Sunday, 27 February 2011

'...and Found Wanting.'

Testing again last week. Understandably, our Libyan students had more on their minds than piddling end-of-course progress tests, and I was generous with the marks for some, who look wrung out with anxiety about relatives they are unable to contact. No sympathy, though, for Faisal from Saudi Arabia, this term’s wotten cheat, chiz chiz. His teacher observed him glance some thirty-eight times at his neighbour’s paper during the listening test. Since she could not get up and stop him without disturbing the other students, she simply ascertained when marking that Faisal had exactly the same answers and errors as Nuri, and awarded him a zero. Faisal had a fit.

‘I am no shit!’ he said, passionately.

‘Yes, you did. I saw you. And you have all the same answers and mistakes as Nuri,’ she said. Q.E.D.

‘Why you no take away my beiper?’ he wanted to know, implying that the teacher had decided to accuse him of shitting after the event, merely because as an addled, fickle, illogical female, driven by emotion, she felt like it. Since strict protocol had not been observed, he could not be blamed.

‘Wouldn’t have made any difference. You’d still have got a zero.’

‘What I will say to course director?’

‘She knows already.’

‘What I will say to my Embassy???’

You should have bloody thought of that, you dozy pillock, is the answer to that one. Chances are they won’t even notice the zero. You do get full marks, though, for the sheer brass neck of implying that your cheating was the teacher’s fault.


The oral test required students to discuss a topic together, with the examiner kibitzing. I always have to force myself to listen during oral exams, as otherwise my mind wanders. On Thursday I was shaken from reverie when I heard Hussam say:

‘Enternet has make the world felch.’

Dear me. Have we got onto the malign consequences of internet porn whilst I was daydreaming?

‘Yes, yes,’ said Hamid. ‘It’s make of the world global felch.’

OK, right, global village. Go back to sleep.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Tales from the Crypt

Our small university department, the little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) has recently relocated. We now occupy two floors of a tastefully renovated Victorian building, and among appointments hitherto unavailable to us are visualisers and smartboards in every classroom, a large staffroom with lots of computers, our own kitchen, and a poltergeist.

The poltergeist’s first and - as far as I know, only - wholly unexplained action so far has been to bend a key belonging to a member of the full-time staff. He had left it on a desk in the full-timers’ office, a key as other keys are, and returned to find it buckled and useless. Visitors who dropped by to admire the new premises were told about the key and told us in their turn that the building was once a boys’ grammar school, and that it had an underground chapel in which the boys prayed for Old Boys who were fighting in World War One. This snippet has become conflated with the Tale of the Key as if it somehow provided an explanation; the Spirits of the Crypt are disturbed by workmen hammering, drilling and painting, and they bend our keys in protest. So now any mildly puzzling event may be explained by blaming it on the unquiet dead - books that are not where you last put them, pens shifted from drawer A to drawer B, that sort of thing, which of course went unremarked upon before we knew we were perched above a crypt. The presence of discarnate entities has even been adduced to account for the noticeable difference in temperature between the full-timers’ office and the much warmer adjacent rooms. An alternative explanation for this is that Room 101 is on a corner, has therefore two outside walls, and it’s February. There is no doubt some equally logical, spoil-sport explanation for the bent key.

You have no idea how much I want there to be a bloody poltergeist, though: a real, disgruntled Old Boy from the Crypt who might be persuaded that he's actually dead and is free to leave for a better place: Matlock springs to mind. I’ve been swapping ghost stories with other teachers over the last few days, all the funny and weird stuff that happens to friends and to friends of friends (I have a lot of this stuff stored up) but rarely to the speaker himself or herself. Even my own experience was in early childhood and cannot strictly speaking count as first hand. It’s only a few years ago that the gods and the spirit world, which I had seen as a matrix from which we all emerge, turned entirely to dust on me, desiccated by a sudden and belated access of rationalism which has left me a universe of clanking gears and rusty cogs, all life running down inexorably to illness, frailty, dependence, dementia and extinction. All you know, all you love, every refinement of your responses over a lifetime, pffffft, gone some day soon, as it had never been.

Jesus, how did we get from key-bending goblins to cheery thoughts like that one? Well, on the train the other evening I was thinking about Father Karras in ‘The Exorcist’, the priest who no longer believes, and feels himself a fraud for maintaining the public pretense that he does. He misses belief, but the cold water of reason has doused the flame, an ignis fatuus after all. I thought how I often feel fraudulent when I say I am an atheist, because in doing so I'm denying a private longing for higher planes interpenetrating this earthly one, and for signs that we are not just bodies, but immortals exploring the plane of matter*. I really used to believe this stuff, for Christ's sake. Towards the end of the novel, Karras and Father Merrin, the exorcist of the title, change into their exorcise gear and get cracking on evicting the Assyrian Demon of the Winds from the body of twelve-year old Regan. Early in the proceedings, the cynical Karras watches gobsmacked as Regan’s bed begins to levitate, in defiance of known laws governing beds:

He stared at it incredulously. Four inches. Half a foot. A foot. The the back legs began to come up [ ....] The bed drifted upward another foot, and then hovered bobbing and listing gently as if it were floating on a stagnant lake.
'Father Karras?'
Karras turned. The exorcist was eyeing him serenely, and now motioned his head towards the copy of the Ritual in Karras' hands. 'The response, please, Damien.' [...]
' ''Let the enemy have no power over her.' '' Merrin repeated gently.
Hastily Karras glanced back at the text and with a pounding heart breathed out the response: '' 'And the son of iniquity be powerless to harm her.' ''
'' ' Lord, hear my prayer,' '' continued Merrin.
'' 'The Lord be with you. ' ''
'' 'And with your spirit. ' ''
Merrin embarked upon a lengthy prayer and Karras again returned his gaze to the bed, to his hopes of his God and the supernatural hovering low in the empy air. An elation thrilled up through his being. It's there! There it is! Right in front of me! There!

See? That's what I want, evidence I don't have to conclude that the material is all there is. I see no grounds for believing otherwise, though, and it makes me gloomy as all get out.

To be resigned to death and extinction is not always a consolation even to the Stoic – although it does have its satisfactions. Among these…one can include the reasonable certainty that mere wish-thinking did not help to stack one’s intellectual deck.

Ah, well, I suppose so. But still, I really do want to go into work some morning and witness teacups travelling the air, or board markers borne aloft by impalpable hands, and most especially Ridah’s smirk of certainty about everything wiped off his face by an unseen fist. This last would certainly suggest purpose and intelligence on the part of the smiter and go some way to demonstrating the existence of discarnates to us still in our envelope of meat.

* But if you are a soul or a spirit, why would you need a physical body, any more than a fish needs a wet suit or a snorkel?


Blatty, W.P., (1971) The Exorcist, New York, Harper and Row

Hitchens C., (2003) The Future of an Illusion. In C. Hitchens, Love Poverty and War, London, Atlantic Books.

Sunday, 20 February 2011


It’s a while since I posted a recipe, so since nothing much is happening around these parts, I thought I’d offer a couple of dishes I like. I’m drawn to the sort of one-pot meal you assemble, chuck into the oven and forget about, then get praised to the skies for having pulled off, and these two just about satisfy the criteria. However, I wouldn’t advise forgetting about either of them for longer than the length of time it takes you (or me) to down, shall we say, three generous gin and tonics. Come to think of it, the first one doesn’t require the oven at all, but you can make it well in advance and thus eat it in tranquillity.

First up, then, is the glorious djej matisha meshla, a Moroccan dish of chicken in a tomato and honey sauce. Last time I cooked this was for a friend in Kalamata, and I screwed up by buying supermarket chicken breast in order to avoid having to bone and skin the chicken myself. Well, it would have been wearisome on a very hot day, what with chopping onions, boiling tomatoes and fighting off a very persistent cat. The breasts were tough and fibrous, and we ended up eating what felt like an aromatically-sauced pullover. (Sorry, Lorna.) I have triumphed on other occasions, though. For a friend’s birthday do at a bar in Athens, the bar owner and I had a nice evening doing the catering. Mersi and I cooked djej matisha meshla for the invited guests and the bar regulars. It was amusing to see that Mersi and her husband each had glasses of scotch hidden from each other in cupboards around their flat above the bar. And it was nice, when we served the assembled multitudes, to see Greeks ('salt and honey in the same dish!?!? ') appreciating a savoury stew generously flavoured with honey, because in so doing they were eating their words along with the chicken.

OK then, select a well brought-up chicken and have the butcher skin and chop it into chunks for you. Take a pile of fat tomatoes likewise skinned and chopped. Remove the seeds if you can be arsed, although personally I can’t. Grate a large onion and chop some garlic. Tip the tomatoes, onion and garlic into a big saucepan along with some salt, a stick of cinnamon and a teaspoon or so of powdered ginger. Bring this to the boil, then add your chicken and cook until the flesh is easily pulled from the bones. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside to cool. Whack up the heat under the tomatoes, pour in a very generous dollop of fragrant honey, and boil the mixture vigorously until you obtain a velvety, slightly caramelised cinnamon-fragrant sauce. This is not the time to get stuck into the Mother’s Ruin – you must constantly stir the sauce lest it burn, which it will readily do. It will also bubble and splash like a mudpot, so take care. Once you are satisfied with the sauce, bandage your scalded arms, remove the chicken flesh from the bones and return it to the sauce. Your hob and surrounds will look as if you have machine-gunned an intruder in their vicinity, so wipe them down, and then you will thoroughly have deserved your first G&T. I usually serve djej matisha meshla with basmati rice, flavoured with orange and lemon juice, turmeric, thyme, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Wonderful.

Next is a Spanish dish which I think I found in a Nigel Slater book. It’s utterly delicious, dead easy, and people love you for it - exactly my kind of thing. Slice a fat onion, some waxy potatoes and a chorizo. In a vessel suitable for both hob and oven, fry your onion, add your sausage, then your potatoes. Throw in a generous glassful of dry sherry, a couple of bay leaves, salt and enough boiling water to barely cover your spuds. Transfer the uncovered pot to the pre-heated oven and cook until the potatoes are done, forty minutes or so. Adorn with chopped parsley or coriander. Delightful with a lettuce salad, lacy bread and a vat of red wine.

I’m afraid I'm terribly vague about quantities and oven temperatures because I tend to ignore figures, judging portions by eye and reckoning that most things are OK in the oven at 200 or so if you keep an eye on them. Anything requiring more precision, dividing between ramekins, straining through muslin etc., I leave to others.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Please Utilise Alternative Facility

Notice on loo door at railway station this afternoon:

This toilet is not at present in use.
Please use an alternative cubicle.
Thank You

Fifteen words there, when three would've done:

Not in Use

Why do they have to spell it all out so? We would not expect to be told:

This toilet is not at present in use.
Please shit on the floor.

We don't throw a fit and hammer on the locked up lock-up, screaming 'but I wanted to use this one!' We accept that instead of kicking down the door, we really ought to use the adjacent khazi.

I wouldn't be surprised if drafting the notice was entrusted to this announcer, in the belief that he has a way with words. It's him all over.

Similar over-explicit instructions that take their target audience for cretins appear all over the university. A wash basin in the loo is out of order, so we are instructed to use an 'alternative' one, as though we might otherwise stand there with poopy hands, paralysed with indecision. Notices next to the lifts asks us to cede our places to the disabled, pregnant and elderly, rather than elbow such Untermenschen out of the way, as we normally would. We are reassured that 'stairs nearby provide access to upper floors', so that's a relief; ropes and hard hats will not be necessary. All we need now is clarification from management of the hopelessly subjective 'nearby', which will be interpreted differently by the young and fit, those with a leg in plaster, the pregnant and the elderly. Until this is forthcoming, the growing crowds of irresolute students and staff will continue to pose a threat to health and safety on every landing.

Directly above the urinals (these are in the gents, not the lifts, thought I had better make that clear to less agile minds) is a laminated notice, the footer of which is just at my eye-level, and whilst I am 'utilising this facility' the words 'The Power is in Your Hands' confront me.

'You better fuckin' believe it!' I snigger - then I realise it's one of those dumb bird-flu posters telling you how to sneeze.


By the way, these instructions on considerate sneezing must be by-passing quite a few of our international students. Muslims do not use the urinals - modesty requires that they use the cubicles. Chinese boys, on the other hand, rarely pee alone, and they don't merely undo their zips, they all but untruss, undoing belt, button and fly and flopping out the bit and tackle over their Calvins for the others to appraise. Official announcements on approved sternutatory protocol therefore go unnoticed - deservedly, in the face of such competition. I have not yet observed the micturational foibles of other nations, but shall be doing so, and will publish my findings in due course.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

An Apport

They say you spend something like twenty-five years of your life sleeping, three months shaving, and a month or so queueing at Waitrose. I often wonder how many weeks I will have spent searching for my glasses by the time I set my burden down. Bashing angrily about this tiny flat like a wasp in a matchbox as I try to locate the damn things certainly occupies a fair chunk of each day. Yesterday morning, five minutes before it was time to leave the house, I realised my distance pair were nowhere in evidence and began the usual hunt, getting increasingly ratty as I failed to turn them up. Eventually I had to go to work with my readers on. It was like spending the day under water.

On getting home in the evening I searched anew in obvious places such as the windowsill, the kitchen worktop and on and under the coffee tables, then in silly places like behind the speakers, in the rubbish drawer among the board markers, junk mail, pen tops, candle stubs and loose batteries, then in the bloody fridge. I stripped the bed and shook out the stacks of cushions and pillows that are piled on it. Zilch. This morning I repeated the entire procedure from sills to upholstery and then gave up, deciding they must have fallen down a wormhole to another universe where an alternative Me was now able to see clearly the large object on the roof of the house opposite, which I knew could not be a vulture but which so very closely resembled one. I set my readers on the windowsill, got out the vac and hoovered the living room. On finishing, I turned to put my specs on again and sod me if both pairs were not now side by side on the sill like the two little dicky-birds sat upon a wall.

I stared at them for a moment, gobsmacked. I know the distance pair was not there when I started hoovering, and I also know that they must have been, or how else...? On the phone my mother, a dogged believer in apports and the continued concern of deceased relatives for our well-being in this sublunary world, suggested that one or the other of my grandmas had dropped by to help, to which my reply was brief and blunt. The true explanation will be dull and prosaic but I cannot supply it, given that the windowsill is always the first place I look and I had looked several times in the past twenty-four hours.

There is no vulture on the roof opposite either, unfortunately. It was just a metal flue cowl in the dawn light, looking bigger and fuzzier about the edges than it really is.


I'll accept the apport theory if the fifty euro note I've just discovered is gone from my jacket pocket is restored to me.


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