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.

Monday, 27 September 2010

slight shift back towards centre

It wouldn't sell as many papers as 'lurch to the left' perhaps, which summons visions of communist zombies, or 'Ed the Red', which suggests an unabashedly socialist viking. I think, though, that 'slight shift back towards centre' would be a more accurate reflection of Ed Miliband beating his brother to the Labour leadership.

Another thing in big letters today is the fact that Ed Miliband became leader of the Labour party by a narrow majority and thanks to the trade unions. But I don't think that anyone keen on the present coalition Government should go on too much about small majorities. Theirs - like the mint that detonated the bloated Mr Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life - is wafer-thin. Also the trade union votes represent the wishes of their members, ordinary working people. Rather more ordinary working people preferred Ed to his brother David, rather more MPs preferred David to his brother Ed. Who are the right wing sections of the media for: ordinary working people or Labour MPs?

Yes, this might be boring if you are not in the UK or not interested in how the British Labour party chooses a new leader. I also concede that the Labour party's electoral college looks pretty clunky. But it is revealing how a large section of the media, whose proprietors may well have outlets where you are, have so swiftly characterised the new Labour leader as a crypto-communist. This is, I take it, part of a larger scale mission to establish right-wing positions as the default. Watch out for more old cliches falling out of media cupboards.

I became aware of all this today because the Daily Mail is the only paper in the waiting room at my dentist's. Later on a bus, I had to move a copy of the Metro to sit. It was so strident I checked online. Yes, strident there too. Someone had even invoked the donkey jacket worn by former Labour leader Michael Foot (if you weren't around, it was a jacket). So redundancy means time to notice things like misrepresentation, which I'm not guiltless of myself. For example, when the dentist said, by way of conversation "Back at work then?" I said "Arghhsh!" It wasn't a lie in the circumstances, and "Na err-hunhun!" would have been difficult. Likewise I had a haircut on a Saturday to avoid accusations of a day off.

Meanwhile back at Fruitcake Minature College the Head of Animal care has also become Chaplain because we suddenly realised we didn't have one, and she was ideal, having no experience or religious commitment. And also, in honour of the imaginary Hardacre Collage we have instituted a motto for our own miniature college: there is no cure for stupidity.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Quick, join a trade union!

"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

You could argue that my membership of a TUC affiliated trade union (UCU) didn't save my job. You could also argue that without trade union representation my job wouldn't have lasted as long as it did, that our conditions would have been much worse still, and that our redundancy deal would have been the miserable statutory minimum. I haven't got much leeway before I must generate income, but I've got some. So, before you find your job under threat, and if you're not a member of a trade union already, join one soon. 

When hard times loom and sections of the media are under the influence of powerful people with right-wing agendas, you hear a lot about the 70s and 80s, the 'Winter of Discontent' etc. I remember those battles. At the end of it all Margaret Thatcher, friend of Augustus Pinochet, had trashed British coal and steel, the communities that depended on them, and much else besides, because she hated the unions so much. That's why we became a largely service economy. It was the importance of financial services to our economy that meant we were hit so hard by the recession. So join a trade union. If one thing changes history it's when all the people arrive at a point where they don't want to be fooled anymore.

You also hear in times like these how public sector pay and pensions are somehow to blame for a deficit that, as far as I can tell, started with sub-prime lending going bad in the USA (and likewise here), and then going global. Actually it was all those profligate primary school teachers and radical refuse collectors, along with the rest of the working public, whose money bailed the banks out by the trillions. So, just to correct any misapprehensions, my 'gold plated' pension might yield 25% of my just above average salary, i.e. maybe £8,000 a year. Boris Johnson, Conservative Mayor of London, recently described one of his salaries of £250,000 a year as 'chicken feed'. I suppose he is a public sector worker. Maybe that's where we're getting our bad reputation. When you've joined a trade union, ship your various vast salaries off shore to avoid tax, as the smart money does.

So is there trade union recognition at Fruitcake Miniature College? I suppose when we say to Fruitcake "No, we're just not giving you any more milk," the members vote before putting the bottle back in the fridge. But you can take an analogy too far, and the idea of fat cats getting too much milk is really rather stretching it a bit.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Fleas on the agenda

This morning the senior management of Fruitcake Miniature College all woke up in or on the same bed and held a meeting. The Principal was there, the Head of Animal Care, and the Director of Studies naturally. The Health and Safety Advisor was also present, as were Estates, and of course the Refectory was well represented, it being before breakfast.

If this sounds a little wild and disorganised, bear in mind there were only three of us. If that's still rather a lot to handle, remember only two of us are human. The third individual, Fruitcake, is a cat, though he is the Principal of Fruitcake Miniature College. This institution, as regular readers will know, is my response to redundancy. By starting a couple of private classes I have recreated in miniature some aspects of Hardacre Collage, which is the spelling mistake I worked at for so long.

Anyway, Cho and I were sitting up in bed with a cup of Assam, and I suggested that we should hold regular meetings. I had in mind the proper minuted sort, with the previous meeting's minutes, action points, initials against the action points. I noticed Cho looking at me sideways, which I know means that she thinks I'm having a good idea. However, this particular meeting only had a one-item agenda so there wasn't really the opportunity for lots of procedure. All the same, the Health and Safety Advisor had plenty to say. Fleas.

Fruitcake, our Principal, has got fleas. Ironically, these don't trouble the Head of Animal Care, though she is indeed sympathetic to the rest of the college, who suffer dreadfully. We referred to previous actions and reminded the present meeting that we had obtained powerful ju-ju from the petshop, and had also consulted the Nice Lady (the vet). However, these actions had not proved effective to date. Not surprisingly, what with breakfast and long to-do lists to see to, the outcome of the meeting was a date for another meeting. But Estates would in the interim spray the passage from the bedroom to the bathroom again.

This all goes to show how little a reluctantly private enterprise like mine has in common with a proper institution such as the imaginary but Government funded Hardacre Collage. Who could imagine in a real college the Principal being a creature who acted purely out of self interest but at the same time desperately wanted to be scratched on top of his head? And what real Principal would ever tolerate parasites living in his fur and making everyone else miserable for so long? That reminds me, I haven't said much about the importance of trade union representation yet. More on this soon.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Damson vodka and sloe gin - the recipe

Sloe gin and similar are basically a spirit that has been flavoured by having fruit and sugar steeped in it. You could probably do it with brussels sprouts or woodlice, but I doubt it would come out very well. That said, I believe that in Denmark they sometimes use beech leaves and there's also a French drink involving artichokes. It's hard to beat sloe or damson gin or vodka, though, and I really don't think you have to use posh booze to do it. We've used alcool pour fruits (spiritous by-product of French viniculture, for preserving fruit) very successfully, for example. I also like the idea that sloe or damson gin was something classy made with help from the hedgerows and a little time by people who couldn't afford the parson's brandy, or the squire's champagne and claret.

Sloes and damsons are both prunus - that is, plum family. Sloes are found on a thorny bush called blackthorn. Both are a bluey-purple (though damsons can be other colours too). Blackthorn is essentially a hedgerow plant and the sloes are no bigger than cherries, while damsons are bigger and more obviously a small plum. They grow wild too but are also cultivated. To add to the confusion, types of plum hybridize quite easily, and there's also one called a bullace (also fine in spirits). So, if you're in a country where these things grow and you would like to have a go at making your own fun in hard times, do some research in books, online, and in hedgerows. Half a kilo of fruit will do you to start with, but if you're reading this today, you haven't got lots of time left. Cho and I may have beaten you too it.

Once you've picked the fruit, freeze it until you’ve got the time and equipment together (and see below for quantities). Some people believe that the fruit is best if it has been frosted in any case, but on Sunday we didn't bother with freezing as the fruit was quite ripe. Start by rolling each fruit by hand over a cheese grater to break the skin a little (quicker than pricking with a pin) and drop them into a suitably sized kilner-type jar with a self-sealing lid. Pour the sugar onto the fruit, leaving it to steep for a few hours. Pour on the spirit. Clamp the lid shut tight and shake the jar. Leave a while, shake again, and repeat till the sugar has dissolved (which may even take a day or two). Put the jar away in a dark place shaking now and again (e.g on Sundays) and leave for three months or longer. Strain or decant into bottles.

Note that the quantities below are a bit approximate, because one year and at different times the fruit will naturally have more or less fruit sugar than another. We've used the same basic recipe whether sloes or damsons, by the way. Quite a lot of recipes suggest a quantity of almond essence too, but we’ve never used it. Some people favour vodka, as more neutral, over gin. There are also two schools of thought re sugar: those who like lots, and those who don't. However, I think that if you go easy on the sugar you can always try the drink after three months and add a little more sugar if you want, and try it again later.

All in all I reckon, staying conservative about sugar (but certainly not about politics if you can help it), and recognising that it's a little hit and miss at the best of times, that you could memorably and metrically summarise it thus:
           500g fruit
          100g sugar
          1 litre spirit      
It's generally recommended that you strain the spirit after no more than 12 months  – i.e not leaving the fruit in longer – so that the fruit stones don't make the drink taste too bitter. I've also made gooseberry and ginger white rum on the same basis, by the way. Cho likes it. I'm not sure yet. We both thought that the quince vodka made the same way was pretty good.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Damson vodka and sloe gin

On Sunday the redundant can have a guiltless lie in, especially if one of you goes out with their jeans over their pyjamas and gets the paper. The only problem there is that you may find yourself grinding your teeth (albeit in the comfort of your bed) at Nick Clegg again. In case you're not in the UK, he's the leader of the Lib Dems, and deputy Prime Minister in the coalition Government. He has gone out of his way to tell Labour voters who despaired of Tony Blair - particularly re the War in Iraq - that the Lib Dems were not offering them sanctuary. I think most of us had ruefully got that by now, though it seems an odd attitude to take to people who voted for you, however misguidedly. So what else to think about on an autumn Sunday? Fruit. It was good enough for Keats after all.

Last week Cho and a mate got tons of damsons from a secret location. She then went into industrial scale production of chutney, employing a vast pan, vinegar, sugar, nuts, and spices. She also bought some cheap vodka for damson vodka (like sloe gin, see later). Production continued on Sunday with cordial, and damson cheese, not to mention crumble. Still it wasn't enough. We had to increase the throughput of prunus and the output of delicacies and hooches the colour of mortal sin (I don't think I mentioned that the Pope has been here - in the UK I mean. Nick Clegg is an atheist who met him).

So we went to another secret location to pick sloes. This is on a lane that has been a right of way for centuries and is like a narrow alley of the countryside in our bit of town. It borders a housing development, and some of the bushes have gone recently so we extended our range. On the itchy dank fringes of the car park of a hospital that was once a workhouse, not that far from a Job Centre, we hit paydirt. Lots and lots of ripe sloes, especially if you went through a convenient hole in the fence.There I was, in my fifties, aided and abetted from the path by an otherwise responsible member of our community, crawling into a hedge with wicked thorns to go scrumping sour little indigo plums. I was reminded strongly of my boyhood and its sins. Mea culpa (Latin for 'my bad'). We got more than two kilos but I ended up having to tie a handkerchief round a finger to stem the blood. Cho went back to the superstore and got more cheap booze, this time gin.

So we start the week with, among other delights, two litres of damson vodka and two of sloe gin. We'll try some in three months time in readiness for my last month of garden leave, as this period of the redundancy process is known. Come back soon for the recipe.

Friday, 17 September 2010

TFIF at Fruitcake Minature College

It's the end of the week here at Fruitcake Minature College. The teaching staff have come back from their Friday afternoon therapy and become the Refectory staff just in time to put the kettle on and take a cup up to the roof where the Principal lies asleep at the feet of the Head of Animal Care.

Earlier today we had our second lesson (all perfectly within the terms of the redundancy agreement). Any possible faux pas by Fruitcake with respect to his absent litter tray was forestalled by putting his tray in the garden by the back door. You might ask why a cat can't go outside in any case. Good question, but this is a cat. Anyway, the lesson was civilised and productive. The Finance Department got to do their thing with the new receipt book. And lunch was a calm pasty afterwards. How different, I thought, from Hardacre Collage, a place which only exists as my favourite spelling mistake.

Just as Fruitcake Minature College is a more benign microcosm of Hardacre Collage, so Hardacre Collage is a less than benign microcosm of the UK as currently governed. Hardacre Collage is a disfunctional bureacracy led by people who are huge with self-assurance but tiny in the departments of imagination and direct experience. Somewhat similarly, our wafer-thin Government seem to sees itself as entitled to tell the rest of us what's wrong with society, and would like us to believe that our money's all gone on feckless dole scroungers, and my pension (when actually most of it went into propping up banks or never went into the Exchequer in the first place, tax avoidance by the very rich being all perfectly tickety-boo).

So at the end of the week it's pleasant to relax at Fruitcake Minature College with a cup of Assam tea and think about how different it is from Hardacre Collage. Here I really am doing everything, at the Collage it just felt that way. Here the resources are rather limited and mostly made by the teaching staff ... no, wait a minute. Here at Fruitcake Minature College you are on your own. No, still not working. Ah, like the nation, here we're in a democratic coalition. Not quite, basically I'm just talking to myself. Got it! The big difference is that here senior management is a cat who walks about demanding things we have to guess at and who then goes outside to shout at the other cats. He'll calm right down for a bit of fish. That's the big difference.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Fruitcake Minature College

You can take the teacher out of the college, but you can't take the college out of the teacher, I realised last night in my first private class (all within the terms of my redundancy).

I will spare their blushes and not identify the two students who responded to the flurry of emails which makes me Head of Marketing. Obviously I planned a course for them, which means I'm Director of Studies. Before they arrived I arranged chairs, flipchart paper on a cupboard door, lighting etc, which made me the Estates Department too. I wasn't the Principal, though. That position was usurped by Fruitcake, who marched about howling in a peremptory manner until he was whisked away into the living-room to listen to the Archers by Cho in her role as Head of Animal Care. At some point, my students and I discussed payment (I've got a receipt book and everything) which made me the Finance Department. Finance also had to liaise with Resources in order to empower the Course Tutor to facilitate the order of two course books for the only other two people I wasn't - the learners.

Strangely, last night's lesson was on the day that would ordinarily have been my first day at college of actual teaching (though not the first day of the virtual insanity of administration, interviews and meetings that precedes actual teaching). It was the same day last year, and there were some similarities, the first lesson butterflies for example, the students being friendly and keen, the course material itself. The big difference, I thought at first, was fulfilling all functions myself, until I remembered it often felt as if you were doing everyone's job. However, I've never had a cat looking for its litter tray in my class before.

In the interests of decorum, the Health and Safety Advisor had asked the Estates Department to put the litter tray in the cupboard under the stairs. Imagine the Teaching Team's horror when Fruitcake turned up in the middle of some tricky vocabulary and yowled in the corner where his tray would have been. Luckily the Head of Animal Care was prepared to interrupt her enjoyment of the Archers and arrest the Principal, otherwise a stream of pungent wee might have sunk Fruitcake Minature College on the first night.

I can hear the glee of Tory Merchant Venturer types applauding all this enterprise. This is what the country needs, surely, entreprenureship replacing the public sector. No, this is private desperation on my part, and good luck to everyone else out there too. In fact my efforts amply demonstrate the vacuity of the idea that individual enterprise can replace laboriously constructed systems of support - notwithstanding the fact that those systems can sometimes be more than a bit bonkers.

So was it harder being all those departments rather than 'just' the teacher? No, although I was nearly everyone, it was what we call in the trade a doddle. In the last 24 hours, on the anniversary of the first teaching day in the final annus horribilis, I have fulfilled in miniature all the functions of the college, and it's still been very much easier. All the same, private lessons certainly won't replace the step up into British life and work that my whole team gave to so many people who really needed it. Whether Fruitcake Miniature College can replace any substantial part of my income remains to be seen. I'll stroll into the Refectory to put the kettle on and think about that one for a while.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The wrong trousers

Today I had to go and see someone in an office. So no scruffy jeans then. The trouble is, seeing as there's an economy drive on in the Turing household, I haven't done my annual hour or two of frenzy in the summer sales. What to wear? How about work trousers and a work shirt but no tie? Go for casual smart, like an estate agent for example?

By the time I had attended to Fruitcake's byzantine hierarchy of needs (drink outside, meat blob inside x 2, biscuits, poo in tray, milk, pee in tray, fuss and combing) and  was showered and attired, I was struck by three things simultaneously. The first was wonder how at how I ever got  out of the house, sometimes with a poached egg inside me, neatly dressed, lunch packed, by 7.50.The other two concerned the trousers.

It felt very strange. The last time I had worn those trousers I was a teacher with a job. They felt so familiar, like ballet shoes, maybe, to a retired dancer. Did they sparkle slightly with that old magic? If I put my hands in the pockets, board pens would come out and turn into doves. If I strode in your direction perhaps the fog hanging over sentences with 'if' in them would lift a little for you. If you saw them coming, you might be suddenly motivated to practise irregular past verb forms with your partner by means of an amusing game. And if I went out in them, would they march me to a Further Education college and into a classroom as a lesson plan sprang fully formed into my brain?

Then I stood at the mirror and saw myself. The third thing struck me. Those trousers were Uncle Bill's trousers. From the side they were perhaps passable, for polyester in navy blue, that is. From the front they were baggy in all the wrong places. The belt (a necessity) served only to accentuate their irredeemable uncle-ishness. What must I have looked like to all those multi-coloured, attractive, lively young people that it was my delight to teach? What had I come to in twenty years at the college? Those trousers were wrong. The trouble was, now I was in them, and like the red shoes in the story, I couldn't take them off. There wasn't time.

As luck would have it, when I got to the office, the person I went to see was wearing nealy the same outfit. True his trousers looked better cut and more expensive. The shirt (sleeves rolled up a couple of times like mine) had come out of a box marked £45, but it was essentially the same kit. I probably had 25 years on him, but my magic teaching trousers had a little of their sparkle still. OK, a shiny polyester kind of sparkle, an uncle-ish kind of magic, but he probably didn't even guess that I was out of work

Saturday, 11 September 2010

A666 revisited

"Yes, I think this economy will be easy to fix.
Just put it out on the A666"
(with apologies to Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited)

I got a message today from Etsuko, we'll call her. She left weeping copiously the week before all her teachers left too. The best thing about her message was not so much that she had passed her Business English exam, which I expected, but that she was so pleased and she got in touch.  This means it was all real, then, despite the unreal management and the surreal bureaucracy.

Hearing from Etsuko put me in mind, by contrast, with someone I sometimes meet out on the A666. This is Mahad, who is not young, literate, and highly educated.  He's an ex-merchant seaman from Somalia who came in the sixties, and he was in a class of mine that took place about ten tears ago in a prefab that was like a damp cardboard box. Mahad has always called me Derek, I don't know why, because it's not my name.

Mahad could remember Beatles' songs, and he could imitate a camel in a way that alarmed some classmates and had others helpless with laughter. He could place a bet, I knew well, because I often saw him going into our local betting shop, but he couldn't find the page if you said "Go to page 14."

Once, on a day when the only people present in the class were men, Mahad informed us he would really like to be married only for a month at a time.  Encouraged by the controversy this created, he went on to tell us that when he had been working in the UAE he had been selected by an American woman to be her lover. This was highly illegal but apparently she occupied a powerful position - apparently in more ways than one - and was not to be denied. Mahad had open-mouthed attention as he told us in graphic terms how he had been, as it were, wrung dry. Maybe it was exhaustion, maybe it was fear of the authorities, it was never clear, but this had something to do with how he came to head for the UK, and thus why he he got to know Yellow Submarine

Could he find page 14 now? I doubt it, though I did do my best.  He walks with a stick these days, and his eyesight is failing. But he's still out there on the A666, neatly turned out with a little round cap, calling me Derek and asking if I'm still at the college. I haven't seen him lately, but you couldn't think of someone more different from Etsuko, whose message came on Facebook from Japan today.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The road to work

Go a few doors up to the top of our late Victorian terrace and you come to a main road we'll call the A666. Turn left and you are heading for the centre of town, turn right and you are heading for work. At least, you were nearly two months ago. I think we should be careful of drawing analogies here, though. At the moment it really doesn't look as if turning right is taking the nation to work.

A couple of days ago I turned left at the top of our street. It was sunny and warm but early autumn had nipped the leaves of some of the trees. As far as I was concerned, it was early afternoon too, because it wasn't long since lunch. Lunch used to be about getting food all over your tie and the papers on your desk as you ate with one hand and got ready for the next lesson with the other. The cup of coffee after it was not a gentle post-prandial treat so much as an urgent necessity which could be scuppered completely by a student at the door with a complicated piece of paper.

Not so the other afternoon. Walking in the opposite direction from work into the sunshine, I ran into an old student. We'll call him Bulent as he's from Turkey. He was in my Business English class, so he's used to me providing lesson materials that promote a jaunty view of the global economy. "Hello," said Bulent's lips, "Nice to see you. How are you?" while his eyes said "Pardon me, but what are you doing in the middle of the afternoon in jeans and no tie strolling down the road?" As I explained, he said he had heard a lot of people had gone from my old college. He then told me that his job and his wife's were at risk too. At the very least he might have to go down to less than £6 an hour.

I said I was afraid that it was going to be like the eighties again. Bulent, who wasn't here then and to whom Margaret Thatcher is a piece of folklore, asked me about those days. I was out of work briefly then too, and made redundant. Demons in folk tales, like bad dreams, have a habit of coming back. While Bulent went off up the road and I went down it, he wished me luck getting work and I wished him luck keeping it.

Further on and nearly at my afternoon's objective, I met another student from my Business class. This was Timmy (young Chinese people often choose an English name for use here - which sometimes comes out a bit Enid Blyton). I remember teaching Timmy's class what 'commodities' means. As we talked grandly about gold and oil, Timmy said his father was in steel and construction, so I asked him to bear me in mind when he went into business himself. This time, meeting me on the sunny street, he cheerfully informed me he would be coming back to college soon. When I told him that I and his other English teachers wouldn't be there, his eyebrows disappeared into his fringe.

I bought some bread (my objective), which is made from the commodity wheat. The price of wheat on the markets is sky high right now. And the high early autumn sky was still blue as I got on a bus full of school children, and we went back up the A666 in the direction of work.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Yes yes but when are you going to start looking for work?

I was coming to that one. First though, my laptop is mooing so I am in the roof. Cho isn't back till tonight, and this means I can go in the roof to use her computer. I have emailed the person who manages all our e-anxiety and shut my machine down for now. I only hope this doesn't get in the way of the answer to the question above.

Techno-death comes in waves. This is not to do with the random nature of probablility (the then-three-come-at-once effect), nor is this to do with the fact that if you have a lot of aging techno it will tend to start clapping out at inconvenient times. It is more to do with a malevolent spirit, Techno Arghh, who will undoubtedly feature in animistic religions of the future, if of course there is any techno left to be accursed, or indeed if there is any future, the Sex Pistols once having suggested there might not be.

The fact that the Sex Pistols' non-future was paradoxically some time ago notwithstanding, we have had a lot of techno-death in our house lately. There was the boiler episode a few days ago. Before that the handsets for our landline lay before Techno Arghh and expired. At about the same time there was a mercy dash to Plumb Center to get rubber trap washers so that water in the kitchen sink would go to Nowhere rather than leak over all the stuff under the sink. This is not to mention the car, when Techno Arghh told the brakes that they didn't have to try anymore. Nor is this to mention the kindly lent replacement vehicle that turned out, in transit, to have had its windscreen-wiper blades nicked. Yes, there IS a future, where I will find employment once more, but there are techno-demons to slay on the way.

In fact tomorrow I have a job to do. I will be checking the English in a postgrad student's dissertation. The fact that her English is excellent and that I will be hard pushed to find anything to correct is not going to put me off. Nor is the fact that her subject might as well be necromancy for all I understand of it. The only thing that could stop me is Techno Arghh. Lots of garlic tonight might be a sensible precaution, though I should probably text Cho first.

As well as the dissertation I am having a few students round next week for a private class. This will in no way compromise me legally vis a vis my college, nor be in competition with them. It would be deeply boring to explain why, but be assured. Anyway, for the first time since we all got that letter that was God's punishment for voting Lib Dem, I prepared a lesson today. It actually took all day, because of course at college all the alarms, crises, meetings and bureaucracy mean you only have just enough time before the lesson itself to fling something together. You get pretty good at it, though at some cost to inner tranquility.

Thinking about it, I'd rather face Techno Arghh with incantations and trap washers now and again than go back to daily battle with Bureauc Raghh. There is another question now, though. How much will it cost to stop my laptop mooing and to get the car through its MOT?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Happy Saturday Seasick Steve

Everyone loves Saturday. Even if you work shifts Saturday remains special. If you're not working, it's a day when most people, including you, can get up late and stumble about the High Street looking a bit scruffy. And this whole non-working day has built to a crescendo.

There was the shopping expedition. There was the trip to the allotment. There was cooking with a G and T with angustura bitters. These make a little sunset in a drink that otherwise looks like sparkling water and ice-cubes. But be careful not to overdo it. Six drops.

This would also just about sum up my approach to food: take a few excellent ingredients and don't bugger them up. Tonight, arguably with the exception of the oven chips, that's what I did. Fruitcake's position was even more radical: accept one excellent ingredient. We wondered what Cho might be getting at her conference, but not for long. I did rare rump, chestnut mushrooms, runner beans off the allotment, and chips. I opened a bottle of Rioja. Pudding was to be the first of the autumn raspberries steeped in a little sugar and a few drops of balsamic vinegar with Greek yoghurt. You might argue that this is not redundancy but the life of the fabled Larry. True enough, though remember it is Saturday.

It all came together. I woke Fruitcake up so that dinner wasn't too much of a shock and also, as he was asleep on the table, so I could serve up. I got Planet Rock on my computer and turned the speakers up. I put Fruitcake's portion on a little dish ready (we have a rule that no-one starts till everyone is sitting down) and put it all on the table. I poured a glass of wine, toasted myself and Planet Rock, and put Fruitcake's little dish on the floor to  the intro of a Seasick Steve number. I love Seasick Steve. He's the most authentic white bluesman there ever was. He has a big white beard, wears denim and a John Deere baseball cap, and has the shittest guitar imaginable. He makes it howl. He makes it sing. He knows about pain, being a drifter, out of luck.

And as I bit into my steak he sang "Happy to Have a Job."

Friday, 3 September 2010

Fruitcake fish fox and fleas

At last, it's done. The plumber finally rang. Fruitcake got some of the plaice.

Later I met a friend for a drink and we talked a great deal of sense about Art, Religion and Truth. You will notice that the initials of these topics are also ART (lucky we didn't talk about work much, though come to think of it , we did talk about film). In fact it might help to know that this whole document is littered with such cunning devices. For example if you find the right lower case i and click on just the dot, it will unfold the secrets of the universe. Naturally if you retype it all backwards there will be a message from the devil.

Coming back from the drink at about twelve, the roads were dark and almost silent. In a multi-tasking manner, replying to a text and walking, I looked up slightly dazed by the light from my phone. Something was watching me from the pavement. At first I thought it was a cat, then a dog, until I realised it was a young fox. It was probably born this year and at first it didn't seem that bothered about me. It was more interested in nuzzling at the base of it's tail. It kept spinning on the spot to do it again. I thought I recognised the behaviour. Fleas. They are very irritating, as Fruitcake would tell you, and I can on my own behalf. You can't unravel the secrets of the universe without getting bitten by fleas.

Then the fox noticed me and looked panicky with its big ears straight up, as if it didn't know where to run. I told it not to worry, fleas were a great nuisance, and it had my sympathy. The fox looked somewhat reassured and got up enough confidence to slip through some railings then go on bothering the fleas on a lawn. I said goodnight and carried on.

Home again twenty minutes later I was upbraided by Fruitcake. I reminded him that Cho was at a conference and asked if I wasn't perhaps permitted now and again to meet a friend for a quiet pint and to talk about art. Think about it, though, Fruitcake suggested as he munched biscuits, what are you doing still up and talking to foxes at gone midnight in the working week? It was a good question.

By the way, Satan says "enod sti tsal ta".

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Skirmishes on the borders

Cho has just gone out into the bright September morning with her luggage towards a distant part of the kingdom. It isn't that she's fed up with my ad hoc plumbing while she's trying to work; she's going to a conference, with a sausage sandwich for the train. Fruitcake and I are not jealous though. We have brushed our teeth or licked our fur (as applies) and settled down to wait for the proper plumber, who still hasn't rung.

Before Cho left, and after I had made her sandwich, a toot announced Stan's van in our part of the street. "Not at work yet then?" Stan is in his seventies, silvery, and has Classic FM quietly pumping out something soothing while you browse his very fresh fish. I explained the redundancy because I didn't have the energy to invent some reason for turning up in the back of his van at a time he was well into his working day. I bought plaice and six eggs, and exhuded some optimism.  After all, on a day like today you can't worry about it, can you?

Time is different now. It slips away more easily but there's a feeling you should be doing something. Consequently you make a vast coloured-coded to-do list. You need to keep a balance though, to take the chance of some respite from the skirmishes on the borders of insanity. So when you have put the fish in the fridge, and organised the eggs rather cleverly with the least fresh nearest, you remind yourself what you are missing - or not missing.

I am not missing being told that, despite our team's excellence in inspections, we are not up to the mark with respect to various targets too tedious to list. I am not missing being so busy recording things on disfunctional systems that there is not enough time for planning lessons. I am not missing arriving for work ever hopeful, but wrong, that today I can just get it done. Here is an example from the borders of insanity.

Amaal (let's call her) is Somali. She speaks several languages but her English is not strong yet, so she needs help enrolling , partly because the form is four pages long. Together we do everything we can, and she has all possible supporting documentation. In breaktime we go to the office with the big window (and who knows if there is even a piece of security glass that size left in Somalia). We slide all the paper under the glass. It's like Immigration. The lady looks unhappy. "You've got to go and get it counter-signed in the top left here by your manager." "But my manager said she's sorted it with your manager." "That's what we've been told." To Amaal it must be like being refused admission by a grumpy goldfish. Needless to say we traipse back for yet another signature, my manager sighs wearily, we go back to our lesson, and repeat the process at lunchtime.

I also remember Ayaan, whose auntie dropped dead next to her as she was hit by a ricocheting bullet. One day Ayaan and her children were returning from the fields when they saw militia some way off shooting into their village. There and then they turned and made for Ethiopia. Much later Ayaan found herself in the hall of a hostel in the UK, crying with the cold, trying to get her baby into unfamiliar clothes and a buggy. Her friend had gone out earlier to get sugar, and returned without it because she couldn't recognise it in the shops, and couldn't read. Ayaan vowed to learn good English, which despite the obstructions she did. She now teaches literacy to other Somali women.

So that's what I don't miss. And what I do. Fruitcake is licking his fur again and the morning has gone.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The black goo monster

Today started differently, which is different in itself. Normally, if not already awake with my brain boiling since four, I would be hauled out of bed shortly after six by a sense of dreadful urgency. After feeding the cat (called Fruitcake for blogging purposes), who would have been dancing on my chest and yowling for ten minutes, getting in the shower would feel like being allowed to go back to bed for a bit. Next came the simultaneous emptying of the dishwasher, making a packed lunch, and making a pot of tea. I would then take the cat up to Mrs Turer (whose blog name will be announced later when she has decided). The cat would be followed by the tea and a short discussion of how we had both slept (Mrs Turer normally fine, me some degree of not fine).

As I said, today started differently - differently from yesterday and differently from September 2009 till the middle of July 2010. Mrs Turer (now 'Cho' she has decided) took a turn this morning feeding the friends' eager ginger creature. And perhaps I should explain at this point that Cho has a job. She is self-employed up in the roof with a computer. In fact it has long been a fantasy of mine that she should become so wealthy that my job would just be to take her her post and cups of tea and coffee. This fantasy has become sort of true. Sadly, the wealthy bit is missing. Anyhow, being self employed, she can decide she's going to feed a neighbourhood cat before she starts work. This plus my own 'garden leave' adds up to the fact that there is no sense of  urgency at all in the bathroom on my part, just a vague sense that I must somehow sort out the future.

Consequently, while scraping a part of my face to make it presentable in case a job comes banging on the door, I notice black stuff round the plug of the handbasin. I know what this means; the black stuff and I are old enemies, and the plug is my favourite part of the bathroom. To close the plug you just push it down. To open it you push it down again. The spring feels strong and the plug is a slightly domed chromed surface that has nothing to do with past participles or Individual Learning Plans.

The black stuff, on the other hand, is a gloopy mixture of soap, hair and some life-force born of neglect. Left to itself it clogs the pipe that takes the shavings, dirt and soapy water away to Nowhere. The lovely plug, in extreme circumstances, then becomes redundant too. So, in my pyjama bottoms, and soapy round the chops, I declare war. I grab the rubber plunger from it's place at the foot of the handbasin and unscrew the plug from the basin. I put the plunger over the plughole to act as a temporary plug, fill the basin half full with water, place a finger over the little overflow hole (to do with making a vacuum), and pump the plunger up and down several times. Water and black goo go in and out of the plughole like the thrashings of some dying sea monster. They drain satisyingingly away to Nowhere.

When you look into a plughole you there's a sort of rudimentary trap like the spokes of  a wheel. On the spokes lurk the hairiest remains of the black stuff. They are just out of reach with your fingers. Cho employs a knitting needle, apparently, to get at them. I use a finger and the nail-file attachment on the nail clippers. As in life and learning, everyone has different ways of achieving the same end. Today my method was very successful and I chucked a large lump of hairy goo-monster down the toilet. Another route to Nowhere.

I can hear friends and colleagues who are still properly employed saying "Alec, you've got too much time on your hands," It's true, and it's rather weird. It's never happened before, unless you count being a hippy nearly forty years ago. I suppose I would reply, "Yes, but you've got a secure future." Which is true, isn't it?