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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Weekends are too short



Sometimes the brain gives you a little present and yesterday I was the grateful recipient of its gift.

Saturday felt like a Sunday. I therefore had, last night, the delightful realization that there was an extra day to the weekend. Not only that but also as Sunday was a ‘gained’ day it lost the stigma as being the day before Monday - which for teachers usually takes away the relaxation that a non-teaching day can bring.

All of life is checks and balances and the gain of the day seemed to be augmented by the addition of bright sunshine! Didn’t last of course and now the day is overcast and even if I didn’t know that it was a Sunday I would have been able to guess by the shoddy, slightly resentful weather which is characteristic of the lead up to a working day!

Rather than do the marking which I had set myself for this weekend I have resorted to my usual default indolence position and re-read one of E F Benson’s Lucia novels, ‘Trouble for Lucia’ which has the eponymous heroine on the ropes as all her snobbish structures seem to fall and her friends crowd round like a group of avaricious vultures ready to tear into her flesh.

Lucia’s faults are deep and wide but one can’t help feeling a sort of grudging sympathy for her predicaments - which are usually of her own making. And the novels are very funny and make me laugh out loud. I wonder if Jane Austen would have liked them. I think so.

Our weather is becoming more and more fractious. A good start degenerated from sunshine into sporadic rain and the temperature dropped again.

Tomorrow poor weather will have to complete with the fury I feel when my supposed free periods disappear in taking care of the rump of kids who are not going on the ski trip. I think that I am going to start keeping a record of just how many periods I loose. My conspiracy theory approach to school is invariably more accurate than an easy assumption of fairness!

The week following is Fiesta (with a capital F) when all schools make some sort of nod towards the anarchic chaos which should be a function of such a festival. Our contribution to these jollifications is a sort of race with stations which ask the pupils to complete some sort of academic task and move on. I can hardly wait.

And I am not dressing up!

And that is final!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The seasons change eventually


With the flimsy protection of a sheet of glass the early afternoon sun is streaming warmly into the room. The dappled sunlight is just on the point of making the surface of the pool sparkle and the wisps of cloud merely emphasise the blue infinity of the sky.

At times like this it is not impossible to believe that summer will exist. This simple leap of faith has been difficult to make during the vindictive weather that we have had recently. Three days of rain is little short of a national disaster in these parts and temperatures dropping down to single figures reduce grown men to tears.

Spanish television usually laughs as the LEGAL restrictions on advertising on television. To my knowledge there is a maximum limit of twelve minutes advertising time for each hour, but on some channels this is laughable. The government makes noises about coming into line with the LEGAL requirement and then quietly seems to do nothing about it. Now, one Catalan channel has voluntarily decided to do something about it.

The result of this was that we were able to watch ‘Casino Royale’ on TV last night without feeling that we had sat through an artistic even with the length of the entire Ring Cycle. During one commercial break (with the emphasis on commercial) I showered, got changed and made dinner with there still being enough time to have a leisurely glass of wine before the break (or ‘break’) was over!

On this channel there was at least the opportunity to enjoy the film with the breaks being of a duration which did not encourage you to lose track of what was happening in the programme you were supposed to be watching.

For what is supposed to be mindless entertainment with chases and gratuitous violence thrown in, ‘Casino Royale’ is an up-market piece of work. I think that it is too long and it’s a tad self-congratulatory in its complacent use of existing knowledge: when Bond is asked whether he wants his Martini shaken or stirred he replies something to the effect that it makes no difference! How times change!

I think that ‘Casino Royale’ is an elegant film with dark overtones which fill in the back story and gave a sardonic view of the development of James Bond.

Out to lunch in a restaurant in Gavá, La Finca, which is a little off the beaten track and has a decorative style in the main dining room which can only be described as Bad Taste Catholic Grunge. Plaster saints vied with pictures of old Gavá with a few concessions to design which were frankly poorly chosen. The food however was excellent with the signal exception of the sweet which was a dry sacher dessert inadequately defrosted. I should always listen to my own advice and stick with the coffee as a sufficient termination to a meal!

Toni and I had one of our occasional arguments about the definition of ‘fussy eater’ which, as usual, ended with recriminations, misunderstandings and our usual dash of acrimony! Luckily it didn’t take away the taste of the food!

I am almost in the mood to tackle unpacking some of the books which litter up the third floor – though there isn’t actually anywhere to put them: all shelf space is accounted for.

Breaking News! The Scumbags who live next door for some months of the year have reappeared and parked their cars across our drive. To our total horror it looks as though they are moving things into their house preparatory to their actually taking up residence there. They have, over the last summer, acquired the official designation of ‘Bane’ as their behaviour is consistently appalling.

Our one hope is that their ‘popular’ daughter is now2 too old to contemplate spending the summer with her parents (with whom she had explosive and vitriolic rows last summer) and therefore will not attract the pimply, salivating adolescents who pant around (and lots more prepositions) her, creating unacceptable levels of sound during anti-social hours of the night.

With any luck they are merely here because someone pushed the gates open and, though we have closed them each time we see them gaping, perhaps someone has informed them that their house is open to intrusion and they have merely come to check and then (most importantly) go!

The afternoon advances and no books have been unpacked; no arranging of shelves; no selection of important tomes to be displayed prominently and dispensable tomes to be . . . No, it’s no good, I can’t even bring myself to write about what might be done to those books which I haven’t even glanced at for a couple of years. You never know when they might become essential. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing.

So I will now try and get the eight gallons into the small wine glass which is the only image that fits my trying to get my books into some sort of display for the house.

No harm in trying.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How to ruin a perfectly good Friday


The Iberian peoples are a tactile lot. And that extends to the pupils I teach too. Accepting for a moment that they actually qualify as people.

I have tried in a professional and fairly vindictive way to keep my distance from the life forms that I teach, but this is much more difficult in Spain.

I first noticed this tendency to march straight through the “forty inches from my nose where the frontier of my person goes” by the primary pupils who were positively clingy and draped themselves around me in a manner which would have done irreparable damage to my Scrooge-like demeanor which had been painstakingly built up over the years of my time in British schools.

One would think that one would have been safe in the secondary sector of education, but this is simply not the case.

Today, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, one of my strapping first year sixth pupils picked me up and walked a few (I would like to say faltering, but he was too strong for that) steps to demonstrate that he could. Having done it, to popular acclaim he repeated the feat. Now I have to admit that, much like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, “hardily, I was nat undergrowe” so to lift me with consummate ease demonstrated that he was a strong lad – though why he did is still not entirely clear. He, unusually in Spain, plays rugby and he managed to extract a shamefaced admission from me that I endured many a cold day in the arid ranks of the second row. Perhaps he feels that it is a cultural link between us, though I have to admit it is an unsettling one.

I tried to cast my mind back to those distant days when one could still take an unalloyed pleasure in the extent of the map of the world which was still painted pink, when we New Boys in The Cardiff High School for Boys were lined up in order of height to be put into houses. I was one of the tallest boys in the school at the age of eleven and even at that age would not have been picked up lightly!

I think I have to go back to when I was in single figures to recall the last elevation!

A couple of the boys in that class have now decided that we have to adopt a ceremonial way of greeting with a sequence starting with open palm followed by knuckle meet leading to fluttering fingers and finally chest bump I have only done this twice and I have felt a total fraud on both occasions. In my wildest nightmares I cannot imagine this having happened anywhere in my experience in Britain. Though that may well be a function of my over-developed sense of innate authority rather than anything else!

The unbelievable story of the missing examination continues.

I left school yesterday evening secure in the knowledge that my revised examination paper was in the head of English’s pigeon hole together with my letter explaining that the paper had been found and we could stay with the paper that had already been printed.

Not so.

When I arrived this morning the head of department informed me that while my paper might have been safe, the kids had acquired an examination paper from last year and were eagerly distributing it around the playground to interested parties.

In a use of logic whose well, logic, did not strike me immediately as sound, an executive decision was taken to remodel my already revised paper. With my fingers poised over the keys we commenced to slice away sections of the paper that we told the kids would be there and add things which we had not told them about.

One of my colleagues was very upset about the unfairness of it all, but I, on the contrary couldn’t care less. The kids in our school have raised the noble art of cheating to a positive science, so anything that keeps them guessing is fine by me!

The kids were, of course, horrified. Although their revision is minimal they recognize anything which has not been ‘studied’ instantly. The picked up on the word ‘ailment’ and were stumped by the request to find three separate meanings for the word ‘story.’ They have the attention span of Homer Simpson so all their hysteria will pass. Especially with the mind wipe of Snow Week starting for some of them on Monday.

And we are not to take examination papers in the rooms until the kids are actually sitting the exams.

All things change.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The wheel is an idea waiting to happen. Again.


In a school whose raison d’être is glorification and deification of the examination today was marked by something which can only be regarded as a sacrilegious act.

I was taking the equivalent of a year 9 class and going through the details of the examination that they would be sitting the next day and fielding the multitude of questions that any class in our school is capable of asking on something as trivial as how to write the date on the top of their notes, let alone something as complex as an examination.

After a challenging session in which I explained more phrasal verbs, common phrases and the difference between words like ‘glimpse’ and ‘glance’ and ‘totter’ and ‘hobble’ I was ready for the relative tranquillity of our scheduled English Department Meeting but . . .

Horror of horrors! The examination paper was missing! I searched the desk, the floor, my bag and everywhere else that I could think of, but the conclusion was inescapable: a child, eager to boost his mark had purloined the sacred pages of one of the Most Important Documents in the Universe – an exam paper.

We were, at first, inclined to disregard this. Watch the results and the idiot who suddenly, for no apparent reason rises from ignorant obscurity to the dizzy heights of double figure achievement in his mark out of ten, might well be the culprit.

I was happy to leave it at that, but the mind of our head of department yeastily considered all aspects of this heinous theft and considered the possibilities. Meanwhile another member of department appeared and helped me check again the places where I had been and looked surreptitiously at pupils’ desks to check that the incriminating papers were not lurking there.

She also asked me if I would mind rewriting the paper: a request from the absent head of department!

Now, in a twisted sort of way I rather enjoy that sort of thing. In our school you quickly become something of an expert in taking carefully crafted sentences from the text books which are obviously the product of some poor anorak wearing hack’s midnight oil burning life’s work and by changing a John to a Juan and London to Barcelona to produce a new and school specific question.

Sharpening my fingers and prodding my trusty little computer I was soon at word and weaving my linguistic magic and producing something that I hoped would at least confuse the putative miscreant when he opened his exam paper and saw questions looking (at least) radically different from the ones that he had purloined.

Job done and the pages printed out and checked I placed the finished magnum opus in the tray of the head of English.

I took the opportunity of a free period to try and bring some sense of order to my brief case which in recent weeks seemed to have assumed the physical properties of a black hole and the weight of the damn thing seemed to be increasing exponentially.

The more astute reader has, undoubtedly, already worked out what this paragraph is going to relate. And, of course, you are right. In the middle of a group of papers related to the equivalent of the sixth form there were the missing pages of the examination. In an envelope that I am willing to swear I didn’t . . . but then all hysterical justification is pointless.

The sorry saga has few redeeming features. The only positive aspect which allows me to salvage some shreds of self respect is that at least I told someone about what I suspected and didn’t try and pretend that nothing had happened! Small comfort!

And I have to face my colleagues tomorrow!

At least I am going out later tonight to have a few drinks with a couple of friends and I am sure that the lingering effects of alcohol will get me through the last day of the week!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Life can surely offer more?

In a more than usually flamboyant back flip wrist gesture I managed to take out a chunk of my chin while shaving. This, of course, is one of the penalties doing something with knives (I use the Gillette Fusion Electronic Six Blade Shaver) while doing something else, namely showering. With your eyes closed.

In Catalonia you are discouraged from shaving in the bath because you use more water than if you shaved in the sink and managed the water with more economy. This would be fine if the process of getting up was at a more civilized time in the day. As it is, rising before dawn, necessitates closed eyes otherwise the sheer horror of such early rising would leave one paralyzed with disgust at a way of life which demands such demeaning actions from a thinking human being.

The truly unfortunate thing about a shaving cut (or slice in my case) is the distressingly copious amounts of blood which gush forth. Staring morosely at the mirror (such things force one to open one’s eyes) you feel yourself to be a poor and pallid reflection of the noble Homer as you vainly press quantities of toilet paper to the apparently gaping wound and watch it turn bloodily soggy!

In the way of these things (even god is not that cruel) the bleeding always stops just before you finish your cup of tea and start off for work. The only thing you have to remember is to dispose of the sanguinary scraps of unsightly paper before you leave.

Not being directed related to His Majesty the late Tsar of All the Russias the chunk of missing flesh has now been most satisfactorily compensated for by normal coagulation and the healing process will continue until tomorrow morning when my wielding of the stubble scythe will rake over old wounds and start the bleeding afresh!

My electric razor, which would be the solution to the problem, has become positively skittish in the way it approaches the cutting of extraneous hairs. As indeed has the battery which although placed firmly in the charger seems to have developed a taste for electricity from a different venue than my house. Its performance is distinctly episodic and wayward and not something with which I can easily cope in the dark moments of consciousness early in the morning.

The latest examination is just being completed as I type and in a rush of organizational efficiency I have not only created a file for the results, but I have also put the necessary computational thingies into Excel that will count up the marks and convert them into a figure out of ten. Such preparation was made more attractive because the paper looks relatively easy to mark. This is always a thought which is a hostage to fortune and there will be difficulties engendered by the kids that make the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone look like Janet and John Book 1!

I did indeed speak too soon. The paper was a horrific drag to mark and the black despair that only markers know settled firmly in the middle of my drooping shoulders and yet another massacre of the English Language was acted out in front of my palsied fingers as I fought the good fight for intelligibility by wealding my red pen with reckless contempt!



We live a life or irony. I have been smugly watching my colleagues over the past couple of days as they struggle to finish marking the vast paper waste of the mock examinations that we have been inflicting on the kids.

My portion of this examination jamboree was to mark the ‘Reading’ section which meant that I had to do the job that normally would have been done by an optical scanner. Nice to feel that the full extent of my professional experience is being utilized by my present school!

I regard such demeaning mechanical tasks as a challenge. I try and discover the most time and effort efficient way to get the bloody job done. I made myself a template and got down to the tedious task of getting the pages of little ticks and crosses out of the way. Working like a proverbial Trojan I got class after class out of the way and I soon had completed my section. I even helped a colleague with his marking.

Completed - as I thought.

Writing in the results on the school list I soon discovered that one whole section had managed to elude my dripping fountain pen. Today, after school, therefore I was stuck to the staff table frantically marking.

Marking, knowing that I had yet another class of papers to mark from an examination taken earlier in the day. There is another examination tomorrow and a further examination on Friday. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken!

The only thing keeping me going (apart from the insultingly low salary) is the fond hope that there will be a slackening in the teaching load when droves of our kids leave for the slopes.

Meanwhile I am packing an extra red pen for the struggle ahead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The merging days


Monday was not a good day for me. I have a succession of difficult classes which drain all reserves of energy that have been built up over the weekend.

My classes on each day are relentlessly the same: I have five classes to teach and, apart from a Thursday, I see them all every day. The only thing that differs is the configuration that the sequence of lessons takes.

Monday is not good.

I arrived home and after a little light, domestic shopping I thought I would have a little lie down.

Tuesday came as something of a shock as I had not set my mobile phone to get me up as Monday evening had blended into Tuesday as my recumbent form snored its way into to coma that I call sleep.

I was ‘late’ getting up; though that actually means that I was five minutes earlier getting up than the usual time that I rose at the same time last year. If you see what I mean.

Also, in spite of my tardy joining of the band of the damned, or morning workers as we are known, I seemed to be ready to leave the house at the same time as I normally do. There is something about the flexibility of time on a dark morning which I do not feel that Einstein covered adequately in either of his explanations of Relativity.

Marking and further examinations have now reached a sort of orgiastic frenzy with teachers meandering around the buildings like superannuated corybantic acolytes to the Dark God of the Multi-Choice Answser!

Tomorrow and tomorrow bring yet more marking as further examination papers are relentlessly issued to punch-drunk students.

The only bright spot is that we are approaching White Week. This is not some form of Roman religious mumbo-jumbo where those rather disturbing KKK-like figures wander round wreathed in incense and holding flaming black candles, but rather Ski Week.

Many of the families of our kids actually own places in the mountains near the ski runs so that they can pack the car and disappear for a jaunt to the slopes whenever they like. The tradition is, however, that the school organizes a week for the kids to go en mass to the hills.

Having inherited my grandmother’s fear of sliding, I regard skiing as little short of cold lunacy. I am however delighted that so many of our charges seem determined to court death and injury in the glistening slopes of enticing ice.

With an eagerness that is purely professional I am wondering about the composition of some of my classes. The equation is simple: students on the slopes = students not in classes.
I know that some teachers will accompany our students and that means that classes will be bereft of their normal staff. Our school does not consider that an extended absence known in advance means that they should consider getting a supply teacher to do the work of those colleagues who are not there. Why indeed should they when they can look around and see colleagues still in school?

I am putting my trust in those kids who are not going skiing (and there are some) berating their parents to take them on holiday somewhere else as their classmates will be having the time of their lives in hospitals around the skiing area.

I was not in this school at this time last year so this particular period of upheaval is terra incognita to me. But I foresee much of the “this is the time to Get Things Done” jolliness which will eat away at any spare time that we might reasonably expect.

I put my perennial (or should that be habitual) moroseness down to the unsettled weather we are having at the moment. We have had much more rain than we should have had and we have even had mosquitoes flying around in the house.

That, at least, is according to Toni who has a quite reasonable paranoia about the things as they make a bee-line (that can’t be the right word) for him and drink his Catalan blood while generally spurning my pure bred British vintage. This, as they say, is fine by me. But I do question the justice of having the bloody (accurate use of adjective) things flying around in January. Surely they all ought to be dead of the cold, or at least flying with a vitiated languor which should make them easy targets for the mammals on which they feed.

This weekend I shall start looking to replenish my stocks of electronic wizardry and chemical poison to deter these foreign females (only the females sting) from our humble abode.

Begone! I say.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"The Heart of Darkness" & "Hatteras"



Old habits die hard. And a literary puzzle still has the power to concentrate my thoughts.

Reading through some short stories by AEW Mason (author of The Four Feathers and Fire Over London) I came across “Hatteras” - its form and content immediately reminded me of “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad.

Both stories are ‘stories within stories’ and both are told on ships at a time when “the air had grown chilly with the dusk, and the sea when it lost the sun took on a leaden and a dreary look.” (Hatteras) Both stories are set in Africa and both concern themselves with ‘civilized’ men becoming too concerned with aspects of native life. Both have elements of horror and both have the character that has ‘gone native’ dying.

I do not pretend that the two stories are of equal interest. “The Heart of Darkness” (sic) was the title of the serialized version of the story when it was published in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine around March 1899 and as Conrad himself said, in what one biographer described as “one of the literary understatements of all time,” he felt that this story was similar to his “An Outpost of Youth” but was “a little wider” in its scope!

By contrast “Hatteras” by AEW Mason is much more limited. It was published in 1901 in a collection of short stories with the title of “Ensign Knightly” but I suspect, but do not know, that the story itself could have been published in magazine form before that. Black and White: A Weekly Illustrated Record and Review was a British illustrated weekly periodical established in 1891 was a magazine which published stories by AEW Mason and it could have appeared here or in one of the other literary magazines that flourished at the turn of the century.

“Hatteras” is not a common English name and in the 1890s it might have been linked in the literary mind with with Jules Verne who had published The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) an adventure novel in two parts: The English at the North Pole (Les Anglais au pôle nord) and The desert of ice (Le Désert de glace).



In Verne’s novel the story of an expedition to the North Pole ends when Captain Hatteras and his crew find a volcano with the exact location of the Pole being in the centre of the crater. Hatteras throws himself in and dies. In a rewrite of the original version Hatteras survives but is made permanently insane by the intensity of the experience and loses his “soul” inside the crater. He is brought back to England and walks the streets around the asylum where he is placed but "Captain Hatteras forever marches northward".

The novel was published for the first time in 1864. The definitive version from 1866 was included into Voyages Extraordinaires series (The Extraordinary Voyages). These were successful and widely known, so AEW Mason may well have had the name of this explorer who ‘lost his soul’ in mind when he came to write his own story of a man who felt drawn to the darker aspects of native life in Africa.

By the end of the 1890s Conrad was fully involved in the literary life of Britain and a number of prominent visitors came to his house in Pent: Edward Garnett, Ford Madox Hueffer, Glasworthy, HG Wells, William Rothenstein and Stephen Crane. Not to mention visits to Henry James in Rye. It would seem to be highly likely that Conrad would read all the latest literary effusions from his colleagues and competitors.

I can find, with my limited literary resources, no evidence to suggest that Conrad and Mason were acquainted with each other, though it is more than likely that they knew each other’s work. I wonder who read whose story first!


“Hatteras” will never be more than a literary curiosity, though it does try to bring horror to the situation where a classically educated young man is forced by circumstances to go to Africa and there becomes fascinated by the life of the natives in the dark forest. He blacks himself up and with his fluent command of the native languages is able to immerse himself in the darker aspects of the native life. Hatteras says "It's not only the things you care about, old man, which tug at you; it's the things you hate as well. I hate this country. I hate these miles and miles of mangroves, and yet I am fascinated. I can't get the forest and the undergrowth out of my mind. I dream of them at nights. I dream that I am sinking into that black oily batter of mud. Listen," and he suddenly broke off with his head stretched forwards. "Doesn't it sound wicked?"

Jim Walker the ‘decent’ Englishman is appalled by what he hears from Hatteras and urges him to find a wife to give himself stability. Although Hatteras takes his advice it does not stop his nocturnal excursions and he eventually confesses that "It's like going down to Hell and coming up again and wanting to go down again. Oh, you'd want to go down again. You'd find the whole earth pale. You'd count the days until you went down again. Do you remember Orpheus? I think he looked back not to see if Eurydice was coming after him but because he knew it was the last glimpse he would get of Hell."

Which is all good stuff; but it is far from the suggestiveness that you find in Conrad’s story. Mason is too literal and the horror of his narrative is always contained with the institutions of the white man. At the end of “Hatteras” there is a terribly English public school sort of execution: "Good bye, Jim," said Hatteras, and he climbed up the bank until he stood in the light of the lantern. Twice Walker raised the rifle to his shoulder, twice he lowered it. Then he remembered that Hatteras and he had been at school together.
"Good bye, Dicky," he cried, and fired. Hatteras tumbled down to the boat-side.”

There is a tidiness in “Hatteras” that is not present in “Heart of Darkness” which is why “Hatteras” remains a horrid story set in Africa while “Heart of Darkness” becomes more of an allegory which transcends its African setting.

I also cannot find any linking of these two stories, but I find it difficult to believe that no one else has seen the similarities and commented on them. The internet while offering much has been more frustrating than informative and the chaos of my books has meant my looking more and more like some crazed bibliophile as I flit from shelf to shelf trying to find something to help my discoveries.

I think that the most that “Hatteras” can prompt me to do is re-read “Heart of Darkness”.

Which is a good thing.

In spite of what Chinua Achebe said in his famous (or infamous) talk: "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” – though something to think about!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Real life?


Coincidence, in spite of its almost boring regularity, always catches us out. How many times do we find ourselves saying in a depreciatory sort of way, “You couldn’t put that in a novel!” at some piece of happenstance whose insignificance is only matched by the delight that it gives.

In my view coincidence is a reflection of observation: the more of which you take notice, the more you are likely to link – especially if your mind has been infected by the novels of people like Dickens and Smollett who had no restraint in making essential elements of the narrative entirely dependent on the most glaring coming together of unlikely events!

Going to work I listen to a Catalan classical music station and in the gloom of the early morning death defying joining of the motorway I was stimulated by hearing a piece of music which I hadn’t heard before. It sounded like a quasi-concerto for brass and the style of the music was clearly Romantic and Germanic, but I was still dithering about an attribution when the music ended and I managed to work out from the welter of Catalan that I had been listening to something by Schumann and set for four horns. It was the sort of music that you would like to hear again but you knew that you were not going to make that much of effort to find a disc.

Then my copy of the BBC Music Magazine arrived. I have taken this publication since it was launched and have greedily gobbled up the reviews that are included and sometimes even taken action and bought the discs that I thought looked interesting. The disc that comes with the magazine is worth the cost of the magazine alone so for me it is a win-win situation when the grey packaging is poking out of the post box.

This month (within a couple of days of my hearing the music) the disc has as the first tract “Konzertstück for Four Horns in F, OP 86” by Robert Schumann!

Also during this week I have been listening to a series of discs that had been given to me by one of Toni’s aunts. On one the unlikely coupling of Bartók and Beethoven had as its first work Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” – a piece I had heard before and wondered vaguely what the motivation behind the combination of instrumentation was. Sure enough, again a few days later in the same wonderful magazine there, in an article about “Classical Connections” was a piece on Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and linked to it a description of the “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste!”

Such things are not vital to the health of nations, but they sure as hell give me pleasure when they happen. You get a completely irrational feeling that the world is turning in the right direction and there is some degree of sense out there.

Which is not the case in school. No, I am not going to moan about the predilection for examinations and tests which our school has with a junkie’s obsession, but rather about the children we teach. Well, one of them. Actually his parents.

While sitting at lunch with colleague one, with scant regard for my appetite, threw into the conversation that one of our kids was going to have an eighteenth birthday party. For this obviously momentous occasion his parents had hired a disc jockey for the night at a cost of €40,000! This is just under the total cost of two teacher’s annual salaries. For someone who puts records on a turntable for part of a night. Sigh!

On a more domestic level I have read a book this morning. Just as I used to do on a Saturday morning when I was living in the flat in Torrington Crescent (which was neither a crescent nor in the West Country) and just before I ventured out into Town for lunch and a little light shopping.

The book I chose to read really chose itself and it is one of those volumes which seem to accumulate on the tops of other books which are regimented carefully on a shelf and are therefore obviously asking to be read. I have ignored it for a couple of weeks, but this morning I gave it and, with a cup of tea started to read.

I know that I have read it, but as I read it I found that I could remember remarkably little about it. It was “Putting the boot in” by Dan Kavanagh and is concerned with the life of (as the front of the book puts it) “sharp, savvy and cynical, bisexual private eye Duffy.”

It is a witty, incisive and compelling read. Duffy is an ex-policeman and amateur goalkeeper and the storyline uses his experience in both areas to sustain interest.

It was first published in 1985 and the fear of AIDS informs much of Duffy’s inner life. He is constantly checking for the tell-tale signs of infection and I saw that I had marked page 63 of my Penguin edition of the novel as containing something of interest. This turned out to be a reference to “Bela Kaposi and his travelling sarcoma. Certificate X.” This is part of Duff’s continuing fear as he constantly searches for evidence of the disease showing itself in “Little brown irregular blotches, that was what he had read. Duffy shuddered. It had a nasty name, too. Kaposi’s sarcoma. That didn’t sound like something you got better from. Who the hell was this Kaposi guy? He had a name like one of those Hollywood movie stars. Bela Kaposi.” Worth a read.

The saga of The Catalan Wine Tasting continues with the next suggested date thrown out to our little group. I await the response with some concern as we seem to be ploughing further and further into the year with the wine waiting enticingly to be opened!

One wine that was tried by us (poor use of passive there, but it is examination time and we love setting the passive for the kids) in Barcelona last Saturday in a Chinese restaurant was Libilis. I have signally failed to find another bottle but this afternoon when I was visiting the area where I knew a cheese store lurked I also had pointed out to be an excellent wine shop. On my asking for Libilis in Spanish I was instantly answered in flawless English that they didn’t have a bottle but he could suggest something similar.

I believed him because the shop was a positive treasure trove of thousands of bottles of different wines (or at least it seemed like that number to my delighted eyes) set out in a Tardis-like shop which seemed to stretch on to vinous Paradise!

This shop was Celler Vallés in Avda. De la Constitución here in Castelldefels. The bottle that I purchased was a White wine from D.O. Penedés by Gramona called Gessamí. The grapes are a mixture of Muscat de Alejandría and Sauvignon. This is not quite the same mixture as Libilis but I am prepared to give it a try. I am also prepared to go back to the shop as the English speaking person who served me certainly seemed to know what he was talking about.

I have made a late January resolution to note my reactions to each new bottle of wine that I have so that I have some sort of record of all the money that has passed through my system so to speak.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weary work and bountiful books




The mock examinations are barely finished (some still unmarked) and we are well into our next series of examinations. These are ones that we write ourselves and are therefore prone to small, yet significant mistakes.

The kids are hyper sensitive to anything included that they have not ‘studied.’ They may not know how to use the words that are legitimately on the exam paper but, by God, they recognize with no difficulty whatsoever anything extra to that which they know that they should have studied. I put the word ‘studied’ in inverted commas because their attitude to study is that they are prepared to set aside the night before the examination for that purpose: that night and no other!

Even the Sisyphean prospect of unending marking is not entirely suicide-inducing because the sun is shining in a flawless blue sky and you can kid yourself along that all is for the best in this best possible of all worlds – thank you Candide!

I am now in a position of sympathise with the difficulties of the Secretary General of UNO when he tries to set up a meeting with the disparate nations that comprise our very wonderful world community. The Catalan Wine Tasting is rapidly becoming an unwieldy organizational nightmare with it proving to be virtually impossible to get everyone together at the same time. Compromise is in the air!

This weekend is going to see me start on the mammoth task of at least attempting to do something visible in the shelving of my books. The third floor becomes more depressing each time I wend my sinuous way through the obstacle course which comprises boxes and other impedimenta which will have to be swept away or put in place.

Both alternatives seem equally bleak to me with the first necessitating a ruthlessness that I do not possess when it comes to printed material, while the second needs a degree of spatial organization which requires a placidity of mental outlook which a working teacher does not really gain until he is deep into the summer holiday.

And then, of course, there is the Tempting Snare. Whenever I deal with my books and pretend to have a rough professional approach I am constantly frustrated in my mechanistic approach to the ordering of them by their very existence.

I can remember when I got my books; which shop I bought them from; why I was in the mood to make such a purchase and when I did (or did not) read them. And that last bit does make sense: I can recall with bright clarity several occasions on which I made a definite decision not to read my copy of Don Quixote. I can sometimes remember how much I paid for them and what level of satisfaction I got from their acquisition.

A very small proportion were given or acquired in ways other than purchase. Some, it has to be said are lurking in my collection because of Indolent Theft. These are books which have washed up on the shores of my bookcases as the literary flotsam from various schools in the form of text books (!) and set texts and have settled comfortably into the dark niches of forgotten shelves crammed with those books whose purchase seemed like a good idea at the time and whose throwing away is of course unthinkable.

Some of the books are Old Friends and from their mere handling tendrils of reading desire seem to penetrate the hand and make it grasp the volume a little more firmly, while some nervous reaction prompts the other hand to reach over and begin to turn the pages. At this point addicts are lost and it is only aching legs that indicate to the dedicated reader that ‘book tidying’ stopped some time previously to be replaced by the much more satisfying ‘book reading’ which is why they are there in the first place.

I confidently expect to be delayed, hijacked, misled, delighted, mystified, involved and angered by what the books contain and what they are. Their physicality is both their strength and their almost impossible disadvantage: turning pages in reality can never be matched by their electronic substitute.

On my (new) e-book reader I brush my thumb along the bottom right hand foot of the ‘page’ to get to the next. This can never compete with the sheer delight of the touch of the middle finger or index finger on the fore edge of the book and the selection of the page by the inward hook of the digit, the gentle cupping of the hand to support the leaf and the leftward smooth of the page which is all part and parcel of ‘real’ turning over! Reading should be a sensual as well as an intellectual activity!

Which all explains why I do not expect to get much done!

The books win again!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

There is always something better to do


In one of the most extreme examples of displacement activity in recent months I have just cleaned the bathroom; put clothes on hangers and put books (quite randomly) in any available spaces.

All this rather than finish off an examination paper that I am supposed to be writing.

No pressure: has to be photocopied tomorrow afternoon to be given to the kids on Friday.

Then there is another examination on Monday and . . . well, you get the idea of what motivates our school.

All is not misery. Today for the first time for three days the sun came out! Driving home early (after only eight solid hours in school) I was gratified to see the torn brilliance of sunshine saturating the fragmenting cloud spread out over my destination. The sense of spaciousness that one gets after being incarcerated in an educational institution (even one with panoramic views over Barcelona from the right windows) is truly breathtaking.

The landscape was slightly hazy with a sort of purple and orange gauze draped artistically over the slightly domestic hills which surround the narrow coastal plain. Most satisfying even to the jaded sight of a taught-out worker!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rainy ruminations


On this cold, wet, dismal day I have to admit that making an effort and coming to school was not in my Top 50 Things To Do. In fact it wasn’t in my top 1000, but let it pass.

The sodden roads with patches of standing water did not, of course, deter motorists from travelling at their normal speeds and cyclists of the motoring kind from performing their death inviting manoeuvres on slippery roads. I have now got into the mode of thinking where the motorcyclists only excite my fear that they will cause accidents and make me late; I am long past worrying about their lives!

It is very difficult to believe that only one week of term has passed as it now seems that I have been here for most of my natural life. United Nations Day is much less than a year away (well, nine months and a bit) but October seems impossibly distant at the moment and I’m not sure at what point you are allowed to go ‘stir-crazy’ at the thought of escape.

I understand that I will have to inform the pensions people that I intend to retire otherwise they will assume that I am quite happy to go on in genteel poverty while gnashing my teeth. This is something else that I will have to find out about and it will give me an opportunity to enquire about something ‘real’!

Unfortunately the other ‘real’ element in the general thankfulness about this United Nations Day is working out just how much I will get and whether it is sufficient to continue my hedonistic (!) life style that the untold riches (!) that I get from teaching in my present job has made me accustomed to.

Looking back on the financial arrangements that have obtained in my past life I realise that wealth (relative) or poverty (real) have had no real effect on the way that I live my life. Long, as they say, might it continue!

The first lesson in school is now over and the complete lack of enthusiasm which characterised my lackadaisical steps towards the classroom has not noticeably improved. It is one of those grey Monday days when all you can see is an unbroken succession of teaching days stretching ahead into the distant future. And that means a week. I have no adequate word to describe the seemingly endless period of time which remains to me in the profession.

I will have to take the term nice thing by nice thing!

With any luck the next wine tasting will be at the end of this month in a fortnight. I shall look forward to gleaning information about the districts whose produce we are going to taste and reproducing them for the group of gourmets (!) who will be making sophisticated notes on what hits their palettes!

Next month Ceri and Dianne are arriving and, although I will be teaching, they will be here over a weekend so I will have an opportunity to see them for an extended period and get down to the serious business of chatting.

That should get me through to March when the weather starts improving and I can look forward to the Easter holidays.

And then it is only a hop skip and a jump to start thinking about the summer.

Well, it’s a strategy and I only hope it works!

Sunday, January 17, 2010



I am sure (but do not believe) that some people get real transcendental pleasure out of listening to rap music. Leaving aside the perhaps theological and logical implications of that statement I am continuing my exploration of the reading capabilities of my new Sony e-book reader and after a brisk cup of tea this morning, I settled down to read ‘Lucia in London’ by E F Benson.

Perhaps it is just racist, ageist, and something else-ist prejudice on my part but I cannot imagine many rap enthusiasts taking the same unalloyed pleasure in reading that novel as I got this earlier today. It is a continuing, guilty pleasure to read about the petty jealousies, rivalries, snobbishness and enthusiasms of the small group of privileged, moneyed middle class non entities that live their tiny lives in the backwater of Riseholme back in the early years of the twentieth century.

In ‘Queen Lucia’’ another of Benson’s novels that I read last week, Olga, a Diva opera singer says in sheer amazement about her interest in the life of Riseholme, “Oh it’s all so delicious! I never knew before how terribly interesting little things are. It’s all wildly exciting, and there are fifty things going on just as exciting. Is it all of you who take such a tremendous interest in them that makes them so absorbing, or is it that they are absorbing in themselves, and ordinary dull people, not Risenholmites, don’t see how exciting they are?”

Of course it is easy for Benson to introduce a character who stands outside the life of Riseholme and have her comment about what is happening on behalf of his incredulous readers; but it is notable that Olga herself, though able to evaluate the faults of the people there, is also totally drawn into the life of the place! Just, I would say, like the readers!

Not unlike ‘Madame Bovary’ there is no character in Benson’s Lucia novels that one can wholly admire, yet in spite of their glaring imperfections one is seduced by what Olga calls the “terribly interesting little things” which comprise the actions of those characters!

Self-indulgent? Possibly. Delightful? Certainly.

And not for rap artists.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Voyage of Discovery


No sooner had my passenger (a confirmed pedestrian) said, “You are sometimes lucky in this area” than I knew that we were doomed to that particular form of driving limbo where you creep along at a snail’s space past unending lines of parked cars like some form of perverted automotive car crawler looking for a quick fix from a shapely chassis.

Ten cars and two corners later I had resigned myself to an unconvincing curbing of my impatience and had settled for a slow tour for unlikely car-free space in the centre of Barcelona.

When a parking space is magically vacated just when you need it an overcrowded part of Barcelona you know that you are in for a good day.

Sometimes a simple walk along a few city streets can be an exploration and a revelation. I was lucky enough to wander through part of the old area of Barcelona in the company of a colleague who used to live in one of the streets who dropped little morsels of information into our peregrination which were a constant delight.

She also knew which of the stores and restaurants we passed to recommend to me as worthy of further attention when I had the time to explore.

A herb shop; a deep narrow store with an astonishing range of dried fruit and nuts; a coffee shop with an aroma you could almost touch; a tea shop with rows of numbered blue ceramic jars containing a bewildering range of teas; the first Basque tapas bar in Barcelona; a Cava bar which served wonderful anchovies; a wine bar near Santa Maria del Mar with a delicious cheese tapa and, the reason for our going into Barcelona, a remarkable wine shop.

This was to get the raw materials for the next wine tasting. The choice of wine is my responsibility this time, so I decided to have the theme of Catalan wines. One of my books has a page on the different wine regions of Catalonia and I thought it might be fun to have one bottle to taste from each of the regions.

We have ended up with 7 bottles of red and two of white with an extra bottle of special red. As the finest one is to be tasted last (in emulation of the story in the bible) it will be interesting to see if anyone notices!

The shop we went to, Vilaviniteca (
http://www.vilaviniteca.es/) is a remarkable looking place where two floors of walls are lined with interesting looking bottles with stairs giving access to a mezzanine so that the bottle you need can be brought to your attention. We were served by a most accommodating gentleman who guided (and I use that word in its very strongest sense!) our choice. We have ended up with a very interesting series of bottles not one of which have I ever seen before. It is going to be a taste discovery!

Having got our major purchases out of the way relatively quickly we re-visited the wine shop and asked if they could recommend a place for lunch.

We were directed to the Big Fish which turned out to serve Japanese food. The sushi we had was astonishingly well presented and I was particularly impressed with the raw salmon scraps twisted together into a most convincing rose shape nestling on a bed of white ‘straws’.

The food was light and excellent but what really impressed us was the wine. Which wasn’t Japanese. The wine was ‘Libalis’ – yet another wine of which I hadn’t heard and it was cold and delicious. The wine was blended from various grapes Moscatel de grano menudo (Apianae) 90%, Viura 5%, Malvasía 5%. It was a perfect summer wine, which was also perfect, as it happened, in January. We are now on the lookout for this bottle to start storing it and cooling it for the months of the holiday!

The fascination with Ronaldo continues with news programmes, sports programmes and every other type of programme vying with one another to find an excuse to show the latest pictures of this very expensive young footballer in his underpants. The Spanish television stations have no shame and dwell longingly on Ronaldo’s crotch. The ‘photographs’ have obviously been heavily Paint Shopped and the final results, especially one picture of him laying on his side, make him look like a gay fantasy from the pen of Tom of Finland! It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon showing two dogs having a conversation about a highly clipped poodle walking past, “He must be very sure of his masculinity!”

I have now had my new Sony e-reader for a few weeks and, while I do like the touch screen capabilities of it I have to conclude, regretfully, that it is a much weaker product that its non-touch screen ancestor.

The cost of the touch screen is that the screen is much more reflective and the brightness of the page is much diminished. Reading in anything but good, bright light is not the same as reading a page of a book. I will continue using it and see what my reactions are after a month or so.

Meanwhile the examination system has probably thrown up yet another set of papers for me to mark, but I made sure that I saw no one before I left for the weekend.

Sufficient unto Monday is the evil thereof.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tick! Cross!



The head of English in our school was in full ‘Command Mode’ this morning to mark the beginning of examination hysteria. What was happening in our school was a grotesque parody of that section of the New Testament which talks about a decree going out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be, well, in this case ‘examined!’

With the exception of the first years, every other class I teach is sitting a mock examination which will be closely followed by the normal periodic tests that the hapless pupils are given on an appallingly regular basis. It is hardly surprising that our kids always ask whether it ‘has a mark’ whenever they are given a piece of work to do. For them, if it can’t be tested and given a mark it doesn’t exist!

I have marked today as if the examiners from Cambridge itself were panting at my elbow. On my part this is most assuredly not out of any enthusiasm or concern, but because I know that unless I make an effort at once I will inevitably descend into a slough of despond at the marking lurking somewhat waiting to make my life a misery. The only down side of getting rid of marking from examination as if ‘twere a rabid dog is that it does open you up to the possibility of having to give a hand to others who do not have the same hatred of marking and are therefore, paradoxically, more dilatory about the whole process.

So much was packed into this day that I have not had enough spare time to be suitably furious about the taking of my free period to cover an absence known in advance. To make matters worse it was an IT lesson in the computer room and the pupils were unable to access the work because we didn’t have the password to allow the kids to get to their sections of the hard disc where their files were stored.

It would be a lie to say that this increased my anger as I had never seriously imagined that realistic work had been set for an IT lesson – at least not work that could be monitored or taught by those who were not IT teachers.

I encouraged the kids to ‘get on with something using the internet.’ God alone knows what eleven and twelve year olds look at when given a free hand. I must admit that I relied on our school software to limit their access to any truly pernicious parts of the World Wide Web and I made the executive decision not to go among them and check what they were doing.

It was enough for me that they were relatively quiet and allowed me to get on with my manic marking. A true abnegation of professional responsibility – which of course could be said of an institution which expects its teachers to cover for a three day absence of a couple of colleagues whose absence on a course has been known in advance. Ahem!

Having stayed in school at the end of the day to finish off all marking which could possibly be laid at my pen I drove home with a more than usually self satisfied sense of selfless devotion than usual.

My way back on the motorway is almost due west and I see some truly spectacular sunsets before I get home. Today the skies were littered with fragments of cloud at various levels. The sky looked as though it has been hastily thrown together by an enthusiastic amateur trying out various cloud effects, but forgetting to paint over the bits that didn’t really fit.

The overall effect was one of grandiose casual chaos. And in spite of its ‘un-artistic’ lack of organization and harmony, meltingly beautiful. I probably would have rejected a painting of the sky as unrealistic and slipshod, but when it is all around you its mere existence seems to set its own rules of appreciation!

And we had salmon for lunch!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's here, it's there, it's . . .




A bad case of “Centre Point Syndrome” hit me today almost immediately after school this afternoon.

The name of this particular syndrome is taken from the tall and iconic building situated on the Tottenham Court Road in London. It’s height is such that it can be seen from a number of vantage points as your drive towards it but, if you head for it using logic and reason sort then you will find yourself becoming more and more frustrated as any direct approach to this monolith is thwarted by dead ends, closed roads, one way streets and restricted turns. So near and yet impossible to reach.

My object today was the Hesperia Tower in Hospitalet to get a disc drive from the miniscule machine on which I am writing these words.

Having negotiated the motorway writhings which branch off the road I usually take home I soon found myself driving serenely past my destination on the wrong side of a six or seven lane motorway. Nothing fazed I drove on to a familiar exit (to IKEA) and using a frightening roundabout I was able to gain access to an ordinary side road which ran parallel to the motorway and in the direction of the shop.

I drove steadily towards the distinctive building, marvelling yet again at the flying saucer like construction which graced its summit. Then the road curved away from the shop and disclosed the barrier of a railway line.

Following the railway line I found myself on a sort of dual carriageway which was punctuated at irritatingly frequent intervals by sets of traffic lights.

In this sort of urban situation the Spanish put up traffic lights very much in the same way that entomologists set nets under trees in the Amazonian rain forest. As far as I can tell the only function of the lights is to see what sort of motorists they can catch. The lights go red. Everything stops. Nothing. Nothing moves. Nothing.

The light turn green. We all move forward to the next, clearly visible set of red lights, and we all stop again.

I only screamed once and got a rather started reaction from a woman wheeling a baby. Thank god the lights changed and I was able to make a quick getaway from her quizzical expression!

At least I got what I wanted – even if I did managed to leave my wallet in the car and had to retrieve it before I could pay for my purchase.

Now the long and inexplicable process of installing my new toy takes place with successive screens of questions to which I have no reasonable answers except to press the ‘next’ key and hope for the best!

Tomorrow I lose a free period because of the notorious ‘absence known in advance’ of two colleagues now in London. No attempt whatsoever has been made to find substitutes for these teachers; it is simply accepted that other colleagues will cover. Astonishing!

Some of colleagues have voiced the opinion that a union would be “a good idea” but no one seems keen to take up the post of Union Representative and someone said to me that, “You can’t do it. You wouldn’t be here next year!” How unlike the home life of our own dear NUT!

Although I am a member of a union, conversation about such things, although not banned is certainly frowned upon. The logic is that “nothing will be done so there is no point in doing anything.” 19% unemployed also concentrates and contracts the mind!

In spite of everything, as someone remarked today, Wednesday is the ‘hump’ of the week and once it is over then there is a decline to the weekend.

Roll on!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prognostications


An infallible indication of being involved in a new school term is when a spectacular sunrise is merely taken as the prelude to a new day of unrewarding teaching rather than being taken as a magnificent affirmation of the majesty of god. Or something.

I even found myself muttering part of the ‘red sky’ weather lore and gloomily assuming that the day was going to degenerate into the sullen overcast stance taken by weather from my own country. Especially at the start of a term!

But, begone harsh thoughts! Last night saw two positive elements my the future life in Catalonia: the Tesco phones were made to work by Toni’s technical skill at changing the BT dedicated lead into something more Europe-friendly and I recorded my first telephone answering message in Spanish.

This was not a painless process as my pronunciation was dismissed with a pre-emptory “No!” on an embarrassing number of occasions and I am sure that the present message has only been allowed to stand because it gave Toni some sort of malicious pleasure to think of my British friends and acquaintances listening in mute horror to my semi literate efforts. My message is now in two languages and is short and to the point. No longer the individual and ironic delivery but basic and ordinary. Though I am sure that my impeccable accent will startle the native Spanish speakers too!

The setting up of the phone managed to get me out of my end of first day lethargy and, indeed, the house. Having to go to an electrical shop and ask not only for the small telephone plug but also for the machine to fix the wires into it was something of a triumph at my level of linguistic incompetence, but having the actual lead in my hands allowed a certain gestural fluency to aid my attempts!

There should be a word for the bone-deep tiredness which comes after the first day of teaching in a new term. It is that particular level of despair mixed with the realization that there is a whole term ahead – in Spain unmitigated by the hope of a half-term holiday. We are here for the long slog to Easter. I suppose it will give us a very real appreciation of the suffering necessary in a guilt ridden Catholic country to appreciate The Passion!

The timetable for the exams before the exams has been drawn up and we are all proceeding in a state of ill concealed hysteria – and it is only the second day back!

People are already talking about the holidays for next year in February 2011 when it has been proposed and supinely accepted by the spineless unions that a week be gifted to us in February which will be gathered up in the first week of July. Sounds like an altogether bad plan – though from a purely selfish point of view I could see how it could benefit me, were I to soldier on to the end of next year.

As I am feeling at the moment there is as much likelihood of that happening as staging an “All Is Forgiven Party” for That Woman rather than burning the long treasured candle I have of her when she finally loosens her claw-like grip on life.

At the moment living is Spain is very expensive, especially with the pound in its present etiolated condition, and our present habitation is well beyond our reasonable means. With 19% unemployed in this country the situation is unlikely to get substantially better, though you would have thought that the poor rich would be begging homeless people like myself to come in live in their palatial spreads for very little money. Such, sadly, appears not to be the case.

Still, with a newly working telephone and tottering piles of unsorted books who can be unsatisfied.

Rhetorical.

Monday, January 11, 2010

For ever new, for ever old.


The inexorable horror of the cold realization that another term has started has its basis in the Pathetic Fallacy in our staff room where the heating has make no appreciable dent in the tomb like quality of the room.

I passed a girl student on the stairs who, crouched in the semi gloom of a dull morning whimpered, “Stephen, I want to sleep!” This at least gave me the opportunity to snap back, “There will be none of that until Easter!” Start, I always say, as you mean (and that is such an appropriate word) to go on!

In Spanish schools there is the additional terror that there is no half term, so the next holiday is Easter. In the depths of January (which officially start on the first of the month) desolate despair is the only phrase which can descry be the relentless vista of teaching which seems to stretch into futurity. Thank god for weekends!

Now the first lesson is over and, as a visible and tangible sign of my bitterness of being returned unto the fray, I made the class learn the passive tense and do exercises. This was a risky strategy as there are some forms of active sentences which only take the passive with that form of extreme effort that I am rarely encouraged to make in the boggy field of grammar!
I now have a free period in which to have a weak cup of tea and strengthen myself for the solid slog of the rest of the day in which I see all of my other classes. O joy!

The lunch provided by the school was less than enticing and my classes in the afternoon were bloody. Nothing changes!

The examination system which is a Cruel God in our school is about to start waving its many arms seeking victims Kali-like to fill its insatiable maw with the innocents who have to sit the evil things and the PBI teachers who have to mark the damned scripts. Our season commences at the end of this week and then staggers its bloody way through the rest of the year like a demented paper juggernaut.

I prefer to rest my tattered self esteem on a project more tractable than educating over-privileged pupils – I therefore begun to plan strategies for getting my books into something approaching order.

As anyone who has had too many book to fit on available shelf space will know, the desire to get the books in century, theme, subject, height or whatever system is satisfactory for the book owner is a continuing urge. Which is usually frustrated by purely practical problems. To sort books you need space and when space is something which you have not got then the urge to sort remains at the irritating level rather than the practical.

What I intend to do (ah! fond hope!) is to map my books so that I know book case by bookcase what is where – and how many centimetres there are of what there is. Then I can try and ‘bring it all together’. I have made a partial start and the centuries jostle each other on confused shelves. I’m not sure that I’m getting very far very quickly but it’s fun and I’m finding a whole slew of interesting volumes!

Meanwhile tomorrow beckons!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Old Order changeth . . .



My last lie-in on my last day of freedom is over and I am sitting in the sunshine watching my cup of tea go cold.

Usually I could fortify myself with comparing my situation with that of my colleagues in Britain. Certainly the temperature here in Castelldefels is nothing like the grotesque temperatures recorded in certain parts of the United Kingdom, but those odd bitterly cold temperatures have ironically turned my extended holiday to ashes. What is the point of having an extra long holiday if it is to be matched by my British colleagues through school closure!

I must admit that it was good that both my hosts were there for all of my stay, but that pleasure is also tinged with resentment at their escaping the full horrors of the start of term. It even looks as if this ‘holiday’ will continue into next week with ice and snow flurries ensuring that safe schooling is (allegedly) impossible. It will be interesting to see if the Local Authorities try and find some way to claw back what they have lost: I foresee gigantic rows ahead and I am sure that the unions are girding themselves up for the future frays.

I do have some marking to do, though I find myself disinclined to do it as I am surrounded by a multitude of displacement activities ranging from mopping the floors (only joking!) to reading and relishing a fresh page in my new visual dictionary. Anyway, I have to prepare myself for the excitement of a late lunch.

This will take place in a house outside Sitges and is yet another meeting about the foundation of a new school in the area.

Ever since I arrived in Catalonia and had the educative misfortune to teach in The School That Sacked Me I have been a party to various schemes to establish a school in which something approaching real education can take place. People have come and gone (mostly gone) but the idea remains either a strongly burning light in the Stygian gloom of teaching through English in the Sitges area or as a dangerous Chimera. I have yet to decide which is the more apposite image!

I am looking forward to this meeting because I will get an opportunity to meet the architect and also get to hear about the latest governmental communications which really do make what we are up to now something with at least fragments of substance.

The most frustrating element in our struggle is that there is an obvious and growing need for the sort of school that we propose to establish. All we have to do is get the money. And the use of the word ‘all’ in the previous sentence may well be the most ironic use of that particular word in 2010!

2010 is, of course, an iconic year for me and a phone call from Paul Squared yesterday was encouraging about my party for United Nations Day. At the moment October seems an impossibly distant month, but I know that if anyone is planning to come over from Blighty for the event then they have to be quick off the mark when the autumn fares on easyJet are published. I can sense that this distant jollification will be something towards which I look with increasing hysteria the more the school year creaks its way onwards towards the Happy Hiatus of the two month summer break.

With sunlight streaming through the windows of the living room the temperature is gradually rising (even without the central heating on) to an acceptable level – though my ankles still feel cold. The hire car that I had when I went over to Wales was so basic that it had neither central locking nor a temperature gauge. I found it easy to slip back into the door locking habit, which after all accounts for most of my driving experience, but not having a temperature gauge was something which was a constant irritation. I realized by its absence how often I note the number of degrees. I think it has something to do with the fact that I listen to Radio 4 on my internet radio in the kitchen and so I always have a point of comparison when I get into the car to go to work. It means that every day I have a little reminder of why I am in Castelldefels and not Cardiff – at least in terms of temperature!

I am still picking over the memories of my visit to Cardiff. I packed a lot into my time there and so much of what I did was bitter-sweet. I now find myself repeating what I have said so often to people in Britain “I’m only a couple of hours away!” as the sense of loss struck me more forcibly this visit than at any time in the past. Something which I am sure will be the basis for a great deal of musing in the future!

Meanwhile I have had to change position on the sofa as the sun was too strong! I shall now have to go out for bread and I will find exactly how much difference there is between sun through a window pane and sun in a ‘bracing’ environment in the great outside.

And the displacement activity on which I have decided rather than mark is: dusting! You can see the level of desperation!

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A little bit of Britain?




Although damp and miserable, the weather was not of major importance. Unless you were inland and up a bit.

Yesterday I sheltered a waif from the storm; or rather the steep, slippery, snow covered slopes which a friend would have to negotiate if she was to get home to her house in the mountains. Catalonia is a hilly area and the coastal plain only really exists if you are within spitting distance of the sea. As soon as you have completed a short walk inwards you will find yourself going inexorably upwards.

So, no going home for my friend and a rapid checking that the bed in the spare bedroom was constructed and had clean linen on it.

When she arrived we settled down to the civilized thing of life: conversation, red wine and a selection of cheeses. Civilization did not extend as far as providing a warm environment. Personally I trust that my welcome was as warm as would be expected, but the temperature was certainly a little on the low side.

Our house does have central heating powered by a gas boiler that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.

It does heat the hopelessly inadequate radiators, or at least most of them and it provides the impetus to a fascinating sound track for the heating process as the radiators emit dripping, gurgling and churning noises. The boiler is a ‘combi’ and therefore provides us with hot water: but not upstairs in the bathroom when the central heating is on. If you persist in expecting warm water to come out of a tap then the whole system shuts itself down in disgust. This, surely, is not right.

In the kitchen sink, next to the boiler as it happens, you sometimes get hot water when the central heating system is operational but not on any reliable basis. Obviously a call to the agency is in order and I think Toni can do that as my Castilliano will glide gently into the panic zone when I think of the vocabulary that I will need to explain things.

This brings me to one of my forbidden purchases: a Spanish dictionary. Now I buy Spanish dictionaries in much the same way that so-called uncivilized tribes use sympathetic magic. My reasoning is that the more dictionaries I buy the more likely I am to gain a knowledge of the language. To many that will not seem like sympathetic magic but more like pure logic. But you see, I buy the books but rarely open them. For me the mere buying of the dictionary is the learning act. So far this has not worked. I do not however blame myself for this lack of progress; I blame the books. The dictionaries that I have previously bought (and I have bought many) are obviously not the ‘right’ dictionaries for me.

My latest purchase (from W H Smith’s in Bristol Airport) is a fairly small paperback Spanish/English Visual Dictionary. The key element in the purchase is the publisher: Dorling Kindersley. Any bibliophile will tell you that DK as a publisher guarantees top quality illustration – and this book is no exception. Each page has a selection of well chosen illustrations linked together by theme or place or situation. And I have learned new things, for example I now know that ‘el retrato robot’ is the Spanish for photofit. And were that not enough, on the same page I now know that ‘criminal record’ is translated by the wonderfully vowel heavy ‘los antecedentes.’ It is a truly beautiful book (ISBN 978-1-4053-1106-9) with some pages having an understated elegance which is breathtaking. Or perhaps it’s just me!

I have just looked up central heating (not there) and boiler (there, page 61) and discovered an elegant cut-away drawing of a boiler comprehensively labelled, but it is not enough to encourage me to phone and explain!

The new school term is looming and I fear that the welcome blanket of snow which has closed schools up and down the United Kingdom is unlikely to extend my holiday in Barcelona.

Justice! Justice and my bond!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Thoughts abroad


Reading E F Benson’s preciously oblique prose in the plane prepares one for what is for me (for everyone?) a life involved in irony.

I leave sunny Bristol and emerge from Barcelona airport to lashing rain; my first meal in Castelldefels is, of course, Japanese; magpies seem drawn to the house; this Friday is obviously a Sunday; there are more green plastic bits from the artificial Christmas tree lying on the floor than when I cleaned and hovered thoroughly after putting the damn thing away before I went to Britain. And so on.

I thoroughly enjoyed my return to Britain: friends, family, shops, drink, Television, Radio 4 (at the right time!), snow, driving on the proper side of the road, Tesco’s, Indian food, English spoken everywhere, newspapers, friends again, soft water you can drink from the tap and real money.

Although I don’t actually wear them myself, I can appreciate the apposite nature of the image of a glove to express familiarity. There are some situations and places where they are simply right and accustomed. For the first time it made Catalonia seem almost ‘foreign’ and distant. My old life wrapped around me and obstructed my view! The very weather seemed to be conspiring to keep me in Wales as the snow fell and the life of the country ground to the usual halt in the typical way that we respond to weather conditions which are described in the never-to-be-forgotten and constantly used phrase of British Rail: “wrong sort”. It was first used (notoriously) to explain the failure of the rail system to cope when the “wrong sort of leaves” fell on the line. The adjectival phrase has now been used to describe virtually every type of natural form of material caught in the forces of gravity and which has descended on road, rail, sea and air routes.

Everything coalesced to distort my sense of where, what and who I was. It was as if I had stepped out of normality into reality and that a return to Spain would be truly odd. Which is where I suppose the irony comes in? No sooner had I had a conversation with the taxi driver taking me back to Castelldefels about the unseasonal ‘British’ rain than I felt that what I had just left in Wales was “another country” where they “do things differently”.

Which is another way of saying that I am glad to be back?

But that I recognize that there is a certain something which is only available when I am there in Wales – just as my life here in Catalonia is also distinct. I may be the common factor, but the experience of living my life is certainly not the same in both countries.

Of course they are different countries, Catalonia and Wales – but my responses are both more obvious and more subtle than can be explained by the glaringly geographically different. Perhaps I should, as if often do, go to the words of Milton and (taken out of context as they often are) say to myself, “Not equal they, as they not equal seemed” and enjoy the difference.

School on Monday.

Sigh!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

O that this cold, cold would . . .



I’m looking out on a vista of snow covered roofs and watching the rifts in the cloud cover and trying to decide if the gleams of colour are light puce or slate grey or even a subdued rosy gleam. My reliance on ancient weather superstitions is because my flight back to Barcelona is at 10.30 tomorrow morning and Bristol airport has been closed for most of the day.

The easyJet website is extraordinarily unhelpful in giving any useful information about whether or not a plane might be on stand midmorning for the Catalan bound passengers to embark.

I will delay panic until much later tonight (and possibly very early tomorrow morning) or simply resign myself to a wasted day of airport waiting before I regain the house.

Apart from failing to get the key stage 3 and 4 text books in geography and history for a colleague in school I have done virtually everything that I set out to do on this holiday. With the exception of Aunt Bet (who is marooned with daughter in the wilds of deepest darkest England in the cosy comfort of a remote house) most relatives have been visited.

From the self-indulgent buying of a new telephone for the house to having a most satisfying Indian meal all the odd little tasks that I set myself have been (mostly) completed. Clothes have been swept into my case from various shops which purport to have prices which cannot be beaten. The armoury of my case has been augmented by the purchase of various knives to replace the misused vegetable knife of the splayed serrations. I have even emulated the behaviour of J R Hartley in the advertisement where he earnestly enquires after a copy of a book on fly fishing. Not that I have developed an interest in things Piscean, rather have I stooped to purchasing my own monograph on Dylan Thomas during our visit to the WJEC this wintry morning!

The real question which faces me now is about the weight of stuff that I am taking back to Spain. The Pauls have recently been given a handy luggage-weigher which I have already pressed into service so that I do not lurch into the murky financial depths of ‘extra baggage’ charges in easyJet‘s tight fisted attempts to squeeze every last penny from hapless travellers.

While I gnaw my fingernails to the quick I can look back on a most satisfying trip to the UK where even the weather has done its best to keep me amused.

Cardiff’s transformation has been extraordinary. The centre of the city, especially in The Hayes is almost unrecognizable. I particularly like the fact that the new, new library (the second adjective refers to the fact that the city actually built a new temporary building to house the library while the peregrinating books were forced from pillar to post by the exigencies of allowing the complete commercial exploitation of valuable real estate in the centre of the city) dominates the pedestrian area in The Hayes and terminates the view down from the Old Central Library. For a bibliophile like me the primary of the building of the book in the jostling demands for attention from seductive shop windows is a positive delight!

At long last Cardiff now has the largest John Lewis Partnership outside London as well as a wealth of other shops in the extended Shopping Mall which links Queen Street with the start of Bute Street. Although the extension of shopping opportunities at first sight appears bewildering I do not think it would take me longer than a couple more visits before I had orientated myself and sorted out ‘my’ shopping centre. I do follow my mother in being able to assimilate shops with remarkable ease!

Now that Christmas decorations have come down I am more nearly in Old Haunts as far as my accommodation is concerned. ‘My’ chair, over which I have slung my leg in a long accustomed slouch; the people; the sights are all familiar – and Catalonia seems a long way away!

My flight is no more than sixteen hours away but neither the web site of Bristol Airport nor the site of easyJet have deigned to give any indication about whether the flight that I propose to take is likely to take off either at the state time or with the passengers that planned to fly in it.

I will now go to pack (and more importantly weigh) my case, with no lively expectation that I will be stepping into Barcelona Airport at something approaching lunch time tomorrow.

Have faith!