Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Offensive, my Arse.

I’ve been away from home and without broadband for a week, so I went into the library in my home town to check my e-mail. I had a look at a few blogs while I was at it and then tried to check on my own. The computer flashed up a message telling me that ‘contains offensive material’ and there was no way it would open the website, lest I be corrupted.

Offensive material? Like what? OK, there’s a bit about auto-erotic asphyxia and people being found dead with things stuck up their bums, but my source was a respected pathologist, so that ought to lend it some gravitas, surely? And there is a post about a gay porno book, but I did point out that it failed to give me an erection, so that should be OK too, shouldn’t it? I gave a description of how you can collect and then post packets of your own shit through the public mails, but couched it in terms of reassurance, explaining that it is easier to do than one might think, so what in this would bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty? There are posts that deplore the religion peddled by Jentezen Franklin, Fred Phelps, Mary Catherine Baxter and Jimmy Swaggart, a quite shamelessly crude and offensive bunch, who regularly trounce the sensibilities of the more broad-minded, so upsetting people like them redresses the balance a little, that’s all. I suggested shoving a dildo up the Pope’s tail-pipe, but after hearing his pompous hypocrisy about homosexuality, what right-thinking pillar of the community wouldn’t? No, pure as the driven snow, is this blog.

No human being has been censoring blogs from a back room of Huddersfield public library, of course. It’s just a bit of soft-ware the library uses, an electronic Lord Chamberlain’s Office that scans sites for occurrences of ‘fuck’, mention of dildoes, anything to do with the Pope’s rectum, etc. (‘Lathophobic Aphasia – regrettable playground language, juvenile mockery of the clergy that the faithful might find offensive, schoolboy smut about boy-on-boy shagging in our top public schools, fashionable approval of homosexual acts, all quite unsuitable’.) The programme did once backfire, though. Three years ago it refused to open an e-mail from a friend, and it spelled out why:

‘This message contains language that may be offensive:

Fuck x 3
Shit x 2
Wank x 1’*

Thus it failed to spare my blushes in its attempt to do just that.

(* 6.5 on Whitehouse-Cartland Regrettability Scale: ‘Most unladylike’.’)

Language Learning for Dummies

I decided to learn some Arabic. Paltry choice of books for the purpose at Waterstones, so I bought ‘Arabic for Dummies: the fun and easy way to start speaking Arabic’. Normally I can do without the ‘For Dummies’ series and its relentless chumminess. ‘Windows for Dummies’ left me poker faced and not a lot wiser. This time I decided I would try to ignore the buddy-buddy style and concentrate on the language, but it is not easy to tune out the chirpiness, especially where it makes matters ten times more complicated than an even slightly more academic approach would. The section on pronunciation is so eager not to scare you off with technical terms that it is virtually opaque:

Name of letter: Daad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘d’ sound, the exact same sound as a Saad, except that you use a ‘d’ instead of an ‘s’.

Got that? What do you reckon a ‘deep’ /d/ sound might be? ‘Deep’ is way too subjective an adjective to describe usefully the quality of a phoneme, no more helpful here than ‘chewy’, ‘bitter’ or ‘medium-sized’ would be in its place. And how can a /d/ be ‘exactly the same’ as an /s/?

Name of letter: Saad

Sounds like: A very deep ‘s’ sound you can make if you open your mouth really wide and lower your jaw.

I’m trying to visualise this. Can you open your mouth without lowering your jaw? I think not. What you certainly cannot do is open your mouth really wide and produce anything that sounds like a /s/, ‘deep’, or ‘crisp’, or ‘even’. This is not the only contortion of the vocal tract one is required to attempt. Try this:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

You might want me to run that by you again:

‘Take the ‘th’ as in ‘those’, and draw it to the back of your throat.’

If you manage this, do please leave me a comment and explain how. I mean, you don’t need a degree in linguistics to work out that the ‘th’ in ‘those’ (a dental fricative) is phonated with the tip of the tongue brought close to the upper front teeth in order to narrow the passage for the outgoing air. So how do you ‘draw this to the back of your throat’ unless you swallow your dentures?

The writer also seems to think that English is a Romance language and tells us that in Arabic, adjectives follow nouns, ‘unlike in most Romance languages’. Is there a Romance language in which adjectives do not usually follow nouns? I do wish people would check their facts before making such pronouncements about language. I’m sure ‘Windows for Dummies’ would have been assiduously purged of technical inaccuracies before it was inflicted on the public, so why should language books get away with this sort of sloppiness?


About twelve years ago in Athens, I became fascinated by Albanian and began to learn it with occasional help from my kind neighbour Violetta, an ex-actress from Tirana. To start off with, I had only one little book of parallel texts, ‘Dialogë Shqip-Greqisht’ one page in Albanian, the facing page in Greek. The texts were all flat footed teach-yourself-book dialogues of the sort parodied in Ionesco’s ‘La Cantatrice Chauve’, where a Mrs Smith, in casual conversation, informs her husband what the two of them had for dinner and how many children they have, as though this were news to him. In my Albanian book two people fall into conversation on an airliner and as it goes bowling down the runway one tells the other ‘the aircraft is gaining speed’. Still, I reasoned that even if the writer lacked any ability to reproduce natural-sounding human speech, I could still get a fair amount of vocabulary from his little book, which was in any case the only one on offer at the time. There was another eccentricity that took some forgiving, though. The writer created dialogues in which, for example, a foreign visitor to pre-1990 Albania is being shown around a farming co-operative and learning of the proletarian joy that reigns among its members: ‘bujqësia po lulëzon!’ (‘agriculture is blooming!’) Then someone, perhaps the writer, perhaps the editor, had arranged the lines of the dialogues in alphabetical order according to the first letter of each line. Thus, if a dialogue opened with ‘tungjatjeta!’ (hello) and ended with ‘mirupafshim!’ (goodbye), the farewell would always precede the salutation, with the rest of the exchange at once ordered yet scrambled all around them, or between them, or above or below, depending on the letters that kicked off each line. It was incredibly frustrating to read, and all the more so because it was perhaps inspired by an addled memory of legitimate language practise tasks where scrambled dialogues are presented to be reordered, but with recognition of the need for judiciously-placed contextual clues, the limited value of the task, and the limited attention (and life) span of the learner.

American travel writer on Albanian: ‘Occasionally a French sounding word surfaces, like qen meaning dog, but otherwise Albanian is completely unlike any other language’. (My emphasis) Oh, for God’s sake… French chien and Albanian qen both derive from Latin canis. Albanian forms a single branch of the Indo-European family. It has a considerable amount of Latin-based vocabulary and its grammatical structure is unmistakably of the Indo-European stripe. So let’s have no more of this nonsense, or I shall be handing out lines and order marks.


In the mid nineties a colleague and I wrote two practice test books for Greek schools. When the first book saw the light of day, we were dismayed to find that changes had been made without our permission. I had included a dialogue, based on my own experience, in which a man in a book shop is trying to find a copy of the relatively rare ‘Colloquial Albanian’ by Isa Zymberi, a book that does actually exist but somehow never made the best seller lists. Our editor had decided that a textbook with any mention of Albanian would never sell to Greek schools, and changed ‘Colloquial Albanian’ to ‘Colloquial Mexican’. Somewhere there will be teachers who suppose that it is Costas and I who don’t know that Mexicans speak Spanish and that whole gondolas of teach yourself Spanish books are to be found in any book store.

A feature of our test books was sets of questions prompting students to reflect on how they arrived at their answers to listening tests. The hope was that Greek teachers would, finally, start to focus their charges on the thought-processes that lead them to a response rather than simply rewarding them for being right or slapping them down for being wrong.* These meta-cognitive questions were a bugger to devise in such quantity, and so it was galling to find that the editor had amended some of ours to such ink-wasting banalities as ‘which is the right answer?’ Some changes were necessary for the sake of the pagination, but others seemed merely to demonstrate that editors have egos too. We learned that inaccuracies and absurdities in language textbooks are not necessarily the fault of the writer whose name appears on the cover, but may be the work of those who get to monkey about with the text once the writers are safely out of the way and it is too late for them to protest.

Teachers’ feedback on our books was positive. People thought the listening scripts were funny, nobody spotted the ‘Colloquial Mexican’ solecism, or if they did, they did not mention it. Everyone simply ignored the meta-cognitive stuff, having no idea what it was intended to accomplish.

EFL books have a short shelf life, a couple of years or so. Not only do Greek language schools get through test books the way whales get through krill, it also doesn’t take long before the photos look dated and fourteen-year-old students are unable to focus on the language because they are too busy hooting at the characters’ quaint clothes, naff trainers and clunky mobile phones. Our books are still around somewhere, many probably frayed, damp and termite-munched in third world classrooms. You can buy them on Amazon, but nobody does. Last year’s royalties: one euro and fifty cents!

(* ‘Τους δέρνεις, τους μαλώνεις, δεν κάθονται να μάθουνε...’)

Monday, 22 December 2008

An intemperate Outburst

La Ratzinger in her best hat.

' ...scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
is more to bread than stone:... '

Measure for Measure (1, iii)

Dammit, I had just shut up the shop for Christmas when I read this from that creepy old Queen in the Vatican:

‘Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction... He compared behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations [to] 'a destruction of God's work.' He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected".

What fucking planet does this ghastly old fart inhabit? Homosexual behaviour has been around at least since the first primates evolved. It does not pose any threat to straights, and it never has. Nevertheless for centuries straights have mocked, persecuted, ostracised, burned and hanged queers. Now in the west we are making some headway in getting people to accept the cross-grained, multifaceted nature of human sexuality, the last thing we need is these arrogant, pompous, repressed, bottom pinching, boy-fondling old gits pronouncing on how we should fuck and with whom.

We’re here, we're queer, like us or fucking lump us, and a big fat dildo up Benedict's tightly-puckered old arse, sideways.

Quite a squeeze, what with his brain up there already.

Two boys appreciating God's work.


...but vide supra


ΚΑΛΕΣ ΓΙΟΡΤΕΣ. Τα λέμε τον Γενάρη

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Sweet Blood

A while ago, I mentioned that I had booked myself in for a thorough medical at a private practice, my first ever. (Americans, this is England, you don’t bother the doctor if you can avoid it. They seem to have so little time to spare.) My chief concern at the time was the haemoccult test, which requires three days' worth of shit to be conveyed to the doctor, to do with it whatever it is he does with it. How do you collect and transport it? Carrier bag? Lunch box? Dump truck? In fact, it’s easy, because you are sent three little cards that look like books of matches and you apply to each a sample ‘from either end of the motion’, repeat the process the following day and the next, and then bundle the cards off by recorded delivery - ‘anything valuable in the envelope at all?’ Simple, even if not very pleasant. So don’t worry.

Now, almost four weeks later, I expected medical matters and concern for the dark, messy insides of the body to be over and done with, but there has been an unexpected twist. My blood tests showed a 'level of glucose in the diabetic range'. This is a direct quote from the doctor’s terse e-mail – he is not good at phatic utterance, even in communications where a little would not go amiss. I had to get re-tested.

The phlebotomist at my GP’s looked at the print out of the test results and when she got to the glucose bit she went ‘Ooh! Ooh!’ as one who’s just found a baby slug in her salad. ‘Ooh, that’s not good!’ she squealed, leaving me unsure whether the appropriate response were to chuckle at life's little ups and downs, apologise for upsetting her, or burst into tears. She took more blood. ‘What if it is diabetes?’ I asked. ‘Well, to start with, just diet and tablets’ she said. ‘But it gets more complicated with age!’ she added, cheerily. Thanks, pal.

My GP also made oddly irresolute noises when the second test results were in. ‘Hmmm. Yeah. Well.’

‘What’s up?’

‘Borderline diabetic, is this. What do you wanna do?’

What did he expect me to say?

‘Eat candy and get sick!’
‘I think I’ll simply end it all now’
‘Kiss me, John, and do it like you mean it!’

I said I didn’t know. I didn't say I wouldn't be sitting there if I did, although I thought it.

‘Yeah, well, we’ll do you another test sort of mid-January-ish.’

So that’s what we’ll do.

My cousin has been diabetic since she was four. When I was a little boy I thought, absurdly, that her diabetes was a privilege, because she had her own special sweets, her own little lunch packs, and generally had things – hypodermics, fascinating chunky little glass bottles of insulin with rubber membrane caps - that her sister, mine and I did not. I won’t need any of this stuff whatever the results, thank God.

I have not had raging thirst and the need to pee every few minutes, but I have felt over the last year that everything I do requires twice the physical and mental effort it used to. The walk from the university to the station takes all of 10 minutes but it often feels like a trek through deep snow. There are many days when I get up and make the bed, and spend all day just waiting to get back into it. The working week often seems interminable, and I have had problems at work because I have simply forgotten to complete loads of dreary admin, my priority being to get away, get home, and crash out. So a diagnosis of mature-onset diabetes might explain this and the medication possibly make me a bit livelier.

Now I'm working on a set of excuses for if it transpires that I am not diabetic after all.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas Greetings

Couldn't resist this. Found it on Sissydude's brilliant blog, but since his is one of the 'I understand and wish to continue' blogs-with-knobs, they might miss it, that else did profit thereby. Hope you are as profoundly moved as I was, and wouldn't you just kill for the jumper of the lady on the left?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Bang the Hanker out of your Boner

A piece of internet porn site translatese:

Visconti Triplets bang the living hankers!

‘A fine sunny day that is just perfect to lounge around the pool and get some tan. Heat stroke causes deep craving for self-pleasure. With nobody else around, the Visconti Triplets doesn’t blink an eye and gratifies their horny dongs and gets it on until all their custard juice oozes out. Only self-indulgence will cure the inflamed boner they all have because it is bound to burst if it’s not satisfied. In those pants were gorging hunk of meat waiting for some nasty action. They hit a maximum speed of horniness that not even the wind can break. They do their best to keep their bowties on but their suits are no match for their angry sausages that just wants to be devoured live and whole.’

Well it might make you want to bang your hanker, but personally I'll keep my bow-tie on, not break wind, and save my custard for Mr. Right.


When my grandma and great aunt were little girls around the end of the First World War, the family was briefly in the chips. The girls were always well turned-out and had equally well turned-out dolls and a big handsome toy car, among other small luxuries not common in their milieu at the time. All this was funded by their grandmother, who was a star turn as a platform medium at Spiritualist churches in the north of England. She only accepted money for private sittings and donations were voluntary, but, as evidenced by the clothes and toys, frequent and generous. When it came great-great-grandma’s turn to Pass Over to the Other Side, it was back to living on a tight budget, like everybody else.

I have no idea if my great-great-grandmother was a gifted psychic, a hard nosed manipulator, or one of the many mediums who subconsciously absorb the technique of cold reading and imagine themselves instruments of a Higher Power. Certainly on my mother’s side of the family there was never much doubt that the dead are always around us, and my great aunt was often told she ought to develop her psychic gift, but she was too scared of ‘spooks’ ever to try. When I was a kid we used to play Ouija with a wineglass and a circle of Lexicon cards, and if Auntie’s finger were on the glass it would skitter so fast from letter to letter you could hardly keep up with it. I don’t suppose anybody enjoys funerals, but Auntie especially disliked them because if she wandered round the grounds of the crematorium, voices of the long-since burnt would call out to her, and this gave her the creeps. Grandma on the other hand greatly enjoyed being given the creeps, and liked to scare herself witless with gruesome Dennis Wheatley novels. No logician, she contrived to believe in revenants whilst simultaneously dismissing them as nonsense.

My own spook story goes like this. When I was about three, our house had a cellar where the washing machine was kept. Next to the cellar was a tiny L-shaped space for storing coal. One day while my mother was doing the washing I asked to look inside the ‘coal hole’, so she opened the door and I went inside. I said there was an old lady standing in there, and described her grey hair and coloured apron. I was not scared, or even surprised, to see a complete stranger apparently banged up in the coal hole, and it was my composure as much as anything else that freaked my mother out. We went back upstairs and she wouldn’t go down there again for some time. Eventually we did go back down, probably because we needed clean clothes, and again I looked in the coal hole and again there she stood in the dark in her coloured pinny.

I have trotted out this story for every class I have ever taught, and once recorded it for a now out-of-print EFL coursebook. I leave the last part of the story for the students to complete. ‘Later, my mum related the incident to the neighbour, who said…’

Only one student ever said ‘they should take you to a psychiatrist’ - thank you, Panagioti. Everyone else gets it bang on. The neighbour said that the previous tenant of the house had been a rather strange old lady, who always wore a coloured apron, and who had been found dead in the cellar.


My father’s mother was as down to earth and stolid as my mother’s mother was fey and scatty. Most works of the imagination in books or on TV struck her as ‘proper daft’ and once, when some medium was doing his thing on the telly, dad’s mother was utterly mystified as to what was supposed to be happening. If it had been explained to her, she would have dismissed it as ‘codswallop’. Yet in the last month of her life she told my mother that at night, she heard voices calling her name: ‘Kathleen? Kathleen? It’s me, Nellie.’ They were voices of friends who had gone on ahead. ‘I know who it is, and I don’t like it’ she said. I found it strange that a woman so very grounded in this world with her Liberal club treasurer’s accounts, mail order catalogues, housework and total lack of interest in the imaginary, should even discuss this.


A few weeks ago I went with a friend to see a famous medium work a crowd. I had not been to such an event for nearly sixteen years. He had a stock of patter and little jokes, and the air of a stage-struck little boy accustomed to performing to indulgent aunts and grannies. (Takes one to know one.) It made me want to rip his head off. He did what every medium does, which is first to fish for leads;

'Anyone recently lost a mother?’

and then eliminate contenders for the message from the beyond;

‘Cancer? No, heart attack is what I’m getting. Round about April, May, June, July…?’

When the recipient is finally located, the message will be mind-bendingly banal;

‘She tells me you’re thinking of getting some new kitchen units, she says she loves you very much; I feel he was quite a character, wouldn’t suffer fools, always very outspoken, wasn’t he?’

Then, just as you feel justified in writing the whole thing off as horse-feathers, some small piece of information from the beyond will have the ring of truth, something hard, clear and individual will shine out among the soapsuds, and you wonder how he could possibly have known that.

Doesn’t prove the survival of death, of course. Still, I can’t bring myself entirely to believe or disbelieve. If we do go on, I hope to meet the old lady from the coal-hole, because after so many years of using the story in my lessons, I owe her a glass or two of whatever she’s having.


Read The Heresiarch on platform psychics here.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

And now for something completely different...

Something with heart and soul to take away the nasty taste of Westboro Baptist Church with their bright-eyed Schadenfreude and clunky, thumb-nosing doggerel. This is the beautiful Greek singer Savina Yannatou with El Rey de Francia, ' 18th century Sephardic version of a mediaeval traditional song from Asia Minor, "To Όνειρο της Κόρης: O 'Αρχοντας της Φραγκιάς" ("The Daughter's Dream: The King of France") or, in Spanish, "El Sueño de la Hija: El Rey de Francia".'

God hates Father Christmas

I am not alone with my grumpiness about Christmas, but follow the next link and see how the peculiar people of the Westboro Baptist Church take this dislike a bit far. As my grandma used to put it, there’s shiteing, and there’s riving your arse. Christmas might give you dyspepsia from an excess of Quality Street and Matchmakers, or a burst blood vessel or two from fuming at the patronising, moronic hogwash on the telly, but send you to Hell? Steady on.

The WBC are inspired, if that is the correct word, by Calvin, the gloomy religious one, unfortunately, rather than the underpants man. Bo, over at The Cantos of Mvtabilitie , gives a succinct description of Calvin's rebarbative theology. Perhaps not everyone who subscribes to this view of the relationship of man to God is as barking as the crew of WBC, but it is hard to imagine that they would be quite as gloatingly cheerful about it.

I have had the Westboro Baptist Church website in my bookmarks for a while now and check in every so often, to marvel. Just when you think they can’t get loopier, they go right ahead and get loopier. They are convinced that homosexuals rile God more than anything or anyone else on Earth, and that male-to-male sex is thus responsible for every ill that afflicts humanity, rather than a compensation for them, which is my own view. They write gleeful, thumb-nosing songs about the hell and damnation whither all but they are surely headed. They travel round the USA, holding insane pickets of events they believe bring down or demonstrate God's hatred of this world: soldiers’ funerals, Catholic conventions, Gay Pride events and the sale of Swedish vacuum cleaners. They are utterly, completely, totally bat-shit crazy and then some. What a pity that all that energy and zeal should be directed into an enterprise of such bleakness and ugliness, and that those little kids cannot be air-lifted to sanity.


Why does God hate Swedish vacuum cleaners? Well, in 2005 Pastor Åke Green of Borgholm delivered a sermon in which he characterised homosexuality as 'a horrible cancerous tumor in the body of society'. He was sentenced to a month in clink for inciting hatred, but he appealed and got off. His sermon's hyperbole commended itself to Fred Phelps of the WBC, who thought he recognised a kindred spirit, and the quashing of Green's sentence gave Ol' Fred an excuse to denounce the Swedes as lost to shame. Green would have no truck with Fred, however, and described Fred's pronouncements on fags as 'very unpleasant', which shows that Green can be moderate when he wants to be. In a nice example of righteous having-your-cake-and-eating-it, Green concluded his sermon on the horrible cancerous tumor that is us gay men and women with the pious 'we cannot condemn these people — Jesus never did that either. He showed everyone He met deep respect for the person they were (...) Jesus never belittled anyone.'

All of this goes to prove conclusively that God hates Sweden, and so WBC pickets outlets that sell Swedish-made vacs, those ambassadors of filth that masquerade as agents of cleanliness.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Animals in Translation

If you are not animal crackers, you might want to skip this post. I loved the attached video, but then I'm a total sentimentalist where animals are concerned. So, a serious-ish bit first, and we'll get to the gooey bit after.

I've been reading, and recommend, 'Animals in Translation' by Temple Grandin for anyone charmed by this video or by animals in general, or for anyone mystified as to why one might be charmed. Grandin is a high-functioning autistic woman with a marvellous gift for presenting to the 'neuro-typical' world what it is like to be autistic. Autism manifests itself in many different ways, so Grandin is not in any way typical, nor are her views wholly uncontroversial among autistic people.

Grandin says she has no verbal thought processes, and thinks entirely in images. For example, if, as she is driving, a moose steps out of the forest and onto the road, her options pass through her mind as a series of high-resolution pictures:

1. Accelerate and smash into the moose,
2. Slam on the brakes and get hit by the car behind her,
3. Decelerate slowly to prevent either of the above from happening.

She speculates that this may well be how animals, who obviously are non-verbal, might 'think', and that a deer paralysed in the headlights of an oncoming car may be experiencing the same kind of mental slideshow. Some autistic people are unable to generalise. An autistic kid who has learned how to buy a bar of chocolate in Smith's may be quite unable to buy one in Tesco, as the experience is related in his mind only with the one location. A similar rigid compartmentalising in animal minds might explain why a dog that has been taught not to crap in the kitchen or living room sees no reason not to crap in the bedroom. Anyway, I'm a great admirer of Temple Grandin, her fascinating insights into the connections between animal, autistic and 'normal' minds, and her funny, direct, utterly unpretentious writing style.

In my family, our cats and dogs were always treated like cosseted kid brothers and sisters. They are all dead now, Janey and Lucy and Jem and the whole crew of them, a list of names of dogs, cats and rabbits I remember from the age of six up to just last Monday when William, the cat I had for 14 years in Greece, transported to England at vast expense in 2005 to live at my mum's, had to be put down after he had injured his leg. He was seventeen, but barring accidents healthy enough to have made twenty or more. I'm still gloomy about it, after so long as his χαζομπαμπάς (doting daddy) This video of a cat and dog play-fighting reminds me of what I'm missing; all the delightful characteristic body-language of dogs and cats, and how when they live together from babyhood, dogs take on some feline movements and cats get ever so slightly more dog-like. And of course how any cat can whip any dog's arse good and proper, before settling to lick its own.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Πας μη Έλλην Βάρβαρος*

*'Pas mi Ellin varvaros' = 'Every non-Greek is a barbarian'. This is to be understood as uncivilised, inarticulate and unreasoning. Charmed, I'm sure.

I mentioned earlier the Greek love of bigging up the Greek language at the expense of other tongues. This is the sort of thing you get used to reading and hearing if you live in Greece for any length of time:

‘Greek is the basis of ALL the world’s languages.’ You mean like Chinese, Japanese, Lardil, Kivunjo…?

‘It is the oldest language in the world.’ Sorry, no. You can only say when a language is first attested in written form, and this is not the same as saying it's the oldest. Sumerian and Egyptian developed writing systems first, both appearing about 3200 BC and predating written Greek by some fifteen hundred years. Looking for the 'oldest language' is a waste of time anyway. This is linguist Larry Trask in an interview in The Guardian, June 26th, 2003: "There are no dividing lines. The speakers in every generation can understand their own parents and their own children without difficulty. In fact, the speakers in every generation could understand the speech of quite a few generations back, and quite a few generations forward, if they could hear it. You are separated from Chaucer's Middle English, and from King Alfred's Old English, by a series of generations all of whom could understand earlier and later speech. Once the time gap becomes suitably large, of course, comprehension becomes increasingly difficult, and it eventually declines to just about zero. But there are no breaks, no discontinuities. Those boundaries, like the 1500 dividing line between Middle English and Early Modern English, are arbitrary. There was never a moment when people stopped talking Middle English."

‘It is the most complicated language in the world.’ Why don't you have a shot at learning Inuktitut, and get back to me? Bear in mind that even if you find Inuktitut grammar fiendishly complicated, any two year old Inuit finds it easy as breathing. Complication is in the eye of the outsider.

‘The Greek alphabet, recited, is an encrypted prayer to the sun.’ Yeah, yeah.

‘You can say things in Greek that cannot be said in English.’ That is only because you don’t know enough English.

‘Learning Ancient Greek will make you a better, more generous and humane person.’ This is the view of one Panagiotis Zachariou (of whom it was once said 'who?') an irrepressible proponent of the superiority of Greek over other languages in the pages of Greek ELT News. Reflection on the content of what you read in any language has the potential to improve the mind and sweeten the soul, but the language in itself could never do that. You can be a classicist and a cunt, and you can be unlettered and have a heart of gold.


A few years ago at dinner in Plaka I was arguing with member of the company I’ll call Kostas about daft folk etymologies, which abound in Greece. He had just given me in all seriousness a megillah about the derivation of the noun θάλασσα (thalassa), Modern Greek for ‘sea’. It went as follows:

1. The sea is forever changing
2. The sea is salty
3. Salt changes (the flavour of) things
4. Salt is αλάτι (alati) or άλας (alas) in Katharevousa
5. 'To change' is αλλάζω (allazo)
6. The future iterative form ‘I shall change’ is ‘θα αλλάζω’ (tha allazo)
7. This sounds a bit like θάλασσα (thalassa) if you stretch and pull the pronunciation a tad.
8. So there.

I thought this was bollocks and said so. (Retsina can make you very outspoken) For one thing, the ancients in Athens didn’t say ‘θάλασσα’ but ‘θάλαττα’ (thalatta) and the modal particle θα, (tha) translated above as ‘shall’, is not found in Greek until the Middle Ages. It’s a telescoping of θέλω να (thelo na) = ‘I want to’, a pattern seen also in neighbouring Albanian where ‘do të’ also means ‘I want to’ and is used in same way as the Greek θα. Moreover, words are not coined by committees, musing over this and that pretty conceit before exclaiming ‘OK, done! Let’s call it that, then!’ Imagine it, a group of sages sitting in an olive grove, gravely debating and weighing the possible labels for all things:

‘What term, άραγε, were most meet for the liquid element, that big blue sloshy affair that starts where the sand ends?’

‘If a man dip his finger therein, shall his finger not as a consequence taste of salt?’

‘It is undoubtedly so’

‘May we not say, therefore, that it is the virtue of this liquid to bring about a marked change in the taste of whatsoever be dipped therein?’

‘Most assuredly’

‘And is it not the nature of this liquid to rise and to fall, and ever of itself to be changing, even as it changes that which might be dipped in it? Were not then ‘thalassa’ the only correct term?

‘It is most marvellous! That’s that one thrashed out. OK, then, moving on. What about those white fluffy-looking things floating in the other blue thing we decided we’d call ‘ouranos’ the other week?’

They’d be at it yet, most things still unnamed.

This mockery did not please Kostas, as no foreigner who is not, as he put it, ‘steeped in the language’ gets to voice a contrary opinion without provoking a sulk. I was not wholly sure about the non-appearance of θα before the Middle Ages – but Kostas couldn’t prove me wrong and was pissed off that my reaction to his explanation was one of scorn rather than dumbstruck admiration.


Another one is the debate over the origin of ‘OK’, which many Greeks are certain derives from ΄Ολα Καλά (Ola Kala) meaning ‘all’s well’. There are dozens of theories about this and I couldn’t care less which is true. I would just like the supporters of a Greek derivation to explain how it could come about that people in early 19th century Boston began to use the initial letters of a Greek phrase to mean everything was under control. They never do. You don’t need to explain what you know in your blood, you see.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Όσο κι άν ψάξω... (However long I search...)

Infuriating, chaotic and parochial as the place is, I will never get over Greece, and will probably always feel that mentally I’m living half way there whilst physically still in England. Like most long term ex-pats I was, and am, completely schizophrenic. Whilst in Greece I would be driven mad by the recklessness of the driving, the baseless conviction of most Greek men that they can turn their hands to anything (rewiring the house, teaching English, running the country) and the endless, ignorant, self-congratulating hyper-bollocks talked about the Greek language. A sample:

It is the basis of ALL the world’s languages.
It is the oldest language in the world.
It is the 'most complicated' language in the world.
The Greek alphabet, recited, is an encrypted prayer to the sun.
You can say things in Greek that cannot be said in any other language.
Learning Greek will make you a better, more generous and humane person.

There are dozens more such whacko received ideas on the subject. I might get round to working them into a post some time.

On visits to England, though, I’d be just as huffy about the needless caution, the obsession with foreseeing and preventing the tiniest accident, the fear of 'going too far' emotionally, the drunken boorishness of youth, and the lack of colour and spice in daily life. Now I'm permanently back in grey England, any Greek music, however hackneyed, instantly floods me with nostalgia for the edge, the intensity of Greece - the deafening music from bars, the smell of grilled octopus by the sea at night, kami-kaze taxi drivers, handsome, up front, horny boys, special foods for dozens of one-day holidays throughout the year, the greeting 'καλησπέρα'* which always seems to promise food, wine and conviviality, and the sight of the Parthenon illuminated by night, floating serenely above the nerve-frazzling racket of Athens.

This has to be one of the best known Greek songs, Τα Παιδιά του Πειραιά (Ta Paidiá tou Peiraiá ) by Manos Hadjidakis. The title means ‘The Children of Piraeus’, although παιδιά might be better translated as ‘lads’ here – girls didn’t get a look-in at the time this was written. Here it is performed by Melina Mercouri in the 1960 film ‘Never on a Sunday’. It might be pumped into the streets ad nauseam on the tourist-infested islands in summer, and inescapable in Plaka all year round, but finding it on You Tube brought a lump to my throat nevertheless.

* kalispera = good evening

Saturday, 6 December 2008


I’ve just been marking a bunch of essays. The title was not of the most inspiring: ‘write a brief description of your country for a student magazine’ but demanding enough if your level of English is just about intermediate. Two of these essays are verbatim copies of the Wikipedia entry on Libya. I had expected this. Copy and paste jobs are pretty common in the year of language preparation courses that our overseas students undertake before beginning their degrees. The extent of plagiarism can vary from nicking the odd sentence from a web page to printing out the entire page and submitting it undisguised. The innocent openness with which this is done, and the floods of tears from a lovely young lady from Thailand when it was gently pointed out that she had rather missed the point of the exercise, suggest that at least early in the year, there is no intention to deceive. If your culture accords the written word high status as something to be revered and left unchanged, or attaches snob value to the deployment of arcane vocabulary and clever conceits, you may well feel that you may not presume to commit your own lowly efforts to paper, lest they be shat on from a great height. Suppose that you find, trawling the internet, a text that expresses exactly what you want to say in what you assume to be perfect English. It says what you mean, you won’t offend the tutor’s sensibilities with your lousy English, and it takes seconds to copy and paste. The perfect solution!

All goes to show how wrong you can be... OK, I understand all the above, and God forbid anyone should ever require me to write an academic essay in Greek, but I’m sympathetic only up to a point. First of all, you have signed up for a language course, so why doesn’t the sheer bloody pointlessness of copying entire web-pages strike you with great force? If the language goes from your browser to Word without passing through your brain, what benefit do you derive from the exercise? We usually thrash this out early on, but plagiarism is a theme we keep returning to as the course progresses and essays become more demanding. This idea of ownership of information is probably a western one, and like any foreign idea you feel under pressure to conform to, it’s also a rather irritating one, and the rule against plagiarism is one people feel inclined to flout. If you slip in the odd sentence, even the odd paragraph, big deal. Who's going to notice, anyway?

Well, any teacher of EFL can tell native from non-native speaker production in pretty much any stretch of writing longer than five words, and if a suspect phrase is googled, its source is easily tracked down. Some students assume that even if you do detect plagiarism, you will surely not risk causing them loss of face by drawing attention to it. A group of Chinese Accounting Management and Finance students at Essex University a few years ago did my head in with the first drafts of their projects which were mostly unintelligible, and where briefly intelligible, heavily plagiarised. The only strategy open to me was to say bluntly ‘you didn’t write this’ and ignore the writer’s protestations and wounded dignity. If they protested too vehemently, I showed them the URL of the page they had copied. Game, set and match.

This summer I checked out some web sites of organisations that will do you a bespoke essay. You just say what your title is, what kind of institution or degree it is for, how long it needs to be, and they’ll cobble something together, promising that it cannot be rumbled by plagiarism detection software. Sample essays may be viewed. These must be produced in a sort of scribblers’ sweatshop, perhaps by CAE* holders from Eastern Europe:

‘James finds his girlfriend dead after committing a suicide overnight. Being struck by this dreadful discovery the main character still does not go to seeds; he decides to stay in Chicago’

Who was it that committed the suicide here? (Well, the girlfriend, obviously. Why are teachers so literal minded? Duh!) Cute misuse of a half-remembered idiom in the second sentence.

‘Returning to the main character and his friend Leonard we witness how their relations arise to its peak point and suddenly, Leonardo vanishes.’

Shazzam! What did he do, jump off the peak point?

‘Frey writes in short simple sentences, often neglects punctuation and thus creates easy reading that develops fluently. As a result we receive favourably distinguishable prose in the genre of memoir but with flavour of captivating fiction.’

How do you create fluent, easy reading by neglecting punctuation? What is ‘favourably distinguishable prose’? It sounds like a phrase created by a jargon generator. Possibly it is. It might fool software but is there a tutor anywhere that would allow this sort of thing to pass? I fear there may well be, or the bespoke essay sites would be out of business.

I lived and taught for fifteen years in a country where bootleg certificates for courses, seminars or degrees are as common as bubblegum wrappers, and plagiarism is jokingly referred to as ‘κλοπή-right’ (klopi = theft) and practised widely. I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would want, let alone frame and put on display, a certificate for a qualification they have never worked for, or why they would hand in as their own work an essay they possibly have not even read, but I have a feeling that I and those who agree with me are throwbacks, reactionaries, dinosaurs. But rather proud of it.


*CAE = Certificate in Advanced English.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Variations on a Theme

Last night I beheld the umpteenth variation on the classic teacher’s dream. Basic recipe and a few optional extras: you confront - no other word will do - a class, and find you have no idea why you are there. You might possibly have no trousers on, or you might detect sneering and contempt from the students, who know a lot more than you do about the matter at hand, for you know precisely nothing. Maybe you are performing like a real trooper but failing to engage any member of an icily unreceptive or openly contemptuous group. The key ingredient in the whole sickly cocktail is your humiliation at being unmasked; you were only ever blagging your way through your teaching career, and now it's common knowledge. You are like, totally pwned.

Last night’s version: I have a seminar to conduct about… something or other. I am not expecting anyone to show up, indeed hopeful nobody will, but in the event about thirty students arrive. I stand in front of the class and realise I know absolutely nothing about the subject I am supposed to be teaching. The show must go on, however, so I start busking with a language game, until the students start to get restive and cotton on to the fact that the Emperor is bollock naked. Eventually I throw a fit, push over the overhead projector, storm out of the classroom and lie down in the hallway outside with my thumb in my mouth.

Don’t try this at Home

A while ago in Greece I was watching Larry Clark’s movie Ken Park on DVD. Early in the film a boy asks his much older girlfriend ‘can I eat you out?’ This got into the Greek subtitles as ‘πάμε να φάμε;’ ‘shall we go for something to eat?’ The innocent subtitler imagined no doubt that the young man is gallantly offering to stand his lady friend a Big Mac. This not only highlights foreign learners’ perennial problem with English phrasal verbs, but also lends weight to a rumour I had heard that Greek subtitlers work under considerable pressure of time. Certainly anyone with the leisure to preview the film before adding subtitles would soon realise that nipping out to Macdonald’s is very far from anybody’s mind. Ken Park is, as the stuffy say, ‘controversial’, ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’ and strays into the realms of the totally uncalled-for. The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification said the film dealt with sexual matters "in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults". There, now. If you are a ‘reasonable adult’ you had better leave this page at once.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Tasnif e Iran

I love Persian music. I've been trying to post a beautiful performance from a CD of dastgah shur with Faramarz Payvar on santur, but this is beyond my computer competence for the moment. (Help!?) Here instead is a tasnif, a rhythmic part of a performance, with singing. This is a patriotic song, but you don't need to be told that to cotton on. I have no idea what the lyrics mean and perhaps that's just as well, as nationalism is something I cannot be doing with. It might be an Iranian equivalent of Uns're Fahne Flattert uns Voran for all I know. It's a very masculine sound, and I particularly like the percussion in the second half of the piece.

I entertain thoughts about some Iranian men that could lead to my being hanged by the crudest means (let's not worry about the placing of the knot, or length of drop to body weight) or pushed off a cliff if realised in Iran. Officially, of course, Iran has no homosexuals, but they keep on hanging these non-existent homosexuals nevertheless. Let us not forget that this is happening.

Now enjoy.

Saturday, 29 November 2008


'A tantrum is an emotional outburst of ill humor or a fit of bad temper wherein the higher brain functions are unable to stop the emotional expression of the lower (emotional and physical) brain functions.’ Wikipedia.

tantrum n.

A fit of bad temper. Also called regionally hissy, hissy fit, conniption fit, huff, passion, temper.

[Origin unknown.]
Early hours of the morning, a kebab shop in Hove. I’m with an old friend, Michael, and his partner, Alison. Ahead of us in the queue, a man is huffing and snorting at a member of the shop’s staff, telling him what a disgrace the service is, and how he proposes never to patronise the establishment again, and so on. Then he stalks out.

‘You see how unattractive people look when they get stroppy in public?’ Alison says pointedly to Michael, who is prone to throwing similar self-righteous wobblies at helpless service personnel. It’s true – definitely not a pretty sight. But some switch gets thrown in the male brain at forty or so, and suddenly it seems to you that your affairs are in the hands of incompetent, obstructive and impertinent dopes.

I had a whole day of strops yesterday.

Strop the first, 12.20.
I go to Boots to buy some special shampoo recommended me by a doctor. A chit of about ten serves me and wants to know why I need this shampoo. I tell her it’s for pityriasis.
‘You’re ainley suppaste to use it if a doctor recommends it?’ she says.
I tell her a doctor did recommend it.
‘You’re ainley suppaste to use it on your scalp?’
I glare at her, intending wordlessly to convey that I'm paying for this stuff and can therefore use it on whichever body part I dashed well please.
‘I’ll gay and talk to the pharmacist? I’ll ainley be a minute, bear with me?’
After a while she returns to tell me that the pharmacist will be along in a mayment, and asks me to bear with her again.
‘Oh, forget it,’ I snarl, and stalk out, hearing Alison’s remark about unattractive huffing even as I do so. Oh, but for Christ’s sake, this is an over-the-counter preparation and I’m a grown man, not some kid trying to wangle a miniature of brandy from the off-shop ‘cos me Gran’s took badly. And I’m on my lunch-break. Well, honestly.

Strop the second, 16.14.
Central Trains, God rot them, lay on a two-carriage train at Leicester, where enough people are waiting to fill a train twice that length. Half of them do not manage to board. Those of us who do board are jammed immobile into the aisles and vestibules for the onward journey. I get off at Stamford, go to the guard and ask for a complaints form.

‘Ain’t got none left, mate, I give ‘em all out at Melton.’

‘I’m not fucking surprised’ I say, shocking myself with the vehemence with which this comes out. Poor sod, it wasn’t his fault and probably people have been cursing him out all evening.

Strop the third, 21.00.
Out to dinner with two friends. I order salmon. It arrives, riding a plate the size of a tyre hubcap, a piece of fish some five inches long, with one sliced potato, about 15 french beans on a puddle of whitish sauce, for an asking price of fifteen pounds. I ask the waiter, who acts personally wounded, to take it away on the grounds that a dish so meagre and unremarkable is not worth that amount of money, and pass straight on to the cheese. When the bill comes I am so mellowed out on red wine that I end up paying for the bloody salmon I didn’t eat rather than risking another confrontation. So the third strop was all directed at myself as I walked home, for being such a pussy.

The moral, obvious to anyone but me (and Michael) is that strop is impotent, a dead end. I didn’t get my shampoo, I didn’t get to blast the idiot personally responsible for not providing a long enough train, and I paid fifteen quid for not eating the dish I sent back for not being worth the fifteen quid I paid for it after all. I reckon a fortune awaits the geek that can devise a strop-level monitor for men, or for those of us born without one, perhaps something that causes a little red blob of light to flash in the bottom left quadrant of the lens of your specs when you are approaching boiling point and about to lose it. You could then bite your tongue, quickly reframe the situation and walk away with what you wanted, rather than just ending up looking a cunt.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Central Trains have got no Rhythm

I hope that Central Trains are daily besieged with complaints about their overcrowding and frequent delays. I do as much fuming about this as anybody else condemned to a daily commute along the Stansted Airport – Birmingham New Street line, but what I really want to write to head office about is the guards’ mangling of English stress patterns. (‘Dear Mr Suola, Thank you for your letter. The contents have been noted. Get a life.’)

You see, I have always taught students that the stressed words in an utterance are the words the speaker regards as salient in the discourse. With lower level students, you can be economical with the truth and say that we don’t (usually) stress prepositions, because these for the most part carry edge-of-the-action info, not right-in-the-thick-of it info:

‘The doorbell rang.’ (What basically happened.)

Steve opened the door.’ (Who did what.)

On the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk…’ (Prepositional phrase creates a setting, a starting point. Main point is the hunk*)

‘…and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ (The prepositional phrase might actually be the true focus of interest here.)

Now if you were to utter the phrase, ‘on the landing he saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him into the flat at exactly eight P.M.’ I submit you would probably stress it thus:

‘on the LANding he SAW a DROP-DEAD GORgeous YOUNG HUNK and inVIted him into the FLAT at exACTly EIGHT P.M.

you were a guard who'd been taught public speaking by Central Chuffing Trains, when you might well stress it something like this:

ON the landing HE saw a drop-dead gorgeous young hunk and invited him INTO the flat AT exactly eight P.M.’

thus making a pig's mickey of all the clues as to the relevance and salience of the various components of the sentence. Why do they do it?

‘Ladies and gentlemen we shall shortly be arriving AT Melton Mowbray.’

‘This train is FOR Stansted Airport, calling AT Melton Mowbray, Oakham, Stamford…’

It doesn't impede communication, I know, but it bugs me. It bugs me almost as much as the people quacking into their mobile phones as loudly as if they were alone, or listening to those frantically fizzing MP3 players that are audible half the length of the carriage.

Guards also stress auxiliaries in counter-intuitive ways:

‘We shall shortly be arriving AT Peterborough. If you ARE leaving the train at Peterborough, please remember to take all your belongings with you. Peterborough, our next station stop’

It sounds rather as if some people had been expressing reservations as to the wisdom of alighting at Peterborough, and the guard is addressing those who have decided to chance it.

Oh, and don’t get me started on ‘station stop’ for Christ’s sake, or we’ll be here all night.


* Who might well have been a Turkish Oil Wrestler.

Friday, 21 November 2008

WOULD YOU ADAM AN’ EVE IT! Christers: ‘Sex is OK after all!’

If you find the above image cute and comforting, this post will offend you. Tough.

First off, I have to admit I cannot be objective about Christianity. For some years as a teenager I was involved with a group of Christians in a theatrical package of Baptism of the Holy Spirit, healing, speaking in tongues, denouncing Satan and driving out demons. This, of course, is far from a representative sample of Christian belief and activity, and many Christians would thoroughly disapprove of the Pentecostalists I knew, disapproval being something Christians have down to a fine art. At about seventeen I had begun to shed the load of guilt and sense of mission and superiority that I had been encouraged to carry around, and inclined to the calmer, more impersonal atmosphere of Taoism and Zen, but I still cannot read anything concerning Christianity without gulping back gouts of un-Taoist bile. I felt so cheated by the Christianity I had been involved with and so foolish for accepting it so uncritically that I could not contemplate it without my blood pressure rising. Still can't. Only the other day on the train I started reading Silence and Honey Cakes by Rowan Williams. I realised by the time we hit Melton Mowbray that I had been busy scribbling exasperated notes in the margins but couldn’t remember what Williams had actually said. Very, very unfair of me, that, and I will start again on Honey Cakes when I calm down, but as I admitted, it is not easy for me to be objective about a religion for which I have conceived such a visceral loathing. What I loathe is the Christians' conviction that they have been privileged to receive a revelation that we, due to our blindness, stubbornness and hardness of heart, perversely deny ourselves, and it is their duty to communicate this to us by erecting flip charts and lecturing at us in shopping precincts, or knocking on our doors when we are enjoying solitude, or publishing hair-raising accounts of visits to hell, or urging us to shun or boycott any person, book or idea that does not uphold their views, or singing scout-camp type songs outside the local library on Saturday afternoons, or being nice and kind to others with the ulterior motive of bringing them to a Life in Jesus – a life that evokes in me a sense-image of being stuffed into a dusty drawer and suffocated with a hanky smelling of TCP and rosewater.

Here behold Jentezen Franklin, a Pentecostal preacher who is a big crowd puller in the United States. None of your men with comb-overs and mud-coloured macs lecturing in the market square here, no warbling choruses of 'Kumbaya'. JF fills whole stadia with his all-singin', all-dancin', all-praisin' youth-oriented mega-gigs. Here, in perhaps the least offensive of many Jentezen Franklin videos on You Tube, he gives us his take on the story of Adam and Eve, designed to appeal to the youth market: Adam was a hunk, Eve was a babe, and the pair of them were at it like nobody’s business all over the Garden. OK, there’s no scriptural evidence for that, or chapter and verse for Adam’s six-pack, but myths get reinterpreted. (Not that anyone there takes the story for myth – it happened in the flesh, dude.) Franklin’s etymology is well screwed up (woman derives from 'womb + man', for Christ's sake) and I wonder about his choice of vocabulary too: he says Adam was ‘cut’ – does he mean ‘ripped’? Or did God make Adam a Roundhead? If so, how come Adam's progeny had foreskins that had to be lopped off? Did foreskins... evolve? No, squelch that thought immediately, he musta meant 'ripped'. Well anyway, Adam was all man and Eve was all woman, and just listen to the roar of approval when J.F. announces that there is no confusion about what a man is and what a woman is. (Who was confused, anyway?) Notice the shocked delight, hands clapped to mouths, as he elaborates for his young audience the wank-fantasy of the horny pair bonking one another silly in the beautiful garden. Note especially the tone of his remark ‘I don’t understand all that same-sex marriage stuff’ which manages to sound at once amused, dismissive and superior, and invites the audience to share the amusement, dismissiveness and superiority. He doesn’t know it, but he is trivialising the deepest feelings of about one in ten of his audience, kids mainly, who are forced by pastors, peers and parents to chuckle along with the rest of the herd. ‘I don’t understand all that same-sex marriage stuff.’ We know you don’t, Jentzy, but, come on, imagination? Empathy? ‘…humani nil a me alienum puto’? I admit there’s a dark, primitive little patch of my brain that refuses to believe heterosexuality is possible, but I recognise it as a dark primitive little patch, and override it. Try doing the same thing.

So Pentecostal Christers are pro-sex after all? In a pig’s arse they are. They can only approve of sex if they are allowed to dictate whom you may desire. A boy may not respond to Adam’s six-pack, or a girl dream of Eve’s womanly curves. ‘But beauty has its own laws', says Camille Paglia, 'inconsistent with Christian morality’. Boys and girls so inclined will continue to desire in the only way they know, and be made miserable unless they escape the psychic prison of those Christians who are still, in Alan Watts’s words, ‘Bible-bewitched prudes’, the sparks of the Hell they all love so much dancing on the edge of their field of vision. Curiosity, different thoughts, different desires and appetites: all these will send you to the Lake of Fire, so shun them, suppress them, conform to obedience and blandness, and know that by keeping your nose clean you are doing His will.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Sort of like, random stuff about grammar an that?

Everyone who teaches English to speakers of other languages has come across the ‘Victorian medicine’ attitude towards grammar: if it tastes bad, it’s good for you. If you're not enjoying it, it's improving the mind. Most adult students will tell you they hate learning grammar, but you can still count on their rapt attention if you go into teacher-centred talk and chalk mode on, say, narrative tenses or modal verbs. You might have difficulty keeping people focussed on the liveliest of reading texts, but ditch it in favour of a disquisition on count and mass determiners, and they will be writing notes like fury. The value of this kind of activity is probably very limited, as teaching explicit grammar 'rules' hardly ever translates into improved spontaneous output. This is not to say you should never go into heavy grammar mode – of course you should, sometimes. You didn't get your TEFL Diploma for nothing, after all. But so much English language teaching around the world elevates the memorising of grammar rules into a virtue in itself. It’s like valuing the Highway Code booklet above the ability to drive well. There are some whacky ideas about ‘good grammar’ out there.

In a private language school in Athens where I went to observe a trainee teacher do her stuff, I overheard the following exchange between the secretary and a teenage boy:

She: Simple present
He: Simple past
She: Present perfect
He: Past perfect
She: Past perfect
He: No change

It sounds like some linguistic version of the game Mornington Crescent* but in fact she was catechising the boy on the changes that verbs undergo in reported speech:

‘I am ill’ > He said he was ill
‘I was ill’ > He said he had been ill

What a waste of time. In true Greek language school fashion, the kid had done as he was told and memorised a whole list of changes from this tense to that. All this ignores the following considerations:

Such changes depend on context, not on mechanical application of so-called rules.

We don’t, in conversation, provide line-by-line accounts of past conversations with all the tenses meticulously back-shifted, but instead give a summary of what was said.

More important than tense changes are the reporting verbs, because they are attitudinal. The kid would have been much better off learning say, tell, warn, advise, recommend, suggest, and so on, and the patterns that follow them.

None of the international language exams ever requires candidates to produce specific tenses in response to prompts for that tense.

Piling on grammar rules without accompanying clarification of meaning is pretty common in Greek language schools. Actual quote from a Greek teacher to her class, circa 2003: ‘δεν μας ενδιαφέρει τι σημαίνει, μας ενδιαφέρει να το κάνετε σωστά!’ (‘We don’t care what it means, we just care about you getting it right!’) No recognition that you can’t really get it right unless you first know what it means.


Moaning about slipping standards in one's native language has been a pastime of the middle aged and elderly for centuries, and amateur language fanciers have some eccentric remedies. My niece’s Latin teacher forbade her students, for the duration of her lessons, to use the contracted forms of English auxiliary verbs, on the grounds that it’s, can’t, won’t and hasn’t and so on are lazy and degenerate, and that to use it is, cannot, will not and has not instead is to show respect, backbone, grit and spunk. Now, we all know intuitively that it is and it’s don’t - sorry, do not - mean exactly the same thing. If you look out of the window and announce as an opening gambit in an exchange ‘it is raining’, you will sound very over-emphatic and stuffed-shirt. If however you use the full form in response to an opener, that’s different:

‘Take an umbrella in case it rains’
‘It is raining – where have I put it?’

Here the full form means ‘what you suggested is indeed the case’. If someone says ‘don’t bother lugging your umbrella, it isn’t raining’ and you reply ‘it is raining’ you are contradicting the first speaker. If you have to say to your kids for the umpteenth time ‘It is raining! You can’t play out!’ you are really laying it on the line. So, full forms show us there’s a subtext, of confirmation, contradiction or strong assertion, which contracted forms do not convey. Far from defending ‘the Queen’s English’ the batty Latin lady was denying her students choice from a whole range of shades of meaning. Fortunately, none of them took a blind bit of notice of her.

Still, I’m as grumpy about young people as the next middle-aged male. Passing by an open classroom door a couple of years ago, I overheard the 22 year lady teacher addressing her students in this wise: ‘aykay, say, tomorray, yeah, we’re sord of like gaying to London? Say you’ve godda be here like rarely-rarely early?’ I had to restrain myself from going in there and bawling her out. ‘You cannot ‘sort of’ go to London, you either go or you do not! And stand up straight!’ The rising intonation on declarative sentences, the use of creaky voice (aka 'glottal fry' - brill name, that) so prevalent among young women nowadays, the flattening of the RP diphthong in ‘go’ to one almost like that of ‘gay’, the lexically empty use of like and sort of… Jesus. The woman has just demonstrated everything I loathe about modern usage in two sentences.

But…but…language changes, pronunciation shifts, and there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it. We might deplore the padding of sentences with the meaningless verbiage of ‘like’ and ‘sort of’, which sort of, like, tones down the assertiveness of an utterance, but let’s be consistent. Listening to colleagues in meetings making steeples of their fingers and intoning ‘I feel the introduction to the course ought perhaps to be more… gradual, if you like’ I wonder why they think young people are vaguer and sloppier than they are themselves. If you like, as it were, perhaps, I feel – aren’t these just the older generation’s likes and sort ofs, for more formal situations? Creaky voice to signal ‘it’s OK, I’m not threatening, I’m nice’ is not new, and I suppose I have to admit, grudgingly, that it might simply be a sign of people just being nice, although it still pisses me off. Also, this whole bag of verbal and supra-segmental tics is a tool kit for sounding homey and just-folks, and it can be ditched by anyone who decides to do so should a more formal style be called for.

So we gotta stop like getting involved an givin kids evils, and look at the plank we got in our own eye, innit.


* Game on BBC Radio comedy show in which participants take turns to name stations of the London Underground. Someone will say ‘Tower Hill’ and the next player ‘Morden’. This move will be greeted with appreciative noises, as if great skill had been exercised. After a series of moves, a player will shout ‘Mornington Crescent!’ thereby winning the round. The point of the game is that there is absolutely no point.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Occult Blood

Not the title of a Hammer House of Horror movie, but a symptom, possibly of colon cancer, possibly of Crohn’s disease, or more prosaically, of piles. Faecal occult blood cannot be seen (obviously, or they wouldn’t call it occult) until a sample of poop is dribbled with some chemical or other, when the blood, if blood there be, will turn blue.

I have booked myself in for a medical later this month, the sort of thorough going-over you can only get if you pay for it. They will test my blood, urine and stool, and I get my first digital rectal exam to detect any enlargement of the prostate. This I suppose is some kind of a landmark in a male life; it might be far from the first stranger’s finger you have had up your arse, but hitherto only in a social setting. Nobody in the past would withdraw the digit and then possibly say ‘I’m afraid it’s bad news.’ Certainly the gesture would never have communicated ‘well, you are getting on a bit now, aren’t you?’ At least this time it might be a relief not to be expected to reciprocate.

The DRE doesn’t bother me that much but the haemoccult test did. You have to take a sample of poop each day for three days, and take them with you to the medical. Having watched the appalling Gillian McKeith, the food-police harpy, and her antics with people’s cack samples on her programme You Shit what you Eat, or whatever it was, I was apprehensive. I have a ninety minute train journey to the surgery in Leeds. Would it involve conveying one’s entire three day output, say in a shoebox, with fellow passengers checking their soles and edging away to disown the surrounding air? And how should you actually go about collecting the stuff? After all these years of simply flushing it out of your life as quickly as possible, here you are, having to pay it serious attention, working out the logistics of wrapping it up, packaging and transporting it.

In fact, you don’t need to do any of this, you will be glad to know, for when it’s your turn. The test kit I have been sent is tiny, a card with three circles on it, onto which you dab the merest tweezering of poop each day until each circle is completed. It looks more like a book of matches than the bucket and spade I had envisaged.

I don’t think there is anything wrong in the bowel department, really. I worry more about my head, and the way I am experiencing all those things everyone says you will experience as you approach fifty. Today something jogged a previously unvisited memory from 1978. I was flying from Toulouse to Frankfurt via Lyons. At Lyons we had to get off the aircraft and board again. I had left a book on my seat (a copy of Volpone – I can still see the cover, with an Aubrey Beardsley drawing on the front) On re-boarding I couldn’t find the seat I had occupied earlier, until the middle-aged German lady who had been sitting next to me stood up and said ‘Sie verstehen etwas Deutsch, nicht wahr? Wir haben drei Reihe nach vorne gesessen’ (I don’t vouch for the total accuracy of my memory of German but she said ‘You understand some German, don’t you? We were sitting three rows further forward.’) I can remember this so clearly, thirty years later. But just now I went to check on the progress of the chicken I thought had been slowly roasting for the last ninety minutes, to find it stone cold and raw, sitting bedecked with thyme in the dark oven because I had not remembered to switch the power on.

Far more humiliating than carting one's own turds by train to Leeds in a shoebox would be to have to answer gentle, encouragingly enunciated questions like ‘what’s the date to day?’ and ‘do you know who the present prime minister is?’ That is another landmark I hope is a long way off.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


Christmas decorations of more than common tawdriness already disfigure the centre of the city where I work, a city centre that arguably is soulless enough without these great dusty bows and bells festooned across the pedestrianised streets, looking like knock-off from a disbanded circus. We’ve had George Michael singing ‘Last Christmas’ in Smiths now for two weeks. Soon we will have Wizzard and ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day’ (Be grateful that wish can never be granted) and Slade thumping out ‘Merry Christmas, Ev’rybody’s havin’ Fun’, and you will inwardly be screaming ‘I am not having fun, to hell with fun, let us have joy, let us have beauty, let there be mirth and reverence within us, but fuck fucking fun.’

I’m not anti-Christmas, not really. I still get same the sense of something magical about to come upon us as I did when I was five. It might have failed to materialise for the last forty years, but I still fall for it. It’s like Linus’s unshakeable faith in the Great Pumpkin.


When I lived in Athens, from 1990 to 2002, the build up to Christmas always seemed promising. The decorations are genuinely pretty, being simply thousands of little white lights in the trees, none of your crappy Snowmen and Santas gibbeted on lamp-posts. In Kolonaki, the district in the centre where I lived, the owners of the posh shops of Haritos Street would, on the last Friday afternoon before Christmas, place tables in the street and offer wine, beer, roast ham, spinach pies, cheese pies and kourabiedes (crescent shaped shortbread biscuits) for passers-by. You could begin at the top of the road and spend all afternoon wandering slowly along in the cold and the waning light, emerging with glowing winter cheeks and pleasantly pissed at the other end. Before our flights back to the UK, colleagues and I would have dinner out two or three nights on the trot. I would get mildly slooed on the flight home – easy to do on BA, where British staff instinctively know you need two vodka miniatures per order, but requiring more determination on Olympic Airways, where staff see no pressing need to serve you at all, still less to allow you extra rations.

Syntagma Square, tarted up for Xmas

Then suddenly, here’s England.

After all year in Greece, everything here seems quieter, damped down. You notice it the moment you walk into the airport building. Everyone has smaller features and smaller teeth. Passport control officials smile and say hello: they have a peculiar bouncy cheeriness that is profoundly irritating. You get your train. Railway officials have this same jolly, verbose obsequiousness. You show them your ticket and they say ‘that’s lovely’. What do you reply? ‘Glad you like it’? Some bloke pushing a drinks trolley down the carriage is twittering ‘any refreshments today for anybody at all?’ which surely is six words too many? Later, in Marks and Sparks, check-out persons will parrot ‘thank you for waiting’, as if you had had a choice. Then they say ‘any cash back for you?’ and you are truly stumped – what the hell does that mean? Then you hear Noddy fucking Holder warbling on about ‘everybody having fun’ and you think, sod it, that’s killed it for another year.



I will have Christmas on my terms sooner or later. There will be no other houses and no TV within a ten mile radius, and no music heard that is less than 200 years old. (Special requests will be considered, however, submitted in good time in your best joined-up writing.) Electric light will be kept to a practical minimum, and instead there will be candles, candles, and again candles, and pine incense. Food will be plentiful, but not in such quantities as to make you sick of the sight of it by the end of Christmas Eve. There will be wine, champagne and brandy available at all hours, and although I do not partake myself, I will be encouraging the smoking of vanilla-scented tobacco, because I love the smell. I don't do lunch, so forget about mountains of turkey and stuffing on the afternoon of the 25th, and bring sandwiches if you can't wait until seven or so, when the leisurely approach to dinner will begin with talk, drinks and Nigella-inspired nibbly things. Forget about the turkey-and-trimmings as well, because I loathe the dry meat, gluggy gravy, soapy veg and starchy spud type of meal, and know too that I have made it an offense to grow and traffic brussels sprouts. Expect something much lighter and spicier - I haven't decided what yet. You have permission to mull your own wine, but not mine. I can't see the point of making good wine taste like cough syrup. I will have arranged for temperatures not to rise above freezing, so bring warm clothes if you want to go walking in the nearby frosty woods, which I have laid on specially by demolishing all houses within the ten-mile radius already mentioned. And there will be no Noddy Holder, no George Michael, no Bruce Forsyth, no old movies, no Matchmakers, no After Eights or Quality Street, no paper hats, and absolutely NO fucking family fun.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Been there, done it, bought the, etc....

I am paid by the hour and cannot afford to be ill. I had a 'flu jab on Saturday morning, so as to be safe this year from anything other than Bird Flu. A week off could cost me six hundred pounds. How nice, though, sometimes, to enjoy ill-health: some brief, trivial but incapacitating illness would beat teaching, just occasionally. To stay in bed of a dark, wet morning with a big mug of tea and read - one could bear the discomfort of fever cheerfully. I mean, how many more times do you want to discuss food with lower intermediates as I did today:

'Turkey food is wery deliss-use, with madge fresh frewit and wedge-tables, and good for our healty.'

Heard that one before, more than once. Dozens of times, in fact. We got onto booze.

'I drean a loddoff alcohol'' said Luis (Ecuador)

'How much?' I ask, sensing a kindred spirit.

'A loddoff. Two bierce a day.'

'Two bierce a day?' says Cecilia (Ecuador) incredulously. 'Jew drean two bierce a day???


'Salodda bierce!'

Two beers a day hardly registers on my scale. I would feel deprived on such a regime. I keep quiet. I also keep quiet, with more difficulty, when my Algerian students, who are lovely, have a good snigger at the idea of lesbian and gay civil partnerships.

It is not the students' fault, obviously. It's just that ELT can so often feel like a recurring dream, the same conversations, the same prejudices cropping up over and over.

How about this for an intro to lesson #1? 'Right, before any one of you raises any of these issues:

  1. Dogs are intelligent animals and they only bite if they are raised by arseholes. 
  2. I'm unmarried 'cos I'm a pouf. I like blokes, but probably not you, so relax. 
  3. I drink like a fish. 
  4. I'm English but I'm a pretty good cook. 
  5. I believe consenting adults should enjoy guilt-free sex with any number of partners and in any combination of sexes, so long as I only get the men. 
  6. I know Allah will provide milk, honey and wine in the next world, but why wait? I can get all that from Sainsbury's tonight. 
  So let's move on, shall we? Please turn to page two.'

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Six carefully chosen random things about me

The pensive look was in fact the by-product of a strong desire to pee. Thanks to George for the photo.

If you get tagged, you are supposed to do this business of writing six random things about yourself. I wasn't going to, but it only took a day to capitulate.

1. I love male beauty to the point of worship. For me, there is nothing in this sublunary world more beautiful than a healthy, naked young man.

2. I really admire Temple Grandin: she is so eloquent on autism and must have been the first autistic person to convince the neurotypical world that autists can have an inner life. Her insights into animal thought processes in Animals in Translation are fascinating, and made me observe my cat with completely new eyes. Grandin's directness and lack of guile are almost shaming. I am fascinated by autism because I have some traits of Asperger's syndrome myself: obsessions, emotional aloofness, inability to tune out distracting stimuli, and a sense in social situations that I am like an insufficiently rehearsed understudy in a play.

3. I adore cats.

4. Red wine!

5. I think Evangelical Christianity is a boil on the arse of humanity. I escaped it at about fifteen, thank Gods.

6. I love rain. In winter in Greece it comes slamming straight down like bars, and I loved to go out walking with a golfing umbrella, listening to it battering the canvas.


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