greetings


This is Stella Splendens in Monte from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat. Not specifically a Christmas song, but sounds as if it ought to be.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Bona Tidings of Dowry Joy

This is a post from a couple of years ago, one that was pretty much ignored, so I'm dishing it up again. I think it's a pity we've lost Polari, and this is my small effort to revive interest it. Besides, I can't think of anything else to bloody write. 

I read last week about a new Gay Bible. They obviously don't realise it's already been done, and better. Varda, I bring you bona tidings of dowry joy.

Herd-homies varda'd flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Dutchess trolled,
And Gloria sparkled round.

Bencoves and heartfaces, for the quarter Sunday in Advent, our text is from the first chapter of the Gospel of Matilda, verses 18 to 25, from yer actual Polari Bible - mince over there in a bit and have a varda. Meanwhile, let us put aside for a bijou mo the swiftly-trolling fakements of this world (the gildy clobber, the prezzies, the bevvy and the bona manjarries to come) and get us sat for a serious cackle. We varda here that Gloria Her Absolute Very Self Herself swep' into the world, becoming carnish like other homies, only better: never cottaged, never had the trade round, never took it up the chocolate starfish or even had a J. Arthur so far as we know from the Bona Glossy. She jarried with the landladies and tax-collectresses, and trolled all over, healing the nanti varda and the nanti wallop, and casting out the wicked fairies. Then - and here is the Fantabulosa Gossip - she snuffed it for all the  kertervers* of homie-kind, however manky, and on the third journo, rose from the stiff. Well, after all that, natch, She’s absolutely in bits, bless Her - three to be exact: The Auntie, The Homie Charver and The Fantabulosa Fairy. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, cos all this is part of the Holy Cackle Fart story, but this way you get a through picture and can see it all makes perfect sense.   

(*Rom 6:23 - 'For the parkering ninty of kertever is death' - but not necessarily!) 

The Gossip of Matilda

18 Now the birth of Josie Crystal was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Josephine, before they trolled together, she was found up the duff of the Fantabulosa Fairy. 
19 Then Josephine her homie affair, being a just homie, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 
20 But while she thought on these fakements, varda, the fairy of the Duchess appeared unto her in a dream, cackling, Josephine, thou homie chavvie of Davina, fear not to lell unto thee Mary thy palone affair: for that which is conceived in her is of the Fantabulosa Fairy. 
21 And she shall bring forth a homie chavvie, and thou shalt screech his name Josie: for she shall save his homies and palones from their kertervers. 

22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was cackled of the Duchess by the prophet, cackling, 
23 varda, a nanti charver shall be up the duff, and shall bring forth a homie chavvie, and they shall screech his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, Gloria with us. 
24 Then Josephine being raised from letty did as the fairy of the Duchess had bidden her, and lelled unto her his palone affair: 
25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn homie chavvie: and she screeched his name Josie. 

OK, now let's remember the prezzies, the bevvy and bona manjarries (the mustard-infused artichoke hearts in Riesling, the traditional hot-smoked organic Cornish Pasties, the limited-edition kimchee Pringles) and how much the Homie Chavvy, Sparkle of the World, sets you back every bloody December.

You might like to troll over here and have a varda, an all. 


Friday, 12 December 2014

Cambridge and Stuff

That’s it for December. No more teaching now until January, and even then, not much. These last three months have been very thin, and a baffling directive from Human Resources made us fear that times ahead might be even thinner. Part-time hourly paid lecturers, we were told, would henceforth be limited to 550 hours per academic year. In a department that runs a specified number of modules per year this might be workable, but at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) there is no such predictability: famine alternates with feast, and an unexpected glut of students in a normally quiet time could use up many of the hours of the most experienced teachers, leaving the busier times of year to rookies. 

‘You know that 550 hours thing?’ the Centre Director asked me yesterday. ’It’s bollocks.’ (We are teachers of English, hence the elevated discourse.) So we are not limited to 550 hours after all, but who knows? We might even get fewer than that if there are no bloody students. 


We said goodbye last week to our small group of Brazilians, one of the nicest groups I have ever taught. They were interested in everything and very knowledgeable, especially about art and architecture. I did some Shakespeare with them and a session on theories of intercultural communication, which was a great improvement on the usual trudge through some upper-intermediate EFL coursebook. While we were preparing to listen to a lecture about introversion and extroversion, I found that one of them had studied the Briggs-Myers type indicator assessment, and was able to share her knowledge with the group. (Luana studies animation and told me that the types are used in creating characters for cartoons and video games.) I have a presentation about Cambridge that I trot out to groups that are about to take a trip. I chuck in a short diversion about Henry VIII and his string of wives, and bugger me if they didn’t actually know already about Big Harry’s headaches over Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn and the Pope. All this is unprecedented. When we got to Cambridge, their delighted reactions to King’s Chapel, Trinity Great Court, the Wren Library and Kettle’s Yard made me feel as chuffed as if I had built them all myself.  

‘It’s not like a university,’ Carlos said, surveying Trinity Great Court in the winter sunshine. Now to me, Cambridge is the very essence of University, and the piles of concrete shoe-boxes most students attend worldwide are what seem unreal. I don’t think I realised until that moment how privileged I was. Am.

I could happily live at Kettle’s Yard. It’s an art gallery and house that was the home of art collectors Jim and Helen Ede. Its feel is much more house than gallery, and when I used to drag Italian teenagers there in the early eighties, it often left them severely underwhelmed. ‘Ma è una casa, they’d shrug, their habitual mode being offended and slightly incredulous shrugging. So it’s always nice to take appreciative adults there, and our Brazilians were certainly impressed. One of the elderly attendants (is that what you call them?) explained to us the visual connections between a Miró painting, the shadows on the wall beneath it and a lemon on a pewter dish sitting on an adjacent table. I'd need to hear it all again to get it, but well, you live and learn.

Joan Miró 'Tic Tic' (1927)
Lemon on a pewter dish. It is a reference to the yellow blob in the bottom right corner
 of the Miró - maybe a reference to Matisse? or maybe not.

I could sit here for at least quarter of an hour.

The Edes obviously never had cats.
 A memory of Cambridge, possibly distorted.

A colleague in Cambridge invited me to lunch one icy Sunday circa 1988. Kat always had something about her of the bohemian intellectual and I had none of that air and felt a bit… what?... ordinary in her presence. If I had people to dinner, I did all the cooking in advance and made sure guests would never see a dirty pan or used utensil. Kat was at the sink in her pinny peeling spuds when I arrived, and this struck me as almost daring. Now it seems most peculiar that I should have seen my preference for stage managing a meal as a sign of my social and intellectual inadequacy, but then I did, and there you are.  Kat’s daughter was intimidatingly patrician in manner, with a confident demeanour and impeccable RP diction. Her son was drop-dead gorgeous, a year under-age and straight anyway, so forget it. At lunch there was from the family gleeful and malicious calumniating of Kat’s divorced husband, whom the children called by his first name, and so that I could join in, more such trashing of our boss, who was certifiably nuts.  

After lunch, Kat decided she would introduce me to Lady Arabella Whotsitte-Thynge at her commune. (No, that wasn’t her real name.) So we drove to Grange Road and parked outside a large Victorian house hidden behind a tall hedge. The door bore the legend:


Inside, the house was dilapidated and patinated with age. I needed a pee and Kat showed me the nearest bathroom, the bath piebald with the worn enamel.  We went into a drawing room, a penumbral realm where six or seven men and women of considerable seniority were seated in a collection of decrepit armchairs and deck chairs on either side of a tree trunk that protruded some twelve feet into the room from the fireplace, where it was slowly being consumed. Most of these people lived here, aged bohemians, sharing whatever they had. A tall woman in a boiler suit rose, gave the tree trunk a hefty shove and after the sparks ascended and died, greeted us.  This was Lady Arabella Whotsitte-Thynge. She was a veteran of pretty much every 20th century conflict in which there had been a right-wing faction to fight against. As a younger woman, as soon as she heard of bother somewhere, she’d pack a boiler suit and get out there. I was introduced to Sandor, a former ballet dancer from Hungary, whom Kat called ‘the oldest gay in Cambridge’. An old Chinese woman had brought with her a girl from the People’s Republic who must have been planning to study at the university. In those days, people from the PRC were usually easy to distinguish from students from Taiwan. The Taiwanese would be glammed up to the hilt while the PRCs were mostly like this young woman: tortoiseshell hair slides, white lace-trimmed blouse, sage-green woolen cardy and tartan skirt, like a British school-girl from the fifties. The older woman refused to speak to her in Chinese, forcing her to use what little English she had. Of what was their discourse, these venerable artists and intellectuals? Sandor told us how best to prepare a mug of Nescafe. Apparently you must add the hot water gradually, stirring all the while. 'You schould not drrrrown zer koffee.'

‘Won’t you have some food?’ Lady Arabella asked me sadly. There was a hostess trolley in which sat grey beef, boiled potatoes and boiled runner beans, the source of the school dinner smell that hung in the room below the aroma of burning wood. I was glad I had eaten and could refuse, but this was an ungrateful reaction to such open-handedness. The sign on the door was an open invitation to anyone who managed to find the house, and any stranger who accepted it would be fed. It's true that the homeless and hungry would be unlikely to stumble into this green suburb of hedge-hidden mansions, but even so.

Probably not Lady Arabella's place, but close.
There’s no point to this anecdote, no issue. It just came back to me last month on our day in Cambridge, somehow all of a piece with its mixture of dilapidation and grandeur, the soggy fallen leaves and cold, misty dusk. And the idea of old age in a commune appeals to me, so long as we don’t have piebald baths and boiled veg for Sunday lunch.     

Approaching King's Bridge. This is how you learn to love freezing fog.


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