Friday, 29 June 2012

Lost Son

In Greece some years ago, I succumbed to an obsession with an Albanian boy young enough to be my son. I was forty-six and he was sixteen. Sixteen, straight, and one of my students, he couldn’t have been further out of bounds had he (or I) been in a North Korean work-camp. I always felt he wanted me to notice his developing male sexuality, or maybe it was just that my eyes were drawn to it, as male beauty leaves me helpless as a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut. He was a small, wiry, muscular, masculine kid, lean and lithe from kick-boxing. I wrote in my diary after class one sweltering evening:

'A. places his chair right in front of me and leans way back, his track-suit bottoms pulled up to his knees and his T-shirt hiked up to his nipples. Hairy blond legs, golden skin, fuse of gold hair from his navel down to his cock. I still wonder - what's he doing? Is it a blatant come-on or do I misread it all? I never trust my judgement in this area.'

Ah, come on. He must have known damn well - mustn't he?- the effect he was having on me. He was by no means unaware of his sexual allure. He had some affection for me too, shown on one astonishing (for me) occasion when he came up and embraced me in the street, and on another when he embraced me again as I was leaving Greece, and said ‘take me with you’.

Not him, but close.

My diaries for 2006 to 2008 are full of him and I googled his name every now and then over the last few years, but found nothing. Today, it occurred to me to anglicise the spelling, and bingo, there he was on Facebook. How many times have I wondered what he would look like now at 24? How much would he have changed? I have so often reconstructed his face in my mind's eye to bring it from spotty but handsome twink to glorious young manhood, and now here was that young man, looking pretty much as I had constructed him.

My reaction to his photo shocked me – I thought I had outgrown the feelings that now burned like acid reflux. There was first a sense of total exclusion from his presence, since he’s half the world away now, and in any case I’m a forgotten, irrelevant figure from his adolescence. Then it seemed to me that everything not connected with him was commonplace and ill-favoured, and me here condemned to live with all this banality. There came the oppressive thought that he has so much opportunity ahead of him, his present situation appearing most promising, whereas I feel at such a dead end, and it’s my fault that I do. I felt a wretched, worm-eyed envy of his youth. I despised my age, cursed the fact of aging, raged that his handsomeness is ephemeral and that I have no way to caress or possess his beauty: I understood cannibalism. In short, I had absolutely the most un-fucking-Buddhist fifteen bloody minutes of my adult bloody life thus far, before I stood up, slapped myself, down-sir-downed the eructations of regret and resentment, and went and did the washing up. Ah, what do I know of the lad, anyway, I asked myself. Well, then and now, his passions are cars, girls and sports; what would we talk about? I thought of the qualities that had so endeared him to me - impetuousness, enthusiasm, pushing boundaries by clowning in class and eventually addressing me in the Greek familiar second person form, something no Greek kid ever does. There was his comical pride in his new blond stubble, and his lascivious snicker when he stretched out in his seat and looked down at the forward curve of his dick. I was touched by the way he sought my approval of his plans for the future and his taste in girls: 'sir, this girl you see with me yesterday, it was good?' What of this would survive his seventeenth birthday? The boy I knew no longer exists.

Καυλάκι το τεκνό, ε;
I realised after writing all this that I was possibly the only adult in the lad's life at the time who listened to him and talked to him as an equal, as his parents, driven mad by his teenage rebellion, did little other than nag and threaten him. His father once called the school and asked me to try to persuade him not to pack in his English classes. He would be more likely to listen to me, apparently, than to his father. So that showing-off of his developing male assets was maybe not a come-on so much as an assertion that he was no longer a kid. I feel stupid now for having taken seven years to understand that.

I am not qualified to pronounce on the topic of archetypes, but there has been for many years lurking in my brain a grieving parent, although I am not a parent and no close relative ever died in childhood. Nevertheless, every so often I feel as though I am mourning a dead son. This complex was last activated when a lad I knew carnally but otherwise hardly at all was killed in a car accident twenty-two years ago, and the grief I felt was perhaps disproportionate to the length of our acquaintanceship. My Albanian ephebe is a part of this 'missing son' complex, as he goes about his life in the USA, oblivious and indifferent and never again to be the boy he was.

Song here from the album Blood, by This Mortal Coil. For Jonathan, Scott, Andrew, Nicholas and Andreas, variously rendered unattainable by age, time, orientation, distance, mismatch or death. I always imagine the girl singing this as a ghost addressing a living person who is oblivious of her presence.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


I’m a great fan of the one-pot meal for one. Unless I can sling the Le Creuset thing into the oven and forget about it for an hour, a recipe is not likely to interest me these days. In the brief spell of sunshine between eight and nine this morning, I remembered that it is the season of the excellent Greek summer dish called 'briam' (μπριάμ) and determined to make one this evening, i.e., now. Pronunciation first: say ‘bree-AM’. It doesn’t sound at all like ‘Brian’. It is a cheap, healthy and delicious cousin of ratatouille, and in my opinion, better. Some recipes you see online, such as this one, followed to the letter, would produce nothing but a soggy poultice, a 'snot casserole' as a friend on Facebook charmingly characterised the dish. Leave out the okra and the sloppy tomato juice and reduce the cooking time drastically unless snot casserole appeals to you.

Parenthesis: I came home via Marks and Sparks to get the ingredients. An elderly woman was scanning the newspapers on the display in the entrance. ‘E can bloody piss off an all,’ she snarled. Well, one was somewhat taken aback; was it perhaps one’s duty to alert the manager? This was hardly the kind of language one expects in Marks and Spencer’s, after all. Tesco, madam, is only two minutes from here and your sort are probably more common there. ‘Thy kin bloody piss off, the lot of ‘em, what they're doing to people,’ she went on. With her walking stick she indicated a mug-shot of David Cameron on the front page of the Mail. So we had a brief chunter together about what a posh southern twat he is, and how we’d neither of us ever vote for the bugger, and then I went off to get the briam together. You need:

An onion
Some spuds
Some carrots
A couple of courgettes
A red pepper
A green pepper
Some garlic
Some open-leaf parsley
Some olive oil. Rather a lot, in fact.
A teaspoon or so of tomato puree
Thyme or oregano
Salt and pepper

Most Greek cooks would put in an aubergine, but the charm of aubergines is lost on me, hence their absence here. Chop the lot and sling it in a casserole. Add okra if you must - or add slugs, the effect will be the same. Anoint with the herbs, oil and tomato puree, and season. I had some cherry tomatoes in the fridge that were just this side of usable, so they went in as well. Heat the oven to something suitable, put the uncovered casserole in and then go and do something else for half an hour or so. Some people I know prefer to make this on the hob rather than in the oven, which is entirely their business, of course, but I always get a feeling of virtuousness doing it my way. The aroma of peppers, onions and garlic wafting on the air always seems stronger and sweeter when it’s issuing from the oven. It’s ready when all the vegetables are just tender. Since briam is something akin to ratatouille, I did consider staggering the cooking time as you do with the Frog dish, starting the onion and root veg first, then the tomatoes, and the peppers and courgettes last. If you were coming to dinner, I might have, but since you aren’t, sod it. (I lived to regret this decision.)

In Greece you’d eat your briam at room temperature, served with bread and probably some cubes of cheese on a side dish. That’s what I’m going to do tonight. I have some excellent wholemeal bread, paid for trans-nasally at the ever-so-ever-so artisan bakery place up the road, and some Red Leicester. No feta, unfortunately, as Marks and Sparks were out. Speaking of feta, I mind of watching Jamie Oliver on Greek TV. He was doing something typically Jameyish with his feta – strewing it with chillies, lemon zest, herbs and greenery, probably – and he remarked that ‘feta’s not considered a particularly classy cheese’. Which word in that phrase did not make it into the Greek subtitles? Answers on a post-card, please.


I'm going to make another one tomorrow, and this time I will stagger the cooking time and I won't forget the fucking salt.

P.S. The second attempt was much better - cooked root veg and onions first, then added the softer veg and baked without covering the casserole. Took it out just as the edges of the vegetables on top were beginning to brown slightly.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Smattering of Turkish


Türkçe öğrenmeğe çalışıyorum: ‘I’m trying to learn Turkish’, or ‘Turkish to-learn working-at-I-am’, to preserve the word-order of the original. Actually, I’m not putting a huge amount of effort into it - just acquiring a smattering from a book I found on the two-quid table at the second-hand bookshop up the road. The book is lying next to my laptop, pink Post-its flapping from its pages. These are not to bookmark important language points, but to flag up stuff that struck me as unhelpful. Language teaching is my thing, and I’m an ungenerous reader of teach-yourself books. I’ve never written one, of course: that experience might make me a little less snidey. Meanwhile, here's a thought from Teach Yourself Chinese: ‘The subtlety of the Chinese language lies in the way it conveys nuances of meaning’. There's a perceptive observation for you: c.f., 'the tastiness of Chinese food is lies in its flavour'. I am aware from personal experience that editors have egos too, and that stuff can appear in your books that you didn’t write and would never have written, so I don’t necessarily hold the authors named on the covers responsible for everything that appears between them. Also, I’m prejudiced in favour of books that present immediately usable language straight off the bat, rather than ones that sacrifice usefulness for grammar-thrashing. I want to know how to order a beer before I get into reported speech.

My book is called Colloquial Turkish. As a complete beginner, I have no way of knowing how colloquial any of this stuff really sounds. I have the Albanian book from the same series, and nearly every text is a schoolmasterly joke, like the little book of rib-tickling tales we used in the third form for Latin translation. Hardly any of the language presented is of any immediate use. I’ve trained dozens of teachers and it is the case that many of them start out with a tin ear for the sound of authentic human communication, and some never improve, so I’m suspicious when a book that promises colloquial language presents you with this:

Translate into Turkish:

1. The teacher is handsome.
2. She is not the pretty teacher.
3. The jobless electrician is a handsome man.

Of course, I know that my own students must utter sentences similar to number one in reference to me all the time, and possibly number two in reference to… well, better not. But it is hard to imagine a context in which number three could be seen as a useful phrase to have under your belt, as opposed to say, ‘two Heinnekens and a toasted sandwich, please’, or ‘have you got a single room for two nights?’. The writers would no doubt argue that the phrase exemplifies a grammatical pattern, here word order in a declarative sentence in the present tense. Language teaching books have been doing that for yonks, as though grammar were something that existed quite independently of real communication: learn a weird sentence first, then try to slip more likely combinations of words into the same slots. How hard would it have been to find a context for more realistic sounding language and more immediately useful vocabulary or chunks, something that would live up to the title of the book?

It’s perfectly legitimate to compare your students’ mother tongue with the target language if you are in a position to do so, but please, get it right. The verb geretmek means ‘to be necessary’ and you cannot apparently use it in the Turkish tense that might very broadly be compared to the English present continuous. The writers say: ‘This is logical if you realize that…you can’t say ‘I’m having to’ [in English] either’. Well, of course you bloody can: ‘I keep having to pee, could it be diabetes?’ Admittedly, my grammar-checker thing doesn’t like it, and on the strength of a quick googlement, it seems not to be very common unless it follows ‘keep’ as in my example. Any seasoned EFL teacher will tell you that you should beware of declaring that ‘you can’t say X in English’ because in a language which has so little context-independent grammar, you’ll find yourself contradicted in no time flat. OK, this has nothing to do with Turkish, I'm just chuntering.

Modality is a bugger in English, as anyone who has ever taught modal verbs at intermediate level and above is well aware. Verbs expressing concepts such as obligation, necessity, possibility, permission and deduction can be extraordinarily confusing if they are presented without a clear context. Indeed, just separating those functions one from another is no easy task for most learners. I’ve seen English teaching material in Greece that chucks the entire inventory of English modal verbs at students in one indigestible helping, and I can’t help thinking the Colloquial Turkish writers (or their editors) might have been exposed to this kind of thing too. There's a section on ‘Obligation or Need’. Get yourself a strong black coffee and I'll tell you about it. We learn:

[The suffix] –ecek may denote a necessity (‘still have to…’) the suffix –meli on the other hand indicates a moral necessity (‘should’ ‘have to’). In choosing between these two possibilities, think of the difference in English between ‘I should’ and ‘I was going to’. But be careful – tenses don’t tend to be the same across languages, [so much for it being 'logical' that you 'can't say this in English either'.] so you should try and get a feel for the Turkish system!’

'But be careful!' That reminds me of a teacher in Athens who gave her students grudging praise after a fluency activity, then said ‘but girls, watch your tenses.’ What exactly is it we have to be careful about? The meanings that ‘should’ (advisability, moral obligation, deduction based on personal experience) and ‘going to’ (intentionality) carry are so different it’s hard to see why one might be expected to hesitate between them. Doesn't 'still have to' suggest an unfulfilled necessity? 'Should' and 'have to' are not synonymous, so why are they presented together as the equivalents of the -meli ending? The examples that immediately follow this explanation throw light on matters hardly at all:

You must come

OK, but who is ‘you’? Who’s telling ‘you’ this, when and what for? What function is it serving? Is it an order? An enthusiastic invitation? A heartfelt plea? A threat?

You’ll come / you’ll have to come.

Same considerations apply as above. The phrase ‘you’ll come’ standing there on its lonesome like that conveys no information – again, is it an order? A prediction? A boast? How and when can the same verb form come to mean ‘you’ll have to come’, which expresses a future obligation or necessity? How do the translations ‘you must come’ and ‘you’ll have to come’ help to disambiguate two verb forms when in English, shorn of context, they mean pretty much the same thing? This is the point a worrying number of language teachers don’t seem to get: decontextualised language means absolutely fuck all. I could stare at those two naked Turkish verb forms and their ill-chosen ‘translations’ all day and be none the wiser. A couple of sentences down, we get to this stuff where some unknown person at an unspecified time is making an announcement to nobody in particular about buying a pop CD:

Yeni Sezen Aksu’yu almalıyım
I have to buy the new Sezen Aksu (‘I really must do that’)

Yeni Sezen Aksu’yu alacağım
I’ll buy the new Sezen Aksu (‘I still have to do that’)

Hang about. The first one is not a 'moral necessity' but a strong intention… unless of course it isn’t... in the absence of context, we have no way of knowing. The translation of the second using ‘will’ suggests a spur of the moment decision, but the added bit in brackets implies that the purchase is on my mental to-do list, which would more naturally call for ‘going to’. ‘…aw a muddle. Fro’ first to last, a muddle.’ Why didn’t they go for an inductive approach, scrapping the useless ‘translations’ and building mini-dialogues around the forms to give each of them some context and some indication of function? Then they could have set a few concept questions about the speaker’s intentions and the form he used to express them. The book would probably end up containing less than half the grammar it has now, but at least it would be comprehensible grammar.

Apart from a long-forgotten smattering of Japanese and a single phrase of Mandarin, I have never looked into a non-European language before. Most Turkish vocabulary looks utterly unfamiliar; there is none of the old-friends-in disguise feeling you get when you dip into one of our neighbouring tongues, however obscure. I once saw the headline ‘Masa të ashpra kundër krimit të organizuar’ in an Albanian newspaper, and immediately understood it to mean ‘harsh (ashpra) measures (masa) against (kunder) organized (të organizuar) crime (krimit)’, even though I hadn’t met any of the content-words of that sentence in Albanian before. No chance of this in Turkish. This is how my students from China, Thailand and Saudi Arabia must feel when they arrive in October, before they start to see the connections between words (possible, possibility, impossible, possibly, impossibility, could you possibly, an impossible task, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day …) and realize that words have their families and their mates, and the more words you know, the easier they become to acquire. New students also pore over verb forms, baffled, but fortunately they have teachers who most of the time are very clear about which is their arse and which is their elbow. Routledge, come and get me before you inflict your next project on the world. I’ll help you make Colloquial Western Peripheral Nahuatl a best seller.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Nothing in Particular

Quiet round here these days. I'm only teaching ten hours a week and although money is tighter than I have ever known it, and I've known tight, I'm still perversely pleased that for the rest of the month I only need to get up early to drag my arse to work twice a week. Instead of dominating my life, teaching is for now a minor blip in 158 hours of pleasing myself. I sleep like a baby five nights a week instead of merely dozing, as I do when I'm working the following day. However, the inactivity is dulling my brain.

On Wednesday I entered the classroom and as always I smiled and said 'good morning', was as always ignored, and as always muttered 'suit yourselves' as I arranged my stuff on the desk. There was a sound like a string of firecrackers going off as the students extracted papers from ring binders and began to pass them along the horseshoe formation of desks. 'Homework' someone mutters, handing a sheaf to me. I suppose I should have been pleased that everyone had done it and done it on time, but actually I felt worried as I have absolutely no recollection of having set it. It'll come back to me, I thought. Two days later, it still hasn't.

I'm rather inattentive lately. I decided to make an omelette for breakfast this morning, and while waiting for the oil to heat and the toast to pop up I made a second cafetiere of coffee. Ah, it's like having five Saturday mornings a week, I thought, tipping the remains of the first cafetiere into a mug. But a curse of multi-tasking, for it was the same mug in which I had just beaten the eggs. I didn't fancy omelette au café so I slung them out and started again. I feel vaguely guilty about the waste now times are rather thin, but only vaguely. My Dad's mother, known to us as Nana, would have filed the eggs away in the fridge and made a coffee cake or something later on. Given the sugar, flour, butter and gas required for a cake, it might indeed have been more economical just to pitch the eggs, but that would not have occurred to her: Nana had known hard times as a kid in the period after WWI and was anti food-waste to a degree that bordered on pathological. Once, as a kid, I decided to make blackberry jam, despite being very hazy as to how to proceed. I burnt the lot, writing off the pan and to Nana's profound grief, a two-pound bag of sugar with it. 'All that sugar!!!' she keened, as if mourning the lost potential of a bright kid struck down in youth. The blackberries were from the hedgerows, and since money had not been spent on them, their loss was more bearable. In N.F. Simpson's insane 1959 play One-Way Pendulum*, the Groomkirby family employs a Mrs Gantry to come in on a daily basis to eat up their left-overs. The absurdity of this would have gone straight over Nana's head, and she would probably have thought it a rather sensible arrangement. She once rescued a pack of rancid butter that my mother was about to chuck. Several days later she announced proudly 'I managed to eat it for you!' as though she had performed a real service.      

Well, as is apparent from the preceding paragraphs, I have bugger all to say, so I expect posts will be few and far between until later in the summer when I hope things pick up and there will be more language-mangling and cultural train-wrecks to report on.        


* In One-Way Pendulum, the Groomkirbys' lounge is slowly transformed into a courtroom in which the Groomkirbys' socially inept son, Kirby, is on trial for multiple murder. Mabel Groomkirby is being questioned as to why she had though prior to his birth that her son might have been black.

JUDGE (intervening) Is your husband a coloured man, Mrs Groomkirby?
MABEL He's an insurance agent, sir.
JUDGE Yes, but is he coloured?
MABEL Well, no sir. Not so far as I know.
JUDGE What I'm trying to get from you, Mrs Groomkirby, is the simple fact of your husband's racial characteristics. Does he, for instance, have any negro blood?
MABEL Well - he has got one or two bottles up in his room, but he doesn't tell me what's in them.
(The JUDGE looks blankly at MABEL for a moment and then relinquishes the matter.)


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