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.