Friday, February 29, 2008

Hearing is not convincing

It comes to something that the highlight of my week was winning the ‘Best Kept Classroom’ award!

To the absolute delight of my class the scrap of card outlining our success was handed over in the only assembly of the week this afternoon.

I am now noted for my ability to transform dull certificates to things of wonder by lavish use of garish border strips and glitter pens. Take it from me the reality is even worse than you can imagine. It proceeds from the suppressed imagination of a primary teacher manqué that I must have been for most of my educational career! Perhaps it’s best not to go there; some fugitive thoughts are better left running than being tied down and considered!

I have recently been trying to remember the last time that I read a book. I barely remember what they look like, let alone remember what they feel like and what they contain. In a foreign country there are strategies for obtaining reading material; you just need to think before you panic.

In the staff room there is a shelf devoted to novels in English. I have to say that they reflect the gender imbalance that is inherent in teaching. The titles are not encouraging and I’ve never heard of the authors. Not a good start, but also offering the possibility of an unexpected delight.

You could also buy English books, though I have to say that they are far less ‘available’ than I would have expected. Even in Barcelona they are no as readily apparent as I would have hoped.

The last way is to buy them from the internet, though I have to admit that I have only bought one book using this method since I have been in Spain.

What I really miss is the cheap book shop. With books in English! We have a cheap quality book shop in Castelldefels, but, apart from a couple of cheap art books, it does not satisfy.

It is perhaps all for the good as all the shelves that I have are at present occupied with ‘essential’ books. Each new compact volume in the Great Artists of Catalonia series poses a new storage problem. There are some jejune and callow commentators who might say that the ‘problem’ could be solved by my taking some books back to Bluespace and the cold, heartless prison where the rest of my books languish.

I was hoping for a job in Secondary so that I could justify releasing the rest of The Bluespace Thousands and bringing back the exiles into the warmth of human contact. The school in Castelldefels has stymied that plan, so the Siberian banishment of my volumes continues.

Virtually every day, and sometimes more than once during the day, I think of books that I want to dip into. Hearing of the success of ‘No Country for Old Men’ made me think of other Yeats poems that I wanted to look through – without the hassle of having to bring them all up on the internet.

There is something inhuman about reading a poem on a screen, let alone a poem magicked from improbable pixels floating around the web. Unless I have the comfort of the hard reality of cool, flat, smooth pages to caress then an essential aspect of the reading experience is lost.

I always used to wonder when listening to Desert Island Disks about the veracity of certain musicians who were on the programme. Ray Plomley, the only authentic voice of the programme, used to ask the guests, after they had chosen their eight records if they would rather have the scores of the music rather than a performance. When some of them replied that they would rather have the scores I always assumed that they were showing off and they couldn’t possibly ‘hear’ the music from rows of funny shapes symbols on the page.

It was only much later when I imagined being given the opportunity to respond to the ‘which eight gramophone records would you choose to have with you’ that I thought about how I would respond if, instead of music, the recordings were of poems.

Suddenly the ‘pretentious’ musicians’ requests for scores became more understandable. Imagine the poem from which the film title ‘No Country for Old Men’ is taken being recited by your favourite actor or personality. Imagine the dark velvet of Burton’s voice sonorously telling the verses of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: an initial delight at such voluptuous indulgence hearing Yeats’ poem read by Our Richard would soon degenerate into irritation and then revulsion at the unchanging nature of the delivery. Far, far better to have the words and then begin to imagine the perfect rendition in your head than hear a performance which is, but its very nature, static.

There are some lines in poetry which I have never even come close to saying in a way which I find even remotely satisfactory.

One such phrase is the rather bewildering “silence in the echo.”

Never been able to get that one right.

And that’s from a poem I wrote myself, so I really should know how to say it!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The clock is ticking!

Do you know how to turn your fog lights on?

This was a pressing problem while ducking in and out of tunnels and in and out of patches of fairly thick mist on the way to work. As usual there were the suicidal and homicidal drivers who rushed past as if the sun were shining in a clear sky! I’d like to say that such idiotic driving were the exclusive preserve of Catalan drivers but, alas driving in Wales in fog will show that the general IQ level of a considerable minority of drivers is slightly lower than your average pebble.

I eventually twiddled the right sort of stalk protruding from the steering wheel and found a reassuring image light up. I have no idea whether I have front and back fog lights; further jiggling of the stalk only succeeded in turning off the little logo

My second day as a vegetarian in school: today rice, salad, omelette with an indescribable milk confection which tasted wholly artificial in spite of the assurance that it was 85% milk. I suppose that the other 15% allowed the manufacturer to pack in every E number known to European artificial additive experts!

Illness and injury has reduced the staff in the school to crisis levels and two threatened resignations in the science department of the secondary section of the school were they to happen tomorrow, would reduce us to a state beyond chaos.

I can hardly wait!

The weather continues to be far below expectations. I await the return of the sun with anxious impatience.

We are looking around for another flat because we are still reeling from the buying of a new bloody tap for the landlord. A Mercedes driving multi property owning person too tight to replace an old faulty tap in one of his own properties!

We have a hard life.

As you can tell, I’m not really into writing this evening – things are waiting to happen.

Wait and see!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Good Life is Good for You!

Tired and drained? Why not try a lobster paella with a sturdy house vino tinto and a mediocre crema catalana?

It worked for me! There is nothing like a good meal (even with a putrid postre) to take your mind away from the day to day problems of life and get them on to something more useful and productive!

In school: injury, illness and accident seem to be claiming a higher and higher percentage of the teaching population. There seems to be no ‘fall back’ plan to ensure that pupils continue to be taught apart from the ‘can you ask your friend if he will give a hand?’ sort of approach. When I asked about agencies for supply teachers for International Schools I was met with blank looks – there is obviously a niche in the market waiting to be filled with work for desperate teachers who thought that Catalonia was a cheap place to live and are now having to find a job to pay the rent.

Next week is Ski Week and one of my colleagues is joining the kids (for the après ski as far as I can tell) and to care for the casualties as they merrily fracture the necessary bones to make Ski Week a success.

As only a few of the kids are going on the trip, others who are going to be left behind in school are going to take the week off: I only hope that a substantial portion of my class is going to do the same! Isn’t private education a wonderful thing!

Talking of wonderful things; from casual gossip around the usually deserted staffroom I understand that events such as ‘parents evening’ and ‘open mornings’ are about to occur. I have no idea what form these occasions take, but, from my experience of they way in which this school does everything they promise to be outré and other worldly. I await with wide eyed innocence the surrealistic phantasmagoria that such ordinary events must surely generate. At least they will be near Easter so that there can be a degree of recovery and revitalisation for the succeeding term!

I have heard nothing from the school in Castelldefels and today was the date by which people were supposed to have been informed if they had made the short list for interview.

I don’t know whether to be depressed, elated, mystified, angry or phlegmatic about this apparent rejection. My CV read like a description of an amalgam of Kent Clark, RAB Butler and Roald Dahl with a few minor sporting details thrown in. I suppose, if I am truthful, that my secondary career seems like a distant twisted dark dream rather than a concrete reality on which to build a career in a new country, but still, I mean, even so, what are my rivals going to have in their CVs which will equal mine? Apart, of course, from a rather more immediate contact with the target pupils. And a rather more immediate date of emerging into the rat race!

We shall see.

Especially as I already have an hour’s experience of working in the Castelldefels institution already!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The memory of times past!

No more night school!

The chore of having to go to the local language school and teach a small group of 11+ kids is at an end!

Having now acquired the social security number which makes you a real person in the eyes of the local and national government, I can discard this element of my professional life like (as Quentin Crisp so elegantly put it in quite another context) used Hershey Bar wrappers.

The rate of pay offered by this institution is so low that it pushes my mind back to those long gone days when I worked for Securicor. The rate of pay in that iniquitous organisation was five shillings. 25p. Believe me that was not much then, let alone now!

The sickest aspect of working at Securicor was the in-house magazine.

The quality of this organ is perhaps best summed up by the fact that Ray Gunter (there’s a name from Labour’s murky past!) wrote an article praising capitalism either directly or by implication. I have to admit that my memory is hazy on this issue because a red mist clouded my eyes as I read further into the mendacious rubbish that Gunter (ex Labour cabinet minister) wrote. He was, I think, part of the management of Securicor (if not the chair) which emphasised and gloried in the fact that it was a ‘mutual’ company.

To explain this adjective there was a little drawing looking like something that an earnest clergy man would draw to explain the complexities of the Trinity to a credulous child (autobiographical!) This was to reassure employees that everything was working together for their benefit in this best of all possible worlds. 25p an hour. I think that speaks for itself!

There were also photographs of impossibly heroic guards in Securicor uniforms who had fought off dastardly robbers who had dared attack the Securicor vans containing the canvas bags full of money that were being transported to various banks.

The caption to the photograph would detail all the horrific injuries that the guard had sustained and show a smiling member of management handing the bandaged guard a cheque for a pathetic twenty quid! Mutual company indeed! The only lesson I took from this magazine was ‘if attacked do nothing and, short of offering to load the money into the thieves' car, do anything they say.’

I was once given a truncheon when we went out to collect money and was told, ‘whatever happens don’t use it.’ Happy days!

I have been trying to work out the last time in my life that I worked for so little as the pittance offered by the language school and I think that I have to go back twenty years or so! Allowing for inflation I think I got more in Securicor than in present day Castelldefels!

Anyway, all of that was this morning; this is this evening.

A zoo out of season (and believe me, February makes the zoo the province of school parties not of real human beings) is a bleak sort of place.

For a start all the food outlets appeared to be closed – a tragic reality for a lazy teacher who has relied on easy access sustenance rather than the hard slog of a home packed lunch.

Secondly, the animals seem totally bored by the neophyte visitors. They are like seasoned old pros that are only prepared to work at 50% for an audience that doesn’t have sufficient clout!

My perpetual reservations about zoos surfaced when observing crocodile like reptiles in pools barely their length and certainly not their width/length – if you see what I mean. Lions, panthers and tigers pacing their allotted spaces with practised monotony all added to my unease.

But then there are the penguins.

Rather a motley crew in Barcelona Zoo, but still - penguins!

I do find them endlessly fascinating, but they also point up one of the flaws in the ‘but-zoos-are-there-to-help-endangered-species-survive’ philosophy.

Since when were penguins an endangered species? They are not in zoos because of their precarious situation in the world of non human animals; they are they because human animals find them so fetching. Well, this human certainly does!

Apart from the fact that zoos present me with concrete evidence to refute my passionately help conviction that giraffes do not exist. What is their function? Zoos that is?

Do you believe in giraffes? Hippos, crocodiles, chameleons and rhinos: I can take all of these unlikely creatures in my stride; but giraffes? No! A thousand times no!

Have you seen a giraffe gallop or glide or float or whatever the correct term for a running giraffe is? It is like a Dalí fuelled dream of an augmented Afghan Hound: it is impossible poetry in motion.

My case rests. Giraffes do not, have not, can never exist.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Scream or screen?

The screen has arrived!

Never mind the events rocking the world outside the small sector of education which is my professional life; the screen for my OHP has arrived.

This now leads, of course, to phase three of the operation to get what I want. I now have to start the process to get pens, spare bulbs and OHP transparencies. It’s a long hard slog to get anything in this school and each step in getting something takes so much effort that you start to wonder if it is worth it.

I have rearranged the classroom and put the desks in islands so that I can have access to all pupils. I’m not sure that it quite works, but I will see what it’s like for a few days before I institute any further changes.

It’s sad, but I am genuinely excited by the change that something as generally insignificant as a screen can bring to a classroom. I obviously need to get out more!

We are getting nearer to the end of term and so long term planning for the last term of the year is necessary. I am going to be initiated into the sacred mysteries of planning is it is understood on the distant planet in a far universe which is my school.

I have applied for another job but, in the contrary way in which these things work, the interviews for the school (which is in Castelldefels) are going to be held in London! Why are things never straightforward? (Rhetorical)

Tomorrow the zoo. I have never been to the zoo in Barcelona and don’t really know what to expect. I have mixed feelings about zoos. Early memories of Bristol Zoo are coloured by animals confined in cages which were much too small for their natural movement and produced forms of animal madness which resulted in pacing to and fro in their cells. It made their observation even more of a guilty voyeuristic experience.

I am not convinced by zoos’ new found altruistic mission to act as a sort of ark for endangered species rather than the chamber of curiosities of the animal kingdom that was their original conception.

I wait to be converted. Though with my class in close attendance it is perhaps not giving the institution a fair chance. There again, if it is truly convinced about its mission in life it should be convincing under trying circumstances.

I hope there is somewhere nice for lunch!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tea is life!

There are few things that show up the vulnerability of the British than a faulty kettle.

It is never a pleasant thing to discover that you are a walking, talking, thirsty stereotype!

The bloody light on the kettle wouldn’t come on, and that reassuring rumble of 2Kw of electric power surging into action was silenced. My default approach to electronic equipment which fails to work is to hit it. If that fails to work then to hit it again. And again.

This tripartite pugilistic approach actually brought the light back on!

Then it failed to work again. My world stopped. Life without tea. Unthinkable!

You might, were you not British, consider heating up water in a saucepan. But it is not the same. Any Brit worth his tea bags can tell when water has been heated in this way rather in a bona fide saucepan. Heating water in a saucepan is the sort of thing that someone who heats milk to put in tea would do. And that, as Lady Bracknell would say, puts one in mind of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And we all know what that unfortunate event led to!

The misery of tea-less existence was augmented by the misery of dripping taps.

The tap in Toni’s bathroom was leaking. This being a rented flat we informed the thieving bastards who masquerade as estate agents and who are supposed to represent our interests as tenants. To my speechless amazement we were informed that the replacement of the tap would be the responsibility of us, the tenants! After five months of living in the flat we had to replace an old tap. Why? Well, we were told, those things which we use ‘every day’ were our responsibility to replace. A light bulb I can understand; but a tap? Since when have taps only lasted seven months? Our new tap will be there for the increasing of the wealth of our Mercedes driving landlord long after we have left. The simple injustice of this system takes my breath away!

We have now replaced the tap and emptied our wallets. I was so annoyed by the whole episode that I bought myself some flowers; I have given up hope of Toni buying any. I also bought the next volumes in my double series of books which are on special offer with La Vanguardia newspaper.

The Grans Genis De L’Art a Cataluna has now reached the sixth volume and the painter Joan Miró. Miró is another Catalan artist with whom I have problems in appreciating. I have to say that this series of little books has managed in its limited space to produce a stimulating range of paintings from each artist which do encourage a retrospective interest. In Miró’s case there are some very interesting early works

which show little sign of the sparse faux juvenile symbolist surrealism that characterise his later years.

The National Geographic series on the Patrimonio de la Humanidad concentrates on Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Among the wealth of religious buildings which has been the staple of past volumes, it was refreshing to see industrial monuments in this volume together with the Bauhaus

and fossils!

The kettle has been replaced with a rather elegant Bosch model and I have purchased a cheap kettle to take to school for my classroom. The way in which the school day is organised in our place means that I can be without my Indian Drug for hours at a time. This is not good for me or the pupils I teach. A Briton without a regular tea fix is a basically unstable element in the educational system.

Infuse those leaves!

PS. This is blog number 400! That must mean something. Mustn't it?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Wipe it off!

Never let it be said that I do not make an impact in educational circles.

When I was in Llanedeyrn High School I was instrumental in getting the staff toilet paper changed from the hard Izal-sandpaper-type to soft Labrador-puppy-type paper. You really have to be a teacher and have worked in a ‘normal’ school to realise just how big an achievement something like that can be.

Educational discussion in schools divides into two camps: those saddos who actually know what the acronyms thrown around with increasing desperation in curriculum debate actually mean, and the rest who only contribute when the topic being argued about is something nice and understandable like on which side of the corridor pupils should walk.

In Llanedeyrn years ago, when the world was yet young and Sir Keith Joseph stalked the corridors of power with the wide eyed fanaticism of the undead, the key question in school was ‘Should pupils be allowed to wear their coats in school? I kid you not. I can remember with that verge-of-tears feeling which characterised my usual response to staff meetings the many hours which were devoted to this crucial question.

The staff always voted for the pupils to have to remove their coats as soon as they entered the building. I always proposed the abolition of a rule for which I could never see the point. Most of the staff ignored its enforcement, though they argued vociferously for its retention! This apparent paradox will be very familiar to all benighted souls forced to listen to educationalists trying their very best to make the world a worse place!

So what have I achieved in my present school?

It all stems from ‘a nice idea.’

I thought that it would be ‘a nice idea’ to have a ‘picture a week’ for my classroom. I thought of buying some cheap art book for the illustrations, cutting it up and putting a great work of art in a frame and changing it every week. A colleague suggested matching the Great Work of Art
with a contribution from a pupil and having a weekly pupil picture on the wall as well.

I priced a few cheap art books and a couple of frames. Total possible cost, around €40.

And there the idea floundered

In our school there is no petty cash. Radical ideas (sic) like this have to be passed along the chain of command and eventually be stymied by The Owner.

The idea of buying a cheap and cheerful art book and cutting it up was vetoed in favour of the more expensive alternative of using a colour photocopier! The buying of the frames has been lost in the Byzantine complexity of the ordering process.

The existence of a colour photocopier (heretofore a closely guarded secret) opened up possibilities.

On Friday, as part of the topic for our classes, my colour photocopying order of sculpture on roundabouts (don’t ask) reached the photocopying lady. There, alas, it was also seen by The Owner who looked at the sheets waiting to be copied and instantly devised a new regulation.

From now on, the laborious and lengthy process of getting a photocopy done in our school has an extra layer of administration. From now on, anyone who has the temerity to ask for colour photocopying has to get the form (don’t ask) countersigned by a unit manager.

Never let it be said that I couldn’t make my colleagues’ lives just that little bit more fraught.

Talking of fraught, we had good news in the Monday briefing at the end of school. From the start of the summer term, we were told, we could leave school as soon as our pupils were safely with their parents. This could mean that we would be able to leave school half an hour earlier.

By Friday this had been rescinded!

All members of staff had had a meeting with The Owner who told us that this was A Mistake. Next Year Something Might Happen. But not this year, oh no, not this year at all.

It says something for the lunacy which is the key operating factor of this school that this Renunciation was taken by everyone with phlegmatic indifference. Just another normal day in the Kafka novel that is our normal life here!

Thanks to Paul Squared, whose normal reading matter seems to be in the international section of the TES on line, I have been informed that there is a vacancy in the British School of Barcelona (here in Castelldefels) for an English teacher in the secondary part of the school.

I have sent in an application.

If nothing else it will save me the €10 a day getting to and from work along the expensive tunnel punctuated motorway to Sitges!

Here’s hoping!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Break a leg!

What drama queens young children are!

Tomorrow is the assembly for my class and I have written a short script to ensure that all members of the form get to say something. The problems of participation are exacerbated by the fact that some of the pupils find speaking in English of major difficulty.

Before you begin to wonder why there should be a language problem in a school which ostentatiously teaches through the medium of English, I might point out that any foreigners arriving in Catalonia with children of school age will find that state school teach through the medium of Catalan, not Spanish. For northern Europeans the prospect of teaching using English would appear to be the better alternative.

But that doesn’t mean that they actually speak English. I am not sure that I understand the deliberations that some of our parents have gone through to allow their children entry to our school.

So, some of our kids can’t really speak fluent English. That doesn’t stop them breaking down into floods of tears if they feel that they have fewer lines in that language than other more privileged speakers!

During our one and only rehearsal last thing this afternoon I could feel my dictatorial directorial impulses rising to the surface. These proclivities reached their apogee during the rehearsals for some play or other in Kettering High School when I found myself treating the actors like chess pieces and virtually throwing them around the stage to get them into position; hauling bodily the more recalcitrant members of the cast and unceremoniously plonking them where I, the dramatic mastermind, determined that they should be.

Limited, time; a few interruptions, howling pupils; unhelpful suggestions; last minute additions; even later deletions; improvisations; suppressed hysteria – all this for a bloody assembly. Just imagine what it would have been like if we had been putting on ‘King Lear’!

We will see what happens tomorrow.

I had hoped that this evening would be the last that I would have to go to our local language school and teach a handful of young secondary pupils English.

I gained (!) this job opportunity when nothing else appeared to be on the horizon and the two hours of teaching in the evenings seemed to offer the opportunity to gain the magic employment number which would make all other pen pushers in positions of importance in this country lessen their importunate demands for something to type into their computers and make me exist on their systems.

Almost as soon as I got this job I was fortunate enough to gain a full time job. It is difficult to let that sentence stand without making some cynical comment, but let it be, let it be.

Knowing that two evenings a week I would have to go to the language school and teach does not add to my store of human happiness and the laughably derisory payment that I am earning for my efforts makes the slog even less acceptable.

This evening was supposed to be the last time that I had to take the kids but I was met by a whining administrating begging for me to take them for a further week. I agreed, though I am at a loss to understand why: all I am doing is ensuring that the company continues to make a real profit while giving me an unreal pittance!

I need to have a glass of decent wine and stop this uncharacteristic whining!

At least that doesn’t cost the earth here!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

They Shall Not Pass!

After a few days of positively Welsh grey gloom, Castelldefels finally squeezed out a few minutes of vapid sunshine.

I have been in a foul mood, glaring at low cloud and shining pavements glistening with recent drizzle and rounding on convenient Catalans and demanding when the much vaunted constant sunshine of our stretch of coastline was going to lighten my day.

My day has not been particularly lightened by the Closure of the Door to the Ablutions in school. The threatened division of Administration and the Lesser Breeds (or teachers as they are sometimes known) actually came into force this morning. We were, therefore, locked into our section of the school – the only egress reported to the plucky band of dauntless educationalists by the Escape Committee was up the stairs, through the IT room, into the library, down the stairs to reception and then making a run for it!

The alternative toilet was reportedly ‘near the children’s toilets’ in itself a disagreeable and malodorous possibility.

With colleagues in tow I inspected the reputed toilet. It was through the same entrance as the kids, with girl kids to the left, boy kids to the centre and an unremarkable door with a badly cut out sign reading ‘Staff Toilets’ stuck on with outsize sellotape. The ‘toilet’ turned out to be a windowless hovel with luridly coloured bulbous plumbing accessories and no wash basin.

One does not want to appear precious, but one has one’s standards and a Stygian bog was not up to any of them.

I remarked to the headteacher that at the end of the period I Would Go To The Toilet. If the door to the acceptable loo was locked; the Stygian Bog was not acceptable, I would therefore immediately utilize the Escape Route and return home to make use of the more civilized facilities available in the flat.

My immediate colleague adjacent to my classroom, who has had the spark of professionalism extinguished from her eyes over the last few days evinced a lively desire to follow my example and walk out.

Big build up: inevitable anti climax.

Marching down from the library, car keys a-jingle in my pocket, the Door of Exclusion was ostentatiously open.

Defeat of stout party and return to normality.

Not really.

The atmosphere in the school is one of paranoid exasperation. If real financial commitments had not been made by my colleagues, and if they shared the callous disregard of the owner, the school would be minus the entire primary staff!

Added to the trials and tribulations of closed doors, non appearing photocopying and the usual petty restrictions, there have been murmurings that essential accompanying parents who want to come on the forthcoming trip to the zoo thus fulfilling the requirements of adult/pupil ratios are to be asked to make their own way to the zoo and then pay for their tickets.

Every day and in every way life is made just that little bit significantly more difficult.

On the positive side I have managed to finish reading ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed it.

That sort of opening immediately shouts the word ‘but’ at the reader and I do have a few ‘buts’ to add to the pleasure that I got from following the narrative.

This literary detective novel is, in its five hundred pages, wonderfully self indulgent. If you are a lover of melodrama and Grand Guignol then this is for you. That is not to say that it is vulgar; there are sections of the novel where the writing is a sheer delight, but you have to read tongue in cheek, if you will accept the clumsy cliché.

For me the style put me in mind of ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ and a sort of melange of Dickens, Trollope and a touch of Eliot (George that it, though T.S. could find a home here too!) Infuse the lot with more than a hint of Borges’ magic realism and you are almost there!

We follow the main character from his traumatic choice of book from the wonderfully evocatively named Cemetery of Forgotten Books to the final pages of the novel over a period of some twenty years and we are left to wonder who the hero (if there is one) of this novel is.

The characters we meet along the years are both mordantly realistic and whimsically grotesque but throughout all the action and time the city of Barcelona stands out as a palpable creation giving structure and literal geography to the narrative.

If this novel does not sustain the imagination and promise of the opening chapters, it does provide a stimulating kaleidoscope of picaresque entertainments along the way.

I recommend it with some enthusiasm.

And now to more soul destroyingly mundane concerns: I have to take the weekly (!) assembly on Friday and some sort of entertainment from my class is demanded.

Where is inspiration when I need it?


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Comrades Unite!

Simmering rebellion characterises the atmosphere in our school.

Things are not, as you might say, hunky dory. Apart from that being the first time that I have ever consciously written those words, it is also a grotesquely inadequate way to express the lack of normality that is our normal modus vivendi in this institution.

The meeting of the primary teachers last night produced a series of outspoken denunciations of the way in which the school is being run and the treatment of teachers that were shocking unless you happened to work there. We are working in conditions that would have precipitated a walk out in a more union orientated place than the one in which we have the dubious pleasure in spending the hours of daylight.

The latest piece of downright disrespectful lunacy that has been instituted by the vengeful owner is that a door leading to the office from the main body of the school should be locked because inconsiderate teachers have the temerity to bother the office staff while they go about their duties. Which are apparently not associated with the running of a school which astonishingly has teachers attempting to educate the young!

The ludicrous systems set up by an administrator who knows nothing of the practicalities of education make it inevitable that the office staff have to be asked for such banal things as paper clips! Paper clips are an essential tool in the process which eventually results in photocopies being produced. The same photocopying which has not been done since last Friday; the designated (and thoroughly decent) member of the office staff having been absent and then diverted to other tasks. The result is that carefully worked out lesson plans have all crumbled into ad hoc nothingness.

But the locked door, which effectively imprisons us in our work, also cuts us off from the only toilet available for staff use! The spiteful, autocratic and vindictive action has succeeded in uniting the staff in a spasm of shocked outrage.

This morning, with emails flying like poisoned darts, the locked door magically opened and stayed open for most of the day. In a spirit of heady individuality I not only went through the forbidden door, but also entered the out of bounds administration area and spoke to people I should not have. Excitement indeed!

This cannot go on.

Except of course, it has gone on since September!

Now is the time for members of staff to let out a hollow laugh of incredulity when asked if they are considering staying on for next year. As far as I can see from the moment that staff arrived to take up their teaching posts, no effort whatsoever has been made by the owner to encourage loyalty and respect for her unsympathetic rule. There is every chance that, for the second year running, the entire primary staff will resign at the end of the year!

You would have thought that even the most thick-skinned proprietor would begin to question her approach when it is supported by the display of the backs of departing colleagues. But no! To paraphrase one of her alleged remarks when questioned about the ludicrous turnover of staff, “McDonalds has the same turnover of staff and they are OK.” Breathtaking inanity!

Meanwhile the reading of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ continues apace. I particularly liked the following: “In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding on the spine of a book eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams.”

‘Riding the spine of a book’ seems like a phrase specifically designed to please me and a ready made title for a book itself!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Learn to love it!

How bad can shopping really be?

Toni has what amounts to a pathological hatred of the whole process. This is part of that kaleidoscope of human response which finds no sympathetic response in me.

In spite of living for so long in literature, where the people you meet are not necessarily those who you would wish to be living in your street, or indeed in many circumstances in your universe, I find that I have more in common with the reprobates of the great tragic Russian novels than with a person who does not regard shopping as an essential element of civilized living!

Shopping for Essentials this morning was the usual high tension affair with Toni pacing along the aisles like a highly strung aesthete sipping a crème de menthe thrown among the laager drinking loping canaille. I do realize that the last image is somewhat inappropriate but trying to give an adequate impression of Toni’s lack of ease doing something which should be joyous does tempt me into the areas of literary desperation!

A Sunday morning is the time when most of the population of Castelldefels seems to take the opportunity to visit their local shops to load up on the weekly necessities. In Spanish and Catalan shopping trolleys there always seems to be more bulk because of the iniquitous need to purchase bottles of water as the stuff which comes through the taps is so vile – safe, but vile!

Who, I ask you, dispassionate reader of these lines, who does not find the range of something as mundane as bleach laid out in serried rows for our delectation fascinating. Bleach, you might say, is bleach. But such a simplistic statement ignores the combined efforts of grasping capitalism aided and abetted by an equally grasping advertising industry. Different bottle shapes, colours, sizes, type faces, properties, strengths, viscosities and scents – not to mention prices. Faced with such variety; such a plethora who can resist at least pausing and marvelling at the range and choice offered in the most ordinary and humble of household liquids?

Or perhaps it’s just me.

On safer ground I have just started reading ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The opening conceit of the book, that there exists in Barcelona The Cemetery of Forgotten books where, “books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands,” is one which appeals strongly to me.

The novel itself takes the form of a sort of detective story as the hero of the novel tries to discover more of the life of the novelist whose book he chooses on his first visit to this magical place.

The direction of the novel reminded me of the remarkable book ‘Quest for Corvo’ by A. J. A. Symons where the ostensible academic research for a literary biography was actually the basis for a much more revealing study of the subject and the author.

After a couple of hundred pages I can see why this novel has been translated from Spanish and why it has sold over seven million copies around the world! It is the sort of book that you read dreading its conclusion because there will be no more to read!

The computer I am using is becoming skittish and the research that I was supposed to have done over the weekend has been a little more stressful that it should have been.

How far we have progressed when what would have taken hours to find and download is now intolerable when it takes more than a few seconds!

Perhaps I should remember those happy frustration filled days when Windows 3.1 was the operating (!) system of choice and be grateful that we have progressed so far.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

A time to note

It has taken me the whole of my professional life and the move to another country, but I have now matched my mother in her first year of teaching.

My first salary from my new school doesn’t cover the cost of my monthly rent.

My mother’s first job was subsidised by my grandparents. Alas! I am bereft of the immediacy of family who can be tapped for easy money, so, in a way the horror is all the more poignant.

My pay slip is an A4 page of incomprehensibility; apart that is, from the deductions. These are all too obvious and I find it difficult to be jocose about the amount ripped from my fragile salary by convincing myself that I am merely paying my dues to my adopted country!

My ‘basic’ salary is so pathetically small that I hesitate to disclose it, but it is augmented by a list of ‘additions’ which Toni informs me are absolute rubbish. The advantage from the point of view of Scrooge like people who pay (I use the term lightly) my salary is that these ‘additions’ can be changed at a moment’s notice and a passing whim. The disadvantage from the point of view of the Cratchit like recipient (my good self) is that my money can diminish beyond the point of incredulity – and all done legally.

If the law allows that (to paraphrase one of my great heroes worthy to sit alongside Satan from Paradise Lost and Iago) then the law is a ass; a idiot!

I am assuming, for the sake of my sanity and my bank balance, that there has been some sort of mistake. I will have some critical and hopefully lucrative discussions with the Powers that Be! If not: who knows!

My lack of clacking at the typewriter keys for the last few days has been because Ceri and Dianne have been visiting.

An odd visit. Not because of Ceri and Dianne, I hasten to add. An odd visit because for the first time since I have known them both our holidays have not been for the same days. My half term holiday (if it can be graced with such a title when the days of non education were so preciously few) was the week before Britain.

Their holiday had been arranged months ago when Easyjet was reasonably priced and before I had discovered my previously well hidden vocation for primary education.

This meant that I was not able to meet them at the airport not was I able to let them into the flat when they arrived!

Problems were solved by the generous help of our local French newsagent who kept her shop open so that my visitors could pick up the keys. Vive la France!

What could have been a leisurely meander through some of the more interesting parts of Catalonia was instead compressed into three evenings – or more exactly three opportunities for aperitifs, meals and digestifs! And talk. And talk. It makes you realise who and how much you miss certain things when you move to a foreign country!

On the last evening when we were sitting, rather defiantly, out on a cooling balcony, we had news of the untimely death of a friend and colleague.

The last few months have been characterised by deaths and their effects have always been revealingly unsettling.

Loss has been partially counterbalanced by the reestablishment of communications with a couple who I knew in my first year of teaching in Kettering in Northamptonshire.

It was my great good fortune to start my teaching career in Kettering Boys’ School in the days when it had achieved international fame because a pupil astronomical club within the school had been the first to announce the launch of a Soviet space rocket to the world – beating the Americans with all their technology!

I of course had heard nothing of this when I arrived for my interview and was far more impressed with the reproductions hanging in the secretary’s office: Rowlandson, Lear (he of the limericks) and Girtin. I was much more impressed when what I took to be tasteful reproductions turned out to be originals!

These artistic treasures were part of the legacy of H. E. Bates (he of “the past is another country”) who was an old boy of the school.

Interviewed by the headteacher and the head of governors, I later visited the home of the latter to view a spare room that she had. She was the wife of the vicar of Barton Seagrave and I soon took up residence in the grandly named St Botolph’s House, St Botolph’s Road in the village. St Botolph’s House was the clergy house; joined to the vicarage, but separate from it. The deacon was living more centrally in the parish and so I had extensive if sparsely furnished accommodation. It was also extensively leaky and bloody cold: but it was Somewhere! The vicar once rather disparagingly if rather wonderfully referred to my part of the vicarage as “Napoleonic jerry building!”

The vicar and his wife were my immediate neighbours and we soon became friends. Who else can say that he had a weekend away with the vicar’s wife in his first year of teaching? It was (I hasten to add) because she and I were English teachers and we went to Stratford to see all three parts of ‘Henry VI’ over two days!

The vicar was notable for delivering sermons that were worth listening to and he was a patient and scholarly listener to my enthusiastic (if untutored) philosophical and theological ramblings and always took the Socratic method of gently bringing me back to academic earth! For which much thanks.

After a hiatus of some years we have regained our annual corresponding link and I feel as if a well worn of the jigsaw has been gently eased back into the wider picture of my life.

In school (which continues to astonish) the saga of my non appearing screen is now approaching epic proportions.

My Welsh visitors brought not only their good selves, but also a supply of OHP photocopying sheets; OHP pens and ordinary OHP transparencies. They also brought a whistle. The red (red?) whistles issued by my present school are visually unprepossessing and practically useless: one good blow and the pea implodes. Thanks to Bob I now have a black plastic professional model on a lanyard which is stridently assertive.

Tomorrow the photographing of sculpture on roundabouts.

Don’t ask, merely wonder at the range of excitement that defines my life at present!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ah the tyranny of inarticulate youth!

After an excellent lunch of fideuá negro the family returned to the flat after a short excursion to the beach. A partial watching of Harry Potter in Spanish to the accompaniment of Catalan pop music to which Toni’s two year old nephew danced with some exuberance led to a perceived need for coffee and cake.

When I asked Toni’s sister if she would like cake, she indicated her infant son, waved a rusk in the air and said that he had something already. “And the rest of us?” I asked innocently. She paused for a moment, registered that there were six other humans in the room apart from her son, and started laughing.

And another son is on the way. She is going to be hermetically isolated from human kind if she is not careful!

Tomorrow Ceri and Dianne for a strange holiday in which we are only gong to be able to see them in the evenings as our holidays do not tie in with the half term in Britain.

We have been having glorious weather recently and I only hope that it continues for the few days that they are here. They are going to have a holiday where they use the flat more like a hotel with our meeting for dinner! Whatever! It will be good to see them as it seems such a long time ago when they were last in Barcelona.

Meanwhile there is the ever present lunacy of school waiting for me tomorrow as well.

Plus ça change!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Licenced to bemuse!

What an extraordinary title for the new Bond film: ‘Quantum of Solace.’

How do highly paid publicity people manage to come up with titles like this? Don’t they have focus groups and try outs and all sorts of things to ensure that they don’t get a repeat of ‘You’re never alone with a Strand?’

Although, I suppose that the Strand advert, though a disaster for the cigarettes that it was advertising, continues to exist as one of the most famous how-not-to-do-it pieces of advertising history. The name of Strand is still spoken of even if the brand itself faded into the smoke. Or, indeed, lack of it in the case of that particular cigarette!

Is ‘quantum’ like ‘nano’: a word which evokes elements of the scientific even if most people (including me) don’t necessarily know its precise definition? With ‘quantum’ even the particle physicists don’t really know what they are talking about. Hardly suprising when they talk of things in one place and then in another but cannot explain how they got there except by the phrase ‘quantum jump’ where the journey is apparently not the sort where you have to travel the boring bits between destinations. Where indeed normal physics does not apply! I think I know that liquid helium flows upwards when it is at a certain temperature: but even in this case when the substance is apparently defying gravity you can still see where it is going!

‘Quantum’ has a sort of magic that evokes all sorts of responses without the necessary tedium of having to know what it means. The sort of catalytic scientific word beloved of advertisers to add academic cachet to a description of toothpaste to reassure the user that the white coated boys in the backroom have been slaving over their test tubes and Bunsen burners to bring you the full force of the white hot heat of the technological revolution.

My old Sinclair computer was called the QL – which stood for Quantum Leap – was indeed a jump ahead of the commercial opposition all those years ago. It was black and sleek and had tenchological ideas above its station. Who, among those who owned one, can ever forget the quaintly absurd invention of the ‘micro drive’! Who, among those who owned one, can ever forget those lost hours as the machine ignored increasingly desperate typed command; or hours of work simply disappeared as the key board froze. Ah, happy days!

The most recent use in the commercial world of the word ‘quantum’ is in association with Gillette shavers where the addition of an extra blade in the shaving head seems to merit the addition of this overblown scientific appellation.

The advert is even more interesting in that it has two white coated extras apparently adding some sort of glowing material to what looks like a particle accelerator! I suppose you have to admire their ‘thinking through’ of the visual implications of their choice of word, but the reality is boringly prosaic.

So, at least I can partially understand the choice of the first word in the title of a film in a series of films which relies unashamedly on the (literally) explosive nature of cutting edge technology (who can forget the laser beam cutting its way through metal on its inexorable way to Sean Connery’s crotch?

But ‘solace’? A wonderful word but how many people know its meaning? To me ‘Quantum of Solace’ sounds like those mysterious titles from British colonial history: The Begums of Oudah or the Ankor of Watt – I may be confusing history, geography and literature here; didn’t Edward Lear write about something similar? But I hope you get my point.

It turns out that ‘Quantum of Solace’ is actually an obscure short story by the Man himself, Fleming. Since the makers of Bond films show shown themselves perfectly capable of ‘expanding’ Fleming’s original conception to unrecognizable proportions, the fact that they still seem to need that touch of authenticity to link to the stories is rather touching!

I suppose that ‘Quantum of Solace’ still has a way to go until it catches up with the idiotic ‘Night Of The Day Of The Dawn Of The Son Of The Bride Of The Return Of The Revenge Of The Terror Of The Attack Of The Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 3’ (

Friday, February 08, 2008

The kettle that never boils

The kettle’s gone!

Our compact and bijoux staffroom boasted, until today, a coffee machine and a kettle. The coffee machine was rarely used, but the kettle was a popular item of staff sustenance.

The only problem with the kettle was the lid. This was insecurely placed on the top of the device and when boiling water was poured out; it fell off and scalded unwary hands that thought they were safe.

The tried and tested technique to avoid personal injury was to allow the thing to boil; switch it off; then with an expert flick of the index finger send the insecure lid flying thus allowing the more painful gush of stem to dissipate itself allowing the safeish pouring of water into the receiving receptacle.

This labour intensive and fairly dangerous method of procuring a cup of tea or coffee needed to be changed by the simple expedient of buying a new kettle. This solution was not really rocket science but in my school such thinking was regarded as dangerously radical. One thinks of Galileo and the repressive Roman church.

My suggestion that we simply buy one out of petty cash was greeted with incredulity. We don’t have any petty cash in my school.

The buying of a new kettle for the staff room needed discussion, planning and the writing of emails resulting in the writing of an order on an official order form.

Then nothing. No kettle. No action.

Until today.

The reason for replacing the kettle: that it was dangerous suddenly (after two terms of using it in its present state) precipitated its immediate removal from the staff room.

And nothing was put in its place. And nothing was planned to put it its place.

It’s a perfect example of how the school operates: petty bloody-mindedness augmented by officious obstruction. A minor (if possibly fatal) inconvenience inexplicably worsened to the detriment of staff comfort.

You can expand what is rapidly coming to be known as The Kettle Affair to cover all aspects of life in the school: bugger education is the colour of the requisition form for essential equipment the correct shade of puce.

One of the few Latin quotations I know (apart from salis populi suprema est lex, of course) is Ex Africa semper aliquid novi – there is always something new out of Africa. I now understand what that quotation means when I think of the novel and idiotic that pours from that alleged seat of learning every live long day!

Again and again I have to keep telling myself that this is actually real life and not some grotesque farce being played out for my amusement.

But every day, in spite of everything, kids are taught and most show every indication that they are enjoying their education. It’s amazing what teachers can produce in spite of the petty, stupid and self defeating restrictions imposed by people who know nothing of the educational process that they are there to promote!

One could say that this is yet another case of 'tell me the old, old story!'

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Complete Complexity

Windows is up to its old tricks again!

In a moment reminiscent of the frightening old days of Apple messages like “Fatal System Error!” complete with graphic of a round bomb with fizzing fuse a message flashed up as I was using Word which basically informed me that everything that I had typed was lost and gone and would ne're return.

I entertained a faint hope that the incomprehensible information which sometimes appears to the left of the Word page telling me that Word has recovered something or other would spring into action and allow me to find the typing which simply vanished.

No such luck. Word will not be mocked by mere faith that things will work out.

So here we go again.

Not only is the evil disseminated through the world by the ever diabolically resourceful Mr Gates now working against me through the mechanism of World but also my screen has not shown up in school.

In spite of producing a colour photograph of the screen; the price; the part number; the address of the firm; its web site; its dimensions and the colour of the managing director’s eyes it failed to produce item in the school. It eventually transpired that I had not written out the information on the correct order form. So nothing was done. When asking for the Correct Order Form I discovered that none were actually available in the staff room. And no one knew where they might be had.

After asking five people for the Correct Order Form and getting no further forward in my quest, I eventually found someone who remembered that she had seen one sometimes in the recent past or at least knew where one might be found.

Clutching the Correct Order Form I filled in exactly the same information that I had given on the previous sheet. And nothing happened.

I am now in the Harry and Confuse phase of my plan of attack in getting a screen. I daily and duly pester people who I think might have some leverage and ask plaintive questions about screens and arrival. Things have reached that particular form of stasis which comes when the whole life of an institution is challenged through the bottleneck of a single person whose dead hand slows everything to a funereal dead march.

At the moment I am using pens which are inappropriate for OHPs on transparencies which have been provided by one of my colleagues from a previous school augmented by a donation by me from a previous educational institution, ahem.

There are no OHP pens or spare bulbs and I lack the necessary energy to start a campaign for them until I have the screen safely in my room.

This may take some time.

I am beginning to appreciate the excesses of the city which gave its name to the adjective which exemplifies the Heath Robinsonianly unnecessarily impossibly complex: Byzantine. Our school would seamlessly fit into the bygone world of the dynasty of Palaeologus. I have discovered that both literally and figuratively Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ fits the experience of teaching in our school!

Imagine what I would have been writing if I had needed textbooks!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

It simply isn't done!

Just think.

At one time the growth of the computer was supposed to lead to the paperless office and from there to a paperless world.

It’s not even laughable is it?

Today (the last day of my oh so short holiday) was spent trying to control my temper after a visit to the agents for the flat and disagreeing with the assessment that they and the owner have made about certain payments for the repair of a tap. The rest of the day was occupied with sorting the papers by which my life is apparently ruled.

Spain likes paper; especially greyish coloured paper with an inky stamp on it. This would indicate that something has been photocopied (they love photocopying things) and by reason of the stamp has entered some sort of archive (they love making piles of paper and stapling them together and putting them away carefully) and thereby becoming wonderfully and terminally Official with a capital O.

Because any odd sheet of paper with reference numbers on it is treated with the same reverence that High Church Anglicans reserve for the similarly reserved Host it is essential that you go into any conflict with The Society of Paper Pushers (i.e. the whole of Spanish Mercantile, Political and Cultural life) it is best to have MAD. This acronym does not stand for Mutually Assured Destruction from those happy years of living a couple of minutes to midnight on the Atomic Clock, but rather for Manifold Augmented Documentation.

The on going joke (which isn’t funny once you’ve actually experience it) in this country is whatever documentation you bring with you to any bureaucratic confrontation you will always not have one essential piece of paper and you will Have To Come Back Tomorrow.

My documentation is now in such order that I will be able to go back in the afternoon of the same day rather than the next!

Toni has already consulted the lawyer in the family about the legality of the flat owner’s position and in the absence of a clear answer our anger continues to simmer.

Although it is a pity, because we are both happy in our present flat, we have to consider that if the owner is prepared to be petty about fifty quid or so, then what is he going to be like with the hundreds of pounds which is at the moment at his command in terms of the iniquitous Aval (don’t get me started!) and the two deposits that we had to give before we got the flat. It came as a very nasty surprise that we had to fork out almost a year’s rent in advance in various financial commitments before we were granted the privilege of paying our not inconsiderable rent!

Can you tell it still irks?

So filled with fury and indignation after the iniquitous actions of people not doing exactly what I want them to, the pressing question was how to dissipate such an unproductive feeling.

Yet again the good old menu del dia, eaten in the sun with vino tinto and casera came to the rescue. By the time that I reached the fideuá my mood was mellow and the tarta Santiago
with an ice cold smidgen of muscatel in a tiny shot glass meant that the harsh memory of injustice had faded to a vague description in someone’s blog!

And in the later afternoon I sat in the sun on the balcony and failed to complete the quick crossword in the Guardian Weekly.

What better way to end the holiday?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't bank on it!

Far be it from me to use this blog as a weapon against institutions that, in my perception, as far from fulfilling their objectives.


When it comes to a bank like BBVA is becomes a positive duty to anathematize the whole bloody mess that has the temerity to style itself a financial organization.

They have managed, with that effortless idiocy that seems to be second nature to them, to cut our phone cut off! Admittedly the inconvenience has now been sorted out by a terrifying performance on the mobile by Toni who did a sort of replay of his masterly fury which was last vented on the hapless administration of our local health clinic.

The essential problem, of course, was bureaucracy. My initial account with BBVA (Rue the day! Rue the day!) was opened in Gran Canaria using my passport as proof of identity.

When I attempted to get at my money in a branch of BBVA in Terrassa in Catalonia with a renewed passport all hell broke loose. Spanish authorities do not understand the concept of having an identity card (i.e. a passport) on which the number can change. An identity card in Spain will have a number which will stay with the individual until death.

Eventually the problem was resolved after a less than edifying incident when I banged my hand on the bank manager’s desk and demanded all my money in cash immediately! Sometimes the histrionic can be the most effective form of rational discussion!

My account was transferred to the Spanish mainland and all seemed well with the world.


As a non Spanish person in Spain there are various degrees of who and what you are. As a British person in Spain you are a person from the EC and have a variety of rights. But, if you stay in Spain there are a variety of documents which begin to redefine your status. To live in Spain in some form of rented accommodation you have to prove, in a true Catch-22 style, that you already live in Spain! But to live in Spain you need to have proof that you live in Spain –and so it goes on back to infinity. There are ways of outwitting this piece of nonsense and, to be fair to the authorities, they do not seem seriously intent on checking the veracity of the assertions made.

If you manage to show that you actually do live in Spain you can get a document saying so, duly stamped by the local authority. This entitles you to another document showing that you are a foreigner (!) living in Spain and this document is regularly called for, together with any others (a photocopy of your passport always – this is an official reflex request) that come to the mind of any petty bureaucrat to prove that you are who you say you are and you live where you say you live.

So far so complex.

But, as you wend your way further and further into the tortuous paper labyrinth bedecked with the magic reference numbers so beloved by Spanish officialdom, your status subtly changes. Each scrap of paper meshes you ever more closely into the system. It’s like one of those incomprehensible Treasure Hunts where you have to collect seemingly incomprehensible and irrelevant clues so that, at the end, all will be revealed and you can claim the prize.

I now estimate that I can be asked for at least fifteen different pieces of paper by officials before they are satisfied that I exist and am Part of The System.

The changes in my status also, apparently, affected my bank account so that it changed or metamorphosed during the various stages before it was fully formed. This, in turn, affected the standing orders that I had so that payment was not made because of the lava turning into a pupae or whatever the banking equivalent in the evolution of my account was. Whatever happened, money didn’t flow to the right people and the telephone didn’t flow either.

My bank, of course, naturally, why would they, who am I to question them, did not deem it necessary to inform me that there might be problems and then when there were blamed me for it!

Some things are international; transfer of blame to the customer being one of them.

The really interesting thing is that, given the accumulation of sheer bloody mindedness on the part of my present bank I am eager to change to another.

The only thing that holds me back is the depressing thought of the amount of paper work that will be involved.

Prepare the photocopier; I would not go unarmed into the den of banker!

Wish me luck!

Monday, February 04, 2008


A spectator in the narrow streets of Old Sitges does not necessarily get the most flattering view of the gaudy glitter that is Carnival.

Pressed against the house wall which is literally inches from the gutter to avoid the edge of the floats as they sway and bump their way millimetres from your knees means that you are close enough to see beneath the gauze and paint at the mere mortals clothed in plastic cloth of gold.

As they walked, gyrated, skipped, slid, danced, ran, shouted, sang, and bopped their way along a depressingly large number of them had fags hanging from the corner of their mouths and the rest were either drinking from plastic cups or looking for a drink.

A drink I might add which was not so well hidden in the various cubby holes and spaces on the floats. A few of them had unashamed bars which were kept busy keeping the dancers in the mood.

To be fair Carnival in northern Spain is not, I presume quite the same in terms of warmth as the sultry climate of Rio – and that being the case given the length of time that the dancers had to endure in the inhospitable cold of Sitges they could well be forgiven for needing something other than the Spirit of Carnival to keep them going!

In my little cwtch along the route I was flanked by two formidable French ladies who had spirited conversations through me until I accepted the inevitable and moved to let them speak together. By doing so I gave up my position next to the wall and as the evening dragged its weary way towards midnight, the lack of stiffening began to tell on my back!

I decided to use my Casio camera and put my trust in the high sensitivity setting, so that I would not have to use flash. I convinced myself that the grainy appearance would add to the atmospheric quality of the photos. We all have to kid outselves along from time to time!

The floats were not massive, but their size was obviously determined by what could get through the tortuous streets of Sitges and sometimes there was precious little room for manoeuvre.

The tight squeeze obviously told on the speed of the Carnival which dragged to a halt almost as soon as it had started the descent towards the sea. This meant that we had more than enough time to appreciate the dear drum destroying level of music being pumped out inches from our ears.

The floats were impressive, but only at a speed which brought them into view at a slow walking pace at least. Stasis is not good for a festival which by its very nature should be one of activity.

After over two hours of eventual float after eventual float I was frankly bored and was trying to escape. Unfortunately escape was impossible as any attempt would involve the escapee intimately in the Carnival. There was also a very young, very serious member of the local police force (complete with gun, uniform, floppy hat and stern demeanour) stopping anyone trying to get off the wafer narrow pavement.

Eventually after yet another lull, I made my bid for freedom only to be caught up in an Operation of Michael Jacksons, closely followed by a Death of Elvises. My penultimate freedom dash was stopped by yet another Frill of Brazilian Sambaists.

Then I broke: I made a mental decision to smash my way through anything that came after them. No matter pharaohs, spacemen, cowboys, owls, eighteenth century scantily dressed noblepersons,

germs, bees, Heidis, leathermen, Christopher Columbuses, char ladies, waiters, lions and gas salesmen (all of whom, I assure you, did pass me) I would scream my way through them all and get to the car.

As it happened I managed to escape and just missed the voodoo dancers who were lurking around the corner. I was frozen and could barely stagger to the car and escape!

Carnival needs alcohol and a seat.

And warmth.

Well, I shall put it all down to experience.

The next parade is on Tuesday. Late at night. In Sitges. Last chance before the rigors of Lent make such jollifications impossible.


Sunday, February 03, 2008


It rained.
It rains.
It will rain.

Not a good couple of days these lat couple of days, but there is always a band of light somewhere shining on the sea; that gleam of sun which Wales so often denied for weeks on end!

As if to match the weather the pollo from the place that we get Sunday lunch was sub standard as well.

And we didn’t win the Once.

There is just so much one can take; as long as one can dilute it with a little Rioja!

The good news, as relayed on my internet radio was the astonishing news that Wales had beaten England at Twickenham in the opening game of the Five, sorry, Six Nations Championship! I don’t want to be defeatist, but the tried and test scenario is now for Wales to burgeon with impossible self confidence, start talking immediately of The Triple Crown and convince themselves that the winning of The Grand Slam is a mere formality. Then comes the period of bitter recrimination when it doesn’t happen. I can imagine it all!

What this victory does do is that it allows me to enter school with head held high and look my English colleagues in the face. As we have Scots and Irish among the staff I feel there will be a group feeling of solidarity!

‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold was en engaging read. The opening sentences: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973,” are arresting. This is one of those few times that it is worth reading the epigraph, or preface where the girl Susie worries about the penguin in a snow globe. “Don’t worry, Susie,” says her father, “he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”

These two quotations give the reader the gist of the book. It is a realistic fantasy if that sort of description makes any sense. Told from the point of view of the murdered girl as she describes her life in her own developing Heaven and her excursions to earth to watch her family, friends and murderer.

The book’s concerns are those of loss, guilt and coping within the relentless narrative of life.

This is a modern fairy tale, but one in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm where killing, maiming and unbearable pain are an essential part of the story. I recommend it as an uncomfortable book which is not unnecessarily cruel. A most enjoyable read.

The weather does not encourage me to go to an overcrowded Sitges and spend an age trying to find a parking space for the car.

Perhaps Tuesday.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

More to learn!

Calçots in batter.

Just when you think that you have one aspect of foreign living sussed – they do something slightly different and you realise that you are still very much in the learning stage!

Another excellent menu del dia in the centre of Castelldefels just before retrieving Ceri’s working charcoal from the framers. This was the only real casualty in the move and so a nasty Habitat slip frame broke allowing the purchase of something rather more appropriate. And, of course, costing more than the original charcoal! Such is time and inflation – and buying the picture years ago!

Where to put it is an increasingly difficult prospect as I am disinclined to drill into virgin walls. The system of putting up sizable pictures here is two fixed hooks to fix into two eye screws on the frame. This has to be exact because there is no room for adjustment as far as I can see. Give me the old fashioned string at the back every time!

Today I picked up the third in the series of Catalan Artists from the newspaper: Gaudi. I have a few books on Gaudi and I assumed that this little monograph would not add much but I was mistaken as there were a number of pictures and views of edifices that I had not seen before. As the text is in Catalan I will have to use more imagination than knowledge to decipher what new insights the text might add!

The other book I bought today was the next volume in the National Geographic's Atlas Visual Patrimonies de la Human dad which this week was of France.

As you can imagine the wealth of buildings in France is a little overwhelming and the traditionally spectacular photographs of the National Geographic do more than adequate justice of their impossibly famous subjects.

The vast majority of buildings considered worthy to be part of the protected heritage of human kind are religious institutions. And those that aren’t, are royal. It is with conflicting emotions that one considers the disproportionate time, effort and money devoted to the construction in stone of monuments to the philosophically impossible and the politically inexcusable!

But often the sheer beauty of the proportions of some of those Gothic cathedrals and abbeys just takes the breath away. The Baroque is easy to resist and the French preoccupation with excessive ornamentation leaves me cold but the spaces that the Master Builders managed to create never fail to excite.

And the book is in Spanish, so at least I have a partial chance of understanding what it’s on about.

I am reading (as a Holiday Treat) a novel! I have chosen ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold. I should have finished this by tomorrow and write my response then.

I bet you can hardly wait!


Friday, February 01, 2008


The kids were as high as kites today in expectation of the King.

Not, I hasten to add, His Majesty King of Spain but an august personage of much more significance to the children: the Carnival King.

The entire school eventually settled down for the spectacle by nine thirty and awaited His Majesty whose first stop was our school.

Each section of the school from the very youngest toddlers to sixth formers put on a display of some sort ranging from a stomping march from the first classes to a spirited rendition of a line dance from the oldest.

My own kids found it very difficult to stay in their seats and anxiously awaited the arrival of their spectator parents before they finally settled down on firing the odd question to me to explain the non arrival of the Carnival King.

When he finally arrived on a golden throne on the back of a lorry complete with police escort and musicians who comprised a band of instrument players and a troupe of drummers the kids’ hysteria was complete!

The fact that he was so late that he was not able to witness the cavorting of years three and four as various kings, princes, knights, ladies and dragons faded into insignificance as the full extent of the troupe with which the Carnival King travelled was made apparent.

To my (admittedly) limited experience the personages of our Carnival visitors owed much to the Mardi Gras celebrations of the Deep South especially of New Orleans with an admixture of the Carnival in Rio for extra spice.

The King himself, with painted face and formal jacket covered in medals was accompanied by fan waving bewigged flunkeys and also by his Carnival Queen. His courtiers were characters ranging from blue suited, white faced attendants with plume topped helmets to skin tight lamé clad dancers sporting flamboyant headdresses of bright yellow feathers.

And your humble correspondent? I was clad in a purple cape edged with gold with a tunic of crimson and gold. This ensemble was topped with a crown which I felt expressed my understated aspirations.

To describe in words the glittering masterpiece that was that headpiece: sparkling gold, gleaming silver, the shimmering reflections from the cut up plastic mirror we used in a science lesson; the layers of border paper; the swish of tissue paper; the glinting flash of sun caught staples holding the whole thing together; the excess glitter flakes slowly floated to the ground – to describe this, I say, would be impossible.

I confidently expect my crown to be claimed by the Generalitat as a work of art which will need to be preserved for the nation.

During the Carnival dancing after the Carnival King had read the incomprehensible poems about the staff in Catalan saw one of the more extraordinary characters of his entourage – a near naked character wearing impossible high heels and a high camp high collar ask me to pose with him for a photograph! This inversion of the natural order confused and exhilarated me. Though in retrospect it did make me wonder just what I looked like for such a character to consider me worthy to complement his extraordinary appearance!

Sunday? Carnival in Sitges!

Bring it on!