Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmastide visitations

As I've drifted in and out of consciousness this Christmastide, I have had the most curious dreams. It's almost been as if spirits have been trying to show me what the future could hold. Dream interpretation goes in and out of fashion, of course. I may be experiencing no more than indigestion, for instance, and some of the dreams I've had lately have been too absurd to take seriously for a moment. Nevertheless, ludicrous fantasies and the promptings of ghosts are all part of the season, and maybe you, gentle reader, will be able to make some sense of them.

Yesterday morning I came to with voices telling me that our Glorious Coalition plan to allow online petitions to be debated in Parliament. One set of spirits were all squeaky and excited at the prospect saying it would be a marvellous way of really connecting with the people while another set of spirits groaned lugubriously that it was all a gimmick. What surprised me was that both sets of spirits thought that the leaders of the squeaky ghosts, Nickerless Clegg and David Clamber-on, were perfectly serious. I can't imagine that an online campaign to get a Jedi Knight into the cabinet would stand a chance, or that Wagner might be made Arts Minister, even if the former at least might be a good idea. In fact, a serious ghost informed me, absurdists would be filtered out so that only the genuine voice of the people could be heard calmly and politely requesting for example the return of hanging. Having already been mandated at a General Election (they were, surely, weren't they?) they would have every right to decide who was serious and who wasn't. And that's the problem right there.

Today I became conscious (I think) with the Ghost of Cricket Present telling me that we had retained the Ashes. Like most people, I don't really understand cricket. You can stare intently at the TV while a number of people dressed in the same white clothes wait for something to happen, and you can listen hard for clues in the murmered reminiscences of the commentators. You can also go on Wikipedia, as I have done, where there is yards and yards of explanation and history, but unless you follow cricket anyway, it's almost  impenetrable. For example the Ashes is a little urn reputedly containing the ashes of a cricket bail (or perhaps a woman's veil), presented to the defeated English cricketers by the ladies of Melbourne. This is what all the fuss is about, but actually this is not the official series trophy. The series is five matches, and a match can go on for five days - which is much longer than, say, a horse race, or any other sport. We've retained the Ashes because the Australians can now only equalise the series, England having won two, lost one and drawn another. But actually we haven't won yet. There's another match in Sydney - that is, another five days. So after all this time the result might be that England and Australia are - equal. From the media excitement you might think we had won already though.

Now that I partly understand it, the news about the Ashes is partly pleasing because I remember some Australian cricket captain celebrating a win over England with the words "I never could stick the Poms." That's us. I thought it uncharitable at the time, but as the ghost of Sophocles points out once more: "Those that overbear shall be brought to grief." You can take these things too seriously.

And now the Ghost of Christmas Future reminds me, before I slip into unconsciousness once more, that people are coming round for drinks and nibbles. He shows me a horrid vision of the fire unlit and me opening the door in my dressing gown to shivering uncomprehending neighbours. The cold living room is ankle deep in three days of newspapers all covered in cricket, which I still don't understand or care about, and absurdist Parlimentary motions. The tree is not switched on. In the back room there are socks on the floor and crumbs on the table. The spirit wordlessly points a bony finger towards Fruitcake's litter tray as a small child crawls innocently towards it.

I come too again overwhelmed with gratitude and relief. It's only middday! There is charity in my heart towards Australian cricket fans as I shower and shave, and bustle about emptying the litter tray and washing up cups and glasses. For it is still the festive season - even though I shall never sign an online petition for Parliament to debate the proposal for it to be Christmas every day. I might suggest that Fruitcake becomes Education Minister all the same.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Holly and the Ivy and the Artful Dodger

The last couple of days I've mostly been stealing holly. That's the thing with British culture - Dickens is the default setting. Mind you, the Head of Animal Care, an honest woman, did part with ready money, and got a lovely couple of bunches of fresh holly for three quid odd at the Women's Institute market. I too have been honestly to the shops for vegetables, vanilla essence, more beer, and the the like. But - apologies - sod the angelorum, the ox, the ass and that. What I want is dark greenery with blood berries, the spiky woodland by the barrow load, in the house. And the only ways to get the good stuff are a bit dodgy.

This means I've been in the lost lanes behind the supermarket with secateurs (and was rumbled by a spaniel), and sneaking into the allotments (with my own key - I'm not a complete felon). The weather suits a hood. Who questions a wheelbarrow or a rucksack? What a polite man whoever that winterthief was. And as I've been about my sometimes perfectly upright business this last couple of days (I did go literally arse over elbow on the ice yesterday morning), I have seen some stranger things than myself.

One was a girl who was dressed for the weather from the waist up, but otherwise was wearing just black tights. As fashion it was odd. Would you go swimming in the Mediterranean in August in a balaclava? Another thing is all that black stuff in the road. I know it's snow mixed with dirt, but it looks as if a Slush Puppy factory had burst doing liquorice flavour. It's one of the things that makes everything very black and white at the moment.

When I went to the allotment, I was unsurprisingly the only person there. I was however not the only creature in evidence. There were tracks everywhere: foxes, cats, crows and magpies - which are about as black and white as you get. One bird had been in a circle where our potatoes once were. A fox had walked across the garlic.

On my way back a hearse went by. There were flowers in the big window and a lightwood box. I knew it was a Rolls Royce from the flying lady on a radiator grill like a headstone. The deceased was accompanied by black clad gentlemen in tall hats up the white road. He or she was followed by two more big long rollers, black as liquorice, with two rows of seats stuffed with mourners in smart black coats.

It seems distinctly possible that crime might be a sensible move after employment in the public sector, and the Artful Dodger would, I'm sure have plenty to say about the opportunities emerging from the present political scene. In fact I think I passed Charles Dickens too - anyway someone who was mumbling in a big coat that was dark against the mucky snow as I went by with the holly.

God bless us, everyone!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

FMC Christmas end of term review

Here at FMC we learn from the local paper that Protesting Students Bring Centre to Standstill. Thanks to our Glorious Coalition the student dragon has awoken and become more powerful than snow. And what do they want? Education. You couldn't make it up. So what else, at this snowy end of term, have we learned?

 In keeping with practices at bigger colleges, at FMC we not only write down in a sciencey-looking spreadsheety way what we're going to do (learning objectives, strategic targets etc, etc, etbloodyc) we also grind our teeth and record outcomes. Obviously the graphs show a smooth upward curve and the stats bear out the insane optimism of our objectives and demonstrate SUCCESS. Huzzah for sciencey-stuff and here is our Christmas review.

What we have learned from being made redundant
1 One's worth and value were never actually apparent to some who wouldn't know what
  education meant if it bit them on the bum ( > 28% over benchmark)
2 They never seem to lose their jobs, even when they cock up (100% success rate)
3 One will never know what stitch ups have gone on at high levels (data currently unavailable)
4 No, David Cameron, you know we're not all in this together (UK pop 61,838,154 - source
  World Bank)
5 "Those who overbear shall be brought to grief (hopefully)" Sophocles (mostly) trans
   Seamus Heaney

What we have learned from re-employment by a formerly stray cat
1 You may wake up to find the Principal on your chest shouting for breakfast (50/50)
2 In evolutionary terms, becoming a pet is a very smart move ( > 5 years added value)
3 Relax. Someone will see to dinner and light a fire (100% of possible occasions)
4 Breeding counts for little (applies animal kingdom only)
5 Grooming is all (9 out of 10 cats)

What we have learned from a week with no boiler
1 Hot water is arguably the greatest benefit civilization confers (source Roman Empire)
2 The 50s and 60s weren't all they are cracked up to be (Dec 2010)
3 A new boiler is more than a month's wages for most people (slightly < £2000)
4 Even so the gas man is now your best mate (24:24)
5 It's all about the weather (-10C )

Health and Safety, Equality and Diversity Improvement Measures
The Principal has developed a possibly arthritic condition in his neck. Measures taken = raising his various dishes on bricks. Outcome = more grub down his neck + the place looks more like a tapas bar than ever

AoB Christmas cracker from the Head of Animal Care
Q: What goes 'Jing-e be- -s, jing-e be- -s'? A: No ell

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

An FMC Christmas to all our readers

Welcome to the Fruitcake Miniature College Christmas party. I'm afraid the new boiler doesn't go in till tomorrow so keep your coats on, but a glass of mulled sarcasm will have you pink-cheeked in no time. Also, for anyone warm enough to want to photocopy their bottom, the library is two minutes down the hill and (like the chicken) across the road.

When you've got a drink and a punning or ironic snack (mint-spies, kettle chips, turkey-that-voted-for-Xmas twizzlers), why don't we try a few carols? Since the old boiler (not a chicken) is truly clapped out, let's start with In the Deep Midwinter. It's surprising how chirpy Christina Rossetti sounds after a few verses. And let's not forget that many cultures celebrate at this time of year and do a few verses of We Wish You a Merry Multi-faith or None Season of Responsible Drinking.

Well, it sounds as though some of us have been drinking responsibly for ages now, and things are livening up. Let's have that absolute favourite Away with the Managers. And here's the Principal - just in time for Do they Know it's Fruitcake? Wow, things are really hotting up. There are couples in cupboards on cocaine. Ding Dong Merrily on High indeed. Well, after all that, let's take it down a bit with Merry Christmas - War is Back on Again.

That was fun. So let's have the crackers. If you come from a culture that rejoices in firework displays of near noise-weapon levels (e.g. Spain), the British cracker is a bit of a puzzle, especially since 'cracker' can mean 'an excellent thing', 'a truly attractive person,' or 'a very dull biscuit to eat with cheese'.They are mostly a bright paper tube that two of you pull. It goes snap, perhaps, and stuff falls out: a paper hat, a tiny object - quite often nail-clippers (no idea), and a joke. You have to read it out. Because it's Christmas.

Q: Why did the chicken go to the seance? A: To get to the other side.
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To proceed in very much the same direction as the previous government.
Q: Why did Nick Clegg cross the road? A: Because he said he wouldn't [Thanks to Charles - poet, teacher, and impressario - for that one]
Q: Why did Vince Cable cross the road? A: Because he could see those who voted for him coming up the pavement.
Q: Why did Tony Blair cross the road? A: Because Cherie had put the Mecedes on eBay.
Q: What would you get if you crossed Nick Clegg with David Cameron? A: David Cameron.
Q: What would you get if you crossed the road with 20p? A: An A3 copy of your bottom at the library (do call in while it's still there).

Anyway, the samosas, spring rolls and Doritos have all gone. Someone's trying to explain what's happening in the cricket in Australia. Someone else wants to know about zero preposition with di-transitive verbs. Let me get you your coat. Of course, you're still wearing it. Yes, lessons as normal till the end of next week. Lovely to see you. Merry Christmas.

Monday, 13 December 2010

plan, pledge, principal, principle, progressive, promise

Today's installment of the Fruitcake Miniature Dictionary of English is brought to you by the letter P. Some students may be surprised at how quickly some things have changed.

Plan noun and verb (to make an) announcement first thing in the morning after the Principal's breakfast, or soon thereafter, which results in the teaching staff getting out of bed without disturbing him to make tea and toast for the Head of Animal Care. The announcement may open with the words "I've got a plan," which may incorrectly suggest something more significant than grilled wholemeal.

Pledge noun and verb (to give a) solemn written undertaking, metaphorically if not literally in blood, not to support a rise in tuition fees for students in higher education, which may be reneged upon in the name of compromise with the forces of darkness (c.f. Faust).

Principal noun cat called Fruitcake, titular head of the eponymous Fruitcake Miniature College and sponsor of this publication. Spelling often confused with following.

Principle noun something that should not change or be lost, whichever way the wind may blow, and which should inform one's promises, pledges and the like to e.g. not ever support a rise in tuition fees. Analogous to gold as a thing of great value that is incorruptible and cannot be tarnished, Nick Clegg.

Progressive adjective good, unevil, maybe expensive and involving a life of debt, but definitely not nasty. Possibly meaningless by the time you read this.

Promise 1 noun and verb (to give an) inconvenient and regrettable undertaking which is wholly conditional on future circumstances and which one cannot be held to as, hey, things change, and one's support for the exact opposite position is what retains the fig-leaf of a mandate for a party that couldn't get a majority in a general election however annoyed the voters were with Labour. 2 noun previous position, not to be confused with present position which prompts awful mental images.

Hey, you missed out 'politics,' and 'party'!
No I didn't. And for your diary next week - the Fruitcake Miniature College Christmas party.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A letter Liu Xiaobo will never get

Dear Liu Xiaobo

Congratulations on your Nobel Peace Prize, and on having no enemies, even when your own government think you are so dangerous that they have locked you up.

Of course they are right; you are dangerous to them. If the freedom of speech and the non-violence you espouse became a reality in China, the power of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party would melt like snow. I believe they say in the context of free speech and uncontrolled media that a spark can start a forest fire. Again they are right. Look at how something quite silly can become a craze on the the internet - or how a picture of a dead girl from someone's phone can become a symbol that threatens the theocrats of Iran.

It may be a very long time before your words of peace and freedom can be heard by everyone in China, but it could never happen if you and others had done nothing. Maybe your words have something to teach us here in the West too - me for one, but our governments as well. Because there is another way in which your government is partly right: we talk about the pot calling the kettle black, meaning that you can't call someone dirty if you are not very clean yourself. Your government is very sensitive to criticism from the west about such things as the deaths in Tianamen Square. And they are very quick to point out our own defects. We abhor torture - but we practise it in secret. We denounce dictatorships but do deals in private. We make promises, then break them, say one thing but do another. This is true, but I am not in prison for pointing it out.

However, this is telling you nothing you don't know (especially as you are not allowed to read it). So who then am I? A teacher like you. Like you I am not teaching at the moment, but this is because of economics not politics (though it is indirectly about politics). But I am in a comfortable house, not prison. True the boiler has stopped working and it's minus 5C outside, but this hardly matters. We've got a fire and I can have a shower at my neighbours' tomorrow. The big news here in the UK (apart from the snow and ice) is that the Government has, with an interestingly small majority, passed a bill that means it will be very expensive to be a university student here in future, and then you will be in debt for a very long time. Your education will either hang round your neck like a weight or you will give up the idea of education. To me, as a teacher, this is a shameful act by my government as I believe that education should be an entitlement not a privilege.

Last year, I had a question from one of my students that I couldn't answer at the time. "What have you learned," she asked, "from your students?" I was thinking about that today, about you, your prize and your imprisonment, and I decided that  the answer was this: my students have taught me that education is the freedom to ask questions, and that a teacher may have to cross a bridge just to hear those questions.

And all over the world there are very powerful people who dislike questions, because questions are sparks.

With very best wishes

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

OK OK it's Christmas soon

For once the adverts match the weather, and so do the dingly-danglies and carols in department stores and supermarkets. Perhaps this is nature's recessionary revenge on the big stores, and indeed on dingly-danglies, because Christmas Day itself is often just a bit damp. Every year thousands of small children who believe in Father Christmas and snow must feel vindicated on the one hand by the pile of stuff in a pillow case called a stocking, only on the other hand to rush to the window and be crushed by a vista of wet tarmac. If it's true I only have to believe hard enough, and you pump high volumes of sparkles and white stuff through my TV programmes, what then - they must ask so often at 5 a.m. on the 25th of December - has happened here?

Well children, this time Jack Frost has said "OK, OK, your mawkish mish-mash of myth and marketing is all but upon you, here's the real thing for free - deep and crisp and even." There are some slight drawbacks. If perchance you have spent the night in your Ford Focus on the M8 in Scotland wondering why Armageddon was unexpectedly white (hi Steve), you will be less charmed than, say, a redundant teacher who is a little unbalanced but is at least looking out from an upstairs window. If you are planning to clomp about Hardacre Collage in your hiking boots hoping to be clocked by senior managers before going home early, then you will slightly resent a former colleague gazing out at the hoary beauty of his own back garden while you get there.

We all have to share the hard times, though, as our Government so correctly but hypocritically point out. Thus it is that the Head of Animal Care is today walking to Pilates, the bloody battery for the Fruitcake Miniature College transport having been unable to cope with demand. Likewise, Fruitcake himself has been a worry, as faithful readers will know. He is having to curtail excursions into the back lanes, drink indoors, and make up for it all by sleeping a lot and being exceptionally choosy about what to eat.

Nevertheless, those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties are, obscurely, on the same side as Jack Frost. We remember ice on the insides of windows, not to mention dressing next to a smelly parafin heater. We remember Christmas as yards and yards of going to church and making stuff out of paper. There was our primary school party - all flour, sugar, colouring, the things made out of paper, and of course carols. It was very heavy on Baby Jesus. Your Christmas stocking was actually a sock, with an orange in the bottom of it. There were other things in it too; I think there was a lot of that sixties plastic that was a bit like tough toffee, also Mars Bars, that kind of thing. Christmas dinner, like it or not, included sprouts and bread sauce. We shared the hard times all right. The cat lived outside, by the way. Funnily enough, it was way back then (1957 to be precise) when Harold Macmillan told us that we "had never had it so good." Lord Young recently, you may remember, didn't get away with expressing the same sentiment.

But FMC does like Christmas, doesn't it? Please say yes. Oh alright then, maybe once it's arrived. The official FMC position is that real snow is wonderous (sorry Steve on the M8), fake snow is crap (sorry Sir Tesco), sprouts are actually not too bad, something roasted is great, along with proper beer, family and good friends, oh and single malt - not to mention, of course, the temporary cessation of any work at all - and, yes, carols, mawkish though they sometimes are. So do come along to the Fruitcake Miniature College end of term Christmas party. Venue: these electric paragraphs, time and date TBA

Friday, 3 December 2010

Sepp Blatter unites England, Fruitcake sick

FIFA's president Sepp Blatter has temporarily united England (not to be confused with the Kingdom) across the political divides. He and his organisation's apparent intense dislike of us is possibly because our own Football Association had a half-hearted go at getting him out of his post, and possibly also because we have an irritatingly free press, some of whom have alleged that FIFA is a corrupt gerontocracy. So, Russia get the 2018 World Cup (the Wikileak stuff about mafia being obviously wrong then), and Qatar - a nation composed of sand - get 2022. Anyway, time to move on. Mostly. Those dates feel like science fiction anyway. Maybe aliens have taken control of FIFA. But, moving on.

More important to Fruitcake Miniature College is the news that Fruitcake, our cat and Principal, is poorly. A couple of days ago the Head of Animal Care and the teaching staff noticed that his usual combination of greed and fussiness (a common trait in the powerful) had gone to another level, and his bulletins were becoming urgent. We found ourselves on our knees hand-feeding him morsels of tuna, slivers of grilled herring, and special crunchy things with magical properties.

Drinking has been similarly complicated (and almost humiliating). Because of a period of vagrancy in our Principal's rise to the top, he still drinks outside, and only water at a particular level of standing greenness. This is tricky when everything is frozen, so ice lids have been removed by hand, snow collected and brought indoors in a pudding bowl, and the like. Consequently Fruitcake's private eating quarters now resemble a tapas bar.

Luckily if unusually, this particular senior education manager counts among his lady friends a very brainy person, who has a degree in getting medicine into cats. And yesterday, the H of AC whisked him yodelling off in the car to see her. He came back high as a kite on the fruits of his private medical package. Steroids were certainly in the mixture, as was an anti-depressant. To the relief of the whole college, today he has eaten entirely unaided, albeit modestly, and we've upped his intake of De-fur-ums (I know, I know).

Against this background of a management crisis, too much talk about football, and sub-arctic conditions, the teaching staff have ploughed on as normal with lessons. But then, what's new? You might say that life is too short, too busy, too underfunded - and at the moment too cold - to spend time feeding titbits to a noisy, demanding, and uncommunicative tyrant. If such practices were endemic in, say, international trade, world sport, or geo-politics (you might ask) where would we be? But, you see, the sad truth is that Fruitcake Miniature College is a corrupt gerontocracy. So we will leave you with this football inspired entry for the Fruitcake Malaprop Competition: sick as a cat.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Wikileaks Wikiweeps

What is the FMC position on BBC allegations of corruption made against FIFA's vice-presidents just as we're bidding to host the 2018 World Cup? This bid, by the way, having produced a 'dream' team of Prince Charming, Beckers, and someone the Governor of the Bank of England says is 'inexperienced' - our PM, according to Wikileaks. And where do we stand on the Wikileaks question? Do we say the truth was always inconvenient, and that exposing corruption and wrong-doing should not wait, or do we say embarrassing diplomats and their governments is one thing, but endangering British soldiers' lives is another? As Pakistan's Ambassador to the UK might say, it's a can of words.

One place to stand with respect to leaks is alongside Pete the boiler man. Faithful readers of these electric paragraphs will remember him from sometime in August or September. This morning I was clearing a path for Pete to get at the boiler, which is losing pressure at an awkward time, while listening to the BBC's Today programme. The Pakistani Ambassador was reassuring us that his government was well able to keep nuclear material out of terrorist hands. Pressed to explain fears to the contrary raised by Wikileaks, he rumbled in reply, rather wonderfully, that "You can make a whole mountain out of a mole." Well, here at Fruitcake Miniature College we certainly intend to try.

So I can now announce the grand Fruitcake Malaprop Competion. There will be two sections: one for idioms and proverbs (that is to say for malapropisms proper), and the other for redundant copy on packaging and the like (such as packets of nuts that may contain nuts). Submissions for the first section may be invented but authentic usage will obviously score over smartypantsness. Submissions for the second section will need to be genuine. Here a few examples to start you off:

Idioms and proverbs
*You can take a horse to Waterstones ...
* Many slip a Twix between cup and lip.
* Not enough room to swing a dog (with thanks to Fruitcake the cat)
* There's more than one way to skin a dog, or a fox for that matter (thanks, that's plenty)

Nuts nuts
* This product contains magnets (label on Dracula fridge magnet adorning FMC boiler)
* Solutions Solutions (company offering help with crosswords )
* This boiler contains nuts (OK, I made the last two up)

Anyway, Pete says the problem is basically a crap boiler installed by British Gas on one of their special deals, and there are one or two 'weeps', which are very slight, possibly undetectable leaks (you can see where this is going) causing a drop in pressure. He tightened some nuts, showed us how to boost the pressure if need be, finished his tea, and didn't charge. Leaders of the world, learn from this plumber.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Is the Secretary of State for Education a dangerous zealot?

Last night, sitting by the fire contemplating the winter chill and the bleak political landscape, I was visited in my head by an imaginary Tory. Whether some inner debate function had failed to close, I don't know. Maybe redundancy makes you hear voices. Anyway, it appears I had provoked the imaginary Tory a day or so ago with my disparagement of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, who in my opinion is a dangerous zealot.

IT: Are you anti Michael Gove just because he looks a bit funny and sounds keen?
AT: He does come across a bit bonkers, yes. And there is something about him that by-passes my intellect. But there are non-Tories who have the same effect.
IT: Tony Blair? Hazel Blears? Nick Clegg?
AT: Spot on. The first two seem so long ago now.
IT: And would there be an element of class consciousness in your reaction?
AT: Possibly. It's certainly a collective failure that this country is still divided on class lines, to the disadvantage of very many.
IT: Good God, I thought Marxism was dead! But you see Michael Gove isn't the Tory toff you imagine. He was adopted, and he went to public sector and independent schools. As for you, you went to a grammar school and got a grant to go to university free.
AT: So there is a file on me somewhere. But no, it's not where people come from but where they are now that I care about. Too many people in politics (and education management and other top jobs) have a poisonous sense of their own entitlement and rightness on no qualifications, or direct experience of ordinary people's lives.
IT: Michael Gove is 100% genuine in his convictions.
AT: They often are.
IT: But look at his ideas. Don't you want the dead hand of New-Labour-inspired bureaucracy lifted from education? You were on about it only the other day. What's wrong with the idea of people being able to set up their own free schools, or with providing extra lessons for poor kids on Saturdays? For heaven's sake, don't we need to take education away from Local Education Authorities, and let the ordinary people you say you champion have the choice of not going to the rubbish local school where kids get stabbed?
AT: A kid got stabbed in my grammar school. My friend shot someone in the bum with an air pistol in chess club.
IT: You know what I mean.
AT: Yes, freedom from bureaucracy, but you don't have to dismantle publicly provided support for education to give teachers more say, any more than you have to privatise the NHS to give nurses less paperwork. In fact it's all just a screen for the right's dislike of anything provided publicly. You want someone, preferably your own supporters, to own it so that shareholders and entrepreneurs decide education (or public health) priorities. Because ultimately you want the populace to keep its head down and go to work for as little reward as possible instead of asking questions. You don't want the status quo challenged by people educated to ask pertinent questions any more than Tony Blair and his zealots did.
IT: So you want LEAs rather than the people to run schools?
AT: I want good education provided publicly for all. So I don't want people with a their own private agendas getting funds that would have gone to nearby public provision. Calling such schools 'free' is not honest, because they are a state-funded opt-out.
IT: So LEAs are good then?
AT: They are an agency of local government (and I thought you people liked government to be local). They are thus imperfect and prone to generate too many initiatives and too much paperwork. But when Hardacre Collage came out of LEA control and went corporate - the bureaucracy rocketed. Any management, public or private, that has no direct experience or involvement in the education itself and has a vested interest (e.g. a high salary, a political, religious or commercial position) to protect or promote will always fail to understand well what learners and their teachers really need. Unfortunately, the right  - and New Labour too - have exploited anxious parents' readiness to believe a set of urban legends about their local schools, and a dark strand in this is class and race.
IT: But schools do fail, and succeed.
AT: They do, though no one ever seems to question the targets. And, giving funding to so called 'free' schools, buddying 'failing' schools up with 'successful' ones, and providing lessons on Saturdays to keep proles out of trouble doesn't begin to address the issues.
IT: But you still think Michael Gove is a bit weird. Even though he thinks music should be on the curriculum for everyone?
AT: I do. Beer?
IT: Have you got a malt?
AT: Sloe gin do?
IT: Yes, that would be interesting. Bottoms up.
AT: Not top down.
IT: So we do agree about something then.
AT: I doubt it.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Santa ignored on A666 winter wonderland

The UK is all about weather. Even so, when the FMC Outreach team got in the car to visit Aunty, it was a surprise to see a local garage offering folding shovels free with every eight litres of oil. The poster suggested that the handle folded three times and the blade folded in half lengthways - the idea being, I suppose, that you could put it in the glove box until you need to dig your way out of a snow drift, and presumably, if things got really bad you could set fire to some of your cornucopia of engine oil. It looked like something from the late lamented Innovations catalogue, which used to offer hilariously outsize remotes you couldn't lose, solar powered fairy lights, and fleece blankets with hoods (which no doubt are for when you get snowed in on the sofa without a folding shovel).

The journey to Aunty's took us past Hardacre Collage at a time of day I would normally have been teaching. There was a light on in my old office, where I guess someone was wildly cobbling together a spreadsheet of imaginary figures to suggest that some initiative or other was being taken forward in full anticipation of all targets being met within budget in an aggressive funding environment whilst embedding functional skills and remaining fully inclusive. I must admit that I broke into an imaginary sweat till we got through the lights and away. We proceeded to Aunty's without further imaginings - until we arrived. She was there but didn't know where she was, though the Germans were involved, and she described herself as a lost golfball.

The week got colder, and the photo at the top of the page came true. However, last night our Principal had all his feet in the same place, because when a cat has every paw together it means he or she is curled in bliss (having a remarkable skeleton) and that there is a fire. Fruitcake luxuriated all Friday night in its glow, and in the vague knowledge that it was snowing and that once he was a vagrant but now is a billionaire education manager.

As I said, we are a nation made by our weather, a bit like Russia. Mind you, Napoleon would have done better to have headed for Oxford or Ashby-de-la-Zouch rather than Moscow. Though last night, he and his troops might have got snowed in somewhere on the A46 in a Little Chef car park. But if we are now a land of roundabouts and slip roads, we still thrill to the chill and hope it all becomes a 1950s Narnia of porridge and apple-cheeked scallywags, and that we get a day off because everything is shut thanks to a wonderful national lack of foresight. That said, we probably split fifty-fifty into pro and anti snow, and the telly reckons we've got more salt and grit than last year.

Nonetheless, there were signs on the A666 today saying sledges for sale, and the man outside the fish shop was desperately claiming that oysters keep colds and flu at bay (how much more British than the usual claim for oysters). A better claim might be that they boost intelligence. Then, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education and another kind of fruitcake) might prescribe them for the lower orders to have on Saturday instead of the extra lessons he's suggesting at present. More about him, no doubt, next week. Later still, mid afternoon (that is, as darkness began to loom), a flock of young Santas, elves, reindeer and snowmen went by, collecting for Wallace and Gromit's Grand Appeal. They were, in the main, largely ignored, except by lorry drivers who tooted the pertest elves. It is after all, despite the early winter wonderland, too early to bring up the subject of Christmas. So let's get out the grit and the folding shovel. With the Tories back, we're going to need them.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

British students revolting at last

With apologies - and indeed thanks  - to Broadway, Nickomo, and many jazz greats

Students of popular song have been clamouring for the Fruitcake Miniature College interpretation of the much-covered standard The Sunny Side of the Street (1930, Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh), which was written in response to the 1930s depression. British students have been clamouring too, recently, arguing that if a life of debt is bad for a nation, it is also surely bad for those in that nation in education. FMC supports current non-violent action by protesting students.

Grab your coat and get your hat            * Young people never seem to dress up warm
Leave your worries on the doorstep        *They're nothing compared to future debt
Just direct your feet
To the sunny side of the street               *Yeah, go on, cheer up!
Can’t you hear a pitter-pat?
And that happy tune is your step           *Like marching
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street              * and with a large bonus from a job in a bank
I used to walk in the shade
With those blues on parade                  * But I don't listen to Morrissey these days
But I’m not afraid
This rover crossed over                        * Nick Clegg has lost all credibility
If I never had a cent
I’d be rich as Rockerfeller                    * Though philosophically this is a hard position to
                                                           maintain in the face of huge tuition fees
Gold dust at my feet                           * Early use of irony in Broadway musicals
On the sunny side of the street            * Threadneedle Street (look it up)

No use scheming and no use dreaming     
And no use chasing the rainbow           * Maybe join the army
There’s no need to look glum                * Grin maniacally as you sofa surf through your 
                                                            unpaid internship
Take things just as they come              * You never know who may offer a sofa
Life’s a holiday, just a jolly day
Made for laughter and play                   * Until you leave primary school
If you’d have your share of fun
There’s but one thing to be done…       * Brew your own and knuckle down to work in a
                                                            call centre
Grab your coat….                               * Endlessly .... 

Next week we will visit The End by the Doors, unless begged not to

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Curing the recession with horseradish sauce

At the weekend you can be normal, socialise and cook, never mind the state of the nation. And so the Head of Animal Care and the teaching staff went to a lovely birthday party. As well as hearty congratulations, cake, long conversations and drinks, there were lots of interesting things to eat, which moved me to provide the promised recipe for the cure for the common cold and for the recession. Here they are.

Cure for the common cold, or how to make horseradish sauce (serves 4)
1 Get hold of some horseradish root. If you want, you can chop it into handy chunks and freeze it. You can then use it directly from frozen or defrosted.
2 Take a piece about the size of a big walnut, or two or three skinny bits about an inch or so long, and scrape off the white outer skin (think of it as tough ginger root). You might start weeping and blowing your nose straight away - and don't rub your eyes or imagine it could spice up any other parts of your delicate self.
3 Chop it into small bits and pound in a morter and pestle. It's very fibrous, but this is the bit that will cure your cold. You will need a box of tissues on hand. Alternatively whizz it up in a blender, which will not cure your cold unless you inhale on lifting the lid, in which case you may never complain about the recession or indeed speak again
4 Nearly done. Add a scant half teaspoon of sugar, a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of vinegar (cider vinegar goes well). At this point you can also add half a spoon of mustard powder too, which helps if the horseradish is relatively mild. Mix everything, and stir in three or four heaped teaspoonsful of creme fraiche (about the same quantity as you have of pounded horseradish). Taste gingerly (or radically) to see if it needs a little more of anything. Serve almost immediately, traditionally with roast beef, mackerel or other oily or smoked fish, or anything you might enjoy with strong pickles. It freezes well.

Cure for the common recession, or how to make analogy sauce (serves them right)
1 Get hold of the root cause (Wikepedia no help here, sorry - suggest greed coupled with naive faith in unfettered free-market economics).
2 Take a chunk of greed (there may be a lot of mud to wash off first), expose the pungent part by peeling back the smooth tough skin, and chop into manageable bits.
3 Pound furiously with the pestle of ridicule in the mortar of irony (sarcasm will do), weeping copiously as you do so.
4 Nearly better. Add salt of the sweat of your brow, the strong vinegar of disapproval (tarragon can be nice), and a little sugar (they've got to swallow it after all). Be careful about inhaling, and serve immediately, preferably at Lord Young's table. Alternatively put in posh little pots and place innocently on tables at such places as the Bullingden Club, the Bank of England, 10 Downing Street, etc. May export, does not freeze.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Giving up drugs and thanking the Lord

Good news - I've kicked the drugs. The other good news comes from Lord Young, until recently our Prime Minister's enterprise adviser (neither do I). Lord Young told the Daily Telegraph that during the 'so-called recession' most of us had 'never had it so good.' On top of this wonderful news, I have also cured the common cold, which I will come to in a moment, but first I must thank Lord Young.

You see, I had thought that I had been made redundant in uncertain times late in my career with negative consequences for a public sector pension characterised as 'gold-plated' but amounting to maybe £8000 pa (please count those noughts carefully before dividing by 12). It turns out I was wrong, and I have this magnificently wizened specimen from Margaret Thatcher's former cabinet to thank for the relief brought about by this correction of my perceptions. I am sure my former students would join me in gratitude for his reassurance that 'the vast majority of  people [...] have never had it so good.' The fact that interest rates have been 0.5 for the last 18 months is not lost on us either, even though most of my former students pay rent rather than mortgages. Nevertheless, it's a comfort to us all that capital is cheap at the moment, if you can persuade anyone to lend you any.

So I am disappointed in that otherwise terrific David Cameron and his swash-buckling coalition of right thinking merchant venturers. It seems they do not have the courage of Lord Young's convictions. There have been retractions and apologies, and now Lord Young has resigned. Disgraceful! The man said what the rest of the crew are thinking. Do you really want the voters to get the impression you are ashamed of such 'insensitive views'? Anyway, he's certainly opened my eyes. I'm not redundant, I'm self employed. The coffers of FMC are not perilously low but have huge capacity for future funds.

It may also be that my cure for the common cold can cure political perspective too. It is a herbal treatment of my own - or rather a radical one - using horseradish root (radix radicis root - keep up at the back). I was making horseradish sauce. The piece of root I was pounding was particularly pungent, so I was weeping and streaming copiously while listening to the news, which was fizzing at Lord Young's comments. Lo, my cold felt ten times better, I skipped my dose of Day Nurse, and gave thanks to the Lord.

Return soon for the recipe for horseradish sauce and a cure for the common recession.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

the royal engagement, death and drugs

Maybe all the drugs I'm on are fighting each other, because I feel weird and can't get very excited about the fact that Prince William, second in line to the throne, has proposed to his long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton. However I'm not so out of it as to lose all vestige of cunning; the plan is to hook lots of readers simply by alluding to to the royal engagement. See how you can be manipulated by media? Mind you, the engagement does prompt questions. What kind of society are we that our head of state is unelected? Why devote thousands of words to the fact that a 'middle class girl' will become a princess? I know it's November and wet, but isn't there any other kind of fun? Back to the drugs.

I'm on Night Nurse for nights and Day Nurse for the day. I seem to remember there was a reggae song about the former, which may tell you something. Anyway you can get them over the counter and they work. This is just as well because I have an actual real world task to perform beyond the bounds of FMC. I have to go and get a copy of Uncle Bob's death certificate (you don't want to know) and I have to get it done by midday. Feeling poorly, I go by bus. Unfortunately the driver is making sure he doesn't leave any stop early. Also no-one's got any change. It's already 11.20. Tick tock. There's a man wearing too much denim and a special hat who knows when this bus is supposed to be where, how this connects to every other bus, how long any of this it should take and could take, and how everywhere connects with everywhere else. Maybe he's on the Day Nurse too, and it takes him differently. Anyway, he's got the total stranger next to him on a knife edge of boredom and terror. Tick tock.

I make it. The Register Office - Births Marriages and Deaths is a metaphor just waiting to happen. It probably counts as an allegory. It's really busy for one thing. You have to go to a little hatch. OK, then you have to fill in a form (red for marriage, black for death), but there is definitely something about it that feels like an ante-chamber in a bureaucratic pre/afterlife. As something of an expert on bureacracy though, I can tell you that this place crackles with helpfulness. When I say we don't know how old Uncle Bob was because the mad old bastard was hiding from the law and devoted his life to being invisible, they smile and say it's OK. I hand in the form on the tock of midday, thus ensuring the solicitor will get it tomorrow. You still don't want to know. Tick tock.

Luckily the drugs don't prevent me from promptly catching the next bus back to Fruitcake Miniature College. They do though , I suspect, explain why I find a poster outside a church advertising 'light lunches' very strange. What exactly is a light lunch? Where can I get a heavy one? What was the mess I made on my desk at lunchtime when employed? Also I'm fascinated by a van owned by a company called SnacksDirect. A genius in marketing copy has been at work. Emblazoned on the van is 'always delivering retail snack solutions'. How many of the words apart from 'snacks' do anything there? Is there some retailing puzzle only solved by endlessly mobile peanuts and crisps? It was lucky for the lady who was next to the man in denim that she didn't get me too on the way back.

The verbal elation didn't last. In case you think redundancy is all lying about with the cat, despite the Head of Animal Care's valiant efforts with soup and chocolate, back at FMC I fell into a pit of gloom about my pitiful pension and continued lack of employment. This evening I got some bottles of Speckled Hen to augment the various nurses. So you see, redundancy leads to drink, drugs and death certificates. Now I understand why Captain Hook was so terrified of the crocodile that had swallowed a clock. Tick tock.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Sickies, scams, standards, and soup

Today the teaching staff are all in bed with the Principal. I realise this sounds cramped, but when you remember we have a teaching staff of one, and that our Principal here at Fruitcake Miniature College is a cat, the visuals may settle down a bit. Also, though I am actually in bed, and Fruitcake is here too, he is merely on the bed. We do have some standards.

When I was at Hardacre Collage, where I taught before being made redundant, we had standards too. True these were often double standards: teaching and other college staff worked like lunatics to provide a place for people to learn in, while some other people in the college made that difficult. These other people saw their mission as the service of bureaucracy in the name of funding. While they were mostly not very good at that, they are mostly still there. Sadly, they couldn’t generate quite enough funding to justify the continued employment of some of us earning less than themselves.

You might think it sounds like a scam. Not a bit of it. A scam, should you be unfamiliar with the term, is a deception by which you mislead people to your own advantage, for instance to part with money. There were of course other people outside the college who were indeed parting with money - broadly speaking, the Government (the whole complicated nest of agencies involved being too tedious to mention), which ultimately is us again, the public.

Those agencies too tedious to mention also had standards - the sort of that require endlessly recording in a madly permutating pseudo-scientific manner everything you do or plan to do, so you have no time to do anything properly. When added to double standards and spiralling inefficiencies, it was enough to make you want to throw a sicky, which is when you can’t face work so you ring up and say feebly that you have dengue fever, volcanic eruptions, or whatever, and which is not quite a scam.

Yes, yes, but what are you doing in bed instead of out looking for work? Because I’m sick, and the Principal has curled up alongside. A few moments ago, I was calculating how many days I had off  in twenty years. Maybe twenty, and no sickies, not through virtue but because the catching up later meant a day in bed wasn't worth it. As I contemplated this the phone rang. It was Jason, speaking American English not as his first language. He wanted to take me to my Temporary Internet files and persuade me these were all viruses. Fixing them would entail downloading something tasty. Luckily, I know what 'Jason' was doing is truly a scam, so I taught him a two-syllable intransitive phrasal verb. Unluckily I’ve got a horrible cold, but the Head of Animal Care is making chicken soup.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

British English

Here as promised is the next installment of the FMDE. Students of varieties of English may notice that with one exception the following are British English definitions.

Labour noun (one belonging to) political party formed by working people wanting rights and representation. Though often described as centre-left, and despite membership of the Socialist Internationale, the aggregate of British Labour Party membership and policies comes out of the wash a very pale pink, and in the late 1990s the party was held down and tatooed on the forehead with the adjective 'New,' during Tony Blair's successful bid to become a conservative prime minister. After a chat between Tony Blair and US President George W Bush, Labour promptly shot itself in the foot in Iraq. The party has a pronounced limp to this day, made worse by its haste to reduce civil liberties and it's eagerness to embrace unregulated free-market economics. The patient did not thrive under the care of Gordon Brown, and while it remains to be seen whether colour will be restored to its pallid cheeks by Ed Milliband, at present it currently languishes on the opposition benches watching the baying toffs and queasy looking Lib Dems on the other side.

Layabout noun unemployed or newly redundant person undeserving of even reduced benefits because of their lack of sufficient inventiveness or energy to get on a bus or bicycle, or to pull themselves along by their bootstraps, to see if the Big Society needs anything, and who may be found making spurious definitions of already well known words at a time of morning when others have already earned a biscuit at the office; natural Labour supporter who may be disillusioned.

Liberal adj & noun 1 American E (individual with views that are) extreme left wing, supportive of those we currently hate esp terrorists, yet also spineless, ineffectual, and of questionable sexuality; likely to opine that the favoured translations into the English language of the collection of ancient documents comprising the Christian bible may not be literally true in every respect. 2 British E (individual with views that are) socially tolerant but economically conservative; slightly grand or middle class; typical of one whose political party has been digested having supped with the devil using too short a spoon

More soon, possibly at A for 'anarcho-syndicalist', if the Big Society doesn't re-educate the college laptop. NB assignments from the trip to the future were due in later this week.

Monday, 8 November 2010

College trip to 2210

Thanks to the Science Fiction team for making possible the Fruitcake Miniature College trip into the future. This was, oddly enough, in a week when the British papers reported that the Prime Minister's personal photographer had been appointed to a Civil Service post, and that the longer-term unemployed were going to have to do unpaid work or lose benefit.

I think everyone found the trip fascinating. The staff accompanying came back to the present with nearly everybody (if not 100%, with certainly well above the national bench mark for college trips to the future). The coach company, it has to be said, were disappointed about the paintwork - paradoxes apparently don't do it a lot of good, and we had to get back on board a bit smartish after making the mistake of photographing a bank-sponsered police officer who we were asking asking for directions to the Houses of Parliament. All the same, of the returners, no-one reported a missing bag or coat.

I don't want to anticipate everyone's project work on how twenty years hence actually looks, but I do have to say that the news is not that good. Also writing this all up is, frankly, going to cause havoc in grammar lessons, and the teaching staff are talking about a need for new modal auxiliary verbs. But anyway, the Coalition are (will be?) entering a third decade, and no-one can remember why they are called that. The slogan on all the hoardings is  "The Coalition  - of all the people, for the Big Society." I can imagine there were rows behind the reinforced doors about that comma too, maybe deaths as well.

There's certainly been some electoral reform though, which would please Nick Clegg wherever he might be. Lord David is still very much in evidence. Not only is he on those hoardings, but also some of us got a very interesting message on our mobiles puportedly from him (certainly the right accent and head-boy tone) telling us where the nearest Work Opportunity Camp was and not to forget a tent and a spoon. We also managed to get a copy of the Daily Murdoch, though it combusted on re-entry. According to it's front page, as I recall, the Archbishop of Canterbury had written from the Tower of London retracting comments on the persecution of the poor and petitioning the King for clemency. Oh yes, and a British undergraduate single-mother got the Nobel Peace Prize.

So, though it was a slightly shorter trip than planned, we've brought back plenty of interesting material, and we'll be working with the Philosophy team on the question of whether you can change the future through the use of sarcasm. It may be our only hope.

Friday, 5 November 2010

American English

Today at Fruitcake Miniature College the drizzle has intensified to the point that Fruitcake, our Principal, won't go out the back door. Also everything is an hour later, meaning darkness is an hour earlier. Apparently this is to accomodate Scottish farmers. Far be it from FMC to diss Scottish farmers, but a recent scientific survey in a newspaper shows that 101% of British humans find the whole thing a bit tedious and confusing.

The second half of term is underway, though, and today we looked at miniature grammatical differences between the meanings of, say, "Did you hear the news?" and "Have you heard the news?" One of those differences is that the first question would be more common in  American English, and the second would, in certain circumstances, be more common in British English. Interestingly, style-gurus and prescriptive grammarians will happily accept differences between US and British English, and get very hot under the collar about regional differences or things that are changing. "Less" and "fewer", for example. Here at FMC we do know the difference there, for what it's worth. We also know the differences between simple past and present perfect, but these don't get in the press or in life-enhancing books.

So back to the questions. Phil Woolas, a Labour MP and shadow immigration minister, has been suspended from the Labour Party for telling porkies (pies - lies) about a Lib Dem rival in the recent election, and there will thus be a re-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth (if you like names get a good map of the UK). Luckily the letter L is the next feature lexicographically in the FMDE. Look out for 'lies', 'Labour' and 'Liberal' before long.

In fact, though, it's not tiny grammatical differences on either side of the Atlantic that are getting attention here at the moment. 19th century Irish writer Oscar Wilde famously quipped, to Mark Twain for all I know, that Britain and the US were divided by a common language. Nice one, but actually parts of the UK (not to mention Ireland) are just as divided in that respect. I think the big difference, bearing in mind those two minimally distinctive questions in our lesson today, is the Tea Party. Go back under your stone if you are not American and don't know who they are, and don't recall waves of international joy when Barack Obama became President of the USA.

America, you do not have a monopoly on fruitcakes. Here in Blighty we have our own very full complement. However we can't get a handle on your brand of fruitcake at all. This is more baffling than minor grammatical and lexical variations, and our question is: why are they so angry about the idea of something like the National Health Service? We are not communists (in the main). True, flying the Union Flag on the lawn over here would be wet and embarrasing (unless there's an enormous football match), and saluting it before lessons would be rather naff. The NHS, though, it has been said, is actually the nearest thing the British have to a religion. We think it's really good you don't have to pay when you go to hospital. We go there all the time, sometimes just to get out of the rain.

We do know what the media are like. We get clips of your loonies specially packaged, probably. But why do they think that scientists are cross-breeding humans with animals, and that Charles Darwin was any less than a rather clever old buffer who realised that the Lord God Almighty didn't actually put various kinds of finches in different places on the Galapagos Islands actually by His own Hand? Did we do something awfully wrong when we sent Puritans in boats your way?

By the way, we'd rather like all that tea back, actually.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Welcome back to Fruitcake Minature College

Welcome back from the half-term break. Returning students will be delighted to receive, at no extra fee, the first installment of the Fruitcake Miniature Dictionary of English (or FMDE as it will be no doubt be referred to throughout academia). In honour of our Principal we begin with C for Cat. Likewise, smarty-pants will notice, strict alphabetical order is not observed absolutely.

Cat noun 1 superior being, Felis catus; apparently indolent creature that nevertheless rises to  position of great comfort and influence. 2 Fat cat one gaining undeserved but extravagent rewards, e.g. as unearned bonus - see also puss, pussy, woosy, wuzza (wuzza) etc etc etc, as in "Mm, nice sardine for a wuzza?"

Cable verb to signal desperately but in ultimately futile manner that one is progressive, while being frogmarched in a direction that is opposite to one previously indicated.

Cameron noun awfully decent sort from frightfully good family who is just the chap in the current ghastly mess to sort out the poor, the ne'er-do-wells, and so forth.

Clegg verb comb. form of clog and leg as in leg up and leg it = to impede general progress in the act of personal political advancement and/or while escaping previously powerless position.

Coalition noun political equivalent of the scene in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where Edmund accepts Turkish Delight from the White Witch.

Conservative noun (one belonging to) political party formed in centuries past by an alliance of landed gentry and industrialists to make damn sure that oiks, ne'er-do-wells, uppity teachers and the like, do not frighten the horses, and are kept very firmly in their place.

College noun 1 institution engaged, single-mindedly if often ineffectually, in the pursuit of maximum funding, despite the unfortunate necessity of recruiting students and employing teachers. 2 Shangrila, or Narnia in the time of the High Kings, where learning is what matters and the Principal is a large cat.

NB students concerned about balance and impartiality in academic life can be assured that the letter L will be equally lexicographic, and will feature soon

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Half Term

A message from the Principal

Fruitcake Miniature College will be closed for the half-term break until November 1st. Until that time a pathetically minimal standard of service will be provided by a Nice Lady from down the road with respect to opening tins and seeing to sanitation. I don't know about redundant but the staff better not do this too often. We would like to take this opportunity to wish our students a well deserved break somewhere where everything isn't closed. We look forward to your continued excellent attendance in the second half of the Autumn Term.
Fruitcake  NVQ L2

Friday, 22 October 2010

Advice for the people of Wales

I really must calm down, perhaps, with a little housework around Fruitcake Miniature College. I must not think about Iain Duncan Smith. He's the Work and Pensions Secretary, and he's told the people of Merthyr Tydfil to get on a bus and look for work in Cardiff. I won't be alone in hearing overtones of Norman Tebbitt back in the Thatcher era telling the unemployed to get on their bike. I mustn't think of Norman Tebbitt either, but weirdly, Tebbitt and IDS have both been MPs for Chingford.

Hoovering, on the other hand, is very productive. If you go up the stairs of Fruitcake Miniature College you can collect an interesting layer of blue felt in the bit you have to empty eventually. Mixed in with the felt is hair and fur (which is not mysterious) and of course dust (which is). Where does it come from? How many millions of light years ago were the atoms of all this dust created, and in what region of the universe? Surely this is so much more interesting than a complacent privileged bore suggesting to people that they don't know their own bus timetables. The thing is, he says, the jobs don't come to you. No, mate, we know. And, increasingly, the job you were doing wherever you may be disappears altogether. Not only that, people will then have to move to places where there are no jobs because the cap on housing benefit will mean you can't afford to live in an area where there are jobs. However, keep hoovering. I believe there's a Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil, and they'll be needing all the support I can muster.

I wouldn't  imagine that people in the Welsh Valleys really appreciate a Conservative former guardsman with a double-barrelled surname giving advice on job-seeking. However, if you are Welsh and on the way to Cardiff, can I reassure you that IDS is actually Scottish, though I know he doesn't sound it? As for him being a Conservative, it may be some consolation to remember that while leader of that party they passed a vote of no confidence in him. Mind you, I don't suppose he left by bus.

You may also like to bear in mind that Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, thinks it's a bit thick, possibly disgraceful, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies to say the cuts that are coming are unfair and will hit the poorest hardest. So, while you're sitting on the bus to Cardiff take care not to alarm the other passengers by saying you think there may not be enough jobs when you all get there. Maybe chat about sport - about what sort of plonker Wayne Rooney is, for instance, or your hopes for British medals in the 2012 Olympics. Babble on about astrophysics or housework, or any damn thing, except the grim prospects that at least some of us out of work will be facing. My God, these stairs are clean!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Dies Irae but mind your back

Sorry about all the Latin lately. Fruitcake Miniature College appears to have turned into something like Hogwarts. I blame the Tories - all that banging on about grammar schools and private enterprise, and making me redundant. To be fair, it wasn't the Tories personally who made me redundant, but today's Government Spending Review is going to mean possibly 500.000 job losses in the public sector, and budget reductions averaging 25% across Government departments. Which brings me back to the Dies Irae, which is 'day of wrath' in English, and is a gloomy hymn about Judgement Day from the requiem mass.

We are probably meant to feel gloomy. You have to hand it to them, they've done a great job persuading us that some very British heave-ho on the jolly old belt is required.  A return to Victorian values is not altogether unwelcome, it seems, and polls suggest that we fancy a bit of strict fiscal discipline to sort scrounging ne'er-do-wells out. I'm not sure Hogwarts had cold showers, but we think Harry, Hermione and/or Ron might have found them refreshing. The trouble is that those who enjoy actual pain usually only do so with respect to others, but if you live here in this somewhat United Kingdom, something gloomy will very likely be coming down your street and knocking on your own door with it's bony hand.

Tisk, you may say, upbraiding me gently for being a middle-class gold-plated ex public servant. Surely we need to balance the books? Well, yes, we all like a bit of prudence. I see waste, inefficiency and inequality all round me. The trouble is we know that it is still the richest who get the most tax breaks. They don't catch buses and go to the library. We also know that many of those half-million redundant public servants also created work in the private sector, and that if they can't afford their rents or morgages anymore, they had better watch out for the cap on housing benefit, because there's a rock and a hard place to be caught between through no fault of your own. What I for one don't know, however, is whether this is all carefully calculated to foment chaos, deprivation and social unrest, or whether it is blind ideological savagery, or some ghastly combination.

It could be worth bearing in mind that, while a light whipping might be some people's style for a while, a heavy lashing at the hand of toffs is taking Victorian naval discipline a bit far. The voters aren't used to it anymore, and we thought we had moved on from the workhouses, the debtors' prisons, the rigid class divisions, and the unbridgeable gulf between rich and poor, not to mention the infant mortality and disease of that fabled era of our imperial magnificence. If we're nostalgic for that sort of thing, there are plenty of National Trust properties to visit. So, good ter see yer again, Guv'nor! But mind your own back.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Stultitiae non est remedium

Things are developing apace at Fruitcake Miniature College. The Marketing Department have finally had our motto done into Latin, and thanks to a faithful follower for that. Soon we'll have a blazer, just as the local school now has, in order - I believe - to boost self esteem and thus outcomes. A blazer certainly endowed me with self esteem back in those glorious grammar school days. Our blazer will have a badge too, featuring Fruitcake looking like the Cheshire Cat and with the following in a scroll underneath it: "Stultitiae non est remedium."

There was a dose of unwelcome reality at college today, at the end of our Friday lesson. A friend, also a redundant teacher, rang to describe how she had a signed on to claim benefits. She went in as a responsible person who has contributed over many years to the education and welfare of people in need. She came out envisioning social unrest on the streets. I know what she means. Our Glorious Coalition have decided there will be a limit to the amount of benefits people can be paid, all in the name of fairness. This is the fairness that says no-one should get more than the average wage in benefit whether they need it or not, whether they've been putting into society for years and have just been made redundant, or not. 'Fair' is going to bite the Government on the bum. If someone gets a big bonus working for a bank that the public (including those of us recently redundant) had to bail out, is that fair? As my similarly redundant friend said in exasperation on the phone,"They're not living in the same world," which says everything that stultitiae non est remedium leaves unsaid.

Stick to helping people with English language, they might say from the comfort of an apparently secure job with a salary above the average (which, remember many people don't get - that's the thing with 'average'). So, back to nostalgia for grammar schools then. But remember this, nostalgia isn't what it used to be. All the same, redundant or not  perhaps I can still give a little more advice on language. Perhaps I should bear it in mind myself for these electric paragraphs:
  • sarcasm is really really helpful
  • overstatement is absolutely catastophic
  • understatement isn't too bad
  • 'fair' means many different things
  • words can come back to haunt you
Lastly, to our Glorious Coalition I would add our own motto, but in English, in case the Latin teaching at your public school wasn't much chop: there's no cure for stupidity

Have a lovely weekend

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chlorine, scunge and waving

I would not normally be home in time to find the Principal licking my wife wherever he could find exposed flesh, nor to find him doing likewise with the Head of Animal Care, the Finance Director, and the Chaplain & Multi-Faith-or-None Facilitator. You may think that the fact that these are all the same person doesn’t make it any better, and the fact that the Principal is a cat called Fruitcake may not seem any improvement. It’s all quite demure though. On Thursday’s Cho goes swimming, and cats love chlorine. The way he licks her hand is frenzied, but the point is I’ve never witnessed this before.

Redundancy brings some big shocks and changes. You worry about money. You find yourself hoovering in your pyjamas at coffee time. But it’s the little changes, and the things you realise aren’t there anymore that pull you up short. For instance, yesterday I put on a shirt. I was standing where I would normally stand looking out at the garden (no changes so far). I had the collar up and did up the top button. Then I remembered I wasn’t going to put a tie on, undid the button and put the collar down. The shirt was unironed, so there’s a silver if crumpled lining: redundancy means less ironing, and no tie.

Then today I remembered someone I only ever said ‘Good morning’ to. On my way up the road at around 8.00 he would be riding his bike the other way. Over the years we went from recognition, to nod, to smile and nod, to full-blown thumbs up cheery grin and ‘Good morning.’ Being British, it took a good few years to get there. All that patient body language has gone to waste.

Another difference, a chrome lining if you like, is that there is definitely less scunge in the bathroom. You may remember the black goo monster I battled with some weeks ago. Scunge is it’s baby cousin. 'Scunge' exists in Australia, the US, and in New Zealand, though not necessarily always meaning the same. In my own mind if not in reality, there’s a connection with scum and grunge, and there is some scunge music on You Tube. At Fruitcake Miniature College, ‘scunge’ is a noun (but not a verb) meaning ‘accumulated grime, possibly crusty or slimy’. There is also the adjective ‘scungy’, and a variant spelling, favoured by the Head of Animal Care, with K rather than C.

The main thing, though, is that when you are redundant the base of the handbasin tap is less scungy. Also your unironed workshirt is unbuttoned at the neck, and the man on the bicycle is waving at the ghost of you going to work. That is, if he’s still got his job.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Soak the young

I have had a smashing idea. Perhaps, to be scrupulously dishonest, I should say Fruitcake has had a smashing idea. For those new to Fruitcake Miniature College, I should explain that Fruitcake is our Principal, and the College is my response to redundancy. It's Miniature because, at present, it consists of two small part-time English Language classes. Those of us here have to fulfill many functions, hence a principal who is a cat.

What gave Fruitcake our smashing idea was the fact that at this college we are concerned with teaching fee-paying young people, just as the universities are. Now as I recall, there is a problem with young people, especially at university. In my day, we spent so much time jumping individualistically about in a crowded Student Union 'disco' to Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones that we were easily inculcated with revolutionary notions by communist lecturers. All that inhaling and Bob Dylan made it even worse. We got it all for free, as you will keep hearing, if our parents were below a certain income level, and then we took our revolutionary zeal (surely the 70s equivalent of Islamic extremism) into the jobs we reluctantly got in the teaching profession, probation service, and so forth. My goodness we were almost French. Luckily the 1980s stamped that all out, bar a brief to-do over the pole-tax. The point is that society must not face the  dangers we presented ever again, particularly as we are promised such very hard times.

This is what we must do. The young must first be convinced that they haven't got a hope of getting out stacking shelves at Asda unless they go to university. Then they must acquire so much debt that their only thought on graduating is to get whatever job they can (for no wages to start with if necessary). On top of that, they must be in mortal dread of ever buying a house, because a tiny breezeblock and plasterboard construction built over a sports field near their dismal place of work must cost a gadzillion quid. Only then, will any ideas inherited from their dreadful old property-owning hippy parents be squashed for ever. They will be just too tired and depressed to ingest the vile propaganda of Mumford and Sons (try to keep up) in their discotheques. No more whirling lasers and vodka jellies for them. Come the revolution they will just catch the bus to their call centre and start ringing me up about insurance or gas supply.

Unfortunately there is a small  problem with our smashing idea; someone else has had it already. Today the Browne report came out, and it recommends that universities in England should be able to charge whatever level of tuition fees they want. Still, many careers in management have been built on being second or third with an idea. Also, I think you'll agree, our scheme goes beyond mere education, though it still may not be all that original. Nevertheless if Fruitcake and his staff espouse it loudly we may pick up some useful business. This is the Big Society after all, and entrepreneurs like us need to stand up and be awarded the contracts.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

To each according to their needs

Thank goodness! For a while I thought the Coalition Government was going to be the Nasty Party that swallowed the Liberal Democrats. But not a bit of it. At every opportunity they say they want dish out the pain (which obviously we must all endure) absolutely fairly. This is almost raunchy, a kind of socialist sado-masochism: "This Big Society is going to hurt me just as much as it hurts you."

Who wouldn't be for fairness? As a loyal follower of these electric paragraphs you'll know that I'm an experienced but redundant teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages. Arguably, my profession makes a useful contribution economically and socially. I find redundancy is positively thrilling, though, in an SM kind of way, which is lucky because our extremely wealthy Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Eton-educated chum the PM keep saying there has to be lots more of it. But it will be FAIR. I guess this means that any over-privileged oik who got to Oxbridge to do a science degree but sold his horrible little soul to work in the City instead will find himself having to make way for, say, all the librarians, nurses, and dinner ladies, that his salary and bonuses are worth.

When you think about it, it's as if the Squire and his brother the Parson have suddenly expressed an interest in forming a co-operative with their tenants, or as if, back further in time, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have decided to become Levellers or Diggers. Going even further back, it would be like the Lord of the Manor telling his villeins and serfs that they can keep all their produce to stick in the potage and feed the children with. Because the Tories have to acknowledge that they represent a historical pattern that advantages some at the expense of others.

But fair's fair. Now you won't be able to have more children and expect those easy-going and easily put-upon readers of the Daily Mail to stump up for their upkeep via their taxes and your benefits. Similarly, the Government now has a scientifically proven device to detect whether your benefit claim isn't actually a life-style choice. No shirking now for you. In just the same way all those high-earners legally avoiding taxation will have to shovel the gold back onto the boat and sail it into the Treasury. Likewise, the banks propped up by those of us now redundant or soon to be will find that unbridled capitalism is no longer worthy in itself. From now on the Tory Party and their Liberal apologists will mercilessly challenge free-market economics in the name of all that's Fair. So look out if you got a handsome bonus last time round, despite nearly sinking the economy; the revolution is here at last.

It's ironic. Just as when Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he stumped the Conservatives by turning the Labour Party into the Conservative Party, now David Cameron and George Osborne have pulled the rug from under the left, and from now on the struggle will be for fairness. I confidently expect to see the following on the podiums of various ministers as they face the cameras: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." However, as a redundant English teacher looking for work, I would - for a price - offer to adjust this famous dictum to include women. And if anyone wants an argument about pronouns, I'm your man.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Thursday, the Khyber Pass

Normally (whenever that is if not this particular Thursday afternoon), I would be teaching my Support Class. I wouldn’t be in the garden staring at the spiders. Normally, though, there are lots of big spiders at this time of year, all swaying on their webs patiently waiting for a bite. I wouldn’t normally be poaching fish either. Regular visitors to these electric paragraphs might remember that Stan comes on Thursdays to sell fresh fish out of the back of his van. So we would normally be having fish on Thursday, just that I wouldn’t be making kedgeree in the middle of the afternoon and sending Fruitcake bonkers. If you haven’t met Fruitcake yet, welcome to Fruitcake Miniature College.

Normally, as I say, I would be in my Support Class. This was a couple of hours a week for students doing all kinds of subjects but who happened to be from other countries and whose only formal language learning was coming to me. They were mostly teenage boys. Their task would be, for instance, to produce coherent paragraphs of measured argument based on graphs derived from a survey. So, right now Ricardo would be seeking to establish for the benefit of classmates that Bruno was gay. Bruno would be engaged in stating that it was the other way about. Some of the class would be asking me if we could talk about football instead, which sometimes we did if they could accept I knew little about it. The lad from Switzerland would be working intently on improving his score vis-à-vis bits of paper and the bin. He called it Physics.

I never had to intervene physically, and if you accepted that a class of fifteen or so teenage boys would tend to feel and sound like a BBC wildlife programme, it was all quite pleasant, and they were some of my favourite lessons. Only the class and I had any views on what might be useful for them to practise, and it’s very rare to have that much freedom in teaching these days. Consequently, I took a fairly random approach to course design. I remember fondly a write-up that demonstrated with insane graphics that the older you are the more likely you are to believe in Father Christmas. To this day I don’t understand where the inhabitants from below the surface of an unpronounceable planet came in. But that’s the joy of teaching the young, they take you to places you’ve never been yourself. So, I have now seen the clips of Blue Man Group on You Tube. They’re worth a look.

I accept that this isn’t a scientific approach, for which I would both like to apologise to and commend Ben Goldacre, an intellectual hero of mine. Look him up too, at

I also wouldn’t normally be informed by the BBC until much later this evening that the Khyber Pass is closed at the moment. Those versed in Cockney rhyming slang may think I’m talking about constipation. Actually I mean a nasty situation on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once it was explained to them, the lads in Language Support would have hugely enjoyed that possible ambiguity.

Monday, 4 October 2010

the A666 revisited again

"Get your kicks on the A666." With apologies to Bobby Troup (also Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan ....)

What is it about the middle classes shopping on Saturday? Why must tousled haired children ride their scooter through the cramped health food store calling out the names of products to Mummy, who replies from behind a huge buggy "Yes Josh darling, very good. Could you get me some quinoa?"?  My hackles really shouldn't rise. It's a British disease, class conciousness. This healthy child banging into people's legs is a testament to the importance of literacy, and of a healthy diet. In any case, what with all that wine and pasta last night, not to mention getting the Guardian this morning, I must be pretty middle class myself. Accept that I'm earning £100 a week. Maybe I just don't like wheels in shops.

Saturday on the A666, is good cheap entertainment, whether you're being grumpy or not. Today, for example there are quite a lot bikers on Harleys and ancient British bikes. With their white pony tails and beards they look like Hell's Walruses. They've probably all got allotments like me. There's also a man playing the accordion. He espouses French and eastern European styles. He plays rather quietly and might even be asleep. He wears a bowler hat and and dress trousers, so perhaps he represents the European Union having a lie in. He's not making a lot of dosh. I think opening his eyes might help.

The European theme continues at lunch. Cho and I have Chorizo (just a coincidence) in a French stick. If we were really Spanish we would bang some Chorizo into a baguette-style loaf that just had some olive oil on it. Being British, we tart it up with an assemblage of leaves and tomato. We have a history of going round the world improving things.

We have a reputation for wet weather too. This is sometimes deserved. For instance it's the Ryder Cup, which is a golf tournament between Europe and the USA in Wales. This contest perhaps demonstrates that we really are - despite Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair's fawnings over Ronald Reagan and George W Bush respectively - Europeans. This comes back to the weather because the American team have had to go and buy more waterproofs and the whole thing is going on an extra day because it's so wet. How exciting is that?

The afternoon, however, is quintessentially British. It is grey and damp with some fitful sun on the allotment. You can almost hear the Kinks. And if the paper is to be believed the forthcoming unemployment may be at one and the same time both quintessentially British and truly global. Good luck everyone. Keep digging

Friday, 1 October 2010

The organogram goes jazz-funk

It's the end of the week again, here at Fruitcake Miniature College. Today's miniature class left before lunch with some of Cho's stash of magazines, which automatically meant Cho was now Head of Resources. It's a pleasure to see how her career here is progressing, all on her own merit and not because she sleeps with me. As well as Head of Animal Care, as you may know if you have time on your hands, she is now Chaplain and Multi-Faith-or-None Facilitator. Today, at our end-of-week review, she produced a cogent set of figures on the question of how soon I need a job, thus neatly becoming Head of Finance and also of HR .

As I say, here at Fruitcake Miniature College, it's the end of the week. Soon the Refectory will put on some pasta and open a bottle of red. Soon the teaching staff will go sentimental and put on some Jimi Hendrix. Fruitcake himself, the very hairy former vagrant cat of indeterminate years, is curled up asleep at the bottom of a wardrobe on some boxershorts belonging to the absent young genius who is the heir to our combined hopes, fears and DNA. Soon though our Principal will wake and shout for fish.

Before the shouting, psychedelic blues, and wine, I have just enough time to reflect on our review. I was able to report at it that, what with the miniature classes and the proofreading of post-grad necromancers' dissertations, I'm pulling in about a ton a week. This sounds heavy, but as you may know, this is merely English racing slang for one-hundred - pounds that is, or 'quid' (note absence of plural) or 'knicker' (no plural here either, in this context). This brings us back to boxershorts and may mean that, in consolation for Cho's meteoric rise up the FMC corporate ladder I have become Head of Undergarments. Not that the Principal wears any, of course.

Lately Fruitcake has been sleeping under the bed of our absent genius - right up against the bass guitar. Thus we have a Principal who is getting together by osmosis some heavy jazz-funk chops. If they could get him on stage in time, I could see him laying down the bottom line for. say, Sun Ra. Maybe he needs his own outfit, though: Fruitcake's Jazz Funk Organogram. I wonder if Steve Winwood and Billy Cobham would be interested. Hendrix is dead of course. Cheers all the same.


Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Facebook nostalgia

I'm starting to see photos on Facebook of other people's classrooms as my students find other places to go. I recognise the phonological charts, and the work on the walls and the writing on the whiteboard look familiar, but I'm actually not sure which of the people in the picture apart from my old student is the teacher. In my case, at my age, it would be obvious.

I was at Hardacre Collage a long time. When I arrived there was one computer in our workroom, an Amstrad. In the language lab, which was some cassette players and  a reel-to-reel console at the teacher's desk, there was a BBC Micro B. You fed a big floppy disk into it, bolted a stable door, and after certain arcane operations, you could play 'language games' on it that tended to go ponk-ponk when you put the right word in. The language lab was much more fun for everyone because you could listen in to your students doing drills and then give correction through their headphones. Tape: lovely day - tag question. Student: laflee day no? You: Lovely day, isn't it? Student: Agh! You: Sorry! Student: laflee day sorry?

I was there when they 'rolled out the network'. It was piecemeal and patchwork, and certain corridors got it much later than others. Consequently I was there when my manager was greeted from the door by the Vice Principal, who was holding a sheaf of papers. "Good morning. These are your emails," he said. At about the same time I learned something called Wordstar. This was not a spacecraft for language teachers, sadly, but a wordprocessing editor. Much later I had a computer on my desk which brought me imperious commands and strange new bureaucracies. The desktop was no longer a dark green screen, it had a picture from the holidays, and you could use the Marquee screensaver to tell everyone in red letters what you thought of the fact that it was Friday. Now everyone's desktop carries the same corporate image that you can't personalise.

I was there when Estates and Maintenance got walkie-talkies. Now they hardly seem to use them except to say 'yep OK' into when someone squawks. What fun they had at first though. They said things like 'roger' and 'copy' and 'come back'. I always wanted someone called Roger to be sent to Reprographics and then to return. I did witness two people talking to each other so intently in correct walkie-talkyese that they nearly bumped into each other. On one occasion John's mate wanted to know where he was. It went like this. John's mate: Squawk squawk squawk John? John: I'm on my way to Health and Beauty. John's mate: Hurr hurr squawk squawk hurr hurr! John Speak for yourself.

Then it came thick and fast: data projectors, calling your late students on their mobiles (amusing for their classmates when you said "Sorry, did I wake you up?") Then there was using the internet to show people what a gooseberry was. And thank God for YouTube. No more laboriously transcribing Bob Dylan, Alicia Keyes could be there with you in the room, the words scrolling around her. No longer did we all have to be content with telling each other what we did at the weekend, we could show each other our video clips.

So perhaps it's just as well that, now they have closed us down, we can see pictures of each other on Facebook - those of us that can write, use a computer and get hold of one, and have the time.