Thursday, 28 May 2009

Niyaz, Beni Beni

The modes and rhythms of music from Greece, Turkey, Persia, the Arab world and India are the ones I respond to most, the ones that seem to come closest to what I might spontaneously produce if I had any musical ability. ('...if I had learned, I should be a true proficient.') The inside of my head sounds like a mosque crossed with a Greek Orthodox church with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akhbar Khan doing a guest gig. When there's nobody around to listen, I improvise songs, and they always come out like something Homayoun Shajarian might sing if he had no talent. I retain from my teenage days as a 'Baptised-In-the-Holy-Spirit' Christer the ability to speak and sing in tongues, and when I do, it does indeed sound something like Persian. It is no such thing, of course - it's just a load of vaguely Farsi-like syllables. Why anyone believes this non-talent to be a 'gift of the spirit' beats me; it's no different from scat singing. It's something I do while hoovering the living room or walking along thundering main roads where I hope nobody can hear me.

Look, how did you get me on to all this? I just wanted to draw your attention to this here video. It's the wonderful Azam Ali with the band Niyaz, peforming splendidly the Turkish song 'Beni Beni'. I play music in all my lessons and the CD from which this comes is very popular with my Arab students, who all borrow it to rip onto their computers. This week I have been playing 'Diaspora Sefardi' by Hesperion XXI, and this has proven justly popular as well. Thus now my Muslim students are being taught by a homosexual wine-bibber with pagan leanings and seduced by Jewish music. If they only knew.

Monday, 25 May 2009


‘Seventeen British tourists have appeared before a prosecutor on the Greek island of Crete after being arrested for dressing up in nun costumes and suspender belts.’ Yahoo News, 25th May 2009.
Rather an odd thing to get nicked for, that. The offense was perpetrated in Malia, a seaside hell hole popular with that sub-species of Brit that goes on holiday to chain-drink bottles of Heineken from blearily rising to crashing into flatulent sleep some thirteen hours later. The seventeen ‘nuns’ were eventually freed because nobody showed up to testify that their behaviour had been offensive. The people of Malia have seen worse than men dressed up as nuns, and no doubt they also know which side their bread is buttered. I don’t know this, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that dressing up as nuns was the least distasteful action of the Suspender Belt Seventeen’s evening. If I know Malia, insulting the locals and puking in the street may well have featured too, but if the fuzz pinched everybody who publicly chundered their day’s intake of booze, that would kill Malia’s tourist trade stone dead.

I spent two weeks in Crete in 1987, based in Malia, staying with a Greek friend who was scraping a living by selling crepes from a small cart in the street. Voula would set up her stall around seven in the evening outside one of the bars that lined a dirt road leading from Malia’s main street to the sea. By eight the road was busy, and by ten it was heaving with British and German visitors, with many a Brit thoroughly soused. One thirty-something couple in particular was nightly gazeboed by about nine o’ clock and was to be observed arm in arm, eyes like sucked humbugs, advancing slowly towards the main street, each footfall as tentative as if the road were thin ice. By two, Voula would consider shutting up for the night, because she no longer felt safe.

There had been a death at a house near Voula’s building, and the lid of the coffin was propped up outside the door, a sign that family was holding vigil for the deceased. People visit the family to offer condolences and wish ‘ζωή σε σας’, ‘life to you’. On this occasion they had to do so within spitting distance of a bunch of pissed-up British louts installed outside a café for the day, each encircled by his steadily growing collection of empties. They called out occasionally, slurred condolences that would probably have been heard as insults. Nothing happened, nothing came of this. The older locals seemed to have developed an ability just to tune out such boors as these. This is what is so embarrassing to the rest of us – it’s merely what the Cretans expected. Younger locals, nightly employed as barmen and waiters and therefore required every evening to serve drink after drink to the dregs of England, were less able to look past them. The atmosphere in the bars along the dirt road to the beach was one of palpable hostility and contempt.

‘Why do they do it?’ Voula would ask, mystified. ‘Why can’t they relax or enjoy themselves without getting drunk and incapable?’ You would think alcohol had just been invented, and its effects still largely unknown.

Well, the pity is, ρε Voula, we just have this shit-ignorant underclass. They are what A.A. Gill would later call ‘the lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd of England.’ I think Gill intended this to apply to all of us, and of course I do not. It is, however, a perfect description of the shirtless, flabby, lard-white and brick-red boors soaking up beer and trouncing the sensibilities of foreigners in Malia, Hersonisos, Agios Nikolaos and the like. In the days before most people suspected that swilling gallons of booze might not be good for you, the British arrived at an unfortunate conclusion: whereas the Greeks decided that a drunk is a weakling who cannot handle an everyday substance, working class Brits especially evolved the view that drunkenness was a) funny and b) the mark of a real man.
Is your Englishman so expert in his drinking?
Why, he drinks you, with facility, your Dane dead
drunk; he sweats not to overthrow your Alamain; he
gives your Hollander a vomit, ere the next pottle can be filled.
And that's what we are stuck with. When the ill-educated and incurious are tanked up with booze, they they behave the way these tourists behave. There are, of course, ill-educated and incurious Greeks, but they have not grown up to see booze as indispensible to having a good time and proving their masculinity.

Good God, I’m getting dreadfully crusty in my middle age… If I start calling for the return of National Service and the birch, hire someone to bump me off.


I only heard 'gazeboed' for 'drunk' last week. Two of my young female colleagues were planning their weekend, and it was their intention to get 'gazeboed' in celebration of someone's birthday. They explained that you can take any 'posh word' and add -ed, and it shall henceforth mean 'inebriated'. So we played about with it a bit.

'Come on, let's get antimacassared.'
'Pfwor, he was like well vestibuled, was Darren.'
'Can't remember a thing, I was that fuckin extrapolated...'
'One sniff of the cork, Megan, and she's laminated.'

Well, as I said, we just can't get over the idea that drunkenness is a larf.


I am reluctant to post a link to the Daily Mail, indeed I am wearing a paper bag over my head as I do so, but this article, even allowing for the Mail's usual combination of scandal-relishing censoriousness, suggests that the Malia of today is much worse than the relatively innocent Malia of 1987. The drunkenness is more desperate, the drunks a good decade younger. The bar owners seem to be making cocktails with the pure alcohol that's widely available in Greece for cleaning and disinfecting.

5th June

Looking at the Facebook photos of an ex-student of mine, who is now eighteen, I was surprised to see him gleefully brandishing bottles of Stolly at the camera, a most un-Greek thing to do, I thought. I'm used to attending Greek celebrations such as wedding receptions where lavish amounts of spirits are provided, but hardly touched. A friend informed me the other night that these days young Greeks are more prone to boozing than their elders were. Her daughter's generation would go out to clubs to dance, and had little interest in drinking. Now it seems the hooch is becoming more important.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Kolonaki Ladies

Kolonaki, as wikipedia will tell you, is a ‘wealthy, chic and upmarket’ neighbourhood of central Athens. A glass of scotch in a bar opposite the British Council in Kolonaki Square will cost you damn near what you would pay for a bottle in a supermarket. If you fancy a beer, there's Heineken in tiny bottles at extortionate prices, or you might go for some semi-precious imported stuff, costing an arm and a leg because it has a complicated stopper or a slice of kiwi fruit poking out of the bottle. Turn into Kapsali Street and you move away from the cafes and boutiques and into the residential area. Keep on going towards Marasli Street and the Evangelismos Hospital. Marasli is the other side of the tracks from Kolonaki Square, all fast-food outlets and shops flogging crutches, trusses and bedpans to the hospital’s squillions of visitors and out-patients. In-patients wander up and down the street in their jim-jams.

In 1995 I was forced by my poverty and improvidence to leave my much loved top floor flat in Pangrati with its big terrace and view of the Acropolis, and take a basement garçonnière just round the corner from Marasli. I had acquired a prestigious Kolonaki address but very unprestigious quarters indeed, one small room with a single bed and a desk. The French windows gave onto a whitewashed wall. There was the Borstal bathroom, bleak with worn enamel bath and hideous off-white tiles bordered in snot and bogey green. The kitchen had the proportions of a generous sarcophagus. From it, a small door opened onto a black and cobwebby space, the bottom of a dark well from which ascended the steel staircase of an internal fire escape. There were a few cockroach corpses scattered like mucky leaves. Maybe they had died of old age, or maybe they had decided to end it all, and plunged from the sixth floor. If my friend Jeni from Taiwan had ever seen the place, she’d have warned me off it. It was subterranean, damp, close to a hospital and under six storeys inhabited almost exclusively by elderly spinsters. The feng shui was therefore well dodgy, and Jeni would have prescribed any number of mirrors, wind chimes and strategically-placed calligraphies to mitigate the baleful influences. I made the place as cosy as I could with candles, posters, plants, throws and incense. Only that ghastly bathroom was beyond saving.

The spinster-women were suspicious of me at first, suspecting, horror of horrors, that I might be Albanian. Soon after I moved in, one came to see me on some pretext or other. She spoke excellent English, and having ascertained that I was not Albanian, and was in fact a teacher and trainer of teachers, she seemed satisfied. ‘I am very pleased to have met you’ she said, peering over a metaphorical lorgnette, chin held high, smiling stiffly. ‘And I am so glad that you are somebody.’ She withdrew with a gracious sideways inclination of her head, acknowledging a fellow Somebody, as Lady Bracknell might have done had Jack Worthing not screwed up by telling her all that stuff about the handbag. It seemed I had passed a test, and she must have communicated her verdict to the other ladies, because from then on they thought the sun shone out of my arse.


‘Είναι τρελή αυτή. She’s crazy, that one’ said Kyria* Fofo, who had become my biggest fan among the old ladies. She had asked me to walk her to and from the corner kiosk, and her remark was in reference to Mrs D, who lived on the third floor and who was just letting herself into our building. ‘She’s always on about people stealing millions from her.’

I did not see much of the allegedly crazy Mrs D until the summer. In August, Athens empties like a flushed toilet and everywhere was blessedly quiet. At home, I became aware of a noise, as of someone knocking on a door, repeatedly, obsessively, but couldn’t decide where it was coming from. I went up into the entrance hall and to the alcove where the concierge, if we had still had one, would have sat. Here a door led to the spooky fire escape and from within, somebody was knocking.

‘Who is it?’ I asked

‘Hello! Is anyone there? It’s me!’ An elderly, cheery female voice.

‘The door’s locked, I’ll have to find someone who’s got a key.’

‘Oh, that’s fine!’ said the voice, happily. ‘Do take your time!’

Christ knows who’s got a bloody key, I thought. Luckily I managed to cop the last remaining resident in the otherwise empty building on the day before he was going to move out for good. We opened the door and Mrs D stepped into the hall from the dank, spidery fire escape. Imagine Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp, fast forward her to the age of eighty-six and you have something like Mrs D.

‘Thank you so much, gentlemen! I’m just going down to the square. Can I get you anything? Pastries? Liqueurs?’

I had to leave the following day to teach a four week course in another town. Had Mrs D locked herself out on the fire escape a day later, she’d probably have died there.

Bloody hell. It wouldn't half have chucked up when everyone got back in September.

One autumn night my doorbell rang. Then I heard other people’s doorbells, each one ringing three times before the next one, mine, next door’s, upstairs, in rotation. I went up to the entrance hall and outside, leaning against the big wrought iron and glass door, was what I took at first to be a guitar case but was in fact Mrs D, locked out again.

‘Now, I do do the code’ she explained cheerfully as I helped her to her feet, ‘One-two-three, one-two-three, so they know it’s only me, but they’re still suspicious, you know!’

It began to piss with rain and the electricity conked. I had to help Mrs D up to her flat, hoping she had her keys about her somewhere. In the dark it wasn’t hard to locate her door, because from beneath it there always wafted a smell like that of the pachyderm house at Whipsnade. Ping! Sudden connection: earlier in the week I had found a newspaper parcel of human shit, complete with used sheets of pink bogroll, stuffed into the concierge’s alcove. As you would expect, it chuffed a bit. It was the same aroma as emanated from Mrs D’s flat, into which we now got. She hadn’t locked it after all.

‘Have you got some candles?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes, lots, in the kitchen!’

The kitchen floor was covered with shards of glass from the broken door, and that roach infested hell-hole of a fire escape gaped blackly. I asked how the glass in the door had smashed, and got something about 'μου πήραν εκατομμύρια, they took millions off me', but nothing about who they were and when they had robbed her, if indeed they ever had. After a few moments of crunching about in the dark on shattered glass, I found the cupboard. Mrs D was right about the candles. She had lots. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them. She could have opened a shop. I fished one out and tried to find the living room.

‘What's that? Is that the bathroom?’

‘I’ve already been’

Too bloody right you have, darling. Probably as well I can’t see a hand in front of my face.

‘Will you be OK?’ I asked, lighting a candle in the sitting room. Family photos everywhere. Where were they all?

‘I’ll just go to sleep. Ο θεός μαζί σας, κύριε! God be with you, sir!’

I left, at first relieved to get away, then questioning the wisdom of leaving a dotty old lady alone with a lighted candle. Fortunately, she must have slept as she said she would, and we all survived the night.

Soon after, they came to take her away. Now, probably most of those ladies are gone. If not yet dead, they will be too frail to live alone, and will have been put away in homes. They bitched endlessly about one another, but they were united in worrying constantly about the transient population of the basement flats, male and foreign, therefore doubly foreign. They were genuinely scared of the two friendly Albanian lads who lived next door to me. I was only ‘somebody’ because I was not Albanian, and they would have disapproved utterly of my fascination with Albania and its language and its open, upfront, hospitable people. Anyway, I hope they are all as happy as they can be, and let me hereby apologise for tricking them into thinking me ‘somebody’. For fuck’s sake.


*Kyria is ‘Mrs’ but in Greek it can be used with a person’s first name, thus combining familiarity with respect in a way we cannot in English. This does not mitigate my contempt for the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Wangkajunga have a Word for it

Linguistic determinism, the seductive but batty idea that your native language determines your view of the world and how you think, is a theory that journalists and 'language fanciers' (Steven Pinker's term) are very fond of. The dozens of Eskimo words for snow, the tribes whose languages have no tenses and who therefore have a different perception of time from the rest of humanity, the aptness of language A for purposes language B cannot fulfill - they all provide material for arresting lead-ins or scholarly-sounding meditations on the nature of mind and meaning. They are all complete twaddle, though. I recently came across poet and journalist Mark Abley. Abley has noticed that French and other European languages have different verbs for ‘to know’, depending on whether what you know is a person or a thing. In French we find connaître (person) and savoir (thing) in German kennen and wissen, and so on. Quoted in John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Abley goes all precious on us:
‘My language allows me, somewhat clumsily, to get the distinctions across: on the one hand, factual knowledge, on the other, acquaintanceship and understanding. But to a French [and German and Spanish and Italian and Albanian but not Modern Greek] speaker, that distinction is central to how the mind interacts with the world.’
The italicised bit is mine. (I used the mouse to make the italics. Bear this in mind.) How likely is it, do you think, that speakers whose languages make this distinction see it as basic to how their minds ‘interact with the world’? Do those of us whose languages do not make this particular distinction feel baffled when we encounter languages that do? Of course we bloody don’t. Speakers of French might indulge in a little chauvinism when they realize for the first time that English doesn’t differentiate the two usages, but until that point they will probably not have given the matter a second’s consideration. Is there anything ‘somewhat clumsy’ about how know is used in the following quotes? Could an Albanian translation perhaps reveal depths that Shakespeare, trapped in English, could not? First from Hamlet:
'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio...’
Then from A Midsummer Night's Dream: 
'Through Athens I am thought as fair as she,
But what of that? Demetrius thinks not so;
He will not know what all but he do know.’
Leave me a comment if you detect the clumsiness Abley is on about. Buggered if I can.
On his website, Abley provides us with words from endangered languages which are supposed to arouse our… admiration? Envy of subtle distinctions of meaning denied to us? Or what? I’m not sure.
Onsra - to love for the last time (Boro - NE India and Bangladesh)
Ah, amazing that people should have words for so specific an idea! It’s almost like having a word for ‘to appear overly polite, obliging or contrite in order to sway a superior’s judgement in one’s own favour’ – i.e., ‘to grovel’ in English. Does Abley actually know any Boro? Is it possible that on means 'love', and sra means 'finally'? Or the other way round, or some other analysis? How is it used, anyway? What does 'to love for the last time' actually mean? Is there a more idiomatic English rendering? We need to know before we gasp in admiration.
Nartutaka (Wangkajunga, central Australia) - small plum-like fruit for which there is no English word.
Not yet, at least. Wait until Waitrose catch on, and there’ll be nartutaka fruit salad, unpasteurised nartutaka juice (rich in antioxidants and vitamin C to protect against Today's Diseases) and porridge with sun-dried nartutaka in every middle class kitchen. 'Narts’ will be in the OED along with mango, banana, papaya and kumquat. Presumably the Wangkajunga speakers lack a word for Bramleys. Amazing!
In an article about Abley on the BBC website, Duncan Walker warns us about how meaning supposedly gets lost when English replaces indigenous languages:
'English and other major languages, while often acting as a democratising force, do not always reflect the breadth of meaning in the language they supersede. [Italics added - using the keyboard.] The Inuit language of Inuktitut, for example, has many verbs for the word "know", ranging from "utsimavaa" - meaning he or she knows from experience to "nalunaiqpaa" - he or she is no longer unaware of something.’
Now, this is sweet naivety on Walker’s part. The languages of the Inuit will always appear at first glance to have more words than European languages for any concept you care to mention, because they are agglutinative languages: what in English is expressed as a phrase, Inuktitut collapses into single words that contain all the necessary pronouns, roots, case and tense markers stuck together like so many Lego bricks. Turkish is able to produce as a single verb the following jaw-breaker:


meaning: ‘it is presumably the case that you sometimes were not made to fight'. (Gőksel and Kerlake, 2005:74). Dővűşmek is the root verb, if my online source is correct, and the rest of the verb is a string of widgets that add person, tense, aspect and modality. Walker's two verbs quoted above are simply the Inuit translations of the English phrases he provides as glosses for the supposedly more expressive Inuit verbs. Can he not see that he has just provided two perfectly serviceable English translations of what he thinks are two Inuktitut roots? How, if he can do this, can he argue that meaning is being lost?

Language fanciers go all misty when they find some language (preferably one on the endangered list) has a single word for a concept that English expresses with a phrase, and single words always command their respect, while phrases are seen as second best. They usually ignore, or more likely have never given a thought to, instances where the boot’s on the other foot and it’s English that has more words for a notion than some other language. Greek, thank God, is not endangered, but here's an example of what I'm ranting about: βγάζω, [vgazo] can translate as take off, push out, pull out, stick out, take out, let out, lead to, open out in, come out with and so on, depending on the noun it collocates with. This is either a) amazing English fecundity, or b) amazing Greek economy - take your pick. In terms of communication of the concepts involved, it doesn’t matter a toss. Defending a) over b) or vice versa would be like arguing whether true italics are achieved by using your mouse or your keyboard.
I blogged a while ago about some of the whacky, self-flattering beliefs I encountered in Greece about the Greek language. A common one is that Greek words somehow ‘mean more’ than anybody else’s words. ‘Speakers of Greek are the only ones who have immediate access to the meanings of speech, the only ones who can truly feel what they say’ said a Mr. Zachariou in Greek ELT News in April 2003. (Italics added, using the mouse.) The rest of humanity, Mr. Z says, are really only ‘like dogs [who] respond to mono-syllabic or bi-syllabic sounds’. This is fighting talk, Zach - evidence? Here you are:
  • The Greek έξυπνος [exypnos] means intelligent, and may be analysed as ‘ex + ypnos’, meaning ‘out of sleep’ and thus awake, alert.
  • Then there’s σύζυγος [syzigos] meaning ‘spouse’. This we are told is ‘by far superior semantically’ to the English words husband, wife and spouse as it means ‘one bound in the same yoke’.
So are we supposed to conclude that Greek speakers are somehow more keenly aware of the meaning of intelligence, and of the bond between man and wife, than everybody else? How such an idea could be proven I have no clue. I’m not absolutely sure if this is what Mr. Z would have us believe, but if that is not his point I don’t know why he drew these words to our attention in the first place. The only other conclusion would have to be that Greek speakers understand Greek words. Well, yeah, I’m sure they do.
Some Armenians go beyond even the Greeks in linguistic chauvinism and pseudo-science. I found an article on Grabar, Classical Armenian. For a taste:
‘It is discovered in the language that during the process of development of the sound connection man to man, man to nature the mutual connection is realized by means of natural sounds as two-sound connection.’
Bet you didn’t know that! There is more:
‘Appearance of three-sound (three-letter) connections on the same base can be considered as a quality of reasoning owing to the quantitative recognizing realization of man.’
I’m not sure what he said either, but he has a lot more to impart in the same vein:
'In GRABAR alphabet all the sounds are silhouettic symbols and have a sound quality and cardinal silhouettic character. For the first time in the linguistic science in Armenian dialects and GRABAR the three-sound (three-letter) words are divided into two-sound (two-letter) and one-sound (one-letter) mathematical index, which belongs to the structure of human and animal anatomy.’
So how about that, huh?
I find the idea that the vocabulary and grammar of one’s language limit the thoughts one is capable of entertaining thoroughly depressing, and fortunately, quite ridiculous. One of my students, a native speaker of Arabic whose language level in English is officially pre-intermediate, has the most extraordinary ability to mobilize a very limited knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar in the service of some very sophisticated ideas. He is not an educated man in Arabic any more than English, but he simply has to communicate and he will not let a lack of vocabulary stand in the way of that need. It's not the lack of individual words that matters, it's how you deploy the ones you've got. Any teacher who has taught a multilingual class of beginners will have noted with amazement and delight the ingenuity people exercise in trouncing language barriers, simply because they soon realize that our common humanity means we all understand each other, pretty much. Pity there are so many people who will never be thrown together with others in that situation. It’s a great pomposity buster.

Here and here you may read the excellent Professor Geoffrey Pullum on just the sort of ignorant journalistic / language fancier bollocks I have been ranting about. Here as well.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Greener than God's Dream

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Warning - going through a phase. It will pass.

I've been feeling pretty stupid lately. Or rather ignorant, which is not quite the same thing. It’s one of these ‘mid-life crises’ I’ve been having since I was, oh, fifteen. I look back and think, Christ, what a mess and a waste it’s all been, and how little I know! Everything I read seems to open up new caverns of ignorance, and nowadays after I have put down a book I forget almost immediately what I've just read. I bought Clive James's 'Cultural Amnesia' a couple of years ago and felt so depressingly ignorant reading it that I haven't picked it up for eighteen months. How could I ever catch up?

As a kid and teenager I had that magpie type of mind that collects and stores sparkly scraps from blurbs, footnotes, TV documentaries and encyclopaedias. It’s a habit of mind that makes you insufferably good at answering questions on Mastermind and University Challenge. On hearing Bamber Gascoigne rattle off a question like ‘frequently trepanned in fourteen fifty splunge and said since to have been twice disgruntled, whose compendia were boiled in ambergris by the Medici as a secondary means of warding off the Evil Eye?' magpie-brained kids immediately blurt out ‘occipital condyles!’ and that’s their starter for ten. It’s a habit of mind I still have to a large extent and I don’t think it is a very useful one. With it come a low boredom threshold and impatience with detail. I get interested in a subject, send away urgently for books, then once I have the subject in outline, its allure is tarnished and I’m on the look out again for shinier things. I could never do a PhD. The sheer dogged persistence required of one for such an undertaking is something I could not muster, even assuming I did have the academic ability.

Well anyway, out of curiosity I sent for a home test booklet from MENSA, to see if I really am as stiff and creaky of mind as I have been feeling. It arrived this morning, and I sat down and had a look through it. You know the sort of stuff:

  • What’s next in this series of numbers: 1, 2, 4, 3, 6, 8, 45, …?
  • FIN is to FISH as WING is to a) Bird b) Cricket c) Wormwood Scrubbs.
  • Someone is filling a tank with water while at the same time allowing the water to escape through an unstopped plug hole. How long will it take him to fill the tank T if the water W flows in at 4 gallons per minute while the plughole P lets it all out at 6 gallons per minute? (Why the hell doesn't he just put the bloody plug in?)

The stuff with figures is beyond me, for figures and I have never got on. I transpose digits in phone numbers and fuck up percentages because there is no ‘of’ button on a calculator. I really do need numbers to be represented as big, tangible objects. I would have benefited as a kid from being taught with Cuisenaire rods – indeed I would probably benefit from them even now. Instead I have to manage with printed numbers or numbers on the display of a calculator or mobile phone, where they seem to me to swap places and wiggle about like thunderbugs. I can add up a column of figures five times and get a different total for each attempt. I have never mastered multiplication tables. I know 'five eights are forty' in the same way as I know Leontes's line 'To mingle friendships far is mingling bloods' - it has just stuck in my mind as a phrase since school. Also, I can't imagine a less interesting task than the one above about the bloody water tank - I mean, who cares? I ignored most of the number questions on the test.

The verbals are mostly a doddle. You connect synonyms and antonyms, detect the odd example of polysemy, note superordinates and hyponyms. There you are, you see, my Diploma in TEFL from 20 years ago was not wholly wasted, but unfortunately you don’t get marks for knowing the polysyllabic jargon. Language is what I do, though, so I would not expect to screw up on this section. However, there is a page that tests processing speed. Here letters appear in a grid and you are presented with questions in which prepositional phrases slam into one another like lorries in a motorway pile-up: ‘what letter comes just below the letter which comes between the letter just after the letter just above G and the letter just before the letter just below B?’ ("Can you do Addition?" the White Queen asked. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?" ) I imagine some specky twelve year-old, who learns Sanskrit in his time out from composing sonatas, rattling through this and thinking it great fun, and I envy him. But I got this far and thought, do I really give a stuff? The task really amounts to decoding a very badly constructed sentence.

I may never send the test back to be marked. I don’t want to pay the £9.95 fee to get a letter in reply saying ‘Are you kidding?’ I will probably have lost interest in the matter by tomorrow morning in any case.


In fact I did send it back to be marked, and according to the letter I got in reply, my results on this rough and ready preliminary test would probably put me in the top 8% of people who can be bothered to send the test back.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

School Song

The very organ upon which this warble was annually belted out.

I have lost touch with all but three of the friends I had at school, before the place changed from Rough Northern Boys’ Grammar School to co-ed sixth form college. Even now when we meet, we might, given sufficient lubrication, give you our rendition of the Old School Song. Here is the chorus:

We’re sons of the school,
We’ll hold fast the rule,
With hearty zest
We’ll do our best
For the school, school, school.

The writer of this toe-curling shite had slipped off the perch years before I was required to learn it in at the age of eleven in 1970. It has stood a certain test of time, though, still relentlessly mocked wherever two or three are gathered together and sufficiently pissed to divert (?) the company with both verses. (Be patient.) Nobody ever took it seriously, except the parents. The piece was performed by the whole school as the final musical offering at that annual masochistic, buttock-numbing, sphincter-clenching event known as Speech Day, where an assortment of pompous old gits and gasbags in mayoral chains, gowns and badges of this and that office were invited to bore boys, masters and parents catatonic in’t Town ‘All:

‘Nah then, you know, ladies and gentlemen, when I luke at these young lads, all full of spunk and testosterone, I’d like to whack my todger right up…’

No, I’m making this up, of course. I have absolutely no recollection of what any of those old farts said, and nor has anyone else.

Parents attendance was motivated by a kind of stoical pride. Their lads had got in at t’college, and so had chances the parents mostly had not had, and indeed never expected to have. They put up with the tedium of Speech Day as Victorians are alleged to have put up with nasty medicine. Before I started at the school there was a meeting for the parents of new boys. My mother reported to me the gist of the deputy head’s speech.

‘When they leave, he told us, they will be men!’

She approved. I didn’t, because I was only eleven and being a kid is hard enough work without bothering about eventually being a man or a woman. I could not at the time have told her that the bloke was onto a fairly safe bet, given that we all had the right chromosomes, or that in the D.H.’s terms I would not be one of the school’s success stories.


The school was a boys' grammar school that liked to pretend it was a Public School. Teachers were called 'masters' and until the place went all co-ed and matey in about 1975, they wore MA gowns over their battered tweedy suits and trailed chalk dust and the stink of tobacco in their wake. Perhaps headmasters of the past had modelled the place on schools they had seen in 'Beano' and 'Hotspur'.

Any Old Boy over 50 remembers Henry. Henry Strachan taught Latin, or at least occupied classrooms under that pretext. He was an immense man with a jowly face full of broken capillaries, and startling blue eyes. He was known for his sudden, spectacular displays of temper. These days he would be the subject of some committee's investigations, but then, ranting and throwing of chalk and board rubbers was just what Henry did.

‘Last year, Mam, 'e broke a lad’s legs ‘cos he cunt decline lupus!’
‘Oo, well you’ll ‘ave to behave yerself in his class, then, wote yer?’

Ofsted would have a thing or two to say about Henry’s approach to teaching, an approach characterised by a want of rapport, a lack of individuation, scant checking of understanding, risk of grievous bodily harm and so on. In practice it went as follows:

Henry, tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and dusty old gown, hauls his panting bulk to the front of the room and sits down heavily. He is clearly crapulous. (Hindsight, that.) He opens the frayed text book of Latin prose translations and announces the page. It will be a translation into or out of Latin. He then falls asleep, sitting upright. Thirty-odd twelve year old boys silently translate. Henry snorts himself awake in time to have the boys read back their translations sentence by sentence, choosing a name at random from the register, a name he will never learn to connect with a face. The bell goes for the end of the lesson. As always he says ‘Right. That’ll do.’ Boys start to pack up their books. It suddenly occurs to the duty neurone in Henry’s scotch-soaked brain that he has not set any homework.

He goes fuckin ballistic, man, honest!

‘Yurr homeworrrk! Wait! You don’t go withoot yurr homeworrrk!’

He goes crimson. He throws chalk, he chucks books, he hurls the board rubber. He roars out the page number and picks on a kid to repeat it back to him. Ah, the sad alcoholic old bastard, ground down by routine and disappointment and caring for a disabled wife, takes it all out on twelve year-old boys in a way unimaginable in today's Britain, where the kids would probably just laugh in his incandescent face and provoke him the more, even unto cardiac arrest. The long awaited announcement of his retirement at a pre-Christmas assembly circa 1973 was greeted with quiet relief, just the slight hiss of an opened pop bottle rather than a gush of champagne, but it was clearly audible, and Henry was there to hear it. Hard as it is to imagine Henry young, pending evidence to the contrary we must assume he once was. He would not have envisaged a lifetime of alternating sleep and choler in a boys' grammar school. What a career. What deeds to be remembered for.


Here’s the rest of the song. If blogger had the facility, I’d give you the tune and a bouncing ball so you could sing along, maybe even a whiff of scotch to get you started, but that is in the future. For now, all I can give you is the Reverend Horsfall’s deathless poesy.

We’re boys of the sturdy Northland
Midst mills and mines we live
And to our well-loved homeland
The best we can we’ll give
Some strive for wealth and pleasure
And some for high renown
But lives of honest service
Shall win the richest crown.


And when we are men of Britain
Wherever we may live
Still to our well-loved homeland
The best we can we’ll give
And if we win distinction
Or if we’re fortune’s fool
We’ll all with warm affection
Remember still our school


Monday, 4 May 2009

Could've been Worse

One morning last week I had used the oven at the crack of dawn to bake whatever it was I fancied for breakfast. I spent the rest of the day worrying in case I had forgotten to switch the oven off. This morning, I was lying on the bed after breakfast, pootling about on the web, when I became aware of a few familiar smells wafting about: first, a rather appetising whiff of crisp bacon, then, yeah, I'm definitely getting school chemi lessons: worsted blazer sleeve in a bunsen burner, a clear note now of melting plastic ruler, must be... FUCK! I dived into the hall where the air was hazy, shot into the sitting room through swirling fatty smoke and steam, and skidded into the kitchen where the frying pan was sizzling on the hob, just about to burst into flames. I chucked the pan bubbling, hissing and squeaking into the sink, opened the windows, switched on all three extractor fans, and cursed the useless smoke detector.

Then I almost burst into tears. Today is a bank holiday, I’m not at work, but just supposing it had happened tomorrow… Imagine! I’d be sitting on the train, oblivious of the fact that my flat and the three others in this building were about to go up in smoke. And it would all be my fault. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

I am still thinking about it, though - crackpot thoughts of a parallel universe where Elvis is still alive, where Iran is an example to the world of reason, justice and tolerance, and where this building is a heap of smouldering cinders and char-grilled pigeons. I just cannot get it out of my mind. My usual routine on leaving the house in the morning involves checking that the heater and computer are switched off, locking the door, opening it again to go back and recheck that the heater and computer are indeed disconnected, locking the door again, taking four or five steps along the terrace and then returning to check that I did actually lock the door. From now on I’m going to have to leave the house five minutes earlier than usual in order to fit in several more paranoid false starts. All this is even more bloody silly when you remember that a locked wooden door will not deter even the least determined of burglars. This place might as well be a gingerbread cottage for all the security it provides.

Pointless worrying seems to be something that comes with age. My grandma was a world-class worrier, and the scenarios she could devise to fret over were extraordinary works of the imagination. They drove my parents nuts. Now at seventy-three my mother can almost match her. So anyone who knows me had better be resigned to the idea that I shall probably become quite tiresomely paranoid in the coming years.


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