Saturday, 29 January 2011

Now You're Just Being Silly

Over at The Atheist Experience I found the above thoughtfully titled book that details one woman's spiritual journey from Judaism to the Lord Jesus, who obviously lit her fire. I was reminded of the equally well-chosen title Penetrating Wagner's Ring, first brought to my attention twenty five years ago by a friend who was having it away with a music student. A reviewer on Amazon offers this appreciation:

As implied by the title, this collection probes deeply into Wagner's vast Ring piece. Accusations of anti-semitism make Wagner's Ring a sensitive area today, but it continues to offer pleasure to many.

(Look, I've been travelling all day and I'm knackered. )

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tonada de la Luna Llena

Caetano Veloso arranges and performs this song beautifully. Video is a bit naff, but you needn't watch it if you are dancing. My translation is pretty clunky as well, but I'm no poet, so anyone who can do better is welcome to suggest amendments.

Yo vide una garza mora dándole combate al río
Así es como se enamora tu corazón con el mío
Yo vide una garza mora dándole combate al río
Así es como se enamora, así es como se enamora
Tu corazón con el mío, tu corazón con el mío

Luna, luna, luna llena menguante
Luna, luna, luna llena menguante

Anda, muchacho, a la casa y me traes la carabina
Pa' matar a este gavilán que no me deja gallina.

La luna me está mirando, yo no sé lo que me ve
Yo tengo la ropa limpia, ayer tarde la lavé
La luna me está mirando, yo no sé lo que me ve
Yo tengo la ropa limpia, yo tengo la ropa limpia
Ayer tarde la lavé, ayer tarde la lavé

Luna, luna, luna llena menguante
Luna, luna, luna llena menguante



I saw a black heron struggling against the river,
That's the way your your heart came to love mine.

Full moon, full moon waning...

Go home, boy, and fetch me the rifle,
To kill that hawk that won't leave me a single hen.

The moon is looking at me,
I don't know what she thinks,
My clothes are clean,
I washed them last night.

Full moon, full moon waning,


Friday, 21 January 2011

Teaching Adults?

I’m going to Athens again tomorrow. On Sunday morning I am doing a five-hour session on Teaching Adults with a group of teachers who are more used to teaching kiddie-winks and would probably be a bit chary of taking on adult classes. ‘You could tell them about your approach!’ said my friend who is in charge of the show. She thought she was being helpful.


Yesterday and today, my brief was to introduce the idea of writing a ‘for and against’ type essay to a bunch of people who were not entirely sure what an essay is, let alone refinements on the genre such as ‘for and against’, ‘problem - solution’ and ‘opinion’. It might strike you as worrying that graduate students should be unable to tell you what an essay is, but I’ve learned to take this in my stride. There was even dispute about the number of paragraphs in the model essay I gave them for analysis;

‘One!’ (A one-paragraph essay?)

‘Two!’ (Oh, you’re so close but I’m afraid I can’t give it to you – any advance on two?)

‘Three? Four?’

Layout, then, is the least of their problems with writing. This is par for the course, I reason with myself. I can’t write essays in Arabic, and I’m sure there would be conventions in Arabic writing that might go over my head until someone drew them to my attention. What I would not do, given my ignorance, is devote only half my attention to the person charged with instructing me in essay writing. Bringing the class back together after pair-work discussion always requires three or four calls for their attention, and today I finally lost my rag. Just as silence had fallen and I began my next set of instructions, someone struck up another conversation and with my Domestos glare (Kills-All-Known-Bimbos-Dead) I snapped:

‘Do not talk across me when I am giving instructions!’

Didn't understand the words, all probability, these chappies, respond to tone of voice, though. Then I felt a bit of a heel and had to overdo the smilingly helpful bit until lunchtime.

After lunch I decided to work on a common Arab bronunciation broblem, that of distinguishing /b/ and /p/. Just as I was getting my trousers off on the subject, I heard Alexandros speaking Greek at normal Greek conversational volume (i.e., loud) into his mobile phone.

‘NOT-IN-THE-LESSON!’ I said, in capital letters and hyphens. ‘Turn it off. Now!’

I mean WTF? Like, WTFbloodyFF? I swear it wouldn’t surprise me if one day he got up and took a leak in the corner of the room.

At the end of the session I told them I would be away next week, and that ‘Y’ would be covering for me. Mohamed asked if they might have teacher X in place of teacher Y, because teacher Y ‘don’t tell us no talk.’

‘You are all adults!’ I said. ‘He doesn’t expect to tell you that!’

‘No, today, you speak us, no talking, no talk in mobile phone. Very strict, very good. Y very nice teacher but no enough strict.’

Right, like I said, on Sunday I’m doing a session on teaching adults. I’ve got all this stuff to impart about how adults can be self-starting and self-directing, but if any of the Athens teachers is reading this, remember, it’s bullshit. Just slap ‘em about a bit and show ‘em who’s boss. They’ll lap it up.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Tax Need Not Be Taxing

I went to the tax office this morning to sort out a minor mix-up. I’ve never been to the tax office in England before, but I have had dealings with the Greek equivalent, known as the εφορία [eforía] and I was not looking forward to the encounter. The Greeks don’t pay taxes if they can get away with it, and they have been getting away with it for quite some time. It isn’t hard to see why. There’s the understandable reluctance to contribute funds towards some politician’s purchase of a BMW and villa by the sea, when you might use the money for your kids’ education or a BMW of your own. And then there’s the fact that the eforía employs some of the most suspicious, obstructive, uncivil, imperious, supercilious and dictatorial tossers you could meet outside Ljubljanka. And those are the nice ones.

I never went to the eforía alone. Even when I reached the stage when I could handle the content linguistically, I knew I would never get the style - the cap-in-hand prelude as you approach the clerk, the expository passage of arse-licking until she starts to treat you with naked suspicion, despite your being there to legalise your position, then the cadenzas of indignation on both sides. I always bottled out and took along Mr Panos, a retired accountant who knew the whole Byzantine system inside-out and who could do the prefatory smarm and ensuing barney to perfection. It was his task at one point to screw five years’ worth of tax rebates out of the eforía on my behalf, by filling in stacks of forms and arguing with assorted boors and harridans in a succession of grim offices. It took about five months. I tagged along with him, pretending me no speaky Greek an me no unnastan neetha. (Εκγώ ντεν από το Ελλάντα, εκγώ ντεν ξέρει Ελλάντα γκλώσσα.) We would sit on benches waiting for some slattern behind a desk to deign to speak to us. The usual procedure was a) slattern notices our presence; b) slattern makes sure we know she has noticed our presence; c) slattern spends a few moments rifling through papers and squaring up ledgers on her desk before noticing that a colleague is knocking off. She then favours the departing colleague with a gushing valediction: ‘γειά σου, γειά σου, Τασσούλα μου, χαιρετισμούς στον Δημητράκη, καλή ξεκούραση, τα λέμε, άντε, μπαι, γειά, γειά...’ 'Bye now, bye Tassoula dear, give my love to Dimitris, have a nice rest, see you soon, bye-bye, bye-bye…’ d) colleague slithers out of the office on a slick of honeyed words and e) slattern turns to us supplicants with a glacial ‘τι θέλετε, εσείς;’ ‘what do you want?’ as if she has caught a pair of Peeping Toms sneaking peeks through her living room window.

Mr Panos would then assume a horribly servile and placatory manner, begin to explain my case for the umpteenth time and for the umpteenth time counter a welter of shrill objections. He would pat his chest now and then and sigh ‘I have heart problems...’ which was laying it on a bit thick, I reckoned, but I really needed the rebates, so I resisted the urge to suggest we preserve our integrity by walking out with our noses in the air. The result was usually that we would be passed on to another harpy in another office in another part of town. Then the day arrived when Panos handed me a paper and told me to go on my own to such and such an office, where they would hand over the cash at last. After only the briefest of pauses for frowns and headshakes, and an automatically proposed but then quickly retracted ‘no, you have to go to your last eforía and ask for…’ I was sent to a grille through which was passed a wad of notes the size of a toilet roll. There was a look of admiration on the countenance of the cashier, I thought – maybe most people just gave up after the first month.

The staff at the office in Peterborough were welcoming, (μάλλον δεν το πιστεύετε αυτό, ε;) friendly and thoroughly obliging. There was a comfortable waiting area, where someone came to apologise that the appointments were running ten minutes late and reassure me that I had not been forgotten. A nice Indian lady sorted out my small problem in about half an hour, sitting with me at a computer as we filed my return online together. I departed happy. So if anybody from the eforía reads this, the message is just be fucking nice, you arseholes, and Greeks might consider paying their bloody taxes.


A mouthy Evangelical in Peterborough’s Cathedral Square was rebuking a group of youths who had stopped to listen, read his flip-chart and have a giggle. ‘You-are-mocking-the-God-who-died-to-save-you!’ he told them. You silly sod, I thought. Head so far up your arse you don’t suspect for a minute who the object of their mockery really is.


Mon 24 Jan. Am in Greece where I learn that these days, visiting the tax office is an even more unpleasant experience than it used to be. Everyone has been jolly naughty, and there's hell to pay.

Friday, 7 January 2011

P.I. Day at the U.B.O.

It’s a grey, sleety, cheerless January day and it occurred to me that it’s nearly thirty years since the grey, sleety cheerless January when I worked for a few weeks as a Clerical Assistant at the Cambridge Unemployment Benefit Office. Absolutely nothing is happening up here in 2011, so at the risk of premature descent into my anecdotage, I decided I would dredge up some memories of that time.

As you can imagine, work for a C.A. in the U.B.O. (acronyms are a civil service speciality) mainly involving the movement of bits of paper from one office to another, was pretty damn tedious. I imagine that now such work is even more bloody tedious, for these days, you have no reason to get up from your desk. Back then, computers were rare and if you knew about them, it was usually because some over-grown boy of your acquaintance had bored you witless, enthusing over his plastic box that showed green writing on a black screen. I don't remember seeing one in the building, although there may have been one or two operated by treddle or paraffin in the wages office. Every claimant had a claim pack, a bundle of real paper, cardboard and rubber-bands, not a computer file. Depending on the claimant’s circumstances, needs and afflictions - fifteen children, chronic jet-lag, obligation to support relatives, refusal to support relatives, King’s Evil, and so on, the claim pack could be in any department of the large, charmless building, and minions such as myself spent most of the day traipsing up and down stairs, looking in filing cabinets, on windowsills and under desks for claimants’ details when our own department required them. The only part of the job I actually liked was taking fresh claims from the newly unemployed. You had to check the claim pack of the repeat claimants for the initials P.V., indicating that the claimant was Potentially Violent. Most of these ten-minute transactions were unmemorable, and I only had one P.V., a young man who saw visions and heard voices and for whom I was just one more voice in his private crowd. Taking his claim was like being one journalist among many, all attempting to question the same rock star. I was surprised at just how many people there were who couldn’t read or communicate in writing. One week we had a run of people who said on their claim forms that they had previously been employed as jellies:

Name: Roger Donger Wattam Potter
Previous occupation: Jelly

Name: Fanny Payne
Previous Occupation: Jelly

The names, by the way, are real; scandalous that parents can be so lacking in compassion. There were several of these former jellies, few of them large and wobbly, so it was hard to see what had qualified them for the post. It was disappointing to learn that the Chivers jam, jelly and sweeties factory had laid off a large number of employees, and the jelly department had been hardest hit, splattering ex 'jellies' our way. Don’t know if it ever bounced back. (Sorry.)

The only day with potential for entertainment was Personal Issue, or P.I. day. Every Thursday, claimants who had no fixed abode came in to collect their giro cheques. Many of these were alcoholic or barking mad or both, and for three hours or so the public area was like the Bedlam Hospital. The inebriate, the hallucinant and the gibbering queued for their pittance and the smell of cider breath and old, urinous clothing was overwhelming. One old gentleman, possibly aTouretter, did bird impressions and ticked and chimed like a Grandfather clock. The day was both funny and deeply depressing. Where did these people go once they had collected their giros? To hostels, to B&Bs, to shelters, shop doorways and cardboard boxes. One snowy afternoon at dusk, a man whose claim had not been processed was turned away penniless just before closing. He gave the door a bloody good kicking before leaving. Solved nothing, but I would have done the same.

Into our Thursday afternoon atmosphere of booze-breath, piss and demented babble there came a very elegant middle-aged lady whose natural habitat, I would have said, was Harrods food hall. She must have fallen on hard times and boy, had she picked the right day to feel degraded. As I was taking her claim, behind her a tall, gaunt elderly drunk was vying with her for my attention, waving and swearing at me like a miffed regular being ignored in a crowded pub. My lady turned and in an accent that could shatter glass, admonished him to wait his turn. As soon as she had concluded her business and risen from her seat, the drunken gentleman collided with her as he hastened to occupy it and she hastened to get the hell out into fresh air. I ascertained that the curmudgeonly and abusive gentleman was one Mr Michael Green of No-Fixed-Abode-a-Wee, Cambridge area.

‘What have you got against de Oyrish?’ he snarled at me as soon as he had taken his seat. ‘What de fuck have you got against the fuckin Oyrish?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘My mother’s Irish.’

Well, her grandmother was – half.

This news immediately brought about the most extraordinary sweetening of Mr Green’s demeanour. He beamed at me.

‘Which part of Oirland does yer mammy come from?’ he asked, almost tenderly.

‘Huddersfield,’ sez oi, beaming back.

‘Ah, now! Ah, now! Yer can see it! Yer can see it in yer face!’ He was all sunshine for the remaining minute or two of the transaction. I gave him whatever papers it was he needed from me and as he pocketed them, he winked and said ‘we all must live! We must all live!’

Ah, be Chroist, that we must, Mr Green, that we must. He went away a happy man.

One tries one’s best, I thought.

Next up is a youngish, slim and clerkly man in a pale grey suit, white shirt and pale grey tie, slightly nervous, leaning forward as one most anxious to be helpful. I ask for his name.

‘Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte,’ he says.

I ask him to repeat it.

‘Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte,’ he says again.

Yep, that’s what I thought you said. You don’t look like someone who’d be taking the piss, but…

‘Do you have any I.D.?’

He passed his driving license under the glass, and sure enough he was officially Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, of the same indeterminate abode as Mr Green. He seemed to have lived for weeks in a succession of guest-houses. When he came later to sign on, I heard him respectfully pointing out to the person on the desk that his name was Crown Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, not just plain Prince Napoleon Bonaparte, as had appeared on his last giro. Had some shiny-arsed jobsworth at the post office quibbled about cashing his giro, as if he had several near-namesakes in the Cambridge area? I have met only one other person who had gone to the bother of changing his name by deed poll, swapping something clunky and commonplace for the more arresting and euphonious ‘Avon Huxor’, which sounds like a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide. He did this because he had a sense of humour. The Crown Prince, however, seemed entirely to lack this attribute, maintaining his earnest, slightly obsequious manner every time I encountered him. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he is presently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for dismembering landladies.

On my last day, a little old lady came in, not to make a claim, but to warn us that we should all wear batteries in our hats. She indicated a couple of Evereadies tucked snugly into the band of her own. These would deflect the rays that aliens were beaming down onto the planet to brainwash us, and we'd all be alright. She was thanked for her concern, and went on her way, perhaps to apprise some other government office of the threat. She was right about the brainwashing because I have forgotten what size battery she specified, so you will just have to experiment and hope it isn't too late.


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