The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My last handwritten letter

A girl in one school said I looked like E.T.  Sooner or later we are all aliens.  

In London I met a teacher called Miss Ruby, or something like that.  I’ve changed the middle vowel.  Most of her Year 3 class had families from Africa or Asia, like her own.  These children had enough linguistic problems without Miss Ruby pronouncing most long vowels like oo in poo.  She set them some work, and then meant to say: “I have to go and talk to sir,” but in fact said: “I have to goo and talk to Sue.” 

There was a spelling list to learn and a set of instructions on how to do it.   Look at the word, read it, say the letters out loud.  But not like Miss Ruby.  Incidentally, the list of spellings, if you shuffled them around, would read like a tropical romance, an indiscreet one: adventure, beautiful, important, laughter, stumble, mumble, grumble, dangerous, escape, village.

Many of the pupils I tutor privately are from sticky, foreign places.  Sri Lankans on Saturday.  The mother, aunties, female cousins and servant sit on the kitchen floor around a great bowl of uncooked rice, inspecting, grading, and picking out stones.  So skilled are their fingers, they hardly need their eyes, which view the room instead with an equatorial glow.  Miss Ruby’s vowels wouldn’t make them blink, but I wonder how long it will be before I am picked out like a twig from the rice bowl and discarded.  The children, as in many immigrant families, speak more English than their parents.  They interpret for them.  Don’t ruffle the interpreter.  If a tutor is too strict, or gives too much homework, the children just tell their parents something, and out he goes.

One of our lessons clashed with the Annual All-London Sri-Lankan Tamil Summer Carnival Sports Weekend.  Nothing was a match for this.  The week before, a thirteen-year-old explained why the lesson had to be cancelled.  I must have tilted my head, because she stiffened her top lip, which is usually as pretty as a ripe coffee bean, and retorted: “My mother won the fifty metres last year!”

In India, my own Sports Day was not so glorious.  I taught in Tamil Nadu for a year.  The sports field was a plain of red dust, and the setting of my first whole-school humiliation.  The penchant for adult sprinting, remember?  I’d arrived in the country a few hours earlier.  I was put down for the Staff 50 Metres.  I had no choice.  I was on the staff. 

When the starting pistol fired, everybody else, even the staid and portly Miss Peter, hurled themselves like javelins at the finish line.  Most of these ladies were averse to walking.  I couldn’t see them sprinting.  When they did, it startled me.  I hesitated.  Then, knowing I couldn’t catch them, and not really wanting to, I followed in slow motion, my knees bobbing along, elbows lazy, like ballet on the surface of the moon, as if I’d always planned to do a comic turn.

Everyone below eighteen laughed and cheered.  Congratulations at the finish line.  It was the first time I saw Miss Peter wince.  The exertion must have winded her.              

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Monkey spotting

“That bus has killed eleven people!”
There was excitement in the boy’s voice, but also respect.  He was looking at a vehicle which had hurtled up on the other side of the road.  Viruthampet is a dusty stop on the route between Katpadi and Vellore.  The boy was one of my pupils.  I think he could have told me something about each bus that came through.  I glanced along the side of the vehicle.  At the front there was no tally of kills, like a fighter plane, no painted shark’s teeth, but there was a definite energy about it, even when it was standing still.  In India, if a bus hits someone, the driver escapes on foot, or is beaten to death.   I wondered who was at the steering wheel today.
It’s not easy to get respect.  As for the teaching profession, and one teacher in particular – I’m not getting much respect in London right now.  Once upon a time, a tall, slim man wearing a dark coat and holding a black bag, like that poster for The Exorcist, would have made the little devils think twice before they misbehaved.  The big devils, too.  A head teacher actually laughed at me during a staff meeting before school.  It was my overcoat and briefcase.  No one else laughed, but it made me reflect on what the classroom held in store if the head teacher behaved like that. 
Parents don’t provide a refuge either.  Passing by me in the junior corridor, Mum and Dad laughed aloud when their little boy called out: “He looks like Mr Bean!”  No reprimand, not even the pretence of scolding him.  They thought he was being clever.  In a way, he was.  Then there was the woman who pulled my tie because her son claimed I’d shouted at him.  She pulled so hard she nearly ripped it off.  I should have been grateful.  She really wanted to punch me in the face.
I know a teacher who can’t spell literacy.  Perhaps we get what we deserve.  In some countries, people throw shoes at their leaders.  We all have our cultural traditions.   

Recently, scientists from Boston asked museum visitors to walk barefoot over a mechanised carpet that was able to analyse components of the foot.  They discovered that eight per cent of people have flexible, ape-like feet.  That does surprise me.  Only eight?  Many scientists believe that we’re descended from the apes. 
You can take off articles of clothing when you arrive at a museum.  A coat, a scarf, a walking stick.  But you keep most of your clothes on.  The cloakroom attendant will not usually want your shoes. No one will touch your tie.  A museum is not a school, or a prison.  You’re not likely to hang yourself when you get inside.  There’s no cavity search.  It’s not the back seat of the car on Friday night.  You’re not there to inseminate a stranger.  And it’s probably best not to.  

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Truth v. Suction

The truth can do what it likes, but fiction must follow rules. 

In real life, even if we tried, we couldn’t stop bizarre things happening.  In fact, most people don’t want to stop bizarre things happening.  We love it when strange stories make the news.  What an odd old world we live in!  But fiction is not real life.  A lot of the fiction we read has not got much to do with real life at all.  It is reassuring and conventional.  That’s what fiction should be like, apparently. 

An amateur reviewer has found tireless: too bizarre.  Of all things, a fan of sci-fi, where you might expect bizarre events to be the norm; a genre full of incidents and characters too strange for us to come across in real life, at least for a century or two.  The War of the Worlds is an old favourite.  Remember the alien squid?  They’re not going to pop up on our radar anytime soon, but they did help establish a few rules.  The book is classic science-fiction.  The alien squid are normal now.
  
For the reviewer, tireless: is not just too bizarre.  It also imitates ‘decent literary satire.’  This raises an obvious question: what is decent literary satire?  Presumably in an effort to answer the same question, he started reading Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, a satire on Victorian society written in 1872, two minutes before he posted the review, according to the book club website. 

This literary satire has been around a while.  It must be decent literary satire.  Its alien squid have now become the norm.  Next day he gave Erewhon a three-star rating.  A pity Butler wasn’t around to watch.

Of course, our friend may be right; tireless: may be awful, but however perceptive a reviewer’s comments are, they still tell us more about the squid inside his own head than about the book in question.         

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Art of Persuasion

It was time to choose a pen name, something to put after Graham.  I had to scrap my first idea, Eye, as Google was suspicious.  When I tried to register for an email account, their website challenged me to prove that Graham Eye was a real person.  That was a kind of board game with robots which I could never hope to win.  In fact, I used to know a boy called Michael Eye.  I remember him very well, a quiet classmate in fourth grade.  I wonder how he’s coping in the digital age.  It’s not as though I chose Graham Arse, is it? I was disappointed.  Eye was good.  It’s a motif in the book I wrote.  Arse is, too, of course. 

In the end, I just stuck with the original, Spaid.   It’s hard to find the right name.  I don’t know what’s more difficult, though: getting people to believe you, or machines.  Children normally get what they want.  At school, we had French lessons at the top of a tower.  The master was an anxious Frenchman who has my sympathy now, although we tore him lovingly apart at the time.  One trick worked especially well.  When monsieur was looking somewhere else, a boy climbed over the window sill and down the drain pipe, then lay spread-eagled on the tar below.   It was a long way down.  His friends shouted and peered over the sill, calling on sir to come and look.  He did, then ran in horror down the spiral staircase.  I can still hear his stiff shoes tapping down the stone steps like a frantic, old typewriter.  The boy on the ground climbed back up the pipe.  We didn’t see the master’s face when he got downstairs, but we saw it when he came back up.  The young victim was at his desk again, and, for once, everybody was working. 

Here’s another difficult one – how to get people to give you money.  Buy your book, for example.  Or just hand over a coin.  In India, naked sadhus hang around bus stations, standing in front of well-off travellers with young children.  You pay them to go away.  One grey-beard I saw had tied a red string around his penis the way a girl binds up her pony tail.  The unexcited organ was at least six inches long.  It’s what we tell our pupils at school.  I mean, use the talents God has given.
 
Elsewhere, children who have never been to school do the same sort of thing.  Outside Rome’s Termini station, gypsy girls surround foreign tourists and lift their billowing frocks above their heads. You see little skeletons underneath a layer of skin.  Does embarrassment make people generous?  Some things must be true in every culture.  It could work on my reviewers.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

More strange things, or Penis Riot’s Biggest Hits

It’ll be on the web.  Most of my ‘jokes’ are, well before I post them.  After seeing the recent headline Artist nails himself to Red Square, another hack like me must have read about the artist’s arrest, thought up Criminal nails himself and posted it before I did.
 
Pyotr Pavlensky nailed himself through the scrotum.  It’s not just another cock and ball story.  One part of Red Square has earned its name.  We saw the photos.  Almost.  In one shot, kind police have put a blanket over the naked Pyotr.  In another, some thoughtful editor has cut off, so to speak, the offending organs.  Genitals with nails in them might get us all into a mess.  The borders of good taste need to be defended.
 
PP, an artist, said his "fixation" was a metaphor for apathy in Russia.  Now that’s a metaphor.  His balls just sat there and let it happenHe should have got a medal.  Instead, they carried him off to jail.  A fine name for an edgy boy band: Penis Riot.  Say hello to Pussy while you’re there.
 
Here’s the literal truth.  One of you will point it out anyway.  To say the criminal ‘nailed’ himself, that is, arrested himself, doesn’t make sense. To begin with, in this case no crime was committed before he literally nailed himself.  Ergo, no criminal, ergo, no arrest.  The artist only became a criminal once he had nailed himself in the cobblers. Cobbles that should read.  Who copy-edited this?  The police don’t normally arrest people before a crime has been committed, not this sort of crime.  He wasn’t plotting an attack on the Kremlin, not with a hammer.  And you can’t arrest yourself, can you?  Civic-minded criminals just hand themselves in – which brings me to my next pun.
 
The hammer and no sickle affair isn’t the only embarrassment of late for those whose job it is to handle extremities.  The press have taken up another artist and his physical integrity, Karipbek Kuyukov, and some different dangly things.  He was born without arms.  He was also denied a visa to enter the UK.

Handy publicity for the government, especially now that they’ve approved the building of a nuclear power station.  In the old Soviet Union, the Kuyukovs lived next to the main nuclear testing ground.  Karipbek was due to attend an anti-nuclear conference in Scotland.  After twenty years of campaigning, he must be an old hand at such events.

The excuse from the British Consulate in Istanbul, where he handed in his visa application: his “biometrics were of poor quality.”  Fingerprints blurred again?  Someone there needs glasses, because he made it clear on the form that he hasn’t got hands.  Just as well our failed visa applicant was not caught sneaking in through Dover, hanging on, somehow, beneath a lorry.  The bobbies wouldn’t have known where to slap the cuffs.  ’E looks ’armless to me.  (It must be on the net.  Let me know.)

Kuyukov holds the brush between his toes.  He also employs his mouth.  He is very skilled.  Most people use a hand if they are able.  But to judge from their work, a number of fully-equipped artists put their paintbrush somewhere else altogether.  I shouldn’t comment, though.  I don’t know enough about art.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

What we think is strange

Foreigners do funny things, or don’t do everything that we do.

The North Koreans have their silent football matches. Spectators are not just silent, though. They’re motionless, as if their photograph is being taken.  Perhaps it is.  In the UK, crowds are monitored every week at every football ground.  Looking for hooligans.  But the BBC thought we’d find silent football strange, so they gave us a report about it on their website at the end of July, the heart of the football season in Panmunjom. 

I’m trying to guess the atmosphere inside a North Korean stadium.  Something like an art gallery or museum over here.  One lustreless nanny state will resemble another.  We just venerate our icons in different ways.  Men in shorts, I mean.  I’m not suggesting that visitors to art galleries in Pyongyang throw toilet rolls at the paintings or scream abuse at officials.  That would be fun to watch, of course.

Englishmen do funny things too.  When we listen to the news, we entertain ourselves by holding other people up to ridicule.  Some people make this pretty easy for us. Like the fellow in the Midlands who picked up a prostitute once too often.  Not the same one, mind.  Caught by police withdrawing £20 from a cash machine, he said that the colourful lady in the back of his car was showing him where to buy tomatoes.  He had to say something.  He was embarrassed.  But he just made it worse.  Woman on back seat.  £20 for tomatoes.  It didn’t add up. 

£20 for a woman doesn’t add up either. 

When we see the news, we want some colour.  The cash/car/coquette report included a generic photograph of boxed tomatoes.  This is strange.  We all know what these plump, red-faced little things look like.   Most of us have had the pleasure.  If we needed an illustration, why not show a tubful of prostitutes? 

There was more, juicy tattle a few days ago.  The police were at the centre of this mess, too.  Revellers dressed as comic-book heroes nailed a fugitive.  Happy tweets emerged from local police stations about the incident, which had ended up in a supermarket.

"Thank you to Batman, Robin, Robin's Dad, a Smurf, and the Hoff for helping us on Friday night.  Sorry about the toilet roll aisle."

"Robin assaulted, police called, collective assisted our foot chase, minor upset to shelving during arrest.  You couldn't script it!"

Is a new craze sweeping the precincts?  It’s not all film noir, obviously. 

Robin was the victim, not Batman, or one of the others, not even the Smurf.  That’s not strange, really.  He does get a bad press.  It’s always ‘Batman and Robin,’ never ‘Robin and Batman.’  The lad is a pinch precious.  A pedestrian probably thought he was asking for it.

It was all very entertaining.  A few punches, a pursuit, men in tights.  The cops may giggle at the irony, but if no one had dressed up in the first place, there would probably have been no crime. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

For our tutorial next week, bring along tireless:, or Style and Tone in Graham Spaid

I have a science degree in Zoology. I am also taking a degree in English Literature. I am 53 years old. At three o'clock last night I finished my dissertation on the godawful Duchess of Malfi. 

I'm sorry Graham but I didn't like your book and as to why I will relate here. I found the book confusing and at times garbled. This was due to the poor use of quotation marks; they were either missing or placed at the beginning of speech and then not added to the end of the speech or vice versa. Also the sentence structure, syntax and grammar was poor.
When relating a story by Jim you place this all to often in first person rather than second person.
Other notes I made are as follows,

- When you wrote of the fellow falling off the bus you wrote, "like a sheep crook or something had hooked his collar from behind and just jerked him off. (Aside: No Pun intended...)." For there to be a pun there has to be context somewhere in the previous sentence/s, there is none. "jerked him off" is certainly a double entrende but not a pun. Also the "or something" is superfluous.
- You write, "Jim made a gesture like d'Artagnan sweeping of his hat before the King of France." Firstly, how could Jim make this gesture when the bus was 'packed' according to what you wrote earlier in the chapter? Secondly, the gesture would be meaningless in India. Thirdly, the simile is too verbose.
- "A tiny wing of panic lifted up inside me, then was still. (My metaphor). There is no metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common. 
- "pulled down an old shed which, like Tintern Abbey, was a pleasant ruin." Another poor simile. How could one compare a 12thC abbey to a garden shed. They are both ruins but that is as far as any comparison can go.
- You wrote, "I pulled a genuine shiny guffaw out of the box but stopped like finding out a gift is faulty and has been recalled." Another poor simile that doesn't make sense.
- "Every child in the class put up their hand without exception, including those at the table where I had just been sitting." The last part of this sentence is unnecessary. The words "without exception" means all inclusive. So, mentioning that other pupils are included in the action of raising their arms is unnecessary.
- "When I look at Olga, something moves inside me like a continent." So that movement inside you is imperceptible. Continents move so slowly to be imperceptible.
- "I won't get much sleep now", he predicted, rather optimistically." This should be pessimistically as the sentence relates to a negative.
- "the python, which was robustly, and, I hoped idly waving his ends around. 'Robustly' and 'idly' are contradictions in terms. Also, how did you know the sex of the animal? 

There are many, many more but I feel my points have been made. Sorry, to write so pessimistically but I always believe in being honest. I won't write a review on my blog, or Amazon or Goodreads.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Counting candles back from zero

“They won’t understand that.”  It just slipped out.  It can happen in the morning.  My morning.  Too much coffee for breakfast, a sweaty train ride, and then a crackpot lesson plan, all pushed under my nose, one after the other.  

The young teacher tightened her jaw.  “I want them to do it.”  Did that mean, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the plan.  You have low expectations of the children, that’s all’?  Did it mean, ‘You think I’m stupid because I didn’t know it was too hard’?  Or, ‘I know it’s too hard.  I don’t make the plans.  I’m surprised you didn’t work that out for yourself’?

Year 3 in October.  The little creatures have just crawled out of Year 2.  They are scarcely evolved.  The History lesson today was based around a timeline for the Olympic Games.  There was a slideshow on the interactive whiteboard.  The first screen showed a horizontal line packed with illustrations, starting at 776BC and ending at 2012AD, with baby Jesus smack in the middle, away in His manger, fully-clothed. 

Teacher told me that the children needed to get the hang of the BC/AD business.  While she was at her computer, I glanced through the rest of the plan and saw that one document had BC/AD, another BCE/CE, for the same lesson.  “I don’t want to be annoying….”  This was not completely true.  I pointed out the discrepancy.  She said that the children wouldn’t notice.  I happily agreed.  If you can’t see the elephant, you won’t observe its ears.  She had given me something clever at last.  But it also implied that she knew the work was too hard.

She doesn’t make the plans.  At the start, she could have said, “They have to do it,” instead of “I want them to.”  But she wished to appear in charge.  When you’re in charge, you get the blame if things go wrong.  And if she’d admitted that the plan was too hard, she would have had to modify it.  That’s what good teachers do.  However, it was her morning out of class.  She had other lessons to prepare. 

The bell went, its clarity and purpose like a metaphor.  The children filed in.  They seemed to know what Olympic Games were.  Baby Jesus was a masterstroke.  We, the seven-year-olds and I, could now avoid the messy bits, the origins of the Western Calendar, the maths involved in counting back from zero, that sort of thing.  The timeline was a javelin of light into the past.  The inclusion, far left, of a row of pillars even meant that Ancient Greece was clear.  The classroom assistant volunteered that AD came from Latin.  Every face was glowing. 

He might as well have said Luton.  I was monitoring the children’s learning.  It’s something else good teachers have to do.  Time and Space, two cheeky ones, were acting up again.  One child thought that Greece was part of London.  Somebody said that Christ was born 12,000 years ago.  Another boy could not tell me his own birthday.  

Friday, 25 October 2013

Don’t let me bore you

At present there is just one man I allow near my teeth.  I won’t give his name.  He’s from South Africa.  A dentist of Boer extraction.  A likeable man.  Very patient-savvy.  He is also a skilled hyperbolist.  “You need a crown there.”  And, “You’ll need a crown there sooner or later,” adding, like auto-correct, “Sooner than later.” 

A visit to him usually involves pretence.  To protect my jaw, I have ready a gleaming row of white lies.  Like I now live abroad and am just here on holiday, a very short holiday, not long enough, unfortunately, for him to prepare, fit and provide after-care for a new crown.  

He has his own tray of professional tricks.  When I refuse the crown, he plays Marc Antony to my Caesar.  Then he offered it to him again, then he put it by again.  His repertoire includes an old favourite.  Before any complex treatment, he will talk down the chances of success.  A lot of dentists do that.  They’re a pessimistic crew.  

I’ve had a lot of dentists.  There was Dr Fang once.  Don’t laugh.  Long, white-haired Dr Fang.  I mean his hair was long.  He himself had no length to speak of.  I saw him in his Taipei shop, I mean surgery.  Next to the butcher’s. (Difficult paragraph, eh?)  It was just before Christmas.  When I think about that one visit, as I do quite often, I picture him sitting with his metal instruments, a row of nasty, sharp-nosed, little things, like toddlers queuing up for Santa.

In Adelaide, there was Dr Suave.  I’ve altered the surname slightly.  He made alterations to me.  I went to him several times in the 1980s.  He was the first of my tooth men to propose a crown. But I was leaving the country two days later – really – so he had to settle for a giant, leaden filling. How easily a life-long deception is born from one, convenient truth!  This filling, which he said could drop out at any moment, lasted thirty years, longer, in fact, than he did.  Don't laugh.

And Dr Thingy of Upminster, whose name I don’t remember.  (They’re all out of order, too.)  I sliced through a front tooth years ago, a corn chip bitten badly, and have been patching it up ever since.  Now there was an ugly gap again, not a good time to put off a crown.  Dr Thingy did one for me, half-price.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps he thought I was poor.  Perhaps I was.  I didn’t ask him for a discount.  You don’t haggle with a dentist over his fee.  I just found the meagre total on the bill. 

‘Twas not a crown neither, ‘twas one of these coronets.  It fell out a few weeks later.  It abdicated.  Now you can laugh.

Dr Thingy winced from time to time, doing the budget crown, as if he suffered from some inner pain.  I was fine.  I don’t know if he saw the irony.  He retired from his dental practice after finishing my treatment.  Again, I don’t know why.  It was probably just a coincidence.

Although there are several question marks over this man, I do know that I could make him angry.  I seem to annoy certain people without even trying.  Sometimes just by sitting in a chair.  The crown was a bit high.  At the follow-up appointment, I told him he had missed it.  The good Doctor winced and gave the old excuse.  The winces were like drawing pins, pressing down something inside.  His nurse looked aghast.  I hope he wasn’t too hard on her after I'd gone.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Letter for a friend

I didn't see Bryan's grave.  There isn’t one.  He was cremated.  His Greek relatives showed me a box with his ashes.  A cardboard box, in their living room, parked by a wall.  It’s not something you want to trip on.  I asked them not to unpack the urn.  

Cremation is legal now in Greece, but there’s still nowhere to do it.  So he went to Bulgaria instead, one last spin across the border.  His wife had gone there, too, a year before.  Bryan scattered her ashes in the Aegean.  Her family said they’d do the same for him.  Cremation’s fine, but packed off to Bulgaria in a mobile fridge, and sent back in a box with labels on?

I’d gone to see Bryan a few weeks earlier.  I hadn’t seen him for nineteen years.  I didn’t see him even then.  He died four hours before I got there. 

The in-laws over with, I had some ouzo and olives in a taverna near his home.  Then I went to the cemetery anyway.  The ‘protestant’ one, for foreigners.  Bryan took me, years ago, to show me where he'd be.  Or thought he’d be.  I can’t remember if he said as much.  The cemetery is tiny. Finding a grave would not be hard.  There is empty ground.  I suppose if you had a choice, Salonica is not a place you'd stay forever, if you weren’t born there.

                Protestant cemetery, Salonica

           I brought back to England some pies baked that morning, in flaky pastry, and some old-fashioned sweets, and a bigger, stronger and cheaper bottle of ouzo than you can find over here.  I also brought back some of Bryan's old maps, which I knew he’d want me to have.  The old camera I was looking for, the Leica, was not in its case.  I chose another – there were several – and placed it on the sofa next to me, along with my other pickings.  

Brother-in-law said it belonged to his father.  I was making mistakes like that.  The first time I saw him, I called him Bryan when Bryan was dead.  Dead just a few hours, but dead all the same.  I came into the room.  He was sitting in front of an open window, with the sky behind him, and in the whiteness I couldn’t see his face.

After the cemetery, I walked down the hill to the waterfront.  Bryan's apartment lay around the harbour.  It was sunset.  I looked over to the white, Venetian tower which dominates that corner of the bay, when a dark figure slipped across the parapet onto the roof, and disappeared.  Seconds later, the flag was whisking down, and through the castellation I could make out two men performing their little ceremony.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

When Scotland’s independent

There’s a play by Shakespeare, his shortest tragedy, just a brief yarn for those who lack patience, all about quick promotion.  He had to make a living like everyone else.  We have to hold down a job.  Nowadays, to help employees bond, a paintballing session might be arranged.  The boss won’t normally hand out tickets to a play, not this one, anyway. 

In the theatre business, nobody ever refers to it by name.  It’s the Scottish Play.  You must know this already.  There’s a curse.  The witches, I suppose.  You’re dead if you type the word Macbeth.  

Are you still there?

Superstition, like nothing else, makes us careful.  You don’t want to spoil your own chances.  A wily ship’s cook won’t take a sieve on board.  But superstition can kill you, too.  You step off the footpath to avoid a ladder, and get hit by a bus.

However careful we are, the forest eventually catches up with us.  Michael Moore has just been sacked from his post as Scottish Secretary, I mean the Scottish Job.  Alistair Carmichael has got the poison haggis.


What will happen when the Scots are free

·         Glasgow will be officially foreign
·         The land border will make invasion simpler
·         Some unemployed foreign builders will be able to go home on foot
·         Fried Mars bars will become a European delicacy
·         Carol Ann Duffy will lose her job as Poet Laureate
·         Simon Armitage will replace her, so you won't see any difference
·        Andy Murray will still be the closest thing the English have to a tennis champion

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Lucky nappies

I was working in a primary school when England lost a World Cup football match.  The children were miserable.  A teacher told them that they shouldn’t feel sad for themselves, but happy for all the children in Brazil.  They stared at her.   Maybe it was just me, but they didn’t seem to feel much better.  I suppose it’s not easy to imagine people on the other side of the world, or the other side of your own city, if you’ve hardly travelled three miles from home.  As to understanding how others feel, can you do it with the person next to you? 

The teacher meant well.  It was an ad hoc lesson in empathy.  It might have worked if she’d empathised with the children in front of her.  Teachers tend to come up with this line: the most important thing is not to win, but to participate.  Children don’t take this seriously.  All around them they see the emphasis which is placed on winning.  They know it’s the most important thing.  They can feel it.

The best way to deal with failure is to try to avoid it in the first place.  At school or university, if you’re not very clever or don’t want to waste time studying, there are still things you can do.  We heard this year that one in three students wears lucky exam underwear.  Think about that for a moment.  Lucky exam underwear.  One in three.  Surely, of all the articles of clothing worn by a human being, underwear is the most unlucky, at least from the clothing’s point of view.  Even socks, even my own socks, can’t feel so bad. 

For most of us, exam day is the worst day of the year.  We need to prepare for our biggest test.  Exam tips have always been popular, and we got them again this year – take a spare pen, for example.  Although this advice came from a pen manufacturer, it was still good.  We were told about the “stomach-churning angst” of exam day, and heard how over half of all candidates change their diet just before exams, gorging themselves on oily fish and fruit.  It’s not surprising, then, about the stomach.  Do take an extra pen, but nervous students might also need a change of lucky underwear. 

Of course, stress begins long before the first exam.  Nursery teachers in the UK are complaining that more and more children have to be toilet trained when they start school.  That’s right, four-year-olds.  While most parents are relieved to get the little beasties off their hands, so to speak, mothers still proudly pack their children off to school.  They still say things like: “Not too tight, is it, darling?”  Once they meant Jonny’s belt or Jenny’s shoe.  Now they’re pinning on a nappy.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Concerning the poet who was short-listed for a prize, then exposed as a plagiarist, but who might have escaped humiliation if he had discussed it with his mother before she developed Alzheimer’s

You probably skipped this news report.  It’s about poetry. CJ Allen once copied from another poet and has had to withdraw from the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize.  In case we’ve forgotten what paperbacks look like, there's a photograph inside a bookshop.  A woman is facing the shelves.  No men around.  I can’t read the titles, but they won’t be poetry.  Poetry sections aren’t so crammed, and we prefer to browse detective fiction.  If she’s put something under her coat, or in that bulging bag of hers, I hope she remembers to pay.  We all know it’s wrong to steal.

Matthew Welton was the poet-victim.  He found out that Allen had pilfered his work.  Poets, by definition, read poetry, if only their own.  But Welton isn't just a poet.  He’s a literary Poirot.  Hearing Allen read some poems at a public event, Monsieur Welton recognised the words, and bought his rival’s books to check for plagiarism.  It was plentiful.

Poets have a special interest in poetry.  If the sole reason they buy it is to confirm  plagiarism, you can't expect the public to be queuing at the till.  There is one happy note.  When Allen viewed his royalty report and saw these sales appear, he must have felt the thrill which every author feels.

Prizes can raise a writer’s profile and increase sales.  Allen’s profile has certainly been raised.  We may as well believe him when he says his Forward poem is original.  The title must be his for a start: Explaining the Plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s.  You couldn’t copy it inadvertently, and you would never do it on purpose.

Poets are entitled to make mistakes, short of stealing other people’s work.  Note the missing comma in the Blade Runner title, before who, a slip which reveals that Allen has at least two mothers, one of whom has Alzheimer’s and one of whom has not, and probably hundreds more, matrons who replicate in perfect shape, but then decline, sniff once a year, or promptly pass away. 

The poem is not bad.  Two or three lines need cutting where he explains too much, but the informal style, the teasing, yet compassionate tone, and the coping-with-a-sick-parent theme are all in vogue at the moment.  Long titles are also fashionable.  I’m thinking of the recent, best-selling novel, The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared.  CJ Allen, the less-than-a-hundred-year-old man, whose exact age I don’t know because he’s not in Wikipedia, who pulled out of the prize and disappeared, must have thought he’d done everything right: ‘I didn’t copy this time, I thought up a long-winded title and I got some comments from Mum (the Alzheimer’s one).’ 

But he was shot down all the same.  He might just as well have called it: Explaining the plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my mother who has Alzheimer’s, which she hasn’t always had, not when I was cribbing from Welton and she pretended not to notice, just waited for me to crucify myself.

Once upon a time we were convinced that short titles and long texts were more likely to sell.  But poets are a perverse lot.  Item: Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798, and Resolving to Leave Dorothy at Home in Future. Today we have CJ Allen, whose near-prize experience has yielded fewer than twenty lines and boasts a healthy title that can stand on its own eighteen feet like an opening verse.

CJ’s poem has received several ‘likes’ on the apoemaday website.  At first, I thought this was a laxative.  It's not just name.  Read the poetry.  Glance through the comments which readers have left, and you’ll find plenty of references to physical exertion, coitus, for example, and reproductive organs in the mouth, usually a male organ, and one mouth in particular.  I wonder what the others are saying, the people who don’t like the poem.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Good friends and laughter

I cracked open a fortune cookie last night and read what was on the little slip of paper: You will soon be surrounded by good friends and laughter.  But my friends?  And what will they be laughing at? 

I could do with some good news.  The press have got it in for private tutors – only the well-off can afford this luxury, we now realise – just like they had it in for supply teachers.  Which means they’ve got it in for me again.   Remember the horror stories?  The supply teacher who couldn’t speak English, although no one tumbled to it till lunch time.  Or the chap who left his class to take a call on his mobile phone.  While he was chatting outside, a child set the room on fire. 

I agree to teach Maths to Year 10.  I walk in.  I know the class already.  Charlotte is standing on a desk in the middle of the room, high enough to show the contents of her little skirt, surrounded by good friends and laughter.  It isn’t even her desk.  I write the lesson objective on the board.  A couple of children start work.  There's a break in the noise.  Charlotte calls out: “Do you want to fuck me, sir?”

She always calls me sir.                                                                                       

“Charlotte, that’s worse than anything Tommy said.” 

It was true.  Earlier on, he had thwacked an unpretentious “Wanna shag Charlotte?” at me from his bunker by the window.  No warning, just instinct.  When his twang got no reply, he reflected for a minute or two, then improved the offer: “Would you like to have sexual intercourse with Charlotte?”  

As Tommy reached the words “sexual intercourse,” he slowed down and pushed his lips out in a rubbery, suggestive way.  He never called me sir.  I gave his skill in English some ironic praise. 

There was one more lesson with that class.  I didn’t know it was the last.  Charlotte asked me when my birthday was.  I said I wanted a card, although the big day was not for several months.  She tore a piece of lined paper out of a notebook and did a sketch of herself with stick limbs and Goldilocks hair, with a generous salutation.  She handed it to me.  I glanced at the picture and pointed out that she had skinny legs.  She was a bit deflated.  I still have the card, preserved in a folder along with other important school documents, like the written apology from Sammi-Jo: ‘I’m sorry for being a pian in the backside’ and the huge, anonymous heart with a sword driven through it to the hilt.

There’s a lull.  I sit down and close my eyes. Only for a moment.  Something hits me on the right ear.  A screwed-up ball of paper.  I toss it away.  I’m in the staffroom. Surrounded by good friends and laughter.