Sunday, 31 January 2010

No Faggots on the Moon

That's the way to do it. A picket by the evil froot-loops of the Westboro Baptist Church is hijacked here by a comer-in who joins in their protest as one of them, and totally upstages it with ramblings no more insane than their own. 'You got a lotta balls' says a middle aged lady, not wholly admiringly. You bet he has, lady.

Losing Followers

I notice another follower - number three in as many weeks - has disappeared from the Friend Connect panel. Dash and drat it, it spoils the symmetry of the thing. I feel like a society hostess whose table has been put quite out by some inconsiderate person contracting diphtheria. The first time this happened, I felt personally responsible. Someone whose blog I liked, and who had said some very nice things about my blog back in the beginning, vanished from the list. I thought, shitbags, I've offended her, or fallen short of her expectations, or somehow shown myself unworthy of her attention. Then another one did the same thing, so I went round and knocked on his blog, and politely asked if he had decided to withdraw or if this was just a computer glitch. It proved to be the latter. He rejoined, and within a few days his mugshot disappeared again. Perhaps the same gremlin did for the two other defectors, but you can't go round people's blogs demanding to know where they've been, like a priest who wants to know why someone hasn't been seen in church for a few Sundays. You'd look a proper knob head. I googled the phenomenon, and apparently, it's a 'known issue', like the reactions and comments vanishing. So, if your picture disappears, it's not because I have decided to ditch you, it's Blogger's fault.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Moan, moan, bloody moan

In the above photo you see a member of the species psychrolutes marcidus, the lugubrious-looking blob fish, so called for being a lugubrious-looking blob-shaped fish. The name is therefore most apt. They live in deep waters between Australia and Tasmania, where they don't do an awful lot. Take a good look, for they are endangered and pretty soon you'll have to learn to live without them. Lately, I've been feeling pretty much the way he looks.

Rhinoviruses like me. If a bunch of them is hanging out and they see me walking past, they make a beeline for me. It seems my respiratory tract is most congenial to any bug whose speciality is infecting the sinuses or inflaming the throat. All week I have been streaming and sneezing and coughing, and you cannot teach in this condition without causing offence. It'd be like unrestrainedly belching and farting in a restaurant. I’ve been stuck in the house and lost a lot of money.

Does this explain why I feel so very flat? I don’t know if it does. I want a change in my life but there’s the thing: what exactly do I want to change? My job bores me, but it pays well. I spend far too much time alone, but for me any time spent in company has to be offset by at least twice that length of time in solitude or I feel overwhelmed. I live in a cramped flat in a beautiful town. I could move to a spacious flat in an ugly town and be nearer to work, saving a lot of money on train fares. But how much longer will my present job last? I have moved something like eighteen times in the past twenty years, and when I move again, I want to stay put for a substantial period of time.

Even my dreams are dull as boiled cabbage. I used to dream richly and vividly of mosques and Buddhist temples, and of being accompanied by spirit people into worlds beyond this one. Spectacular stuff, it used to be. What did I dream last night? 1) Two brown paper parcels thud through the letter box. They are the books from Amazon that I ordered on Monday. This dream may well come true today, if the post office is working on time. 2) I’m in the office of the course director. We move a table from one side to the other. That’s it. We are a far cry from the gorgeous mosaics, glowing tapestries, drifting incense smoke and sonorous chanting of sutras that I used to see and hear in dreams in the early nineties, for example, following the death of a friend in a car smash. Of course I don’t want someone to die simply to spice up my nocturnal personal entertainment system, but come on, does it have to be this mind-numbingly banal?

Life’s like a permanent Monday morning these days.

Right, I’m the absolute kiss of fucking death today, so you have permission to go and find something more cheerful to read. Cut along.

Dreams then...

...dreams now.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Jesus is, like, so awesome?

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Memoirs of a Teacher Trainer III

The-Best-Way-to-Teach-English! Παιδιά, το βρήκαμε επιτέλους!

‘Audio Lingual Method’ proclaimed a sign outside a language school (frontistirio) in Kavala in 1985. I’m not sure if this blandishment was successful in packing in the punters or indeed whether anyone took any notice of it. It is open to doubt that even the school owner knew what the audio-lingual method was, for it had fallen into disuse as an exclusive approach to language teaching a good twenty years earlier. It was rather like a doctor proudly advertising leeching and cupping. That didn’t matter, though. Any Greek language school faces incredibly stiff competition and needs to put up a bit of front. If you scan the signage outside many a frontistirio, you’ll see that the owner is a ‘Degree holder from the University of Cambridge’ (Πτυχιούχος του Πανεπιστημίου του Κέιμπριτζ) Don’t be fooled. She has probably never set foot in Cambridge, but she has passed an international exam known as Certificate of Proficiency in English, which is set by Cambridge ESOL, an affiliate organisation of the University of Cambridge. The school owner’s glory is thus only of a dimly reflected kind. Don’t begrudge her this; she has vicious competition, a family to feed, teachers to pay and extortionate overheads of various sorts, so slightly adjusting the lighting this way may help just a bit.

Once upon a time, the brightest feathers in a school’s cap were young native speaker teachers. Every school wanted one, which is why I wound up in Kavala in 1985. It didn’t matter to most schools what your qualifications were or weren’t, so long as your first language was English and you didn't drool or slur your words. Now, many of those young people who left their own countries to drift about the world tended not to give high priority to teaching. Their priority was drifting around the world, and teaching - or occupying classrooms under that pretext - funded this. Their number included quite a few misfits who hadn’t been able to hack it at home: people with chronically itchy feet, people filled with inchoate longings for… something, y'know?... I dunno, just something… and serious piss-artists. They were not, in many cases, people you should entrust with teaching kids whose parents want them to pass exams. Schools could always rely on this odd short-sightedness on the parents’ part; ‘he’s English, so he must be able to teach English.’ What would they have said if someone asked ‘well, you’re Greek, so how would you go about teaching Greek?’ Most would have confessed that they wouldn’t know where to begin, but nobody ever framed the question. Parents shelled out to have their kids taught by people who had no more idea how to teach than they had about performing open heart surgery.

The idea that any mugwump who speaks a language can teach that language is gradually dying out, but not yet extinct. It was alive and well when I returned to Greece in 1990, qualified and evangelical, this time to work as a trainer of teachers. My first group of trainees were bewildered at the idea that one might plan a lesson. Why would you need to do that? Had the language changed since the last time they taught this particular structure? Anyway, how could you know what questions students might have? This was my first experience of the powerful resistance on the part of some Greek teachers to what they thought were new ideas. Some took to the freshness of the modern, eclectic approach immediately, but others dug in their heels and refused to budge. An extreme case was Sotiris. The director of the branch where he… ummm, taught, called and asked if I might observe him and give him a few pointers, as his students were complaining about him. So I went and watched him do a session on reported speech, an area of grammar much beloved of pedants, because it involves tinkering with tenses, if you want it to. Actually, the area of reported speech that really is worth looking at is the so called reporting verb – tell, warn, advise, threaten, and so on, as this is indicative of the speaker’s attitude - far more interesting that changing this tense to that. Teaching the tense changes is pretty much a waste of time, if you ask...

But I digress. Sotiris was a lugubrious individual with a droning voice, and his class of about seven young adults had to spend most of the lesson attempting to read his mind. I mean, try this. On the board, Sotiris writes:

‘Mmmm! Wonderful! Delicious!’ he said, as he sampled the cookies.

‘Now, what is the reporting verb?’ Sotiris asks, sadly.

There is a long silence, as all involved are thinking ‘fucked if we know, Sotiri*, but if we sit here quiet for a few minutes, no doubt you’ll tell us.’

‘OK’ he sighs, and under the first sentence writes:

With repeated exclamations of delight, he emphasised how delicious the cookies were.

Everyone writes this down, maybe wondering how the hell they were supposed to arrive at that answer, but also possibly feeling stupid because they didn’t. I can’t remember what sort of written feedback I gave him. Where do you start? All I remember is that he had a major fit, angrily rejecting my every suggestion as unworkable, patronising and stupid. You win some, you lose some.

Towards the middle of the nineties, things picked up considerably. Teachers began to get more interested in knowing more about what they doing, but with some, old habits died hard. I remember a lovely, friendly, bouncy young woman whose classroom manner was wonderfully kind and humorous, but who just couldn’t come out of traditional frontistirio mode. Why, I asked, did you spend an entire hour thrashing English irregular plurals? I mean, just how much time can you spend talking meaningfully about children, sheep, mice and teeth? Do you think kids in twentieth century Piraeus could possibly manage without knowing ox and oxen? If the criterion for choice of language to teach is simply ‘because it’s there’, why not chuck in kine and brethren for the sake of completeness?

The Hellenic love affair with grammar at the expense of vocabulary and skills work**continues, even if it has cooled off a little of late. The mind-bendingly dull grammar practice books of the seventies have given way to some cutsie new versions with colourful pictures, but the exercises remain just as they were, pure chloroform. Since untrained teachers lack ideas for presenting and practising grammar in engaging and entertaining ways, all they can do is try to sugar the pill. Nauseating attempts are made at jollying things along, as parents might persuade toddlers to eat - finish your greens and you'll be able to see Noddy and Big Ears again. 'Hurray for English! We are curious about lots of things! So we can use the present continuous to ask all about what all our friends are doing! Youpee!!!'*** The best (?) example of this genre is a series of books with the truly desperate title of 'Granny Grammar in Joy Castle'.

The latest must-have, I saw last week, is not a callow native speaker who's stopped off in town for a while on his way to India, but an interactive smartboard. School owners all over Greece are shelling out a fortune on these. If Frontistirio Papahatzipatata-Johnson down the road has one, then ‘Glossolalia’ is going to have to get one as well, or maybe even two. I almost hope that this Keeping Up with the Papadopouloses is the reason for the proliferation of smartboards, rather than any residual belief that we have finally hit upon the Best Way to Learn English - we gave up on that one yonks ago, didn't we? (Please tell me we gave up on that one yonks ago?) Of smartboards, what shall be said? They’re alright, I suppose. Teachers who use visual aids can carry them around on a memory stick instead of in a heavy file, and there may be less photocopying to do these days, but if a kid is eight years old and his classrooms all have smartboards, well, smartboards are just part of the furniture, not necessarily more interesting or motivating than blackboards were to his grandparents. (Maybe adult classrooms could be fitted with blackboards now, so as to look chicly retro.) School owners, ρε παιδιά, invest in, motivate and educate your teachers first, sod the smartboards, the smartboards can wait.

* Most Greek male names end in 's'. Drop this when addressing the man directly.
**Skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
*** This is Greek for 'yipee!'. The more linguistically able among you might have deduced this from context.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Busman's Holiday

A TP is a teaching practice, and every trainee teacher has to do several under the eye of a tutor. In a prescriptive, authoritarian, test-driven educational context like that of Greece, TPs tend to freak teachers out, and knickers will often get twisted to elastic-snapping point in the days leading up to someone’s first attempt. It doesn’t matter how helpful and approachable tutors may be, the teacher secretly feels that it is she, and not her teaching, that will be weighed in the balance and found wanting. I used to reassure gibbering rookies that it didn’t matter if they missed a stage, fluffed the instructions, mispronounced a word or found they were a photocopy short, as the students would walk out of the classroom alive, despite the gaffes. This is one important respect in which teaching differs from, say, brain surgery, so for fuck’s sake relax, you neurotic bitch. This sort of reassurance convinces nobody, though. TPs are the bane of most trainees’ lives, at least in the early stages of a course.

The bane of my life was getting to the schools, or frontistíria as they are called in Greek. Before the opening of the Athens metro, we relied entirely on taxis. You stood at the traffic lights at an intersection and when a taxi came by, you hollered your destination through the window if you could get close enough. Most drivers responded with barely perceptible movements of the eyebrows for ‘no’ or ‘get in’, and it took years of practice to distinguish one from the other. Once you got into a cab, the responsibility for arriving at your destination was assumed to be yours, not the driver’s, as they never had maps, sat navs were still to come, and they knew the city only in broad outline. In the nineties I spent what must have amounted to several weeks of my life hailing taxis and sitting in them, watching the metre whiz round whilst the driver stopped at every kiosk and kafeneion* to ask directions to the place I needed to be at within the next ten minutes. These were the nice drivers. You could just as easily happen upon some miserable git who would lose his temper and treat you as a time-waster because you couldn’t supply exact directions to the school. After an altercation with one such, fuck it, I got angrily out of the car and decided to walk, despite not having a clue where I was. A scowling old woman was standing near me as the taxi made off.

‘Is this Kamateró?’ I asked her.

‘No’ she said, crossly.

‘Where’s Kamateró?’ I persisted.

‘Αλλού! Somewhere else!’ she replied, and stalked off.

Eventually we decided that we needed to get our own A-Ω and photocopy the relevant pages before setting off on a TP expedition. I never got over a slight feeling of apprehension when setting out, though: about being late, about endless traffic jams, and about the querulousness of Athenians and their taste for conflict. By the end of the decade, I would set off early and walk almost any distance to a school to avoid all such hassles.


Last week I was in Athens once again, and scheduled to do a TP in one area at five in the evening and another at eight in the back-arse of beyond, just as in the good old days. I had been told by the teacher that the second school was ‘quite a way’ from the metro station but remembering that young Athenian ladies are usually disinclined to travel more than a couple of blocks under their own steam, I decided the distance was probably negligible and I’d walk from the metro to the school. It took me fifty minutes in the rain. People I stopped to ask directions raised their eyebrows and said ‘it’s a long way, get the trolley!’ but I persevered and still arrived half an hour early.

The school was down a little alley way off a small square and possibly the best-hidden frontistirio in Athens. Where the hell did they get students from? I went in and there was nobody visible, but school was in session, as evidenced by the sound of young female teachers doing what a colleague used to call their ‘balcony voices’, i.e., addressing the small class at the same decibel level one would employ from the fifth floor to engage an interlocutor at street level. Volume replaces classroom management. After a few minutes the school owner appeared, shook my hand and asked me if I wanted a drink. This was very hospitable of him and I would have loved to accept, but I decided professionalism required that I refrain from breathing Jack Daniels over the kids, so I asked for tea instead. I’ve just remembered that there is some busy-body EU directive that forbids smoking and alcohol in schools, and am pleased to see that the Greeks are ignoring this interference with life's small comforts, just as I expected they would.

The lesson. Well, I can’t go into detail. There’s no educator's Hippocratic oath or pedagogical omertá that prevents me from doing so, but let’s have a little scruple here, served with whipped squeam and sprinkles of tact. It wasn’t out of the top drawer, but it was a first attempt by someone who has the potential to be very good. It was the kind of teaching we had to call ‘traditional’ when I was training people full-time. The teacher did all the talking, all the explaining, all the recapping, all the work. A tedious exercise from a tedious book was done by asking a student to do one question, then asking another student to do the next, and so on. The result was that some of the kids got bored and restless, some just copied down what they heard, and only a couple were engaged and ready for more challenging stuff. Flawed, but not a complete waste of everyone’s time... only of most people’s. I can’t pass it. Still, I don’t recall passing anyone’s first TP.

The nice school owner had called a taxi for me when I came out of the lesson. He repeated his offer of Jack Daniels, which again I politely turned down, showing quite commendable restraint, I think. So I got driven to the metro at Agios Antonios, thence to Fix, where in driving rain I miraculously got straight into a taxi at the traffic lights and was in Palio Faliro by ten. I showered off the acid rain and had a long-awaited Jameson’s or three before dinner (I love to dine late) deciding in the whiskey glow that it hadn’t been a bad kind of a day, at all at all.


Kafeneion: spartan coffee shop patronised by elderly gentlemen playing cards or backgammon over tiny cups of tarry coffee.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Fish Dish

Spectators at the feast

I got home this afternoon after a week in Athens and eight hours of taxi, plane, tube and train and I’m fucking knackered. Not only that, I’ve brought back with me a vicious head and chest cold and I feel like death. I had a nice week notwithstanding, so no complaints. I stayed and worked with a friend, Danae, who runs training courses for teachers, and with her sharp aperçus on language and teaching and her expertise in linguistics, my brain, which went onto automatic and atrophied when I left teacher training for straight classroom teaching in 2002, has expanded to something like its proper size, I think. As well as producing gems of wisdom on applied linguistics, Danae produces generous amounts of delicious home-cooked food. I haven’t verified this yet – actually can’t bear to – but my waistline has expanded in the course of the week along with my brain. I can feel the excess flesh bobbling when I turn over on the bed, I know it’s fucking there, I just don’t want to see.

I’m too brain-dead to write much at the moment, so I’m just going to give you a recipe I picked up this week. It’s Turkish, for anything I know to the contrary, as Danae was brought up in Istanbul. It usually forms part of a mezé, which is an array of little hot and cold dishes all presented at once, but there’s no reason not to serve it on its own, as I purpose to do shortly.

Right, now pay attention. Take as much flaky white fish as you feel like eating, and cook it. If you have more confidence than me, do it in the oven. I’m always scared of ballsing up the timing, so tonight I just brought some vegetable stock to the boil, chucked in my haddock, covered the pan, removed it from the heat and let the fish cook in its own steam, à la chinoise. Now while this is going on, you take some or all of the following herbs and greenery: parsley, dill, coriander, chives, spring onions and celery, and chop them finely. We are not doing a poncy little scattering just for pretty, we’re making these herbs a feature, so be very generous. Drain the fish, reserving the stock. Put the fish in a deep dish. Then, as Jamie Oliver always says, ‘literally’ chuck the herbs over it, and then slather the whole shoot extravagantly with the best extra virgin olive oil you can lay your hands on. Throw in plenty of lemon juice and some salt if you are not worried about your blood pressure the way I am. You are going to serve this cold, so set it aside. It will keep quite well in the fridge for a day or two, and may well improve with the keeping. It obviously won’t improve the waistline, given that amount of olive oil, but it will be good for your arteries, so you’ll just have to calculate the risk.

This evening I chucked some chilli flakes into the fishy stock, and used it to make couscous to accompany the fish. I roasted a red pepper to go with it as well, and hope there is enough flavour in the fish, herbs, olive oil, chilli and smoky pepper to penetrate the fug of this damned cold.

Καλή όρεξη.

'OK, it looks nice enough, but in future perhaps we could avoid the appearance that the dish we are plugging has been set down at a party and forgotten about, hmmm?'

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Communication Breakdown II

I was once told the story of a Japanese student in the UK who was picked up from the station by the English lady with whom she would be lodging.

‘Did you come here to die?’ the landlady asked cheerfully.

The Japanese girl was understandably nonplussed.

‘To die?’ the landlady repeated, helpfully. ‘Choose-die? Twenny-noinf?

Well, eventually the Japanese student cottoned on that ‘day’ and ‘die’ sound very similar in the South East of England, and that the landlady was asking how long she had been in the country, not how much more time she hoped for in this sublunary world. This sort of thing must be happening all over the planet every day, as language students arrive in their country of study and meet their first native speaker who is not a teacher. When I went to live France at eighteen, I believed I spoke pretty good French, but my first three weeks in Carcassonne were a real eye and ear opener. I hardly understood a word anyone said. Before long though, I was delighting in the local accent and using it myself so as to feel less like an outsider. Now I like to hear students using stuff they’ve picked up from their host families or people they work with, as it shows they're noticing and integrating. Brazilians calling people ‘silly buggers’, Venezuelans who insert the word ‘bloody’ before a noun to give it emphasis, and the Saudi boy last year who would interlard his presentations with ‘you get me?’ ‘Yeah?’ and ‘innit?’, all good learners who feel comfortable with their new linguistic persona.

On Diploma courses for teachers we spend a fair bit of time persuading new teachers that misunderstandings need not stem from mistakes in pronunciation, lack of grammar or insufficient vocabulary. They need not stem from language at all. Some teachers take a bit of persuading here, because there is often an assumption that if you teach enough grammar, comprehension will automatically follow. Another story that did the rounds in EFL circles some years ago shows you how wrong this is. A Thai girl who was being inducted into the routines of her host family was asked by her landlady on what day she would like to take her bath. Like the Japanese girl, the Thai girl had a WTF? moment here. In Thailand, bathing is a necessity and a pleasure, and confining it to one day a week or even one time a day would be unthinkable. (I hope it would be here too nowadays – this is an old story.) Anyway, the Thai girl understood every word her landlady said, but hadn’t a bloody clue what she meant. This happens a lot.

I did a session with some Greek teachers to try to demonstrate this problem and how we can try to overcome it. I had a text from an advanced level course-book that had been taken from The Financial Times. Some of the teachers would be expected by their school owners to do this text with teenage students, God help us. A well-known writer on matters pertaining to computers had had some problems with computer hardware, and decided that she would order replacements under an assumed name, so that the companies would not give her preferential treatment. Thus she got the same delays and hassles as anybody else would, and this was the subject of her article, in which she expressed understanding of the companies’ problems whilst taking them to task for not foreseeing them. I asked about the writer’s attitude in the article.

‘God, she feels so BAD!' said Elina. 'It’s terrible for her, terrible! She’s so frustrated, she can’t, can’t get what she wants, they’re not listening, nobody’s listening, and it’s like she’s standing there, she’s looking at herself in the mirror and going WWWwwwwWHHHHHAAAAAAArrrrRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!’

There was a pause for this to sink in.

There was only one native speaker in the group and she and I looked at each other in surprise. To us, the writer’s tone was calm, measured and self-assured as she told the hardware firms exactly what they should be doing and why. Maybe this was not dramatic enough for Greece, where any opportunity for a barney is eagerly taken up.

‘OK then, smart arse, what do you need to do to avoid this kind of misinterpretation?’

Well, you decide who the writer is addressing, what expectations that audience has, why they might be reading the article or extract, and devise questions and discussion topics to bring the students minds as close as possible to that of the implied reader. Then you get them to read the text and answer any questions that might accompany it. Contrary to what students often think, the questions are intended to guide them to understanding, not to catch them out. And if you are thinking of doing a text from the Financial Times with your teenage students, I strongly recommend that you ditch it and think again.

Yesterday I ended up doing a couple of very boring texts with my intermediate group. Normally I would just have skipped them, but so as not to leave the tail end of the unit dangling for the next teacher to pick up, I ploughed on. The texts were about Slow Food, and the movement for Slow Cities. The idea was that students in pairs would take a text each and report to the other about what they’d read. The Slow Food movement began, we were told, when this bloke called Carlo Petrini saw that a MacDonald’s had opened in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and was saddened by the vogue for fast, mass produced food. He now promotes leisurely eating en famille, with intelligently selected and sympathetically cooked local produce. I knew that the students all came from cultures that valued food and leisure and time with family, and so I spent a while banging on about and eliciting their views on stress, life ruled by the clock, the perils of fast food, and all the rest of this stuff so beloved of adult EFL course-books. Then they got to read the texts. What I had failed to notice was the name of the place where Petrini saw the offending MacDonald’s. All the students who read that text assumed that ‘Piazza’ was a variant spelling of ‘pizza’, and that a Piazza di Spagna was something like a Margharita or a Quatro Formaggi. That's all it took. As I listened to their summaries of the passage, one misinterpretation pranged the tail-lights of the other until we had a pile-up: Petrini had opened a rival establishment opposite MacDonald’s and flogged slow-cooked pizzas sprinkled with delicious local cheese that was apparently very popular with children, as whole families flocked to enjoy them instead of ordering Big Macs, and everybody was happy except MacDonald’s, and serve them right, American imperialist bastards.

Oh, well. I moved on swiftly to a safe pronunciation exercise.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Arrested Development

I don’t know if there is any research on this, but it is my experience that adults entering adult education after a few years away from learning often revert to an earlier stage of their mental development. The classroom, the desks, the whiteboard, the creature called a teacher, all these set up resonances in the brain from the last time they were surrounded by these things, and suddenly they are sixteen again, although they were over thirty when they entered the room. Sébastien, I have not forgotten you after six years, and now, via Blogger, God has delivered you into my hands.

I was doing a lesson on reported speech, that non-area of English grammar beloved of the kind of teacher in other countries who wants to show students that he didn’t get Cambridge Proficiency for nothing. Reported speech needs to be glossed over and goosed up if it is not to bore the pants off all concerned. It depresses grammatophobes and provides pedants with rich nit-pickings. Break a rule that the pedant has memorized, and you get the smart-arse piping up with ‘but my teacher have said me that…’

Shut the fuck up,’ you tell him kindly. ‘Yo teacher din’t know nothin ‘bout dis shit. And yes, that was a double negative. No reason in language or logic why you shouldn’t double a negative, despite what you might have heard. I could go into this, but as I see it, we’re doing reported bloody speech my way, or am I mistaken?’ This usually puts them in their place. You can take the caring and sharing thing too far.

Anyway, I had this communication game up my sleeve for some real practice of reported speech, involving summary and paraphrase of utterances, rather than slavish changing of tenses and pronouns. Sébastien was in his thirties and really rather tasty - the photo above is not at all unlike him. He was attractive only until he opened his mouth, though. He sat there with a face as long as a gasman’s Mac while I set up the game. Seeing he was sulking extravagantly, I took him aside, adopted my best bedside manner and started to explain to him the rationale for the activity. My bedside manner was belied by the fact that I was biting a small piece of wood at the time. (I wonder if this small piece of wood was actually provided for the purpose, as otherwise I could not christen it. It just sat there on top of the radiator)

'J'ai compris, mais j'ai pas envie'* he said, with that gallic pout + shrug that makes you (or me) want to work him over with a tennis racket strung with piano wire. You can’t let students go unchallenged - or unsoothed I suppose it should be really - if they behave this way, so later I asked him kindly ‘alors, mon brave, quel est ton problem, cock, pourquoi tu ne gets pas stuck in comme tout le monde, qui est-ce qui a rattled ton cage, huh?’

'Ma famille en France' he say me, 'ave a problem.'

Yep, and you want to make sure we all feel as pissed off as you do.

Later the class was in the computer lab to do research for presentations. Sébastien sat at a terminal which did not immediately respond, so he slapped the keyboard in a huff and got out his laptop, despite the large sign above his terminal saying:


I point to this, provoking more snorts and shrugs. He sits at the adjacent terminal, which does not respond within ten seconds, so he has another fit of snorts. He decides to go to the other lab downstairs. I ask why. 'Ça marche pas, ça marche pas!'* he huffs, indicating the computers, his intonation suggesting a long and exasperating list of things sent (by me) to try him. Anyway, eventually he gets going, but refuses to speak English to anyone, including the uncomprehending Korean girl next to him whom he addresses in French all the time. Perhaps he imagines this makes him seem even more attractive. It does not. Pour draguer les minettes, you need to be nice, mon cher. The girl humours him distractedly, as one being pestered by someone else's toddler.

At the end I announce that the presentations will be tomorrow and Sébastien crows 'toomorreau?!!? Demain on s'en va!* Ha ha!' Music to my fucking ears, cock, I thought. This bloke, remember, was thirty-two, not sixteen, and had chosen to come here but still refused to speak English, and puffed and snorted at every activity proposed.

Today there was Hassan, who is also thirty-two going on sixteen. He is new to me, just arrived in my group from another, whose members were no doubt glad to see the back of him. He is required to stay with us for longer than he wanted to, which understandably pissed him off, but a military man must take orders without question and preferably without staging a three-week long sulk. He spent all morning smirking scornfully at me and raising his eyebrows in sophisticated deprecation of the sheer waste of time I was putting him through. During a discussion, I was listening and noting errors in vocabulary and pronunciation for feedback after. Noticing this, Hassan, who is advanced in level, began to talk like some lower-intermediate weez zer haccent of Charles Aznavour. Goddammit, the lad came this close to getting my knee right in his bijoux de famille.

A Happy Ending

At the end of the morning session, the blokes told me they had permission to take the afternoon off to watch the footy. So I ran joyfully for the next train home.


* I understand, I just don't feel like it.
* That doesn't work.

* We're leaving tomorrow.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Stage Fright

For reasons too personal and too tedious to relate, I was not happy at school, I was unhappy at university, and I did not enjoy the year-long diploma in English Language Teaching that I did in 1987 – 88. I have therefore never really been happy in an educational setting. Now, given this admission and the way I have earned a living for the better part of thirty years, some questions inevitably present themselves, perhaps the most obvious being ‘why the bloody hell did you become a teacher, you dozy pillock?’

I’ve never met anyone who took a conscious decision to become a teacher of EFL, although I suppose there must be some people out there who did. Everyone I know drifted into it, the way people say they wind up in drugs or prostitution. The profession, if it is a profession, was at one time full of ‘resting’ actors, journalists between jobs and recent graduates who had not yet figured out what they were doing on this planet. When I got my first of many temporary teaching jobs in Cambridge in the early eighties, I fell into the latter category. The school, which is now probably invisible under rampant ivy, was owned by two elderly, tweedy queens who no doubt thought themselves very discreet. I have absolutely no idea why they employed me. The only other teacher was a softly spoken, dark-jawed and arty-looking young man with long hair. He was quite good-looking. I probably looked passably cute in my rugby shirt in those days, too. Perhaps this explains why we were both there. I at least had no teaching qualifications and no idea how to teach. The other bloke liked to use the word ‘structured’ a lot, in relation to lessons, homework, course books, etc., so he might have had some course or other under his belt. (As well as having no clue about teaching, by the way, I also had no clue about rugby or any desire to learn – I thought the shirts looked good on me, though.)

Things muddled along in this vein for some time, and I grew heartily to dislike all those converted Victorian and Edwardian houses in Cambridge and the south of England that were full of young Italians, Spaniards and Scandinavians every summer. The premises were usually unbearably stuffy, and the persistent gloomy thought that I really did not know what the fuck I was about, while everyone else did, made the days seem very long and uncomfortable. It was permanent, sweaty stage-fright. Long after this dismal period was over, and I was well-qualified and training teachers in Greece, I had a recurring dream. In it, I had left Greece, and was back in England in yet another stuffy Edwardian building, now the Panglossia School of Languages or whatever, with its inevitable charmless appurtenances of library, cafeteria, noticeboards, photocopier and pigeon holes, and I was desperate to get back to Greece at all costs. Those hundreds of lathophobic aphasic days of school, university and early teaching career have left a deep impression! Again, I realise that although I called this blog ‘lathophobic aphasia’ because I thought it a laughable piece of pretentious jargon, the phrase only stuck in my mind because it describes a feeling I have known well for a long time.

I’m remembering all this because tomorrow, unless there is another fall of snow to paralyse the railways, I am back at work for the first time in three weeks, and the prospect does not please me one bit. The gloom goes a bit beyond the inevitable disgruntlement you feel at resuming the routine after a long period of pleasing yourself; it’s more like the feeling of threat I used to feel as a kid on the eve of going back to school. I tell myself that this feeling belongs back in the nineteen seventies and that the context is now entirely different, not even comparable, but that will not dispel the oppressive sense of some impending test that has been with me nearly every Sunday evening for thirty nine years. I just have to ignore it as I would some trivial, irritating ache or pain.

My goodness me, we are getting gloomy, boys and girls, aren’t we? Now, there’s enough of that. Next Saturday, I’m off to Athens for a week to do a bit of teaching and a lot of eating in tavernas and meeting old friends, so the real time to be gloomy is not until January 24th! And at least that is the day before payday.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Genesis 27:11

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Alan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe, circa 1960, with a brilliant parody of a vacuous Sunday sermon. Here we have the vague uplift, the vague exortation to ponder, ummmmm, something, the vague attempt to make our everyday experiences seem more... more, well, meaningful, really, if you like, I suppose. Every morning on BBC Radio 4 at 7.50, you can hear a little homily in much the same vein, but in this case totally unironic. Every speaker booked for 'Thought for the Day' should be required to watch this clip the night before and at least consider calling in sick.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Books do Mess up a Room

I stayed home all day yesterday. Well, the weather forecast was for snow, ice, mayhem and misery all day, everywhere. I had no desire to be stranded in the city where I work all evening, so I arranged cover and stayed in. At about one thirty, I took an ice-pick, supplies of pemmican and Kendal mint cake and trudged up to Marks and Sparks for a bottle of wine. I skied back home and didn’t stir out again.

In winter I confine myself to the bedroom, which is small and easy to keep warm. It is a bit of a mess. I desperately need a new bookcase, as the books are now two layers deep on the shelves of the one I bought last year, and there are cairns of books in corners and under tables. If I do buy a new one, though, there is the problem of where the hell to put it. I’m also bugged in here by the naff little phosphorescent stars that some previous tenant stuck all over the ceiling, so that after lights out, the room looks like a tatty Santa’s grotto. I tried removing them, but the paint comes off with them, so they have stayed put.

One obvious solution to the book problem would be to stop buying books. After all, I have read so few of them through and have such a huge pending pile it’s a bit daft to keep on ordering more. Three new ones came clattering through the letterbox yesterday, and I looked at them wishing that somehow it were possible to know all about them without the bother of actually reading them. If you could just gulp them all at once… I remember my nephew at three years old when a big dollop of trifle was sloshed into his bowl said ‘can we have some more when we’ve finished this?’ before he’d taken the first spoonful. I’m a bit like that with books these days.

I have the concentration span of a bluebottle, and I blame the internet. (Of course – it’s not my bloody fault.) The lure of the computer is irresistible to me, and there’s this constant feeling that one is missing something. When I open You Tube and look at the selection of videos it recommends I watch, I get the same sort of greedy paralysis as I do over books. There’ll be Matt Dillahunty dismembering some dim-witted Jesus freak on The Atheist Experience, some other christer denouncing homosexuality, some Iranian musicians, some prancing shirtless twinks and Richard Dawkins dissing God botherers, and I want to have seen them all, rather than watch them one by one. I get started on Dawkins but can’t concentrate on what he’s saying because at the same time I’m intensely curious about the music and itching to ogle the boys. Dammit, I should have gone to work. At least there I have to focus for a few hours and all this irritating, enervating choice is removed.


Via the comments on You Tube I found a blog which is a minor masterpiece of arse-backward reasoning. In it the writer advances the peculiar theory that homosexuality and racism stem from the same impulse, i.e., dislike of The Other. He offers the thought that anyone who opposes racism must, if s/he is consistent, oppose homosexuality and gay rights as well. This was so utterly batty that I did actually slow down and read the whole thing. Why, I asked the writer, do you assume that gay people fear and hate the opposite sex? Do gay men routinely abuse and denigrate women, as nigger-haters and paki-bashers revile black people? Do they derive a sense of identity from openly loathing the female sex? Of course they don't. Most of my friends are female, and in my experience at least, gay men and straight women often get on very well precisely because there is no sexual attraction to complicate the relationship. I’m gay not because I had some bad experience with women, or because I was recruited, or because Satan entered me through the rectum or any of the other crackpot scenarios knocking about, but simply because whatever mental gizmo it is that causes men to desire women is absent from my brain. I just don't experience hetero desire. Homosexuality may have some specific cause, but I couldn’t care less what it is. Anyway, if I am a racist, I am of that species of racist that likes, admires and enjoys the company of the ethnic group I despise.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Drop Taken

I got home yesterday after ten days away, first up north at my mother’s, then in Suffolk at my sister’s. I am hoping for a huge fall of snow tonight, one big enough to paralyse all rail services between here and the city where I work, just because I am sick to death of trains and glacial station platforms.

I drank a lot this Christmas, even by my standards, and as always in January, I am thinking about cutting down. Ah, fuck it, who am I kidding? Really, with booze, it’s all or nothing for me. I’m pondering this move over a large glass of chilled Manzanilla right this minute. It has a sea-salt tang and a hint of new bread and toasted almonds, it adores the cheese I’m nibbling with it, and its utter purple-prosy, pre-prandial rightness on this icy night makes me wonder how one could ever forgo it. This is the thing about booze for me and a million other soaks: never drinking again is a gloomy prospect indeed. Someone (sorry, Mr Someone, I can’t remember who you were) said that when he finally understood that he faced the choice of abjuring the booze or present death, it was like sitting in an art gallery watching workmen carry away the paintings, leaving him nothing to look at but bare, white walls. Absolutely. Wouldn’t it be like confinement to every dull, dreary, soulless thing? Boiled turnip. Military brass bands. Carry On films. The Cambridge Evening News. Golf. God's cock, get me another sherry.

Ex-boozers, however, are often very successful people. I have a friend whose mum was a dedicated piss-head. As little kids, this friend and her brother were used to getting themselves ready for school because their mother, legless on matutinal sherry, could be of no assistance. Her mum did eventually knock the booze on the head and she is now a star turn as a globe-trotting speaker for Alcoholics Anonymous. Another friend, Madeleine, spent a year or two lying on her living room floor arseholed on scotch, whilst her teenage daughter went wild all over London. Maddy is now dry and successful, as were the two people I met at the only A.A. meeting I have ever attended, convened by Maddy when she was in Greece. I did not do the ‘hi, I’m Steve and I’m an alcoholic’ bit. (‘Hi, Steve!’) The others' confessions of their actions when pissed made me realise I was not in their league. They had slept in the gutter, lost their friends, their wives, their kids and their homes,  started over from nothing in their forties, and prospered. What could I have said? ‘Well, y'know, I have a few drinks, go to bed, get up for work the next morning...’ No. If someone tells you they escaped from the Twin Towers and rebuilt their lives after breaking umpteen bones, you hardly feel like telling them you once had to climb in through the pantry window because you mislaid your keys.

It was the friend with the piss-headed mother who first pointed out to me how obsessive addicts can be; the single-mindedness of their focus is remarkable. It tends to be on whatever experience triggers their need to anaesthetise themselves with booze. Turn that focus away from booze or drugs onto something external and you have the makings of an artist, counsellor, entrepreneur or utter pain in the arse. It was not me she had in mind when she said this, but a mutual acquaintance whose dedication both to his job and to Johnny Walker was passionate, but the one got entirely in the way of the other.

I saw myself there, though, up to a point. Booze is a reward for a bad day, or a celebration of a good one. I want it, indeed expect it, in either case. It matters to me more than I want it to matter. There you go, a confession. First I have made.

The First Post

 Right, chuck those bloody Christmas cards, put the tinsel and baubles back in their boxes, that’s that over and done with for another year. I have a mercifully gradual re-introduction to the teaching treadmill this term, with only two days’ teaching this coming week. Then there's a full week, followed, Arctic weather and BA strikes permitting, by a week in Athens. Then it starts in earnest again with wall-to-wall English for Academic Purposes and a new crowd of Khalids, Khuluds, Ahmeds and Mohammeds.

I dreamed of teaching again last night. The classic teacher’s dream is of standing in front of a class with your dick hanging out and realising you have no notion as to how you got there. You have nothing prepared, and find yourself forced to busk, hands covering genitals, to an increasingly restive and unsympathetic audience. Last night’s version was a bit different. I started off with about fifteen students in a smallish room. Good: the ideal number and space for a trusted activity I had decided to trot out. Two of them I knew had done it before, but I decided I could accidentally-on-purpose overlook the fact, and count that their Arab respect for teachers would stop them drawing attention to my ‘mistake’. More students arrive. Sod! The classroom stretches to accommodate them and becomes L-shaped, and I peep tentatively round the corner to find that whole rows of new students are sitting there patient but unoccupied, awaiting instructions. Now the protean classroom is growing in all directions, and I’m facing what looks like a congregation in St Paul’s Cathedral. The bench upon which I and several teenage boys in shorts are sitting (how the hell did they get in?) rises into the air to afford an overview of the assembled multitudes. The boy on my right, who I note despite my vertigo and panic, has very nice legs, aims a kick at the boy on my left, wobbling our airborne bench and… I wake up.

Oh, Happy New Year, by the way.


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