Monday, 31 May 2010

Jesu, joy of man's desiring

I have this morbid fascination with Evangelical Christianity. As a teenager I got involved with Christians of that stripe, and for a year or two swallowed a lot of the poison they brew: there’s the obsession with sin and one’s own unworthiness, and the concomitant judgementalism. Then there’s the certainty that other belief systems are the creation of Satan, the Great Deceiver, and the constant, gnawing fear that one’s own beliefs might be leaning dangerously from True. 'The true essence of a dictatorship' says Christopher Hitchens in Hitch 22, 'is...not its its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not.' I can’t remember how long it took before I dropped the poisoned cup in disgust - not long - but I have never got over my intense dislike of that form of religion. It is like being greeted by a smiling host who welcomes you in most heartily, and although he treats you with great kindness, you get increasingly uneasy at the muffled shrieks and smell of charred flesh that seem to be coming from the basement.

I watch a lot of US Christers on You Tube, and enjoy hearing Matt Dillahunty skewering them. There but for the want of the grace of God go I. Occasionally, if I see a comment that particularly infuriates me, I take the writer up on it. Here’s one I read the other day. The writer is dismissing the theory that homosexuality may be genetic in origin, and thinks he’s refuting ‘Darwinism’ once and for all:

'This only leads to one concrete conclusion surrounding homosexuality - that it is a learned behavior, the same way alcoholic and drug addiction are learned behaviors. As a learned behavior, it has no natural purpose and only serves to destroy reverence of human life by diminishing the natural process by which that life can be initiated: through natural, sexual relationship between a man and woman. '

There’s a lot of nonsense packed into that paragraph. How does homosexual sex destroy reverence for human life, for example? Is he implying that learned behaviours serve no purpose? Baking, brewing, weaving, reading... man, you godda stop dat shit, cuz God gawn whup yo ass! How does this straight guy know so much about being gay, anyway? I sent the writer a message:

'If you know so much about the matter and are so confident that there is 'only one concrete conclusion' to be drawn, perhaps you could tell me how I learned to be homosexual? What must have happened in my life to have made my sexual desires akin to alcoholism or drug addiction?'

Here is part of his long reply:

‘I'm not an expert in your life, nor will I claim to be - but if I could wager a guess, I would say somewhere throughout the course of your life you were exposed to a twisted aberration of what love is and means.’

Now, if my overture to him had read ‘I think you are a Christian because your powers of reasoning were seriously impaired at an early age’ that could justifiably be taken as offensive, but I decided not to be offended, and read on. He gets quite lyrical:

‘Love is not sexual gratification. Love is not material possession. Love is not a "happily ever after" Cinderella-story. Love is not security or peace in a worldly construct. Love is not being popular or accepted by other people. Love is nothing what our society makes it out to be - yet expects us to abide by.’

The rather patronizing suggestion that as a gay man I must necessarily have a materialistic and egotistical concept of love is pretty galling, but the bloke’s heart is in the right general area, I suppose. OK, so what, then, is love? Of course, our man is quite certain:

‘Love is to be given the gift of mortal life, the promise of eternal life, and the guarantee that there is significance in every action we take in this mortal life, both now and eternally.’

So now you know. What does this have to do with homosexuality?

‘Being homosexual is not a choice not to love God. It's a choice to love the way the world says you should - which is NOT the same thing.’

Homosexuality is loving 'the way the world says you should'? The present acceptance of homosexuality in certain parts of the western world is the result of tireless civil rights campaigning against reactionary politicians, reactionary priests, reactionary judicial systems and reactionary public opinion. Homosexuality in the UK and the USA was most definitely NOT the way that particular world wanted anybody to love for a very long time. African and Middle Eastern countries are still imprisoning or hanging people for same-sex sex as we speak. The world does not easily accept its gay children. They have to fight its obduracy - hard. Especially when hate poses as loving concern:

‘The only thing I would really like to communicate to you is this - no matter what the world does to you or what you do in this world - God loves you. That is a truth that has set me free - it's a truth that can set you free too, if you choose to believe it.’

These Christians have a very odd view of ‘choice’. How do you choose to believe something you find inherently unbelievable? Can you listen to the Evangelicals’ story of the redemptive power of God’s sacrifice, a scenario that you find both wildly improbable and morally offensive, and think, ‘oh, OK, then. If my soul depends on it, I’ll believe that.’ Then they give you the one about humans ‘choosing’ to go to hell by not acquiescing to this lunatic proposition. They also like to say that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’.


Did anyone reading this sit down in their teens and deliberate whether to be gay, straight or celibate? Of course they didn’t. My own experience and that of many gay men of my class, generation and acquaintance goes like this. For most boys at school, DNA and testosterone kick in on cue and wham: one day boys think girls merely a bore and a nuisance, and the next, tits and cunts take them by storm. At about the same time other boys become obsessed with female bodies, most gay boys feel no such attraction and are baffled, because they think they ought to. Then gradually it dawns on them that actually, they find themselves attracted to boys, long before they ever touch one. This is a fact they cannot share with anybody and they imagine themselves to be alone in finding other boys attractive. It will be a long time in many young gay men's lives before they find out that there are thousands of other gay men in the world. Of course, I’m lying through my teeth here to cover up the truth that all gay men are seduced and recruited as boys by lavender-scented old poufs in smoking-jacket and fez.

Being homosexual is as much a part of me as the colour of my eyes, the length of my cock, my familiar moods and reactions, the colours I like or dislike, the music that moves or repels me. If I were not gay, I wouldn't be me. I'd be a different person, and who would want that? I tend to think that homosexuality and heterosexuality have the same origin - a complex cocktail of hormones, genes, personal experience and personal preference. Probably what moves humans to procreate is not an innate and inevitable attraction of male to female - the majority do feel such attraction, admittedly, though quite obviously it is not universal - but a love of sex and a love of children. You don't have to be straight to love those things. Indeed you don't necessarily have to be full-time straight to reproduce.

God doesn’t agree with me, of course, and that does not look good for me in the eternity stakes. But never mind. Our You-Tuber is on hand to offer comfort:

‘I have a gigantic laundry list of things I've done in defiance to God.’

You do? Like what? I’m really curious. Blasphemy? Adultery? Homicide? Sacrificing a lamb with crushed bollocks unto the Lord? I suspect he means he’s thought about these things and to God, the thought equals the deed, another of His whacky rules.

‘I am not proud of them, but what I am proud of is the fact that despite having done so many bad things in this world - God still loves me and even better - He Himself has taken the burden and penalty of everything I've done. That is a truth that has set me free - it's a truth that can set you free too, if you choose to believe it.’

There’s that impossible choice again. That’s the end. He’s witnessed for Jesus at me, and I shall probably not hear from him again. 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant,' sayeth the Lord, 'but don’t get too cocky, OK? I’m watching you.'

I cannot contemplate this sort of Christianity without my gorge rising, even after thirty five years. Its hatred of the body, its 'love' tainted forever with the smell of the burning flesh in hell, and its God that monitors your every thought and condemns you for what you believe or don't believe - how the dictators of the earth must envy him that ability. So I am left mystified as to what it is that 'sets you free', from what it sets you free, or why anyone would want it, far less revere it.


My correspondent replied this morning. Now, if I'm impatient with his beliefs, let me stress that I'm still touched by his concern. He told me of his past obsession with collecting illegal firearms and the dangerous situation this got him into. He then tries to connect homosexuality with dangerous addictions such as this. Finally he warns of the perils of being too concerned with the things of this fleeting sublunary life, such as family and sex. I replied:


Thanks for writing.

In the same comment that attracted my attention you say that homosexuality ‘only serves to destroy reverence of human life by diminishing the natural process by which that life can be initiated: through natural, sexual relationship between a man and woman.

Now, how does same-sex preference ‘diminish the natural process’ of the creation of life? Surely it cannot, by definition, have any effect on that process at all?

You also said that I explained how men turn to a ‘gay lifestyle’. I most emphatically didn’t! I explained how boys in some cultures who are homosexual often come to realize that homosexual desire is a part of themselves long before they have any sexual contact with other males. They are not turning to a lifestyle – they are realizing a fact of their psychological make-up. In any case the phrase ‘homosexual lifestyle’ is quite meaningless. Would you say that ‘heterosexual lifestyle’ adequately covers every form of male/female relationship worldwide over many centuries? Desire pre-exists all attempts to name, categorise, shape and regulate it.

Your dangerous fascination with weapons was interesting to read about and it’s good that in the end you came out of it a) alive and b) the better for having had the experience, but the analogy with homosexuality and collecting illegal weapons was a bit of a stretch. A lot of a stretch, in fact. One thing that is hard to communicate to some straights is the uncomplicated nature of same sex desire. A gay man looks at other men with the same desire with which a straight man looks at women. Now, my reaction to that is ‘big deal’. I don’t see any reason to build around it complicated scenarios in which innocuous desire is made comparable to drug addiction, obsession with guns, pacts with Satan and all the rest of it. These are absurd over-reactions.

I was a Buddhist once, so I was made keenly aware of the evanescent nature of life; you can’t take it with you, all is vanity, sic transit gloria mundi, and all that. However, the sane reaction to this is to realize that this life is the only one you can be totally sure of living, and a disease or a truck could snuff it out at any time. I see no point whatever in loving any kind of God more than what I have for real on earth – family, music, books, food, and Eros. This latter is no trivial thing, and I counter all attempts by the religious to diminish, demonise or deride desire as homosexual people experience it. I’m certainly not about to apologise or beg the forgiveness of Yahweh, Allah, or whatever deity is allegedly offended. They are in any case all local gods – their counterparts in other times and cultures are less exercised about what humans do in the sack.

Best wishes,



He deleted my comment from his channel. This doesn't surprise me. (I think now he was a sock-puppet of the You Tube God-bothering whack-job Shock of God) If I question a comment on YouTube from a Christian, I usually receive a friendly reply, casting me in the role of seeker and the correspondent in that of mentor, delighted to be given the chance to witness for Jesus. I reply in turn with a list of objections and then there's silence. So many Evangelicals can only adopt the position of explicator. Once they get a whiff of dissent, they back off, lest they themselves be led to doubt. Their all-knowing dictator God knows what they need to think to stay in His favour. Unfortunately, they do not feel entirely confident that they are sufficiently goodthinkful to stay on the right side of Him. Heaven will be a perpetuity of undiluted Goodthinkfulness. As Christopher Hitchens points out, paradise for the saved will be like an eternal North Korea.


Go here for a nice piece of fundy logic. Noah and I share a birthday!

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Nice Day

by V. Suola

Michael pointed out in a comment on the last post that I have a tendency to make my job sound like very hard work. I have never in fact set out to give that impression, but I suppose I do write primarily about culture clashes, language manglings and the occasional knob-head, and this maybe gives the impression that every day is uphill work. Good days are relatively uneventful on the language-torturing and knob-head fronts, so they seem too bland for blog-fodder.

Today was a good day. I even caught myself enjoying teaching, which is not something I can say that often these days. I had a big, airy room fitted with every electronic gadget known to pedagogy - on entering you are unsure whether to teach in it or hijack it. I'm getting better at handling this stuff now, and I love the Visualiser. If, like me two days ago, you have never seen this particular bit of kit, let me explain. It's a camera set in the ceiling, and when you have figured out where it is and how to activate it, you can place a book or sheet of paper on the table directly below it, and the page - and your hands - will be projected onto the smart-board. Thus a sheet of A3 can appear to the students as big as a cinema screen, and you need not turn your back while writing on it. If your hands are dry and calloused, and your nails are filthy from board-pen, they do look pretty horrific when thus magnified. Mine looked like bunches of blackening bananas today, so I must take my beauty regime more seriously from now on.

However much you might like to spend the morning playing with the gadgets, you have to resign yourself to the presence of students eventually. Today I had Group One, which as the name implies, is the top group. We go right up (down?) to group 13 now, where some former members of Group One now languish, for want of dilligence. It's the department's equivalent of the Naughty Seat. Today is the best day of the week for my group, as Friday is Muslim Prayer Day and they have coffee and dates with their friends after, and they get to call the shots about the times of the lessons, giving me to understand that these belong to the profane and ephemeral and must cede their place to the Sacred Obligation of Prayer. Sometimes they so contrive matters as to get the lesson to finish early and then they give the prayers a miss and just do the coffee and dates. So we negotiated times and breaks, and then got on with the lesson.

Few colleagues object if I bags the writing component of a course, as some find it a real slog. I like teaching writing, though, because as with teaching presentation skills, you really have the students by the balls. They know diddley-squat about academic writing, and so they hang on your every word and perform every task you set them with astonishing application. It was nice today to see that what I was teaching was perceived as really useful. The best writing lessons in my view are those where students work in small groups, thrashing out such issues as content and organisation, and they call on me only when they cannot agree, or want a cigarette break. That's what happened today. Nobody made any amusing manglings of language. The atmosphere was good humoured and hard working and Adnan kindly bought me a coffee in recognition of the usefulness of the session.

Things trailed off towards the end when we got into how to reference a book, a chapter in a book, or a journal. This is about as interesting as reading bus timetables, admittedly, but this year for the first time I was able to go straight to the internet and project a 'reference generator' onto the board, and we spent some time inventing silly book titles and daft names for publishers, and entering these and marvelling as they came out perfectly formed.

So there. We skipped lunch hour so as to finish an hour earlier than normal, Monday and Tuesday are holidays, and well, what was not to like?

It wasn't that funny, though.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Three days a week these days I teach in a brand new building where classrooms are opulently provided with all manner of modern contrivance, as computer, smart-board, DVD player, visualiser, comfortable chairs and tables, yea, without limit to any good thing. Except one. The whiteboard in there has the area of a small coffee table, whereas in the lower-tech classrooms in the non custom-built buildings, the whiteboards are vast, and apt for columns, diagrams, drawings and time-lines, all the stuff I have practised and got good at over the years. The new ones are hardly big enough to write your shopping-list on. I soon ran out of space and had to switch on the computer.

God, it’s a damn nuisance to teach from a computer key board. All day I have been feeling the sort of frustration my mother feels when she decides to have a go on her recently acquired laptop, and the damn thing seems wilful and out to get her. Since the classroom is big enough for a ballroom dancing championship, I had to sprint from terminal to smart-board and back, over and over, unable to erase, amend, or expand on what was written without several seconds delay and without turning my back to the group. I discovered that if you have the computer screen projected onto the smart-board, your finger acts like the mouse; you indicate a word and a box pops up, or the font changes, or some other damn thing happens that you had not intended. It became clear that I am going to have to plan everything in advance and save it on a memory stick, or rely entirely on the tiny whiteboard. Spontaneity and last minute changes of plan or even changes of tack are not going to be possible, or at the very least are going to be severely curbed.

The students were doing reading and note taking today, and half the class were note-taking virgins. In their own countries, they are expected to write down everything their teacher writes on the board. This is their sole source of information, so they never decide for themselves what to note down and what to leave. In fact, writing on the board is the only activity required of teachers in some countries. A brief digression here.

An ex-trainee of mine visited Bahrain, I think it was, where she was invited to a school. The teacher arrived early, and wrote the lesson on a sequence of whiteboards of the kind where you have one behind the other, and they slide up and down like car windows. In due course students showed up, decked out with designer togs, Rolex watches, solid gold iPhones, jeans studded with every august and costly stone, and what-not. They copied down the lesson from the boards after they had borrowed pens from the teacher, as you can't be carrying pens to school with all those precious metal accessories to worry about. When they had finished copying they took the lesson home, presumably fulfilling their part of the bargain by devoting some effort to memorising it - unless of course they had found some way of having it memorised on their behalf, which wouldn't surprise me.

Anyway, the most difficult thing to convey to certain (not all) of my lot today was that I was not going to write their notes for them, and that the notes were for them, not for me, and they would have to select the most salient points from a text by themselves. I showed them my own notes as an example, pointed out all the abbreviations and symbols and omission of superfluous grammatical nuts and bolts, and tried to get them to see that so long as they understood their own notes, I x gv toss if used same abbr. &ct. as me.

‘It’s correct?’ Abdullah asked, showing me this:

1. Painkiler
2. Five century
3. Arthritis - his father
4. 1899
5. heroin 2 painkilers
6. despite having a number of side effects

‘Might this not appear a trifle enigmatic when returned to, most especially after a prolonged absence?’

‘Is no correct?’

No, is no correct, but after a morning of fart-arsing amateurishly about with new technology that most of the class can handle with total confidence, I can hardly blame the kid for making a pig’s ear of his first attempt at gutting a text. He probably lost the plot about the same time I did.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Pensum Latinum

I opened a Latin textbook the other day, the first in thirty-five years. I got it from Amazon for a penny + P&P. I decided I needed to do something to prevent atrophy of the brain from the treadmill of teaching, and I’m dredging up such Latin as lies dormant in there by reading and attempting to translate the (heavily edited) letters of Pliny the Younger, from this book that previously belonged to one Amy Whittaker, of form 11A. Amazing how it comes back. The principal parts of verbs are still there:

do, dare, dedi, datum,
fero, fere, tuli, latum,
cado, cadere, cecidi, casum,

They stick in the mind like advertising jingles. I’m experiencing again the smell of Latin, which for me is a schooly smell of leather satchels, stationery and dust. Pity, that. I’m hoping now to make up for the fact that I never took Latin far enough to read literature and never once experienced even the smallest tingle of pleasure from the language. I blame, in part, the miserable, embittered, alcoholic old paedophobe who was my first Latin teacher at twelve. (Me, not him.) That snort you just heard from the shades was Henry stirring in his eternal booze-soaked slumber, dimly aware that his ears are burning.

If I could sit him down and do my usual teacher trainer's lesson observation feedback, it might include some of the following points. First off, Henry, you might have tried to learn your students’ names, and attempted to match these to a face. This is a basic courtesy, and we all do that these days, if we can. We might have a class where any dark-eyed, dark-haired young man not called Mohammed is called Abdullah, but you know, we do make every effort to tell them all apart. How much easier it would have been for you to learn all those utterly familiar English surnames, but you never did, you miserable sod.You scarcely looked up from the desk.

You might give a thought also to your presentation techniques, I feel. Having thirty twelve-year old boys commit to memory the following information:

Nom puella puellae
Voc puella puellae
Acc puellam puellās
Gen puellae puellārum
Dat puellae puellīs
Abl puellā puellīs

without telling them what it means, or indeed that it means anything at all, is what gave rise to the confusion for which you always blamed the kid afflicted.

Let’s turn to classroom management now, a term I know you will dismiss with a snort, assuming you have heard it and know what it means. These days, teachers tend to feel the necessity to 'monitor' during lessons, meaning that they circulate while students are engaged on a task, correcting, encouraging, answering queries or remonstrating, depending on the age and ability of the learners. They do this because the correcting, encouraging and Socratic midwifery they engage in as they pass among the students is what they are fucking paid to do. Your approach to classroom management, viz., to read out a page and exercise number then fall asleep, would nowadays result in the setting up of an enquiry, especially if the kids knifed, set fire to, impregnated or perpetrated other such mischief upon one another as you dozed. We didn't do that sort of thing then, but as you must be realising, it's a different world.

Error correction now. I’m not going to get too technical here. Suffice it to say that today, we grade errors according to their seriousness and categorize them according to their possible etiology. This requires a little more subtlety than did your own approach: the roared threats, crimson face and popping capillaries, the hurled chalk and board rubbers. I was only once on the receiving end of this, when in the second Latin lesson of my life, I came up with this:

‘Amant magna cena.’

Instead of this:

‘Amant magnam cenam.’ (= they like a big dinner.)

And did you help? Did you give a few little hints as to where the error lay? Did you ask someone else to answer and then point out what I needed to revise or get straight in my head? In a pig's arse you did. You threw the Gran’pappy of all shit-fits. Really, now.

Later I became the closest thing you would tolerate to a class pet, because I was quick at translating and could be relied upon to supply the mot juste and not umm and ahh endlessly over a sentence when the lesson was approaching its end and you were getting desperate for a fag. Which brings us on to feedback: nobody got any, unless it was a piece of chalk whistling past his ear. When informing my parents of my speed and accuracy in translating, you had to add: ‘don’t tell him! Don’t go telling him what I just said!’ Fortunately, there was never any point in telling my mother not to pass on positive feedback about her kids.

So, Henry, I am going to try Latin again and separate it in my mind from your lessons and your shining example of the unteacherly art of Disinspiration. I even might get into Virgil this time, though I don’t think you should hold your breath, if that is a fitting idiom to address to the residents of Tartarus. We were taught Latin by a reasonable human being after your retirement, but for some of us, the damage had been done. The only line of Virgil that stuck in our heads was this, recited to one another with heavy irony:

‘…forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.’
‘…maybe even this will one day be pleasant to recall.'

But it isn’t, particularly.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Fret and fright and worrit

I just come back from the doctor’s with me blood pressure, up sunnink shockin, it’s been. I was told again that a one-off high reading is not a diagnosis, still less a death sentence, and that I need to use my monitor a couple of times daily for a week instead of a couple of times monthly if I remember, and we will take it from there.

On the way home I stopped off at Tesco to buy a carton of orange juice and got stuck at the check out behind one of those women who wait until the cashier says ‘that’ll be six pounds forty three, please’ before rummaging in her shopping bag for her purse, then rifling through it to locate her credit card before deciding she probably has enough cash on her after all, and ooh, maybe she’s got the exact change, just a minute, and…

‘Oh, fucking get on with it, woman, will you, for Christ’s sake,’ I’m snarling inwardly, forgetting I’m not in a hurry. No wonder my blood pressure is high, I think, as I wander home, unhurriedly. On black dog days like today, everybody gets on my wick and I go around like a tetchy wasp. On such days if I’m not irritated, I’m gloomy or worried. I worry about life’s huge potential for illness and accident and loss, and even without them, its appalling brevity and utter pointlessness. Mounting the steps of the railway bridge, I catch myself imagining I’m mounting the gallows, and irritably snap myself out of it. I realise I’m drawn to gloomy subjects at such times, and have to pack my briefcase with light reading for the train journey to work, rather as a diabetic makes sure he has some sweets or chocolate on him in case he goes hypo. I totally piss myself off.

I have always thought I was alone in my family with these periods of morbidity, but today I was thinking about my father’s mother and wondered if I have inherited the propensity from her. Along with her competence and practicality as housewife, treasurer of this and that club and agent for mail order catalogues and so on, Nana was a world class worrier. The ingenuity she could bring to the activity used to drive my parents nuts. Once when I was no more than two years old, Nana turned up on our doorstep as early in the morning as she decently could to satisfy herself that I had not, in the course of the night:

1) Woken without my parents’ knowledge.
2) Descended the stairs and opened the door to the living room.
3) Gone through the living room to the door at the top of the cellar steps.
4) Opened this door and descended into the cellar.
5) Opened the clothes boiler, climbed in and
6) Drowned.

Quite a feat for a toddler whose reach was an inch or two short of the door handles. I would have needed a pile of books at least, and would have had to reposition these about three times in order to achieve the goal. Why she imputed to me such suicidal determination is a question she would never have entertained. I imagine her lying awake in the dark much as I have done so often, watching this and other scenarios unfold of themselves, as if independent of her.

These scenarios are not independent of their creator, though, and it took me a long time to learn that. Twenty years or so ago, I had a recurring dream in which I would be standing in my bedroom in a ghastly blue-green light that gave the skin a clammy and cadaverous glow, pulling hideous faces at myself in the mirror to the accompaniment of crashing horror movie music. In the dream this was both frightening and funny. I took it as a message from the unconscious that I was the author of all my own fears, and that I ought finally to take on board the advice I was once given by a wise colleague who said ‘you’re someone whose emotions are not a trustworthy guide to the way things really are, and you should try not to listen to yourself think.’

Some years later, this lady got regularly denounced in the gay press for her conservative Catholic views on homosexuality and bringing up children, and I came to question her wisdom on a number of matters, but that piece of advice was perhaps the most useful I have ever received from anyone, even if it still proves hard to apply.


Here she is on the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools. Once I’d have been horrified at the thought. Now I'm more inclined to agree with her.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Could try harder

I was marking essays on the train this morning, hoping for a few howlers to beguile the time. None, unfortunately. There was some well-controlled language, which is gratifying to one's teacherly self, but not much fun. There was some crap, too, which is just exasperating. Here's a sample:

Although, it would be nice make own decisions, make own mistakes sometimes and solve out the problems which they face as they say 'from lie we get experience' Also Adults believe no way to leave home anytime that encourages them to became completely responsible and dependable and also good for judgement.

Quite. Couldn't have put it better myself.

No choice morsels today, then. Nothing that ranked with the collectables I have been carrying round for years:

'She broke the heel of hers shoe, and they fell down humping'

'In Cambridge I was had enjoyably in a punt.'

'Boys don't like to study, they prefer kicking their balls.'

'I was kept awake by the sound of the animals screwing at night.'

'I wrote my answer on the other shit'

'I'm study scrotal management.'

However, I did find that in her essay Dalyal had refered to our species as 'humane beans', and I thought that sounded dead cute.


This morning I bumped into Khulud, who last summer got away with a heavily plagiarised essay because nobody could prove conclusively that it was not her own work.

'You look different,' she said.

'Do I?'

'Yeah, you look bitter. Maybe you got married?'

This was not a cynical comment on the holy estate of matrimony, but Khulud's explanation of my allegedly improved appearance. Saudis almost always replace the /e/ phoneme with /ɪ/

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


Exercise 2,356

Transform the following sentences into questions:

1. We have a big house by the river.
2. The doctor is examining my knee.
3. I have an older brother.

I’m assuming you got them correct. Now try to imagine a context for each question:

1. Do we have a big house by the river?
2. Is the doctor examining my knee?
3. Do I have an older brother?

I don’t think contexts spring quite so readily to mind as they might for such questions as ‘can I have a day return to Oxford, please?’ or ‘fancy a gin and tonic?’ I thought all three might perhaps be uttered by an actor discussing a character she’s developing with a director. Number two might be from someone who’s looking at a fuzzy newspaper photo of an accident he was involved in, and three might be asked by an amnesia patient, or a righteously indignant character in a play, hysterically deploring family disloyalty; ‘out upon thee! Be brother of mine no more!’ They are all a bit of a stretch, though. It’s hard to think why anyone, in the normal course of events, would need to ask if he had an older brother, or not be aware of what property he owned.

Learners of English around the world are faced with ‘transformation’ exercises like the one above every day. Change this tense to that. Change active to passive. Change statement to question and question to statement, handy-dandy, sod the meaning, to hell with the statistical likelihood of the utterance, just make sure you get the grammar right, or else. Colleagues and I railed against this sort of task in seminar after seminar in Greece. It isn't difficult to devise tasks that focus on accuracy and meaning, after all, and it's difficult to justify a language practice task that does not focus on meaning. Their popularity remains undiminished, so we railed largely in vain. In a class I observed five years ago in Greece, I transcribed the following exchange:

Little girl: But what does it mean, miss?
Teacher: We're not bothered about what it means, we're just interested in you getting it right!*

I was reminded of the get-the-grammar-right-and-fuck-the-meaning approach to language instruction this afternoon. I had asked one of my classes - a lovely bunch of people, I must point out - to come up with titles for presentations, and explained that the presentation must analyse the topic, not merely describe. Adbullah and Talal showed me their notes, which consisted of doodles of British houses (semis, terraced, detached) and notes such as ‘Saudi house defferent’. They proposed to compare British houses with Saudi houses.

‘What for?’ I asked.

‘Because defferent.’ Abdullah said.

I have been feeling ratty today, and I hope I didn’t sound too impatient when I pointed out that they were proposing to address a ninety-percent Saudi audience, all of whom are now living in English houses, to inform them that English houses are not like Saudi ones. Late news. What, I asked, is the bloody point of that?

I suppose from their point of view, the point was to assemble words in more or less the right order so as to fill the required ten minutes of the presentation. They have never been assessed on the content of what they produce in English as well as its accuracy. Hitherto, accuracy has been their teachers' only concern. That their ten minute presentation should be informative or thought-provoking had never occurred to them. They were not the only ones who were planning to do presentations on the blindingly obvious and the numbingly banal. People brought up on such ‘display’ tasks as that above have a hard time realising that language without content is, well, language without content; honestly, lads, why bother?

There’s another reason for the lack of analysis. After I had trashed their original plan to tell everybody about pollution for the umpteenth time, one pair came up with the idea of discussing the pros and cons of the death penalty. This was more like it. Unfortunately, neither of them had ever heard an argument against it, far less entertained one. I fed them a couple, and suggested they have a squint at the Amnesty International website. It was sad, but not a surprise, to learn that they had never heard of Amnesty International either. Other pairs had begun to think about education reform in their countries, but when I asked them what they thought desperately needed changing, they were reluctant to criticise the existing systems too harshly. I remembered Brian Whittaker’s book What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, and the title of the first chapter, ‘Thinking inside the Box’, in which Whitaker quotes the Arab Human Development Report 2002:

When it comes to the sciences, content is not usually a controversial matter… but the humanities and social sciences that have a direct relevance to people’s ideas and convictions are supervised and protected by the authorities in charge of designing curricula and issuing textbooks.

No bloody wonder my suggestions for more controversial ideas on the death penalty and education were treated with a sort of respectful lack of engagement, as if I had said something utterly inappropriate but wasn’t aware of having done so, and they didn’t want to draw attention to my gaffes.

The presentations, then, will be the usual stuff. Slick Powerpoint slides, mumbled formulas ‘I move on now to therred bart off my talk’ and absolutely nothing in the way of intellectual fizz. Anyone free on May 18th? If you fancy a day in a darkened room getting boss-eyed from fade-outs and fade-ins and skittering captions, and brain-numbed from blandness, let me know, and you can stand in for me, I won’t mind, honest.


* 'Δεν μας ενδιαφέρει τι σημαίνει, μας ενδιαφέρει να το κάνετε σωστά!' I swear this is true.


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