Saturday, 27 February 2010

Penis power

OK, you've probably seen this video before. No doubt it has been blogged and tweeted endlessly and it's more than likely not for real, but I'm shoving it in here anyway. I can't find anything to say for the time being, so it'll keep the blog ticking over, if nothing else. It's certainly the first and more than likely the last football video you will see on lathophobic aphasia.

I take no interest in sport and can't tell lacrosse from ping-pong. I wish I knew, or could even appreciate, what it is that makes so many men loyal to a team and how they can be moved to tears of joy or misery when it wins or loses. There's only one sporting event I might devote five or ten minutes to in the absence of anything better to watch. What's it called... not the high-jump... you know the one where magnificently proportioned boys in frontally well-filled speedos dive off a high board? That one. For me, it's more studying anatomy than watching sport. I couldn't care less who wins.

So, to the video. Artemis from Athens e-mailed it to me this morning. In a match between French teams AS Groville and FC Mufflins - both made-up names - a player begins to lose his shorts, and thereby displays a very nice bum, one that to the touch would be like india rubber under silk. He then appears to pull off the ultimate in macho feats by scoring a goal with his cock, un but avec la bite, though we must be sceptical here, as that would surely have been debilitatingly painful. Whether or not he actually scores it with his tackle, the goal is allowed, and this gives rise to what for me is the best part of the video, a protest where the umm, members of the opposing team drop their shorts and wave their tools at the ref. Imagine that over here. This wonderfully gallic, phallic form of protest would have British MPs calling for disciplinary action and sending players on courses in Appropriate Behaviour Awareness and bleating that these-young-men-should-be-more-responsible-in-their-position-as-role-models-for-boys, yada yada yada. Bah, c'est des conneries, tout ça! If defiant dick-waving were a regular feature of football matches, I'd start watching and would finally have some criteria for choosing a team to support. I suppose they'd have to change the name of the sport - shaftball, or something. Any suggestions?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Last drops

Life has been so very uneventful lately I wondered if I would ever manage to squeeze out another blog post. Here are the last drops of February.

After lobbying for some time to get bits of my flat re-decorated, I finally got the landlady to come and look at the place last Thursday. I was unable to be in, and so left her a note, detailing the bits I particularly wanted seeing to. The bedroom needed painting, I said, most especially the ceiling, which some previous tenant, a teenage Wiccan maybe, had adorned with naff little luminous stars that have been bugging me for four years. You couldn't remove the damn things without bringing the paint off with them. I told her the window frames needed repainting, or better still replacing, especially in the bathroom, as when you looked behind the blind you found the wood populated with thriving communities of black, white and purple fuzzy moulds that resisted all chemical preparations concocted to remove them. I received word that workmen would come today and see to these things. They have, after a fashion. The bedroom ceiling has been repainted, but not the walls. The bathroom window frames have been repainted, but no others. I have been taken so literally at my word that I despair of communicating in writing with the landlord and his lady wife again; I will have to do so in person. I mean, suppose someone goes on Ten Years Younger and Jan Stanek agrees to do her a boob job. She remarks in passing that her left knocker seems saggier than her right, and when she wakes up, she finds the left one is now perky but he's ignored the other and it still looks like a wind-sock. She'd be pissed off, and so am I.

Two weeks ago I blogged about a student whom I named Hassan. Last week the indisposition of one teacher necessitated re-jigging a few classes, and I was asked in a text message to combine groups A and B, instead of teaching just group B, while another teacher who shares my first name was asked to teach group C instead of group A. This is starting to sound like one of those Mensa questions, so to cut a non-story short, I was resigned to my Monday with Hassan, but saw the way out of it. I accidentally-on-purpose transposed my initials on the message (SB) and those of the other teacher (SH) and thus he got the pleasure of Hassan instead. This minor triumph over circumstances is the best thing that has happened to me this month, so you can see what sort of a month it has been.

Hassan was OK today. By this I mean that in four hours we had together, he bulldozed his way through discussions like a roaring boy of fifteen, despite being more than twice that age. He pissed off the other students more than he did me, though, so that's OK. I suspect Algerian discussions are like this most of the time, with everyone shouting simultaneously and using repetition in place of reason to hammer home a point. Nobody lets anyone else insert a word edgewise. I wonder other lecturers didn't start banging on the walls, complaining we were disturbing their students' sleep. I should have intervened more than I did, I suppose, and I suspect the other teachers would have called the proceedings to order far more often than I did, but it was so much like being back in Greece that for the most part I hardly noticed nobody was listening to anyone else.            

The train home was on time, and mysteriously, almost empty. Anyway, that's Monday over... FUCK! I never used to think like that!

Monday, 15 February 2010

White garlic

According to that unimpeachable source, your super, soar-away Sun, ‘experts say’ that this summer will be Britain’s hottest since records began 160 years ago. Nobody else is claiming anything like this, so it’s a Sun exclusive and I do hope they are wrong. I hate the heat and dash for the shady side of the street as soon as the sun comes out. If the temperature rises above 23 C, I feel exhausted by mid-morning, and my body feels like a lumpy sack dangling from my neck, to be dragged from stifling classroom to stifling office to stifling train. The Greek summer with its heatwaves of 40C and above was simply to be endured, and it was a huge relief in October when the first rains brought the blinding, itchy, scruffy, enervating season of kalokairi to a close.

Food has to work hard in the heat to make you feel like eating it, and I’ve been thinking about what to lay on to tempt the appetite when it’s knackered by a heat wave. I decided I’ll probably make some more ajo blanco, ‘white garlic’ a fantastic Spanish soup that you serve chilled – you and the soup. You needn’t sweat at all over this, since it requires neither cooking nor chewing, and it goes a treat with chilled dry sherry, something I’m very much into right now. I was out of the UK for 15 years and I have led a solitary and solipsistic life ever since I got back here, and it may be that ajo blanco is by now, like, you neigh, taytally yesterday. I like it, though, and it’s a while since I made some. If it is new to you, proceed in this wise.

First thing to do is select a sweltering hot day on which to serve it. Now, in Britain this could mean you won’t get to taste ajo blanco for a very long time, so you may want to consider how seriously you are prepared to take this particular stricture. On a day when the portents are favourable, assemble the ingredients. My recipe calls for day old, good quality white bread. This poses another difficulty for us here, because once you have mounted an expedition to find an establishment where ‘good quality bread’ may be used as an unironic collocation, it might be cold and grey the following day, so once again I’ll have to let you off if you don’t follow my requirements to the letter. You will also need some blanched almonds, some top-drawer extra virgin olive oil, plenty of ice-cold water, a splash of white wine vinegar, a fat clove of garlic and some salt.

Cut the crust off the bread and feed it to the birds, or otherwise dispose of it. Now run the naked white of the bread under the cold tap, squeeze out the moisture, and shove the bread into the goblet of a blender along with the almonds and garlic and vinegar. Adding iced water and olive oil, whiz the lot to a liquid the colour and thickness of single cream. Add salt until you are quite delighted. Put the soup in the fridge and keep it very cold until you are ready to serve it. When, after sufficient appetite-inducing chilled sherry, the time comes to eat, ladle the soup into chilled bowls and chuck a few halved, seeded and peeled grapes and an ice-cube or two into each one. If the thought of peeling grapes wearies you as thoroughly as it does me, throw in some balls of galia melon instead. I couldn't be arsed to peel a grape, but there's a certain innocent pleasure to be had from balling a melon.

I thought this soup would make a good starter to precede the fish dish I wrote about last month. I’ve been making fish this way a lot lately, accompanying it with roasted peppers and rice, which I cook in fish stock flavoured with bay leaves, smoked paprika, a small blob of tomato puree and a splash of dry white wine.

The ‘white garlic’ is for the future. It’s grey and damp and cold here now, and for me, it can stay that way as long as it likes.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Teaching Twerps

'My text this morning, gentlemen, is culled from English File upper-intermediate, unit two, section A. Its theme, much beloved of course-books for grown-ups, is national stereotypes. Flogged to death, if you ask me. Maybe you can help me see the issue in a new light, although I doubt that very much.'

I draw a cartoon of a City gent in bowler hat and pin-stripes on the board, and after eliciting or teaching what he is wearing and what newspaper he carries rolled up under his arm, I ask for adjectives to describe the English.

‘Hypocritical’ says Hassan, straight away.

‘OK.’ I write the word on the board and mark the stress pattern: ooOoo. ‘Any more?’ I ask, brightly.

‘Arrogant.’ Hassan again.

‘Right!’ Stress pattern: Ooo. Notice I am not rising to the bait.

‘Snob,’ Hassan offers.

‘Snobbish,’ I correct, sharply. I asked for fucking adjectives, didn’t I, you little shit? ‘Any others?'

‘Lazy.’ It’s Hassan.

‘Right’ I say, cheerfully.

‘Racist. Rude.’

‘Anything positive?’ I smile, to mask the fight going on in my brain between exitatory and inhibitory neurones, the yobs that would have me bawl him out and the middle-class timidities that think I'd probably better not, really.

‘Positive? No.’ he says, decisively. He’s miffed because I haven’t lost my rag.

I realise I am allowing one bumptious little twerp of thirty-five going on fifteen to dominate the group and to colour my entire perception of the group dynamics, so I had better get them working in pairs so that at the very least he can annoy somebody else for five minutes. I ask them to come up with a list of stereotypical profiles for the Irish, the Scots and the Americans.

‘I like the Scots,’ says Hassan, who has been in the UK for four months and is thus uniquely placed to offer analyses of the national character of our island’s peoples. Perhaps he suspects, mistakenly, that as an Englishman I don’t like the Scots, and that his championing of them will get on my wick.

‘Good. Tell Faisal why,’ I say sweetly.

When we come to reporting back, there’s an argument about whether ‘nationalistic’ is a positive or negative trait. Hassan would have it a virtue, and I say it’s a vice. I offer the old definition: a patriot loves his country whereas a nationalist hates everyone else’s. I attempt to explain that connotation is often a personal matter.

‘Well, you know more about it than I do,’ Hassan says dismissively, his tone suggesting he doesn’t believe that for a moment.

Some time ago I bought a book called ‘Dealing with People you Can’t Stand’, because for me there are quite a lot of people who come into that category. It’s an American publication intended to sell a simplistic system of personality types and their characteristic behaviour to managers, thus improving their ‘people skills’, for there’s nothing like putting people into categories to make them feel appreciated. People are seen as falling into distinct types, each represented by anecdotes along these lines:

Todd sure was getting on Nancy’s nerves with his constant carping about her work on RSS interlink cascade-feeding max-out strands! But when Nancy took time out to engage dynamically with Todd’s whole behavioural matrix, hey, it turned out he was a Second Level Ass-hat, who likely was carrying an undischarged Dickwad in his Empathetics Quadrant - so what else could she expect! From there on in, Nancy felt empowered to respond creatively to Todd’s dysfunctional socio-relational coping strategies.

Had it not been for the insights offered in this book, would I ever have succeeded in placing Hassan in the correct category, that of ‘Know It All’? I reckon I might.

The Know It All controls people and events by dominating the conversation with lengthy imperious arguments, and eliminates opposition by finding flaws and weaknesses to discredit other people’s points of view. Because the Know It All is actually knowledgeable and competent, most people are quickly worn down by their strategy, and finally just give up.’

God, how many of this sort have I met since 1978 when I went to Cambridge? Possibly hundreds, along with a related type, the Think They Know It All. They are usually, though not tautologically, male. (The biggest Know It All I have ever met is actually a woman.) It is my experience that the countries around the Mediterranean are the most fertile breeding grounds for the male of both types, but I’m open to contradiction here. My book is full of advice for dealing with Know It Alls, but I can’t be arsed to read it. Nothing riles a Know It All more than simply being ignored.

I must point out that 90% of my present students are delightful, and make Hassan seem all the more disagreeable.


P.S. Jan 2018. 'Hassan', older, wiser and almost certainly a father of small children, was killed in a helicopter accident last summer, along with two other members of that same class.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

As she is spoke

Larbi has a home-grown English grammar book that he brought with him from Libya. I had a look through it today while the class was occupied with some writing. Does anyone remember the old, the really old ‘Teach Yourself’ books? Well, this is the sort of thing we are talking about here. I had a ‘Teach Yourself German’ when I was about twelve. It dated from the nineteen-forties and studying it involved translating dozens of sentences about the interactions of apples, gentlemen, boys and bakers:

The baker’s boys have sent the gentlemen the apples.
The gentlemen receive apples from the baker’s boy.
Have the gentlemen sent apples to the baker’s boys?

And so on. It went on in this vein for a long time, which explains why I ditched it, and possibly why I've never really got on with German. Teach yourself books of this vintage presented sentences contrived to exemplify grammatical structures rather than real human speech. Famous examples of the genre are ‘the philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen’, ‘my sons have bought the mirrors of the Dukes’ and the old chestnut ‘la plume de ma tante’. Not that there is anything wrong with teachers making up sentences to exemplify grammatical structures; we do it all the time, though these days we do attempt some approximation to real life. Non-native speakers and less linguistically tuned-in native speakers often make a bit of a hash of this. Creating natural-sounding phrases on the spot that exemplify language as real people speak it is not at all easy to do, nor is it given to all to do it well. It’s easy to mock - so here goes.

Professor Al Whatsit, the author of Larbi's book, gives us: ‘that fellow was silly enough to make me leave the room. In case of coming, I shall forgive him.’ This is supposed to exemplify conditionals, I think. I reckon the professor wanted to teach us ‘if he comes back’ or more formally, 'should he come back, I’ll forgive him’. A further example strengthens this impression: ‘in case of going to the hospital, she would recover’. Now, this is probably unfair, but from the choice of examples I began to develop a mental picture of the bloke who wrote this stuff. I imagined a gentleman in portly, well-nourished middle age, immensely satisfied with himself, accustomed to deference and serenely assured that he cannot be wrong about anything. (I lived in a country well stocked with such types for fifteen years.) I mean, he obviously saw no reason to submit his manuscript to a native speaker for proof-reading. ‘She says that Sami will not come tomorrow, but I say that he shall.’ It shall be as you wish, sir.

The writer’s purpose was not, it seems, to teach the everyday language of the common folk. ‘Cover our food, lest flies should spoil it’ is a magisterial phrase in the section on subordinating conjunctions. Nothing wrong with that grammatically, but our man gives us no indication of style here. Good job it isn’t actually a phrase book, or we might get students asking waiters to tether their horses, and calling for capons and a pottle of sherris sack. No, scrub the sack, we are Muslims here, I was forgetting. There is some chilling military jihaddery: ‘they will have been holding their meeting when we attack them’ and ‘we are ready to give our blood as well as our money’. The grammar-freak’s favourite negative adverb with inversion construction is exemplified here with ‘hardly had he opened the door when they shot him’. Try getting Oxford University Press to include this sort of thing in their next bland-as-pineapple-yogurt international adult coursebook. No fucking chance. It'll be the usual bland whities doing the usual bland whitey things, burbling blandly about cell phones, sports and on-line dating.

Other little phrases struck me with their sound good sense: ‘a broken cup is useless’ . No arguing with that. ‘The earth is round in its total shape like an egg, but the earth seems flat’. Indeed it is, and indeed it does. Other phrases were mysterious: ‘green clouds were seen’ is given to exemplify the passive, and I am unable to explain this. Why green clouds? Is it an Arabic idiom? Am I missing some Libyan cultural reference? Or am I just being too literal? After all, there is little to motivate most of the other phrases the writer includes, of which the most puzzling was ‘the box is so narrow that his mother could not sleep inside it’. As I understand it, Muslims do not use coffins, so mum can’t be practising for her own funeral. Maybe it’s just a translation error, further evidence that our author thought proof-reading quite unnecessary.

I have some marking to do now, as the phrase ‘they blame him because he neglects his duties’ reminds me.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A day down the TEFL mines

Today was my first day back in the classroom in fifteen days, and what with Christmas, snow, a week in Athens and a chest infection, only the sixth day since mid-December. Yes, it’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to do it, but you do sometimes fail to see disaster up ahead if you are on auto-pilot. Linguistic pile-ups are OK; you can always sort them out. Culture clash is a bit harder to deal with. Once I had some Greek students who had to listen to a dialogue between a student and a prospective landlord. She was asking about renting a room in his house, and he was spelling out the house rules. The students understood the words they heard, but were utterly mystified as to what the bloody woman was doing. She wants to pay for a room in this guy’s house? What the hell for? In Greece you might do this if you were on a budget and wanted accommodation on one of the islands. You might possibly come to some arrangement of this nature if you were a street-walker looking for somewhere to turn a few tricks. But she’s a student; how come her parents are not anxiously looking round for a nice flat for her to live in, at their expense? I hadn’t anticipated this reaction, but you live and learn. Supposedly.

Today I sort of saw it coming but ploughed on anyway. I was teaching the so-called ‘third conditional’. For those of you at home who don’t have to worry about such things, here’s an example, spoken by a woman who had a heart attack 30,000 feet above Florida:

‘If those doctors hadn’t been on the plane, I would have died.’

It will readily be apparent, ladies and gentlemen, that we are concerned here with the hypothetical outcome of an actual past event, had certain conditions not obtained at that time. That those conditions did in fact obtain accounts for the happy outcome of the events under consideration. In due course we shall encounter modal verbs other than would appearing in the result clause, but these need not for the present detain us. Yes? Well, actually, this is easy enough. Everyone can understand the idea of ‘if this had happened, then that wouldn’t have’. Everybody gets legged up with the word order and the auxiliary verbs threaded along the sentence like beads on a string, but after a bit of practice it stops being confusing.

The book I’m using presents this structure via two true stories from the like of Hello magazine, one about the woman on the plane, and one about a bloke who flew from Australia to Yorkshire to surprise his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, only to discover that she had flown to Australia with the purpose of delighting him in the same manner. All this is so we can contextualise both the above example and this one: ‘If one of us had stayed at home, we would have met’. I don’t usually pay much attention to the teacher’s book, but today I noticed that it sugggested I might like to discuss good luck and bad luck as a lead-in, burbling on about horse-shoes and black cats and walking under ladders and stuff, before inevitably asking ‘what-do-people-believe-about-this-in-your-country-then?’ It was a good excuse to draw cartoons of black cats and broken mirrors on the board and do a little cultural comparison, I thought. Well, it soon became obvious that nobody could fathom what the hell I was on about. It seems that Saudi Arabians have no superstitions of this nature, or at least none they are prepared to discuss with outsiders. When I asked a Libyan lady, she just said piously, ‘effery thing come from Allah, so effery thing good.’ Thus the lead-in fell flat on its arse, and we just got stuck into the reading and grammar, probably with everyone wondering why I had bothered with all that crap about cats and horseshoes.

After this I saw that the reading text we were faced with was one of those American-style self-help articles presenting exercises to maximise your chances of meeting with good fortune. (‘Vary your routines! Think positive! Why not look on the bright side? If life hands you a bag of lemons, hey, make lemonade!’ and similar vapidities. I made that up, but you know the sort of stuff.) So, how do we lead into this? I drew two speech bubbles on the board with these statements:

1) Some people are lucky and some unlucky. That’s life.
2) It is possible to make yourself more lucky

and asked the students to decide which one they agreed with. They were unanimous in choosing number one. Fuck. I should have seen this coming, of course.Everything lies in the hands of Allah. 'Good luck, bad luck, neffer mind, coming from God’ they told me. (I long to ask, ‘is there anyone here who doesn’t swallow this shit?’ but of course I can’t.) Anyway, it should be obvious by now that the whole cheery, optimistic self-improvement message of the article fell on very stony ground indeed, and I just wrote the answers on the board and the text was shovelled up and disposed of as swiftly as was decently possible.

I had two TEFL MA students observing me. Fair dos, as I am observing them and passing judgement on their lessons the week after next. I don’t know if they spotted it, but after what proved to be a pointless lead-in, I managed to do an entire ninety minute lesson with almost no context for the language. It’s not something I’m going to let them get away with.

Monday, 1 February 2010

A nice night's entertainment

I had a bit of a moan about life in general the other day, and was nostalgic for the vivid dreams I used to behold, now largely superseded by sludgy grey affairs like grainy old amateur videos shot in a tool shed. If the standard of your dreams of late is not what you have come to expect, I recommend complaining, for things have picked up somewhat in the last few nights. Production values have improved and the scripts are more engaging.

Dream the first.

A world in which there are slithy tove-like creatures known as ‘turkey hooks’. From their umbrella-handle snouts, they emit trills and roulades that turkeys find quite irresistible. This world is therefore full of paired up turkeys and ‘turkey hooks’ strolling around, happily trilling and gobbling.

Dream the second.

I’m at a university, and this afternoon I have a private lesson with Ravi Shankar, but cannot be arsed to attend. I decide to text him to let him know I’m cancelling. How, I wonder, do I address him?

‘Dear Ravi’? Too familiar.

‘Dear Mr Shankar’? Too western.

‘Panditji’? Too grovelling and a bit self-conscious.

Dream ends before I can come to a decision.

In waking life I would make a very considerable effort to attend a meeting with Ravi Shankar, so my dream decision to casually put him off requires a bit of explanation, and I am evolving one.

Good. This is more like it - a nice, well-made little dream that entertains you while you’re watching, and gives you something to think about after.


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