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.