Friday, 7 December 2018

Campery and Condoms in the Foreign Language Classroom

I'm off sick today. Back, legs, feet, everything south of my waist aches like fuck. Not complaining. I can go to bed when I please, get up when I please, have a doze in the afternoon if I feel like it. I'll be going stir-crazy by Sunday but hope to feel more like getting up at 5.00 and dragging my arse to... No, I'm not going to think about that right now. I'm in bed with coffee at 9.30am, a gale is lashing the windows with rain and I don't want to be anywhere else.

I have at the moment one of the nicest groups of students ever. A group of nine Chinese, Thai and Portuguese graduates grew to twenty earlier this month, with the addition of a few new Chinese and Thais and one each from Saudi, Kuwait and India. It was lovely to see how the new arrivals were welcomed and fitted in so quickly. They make life so easy! You simply set an activity in motion and they run with it. It's more like switching on the telly than managing a classroom. The other day I had to do a reading text from the ineffably tedious IELTS test. It was about moribund languages and how these might be salvaged. As a starter, I proposed that each nationality should teach everyone else in their group how they say their own country, nationality and language. Whay!!! Brilliant idea!!! I might have proposed we all go out on the razz and to hell with lessons. There followed a good twenty minutes of hilarity as Chinese students tried to get their tongues round Arabic and Thai students attempted Chinese. Thai was disappointingly easy, at lest to me: the same word, thai, does duty for country, nationality and language.

'So, I am from Thai, I am man Thai, I'm speak Thai? Wossthiss?' says K, our most voluble Chinese student, in mock-serious deprecation of what strikes him as want of linguistic sophistication. I wish I had chosen some rather more complex items to see how the speakers of four-tone Mandarin might cope with six-tone Thai.

One of the Thai contingent is a very camp young man called Tom, which is one syllable out of a given name that has quite a few more to spare. Early in the course I trotted out that old chestnut 'Alibis' for the millionth time since I first adapted it for large-ish groups circa 1983. As always with this group, the levels of enthusiasm and hilarity grew as the lesson progressed and Tom whooped 'this lesson is sooooooooooooo exCIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIting!'

I can't remember how the item came up, but I had to ask Tom to explain to the class what underwear meant. He stood on his chair, gyrating his pelvis and stroking his packet like a stripper and purred 'is wha you weah for covah you eggs!' The same action pretty much, accompanied with pelvic thrusts, was necessary when he proposed that the most important human invention ever is condoms. Nobody knew the word. 'Is what you wear when you fuck-keeeeeeeeng, so you don't born!'  

After this group I have an hour's break before I go to the (to me) detested Fred West building to teach two or three shy and silent Chinese undergrads in a room that could accommodate a performance of Starlight Express. I wish these few young ladies could see my graduate group and realise they need not adopt this mild and modest mien. In my classes, you can stand on your chair and gyrate your hips, shouting 'fuck-keeeeeeeeng!!!'

Well, usually. On Wednesday, Tom was on about condoms again in relation to a task that required students to recall the items they had bought over the week and classify them. I was joking about whether they were for him an impulse buy or a staple. This didn't go down too well with Ahmed from KSA. He didn't say anything but I understood from his facial expression that he found it strange that I should engage in, rather than silence, Tom's campy banter. Perhaps he was right. I don't know. I left work early because I was feeling like death. Ahmed has probably forgotten about the condoms by now.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Free Speech Police

This has saved me a lot of typing.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

'You perceive [s]he stirs:'

I've been to the theatre three times this year, quite the giddy social whirl for me: I'm almost in danger of getting a life. There was the train wreck of a Macbeth at the National on my birthday in March, a competent Richard III in York in June and most recently, The Winter's Tale at The Globe, which I saw with my niece and her man while visiting a couple of weeks back.

I live in a small, pretty, very English, Twinings-tea-and-green-wellies market town with a centre consisting of three streets, so you can imagine what London feels like to me. I hit Kings Cross on the 26th of last month just in time for the rush hour. It took 15 minutes to get through the barriers and onto the Northern Line, where I and some 15,000 others boarded the tube to London Bridge. Imagine trying to preserve some sense of detachment, some notion of personal space, during a game of Twister. I kept my gaze downcast and avoided, as I thought, any direct physical contact with anyone else in my centimetre or so of circumambient space. 'Listen, mate, seriously, I don't want your arse in my face' snarled a beardy, aggressive little troll whom I had not noticed was sitting behind me. I thought, I've had far better faces in my arse, sunshine, and would prefer not to have my nose in this bloke's earhole, but what do you want me to fucking do? 

Eventually I got to East Dulwich where the three of us had far too much wine and a delicious lamb curry and so to bed.

So anyway, The Winter's Tale. I've got all the Globe Theatre DVDs but this was my first time there in the flesh. We had drinks in a lovely bar (The Swan) served by a very tasty young barman (don't know his name, sorry) and a had a fabulous view of bepinked sunset clouds and the buildings across the river, the Walkie Talkie, the Gherkin, the Stiffy and all those oddly shaped edifices lighting up as the sun sank. The theatre is hellishly uncomfortable, though, with bus shelter benches instead of seats and I felt forced to adopt a tight, compact posture so as not to kick the back of the woman in front of me, tip my pint over her head or lurch forward and plunge three storeys into the yard, something more suited to Titus Andronicus.

I also wanted to be closer to the stage to fully appreciate Will Keen as Leontes. He was quiet, tense, tentative, discovering something inside himself that appalled him and not knowing what to do with it or what it would do to him. Maybe the people leaning against the stage in the yard felt the tension radiate from him more strongly that I did up on the third tier. Or maybe I had the advantage and they could only see his ankles. 

Sirine Saba was brilliant as Paulina, fearless and truthful in polite, frightened, tight-arsed Sicilia, but I don't know why she had to wear a robe that looked like it had been knocked up from the matching curtains and bedspread I chose for my bedroom back in 1974 
when I was fifteen. She looked much classier in the second half in black. Was this intended to show her as older and wiser, counselor to Leontes rather than accuser? This has just occurred to me and I may be wrong. I can't otherwise explain the naffness of her costume.

The notorious stage direction 'exit, pursued by a bear' was underwhelmingly realised: a flapping piece of cloth with a crude picture of a bear's snout and jaws on it unfurled from the flies and as Antigonus left the stage, a door frame fell over. Anyone unfamiliar with the story wouldn't have had a clue what was supposed to have happened. I've no idea how this could have been done more convincingly, but then I'm not the one getting paid to stage it.

Now in the final scene, you can't be asking: 'OK, why do Hermione and Paulina collude for 16 years to let Leontes think Hermione is dead, and how come nobody got suspicious and how the hell do they justify treating a guilt-ridden man so fucking shittily anyway? Let him stew for a year or two by all means, but then put him out of his misery.' This is not playing the game. A winter's tale was a fire-side yarn spun to beguile a long, dark evening: question it too closely and you kill it dead. In the final scene, Leontes is introduced by Paulina to what he thinks is an astonishingly lifelike statue of his adored wife who died 16 years before from the shock of his rejection of her. Imagine his emotions: he has had only his fading memories and now she seems to be standing before him again: 'Would you not deem it breathed,' he gasps, 'and that those veins did verily bear blood?'  This scene, where Hermione, posing as a statue, descends from her plinth to embrace her husband and daughter after a sixteen year separation, is one that always reduces me to a gibbering wreck when I read it, and I really resented the way the actors allowed Leontes to look a bit of a fool here.  His several references to the life-like appearance of the 'statue' elicited knowing giggles where I wanted gobsmacked awe, but I still had tears rolling down my face at the end, so I suppose I'll let them off. 

Overall I really enjoyed the show. I'm conscious when watching productions of Shakespeare that I usually have very little to compare them with, and delivery and business I'm taking innocent delight in may well seem trite and hackneyed to someone who's seen or read the play dozens of times, but I suppose in that case I'm getting my money's worth and the more experienced playgoer isn't.


'Tis but three days since I said I probably wouldn't update this blog again. Shows how wrong you can be.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

'What am I going to write about next?'

That question has bubbled up in my brain several times a day in the ten years since I started this blog. I haven't been able to answer it for months now. I used to write about what amused, intrigued, moved or incensed me but since February this year, when I was maliciously accused of being a 'fascist' and a person 'I would not want to be taught by' for using the word 'Muslim' instead of 'Islamist' in a social media post, I've hesitated to write anything. It's my belief that the two people who lodged this complaint with HR did so because they had seen an opportunity to get at me for being gay, but of course I cannot prove this. I wrote a longish post in July about that whole tempest in a teapot, but was advised by my niece to trash it, because you never know who'll be trawling through your social media posts in search of matter they can claim to be offended by and use it to try to get you fired.

So, just to make it clear, these are my views on the current obsessions of the permanently offended. I'm speaking entirely for myself here.

If you are of any religious persuasion, the chances are I don't like your religion and find your apologetics ridiculous. We will have to agree to differ on this type of thing and I'm quite happy to do so.

If you disapprove, on whatever grounds, of homosexuality, feel free to say so to my face, because as a grown man I know that words cannot hurt me. British railway stations these days are defaced by a poster bearing the ridiculous slogan 'sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can really hurt us', suggesting that station staff  might be more traumatised if a bellicose drunk called them a cunt than if he physically assaulted them. Imagine someone in a hospital bed, all bandaged, plastered and splinted, surrounded by colleagues bearing flowers and grapes, all reassuring him with the words 'at least he didn't call you a faggot.'

If you believe it's a good idea to have 24-hour hotlines at universities to allow people to anonymously report 'hate speech', I think your proposal is cretinous, censorious and dangerous, even if it did get you elected to some students' union committee. Speech is speech and voice may be given to good ideas and to bad: let's hear all ideas and counter the ones we think are bad without fear of being snitched on, called every -ist and -phobe in the book, then fired and blacklisted.

I think your skin colour and sexual orientation are very probably the least interesting things about you. Nor do I care which gender you 'identify' as. Third person pronouns are not yours to choose. If you disagree with that, make your case and I will listen, but I reserve the right to disagree and to say that I do.

Criticism and mockery of a regime are not the same thing as racism, and the fiercest critics and mockers of shitty regimes are usually to be found among the people forced to live under them. Raif Badawi is a true patriot and Muslim, yet his masters have had him banged up for the last six years for criticising the way they run things. Shame on them.

By the way, I lived in Greece for fifteen years, and spoke to people there who had lived through the seven-year fascist police state of 1967 to 1974. The Greeks then had no civil rights and no free press to report on the imprisonment, torture and disappearance of anyone brave enough to oppose the rotten jingoism and cronyism of their masters, who in 1973 put down a student protest by turning the military on their own citizens. So don't be calling me a fascist: if you do, you demonstrate that you don't know what it means. Go and find out, then make sure you save the word for when you really need it.

That's all.

I don't know if I will ever update this blog again. The self-censorship imposed on one by the current climate of grievance and victimhood in education knocks all the pleasure out of writing. It was nice while it lasted.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Birthday # 59

It was my 59th birthday on the first of the month and a friend was to treat me to Macbeth at the National Theatre. The country was like Antarctica, trains were few and where running, jammed. I got to Kings Cross on the 28th of February on the only train of the day to make it there from Peterborough. I needed to get to my niece Danielle's place at East Dulwich, and queued to buy a ticket.

'You want a ticket to East Dulwich?' the bloke at the counter asked, mystified. I might have asked him for a sedan chair.

'Er, yeah...' 

He explained patiently that I could 'use my debit card like an oyster.'

I hadn't a clue what he meant by this and asked for elucidation. So, for other provincial innocents: you tap your debit card on a yellow blob at ticket barriers, and are granted instant access to trains. You don't need a ticket. If you lost your debit card, presumably the finder could happily tour London at your expense for hours until you noticed it was missing.

I got to East Dulwich and waited in a cavernous, open-plan bar for Danielle to come and meet me, foolishly ordering a glass of well-chilled Pinot Noir in a glacial pub on the coldest night since the woolly mammoth died out. Then we had a home-made Thai curry for dinner and I thawed out.


I was far from the happy 59th Birthday Boy this March 1st. There is something stressing me out at the moment which I have to keep quiet until it's resolved and there are times when it occupies me to the exclusion of all else. (This post hints at what was bugging me. The post in which I described the cause in detail had to be pulled.) So I set forth rather reluctantly for the National, wearing a T-shirt, a shirt, a pyjama top, a jumper and a heavy jacket, enabling me to roll to East Dulwich station and fetch up in the National Theatre foyer encased in a ball of ice. I explained to Lorraine the reason for my preoccupied demeanour, we drank an extortionately expensive (but palatable) glass of wine apiece, then took our seats.

This was without rival the worst production of a Shakespeare play I have ever sat through. I spent the first half wondering where the hell we were, and who all these people could possibly be. The set was a black nowhere, dominated by what looked like half a black railway bridge adorned with tall, black dish mops. All this stood before a backdrop of shattered black bin liners. Black, black and more black. Subtle, huh? Everyone wore layers of shabby combat gear except King Duncan, who looked like an Italian pimp in a red suit, black shirt and red shoes. Pretty much every UK regional accent was employed as if the National operated a quota system, some mad notion of 'diversity and inclusion'. What in this bleak nowhere was there to covet? Why were Mr and Mrs Macbeth so eager to rule over  it?

Lady Macbeth read her husband's letter as the Olivier's revolve trundled her on. She appeared to be living in a bleak cell painted institution buff, full of mismatched plastic folding chairs and open suitcases spilling clothes and shoes. Other such modules appeared, each as cheerless as provincial train station waiting rooms, making a total bollocks of Duncan's line about  the castle having a pleasant seat. It didn't: it was a shit hole. The Macbeths gave their dinner party in an ugly canteen with two formica- top tables and grub in billy cans. This scene did actually come to life, despite Banquo's ghost meandering round like a sleep walker, because the embarrassment created by Macbeth's behaviour and his wife's attempt to make light if it was genuinely sphincter-winking and after the departure of the guests, the fear the couple exuded was palpable. I felt it was, anyway. Lorraine was underwhelmed as we went to the bar at the interval, where a glass of wine and a stewed coffee cost eleven quid.

After the interval, Macbeth's motivation for butchering Duncan finally became clear: it was to nick his trousers.

The evening's proceedings dribbled on. In a drab room with a grubby sofa and tatty rug, Ross - here a female thane with a Yorkshire accent - broke the horrible news to Macduff of the massacre of his family. I found this quite moving: how many people in Ireland, Syria, Libya and God knows where else have received similar intelligence in such ordinary surroundings, when everything familiar suddenly drains of colour and significance... or maybe the interval wine was getting to me.

At length it was over, and we got up and stretched as if a boring meeting had finally broken up. After a journey through what looked like Siberia, I got back to East Dulwich, sank a bottle of wine, and so to bed.


The following evening was delightful. Danielle and I had a few drinks at a cosy pub, and she treated me to dinner at a lovely Chinese restaurant, bless her. After, we drank a great deal more wine at home. The following morning she said she felt rough but texted me as I was on the train home to say she felt better and had been to the gym. Only then did I reflect that I'm forever 28 years her senior.


Bonding with my niece's cat, who's as appalled at the threat to free speech on university campuses as I am.


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