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.