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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gather your belongings!


Up bright and early to find a new place to live.

Having decided that our Owner is little better than the Attila the Hun of flat management we are now determined to leave our present domicile and find something new.

My foray into the offices of the low life who masquerade as what is laughingly called estate agents resulted in the usual fairly dismissive attitude they adopt to anyone desperate enough to have to use their services. My Spanish which can rise to specific occasions in a fairly hysterical way browbeat the indifference of the people on the other side of the desk and they actually gave me some useful information!

While I was in yet another chair opposite yet another vaguely informative person who couldn’t use the printer I was phoned on my mobile by the second place I had gone into.

I must pause here.

You probably do not understand just how remarkable that is. This is Castelldefels where estate agents are definitely doing you a favour if they don’t actually throw you out of their shop for having the audacity to ask them to do something. When any Castelldefels estate agent says, “I will phone you later,” they could just have well have said, “I will raise a statue in pure gold of you, set in diamonds with platinum detailing with the London Symphony Orchestra playing your favourite bits of Philip Glass” for all the reality behind their statement.

It was therefore with something approaching terminal astonishment that I had a phone call from an estate agent within minutes of leaving the office offering me a viewing of a property in which I expressed an interest within a further twenty minutes!

And, by god, they (or rather she) were there!

We were quite taken with the place that we were shown. It was described as a ‘house’, but it would be fairer to describe it as a three storey raised terraced. It might be able to take my books and there was a little sun trap on the third floor. Seem perfect. All we need now is the money to facilitate the changeover.

Oh yes, and we have to get our money back from the owner and find out just how long notice we have to give to get out of the flat we are now in.

Never a dull moment – and for the first time for about two months it was sunny on the first day of the weekend.

Things are looking up!

Then the family arrived and we are now terminally exhausted!

We need to go to bed early because there is a lot to do tomorrow!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I did it with my little hatchet!



As the relentless exposé of The Daily Telegraph continues it is time for me to ‘come clean’ before the evidence is placed before the howling mob of the General Public.

I have to admit that in my professional past I did submit an expenses claim to the Welsh Joint Education Committee for some pieces of string. Of course, in the light of the recent publicity I apologize unreservedly and ask for consideration and forgiveness.

The fact that the string was used to tie up wrapped (oh, I claimed for the brown paper too!) marked examination papers which were then sent to the WJEC should in no way mitigate the disgraceful nature of my claim. So too the risible amount of money that I was paid for each script marked by me should have no bearing on the case. I done wrong! It’s a fair cop!

With my new internet radio I have been able to indulge in an orgy of Radio 4 listening and so have surfeited on MP’s expense claim horror stories. I am constantly reminded of the “7/84” Theatre Company which used to tour schools and art venues. The title came from the ‘fact’ that in Britain 7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth – leaving (just do the maths) 93% of us to enjoy the 16% of the rest of the wealth of the country!
The ‘moat cleaning’ and the ‘floating duck house’ sound like something from Wodehouse and remind us that the rich ruling classes have never really left the seats of government whatever we tell ourselves about living in a democratic meritocracy.

From the serene seclusion of my balcony it does actually look as though the whole parliamentary system is rapidly imploding. A commentator on Radio 4 expressed my fears in a rather neat progression which I can’t remember in exact detail but went something like, “The expenses scandal affects perception; perception affects voting; voting affects the parties; the parties affect life – so the expenses furore changes our life.”

I think that this whole affair has been produced by the cowardice of members of Parliament. It has been pointed out many times in the past that the salary of an MP is low for a legislator in a developed country. Instead of grasping the nettle and making the salary reasonable MPs have fudged the issue by boosting the expenses side (which up until these present days was hidden salary) at the cost of transparency in the major monthly payment.

I feel no sympathy for them; they are, after all, the architects of their own destruction. And perhaps that is what is needed – a wholesale winnowing of the present members of the House and, with new rules, a new start.

Cameron’s rather desperate appeal to anyone, even those outside the political fraternity to offer themselves for consideration as future parliamentary candidates comes with many dangers. Most governments who have appointed ministers from outside the usual parliamentary pool have found that such people rapidly become liabilities as they show themselves insensitive to the workings of the governmental system.


Perhaps we should have faith in the black flag of Anarchy and believe in the constructive aspects of that philosophy and hope that out of chaos a New Order will emerge: though history tells us that the “New Order” is usually heavily in quotation marks and totalitarian rather than humanitarian in flavour!

I remain optimistic (probably because the sun is shining) and will watch future developments with wary interest.

Roll on the European elections and god help us all!

Friday, May 29, 2009


There comes a point in every non-football-interested thinking person where you have simply had enough Barça!

That point has been reached by me. I have seen the two goals which won Barça the third of their cups this season played back from all directions and at all times of the day. I have watched part of the five hours of triumphal progress that the Barça team took in the open topped coach from the bottom of the Ramblas to Camp Nou. I have listened to the drunken statements that many in the team made to an adoring and full stadium. And enough is enough. I have been kept awake by the exuberant tooting of passing cars at all times of the night and by the explosion of fireworks. And enough is enough.

In my time in Catalonia I have talked more about football than I have ever done in the whole of the rest of my life. I have so far become infected with the football compu7lsion that I recognize members of the Barça team when they come out to play. I have opinions about the suitability of players. I make statements about the effect that Barça (mes que un club) has had on recent signings. I didn’t have a moment’s fellow feeling for Manchester United as a British club deserving my support. I am far gone.

But enough, already. From the response in Catalonia you would think that they had discovered a new source of free energy. Thank god the football season is limping to its end!

Meanwhile back to good, old fashioned fury.

The bloated plutocrat who owns our flat (as well as a much bigger one on the floor above us) decided (after a few days thought) not to give me back my aval.

The aval is six months’ rent (my money) put into a closed account (of my money) in the Worst Bank in the World (aka BBVA) which was a requirement of the BP (i.e. the Bloated Plutocrat) before we could rent the flat. This was stated to be necessary because I did not have a job and I wasn’t retired and on a pension.

Now that I have a permanent contract the owner has still refused to give me back my money. I have yet to find out what spurious reason he has given, but I doubt that it is going to be convincing enough to keep us paying the bastard money – so we will be looking for another flat.

Even here in Castelldefels there is some effect from the crisis which means that flats are available and at what appears to be lower prices. We will have to see what is available and try and fine somewhere with enough room to take my books!

Every setback is also an opportunity.

Apparently.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What game?


The tension in Catalonia is almost palpable. I don’t know how many people are actually playing in the game this evening in Rome, but from the way that people are ac ting you would think that half the population were about the don the two coloured jersey and put their sporting reputations on the line.

I have been tricked into giving a prediction for the end result (1-1 and Barça win 5-4 on penalties) which I thought was merely a gesture, but which turns out to involve money. This is one of the things that you learn to avoid in the future, but you have to pay the price for in the present!

The kids are all hyper of course and I sincerely dread to think what they are going to be like win or lose tomorrow. Teaching is going to be a nightmare – and I’ve lost a free period when I will be covering the class of a science colleague teaching the dangers of alcohol abuse (sic.)

I still haven’t written the exam papers that I should have and I don’t think that there is much change of my doing it this evening.

I returned to the flat to find the area around the television bedecked with Barça flags and memorabilia and a Barça shirt lying over a chair. The Moreneta (the Madonna from Montserrat) has been given a good shake and pressed into service to bring whatever luck she can placed next to a Barça hat while the musical box which contained a Barça box has been opened so it can play its tinny version of the Barça anthem. I think that we have nailed our support colours to the mast. Sorry Manchester!

Even I am getting tense as we wait for the game to start! As is usual here the game has taken on a significance far in excess of the sporting meaning that would have been evident if Real Madrid had been the representative of Spain.

Barça is a club (or more than a club if you read their world famous motto) that prides itself that it is owned by its members. Its sporting tentacles reach into a vast number of sports and its place in the hearts of Catalans is secure. It will be interesting to see how many (if any) ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ banners are in evidence this evening.

The teams have just been announced and Barça has positioned itself to play its usual attacking game while Manchester seems to be relying on The Arrogant One as its sole striker with players like Rooney playing in semi-defence. Fergusson said that he learned a lot from the last defeat that he suffered from the hands of Barça and that probably means that he is going for defence. Personally I think that Manchester’s apparent tactics seem quite sensible to me and they could steal the match by relying on Barça’s notoriously wayward defence to allow them to sneak a goal.

But, there again, what the hell do I know about football? Reading through the preceding I can find no authentic trace of my voice in these concerns!

I better go out and buy a flag!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is anything else going on?




The frenzy of The Game continues to increase. On Catalan television there is virtually non-stop coverage of the game which is not happening until tomorrow.

Various pupils in our school are going to Rome to watch the game (it is, after all, that sort of school) where the flights and tickets have been provided by relatives who own major enterprises in Catalonia.

It is hard not to feel a certain resentment about the monied ease which informs many of the pupils we have the privilege to teach. And yes, that was ironic.

In desperation, to try and get away from the relentless coverage I have delved deep into the murky depths of the internet radio and have, purely in self defence, listened to Radio 4, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 7 and The World Service. As the radio is a Roberts it is ridiculously easy to use and makes my other internet radio (you didn’t seriously think that this recent acquisition was my first did you?) looking like something from the late Middle Ages.

An internet radio offers you the world in sound – though you soon discover that it is strangely samey until you get to the good old BBC. Thousands of stations and so few worth listening to!

Talking of something ‘worth’ listening to I have now completed working my way through the 5 CDs of the ‘Anthology of English Folk’ which I bought in Andorra. I have been listening to the disks as I have been going to work and on the way to and back from the opera.

The disks mark an amazing journey from reasonably authentic sounding songs through a woeful degeneration through time to songs of such surpassing self indulgent pretentiousness that almost defied belief. One singer (who I hope was on strong drugs, because I wouldn’t like to think of a chemically undamaged mind producing what I was listening to) appeared to be making up the lyrics (and indeed the tune) as he went along. I would actually offer you a quotation from one of the songs but I refuse to listen to such rubbish again.

It seemed very unfair as I had just come out of a very disappointing production of ‘Fidelio’ and I could have done with something a little more uplifting.

The programme for the new opera season has arrived and the attempt to understand the various options has begun. As is the case with all opera houses the attempt to understand how to get the best value from the various offers is virtually impossible.

The one thing which is patently clear is the vast expense if I want to go to everything. As every opera company always seems to want to make its customers suffer I note with weary resignation that we are promised a performance of ‘Tristan and Isolde’ at almost 5 hours and a marginally shorter performance of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ Just to keep me happy they have included a production of ‘The War Requiem’ and a selection of other events of popular appeal and things I’ve never heard of.

Whether I go to any of these is linked to whether the owner of our flat actually condescends to give me back the six months rent which is held in an infamous aval bancario which gives the opportunity for a variety of useless parasites to suck money from me for no apparent purpose. The owner has said that he needs to think about it. Think about giving me back my money! I can feel myself building up a head of outraged steam so I should, instead think of serene things to calm down my rage.

For a while.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Listen to the world!


A truly depressing start to the day with mist (at best) and muggy fog (at worst) with fewer people seemingly intent upon death by mangled metal as an accompaniment to the lunatic driving that is the usual journey of stressful intent to get to my school.

Some days, I have to say, are better than others but sometimes the pathetic fallacy takes over and drivers seem to take on the depression of the weather and steer as if they were eager to get to the other side of life!

I made it to school in good time to join in the growing hysteria which characterizes the spasmodic orgies of examinations that we have. These are even more important as they are end of year exams which count for double the value of the other exams during the year. The mark out of ten that pupils have at the end of the year is important, not only as an indication of how they have done but also because the marks if recorded officially and will form part of the final assessment of the school which will travel with the pupils through their lives. Eventually this mark will have a part to play on the pupils’ final assessment when they make their way to university.

The maths involved in this assessment is still beyond me so I do my bit and hope that everything will come out properly in the wash!

There is a definite ‘end of term’ feeling in school, but the real end of term is weeks away and I am growing uncomfortably aware that there is going to be a major reaction after the major exams are over. It will be interesting to see if this school is any more successful than any other school that I have attended in finding the way to square the circle and keep all the students on task until the final end of term.

When I come back in September it will still take me six months before I have completed a full year in the school and begun to understand the range of pressures that attend the normal school year. Something to look forward to!

To my great delight (and part5ial relief) my internet ordered Roberts internet radio arrived today. This is the Roberts WM-202 and, true to the reviews that I read, once plugged in and the internet key finally punched in, it did very much what it said on the box and offered me the radio stations that I wanted and also a range of the podcasts that interest me.

I have already listened to a version of Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ on some sort of American public service channel. I am ashamed to admit that it took me some minutes to work out what I was listening to. To my credit I had worked out the GBS bit relatively quickly, but the actual play took a little longer. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it as it was a serendipitous encounter – I wonder if I will ever find the internet station again!

Something to experiment with later!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A half lost day or not


Sometimes it’s nice to have a day when your body simply takes over and orders the agenda.

Yesterday was a case in point. The Family visited, we had lunch, I went to bed for a little siesta.

Then it was today!

This usually happens when I have something which is slightly or definitely suspect to eat. Where others would have stomach ache and messy illnesses my body responds by shutting down all other services and, with me safely comatose, sets about settling any gastric problems in its own way.

I must admit that I felt fine (if tired) when I went to have my little siesta, but I bow to the superior knowledge of by body’s systems and am therefore grateful that things have apparently been sorted out!

I was able to have an early morning cup of tea on the balcony and watch unsettled sunshine degenerate into a sort of sullen haze. I have watched the unsteady progress of a solitary drunk stagger about the beach, periodically fall to his knees and stretch out on the sand for a snooze and then stagger away only to return to the sand for a repeat performance. I suppose in his own way he is doing what I did yesterday, though without the excuse of alcohol in my case!

The little band of red dressed council workers have arrived to clean the beach; the first joggers are puffing their way along the paseo and the first hardy sun worshippers have offered themselves as sacrifices in the hope that the sun will make an unclouded appearance!

Captain Cat like I sit on the balcony and watch the little world of Castelldefels wake up to yet another ambiguous weekend: the glorious weekdays of sunshine compromised by the spiteful covering of cloud. Still, I Am in shorts and an open shirt so there is not much that I should be grumbling about and yesterday was 29ْ C, though humid.

The quality of the illumination from the hidden sun has now given my view a look of studio lighting, so that the chiringuito on the beach has the appearance of a set for a fashion shoot!

The first raucous cries of children communicating in frenzied screams in the hope that the sound will cover the vast distance of six feet between them have begun. The hamacas man has started setting out the two lines of sun beds as a sort of prayer offering. After all, the clue to the purpose of the beds is there in the first part of the word.

The prayer seems to be unanswered as the first planes into the airport seem to be dragging a heavier cloud cover in the wake of their roar and depositing them neatly over Castelldefels. The little patches of blue (known locally on this balcony as “Stephen’s Faith”) are gradually shrinking. Perhaps in such a lazily Roman Catholic country like this the aspirations of an Anglican atheist count for little.

Certainly the look of the beach now reminds me of one of those depressing days in November when Barry Island looks as though no sun has touched it for a millennium! But at least here in Castelldefels it’s still warm and the only sound is the breaking of waves and Toni calling for a cup of coffee!

Duty calls!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Stone culture


A day of double culture – as well as multiple teaching opportunities!

It has now been confirmed that my present contract ends at the end of June and my new (albeit permanent) contract starts in September. The summer months are therefore without pay. Although unfortunate, this is no more than I expected.

I do now have an official form of written confirmation from the school that I have a new contract and I hope to use this to force the thieving estate agents and the grasping owner to give me back my six months of rent which has been put in a form of criminal restraint known as an aval bancario.

This is ‘my’ bank (BBVA, aka The Worst Bank in the World) which is holding six months’ rent and charging me an arm and a leg for doing so. This form of ‘insurance’ for the owners is nothing short of a scandalous rip-off and should have been banned years ago, but there are far too many vested interests for it to be done easily. So, the outmoded sucking away of funds will go on happening. I do imagine that El Crisis must be making these unreasonable demands a little less easy to demand. I wait to see what happens.

I was able to revisit the Museu Monestir de Pedralbes which is a hop, skip and a jump from our school, but which is much more difficult to find if you are in the car.

Entry to this museum is (as I discovered when I said that I was a teacher and a Friend of MNAC) free to members of the profession.

The monastery church is only open in the mornings but the cloisters and the gallery are open until 5 pm so I was able to leave the hustle and bustle of our private school infested area and step back to the cloistered calm of a previous age.

The elegant columns which line the sides of the cloisters enclose an open courtyard with a central goldfish pool; a herb garden and various other pieces of architectural whimsy – or religious significance depending on your spiritual proclivities!

I was hoping to get some photos of the art works held by the monastery, but the gallery was closing by the time I got round to trying to get in. Good reason to plan another trip! The monastery is exactly the sort of calm location that everyone should have tucked away for use when times become a little crowded. Especially as teachers get in for free!

I went straight from my visit to the Monestir de Pedralbes to the centre of Barcelona. Straight is probably not the most honest word to use for the progress that I made trying to find the Plaça de Catalunya, but at least I drove past new bits of the city in my somewhat tortuous progress to my traditional parking spot.

Yet again I was dismayed and astonished (still!) at the dreadful attitude to driving, parking and overtaking which is demonstrated by so many of the drivers in the city.

Motor cyclists and scooter drivers are simply the scum of the earth and should be extirpated in a systematic and professional way by a governmental extermination squad, rather than waiting for the drivers themselves to winnow out their numbers by the homicidal and suicidal way in which they drive.

As I have mentioned before, my lip now curls in disgust whenever I see a young person on crutches or with limbs encased in plaster – these are reliable indications that the ostensible ‘victims’ are actually blatantly parading their self inflicted injuries gained from the idiotic way in which they have failed to thread their way through non-existent gaps in the traffic.

By the time I finally arrived at my destination I was more than ready for a self indulgent wander round my favourite second hand book shop and then have an overpriced, but more than acceptable menu del dia in one of the main thoroughfares of Barcelona.

All of the preceding was an attempt to delay talking about the opera that I went to see this evening.

‘Fidelio’ in the Gran Teatre del Liceu was directed by Jürgen Fimm around scenery designed by Robert Israel. I liked the scenery.

The opera was undersung by what I consider to be a second rate cast. Gabriele Fontana as Fidelio produced a, shall we say, mature voice with a most unpleasant vibrato. Her acting (like everyone else’s) was mannered, melodramatic and of course unconvincing. Her vibrato however faded to a mere irritation when compared with that employed by Ian Storey as Florestan. His vocal gymnastics reminded me of a two tone police siren.

Friedmann Röhlig as Rocco was acceptable and Elena Copons as Marzelline was positively enjoyable. Lucio Gallo, however in his presentation of Don Pizarro was positively awful. His wooden acting and unsteady vocal range bordered on the ludicrous.

‘Fidelio’ is a positive opera with true love and selfless devotion winning through in the end – perhaps not a convincing message for an age of cynical dismissal like ours. There were hints of a darker picture in the presentation of the narrative but they were not developed and were certainly not thought through.

The opening moments of the overture were depressing as the sound was lacking in resonance and reminded me of those dreadful recordings of Toscanini which sound as though they have been recorded in a shoe box. The sound quality also reminded me of the worst excesses of The New Theatre in Cardiff! Act II was better with a much warmer sound – perhaps it had something to do with the orientation of the seat I was in!

Musically Fidelio is a wonderful opera. I look forward to seeing another performance so that it can erase the memory of what I have seen and heard tonight!

At least I have seen a sufficient number of operas to be able to put it down to experience. An expensive experience though.

Roll on the next season!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Test 'til you drop!

Our examination production is now reaching a level of frenzy.

The one saving grace is that the head of English has solid common sense and doesn’t ask the impossible. She is a great believer in not re-inventing the wheel and always looks for the most reasonable way forward. It helps that her experience in the Cambridge exams is, to put it mildly, extensive. I have learned that her suggestions as I find my way through this first year are invariably sensible and agro lessening. I have warned her that under no circumstances is she ever to be ill!

My plans to revisit the monastery near the school were thwarted by my losing a free period right at the end of the day – and the only good thing about that was that the room which I had to use to take the lesson was delightfully air conditioned. The weather has been glorious, but is not the sort of climactic conditions which are conducive to pleasant teaching situations!

My contract situation seems to be clarifying itself, but not in a particularly useful way. It appears that my new contract will be from September (leaving the summer months without pay) and then I will have to complete a three month probationary period! This is not absolute yet, but I live in hope that something can be worked out to my financial advantage. But I have few realistic expectations. The school is supposed to be quite reasonable in the way that it treats it employees, but they don’t throw money around when they don’t have to! Although in British terms they are behaving in a way which is not acceptable, I have to keep telling myself that this is not Britain and I am teaching in a private school. Different country, different system, different expectations.

Toni has rearranged the balcony in expectation of our spending more time out there during the summer and very nice it looks too! The new position of the cacti is not the most advantageous for their continued growth, but their placement does give us a little more space.

I feel more and more strongly that I would like to get somewhere with more space and some sort of a garden. If that means being away from the first line of the sea – so be it!

I think that we should start looking with some intensity for a new place in the autumn.

At least I could then take my books out of durance vile.

Something to think about.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mark, learn and inwardly digest



This has been a day when, apart from a slump on the balcony when I arrived home has been continuous academic action – stretching I might add, late into the night time.

Some of the time spent at home on school work was a punitive marking exercise to ‘bring people down.’ As I have mentioned before the thing that our school does best is cheat.

I have been informed by people whose non-racist credential are impeccable that cheating in school is a time honoured custom in Spain and which seems to have reached its apotheosis in our school.

Whatever way of cheating you have heard of is practiced in our place. They use notes, books, each other, mobile phones – anything on which or in which information can be displayed or stored. Things have reached such a pitch that a meeting has been held and member of the PBI have had to agree to new and more stringent methods to try and limit the extent of this widespread infection.

One boy, a plausible enough child, who sits at the back, gained a frankly impossible mark in the last examination. The head of English immediately said that he must have cheated. He was suspiciously near to the best pupil in the class (who got 100% in the latest test) and his eyes certainly seemed, to put it mildly, slippery.

This time the test was designed to test a little more than putting the appropriate word in the appropriate space – though I wrote exercises of that type to lull the guilty into a hopeful state of putative cheatiness. Little did the gullible (a word recently taught to the class) know that the exercises on which they could cheat easily had a pitifully low tariff while the real marks were reserved for the writing of sentences.

The proof of this particular pudding was in the fact that the suspect candidate had a mark some 40% lower than his previous effort. How are the cheaters fallen!

It also helped that for the duration of the test I was standing within feet of the candidate at the back of the class. His little face was a picture of frustration.

Exam ever is beginning to break out with classes demanding full details of what elements of English are going to be in their tests. The meeting of the English department which was held early in the day was a masterpiece of controlled hysteria with a plethora of dates of and planning meetings for a whole raft of looming examinations. I found it hard not to start giggling!

I have had to make my tortuous way between buildings a number of times today and each time my little fan club of small people called my name and demanded to shake hands and pass a comment about my tie! I have no idea what’s going on, but I suppose that I should enjoy it while it’s happening and accept that next September is going to be rather different.

At the end of school today (a little before if truth be told) I went to the monastery near the school. This used to be the place where you could see part of the Thyssen collection, but that has now been moved to my favourite gallery on Monjuïc MNAC. My visit was hurried as the place was going to shut, but it was long enough to see that it was a place that I would have to revisit. With camera.

Meanwhile I can relax with the thought that my marking is done and a selection of significant sayings on Education, Learning and Language has been magicked up by me and a selection of dictionaries of quotations for some aspect of the committee which is organizing the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the school. This is the sort of thing which is seen quite distinctly as my ‘thing’ by everybody else – so I have to keep up my reputation as Mr Literature and General Culture.

And I still have not been given my contract.

But I have a plan!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I was offered a view of the easy life today. Photocopy a test which will take up an entire period and laugh your way through minimal marking of single letter answers to a long reading test.

I managed to complete my disgraceful mangling of ‘Sredni Vashtar’ to make the story suitable for those learning English. As long as you don’t know the original and have never read a Saki story you might possibly accept what I have produced as a reasonable story. If you have but a passing acquaintance with Saki’s style you will read it with growing doubt and horror!

I am going to try it out on my Year 8 class and see what happens. I half hope that it will fail, though to be fair to the original I have included a site on which people can look at the story written in the way that Saki intended it to be published. I only hope that pupils find out about how the story should have been well after they have left school!

I am trying to infiltrate books into the kids’ hands using the volumes I managed to acquire from the bookshop in the library on Sant Jordi. So far I have managed to place two (count them 2!) books with pupils. A slow start, but I live in hope. The odd thing is that given the curriculum of the English department in the school which is geared to the Cambridge examination system for English learners, literature is not something which has a high status. Although every class has a ‘reader’ which is looked into once a week, it is fairly obviously an ‘add-on’ rather than something which is integral to the subject. I think I am supposed to be the person who likes literature and has ways and means of making it more important in an exam dominated, grammar led approach to English.

I have been approached by the art teacher who has suggested that we run a sort of Culture Club by organizing visits to significant artistic events in Barcelona for pupils, staff and parents. The present proposal is for us to think about two events per term and then to reassess at the end of the next academic year. Sounds good, though knowing this place it will not mean any free tickets!

I have to write a test for the kids for tomorrow and I am disinclined to do it.

Unfortunately there are no free periods tomorrow and I start at 8.15 in the morning.

God help!

Monday, May 18, 2009

The early worm has got it wrong!


I set off for school extra early to avoid any chaos which might result from the opening of the new terminal in Barcelona Airport. The new terminal is a major work with roads being extended and rerouted; reclamation of protected (huh!) wetlands, and much building. Acres of tarmac have been spread (over the aforesaid protected (huh!) wetlands) in preparation for the extra cars expected. Slip roads have been built which join onto the road that I take to school each day – and thereby lays the rub.

Any deviation from normality for the main arterial roads around Barcelona means, because of the density of traffic using them, total and utter chaos. Rubber necking produces astonishing delays and length tailbacks, so my leaving extra early was a wise precaution.

At least it would have been a wise precaution if the information we Castelldefels dwellers had been given was in any way accurate. I arrived in school with over an hour to the start of my classes to be informed that the terminal is actually opening in a month’s time, in June not May. At least I was early!

The Spanish do not listen. That may seem like a racist remark but in the majority of circumstances in which you could expect discussion it does not take place. A Spanish discussion is one where everybody speaks at once in a loud voice which quickly gets louder.

The political shouting match which developed in my class when discussion of the allegations about the corruption of PP (the right wing party) started was laughable. It was a caricature of how we think foreigners behave when they start talking. One boy started well explaining his point of view to me but, the instant there was a sneered interjection from a slouching girl he snarled back an instant response and then it was all shouting, raised shoulders and splayed hands! It was only by my staring steadily at him and saying, “Oriel, to me! Calm!” that I managed to get a coherent statement from him. The slightest suggestion of a contrary point of view and he was ready to jump. In fact getting him to put forward his point of view was a bit like I imagine it would be talking someone in from the outside ledge of a tall building!

It was a relief to get back to the topic in hand which was an article on stalking. You can imagine the sort of vocabulary that I had to explain!

I have returned to the task of rewriting the short story of Saki called ‘Seredni Vashtar’ – a charming tale of cousin killing by proxy and all written in Saki’s priceless prose. I have only re-written a single page and I feel positively unclean with the outrages that I have committed in the name of comprehensibility for English learners. I tell myself that it is a good story, not only in terms of the writing but also in terms of the plot. I have used the original story with a year 10 class and they found it impenetrable, so I feel that I am justified in making the basic story more accessible. Having already ‘lightly edited’ a Chekov short story I feel that I am ready for more deliberate evisceration.

Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

Apart from the dirty great planes roaring overhead the scene at the moment is one of idyll with the sun beating down and a light breeze cooling the reddening brow. To hand, a glass of Rioja and a bottle of Gaseosa while other fingers play on the keys of a computer with a screen bright enough to read in reasonable sunlight.

Who could ask for more? (Rhetorical.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

But that was in another country, and besides . . .



When a country with pretentions to some sort of independence is actually ‘governed’ by co-princes comprising the head of state of another country and the local bishop of another you realize that expectations must be high when you visit such a surrealistically situated entity.

Expectations, I might add, which had been lowered dramatically by everyone who had been there telling me that it was very ugly.

In the event, however, Andorra was gratifyingly interesting.

It is a long drive from Castelldefels to the obscure corner of the Pyrenees which holds this tourist magnet and tax haven, but you are rewarded with some spectacular scenery along the way. At this time of year the high Pyrenees are still snow capped and form a dramatic and distant backdrop to pleasant driving in temperatures well into the range of a normal English summer.

The customs posts were drive through, though the Spanish side seemed to be far more thorough on the return trip!

The reason we were going to Andorra at all was that I was sharing in one of Toni’s birthday presents: a night’s stay in a central hotel and a visit to ‘caldea’ a thermal spa in the centre of the largest town in the state.

The GPS did its magic and got us to the hotel and, apart from the fact that our room had not been prepared we settled in with minimum fuss – especially as the parking was in an underground car park opposite.

The main town of Andorra la Vella is crammed into the narrow valley floor which is hemmed in by steeply rising Alpine sides. The town itself is made up of blocks of flats and shops etc – nothing much to write home about – but at the end of each short road leading off the main streets there are breathtaking views of almost vertical slops covered with greenery.

In the centre of the town there are houses and flats dotted at various points on the precipitate slopes looking as though someone has placed a habitation on the slope and hammered in a wedge or two to keep them in place. The views must be awe-inspiring but any false step after a drink or two could see you plummet a thousand feet!

There is a river running along the bottom of the valley which has been channeled and given a make-over so that it looks like a rather extravagant water feature. The flow of water is fierce and I wouldn’t give very much for the chances of anyone unlucky enough to fall in! Part of the river has a sort of suspension walkway over it, though which exciting glimpses of the torrent below can be seen!

The grubby truth about Andorra is that it is a tax-haven and its ambiguous national status allows it to sell tobacco (it has a museum devoted to the disgusting stuff) and alcohol at cut prices to visiting Spaniards and other tourists.

Everyone appears to smoke and the entrance to our hotel was made revolting by the café immediately adjoining the reception area reeking of cigarette smoke. It would have been impossible to eat there – but the dining rooms were elsewhere luckily. Otherwise we would have to have forgone the food which already been paid for and eaten out.

Shops are the lifeblood of Andorra and you can find all the major makes at prices lower than you would get in France or Spain – but not startlingly lower. Poor old Toni trudged around shop after shop and the only thing that kept him sane was the idea that he was looking for a little Barça kit for his nephew (what Conrad called the ‘saving lie’ – otherwise he would have to admit to all and sundry that he went shopping, to the everlasting detriment to his character!) The number of perfume shops is extraordinary and reminded me of my visit to Lampeter where I was struck by a similar surprising number of commercial establishment – though there I have to admit that it was pubs and not perfume shops. Unsurprisingly, really.

We had a short siesta until the evening meal (which was very adequate) and then we set off for our visit to the spa.

‘Caldea’ is an extraordinary place. Its appearance is ‘Spiky Plate Glass Modern’ with a central tower of great pointyness!

The inside of this spa is a fantasy of shiny metal and modern design: you really do feel ‘cutting edge’ when you go in with intertwining staircases and mezzanine floors and clever lighting and everything you would expect from a designer who was obviously given his or her head and told to create.

The centre of the spa is basically a thermal pool which is surrounded by a series of saunas, Turkish baths, showers, and other things water related. One little room actually has an ice machine constantly churning out the stuff to make the cold plunge even more heart-stoppingly un-warm!

The central pool has a series of ascending bowls linked by steps which contained a variety of Jacuzzi-linked experiences.

For me the highlight was following one channel of water and finding myself outside in the cool night swimming in warm water. The focus of the outside ‘pool’ was a spiral channel which sucked the unwary swimmer in with an artificial current and deposited him around a gushing fountain. Most satisfactory!

While we were clinging to the tile work to stop ourselves being swept into the already full embraces of courting couples we noticed that light and sound was coming from the central ‘dome.’ We swam our way back and were rewarded with “son et lumiere et eau.” A first in my experience.

With lowered lights and much playing of a vulgar version of extracts from ‘The Planets’ a series of suspended balls were lowered, illuminated and thereby turned into the planets. A central ‘sun’ opened up and smoke and fireworks were used to (I think) tell the story of water. At one point to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning we were treated to a rain storm (talk about home from home!) All in all it was an invigorating experience which left the two of us totally exhausted!

After we left the spa it was getting near to midnight, but this is usually no hindrance to finding somewhere to have a drink. The whole place was dead, but we could hear muted cheers behind closed doors as Real Madrid appeared to be going down to defeat and therefore gifting the league championship to Barça.

We found no bar open and therefore went into a Basque restaurant and had what turned out to be a surprisingly expensive bottle of wine and a few tapas. As we sat and drank we saw and heard the celebrations as Barça won the league. Cars passed hooting their horns and passengers with various degrees of danger leaned out of the cars waving Barça flags. Two flag waving youngsters were actually perched on the roof rack of one car! While this mayhem was making its noisy way along the roads, in the sky rockets and other bangs went off showing that the basic allegiance of the people of Andorra is to Catalonia!

We collapsed into our beds and didn’t so much fall asleep as lapse into coma.

Today has been a day of recuperation and we broke the journey back to Castelldefels with a visit to Terrassa and The Family for lunch.

Toni has explained that the relaxation that is the inevitable bonus from going to the spa will finally reach me tomorrow when the exhaustion will transform itself into relaxation.

I will wait and see.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's all in what you think


One must have faith.

The trial of my belief afforded me the opportunity to show that I had become comfortable in what I believe. I could have smiled at misfortune and looked forward to a justification of my professed expectations. But no. I failed. I simply didn’t believe.

And today sunshine.

All my fears about the grey skies being the weather theme of the next few weeks were completely ungrounded and were more a result of remembered climatic conditions in another country!

Glorious sunshine was almost a personal rebuke for my lack of surety about the future provision of that commodity in Castelldefels!

The ‘Why not Catch-21’ has proved to be quite as addictive as I expected it to be and it is packed with interesting details with which I shall bore whole generations of schoolchildren in classes to come. It is difficult to use the literary knowledge in my present school as the literature content of the syllabus is woefully low. But I will find a way!

I have dipped into the two other books which I have bought and they too have addictive qualities as well. I have not read enough to make a judgement about their real quality but I have enjoyed what I have read so far.

I now have to go and back for an early start tomorrow. And I’d better get the GPS charged up as well. It’s always a good thing to have confidence about where you are going.

And have a reasonable chance of getting there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A test of patience.


No time can be truly happy when you know that you have to visit a Spanish post office at the end of the day.

I have tried to develop a hard cynical exterior to cope with the mindless muddle; the witless waiting; the resolute rudeness and the surrounding stuffiness that characterizes the places.

As with supermarket checkouts, so in post offices I seem to be in the queue which has the Fatal Person behind whom stasis is enforced and whose enquiry necessitates the attention of everyone behind the counter, phone calls to the Office of Circumlocution and bemused scratching of heads.

When I arrived to get my ticket there were few people there! Getting the ticket is an essential part of the process. A colleague went into an empty post office and was ignored and then refused service until she had got a ticket. She was then seen. There is a young lad behind the counter (usually on position 2) who is viciously punctilious about painstakingly following the bureaucratic procedures to the letter – and both of us would, quite cheerfully slaughter him.

My ticket was B200 and the electronic indicator board was actually showing that somebody with B197 was actually being served. I sat down (following the advice of Kings) and composed myself to wait because, as I have said before, time is a tricky companion in Spanish post offices. Numbers B198 and B199 were seen in short order and then of course, numbers with the prefix A were seen, then E and then C. I was particularly impressed by this as the machine only offered three alternatives of which E was not one. Presumably there is some further refinement of pressing the button on the machine which, like the wardrobe in the Narnia stories will take you to another universe in the post office version of reality.

When my number eventually came up I had, of course, drawn the obnoxious youth who demanded to see my Spanish identification document which is now yellowed with age and crackles when it is opened up as if it is an ancient document written on ancient desiccated paper.

I suppose that all the effort does make the actual receipt of what has been sent to you much more of an achievement going through this ordeal!

Weather today has been of the soul sapping variety where overcast clouds of such colour draining vapidity make it seem impossible that sun will ever shine again. And it rained. And it was muggy and that encourages the mosquitoes.

As I have been typing I have notices a massive mozzie blatantly relaxing on the ceiling at just that sort of height where you just can’t quite reach the blood gorged insect for the killer blow with a rolled up newspaper. He looks so fat that I have begun to check myself for puncture marks because it really does look like one well fed insect. I fear a chair may have to be pressed into use for this particular execution.

No, with a copy of The Week that particular mozzie has gone to its appointed afterlife. It must be time to start plugging in the electronic anti-mosquito devices. These do not really work, but, as they are gadgets I have a vague faith in them.

I am looking forward to going to Andorra at the weekend for a night in a hotel with use of the spa – all meals included!

I have been told that Andorra is a shoppers’ paradise, but BBVA, with their characteristic callous indifference to the needs of their customers has mucked up the delivery of my new Switch card, so I will have to be content with window shopping.

Ah well, such enforced parsimony fits the Crisis I suppose.

And it’s Friday tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

And the waves roll on.


A thoroughly muggy day with only a little sunshine managing to make its way through the haze as I sit on the balcony watching the waves – I am a touch typist after all!

Today has been a generally good day for reasons which are not entirely clear to me. The teaching has gone well, although that can mean that I have merely been encouraged to digress in a shamelessly self indulgent way rather than achieving the learning objectives that I should have.

Without making much of an effort I can recall talking about trawler fishing; the paintings of David Hockney; canal lock gates; the Eurovision Song Contest; a kitchen fish slice; dogs fouling public places; misleading statistics; contour lines and expired passports.

What I can’t quite recall is where the English grammar fitted in!

A colleague has been driving herself to nervous exhaustion by putting on not one, but four little plays during this week. They have been worked on over a period of some months, but only using a single lesson a week in the ‘Drama’ lesson. Another colleague, with selfless dedication has produced photographic slide backdrops for each production and managed lights and sound.

The end result of today’s play was, as I told my colleague, “worth doing.” I hope she does not think that I am damning with faint praise, but as I have read through the play and attended a run through I was able to follow the action: I am not sure quite what those seeing this production for the first time will take away for it, apart from a vague unease that they have been subjected to a philosophically alienated piece of surrealism. The delivery of the words by the actors was done in a clipped sort of Pakistani style and the speed of delivery made clarity a bit hit and miss. All in all good fun!

I gobbled down my lunch under the impression that I was on duty. I was wrong. As I am a denizen of both buildings I was able to hide my humiliation of being a day out by taking a cup of tea, an orange and a book (that last bit sounds like a grotesque reworking of the Rubiat of Omar Kyam) and sit out on the balcony in solitary splendor!

Collection of my prescriptions meant that I could justifiably leave early in the last period of the day when I have a free and thus miss the unbelievable traffic jams that occur when the rich come to collect their offspring.

Now for a bowl of my fruit salad which is just on the point of fermentation!

And, of course, a cup of tea!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The red pen strikes back!



What was true for the younger kids when they were given back their examination papers was as nothing compared to the storm of questions and cavils that greeted me as I gave back the papers to the older pupils.

Eventually I began to question my own grasp of the language and I felt myself drifting back to the old days when, for a period of some minutes, I forgot how to spell ‘because.’

In my own justification I have to say that I had been marking papers for some time in which the perverse ingenuity in finding yet more ways to misspell the word had finally tipped my knowledge of the word in question over the edge and my spelling systems closed down!

The clarity of the advice that I received when I returned to the staff room after the distribution shone through the gloomy day: don’t go through them. Give them back and let them add up the marks. Period.

It is good to be in a staff room where the wisdom of past years distils itself into thoroughly practical self interested saws. It is advice that I shall assuredly follow!

My time in this school is marked by a fairly steep learning curve. My previous abilities in the teaching of English are looked on as a luxury, and the things that I tried to shuffle off into the shadows are now thrown into centre stage with a particularly large and bright spotlight on them.

The head of department is a particularly fine lady who dispenses comfort and sharp, effective solutions without breaking step! Nothing is unsolvable, though she does live on nervous energy. Being callous I have to say that the situation is fine with me as long as the results of her neurosis mean an easier life for me.

Now that I am permanent, various dark threats are looming on the horizon. The most dark and threatening is the possibility of becoming a class teacher. This is something which I really do not want to do. Quite apart from the fact that I always loathed being a form teacher (ah, distance always makes the truth easier to utter) I really would have to see monoglot Spanish speaking parents to talk about their children. And our children are needy as far as attention is concerned. They have ideas of their rights far in excess of their concepts of responsibility and such a mélange of strident egos is not something which appeals to me.

But we shall see what is in store for me in the timetable I am given for next year.

Of course the important element that has my full attention is what my future contract is going to say about the two months of the summer. What I expect is that my present contract will expire at the end of June, and the next one will probably start in September. That means that after my pay for June, I will not be paid again until the end of September. Happy days! At least there is the promise of future cash!

A delight awaited me after the limited horror of a small shop in Lidl: a book placed on top of my mail box!

‘Why not Catch-21?’ by Gary Dexter.

‘Why not Catch-21?’ by Gary Dexter is the book version of the column Dexter writes in the Sunday Telegraph which takes the odd titles of books and looks at the stories behind them. It has a very ugly front cover and an excellent back cover and it is obviously published just for me. My dilettante mind is, even now, lurching towards devouring this book. I am, however, determined to spread out the delight of learning the detail behind the choices for as long as possible.

The front cover shows a very bad drawing of Rodin’s Thinker sitting on a pile of books. The posture of the sculpture does give a very clear indication of where the book should be kept!

I seem to remember ordering a few other books after I had succumbed to the frenzy of ‘one step purchasing’ which means that a single mouse click sends a book to me with the minimum of pondering on that evil Amazon site!

I am finding it hard not to read about a few of the titles in the Dexter book before it is reverently placed in its appointed niche in the reading room.

I will have a cup of tea and decide how many titles I can indulge myself with.

It’s better than marking!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Calling the scores!


The day of giving back examinations.

I have tried to think back to how I responded when I had examination papers returned. I hope to god that it wasn’t anything like the demented response of the kids I now teach.

I seem to remember that the first thing that we did was to check the ticks and try and find a few extra marks, or check the teacher’s addition and gleefully take up a miscounted paper for the readjustment.

In my school the examination papers are not so much written examples of pupils’ skill, but rather touch papers to an explosion of accusations, recriminations, questionings, explanations and whining, weaseling demands for more marks.

The moment the papers are in the grubby little hands of the oiks the poor teacher is almost blinded by the blinding light reflected from the metallic bodies of a class full of offensively wielded calculators. Little fingers tap industriously away trying to prove the calculations of the hapless teacher wrong.

I, however, do not do the calculations: the computer does them. This assertion of ‘untouched by human hands’ calculations soon shuts them up.

They are forced to then to flaunt their English knowledge and assert with all the confidence of Professor David Crystal that the construction, “the wood was burnt over the grate’ is one which trips from the lips of all known English native speakers.

Variant spellings are thrust beneath your eyes with demands that you accept that there is nothing wrong with the spelling of ‘geografical’ or ‘infeccious’ and give the poor downtrodden students the mark that they deserve. This, of course is what they get!

The real point of doing all the marking was to be able to mark in a book those pupils who needed an ‘alerta.’ This would flag up any student who was in danger of failing the approaching examinations in June.

The culmination of today’s efforts were then discussed in a meeting of soul destroying boredom which lasted for two solid, bloody, stinking hours immediately after the end of school.

The school is small enough for all the teachers in all subjects in the first three years of the secondary section to sit in the library around a large island of tables and discuss all (and yes, I do mean all) the pupils whose results fell in the area of 5.5 or less. You have to understand that all marks, no matter how bizarre their allocation (we mark in .25 of a mark) end up as a mark out of ten.

The whole concept of the meeting is of course laudable and shows a caring school. When the discussion is conducted in Spanish with seemingly arbitrary leaps into Catalan, you can understand my lack of enthusiasm in feeling linked in to this tedious marathon. And there is part two tomorrow – though thank god I am teaching at the time of the start of the meeting and so I am unfortunately unable to be there!

By way of compensation for my ordeal, I called into the shopping centre in the next town of Gavá and specifically into the gadget shop called MediaMarkt (or some such travesty) and indulged my whims for things electrical. I am made happy by the possibility of purchase, so I was able to pass a perfectly happy time there mentally thinking covetous thoughts while only actually buying cartridges for the printed.

The cartridges now cost almost the same as buying a new printer, indeed I saw a few printers which cost twenty Euros less. In case you are thinking that I should have thought, “To hell with global warming and the evils of conspicuous expenditure: throw away your old printer and buy a new one for the cartridges.” Alas, the manufacturers have thought of that one and install special cartridges which have little ink in them. One shop assistant in Barcelona told me that the most expensive liquid on the planet is HP printer ink! And I believe him!

I have bought Pelikan cartridges which take the place of the over-priced originals and last a damn sight longer.

The weather has been very sticky today and I am sure that it has been the perfect environment for encouraging the remaining bacilli to regroup and make a renewed attempt on my well being.

Time for another lemon honey drink!

Sunday, May 10, 2009



After a lie-in of some 30 minutes I got up and blearily surveyed the deserted beach which looked bleak and colour drained in the washed out light filtered through cloud covered skies.

Defiantly I made myself a pot of tea in my thin glass Zara teapot and surveyed my domestic empire. Paper everywhere in neat piles, though most of it in odd sheets scattered around in the best traditions of the chaos which characterised my approach to education.

Gradually order and been restored and (eventually) information put into the computer. Excel is an excellent programme for demonstrating the idiocy of computers. It will do exactly what you type into it and it refuses to compensate for the illogicality of your commands when the odd letter is misplaced in a formula. I must admit that as soon as I get a result which is halfway reasonable I believe in all the other results implicitly!

I am almost at the stage where I have managed to produce two pages of official looking information with another two on the way. You will note that I said, ‘almost’ – the ink is running low in my printer. Anything may yet happen!

After a punitive raid on Carrefour for tea bags I made a fruit salad and retired to my bed and lapsed into the acceptable comatose condition which is my usual approach to the irritation of anything less than rude ill health. My only concession to medicine was to purchase some lemon honey to soothe my throat.

I am beginning to wonder if my ‘cold’ could be a reaction to the amount of pollen in the atmosphere. Plant parts looking like specs of flying foam are filling the air and catching what sunlight deigns to force its way through the cloud cover. But I don’t think so. I only hope that a good night’s sleep will see off the niggling remains of ill health.

Another reason for taking to my bed was the coven of screeching girls who shouted at each other for the greater part of the afternoon around the pool.

The summer brings out the most colourful aspects of my misanthropy as the people we refer to as ‘the rich bs’ turn up to indulge themselves in their otherwise unoccupied flats and obnoxious progeny of the people already here disport themselves round and about and do it noisily as well.

One flat seems to be occupied by beach bums with two dogs and unspeakable friends. They leave the detritus of their beach-bumerry in all the common areas of the flats – and I realise that I am beginning to sound like Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells, so I’d better stop!

The mozzies are also beginning to make themselves felt so I think I will have a cup of tea.

I’m typing this watching Barça play the game which, if they win will give them the Championship. I hope that I am not tempting fate when I say that the score is at present 3-1 to Barça with 20 minutes to go. Iniesta (who always has been one of my favourite players because of his sense of fair play and his phlegmatic approach to the game) is playing like a man possessed and producing some extraordinary football!

And who ever have thought that I would ever have written a sentence like that last one. Now say that living in foreign parts does not have an effect on one!

I might add that since I wrote that Barça look well set to win the game, Barça have had a man sent off and a penalty against them!

I suppose that I should stop typing while Barça are still ahead!


Too late! The score is now 3-3! Talk about kiss of death!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Meals to eat when you are ill!


It is amazing what a decent meal and hyper tension talking in a foreign tongue will do to the lingering debilitations of general un-wellness.

This lunchtime to Terrassa for the Meal of the Three Birthdays and very nice it was too. I had baby broad beans flavoured with a variety of fishy bits, followed by a vast dish of fish and sea food.

I have developed an ‘efficient’ way of eating these seemingly mountainous meals. The almost overwhelming visual effect is (as it were) affected by a carefully ostentatious structuring of the dead sea creatures on offer.

The base of the edifice is constructed of large shelled mussels which look and usually taste good, but have a high ‘flash to flesh’ ratio – which means that there is a lot of inedible shell to a small amount of succulent mussel. De-shelling the mussels gives you room to manoeuvre and allows you to distinguish exactly how many crustaceans are lurking on your plate.

De-heading those removes a vast amount of interesting, if indigestible fishy limbs.

The mountain of exoskeleton, which at first sight had drawn envious comments, has now been reduced to manageable proportions and only the slabs of fish (hitherto lost beneath waving shrimp limbs) are the only substantial mouthfuls in sight.

If, like me you are an enthusiastic ‘hands-on’ eater then revealing the flesh of the gambas is put the frenzied rending of a moment and the taste sensation can commence.

The drawback of this approach to the dish is that if anyone else is eating it at the same time, your efficiency in the rapid discarding of inedible bits produces a mountain of waste before the others have got started!

Having said that, I don’t think that anyone fully finished their dish. Not that it stopped anyone from having a dessert. And a coffee. A good meal.

In a rather flashy show of dedication (and desperation) I returned to Castelldefels to continue the exam marking which has to be done before Monday and, which is rather more intimidating, has to be entered into a program which uses Excel to order the results.

The ‘magic’ details involving the devious use of the dollar sign as some sort of instruction to the powers that be to do the correct mathematics have been explained to me. But I am not absolutely sure that I remember all the stages in getting the machine to do more work that I have to do putting the information in.

The only good thing about programs not working for you (especially if you have been brought up on early versions of Windows™) is that time in front of a computer screen does not seem to have the same value as time spent, for example, drinking a cup of tea.

I have spent frustrated hours trying to get a computer program to do some calculations that would have taken me a few minutes with pencil and paper. But there is that sense of consummate achievement when your results are tabulated with the inhuman elegance that only a computer can bring to mere lists.

I am hoping that I can go back to a previous table and click on certain squares and read the runes that appear when you do so and then scurry back to the work in progress and attempt to introduce the magic and hope for the best. I am tempted to leave this until tomorrow because the state into which I get when I find that things do not work out always tends to echo the sentiments found in one of the bleaker stories by Somerset Maugham

So, I shall hope for sun tomorrow and a renewed will to dress up figures so that they look almost convincing.

But, for tomorrow, definitely.

Friday, May 08, 2009


In the normal course of events, and in a kinder world, today would have been spent in bed.

Starting last night or perhaps a day or two earlier, a grumbling sore throat made itself felt. This morning I felt ‘unwell’ suffering from one of those unspecific moods of general ‘not-rightness’.

The Bed of Oblivion, however, had to give way to the Toothbrush of Rectitude and I made my reluctant way into school. Once arrived there one of my colleagues spoke a few cheery words to me to which I croaked a reply. At this she instantly told me to go home, pointing out that was the advice I had given her a few weeks ago when she was not feeling well.

Unfortunately that was not an option. Luckily two classes were having exams and another was watching a film so that (in theory) I could have a fairly gentle supervisory role and sit, a picture of misery, feeling sorry for myself.

As is always the way in schools that rather optimistic timetable did not quite happen but I was able to sit quietly watching the pupils cheat (as they do in all examinations, it is an essential part of the culture of the school) while I sipped water from a plastic cup and tried to look pathetic, doggedly resilient and yet touchingly vulnerable.

While supervising one examination class I was attempting to mark the examination papers of one of the two others which have already sat their exams. Four sets of examination papers really need to be marked this weekend because there is a Grand Gathering of the Clans on Monday when an Academic Inquisition is held whereby Those About to Fail are identified and their status notified to parents.

I would like to think that this was part of the normal function of a school supplying parents with as much information as they require gaining a rounded picture of the progress of their children. What it is actually is a way of safeguarding the school so that they can say ‘told you so’ when the pampered pupils actually do fail and the parents come gunning for the teachers for an explanation of how their perfect progeny could possibly fall below perfection!

Whatever the truth of this exercise it is a harsh truth that the results of the tests that we have inflicted on the kids will need to be available for tutors on Monday – or, as the case with one of the year groups, we can relax because we only have to worry about giving in the results by as late as Tuesday!
And I still don’t feel well.

The highlight of the day was a meeting with the Directora (at the time when I should have been able to leave the school during my ‘early leaving’ as compensation for doing to ‘early starts’ each week.

The meeting came straight to the point with the Directora saying as she was sitting down, “Well, if you are still interested we would like to have you come aboard!” How delightfully old fashioned. Sitting as we were in her office which was probably the elegant, wood panelled study of the old town house which was the base from which the modern school has spread, what she said seemed somehow quite appropriate.

So I am now, on the basis of a handshake rather than the rather more solid reality of a signed contract, a permanent member of staff of my school, and for a few minutes we smiled and said nice things about and to each other.

It also appears that the usually dilatory Education Ministry in Madrid is about to give me the certification that officially recognizes my qualifications and officially allows me to teach in Spain. The school has a personal link with the education office which is why my papers seem to have been processed with what, in Spanish terms, seems almost indecent haste!

The celebration of my new status was drunk in fizzy water and I had to drag myself to the table to get on with the marking of at least some of the examination papers.

I have now finished two sets of papers and feel like some sort of mythical hero having slain two multi-talloned beasts, but also uneasily aware that more substantial opponents are lurking in my briefcase awaiting the slashes of my red pen. And then there is the putting of all the results in the format which I have established for myself – but as that is playing with the computer it doesn’t really count as work. Also, there is the real advantage when the results are finally presented in Excel that they look so official and convincing that I almost believe they mean something!

Tomorrow Terrassa and The Three Birthdays. Presents have generally been bought and the more difficult ones wrapped in stolen wrapping paper from Toys r Us – though I did ask before I took it!

It is already too late to have an early night, but I had better make the most of what is left of the hours before tomorrow to hope that time will sweep away the residual irritation of illness.

To have to mark is bad enough, but to be unwell at the same time smacks of the worst excesses of Victorian sentimental novels.

I’d rather be in a Rider Haggard sort of frame of mind and then I would be able to see the marking as part of my Imperial Duty, by gad!

And so, very much, to bed.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

To test is life!


Once more we are gripped by the convulsions of examination fever – all self induced by the ethos of the educational institution in which I am at present residing. I have been 33% of an exam writing team before now with the youngest pupils, but, with good behaviour, I have graduated to 50% of the effort.

I must admit that I had completely put out of my mind the fact that I was supposed to produce various questions for the equivalent of Year 9 – though they look very much older than their British equivalent. Therefore the casual question I was asked this morning was a little disturbing. This related to our getting together to put the examination paper, well, together.

Needless to say, by the time we actually did meet I had reams of paper on which questions of breathtaking erudition and wit were scattered. I even included five questions about a grammatical point which had to be included and which I didn’t really understand. When the question writing frenzy is upon you such things are as nothing.

When we finally united our efforts the length of the proposed paper gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘Lifelong Learning’ and it took the swift and practised pen of the head of English to cut swathes through our work and produce an easily digestible paper for the poor pupils to groan and sweat their way through tomorrow.

Their efforts are going to be a little more painful as the head of English has cut out small clues to the correct words and phrases that I left in, so the candidates will have to dig deep to find the appropriate archaic phrases which are beloved by their examination board!

Merely because it is a grotesque and possibly racist simplification to assert that the Spanish do not listen to anyone and do not read instructions is hardly going to stop my saying it. You only have to look at what is laughingly designated a ‘discussion’ programme in this country to see that half a dozen people simultaneously shouting at each other does not really fit such a definition.

Teachers are encouraged to say everything three times so that a class can go through the normal process of 1) noticing that you are speaking 2) realising that you are trying to tell them something 3) actually listening to what you have to say. This ‘three step’ approach is woefully inadequate in this country. It is probably more helpful if you think of the TV sketch where someone tries to explain to an old British officer left behind in the jungles after the war that the conflict is actually over. It simply doesn’t get through; rather like information being relayed to a class in Catalonia!

But they generally lack the hard edge that you find in British schools so it is fairly easy to forgive much. And they are friendly. Whenever I progress (that really is the only word for it) I am assailed on every side by children calling my name. I wave regally in a way reminiscent of a shared memory from my mother who was visited in school by that redoubtable dowager Queen Mary and who sometimes demonstrated that august personage’s progress along the corridors and in the classes.

Still nothing has been said about a future contract and I can’t help feeling the more I look inquisitively at the directora; the more she doesn’t look at me!

On the other hand, the bursar has said that he is going to phone Madrid to find out the progress the department of education is making on registering my qualifications. Disturbingly, one of my colleagues at lunch today said that she sent off her documentation two years ago. After one year she received a letter telling her that her documentation was insufficient and that they were not going to recognize her status. The following year has been taken up with the appeal process! Not encouraging. Though I have been told that showing willing in sending off the documentation is taken as proof of process and that will keep the school authorities quiet for a number of years.

Still, it has only been a couple of months for me – and if I get restive, then I only have to cast my mind back to the fiasco of my CRB check to realise that bureaucracy is only as good as the bureaucrats administering it!

The present situation is little improved. Large gifts are still needed before I dare make my way to Terrassa for the Lunch of the Three Birthdays.

God help us all!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

You are never alone with Radio 4



Strange as it must seem to many, it was only as I was getting into my car to go to work at the unearthly hour that I need to depart to get there to start teaching at a quarter past eight in the morning that I realized that I was still listening to the same Today programme on Radio 4 that I had been listening to while getting ready to depart.

The answer to this conundrum was, alas, not that Spanish radio had decided to broadcast Radio 4 (the best radio station in the world) to all the benighted citizens of Castelldefels through strategically placed loudspeakers so that I might have a seamless experience of the early morning drug that is the Today programme. That was not the solution.

The blame rests securely on the shoulders of Ceri and Dianne who, with a totally inspired Christmas present gave us (aka me) a pair of wireless free headphones. These came together with a niftily designed gadget that, plugged into any media device allows the signal to be picked up by the headphones.

Wandering about getting ready in the unfriendly early hours is only made bearable by the comforting cynicism of your average Radio 4 interviewer.

It is a mark of the competence of the headphones that they relayed crystal clear reception to my ears as I left the flat, walked down the stairs, out through the door and towards the parked car which I had left on the street overnight. It was only at the point of unlocking the door of the car than I became mildly bemused by the continuing presence of the British radio programme.

I then felt a complete fool, resplendent in my suit and sporting a large pair of headphones, though obviously impressed by the range of the device! As the school secretary is apt to remark, “A senior moment!”

School was a succession of chatty classes and a free period devoted to the drama production of a colleague who has been beavering away for the past two months to get our youngest secondary kids to put on a series of plays.

The one I observed was a reworking of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice updated to modern times with a sax playing musician and a wife given to drugs. Not a bad little piece. What I was watching was supposed to be the last rehearsal before the performance.

It was appalling. The person who spoke the largest number of lines during the ‘performance’ was the teacher – and she wasn’t supposed to be in it! I was there to give the “you cannot expect an audience to sit there and listen to this sort of thing” speech and try and galvanize them into learning their lines. They have nine days. Orpheus has now become my special charge and I am going to have special sessions with him to ensure that the production is not cancelled.

Anything, of course, to help a colleague. But, I find myself asking ‘cui bono?’

I couldn’t help feeling that as I passed from building to building as I taught in the upper and then in the lower school I seemed to pass and re-pass the directora. The head of English has said that she will remind the lady that I am waiting for my interview (which the directora appears to have given to the rest of the department) which will decide my future in the school.

I may be over sensitive and a touch paranoid but I did not sense the warm camaraderie that I have experienced in the past and I fear that the school is working towards a negative response. This will complicate matters, but at least the paper work is in place and I am ready to begin an assault on the other establishments of learning in the region.

The weekend, which still seems a long way off, will culminate in the joint birthday party in Terrassa for which I still have not purchased all the necessary presents. At least that means one or two after school jaunts to the shops with the vain hope that inspiration will strike!

Two classes have had examinations in the past two days and two others will be examined soon; all of which will need to be marked. A truly depressing outlook and one which is close to the assessment heart of the institution in which I am now working.

Today has been very hot (according to the Spanish teachers) and rather pleasant for me. There is a definite feeling of the summer and I dread the amount of conversation which will flow directly related to the climatic conditions. Let no one say that the British are fixated on their weather; when we are compared with the Spanish and Catalan we only seem to give our climate a fleeting thought.

The weather is a constant topic of conversation here and, given the diversity of the regions of Spain there is always scope for showing snow or rain or hail (a real favourite this) or wind or clouds or sleet or sun or anything else the skies can throw at us.

I need to splay my limbs and let the sun do its soothing work!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The early call!

Leapt out of bed to the raucous sound of the alarm on the mobile phone and was brushing my teeth virtually before I woke up. An ugly welcome back to education orientated normality.

School was enlivened by the appearance of a poet, Paul Cookson, who I know from the compilation poetry books that he produces as much as from the work that he produces under his own name.

I met him first thing in the morning and, as he seemed a fairly jolly and accepting person, I felt that I had to admit that I had been breaking copyright in the production of a small (illustrated) booklet produced by my good self. He was completely unfazed by this and on my presenting him with a copy of said breach of copyright he looked through it and said that I had chosen one of his favourites and that he would read some of my choices to the kids when he took them.

After a brief meeting with the poet or Poet I was then dragged away into the morass of teaching and did not manage to see him again until the afternoon when I was able to spend a free in our auditorium where he was to take the equivalent of our year seven.

When I found him he was sitting in one of the luxurious tip up seats in the auditorium and strumming a ukulele – as you do!

When the kids arrived my free period was forgotten and I was just another teacher manning (staffing?) the pumps and making sure that the chaos which is par for the course when a stranger visits the school was kept in check.

I have to say that Paul Cookson had the kids in the palm of his hand. Not so much a poetry reading as a stand up comedy routine with selective insulting of the audience! He literally had them rocking in their chairs and he harnessed this enthusiasm by directing it into a lively accompaniment to his poems by inviting his audience to participate.

He has written tongue twisters and poetic jokes; football poems; autobiographic poems and, a great favourite with this audience, poems about teachers. He showed them a cartoon drawing of a teacher that an artist friend had produced and that elicited howls of recognition from the kids who immediately identified one of my colleagues!

He recognized when he was on to a good thing and tried following up this popular success with another teacher poem. As I was sitting at the side of the hall, this directed the attention of the kids to me (in spite of the fact that there were two other colleagues present) and the kids began a chant of “Stee-ven! Stee-ven! Stee-ven!” until Paul snarled, “Oi! I’m supposed to be the star here!” which produced even more laughter. I either added to my reputation with the kids or found it evaporate (with these kids it’s hard to say) by enthusiastically joining in with the words and actions that Paul demanded from his audience.

Those who know me from Llanishen will not be surprised to learn that, even though this was my free period and this visit was not my responsibility, I introduced the poet and gave the vote of thanks at the end. Some things never change!

It’s things like this that make me think that I am too much at home in this school. I have been teaching here for about 40 days but it doesn’t feel like that and I worry (!) that some of my colleagues may see me as somewhat presumptuous in the way that I have established myself.

They needn’t worry, they can always put me in my place by speaking to me in Spanish and then I subside, quiescent into a handy corner licking my linguistic wounds!

I spoke to the head of English about my contract and she expressed surprise that I had not been seen by the Directora as the rest of the department have apparently had their interviews about their positions next year. It appears that I will probably be seen this week. At least my CV is updated and the outline of a new general letter of application is waiting to be polished on the computer.

One part of Toni’s present has been bought; most of Laura’s is complete and Carmen’s will have to wait until nearer to date as part of it will die if I buy it too soon!

Tomorrow early start in school and a long, long day.

At least I will have my signed copy of one of Paul’s books to read during my free time!