Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

An e-mail this morning informed me that my nephew had posted a photo of me on Facebook. Fuck, I thought. I dislike posing for photos and it shows. I either look like Judge Jeffreys presiding at the Bloody Assizes, or worse, I wear a patently unfelt smile, like someone unaccustomed to the effort involved. There is also these days the repeated shock caused by the fact that the self-image I carry in my mind has not been updated since I was 35, while the external image has obviously moved on. ‘I luke int mirror,’ my maternal grandma once said, ‘and lukin back, thiz an owd woman!’ She said this with a kind of fascinated horror, as if it were the last thing she had expected to see. She had been a beauty in her time. I could have pointed out that the shock might be cushioned somewhat if she put her dentures in before consulting the mirror, but forbore.

Anyway, the photo James has dug out was taken long before I developed my present self-consciousness. It's the Christmas of perhaps 1965, and shows the approximately six-year old me on the left, my three-year old sister Tonie in the middle and my second cousin Jonathan on the right. I am holding a ventriloquist’s dummy, my top favourite among the year’s haul of prezzies, and visible on the right is a three-storey toy garage. I wonder about the garage. I know for sure it wouldn’t have figured on my wish list, whereas the ventriloquist’s dummy most certainly did. Were my parents hoping to balance the dummy with something a tad more butch? Quite possibly.

There’s a photo from an earlier Christmas Day in which I sit miserably on a new tricycle, the picture of resentfulness and disappointment. There might be poignancy in such ungrateful repudiation of a loving gift long saved for, had I not been at pains to point out repeatedly in the run-up to Christmas that I really, really didn’t want a bloody bike. I didn’t know then that the damn thing had already been bought and my parents were trying hard to bring me round to liking the idea. As a small boy I had a tendency to live in my head, invent stories which I told myself out loud, and was forever pretending that my toys and other objects around me were something other than what they actually were. This tendency to want to be alone and my active dislike and avoidance of other boys probably inspired the decision to get me ‘mucking in with the other lads’ on a fucking bike. Some hope. My favourite bit of the mockumentary ‘The Big Tease’ has the mother of the gay hairdresser protagonist proudly showing off the chess set her son had received as a boy. He had dressed all the pawns in grass skirts to represent the chorus of ‘South Pacific’. I actually think the desire for the ventriloquist’s doll was a symptom of emerging control-freakery ('I'm making him call me 'sire' ') rather than any – what do they call it these days? – ‘gender atypical’ behaviour. Still, something must have been nagging at my parents’ minds, minds shaped up to that point largely by the rigid gender roles of the fifties.

Eventually both trike and garage came into their own. The garage had a battery operated elevator, which fascinated me even if the cars never did. My sister and I collected frogspawn, and when the tadpoles emerged and grew to early froghood, she would divert them with rides in the garage lift. The battery compartment on top of the lift shaft had a removable lid and inside, an intriguing mechanism of cogs and wires and whatnots. Some of the day-tripping frogs got caught up in this and were tragically minced even as their fellows were riding happily up and down. I think this gumming up of the works with frog parts probably wrecked the elevator once and for all, and Tonie had to resort instead to feeding up the goldfish. She’d give them entire packets of digestive biscuits at a sitting ('din-dins!') and once tipped a large bag of rabbit oats into their bowl. This might have choked a small shark, but the goldfish lived.

The good, clean, healthy fun my parents had envisioned with their present of a bike materialised eventually. Sort of. A friend, Christine, and I invented the game ‘Death Hospital’. We would hurtle up and down the street on our trikes, transporting imaginary patients to a make-believe hospital at the far end, staffed by doctors and nurses trained in the most implacable sadism. Here patients were extravagantly maltreated before we dropped by to deliver a new batch of victims and cart off the cadavres for interment. I'm pretty sure that other boys would merely have ridden their bikes, no doubt competing to see who could reach the far end of the street first. That would have struck us as brain-curdlingly boring and pointless.

These days, parents would probably take kids who devised such pastimes as 'Death Hospital' to be gently talked to by deeply concerned health care professionals, and get them playing violent computer games instead. Our parents never even knew. We grew tired of ‘Death Hospital’ soon enough, and grew up as normal as the rest of you.


Christine (left) survived 'Death Hospital' in a sense that has far more resonance now than we ever suspected then, and my sister (right) has given up entertaining frogs.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

From more innocent times...

..before they knew that this:

...can lead to this:

Saturday, 9 July 2011


A bunch of students from the People's Republic of China arrived last week, and for the first time in four years I don't have a single Arabic speaker in my classes. I have seventeen PRC kids in my main group, all of them very cheerful and willing but utterly bemused at what I’ve been asking them to do all week. I'm trying to see my lessons from their point of view: why does he keep asking us questions when he's supposed to be here to tell us stuff? Why is he interested in our opinions? Moreover, how do we know if our opinions are the ones he wants to hear? Why does he keep telling us to discuss our answers to reading tasks together, instead of just reading out the correct ones? Why all this bloody cat and mouse, for god’s sake?

On Friday, they were all completely knackered after a muggy week of being bombarded with a foreign language and a strange culture. Every overture I made to them was greeted with sphincter-twitching silence until I asked them about lectures in China. It seems that they expect to sit and listen, and write notes when told to do so. A coursebook will accompany and reinforce the lectures, and no other reading will be required. Questions are not welcomed during the session, but braver students will occasionally venture one or two after the lecture.

‘How does the lecturer know the students understand if they don’t ask questions?’ I asked, genuinely puzzled.

‘Cos there is test at the end of the course!’

‘Isn’t that leaving it a bit late?’

‘Test is very easy!’

Boy, are you lot in for a shock, I thought. So I spelled out the rationale for all the discussion and collaborative learning I’d been trying to encourage all week. And they got it. Immediately! They started to argue about their answers, referring back to the reading passage. They offered answers even if they were unsure. The silence was replaced with a buzz, and my fear that they thought I was wasting their time evaporated, although I suppose they may merely have decided to humour me. What a waste of everyone’s curiosity Chinese lectures must be.

We ended the session with the game ‘backs to the board’. The students in teams sit in small circles, with one member facing away from the board. The teacher puts a word from the day’s lesson on the projector and the teams have to try to communicate the word to the ‘blind’ member, using synonyms, definitions and paraphrases. The first ‘blind’ member of the teams to call out the correct word earns the team a point. There was much whooping and self-congratulatory applause as the game progressed and thus the week ended on a high note. This is always a good ploy – leave ‘em laughing when you go, and they’ll forget that the day was mostly just slog.

Now, what you really want to know is what those things in the photo are. Some Chinese students left us a pile of these on the staffroom table. Imagining them to be dried fruit or some kind of toffee, I opened one. The content of the sealed plastic bubble looks like sun-dried dog-shite or the hacked-off knob of a mummy, calling into question the assertion frequently met in cook books that eye-appeal is of paramount importance when presenting Chinese comestibles. The mutt-poop mummy-dong is a gobbet of gristle that has no flavour save, faintly, those of lard and dust. I brought a couple of the laminated mucky-pup mummy-todger thingies home to show you, and to see if anyone can tell me what they really are, and in what spirit - gratitude or revenge – they were probably given.


7th Dec 2011. It is in fact dried beef, as my present bunch of PRC students confirmed last week. It is still dried beef that tastes like candle wax.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Still here...

...but life is pretty dull right now, so there isn't much to say. We're on course 4 of the year, the five-week extended chimps' tea-party that every year I vow I will not do, but can never avoid because I need the bloody money. There's too much material, too little time and too many teachers competing for the photocopier which frequently packs up as a result. Five minutes before you have to be in another building to teach business English or Academic Culture or English for Computing, the rhythmic ftthhht-ftthhht-ftthhht of your copies being churned out is replaced by the hysterical weee-wahhhweee-wahhhweee-wahhh siren and a flashing red light, and the hot urge to smash the contraption to atoms courses through you. Or me. I suffer from acute lack of serenity and chronic want of sense of proportion, and I should therefore be allowed July off (on full pay) on doctor's orders.

It's muggy and noisy in the building where I'm teaching this year. We overlook a building site in full hammering and drilling swing, and a main road near a hospital with ambulances screeching past every few minutes. The city council could pass a ruling resticting heart attacks to evening hours, but of course they bloody won't, useless sods. My classroom is the size of a tennis court, so everyone has to holler to be heard two tables away, and shy Chinese girls do not like to holler. Yesterday I felt like everybody's stone-deaf grandad, cupping my ears and requesting endless repetition from shrinking violets with atrocious pronunciation. Brits tend not to do air conditioning, much as the Greeks tend not to bother with insulation. If I close the windows, the temperature goes tropical and everyone nods off.

We get a week off at the end of Course 4, for good behaviour.

Thanks to Bo, last week I discovered the excellent Pema Chődrőn, an American Buddhist nun whose serene bearing, good humour and utter lack of pretention made me realise yet again how easily I let my head become a sackful of snarling, scratching wild cats, and how I actually feed the buggers by reading things I know will incense me. Just what masochistic urge makes me enter into correspondence with homophobic Young Earth Creationist Jesus-botherering Bible Belt bone-heads on You Tube? If someone's mental furniture consists exclusively of aumbries, credence tables and hassocks, no point in trying to altar any of it, arf arf. Here's a sample or two, all from a young man who specialises in the dodgy analogy:

'So, since gay people are the minority, I should simply accept and tolerate this and do nothing about it? So, since the minority of people are starving, I guess I should just accept this and do nothing about it?'

'Science recognizes that opposites attract. Take two magnets for example. Only the North end attaches to the South end normally and vice-versa. The North end and the other North end push away from one another; the same thing happens when you try to put the South end with the South end. It's harder to put N with N or S with S, than it is to respect the fact that N goes with S and S goes with N no matter how hard you try to naturally put N with N or S with S. This is exactly what homosexuality does. It tries to put North with North and South with South, then it tries to pass it off as being completely normal in the same sense that North with South is normal.'

Imagine it: you meet a bloke, you like each other, you agree to get it on, but as soon as the pair of you get your kits off and hit the sack, one of you is catapulted off the bed into the wardrobe and the other lobbed into the en suite. Eventually you decide this isn't working and go to the pub instead. You decide thereafter to be straight. Aye, right.

'So you're promoting homosexuality because it "feels" right? So if it "feels" right for me to murder everyone in sight, I guess that's something to be tolerated and welcomed, right?'

What need is this serving? I'm bridling even now at his use of caps there, as if he were quoting me, when he isn't, the bloody cretin. I never fucking said... Anyway, I sent off immediately for one of Pema Chődrőn's books, I devote some of my daily commute to za-zen (not in the lotus posture - can't do that any more) and eventually I may bloody calm down a bit, dammit.


With thanks once again to the ever-inspiring Bo, here's Ani Chőying Drolma, of whom I first heard about fifteen minutes ago. She is the perfect antidote to the saccharine frumpiness of the god-botherers in the last post; a cool stream versus a cloying ice-cream soda. Try to ignore the painting behind her.

By their fruits ye shall know them. Interview with Ani Chőying here. Compare the way her religion resonates in her character with the sunny sweetness of the lovely Margie here.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin