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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading and walking


I am trying, without success, to wean myself from my dedication to my e-book reader.
I am now fully addicted to obscure out of copyright pot boilers by otherwise famous writers. My predilection for P G Wodehouse writing now takes in stuff that he wrote which is only one step above The Famous Five. I am reading writing from the first decade of the twentieth century which has odd racist allusions which shock by their very casualness. I am beginning to read everything (including modern writing) which now appears to me to be merely a variety of Boys’ Own Paper writing!

I am reading L R Stevenson’s ‘Travels with a Donkey’ which I first read donkey’s years ago and only remember his description of hitting the donkey across the face with a stick out of sheer frustration with the animal’s disinclination to move. This time round there are references to language, culture, description and history which I am sure I simply ignored the last time which I am able to appreciate now.

Stevenson appears to be an odd traveller both prepared for what he is likely to find and also something of an innocent in his peregrinations. He is as comfortable in lyrical passages in praise of nature as he is in low comedy in his battles with Modestine - the donkey. He dwells on the fate of the Protestants and Roman Catholics in Pont de Montvert in the early eighteenth century and draws lessons from that bloody confrontation, “the persecution on the one hand, the febrile enthusiasm on the other are almost equally difficult to understand in these quiet modern days.” Those “quiet modern days” were in 1879 - the year of Rorke’s Drift and the Zulu Wars, so obviously a different sort of “quiet” from the one I understand!

Stevenson talks about having a “sleeping-sack” (sleeping bag) “constructed” a “child of my invention” which looked like “a sort of long roll or sausage, green waterproof cart-cloth without and blue sheep’s fur within” – is this one of the first descriptions of a sleeping bag to be used by ‘serious’ travellers who go hiking in little explored territory for fun? 'Travels with a Donkey' has been described as one of the first accounts of someone going on a hiking holiday for fun. For me the words ‘hiking’ and ‘fun’ do not go together naturally, but in reading Stevenson’s account I am able to link the words from the comfort of my sofa at the cost of someone else’s discomfort!

Talking of discomfort today has been one of my periodic days of vague illness. I still seem to preserve the habits of school and limit these days to the weekend when I can ‘take to my bed’ with a clear conscience and sleep off any discomfort. It took till 4 pm but I then arose (fully refreshed) and gratefully ate the bocadillo prepared for me.

At least I’m not hiking!

Friday, January 30, 2009

It's not the giving . . .



Some presents are clearly double edged.

My mother made a clear distinction (which she explained very lucidly early in my life) between a ‘present’ for the house and a gift for her. Something for the kitchen was regarded as having general utility and could not therefore be regarded as a disinterested ‘present’ but rather as something from which the giver hoped to gain by its being used by the recipient. My mother was not fooled by such things.

I was a quick learner and soon understood the cross-over value of flowers. This was a ‘public’ gift which was always appreciated personally. Although flowers were seen by everybody, the fact that my mother trimmed, arranged and cared for them made them particularly hers. This was allowed. I now think that the logic of the gift represented by flowers could also be extended to raw ingredients which could be transformed by one’s parent into tasty meals. I know, intuitively that however logical my thought it would never have been accepted as a parallel by my mother!

Children, of course, are constantly given ‘improving’ gifts: toys which have the imprimatur of some educational manufacturer so that the donor can pay a lot of money to have the warm feeling that he is doing good while being nice. But kids always know when they are being taught, they can sniff out hidden education and they will play with the box that the gift came in rather than something which is overtly wholesome and improving!

Alcohol gives by the sip and takes by the bottle; clothes mask yet define; perfume asserts to fade and gadgets titillate to frustrate. The positive always points relentlessly to the negative while transience and obsolescence swallow meaning. As Flanders and Swann so delicately put it, “That’s entropy man!”

There are some gifts which transcend the tug down to oblivion. The tea caddy in the form of The Oxford English Dictionary given by Ceri and Dianne (when the world was yet young) still contains my tea bags today. And the thought of anything else is simply unthinkable. Only total destruction involving catastrophic metal fatigue will stop it being my caddy of choice! This caddy falls into that small and select group of items where replacement is simply not considered shame and necessity forces: colanders, tea towels, nail brushes and wallets.

Just compare that list with: mobile phones, computers, watches and decent Rioja and you will see the difference! In the latter list change is part of the process of use; in the former it is amazing how something like a fraying piece of cloth to dry dishes can be unconsciously considered an essential unchanging part of ordinary life!

Be truthful, when was the last time that you replaced a tea towel or colander or nail brush or wallet? However broken, frayed, blunted or old they simply ‘are.’

The other type of gift is one which is only made – literally – by you the recipient. Not the conventional self assembly aspect, but more the active continuing participation of the giftee: something like a diary. A diary is only so much scrap paper until the owner transforms it into a coherent book. Personally, I never got beyond January (usually the first week in January) before the scrap paper aspect of the book took over its more normal function.

The present which is provoking these ruminations is in the ‘diary’ category of gift. Our recent efforts in forcing perfectly good and happy acrylic paint from the security of its tube and onto the chaotic surface of a canvas have been noted by certain sections of the family. We are now the proud possessors of giant canvasses with an intimidatingly large surface area to cover in coloured stains.

Toni, with growing enthusiasm, is producing small canvases at an alarming rate and he has made a start on the pencil outline for his magnum opus. I have thought about what I might do and have even gone to the unheard of lengths of sketching out my ideas.

The sheer whiteness of the canvas and the immensity of its open space make the idea of producing a mark on its virginal expanse appear like a violation. Especially with my wayward artistic ability. However, the progress of what I can only term the ‘rival’ picture is prompting me into attempting some sort of response.

The pencil is poised: I have nothing to loose but my self respect.

Let battle commence!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Throw away!



Grovelling about in refuse bins!

A sad illustration of the true state of affairs during a crisis! Late last night at the end of our street someone from our block of flats was taking out the bags from the skip and rummaging through them. Sad. Disgusting.

Me!

I blame the Spanish government.

Qualifications from Britain have to be ‘recognized’ by the government in Madrid. It is not enough that the school in which you work is shown the original certificates for degree and PGCE, they have to be ‘seen’ by the authorities, stamped authenticated and generally photocopied and become part of an extended bureaucratic paper chase.

All credit to the Teaching Council for Wales and Swansea University for getting the proof that I am actually a teacher and actually have a degree to me with exemplary dispatch: from telephone request to document in Catalonia only a single week!

David, from The School of the Short Sojourn helped me fill out the crucial form, checked through the photocopies I had amassed, photocopied more and sent me on my way to the department of government in Barcelona I needed to visit to get everything stamped and started on its long journey into the inner sanctums of the education ministry in Madrid.

I relied on my tom-tom to get me there. It did. Eventually.

Driving through Barcelona is a nightmare. The city has enthusiastically adopted the traffic light as a direct weapon against the motorist. Their positioning creates maximum entropy and the minimum of activity. The traffic jams thus created give almost unlimited opportunities for the verminous plague of ‘drivers’ (I use that word in its loosest possible sense) who choose the motorbike or scooter as their suicidal weapon of choice.

The bike riders were numerous and numbskulled.

They wove in and out of traffic as if they were merely moving pixels on the screen display of a computer program. Bike riders in Barcelona ride as if they had the manoeuvrability of a particularly lithe limbo dancer combined with the longevity of a giant tortoise and the invulnerability of James Bond.

My sympathy for the number of plaster encased youngsters you see in the streets of Catalonia has long since evaporated as they represent the visible sign of some sort of justified physical retribution for their insane driving. After my experiences this afternoon I think that I will start aiming for them!

Believe me you become hyper sensitive to motorised Tinkerbells who think that they are winsome emanations of delight, weaving patterns of fairy dust around you as you try and find your way through the centre of a city trying to follow ambiguous instructions from the preternaturally calm voice of a GPS.

By the time The Voice told me that I was approaching my destination on my right I was a little irritated and wished with passionate intensity that I had scythes attached to the hub caps of my car.

I was of course sent to the wrong building from the right building and then my documents were looked at by someone who had never processed this type before. The number of questions raised by the over anxious nubie about what I had given in was too mind-bendingly and inconsequentially trivial to grace with typing space and I therefore assumed that they would mean the kiss of death to my hopes for getting the documents on the move. Astonishingly all objections were (eventually) brushed aside by the official guiding my neophyte Jobsworth’s attempt to send me back for another try!

So a day productively spent.

This was a day which started just after midnight with my searching the rubbish for the academic transcript which, in an excess of tidying, I had thrown away.

Unlike Squidge who would probably have been dragged away by the police for interfering with the quiet repose of the rubbish, I found our uncollected bag in double quick time. The bag opened, I saw the rolled up envelope and was able to rescue the transcript – a little moist and a little piquant, but whole and usable.

Better, as they say, lucky than rich.

I am working towards both.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Power of Art!






At a time of economic meltdown, galloping unemployment, social unrest and growing chaos around the world it is always pleasant to see that art can play its part in making things just that little bit worse.

I have been reading about the latest piece of Euro Art Work to be unveiled in Brussels. This is ‘Entropia’ by David Cerny which has been installed in the foyer of the European Council in Brussels to mark the Czech assumption of the EU Presidency.

This eight tonne sculpture takes the form of a massive rectangle of blue tubing from which (rather in the manner of the plastic parts of an Airfix model kit) arty representations of the individual member countries are fixed.

The ‘explanatory’ catalogue for the installation issued by the Czechs has been hurriedly withdrawn (though it is still available on line if you know where to look) and apologies have been issued right, left and centre for the real and perceived insults that the sculpture has been seen to offer.

Cerny, the artist, has told infuriated observers that it was all meant as a bit of a joke. It turns out that the Czech government has thought that they were commissioning a range of artists from individual EU states but in fact it was an elaborate hoax by Cerny. He and a few collaborators made all the bits and wrote the ludicrous catalogue as well.

When you consider the play on stereotypes by which each country outline is represented you wonder just how Cerny got away with it until it was installed and too late.

Sweden is represented by an IKEA flatpack; Bulgaria by a Turkish toilet; Ireland by fur covered bagpipes; Romania by a kitsch looking Dracula fairground attraction; Spain by a lump of concrete and Britain – well, Britain isn’t there. This is supposed to be a visual representation of the scepticism about membership of the EU for which we are notorious! The description of the artistic motivation for the lack of anything in the installation representing Britain could be reprinted verbatim in Pseuds’ Corner in Private Eye. I might add that the element representing the Czech nation consists of an LED strip relaying quotations from the speeches of their disturbed leader!

I do urge you to find the catalogue and giggle your way through the pretentious artistic psycho babble with which it is filled and have a look at the individual elements of the countries. After looking at them you might begin to wonder if the EU hasn’t been given a more uncomfortably accurate depiction of the heterogeneous rag bag of absurdly pompous countries that make up the organization than any ponderous academic study emerging through the filter of civil servants and national prejudice could possibly do!

As in the best traditions of a Brueghel painting there are so many little details which tantalize and titillate: the sexually suggestive footballers of Italy; the drowned minarets of Holland; the endlessly circulating cars of Germany; the group of priests mimicking the Iwo Jima flag raising but with the Rainbow flag of the Gay movement for Poland – it goes on and on and you can imagine national representatives howling with rage!

The fact that Cerny has managed to get his installation up and running (there are moving, flashing and sounding parts) is a triumph. Elaborate hoax and naughtily irreverent it might well be but such a scintillating example of wicked humour in the heart of serious Europe is worth its weight in gold. And to cap it all Cerny said that he was influenced by Monty Python's Flying Circus in producing this work of art! Who needs a representation of the country when the idea behind it all is so gloriously British!

The recriminations, explanations, accusations and condemnations which this installation has and will provoke must all, surely, be regarded as a continuing part of the work itself. Just as with Christo’s ‘wrapping’ projects (my particular favourite was the ‘Curtain across the valley’) the ‘art’ is as much in the efforts to get the work done (Christo actually got a bank to finance the curtain) as in the actual object itself (the curtain only survived for a very short time.) In the best sense of the word the object becomes a sequence of events in which we can all participate.

If nothing else it will allow us to chuckle at the way that a resourceful joker got his hands on substantial public funds and managed through sheer face to erect a symbol of punctured pretension in a symbol of stuffy seriousness.

I like it. A lot.

Tomorrow, after my second Spanish lesson of the week - (No! For the love of God! Not more verbs!) – I return to The School of My Brief Sojourn to take advantage of the offer of help to get my qualifications sorted out. The trick in these instances of approaching Spanish bureaucracy is to get all possible documents together to forestall any nit picking on the part of the officials. The man who has kindly offered to help has arranged numbers of these accreditations and so I should be in a safe pair of hands.

The only distasteful aspect of the process is that I might have to go to a notario (for whose existence I can see no possible justification) and spend quantities of money for those ciphers to tell me that the documents I am showing are indeed documents. I will need to keep my temper as I pay a fee for no reason whatsoever to people whose only qualifications for their ‘legal’ jobs are that they know how to put ‘official’ stamps on a piece of paper. My fervent hope (a teacher’s prayer) is that they will be subject to nights of sleepless anxiety for the grasping futility of their existence.

One can only hope!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reflections






My time in my present school has come to an end with the return to health of the teacher whose place I took short term.

An early blood test and a two hour Spanish lesson replaced my classes this morning, but even this excitement does not compensate for the loss of what could be a lucrative and satisfying job.

I will wait with barely concealed impatience to see what the future holds. After all, when I first went to the school, it only took two days before they called me back to replace a teacher. I therefore expect a phone call by Thursday at the latest!

I was told that the teacher was returning at the start of my last lesson on Monday afternoon by the head of the secondary section of the school and the directora and, after many gratifying expressions of their satisfaction with my time with them I went back to complete my final lesson.

The pupils in the class were a little suspicious and, as they have done virtually every time that I have taken them asked if I would be teaching them the next day. The reaction when I told them that it was the last time that I would take them provoked an outcry.

I had to tread a perilously thin professional line in dealing with the storm of questions and unprompted comments which the situation provoked and it was only with real difficulty that we got back to the work that we should have been doing.

In a previous class when we were looking at a letter of application for a job in a Summer Camp when one of the pupils wittily suggested that I write one to the school for a permanent job. When I pointed out that there was no job another pupils said, “We can get rid of her. We got rid of a maths teacher.” It was a chilling moment which I passed over with a laugh and got back to the task in hand.

The pupils in the school are clever and articulate, they also have a very real sense of what they want and most of them are convinced that what they want will be translated into reality with very little trouble. One is tempted to say that they represent a youthful embodiment of the expectation of privilege which comes when you are paying large sums of money for a private education. Not only do they know what they want, but they also expect it.

Although I have not gone out of my way to create it, the permanent teacher is going to have a negative welcome when she returns to work. I do not envy her having to cope with class after class filled with sullen resentment at best and articulate dismissal at worst.

I suppose that I should also remember the remarkable resilience or pupils and their even more remarkable ability to forget. What appears to be major at the beginning of the week is very old news by the end of it!

A rather more pressing problem concerns verbs.

My Spanish class this morning was almost entirely incomprehensible to me as we (apparently) ranged our way through tenses as exotic as ‘pretérito perfecto simple’ to ‘pretérito pluscuamperfecto’ - and don’t get me started on the Spanish predilection for the ‘modo subjuntivo.’

I suppose it would be a help if I was anything approaching confident in description and use of these tenses in English before I embarked on the stormy waters of complex utterances in a foreign tongue. But that sort of logical preparation would be breaking the habit of a lifetime in far too many areas of experience to enumerate to try a new approach this late in my bumbling approach to life!

I can only hope that by Thursday our teacher will fall back on something a little easier, though a cursory glance at the page which she has indicated as our next foray into Spanish looks, to put it mildly, verb heavy. The topic is the ‘kitchen’ and if I understood her correctly she is expecting us to write a description of how we would prepare a typical national dish. I somehow don’t think that my suggestion of “Buy a ready meal from Tesco’s” translated into Spanish is quite what she has in mind!

I must officially record my thanks to The Teaching Council of Wales and the University of Wales Swansea for providing (within a week) the documentation necessary for my teaching qualifications to be recognized by the Spanish Government. I am particularly impressed with Swansea for producing an Academic Transcript of my degree. It is impressive to think that my precise marks from my degree papers are still somewhere in the system thirty-five years after gaining the qualification!

It is instructive to learn that my highest mark was in the History of Art in my first year and in my final papers my lowest mark was in Chaucer. I should explain. Our Chaucer paper was not just on Chaucer but also on a number of his ‘contemporaries’ who produced such shudderingly awful Early Middle English poems as ‘The Pearl’ and (in spite of what others may say) the equally dreadful ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ I think I speak for a number of my fellow students when I say that while we gave Chaucer his due and read many of the stories in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ his ‘contemporaries’ did not receive equal treatment. I may have bought the books, but I cannot say with hand on heart that I read them all the way to the end! Life, I reasoned, was not long enough to worry my way through a poem whose first line (of two and a half thousand lines) starts:
“Sißen ße sege and ße assaut / watz sesed at Troye”
and to be frank doesn’t get much better.

We had to sit the Chaucer paper on a Saturday afternoon just before ‘Doctor Who’ and, while I was writing my answers I had the constant fear that I was going to miss the latest episode of the not to be missed series. I had spent Friday night building sandcastles on Swansea beach with friends in a state of hysterical horror at my sheer unpreparedness for the coming ordeal which I reiterated to my unresponsive colleagues who were not sitting the exam the next day.

The paper itself was of legendary and absurd awfulness comprising ‘translation’ questions drawn from obscure ‘unseen’ pre fourteenth century documents; set texts and the Works of Chaucer. Then, to finish there were three academic essays on various texts that we had to complete. Only the students who were taking this period as their ‘special’ paper ever completed the exam – the rest of us staggered out of the examination hall in various states of shell shock. It took me virtually the whole of the episode of Doctor Who before I had regained my equanimity!

It is also gratifying to discover that my best papers were my special option paper on Modern Literature (don’t get the wrong idea - we started with Dostoyevsky, so not that sort of ‘Modern’) and Drama.

I am particularly pleased about the mark in Drama paper because it provoked a conversation with one of my tutors that I still don’t really understand. Before the results came out I was stopped by Doctor Worthen and the following exchange took place:

Dr W: You answered a question on Brecht didn’t you?
Me: Yes.
Dr W: You quoted from ‘Baal’ didn’t you?
Me: Yes.
Dr W: No one else did. That just about sums up your answer.
Me: !

I still maintain the ambiguity of Dr W’s comments was a cruel impetus to self doubt in the trying times before the degree results have came out. As the results day drew nearer I spent most of my time trying to think of a form of words to soften the blow when I had to tell my parents that I had failed or been awarded a ‘pass’ degree instead of the ‘honours’ degree that I had been attempting to get!

It was oddly ironic that, when the results were finally posted (and I was more than happy with my results) the only person who actually did fail honours and get a ‘pass’ degree actually received an honour!

In the degree ceremony (conducted in a mixture of Welsh and Latin with random English so no one knew what was going on) the graduates in each class of degree were ‘done’ together. So, in English the two firsts in my year were ‘done’ first; then the dozen two ones; the forty two twos and then, finally, in splendid isolation and looking as though he were receiving a signal honour, the single ‘pass’ graduate!

Happy Days!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Turning and turning



A colleague told me that she had a book confiscated by another colleague because he felt that what she was reading was morally corrupting and absolute rubbish.

As she was reading Jeremy Clarkson one does feel that such Draconian literary censorship is at least partially justified, but I have spent most of my life trying to find ways to implement my personal motto of “Quisquam est melior quam nusquam.” This is a literal Latin translation of “Anything is better than nothing.”

At this point I await an arch e-mail from Stewart who, with perfectly chosen ironic condescension will point out that the Latin is obviously illiterate, grotesquely barbaric and meaningless. Even I can see that the repetition of ‘quam’ three times is visually inelegant, so there must be another way of saying it.

So, the “Quisquam est melior quam nusquam” approach would aver that reading Clarkson is much to be preferred to not reading at all. I know that there is a literary snobbery that claims that reading books is a higher creative experience than, say, reading a film It so happens that I am quite comfortable with that as most of my professional life and leisure time has been taken up with The Book in whatever guise it presents itself.

The ‘guise’ ranges from those intimidating works of world importance which have introductions longer than the text they introduce to those books whose essential cheapness in thought as well as production is reflected not only in the gritty tactile woodchip on which they are printed but also in the lurid, shocking cover images which bear no relation to the content.

I still think that my approach when I was in school was the ‘soundest’ when it came to reading. I used to wander around with three books. The first was a copy of a novel by Agatha Christie or P G Wodehouse; the second was a (preferably) thin book from the Penguin Modern Classics series, and the third was a ‘real’ Classic.

The Agatha Christie or Wodehouse was for sheer pleasure and self indulgence and was therefore carefully hidden from public view so that any pretensions to intellectual respectability could be maintained.

The Penguin Modern Classic book was chosen for its front cover – usually a brilliantly chosen modern painting – and for the kudos that reading modern (and therefore difficult) novels could bring. My first brushes with Jean Genet, Boris Vian, Jean Cocteau, Cyril Connolly, Alain Fournier, Collette, Orwell, Zamyatin, Karp, Mann, all came from this excellent series. The kudos could only be extracted from the casual view of teachers because they were the only ones who knew anything about what you were reading.

The ‘real’ Classics were the ones which got you instant credit because even if people hadn’t read them they had heard of them and knew that they ought to have read them. Penguin again was my guide and they had The English Library which included people like Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Fielding, Trollope, Walpole and Shelley (Mrs) and all the poets. There was also the World Classics series which had Tolstoy, Dante, Chaucer and their august like.

So, in my view to restrict oneself to one type of ‘improving’ literature is a ridiculous form of pleasure denying philistianism. When you want to lose yourself in the elegantly nasty witticisms of Clovis as written by Saki, or marvel at the inhuman ingenuity of Jeeves or read paper thin characters mouth their way through intriguing murder mysteries – you are probably not in the mood for Proust or Pushkin. Or indeed vice versa.

The more you read, the more you discover that some Classics (by no means all!) have that designation because they are jolly good reads. In the same way some books which are dismissed by the cognoscenti as unworthy of anything more than a half glace can turn out to be fascinating.

And I for one fail to find anything unpleasant in self indulgence.

Within certain wide limits. As defined by me.

I did my marking yesterday, and with that work orientated credit I don’t really have to justify devouring ‘Was it Murder?’ by James Hilton (the author of ‘Lost Horizons’) as if it were a guilty pleasure, like a cream cake.

Anyway given the general level of vocabulary the novel contained, the odd Latin quotation, passing references to a shared general knowledge which is anything but common, fair characterization, firm structure and a reasonably challenging plot the book qualifies to join the ‘safe pair of hands’ designation and therefore certainly not be deemed a waste of time.

So, “Quisquam est melior quam nusquam” covers my present reading and all other goodies lurking in my e-book reader. With almost 400 volumes (and room for many more) in the device I can relax with the knowledge that there is a text for all moods from the frivolous to the furtive; from the profound to the preposterous and certainly from the essential to the easy read.

As Kipling wrote about the ways of making tribal laws, so also with ways of reading and what you might and should read:

There are nine and sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right.

Turn the page! Any page!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Blow winds!





Yesterday the whole of Spain was issued with a bad weather warning.

Most of the warnings were about gales with especially attention directed towards those parts of the country which have an Atlantic Coastline. Madrid in the centre was not exempted and was told it could expect high winds.

Here on the Mediterranean Coast we are usually more sheltered but the wind has been howling around the flat all night. This morning the wind has blurred the beach which has now become a giant three dimensional abrasion zone where any unfortunate walking along stands a good chance of being flayed. The sea, usually so placid, has become a reasonable looking maelstrom with the wind producing the most artistic of effects as it whips away the foam at the top of the multitude of waves which have suddenly appeared in our little lake.

And, of course, the sun is shining.

There are a few picturesque clouds to add interest to an otherwise featureless blue sky but they are not so intrusive as to block the beaming vitamin D being offered to those hardy enough to venture outside. I, with the achievement of a week’s teaching behind me, scorned the elements and strode out onto the balcony. I took two photos and then strode back in and made myself a cup of tea. After all, adventure should be met with reward!

At some time during this weekend I will have to complete the marking which has now fallen to my lot. It will be revealing to see if I get any of it done today or, as is the way with so many of we benighted educationalists, I leave it to Sunday. Thus will I reinforce the concept of the Sunday Afternoon Dread when the teacher suddenly realizes that time is running out to get the work done before the ziggurat of teaching starts rolling relentlessly forward on Monday morning.

The meal last night was excellent with lots of little starters and a healthy and delicious piece of fish for the main course – but, as usual the company and the conversation made the meal.

As I type I am surrounded by the sounds of things falling on exposed balconies or being dragged across the tiles by the wind. The double glazing is bulging with the force of the blast and doors are rattling in response to the insidious drafts that have managed to worm their way through invisible gaps. But the sun keeps shining through it all! Bless!

Next month approaches with its promise of guests to stay. Hadyn has expressed the desire to go and see inside Gaudí’s masterpiece the Templo Expiatório da Sagrada Família. I first saw this on the way to Tossa de Mar on my first foreign holiday when I was seven. The nearest I have got to it since then was on a tourist bus trip with the Pauls when the vehicle drove slowly past it. I prefer to view it as a distant landmark, an iconic silhouette against the bright sky of Barcelona rather than as a building which repaid close inspection. However, it will be an experience to see what the detail of this remarkable building is like.

I think I will buy a book!

The arrival of Ceri and Dianne is eagerly awaited by Toni (and indeed by me) because he is determined to show Ceri his latest works of art. Ceri will need all his diplomacy and old teaching skills in offering a response to these artifacts. And there is the added horror for him of looking at my internationally acclaimed view of Sitges (augmented by much use of Photoshop in its reproduction) and if that fails to knock his equilibrium then there is the naked threat of my incomprehensible rendition of a beachscene for him to ‘appreciate.’ Dianne and I will revert to type and go in search of a cake shop and giggle our way through some sort of cream infused sugary confection. A sugar rush will always compensate for any negativity about creativity!

Bring it on!

Friday, January 23, 2009

It's more than the food.




I am now the proud possessor of a Watford football club scarf.

I found the thing waiting on my desk when I came to take one of my classes today. One of my pupils who a couple of days ago admitted to supporting the club bashfully said that it was a gift and he had plenty more! This is all a legacy from a training camp that the pupil (you will notice that I am not using his name; my legendary inability to learn names in my classes continues) said that he had attended with Watford. Once you have played with that team you are obviously infected for life!

My overweening pride has now reached critical mass as class after class begged me to stay on and teach in the school permanently. There is, as I keep telling them, no job available for me. The looks on the faces of the pupils do not bode well for the reception of their normal teacher on her return! God help.

If I am asked to summarize my response to the school after a week there I would say that we had asparagus for lunch today. I do respond to such civilized touches in the otherwise feral world of education!

Monday is guaranteed as an extra day but then everything is dependent on what the doctor says about the teacher that I am replacing. My time there could extend into the middle of the week or my sojourn there could end on Monday afternoon. We will see.

And now out to dinner with both solid and liquid delights. I certainly feel that I have earned the right to sample the latter!

Some time over the weekend I have to complete my first tranches of marking. One of the groups of papers is a test on the passive in English. I had no idea that our grammar was so organized and that there were so many tidy rules to govern the writing of forms of English that we never think about in Britain. An eleven year old in this school has a greater knowledge of English grammar than most of the English teachers in most secondary schools! It is not only intimidating but downright frightening when some chit of a child starts talking about the past continuous perfect tense with a confidence bordering on ownership.

There is one girl in my youngest group who has a way of saying my name (all children refer to the teachers by their first names) and looking at me which makes me doubt all grammatical knowledge that I profess to possess. I shall filter all my future pronouncements by a flick of the eyes seeking her approbation before I have the temerity to continue any exegesis I care to make in the field of English grammar!

Keep thinking of the asparagus!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another day?

What a long week!

I have rarely been as tired as I feel today and there is yet another day to go before the justified relaxation of the weekend! The teaching is not taxing in some ways but it is demanding. The pupils in my present temporary placement are eager and articulate so their needs are rather different from the sometimes resentful participants in education that I have dealt with in the past.

There is intensity in the sort of teaching which takes place in the English department of the school which is a reflection of the complete commitment of the head of department in the day to day progress of the subject. The grammar based emphasis of the text books used lends itself to an exercise led, examination tested approach which is easier to structure and control.

As my presence in the school represents more of a holding operation for the classes without a teacher rather than a well integrated approach with the rest of the department, I have been encouraged to play to my strengths and take a more expansive approach to my classes.

Meanwhile, on other fronts in my Barcelona experience, lunch today provided by the school canteen comprised fideuá, mussels, salad, chicken and various sweets. I had my meal and, rather daringly, accompanied it with a half glass of red from the pitcher of wine placed on the staff table. By way of reparation for this culinary largesse I had to do lunch time duty.

This evening I need to look through ‘Catcher in the rye’ which is the novel chosen by the previous teacher as the reader for two of my classes and which I have not read for an embarrassing number of years.

This is one of those times when I need my books – though I should not whimper and scratch at storage room doors but instead I should look for my raw teaching material from my e-book reader. I have suggested short stories to the head of department; perhaps I should print out one of them and present it as a little gift to the department.

I think that I will use Saki for the experiment. ‘Sredni Vashtar’ is a story which usually works and I know that the electronic bones of that story are lurking among the electrons which make up my computer.

Time for work!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vaulting ambition!


There is, I swear a built-in self-destruct button in the human animal.

Having been in my present school for a lengthy two days and being subject to overweening pride, I decided to take a different route to work today. And was promptly confronted by a traffic jam!

Even though I was starting work at the obscenely early time of 8.15 am I had left a substantial number of minutes as a buffer by starting off on my journey in what looked like the middle of the night. I was therefore only mildly extremely worried by the seemingly unending, stationary line of traffic whose blinking red tail lights seemed to mock my impatience.

In what seemed like hours but was in fact just a few minutes I passed the bottle neck and was soon trundling on my way to the hills of Barcelona. And I had time to have a cup of tea before I took my first class.

The lady whose place I am taking has been to the doctor and now is definitely going to be away for the rest of the week and until at least next Monday.

The members of staff are very accepting and open; the characters among the teachers are beginning to emerge. A firm (generally incoherent) friendship has been established between the female PE teacher and me. She was the person who was sent to drag me away from a class where I had failed to hear the bell or siren and was happily teaching on well into my next period. “Can you run!” she urged me as I was making my sedate way down the various flights of steps to my class. “Yes I can,” I replied, “but I choose not to.” On the basis of that scintillating badinage she now refers to me as ‘mi amigo Estevan.’

It was a sunny day today and so I walked out onto the extensive balcony which runs outside the staff room in the hold house which was the place where the original school was established. In spite of some extraneous trees the view is astonishing taking in the whole of the city and looking down towards the sea. I am making the most of it before my brief tenure of this job is relinquished to its normal teacher!

The Head of Department asked me about book suggestions today so I was able to produce a critically annotated list for her perusal. The computers in the staffroom in the Old Building are directly linked to the photocopier which is also in the staffroom. To a teacher the meaning contained in the previous sentence will suggest the whole ethos of the school and the way that teachers operate there!

I am still trying to work out what staff the school actually has. Because of the fragmented and vertically differentiated layout of the school campus there are staff rooms in each building. I am beginning to recognize some faces and link them to a particular location but various other people just seem to come and go.

During the last period I was reading through a book which is published each year by the school in which the winning entries in a short story competition form the content. There were two Spanish teachers who I had never seen before. They were busily consuming the chocolates that a French teacher had brought into the school to celebrate her birthday.

After about ten minutes or so a young casually dressed motorcyclist came in, took off his helmet and made himself a cup of coffee after greeting all the other members of staff. He chatted, joined the other teachers in eating the chocolates, helped himself to one of the little pastries a tray of which had appeared for no apparent reason and then left.

Who was he? And who was his mate? They are obviously part of the scene here, though I can’t explain in what way they fit in.
It all gives me something about which to speculate.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The hardened worker!



Two days and exhaustion has taken on a whole new meaning!

Getting to the school in the mornings with all the rush hour traffic is, I have discovered, taking little more time than getting to the previous school in Sitges. One accident, however, and chaos will reign over the whole of northern Barcelona and I could be within shouting distance of the school and hours away by car!

It seems as if it might be at least possible that the teacher that I am replacing is back in the classroom on Thursday. This does not please me as I was booked (as it were) for a week, but on the more practical side I have at least managed to get inside a real school and be part of the staff for a few days.

The kids continue to reel.

One of my colleagues said that the pupils had told her in shocked tones that “He made jokes!” It was difficult to work out from her description whether that was positive or deeply negative!

I now have the keys to the school. This is feat that I have not managed to repeat since I last had the keys of and educational institution when I was given the keys of The English Department in Swansea University when I was a student!

In an odd lapse of reality the Head of Department took me through my timetable and pointed out the times and the rooms that I would be expected to lock next week – when I won’t be there. I take this as another positive sign!

The pupils continue to please and one class offered that temptation to inexperienced teachers of an invitation to stay and teach them permanently. Alas! I know only too well the juvenile welcome given to the new at the expense of the established – fickle swine, the young! Also there is no job at the school at present. I can’t help feeling that the lack of a place is a limiting factor in my future employment!

Tomorrow sees my first lesson at the grotesquely early time of 8.15 am. I assume that this start (which is twice a week for me) is part of a way of giving some sort of flexibility to the timetable. This is of course (with the exception of two days this week) of only theoretical interest to me. What the future holds may change that attitude.

As far as the lessons are concerned there is for me an almost palpable sense of relief in talking about my subject again and replaying all those little tricks of the trade to get pupils responding. Stewart has just sent me an email in which he says that, “you and I both know that when one is on a roll, there is nothing more satisfying than a class that, come four o'clock, knows more (and better) than it did at nine this morning.” That, I know is the feeling that I have been missing and this school is allowing me the luxury of experiencing it again.

Meanwhile my e-book reader (which was much admired by a colleague this morning) continues to provide odd reading. The novel I am devouring at present is one by Somerset Maugham called ‘The Magician’ and unless I had seen the author’s name on the page I would never have put writer and work together.

The subject concerns a splendid young couple who fall foul of an exotic gross eccentric who poses as (and might actually be) a magician. I have to say that it reads like a Dennis Wheatley novel – not that I consider it any the worse for that. I well remember reading ‘The Haunting of Toby Jug’ in bed at night when fairly young, resting the book on the pillow and eventually reading with the focussed attention of the very scared and not wanting to stop reading because that would mean turning round to put the lights out. And who knew what might be lurking there!

This is a perfect example of a book which one should never re-read. What chance is there that I can retexture my innocent horror from a book like that with my hardened cynicism built on the analysis of a tranche of novels since then? It is better to allow the book to live on as an experience in my memory than to sharpen the appreciation of it by reading through it again.

And anyway, I’m not sure it’s out of copyright for me to download.

Monday, January 19, 2009

You cannot be serious!


Omens and portents are for the weak minded and credulous.

However . . .

Before the crack of dawn, in Stygian darkness I struggled out of bed and groped my way towards the car so that I would be early for a meeting in my new school. And the Tom-Tom refused to work.

My previous visit to the school had been in daylight and I looked more at the Little Lighted Screen of Guidance than at the passing landmarks for the next visit. The end of the journey on the first occasion had been more than usually tortuous with the progress of the car describing more of a spiral than a comforting straight line.

It was therefore with a sense of foreboding that I set out on my way to the school with only my deeply flawed sense of direction to guide me. Thoughts dark as the threatening sky accompanied my journey into deepest, highest Barcelona.

And I arrived at the school at about the same time as the caretaker opened the main gate for all the kids and teachers who hadn’t arrived yet.

I marched in unopposed and used a back entrance to get to my intended destination. I got to the reception office before the first secretary had arrived and was sitting behind the locked door of the foyer as she entered directly using her key. And she offered me a cup of coffee and stewarded me away from contact with parents into the inner sanctum of what I was to discover was one of many staff rooms.

The staff room has many flavoured tea making capabilities as well as offering instant and capsule coffee. Morning break also saw a selection of baguettes appear for staff. Lunch was in a spacious dining area and was more than acceptable: it has to be because they don’t allow you off the premises during the day!

Supply staff are always, even in the best prepared and organized of schools, thrown in at the deep end, but the Head of English accompanied me to all my classes and eventually weighed me down with a ludicrously large weight of text, work and teachers’ books.

I have now met all my classes and the impression is of a lively but generally attentive group of pupils who should be a pleasure to teach.

As I have not been in front of a collection of pupils for some time the poor buggers had the full force of my “this class is my class” teaching approach which leaves both class and teacher a little breathless. God alone knows what they have told their parents!

I wore my Munch ‘Scream’ tie which is a traditional first day of term (even if it is only for a week) tie for me and it has usually excited a variety of comments ranging from uppity kids who tell me that the image is from a famous painting (Gosh!) to those who ask bemusedly what it is supposed to represent. In this school: nothing. Nothing from kids. Nothing from staff. I do hope it was because they were too intimidated to venture an opinion.

I also think that it might have had something to do with the shirt. In laying out a shirt last night I failed to realise that it was a double cuff without buttons. By the time I had got the thing on I was in no mood to hunt around for another shirt so I added my cousin’s cufflinks to my final attire. So with a Norwegian expressionist hanging from my neck and two large diamonds glittering at my wrists I must have been at least arresting!

The school site is built into the side of a mountain and it comprises a number of vertiginously stacked buildings which are connected by a series of rustic steps, concrete steps, wooden steps, a bridge and a playground. Did I mention steps? Well, there are a lot of them and I seemed to spend all my time traipsing up and down them.

The authentication and authorization of my documents has taken a further step towards some sort of reality by my phoning Swansea University and asking them to provide some sort of Academic Transcript of my degree. This, I understand, is normal practice nowadays, but my degree is not from nowadays.

When I spoke to a lady in the Registry in Swansea and mentioned that my degree was in the seventies she groaned and thanked me for presenting her with such an interesting problem first thing on a Monday morning.

I did not do a nice little modular degree with neat little sets of code numbers and a percentage for each element in the course. I cannot wait to see what the University comes up with! I did mention that they could make it all up as far as I was concerned as long as what they eventually produced had the University crest at the top of it and an official signature at the bottom!

At the end of one lesson one boy came up to me and asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from Wales he said, “I thought so, I could hear your accent when you said the word ‘here.’”

It turned out that this budding Professor Higgins had been on a study holiday in Brecon (Christ College, of course) and had acquired his sensitivity to things Welsh there.

Bodes well!

Not that I believe in omens of course.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tomorrow and tomorrow


My getting up at a reasonable hour had little bearing on my complete indolence for the rest of the day!

Except, can it be called indolence if one is reading. I spurn to put a question mark at the end of that sentence as it is clear rhetorical. It has to be rhetorical or I will have wasted a substantial proportion of my life in self indulgent wandering in the pernicious pathways of prose. And that simply mustn’t be true!

I have finished reading another novel by E F Benson called Across the Stream. This was published in 1917 and concerns the life story of yet another member of the ‘nobility’ a groups whose members litter Benson’s early work. This life divides neatly into two parts. The first part concerns the childhood of Master Archie and is interesting because of the fascinating perspective that Benson captures seeing the world expanding from the point of view of a young child’s growing experience.

The second part is not as effective and develops the spiritualistic elements in the first half and builds them up into a good versus evil battle in which the erstwhile hero is saved the by love of a good woman. Ugh! Having delivered the exclamation there are still interesting social, historical and moral attitudes which make this book worth a read. I have to say that I have just found a site which promises to make all the Mapp and Lucia books available for free download so that my reading of early Benson oddities may well be rejected in a self indulgent re-reading of the true camp ironic masterpieces of a very funny writer.

Though possibly not next week when I hope that my mind and intellectual efforts will be more directed towards making the five days that I have in school productive for what, after all, could be a place of permanent employment in the near future.

I have realised that it has been a considerable time since I have stood in front of a class of secondary pupils and actually tried to teach them anything. I suppose that it is a positive feature that the kids that I will meet tomorrow are English learners and not native English speakers this will mean that my usual digressive form of discursive teaching will miss the mark for the majority of the pupils and I will have to be uncharacteristically focussed to ensure that they follow what they need to learn.

It will be learning experience for both sides.

If it goes properly!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

It's all a question of food



The prospect of a Galician themed lunch saw me tootling up to Terrassa this afternoon.

The pulpo was the tastiest and the tenderest that I have ever tasted and that was only one element in the meal. Vast dishes of prawns, clams and mussels washed down with a delicious Galician white wine leading to an authentic Tarta Santiago from the actual location and good old dependable Cava. It is always a delight when the end result of a cultural holiday by a friend culminates in a meal! I have suggested that she now visits other areas of Spain noted for the culinary excellence!

I have now produced a sheet giving all the information that any reasonable school can possibly need to ensure that my hard earned money gets into my rapidly emptying bank account. As this information is in the form of cabbalistic strings of numbers most Spanish bureaucratic folk subside into delighted quiescence when they see them. After a period of contemplation they might actually do something and get the money transferred. I live in hope – even if a single week’s wages in Catalonia is a little less spectacular than it would be if I were doing the same thing in Britain.

The re-entry to a centre of academe allows me to power up my tiny laptop which was bought to make the transportation of a machine to wok a little less greedy of space in my school case. The Asus laptop is little bigger than a reasonable sized textbook and although its memory is limited it should be a useful augmented notebook to use in school.

My spatulate fingers make speed typing something of a harrowing experience on the keys and the lack of a decent shift key on the right hand side is a constant irritation. Indeed this is so much of an irritation that, were I to get a permanent job, I think that I would consider getting a better computer with a more conventional keyboard layout.

This is of course an almost completely specious cavil, but it will give me the opportunity to buy another gadget with all the opportunities for delightful wandering through acres of electronic goodies in a pseudo consumer survey sort of way before I eventually spend my hard earned euros on the best value offer I can find.

At present such expenditure is out of the question and, in the immortal words of my mother during a previous time of straitened circumstances, “No more mushrooms!” My poor mother was haunted for the rest of her life by this spontaneous suggestion for financial austerity because my father and I used the phrase on various occasions to her disadvantage. What made it worth repeating was that my mother would inevitably try and voice some sort of explanation for her poignant phrase which would result in peals of laughter from my father and me.

To be fair there was something that my father said that would reduce my mother and me to instant hysteria every time and his infuriated exasperation at what he called our ‘idiocy’ all the more sweet.

Every family has its ‘touch papers’ when a word, phase, picture or personality produces a reaction inexplicable to outsiders: those clearly unfunny jokes that only work if you are united by common DNA!

I am at present looking through my files and extracting any which seem to have some general utility for a person coming into a school not knowing anything of what he might be teaching.

I remember David in Llanishen having a whole briefcase full of ‘instant class quieters’: printed sheets which could be distributed and bring a semblance of order to a class which had no work to be going on with. The fact that my classes will not be composed of native English speakers is a limiting factor for much of the material that I still have lurking on recently unfrequented areas on my computer. Still, a few extracts, a few poems, a few pictures and a piece of chalk and who could ask for more!

I am sure that Monday evening will see me with much more sense of direction.

Or despair!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Time moves slowly, so slowly!



I am very disgruntled.

I go to a school for an interview for a job which isn’t there on a Tuesday and I have to wait until Friday – the best part of three days – before the school has had enough gumption to force some unsuspecting teacher to catch the flu to give me the opportunity for a week’s supply.

Monday will see me getting up at the crack of dawn to get to Barcelona for some unearthly hour so that I can speak with the Head of Department to get some sort of idea what I might be teaching.

Goodness knows I understand what the HOD is going through with a teacher down: any sentient being with a vertebra and a working knowledge of something in this part of the spiral arm of the Milky Way will do. On second thoughts the vertebra is not an essential: I have seen a number of spineless wonders do very well indeed in the teaching profession!

This school at least has a radically different basis to its operations from The School That Sacked Me: it is Grant Aided; it has a board of governors; it is a trust; it has parents on the governing board of the school; it has a rigorous checking of credentials. Compare this with the attitude of The Owner in The School That Sacked Me. When she was sent a letter by a group of parents asking to found a Parent Teacher Association she immediately informed each of the parent signatories that they were to withdraw their children from the school at once! Unbelievable, but true!

Although this teaching experience is only for a week it will give me an opportunity to see what conditions are like in the place and find out what is beneath the orderly and seemingly coherent surface. There is always a chance, of course, that I will find out that it is orderly and coherent. Frightening thought!

This will be secondary teaching and there is a strictly English speaking rule inside and outside the classroom. The pupils should be trilingual as the funding from the Generalitat ensures that there is teaching through the medium of Catalan as well as Spanish. It will, if nothing else (and I certainly hope for more) be an interesting experience. And I suspect a tiring one, especially with rush hour travel in a major European capital. Oh joy!

I have had to get an employment form from the local (well, Gava) labour exchange or whatever they are calling these places now. I have also had to rearrange a routine blood test. I only mention these two chores because I had to get them done in Spanish and I was smirking with satisfaction when I managed to get my message across with only minimal linguistic damage to the hapless administrators I spoke to.

By way of celebration I went onwards from Gava to St Boi to visit a supermarket there and get some uninteresting shopping done and then to go to an much more interesting four star hotel next to it and sample their menu del dia. This has been a project which has been waiting to be completed for some time.

The hotel is oddly situated in the middle of a motorway strip retail park development. It is unashamedly modular and has all the elegance of architectural form which comes from some sort of automatic computer program which takes certain ‘hoteloid’ elements and simply stacks them together on a given site. Nothing looks permanent and all the fittings and furnishings, the doors, the stairs and windows all look as though they were selected by a mouse click and then simply slotted into place.

The restaurant was on the first floor which was up two flights of stairs to allow for the inevitable mezzanine to give the foyer that opulent open look. When I got to the restaurant it was empty. Beautifully set out, but totally empty. When I eventually found a bar person and asked for a table I created chaos.

Although it was past one o’clock no menus had appeared. After a flustered explanation to me and a giggly telephone call to someone or other I was then totally ignored by the six (count them, six) members of staff who lurked close to me as I swung my legs (an infrequent pleasure when you are six foot) from a tubular steel bar stool.

Eventually a seventh person in a suit appeared and threw a sheaf of printed menus at one of the bar staff (not one of whom had asked me if I wanted a drink) who shrugged his shoulders and with a wry grin handed me one of the sheets.

I ordered my meal at the bar and was then asked for my sweet choice. I gave it, but was surprised to find out how uncomfortable it was to break the habit of ordering after the second course. Perhaps I felt the ghost of my mother standing near looking mildly ashamed as such a grave solecism was forced on her son!

The meal was excellent and only mildly pretentious but it was made for me by the fact that the hotel had made the best of its fairly hideous surroundings and tried to create a Mediterranean terrace at first floor level by having an open air area outside the restaurant with a view of the hills of the Garaff National Park and with only a few of the air conditioning ducts and signage visible from the hideous shed-like retail areas by which it was surrounded.

And it had fountains!

Three rectangular raised areas were tiled and each had a fountain with a multi jet sequence to keep an aquaphiliac like me happily amused and until a dish of food was placed in front of me.

I was eventually joined by three people speaking French who, as soon as they had put their coats on their chairs immediately scattered using their mobile phones. Two of them prowled around muttering into their devices while the third stood immobile except for her nimble fingers texting as though her very life depended upon it.

I know little enough French, but I could tell that it was the native language of only one out of the three and what the other two spoke would have had the French Academy frothing at the mouth!

I now must prepare the documentation which is necessary for my teaching on Monday. It may only be for a week but the mills of bureaucracy must have their quota of wood pulp. I will include a photocopy of my passport: virtually every official (governmental and commercial) with whom I have come into contact has demanded a copy. My photograph is decidedly faded after having been subjected to so many passes of the photocopier light!

So much to do!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Language conflicts






A moment of true excitement in the Spanish class!

Not a general outcry of spontaneous delight at the rules governing the pronunciation of the letters ‘c’, ‘z’ and ‘q’ in their relation to selected vowels, no. Rather it was the altercation between two of the Russian students (adult ladies) who took ferociously different attitudes towards the general state of their country. In a strange way it was quite touching listening to the stuttering incomprehensibility of one who searched for Spanish words as if she was grasping for tree trunks while going over a particularly dangerous waterfall, while the other lady hissed her imprecations in rather more fluent and deadly Spanish. Such larks!

The confrontation was perhaps an inevitable consequence of indulging in a sharing of phrases which used negative connotations of different nationalities to gain expressive point. I contributed ‘French leave’ as a contribution from English to the general hilarity of the two French ladies sitting behind me.

I then tried to capitalise on my little colloquial triumph and promptly got into almost terminal linguistic problems when I tried to extend this xenophobia to the area of venereal diseases. My attempted explanation of the Shakespearean use of ‘French pox’ much used to denigrate our near neighbours was not what I could call a success. Things went fairly swiftly downhill during my clearly incoherent exposition in hysterical Spanish and I was only saved by the rather more fluent contribution of the Italian lady!

Altogether an exhausting and emotional experience.

And when I got back to the flat another little yellow form waiting in the post box informing me that the post person had made no attempt to deliver another package.

But, as this non attempt to deliver had been made yesterday (when no note was left) I would be able to go and get my package today because a day had been left since they had not tried to deliver it. If you follow the logic you can now see that this approach is actually quite considerate because it cuts out the frustration of actually waiting a day. By the time you find out that they didn’t deliver a day has already passed and you can collect the item from the post office!

This package contained the CD’s of The Complete Operas of Puccini an amazing offer from Sony with great casts even if the recordings are not of the most recent. So as I went to visit Margaret of the Broken Arm I wept gently as I drove as Puccini’s insidious music pushed all the emotional buttons. The first one I chose to listen to was ‘Turandot’ as this opera is part of my season in the Liceu this year. The other operas in the set include ‘Edgar’ and ‘La Rondine’ and ‘Le Villi’ as far as I know my playing of them will be the first time I have ever heard them. Indeed heard of them, might be nearer the truth!

The recording of ‘La Boheme’ has Caballé, Domingo, Milnes, Blegen, Sardinero and Raimondi with the LPO under Solti. Listening to that is going to be self indulgence of a high order!

Coffee and lunch with Margaret and Ian was stimulating and enjoyable with the addition of a past member of a London ballet company on the table next to us!

My return to the flat revealed that the post person had been back and left my copy of the BBC Music Magazine with the information that the concert of the month was to be found in Cardiff at the Opening Festival of the Hoddinott Hall next to the Wales Millennium Centre with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Chorus on the 22nd and 23rd of January. The Hoddinott Hall will now become the base for BBC NOW and presumably St David’s Hall will now become even more marginal in its financing as the regular support of BBC NOW is redirected to The Bay. Though looking aqt picutres of the Hall it doesnt seem to have the same seating numbers as St Davids Hall. More investigation is called for. I wonder if parking has been improved!

Whatever.

My best wishes go to an orchestra which I have supported since I was in school and have seen progress from an orchestra that struggled to play Beethoven with confidence in a series of less than perfect venues in Cardiff to a world class group of players with a world class concern hall who provided me with a performance of The Turangalila Symphony which I will never forget!

Meanwhile ‘Turandot’ washes over me and I must give in!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Grave thoughts


Having dispatched a few incomprehensible emails in response to those I sent out yesterday, I settled down to my day’s work.

I have managed to prise from the dead hand of the Spanish post office a book I have been eagerly awaiting, ‘The Book of Dead Philosophers’ by Simon Critchley ISBN 978 1 84708 010 3. It has been published by Granta and that gave me a pang of guilt when I remember that my subscription to that excellent magazine of new writing has been allowed to lapse with my removal to another country.

This book was recommended by The Week and it seemed to appeal to my ragbag approach to knowledge: notes on the deaths of 190 philosophers. This books as been designed to be read either straight through or by dipping. Exactly the sort of thing I like.

I read it straight through and although it is necessarily episodic you begin to see that Critchley is not writing this with the intention of producing philosophical lollipops but rather with substantiating his central thesis that paradoxically reading about death leads to affirmation of life. Philosophy can illuminate this by posing some “irresistible intellectual temptations from which we might finally learn how to live.” For Critchley philosophy is “to learn the habit of having death continually present in one’s mouth. In this way, we can begin to confront the terror of annihilation that enslaves us and leads us into either escape or evasion.” It is not an easy problem with which to wrestle but, “To philosophize is to learn to love that difficulty.”

This book is easy to read, but not necessarily easy to understand fully. There is an open invitation in the style of writing to be accompanied on an exploration of a frankly bewildering array of philosophers, some of who merit no more than a name and dates in bold print and a few lines. Others have more substantial space, but this is no balanced introduction to a few thousand years of philosophical thought it is a book with a thesis which is illuminated by anecdote, comment and even poems by Rowan Williams snatched from Wales to be Archbishop of Canterbury! The stories and lives are mundane, astonishing, bizarre and frankly unbelievable – but always fascinating.

Critchley wears his considerable erudition lightly enough for it not to repel but consciously enough for a reader to feel that he is in a safe pair of hands.

He is not afraid to let his own prejudices and experiences colour his prose. Who cannot warm to a man who, when talking of Elizabeth of Bohemia says, “whose uncle was Charles I of England, rudely but rightly beheaded in 1649.” Or when confronted by an apparent about face by the atheist Sartre in 1974 when Sartre refers to “this idea of a creating hand refers to God” Critchley adds “as a student of mine one said to me during a class I was teaching on Hegel, people say all sorts of things when they are drunk!”

There are names famous and names obscure for the neophyte philosopher in this book and it assumes a background of some historical and literary knowledge to set the characters in place. There are subtle and not so subtle references embedded in the text which, as in a good episode of The Simpson, you will either use to enhance your enjoyment or simply be unaware of as part of the narrative.

This is a satisfying book which will repay rereading. Perhaps it needs to be promoted to join the Sacred Texts of The Bathroom where philosophic contemplation is a sine qua non!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lofty ambitions!



I’ve been to visit money today.

The non job interview was in a private school high on the hill overlooking Barcelona in a ghetto of private school institutions nestling among other moneyed establishments perched on some of the one-in-one slopes of this rich mount.

I found a parking space which threw me a little. My previous experience in the rarefied car packed narrow streets of this area was akin to a motorised nightmare with my eventually parking space for a school being in a not so adjacent underground car park of a hospital.

My entrance to the school was questioned by the teacher on duty at the gate but she accepted that I was arriving for an interview on my say so and allowed me to wander off into the school buildings unsupervised.

I eventually found a very helpful teacher who tried to find the person I had come to see and when that didn’t work she directed me towards an older part of the school which housed the administration.

The school is a mixture of ferro-concrete and plate glass at one end and elegant town house at the other. I stepped across artificial grass surfaces on which the children were playing to ascend the short flight of steps to the old glass doors which gave access to the secretaries and their reception area.

I was early, having left an hour to travel the twenty kilometres to my destination and settled down in the reception area on a Sheraton style chair to wait for my interviewer and to study my surroundings.

The reception area was small but solidly comfortable. A small but nevertheless impressive flight of steps curved upwards to the first floor; the walls had above average artworks by past pupils including a heavily worked scene in mosaic. Most impressive was the dark wood pair of heavily panelled doors in a dark wood alcove which housed the Director and the Library. They looked like something from one of the more pretentious banks when the Manager was able to lurk in opulence hidden from common view by a carved door of imposing magnificence. This was of course in the days when bankers were regarded with some degree of awe and not seen as the criminally irresponsible charlatans that we know of today.

It must cow the pupils if they are sent to the Director and have to wait outside such exclusive pieces of woodwork.

When I eventually got inside I was ushered to a low sofa in an elegantly furnished room and I half expected to be offered tea in exquisite porcelain cups with miniscule handles. But I wasn’t.

The interview was reasonably informal and hardly searching. They were courteous and informative, but the job that might be there would not appear until next year. As I am not working in The School That Sacked Me they offered the expectation that there could be some supply work which could be used as a way of getting to know each other.

I will have to get my qualifications ‘recognized’ by the Spanish government. This means dreaded paperwork and, as one of the interviewers explained, “The government is not helpful.”

I have downloaded the simple looking form which is necessary for the process to be completed but as the interviewer explained that was just part of their diabolic cunning. What they actually want and what they say they want are two different things and, when you don’t give them what they haven’t asked for they remain quiet waiting for you to provide what you don’t know that they haven’t told you they need to see.

To someone newly arrived in Spain the previous paragraph would seem to be a paraphrase of a trickier part of ‘Catch-22’, but we natives who have been here for over a year know as ‘real life.’

The authorities apparently want a full description of the courses that I have taken at University and in my training year. They want full Spanish translations of documents that I send. My degree certificate is written in Latin and my threshold certificate in English and Welsh. The original of my post-grad teaching certificate looks like an amateur attempt at a photocopied fake and my DES teacher number is on an ancient yellowing postcard. I can foresee months of frustration as the powers that be look askance at my ‘documents.’

This is where my every trusty e-book reader comes into its anaesthetising own! Delay merely sees me sitting serenely reading. Out of the 350 books that I have in my slim gadget companion there is something there to ameliorate the pernicious effects of pernicious Spanish bureaucracy in all its manifestations!

I have fired off another batch of e-mails to possible sources of employment and I now sit back and wait for responses. In one of my e-mails I quoted part of Malcolm’s speech at the end of Macbeth’ that should give them something to think about!

And when no responses come, I will turn to plan B.

Plan B will be unveiled in all its glory when I have finished my latest ‘medicinal’ extract from the gadget.

Perhaps.

Or there is much, much more to read!

Monday, January 12, 2009

It's a conspiracy!



Never in the annals of human duplicity have I seen such a blatant example of disregard for a fellow human being.

It Catalonia it is regarded as perfectly acceptable to denigrate the postal service (Correos) because it is Spanish not Catalan. The same goes for the Spanish Rail Network and the Spanish Government.

If you have been reading these daily screeds you will know that I am no great fan of the postal services as I have spent substantial periods of my life sitting on a low window still waiting for my number to be pinged onto the electronic board to indicate that I will at last be seen to.

Most, no, all of the time that I have spent in post offices in this country has been getting packages which have been undelivered.

No matter that I had been sitting at home waiting patiently like Hope on a monument, knitting or embroidering, tatting or working away at my petit point (bit of atmospheric artistic licence there) waiting for the post person to exert enough intelligence to direct a bleary glance at the appropriate bell and gather together enough energy to push it to let me know that he was below with my package: no sound, no package.

Alas, I must have been so engrossed in my domestic occupations that the raucous sound of the buzzer failed to make any impression on my eager expectation – or there might just be another explanation.

Until today, when a vast amount of mail was delivered, I assume that the post people have been amassing all the correspondence since Christmas because they have been signally loath to give any to the denizens of our block of flats.

Significantly among the welter of letters and information from my banks (Ah! That plural sounds more like desperation these days than any sign of material prosperity) was a little yellow sheet. This was the official indication from the post person that they had tried to deliver a parcel on the 8th of January. This indication (written by the post person on the spot and at the time of the delivery and posted into the box before leaving) was not there on the 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th of January. I checked. It arrived, as did all the rest of the post today, the 12th.

It is rather like the person who put his money into a coffee machine and watched helplessly as amid whirrings and clunks the apparatus went through its normal activities, but did not provide a plastic cup. So, as the twin spouts of coffee and milk gushed onto the metal drain where the cup should have been he remarked, “Look, the bloody machine is even drinking the stuff now as well as making it!”

I assume that the post office in a rare burst of honesty is now not even pretending that the post person goes through the farce of trying to find out if anyone is in to deliver a parcel. They merely send out the ‘we called but where were you’ notifications in the post, so cutting out the delay that writing out a lie would force on the consciences of hard working motor scooter driving post people.

The post office when I got there was heaving with people most of whom, surprisingly, were clutching little yellow forms which indicated that they too, all of them, had missed the post person when he didn’t attempt to hand over the parcel that the post office had no intention of attempting to deliver. Talk about coincidences!

I however, came ready armed and as my number was twenty away from the number being served and as only one person was actually dealing with collections and as there was, inevitably, one ‘difficult’ person who held up the whole process, I settled down with my e-book reader and tried to compose myself in patience and literature.

The wait was worth it because now I have my Photoshop Elements 7 and a 400 page book, ‘Photoshop Elements 7 for Dummies’ to go with it.

With the barely concealed impatience of a non delivering post person I leaped into the ruthless manipulation of my digital photos and managed to eliminate a pot plant from the centre of the table in one photo and replace it by table alone from another.

The fact that I had taken two photos specially to achieve this and that one of them was of the table with a flower and the other was without the flower made the objective of the exercise a little redundant, but I felt that I was getting nearer to my stated objective of creating a photograph of an impressive wave from the stunted variety of moving water features that we get rolling onto the beach in Castelldefels.

The next step is ‘layers’ which I think means plonking various photographs on top of each other and electronically scratching away until you get the bits that you want from the various shots to create a composite. At least I hope that it what it all means because I got a bad case of ‘Instruction Manual Aversion’ when I opened up the ‘friendly’ and ‘chatty’ book which is supposed to take me painlessly though the technical processes to ensure that the full artistry of my inner photographer can be released. I was merely left breathless and terrified at the complexity of the program I had just loaded.

On the other hand there is the painting!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

One brick on top of another



Another little literary brick falls into place.

One of the few triumphs I achieved as a pupil in Gladstone Primary and Infants School, Cathays, Cardiff was in building.

I do not pretend, unlike so many who seem to have photographic recall about their early days, to remember which class I was in at the time, but I do remember that at some stage or other we were allowed constructive play. In my case I remember putting a great deal of effort into making a house.

It was a fiddly affair. You started with a green plastic base which was pierced with rows of holes. Into these holes you placed a series of very thin metal poles and, if they were the right space apart you could begin to slot in specially grooved bricks which made the walls and there were windows and doors all of which could be fitted into the structure. Eventually the whole thing could be finished off by an all in one roof.

In retrospect virtually everything in the kit to make the house was unsuitable for very young pupils, but in the Wild West days of education in the 1950s we kids were allowed to do things and use things which would probably be regarded as child abuse today!

In the way of children, houses were often started but never finished. You would run out of bricks, patience or a coherent sense of what a house was. But I came as near to finishing a house as anyone had done and I was promptly sent to the headteacher with my plastic dwelling to receive my due amount of praise. I can remember the praise and also the fact that the headteacher used the occasion to test my knowledge of my times tables and spelling!

I suspected in retrospect that the auxiliary tests were attempts by the headteacher to discover more of my ability than an imperfectly built model plastic house seemed to indicate. Proud though I was of my house I could not help notice that the walls were not perfect. I knew in my own home that all the walls tended to meet at ninety degrees with no gaps. This was not the case with my model: there were distinct gaps both horizontal and vertical. Gaps waiting to be filled in at a later date.

Those gaps never were. By the time I was older there was Lego as a building material in its pungent rubber manifestation before it lost its character and became rigid plastic with no character. The metal poles and plastic bricks I never met again. I don’t know what the system was called and I’m not sure that it is sold now. The gap house became a powerful memory and a useful metaphor.

The little house became for me an example of something which looked good, got me credit, but could have been better with a few more bricks.

I did not go into building so the metaphor has had to be pushed more into those areas which I found congenial: literature and art history.

When I was very much younger I thought that because I generally could tell the difference between a Monet and a Manet meant that I knew pretty much everything that a reasonable chap could be expected to know about Modern Art.

I often try and retexture the pleasure that wilful delusion gave me for the short period before I discovered just how little I really knew about even the most important painters in the more obvious art movements just in Western Europe. I can still remember the panic that Mary Cassat threw me into when I first saw reproductions of her work and discovered that she was American, and important, and that led me to the Prendergasts, who were also American, and important, and how did they fit into what I knew about modern art. The whole structure of my knowledge of art was turning into some sort of monster and threatening my very being!

It took a while before I was able to look on the growing areas of undiscovered ignorance as opportunities to enjoy new (for me) artists and realise that modern art in a modern world was going to be global and that I could only scratch at the surface of what was and is going on. Enough raw materials for more than a life time!

So, the concept of another brick in the wall (that phrase seems familiar somehow) is one which pleases me. Each time I discover something new I can hear in my brain the sharp little click as another tiny plastic brick slides into place guided by the slim metal poles of the structure.

The ‘brick’ which prompted this Proustian memory was reading a novel called ‘Nocturne’ (1917) by Frank Swinnerton. Swinnerton for most literature students is merely a footnote – a long lived writer and critic, probably more famous for his books on other writers, especially The Georgian Literary Scene (1935) and his autobiography than for his own creative writing. But now I have read his most famous novel ‘Nocturne’ and so the man who knew everybody literary who was worth knowing for his ninety odd years becomes a little bit more real.

I realize now, of course, that those gaps which seemed so difficult to fill in completely on the model are just as difficult when it comes to knowledge. Except here the gaps are vast voids and each little brick makes no perceptible difference in the filling of it up.

But that, surely, is the delight of it all!