|Posted on June 21, 2016 at 3:20 AM|
la importancia del aprendizaje de idiomas
desplazarse a español
One of our teachers at school, Mr O’leary, loved to tell us how his particular subject was more important than any of the others we were studying. Amusingly, he taught Spanish, and we were having none of his unwarranted hubris. It’s a sure sign that karma is alive and well in this world that several decades later I found myself living in Spain with a less than adequate grasp of the language. Si sólo hubiera escuchado. I should indeed have listened.
I remember that this outrageous pimping of what we considered to be one of the least relevant subjects in the curriculum prompted us as a class to challenge each of our other teachers in turn to tell us why they thought their subjects were the most important. Well, not all of them. Some teachers gave off such an air of #dontfuckwithme you’d no sooner ask them a left field question than you’d offer them a cigarette behind the gym block. The others? Well, most gave the routine and predictable declarations we kind of expected. “If you don’t understand physics then you can’t understand how the world works”; “ learning about religious values prepares you spiritually for life”; “without mathematics you won’t get very far in the future” etc etc. We had no idea if they actually believed the guff they spouted, but we supposed that they did.
No, only one teacher floored us with his answer. Mr Phillips taught history. He was a psychopath, one of those softly spoken undemonstrative types, but an unhinged lunatic nonetheless, and I’d wrongly imagined he was the last teacher anyone would dream of throwing a playful question at. But someone amongst us had. There was an involuntary and collective intake of breath as we waited for the inevitable punitive outcome, possibly three weeks detention or a mass strapping of the entire class (corporal punishment and Mr Phillips were well acquainted). He stopped his normally endless pacing about the classroom and we all watched the replay of our short lives flash before us. “Well, what do we learn from history?” he barely whispered back at us, staring at the floor (he never allowed eye contact) and clearly revelling in this golden opportunity to impress a group of terrified 12 year-olds. After a moment of pause, he supplied the answer, “we learn nothing from history”, and left it at that. We were dumbfounded, though none of us was remotely brave enough to ask him to elaborate. We were more than happy he hadn’t murdered anyone.
Of course Mr Phillips knew that over the coming years the hard knocks of life would make the truth of his statement abundantly clear. And they did, oh yeah they did.
And in fairness to Mr O’leary, the man who had unwittingly started it all, he had been taking a wider view of language learning, perhaps with a portentous eye on a shrinking world and the forthcoming information revolution. It wasn’t a preposterous bigging-up of Spanish per se, but more an impassioned plea for us to take seriously the notion that nothing in life was ever going to be more important to us than learning how to communicate with our fellow man.
Those teachers who taught me my maths, chemistry, English, physics, geography and biology were far more engaging and likeable characters than Mr O’leary and Mr Phillips ever were. Yet they are the two guys who left me the most profound insights to life. I know it’s a little late but as I embark on a tour of Spain that will encompass a fair bit of history and (still) inadequate communication skills, I doff my cap to them.
Uno de nuestros maestros en la escuela, el Sr. O'Leary, querido decirnos cómo su asignatura en particular era más importante que cualquiera de los otros que estábamos estudiando. Sorprendentemente, fue profesor de español, y estábamos teniendo nada de su arrogancia injustificada. Es una señal segura de que el karma está vivo y bien en este mundo que varias décadas más tarde me encontré viviendo en España con una comprensión menos adecuado de la lengua. Si sólo hubiera escuchado. Yo a la verdad debería haber escuchado.
Recuerdo que este escandalosa proxenetismo de lo que nosotros consideramos ser uno de los temas menos relevantes en el plan de estudios nos llevó como una clase para desafiar a cada uno de nuestros otros profesores a su vez para decirnos por qué pensaban que sus sujetos eran los más importantes. Bueno, no todos ellos. Algunos maestros daban un aire de #nomejodas. Pedir a una pregunta de campo izquierdo que sería el mismo que les ofrece un cigarrillo detrás de la gimnasia. ¿Los demás? Bueno, la mayoría dio las declaraciones rutinarias y predecibles que tipo de esperábamos. "Si usted no entiende la física, entonces no puede entender cómo funciona el mundo"; "Aprender acerca de los valores religiosos se prepara espiritualmente para la vida"; "Sin las matemáticas no llegará muy lejos en el futuro", etc. Nos no tenía idea de si realmente ellos creían el impertinencias que ellos dijeron, pero suponíamos que lo hicieron.
No, sólo uno maestro nos derribó con su respuesta. Sr. Phillips enseñó la historia. Él era un psicópata, uno de esos tipos pocos efusivo, voz suave, pero un loco desquiciado, no obstante, y me imaginaba erróneamente que era el último maestro a nadie se le ocurriría lanzar una pregunta lúdica. Pero alguien entre nosotros hizo. Hubo una ingesta involuntaria y colectiva de la respiración mientras esperábamos el resultado inevitable de castigo, posiblemente tres semanas de detención o una flejes masa de la clase entera (el castigo corporal y el Sr. Phillips estaban bien familiarizados). Se detuvo a su ritmo normal sin fin sobre la clase y todos vieron la repetición de nuestras vidas cortas flash antes de nosotros. "Bueno, ¿qué podemos aprender de la historia?" Apenas un susurro a nosotros, mirando al suelo (nunca permitió que el contacto visual) y deleitando claramente en esta oportunidad de oro para impresionar a un grupo de aterrorizados 12 años de edad. Después de un momento de pausa, dio la respuesta, "aprendemos nada de la historia", y lo dejó así. Nos quedamos sin habla, aunque ninguno de nosotros teníamos suficiente valor para pedirle a elaborar. Nos quedamos más que satisfechos él no había matado a nadie.
Por supuesto Sr. Phillips sabía que en los próximos años los golpes duros de la vida harían que la verdad de su afirmación muy claro. Y lo hicieron, oh sí, lo hicieron.
Y para ser justos con el Sr. O'Leary, el hombre que tenía, sin saberlo, lo empezó todo, que había estado tomando una visión más amplia del aprendizaje de idiomas, tal vez con un ojo portentosa de un mundo que se encoge y la revolución venidera de la información. No era una promoción absurda de español como tal, sino más bien un apasionado llamamiento para que tomemos en serio la idea de que nada en la vida alguna vez iba a ser más importante para nosotros que aprender a comunicarse con nuestros semejantes.
Aquellos maestros que me enseñaron mi matemáticas, química, Inglés, la física, la geografía y la biología eran mucho más atractivos personajes y agradable que O'Leary y el Sr. Phillips nunca fueron. Sin embargo, son los dos hombres que me dejaron las penetraciones más profundas a la vida. Sé que es un poco tarde, pero como me embarco en una gira por España que abarcará un poco de historia y (todavía) la insuficiencia de la capacidad de comunicación, me quito el sombrero ante ellos.
"Remember the days of the old schoolyard
We used to laugh a lot "
|Posted on June 19, 2016 at 12:45 PM|
desplazarse a español
It's been a while. I see my last blog entry goes back a few years. It's time to blow away the cobwebs and get writing again. It feels like it may be fun again for me. For you, I couldn't possibly say, but you're very welcome to read and comment if you like.
So much has happened to me in recent years. I don't really know where to begin in attempting to recount my adventures. Finishing my book in 2012 seemed to draw a line under a particular period of my life. That person doesn't really exist any more, banished to history along with all those other earlier versions of me.
Moving forward with life is as much about letting go of the past as it is about embracing the new. Memories can serve or destroy you.
I'm not painting any more. I haven't painted for almost a year. And it's ok. There is still a creative force at my fingertips but I don't know yet how I'm going to access it in the future. It's perfectly possible I'll return to the brush and canvas. I just don't know.
In the meantime, 2016 has been another watershed year for all sorts of reasons.
In a day or two I'll begin a tour of Spain, followed by a lengthy trip to the UK. It seems as good a time as any to crank the blog up again.
Ha sido un tiempo. Veo mi último blog de entrada se remonta unos años. Es el momento de limpiar las telarañas y empezar a escribir de nuevo. Se siente como que puede ser divertido para mí. Para ustedes, yo no podría decir, pero ustedes es muy bienvenido a leer y comentar si lo quieren.
Tanto me ha pasado en los últimos años. Realmente no sé por dónde empezar en el intento de recontar mis aventuras. Terminando mi libro en 2012 parecía trazar una línea debajo un período particular de mi vida. Esa persona en realidad no existe más, desterrado a la historia junto con todas esas otras versiones anteriores de mí.
Avanzando en la vida es tanto acerca de dejar atrás el pasado, ya que se trata de abrazar lo nuevo. Los recuerdos pueden servir, ni te destruirá.
No estoy pintando más. No he pintado durante casi un año. Y esta bien. Todavía hay una fuerza creativa en mis manos, pero no sé aún cómo voy a acceder a él en el futuro. Es perfectamente posible que volveré al pincel y el lienzo. Es sólo que no sé.
Mientras tanto, 2016 ha sido otro año decisivo para todos tipos de razones.
En un día o dos voy a comenzar una gira por España, seguido de un largo viaje al Reino Unido. Parece un momento tan bueno como cualquier otro para poner en marcha el blog de nuevo.
|Posted on August 14, 2013 at 10:45 AM|
As the ice caps melt, sea levels rise, and much of the planet's flaura and fauna hurtle towards extinction it seems only the relentless progress of science can save us now. Science, the very thing that got our environment into such a mess in the first place, is still the best bet to finding us a solution, some kind of technological trick to offset a runaway greenhouse gas disaster such as the one that befell the planet Venus.
We certainly can't rely on the good old human heart to do the right thing. Recycling waste and driving a hybrid car isn't going to do anything except salve the odd conscience. Capitalism and market force ideology are so well entrenched that it'll take years to turn around our collective way of thinking. Left unchecked we'll simply carry on burning oil until it runs out, continue chopping down forests til they're all gone, and plough on with concreting over the planet until we run out of, well, planet.
Finding alternative and sustainable energy sources, ways of feeding and watering a growing population, and ways to reverse the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are essential (and note I said 'reverse', not slowing down. Slowing down the rate at which we pump CO2 into the atmosphere is as pointless as turning a running tap down a little bit once you've filled up the bath).
Only in science can we find answers to these symptoms of our greed and short sightedness.
What about art? Well, certainly it holds a mirror to the human condition and can provide a different, and useful perspective on current woes but of itself it's not going to furnish us with any practical ways forward. Religion is patently in over its head. Let the warring tribes intent on suicide bombing one another to gory death go and argue the minor details themselves (but do please leave the rest of us out). If God existed she would surely have shown herself in all her glory by now. I mean, she's had over thirteeen billion years to make a swaggering, unambiguous entrance.
Only geeks can pull us out of the mire. Perhaps as recently as ten years ago the concept of a celebrated, heroic geek community would've seemed a tad unlikely but finally, and thankfully, being a nerd is now cool. And timing dear people, is everything. With more and more kids seeing the study of scientific disciplines as desirable it appears there is hope for the planet after all. Perhaps as I type, a physics student studying at a small provincial university, in a previously unheralded corner of the planet, is just about to stumble upon a neat way to suck all that CO2 out of the air (and give us a chance to screw up the planet a different way).
However, lest you think I have nothing but good things to say on the matter there are areas of science I find, shall we say 'disappointing'. Disappointing in the sense that the hype doesn't match performance.
To that end I'd like to present three areas of scientific study which irritate me enormously:
1. Artifical intelligence and robots
Rubbish, all of it. They've been waffling on about this for years. Computers will soon be much smarter than us and will make all those tedious little decisions that we've no time for. Robots will do all the manual grunt stuff that nobody wants to do. This is all going to happen by the end of the 1970s. Er, well no. Maybe by the end of the 80s. Hmm. So where are we with this robotic malarkey? Well we have robots (if you want to call them that) that can put cars together and there's those spinning disk things that don't vacuum your carpets properly but are good at falling down the stairs, and that's your lot. In short. Robots. Are. Rubbish. Always have been, and probably aren't ever going to be much cop for hundreds of years. I hate robots.
And AI? Well we have that Kubrik/Spielberg nonsensical film with Jude Law and Hayley Joel Osment. And that's about it. Yes there is more computing power in your mobile phone than was used to send astronauts to the moon blah blah blah but put the combined 'intelligence' (ho ho) of all the world's computers together and you have just about enough emotional savvy and cognitive capacity to engage in small talk with an earthworm. Boring subject. Budgets need to be cut and money spent elsewhere.
2. Space 'Events': Meteor showers, comets, eclipses, supermoons, being able to see planets
Overrated tosh. Anyone ever seen a spectacular meteor shower or awe inspiring comet? No, I didn't think so. Those who say they have are lying or have enormous telescopes at home and lots of time on their hands. Halley's Comet in 1986 was a no show. Supermoons look the same as ordinary moons. Being told that the tiny pinprick of light hovering over the supermarket for six nights on the run during November is in fact the planet Mercury does not float my boat in perhaps the way it should, and I try to get excited, I really do.
3. Space travel
Useless. This is important. We need to leave our planet and go and destroy somewhere else because soon the earth will all be used up and uninhabitable (for humans - whatever's left will be perfectly happy we've gone. And while I'm on it the earth doesn't give a toss about climate change or global warming. It's seen it all before). Ok, so I know we have to start somewhere, but people get so excited about flying about in space don't they? Every time a new method of space propulsion is proposed that will enable us to travel a few thousand miles an hour in 'hyperspace' (wooo) people think we're gonna soon be hopping from star to star, dropping in on distant planets and picking out new homes. Reality check. We're four light years away from the nearest star. We need spaceships that can travel faster than the speed of light. This is impossible. We're screwed. So, until someone learns how to open up and stabilise a wormhole, allowing us to travel from one end of our universe to the other (or to a parallel universe), for say the price of a train ticket to Malaga, and still get us back home in time for tea, there's little point in getting excited. I'm not.
|Posted on July 9, 2012 at 11:35 AM|
Tonight, in a bar in La Zubia, I shall impart my 1,114th English class. That means that in little under two and a half years I have given, on average, 455.72 classes a year, 37.97 classes a month, 8.86 classes a week, and 1.27 classes each day, every day, Monday to Friday, January 1st to December 31st, including Easter and Christmas. I have even managed three classes on that rarest of dates, February 29th.
Anyway, whatever. It's amazing to think back at the sheer amount of bum numbing drivel I must have spouted.
I've been paid, under-paid, over-paid, unpaid and frankly, robbed (yes, you know who you are you twats, and I haven't forgotten it). I've held forth in academy classrooms, schoolrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, living-rooms, bars, cafes, balconies, roof terraces, gardens, a corridor, a lecture theatre, an art gallery, a playground, a laboratory, a shop, a boardroom, the street, a mountainside, a river valley, and on one memorable occasion a rather splendid swimming pool.
I've been frozen to the core, scorched to a crisp, rained on and snowed on. I've mostly arrived to class on time, though have on occasion been a tad late, was once a day early and on one famous occasion simply decided to walk straight past the venue and go for a drink instead.
Somehow, I've survived, and will start the next 1,114 classes first thing tomorrow morning.
|Posted on April 4, 2012 at 8:05 AM|
an extract from my forthcoming book, 'The Cats of the River Darro'
Dead? Dead at fifty? I can't believe it. It's not fair!
Why's it not fair then? Fifty's a good innings. It's more than I give most people.
Yes, but, I was just getting into my stride. I've got an exhibition next week too. Well, I had one.
It'll go ahead without you. They'll do one of those soppy posthumous things. You'll be well received so I wouldn't worry about it. Your abstracts seem to be very popular. It's not my bag to be honest but if the punters like them who am I to argue?
Er, well you're God aren't you? At least I kind of assume that's who you are?
Yes, yes, God, that's me. And you're Derek aren't you? I know all about you. Been following you for fifty years. Most interesting. Suppose you tell me how it was from your side of the fence.
Erm, well, I don't know where to begin. Uhm, I was born in erm, Liverpool and I …
No, no, boring, boring. I know all that. It's in your file somewhere. I mean today. What happened today?
Well, I died didn't I?
Yes but you didn't wake up dead this morning did you? So what happened?
I'm not sure I really know to be honest. I was just going out for breakfast, at my usual cafe, you know at 'Isabel's Ham Friends', and I suppose my mind was wandering a bit.
Yes, and why was that then?
I couldn't get onto the bridge.
Ah yes, Santiago Calatrava's bridge. It's rather a splendid thing isn't it?
Yes, I always enjoy walking over it, er always enjoyed walking over it. Well, anyway, it was cordoned off this morning. Apparently someone had tried to top themselves by jumping off it.
Yes, dreadful business. I put a stop to it. Sent one of our chaps down at the last minute. Do go on.
Well I saw the guy, the suicider, and it freaked me out a bit. He was standing there with the guardia policia. He was an English looking bloke and he was wearing a hat that made his head look a funny shape. We kind of made eye contact, just for a few seconds and it was really weird.
Why was it weird then?
I dunno really. It was like we both knew one another. But I mean it's impossible. He was familiar but I'm sure I've never seen him before in my life. It's hard to explain. It just freaked me, that's all. And there was another bloke standing there with him. He had dreadlocks.
Ah yes, Norman.
Yeah. Our man. Like I said, I sent him down at the last minute. It would've have caused a huge administrative foul up if the guy had jumped you see. It wasn't his time.
Oh I see.
Well, after that, I suppose I wasn't really concentrating much on anything.
No, I suppose not.
All I remember from then on is that I was crossing the road and suddenly, out the corner of my eye, saw this huge thing looming towards me at a rate of knots. Someone screamed, the whole world was spinning, and well, here I am. And come to think of it, where the Hell am I exactly? Is this Heaven?
No it's not Heaven but we'll come to that. You've got to get through immigration first. So, you were run over then?
Well I'm sure you know. I mean, you're God.
Yes, of course I know. I also realise all this is a bit tiresome but it's just for the books. We have to go through the formalities you see.
Okay, well I think I was hit by a truck because I wasn't looking where I was going because I was freaked out by some selfish suicidal idiot I saw on a bridge who was talked out of jumping by a dreadlocked man named Norman who, apparently, was one of your guys, whatever that means.
Hang on, hang on. Let me just write that down. Okay, yes, well it's almost right. It wasn't a truck. It was a segway. An only lady, ironically on her way to the same cafe as your good self. She hit you full on. She was very upset. Segway's a complete write off.
A segway? I'll be a laughing stock.
Yes, you will unfortunately. I can't do much about that. You have to admit it is quite funny. In fairness it wasn't entirely your fault. The old girl got distracted. She was looking off road at a couple of nuns eating ice-cream. Quite disgraceful I know, but taking holy orders doesn't seem to be what it used to be. Some of them have got iPods you know. Anyway, enough of all that. I need you to tell me your impressions, you know, of life. What did you think it was all about then? What did you make of it?
Well I don't really know. It's all devilishly complicated isn't it? Now that I'm here I'm looking forward to finding a few things out. I'm amazed that there's a Heaven for starters. It's great news.
Yes, well don't get ahead of yourself. There is indeed an after life and a Heaven but there's also, ahem, 'that other place' you've read about, down there, you know that place we don't like to talk about. You're in a holding area right now so I can assess you. I don't want to worry you, Heaven knows you've enough on your plate at this difficult time, but it could go either way.
I see. So this is my 'judgement' time?
Yes it is. And I always like to begin by asking newcomers to give me their thoughts on everything. Just now you said you found life 'devilishly complicated'. What did you mean by that?
Well, if I'm being honest …
Yes, I would be if I were you.
Quite. Well, it just seems to me it's so hard to understand everything. Why isn't it all simpler? You know this whole 'does God, er that is, do you exist or don't you' malarkey. And why can't there just be simple rules, a list of dos and don'ts that we can all follow? We'd all know where we stood then.
Ha, you mean like the Ten Commandments? I tried that didn't I but you lot couldn't hack it. Ten simple rules, written in stone no less, given to Moses clear as you like, but they were too hard for you. I must have used too many big words.
What? Well, some of them were okay, the ones about murder and adultery and that but some of the others, well they were a bit iffy weren't they?
Iffy? Whaddya mean, iffy?
Those ones about not coveting your neighbour's possessions or having false icons and telling lies and things.
What's wrong with them?
Well nothing, but well they're a bit hard to stick to aren't they?
Ha, so rules are okay as long as they're easy ones then. Is that what you're telling me?
No, that's not what I mean. I er ...
Yes it is. You can all do the big stuff – well most of you humans can most of the time – but you can't do the little things, the fiddly bits.
The fiddly bits?
Yes, yes, yes, the fiddly bits. That's why I had to do away with them, wipe the slate clean and start again.
What do you mean you did away with them?
They're too hard for you to stick to. Oh sure, you decided to enshrine a few of them into your earthly laws and so on, fair enough, but I reckoned you needed a better deal, something you could handle. That's why I sent Jesus down.
Yes, I see.
Well I understand the basic idea. The New Testament. That was your new improved deal with us. Jesus took on all of our sins and died for us so we didn't, erm have to worry about breaking rules all the time. And uhm ...
Yes, go on …
Well it seems to me, to most of us, that it's a strange deal.
Well it seems a little unbalanced. Surely it doesn't mean people can go round murdering each other and stuff just because Jesus has taken on all the blame?
Yes and no.
People can if they wish. That's why I give everyone free will. As long as you say sorry afterwards we're sweet.
What! That seems to be a license for everyone doing just whatever they want.
Yes it is. It's not the worst deal in the world is it but loads of you are still not happy with it. There's no pleasing some people. It's not as cushy at it looks though. There are consequences if you decide to do bad things with your free will.
Well, we're coming to that. Let's take a look at your rap sheet shall we. I have it here. It's pretty big as you can see.
Ah well from here the writing looks like it's in quite a large font. I'm sure it's not as bad as it looks.
The writing's normal size, and this scroll only covers last Wednesday, last Wednesday evening to be exact.
What? I didn't do anything last Wednesday. Oh, no hang on, yes but everyone else was doing that as well. And I'd had a few drinks. Oh shit.
Yeah, and see that box over there? That's got Tuesday's stuff in it. I haven't had a chance to go through it yet. We've archived off the rest of your life. The IT guys are recovering it from backup now but it'll take a few hours. They've been having trouble with a new database or something. I don't know. They're always spinning me a line. Anyway, that's not important. The thing is there are consequences to be faced. You might have to do a bit of community service.
Yep, on a parallel earth somewhere.
You mean there are parallel worlds? Wow, that's amazing. I always thought that idea was a load of bollocks.
Hmm, it's a lot of overheads, I'll grant you that. I'd have done it differently if I'd known the hassles.
Yeah, but never mind. We are where we are as they say.
So what will I have to do?
Oh you know, a bit of this, a bit of that. I might send you down to an interesting earth I've got where Chelsea needs another manager. You like footy don't you?
Yes, but I couldn't be manager of Chelsea. I'd only last a few weeks before they sacked me.
Yeah, well that happens on all of the earths. It's a software bug.
Would that be me done then? I mean, would that count as my community service.
Don't be ridiculous. You'd have to do a bit more time doing other stuff. If you behave yourself we could give you something a bit more comfortable, something up here in the office. We're always looking for IT guys. I see you've got a bit of previous in that field?
Oh God no. Send me straight to Hell now. I'm not doing that stuff again. Anyway, how much is a 'bit more time' exactly?
Infinity! That's ages.
Some infinities are smaller than others. Don't worry, it'll fly by.
And what are the alternatives?
Alternatives? Listen sonny, you're not in Starbucks.
No, I know I'm not. Sorry. Can I ask a question?
Is Salvador Dali here? I mean, is he in Heaven or Hell?
That's none of your business is it.
No I suppose not. It's just that, oh nothing.
It's that painting isn't it, the one in the Kelvingrove? You want to know if it had any meaning, if he had any special insights or anything.
Well, I was just curious that's all.
Remember that student who slashed the painting in 1961?
I'm too young to remember but yes, I read about it. You can still see the scar on the canvas.
That was one of my boys, Howard. A good lad. Took an awful lot of stick for that he did. Bashed it with a brick on his community service. Not exactly what I asked him to do, but free will and all that, you know. We looked after him. Got him a nice job in the IT department. He's a shift leader now you know.
But why? Why did you try and destroy it? It's such a beautiful painting.
Oh the painting's marvellous, yes, but it was all that Glasgow palaver that was getting on my wick, that Catholic versus Protestant thing. I wanted to draw attention away from it. Make them all see what was more important. Now I'm told everyone in the city treasures the painting. They nearly lost it you see. Sometimes you have to nearly lose things to realise what you've, erm, nearly lost. We had to send someone else down in the 1980s though cos it was all going pear shaped again.
Oh yes I remember that. He shot it with an air gun didn't he?
Yes. There'd been a particularly niggly run of Old Firm matches. I'd had enough. Things actually got worse for a while after that. Graeme Souness has a lot to answer for when he gets here. And Frank McAvennie. I've got to be seen to be even handed of course.
Okay, but I'm not with you. Are you saying art's more important than religion?
Of course I am. Religion's got nothing to do with anything important. It's just a man made monstrosity. I don't want people shuffling in and out of dank Victorian buildings all week, squabbling over bits of doctrine and wondering what the vicar's wearing under his cassock do I?
No, I don't suppose you do. That painting though, I always knew it had some spiritual significance. There was always a feeling I had, every time I looked at it, that there was some hidden meaning to it.
Well there isn't really. It's just a good painting that's all. Just some paint on a piece of canvas. I've seen better to be frank. Even some of your stuff from a certain angle, with erm, the lights dimmed a bit. No, hang on, that's going too far. Anyway, we're rather getting off the point of all this. This is supposed to be your judgement. Now, what have you got to say for yourself?
Look, I did my best down there. Whatever skills and talents you gave me I used to the best of my ability. I tried to be a good person. I was kind to animals. I tried, I really did.
And I never really stopped believing in you.
I thought I had a bit more time you see, to work things out properly.
Peter. Fetch me my rubber gloves and the pointy stick. It's time for his medical.
|Posted on December 17, 2011 at 3:25 PM|
If you could have a shot in a time machine, what year would you travel to and where would you go? It's a question I sometimes ask my English students and it's always sure to provide an interesting array of answers. Instinctively most people think of a time in their past, perhaps that moment when they made a monumentally bad decision or did something really stupid and regretful. How we would all like to rectify those mishaps!
For some people it's more of a temptation to go back further in time, perhaps to a period in history that pre-dates their own existence, to an era that has always held a fascination. If I allow myself the time to ponder such a thing then, once I've returned and fixed those idiotic things I did as a young man (and no, I'm not telling you what they are) I find myself drawn like a moth to a flame to the city of Paris. It's April 1874 and I am standing in the studio of photographer Felix Nadar. A group of frustrated and unheralded artists are about to reveal the results of their labours to an unsuspecting and largely unenthusiastic Parisien public.
As they assemble their paintings I watch these men move anxiously from canvas to canvas, quibbling with one another over lighting and wall positioning rights. I am invisible, for that's a condition I allow with my time machine travel. Monsieurs Degas, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley cannot see me, but I can see them, and I can see all their pictures!
I seek out one piece of work in particular, Claude Monet's 'Impression, Sunrise', the painting that will lend its name to a whole new art movement, though not before it is roundly dismissed by one of France's leading art critics of the day as 'unfinished wallpaper'. I want to stand on the shoulder of that critic as he writes his notes and I want to whisper in his ear that he's wrong.
From here I can take in any of the next thirty years. I can stake out van Gogh as he marches into his sunflower field, observe Pablo Picasso take his steady steps towards cubism, or drop in on Paul Gaughin's tropical paradise. But should I ever have my fill of these late nineteenth century masters there are no shortages of pivotal moments in the history of art to which I can steer my time machine.
And yet, perhaps the thing to do is to glimpse the future? The past is the past and what really fascinates us is that which is yet to come. How far ahead would you dare go and could you possibly hope to understand whatever it was you saw once you got there? I don't know. For example, if I was able to show to the version of me that existed 20 years ago what he has become today, I'm quite sure he would be utterly flummoxed!
Flying on fast forward to a future time and place, without going through the necessary life experiences along the way, would be self defeating and futile. We would have no real understanding of why we were at wherever it was we had arrived.
For me, part of the power of art, and by definition life, is in making the journey. And it's why I love the thrill of a blank canvas. Often I have a strong idea for a piece of work and I know what I'm trying to achieve but every so often, I have absolutely no idea what will become of that white space staring back at me. That is a truly magical moment. To not know is somehow powerfully liberating. We cannot arrive at a destination unless we undertake the journey, and it is on the journey that our greatest adventures lie.
|Posted on November 17, 2011 at 12:05 PM|
I used to teach a girl named Isabel. One day, shortly after we'd finished our series of classes, she got onto my bus but it turned out the girl wasn't Isabel at all. Oddly, over the next few days, I kept seeing other girls that weren't Isabel. I don't know why this happened. Isabel wasn't a particularly striking girl and I didn't think she had made the sort of impression on me that would mean I'd keep thinking I'd seen her when I hadn't.
Even so, after that first false sighting on the bus, it seemed that everywhere I went, I would see girls who weren't Isabel. But though girls who weren't Isabel were everywhere I always felt that the one who got on the bus that day was the best at being The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. She got on the bus every day after that first time.
On the bus one day I found myself sat a few seats behind The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. As we reached the city I glanced out of the window and saw another girl who wasn't Isabel. It was the first time I'd ever seen two of them at the same time; two girls who weren't Isabel. The shock of it was that this second girl really was Isabel! She was walking up Avenida Cervantes with a friend. Interestingly, her friend didn't look anything like her.
For a split second as the bus went past, the three of us lined up in a rather splendid isosceles triangle formation: The Girl Who Is Isabel, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and me, as unlikely a geometric shape I ever saw. Since that day I haven't seen The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel as she hasn't got on the bus. Nor have I seen The Girl Who Is Isable as she hasn''t walked up Avenida Cervantes. I also haven't seen any other girls that weren't Isabel. These non-sightings haven't happened on the bus, the avenidas, everywhere. It's as if the triangle thing has finally settled something.
Except to say that it hasn't. Not totally.
Though I'm sure The Girl Who Is Isabel is fine I do find myself thinking now about the girl who used to get on the bus, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and this has led to a worrying development in the whole sorry business.
This morning a new girl got on the bus. At first I thought it was The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel but it wasn't, it was a new girl, The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel. She didn't even almost not look like her. So now I'm pondering things. Am I going to start seeing loads of other girls who don't look like The Girl Who Is Isabel, and who don't look like The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, but who do look like The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel? Or am I not?
If The Girl Who Is Isabel turns up again it could get very complicated.
And what if the three of them ended upon the bus? If The Girl Who Is Isabel, The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel, and The Girl Who Isn't The Girl Who Wasn't Isabel all ended up on the bus at the same time, with me. What would happen?
First question that comes to mind is, how would we form an isosceles triangle?
I'd like to think we wouldn't even try but it all makes me wonder if anyone's ever looked at me and thought I was someone else and not me. I'm not The Man Who Looks Like Isabel, I know that much, yet there may be girls out there who look like Isabel who have seen me and think I look like someone else.
I may well be known to some people, to someone or other who looks a bit like Isabel but who isn't Isabel, as The Man Who Isn't Manolo, or The Man Who Wasn't The Man Who Isn't Manolo. Or worse still, The Bloke On The Bus Who Doesn't Know Who He Is But Who Knows He's Not Isabel.
Changing my bus route won't fix the situation but I think I'll walk into the city instead from now on. I'll still take a very similar route, not the proper bus route but The Route That Looks Like The Bus Route But Isn't. I risk unwittingly forming a parallelogram with three other people as I hit Avenida Cervantes just as a bus is going past but that's a risk I'll take thank-you very much.
Should I see The Girl Who Is Isabel I will confront her, get it all out in the open. She's the one who started all this malarkey. I'll ask her what she thinks she's playing at and who the hell does she think I am. And what does she know about geometry, and does it freak her out that so many girls look like her, except her friend.
The problem is that I've now forgotten what The Girl Who Is Isabel looks like. How will I know if I run into her? My mind's so full of all the potential dramas that may occur whilst travelling on foot along The Route That Looks Like The Bus Route But Isn't. And I've got another student. Her name's Isabel. I haven't met her yet but I can't begin to imagine where this is heading.
|Posted on October 11, 2011 at 6:50 PM|
One of my pivotal reference points of the 1980s is The Smiths' song Reel Around the Fountain. That's what was playing in the car when we crashed on the M62 near Burtonwood services. We were on our way home from the 1984 League Cup Final replay at Maine Road, Manchester. Even now, I can't have a car crash without thinking about that song.
We'd beaten Everton 1:0. Graeme Souness scored. We were stranded on the motorway and got a lift home from Eddie, my mate Ken's mother's boyfriend. He was a Bluenose and gutted about the match yet Ken phoned him up and told him what had happened. Eddie drove back out just to pick us up. Us, a bunch of gobby Red Shite, the last thing he probably wanted to see in the entire whole world. Served him right. Even now I can't see Graeme Souness without thinking of Eddie.
I'd damaged my glasses in the crash. They'd flown off my head in the impact, just at the point where Morrisey witters on about falling out of bed twice. Ironic? No, not really, just the random machinations of planet earth. Shit happens, but thankfully there's usually someone worse off. I needed new specs anyway and that's me all over. Some of us are glass half full people. And some of you aren't. I saw it as an opportunity. Still, even now I can't fall out of bed without thinking about those specs.
I tried to pull a guy out of the wreckage. He was one of those worse off people I was on about. He was caked in blood. He may have been dying. He asked me to leave him because the pulling hurt too much. I think he had to be cut out of his wreckage. Give him his due, he was laughing about writing off the missus's car. You see he was a Red and she was a Blue. A mixed marriage then. She was going to be livid. She'd say he'd wrecked her car and died on purpose. Even now I can't think about dying without thinking about not being able to not die.
I don't know for certain but I suspect Morrisey was oblivious. And sure as Hell he'd bank a royalty cheque one day that would include the tiny fee he'd get from Radio City for that particular play. And not just Morrisey in fairness. The rest of the Smiths were all in this too. I don't imagine they gave even a single thought for poor Eddie's plight that night. But in fairness, are Morrisey, Johnny Marr and the other ones, actually footy fans? Even now I can't bank royalty cheques without remaining callously oblivious too.
They built a whole Ikea superstore at the very spot where we crashed. I went back once and there was no plaque, no acknowledgement. It's as if Reel Around the Fountain had never been written. Perhaps if we'd crashed to William It Was Really Nothing things'd have been different? In an attempt to forget I took to wearing contact lenses.It didn't work. Every time I put them in I thought of my old glasses.
But I left the M62 behind. Life does move on eventually. I moved to Scotland and began crashing on the M8, just by those big gas towers. 'Glasgow's Miles Better' a sign there said. No it wasn't. I crashed twice in two days in the exact same place. In the same bleeding lane. In fairness to him Graeme Souness had no hand in either incident and I was thankfully able to console my new glasses (I'd taken to not wearing the contact lenses on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – the days of the crash) with the information that I'd had glasses that had suffered far more in terms of severe car crash injuries. Even now I can't turn the gas on without thinking about Graeme Souness.
I still wear glasses but I've given up listening to The Smiths. I haven't seen Eddie or Graeme Souness for years. I gave up on Glasgow too. It was miles better as it happened but I wasn't to know that at the time was I? It's water under the bridge now though. I can't see water under a bridge without thinking about other places being miles better.
And do you know what the odd thing is? If I Google Graeme Souness I get 628,000 hits but if I Google Eddie I get 248,000,000. I may of course be spelling Eddie's name wrong and maybe it's Eddy. I haven't tried Googling Eddy. Googling The Smiths would be complicated because of all the people in the world called Morrisey. Even now I can't spell things wrong without thinking about Google.
Reel Around the Fountain: It's a funny title to crash your car to. And I should know. Or rather my brother should, it was his car. And he crashed it. If ever we play Everton in a League Cup final replay again it'll throw up old memories, rip open the scars. I don't know if either my brother or my current glasses are up to it to be honest. These days me and my glasses listen to Extremaduro and watch Youtube to see fourteen year old girls auditioning for X-Factor. They never sing about fountains, none of them. You'd think Ikea had never been invented. Even now I can't invent things without thinking about Simon Cowell.
|Posted on August 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM|
The cats of the River Darro see
From ancient banks that lie
The passing of humanity
Alhambra’s glassy eye
Politicos in corrupted deals
Above that meal of bones
The English teacher dares that she’ll
Upon those cobblestones
And starry lovers are so surest
Down where this water laps
Near shopkeepers who rip off tourists
With their books of maps
The artist who paints despair
Sets up amongst the weeds
While in the Moor’s labyrinthine lair
Hang Catholic strings of beads
|Posted on August 9, 2011 at 10:20 AM|
Ok, so this is my idea, right. You know the way everyone’s getting really fat?
Yes you know, in general, people are getting bigger aren’t they?
Hmm, I suppose.
Well, it’s a story about how the whole world’s getting fatter all the time, you know, loads of people are overeating and putting on weight. It’s a story about that, so it’s really relevant to what’s happening now across a lot of the world, right, but it’s set in the future, maybe like a hundred years from now.
Yeah, and there’s this guy in the story, he’s the main character right, and he’s really important, ok, only he doesn’t realise it.
Why’s he so important then?
Well, I don’t wanna say too much but the point is this guy’s dead ordinary except he’s nowhere near as fat as everyone else, and that’s because he has a secret. But like I say he doesn’t realise he has this secret and that it’s important.
It sounds pretty lame to be honest.
No, no it’s good. But rather than me waffle on I’d prefer you to read it and let me know what you think. I don’t wanna give too much away.
Ok, but this guy, the one with the secret, is the secret just that he doesn’t gorge himself on junk food all day?
No it’s not that. You’re over simplifying things.
Yes, this important bloke, he’s not actually that slim. In fact, he is a bit on the plump side but he’s just not as fat as most people that’s all.
And this is because he has the secret to staying slim?
Well, partly yes.
So if he only partly knows the secret how come he’s slimmish? Is having part of the secret enough to make you not as fat as everyone else or is there another reason why he’s not so fat?
You’re being a bit pedantic mate to be honest. It’s not like that.
Pedantic? No I’m not. Why’s he not as fat as everyone else if this secret is only part of the reason?
Well, he does a bit of jogging as well.
Jogging? So they still have jogging in the future then?
Yes of course they do.
Well it doesn’t seem to be working for them does it? I mean if they’re all really fat and that.
Yes, but hardly anyone does it. The main guy does it a bit and it helps a little but it’s not really significant. We’re getting a little off the point. It’s not important.
Well I think it’s relevant. How often does he go jogging then?
Well, if he only does half a mile, once a week, it isn’t going to help is it, but if he’s putting a good few miles in, say three or four days a week, it’s bound to make a difference.
Well yes ok, he is doing a few days a week.
What days does he jog? Does he go often?
Erm, only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Iptdays.
Iptdays? What’s one of them?
It’s not important. As I’ve told you, it’s set in the future. I don’t wanna give too much away but there’s been a new day added to the week and they decided to call it Iptday.
Have we lost one of the other days or is it now an eight day week?
I just old you, it’s a new day that’s been added. They have eight day weeks, but it’s not really important.
Well I think it is.
No, it’s not. Look you’re missing the point. Forget Iptday, it’s about this guy and he has a secret and it’s really brilliant the way he discovers it.
How come the only bits that sound mildly interesting are the bits you keep saying aren’t important? I still think it sounds crap. I wanna know about Iptday. When does it come? Is it between Wednesday and Thursday, is it an extra weekend day, or what?
I’m not exactly sure to be honest.
Ha, what do you mean you’re not sure? That’s ridiculous, you wrote it. You must know.
Well, once again, it’s not really important.
But why do it then? I think it is important. It’s crucial in fact.
Well I was trying to make the future seem a bit more interesting, you know. We didn’t always have days of the week did we, and now that we have them, there’s no reason to suppose they’re just gonna just stay the same.
Yes there is! That’s garbage. There’s only the same number of hours in a day, and days in a year and so on. You can’t just go adding days to the week. It’s all to do with the sun and the moon and the earth and all that. You can’t just add days.
Well what about cavemen and that? They never had days?
When we lived in caves, people weren’t like really p1ssed off because it was Sunday night and they had to go to work in the morning because it was going to be Monday were they? They didn’t really bother about what day it was.
Maybe, but that’s not the point is it? They still had days. They were still living under the same sun, in the same solar system with hours of daylight and darkness and so on.
Well, whatever, you know what I mean.
No I don’t. You can’t just add days, and you can’t take them away either.
Well I think there’s been a nuclear explosion or something.
In the story, there’s been a really big terrorist explosion and the earth’s rotational speed or something has shifted and they’ve had to bung in another day because all the hours are cocked up.
You’ve just made all that bit up haven’t you?
About the nuclear explosion.
No I haven’t.
Yes you have. Ok, where and when did this explosion happen, and why?
In Greenland, about the year 2059.
Yes, melting ice sheets revealed huge oil reserves and the Chinese invaded it.
Yes, look, it’s not important. We’re getting bogged down. This bloke, right, he does a bit of light jogging but that’s not really why he ...
No sorry, I don’t care about this guy now. I wanna know why the Chinese are in Greenland, why there’s been a nuclear explosion, and who’s idea was it to bung in an extra day, and who decided on the ridiculous name of it. I mean all the other days of the week are planets or something aren’t they? What’s Iptday supposed to mean?
The days of the week, they’re named after planets. We did it in school. It’s about the Latin names, so you have Saturn is Saturday, Monday’s to do with the moon, erm Friday’s Venus or something...
Listen mate, I’ve no idea what you’re on about and look, it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point.
Are the Chinese fat as well?
What, you mean like now or in this book?
In the book! They don’t strike me as a race of people who are prone to getting fat, even in the future.
Well that’s where you’re wrong see. We’re all just people aren’t we? We’ve all got the same organs and stuff. Even the Chinese. And like I said, in the book the whole world’s got this obesity thing going on, a bit like what’s happening now, only more so.
Why don’t people just eat less?
It’s not as simple as that is it?
Er yeah, I think it is really. This guy, the one who’s a bit slimmer, I bet his secret is that he doesn’t stuff as much saturated fat down his gob as everyone else. And he does a bit of jogging, a mile or two on Mondays and Wednesdays and perhaps a tough five miler on Iptday.
No, that’s not it at all. You’ll have to read it. Listen mate, it’ll blow you away.
It doesn’t have time travel in it does it?
No, I can’t really do that. It drives me round the bend. And it’s clichéd.
Oh aye, you’d never write anything clichéd.
So will you read it for me then? Check it over and see what you think?
Will it take long?
Will it take long, you know, to read? It’s just that I’m supposed to be going out for a Chinese.
You’ll get fat eating that stuff.
|Posted on July 23, 2011 at 5:26 PM|
July’s a horrible month in Granada. The sun beats down mercilessly from dawn til dusk and if you happen to allow yourself to get caught outside mid-afternoon then it’s damned unpleasant.
But the weather’s not the worst of it.
Granada’s a university city with a fluid population and July happens to be the time when the bulk of the students studying here leave, returning to homes in all corners of Spain. Some of them of course leave for good having finished their degrees. Working here as an English teacher makes it inevitable that these students provide us with much of our work and it’s equally inevitable, that some student/teacher relationships morph into real friendships as the seasons roll on through autumn, winter and spring. Saying goodbye to a clutch of such friends all in one go is profoundly depressing.
And of course it’s not just students who flee the city in their droves at this time of year. Longer term residents also like to get away, up into the hills or down to the breezier fresher coast for the summer. Gap year travellers and tourists also know it’s not the best time to be here. The weather may be pretty intolerable but it’s the loss of friendships and the breaking up of routines that hits those of us who remain hardest.
Mad dogs and Englishmen it seems, are the only ones dumb enough to still be trying to eke out an existence here just now. I went through all this last year and vowed I wouldn’t do so again, yet here I am, trapped and vowing once more to make sure it doesn’t happen next year.
The cumulative drip drip of lost friends now means that when I walk through the city I feel a poignancy at every turn. Here is where I hugged a good friend goodbye, over there is where I last saw so and so, and that plaza over the road is best avoided lest I get all teary eyed again. Daft I know, but July here is like that.
By the time we get to August it won’t seem so bad. The heat will be slightly more bearable purely because we’ll have become hardened to it and the knowledge that autumn is looming will concentrate the mind. In September new students and potential friends will arrive and the city will renew itself. It’ll be a kind of ‘spring’, a human spring. Nature’s seasons will find themselves out of step with the seasons of the city.
But next July, really, seriously, I want to be somewhere else.
|Posted on July 1, 2011 at 7:52 PM|
The wheel of change has spun once more for me here in Granada and as usual I’m left trying to make some sense of passing events. It’s not so much that things change (and they do, whether we like it or not), but more the way these changes manifest themselves that has me holding up my hands in surrender at life’s vagaries.
My recent financial meltdown has meant I’ve been unable to make trips back to the UK for my nephew’s wedding and for my daughter’s graduation, two of the biggest waves in a turbulent sea of change. Though losing my apartment was also a difficult break I’m hoping I can soon view it as the lowest point in my current fortunes. The only way is up as they say.
Not that it’s all been so bad, not by a long way. In the past couple of weeks I’ve also gotten myself covered in fruit fly bites, acquired a rather natty new hat, lost 12 students but gained 14 new ones, given up my two cats for adoption though hopefully a better life, made a clutch of new friends, moved house twice and lived in three different pueblos. Through it all I’ve had confirmation of just how many true friends I have in the world. There’s nothing like a crisis to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Not all bad by a long way.
Many of these happenings seem to run par for the course in my life these days but the confluence and timing of all these tumultuous events staggers even me. I’ve always felt an odd fascination with June 30th, pivoting the year as it does and this year it’s come and gone in prefect synchronisation with my topsy-turvy life. Coincidence? Well, not totally. Of course, I wouldn’t make any claims for such an arbitrary date on a calendar having supernatural significance, but it’s a fact that summer time here in Granada is a time of decay and renewal, and perhaps marks the city’s real ‘new year’. Maybe there’s been way too much of it for me but this is a natural time for change.
Though, on balance I’ve much to be happy about my overriding emotion as I type all of this up is sadness, sadness because tonight I said goodbye to my favourite student. We’ll keep in touch for sure, but life rolls on relentlessly and our paths are set firmly in different directions. And as I look back over these past few weeks I can count three other friends who have moved to pastures new. It’s very much a case of out with the old and in with the new and on top of all the other shenanigans in my life it’s difficult not to get a little depressed.
It’s been a tough year and May and June in particular will not go down as two of the best months of my life. I do however rather like the idea of June 30th sitting astride the year as a kind of watermark, splitting the year into two. For me, I’d like to read this split as marking the not so good half of the year and the really good half that’s still to come and as the wheel of fate remorselessly turns I will continue to face the consequences. I’ve long since ceased however, to worry about trying to make any sense of it.
Happy New Half Year to you all.
|Posted on June 14, 2011 at 5:30 PM|
I recently watched the Oscar winning The King’s Speech. For a story with such a thin plot, little or no action, and grating upper class English accents, it was an utterly absorbing and strangely compelling film. I loved every minute of it and would happily sit through the whole thing again.
I assume the intention of the filmmakers was to firmly align the sympathies of the viewers with Lionel Logue, the king’s Australian-born speech therapist. If so, then it certainly worked in my case. Whether this was more so because I now work in a vaguely related field I don’t know, but I found myself recognising one or two of the dilemmas faced by Logue in the face of the hugely demanding task he found himself landed with.
This week I was called upon to provide a crash course in English conversation to a high flying executive who has to make a business trip in a fortnight’s time and who wants to ‘make a good impression’ with his pronunciation. He doesn’t stutter but though his basic vocabulary knowledge is reasonable his pronunciation and use of grammar is poor. In many ways it’s an impossible job, and one that you can only do so much with.
But like Logue I found myself summoned to the side of a very busy man who appears to have little room for manoeuvre.
Where to start? At the beginning I suppose, but normal rules are out of the window. There just isn’t the time and I found myself like Logue, trying to establish some kind of cross cultural rapport to smooth the waters a bit. If my man gets through his business socialising without causing an international incident or insulting the Germans then I’ll consider it job done.
I don’t have a tricky stammer or the Queen Mother to contend with of course but then Lionel Logue never had to coax consonants out of a Granadino. I’m not sure which is the easier task.
|Posted on June 2, 2011 at 7:42 AM|
Have you ever seen the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life?
No, you haven’t?
Oh, ok then.
Well, anyway, Stewart plays a character called George Bailey. When his father dies George takes over the family building society business and continues to provide financial assistance to the residents of the small town they all live in.
There’s a great scene in the middle of the film when, owing to fall out from the Wall Street Crash, a run on the bank sees the business in imminent danger of total collapse. The unscrupulous fat cat leader of a rival, much larger bank, is hovering to hoover up the pieces but George refuses to lie down and accept the apparently inevitable.
He talks to each of his customers in turn and virtually begs them one by one not to withdraw their entire account but instead to just take what cash they really need to get them along in the short term.
At the end of a very long day the bank is left with a single dollar bill and the business has survived the crisis.
Today is my George Bailey day. I have settled a couple of urgent bills and each of my bank accounts have just enough in them to stop whining for the time being. I have food in the kitchen, money on my bus card and still have two weeks of rented accommodation to live out. I also have four Euros in my pocket and I have a class to teach this evening which will add a few more – so in that sense I’m even better off than old George was.
Sure, the next crisis is probably already winging its way over and I’ll have to deal with it as when it arrives but for now there’s a sense of calm – a lull between storms maybe, but a lull nonetheless. And I’m going to have a nice cup of tea to celebrate.
In the film the bank workers dance around the office with the dollar bill before lovingly putting it into the safe, where they hope it’ll reproduce. It does, and they all survive long enough to deal with the next crisis.
It’s a rare film that actually makes you feel sympathy for bankers but I guess that was the genius of its director Frank Capra. Whither the directorial genius today who could make us feel similarly enamoured towards the greedy, faceless breed who run our modern banks?
|Posted on May 31, 2011 at 4:34 AM|
The moment she saw the tiny plot of land Persephone loved it and I knew immediately we had found our new home. We flew back to England and quit our jobs, put the house on the market, and began to draw up our plans. I had never lived abroad before and didn’t really know what it entailed but I was determined to find out. However, it was much more complicated than I had imagined.
When we returned to the Lecrin Valley, having safely netted a cool 2.3 million for our home counties house, we began to restyle our brand new, really old, authentically constructed humble Andalusian cortijo. I had hoped we could rely on Diego who was living in a tied cottage on the edge of our humble 14 acres. He had lived there for 94 years and I figured he probably knew one or two things about the land. I sure as heck didn’t know how to begin with him but I was so going to find out.
Our two sons Bunty and Jessica soon made friends with Diego, so that was good. It meant we didn’t have to bother too much. They used him as a pet and asked me to make him a collar and leash. I didn’t have a clue how to do this but I was not going to give up without trying and I soon fashioned one out of an old dog collar and leash I bought in Granada.
Persephone and I began work on the house. We didn’t know what we were doing but by Thursday afternoon it was all done. We just needed a man from town to come over and fit our Sky dish. I had made the dish myself out of old abandoned kitchen equipment I’d found in one of the deserted farm houses. I didn’t really know how to make it but I just gave it a go. It’s incredible how empty the houses here in the valley have become and the former occupants have left all manner of tat lying around.
Diego died so we bought a lovely new dog. The boys named him Pedro but I could tell something in our new Spanish idyll was missing. I didn’t know what it was but I sure as heck was going to find out. One evening, as Persephone and I were driving golf balls over the lemon trees from the new range I had skilfully assembled on the roof of Diego’s old shack I had an idea. Pers had been pestering me to put in a full 18 hole course but I had patiently pointed out to her many times how disrespectful to the local cultures such a monstrosity would be. When you step into an alien environment and live a new life amongst simple native folk it’s essential to remain sensitive to local customs. And besides, cricket would be better for them.
So that was it then. I was going to build a cricket stadium. I didn’t have the first clue about building cricket stadiums but I wasn’t going to be beaten by the nay sayers. Within days I’d lain the square and established the boundary ropes and using flotsam and jetsam I stole from nearby farms I had soon erected a couple of stands and some rudimentary floodlighting. Of course the lighting had no electricity supply as yet but that was ok as I wasn’t planning on any day/night games for at least a few months!
The inaugural test match between the Ex-pats and the Locals was a triumph. I won the toss and elected to bat and we racked up a whopping 783 for 2, declaring just after lunch on day one. I’d never played before but I was focused as flip and was delighted with my personal knock of 405 not out. Bunty and Jess soon had the farmers in a tizz and we skittled them all out for a meagre 17 runs. It looked like victory was assured, but then disaster struck. It started raining.
I never knew it rained in the Lecrin Valley. No one had told me but the locals seemed to know. Many of them had umbrellas. We didn’t have any wet weather gear at all and I didn’t know what in heaven’s name I could do about it. Nevertheless I soon chiselled us all a set of sou’westers from old roofing tiles I took from a neighbouring cortijo.
On the fifth and final day of the test the rain relented and a massive crowd of 36,589 crammed into the stadium to watch the denouement of the game. I had of course asked the farmers to follow on and we soon ran through the batting order a second time with little or no fuss, bowling them all out for 9. Bunty took 7 wickets in one over and finished with match figures of 15 for 4. We had won our first match by an innings and 757. I don’t know how we did it but at last we had finally been accepted by the natives.
Now as I sit out on the terrace, the low thrumming sound of the nuclear power station I constructed in the back garden in perfect harmony with the rhythms of the night, I’ve no idea what happened to those local cricketers and I can’t really be bothered finding out. They moved away some time ago. They sure as hell wouldn’t be able to afford the house prices round here any more so they’re better off out of it. Still, as I often comment to Pers, we bally well like it here and that’s all that matters.
|Posted on May 26, 2011 at 6:33 PM|
It’s odd. I now have more luggage carrying capacity than I have actual luggage. My meagre worldly possessions consist of, amongst other things, a couple of suitcases, a rucksack, a laptop bag and a roll of plastic bin bags capable of taking the bulk of my tired and washed out clothes. When I move out of this apartment next month I’ll be able to shove the whole Dohren estate into the back of a family sized saloon. All I need to prove it is a family sized saloon. I do have a stash of exceedingly dodgy early paintings in my daughter’s Glasgow flat – but perhaps the less said about that the better.
Does it get me down? Yeah, course it does.
But on the other hand it’s kind of good to be able to travel light. I was always fascinated by the Dick Whittington fairy tale figure who walked to London, where the streets were paved with gold, with what little baggage he had tied to the end of a stick slung over his shoulder. For a penniless hobo I can’t think of a worse destination, yet he became Lord Mayor, and several times over, unless I’m mistaken. Good for him then, but I think most people nowadays would prefer to be a homeless vagrant than a politician.
I feel no worse off for a lack of ‘stuff’. In fact it’s very liberating.
Not for me the worries of how I’m going to find time to bubble-wrap the family silver or how to find the best method of decommissioning, transporting, and reassembling the laboriously catalogued library. No, my biggest concern is agonising over whether I should celebrate the move by buying a new toothbrush or maintaining draconian austerity measures and keeping the existing one. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re rich or you’re poor, there are still heartbreaking decisions to be made. That toothbrush has been a fine servant.
And it has to be said, the less you have, the more you appreciate what little you do have. I’m pleased to announce that the spare pair of shoe laces I’ve been using as a washing line will be making the trip with me. Fellas, it wouldn’t be the same without you.
When those early Glasgow paintings are discovered in some godforsaken Gorbals attic, say in 2080, they’ll be worth a fortune. The lucky owner will witter on about the ‘tragic life’ of the artist. My story will be made into a panto, starring the foremost D-list celebs of the day. In this panto I’ll be seen trudging to Granada with all my worldly goods tied up in a Mercadona bag.
In the Dick Whittington story they gave him a cat. I hope they give me a shiny new toothbrush. This one’s gone all splayed.
|Posted on May 20, 2011 at 5:58 PM|
On the face of it things are pretty grim. I’ve turned 50, am divorced, homeless, jobless and bankrupt and find myself living in a foreign country where the natives speak with forked tongue. I smell of cats and could do with a visit to the dentist.
Yeah, I guess I’m quite a catch. Girls, please form an orderly queue, and hey, no pushing at the back.
But these things are relative. Three years ago I was 47, in a high earning job I loathed with a passion, and married to someone, who it transpired didn’t wish to be married to me. As for the foreign country bit, well, as an Englishman who had then lived in the west of Scotland for 17 years, I fancy there aren’t many people who can teach me much about being an outsider.
Thing is, I’m happier now than I’ve been for years.
As I ready myself to move out of my apartment (can’t afford it any more) and wonder casually how I’m going to afford that new pair of shoes I badly need, the one thought that occupies my mind is how lucky I am.
On the surface I appear to have reached the half century mark in appalling disarray, but scratch below it deeply enough and you’ll find a contented soul. Let’s be frank: there are billions of people worse off than me on this planet.
I know a lot of people who moan about how they’d do things differently if they had their chance again in life and here I am with that very opportunity at my feet.
For me the slate is wiped clean and I have a blank canvas on which to scribble a new life. As I stare out at what unknowable length of time I may have left I get to start again with the benefit of 50 years experience behind me. Grim? I think not.
I have friends, and I still have my health. And I have two wonderful grown up daughters who I’m hugely proud of. Yeah, I’m luckier than most.
So, as from tomorrow, my task is to paint that sunset I saw melting over the Alhambra last week. Then I’m going to the pub and spending the last of the money I have.
The fates can take it from there. To paraphrase Lister in Red Dwarf, if any more misfortune comes my way, I'm gonna rip its nipples off.
|Posted on May 17, 2011 at 7:46 AM|
Cockroaches can live for ages after their heads have been cut off. They only die because they eventually starve. They can also survive high doses of nuclear radiation. All well and good, but frankly, no one likes a smart arse insect, and although running around without a head and basking in some post-apocalyptic hell-hole might sound cool I have it on good authority they don’t like it one bit if you pour boiling water on them, then twat them with a size 8 walking boot. It doesn’t kill them but it really pisses them off.
To rid yourself of the beast you then have to scrape the soggy mess off the floor, bag it, then bag it again, throw it in the bin and set fire to it - to the whole bin. You then have to find a priest, have the house exorcised, abandon it for two years, go and live in Florida, and then come back. It’ll be dead by then (it may be quicker and cheaper to cut the heads off but then you’d have to actually touch them).
It was with all this in mind that I watched, transfixed in horror, as one of the hideous creatures skittered across the hallway floor last year. By the time I came round it had gone and I’d no idea where to. I took the approach that it had clearly been around for some time and it hadn’t bothered me unduly and as long as I didn’t have to look at it again we could agree to live and let live. I mean, these things are like rats, or solicitors. We know they’re there, and they know we know they’re there, and as long as we all stay out of each others’ way we can get along kind of fine-ish can’t we?
Nigh on a year has passed since that sighting and so far so good. I keep the house clean and I have two psychopathic cats who I hope have a penchant for insect extermination, though in fairness the signs relating to these skills are not good. They knock seven bells out of one another for fun but to see them scampering after house flies or wasps is like watching a pair of toddlers (or, come to think of it, the entire Real Madrid defence) trying to take a football off Leo Messi.
Still, the nefarious unfolding of life’s events is such that I shall be leaving this domicile very shortly, (largely against my will), but no matter. I shall consider it an achievement of the highest order should I negotiate the remaining time here without seeing another one of those scuttling little savages from Hades. The kettle’s on and I have a walking boot at the ready. Does anyone know a priest who does exorcisms?
|Posted on May 16, 2011 at 7:00 PM|
I plugged the telly in and watched the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday night. It’s only occurred to me in the days since to wonder why on earth I tune in every year. I mean, I know it’s a load of phoney baloney, but finally I think I understand.
I love the voting.
And it’s not in any sort of ironic, ‘love to hate’ kind of way, no. I just enjoy it for what it is.
Let’s face it, any voting system that cheerfully and unashamedly makes FIFA’s process of selecting nations to host the next two World Cup finals look like a paragon of virtue has to be a hugely fascinating thing. In my opinion the brutality of the dishonesty is in itself disarmingly honest.
So Cyprus gives Greece its vote. What do you expect?
And here’s the rub. There ain’t no point bleating on about fair play in life because nothing in life actually is, even if we like to pretend otherwise.
Why else do we pepper our language with such idioms as ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’, ‘all’s fair in love and war’ (an oxymoronic, twisted piece of perverted logic), ‘only the good die young’, and ‘a fair crack of the whip’? Additionally we often bemoan the lucky sod who has had ‘more than his fair share of ...’ this fair share being something or other that we haven’t been getting (money, sex, or those little free sachets of barbeque sauce at the local burger joint). In fairness (see, even I’m doing it now) this last phrase can also be used with negative connotations, as in ‘he’s had more than his fair share of bad luck’.
Fair play and decency, it’s the very cornerstone of what we like to think of as Britishness. It’s what the Victorians invented team sports for. I mean what better educational model in life has ever been designed to teach youngsters the basics of fairness than a good hard game of rugger, footy or cricket?
By the time you’re reading this the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester Utd may have been played. If so, I cannot guarantee that a fair and equitable result ensued, and that the best team won, but I can guarantee that the team that scored the most goals did – be them in normal play or from the penalty spot. There’s fairness, and there’s rules you see, and they aren’t always the same thing, much as we’d like them to be.
Thus it’s reasonable to speculate from my position here, pre-Champions League final, that one half of Europe will spend days bleating after the game about how corrupt the referee was and/or how incredibly unfair the result was. The other half won’t.
People, you need to get a life.
Aside from its inbuilt and immutable unfairness, the other problem with sports is that once we work out the rules, we work out how to bend them, break them and in many cases, utterly disregard them. And so it is in life. We can’t help it.
Our great British Empire was built on these fundamentally flawed tenets of fair play and decency – the sort that allowed us to march into other people’s countries and steal all their land and resources. There was nothing unfair about this. They had stuff we needed. It wasn’t fair they had it and we didn’t, etc etc.
But let’s not get pernickety. Or overtly political. Hardly anything’s actually fair at all when you think about it. In fact, nothing is. And really, once you accept it, you realise there’s no problem and that a system of blatant unfairness is actually a pretty good one with which to orchestrate life on a planet. Life is, to the very core, inherently unfair: life and everything that’s in it, all the way down to sachets of barbeque sauce and Joe Bloggs winning the Euro lottery.
Problems occur only when we start believing in the delusion of fairness. You’re as likely to hear a Frenchman at Eurovision say ‘and our twelve points this year goes to [dramatic pause] the United Kingdom ...’ as you are to expect anything in life to actually be kosher.
The prettiest girls get the richest boys and a football team can slaughter another yet lose a match one nil. Yes, even Jedward can finish as high as 9th in a singing competition. It’s called life.
So my advice? Accept all this and you’ll be fine. Don’t gnash your teeth next time Germany gives Austria maximum Eurovision points and don’t rail against the unfairness of the world next time you see Peter Crouch’s incredible new girlfriend.
Azerbaijan may or may not have had the best song and it mightn’t even be in Europe (is it?), but whatever. It’s irrelevant. They won coz they scored the most goals. And they had the prettiest girls too. It all seems fair enough to me.
|Posted on May 10, 2011 at 3:34 PM|
‘Teenagers’; a word to strike fear into the heart of most EFL teachers, most certainly this one. Now, I admit, there’s a huge difference between the ages of 13 and 19, and between girls and boys. All life is there, somewhere, so let’s be more specific – I’m talking about young teenagers here, and usually boys. You know the kind. In between bouts of being mute, deaf and comatose, they are at best monosyllabic, unless of course they’re sniggering at something rude you’ve unwittingly said, in which case they turn into seven year old girls.
Teaching a pair of brothers (13 and 14) is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. As well as all of the above there is often a festering sibling rivalry, maybe even ‘hatred’, to be contended with.
However, any malicious thoughts they may hold for one another pale into insignificance alongside the degree to which they both detest your guts. You know that if your guard is let down for a nanosecond they’ll be picking over your corpse and rifling through your pockets before you can explain the difference between a schwer and a monothong.
Now, Pedro and Francesco come from a good middle-class family, and must appear to outsiders as ‘nice’ boys but I’d only been teaching them a fortnight and it had been a living hell. My nerves were already shredded.
I’d been talking about animals and had moved on to introduce vocabulary dealing with animal body parts – shells, claws, stripes, that sort of thing.
I was asking for examples of animals in each category and already Pedro was about to slit my throat, so offended and disgusted was he with my mere presence in his house. I imagined him coiled and ready to whip out the insect repellent the next time I so much as looked at him.
“So”, I said, gamely carrying on. “What about wings? Which animals have wings?” I pointed to a picture of a flying bird, resting my finger helpfully on one of the wings.
Thus far, we had covered ‘fur’ and ‘spots’ and on both occasions Pedro had offered up ‘cows’ as examples. I had accepted spotted cows but drew the line at cows having fur. I had upset him but I had to push on with the lesson regardless.
“Birds”, said Francesco.
“Yes”, I said. “Birds. Anything else?”
Pedro glared furiously and leaned forward before spitting out the word “parrots”. I could easily have let it go of course, congratulated him and moved on. He had at least not said ‘cows’ so we were making progress, but I felt a stirring of rebellion. “Well, a parrot is a bird, and we already have bird, so ...” My voice trailed off, realising much too late it had probably invited death, death within the next few minutes in all likelihood. Dismissing cows was bad enough, but cows and parrots was going too far.
In desperation I tapped on a photograph of a bat, an animal we had been discussing in the previous lesson.
“Bat”, said Francesco dutifully.
“Yes”, I said. “Bat. Bats have wings.” I flapped my arms to demonstrate.
I was about to move on to the next body part when Pedro spoke again.
“Unicorns”, he whispered, his voice barely audible, yet laced with a terrible menace.
“Unicorns?” I asked. “Erm, well they have a long horn on top of their heads ...” (another mistake – we hadn’t done ‘horns’ yet and my hand gestures were unlikely to go down well with two teenage lads) ... “so er, do they have wings?” I mumbled on.
“Ah yes unicorns. Of course, they have wings don’t they”, I finally, and cowardly answered myself. I wrote down ‘unicorns’ on our sheet of paper.
I attempted to move on but before I could, Pedro spoke again.
“Dragons”, he said.
He said it with such finality and flatness that it brooked no argument. It wasn’t up for discussion. And in fairness to him, dragons do have wings. I was almost impressed by his left field thinking. I wrote ‘dragons’ and offered no comment. I noticed my hand was shaking.
“Ok, which animals have scales?” I prompted, pointing to a picture of a very scaly snake.
“Snakes”, said Francesco.
“Yes”, I said. “Snakes. Anything else?”
After a few seconds I got ‘lizard’ and ‘fish’ from Francesco. Job done I thought and I glanced at the next body part, ‘gills’. This was better.
However, before I could say anything Pedro piped up again.
“Dragons”, he announced coldly.
He was still on the scales. Though we’d already had dragons there was nothing in the rules to say you couldn’t put an animal in two categories. And dragons do have scales. Again, I wrote it down. I made no comment.
“Gills”, I said. “What animals have gills?” I was only prepared to accept fish and then move it on. Cows, dragons and unicorns would not be permitted. Time was short.
“Fish”, said Francesco, pointing to a picture of a fish.
“Yes”, I said. “Fish.”
“Mermaids”, said Pedro.
I laughed. I think it was nerves, though snatching a quick glance at Pedro it was clear there was absolutely nothing in this whole sorry charade that could possibly warrant even the raising of a smile.
“Yep. Mermaids have gills”, I said. “How else would they breathe under water?”
“So, Pedro, do you see a lot of unicorns, dragons and mermaids in Alhendin?”
Continuing, awful silence, kind of like the silence I imagine must have pervaded the room (for a few seconds) when someone told Hitler in his Berlin bunker that the game was up in 1945. Silence full of the noise of impending death and mutilation. In this case, mine.
“Or cows”, I blundered on. “Do you see many cows here?” It was probably the most inane question I’ve ever asked anyone but my tongue and brain were no longer speaking to one another.
And then a remarkable thing happened. Pedro smiled.
“No”, he said. “There are no cows here.”
“Tentacles”, I said. “What animals have tentacles?”