Friday, 30 December 2011

All About Me-ve

There isn't much I want to write about just now, for reasons I may return to. Now, normally when I've got nothing to write about I don't write - years can pass this way - but I thought I might finish the year with some sort of trivia thing. All the papers do it, don't they?

I borrowed these questions from an auto-interview by/with the wonderful Efler blogger 'Lathophobic Aphasia', written by someone with a better turn of phrase and more of a gift for creative grumbling than most of the people you meet in the staffroom. No apologies for borrowing, though, as Mr Aphasia himself borrowed the questions from an interview that EFL demi-god Jeremy Harmer did with Professor Deborah Cameron, another bright light of the ELT industry. And jolly good questions they are too. Borrow them yourself. Maybe we can make it into a meme.

What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Creative, disorganised, passionate.

What is your greatest achievement?

You ain't seen nothing yet.

What’s your favourite smell?

The sea, windfall apples lying on winter mud (smelt that on Moushold Heath this morning), cut grass, a clean cat, rain in the desert, burning seasoned oak, mangoes, coffee.

What is your favourite taste?

Liquorice, mint, pineapple.

What’s your favourite piece of music?

Umm, don't know. I'm ignorant about music. I'm most comfortable with baroque type things - they have a pattern that I can just about manage to get my head around, and they resolve. Bach and Handel kinda thang: I haven't evolved as far as Romanticism. At one time in my life I went a fair bit to opera with someone who knew a lot about them (that was in Italy) and I remember the first one I went to which I enjoyed all the way through without a minute's boredom or inattention. It was Cosi Fan Tutte - nothing but the best, eh?

What book would you like everyone to read?

Just one? Impossible.

Books I tend to recommend to people I like: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall ditto, Mary Renault's historical fiction, The Once and Future King (TH White), Middlemarch

What website would you like everyone to visit?

Not a clue.

What is your favourite sound?

Cat purring. Wood fire crackling. Rain outside. The sea.

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

Cat in a comfortable home, or small wild cat in a well-protected jungle. But then, I love to swim, so maybe otter or seal or one of the catlike prehistoric critters that went back into the water and became seals or whales or something. Or a Lake Van cat - they swim.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

'Spare' is a bit of an odd concept for me... as indeed is 'time' - perhaps that's why I have trouble getting things done. I don't have a telly, but when I watch dvds (or, rarely, when I watch TV away from home) I feel a need to fidget. In the last few years I've started to deploy this in making things - beads or jewellery, and lately, patchwork. If I watch enough films this year I will finish a patchwork quilt bedspread.

How many languages do you speak and why?

Well, I'm still struggling with English after 51 years. I learnt Italian quite well - I lived there for 6 years, though after 4 I no longer felt I was improving - after the age of 28 and with a history as a 'failed language learner'. It remains the only foreign language I ever got really confident and contented in, although I doubt I ever spoke it perfectly at my best. I'm fairly rusty now, though I still read it with pleasure, and recently have dreamt in it. I can read French and Spanish, but can't claim to speak either. French feels like a failure as I spent years being taught it without actually learning it, and now my 'default language', if I'm not speaking English, is Italian. I learned Anglo Saxon (or Old English if you prefer) per force at University for a year and was frustrated that I could not translate the poems well enough to do them justice: I felt they were wonderful but was not good enough - or indeed keen enough and hard-working enough - to make my versions adequate. I lived in Thailand three years without really getting to grips with Thai, but last week I watched a Thai film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives, and was surprised how much I could catch - but it's at the level of words rather than sentences and meanings. Same with Arabic.

What do you like most/least about your job?

I like the students who make this enormous courageous leap to living and studying in a different language and culture, and who make many small leaps of courage in order to communicate and approach each other and me. I like feeling that they are becoming ever more able to express more of their own meanings. I like getting to know people who do or will do such amazing and interesting things in life and who come from such varied and interesting countries: in what other profession would I meet Kurdish agriculturalists and Laotian ministers (who went to school in a cave and speaks Russian as a second language) and lawyers from the Ivory Coast. I like the strange and varied people who work in EFL too.

I dislike the insecurity of zero hours contracts, the tedium of meetings, and the odium of the occasional embittered colleague one meets who seems to dislike students on principle.

What would heaven be like if you were in charge?

Bliss. Warm sea, flying, music. Everyone I love around.

When and where are you happiest?

Lathophobic A's answer is pretty good: 'in a warm bed on a cold morning when I needn’t get up'. But also sitting in a tree, or on a hillside in summer. Riding a motorbike alone in Thai mountains. Sitting on the bottom stair in my nightie to listen to The Hobbit on my Dad's radio when I was 8. Writing something yesterday that seemed like it was working.

Something you are never without.

Something to read or to write on/with.

What is your most appealing habit?

Not sure I have any appealing habits.

And your least appealing habit?


What is the trait you most dislike in others?

Dropping litter and crap in beautiful places. Seriously. You go somewhere lovely - or even somewhere just passably pleasant - and defile it?

What is your most treasured possession?

Hmmm. My brain, I suppose. I would struggle to save the laptop and my mum's ring, and her diaries.

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

Three, please, and they need not be supernatural at all - just very good technology indeed. I want

a time machine
a cloak of invisibility
a Babel fish.

This last was Douglas Adams' invention - a fish that swims in your ear enabling you to understand all languages in the universe and be understood. It would make my job obsolete, of course. But think of the evesdropping! Think of the history! You could settle all arguments about when people first started using language, for a start... and so much more.

What words or phrases do you overuse?

Like most Brits I swear a lot.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

An income I could rely on.

How would you like to be remembered?

I don't expect to be remembered by anyone, unless I write and publish something really good.

What music do you enjoy listening to/playing most?

Can't play anything. I've enjoyed singing in choirs and want to do more of it, and better. Most perhaps was a piece of music Barrie wrote (and I wrote some of the words for) and Stephen arranged for the Al Ain Choral Society, in which we both sang: Blue Carol. Listening... see above.

What did you dream of being when you were younger?

Writer. Trying to stop dreaming and work on it instead.

What were you like as a student at school?

Space case, then later on enveloped in impenetrable gloom enlivened with sarcasm. I stuttered, could not choose between two words of apparently equal meaning (would say 'tan' or 'kin' instead of tin or can) and could not concentrate on anything.

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

I was very influenced by TH White's book 'The Once and Future King'. There's a point in which Merlin says that the one thing that never fails is to learn something - and then goes off into a long speech about the different things there are to learn and how many lifetimes it would take you to learn them all.

But learning is quite difficult to do, so a lot of the time I just read. Which feels similar, but is not quite the same.

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

writer sooner.

Who has been the best teacher you have ever had?

Richard Holmes, the biographer. You could sit in his seminars and feel your brain expanding gently under his influence.

Something that few people know about you.

I can't drive a car - never have learned - but I can ride a motorbike.

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

All over the place! Specially if I get my cloak of invisibility and my babel fish too.

What’s your best learning memory from school?

Walking in the park after midnight thinking that I understood 'Middlemarch'.

Are you a tidy desk or a messy desk person?

Exceeding messy. It hampers me.

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

Sit by the fire with a warm cat and a good book.

A poem you know by heart.

Afterwards, by Thomas Hardy. This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin. Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll

What would you like to learn to do next?


What question would you have liked me to ask you?

Can I publish your next book for a large sum of money? And can you do a sequel, please? And, how about film rights...’

What would have been your answer?

Yikes! But yes, by all means.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Things autumnal

Ah November, season of damps cramps colds and most of the birthdays in my family. It was B's yesterday, and - apart from having to go to work to pay for it all - we had a pretty nice day and some great pizza and wine at Pizza Express - still our favourite place to eat in spite of my not winning their invent-a-pizza competition (I came second. To be fair, the winning one was delicious, but I could have done with the prize money).
It hasn't been very cold but it has been quite damp: not raining, but foggy and condensation-y all over. And most days have been dark, too, overcast and foggy all day, with a few stunningly beautiful exceptions.
We put our clocks back two weeks ago, making the mornings lighter - although that did not last for long - and the evenings set in an hour earlier. As I type, at ten past three in the afternoon, it is too dull indoors not to have the lights on and it feels the dark is closing in. On some days now, we go out in the morning twilight and come home in darkness. It feels very Northern (though I suppose it could equally feel Southern, only in 6 months time). It also feels as though we should be spending much more time asleep than we actually do. The instinct to hibernate has always been strong in me (I may be closer to our burrowing ancestors than most people you'll meet), but I notice that the cats are sleeping much more (even) than usual.
The other things this time of year brings include colds and coughs. It's our second autumn back in England and only the first cold for both of us, so we've done pretty well, but it was a goodie. I blame the students.
Seriously, I do. In every class there is at least one student, and often three or four out of 16, with a massive cold but no hanky or tissues, and no idea that a rhythmic snuffling every 5 seconds gets tiresome after the first few hours. I'm considering inventing swine flu/bird flu/elephant flu/cat flu rumours to encourage everyone to wear those hygienic masks popular in Japan. I've read that the masks are not actually that useful but I don't care - it gives something to catch the.. ahem.. effluvia.
Richard II was said to be a pretty useless king of England. Shakespeare portrays him as vacillating, self-pitying and feeble in the play of the same name. Richard's cousin Bolingbroke certainly thought so, and decided he would make a much better king himself. He got the crown and sent Richard off to Pontefract, where he may have been stabbed or may have been starved, but in any case rapidly became unfit for consideration due to being dead.
But Richard is supposed to have brought the handkerchief into use in England and for that alone he deserves a statue... possibly one placed in every language school in the country, where students can observe, mark and follow his example.
If they won't, I wonder whether Pontefract castle still has dungeons? Just a thought.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Singing in the Forum

Saturday was the 10th Birthday of the forum, a large glass-topped building from which you can look out on a much finer one; St Peter Mancroft's. The Forum houses Pizza Express, a cafe, the local BBC studios and even a library - see what you need to do to get people into a library? Offer them pizza and beer.
It's a good building and a really great library - three libraries in one, the kids library, the American USAF library, and the Central. (Norfolk Council seems determined not to close any libraries, which is to be applauded).
Anyway, the celebrations involved much fun - Guardspersons on stilts, two Gentlemen of the Press in 1930s trench coats, storytelling (not by me), kids painting a specially erected painting wall, barbershop singing, and in the midst of it, a Flash Mob.
Do you Flash much? I never have before. Suddenly a portly gentleman burst into song in the library. He was homed in upon by people from all quarters of the place - not angry hushing librarians (a dying breed it seems to me) but singers. Men, then altos, then sopranos, lead by the lovely Meg Turpin. Oh... I see... it's a choir then. Yes indeed, for it was Norwich Community Choir. We sang and then, still singing, processed onto the glass balcony over the painting and crafting below. People looked up startled and delighted. We sang an African song - no idea what it meant, but the feeling and the harmonies were lovely. Some people were in tears (and NOT because they were saddened music lovers). Then we processed singing down the stairs and dispersed. We had been instructed to 'recruit men' - a perennial shortage in choirs. I'd brought my own along, but he already sings with the UEA choir. Heyho.
It was fun. We didn't sing happy birthday dear forum... maybe we should have.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

well.. erm...yess - still here.

Yes I'm still here. Well, not here as in here, obviously - there'd have been a good few more posts if I'd been here more often. But here as in still on this planet, in the land of the living.
Appropriately, it's the Day of the Dead (aka All Souls Day) as I write this.
November is kind of a funny, life/death month in my family. Half my family have birthdays around now, from my nephew at Halloween through my sister-in-law, two of my bros 4 days apart, my Beloved, and another nephew on the 19th November (he was supposed to have been a Saggitarius but dropped in early, thus joining his mum, dad, big brother and uncle in the same sign and turning their home into a nest of Scorpios). Then - tomorrow in fact - is the anniversary of my dad's sudden death - 37 years ago and still a shock. Widen the scope a bit into October and you get my third brother's birthday and my mum's anniversary. So, when it comes to remembering the living and the dead, November is it.
As part of the general Halloweeniness, I did my first storytelling gig in England since about... ooh, 1987, perhaps at the Waterman's Art Centre in Brentford? It was a kids' party and the theme of course was Halloween. It turned out to be a rather small audience, but very enjoyable (one tot who I know is only four sat their with his eyes getting rounder and rounder... I hope he got to sleep). Anyway, a good time was had, and I met some interesting people at the party, including a medieval historian in proper 15th century costume. So tonight we're off to the Norwich Storytellers gettogether (a new experience for us both) - theme of course spooky - and I might tell a tale or two, given half a chance.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Standing up to be miscounted

We went on the TUC-organised March for the Alternative in London on Saturday. Got on a bus organised by Unison which left Norwich at 7.30 and were dropped at something called Gallions(sic) Reach, which is on the DLR in a docklands post-industrial wasteland near part of University of East London. Nothing like a ticket office in sight, and as we queued to tackle the ticket machines (which refused our money and insisted on debit cards only) we felt somewhat country-bumpkin-ish - in the big city and not quite sure how things work. From there to the Jubilee line at Canning Town where the platforms were crammed with protesters. We hopped off at Southwark, and instead of crossing Blackfriars bridge, nipped into the south bank in search of much needed coffee and loos. We could see a massive party going on on the embankment, and talked to a guy playing a one-stringed African guitar/harp who said 'There's not much difference between a protest and a festival'. People were gathering on the South Bank - there were some UK Uncut folk and posters saying "What the Foucault?" and "What Would Gramsci Do?". Crossed the river at Waterloo Bridge - people were thick on the ground, covering the road and pavement, and the bridge was closed to traffic coming from the North. It was impossible to get onto the Embankment there, and some polite police directed up up into the Strand and round... the crowds got thicker and thicker, a solid mass of persons from one side of the road to the other, though everyone seemed polite, cheerful and patient. Rather annoyingly there were also touts selling whistles, which was deafening, and there were the usual dullards with loudspeakers and tedious slogans - but there were also some splendid drummers. It took us two hours to get from the Strand down to the "start point" on Victoria Embankment, by which time the head of the procession had already reached Hyde Park. There was a Welsh women's choir, which I remember from Greenham Common days, a greyhound with a jacket that said on one side "Cameron, I'm no poodle" and on the other, "fight against the cats" with the a crossed out and a u written in. Lots of intelligent posters. We were glad to see a Father Ted tribute reading "Down With This Sort of Thing". Near us were the Fire Brigade union, Nurses, a sign saying "Pissed Off Social Worker", kids in pushchairs, a couple of wheelchair users and lots of other folk. We reached Westminster Bridge at 3 pm and decided we'd have to peel off to get back to the coach, which had to leave at 4.30. On the South Bank we looked across and saw the tail end of the procession passing under Waterloo Bridge - this was at 3.30, a good four hours after the head had got to Hyde Park. I suspect the estimates of 250000 - 300000 is rather below the real figure on the march - and it also doesn't count the students, who marched a different route, the people occupying Trafalgar square (including one of B's sons, and his small daughters) and the UK Uncut people who were revelling along Oxford Street, as well as those who went straight to Hyde Park. I had signed up to text message updates from the Metropolitan police, which was interesting. At one point, things obviously going too well, they informed us that "no containment - ie kettling - is in process at the moment. Later, a text came which said "light bulbs full of ammonia have been thrown at police" (I'm not sure how you would go about filling a light bulb with ammonia, even if you wanted to, but that's another matter). Shortly afterwards, no doubt after some legal consultations with the TUC's lawyers, a message came through saying "ignore last message: it was nothing to do with the march". This retraction was at about 2.30, yet when we were listening to the 6 o'clock news on the BBC in the coach on the way back, the first message about ammonia filled lightbulbs was still being repeated. Ho hum. I also got a text saying the Fortnum and Mason's "is now a crime scene" - this was about 6. 30. Apparently, the UK Uncut protesters accidentally knocked over some chocolate bunnies, the fiends. There was no mention of the baton charge against the person who put a sticker on the Olympic - doesn't bloody work - clock. Much has been made of the black-clad protesters who broke some windows at the Ritz. I didn't see any of this, though when we were walking towards Blackfriars Bridge that morning we had seen 4 or 5 young men getting out of a van accoutred in face scarfs - a bad idea, obviously. According to a Tax Justice Network, the Men in Black stated that they are against all taxation, which puts them rather a long way from the fair tax campaigners in UK Uncut. Interesting, though: I have lived in a zero-tax country (the UAE) and it is not exactly a bastion of liberation... This morning someone on the Beeb said "Anarchists - what do we know about them? How can we get in touch with them?" He almost said "can anyone put me in touch with their general secretary", but not quite.

Friday, 18 February 2011

True Grit

Back in the UK for the first winter and spring we've had for 4 years, apart from very brief visits in January. Well, it was a fair old winter, the coldest December in 200 years (although globally the year was the warmest ever recorded). Snow fell, and stayed, until Christmas Day.
The worst thing was that it became intensely slippery underfoot. For some reason (increasing girth, decreasing agility) I hate and detest the idea of falling over. Partly physical cowardice - I really don't want to get hurt - but a good deal to do with not looking any more ridiculous than usual. The Beloved, who already had a dodgy knee, was much the same.
So as the ice stuck to the pavement day after day, I went out in search of grit. Now there's a thing you don't often have cause to shop for. Luckily the wonderful Roy's (Roys of Wroxham - it should be Wroys, wreally), which is just down the road from us at Anglia Square, has bags of budgie sand. In two different textures. This is a situation where choice doesn't work for me: I had no idea. Ended up grabbing 3 bags of one and 2 of the other. Sanded the pavement from one end to - nearly - the other. It did make a difference. Enlightened self interest, I suppose, especially as in one fairly short journey back from the city centre I had seen three people hit the ground hard. And then, at B's choir concert rehearsal, the professional tenor soloist stepped outside and broke his leg. I suppose choir masters have emergency tenors on direct dial - the replacement arrived 10 minutes before he was due on, taking the solo in the St Nicholas Cantata. And very good he was too.