Sunday, 30 August 2009

Press Here

A pre-sessional, for those of you lucky enough not to have to worry about this sort of thing, is a course for overseas students who are about to begin degrees at a university. It’s a kind of benign square-bashing, where they get to read dense, lengthy texts and take notes on them, listen to lectures, and write essays. (‘I ave nevair writ a hessay’, François told me. ‘What I must do?’ God help us, another undergraduate who has never written an essay and doesn’t know where to start.) They find out the hard way that they may not simply copy and paste text from web pages, that tutors will not tell them exactly what to do and when to do it, and that they must manage their time and meet deadlines. It all comes as quite a shock to many.

My group of graduate students asked me if we could do some work on summary writing. On Tuesday morning, therefore, I announced the admittedly unexciting news that we would do as they had asked. I wrote on the whiteboard:

SUMMARIES – What? Why? When? How?

and asked the students in groups to pool their knowledge, so as to discover what they knew and didn’t know, and therefore what they needed to find out.

Nothing happened. I repeated and checked the instructions, then retired to the back of the room, all eyes following me. A few moments’ silence ensued in which I felt my inner control-freak kicking the door of his cell and hollering to be let out. At such times, I’m reminded of Basil Fawlty attempting to communicate to the uncomprehending Manuel that he would like him to remove two dead pigeons from the water tank: ‘look, Manuel, this is not a proposition from Wittgenstein…’ Anyway, I bit my tongue, and waited. A few sotto, desultory remarks were exchanged, followed by much silent contemplation of the table tops.

‘Right,’ I said, when this had gone on long enough. ‘What did you decide?’

Down at the front of the room, an Indian bloke began to define ‘summaries’ and offer some thoughts on their nature and purpose. Unfortunately his accent was thick as channa daal. I nudged the Saudi bloke in front of me and whispered ‘did you understand what he said?’ Headshake no. ‘Well, why don’t you [fucking well] ask him to clarify?’

‘Errr – you can to ummmm, repeat?’ This was said with the same enthusiasm that I might evince if asked to request a Barry Manilow track.

The classroom walls are papered with huge posters bearing useful phrases for requesting repetition and clarification, or expressing polite disagreement, but still it was like pulling teeth for another few minutes, nobody engaging with anyone else, nobody volunteering anything much by way of opinion or advice, so sod it, I took the floor and launched into the session, but did so in Greek. They could tell from my intonation and gestures that every so often I was asking them if they understood. Everyone blinked at me, mildly shocked but amused.

‘I’ve just spent five minutes talking at you in a language nobody here understands, but nobody stopped me, nobody asked me to speak in English or queried what the hell I thought I was doing. Why not?’

Now there were a few sheepish grins and the atmosphere was warming up a bit.

I wrote the word BULLSHIT in large letters on the board and asked for a definition. They all knew what it meant, apart from one Chinese woman who immediately started stabbing at her electronic dictionary, thus missing the explanations offered. Muslim eyebrows were raised at such language from a tutor.

‘Everybody needs a bullshit detector!’ I said, evangelically. ‘Don’t just let it go by if you don’t understand or if you disagree with anyone in the group, me included.’

And so we finally got down to the task in hand.

Christ knows what university rules I might have violated in uttering and writing such language in the presence of students, or what sanctions I might incur if reported - Britain is so bloody mealy-mouthed and scared of offending nowadays, I can't be doing with it. Nobody has reported me, at least not yet. The students are mostly so bomb-shocked by the whole experience of coming to study on the opposite side of the earth that they probably regarded it as just normal weird English behaviour. Anyway, we have had much livelier lessons since then.


Ages ago I was teaching a course in ELT Methodology in Kalamata in Southern Greece. The group was engaged in some task while I wrote the next part of the session up on the board. I became aware that as soon as I started to write, people abandoned their discussions and began to copy. So I interlarded the stuff I was writing with little bits of nonsense; ‘Mickey Mouse!!!’, ‘Whooo-hooo!’, ‘Eggs for Sale’, ‘Ding Dong!’ and similar crap, then suggested a coffee break. Everyone left the room, and I walked round looking at the open notebooks on the tables. Every last word from the board had been assiduously copied down, including those dumb, pointless interjections. All over the world, then, intelligent adults are depositing their bullshit detectors at the front doors of those very institutions that should insist they be kept about their persons and switched on at all times. Scary, innit?

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mamak Khadem

Here are two brilliant songs performed by Iranian singer Mamak Khadem. The first, 'Baz Amadam' (The Return) is based on a poem by Rumi.

Once again I have returned
I come from the Beloved
Look at me, see me,
Full of compassion I have returned.

Blissful I come, blissful, 
Bearing a message
That took millenia 
To put into words.

O Shams Tabrizi,
When will your light shine on the cosmos?
Bring me solace
For I have returned 
To this earthly desert of pain.

'Gelayeh' (The Plaintive) based on an anonymous poem.

You left and broke your vow.
To another you promised yourself
Your heart you gave away without shame
You killed me with one look.
How could you?
How could your eyes have no shame?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Recurring Dream

I woke an hour ago from a dream in which I was sitting finals again. This circumstance will pop up behind my eyelids every so often, even though the grim reality is nearly thirty years behind me now. In this variation on the theme, candidates sit in individual glass booths. Mine affords little peace or privacy, however, as the girl in the adjacent booth is singing happily, as if she were in the shower. Each booth contains a mock-leather briefcase in which we will find the equipment this oneiric Cambridge deems necessary for examinees: several complementary leatherette diaries, postcards, leaflets and glossy spiral-bound booklets advertising this and that, souvenir pencils and a laptop. This latter has a bizarre keyboard, a dome-shaped affair like the top of a phrenology skull. I rifle through the mounds of bumph in the briefcase and at length locate the question paper, which is to be found in another leatherette wallet along with a few uncomplementary hand-written notes about me from supervisors to some third party.

Well, I start to type, cursing the sadistically user-unfriendly keyboard, which is reducing me to about a word a minute, and the minutes, obviously, are ticking away. The girl next door with her trills and arpeggios is definitely not helping. And then the computer packs up - the files are being destroyed by a virus as I watch, for this is graphically and dramatically represented on the display by a blazing bonfire. (Of a piece, I suppose, with the real-world theatrical stuff about 'permanent fatal errors' and 'firewalls'.) Suddenly my college accommodations officer and the headmaster of my junior school are back from the grave to help; Betty says I'll be allowed extra time, and Mr Dodson calls for a B537A (huh?) to be brought forthwith. All we need to know is exactly how much of the exam has been wasted already. I search among the papers, postcards, leaflets and assorted freebies for my mobile phone to check the time. (None of us has realised that this is 1981 and mobile phones don't exist yet.) When I finally locate it... I wake up. Why, bless us, 'twas but a dream!

The 'finals fuck-up' dream is usually trotted out if I am feeling in some way threatened or emotionally vulnerable. Well, today is my day with the Algerian winchmen, a day that always makes me feel totally useless as a teacher, so this probably explains it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A Sick Minded Man

Browsing a blog that links to mine, I found a comment that took the blogger, Shahrazad, to task for giving me houseroom: ‘why u have this sick minded man (lathophobic aphasia), i think his blog shouldn`t be here… sorry 4 any bothering, but just i`d like 2 say what i feel toward such people.’ Well, get you, dear! This was a comment from a Libyan woman on a Libyan blog, deploring my open homosexuality. Libyan law punishes homosexuality with up to three years in clink, and in Libya, as in pretty much every other Muslim country, homosexuals are forced into silence and secrecy by law, society, religion and women like this. I was about to add a snarky comment, when I saw that Sharahzad had already replied, defending me as 'a true friend and gentleman in every sense, who shares all his knowledge with all. I respect his private life and honor him for being so open about it.‘ Bless her!

Gay people are used to being lumped together by the religious as sick, immature, perverted and all the rest of it, but this is the first time I have had this ad hominem, as it were. I’m actually more used to being patronised than execrated. Back in the eighties, when even intelligent straights had a bit of catching up to do on the etiquette of social intercourse with homos, a number of women with whom I had hitherto got on well would spoil things somewhat by implying that I was not really a man. I am neither cripplingly butch nor screechingly femme in manner, but because I had never shown the least sexual interest in them, they assumed I had no masculine ego to offend. They even expected me to agree with them.

A lesser source of irritation was the frequently heard ‘oh, are you gay? You’d really fancy my brother / best mate / best mate’s husband, etc.’


‘He’s tall, dark, buff…’

‘So what makes you think I’d fancy him?’

‘Cos he’s tall, dark, b… Yeah, OK.’

Then they realised they had no grounds for making assumptions about whom I might fancy just because I’m a woofter.

In the educated, liberal, Guardian reading, herbivorous milieu in which I usually move, mild insensitivity is all I have ever experienced directly, never open hostility. In these circles we can laugh at and laugh off the ignorant, the bigoted and the loony - we got plenty of practice of that in the eighties, when the tabloids were an inexhaustible source of anti-gay vitriol.

Sharahzad’s reply to her commenter elicited this response: ‘i do respect your point of view. but i really feel disgusting [sic] from such people.’ This could have been uttered in Britain in the fifties. God knows what the woman thinks we are, if she thinks at all. It took something like fifty years to communicate to the Western world the blindingly obvious message that we are not evil creatures from another dimension, but your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters and occasionally your parents. This is an idea that has not yet penetrated the Muslim world to any great extent. So, kudos to Shahrazad for her defense of me, and by implication all of us, in a country where that takes a fair degree of guts.

The jovial old gent below is one of the more moderate denouncers of homosex to be found on You Tube. Imagine what some of the others are like.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Mormons on the Train

Every so often, a group of Mormon missionaries boards the same train as me on my journey home from work. They are always clean-cut, handsome young men in suits and ties, looking like a bunch of animated mannequins from Austin Reed. Sometimes, but not often, there will be a few young ladies among them. Their togetherness and bland affability repel me almost as much as the Rottweiler glares of the tattooed young thugs who also occasionally board. If find myself surrounded by Mormon boys with their flawless white smiles, I bury my head in my book and tune them out.

Yesterday I was reading the wrong book. Sister Blomqvist (the name on her badge) catches part of the title and beams at me.

‘What’s the title of your book?’ she asks, smiling, her accent US plus a hint of Swedish.

I was a Teenage Catholic’ I say grudgingly, showing her the book and wishing it could be ‘I was a Teenage Cunt Hound’.

‘What’s it about?’ she asks, dialling the smile up a notch.

Oh, shite. I have observed that convention demands I remove my ear-plugs and try to respond appropriately. ‘Well, this bloke was brought up a Catholic in Northern Ireland, right, then he fucks off to India and he’s a Hindu for a bit, after that he comes back to Europe and realises organised religion is basically a crock, and, um, that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m compressing a bit.’

‘Do you have a faith?’

‘No!’ A bit over-emphatically.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, as if I had just told her I was abused as a child.

‘Not any more.’

I note with relief that the cement factory is sailing by, meaning my stop is coming up soon. In the course of some agonising small-talk about what I do and what she does, I learn that she and her fellow missionaries gather at some shiny white temple somewhere in the Midlands now and then to worship and ‘get to know God better’.

‘I know God exists and I know that he loves me!’ Sister Blomqvist says, the smile never flagging.

‘I don’t think you can possibly ‘know’ any such thing.’

I ought to have realised that that would renew her pity for my poor soul and that an invitation would be issued.

‘Why don’t you come along and join us?’ she says, proffering a card. ‘I just know you’d love it!’

This is my stop!

I don’t have it in me to worship a God who’s just longing to be my mentor and friend, Sis. I prefer a God who doesn’t give a toss: just chucks you into the universe to sink or swim and maybe report back on your experiences when you check out. Judgement Day would go something like this:

‘You took care of the sick and needy, huh? Cool!’

‘Thanks. I enjoyed it.’

‘Hmmmm. Yeah, OK, I see you also dismembered six postmen and buried them under the patio. Given your time again, would you still do that?’

‘On mature reflection, perhaps not. But they’re all OK now, I take it?’

‘Oh, absolutely.’

The whole bizarre conundrum of existence appeals to me as it is, far more than any set of beliefs aimed at pinning it all down and making it cosy. I think the ugliest, most unspiritual phrase I have ever heard, one that makes me want to pelt the utterer with balls of shit, is ‘God’s opinion’. It makes God sound like your local MP or a pub bore, rather than the horny, howling, barking mad, unpredictable hurricane-force power hurtling around us that I want IT to be. (Not that you feel much of that force here in twee little Stamford, admittedly.)

In ‘I was a Teenage Catholic’, ex-Catholic, ex nearly-Hindu Malachi O’Doherty says, towards the end, what he believes:

At least this much, I think, that consciousness did not emerge out of matter as an added trick to the Darwinian repertoire, but pre-exists it perhaps, as radio signals pre-exist the radio. And just as the best radio set may not yet have been invented, we may not be the best possible or even the best existing medium for the expression of consciousness or spirit. There may already be creatures in nature, that is somewhere in the universe, who express it better; we may even be on our way to expressing it better ourselves.’

I sort of believe this too. ‘Sort of believe’ is as close as I get to any faith. I have reasons to believe that individual consciousness survives the death of the physical body, and that the conditions one encounters in one’s post mortem state depend entirely on one’s own imagination or lack of it. I also have to admit that I have reasons to believe this belief to be nonsense. I don’t know, and anyone who claims to know is, in my view, a deluded fool. So spare me the cosiness and certainties of the Mormon kids on the train, and the smugness and solicitude of Evangelicals, and their incomprehensible love for a monstrous personal God who, if He existed, would deserve nothing but the contempt of His brighter creatures. Quit already trying to share Him with me.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Flunking Out

I’ve just tried – and flunked – the British Citizenship Test. I’m far from alone in this; pretty much everybody who tries it fucks up. I got fifteen questions out of twenty four correct, which means I scored 63%. The pass mark is 75%. Most of my correct answers were guesses: I had no idea how many young people in the UK are below the age of nineteen or how many Parliamentary constituencies we have, but I hit on the right answers by fluke. (15 million and 646 respectively, if you are interested.) I didn’t know that schools have to be open for 190 days in a year, or how long you have to be unemployed before you will be required to join ‘New Deal’ – whatever New Deal is. Women got the right to divorce their husbands in 1857. My guesstimate was thirty years too late, but at least in the right century.

According to, the test is about ‘life in general in the UK’. The compilers’ idea of what constitutes knowledge of ‘life in general’ is pretty damn weird. How many Brits know, or give a toss about, the number of people under the age of nineteen in the UK? Should it make any difference to your eligibility for citizenship if you don't know the exact date when ladies were finally allowed to kick their husbands into touch? The precise number of parliamentary constituencies is surely a fact that belongs in life’s reference sections: in the unlikely event that you might want to know, go look it up. It would be better to ask people if they know where and how they could find this information if they needed to.

There is a booklet you can buy to swot up on this ragbag of useless odds and sods, though. If we had read the manual, those of us who screwed up would have passed. See? We could do it any bloody time we wanted, we just didn’t feel like it, OK? Reading the manual equips you for the test, and passing the test proves you have read the manual. It doesn’t prove an awful lot else. The following is not one of the questions, but it might as well be:

You wish to travel from Stamford Lincs to Leicester. Which train company will you use?

A. National Express
B. Cross Country
C. Virgin

Either you know this, or you don’t. If you do, it might mean you have made the journey at least once and noticed the name on the train's livery, or you are a member of the peculiar fraternity of train-spotters, or some other unremarkable reason, but it doesn’t affect your ability or otherwise to make the journey, or have any relevance to anything much. If you have no clue, you might be tempted to go for C, which stands out as the shortest word and possibly the most emotive. Never allow one option in a multiple choice test to look very different from the others. Actually, the answer is B.

Big deal.

If we must have a citizenship test, could it not be part of a written and/or oral test that would simultaneously assess the candidate’s language level? If there were a content and language-based test, focussing on real issues of rights and responsibilities rather than on Trivial Pursuit questions, we could end up with some very clued-up people who have escaped from some pretty horrible regimes, and then get them to teach citizenship to some of our own ghastly citizens.

A letter here from last Wednesday:

So ministers are proposing tough new measures to deny UK citizenship to those who "have active disregard for British values". As one of these foreigners who has lived and participated in the activities of this country for over 40 years, I watch with dismay one initiative after another generated by the Home Office. Why would anyone wish to leave their own country and move to another whose people, language, culture and traditions they fundamentally detest?

Over the years, I have certainly witnessed what seems like the systematic undermining of, and disrespect, for "British values", but mainly by the British themselves. Recently, my local bus journey was halted and seriously disrupted by three separate incidents of young, white English teenagers attacking the bus driver and passengers. In what was once admired as a society with good manners, consideration for others has been abandoned as some old-fashioned idea. Perhaps the Home Office should not just focus on newcomers, but launch an initiative on "active citizenship" for all who live here, and promote notions of interdependence and community; that way, we might try to tackle the current wave of antisocial behaviour.

Of course, such a task would be complex and demanding, whereas jingoistic rhetoric and electoral point-scoring with the readers of the Daily Mail is much more appealing in a country where the government, through its increasingly bizarre policies, seems to have little respect for any of its citizens either.

Milan Svanderlik

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Mystics and Fools

A sensuous and celebratory piece here that manages to sound Persian, Jewish, Greek and Indian all at once. It's from the album 'Unfolding' by Axiom of Choice. The singer is Mamak Khadem.


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