The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A girl called Gherkin

“The daughter’s name is Gherkin.” 

That’s what I thought they said.  The tuition agency was offering me a job.  The girl's name was Gurkiran, but it came out pickled cucumber on the phone.  

Teachers get things wrong.  A Year 6 class was doing some work on London landmarks.  The Tower of London, Big Ben, the usual monuments.  The Gherkin was also on the list.  Again, not the real name.  If you don’t know this building, the nickname gives some clues about its shape and colour, although the classic vegetable won’t stand up on its end.

The regular teacher, another classic vegetable, had been joking about the Gherkin with her class.  It was obvious from the notes on the board.  They’d had a brainstorming session.  The names of certain monuments were there, in random places.  Each name was in a box shaped like a potato, with little lines sticking out like toothpicks, and words or phrases which the children had supplied.  There was nothing negative until it came to Gherkin, which had things like ‘silly’ and ‘awful’ labelled on it.

The Tower of London is not very funny.  Someone might think it was, but they’d keep it to themselves.  The Gherkin is different.  It hasn’t been around so long.  It must be a silly building because it’s got a silly name.  So much for new perspectives in architecture.  

Words, like buildings, come in and out of fashion.  We no longer have brainstorms, do we, or spider diagrams?   We have the mind map.  It's meant to be inspiring, or at least not so scary.  I said ‘meant to be.’  You wouldn’t want a map of what’s in my head.  We can’t stop our thoughts, but we can clean up what we say.  You know the examples.  People are enabled now, not disabled, let alone crippled. 

The words are new, but the ideas aren’t.  Children still do their brainstorms like clouds, with little lines that stick out round the edge.  One class was doing the London Blitz.  I was monitoring their work, peering over shoulders in my irritating way.

The session was almost finished.  One boy had only done the outline of his cloud.  He hadn’t even written The Blitz inside.  It was on white paper.  The cloud was horizontal, plump and fluffy, too fluffy, even for a child's cloud.  In a pleasant voice,  I said it looked like a sheep.  Then, as there were no lines poking out, I said it looked like a legless sheep, and pressed home quickly with: “You’ve drawn a disabled sheep!”

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Dead Dave

Expat parties in Salonica were, and probably still are, the kind you tolerate for a while, until the boys start throwing beer at one other.  My memories of Dead Dave come from a single night, and I was drinking too, so I could be wrong.  But I don’t think I am.

There were two Daves.  I only remember Dead Dave.  A wag found the right word to put before his name, something which was cruel, but funny, as cruel things often are, one which summed him up like a character in a play, alliterating, with a metaphor.  It wouldn’t have worked with Jack or Sidney. The Dead bit made us laugh, and it distinguished him from the other Dave, who must have been a bubblier sort.  The name was perfect, but no one said it to his face.  He was big.  

Looking back, the party that night was like Weekend at Bernie's.  Remember the film?  The Italian name is better, Weekend con il mortoDead Dave was fascinating the way a corpse is fascinating.  If you could, you’d have the body taken away.  Meanwhile, you can’t forget it’s there.   Your eyes keep travelling back, although you don’t speak to it.  No one spoke to Dead Dave.  People must have given up trying.  As far as I could see, he didn’t talk, or even move a lot.  He did lift his glass of beer, and he did put his arm around a Greek girl, ignoring all the English ones, who weren’t so delicate, but only when she came close enough – quite often, actually – because, like Bernie, he never left his chair. 

The Greek girl, I don’t recall her name, wore tight, black leather and rode a motorbike.  She had a boyish figure and a big, powerful bike.  An English girl told me that she couldn’t pick it up if it fell over, implying that she wasn’t just weak, but stupid, too.  I remember seeing her once, next to the bike when it had toppled over.  She was waiting for someone to pick it up.  It looked as if it didn’t belong to her. 

I asked her for some Greek lessons, just conversation.  Sunday morning, I knocked.  She had forgotten, and slept in, but not by herself.  Whoever was in the next room, it wasn’t Dead Dave.  A Greek was in her bed, parroting my pronunciation.  Dead Dave didn’t laugh like that.  Dead Dave didn’t laugh. Prised away from one boy, she had simply found another.  I had to pay to talk.  The boys made love for free.

At first, the mocking noises made her frown, but then she smiled, as if she had remembered something.  The boy was cheeky.  The boy was confident.  I pictured him on the bed.  It wasn’t hard, to picture him, I mean.  I never felt the bed.  He wasn’t as dull, and he wasn’t as heavy, as Dead Dave was.  She had pushed him off, at least.  Try doing that to your Dead Dave, or your dead motorbike.  

Dead Dave.  It would have been an English girl who first called him that.

My tutor handed me a graphic novel, an erotic one, with big willies.  She laughed and said she liked them, the novels, I mean.  I pictured her in bed as well.  To teach in, she had put a bathrobe on, something thin that fell down to the knee.  In leather, she was delicate.  She was even more delicate now.  I looked for signs.  Her hair was slightly messed, but sometimes mine is too.  It doesn’t mean a Greek boy has been lying on top of me.  They were sleeping when I knocked.  You can’t make love forever.  You can’t keep the world at bay for very long at all.  

Sunday, 14 December 2014

I nearly wrote the phrase ‘thick with sleep’

I nearly wrote the phrase thick with sleep, but it came into my head too easily.  It must have been used before.  I did a Google search, and this came up, by an author rated in the book clubs:
‘At night, the house thick with sleep, she would peer out her bedroom window at the trees and sky and feel the presence of a mystery.’
It’s going to be a thriller, you can feel it.  The tickle of mystery will turn into assault, but, for the moment, you’re safe and warm.  The style is reassuring – the clichés and the flat rhythm.  There’s a good read here, you won’t be too surprised, or too upset, and you’ll be home safe and warm at the end. 
She peered out.  A woman’s point of view, and they don’t like everything.  I was sitting in the staff room at the girls’ school.  Some teachers were discussing Fifty Shades of Grey.  A young lady said it was demeaning to women, and not well-written. I’ve read enough to know that men are in it, too.  You could just as well say it was demeaning to them, or to no one.  Whether it’s well-written, how many books are?
After lunch, an even younger lady opened the book in front of me.  Year 10 Science.  Fifty Shades of Grey.  I couldn’t say no.  She had finished her work.  She wasn’t a bad girl, like those who sit on the classroom floor, smoke e-cigarettes, and don’t read at all.  I took the book from her, quite casually, looked at the page she was reading, then gave it back.  I said it was Harry Potter for adults.  She disagreed.  I meant how the volume felt in my hand, plump and shiny.  Other girls had copies, too, or a different book in the series, on the desk beside them, or in their bags.  They were doing the classwork first. 
Good girls do what Sir says.  An academic recently complained that calling teachers Sir or Miss is “depressing, sexist and gives women in schools a lower status than their male counterparts.”  The BBC quoted: ‘Sir is a knight... but Miss is ridiculous - it doesn't match Sir at all.’
In the classroom it does.  A word can have more than one meaning, and context will determine which.  In the classroom, Sir is not a knight, and Miss is not ridiculous.  I have taught in schools where the children use Sir and Madam, like a formal letter.  It’s so equal it hurts.  Let Miss teach; let her run her school, and Madam run her brothel. 
We can’t say Headmistress, either.  It means ‘top lover,’ from the male point of view.  I still prefer Miss.  Your Mrs isn’t usually your lover.  We need to look at menopause, and the expression Oh boy!  But there’s one more problem.  We can’t fix everything.  There aren’t enough words to go round.  
For some of us, there are still too many pronouns.  She peered out.  Or he, or it.  In a book club interview, a writer explained why she used the pronoun she for both male and female characters.  She had tried using he for everybody, but ‘it reinforced the idea of a masculine default, and did nothing at all to make the world seem gender-neutral or uncaring about gender.’
So she replaced one gender pronoun with another.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

THE AUTHORS! In an adventure with TEACHERS

You know the expression Children should be seen and not heard.  Well, writers should be read and not seen; some, not even read. 

It’s very common here for children's authors to visit primary schools.  They come to do a 'workshop' with a class or two, and put a story together.  It's meant to inspire the children to write.  It's really just a marketing trick, part of their contract with the publisher.  After school, they try to sell their books.  I remember one author.  He was sitting in the corner of an empty hall, behind his stacks of unwanted titles, like a failed book-signing. 

One day, I got my own author.  I’d never heard of him and I don’t remember his name.  He was middle-aged.  He'd set his books up on the teacher’s desk.  They were tempting.  Each cover had a different candy colour.  He was waiting next to them.

“Hello.  Sorry we’re late,” I said brightly.  No answer.  The Year 4s filed in.  “I’m not the normal teacher.  I do supply.”  No answer either.  Our champion of literacy, if not the spoken word, surveyed the children, who had sat down on the carpet.  Their questions were predictable, but – and I digress – he wasn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury, the one with the eyebrows, who once came to a school where I was working.  After each commonplace question, the churchman paused gravely as if it was something he needed to think about.  You could almost hear him count to five.  Our author didn’t have that sort of patience, or that dignity.  He had the look, rather, of a man who wished he was somewhere else.

“How many books have you written?”

“Around twenty, but they weren’t all published.  Some are better than others.  My publisher only picks the best ones.”

I wanted to put my hand up.  I wanted to ask him what he meant by ‘best.’  Ideas?  Writing style?  Earning potential?  He didn’t say it, but he let the children think, as everybody thinks, that the best books are always published. 

The workshop began.  It produced all the clichés in children’s fiction – except the fat boy with glasses.  The author suggested a girl who didn’t like sport, but, in general, he let convention lie.  Soon, the children wished they were somewhere else as well.     

If you’re a child and you want to get out of a classroom, there are lots of excuses you can make.  The toilet, or you feel sick, have been injured, or need to fill your water bottle, find your jumper in the playground, or give something to someone in another class.  I usually say no, it’s wasting time, but today the reasons all seemed genuine.  As one child after another raised their little hand, I allowed each one to go.  Others, I evicted.  Fooling around again.  Meanwhile, our hero did his workshop, or tried toNo more distractions now. 

He read out a passage from one of his books.  Some boys, aged nine, were talking about their day at school: “He's a supply teacher, and you know what they’re like.” 

Hardly the words of a nine-year-old.  Of all the middle-aged dialogues in all the pretty books in his display, he had chosen this one.  Unless he improvised.

A girl I'd just punished turned to me and grinned.  Revenge can be very sweet.