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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Everyone has his price


Everyone can be bought. The price may be money, power, sex, promotion or the right sort of chocolate.

I have found out that my price is a fairly cheap bottle of Cava.

When school finished I left at once and miss out on the lunch that was provided. I would rather eat at home than in school and so went for chicken from the better of the two roast chicken places near us.

I was the only person there and the jolly guy serving engaged me in conversation. When I told him that I had just finished work he opened a bottle of beer and poured me a glass, inviting the person working behind the scenes to join us too. When I said it was also the first day of the holidays he brought out a bottle of Cava from the fridge and plonked it on the counter and urged me to drink it to celebrate such an auspicious day!

I must admit that such a generous impulse has bound me to this particular restaurant for the rest of my life: not only a glass or beer but also a cold bottle of Cava. I am well and truly bought.

There was a different quality to the lying out in the sun this afternoon knowing that I didn’t have to go to school the following day – even for a half day!

I intend to enjoy the next two months!

And tomorrow I will start to construct my “To Do” list.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The games go on!


Thank god that Spain has reached the next round of the bloody World Cup. I am all for domestic calm!

The penultimate day (or half day) in school. A strange sort of day which was more for class teachers than we mere foot soldiers. I tried to look busy and keep out of most people’s way. I even, at times of great stress and public view actually did some work.

I get progressively more worried by the pregnancies in our school. Both ladies are class teachers and will need to be replaced and I am determined that it will not be me. In our school, and quite rightly, class teachers (form teachers) are paid more. The extra money, which worked out at a miserable daily rate, in no way compensates for the convulsive neediness of our pupils and I have no intention whatsoever of joining the damned tribe of hollow eyed class teachers as they traipse once more to listen to the whining of yet another pupil knocking on the staff room door!

Talking of not doing more than I have to for the derisory sums that we are paid; I had an acknowledgement email to my completed and submitted pensions form – roll on October!

Another glorious day with the temperature in the car when I came home at 2.00 pm standing at 47°C! By the time I arrived home it was at a more manageable 35°C and just the temperature to go out to lunch again and sit outside on the balcony of the Maritime Restaurant overlooking the beach and the sea.

The menu del dia was an astonishingly good value feed with fideos to start and then a herby pig’s cheek to follow and all ended by crema catalana and iced coffee. Delicious and for under a tenner!

The traditional rest period of horizontal sun gazing was only interrupted by my reading another Pullman novel in the Sally Lockheart series.

“The Tiger in the Well” is set in 1881and has all the positive qualities of “The Ruby in the Smoke” which was the first of the novels in this series that I read.

Pullman uses the historic period deftly and provides a fast paced narrative with genuine excitement and unusual exotic elements. It is imbued with a certain didactic quality in its presentation of socialism and capitalism which reminded me of Dickens in its intensity and its plea for social justice. It is remarkable that many of the Victorian abuses: inequality of wealth; sweatshops; treatment of Jews; pogroms; mistreatment of immigrants; demagogy and the denouncing immigration and proclaiming the purity of the race, the problem of a possible Israel; corruption; inequality under the law and ethical investment – are all relevant today. As I am sure that Pullman intended.

This is a very eventful book with every use made of the historical setting. There is a “picturesque” villain, though you have to read the book to find out just how apposite this word is, and a truly feisty heroine. Yes some parts of the novel are laboured, for example the identity of the villain and sometimes the political message is a little too much up front, but this is an exciting book which should work well with any group of young responsive readers.

Tomorrow the last half day.

No comment needed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Now we see through a glass darkly


Habitual glasses wearers are always surprised at the comments from non-glasses wearers who ask with pained interest how the glasses wearers can possibly see through the filth encrusted roundels of glass through which they are peering.

It is true that sometimes I have been shocked at the range and extent of detritus which has coated some lenses that I have used to aid my sight and once noticed the grime becomes impossible to ignore. But, it is only when some casual reflex action prompts an absent minded wipe that the archaeological layers of past civilizations in dirt on the glass become apparent.

I mention this because I have been swimming. As a purely quotidian hygienic procedure, rather like putting chlorine in the swimming pool, I washed the goggles that I use in Fairy liquid and placed them ready for their next use.

When I entered the pool this afternoon and put the goggles on I was shocked at the clarity of the water in the pool and the fact that trees have leaves on every branch. As the lenses are tinted a sinister yellow I had assumed that the murky world of the pool was a function of the colour of the lenses. It was like being in a Wilfred Owen poem during a gas attack. And then, with a little detergent a whole new world is revealed!

Like every glasses wearer that I know I have now decided to clean my glasses regularly. And like every glasses wearer I know I will not do it. Some lessons are never learned.

Incidentally, how do occasional glasses wearers behave? This is summer and an inordinate number of people suddenly sport astonishingly vulgar examples of designer emblazoned eye protection – sometimes wearing them everywhere but in front of their eyes – and only for a matter of months. Do they clean them or do they develop with instant facility the same resistance to clear vision as their more experienced practioners tolerate.

But today is momentous: I have filled out the form on line for the claiming of my pension. It is wonderfully liberating to think that in a few months time I will be entitled to spend some of the vast sums that I have been paying into the funds of the state for the last thirty years!


There is a strange sense of fin de siècle in the staffrooms at the moment. Some work is being done which has to be completed before the end of the term on Wednesday but there is also a sense of un-direction as people get on with what they think is important. After the fractured week that we have had, it was a real effort to come into work today!

I actually mitched off early today as I had to pay my taxes. Everyone else I know has a tax rebate at the end of the financial year, but not me, I had to pay. And of course banks are not open at reasonable hours and so I had to slope off and I got to the bank with literally a couple of minutes to spare before they closed.

I am now a full paid up member of Catalan society with the tax office recognizing me and my address and taking my money. I have arrived!

Courses for next year are being decided and I have been given the opportunity to teach Modern Art – officially, rather than sneaking it into the curriculum on the understanding that English encompasses everything! This will be a course which will have to be taught three times during the year as the groups change at the end of each term. At two hours a week I can work out exactly how much time can be spent on each art work or each movement.

What larks!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Match Made in Africa


I think that I made a wise choice when I decided to lie prone on my sun bed listening to the songs of Tom Lehrer rather than watch the English team be sent packing. Again.

I am however watching an appallingly refereed match where Mexico had a clearly (even I could see that!) off-side goal against them allowed by a linesman who obviously knows just a little less of the rule book than I do!

The clearly idiotic Capo (I use the word advisedly) of FIFA has made some sort of fatuous comment that the mistakes in refereeing add to the excitement of the game. I understand that this gentleman is French. A member of the nation whose national team has returned in disgrace to its home country and where a member of the team has been summoned to the presence of the diminutive president to explain himself. And I think that is sufficient xenophobia for the moment!

The best thing about the World Cup, as far as I can see is that there are now fewer teams in the competition after the group stage and there is only one game that the remaining teams play as they progress to the next round. The fewer the games the sooner it will all be over thank god.

I also fail to see that the travesties of sportsmanship that we see in every game and the blatant national hatreds that are demonstrated with startling clarity do anything to foster international understanding or anything positive at all – except to demonstrate the clear fact that there are some grossly overpaid under-performers in this world!

And I wonder if their wages are going to be reduced by 5% like government paid teachers in Spain! Thinking about it that is a poor analogy as teachers have done nothing to create the circumstances in which their wages might be reduced and there is no question about their ability to do their jobs – they are paying for other people’s mistakes. Whereas the England team, however, etc etc etc.

Listening to Tom Lehrer (a consummate professional) while ignoring the woeful performance of England (add your own adjective before the word “professional”) was a delight. Only he would have the linguistic temerity to rhyme “try to hide” with “cyanide” in the wonderful song of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. As he is still alive I have considered writing to him and asking him to pen a ditty along the same lines but this time taking dogs as the subject matter.

It really does seem like an unwritten law that each house and flat should have its own wolf-descended yelping travesty to lessen the peace in the world.

The amount of dog filth on the pavements is ludicrous and it looks as though there is some sort of coprophiliac turd fairy who trips along Catalan streets distributing disgusting canine deposits as she goes! The chances of an owner being fined as, to put it mildly, remote so they don’t need to worry too much about their pampered pets fouling the pavements.

Tomorrow I am supposed to be having some sort of meeting to work out what I am going to be teaching next year: this should be interesting as, in one or two areas that I am going to teaching I have been told that I can do what I like. Within certain limits. Perhaps I will find out what those limits are tomorrow.

Always something new.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Raise the rays!


Sun bathing ought to be so last century: we know that it is linked to skin cancer and to disreputable medallion wearing criminals in the more luxurious parts of southern Spain – but I am hooked on our nearest star.

My aim of course (ignoring the Shakespearean predilection for white skin as a sign that the person does not do outside labouring work) is for the perfect tan. A recent visitor to our swimming pool divested himself of his upper garments and revealed a torso of the sort of flawless even brown that is my goal. I hated him at first sight and then, as if to show that my opprobrium was justified he took out a cigarette showing himself to be lewd fellow of a baser sort.

My skin has its own progression through the spectrum when exposed to the sun and, in spite of my best efforts and the lavish application of salves and unguents the best I can do is a sort of rugged russet: the creamy khaki eludes me!

I do not, however, intend to give up trying and with the aid of a new transparent spray from good old Lidl. I may not be brown but I do gleam!

My total domination of the Third Floor is now being threatened by other sun-worshippers, but I utilize the office swivel chair using its lowest back declination to produce a sort of dentist’s chair effect. As the back is a sort of mesh it might almost be purpose made for the sun as it allows the back to breathe – if that actually means anything!

Lazing about on the Third Floor has the advantage over the beach that I have easy access to all my gadgets. Including my iPod.

Why is it that listening to Tchaikovsky is almost like a guilty pleasure? I remember buying a (bargain) boxed set of all of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and orchestral suites when I was in university to the general contempt of my musical friends. Didn’t stop me of course, and it was a revelation listening to the ones which were not as famous as the later ones.

It was the second symphony that I listened to on my iPod and, although I have not listened to it for some time, it is not the sort of music that you ever forget.

It is also dangerous music. As the narrative of the music developed and as my hands become more and more expressive as if an orchestra were in front of me, the illusion that I could conduct a real performance of the symphony became almost an accepted fact in my mind. I feel the same way about Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony. And then I think about the score in front of me and my fingers frantically searching for some arrangement of notes that look even remotely like what is happening musically and the dream begins to fade.

Plenty of others to take its place.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lost Days!

Tuesday 22nd June 2010

Today was the Day of the Great Disappearance. The sacred day when, in the afternoon, with unseemly haste and unrestrained glee we bid the kiddiewinks adieu.

The morning was ¡Fiesta! – or at least the form of jollifications that we indulge in at the end of course for the kids.

The school is transformed by the stringing of plastic streamers and flags of all the nations (including the Union Flag – I checked) across the patio (playground) and pupils and teachers join together in various activities to which the parents are invited. My designated area of jollity was to supervise “traditional games.”

In the way that our school operates, I knew nothing about this (or indeed these) until the actual morning when, with a colleague in the English Department we discovered that “traditional games” involved the use of ropes and chalk.

Before anyone gets excited at the sexual possibilities of considerate bondage, where the ropes are chalked before applied, I have to tell you that we were in charge of skipping and hop-scotch.

I found myself a chair and a quiet corner of the playground, threw a few ropes in decorative patterns on the floor and urged passing school children to chalk out a hop-scotch grid. I then repaired to my chair in the shade and hunkered down to pass the long hours before lunch.

Children did skip and one or two of them made a half hearted effort to skip their way along the grid.

Luckily our almost complete lack of enthusiasm was covered by a group of children playing football: so time passed.

Once the kids were out of the way the staff repaired to the dining hall to have what can only be described as a sumptuous feast of various forms of dead sea creatures followed by a spread of sweets which included totally evil tiny cakes whose weight to size ration was gratifyingly disproportionate!

The Drinking of the Liberlis has becomes something of a ritual for Suzanne and myself and our libations had become more infrequent that we would have liked. Therefore, an impulsive moment of alcoholic desperation drove both of us both figuratively and literally to The Third Floor in Castelldefels to watch the drink and the sun go down.

This formed one of the many Fridays of this week. The first was yesterday with Irene who I had to encourage to remind me (as the drink flowed down my gullet) that “Tomorrow is a working day and not the weekend!” Doing much the same on the Third Floor again needed some sort of marker to indicate that the working week was progressing rather than falling into the freedom of Saturday and Sunday.

“Better to think yourself in a Friday than the first Monday of a new term” – as the Zen Book of Teaching states.

Wednesday 23rd

The kids have not gone!

All the pupils who failed an exam have returned today to sit their recuperation exams. This meant that I had to start up my marking mode again as the marks are necessary for a meeting on the real Friday of this week.

By the time we were given lunch I was exhausted and after lunch I fled home to the pool and the cool reality of soothing water washing away the memories of the red pen!

The Family arrived in the afternoon and preparations were made for the Sant Juan meal before going out and watching the kids set off fireworks.

As a past Health & Safety Officer for my school I am constantly appalled by the risks that institutions in this country take. Their attitude towards fireworks is one which constantly amazes me.

The whole of the day has been punctuated by small fire-cracker detonations and large land-mine like explosions. This is the time for petardos (versions of the penny banger) which have been illegal in Britain for years. Here in Catalonia small wooden huts spring up so that everyone who wants to may buy as many as they like of cheap explosives to hurl around as they wish.

The paseo along the beach was a ribbon of fire as young and old engaged enthusiastically in the traditional towing of fireworks at each other. Many of them, to be fair, only set them off among pedestrians so that a walk along the sea front was punctuated by some fairly energetic skittish behaviour as the more limb threatening tongues of fame snaked at ankle level along the paving.

It is also traditional for people to camp out on the beach and drink and have fires on which to roast various pieces of meat. In Castelldefels this year, this had tragic consequences.

Castelldefels has two stations, one in the town and the other at the beach. Late last night as people who did not want to stay out on the beach all the night were trying to get home, they crossed the tracts (something which is specifically forbidden) and a train ploughed into them.

12 or 13 people were killed and many more were injured, some, horrifically by body parts which were flung about as the bodies of the unfortunates trying to cross were fragmented by the force of the impact! The story kept running on what appeared to be a tape loop on the television and put, as you might expect something of a damper on what was a bank holiday.

However, the tragedy happened at the other end of Castelldefels and in the part where we were there was no indication of anything amiss.

The long delayed meeting with Caroline took place in the Basque restaurant where I felt fully justified in drinking the local wine as I had made my way there by bike.

So yet another Friday!

Friday 25th June 2010

I set off a little earlier than usual and was met by virtually empty (for the roads I usually take) rondas and I got to school far too early. It did however allow me to complete the two remaining “catch-up” papers of the students that I had to mark. These marks had to be collated for a meeting which lasted from 11 am to 2 pm! The whole of my contribution to this meeting consisted of the words “Tres comma ocho” Thank god I was there!

Staying in school one second longer than was absolutely necessary after yet another meeting of stultifying tedium meant that I eschewed lunch and went out in Castelldefels instead.

The most difficult thing I will have to do tomorrow is realize that it is Saturday!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Another day to forget!


For a day I have been transformed into a class teacher and have had to be with a first form. Not in itself too stressful but when you don’t know what is going on a little unsettling.

Part of the time wasting involved taking the two classes to a local park along relatively busy roads. There is little point in worrying about these trips because virtually none of the procedures that are essential in Britain are followed here. “Stephen, remember this is not Britain!” rings in my ears as such things occur!

All I have done today is to do things that I haven’t wanted to do – and the one productive thing that I should have been doing was made impossible by everything else.

Even the lunch was crap.

The one bright spot was going out with Irene and receiving my papers back at last from the lawyer who was going to “do something with them” to help bring about the demise of The School That Sacked Me. Needless to say nothing has been done and it is now down to me to go back to the law courts and try and find out what, if any, progress has been made with the case.

Easily the most interesting even to school was phoning the Teachers Pensions people in Britain. I contacted a charming lady who engaged me in light conversation for some time and informed me that I could fill out a form on line and get the ball rolling for me to have my pension and lump sum on United Nations Day this year.

It appears that one essential form has not been sent to the office from my previous school so I phoned that place and had another excellent conversation with one of the secretaries who assured me that the form would be sent post haste. And then back to the awful reality of a school quite quickly imploding!

Still: one half day left and then the kids will be gone.

Something to think about!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A day in the sun


Two young children: yes. Two young children with their young friends: no! I grace fully bowed out of a barbecue with enticing food but over-the-quota children.

Children can only communicate by shouting. In Spain they can only communicate by shouting at the same time. I am prepared to put up with this in my professional life, but not in my free time.

I spent an intellectually demanding day lounging about on the Third Floor raiding the fridge and listening to Radio 4 on my wireless headphones. I also used my time to debate whether I had the energy to go for a swim. I did change into my new bathing costume, but that was as far as my exercise went. There is always tomorrow after a day at school whose format is something which I am dreading.

Time with the students is running out. One and a half days to be precise. The half day is largely given over to a fiesta where the pupils staff a series stalls. Last year I managed to avoid all of this by supporting a colleague who was showing a series of plays to parents who felt that they had the right to barge in to a performance irrespective of the stated starting times. Trying to keep the door closed to allow the pupils to perform to the best of their ability on the stage without interruptions was a losing battle.

But first the empty waste of a day without notion of what it should be doing. We are one colleague down and in a school that refuses to bring in supply this has a very real consequence. Another colleague is getting married and who knows somebody might be ill. That is a recipe for absolute chaos.

At the moment I have very little idea of what my timetable is going to be next year. Timetables will not be issued until the first day of term next year if we are lucky. Still, this is how it has always been so there is no point in worrying about what might be when there is no possibility of it happening.

I am adding to my list of Tasks for the summer (which is growing exponentially) the monumental one of sorting out the power leads. This is not so much a task as an aspiration. I don’t see why I should succeed at this when everyone else in the world (with the possible exception of Andrew) has a box or some sort of container which houses a writhing mass of electrical power sources. My particular box is made of transparent plastic and its appearance is like one of those displays in museums which show you cross sections through a particularly eventful geological stratum containing twisting fossils. I think that I will need the patience of a geologist just to separate each individual entity as I try and remove it from its compressed surroundings. I have already prepared a series of labels which I hope to attach to each lead and then match it to its raison d’être (camera, iPod, eBook, headphones, printer, computer, Nintendo, handheld, etc) in a IKEA CD tower to contain the bits and pieces. In theory it is a workable solution which will lessen tension when the power on something runs out. Who knows how it will work in practice.

Meanwhile bed beckons.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Keep going!


It is not yet 11 o’clock but already the day is rubbish and to cap it all the sun is shining and I am most unequivocally indoors.

The day started with my “supervising” a seething mass of 14 year olds who were just about to deliver their speeches explaining and defending what they had done over the past week when they should have been working on a project.

I am now sitting in front of a denuded class which is composed of those pupils who failed the earlier exam. At least it is quiet, but the time in which they are completing this paper extends over the “patio” or playground time and the sensitive souls have demanded that the double glazed windows be shut so that they can concentrate more! Bless.

When this is over I have a meeting with the Directora, presumably about next year and then a segue my way back to the class that I started the day with who, by that stage will probably be in a heighted hysterical state as everything that they will have had to do will have been done. Snatching a quick lunch takes me up to my lunch duty (oh the shame of it!) and by that time the powers that be will have found something else for me to do.

The only (ONLY) thing keeping me going is the knowledge that we have three more days with the kids and then they are gone. Gone I tell you!

Tuesday the 22nd is the End of Course and is a school fiesta and, more importantly a half day for the kids. I hope. The staff then have a mariscada composed of various forms of shellfish all washed down with Sangria. The 24th is San Juan and we have a day off. You can tell the level of desperation by the adding up of these moments of freedom until the final release on the 30th in the broken week which, at last ends the term.

I do not pretend to know much about Association Football (except when I think I can get away with it) but the fear-gripped, boring incompetence that characterised the English “game” against Algeria (!) was of such stupefying irrelevance as an entertaining event that I stumbled my way to bed at the end of the first half completely uninterested in the eventual outcome.

I would be grateful if anyone could explain why Heskey was our striker, or indeed why he was playing at all. And why was Rooney placed where he was on the field? The five million pounds a year earning English manager looked like some bloke who had been tempted out of a local pub for a couple of hours to give it a go for the lads. I don’t know what a manager should look like but I am bloody sure that it should not be like Capello. I do know that one shouldn’t judge on appearance. So let’s consider last night’s game, oh yes, and the game against the US of A. We could build a school for what we pay him. And if we add to that the grotesque salaries that we pay to the players who cavort their way on a patch of grass sullenly kicking the ball to the opposition, then we can staff the new Capello Institute for Useful Things Other Than Football for the next fifty years. Bitter? Me!

And while I am in the mood; I am getting progressively more fed up with the sanctimonious gibbering of the American President as he mouths xenophobic popularism which puts one more in mind of a typical French president rather than an ally. If it does nothing else than finally put to rest the dangerous myth of the “special relationship” then at least something positive will have come out of this ecological disaster.

One is tempted to think of Union Carbide and the real disaster in Bhopal and the compensation paid out there by an American company to sense the hypocrisy of the present demands for the wealth of the Indies to be placed at the feet of a group of “Southern Gentlemen” who are going to milk BP for every cent they can get to scrub each grain of sand to pristine whiteness.

But the sun is out, the sea is calm and at the moment everything seems right with the world.

At the moment.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What's a day between friends!




Bone tiredness precluded any intellectual activity after I returned from Barcelona having completed my “lesson” with my “pupil” in an outside café with a couple of glasses of red wine.

There is something draining about being with class after class of chatty Spanish and Catalan students who are “discussing” ways forward in their projects around computers that refuse to connect to the internet. It is almost easier to teach them rather than let them be!

Tomorrow is the day of their presentations when, surprise, surprise I will be sitting with classes supervising them as they wait to make their pitch for good marks – because without the carrot of a mark, nothing would get done. “Does it have a mark?” is the cry which greets any piece of work which is given to these students; without a “mark” any attempt to get students to take something seriously is doomed to failure.

Anyway, refreshed after something like ten hours sleep I can face the future with something almost approaching placidity. After a number of exciting periods babysitting I have the enticing prospect of hard, intellectually demanding work: counting dictionaries in the various rooms in the school. Given the tedium of my other “work” during the past few days, I can sincerely say that I am looking forward to wandering around with a little list and counting any volumes I find! Sad isn’t it – but the end of term (and more importantly the earlier date which signals the departure of the students) is within sight!

I can now (almost) find my way to the café which is the site for my “lesson” without the aid of a GPS. Almost!

Yesterday’s journey was enlivened by my attempting to kill a policeman.

The first part of my descent to Barcelona from our eerie-like school, perched precariously on one of the steep (yet affluent) sides of a Barcelona hill, takes me past a Monastery with an “open season” roundabout where it is every one for himself and even when you are around it you have to negotiate a transition from one road to another by crossing solid white lines and cutting into traffic.

Imagine my horror when, added to this transport nightmare, I saw that the whole of the traffic light system had failed and, to make the terror yet more terrific, policemen were directing the hapless motorists!

One policeman (barely more than a child) held up an imperious hand to stop me and then with an airily dismissive wave seemed to direct me down another road. I might add that this child was actually standing in the middle of the route on which I would normally have continued my journey, so I held my hand up palm forward to indicate that I expected to travel over him! Meanwhile one of his colleagues had encouraged a stream of traffic to make its way down the road that I thought he was indicating me to use!

The situation was exacerbated by his moving towards my car and looking furiously through the windscreen; indicating that I lower my driver’s side window; listening in disbelief to my stuttering Spanish (you try translating, “I thought that you were indicating an alternative route and I misunderstood your clearly contradictory casual gestures,” while looking at an perversely bearded, irritated, uniformed child) and finally by his uttering some sort of veiled threat.

I eventually escaped by all his other colleagues working together to create a space for me to slip into a stream of traffic making its escape from the scene of confusion and distress.

Thank god the rest of the traffic light system was in good working order and I simply had to cope with rush hour Barcelona!

Today was Toni’s nephew’s second birthday. He has a four year old brother. Most people who have had or are in the process of bringing up children will be able to fill in all the details that I might mention about the unwrapping of presents and the searing envy, jealousy and tantrums that ensued.

As the seven hundred and fiftieth present is unwrapped and discarded one cannot, OK “I” cannot help but think back to my own birthdays and the decorous present unwrapping that I engaged in punctuated with many expressions of gratitude. And perhaps I should stop at this point before I become maudlin and resentful. I wonder what I had for my second birthday. But such musings are not productive in 2010 with kids born in a TV dominated and materialist society. Ah me!

I have been reading “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles. This is the best known book of a writer of whom, before today I had never heard. The only reason I read it was because it has been suggested for the sixth form as a relatively simple reader.

I must admit that I was vastly unimpressed. Originally the novel was published in 1959 (“Catcher in the Rye” published 1951) and it is set largely in 1942-1943. It is a bildungsroman or "coming of age"
novel which is largely set in an exclusive American prep school and concerns itself with the friendship between two unequal young men whose friendship and animosity proves both productive and fatally destructive and yet allows the main character to realize some sort of human potential within himself. Possibly.

There is some fine lyric writing and it is a fairly compelling portrait of torture that self knowledge can demand, but it is not an easy read and the action is limited - though some fairly dramatic events take place.

Overall this is a duty read rather than a pleasure and I can see this being a particularly hard slog getting the subtleties through to the cynical members of an English as a second language sixth form!

I shall raid the reading cupboard before the end of term and arm myself with school books to while away the long months of freedom!

It does count as work you know!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Limping along!



An occasion unprecedented in the annals of educational history in our school: a meeting finished early!

Not only that, but the meeting also had a useful function! Just too much for an ordinary terminally cynical classroom teacher to take!

We were all sitting round an island made up of tables in the library and, as the meeting ended people were clearly shocked and didn’t move. Spanish people not moving and sitting down are, by definition talking. And so they talked – a sort of displacement activity for not going home!

Now I am a bit of an expert on the ending of Spanish meetings: they don’t. There is a morbid fear of meetings ending and so official or unofficial AOB can expand to take up any amount of time. I was horrified that so-called professionals could resist the clear opportunity to go home and in my desperation I started to inch one of the tables away from the other tables in the island while packing my brief case: I am nothing if not subtle and suddenly ambidextrous when it comes to getting away from school!

Eventually, just before things resting on the edge of my chosen moving table fell to the floor, other people realized that escape was possible and the general exodus began. I was away to my car before the others had drawn a breath! Experience always tells.

The weather has been rotten: close, cloudy and oppressive. A few raindrops were actually squeezed out of the humidity but nothing worth putting the windscreen wipers on for. We hope, as we have hoped for much of this year, for better weather tomorrow.

There are now sixteen days to go to the end of term: and counting!

Standard Four in my Junior School was a constant succession of Progress Papers specifically designed to lead to success in the 11+. We had homework on a regular basis which we suddenly didn’t have when a schools’ inspector was present. Not that we knew he was an inspector and not that we knew that as primary school children we were not supposed to have homework. I didn’t help matters by asking our teacher what the homework was and being completely mystified by an airy wave of dismissal from a teacher who had given us considerable amounts of homework on a regular basis and who had quite definitely suggested that passing the exam would be totally impossible without the constant attempting of paper after paper at home as well as in school.

Everything was geared towards the exam in a way in which I find creepily familiar in my present school. But this was education when I was eleven in a system entirely governed by passing an exam which would be the pathway to academic success in a grammar school or academic ignominy in a secondary modern school. My recognition of the bad old days (whatever the right wing and so-called New Conservatives say) in my present location does not say much for educational development in Catalonia.

Just as in my old primary school there are concessions to modern thinking. Every Friday afternoon we had a couple of periods when we could “do” projects. These were pages culled from some sort of forward thinking publication which allowed us to do a rudimentary sort of research and to present our findings in an interestingly graphic way. This “freedom” was strictly confined and the real education was via Progress Papers which forced endless practice of the types of 11+ exam papers with which we might be confronted.

The only paper I actually enjoyed was the essay writing. The stimulus for this piece of writing was a comprehension on, of all things, Victorian bathing machines! Just the thing that a lad just entering into the swinging sixties would be interested in! I was. I still remember the writing clearly and my description of the proprietor of the bathing machine as “looking like a Gorgon” which in turn says something for the extent of my reading.

Unfortunately my essay was never read as the piece of writing was apparently only used in borderline cases to give further evidence to justify a pass or fail. I was no genius at the age of 11 but I wasn’t on the borderline either.

In my present school the examinations are over and the pupils are all following a similar sort of “project” to those that I used to delight in all those years ago. Things are a little different I used books for my information and most of the pupils in front of me are using computers. My books always opened, which is more than can be said for the internet programs for these privileged pupils! Perhaps they would do well to go back to the old days and give each class a selection of reference books and see what happens.

Though, thinking about it, no, not a good idea. In spite of the fact the inevitable internet problems that accompany any attempt by a school to expand internet access to actual pupils in a working environment means that the amount of information which, in theory is vast, in practice becomes non-existent. Pupils therefore rely on the games and music and other fripperies that they have stored on their machines and research goes out of the window.

When I think back to a slightly more recent period when I was in university the real problem that I always had was finding somewhere to study. Yes, I had my own room on campus – but that was far too full of distractions to allow for concentrated study. And English students have, by definition, books, and the book on the shelf is always worth more than the book in the hand!

The library in Swansea University was modern and well appointed, though during the lead up to my finals the authorities decided to try and stop the whole building sliding gracefully into the sea and so had an extended period of pile-driving which was anything but an encouragement to revision or learning. I once went into the library during the height of the pile-driving and saw rows of finals students looking more and more paranoid as each earth shaking thump echoed through the erstwhile sepulchral calm of that centre of academe!

The library anyway was not a good place for me to study as it was full of, yes; you’ve guessed it, books. With my magpie mind the subject of an individual book was not really important and I often found myself engrossed in some abstruse tract which had nothing whatsoever to do with the ostensible subject that I was officially studying.

Ironically it was a library that was my final and most useful choice of working environment. Not a “real” library in which there were books which begged to be read, no, another place altogether.

The Department of Chemistry in Swansea University had gone through a period of megalomaniac power building which saw a number of phases of construction as a professor got his budget increased exponentially. The end result was laboratories which were used for such things as the storing of cardboard boxes rather than the teaching of students – true I saw the cardboard boxes with my own eyes and was told the epic tale of vaulting Chemical ambition by one of the technicians! And a Chemistry Library is, almost by definition filled with incomprehensible books and, given Chemistry students’ disinclination to read around their subject it provides a location which no one used.

Except for me!

Once discovered, I treasured this arid oasis of calm and used it to complete essays and read and annotate those odd books through which even I had to struggle; books like “The Fairy Queen” which, to be fair, even the clinical surroundings of the Chemistry Library didn’t encourage me to read all the way through!

I`m not sure that even the spaciousness of retirement (when ere that might be) will tempt me to plough my way through the whole thing!

It rained solidly through the night and, working on the third floor, I heard that melancholy drip, drip, drip which is the sad watery percussion that I grew up with! This year continues its depressingly skittish approach to summer and as I sit here I can see through the window banks of threatening cloud, though there is also a band of brightness which promises some amelioration. Eventually!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Experience doesn't always help!


Although I did manage to stop myself from saying, “I knew it!” and “I told you so!” I could not refrain from a “Every bloody year!” as the computer system which takes in all the results for the grand meeting this evening crashed.


I am not good at coping with screen freezing as it takes me back to the black night many years ago when my Sinclair QL, on which I was typing the final version of a long external exam paper which had to be handed in to the external moderator the next morning, froze. I finally got to bed in the late early hours of the morning and refreshed by a single hour’s sleep after retyping the whole thing I went to school a not very happy bunny.


The programme which we had to use to load the final examination results actually (rather cheekily) allowed me to assume that everything was going to be fine. It encouraged me to start typing in the results with growing confidence and then, at the point when I knew that all the results were going to be in place by the stipulated time – stasis.

The misery was slightly ameliorated by the presence of a charming member of the maths department whose frustration matched my own – but she was rather more decorous in showing it! In a welter of mystifying Spanish but clearly communicated facial grimaces she expressed in a most eloquent way the teacher’s lack of faith in all hi-tec equipment which invariably fails at the point when you need it most.

Needless to say I found another way of getting what I wanted by going snivelling to the bursar who has a way with computers. Who failed. But then suggested that I enter the information directly on the server. Which I did and the job was done. I wonder what the rest of my colleagues are doing as their levels of homicidal frustration reach critical mass and they try and vent their feelings on some inanimate (or indeed animate) object in their vicinity!

I have lost one of my free periods (par for the course) and I will try and harness what reserves of placidity (!) I possess to manage the horror of the meeting this evening.

I have now lost another free and the meeting is going to start while I am engaged with yet another class. They are starting to discuss a year I don’t teach (the only one) and then go on to our classes. There is a horror scenario where I am left in charge of two classes while the Spanish/Catalan speaking English teacher slopes off to join the misery of inconsequential talking. The day is developing well! And it’s only 11 am so far!

Our hopes for the fabled “school” that we had hoped to found seem further away than ever. The discussions and the expectations have been interesting but everything founders on the simple necessity for money. We are beginning to doubt that anything can be done in spite of the fact that our proposal fills a real need and we are convinced that it would be a success. But, and it’s a big but, not only is money in short supply but also time (in all sorts of ways) is running out. At least I can comfort myself with the fact that I have always regarded the founding of the “school” as an amusing pastime or a mild curiosity rather than an essential reality. Even if everything was in our favour at this moment (and it isn’t) it would take at least two or three years to set up a school and . . .

Perhaps, out of sheer spite, I will turn my attention back onto the School That Sacked Me. There must be something to learn there by observing an institution which is not fit for purpose; which ignores rules and regulations; which has no recognizable curriculum; which treats teachers with contempt; which had educational standards which would prompt any inspectors to put it in special measures and - what is the point of going on! In spite of its manifest failures it opens its doors year after year and pretends to be a school – and people pay real money to send their children there! If such a place can exist, so the logic goes, then how much more welcome would be a school which actually tried to be a real educational institution! But such thoughts merely lead to madness!

I am concentrating on the end of term, visits, wine tastings and getting my library in some sort of real order. I have started making lists of What I Am Going To Do During The Summer.

Not a good sign!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why is the weekend only two days long?



Well, it didn’t rain today in spite of the rather uninspiring weather forecast which assured us that it would. Broken cloud with intervals of brilliant sunshine was what we actually had and, gloomy periods ignored, a refreshing swim in the pool.

Today was Toni’s name day and the opportunity for him to rake in various presents from his family. My gift (the TV dongle for the computer) was slightly tarnished by the fact that the artistic construction which doubled as an aerial signally didn’t work. Still there should be hours of some sort of fun in looking at the myriad stations that are able to be picked up with the equipment supplied.

There are now 17 days left to the end of the month. If we take the last ‘working’ week in the month which is a week without the kids and the two days of the weekend that precede it and subtract those days from the total we are left with eleven days. San Juan on the 24th is a holiday so take another day off and we are left with 10 days. There is a weekend at the end of this week, so we are left with 8 working days. That is this week and a few days of next as the full extent of school time with pupils. That sounds doable.

Now, although my colleagues might not be actually writing down these calculations, they are certainly thinking them. One of my colleagues asked me weeks ago when we could start counting down the days. I was strict and told him that such an approach was unacceptable until the month of June had actually started. As soon as we started counting days he wanted to know when we could start counting hours. Again I was strict and told him that this was unacceptable in all professional educational institutions until the last week of term. One must have standards otherwise chaos looms!

Of course institutions have their own little ways of making sure that the summer holidays are fully appreciated. Tomorrow we have an endless meeting of almost unendurable vacuity when “colleagues” (we all know them, they are the same in all schools under the sun) feel the need to give their sixpence worth of gabble although nobody wants to hear them, or rather at this stage of term Nobody Wants To Hear Them At All. It means that I will reel out of the meeting at about 7.30 pm after a working day which stretches from 8.45 to 4.45. The meeting starting at 5.00 just about giving one time to snatch a glass of water and fix firmly in place the disinterested smile which indicates to all and sundry that one is present but not voting. This smile will stay fixed until the end of the “discussion” when, with what I like to think of as highly visible contempt I rush to my car and flee to Castelldefels trying to blot from my mind that when I finally arrive home, distrait, emotionally drained and extremely pissed off that this is only the first day of the week!

The one good thing of course is that I will be able to subtract it from the measly total of 8 working days with kids and perhaps I will allow a wan smile to cross my thin lips!

As the sole British male at the lunch today I felt the onus of alcoholic irresponsibility rest firmly on my shoulders and I am ashamed to admit that my total consumption was one glass of Tinto de Verano – a bottled mixture of red wine and lightly sugared pop! I have no real excuse for this unbecoming abstinence except to say that everyone else drank less than I did! It is very trying to be British and to attempt to fit in with the perverse aversion to excess by which I am surrounded! It is only in our “Wine Tastings” that I feel truly at home!

I know that school tomorrow is going to be chaos. Examination results have to be entered on a computer programme for the meeting tomorrow afternoon and there is an invariable crash which turns all teachers into nervous wrecks. At least this year I know that it is going to happen and so I can, oddly, be a little more relaxed about it. I have learned to feed off other peoples’ hysteria and I have used it like a sedative, so that as civilization is razed to the ground around me I assume my laurel wreath, take out my lyre and follow the music illuminated by the flames around me!

As far as I can work out, all our results are nothing more than smoke reflected in a series of cunningly placed mirrors that have the same relationship with reality as does Lewis Carroll’s world. When dealing with institutions it is always good to remember the wise words of Humpty Dumpty when he said, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”

I defy anyone who has worked in education for longer than a week to tell me that they haven’t experienced a situation in which they could have been talking to Humpty Dumpty. Alice, of course, spoke for all of use toilers in the field when she said, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” God bless her! The voice of reason; a little plaintive and naïf, but with the ring of solid logic behind it. It puts Humpty Dumpty clearly in his place and reduces him to stunned silence.

Anyone who believes that in a scholastic context must have worked for less than the week that I talked about. Humpty Dumpty comes back with the unanswerable managerial question stopper, “The question is which is to be master -- that's all.”

At times like these I remember a younger version of myself speaking to Ivor Davies, Trade Union supported Labour MP for Gower when I was a student representative talking to the Council of my University. I used language that should have been common to us both but I was surprised and hurt (I was young) that this MP with a rock solid majority was a true Humpty Dumpty and he may as well have been speaking Serbo-Croat for all the sense that our dialogue held. I have, over time, come t see this exchange as, at best a learning experience, at worst . . . ah, I was always too sensitive and easily hurt to become a politician!

Writing all this has neatly ensured that I didn’t actually do any of the school work that I only half heartedly planned to do this weekend.

C’est la vie!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The end of civilization - again!


The long dark night of the soul has begun. Association Football has taken control of all means of communication and is now dominating the carbon based world.

I have to admit that in Spain the quality of the television is so mind bendingly awful that wall-to-wall kick ball coverage might actually be an improvement! Only joking! Not about the quality of the programmes though.

Tomorrow is the name day of all the Tonis in Spain and so there is a grand gathering of the clans to celebrate this auspicious day. The Name Day is just as important as a birthday in Spain and is celebrated with presents and eating.

Toni has acquired some sort of device which plugs into the side of his computer and turns the computer into a television, dragging in many, many television stations which I do not want to see. The point is to try and get a better service for the ubiquitous World Cup so that he can see even more of the games than can be packed onto the channel that won the contract.

They key in making this little gadget work lies in the quality of the ariel. The one supplied with the device is pathetic so (thanks to information gleaned from the internet) Toni is constructing one which would do credit to someone brought up on Blue Peter.

Using the front of a dismantled drawer, a few screws and lengths of wire he is constructing an art work which reminds me of a Lynn Chadwick from the late fifties. This artefact is, apparently going to make all the difference in the reception and give unlimited access to all the football channels that he wants. I will reserve judgement until I see the pictures flashing across the screen.

Today has been glorious with the heat making the tiles on the terrace on the Third Floor too hot to walk on with bare feet. This is more like the summers that I feel I have a right to expect now that I am living in Spain!

Gradually, empty houses and flats are filling up as the summer gets into its high season mode and, at the end of the month, everyone will be here – and the ones who don’t have houses or flats here will be on the beach. It is a good thing that our beach is so long that it can take the population of Barcelona with ease! As long as some of them stay at home.

England (I’m Welsh) has just drawn against The United States. Our goalkeeper should be publically hanged and all the players with the exception of Rooney should be forced to give their salaries to charity. I am now switching my allegiance to España.

Roll on more sunny days so that I can escape to the television free environment of the Third Floor!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Glug!



Who is he so dull of soul that hasn’t felt that at the end of the week that he needs (as Pooh would say) a little something.

And who has not realized as one balances a plastic cup full of wine on one’s knee that perhaps that point of equilibrium that has been so signally absent during one’s working day is now fully restored!

This has been a good week to look back on; it has been a bad week to work through. The frenzy of marking reached a climax during the last period of the morning (which was well into the afternoon, but that is our school for you) when I marked as if my life depended on it. Which, let’s face it, it doesn’t. Everyone looks stressed because there is much more marking to do and a limited time in which to do it.

In spite of all by bleating, I did finish all the marking I had to do in good time with the aid of a little space given to me by my colleagues who were baby-sitting a group of our first years who were watching “Finding Nemo” which was the key stimulus for a whole unit of work on biodiversity.

I have now finished all the marking that I have had to do and a soul destroying experience it was too. I lost the will to live on seven separate occasions during the expenditure of red ink this time round. Thank god this is the last time this year. We are now counting the days to our eventual release!

THz Monday sees us labouring under the duress of incarceration in yet another of our interminable and incomprehensible meetings when, as far as I can see, nothing of any moment is decided, but everybody has a chance to talk as much as they like about things over which they have no control. But at least they have the chance to make my life just a little less enjoyable as I listen to acres of screed in Catalan about the hard lives of over privileged kids!

But perhaps I am a little too harsh, my attitude reflecting the late stage of the term and the almost pathological tiredness and lack of motivation affecting all of us!

Meanwhile the weekend beckons and who am I to be insensible to its blandishments!

My new camera continues to please; though the exploration of its full potential will have to wait for me to print out the encyclopaedic details of how to use the damn thing! The pictures that I have taken so far scratch the surface of what this machine is capable.

Many of the last session of my photographs were taken from my seat on the Third Floor while sipping a very pleasant Rioja.

The view from the Third Floor includes a view of part of the sea. We are not far from the Med and our view is circumscribed by the pine trees which grow in the area. Our view is a section of the sea which is shaped like a reversed map of Catalonia and what little we can see of the sea is now threatened by the new growth of the trees. I think by the end of the growing season we will only hear the sea and not be able to look at it!

All I ask is that the sun is a more constant companion than it has been during the lead up to the summer.

Meanwhile the problem of Toni’s name day is becoming ever more pressing.

Always something to worry about!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It's Friday tomorrow!


Today was utter delight.

And yes, that is bloody ironic.

First there were people away so, because of the parsimonious attitude towards getting other people in to help with teaching there was instant chaos which was only averted by calling on the pseudo-free periods that we have so that all hands could man the pumps.

This is at the time when all of us need all of our time to plough through the absurd amount of marking that we have to complete before our artificially imposed deadlines come into effect.

I have managed to complete the marking of three sets of scripts and am left with one last set which is fiendish in its neurosis inducing capabilities when one comes to put an actual mark on any section of it.

However “failsafe” you make an exam, assuring yourself that there is only one possible answer to your carefully phrased question – our kids will defy expectation and produce something which “could” be said by a native speaker, but would be of such linguistic complexity that they couldn’t possibly know that they could say it!

I have never forgiven one girl who, when I was explaining the meaning of one particular word, said, “Oh, I don’t use the work like that!” To which I was tempted to say, “Oh really foreigner, and your point would be?” But I didn’t. But I do not forget. Never!

There is a comforting and simple philosophy which gets me through some tricky linguistic situations, which was outlined for my by the head of department: “If it isn’t in the book it’s wrong!”

My examination paper speciality is the writing of sentences in which a space is left for the insertion of the most appropriate word. This is not an exercise in thinking up a word; it is an exercise in remembering one of the words studied in the particular unit in the book: the words in the book. The Book. It’s soul destroying! But it’s paid!

As I managed to get the target scripts marked today, I came home early (time owed from yesterday which should have been my early finish but the exigencies of the examinations (!) forced me to stay in school beyond my allotted time) and had a swim. Today started with sullen rain and overcast skies but ended with bright sunshine and a blue sky streaked with very artistic cloud.

After a compulsory period of sunbathing, we ventured into Castelldefels town to find out if the fabled Welsh Soap Shop was a reality. It seemed unlikely but there it was and I bought an eye-wateringly expensive chunk of lavender soap to show solidarity with my native land! No bloody discount for natives though!

An evening meal of tapas and a couple of glasses of red wine at a restaurant that we now patronise and I was ready to start my last tranche of marking.

But I didn’t: so there!

Sufficient unto the day (as they say) is the evil thereof!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The ball commeth!


This is the last sane moment that I will have for some time. It has been carved out of a period when I should have been marking, but I simply couldn’t face it and I have watched (indeed am watching, thank goodness for touch typing) Spain rather comprehensively beating Poland at football.

I cannot truthfully say that I am “looking forward” to the televisual overkill that will be World Cup football – the advent of which is drawing ominously closer heralded by rather artful advertisements on the TV and pages of technical information in the newspapers. I am praying that the weather is clement so that I can retire to the Third Floor and brood like Achilles in his tent – though I seem to recall his retirement was for rather different reasons than the movement of various spheroids. Considering that comparison a little further I feel that it is rapidly becoming infelicitous!

I shall however condescend to watch Spain play and England too as long as they are played at a reasonable hour. In previous years I have bought the equivalent of “Every Boys Colour Guide to the World Cup” so that I could throw a few facts into the general conversation to show just how conversant I was with the detail of the “beautiful game.” It’s hard work though, and I am always found out!

I will make sure that I have a supply of books to keep me sane.

My second lesson with my pupil is today and it will be interesting to see how he has responded to the stimulus I sent him the day before yesterday. Some money would be nice too!

Marking is now dominating the entire life of the school with monastic rows of teachers bent over their vellum (well, light excreta coloured recycled paper) scripts as they scratch away with a manic concentrated intensity trying to process the reams of sometimes inventive drivel to arrive at the magic mark out of ten that is the end result of all the work which is done in Spanish schools!

It now turns out that, unlikely though it may seem, that Castelldefels boasts a soap shop. Not, in itself of interest, until you add the fact that this is a Welsh soap shop! Soaps, the website informs us, from the “woodlands of Wales.” This will have to be investigated!

I now have collected all the scripts that have to be marked by my good self. There was a moment of pleasurable panic when it seemed like half a set of scripts had gone missing but while I was invigilating one exam a colleague brought them to me, presumably so that I could fill in the empty hours when I was not in school by marking them. She obviously doesn’t know me very well!

To be fair I have marked two sets of scripts: one from a fairly small class and the other from a larger class with a paper which seemed to stretch on to eternity: I lost the will to live on three separate occasions while marking it.

I also discovered a use for recycled paper.

My scripts came in two varieties: the dun coloured recycled sort and good white cartridge paper. The cartridge paper was bulky and emphasised the number of scripts left, while the recycled sort was thin and flaccid and gave a flattering picture of what was left. I am going to insist that all future scripts are printed on thin paper: the psychological effect of seeing an insignificant scattering of scripts rather than an intimidating stack!

My second “lesson” with my new pupil in Barcelona took the form of a “conversation” in a cafe on a table outside on the little Ramblas in this particular part of the city. Our conversation took in Egyptian pharaohs Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Palladio, Gaudi (of course!) and restaurants which do not look like restaurants.

The last was pointed out to me a few shops down from the garage in which I was parked. The shop front looks like a dry cleaning shop but, on the wall is an illuminated numeric touchpad – type in the right combination of numbers and lo and behold! You find yourself in a most exclusive restaurant. Where, I was told, the prices are not that expensive. Or it could be a normal dry cleaning shop. But I do hope not!

Meanwhile my revolving and reclining chair has taken on a life of its own and sitting on it has become something of a challenging experience. I fear that the fault may be terminal - and if you think that furniture is overpriced I suggest you come to Catalonia and have a look in quite ordinary furniture shop to wonder if you have slipped by mistake into some sort of designer shop.

I popped into a shop just before the “lesson” and found a fairly ordinary revolving chair for €1.750! I was told that I could take 17% off the price or even more if I was buying them in bulk! Another chair for only €980 was smilingly dismissed as the cheap end of the market! I suppose that I should have been warned as soon as I saw that they stocked Philip Stark chairs!

At least I got paid!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

First steps!



Let the scoffers eat their scoff and the sneerers reform their features into something more fetching. I have used the mini-mixer to make something!

The something was a “soup.” I have placed inverted commas around it because the consistency was only liquid in the way that lava is liquid. It also managed to retain its heat in much the same way too. When poured into a dish there was nothing resembling a meniscus on my soup, no, to continue the volcanic theme it looked more like the Pahoehoe lava flow of Hawaii – though possibly a little more tasty.

I was very impressed with the efficiency with which the mixer, well, mixed. I am therefore preparing myself to start Project Unique Tea in which I will formulate a drinkable tea equivalent of the coffee capsule utilizing the mini mixer.

I realize that the Perfect Tea Capsule might be as illusory as the Philosopher’s Stone but in one way at least the coffee capsule has achieved the principle of the Alchemist’s dream by giving customers much less and charging them much more for what they haven’t been given. If that is not making gold out of base materials I don’t know what is!

I have started to read a novel by Pullman with which I am not familiar, but I fear that it’s completion is going to be delayed for some time because of the avalanche of examination scripts which is about to bury me in boredom.

Because of the seemingly arbitrary and sudden deadlines which we set ourselves the marking will quickly descend into ill controlled panic and frenzy. I have reasoned that this completely unnecessary misery is inflicted to make the end of term sweeter. At least I hope there is some reason behind it rather than simply SNAFU!

The first “private” lesson has come and gone after a hair raisingly (or scalp crawlingly) horrific drive into the centre of Barcelona to the meeting place. The GPS was fine until the final adjustments almost at the destination when everything went pear-shaped and I had to navigate the last bit more by instinct than by geo-stationary satellite!

My pupil’s knowledge of English is much more sketchy than I was lead to believe but that need not necessarily make the lessons any the less enjoyable. He has practical knowledge of a whole range of arts so there should always be something for us to talk about.

Catalonia has always been a place full of new experiences for me. Today sees another one. The unions have called a general strike in the public sector for all those paid by the Generalitat. This usually means civil servants, but in this country there are whole areas of public life which have public servants – including the teachers. You may think that this is similar to Britain but the teachers in Spain who are civil servants and are paid for by the government have very different conditions of service to those in other areas and are better paid.

Our school is in the anomalous position of being a foundation and a private school funded partially by the government. Rather like the most exclusive and expensive private schools in Britain which also, grotesquely, are classed as charities! Our school will be subject to reductions but the extent of the reductions is limited by the different proportions of the salary which each individual teacher is paid by the government.

Union membership in our school is subtle: it’s like being in the Masons but without the handshakes and the power and influence! Although I have been told that there are other union members in my school I still do not know of anyone else who is actually a self-confessed member.

Although my name may suggest otherwise, I am no willing martyr and I know that any action I take will be easily covered and my future employment may well be compromised. The end result is that I drove resentfully along clearer roads than usual to a school that probably should be closed today.

It is ironic that the parents of some of our pupils are the movers and shakers of the commercial world of this area are certainly the people who had more to do with creating the crisis than the teachers who try and educate their children. And they remain unaffected by the action. As usual. Just as their salaries are unlikely to be cut by 5%! Still, I would surely be jejune if I was looking for justice. Or perhaps that is not strictly true, one should always look for justice; it is jejune to expect it!

Enough cynicism!

The reality of marking will soon bring its own meaning to life!

Monday, June 07, 2010

What else do we expect!



With the glorious spitefulness that teachers are used to, today is exactly the sort of day that yesterday should have been: bright, warm, sunny – but a school day.

With the resourcefulness for which teachers are famous, I was able to rationalize the downpour yesterday as a necessary part of nature refilling depleted reservoirs and refreshing streets and vegetation rather than taking it personally as part of the vindictiveness of a deity who obviously had some harsh, unsympathetic teachers and he is now getting his own back by making virtually every weekend less than climatically satisfactory.

This morning is the official opening of the Examination Season for the kids and the scenes that greet one as one makes one’s way towards the staff room remind me of a grammar school just before a test, where all the pupils are clutching books or scraps of paper and talking hopelessly or frantically with other testees to try and guess the mind of the examiner. This school is perhaps a little different from my experience of a grammar school because all (ALL) pupils revise, even the naughty ones, though only at the last minute.

Because examinations are such an omnipresent part of the school life, and because they have a multitude of subjects the kids are constantly trying to stuff their heads with yet another set of facts. They have become adept at short term memory storage and are able regurgitate material that would delight Mr Gradgrind’s heart. The only problem is that I am not sure what use they are making of all the knowledge that they are showing that they know “at that time.”

If knowledge is compared to a grain of sand then the pupils in this school are busily acquiring bucket-full’s of the stuff but, if I am allowed to continue the metaphor, I don’t think that they are making many sandcastles! Such, it seems to me, is the Spanish Education System.

Last week I saw children with long lists of countries and their capital cities; a list on which they were going to be tested. I know in Britain we have probably gone too far in the other direction and don’t make kids learn lists of facts without a “reasonable context” in which to situate them; but this means that the end result is that they do not have the factual basis to situate themselves in a world where opinion is valued but the factual basis behind the opinion is essential. In Spain arid lists of “thing to be learned” seems to reign supreme while the context which makes facts important is largely ignored.

There is something totally refreshing in pontificating about a system which, although all around me, is not something in which I actively participate – our level of existence being defined by external examinations set by the Cambridge Examination Board!

My “lesson” this evening is beginning to worry me. My future pupils does not seem to relish the challenge of speaking English and I am not sure that encouraging a reluctant English speaker is what I want to do at the end of my school day. My visions of lofty discussions about the nature of art seem to be evaporating together with my enthusiasm – but I should give it a chance and see what happens. A new experience if nothing else!

I am, if nothing else, a snob about glassware and cutlery. When I have Waterford, Wedgwood and Stewart why should I drink from anything less? And plastic is simply beyond the Pale. And yet.

I am in the process of trying to find a way to compromise between the acceptable and the outré. Perhaps that is putting it a little too dramatically, but it all comes down to the fact that my house starts at the first floor.

A barbecue outside means that everything which is necessary for the meal to work has to be taken down a long flight of stairs. And of course brought up again at the end of the meal. Not too onerous one might think, but irritating enough for shortcuts to be suggested. One of them is the use of plastic plates, implements and glasses. At the end of the meal (to hell with recycling) everything can be tipped into a conveniently situated bin. Job done.

I am ashamed to admit that I have now willingly bought plastic knives, forks and spoons. I have a variety of plastic glasses ranging from long tumblers to monsters that can take a British pint (not that I can get one anywhere near me) and a range of plates and bowls.

If I am going down market then at least I am going to do it with a full canteen and dinner service in a substance that I have not eaten from since the pseudo-melamine days of my first job in Kettering and the £10 bargain box bought with disbelief from a temporary shop at the bottom end of St Mary’s Street which saw to all my place setting needs for years!

That box contained eight of everything from dinner plates to plates so small as to be practically useless. It had various types of serving bowl and serving spoons. It had a gravy boat and a conserve jar and lid – and all in brown plastic, except for the dinner plates which had a printed design in lighter colours on them. There were tea cups and saucers – all in brown plastic and the crowning glory was a set of eight cut plastic glasses. These were not as grotesque as they might sound and were in use for years. Admittedly not at glasses, but in use none the less!
The use of this extravaganza of the man made was extended by people who knew me simply not accepting that I could possibly be serving food on anything as mundane as plastic. But I did! I once had a dinner party and came in with food (in the brown serving bowls) to find one of my guests looking at the underside of the plate “Trying to find out the name of the pottery” – such is the power of pretention!

I think that the move to Spain finally saw the end of the Plastic (I think it deserves the capital) and not one piece has come over with me: still not bad for something bought over thirty years ago!

Not many consumer durables last that long!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Reality - or something.



Today has been something of a contrast after the glorious day of sun we had yesterday. The lowering clouds eventually gave way to rain just before the barbecue was due to be lit for lunch.

It was however warm enough to sit outside and the space under the house was also perfect to house the barbecue - after it had been placed down wind.

The usual overkill, which seems to be the norm where The Family is concerned with barbecues, ensured that there was a container full of uneaten meat which will be shamefully thrown away because we can’t be bothered to make something of it later.

But wait, my latest purchase from Amazon might be the answer.

I have begun to fear the innocuous emails I get from Amazon. I know that their system logs what one has browsed, hence the frighteningly apposite tasters that one gets from that company, but they are often just as bizarrely left-field with some of their suggestions which are supposed to interest you. Last week, however, one of their suggestions was exactly what I had been thinking about, though I am sure that I had not been near anything which could have given Amazon sufficient information to double guess my needs.

So it was with something approaching genuine fear that Amazon suggested that I might like to purchase a mini blender! Which of course I promptly did using that personification of evil in our times: one-click ordering.

In a forgotten drawer in the kitchen there lies a quantity of small metallic capsules which were bought in the first enthusiasm of finding something less expensive for the coffee machine. These are do-it-yourself coffee machine capsules which I thought could be adapted to produce the ideal cup of real tea. My idea was to purchase a quantity of Earl Gray leaf tea and some decent Indian leaf tea and then put them both in a small blender until a suitable powder had been produced and then spoon the result into a number of capsules and, hey presto! a unique blend instantly produced.

I have yet to test whether this actually works because my first trials some time ago were an unqualified failure. I cut open a PG Tips tea bag and placed that inside a capsule and made a cup of tea. Perhaps “cup of tea” was something of an exaggeration for the insipid liquid that I forced myself to drink. But I reasoned that with better quality teas, expertly blended for subtlety and aroma, pulverised to within an inch of their lives and packed (positively packed and tamped down) into a capsule I would be within reach of the Nirvana of a civilized cup of tea produced almost instantly.

And before anyone says that the same results can be obtained by using a tea infuser or by using two tea bags and dipping them for the requisite number of seconds each – then all I can say is that they are wrong and they can’t and they won’t. So there.

I realise that the one great drawback to my scheme is that the coffee machines do not deal in real boiling water: almost is not enough. But I have faith and I will reveal to the world the eventual success of my endeavours – or you will hear nothing more about it. But be suspicious if I am suddenly discovered to be producing a quality of soups or smoothies!

As is usual in this part of the world rain is not for ever. The sun, albeit a little shyly, has condescended to lighten the surroundings and there is a gentle haze of light purple which is what you get when the sky blends seamlessly into the sea. But the rain has stopped.

I think that my participation in this barbecue was a little optimistic as I decided that “tummy trouble” was a thing of yesterday and today could be given over to culinary ordinariness. I think that I have over-estimated by tummy’s resilience and I had a little nap so that my body could sort things out amongst itself.

It is now late afternoon and the adjustments (for which my body is justly famous) have been made and I am back to normal – though I think that I might stick to the second bottle of Vichy water that I bought yesterday to make sure that things are finally right.

Next week takes us deeper into June and therefore nearer to the end of term. We have decided that we can now count in days rather than weeks to that glorious event and during the last week we will be able to measure things in hours.

Examinations are about to begin (again) and then the timetable gradually disintegrates until the kids leave. We then have a week in which we are supposed to do as much as we can to prepare ourselves for the next academic year.

There is something to be said for having a school which is divided up into buildings. There are two buildings which I use for the junior secondary pupils and the upper school. Although there is a fairly large vertical distance between the two, it has the advantage of encouraging people to stay put where they are rather than moving easily between the two. This means that you can, if you so choose openly hide in one or other of the buildings. Unfortunately there are no hide spaces which are without a telephone, but I find the olde worlde wood panelled splendour of the original building of the school before its mushroom like expansion to be the more congenial to my needs. And there are fewer people.

My reading has been given a boost by my finding a cupboard with one shelf filled with single copies of books which Were Thought To Be Worth Buying To Try. I don’t think much came of that because the books are obviously unread, but I am making up for that and reading them fairly steadily. I then try and convince unsuspecting students to give them a try. I sometimes feel like a drugs pusher and I know it is only a matter of time before I whisper to some kid, “I’ve got some really good stuff: the latest Caroline Lawrence with real details of life in ancient Rome!”

Which I do have, having just finished reading “The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina” by Caroline Lawrence another volume in The Roman Mysteries series. I have read a couple of the others and this one was well up to standard.

I find the setting, 79 AD Ostia, fascinating, but I am not sure about your average Spanish teenagers reading this in what will probably be their third language.

The story is gently interesting focusing on a young child who suspects that the woman who is close to her widowed father is a gold-digger. With the help of her friends and within the loose framework of the Labours of Hercules she finds out more than she bargains for. There is a sense of the didactic about this novel with Latin words and Classical allusions lovingly integrated into the story. There is even Aristo’s Scroll at the end which is a glossary written by the teacher character in the novel. If it is teaching then it is persuasive teaching and the story line is good enough to take it.

I’ve also read “Ark Angel” by Anthony Horowitz. This novel too is one of a series and, as I started to read it, I realized that I had read the next volume – but that did not interfere with my enjoyment of the novel.

Horowitz is a master story teller and an incredibly safe pair of hands in narrative terms. The novel is based around a fourteen year old, Alex Rider, who has managed to get himself involved with MI6, with the result that this novel opens with our young hero in hospital recovering from a bullet wound.

This is a Boy’s Own Paper story where, to all intents and purposes we have a young James Bond character (Horowitz didn’t get the chance of write the novels of James Bond’s youth, Charlie Higson did and very good they are too) engaged in hi-tec violence in a fast paced narrative which does not give you time to consider the essential unreality of it all. Indeed the unreality is the whole point: this is the modern remake of “and with a leap he was free” Saturday morning film series, except Horowitz always gives you enough information to make it at least barely believable. In this novel Alex rider does everything from space travel to tightrope walking between a burning tower block and freedom – but I’m sure you get the idea. This series is much to be recommended and in a native English speaking school I think it would make a good reader – as long as it wasn’t the only book that the kids were studying!

Tomorrow my first lesson with my new artistic pupil. I still don’t really know what to expect.

Roll on the morrow.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Take nothing for granted!


Lunch today was the first real meal I had eaten for something like 45 hours!

For what seems like most of my life I have been drinking water instead of eating real food. The only solid food I took was pills!

Friday had been characterized by what one must delicately call “tummy problems.”

I did not feel 100% when I set off for school and the drive there was uneventful (thank god) and without accidents – if you know what I mean.

My first period (as is my custom when I am not feeling truly well) was perfectly OK with the adrenalin of teaching carrying me through to the end. The end of the lesson, again as usual, found me a little lower than when I had started.

A colleague, who casually asked how I felt and was given a truthful answer, immediately suggested that I go home. Because of the staged collapse of our timetable I had few lessons, except (as per usual) the last one. Amazingly, my colleagues with Teutonic efficiency arranged everything and I was free to go home.

I took to my bed for the customary number of hours and felt much better at the end and was even able to go into Barcelona to meet a prospective pupil who wanted English conversation. This is a contact from the brother of a colleague and all four of us met in the centre of Barcelona in the unexpected courtyard of an arts institution with tables set around a central fountain on whose central jet an egg was rapidly rotating. (Don’t ask!) Sitting amount the vegetation we sipped glasses of wine – or at least they sipped glasses of wine and I had my Vichy water – at least it had bubbles!

My first “lesson” will be on Monday evening and we will have to see how it all goes.

Saturday has seen the augmentation of my previous progress to full health and a stable stomach.

I have swum and lain on the Third Floor and all things have been well.

Roll on Sunday!