Friday, 28 October 2011

Little Shard of Glass

The last post but one rather took the piss out of spiritualists without actually coming out and declaring spiritualism a total crock. Nevertheless, almost any spiritualist gathering you attend will compel the conclusion that this is a thin and platitudinous non-religion for the credulous, a weekly hour of reassurance for the cosy-minded that while the body dies and decays, the soul goes on strolling, chatting and having lunch at the pub with friends in a sunshiny place every bit as nice as Harrogate. Presumably this desire that post-mortem life be Life As We Know It only rather nicer is what prompted Rudolf Steiner’s remark that ‘the spiritualist is the worst materialist of all.’ There doesn’t seem to be much point in dying if it simply means that you go on living with no bills in a house you no longer need to repair, dust or hoover, nor is it clear why a soul would choose to incarnate in the first place if there is so little difference between the physical and spiritual realms. If something does live on, and it's simply me as I was in physical life, then life and the hereafter seem equally pointless.

Like most people who attend spiritualist churches, I first went after the shock of a death, in my case that of a potential boyfriend after a very brief holiday romance. Pretty much all I knew of Nicholas was his handsome face and gorgeous body, as most of the time we’d spent together had been naked in each other’s arms. A car crash in the Athenian suburb of Nea Smyrni killed him, whilst I got away with some spectacular but transient bruising and trivial cuts from broken glass. I don’t remember the impact. I do remember waking up thinking I was in bed, and then as the mental murk cleared, noting as from a distance the tiny Citroen 2CV oddly elongated around me, the windscreen shattered and opaque so that it looked incongruously like a pane of ice at four o’ clock of a warm May morning. Nicholas in his pale blue shirt was slumped over the steering wheel, blood running down his cheek. I observed with detachment that my legs were shaking like terrified dogs. Roof-lights of ambulances appeared, and then there were people gathering around the car, neighbours who had been awoken by the noise of the crash, and the paramedics they had summoned. They took Nicholas away. A kind lady climbed into the vacated driver’s seat and held my hand and talked to me in English until the paramedics helped me out of the car and into another ambulance. A puddle of blood as from a beheading lay beside the car. It didn’t inspire confidence in the insistence of paramedics, nurses and doctors over the ensuing two hours that Nicholas was OK, just a bit concussed. He died soon after we got to the Asklipeio hospital in Voula. He was twenty-five.

At my parents’ in England two days later I knew that by then Nicholas would have been buried, and that his beautiful body was starting to putrefy, and the persistent image was unbearable. I thought of his family and their massive, unencompassable loss, the fact hitting them over and over, waking to it each morning for years to come. I think this was the first irreversible, irremediable brute fact I had ever consciously faced. Every adverse circumstance I had known up to that point had been fluid and negotiable, with choices and reasonable hope of a favourable settlement. This one held no such hope, and I urgently needed to believe I could bargain with it. That’s how I ended up at Slaithwaite spiritualist church to see Una (q.v.) do her thing, among people who had long since negotiated terms with the Reaper and decided he was more like a commissionaire.

During the tea break at that first meeting, a lady who said she was a medium talked to me. We had never met before. ‘There’s studying and learning around you’ she said. Stupidly, I didn’t know what she meant. Why didn't I? Wasn’t I a teacher? ‘My gatekeeper [i.e., spirit guide – a nun, apparently] is telling me that you could become really involved in this’ she continued. I think I laughed out loud at the suggestion. Where did she get the information about studying and learning? Maybe I talked a bit posh for Slaithwaite? Maybe the aloofness I’m often taxed with strikes some as a sign of pointy-headedness? I don’t know. At least my denial didn’t cause her to retract and embark on a series of guesses. It amuses me now that I didn't connect the remark about studying with the fact that I had been a teacher for eight years. Several months later another medium made the same remark to me and I reacted in the same puzzled manner. At the time I felt that I merely occupied classrooms, a teacher in name only, always afraid of being exposed as a fraud.

Back in Cambridge I went to the university library and cycled home with the pannier stuffed with books about psychic research – serious stuff, mind, not the New Age twaddle that filled gondolas at Dillons: ‘Thirty Days to an Out of Body Experience’ was one example of the woo-woo on offer. This proposed a regime of meditation to CDs of squealing cetaceans, gallons of herbal infusions, a diet of tofu and on day thirty, the injunction to ‘allow yourself to leave your body’. Most people I knew lumped all ‘supernatural’ stuff together, though, and during the time I was off work recovering from the aches, bruises and depression, a colleague rang me and asked me what I was doing to keep myself occupied. I told her what I was reading. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘I do wish you were reading cook books instead.’
The volume and quality of psychical research carried out over the last hundred years by scientifically qualified minds is not yet generally recognised. It is too easily assumed that material which relates to posthumous communications is largely confined to the ramblings of uneducated mediums, and to listeners whose minds have been disturbed and made credulous by grief, with a consequent loss of all critical faculty. This is an erroneous and unrealistic view. The actual situation is otherwise. (Beard, 1980)
A more sympathetic colleague suggested that in the spiritualist church I had begun to attend on Sunday evenings there would be several ‘strands’, people with different motives for attending, not simply grief but curiosity and scepticism. She was right. One regular was a Ph.D. student from one of the university science departments, and he got a great deal more flak from colleagues than I ever did. I fancied myself as a researcher, and every Sunday I endured the hymn-singing and the sphincter-puckering ‘philosophy’ that stands in for a sermon, and then watched the guest medium and the sitters she was addressing, noting the extent to which they conformed to or departed from the usual discourse of fishing for leads and swallowing the bait. One medium down from Newcastle told an over-eager sitter 'you've fed me that detail, love, so it's not valid as evidence'. She correctly identified a lady behind me as a first timer, then said that the communicator was a leather-jacketed young man of sixteen or so, killed in a motorbike accident no more than two days earlier.

‘It’s my grandson,’ said the woman, amazed, dazed and tearful. The lad was barely cold, it seemed. This caused several people in our bit of the room to brim up, and even I, an ass, was onion-eyed. I suppose it’s possible that the medium and the woman were a double act, mimes who spent their weekends travelling round the country performing this and other little set-pieces. Indeed many would maintain that complicity of some sort was the only explanation. It doesn’t satisfy me, though. First, why bother? They only got travel expenses for these these gigs, no fee. Secondly, it would not be hard to rumble such a scam: you need only witness the same trick twice in separate venues. Thirdly, it seems unlikely to me that these mediums, who were mostly motherly ladies you might otherwise see scanning your purchases at Sainsbury's, were illusionists and mentalists as skilled in suggestion and showmanship as Derren Brown. But maybe I’m just being a naïf snob.

This post is getting way too long, so anyone who is curious as to what the ‘serious stuff’ I mentioned earlier might have a look at ‘Living On’* for a starter. In the thirty years since it was published, neuroscience has kicked the soul’s butt pretty hard, and the book might well be no more than an elegantly-written unconscious exposition of human self-delusion.

If Spiritualism in some of its manifestations is rather vulgar and sentimental, it remains, I think, pretty harmless. The people who attend services regularly are united in having experienced grief and in establishing a modus vivendi with it, and such an experience has the possibility of making one compassionate and hopeful rather than crushed and embittered at the loss of those one loves. Spiritualists have no belief in a final judgement or eternal hell, and consequently no need to worry about how they and others stack up in the obedience-to-God stakes, leading to a lack of judgmentalism. So however soft in the head it may often be, spiritualism has its heart in the right place.

Twenty years ago, the thought of infinite realms beyond the physical world and eternity at my disposal to explore them seemed an extraordinarily exciting prospect. Now my possibly over-valued reason has all but knocked that stuff out of me, and I miss it. A tiny sliver of hope remains in my brain, just as there’s still a little shard of glass from Nicholas’s windscreen stuck in my forehead.

‘There’s summat just ‘ere,’ Una said the first time I saw her, touching her own forehead in the place where my invisible bit of glass resides. ‘A bit of broken bone or summat, but it won’t do no arm.’


28th June 2013: A more recent book in the same vein as Beard's is Trevor Hamilton's 'Tell My Mother I'm Not Dead: a case study in mediumship research', a very moving, honest and objective account of sittings with mediums and research into the literature on psi phenomena that the author undertook after his son was killed in an accident.


Beard, P., 1980. Living On. Norwich: Pilgrim Books
Hamilton, T., 2012. Tell My Mother I'm Not Dead Exeter: Imprint Academic

Believe it because it makes you feel better...? Not a good enough reason, Carl.

Why these bitter words of the dying, o brethren,
which they utter as they go hence?

I am parted from my brethren.

All my friends do I abandon and go hence.

But whither I go, that understand I not,

neither what shall become of me yonder;

only God who hath summoned me knoweth.

But make commemoration of me with the song:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

But whither now go the souls?

How dwell they now together there?

This mystery have I desired to learn; but none can impart aright.

Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?

Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them and make the song:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

We go forth on the path eternal, and as condemned,

with downcast faces, present ourselves before the only God eternal.

Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth?

Where then is the glory of this world?

There shall none of these things aid us, but only to say oft the psalm:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

If thou hast shown mercy unto man, o man,

that same mercy shall be shown thee there;

and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,

the same shall there deliver thee from want.

If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,

the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Youth and the beauty of the body fade at the hour of death,

and the tongue then burneth fiercely, and the parched throat is inflamed.

The beauty of the eyes is quenched then, the comeliness of the face all altered,

the shapeliness of the neck destroyed; and the other parts have become numb,

nor often say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

With ecstasy are we inflamed if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder?

That there is Paradise, wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.

Let us all, also, enter into Christ that we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Text From The Order for the Burial of Dead Priests, translated from Greek by Isabel Hapgood

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

No Comment

There seems to be a problem with comments at the moment - I'm not being ignored after all! So while Blogger sorts this out, your trenchant remarks will not be appearing, unfortunately. What a bugger.


Within seconds of posting this I got two comments, making this post completely pointless. Go read another one, and comment on it. Keep them coming, I am like totally a comment whore.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Blackpool Disappoints

Over at The Expvlsion of The Blatant Beast, (invitation only, I’m afraid – you’ll get challenged at the door) Bo describes his first ever trip to Blackpool the other week, where he attended a Spiritualist gathering:

‘…we headed upstairs, paid our fivers, and sat down expectantly awaiting our messages from the Beyond. As a religious ceremony, I found a Spiritualist service to be an event of such arse-aching vacuity that it made even the most cack-handed druid ritual I ever attended seem like the Liturgy of St John Chrystostom in comparison. A stout, pleasant young woman who looked like the regional director of an upholstery firm introduced the five mediums and announced the opening 'worship song', which turned out to Boyzone's hit ditty, 'No Matter What', sung by the assembled people as it were in choro. My eyes glazed.’

The Boyzone lyric in question is:

No matter what they tell us
No matter what they do
No matter what they teach us
What we believe is true.

An anthem for closed minds if ever there was one.

What a let-down. Things are obviously slipping in Blackpool and northern necrophilia is not what it was. The Em Cee should have been a heavily rouged and pinkly-powdered matron of black-sequined embonpoint, her voice tempered by sixty Rothmans a day over as many years, and a cough like somebody shoveling clinker. What’s all this nonsense about Boyzone? The proceedings should properly have opened with a rendition of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, heavy on the vibrato, to the accompaniment of a theatre organ. Did plastic foliage, illuminated by barely-concealed green bulbs, adorn the stage? If not, why not?
‘The actual messages- of which there were two hours' worth- were manifest examples of cold-reading and self-delusion.’
Fair enough, this is as it should be. I do hope, though, that the messages demonstrated what they are expected to: the continuing concern of the departed for the sitters’ tumors, sciatica, marital infidelity, nasty rashes and all those little things that are so important, don’t you think?

‘Now, ‘ow many pairs o’ shoes did you try on wi that outfit before you come out tonight, love?’

‘Ooo, well, I don't…’

Umpteen, your usband’s telling me now! ‘She cunt never mek ‘er mind up about shoes', ‘e sez!'

‘Oh, aye, e’d ave a laugh at me for that, I suppose…’

For about seven months in 1990 I regularly attended Spiritualist churches in Cambridge and up North, hoping to find someone who really did have a direct line to the Next World, into which on May 19th of that year a car accident had catapulted a beautiful young man I had hoped to form a relationship with. The first medium I saw was Una Pierce, who died earlier this month, and she is the lady I called Mona in this post from a while ago. Una was different from almost every medium I saw over that period, because she did not fish for leads or deliver vacuous messages about spirit people sending you blessings, roses and rainbows. Instead, she moved around the crowded function room with her eyes shut, never falling over a chair or bumping into a sitter, and appeared to be relaying messages from an invisible cell phone.

‘Are you Lisa’s sister?’ she asked one flabbergasted young woman, who was indeed the dead Lisa's sister. ‘She give you them earrings, din’t she?’

‘You’ve a right rash come out on that knee, am’t yer?’ she said to a bloke who was attending for the first time, and unsure what to make of all this. Una stayed with him quite a while, talking about his departed father.

‘Can I speak, love?’ Pause. ‘E were a bit… a bit of a…’

‘E were a bugger,’ the sitter said.

‘E were doin a bit too much o this, love, weren’t ‘e? Una said, miming draughts from a pint glass.

‘You can say that again.’

The spirits could never get so personal at the Cambridge Spiritualist Church, which had a much more formal style, chairs set out in rows facing a stage from which the medium scanned the audience for the recipient of the message. One lady was the image of Dame Hylda Bracket. ‘Yes… yes, there is someone here’ she promised us, as she waited for the apparition to emerge from the mists. ‘Now, who is it? Ah, yes!’ she said delightedly. ‘It’s Leonard Sachs, from ‘The Good Old Days’!’

I saw a lot of deluded people, both mediums and sitters, but there was no deliberate fraud, an open, accepting and undogmatic atmosphere, and no money ever changed hands. What you need in order to go down well at such a gathering is a talent for cold reading, the ability to assess the sitter’s age and hence most likely candidate for her departed loved one, her social class and likely concerns about health, children, offspring and money, astute interpretation of body language, and above all the sincere belief that these insights are conferred on you from the Beyond. Then, of course, you need a receptive and uncritical audience, unhinged by grief.

But… but… If you spend a fair chunk of time observing mediums in action, you will see just a few little incidents that really do make you think 'how the hell did she come up with that one, if it’s all just cold reading?' Una was particularly talented in that direction, and the fact that I saw her first spoiled me. Nor are all audiences composed of uncritical people whose grief predisposes them to clutch at any straw. Far from it. Spiritualists in my experience are a remarkably cheerful bunch, and most services elicit a good deal of of laughter, unlike those of many other persuasions. I have seen several naff mediums die on their feet when none of their leads was taken up by a disgruntled and embarrassed crowd, for Una’s regulars did not impress easily.

I no longer go to spiritualist meetings, but I still entertain a very faint hope that death will be an adventure, a transition to a new state rather than to oblivion. Once I was utterly convinced of it, but I’m no longer utterly convinced of anything, except that Blackpool doesn’t seem to be doing glorious trashiness with anything like the style it used to.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A good teacher is...

A colleague told me yesterday that she had attended a seminar on the use of metaphor, and how metaphors are arrived at and interpreted by different cultures. The presenter had asked a group of mixed nationality students to invent a metaphor by completing the phrase 'a good teacher is ...' For the Chinese students, a good teacher was one who has patiently nourished and nurtured several generations of tender young. The metaphor they came up with was 'a good teacher is an old cow.'

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Lathophobia Once Again

'Just checking through the bleeding obvious, dear.'*

A couple of weeks ago the centre director called me on my mobile as I was leaving the building. There was a business English course starting soon, the appointed teacher had given back-word, how did I fancy it? Business English is far from my favourite branch of English Language Teaching but what the hell, there is little enough work at the moment, so I said yes. I went back into the building to pick up some books and peruse the course outline.

Session 1:
Embracing the differences: High power versus low-power distance relationships. Polychronic cultures versus monochronic cultures: relationship based cultures versus pure business cultures. We will scrutinise the language and paralinguistic features embedded in each of these phenomena.

Seeing my eyebrows rise, M. le Directeur hastened to be reassuring lest I turn the thing down. ‘Don’t worry about all that,’ he said, dismissively. ‘Just do stuff from these,’ indicating a pile of bog-standard business English coursebooks, none less than five years old, which in English language teaching terms makes them really rather quaint. Unconvinced, I dragged them all home with me.

Session 2
Communication in collectivist versus individualist cultures. An examination of associated issues and linguistic features associated with individualistic and collectivist cultures.

Session 8
The history, principles and linguistic features of intercultural mediation and conflict resolution. The language of unionism.

Fuckinelle, I thought. I am vaguely familiar with some of this intercultural stuff, but nowhere near conversant enough just yet to put together a course that can deliver what’s promised in the course outline. Who promised it, and why am I being told I can pretty much ignore it anyway?

Yesterday, having already blundered and busked my way through the first two sessions, I went to see the very sweet and helpful Professor Jiaying Feng, the woman who’s really in charge of the whole thing, to find out what the bloody hell I am really supposed to be doing. Incidentally, it is an indication of the 'low power-distance' ethos of our humanities faculty that my initial e-mail to Professor Feng started ‘Hi Jiaying’, a degree of familiarity that would shock the ten or so Chinese ladies on the course. 'Low power distance culture' is one of the things us cross-cultural communication types talk about a lot, along with 'high context cultures' and um, stuff like that. Anyway, Jiaying was as dismissive as I had expected her to be of Joe’s stack of business English books, which I had not used. She seemed satisfied with what I have done so far, or at least she didn’t scream, 'shit and corruption, you really have blown it, haven’t you?' and order me out of her presence. She outlined her own vision for the course with the intensity of one who really, really loves, nay, adores discourse analysis and pragmatics, and I sat and nodded, feeling more and more like a hospital porter who, surreally, is being briefed on how to remove a waiting patient's appendix. I know what discourse and pragmatics are, but they do not fire me up, and here was Jiaying describing them in the rapt manner I might adopt after a few drinks to convey to someone the joy of a piece of music or the excellent Lebanese meal I had the other evening. I felt such a dull dog, and was overcome, once again, with lathophobic aphasia, reminding me, once again, that my choice of blog title was not the casual decision I initially thought it was. It also explains why Jiaying is a professor and I'm just a part-time lecturer.**

‘You’ve been involved in teacher training’ Jiaying said as she courteously accompanied me to the lift after our meeting. ‘I’m thinking of getting some teacher training courses together later in the year, if you’re interested.’

‘It was pretty basic stuff,’ I said, modestly.

‘Well, this won’t be basic. They’ll be Chinese teachers, very knowledgeable but no idea how to put it into practice.’

Working with knowledgeable people who have no clue how to implement their knowledge in a classroom – that’s what I did in Greece for fifteen years. ‘It was pretty basic stuff.’ Why did I say that? Why the bloody hell did I fucking say that? It was anything but basic stuff, but I never feel that what I do is quite good enough, never quite compares with what everybody else can do, and I live with the perpetual fear of being unmasked as a fraud.

Calm down, dear. I have loads of time to prepare the present course, since I’m down to ten hours a week, and I can borrow books from the library and keep them for the entire academic year. I have hopes that Jiaying’s training courses will happen, and that I will be involved. This is quite an opportunity. I need a slight change of direction, something to restore my sagging self-confidence, and of course, as always, the bloody money.

*Basil to Sybil in Fawlty Towers 'Basil the Rat'
* * In the UK a professor is a senior academic. Lecturers are just the cannon-fodder.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Joint Ventured, Nothing Gained?

I mentioned the other day the intention of management to allow the courses of our little department to be taken over by UpYours, the Ryan Air of education, a private company that offers a ‘world class learning experience’ to overseas students who do not meet the English language requirements for direct entry to university. This is something we at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) have been offering for some years already without the intervention of UpYours, so here I’m just wondering aloud why we apparently need their, umm, help, especially the sole owner of UpYours is not an educator but a property speculator.

I got my present job four years ago because I sent my CV on spec at a time when the Little CHEF was preparing to undergo the white-glove inspection that leads to British Council accreditation, and as a qualified teacher who’d been round the block a few times in ELT terms, I fitted in with everyone else there. After a couple of years’ preparation that involved some very hard work, the accreditation was awarded. That our last two pre-sessional courses had over 500 students each may be largely attributable to that accreditation.

Now, if UpYours goes into partnership with the university, full-time staff and hourly-paid staff with length of service will be given the option of remaining with our present pay and conditions and being seconded to the joint venture for such hours as they might see fit to grant us, or under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), going over to the joint venture with our university conditions preserved for ‘up to two years’. Two years, that is, unless UpYours decide they have ‘good reason’ to change conditions. This means you could sign a contract and have your university conditions terminated a month later, should UpYours come up with ‘good reason’ to do so: 'why should we pay you forty quid an hour when we could pay you fourteen?' being a possible one. Any new staff taken on by the joint venture will not receive university levels of pay, will not be able to contribute to the teachers’ pension scheme, and will not have their union membership recognised. Thus a two-tier system will be created in which a university teacher and a joint venture teacher could share the same class, with the JV teacher receiving considerably less than half the pay of her colleague.

If this happened, we would certainly lose those teachers who join us each summer for the mad months of July to September. Since they are as experienced and qualified as the regulars, they would be barmy to sell themselves so cheap. Who would we get instead? Perhaps they’d be rookies just off basic training courses. These may well be bright and competent people, but they won’t be teachers of English for Academic Purposes, not yet, and will need to be mentored by the regulars. Meanwhile the quality of the teaching would suffer and the fact that the JV employed under-qualified people would lead to the withdrawal of the British Council approval - and if it didn't, that would in itself be a scandal. If the quality of the teaching goes down, many of the students will not meet their required grades. Large numbers of failures would redound very badly on a commercial enterprise that promises ‘dynamic teaching’ and a ‘world-class learning experience’, so the grades would no doubt have to be massaged, just as Greek language schools terrified of losing custom whack up the grades of kids who underperform. Students with a less than adequate grasp of English would then be bundled into their chosen departments, which would have no choice but to accept them and attempt to make silk purses from a bunch of sow’s ears.

I'm no business man, no politician, just a teacher. Am I being naïf? Unreasonably pessimistic? Somebody has to gain from the joint venture, after all, but it doesn’t look to me as if it will be teachers or students. And since students are not stupid, will they not eventually cotton on, and go elsewhere?

Like de man say, if it ain't bust, don't fix it.


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