Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Auto interview

On his blog, EFL luminary Jeremy Harmer interviews Professor Deborah Cameron. Some of her answers (and books, of course) made me think she and I ought to get together for a few drinks sometime - how about it, Debs? I'll let you know when I can fit you in. I have absolutely nothing to write about at the moment, so I used Harmer's questions to Deborah C. to interview myself.

What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Angry, fraught sensualist. OK, that’s two adjectives and a noun. It's my interview, after all.

What is your greatest achievement?

Having made it to 52, I suppose, given that I have lived hand-to-mouth all my adult life. I sometimes have days - and more often three-in-the-mornings - of self-recrimination for not having been more focussed in my younger days, for having so little money sense, for never having realised an an ambition, as opposed to merely day-dreaming about them. Regret is useless but sticks to the soul like gum to a classroom carpet. A.A. Gill said of his life in 2008: 'I still have that feeling that everyone else got given a script and I didn't.' Yes, exactly.

What’s your favourite smell?

Garlic and herbs wafting from the oven, and the aroma of charred red peppers.

What is your favourite taste?

Alcoholic drink in almost all its manifestations except ouzo or crème de menthe. A sharp, fresh gin and tonic smelling of lemon and new-cut Christmas tree; honey and wood-smoke whisky; fruit and cool steel of white wine; berries, plums, cedar and cigars of red wine; almonds and new bread of manzanilla sherry. Yep, alcohol.

To be fair to ouzo, I do occasionally have one in the right circumstances, those being a hot night by the Aegean with the smell of the sea and octopus cooking over coals. Anywhere else, it tastes like Dettol.

What’s your favourite piece of music?

I’m a musical klutz, but I reckon the Sibelius symphony no 7 comes somewhere near to being my favourite. It’s a complete symphony collapsed into a single movement, perfectly controlled whilst seeming organic, and one of the few pieces of 20th century orchestral music whose development I can follow.

What book would you like everyone to read? Why?

Not for me to dictate what anyone should read or not read...

What website would you like everyone to visit? Why?

...or what websites they should visit, apart from mine.

What is your favourite sound?

Rain. I find it enormously comforting.

If you were an animal, what animal do you think you would be?

A cat who loves being cuddled and cosseted and fed on fresh meat, then withdraws. I’d also be the only alcoholic feline known to zoology.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I don’t think of ‘spare time’, just time. What I’m doing’s what I’m doing.

How many languages do you speak and why?

I speak French and Greek fairly confidently, having started the former at the age of ten and been in a love-hate relationship with Greece since I was 25. I can read Spanish and Italian but don't speak either well. I can read Albanian newspapers with moderate success, although I'm out of practice now. I can pick out the odd item of vocabulary in Japanese films, and know when someone's used a past tense even if I couldn't tell you what the verb (or adjective - they also have tenses in Japanese) means. My big failure is German. I started it at twelve and stayed with it to part one of my degree, but could never get to like it, despite knowing some lovely native speakers of the tongue of Goethe and Schiller, including the saintly Dr Gertraud Herbert at Cambridge, who tried harder on my behalf than I ever did at the time. I still sympathise with Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘…I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.’

What do you like most/least about your job?

I love to see the ingenuity with which a group of people who have only a little English in common can communicate with one another once they drop the fear of grammatical errors instilled in the past. I like that I have access to loads of books on linguistics. I hate meetings and I’ve never been to one that was not a complete waste of time. I also hate admin, but have belatedly come to the understanding that it is essentially covering your arse.

What would heaven be like if you were in charge?

The food and wine would be first rate, free, contain no calories and be served by naked, ithyphallic twinks.

When and where are you happiest?

In a warm bed on a cold morning when I needn’t get up.

Something you are never without.

Wax earplugs to shut out the world and his iPod.

What is your most appealing habit?

Someone told me (ages ago) it was my inability to pass a dog or cat in the street without petting it.

And your least appealing habit?

Probably making it clear by my tone of voice when I don’t want to talk to you.

What is the trait you most dislike in others?

Making it clear by their tone of voice that they don’t want to talk to me.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t think I have one, unless I can count my cock as a 'possession'. Like Deborah Cameron, I’d be irritated rather than heart-broken if a fire gutted my flat. It would certainly bother the landlord more than it would bother me.

If you could have a supernatural power, what would it be?

Teleportation so I’d never need to use a train again. Think of the saving.

What words or phrases do you overuse?

The old limbic system and basal ganglia throw up ‘fuck’, 'shit' and ‘bollocks’ rather a lot, and in class I have to make a conscious effort not to say ‘OK’ every few seconds.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

An extra room in this bloody flat – I’m pig-sick of falling over things. And a tumble-dryer had I but room to accommodate one.

How would you like to be remembered?

Couldn’t care less.

What music do you enjoy listening to/playing most?

I don’t play an instrument, something I really regret never having learned. My favourite styles of music are Indian and Persian, plainsong, Byzantine chant and music from the Cancionero de Palacio.

What did you dream of being when you were younger?

First an actor, then in my teens a theatre director. I was going to be the new Peter Brook. I didn’t realise then that you need to be far more interested than I have ever been in what makes other people tick.

What were you like as a student at school?

Probably infuriating, being something of a prima donna. I was exceptionally good at languages and outstandingly bad at maths, physics and chemistry, but couldn’t be persuaded to care. I worked at what I liked and didn’t give a monkey’s about the stuff I didn’t like. I was constantly being warned that one day I would regret this attitude, but that day has yet to dawn. I thought school was brain-curdlingly boring 99% of the time.

How do you cheer yourself up when you are feeling down?

I listen to the 'Hymn to the Sun' from Akhnaten or pour myself a whisky and soda, or both.

If I hadn’t been a teacher, I would probably have been a...

Absolutely no idea. Really. I think I was born with the sickness to teach.

Who has been the best teacher you have ever had?

It sounds conceited but the answer is ‘myself’. I’ve always made up my own mind what I wanted to know – other people’s agendas concerning what I ought to know have never interested me. I’m a pain in the arse when in statu pupillari.

Something that few people know about you.

I loathe milk and butter. Do not invite me to dinner if you have used either of these in the food.

If you could travel back in time where would you go and why?

I’d like to be an invisible visitor to Akhetaten and be the first modern man to know whether Akhenaten was a visionary or a nutter. I strongly suspect the latter: pharaohs had to put up a fair bit of front, naturally, but Akhenaten really did seem to think he was the sole intermediary between men and the God, suggesting a greater degree of megalomania than was customarily permitted. I'd come back and tell the world what happened to Nefertiti - disgraced? Dead of the plague? Elevated to co-regent? - and put paid to speculation about who Smenkhare really was: Akhnaten's incestuous bum-boy or Nefertiti under a new name?

What’s your best learning memory from school?

I don’t have one. I was bored out of my skull from the age of 11 to the age of 18, which is a bloody long time to be bored out of your skull. Odd how often one dreams of being back there, and thinking 'but I'm old now, I've moved on - dammit, I can LEAVE!'

Are you a tidy desk or a messy desk person?

Dreadfully messy, although it's usually hidden mess as I tend to shove my books and papers out of sight and out of mind. I’m disgracefully unsystematic about pretty much everything. The only rule I consciously observe is ‘never throw any papers away’, as you never know when someone is going to come urgently needing them.

What’s your favourite thing to do when it rains?

Wrap myself in a blanket on the bed by an open window, with a good book.

A poem you know by heart.


What would you like to learn to do next?

Speak Mandarin, but I suspect the tones would defeat me. I have tried, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to make them stick and to associate changes in pitch with lexical meaning. Some of my Chinese students have been helpfully demonstrating tones for me. I can repeat a phrase almost perfectly immediately after it's been modelled, but only the once. My one pitch-perfect phrase is 'wŏ bù hē kafé' (= I don't drink coffee) but it's useless to me as I do in fact drink thick black sugarless coffee by the gallon.

What question would you have liked me to ask you?

‘What are you having?’

What would have been your answer?

A very large scotch with a smidge of soda, please.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Triumphans, exultans

I mentioned earlier that our little department in our big university, the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) was threatened with becoming a joint venture with the property speculator known as UpYours University Partnerships, an Education-for-Certain-People's-Profit organisation that would take over the running of our English language programmes and foundation courses whilst reducing rates of pay, increasing workloads, denying teachers union rights and not paying into the teachers' pension scheme. They would have to hire underqualified and under-experienced staff who'd be prepared to work for about a tenner an hour. In addition to this, they would go for bums on seats by hyping the 'product', promising success, and accepting onto the programmes kids who really ought not to be on them, alongside other kids who deserve not to be held back by huge classes of very mixed level and teachers who are not always up to the task. They would then be forced to assess these kids over-generously at the end of the courses, lest the product be revealed as a pig in a poke; if you make promises in exchange for money and fail to deliver, people tell their mates and you are totally screwed. Why risk that, when you can introduce your own assessment system in which everyone's a winner?

All that aside, I'm sure they have everyone's best interests at heart.

However, let joy be unconfined, for UpYours was defeated bei uns just as they were at Essex, Oxford Brookes, Reading, Goldsmith's College and Westminster University. An hour ago I got this e-mail:

Thanks to strong resistance from Little CHEF staff, and thanks to the excellent backing from the UCU union at branch, regional and national level, together we've managed to see off the UpYours privateers. Additionally, we've given a firm message to the likes of Professor Grabbie and Dr Slymebagge-Hogg that if they wish to muck about with us again, then it will be at their peril.

While management will undoubtedly claim that their reversal over UpYours was purely a business decision that had nothing to do with the activities of UCU members here,* make no mistake, if we had not stood up and fought them over this, then the UpYours deal would have gone through and we'd soon be working for the educational version of Macdonalds, with those teachers intending to come back for courses later in the year being offered less than half the pay rate and much worse terms and conditions. So well done to everyone for sticking together!

This is a huge relief at a time when huge reliefs are rare as teddy-bear turds. I suspect there will be celebratory post-lesson drinkies in the Little CHEF tomorrow, for Christmas has come early. Note to our regular burglars: if you are planning to abstract another monitor from our classrooms (there are still seven up for grabs, as no doubt you know) I suggest you make burgling time a tad later than usual tomorrow evening, OK?


* The claim made by the same crew after the serious butt-kicking administered by UCU and staff at Essex University in 2008: 'it was felt in the end that the joint venture was not appropriate in that context'. Too bloody right it wasn't.


From the union today, 26th November, emphasis triumphantly added:

In case you haven't seen already the news on UCU's website, 90% of the voters in our poll have said that a partnership with INTO* would damage the university's reputation. The Branch Committee would like to thank everyone who took part in our online poll. INTO has now been rejected by staff at every UK university that has been polled on whether or not their institution should get involved with the company.

*The real name of 'UpYours' - who did I imagine I was protecting?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Being dogmetic about things

No, no, not that dogme...
In the nineties in Athens I worked at a small, privately-owned centre for teacher training and business English. I stayed with teacher training, because business English holds little appeal for me – scares me a bit, actually. Colleagues used to try to tempt me over to the business side, and I was invited to observe some lessons at the Bank of Greece. Our business teachers’ house-style was to lead their classes from behind, allowing the students to dictate the pace of the lesson and the choice of subject matter, and as bankers, they had plenty to go at. (Probably even more nowadays.) The students carried the lesson for the most part, with the teacher on hand to supply vocabulary, correct impeding errors and occasionally intervene to give a brief grammar explanation or presentation. Everything came from the students: they asked for the language they needed at the moment they needed it, they asked for grammar rules occasionally, but mostly they talked, debated, agreed, disagreed, misunderstood, requested clarification, paraphrased and recapped, all in English. There would be some discussion of the interaction and some analysis and correction of errors at the end. This leading from behind, or something like it, has more recently been called ‘teaching unplugged’ or ‘dogme’ after the approach to film-making advocated by Lars Von Trier, et al., an approach you might term ‘materials light’, focussing on narrative and character rather than special effects and the emotional manipulation provided by music and carefully contrived lighting. In teaching terms, it means using the learners themselves as a resource instead of commercially produced coursebooks, skills books, grammar books and all the CDs and software that compete for your students' money these days. As with any other approach to teaching, you can adopt dogme whole-heartedly and ditch your coursebooks and materials completely, or you can just take from it what you want and apply its principles some of the time. The only criterion for your decision will be the students' response to the way you teach them.

In the EFL teacher's box of tricks, there isn't a single foolproof method, approach, technique, text, task or game, and the possibility of muffing it is always with us. Teachers’ reactions to screwing up a lesson or part of a lesson while I was observing have varied from dropping the lesson like a hot brick, bursting into tears, losing their rag with the students or worse, ploughing on oblivious. What is more useful than any of these is sitting down after the students have left (unscathed and usually unaware of the agonies of self-reproach their teacher is now enduring) and reflecting on the proceedings in tranquillity. Gradually teachers learn to pinpoint errors of judgement and consider how a different decision at that point might have rescued things. They develop intuitions about how the students felt in the lesson and why, based on their personality, language level and cultural background. They realise that any approach must be adapted to fit specific students in a specific class, and if any method, technique or task died horribly, it was not appropriate at that time or was in some way misapplied.

In the light of these rather obvious considerations, it was something of a surprise to read here a hatchet job by Luan Hanratty on the dogme approach, denouncing it as ‘a vacuous, anti-educational and bourgeois approach to language teaching’. I say, steady on, old boy. All those adult learners at the Bank of Greece in the nineties might disagree there: bourgeois they might have been, but a vacuous and anti-educational approach would not have brought them to the levels of confidence and fluency they routinely attained. ‘The amount of thinking on your feet makes it just too difficult for most people to do well without any direction or structure.’ Well, this might be true, but there need not be a lack of direction or structure – if you think there is none, make one: was dogme made for students or students for dogme? What teacher applies a technique in its most purist form if it’s obviously not working for her class? Only an insensitive, insecure or inexperienced one. And how is it a valid criticism of any approach to say that it is difficult? Teaching effectively is always demanding and requires a lot of practice and reflection. Luan goes on:

‘Dogme classes inevitably descend into a lame string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&As and a lot of awkward silences, resulting in an unsure performance by the teacher and sheer boredom on the part of the students.’

My problem is with the use of inevitably here. If we replace it with can:

‘Dogme classes can descend into a lame string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&As and a lot of awkward silences, resulting in an unsure performance by the teacher.

...I’d agree. I’ve seen loads of classes where this has happened, taught by teachers who wouldn’t know dogme from dog meat. As I said earlier, the possibility of muffing it is always with us. I put in my two cents' worth on the blog:

If students are not stretched and don’t participate, whose fault is that? I’ve been teaching and observing trainee teachers for 30 years and believe me, you can underchallenge and bore the pants off students with PPP, Silent Way, Suggestopedia, CLL, take your pick. Success depends on the teacher’s sensitivity to what’s going on in the students’ minds.

Now, the reference to my thirty years experience was intended to imply how often I have fucked up and observed others fuck up, but it was interpreted as something along the lines of ‘I've-been-sniffing-board-markers-since-before-you-was-thought-of-sonny’, and an appeal to authority:

It seems the main opposition to this is coming in the form of ad hominem and appeal to age fallacies. Sorry Steve, but as much as your experience matters to you, it doesn’t have any relevance in this discussion. In fact, you could say that experience is a hindrance because it makes you hidebound and closed to new ways of doing things.

Now, to construe mention of someone's experience as an ad hominem attack, and later term it 'bragging' is, umm, ...slightly touchy, I think. It's odd that Luan takes as another ad hominem Dale Coulter's quite reasonable request that evidence be adduced for his claims, and blusters that he is under no obligation to provide any. What is really quite extraordinary from a teacher, though, is the suggestion that anyone’s experience of classroom teaching, whether it be of thirty years or thirty minutes, is ‘irrelevant’ to a discussion of teaching methodology. It's extraordinary that he should dismiss my own and others' experience as irrelevant whilst implying throughout the article and responses to comments that his own is entirely germane. It’s extraordinary because there is nothing other than reflection on direct teacher-to-student experience that will develop your skill as a teacher, and no evidence outside the interaction of teachers and students. This is why, after your first ever teaching practice, the trainer’s first question after 'are you still standing?' is ‘how do you feel about the lesson?’ She hopes you will start to ask this of yourself after all your lessons from then on. That last sentence of Luan’s, by the way, is something of a landmark in my life, rather like the first DRE for the prostate. It’s the first time to my knowledge that someone younger than me has patronised me as an old dog no longer receptive to new tricks.

To the objection that dogme is elitist because it might prove too challenging to non-native speaker teachers, I would say that this is to underestimate many non-native speaker teachers. If someone's level of English is such that he has not the confidence to use dogme, there are plenty of other ways to approach teaching, and he needn't feel disadvantaged. I have never been able to make effective use of the Silent Way, but I do not imagine that because it didn't work for me with my students, it is therefore not really working for anyone else's, whatever they might believe about what goes on in their own classes, which I've never seen, in parts of the world I've never visited. Actually, I've known teachers who are brilliant at Silent Way teaching. I doubt if they consider themselves a snotty elite who wouldn't let me into their classrooms to hoover the carpet.

For dogme, I’m neither a passionate advocate nor a detractor. I don’t use it exclusively. I don’t use any approach exclusively, but teaching ‘unplugged’ is definitely a part of how I do things. I resent the few occasions when I have to produce a lesson plan of the kind favoured by the British Council, which details procedure and rationale for every stage of the lesson:

Teacher activity: Teacher inhales.
Aim: To draw oxygen into the alveoli.To stay alive.
Timing: 7-10 seconds
Materials: Ambient air, lungs, intercostal muscles.

I think these are good for trainee teachers, like practising scales on the piano. Having that degree of preparedness can boost your confidence hugely, but you must learn to sit light to lesson plans eventually. The British Council recognition scheme requires teachers where I work to be observed periodically and so I bash out such plans on those occasions, then usually ignore them in practice. I tell the trainee teachers I observe that although they are required to produce a plan, they are free to deviate from it if they see good reason, and we will discuss how good the reasons were after the lesson, in the light of experience - there's that word again.

When I watch a class descend into a string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&A, I usually get the teacher to conclude that she could have put the students in groups to discuss the topic instead of attempting to drag it out of them herself. She could have listened to what they came up with, noted a few ideas that could be used to extend the discussion and then held a plenary. During this she could note errors in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, listen for ways in which students interrupted one another or prevented interruptions, noted how they dealt with misunderstandings and changes of subject, and worked on these afterwards. Is this dogme in its purest form? I don’t care. The subject matter and the language work would have come from the people involved and therefore been directly relevant to them, and provided the teacher with data she could use for remedial work, revision and extension. It certainly would have gone beyond a pleasant but aimless hour of Kaffeeklatsch, another charge often brought against dogme.

So there you go. Treat dogme as you would any other approach. Experiment with it. Adopt it wholeheartedly and make it your own. Use it occasionally. Combine it with other approaches. Ignore it completely. But don’t imply that teachers who use it and defend it are just well-heeled dilettantes who merely fool themselves that their teaching is effective whilst ripping off students who have more money than discernment. That ain't nice to your fellow teachers, nor is it particularly intelligent.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

'Language, language, please...!'

A colleague is covering the lectures of another colleague who is recovering from an operation. ‘They’re awful’ he moaned about the students. ‘So confrontational.’ Were they, I asked flippantly, lively young minds, countering the ideas he was presenting with ideas of their own? They were not. In fact they were remonstrating with him for asking too many questions.

‘What you askin us again for, man?’ a group representative asked. ‘We answered last time. Ask vem lot.’

This is not year ten. It’s part of a BA (Hons) Journalism course, an unpopular but compulsory module on discourse analysis. How utterly depressing; the problem should not, surely, be getting students to contribute in a seminar, but deciding when to bring students’ discussions to a close so as to cover all the areas you want to bring to their attention. I’m not sure what aspect of discourse it was hoped would be addressed, but on the train this morning I spun a little fantasy of the session as I might have conducted it myself, prior to getting the sack.

‘What you askin us again for, man? We answered last time. Ask vem lot.’

‘Listen, you little shits, I ask who I bloody well want to bloody ask and if you don’t want to stay, you needn’t. No fucking skin off my nose, piss off.’

At this juncture we might expect a brief silence full of wide eyes. Then:

‘You cart like talk to us like vat, man, yeah?’

‘Why the bleeding hell not, if you’re such frigging lazy cunts?’

‘I’m reportin vis to the…’

‘Bet you don’t know who to report me to, son, you’re that fucking thick…’

‘We do not expeck a lecturah, yeah, a lecturah, right, to fuckin’ address paying stew-durnts in vem terms, in vem fuckin terms, yeah? Vis is not ve proper relationshurp? Vis is not appropriurt?’

‘Appropriate my arse, and don’t you bloody swear at me, darling! Me lecturer, you student, have some respect and keep a fucking civil tongue in your otherwise empty head, or…’

By now the room has become a din of indignant threat and disbelieving laughter, over which I shout:

‘STOP! CUT! Appropriacy! Cultural norms! Content meaning! Relational meaning! Identity meaning! This, folks, is discourse analysis! This interactional sociolinguistics! Anyone want to stay?’

There is a sound like that of a million cockroaches fleeing before the beam of a torch - it is scales falling from eyes, as students return to their seats thinking: ‘like fuck me, man, yeah? Linguistics is like for real after all, innit?’

Yeah, well, as I said, it was only a fantasy, and saving the bad language, far too close to the twaddle that is ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, where the Robin Williams character wows students with his defiance of authority and convention by dint of standing on the desks. It isn’t going to happen. The regular lecturer is back next week, apparently resigned to the ghastly little shits snickering at the scar the operation has left on her face.


The module in intercultural communication that I’m currently teaching by the seat of my pants has equipped me with some new vocabulary and clarified a few concepts, enabling me to come up with an analysis of a trivial incident from about 1995 in which an Athenian neighbour and I parted forever on less than friendly terms. At the time, I thought he was just a miserable git and he probably thought I was a patronising arse, and that is how we left it.

I had moved from my first flat in Pangrati to a grotty basement in Kolonaki, and one day soon after went back to Pangrati to see if there were any letters for me there. The front door of the flats was locked, but across the road the neighbour in question, Evangelos, was just about to climb onto his scooter. I went to ask if he could open the door for me. This he did, without speaking and without turning from me a glare of purest contempt. The silence was ominous. If a Greek is shouting and screaming at you, he's still of the opinion that you are worth his attention, but silence is a sure sign that you have pissed him off. What with that and the psychic death-ray trained on me as we crossed the road, it was clear that I had pissed him off big time and I hadn’t a clue why. Now my Chinese students (whose sympathy lies entirely with him) and I have come up with the following analysis, which we diffidently advance for your consideration.

Steven is from a culture that typically goes for the business of an encounter before the personal relationship, and by and large communicates in a ‘mean what you say and say what you mean’ kind of way – a ‘low-context culture’ is what we have learned to call it in the last couple of weeks. Here is his script:

Content meaning – the facts of what I want to communicate:

I want to check if there are any letters for me. Please open the door.

Relational meaning – how I perceive the relationship between Evangelos and me:

I don’t know you well. You are older than me. I’m delaying you on your way to somewhere, so you will be doing me a favour if you do what I ask.

Identity meaning – how I perceive myself and wish to be perceived:

I’m a foreigner here. I need to be polite. I choose polite Greek to reflect this. Oh, what a good boy am I.

As do many other languages, Greek enshrines social closeness and distance in its pronouns and verb endings, and so you have no choice but to make your perception of the relationship explicit the minute you open your mouth.

Evangelos, meanwhile, is from a culture that favours a ‘high-context’ approach, where relationships are established before business is broached, and greater emphasis is placed on ritual exchanges before getting to the point. We reckoned his script went like this:

Content meaning:

He wants to check if there are any letters. He’s asking me to open the door. (So far, so good.)

Relational meaning:

He’s lived in the same block for five years. I once offered him a whisky when he came to pay the service charges and he played ‘pull the slipper’ with my dog. I helped him rescue his cat from a first floor veranda. He’s talking to me as if we have never met before. What a twat.

Identity meaning:

He’s a bloody foreigner. Figures: English, snobs to a man, think they own the place. He is treating me like a servant. Therefore I shall glare at him, and not speak.

It took a few goes before I got the hang of the 'high context' stuff, and it still does not come easily to me. On another occasion I was sitting in the office of a school I visited periodically, clattering away on the computer to get a seminar together. The school owner's brother-in-law came in and greeted me. Some six months earlier he, the owner and I had been out for dinner and drinks. He said 'hi, Steve!' and I said 'hi!' and went on typing. The brother-in-law, I later heard, had been deeply wounded at my coldness. I was impatient with this, thinking 'who the hell does he think he is, expecting me to be all over him just because we met once before?' But, that's the way they do it. I wanted to get my seminar together, had limited time to do so, and did not want distracting with a torrent of phatic gush. In Greek eyes, this made me a robot. When I returned to England, I arranged to meet a friend in Cambridge whom I had not seen for sixteen years. I entered his office and he said 'oh, hi', as if I had simply nipped out to the corner shop ten minutes earlier. 'Whoa, steady on, man, restrain yourself, why don't you!' I thought, and felt just a little of what Ilias must have felt that day in the school office.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Losin' my Religion

I was not brought up religious. My dad dismissed religion as rubbish probably because he saw it as being told what to do, and my mum if asked would say ‘well, I think there’s something’ and see no need to elaborate. At primary school we endured the usual morning assembly with its prayers and dull Bible stories interlarded with hymns - 'bombastic nursery rhymes' as Alan Watts called them. One hymn for six year-olds had the following syrupy lyrics:

Summer has come from the sunny land,
Summer is here again;
Bringing the birdies to sing their songs
In e-ver-ee wood and lane.

But I should very much like to know
How did you learn to sing?
Who was it taught you the way to fly
And gave you each tiny wing?

"We have a Father," the birdies said,
"Loving and kind and true;
He who has taught us to sing and fly
Will think of the children too."

The tune was in waltz time and the little girls would sway gently to and fro as they sang. This was the daily God Slot, however, and they were required to desist. ‘I know it’s nice to sway in time to the music,’ the headmistress said, ‘but…’

But what, you miserable old trout?

‘…but really we shouldn’t, in assembly.’

Sez who? Why not? Why should little kids not enjoy the music and show it? Nobody asked, of course, or challenged the saccharine sentiments of the hymn.

''We die of starvation'', the birdies said,
''From cold and predation too;
Our livers are toothsome on toasted bread,
Our bones make sustaining stew.''

On Fridays we were usually gathered in the school hall, a room of modest proportions that seemed to me then the size of a cathedral. Here the motherly Mrs Shaw would read us a story and this was all very cosy on a dark winter afternoon. On occasion her place would be taken by the Reverend Sausby with his sodding Bible. Sausby was forced every few minutes to intermit whatever gruesome God yarn he was spieling in order to deal with the discipline problems that will arise when you bore small children comatose. We had longer attention spans then than kids have now, I’m pretty sure of it, and less sense of our entitlement to be constantly entertained, but Sausby did not have sufficient understanding of his audience or his own want of charisma to see that he had no chance of making the story of Ananias and Sapphira engaging to six year olds. I always thought the God Bits of the school week were as dull as watching the test-card.

How then did I come to be saved, heaven bound, showered in the blood of the lamb, my sins blotted out?

In our milieu, kids called their mother’s female friends ‘auntie + first name’. Auntie was pronounced to rhyme with ‘panty’ or it would have sounded too posh. (‘Aunt’ was way out of our league.) Thus Auntie Joan was and is my real aunt, and Auntie Audrey, Auntie Marlene, Auntie Madge and Auntie Glenys were honorary aunties by virtue of the fact that my mum regularly did their hair, the room reeking of the vile mixture of air-freshener, ammonia and diarrhoea they must have used to do perms. Auntie Glenys had lived in Galveston, Texas, and there she had got religion. We’re talking born-again, Jesus-saves, hell-is-real, all-else-is-heresy balls-out Christerism. As I now see it, Glenys was by far the superior of the God she worshipped, being a woman of great good humour, generosity and patience. How she found it in her to revere God as she construed him is still inexplicable to me, but she did, deeply. Her kids could rattle off great chunks of the Bible, (KJV, natch) complete with punctuation: ‘And Ruth said comma Intreat me not to leave thee comma or to return from following after thee colon for whither thou goest comma I will go semi-colon and where thou lodgest comma I will lodge colon…’

Glenys, her son and daughter and I attended ‘Huddersfield For Christ’ meetings on Saturday evenings at the YMCA. The organisers greeted everyone enthusiastically with pumping handshakes and before the event proper, you could browse trestle tables set out with Christian books, Jack Chick tracts and - my particular favourite - Jesus badges and stickers to adorn your person, your school satchel and the books you kept in it. Chick tracts are fundamentalist, pin-headed, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-evolution, anti-mind, anti-pleasure, anti-humanity arse-wipe, but nobody objected because everyone was too nice. The books tended to conform to a genre. The author would have been a drug addict or alcoholic or gang leader or preferably all three. He had gravitated towards Wicca and/or Satanism, burgled, mugged, swindled and prostituted himself homosexually to maintain his heroin habit. Then a street preacher had challenged him to acknowledge his sin and bow down to Jesus and he had not wanted to do it! He had not wanted to humble himself! He had fled in terror, but that ol’ Hound of Heaven had pursued him, and he had capitulated, and behold! He’s now clean and dry, a pastor, a dad, a regular guy who reads bible stories to his kids at bed time. Praise the Lord!

Minatory Jack Chick story about 'evilution'and how its followers raise their children for Satan. Naturally, Tyler winds up in the Lake of Fire for not listening to his born-again girlfriend. 'Depart form me, ye cursèd'. No good pretending you weren't warned.

The meeting would typically start with a hymn and a prayer, and then continue with an address from a guest speaker, or a film. From our fellow god-botherers across the Atlantic, committed then as now to bothering God with a zeal that made us British look like dilettantes, we were sent a movie about missionaries in the Amazon, where these warriors for Jesus were engaged in claiming yet another tribe for the Lord. The Arowana (or whatever) lived in fear and incomprehension, holding fast to unreasonable superstitions to make sense of their wild, chaotic world. How unlike us, serene in our knowledge that our tripartite, death-defying God-man had, by dint of sacrificing Himself to Himself, saved us from the hell we thoroughly deserved for His having created us in the first place. Pity the Arowana, then, vainly believing they could make sense of this life without Jesus. We knew that you can't. How did we know? The film presented us with a visual analogy. A clean-cut, smiling young man with lovely teeth was blindfolded by a handsome grey-haired man in a suit, his teeth no less lovely, and seated in a swivel chair, which was spun.

‘Say Bud, now which way you spinning?’

‘Well, Hank, I’m spinning to the right… getting faster… getting faster….’

How we chuckled, for the blindfolded Bud was in fact stationary! The chair had stopped spinning and he was simply dizzy. Here behold the state of Man: blindfolded and dizzy, but still confident we know which way is up. What we need is Jesus. Ay-men! Anyone in the audience here tonight who knows they need Jesus? Come Forward! I went. A big deal was made of those who Went Forward – they were welcomed and counselled and prayed over, and felt very special, or at least I did. I certainly didn’t feel profound humility in acknowledging that Jesus had suffered in my place – in fact I don’t think I ever really gave Jesus a thought in my entire brief time as a Christer, despite the stickers that I plastered over all my books. As a kid I was all about show, convinced I was destined for a career in the theatre, and I had picked a very showy branch of Christerism here.

HFC and the local Baptist church were becoming too confining for Glenys. She was lately the recipient of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gifts, the charismata, that this confers. These included the discernment of spirits, healing, speaking in tongues and other stuff I don’t remember – signs, miracles and wonders of one sort or another, anyway. We began to attend meetings held in someone’s living room where speaking in tongues and prophesies were regular occurrences before the Nescafe and digestives. Speaking in tongues is not difficult once you push past the initial reluctance to do it out loud. Although I say it myself, I was shit-hot at glossolalia as a fourteen-year old. I had Latin, French and German from school, and Italian, Spanish and smatterings of Russian, Urdu and Punjabi pursued privately, so I could really let rip, palatalising and clustering consonants and laying on the velar fricatives, while my fellow Charismatics were confined to praising the Lord with more modest efforts: shabala abala alabasha shabla halamashabla balashabala. These days I can do you Xhosa clicks as well – pity I didn’t get into Miriam Makeba thirty-odd years earlier than I did.

At a Charismatic meeting, if you delivered yourself of a message in tongues, you had to wait for the Holy Spirit to prompt someone else to interpret it. Interpretation was a matter of mastering another genre. You thanked the Lord that these were the last days, that we were His chosen people, and that He would soon be returning to the Earth to judge nations in righteousness. There: you soon picked it up. I still sing in tongues when I’m hoovering the living room or walking along a noisy road. There’s something at once calming and liberating about it, but of course it’s no more miraculous than scat singing. Indeed I don’t think I ever really felt it to be miraculous: it’s quite amazing to me now how unmoved I was by the whole business. What everyone around me regarded as proof of Divine intervention in the world simply didn’t register on my wonderment meter.

A place of miracle and wonder, Wednesday evenings, fortnightly. Post-miracular refreshments served.

At one non-charismatic meeting at Glenys’s we listened to a tape-recorded sermon from some plummy, fairly establishment clergy-person whose identity I have forgotten. This was a tongues-free evening for the unbaptised and thus a bit of a bore, but my ears pricked up when the Bishop of Wherever said: ‘…and I pity anyone who is homosexual.’

‘Is there anything wrong with being homosexual?’ I asked afterwards, as if I didn’t know.

‘Oh, yes,’ said the unofficial chair of the meeting. He had been of the Plymouth Brethren and he was the first exemplar I had met of a type that can still make me incoherent with rage: the biblical inerrantist (read 'I'm never wrong') who knows the Bible inside out, sees everything through its lens and treats every dissenter like a presumptuous child that needs to be put in his place. You should have heard the certainty in that ‘oh, yes.’

At the local Baptist church, Glenys made arrangements for a ‘Come Together’. This was not an evening of sex counselling, but a musical event composed by US Jesus People Jimmy and Carol Owens, aimed at making Jesus cool to a wider audience. It was very professionally done, but I stayed about ten minutes before feeling repelled by the hand-holding intimacy it required of the audience. We may well be members of one another, but go and be one of my members somewhere else. This might have been the first adumbration of my coming apostasy. Or if the person fishing for my hand had been a gorgeous lad instead of a middle aged lady, I might have stayed and become another Bible-fucked, screwed-up, self-loathing pouf like Haydn here. And here too, rather more entertainingly.

The Local Baptist's. We don't hold with splendour of design or opulence of appointments, and it shows. Conveniently situated next to bus stop. Sandwich shop on the left, laundrette on the right.

The Christianity I knew made people profess knowledge none has any right to claim, and condemn behaviour in others that harmed nobody. It was literal-minded, theatrical, outwardly kind and hearty but based on hate and suspicion, of the body, of sexuality, of other belief systems, of life itself, which is after all only a prelude to the glory of eternity with the Lord. Let’s hope North America never elects a Pentecostalist president – s/he’d be delighted to help bring on the End of Days.

I stopped taking interest in the meetings and ‘ministry’ when I was about sixteen. I read Alan Watts’s popularising of Zen in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ and Christianity fell away from me like snow from a gable end. Glenys and I didn’t communicate after that, probably because, with characteristic generosity, she respected my withdrawal rather than for any sense of betrayal. She died suddenly in her mid-fifties about twenty years ago. She and another woman, who was given license by all about her to be a frail physical vessel for Divine Energy, had spent some years doing Christian healing services which were identical to the ones performed by a local spiritualist healing sanctuary that Glenys had always opposed - except of course that Glenys and Eileen had God working for them, and the spiritualists were deceived by Satan. Maybe this explains why the name of the Spiritualist place was 'Golden Rain', the heathen duped by the Great Deceiver into naming their HQ after a wicked perversion of the flesh.

You who dismiss Satan as a fairy story are his favourite people, you know that? He knows he is going to Hell when this world passes away, and he wants to take as many humans there as he can, therefore he counterfeits the gifts of the spirit to fool the unwary, and that's you! You who will heal and prophesy, and cast out demons, but go to hell merely for not suspecting a trick. Thinking of all this petty, convoluted, infantile spitefulness calls to mind Alexander Portnoy's exasperated (and racist) exclamation: 'I was brought up by Hottentots and Zulus!' But I wasn't - my early exposure to my dad's dismissal of religion on the grounds that it posited some authority that he was not prepared to bow to, and my mum's vague 'something out there' belief seem to have shielded me from the battier tenets of the faith I visited briefly as a teenager.

The Lord thy God is a touchy so-and-so.



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