Saturday, 28 August 2010

Akhnaten's Brainworms

'Sometimes normal musical imagery crosses a line and becomes, so to speak, pathological, as when a certain fragment of music repeats itself incessantly, sometimes maddeningly, for days on end.'

This is Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia. Those pieces of music that bore into the brain and then play relentlessly away Sachs refers to as ‘brainworms’, and I am especially prone to them. Even a piece of music I like can become hateful to me after several days of listening to it on a non-stop mental loop. If it’s a piece of music I hated to start off with, I feel my sanity threatened. I once had at least a week of hearing Marie Osmond bleating ‘Paper Roses’ at all hours of the night and day. Well, you can imagine. It’s worse than having noisy neighbours, because there is nobody you can complain to, and auto-decapitation is hard to arrange and unfortunately irreversible.

Sacks describes cases in which his patients heard their brainworms loudly and in detail, as if they were listening to CDs. This happened to my grandfather towards the end of his life, and he would enquire as to the source of the music he was hearing, not realising it was audible only to him. My grandma was pretty sure it was being channelled from the Other Side.

‘E keeps earin church organ music!’ she would exclaim. ‘Ims an stuff. It bleddy flays* me, does that.’

She took it as a portent that the double doors of the horizon were about to be unbolted for him, and she wasn’t wrong, at least about the imminence of the event.

The music of Philip Glass is particularly apt to leave lingering after-images in my head. For about two months now I have been playing little other than his opera Akhnaten, and internally, I hear the choral section of the wonderful ‘Hymn to the Sun’ day and night, over and over. Oddly, even two months of this particular brainworm has not diminished the pleasure I experience on hearing the piece, and the CDs have not yet joined those dust-gatherers that I couldn’t bear to hear ever again. (Orff's Carmina Burana, The Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto and almost anything by Ute Lemper.) First, in the sidebar 'music box' is the Prelude to Akhnaten. This is another piece of brainworm material for me, endlessly repeated in alternation with the 'Hymn to the Sun', which is the second track. Technically I am a complete ignoramus where music is concerned, but I do totally see what John Richardson is saying here in his book on Akhnaten, Singing Archaeology:

The music of the prelude is pieced together brick by brick before the listener’s ears; it is as if the master carpenter of the theatre sat at the front of the stage, saw in hand, and continued to build the scenery even after the show had begun, or if the actors were to finish putting on make-up on stage… As clarinets join violas in a repetitive and softly undulating arpeggio pattern, a visual analogy comes to mind: the gentle ripples of the River Nile dancing playfully under the rays of the hot afternoon sun.

Yep, exactly! Just what I had imagined as I listened. But then he feels forced to add:

As I write these words, [about the dancing ripples] I sense the peremptory finger of formalist musicology wagging vigorously at me... A cold shiver runs down my spine, and I rush to defend myself.
That’s your problem, matey. I don’t have formalist musicology breathing down my neck, so I’m quite free and happy as I listen to design my own stage production in which we see the funerary barque of Amenhotep III crossing the glittering river from east to west. I don't expect Richardson would approve of this, because:

…an anti-authorial voice of sorts is suggested strongly throughout the prelude…the explicit purpose of which is to deflect any ontologically grounded scraps of content listeners might think they are perceiving in the musical text.

Well, bollocks to that. Link
There's enough of incisive analysis. Have a listen to the Prelude. I defy you not to see the hot sunlight dancing on the ripples of the Nile.

I read somewhere that if you suffer from musical brainworms, the best vermifuge is to take the homeopathic approach and play the tune over and over until the brain gets so utterly pig-sick of it that it deletes the offending mental file. Yeah, well. I can't imagine voluntarily playing Marie Osmond singing 'Paper Roses' (or anything else) even once, let alone ad deliberate nauseam. And anyway, pace my two good friends who swear by homeopathy, it's total horsefeathers.

* To flay is 'to scare' in Yorkshire dialect. Flaid is 'afraid' and flaysome is 'scary'.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Flouting THEE Maxims

Our ‘train host’ the other day was a spotty adolescent boy, who, lugging his trolley of acrid coffee and junk food down the aisle of the carriage, muttered ‘refreshments’ now and then in a costive, grudging monotone. I wondered if Cross Country trains have a ‘mystery traveller’ from their Department of Twaddle and Inanity who would report him and get him sent on a Loquacity and Prattle Awareness Course of the kind Marks and Spencer’s employees are obviously required to attend. If I were sure that such a company prefect existed, I’d have given the lad my own award for Cutting the Crap, just as a bit of a morale booster, because his colleagues get right up my bloody nose with their chirpy obsequiousness. ‘Any refreshments from the trolley?’ one of them quacks over and over, as she plies the aisle. There is no other source of refreshment on the train, so the waste of breath is obvious, but no doubt the initial training day emphasises cheeriness and enthusiasm for trundling up and down the carriage with a crateful of cardboard butties and fatty chocolate. This must be the case; one of her colleagues outdoes her with his chant of ‘any refreshments at all on this service this afternoon, ladies and gentlemen?’ I mean, like, what? I am tempted to say, ‘no, not this afternoon, but could you have a chilled Chardonnay waiting for me on the 17.25 Peterborough to Leeds on the twenty-first of next month? Round about the time we hit Grantham?’ Now that, you see, would make him understand that his mantra is overly specific, and violates Grice’s Maxims of Quantity, viz.:

1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.

2. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.

At this juncture, no doubt, the boy would with some justice advance the objection that this is a service encounter and Grice’s maxims do not apply, elaborated as they were for conversation and not transaction. To which I would counter that the third Maxim of Manner: ‘Be brief. Avoid unnecessary wordiness’ is always applicable to other people as far as I am concerned, so I win and he can fuck off.

And I haven’t finished yet, it’s not just train hosts. There is an announcer at the station who plays little games with stress patterns. He has the now ubiquitous announcer’s habit of pointlessly stressing prepositions: ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused to your journey.’ Then there’s the ‘East Midlands Trine Service to Nottingham’, as distinct, I suppose, from the East Midlands Tea Service to Nottingham, or the variation ‘East Midlands Trine Service to Nottingham’, as opposed to… No idea. It doesn’t mean anything, you daft sod.

Recently, he has decided that Announcerese is topic prominent:

‘The trine now standing at platform one, this is thee 13.16 Cross Cunt-ray trine service to Birmingham New Street.’

‘The next trine to arawve at platform two, this will bee thee 15.17 trine service to Stansted Airport.’

I can’t help but get the impression that with all these little flourishes and variations, the bloke imagines himself to be one shit-hot exponent of the announcer’s art, pushing the envelope of the genre, a cut above the other drones who just stress English logically. I want to sit him down and show him how to stop trouncing English. Stress matters. It conveys meaning. It separates the salient from the incidental. It is not to be arsed about with. Lots of my students pass through that station, and he is setting a very bad example.

I know, I should get a bloody life. This is what thirty years of teaching English and living alone will do to your head. Any young person considering ELT as a career is hereby warned. As you are, so I once was; and as I am, so you might very well be.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Gin in the Tonic

I outed myself as an atheist in front of a group of Muslim students recently. These are men who have never entertained the smallest doubt as to the existence of God and which people and practices He favours and deplores. Each of these blokes is a believer of the kind characterised by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.

‘I pity you. Really,’ said Nouri, shaking his head at my folly.


He had no answer. He just stretched his lips, raised his eyebrows and shrugged.

‘Who made you?’ Hacen asked keenly, as if raising a pressing point I might not have considered. ’Who is decide when you will born, and when you will die?’

‘Look, by using the word ‘who’, you are assuming that…’

‘Who is decide your fat?’ Nouri shot at me, pleased to have found another avenue of attack.

Fate. By using the word ‘who’, you are assu…’

‘There is one scientist Egyptian who he work at NASA,’ Hamid interupted. ‘He looks in the space, and then he believe the God. He cannot don’t believe the God, when he look in the space. He say…’ - and here, Hamid adopted a tone of awe-struck reverence – ‘he say, ‘if I cannot believe the God,’ - his voice was a hoarse whisper now – ‘if I cannot believe the God, I cannot believe myself.’ Hand on heart, eyes aflame, he held my gaze as silence fell on the room and a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds.

What a load of cock, I almost said, failing utterly to sense the presence of the numinous the way Hamid obviously did. (I made up the bit about the clouds.) What a bloody fatuous statement. It obviously spoke to the other blokes in the room, but if it has any meaning, I’m Donald Ducked if I can see it.

What in fact I did was congratulate Hamid, as I knew he felt reluctant to discuss such matters in English, and I thought he’d acquitted himself pretty well. I realised I was coming very close to alienating the group by calling their beliefs into question, and suggested a break. This is a university, I mused, glumly. We are supposed to deal in ideas, and here I am, censoring myself to keep the customers sweet.


We don’t seem to meet much, the numinous and me. There’s a distinct lack of awe in me. Christianity utterly fails to induce it. I empathise with Temple Grandin when, in An Anthropologist on Mars, she and Oliver Sacks are viewing the Rocky Mountains and he asks her if she does not feel a sense of their sublimity.

‘They’re pretty, yes. Sublime, I don’t know.’ When I pressed her, she said she was puzzled by such words and had spent much time with a dictionary, trying to understand them. She had looked up 'sublime', 'mysterious' 'numinous' and 'awe', but they all seemed to be defined in terms of one another.

I can count the times I have felt deeply moved, and they are not numerous. I remember being staggered by the sight of a wooded hillside in Liguria, the pine trees ablaze with fireflies, and by the astounding landscape at Delphi on my one visit there in the depths of winter when the tourists were few. I am always moved, briefly, by the sight of the theatre at Epidaurus before a performance, usually more so than by the performance itself. Three years back, Tavener’s Song for Athene reduced me to a blubbering wreck every time I played it. It was so unbearably poignant that I kept on playing it to cure myself of it, homeopathically. The most ecstatic experiences I have known were all sexual, but alas, those pleasures be stale and forsaken. So generally speaking, I seem to be pretty much immune to wonder. The best bit of that visit to Delphi was the handful of tourists who had managed to drag themselves there out of season. A bunch of disgruntled elderly American ladies complained that gold jewellery was not as cheap at Delphi as in Yugoslavia, and seemed not to notice much else. An Italian school master with a troupe of school kids was discoursing learnedly on the function of the Delphi theatre. Every evening, he told them, doppo la passegiata, after the evening stroll, people would mosey on up to see if they might catch a good Aristophanes before dinner. I remember all that idiocy more clearly than the brief moments of beauty.

On the train home yesterday afternoon I looked out at the woods and fields in the torrential rain and remembered during the mid-eighties being dragged through similar countryside around Linton by my then boyfriend. He was a farmer’s son and I was a dyed-in-the-wool townie, trudging behind him through chuckling mud that sucked the wholly inappropriate shoes off my feet as if it thought I was feeding it. Richard would point to birds that I couldn’t see, and warn that they were endangered, while I would assure him that I would quickly learn to live without them. I was hard to impress. One wet day, we came to a plantation of fir trees. In the gloom there lay a dead hare. I stood a long time looking into the receding darkness behind the little corpse, and sensed something intelligent in there, watching. I never mentioned this to Richard, who would have howled with derision at such sentimentality, but after that I’d go for walks on my own when he was out, so I could feel the watchful presence without him constantly pointing out Lords and Ladies, diseased Dutch Elms and tree-crawlers. This Thing was knowing, mocking. It didn’t trust humans very much, but I liked it and went out on my walks to court it a bit.

Of course, although it did feel quite independent of me then, I created this little god myself, in mine own image, as all gods are created. Even as a teenage Christer I had sensed there was a spirit in me that did not desire to worship or grovel for forgiveness, no deity had any right to expect me to, and no real deity would be insecure enough to need me to. It is ironic and deflationary, this spirit, and it scorns seriousness and piety. It’s the salt on life’s chips, the lemon juice on man’s fish, and the gin in the sublunary tonic. It would never be obedient to Jesus or submit to Allah, and it loathes their sugar-coated cruelty and charmless pomposity.

Nouri has learned the phrase ‘we must stop playing God’, and these days he works it into every essay he writes, as it lends itself to all the stock themes of advanced level EFL essays: euthanasia, climate change, genetic modification, IVF, that sort of thing. I agree with him, but for reasons it would take weeks for him to understand, and even then he would be shocked all over again at my impiety. So, along with so many other potential excursions, we won’t go there.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Everyone's a Winner

I woke up at four o’clock this morning and thought, ‘shit! I didn’t fill in the register yesterday!’ I was on the seven a.m. train to the university to get the damn thing filled in before anyone found the omission. Forgetting to tick the boxes usually earns you a finger-wagging e-mail: ‘completing the register is an important part of your duties as a teacher.’ We are told that the Home Office or the British Council could descend on us at any moment and close us down or withdraw approval if there are holes in the registers. It is tempting to reply with ‘pull the other one.’ The Home Office does not have the staff to go round doing spot checks, and the British Council are not so touchy as to withdraw their approval because hectically busy teachers occasionally forget to complete the register one afternoon per course. That was the last I knew of it, anyway, from my days as director of studies in a small language school in Stamford. Maybe since then The Authorities have grown more sophisticated and they come and scrape DNA samples off classroom furniture. Waking before dawn to worry about such trivia is a definite sign that I need a break, and some different medication for my blood-pressure. I have next week off, thank God.

Anyway, the Secretary in Charge of Registers had simply noticed the gaps, and sensibly marked everyone present for the morning session. This means that many of the students who had not troubled to get up on Thursday were, for official purposes, there. Anyone from the British Council or the ‘Homey Offs’ as my Brazilian students in Stamford called it, can come and get me.

I liked ‘Homey Offs’. ‘Jobbie Centre’ was even better.


Friday, and course’s end. There are no lessons today. A notice printed on red paper is posted in triplicate on the teachers’ room door. In tones just this side of polite, it warns students of the futility of requesting results before 13.00 or certificates before Monday. Within, teachers are collating grades and typing reports after a poorly-attended standardisation meeting which came, illogically, at the end of the course instead of the beginning, meaning essays had to be marked twice and presentations double-assessed after the event by tutors who had not watched them. Inevitably, some students think that the warning on the door is addressed to others, and attempt to extract grades from busy tutors.

‘Where Reine?’ asks a Saudi boy.

‘She’s teaching,’ says a colleague, pointedly not looking up from her computer screen.

‘Where she teach?’ the boy persists.

’In a classroom,’ she replies, with infuriating logic.

The boy starts on me in the corridor, and gets the sharp end of my hat-pins. ‘Wherever Reine is, she’s busy’ I say. So fuck off, is the subtext. Briefly, I feel sorry for the kid, and recall Alan Bennet’s observation that the staff of institutions such as schools and hospitals tend to hold in contempt the very people for whose benefit the institutions were founded. This pity is later to evaporate when I learn that the boy located Reine’s classroom, barged in and started a barney with her about his grades, which in his view were not as high as they deserved to be - and this in front of her students. I hope she made mincemeat of him, but she’s such a sweetheart I doubt if she did. I would have. I’d have ended his UK university career on the spot.

We live, they keep telling us, in a culture of entitlement, where everyone expects rewards, however disproportionate to the effort put in. Students now believe they have the right to decide on their own grades. In Greece, I was used to students and trainees who thought that their attendance on a course, however spotty, ought to guarantee them a pass. I got used to people who thought that paying for a course should lead to a pass mark without necessitating their physical presence in the classroom. I used to tell them how wrong they were. I know that Greek language schools habitually massage their test results so as not to lose the custom of the parents, but I’m not used to being told by centre directors in universities to alter grades in the same manner. Today was a first.

Just as tutors were finishing their reports, printing them out, e-mailing electronic copies to the office and preparing to leave, word came From Above that students were failing who shouldn’t be. Fifty percent was the pass mark, and whosoever had not fifty percent, lo, now was fifty percent granted unto him, that his days with us be long. And the tutors spake, saying: ‘why test them? Why standardise the marking? Why require reports, with comments on students’ progress, or lack thereof?’ And their questions were not heard, and their marks were as nought, and overridden.

I got off lightly in the event, at least in terms of rewriting reports. One of my students had submitted an essay that was copied verbatim from several books. Although I had banged on at great length about plagiarism, and told the students that an experienced teacher can spot non-native production in any text longer than twenty words, this young man handed in an essay demonstrating a grasp of style, sentence structure, vocabulary and collocation that could only have been that of a practised native-speaker writer. Half-way through, the style changed from formal academic prose to the informal elaborated code of popular science writing. Clearly Nafi had been the amanuensis of more than one Ascended Master. He probably thought he’d wowed me, but he got zero for the writing component. He failed, as was just. Three others got whacked up from forty-seven to fifty, which didn't strike me as unreasonable as they had arrived from China late due to visa problems. Other teachers were more pissed off at the waste of their time.

As I was leaving, a colleague who was taking a ciggie break called me.

‘What’s this about moving the goalposts?’ he asked.

I explained that those students whose overall grade was below fifty percent have now been allowed to have fifty percent, cos that’s the kinda huggy bears we are these days.

‘Worrif they got fuckin piss-poor grades?’ he exclaimed. He’s an English teacher, that’s why he talks posh. ‘Does my fuckin ‘ed in, does this. Makes me feel a right cunt, ’ he said, evenly.

An e-mail was sent to the centre director, conveying in polite terms that all this did our fuckin ‘eds in and made us feel right cunts. We await his response, as he had been dealing all afternoon with disgruntled students who thought they deserved better marks, and he’d sodded off home, poor bugger. Not a good move, as it meant he had left his second in command to deal with the disgruntled customers. It is extremely wearing to have to argue with students who think marks are like commodities they can bargain over, but surely they need to be told firmly and finally that this is not the case, and fail means fail.

A student called me last Wednesday evening to inform me that he would not be making his assessed presentation the following day, as he was in Scotland. He would make tist one day neckerst week, he said. No lessons next week, sunshine, I told him. You had your appointed time and you muffed it. There will be no assessment for that component. Ali is very personable, but bone idle. He's been with us since October last year and somehow been pushed through every five-weekly test. If there's any justice he will not be seen again, but it will not be a surprise to be greeted by him on Tuesday week when the final course of the academic year begins.


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