Monday, August 31, 2009

The Summer's almost over!

Thursday 27th August

The reality of a new term is beginning to intrude itself into my waking moments.

There is not, I have to admit, the sick dread that eventually accompanied starting a new term in Cardiff, but there is certainly apprehension.

We will be in the building for approximately two weeks before the students (whoever they may be) arrive. As this is a grant aided school (for reasons which are not entirely clear, unless you think about the cash) and the parents have to pay vast sums each month to keep their progeny in the privileged educational surrounds of our prestigious institution – they can also withdraw their children at any time.

One of the more interesting pupils in Year 8 will not be going into Year 9 in our school because she is having a year in a boarding school in England. As she will be in Malvern I have encouraged her to find out about the Women’s Institute. She has all the determination to become chair of her local WI by the end of her year in the school! They won’t know what has hit them until it’s too late!

Other pupils are going elsewhere to continue their education in a different school though they are leaving at the start of a new key stage. Others, I have been told, will simply not turn up.

It is only at the actual start of a new term that we know the exact numbers of those who are going to be with us for the year. All this makes the buying of text books and materials a little problematical – but no doubt I will see the organization lurch into action and all things will be well.

The most important element of this new term for me is the signing of a permanent contract: this will give me an illusion of security and should, with any luck, see me through to the balmy days of my official retirement when new supplies of devalued pounds should trickle more convincingly into my British bank account. One is reminded of his late majesty, King Henry VII who managed to “live of himself” and manage his finances so that he had little recourse to the parliament for money. The salary for teachers in Spain is woefully low (even with the extra months that you are paid at Christmas and in the Summer, so the salary is actually 14 months worth) and living within my income from school will be a tricky economic balancing trick calling for restraint bordering on parsimony and a careful and realistic assessment of necessity to govern purchases. As I don’t really know what the sentiments in the last sentence actually mean and even if I did I am sure that they have never touched my financial attitude, I shall probably march wide eyed into penury.

Except, of course, I won’t. As Miss Flite in ‘Bleak House’ said in a different context (in her case about ‘pain’), “I don’t have money, but there is money somewhere in the room.” The derisory exchange rate makes the use of money from the UK a ridiculous extravagance, so my tattered pounds will have to stay where they are until the bankers (who make The Owner of The School That Sacked Me look like St Thomas Aquinas) have sucked enough money out of the system and into their pockets so that the pittance left can be used to boost the miserly financial ruin that I have left behind in my rain sodden country.

The sticky fingered cretins who manage our financial system have until October 2010 to get things sorted. If they don’t I will be forced to ‘open a file’ – and we all know what that means!

All this talk of money has prompted me to phone the company that lost almost 25% of my savings and see what else they have done to remedy the situation. Expect another diatribe if things are just as bad!

Well, the incompetent cretins have managed to bring down the loss to just under 10% on the original investment – but this ignores the fact that the money has been in the fund for over two years where it should have grown year on year. I suppose that I should be grateful for the fact that my money is slowly getting back to the starting point as some people lost vast sums of money irrevocably.

I cannot help thinking that if I had taken the money for the house, ignored expert financial advice and merely transferred the money to a Spanish bank and left it in a simple deposit account I would have been much better off. The exchange rate was 70p rather than the present 87p and I would still have had the global sum and interest on it at whatever rate.

Hindsight is a wonderful banker and certainly better than the unscrupulous thieves who direct our money into their own bottomless pockets. And don’t tell me that I am being unfair and simplistic: they deserve every piece of opprobrium we can throw at them as they continue to live their privileged and expensive lives well away from the concerns of the rest of us!

If the toothache was not enough my old tennis injury is playing up. I was horrified to work out that this injury is now forty-two years old! I would be proud to report that it was a result of my smash serve destroying my elbow or the sheer amount of intense tennis that I played. Alas! Hubris was the cause of my discomfort.

After playing a strenuous game against the French exchange student who was staying with me I celebrated my victory by leaping nimbly over the net. Well most of me so leapt. A trailing foot ensured that I landed on the asphalt of Rumney Gardens Tennis Court with my right elbow leading the way.

Splitting the bone is, I can assure you, much more painful than actually breaking it. The legacy of this little show of exuberance is an elbow which is subject to swelling. Over the last couple of weeks it has become uncomfortable and so I thought I would have a day of double pleasure and go to the doctor as well as visiting the dentist.

I was seen almost immediately and then, in spite of my repeated requests to have someone stick in a hypodermic and draw off the fluid, I now have a further appointment for Monday. Such joy!

Friday 28th August 2009

Our trip down to deepest darkest Catalonia began with my thinking that our eventual destination was ‘a little beyond Tarragona’: this was not true – it was an extra hour beyond Tarragona and near the Ebro delta. Well, nearish.

Our destination was the town of Senia which was inland from the sea but within easy reach of beaches and other stretches of water as we were to discover.

The town itself is unremarkable but has unexpected touches of interest. The mountains rise abruptly from the ends of streets and add a dramatic touch. Some of the domestic architecture harks back to a more decorative age and some of the houses have a simple elegance. A small tree shaded ‘square’ had a constantly running drinking fountain of pure, sweet water which, I am ashamed to admit I squirted at Carles by placing my finger over the spigot; a trick which he had not up to that point of his advanced age of four yet learned. He was an apt pupil and we were both quickly inappropriately drenched. Luckily the weather soon dried us off and that was only during a short walk around the corner!

Our tasty tapas lunch completed we went off in a convoy of two to ‘The River.’ This (confusingly) turned out to be a reservoir which, given the profile of the valley that it filled encouraged some swimming in a few parts from its rocky banks.

After my experience of The Lake District on a blazingly hot August when I and Penny (the Labrador) threw ourselves into the refreshing water and both nearly passed out with the intense and somehow personal cold which instantly penetrated all sections of our bodies, I was wary of placid stretches of water not connected to a warm sea – or at very least the Gulf Stream.

I needn’t have worried, the intriguingly green water was positively inviting compared with my expectations. The only drawback was the structure of the shores of the dam which were of foot-unfriendly stones. We had been warned of this and I had a pair of plastic flip-flops which took away most of the pain but, as they were lighter than water, gave a distinctly odd feel to my swimming. As I was also concerned about their falling off my feet I do not think that my style would have scored highly from any discriminating viewer.

Returning to the car via a precipitously friable mud and stone surface in wet, slippery flip-flops is not to be recommended as my middle finger on the right hand attests. Flailing wildly (not for the last time on this holiday) I just about managed to catch my balance and the serrated bark of a passing tree gave me a little souvenir of my immersion.

We then went to an open air torture chamber. Or river as it is sometimes known.

The river was absurdly picturesque with overhanging banks and bosky growth and waterfalls and crystal clear pools but we were not expected merely to observe the landscape but actually to participate in it.

I was encouraged to venture into water so cold that I was amazed that it wasn’t solid. Luckily I noticed my evil friends moving away to another spot and so waddled out of the glacial horror on legs which had lost all feeling and followed them to what they assured me would be more tolerable water.

They were of course lying.

The cold of the water in this lovely stretch of river was the sort that actually burns and after one short breathless width from one bank to another I was grateful to regain the human warmth of the balmy surrounding air above the water! But we did all feel that we had achieved something!

The evening was another day of the festival of the town and the area in front of the town hall beautifully treed with shade was set with chairs and a concert platform.

The usual travelling fair had been set up and Carles was taken to see it and take part in some of the more disturbing rides.

To British eyes the whole things was absurdly impossible. Wherever you looked Health and Safety had been ignored. Open machinery; unfenced areas; rickety staging; unsafe stairs; children next to rotating machinery and so on. Like the Spanish attitude towards the public’s involvement in the setting off of fireworks it’s something to enjoy as long as you don’t think about it too closely!

Saturday 29th August

Today the seaside – or rather riverside; or maybe a bit of both.

The morning was taken up with a walk through the town. The streets are narrow and have the typical patchwork variety of connected buildings that you see in many Spanish and Catalan small towns. Some of them still have the original rough stonework while others are smoothly covered in new rendering. There are juxtaposionings of modern with traditional and you experience these in a particularly tactile way given the very narrow pavements.

The town was preparing for an evening’s entertainment of setting a bull free with flaming torches attached it its horns while idiots pranced around in front of it courting death, disfigurement and a further drain on medical resources. We made an executive decision not to grace such barbarism with our presence. Instead we went to the local market where I was told that I could purchase eight (count them!) litres of locally produced red wine for the princely sum of ten euros. And just in case you are thinking – it was, I was assured, not at all bad!

As I was walking to the ‘fountainhead’ of such liquid value I should have remembered that bit in ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about flying. It says somewhere that the trick of flying without any artificial help is to fall and ‘forget to land’ – that way you defeat Newtonian physics and fly like a bird. I forgot that piece of advice as I tripped my way along the narrow, worn smooth pavements swinging my eight litre canister eager to make my purchase and then tripped in reality.

So, in addition to the tree injury, the inflammation of a forty year old tennis accident, the tooth ache (even after the replacement filling) and the upset tummy that the witches’ cauldron of drugs that I am now taking, I am now able to add two grazed knees and a bruised wrist. I look (and indeed feel) like a naughty schoolboy with my shorts and short sleeved shirt showing off my wounds to their best advantage!

I, of course, look and feel fine so the injuries (that you can see) look like an absurd affectation. Affected! Moi?

I had been to the Delta of the Ebro a couple of years ago but I remembered it without affection. This experience was rather more interesting with a trip along the river’s edge as it wound its way through grassland to the sea.

The whole area is a wonderland for birds and other fauna, though the vision I had to a flamingo was of a distant blob!

The riparian shore is made more interesting by the inclusion of modern sculptures along the path to the major watchtower – which itself looked like a sort of modern wooden take on a ziggurat!

After lunch we went further along the spit of land which housed the delta passing as we did so fertile acres of planted rice and went to the dunes on the sea side of the delta. The long gentle slope of the beach into the water meant that the sea was filled with sand in suspension and any chance of seeing fish was lost in glittering grains. But a warm swim was pleasant in spite of the sting of the salt on my newly grazed knees and a very satisfactory laze afterwards!

Back to the house and, then allowing Carles to risk death on our behalf. This time the ‘ride’ that he chose was a sort of ‘House of Soft Pain.’ This was an open fronted arrangement of soft ladders, slides, plastic balls and rope ladders and inflatables. Children of tender years rushed their separate ways though various obstacles on three levels to ‘have fun.’

It is not often that one sees a version of ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in living horror. The kids may not have had many years between them, but by god they had set ideas about how to get from place to place. Bodies were flung and discarded as happy, demented children smashed their respective ways through, over and past obstacles – up to and including other children!

I began to give some of the juvenile battlers names from the novel. There was an absurdly wide eyed innocent who could only be Simon. Then there was a chunky bruiser and his lanky sly looking sidekick who seemed perfect for Samneric. I would have liked to have thought that our own Carles could have been the Ralph character but I fear he lacked the essential ‘kindness’ that would have been more appropriate than the cavalier disregard he showed as he rushed his way through the obstacles.

I have been trying to read ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sara Waters but the proximity of a one year old and a four year old do not necessarily provide the right ambiance for reading, but I managed to finish it yesterday evening.

As it is now already tomorrow I think I can safely leave my thoughts until later in the day!

Sunday 29th August

Carlos and Carmen have bought to a fine level of perfection the collection of kids’ toys and all the other impedimenta which is nowadays essential when taking young persons away on holiday. They did this without fuss and with the perfection which comes from long practice!

I was almost able to sit down with my book and read away with a quiet conscience as any ‘help’ I could have offered would only have interfered with the smooth running of the well oiled parental machine.

Our return journey to Castelldefels was broken at Segur de Calafells where Toni’s aunt has a flat. Toni’s mum was staying so the augmented family was able to go out and have a more than respectable meal at an air-conditioned restaurant.

The family has a predilection (to me entirely inexplicable) of going for walks. One such was proposed after lunch and we all set off along the sea front to children’s swings and such things to keep the kids quiet and give the adults a breathing space.

The walk extended itself to the marina area where in special alleys a game (actually many games of) boules were taking place. I was impressed with the way that these ancient persons ‘read’ the rink and managed to produce precise placement along a ridged and rutted terrain. I was also particularly impressed with the ways that they picked up the boules after playing. One person had a sort of magnetic plumbline which saved him the trouble of bending over and gave him a remarkably foppish appearance when throwing his first ball. I did at first think that it was some sort of balance to ensure accuracy and to give himself the correct amount of poise for the precise shot. Another old man had a telescopic pointer with a magnetic tip: very professional!

I was dragged away from watching fascinating matches by the offer of one of those fruit drinks which are mostly composed of minute balls of ice. I had always assumed that these were the same as slush puppies but I was assured that these were in a different class altogether.

A heft glass of luridly green slush was placed in my hands and I greedily (I must confess) sucked on my straw. It was a strange sensation as the tiny globes of ice mixed with remarkably pungent lemon and lime slurped its way down my throat.

Almost immediately I was reminded of frozen yogurt. Not the taste, you understand, but rather the pain that had to go with this sort of acute pleasure.

It was in Atlanta in the dim and distant days when I have left Europe rather than listen to the sycophantic, nauseating posturing of abject worship that accompanied Big Ears’ wedding to the ‘Give me attention or I’ll die’ Princess, that I first tasted frozen yogurt. It was delicious and each lick of icy pleasure was succeeded rapidly by another. And that greed provoked the inevitable headache.

A slower eating of my next frozen yogurt the next day was still too quick and the searing pain should have told me that perhaps frozen yogurt and I were not compatible. But, in some things I have a fairly high pain threshold and I was determined to continue.

The tricks I learned in Atlanta which enabled me to eat frozen yogurt without almost immediate hospitalization were very helpful as the first twinges of pain crossed my forehead as the ice globules slipped down.

Finding an easy pace which mixed natural melting with hand assisted defrosting and judicious stirring with the straw enable me to drink a fairly constant supply of delicious fruit associated drink without crying.

Although the last few drifts of ice were just that – frozen water, I have to say that the flavour lasted well and even at the end there was a suggestion of citrus that I had not expected to find so deep into the cup.

By the time we finally got home we were both exhausted but I was determined to finish my book and indeed did so.

‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters is a masterly novel which is (or is not) a ghost story. It is difficult to talk about the novel without spoiling the story for a new reader but the basic structure of the book is clear.

This is the story of a house and the clash which results when a dysfunctional ‘county’ family seemingly out of place in the Brave New World of a post war Labour government comes into contact with something which eventually destroys the family for good.

The narrator is a family doctor called Faraday who, rather crassly given the name, introduces himself firmly into the family circle by the use of his electrical stimulation machine to try and help the young squire trying and failing after a war career and serious injuries in the Air Force to take some control over the fortunes of the family.

The first part of the novel charts the way in which the life of Faraday (a working class boy made good) is increasingly joined to those of the gentry in the old house.

My major problem with this book is about the narrator himself. There seems to me to be a dichotomy between the skill of the narration and the hapless nature of the narrator himself. His writing is fluent and perceptive but his character is less than convincing and where it does come to life it is infuriatingly ineffectual. Would someone who writes as well as this be as flaccid a character as he portrays himself in the story? I constantly found myself convinced by the writing and not by the character.

Ambiguity is at the basis of this story and Waters takes every opportunity to complicate any easy response to the problems of the narrative. There must be a constant questioning on the part of the reader asking himself what ‘exactly’ is going on. Themes abound in this book and there is enough symbolism (if you care to look for it) to fuel a literary thesis! This could be a ghost story; a revealing autobiography; a story of class conflict; a love story; a psychological thriller – with a few other genres thrown in.

Without giving away the ending (which I found chilling and disturbing) the author leaves us with an image which may or may not be an accurate summation of a life.

A thoroughly provoking, unsettling and chilling read. I recommend it.

Monday 31st August 2009

I can hardly believe that this is the last day of the holidays. The sky has partaken of my sorrow and has been generally overcast, but this being Catalonia; we have had our portion of sunshine too!

Lunch was with Irene and time for a chat to catch up on all the news that had passed me by as I was in the very south of Catalonia.

The most significant part of the day was a visit to the doctor who drained the fluid which had accumulated at the site of a forty year old tennis injury. I hope that this will not need to be repeated for another forty years!

I realize now that I have done nothing to prepare myself for the forthcoming term. I only hope that the promised two weeks space before the kids arrive to be taught will allow me to catch up on those things which in my case I certainly have not done. To be fair to me I don’t actually know what I should have done as no one has told me. Also I have not been employed by the school for the last month. And I have done damn little to find out what I should have done. And I seem to be protesting too much!

In a strange sort of way I am looking forward to seeing what happens tomorrow.

I can’t help feeling that my expectations will be disappointed and the natural cynicism of any teacher will be fully justified in my case!

I must remember to set the alarm!
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