Saturday, 25 April 2009

My Dear Boy

I've been looking for this for ages. Here are Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie from 1992, in a sketch that has stuck in my mind ever since. Fry is hilarious as this camp, arch exquisite, a not too exaggerated caricature of a species of old pouf most of us have encountered at some point in our gay old lives.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Jeni Food

‘Jeni Food’ was the quaint name of a tiny Chinese restaurant in Kolonaki, the posh bit of central Athens. The place was a one-woman show run by Jeni Chen, who for a while was a friend of mine. Uniting Taiwanese and Spanish genes, Jeni was strikingly beautiful, especially in her twenties and thirties. She had the face and figure of a Hollywood star and the mouth of a brickie’s labourer. ‘I know dis fuckin shit Greek way to think’ she’d fume, if she felt someone had been trying to get one over on her. ‘Fuckin Greek bastard’. The restaurant had no menu, price list or cash register and Jeni, when making up bills, would simply think of a number and double it. The food was excellent if Jeni was in the mood, but could be wretched if she wasn’t. This was Kolonaki, Chinese food was très snob at the time, so the well-dressed customers would cough up.

'Jeni Food' had only one table, a huge, more or less heart-shaped affair painted cinnabar red. Buddhas, tall dried flowers, candles and joss sticks in jars formed a centre piece, and tassels and lanterns depended from the ceiling over the middle of the table, thus affording a measure of privacy to diners seated on opposite sides. The flattering candlelight disguised the establishment's spectacular filth, for Jeni had no notion of hygiene. She would shut up shop at one in the morning, leaving the washing-up undone, left-overs uncollected and spillages unmopped. Thus on a hot night the place must have been Club Med for vermin, with gorging and fornicating roaches whooping it up on every surface, chasing one another up and down the tassels and crapping onto the table from aloft. I once suggested Jeni might consider spraying or putting down roach bait.

‘We are buddiss’ she said piously. ‘We dough kill da animal’.

After closing time on a Saturday evening, Jeni and I would sometimes go round the corner to Alexander’s, a gay bar that in the late eighties and early nineties was agreeably scruffy, seedy and cruisy. Later it would be tarted up into something resembling the juice-bar of an upmarket fitness-centre - what a weenie shrinker. Meanwhile, Jeni kept an eye open for any potential nooky for me, knowing I was not one to make the first move.

‘He ruckin at you’ she’d say in a stage whisper, nudging me in the ribs and jerking her head at some bloke nearby. ‘He rike you.’

‘Yeah, I don’t fancy him, though.’

‘You too fuckin fussy’ she’d say, and I would wonder if she realised just how unflattering that was.

One hot evening a woman from Egypt was the only other customer in the shop. The conversation turned, grindingly, to my cat, and the lady expressed a desire to see him. Knowing the meeting would never take place, I said ‘sure’. ‘She no fuckin interess in your fuckin cat!’ Jeni said later, with commingled pity and exasperation. I suppose they were justified. I am usually quite blind to blandishments from women – after all, I would never be tempted. This was one of several come-ons I failed to register in my time in Greece, because they were from women and had none of the unambiguous quality one associates with Greek gay bars. A fist round one's cock is hard to misinterpret, but women will hint so, I can’t be doing with it.

Jeni had no shortage of affairs, usually with vapid young fashion victims who were never around for long. She and her bloke du jour always made a handsome couple, but I wonder what they ever had in common besides uncommon good looks. Then Ruben came along.

Ruben was Bulgarian, a handsome and well-proportioned lad of twenty-two whom Jeni found penniless, hungry and sleeping rough on Lycavittos. He worked for her in the shop. Eventually they married. They came to my house, we went out together, and Ruben was always smiling and personable. They had been married for about a year when Ruben changed quite suddenly from sunny help-meet to sullen, petulant drunk.

One evening I got a phone call: the restaurant was busy, Ruben was nowhere in evidence, could I come and help? I was very reluctant, but went up to Kolonaki where Jeni was cooking for about ten people, burning the fried rice and rehashing the previous night’s whiffy leavings. In the tiny, shitty kitchen, we skidded about and bumped into one another on a mush of chicken skin, squid, onion and cockroach bits, reminding me of Orwell and that Russian woman in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, plongeur and chef, cooking in squalor for people who would pay trans-nasally for the stuff they served up. I hacked inexpertly at rubbery carrots with one of those huge oblong Chinese knives, Jeni impatiently dismissing my protestations that this stuff probably wouldn't pass muster at Korydallos, Greece's wretched main prison. Customers called for mineral water. Jeni filled a finger-printy plastic bottle from the tap and asked me to present it to them.

‘I can’t give them this!’ I hissed.

‘Dough matter, dough have anythin else, you give them!’ she scolded.

I ran out and plonked the greasy lukewarm bottle in front of the two women who’d ordered mineral water, and scuttled off back behind the scenes before they could protest. ‘He is not waiter!’ Jeni called, to distract their attention. ‘He is university professor!’ Eventually Ruben showed up, pissed in the British and the American senses of the word. I didn't wait; the ‘university professor’ (for Christ's sake) just got the hell out. I was scared some customer might keel over and expire of food poisoning on the spot.

Jeni began to notice that money and jewellery were missing from her flat, and one day found some of her earrings in Ruben’s pocket. Then one Sunday afternoon I went to the shop and was shocked to find her black-eyed and bruised all over – her face, neck and chest - 'I don't shame to show you' - literally black and blue. Ruben had set about her the night before and was now detained at the cop shop, while they waited to decide what to do with him. She had put together a bundle of his clothes and we went to the police station to hand them over. Again and again she’d laugh, exclaim ‘apithano!’ (unbelievable!) and repeat the story of his thefts, the attack, and how we had both been fooled for more than a year. They kicked him out of Greece. Just before they did, they recovered a few more items of jewelry from his pockets, and discovered he was already married in Bulgaria.

Jeni sold the shop, and thus one risk to the health of Kolonaki residents was removed. I moved and have not seen her since about 1995. Maybe she decided to go back to Taiwan for good. On her one visit there while I knew her, she had managed to achieve a small measure of local celebrity. She showed me photographs of some sort of reception where, glammed up to the hilt, she stood at a lectern with a mike, telling the audience of her experience as lone restauranteuse on the other side of the Earth. No doubt she omitted all mention of the muck and roaches. Indeed, I don’t think they registered on her consciousness. I attribute my strong stomach to an immunity to food-borne contaminants, acquired from eating ‘Jeni Food’ as often as I did.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Compiling a Hate List

I’m sure the readers of this blog are good, tolerant, ethically-minded people who take it as read that they should oppose racism, counter homophobia, share their sweeties and be kind to furry animals. But what, I wonder, gets your goat? What trivial, unworthy things really make you see red - kind, sweet and good-natured as you most undoubtedly are? I ask because I’m back at work after a fourteen day gap in which I pleased myself when I got up and when I retired, and so I am probably going to be hyper-ratty for a day or two until I resign myself yet again to the recurring dream which is ELT.

Level one: mild irritation

My working day starts with a forty minute train ride which can be quite relaxing if I have a good book. One thing I could really do without, however, is that conductor on East Midland trains who comes down the carriage twittering ‘any more tickets at all this morning from Oakham, please?’ with a jaunty back-slap of a rise-fall on 'Oakham', as if to say ‘jolly old Oakham, oho, the times we had there, eh?’ I don’t hate this, or of course him, but it makes me want to take him aside and point out to him that ‘tickets please’ would be no less polite and no less effective in getting the job done and it wouldn’t distract me from my book. I mean, when else could it be, other than this morning? Does ‘at all’ mean anything here? Oakham is a place few of us really give a sod about, it just happens to sit between where we came from and where we’re heading. So let’s have no more of this nonsense, hmmm? Then he gets onto the loudspeaker and says ‘the next station this morning will be Melton Mowbray!’ as though the route were variable and he thought a stop at dear old Melton might be a nice surprise for us.

Level two: somewhat greater irritation

Some useless arse in the university has caused notices to be stuck outside all the lifts reading ‘Health and Wellbeing. Please consider using the stairs instead of the lift’. As a rule I do just that, but today I cut my nose off to spite my face and used the lift, wishing for once that there was a CCTV camera trained on me so that someone could note my defiance. God's cock, what next? They’ll be expecting us to start the day with a spot of collective physical jerks, as in a Japanese car factory.

Level three: really quite rattled

Chewing gum. I know it’s pathetic to get steamed up about something so harmless and commonplace, but I loathe it, sight, smell and sound, most especially the sound. Yesterday I had four hours in the presence of a student who was worrying a wad of gum with his mouth wide open. Had he been a teenager I would simply have told him to get rid of it, but he was a Major (near enough) in the Algerian navy, so I felt I had to endure the awful, endless, squelchy, sloppy, ploppy racket. It sounded like someone ladling quantities of frog-spawn and jelly-fish into a tin bucket right next to me. I knew not merely irritation, but fury. Utter Fucking Rage. I actually bit the end off my pen. Better than punching him in the teeth, I suppose, given his status and our relationship, but still, it must have presented a curious sight.

I cannot be alone in this – can I? Add a comment and tell me what really pisses you off. Must be 100% irrational, mind.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Καλό Πάσχα

Εύχομαι σε όλους τους φίλους αναγνώστες στην Ελλάδα 
Καλή Ανάσταση και Καλό Πάσχα.

Life after Bedtime

Louise is the seven year-old adopted daughter of friends I have known since schooldays. My visits to their house are relatively infrequent, so I retain a certain novelty value in Louise’s eyes, my presence eliciting a bit of mild showing off and some low-level defiance of parental authority. Nothing very serious, you understand - just a little cheating at board games (well, a lot, actually) stretching out the putting away of toys, and dawdling over night-time ablutions to delay the inevitable bedtime.

I first met her when she was three. She took me into the sitting room where she had a vast dolls’ house, introduced me to its inhabitants and explained that they were about to start cooking tea. I tried to get into the spirit of the thing, and moving ‘daddy’ about the kitchen, I pointed out that there was nothing in the cupboards and no washing-up liquid under the kitchen sink. She looked at me mystified for a moment and then said kindly ‘you ‘ave to pretend’. Right. Got it.

In those days I was useful for getting Louise to bed pretty quickly. Her mum could get her bathed and tucked up in no time flat with the promise that it would be me who would read her bedtime story if she complied to the letter with every parental injunction. This she did. I did not understand on the first few occasions that bedtime stories were usually read to her in a dull, soporific monotone. I hammed them up, did all the voices, animal noises and sound effects, asked her to tell me what was going to happen next and encouraged joining in when the punch lines came. Oh, for God’s sake, man, this sort of thing is afternoon story telling! Your gin and tonic is going warm down in the sitting room while you are performing and encouraging requests for an encore. Cut it out. So I did. The three-or-four-story bedtime could be reduced to a one-story bedtime if you simply bored her to sleep.

This idea of kiddie bedtime is culture specific, isn’t it? Thirty odd years ago I was sitting in a café in the old city in Carcassonne at ten or so at night. A little French boy was playing by the fountain and a group of middle aged Americans sat at a nearby table. ‘Now that,’ growled one of the American men ‘is a typical European child. Spoiled.’ (Yep, the whole lot of us – British, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian…) As far as I remember, the kid was doing nothing objectionable. He was ‘spoiled’ simply because he was up and about after the Anglo-Saxon cut off point of eight in the evening. Likewise most Greek kids I knew would be up and playing late into the evening and adult conversation continued alongside kiddie whooping. No doubt mothers especially longed for some ‘me time’, but I still think they would find the British and American middle-class habit of banishing kids to their beds utterly bizarre.

Louise soon began to suspect that after she had been tucked up, life went on. Now, of course, she knows this for a fact. It really is rotten from the point of view of a seven year old. Grown-ups bundle you off to bed and once you are exiled upstairs for the night, they light the dining room candles, pull out the cheese and red wine and start talking and laughing, and it sounds so much more fun than lying in bed waiting for sleep while daylight is still lingering around the bedroom curtains. On Tuesday, Louise had several shots at muscling in:

  1. ‘Can I have a grape?’ ('Go on, then. Take another for the journey.')
  2. ‘My back hurts, can you rub it?’
  3. ‘Can you rub my arm as well?’

Her parents’ tactic is to greet these intrusions rather coldly so as not to encourage them, but on their own admission it doesn’t always work. I mentioned about Greek kids being up so much later and then wished I hadn’t - it sounded like advice from a backseat driver, which I didn’t intend it to be. I’m enough of an uptight Englishman to approve of kids being removed from adult company after you have spent three hours playing ‘Coppit’ (it’s a board game, ‘6 years and above’: I got slaughtered.) and reading stories.

Several times in Greece I was asked why British parents ‘abandoned’ their children. I found the question mystifying at first. Then I realised that many Greeks are under the impression that the British kick their kids out of the house when they reach eighteen, and withdraw all financial support from that point on. A British colleague of mine, then in her mid twenties, lived alone in the Athenian suburb of Glyfada. Her neighbours assumed that her parents had booted her out for some dreadful crime against family honour. I tried to point out that kids in Britain tend to want independence as soon as possible, and that they would be flabbergasted at the number of Greeks their age and above who still live with their parents as eternal students. (‘Studying psychology’ – why are Europe’s eternal students always ‘studying psychology’?) They would not understand the horror evinced by some people I knew when they learned that a Greek writer and TV personality, the late Malvina Karali, had actually required her son to get a job or get out of the house.

I only met one man who approved of the ‘British system’. ‘Damn good idea’ he said. ‘Here, you have a son and from the minute he’s born, you never stop worrying – how’s he going to go into the army*? How’s he going to go to university? Ενώ στην Αγγλία...’ …while in England, he gets to eighteen and that’s that, he’s on his own. Brilliant!

Of course it isn’t true, any more than the other widespread Greek belief that all Englishmen are gay. (Μακάρι!) I didn’t argue with him. No point. I’ll be prepared to revise this particular prejudice if I ever get sufficient evidence, but it is my experience that Greek men cannot be wrong about anything.


* Conscripts are unsalaried and receive only nominal financial support during their service.

Friday, 10 April 2009


Happy Easter.
Back next week.

Banquet Night

I had dinner with a good friend at an Indian restaurant last night. The menu ran to about five dense pages. It was the night of the ‘Special Banquet’, when you pay half what you would pay any other night of the week, and our order turned out to comprise enough food to choke a rock python. Loraine and I managed to put away about half of what was brought to us. It was mostly lousy. What we did not eat would surely be recycled, and much of what we were presented with had probably been recycled already. Certainly the limp, stringy cauliflower bhaji must have been trotted out and ignored earlier in the day, then reheated for us so as not to go to waste. We left it anyway, and someone else is probably digesting it right now. Or perhaps it is sitting in the fridge waiting for another chance tomorrow.

‘Was everything alright, madam?’ the head waiter asked as we were leaving.

‘Lovely, darling, thank you,’ Loraine said, because she is much nicer to people that I am. And because, as Brits will, we had simply left stuff we thought was crap rather than asking for it to be replaced. No point in complaining after we had paid. But I’m going to anyway, and to the wrong people.

I do a fair bit of moaning about British restaurant and supermarket food, and making unfavourable comparisons between Britain and Greece in these areas. Greece is certainly no gastronomic paradise, but predictable as taverna food usually is, it is at least fresh and simple and honest. What you see is what you get, and the English half of the menus, for squeamish Brits, are often too brutally honest. There was a restaurant in Piraeus that offered ‘spleen bowels’, which was exactly what it said. I don’t imagine they got many British tourists in there. (I remember I once bought a spleen for my pernickety cat. It was a large, flat, greyish affair which you were supposed to boil. I boiled it for ages. I pricked it with a knife and it bled like a shaving nick. It stank of abattoirs and dissections and dead things. The cat wouldn’t touch it and I don’t blame him.) Other English from Greek menus, while I’m at it: ‘head cheese’ is a direct translation of ‘kefalotyri’. It is delicious served fried, but for a Brit the mistranslation might possibly call to mind foreskin cheddar and that’s something of a turn-off. How do you fancy ‘boiled nonsense’? This is in fact steamed courgettes, and misuse of a pocket dictionary.

In provincial Indian restaurants in Britain you get the impression that every evening they must brew up a vat each of red, yellow and brown gloop, then chuck in odds and sods of this and that and serve them under a variety of aliases. Last night I had a dhansak, here red gloop with some lentils and a tinned pineapple ring. Loraine had a lamb something or other, lumps of chewy meat rolled in brown gloop and grilled. She had me try some. I imagine a roughly diced, grilled loofah would taste very similar. Years ago I shared a house with a Pakistani bloke who was doing a PhD. He went with friends to the ‘Curry House’ in Cambridge (which is no more) and asked the waiter, in Urdu, if the food was good or merely trash for whiteys. The waiter assured him of its quality, so Bobby persisted: the food here, was it good stuff, or just spiced-up carbs for slooed lager louts? ‘Yeah, OK,’ said the waiter, ‘it’s trash for whiteys’. I think this is still the case with many restaurants where the clientele is predominantly non-Asian. The place last night was stylish of décor but the food was just… trash for whiteys, like the pissed-up hen party at the adjacent table. (Who? Me, a snob?) I don’t imagine any of the Asian lads who serve there is used to eating this sort of slop at home.

Greek taverna food is fresh and simple and honest, I said. Well, usually. I once worked for ten days on Crete, doing oral tests for the British Council. In the evenings our small group of examiners would go out to eat. In Rethymnon, handsome young waiters in immaculate white shirts and pressed black trousers stood at the gates of outdoor tavernas to lure you in. ‘Good evening. Engliss? Deutss? Come in!’ If we accepted, they would show us to our table and hand out menus, and their ingratiating manner would change immediately when we started asking about the food in Greek. ‘Don’t order the moussaka, it’s yesterday’s. The koukouvaya [meaning ‘owl’, rusk re-hydrated with olive oil and chopped tomato] is lousy, been sitting there ages. The barrelled wine is iffy, go for a bottle.’ At one place, a member of our party offered to peel the potatoes herself if the owner would agree not to serve us frozen chips. We learned that the staff of local eateries divided food into two categories: ‘Ε’ for ‘Elliniko’, meaning Greek, and ‘Ξ’ (ksou) for ‘Xeno’, meaning foreign. Those foreigners in the know specify ‘a moussaka E’ if they want something ‘tis prokopis’, meaning ‘of acceptable standard’. Those foreigners not so fortunate eat sub-standard stuff, which they often do not recognise as sub-standard because its novelty value overrides their critical faculties. The perceived quality of food is, after all, often dependent on suggestion, and in an open-air taverna by the Aegean on a balmy evening you can easily overlook and forgive all sorts of rip-offs. Given the right location, environment and piquant dipping sauce, you could probably make a mint selling extortionately priced Tesco fish fingers as an appetiser.

I think for a while I might just live on bread, cheese, olives, fruit and wine, because I am so tired of being ripped off in restaurants here. I’d be happy with a menu that had only four or five starters, main and side dishes, but I’m out of touch, obviously. Quantity trumps quality every time.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

A Day Out

It’s the Easter holidays and I have spent nearly four days lying on the bed surfing the internet on my laptop. I decided I had better do something more active today lest I develop pressure sores, so I got off my arse and went to Cambridge.

I lived in Cambridge from 1978 to 1990. For three years I was a student and then for three more I signed on, did a bit of teaching, worked in the Unemployment Benefit Office, did a bit more teaching, signed on, etc., as I had no idea what I was doing on this planet. Eventually I got some teaching qualifications, and found a permanent job. Permanent jobs bore me, though, and in 1990 I upped stakes and went to Greece.

I’ve been back to Cambridge about five times since then. The first was with a bunch of students from Essex University, the first place I worked at on my return in 2005. I had arranged to ditch them as soon as possible and meet an old friend. As planned, I turned up at the teachers’ room in his school.

He said ‘Oh. Hi.’

'Good God, man, restrain yourself, why don't you?' I thought. This was one of the earliest signs that I had been away rather a long time, and lost touch. In Greece, after an absence of a fortnight you are greeted as if you had been gone fifteen years. In England, you return after fifteen years’ absence and they greet as if you’d been gone a fortnight.

Some things don’t change. Cambridge students, now as ever, stand out from their ‘townie’ coevals by virtue of their dress and manner far more than students do in the city where I now work, or in the university town where I was born. Thirty years ago university males tended to a suit jacket with jeans and a college scarf. There were also those types whose bodies really only existed for conveying their brains around. They wore beige V-neck jumpers with bell-bottom sleeves and mud-coloured trousers that didn’t quite reach the tops of their concertina’d socks. Hair burgeoned from their heads like stuffing from a bust coir matress. Today there were quite a few of the former type, but none of the latter. Maybe they are extinct, or maybe now, as then, their natural habitat is the ugly and unwelcoming University Library and they don’t come out in the daytime.

When I lived there, ‘townies’ and ‘grads’ did not get on. Students appeared to town people to do little save sluice down Pimms and bugger about in punts, while they and their relatives tended college bars, made students’ beds and served them deferentially at ‘formal hall’, a nightly candle-lit dinner with Latin grace, braying conversation and much consumption of beer and wine. There were pubs where students did not go, guffawing in their loud, deep voices about how they god rarely mayjorly wrecked larce night, or wittering about essay crises, because they’d have been taken apart. I don’t know if this is still the case. This afternoon as I was walking into the centre from the station, a group of town lads was coming towards me. One was drop-dead cute and as I passed, I looked at him and maintained eye contact for a beat longer than strictly necessary. There was an immediate flare of aggression in his face and I moved quickly on.

In Heffer’s Sound there was beautiful fifteenth century music playing, and I asked what it was and bought the CD. (It was Ministriles Reales, the new Jordi Savall. New to me, anyway.) In Heffer’s Books I found a Big Fat Modern Greek Grammar and agonised over the desire to possess it. It was thirty five quid, and I had just bought that CD and Christ knows how many more books and CDs from Amazon this month. I picked it up, put it back, wandered round, went back to it. I was playing on myself a psychological trick I often get caught out by. It could be expressed as ‘if I can resist this for sixty minutes, I’ll have it as a reward’. Anyway, I was firm, took myself in hand and left without it, spiritual muscles the stronger. Fuck. Still want it.

I went and had a wander round my old college. There was one of those boards of mug shots: ‘Who’s Who at Nollige College’. My acerbic old French Lit supervisor is now the Master. Now, in my day - and I’m going back, ooh, nearly thirty year now, y'know - his approach to teaching was to sneer venomously at anything you said and crap copiously on essays from a great height. I'm sure my essays back then thoroughly deserved such befouling, but he managed thereby to wreck 19th century French literature for me and extinguish what little academic self confidence I had at twenty. Now that I have so much more understanding of the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, I feel I owe him one – right between the eyes. Oh, alright, OK then, if we must… let’s be fair. When I was in my second year, to my large surprise, the new intake liked him immensely. I suspect that after he had alienated me and two of my contemporaries so thoroughly, the director of studies had prevailed upon him to adopt a less waspish approach. For all I know he might be Mister Chips by now.


So that’s that, then. Glad I didn’t buy My Big Fat Greek Grammar Book at Heffer’s after all. I just looked on Amazon where it was going for 24 quid. ‘Buy with one click’? I resisted for fifteen minutes, which I think was pretty good – indeed a total resistance period of some six and three quarter hours. Naturally such admirable restraint deserves recognition and recompense, so I clicked, and it will soon be mine.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


This lad's photos tick all my boxes. In the flesh he'd have to be no taller (and preferably an inch or so shorter)  than me, which would make him just five foot seven, to be the 'son' I dream of these days. Years ago, a small but perfectly formed young man accosted me in a gay bar in Athens and after the usual 'what are you doing in Greece?' 'What's your star sign?' he said, 'I like boys who have the same length as me.'

I really don't fancy men of my own age, meaning I am most definitely not my type. One August night I went to a bar in Athens I rarely patronised, because everywhere else was closed. I was briefly flattered by the looks I was getting from some very handsome young men until it dawned on me that they were all for rent, this was a slow night, and I was of an age where they assumed I would be prepared to pay. They also assumed I was a tourist and thus more likely to be up for a fling. One spoke to me in English, with time-honoured words of greeting to a visitor to his shores:

'Me,' he said, 'fuck boys'.

He rubbed his index fingers together in the Balkan gesture for proposing copulation.

I had no intention of hiring his services but I was curious as to the going rate.

'Fifteen thousand drachmas' he said.

'Fifteen thousand? No, thanks.'

'Fuck off.'

He obviously thought I was implying he wasn't worth that much, so I moved away in case he had some Albanian mafia goon keeping an eye on him. After the third overture from a business boy, I was fed up of being seen as a walking wallet and got the hell out.

I get messages now and then on Gaydar and similar sites from pretty young men in Africa and the Philippines, promising me their undying devotion in exchange for the air fare to get them over here. Now I include in my profile the (accurate) information that I'm pretty much broke, so no gold diggers need apply.

Long hair, abundant artificial curls
Give me no pleasure: they belong on girls.
No, give me boys all sweaty from the gym,
Glistening with oil on every limb.

I like sex unembellished, scenting in 
Glamour a whiff of something feminine.

Strato. Trans. Daryl Hine 'Puerilities: Erotic Epigrams of the Greek Anthology Princeton University Press 2001

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Testing Times Ahead

This week the students on our English language courses are doing tests. The purpose of tests of this kind could be stated as something like this: ‘to obtain a sample, from about two and a half hours of your week, of what you can do in English in the way of listening, reading, speaking and writing, by assigning tasks that elicit as far as is realistic such linguistic responses as might be expected of a learner of your level in the world outside the classroom.’ There now, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? If you have been in England for six months and attended 20 hours a week of input and practice, surely it is no biggie to sit down for a while and do the same sort of thing with, as it were, the stabilisers removed.

Hardly anyone in my group would buy the rationale for testing given above. They are convinced that all tests are produced by snotty academics whose purpose is to expose the students’ ignorance. ‘No surprises!’ I said when they were pumping me for details. ‘Just the sort of stuff you have done lots of times before.’ Yeah, yeah, but what’s in it? ‘Would it be a test if I told you? Anyway, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the papers.’ But tests always have tricks in them. What if there are tricks, as usual? ‘No tricks,’ I insist, to widespread but good natured scepticism… ah, we know you of old, you don’t fool us.

In teacher training seminars I used to do a lot of burbling about product and process. Your answer to a question or solution to a problem is the product. In order to produce it you went through a mental process. Principled language teaching is focussed mostly on the process part of learning: how did you come up with that answer, whether it was right, wrong or merely iffy? If you are teaching, your aim might be stated as ‘to enable students to…’ If you are focussing on practice, the aim is ‘to allow students to …’ and if you are testing it becomes ‘to see if students can…’ This might sound obvious, but it is far from universally accepted.

Many students around the world are left by their teachers to do all the learning alone, and the teacher simply listens to them recite the lesson. I recall one inset session in Greece where I asked the teachers to list all the problems their students presented when reading English texts in class. It took some prompting but we came up with a list that looked pretty much like this:

  1. They have lots of unknown vocabulary and they don’t know how to deal with it.
  2. They tend to think they have to show 100% understanding of a text. It's all or nothing.
  3. They read all texts in the same way, word-for-word-at-snail’s-pace, (abetted by the often pointless practice of reading aloud) so by the time they reach the end of a sentence they have already forgotten the beginning.
  4. They don’t look at the questions so as to determine what information they need to find and what they can safely ignore.
  5. They ignore features of a text such as titles and paragraph headings that could guide them to the information they need.

As the list was being compiled, the teachers did a fair bit of tutting and eyebrow-raising. ‘Gawd, yeah, they do that, don’t they just! Exactly what my lot always do!’ Then realising we were only fifteen minutes into the session and that there must have been some point to drawing up such a list, someone said ‘so, are you saying we have to help them not to do these things?’ I was gobsmacked. I hope it didn’t show. That teachers existed to do precisely this was something I had taken completely for granted. These teachers had not. It was obviously a new thought, at least to some of them.

I suspect most of the students in our centre, who are nearly all from Libya and Saudi Arabia, have been taught by teachers who saw no need to focus on the cerebration required before words pop out of your mouth or onto the page, and who did not see testing as just a sampling of what students can be expected to do at their level after a period of instruction and practice, i.e., no big deal. The rationale of tests and exams should be spelled out in terms accessible to anyone about to take them, but it seems it rarely is. The drama surrounding tests in Greece used to drive me barmy. Kids doing the international exams such as Cambridge First Certificate would have parents and teachers waiting anxiously for them outside the exam centre and inside, the teams employed by the British Council to administer the papers would patrol the classrooms invigilating the invigilators and ever on the lookout for cheats. It all seemed so… disproportionate, really, taking on the significance of a rite of passage when it should have been more like a routine urine test.

We did the listening test yesterday morning and it took up 45 of the official 100 minutes of our session. I called a break after the test and said we’d carry on as normal after a breather. Ameen accosted me and with the mixture of soft earnestness and self-mockery which he does very well, he presented the case for ditching the rest of the session. Hands held at shoulder height, palms open, as of one pleading or preaching, he cajoled ‘Steve, I think now, not lesson. Very stress! Oh… (striking breast rapidly in imitation of tachycardia) it’s have many stress! Now, not lesson. In the afferternoon, comes other test! So now, I think, smoke cigarette, drink coffee, relackess.’ In fact, I would have liked to call off the rest of the session as well, the sooner to get the marking out of the way, but was bound by management not to agree openly. Through his spiel, I mimed playing ‘Sob Story’ on the violin, and after the break we proceeded as normal, so as not to reinforce the idea that a short test is an ordeal to be compensated for with extended breaks and paregoric coffee and fags. I still don’t think they bought it, though.


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