Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Of Universal Translators and other sundry impossibilities

Over at Bradshaw of the Future, goofy has a post about Doctor Who. Specifically it's about how, wherever and whenever, he goes the Doctor and his companions can not only speak the local language but read it too. The post talks about a scene in an episode I didn't see and almost makes me wish I'd seen it but I have a policy of never watching anything with Katherine Tate in it that no linguistics mystery is likely to tempt me to change.
Anyway, as all fans of the Doctor know the Tardis does the translating for them (and the viewer), unnoticed by everyone, though very occasionally, for the sake of the plot, or more often for the sake of a bit of humour, characters do notice and comment on it.
It is of course a problem in many different science fiction series - the need for the characters to understand each other and the need for the audience to understand all of it. Star Trek managed to visit a different planet every week without communications difficulty thanks to the never-adequately-explained Universal Translator. This device not only managed to translate alien speech from previously unheard of races into whatever passes for English in the future and vice-versa but also, flawlessly, into modern American speech for the audience. A pretty nifty device that only ever malfunctioned when it was necessary to the plot.
Stargate, by comparison, takes an odd and inexplicable approach of having all the races supposedly speaking variations on ancient Earth languages* and taking along an expert who is, (like Universal Translator failures) only ever used when the story needs it. There are token nods towards different races speaking different languages but by and large the team (SG-1) all seem to understand everything said by everyone, wherever they happen to live in the Galaxy.
Buffy and chums, on the other hand, never get to go to alien worlds but do get to beat up lots of demons from other dimensions. There are heaps of references to the demons' own languages. Reference books are always written in mysterious and arcane languages that Giles or Wesley have to study and translate. But, and here's the important bit, whenever it's necessary to the plot, the demons speak English.
I think I see a pattern developing. Translation as a plot device.
What about other series, then? Well one of the favourites of my youth Blake's Seven, avoided the problem by just never mentioning it. Everybody, everywhere did speak English. Going back further to my childhood, the Tomorrow People were all telepaths and, of course, that side steps the problem by having all telepaths able to understand each other.
Sliders, another personal favourite, deals with it by setting every episode not just on alternate Earths, not just in an Alternate America but actually (and very specifically) in alternate versions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. That gets round the accents problem as well.
Battlestar Galactica has fleeing humans from twelve colonies who all have their own languages which we almost never hear because they all also speak a common language which - give or take the odd bit of vocabulary - is unsurprisingly similar to modern American. I'm not sure whether the Cylons they are fleeing have a labguage at all, I don't recall ever hearing one.

So, various ways of getting round the problem have been tried in various programs. Personally I think you might as well take the Blake's Seven approach and just ignore it. The same applies to television and films set in other countries or other times. They are, after all, just for entertainment.

On the other hand I wouldn't mind one of those Universal Translators when I visit other countries. Real life is never quite as convenient as the movies.

(*because they all came originally from Earth)

A logical mismatch

Something struck me as odd about an advert I saw on TV yesterday. It doesn't matter what it was for (code for I can't remember what it was for ) but it started with this

"Don't just look, see. Don't just hear, listen."

It may just be me but I can't unscramble the meaning of this because for me look compares logically to listen while see compares logically to hear. I can decipher "Don't just look, see" as meaning that trying to do something is less important than doing it. (If we take "look" as being "try to see".) On the other hand "Don't just hear, listen." seems to be the opposite - that doing something is less important than trying to do it (with listen being "try to hear".)
The two halves of the slogan seem to me to be logically mismatched rendering the whole sound bite as gibberish.

Or is it just me over analysing again?

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Some celebrities just aren't very bright

As I write this, the TV is on in the corner of the room. The show is a celebrity charity special of Mastermind. Well, I say celebrity but I don't recognize either of the two alleged celebrities sitting trying to answer questions. The only reason that I mention it is that the last question was this.

In a limerick which lines rhyme?

a) one and three
b) two and three
c) three and four
d) four and five

I couldn't imagine anyone not knowing this, and was astonished when they started to get into a discussion of how many lines a limerick has. They decided to ask the audience. Ah, I thought, now they'll see just how dumb they are - everybody will know this. To my genuine astonishment the audience, while getting the answer right only did so with just over thirty percent. Two thirds of the audience got it wrong. I know poetry isn't popular nowadays but surely more people than that know what a limerick is, don't they?

Monday, 29 December 2008

The palest ink

The palest ink is better than the best memory. (Chinese proverb)

I had intended to preface this with a number of quotes about memory but now that I have found one that is so apposite, I shall forego all the others. The reason for this is that I have spent rather a lot of time this evening looking through old papers and poems to find one to add here in my occasional series reworking my early pieces. I didn't find any that I felt happy enough about to present but what I did find gave me some pause for thought. I found a collection of twenty five numbered ten-line poems that went by the overall title of tributes and attributes. Each of them was originally intended to be about one of my friends. The interesting thing is that when I wrote them I neglected to identify who they were about so that the poems themselves are all that I have to go on. Clearly I thought at the time that I would always be able to remember - and just as clearly I was wrong. Now, while I admit that this was over thirty years ago, I am surprised at how difficult the task of identification has been. Some of them I know; some of them I think I know; some of them I have not the faintest idea about.
The trouble is that they are, at best, cryptic and at worst, gibberish. They are exactly the kind of things that you might expect of a fifteen year old. (Which is a shame as they were written between 1975 and 1977 when I was between eighteen and twenty.) They take a general mish-mash of aspects of peoples characters and personal appearance and then jumble them up with my opinions of them. What they don't do is show any regard for scansion, metre, rhyme or any of the other important elements of decent poetry.

I considered putting one here for analysis but frankly the quality is far too low at the moment, although if I can knock any of them into shape I may do so later. The point of this isn't to show what a rotten poet I was, it's to make a comment on the frailty of memory. The quote at the head of this entry suggests that writing things down is more reliable than just leaving them stored away in your mind, and I suppose it is. After all I can identify most of the subjects. The thing is that the poems themselves are largely meaningless to me. The images and incidents mentioned are gone as surely as if they had never been. I have far from the best memory but in this case the palest ink has also let me down.

Now I shall go away and see if I can manage to write, or rather rewrite, a couple of them. Failing that I could always just pop them into the large black filing cabinet beneath my shredder.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Northern Lights

Today is the day before Christmas so I thought I’d post a link back to my previous entry about Iceland. (Actually I almost rewrote the whole thing before I decided to check whether I had done it before.) Anyway, here it is.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 8

Once again I've discovered very little about Franz Haacken, the illustrator of my German copy, Alice im Wunderland (dtv, 1973, translator: Lieselotte Remané). All I have been able to find is that he was born in 1912 and died in 1979. The illustrations are mostly black and white pencil drawings and are suitably whimsical.

Alice manages (by drinking the contents of a bottle labelled "drink me") to shrink to the size of the door but finds it now locked and the key is on top of a glass table that is too tall to climb.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

That's MISTER Scrooge, to you

A couple of my (not so) jolly Christmas poems.

He doesn't care
If you're naughty or nice
If you go your own way
Or take good advice.
He doesn't care
What you have done
Worked hard all year
Or spent it in fun

He doesn't care
What's in your letter
A brand new Ferrari
Or a hand-knitted sweater
He doesn't care
What it is that you do
He's a psychopath Santa
And he's coming for you.

Santa Claus is coming to getcha!


We've gotta kill Santa

There’s a Santa on the Chimney
There’s a snowman on the lawn
There’s a polar bear astride the garden shed
There’s a reindeer in the garden
And a Christmas tree adorned
With flashing lights in white and green and red
A Merry Christmas in the window
Corners painted with fake snow
More red lights than Amersterdam at night
There’s a three foot plastic robin
Sitting there on show
It’s time we put an end to all this blight

We’ve got to Kill Santa, Santa’s got to go
It’s bad enough putting up with frost and ice and snow
Without this tackiness that descends each year to plague us
And turn suburban streets into copies of Las Vegas

There’s a turkey on the table
There are twenty pounds of sprouts
And mince pies enough to sink a battleship
There’s a drunkard in the armchair
Say’s he’s something to let out
Before loosening his belt and letting rip
There’s Christmas Cake and trifle
A Yule Log with paper holly
There are crackers, cheese and onions in a jar
There’s a feast to feed a hundred
With everyone still jolly
This conspicuous consumption’s gone too far

We’ve got to kill Santa, Santa Claus must die
He’s fattening us like turkeys, but no-one’s quite sure why
With so much food inside us we can’t move to get away
Whatever Santa’s up to he’s got to go today

There is tinsel in shop windows
There are jingles in the air
And the radio plays only Christmas songs
Christmas cards fill the mantlepiece
Though God knows why they’re there
You can’t remember half the folks they’re from
Carol singers at your front door
But they only know the words
To half a chorus of God Rest Ye Gentlemen
You give them ten p for their trouble
But it’s really quite absurd
In half an hour they’ll be back there again.

We’ve got to kill Santa, we need to do it now
We’ve got end this misery and there’s only one way how
We’ve got to kill Santa, that much must be clear
I’m not sure that we can tolerate another year

You may call me “misery guts”
Or Scrooge behind my back
“Hail, fellow and well met” if to my face
Say it’s clear the Christmas spirit
Is something that I lack
And avoid the briefest visit to my place
You don’t realise the true extent
Of how I hate this season
Or understand the things we might achieve
If I could just convince you
That we really have a reason
If I could persuade you to believe

That we’ve got to kill Santa, there really is no choice
We must be of one accord, we must have a single voice
This cruel despotic tyrant has been here for too long
Overthrowing such a monster surely can’t be wrong.

And one more, very short, one.

In Ecuador I’ve eaten ants straight from a log
In China I was served with a fricassee of dog
In Japan they give you blowfish but without the poison in
But Finnish supermarketes sell Rudolph, in a tin.

And a very thingy whatsit to both my readers.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Alices in Wonderland: Part 7

I picked up the rather nicely A A Nash illustrated edition thanks to a friend who noticed it in a second hand book shop and reported back to me. (He didn't buy it because no one, not even me, knows the current state of my collection at any given time.) I have drawn a blank on the internet in my efforts to find information about Nash, even to the extent of gender, nationality or age. Again you may consider this a general appeal for information.

Anyway, in the story Alice has tried all the doors and found them locked. There is, however, a single unlocked door which is very small through which she glimpses a beautiful garden that she is far too tall to enter.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Alices In Wonderland Part 6

Some artists adopt an altogether more surreal approach to the work. This is from an Icelandic edition that I have (Aevintyri Lisu i Undralandi) published in 1996 and illustrated by Anthony Browne. Here we see his take on what happens when Alice rises from the pile of leaves and finds herself in a long corridor full of doors, all of them locked - a scene which has always struck me as almost Kafka-esque.

Poster Boy

It seems that I am the poster boy for BABSSCo (The British Association of Boarding School Short Courses) this year. This picture is taken from the contents page of their new brochure. I'm the one on the left. There is another version of the same picture inside which, though smaller is in landscape rather than portrait format. I won't reproduce it because, oh boy, does it make me look fat!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bizarre metaphors

The TV is on in the corner, showing Newsnight Review (an arts program), but I wasn't really paying attention so I'm not sure which of the guests said it or, indeed, what exactly he was talking about but this struck me as a decidedly odd metaphor.

"My mother always said, 'Don't complain about being eaten by a horse if you have chosen to play polo dressed as a sugar lump.'"

Blustery, with showers

Geoffrey Pullum, over at Language Log makes a point that also occurred to me many years ago when I first visited America and found myself watching a television weather forecast. The forecast was remarkable because it managed the trick of being simultaneously both extremely precise and totally meaningless. They said, if memory serves, "There is an eighty per cent chance of rain at three O'clock this afternoon."
It's marvellous. It's the curse of specious precision that afflicts so much of modern day life. I found myself sitting watching this forecast and asking myself the question, "If it doesn't rain at three O'clock, will they have been right or wrong?"
Actually you could ask the same question if it did rain. (And it did!)
There's another example on a poster at my Metro stop. At the bottom of the stairs is a poster that says "Regular use of the stairs can help you to avoid weight gain", a laudable sentiment certainly.
At the top another poster says "Congratulations. You have just used one sixteenth of the calories needed to avoid weight gain." The linguistic logic of that sentence may be a bit suspect (you need calories to avoid weight gain?) but the intent is clear. One sixteenth, eh? Not one fifteenth or one seventeenth but one sixteenth. And that regardless of your size, age, gender, level of fitness or whatever. Now that I think of it, it also doesn't specify a time frame - the calories I need in a week? A day? An hour? Speciously accurate and utterly meaningless.
I may come up with more, similarly nonsensical, examples later. Please feel free to add any that you can think of in the comments.

Save the banks... save the world

My few US readers may not have heard the rather telling slip of the tongue from the Prime Minister today. He said, and this is a direct quote,
"We not only saved the world, er, saved the banks,"
So, what we've always suspected is true. Gordon Brown IS Flash Gordon (Saviour of the Universe).

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Five a day....aaaaarrrggghhhhhhh!

If I ever have another conversation about healthy eating it will be about a century too soon. Yes, it's that time of year again, the time when my ESOL learners are busily trying to pass their speaking and listening exams and the subject is, as it usually is, healthy eating. This year, unusually, I have two tutor groups. That's thirty six students in total and each exam has two near identical tasks and each task has to be first completed and then listened to again for marking. That's seventy two times I have had to hear essentially the same conversation, albeit performed with widely varying levels of achievement. Even allowing for a few no shows and some help from my co-tutor on one of the courses it's still considerably more about healthy eating than most people could take without losing their sanity.
Of course there are moments of humour. Two of my afternoon students, for example, were afflicted with fits of the giggles at the very thought that someone my shape could be doing a role play as the leader of a Healthy Eating workshop. Their exams had to be stopped until they had managed to compose themselves. They are allowed to prepare their topic for about forty minutes before the actual speaking starts and this leads to some quite surreal conversations. One student, for example, had prepared a couple of questions that he wanted to get in and he was determined to ask them whether they fit the conversation or not, so the conversation began with
ME:"Hello, how are you?"
STUDENT:"Good. How are you?"
ME:"Are you joining the healthy eating club?"
STUDENT:"Why do we need calcium?"
Altogether he managed to ask the question three times and never at any point when it might have been appropriate.
It reminded me of my own language learning days. I used to do a German class and I was rather good at it. Sadly that wasn't true of everybody. We had a student who was of advanced years and not entirely on the same planet as everybody else. Let's call him Ernie (which wasn't his name!) Once, when we reading a text about the manufacture of Garden Gnomes when in the middle of it he started to talk, apparently earnestly, about the impossibility of breeding them because of the scarcity of female ones.
Anyway, I did a Saturday school once and was startled to find myself partnered with Ernie on a relatively easy exercise where we were simply reading the two parts of a conversation. So I read the first line. And then he read the same first line again. I stopped and explained it to him again. He nodded. So, I read my first line. He read his first line. I read my second line. He read his first line again. We stopped. I explained it to him again. I read my first line. He asked me what we were supposed to be doing.
And so it went on, and that was before we'd got to the role play part.
It gives me a lot of sympathy for my students but frankly if anybody mentions five portions of fruit and veg, six grams of salt, five food groups or anything else about nutrition (however bizarrely they pronounce it) I shall probably do something unspeakable to them with a lettuce.

Monday, 8 December 2008


At the moment I'm sitting composing this in my living room for the first time ever.Yes, I finally bought a laptop computer and mobile broadband. Well, I've discovered one disadvantage - well two actually, though related. The first is that my dad likes to sit and watch the television here and the second is that he likes to talk about what he's watching to anyone in the room. It's most distracting.
Anyway he is currently watching Airline. This is a program that shows the trials and tribulations of the staff at an airport and the bit that's on right now shows a very loud mouthed customer arguing with an Easyjet desk clerk because his flight has been cancelled.
Actually it has reminded me of an incident when I returned from Thailand. I had to change planes at Amsterdam but my flight from Thailand was delayed by several hours. On the journey it made up some of the time but not all of it. Now I don't know if you are familiar with Schipol airport but it's absolutely huge and my departing flight for the UK was at the opposite end to the arriving flight from Thailand. Everybody sprinted across the airport but to no avail. The connecting flight had gone.
There were two distinct reactions from the passengers. Some got irate and started shouting at staff and banging desks. The rest of us went and got a cup of coffee, waited for the angry passengers to finish then strolled up to the desk and asked politely when they could get us onto a plane home. There was one in about two hours but, and the staff were very apologetic, there were so many people who had missed the previous flight that it was very unlikely that they could get us all on. The next flight after that was more than six hours later.
So everybody waited to see what would happen and to my great surprise I got a seat on the earlier one. Looking around the departure lounge I noticed something very interesting. All the people who had been patient and polite were there and NONE of the people who had been shouting the odds and threatening legal action were.
I'm not saying that this was anything but coincidence but it makes you think, doesn't it? They say that politeness costs nothing, which is true, but it can also buy quite a lot.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bad hand, naughty hand!

From a (slightly edited) memo recently circulated by a manager in our college.

Dear all, could you let your staff know that **** ****** is on leave this week and that **** **** will be off for a couple of days at least as she has badly scolded her hand.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 5

I have two Spanish editions, one is a full text translation but uses the classic Tenniel illustrations. The other is altogether curiouser. It contains an extremely abridged version of the story with some very jolly cartoon like illustrations for younger children. It also contains a lot of children's activities: costume making, card making,collages, papercrafts and so on. For anyone who reads Spanish and wants it the details are "Alicia en el Pais de las Maravillas" published by Paramon,1997. ISBN 84-342-2131-4.

The illustrator is Lluis Filella and here he shows Alice arriving at the bottom of her long fall and landing on a conveniently placed pile of leaves.

The perils of stereotyping

I was watching an item on television this morning about the London School of Economics' decision to stage a beauty pageant. In the studio there were two guests, both students of the college. One was one of the contestants, the other was a students' union representative opposed to the pageant. Both put their points of view clearly and articulately as you would expect from LSE students. I have no comment to make on whether or not beauty pageants are a good thing or whether or not they demean women in general and the contestants in particular, but I do like to see pomposity punctured. The anti student had made a number of points but then finished off by suggesting that one problem was that they create a western ideal of beauty and exclude people from other cultures.
"I haven't seen any Moslem women entering it," she said.
You can see what's coming can't you? The contestant, a pretty Asian girl, immediately responded with "Excuse me, I am a Moslem."
I do have some sympathy for her rather deflated opponent as, as a teacher of overseas students, I have in the past occasionally been guilty of assuming students either were or were not Moslem or Christian or whatever based on nothing more than their country of origin and their general appearance and attitudes. It's an easy trap to fall into but I think if I were going to fall into it, I'd rather it wasn't on national television.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Alices In Wonderland: Part 4

I often buy editions of Alice that are in languages that I cannot read. Frequently these editions use well know illustrations from British or American editions and just translate the text. Sometimes they use home-grown talent. It can be quite hard to find the names of the illustrators if everything on the cover is, say, in Japanese and the help of a native speaker needs to be sought.
The Russian edition that I have is, judging from the artist's name, one of the ones that uses Russian talent. He's called Boris Pushkarev, information obtained from the publisher when I bought it. Beyond that I can find nothing and again information about the artist would be greatly appreciated if anybody has any.

What I can say is that the illustrations are quirky and colourful and that I really like them. This one follows on from the previous one. Alice, crawling down the rabbit hole, suddenly finds herself falling vertically down a tunnel lined with all kinds of peculiar things.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Preparing for the Adventure

And while we're on the subject of Alice, here's a poem I wrote some time ago. Trust me when I say that it scans the way I read it.

Preparing For The Adventure

I make a list headed
“Things That I’ll Need”.
Biscuits, chocolate, crisps, more crisps
and squash to wash down the feed.
I’ll be wanting a torch
and rope and a spade,
and a bag to hold all these
odds and sods for the plan that I’ve made.
I catch the bus to the woods
climb over the fence
by the “No trespassing” sign
crossing the line that doesn’t make sense.
I sit and I eat
and I wait for my prey
But the forest is empty.
I sigh , and I rise to call it a day
Then from the thicket
A rabbit runs past
Quickly I follow to
its home in a hole - on my way at last.
I take out my spade
and dig all around
I’m going to join Alice
Adventuring deep underground.

Sun goes down, sun comes up.

Nobody seemed to want to take a stab at the locations of my sunset and sunrise pictures, but here are the answers anyway.

1. A sunrise in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. This one should have been really easy. It's an image that is seared into the brains of generations of Western fans. We had hiked out to camp on top of one of the mesas so that we could get up early and await the dawn just to get terrific photographs like this one.

2. Picture two is both a sunrise and a sunset which should tell you that it was taken in the arctic circle at the precise time of day when the sun dips to the horizon and then starts to rise again. It was actually taken in Norway.

3. Picture three is a sunset taken from the Laos side of the Mekong looking across the river into Thailand. I knew this was going to be a great picture as soon as I stepped onto the balcony of our extremely unpleasant hotel. The hotel was dirty and unhygienic and I slept fully clothed with my groundsheet stretched out over the bed. It was worth putting up with all those horrible conditions just to get this shot. I have no idea why the roaches put up with it though, none of them had cameras.

4. Surely the colour and quality of the light must give this one away as being somewhere in Africa? It was actually on a game reserve in Zambia and we sat in folding chairs on the plain drinking ice cold beers and watching the sun go down.

5. When we visited the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province in China I wandered around taking lots of shots but as soon as I saw this particular formation and noticed that I could stand in a position where the setting sun was going to reach the very bottom of the cleft, I knew I had to wait and get the picture. I didn't dare go to look at something else for fear of mistiming it and losing my chance. I waited for about twenty minutes.

6. This was taken a couple of days after picture number three as we travelled down through Laos. It was taken in Vang Vieng at sunset after a particularly harrowing day of travel during which we had almost run the truck down the side of a mountain in a mudslide.

7. Back to Scandinavea for another sunset, though to be honest I'm not completely sure where exactly we were when I took this one. I suspect we were on a ferry somewhere near Sweden.

8. And so to South America and a sunrise. Again we had got up early to get this picture of the strangely alien landscape of rising steam at Sol de Manana in Bolivia. We had stayed the night before in an isolated hostel at the glorious Lago Colorado and got up at five just to drive out for these sunrise pictures.

9. And anyone who didn't notice the pyramid on this Egyptian sunset should be thoroughly ashamed. Go and stand in the corner with a dunces cap on your head.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 3

Sometimes publishers of out of copyright works don't bother to put the creators name on the cover. I have at least one edition of Alice In Wonderland that fails utterly to mention Lewis Carroll. More commonly the illustrators are not mentioned - this happens for even modern works - perhaps because they work in-house for the publisher and are therefore not deemed worthy of a credit. I don't know why this should be so.

Alice, having followed the rabbit, does not hesitate to follow him into the rabbit hole. The illustration below comes from the Brown Watson Bedtime Books series. The only credit given is to Maureen Spurgeon who wrote the extremely abbreviated version of the text. There is no credit to Carroll and no mention of the artist although one web site that I found credits it to John Bennet, about whom I have been able to find out almost nothing.
If anyone can confirm this, or point me in the direction of an internet biography, I'd be very grateful.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 2

Alice of course, having seen the rabbit (or kangaroo!) immediately jumps up and follows it. This illustration is from Margaret Tarrant. She was born in 1888 and died in 1959, illustrating Alice In Wonderland for a 1916 edition.
The edition I have is, sadly, rather more modern, being the Bounty Books 1990 edition, which reproduces the Tarrant illustrations but, as far as I can see, fails to credit her beyond noting that their series of children's books are "illustrated with colour artworks by Edwardian artists".

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Alices In Wonderland: Part 1

For someone who is obsessed with the books as I am, I don't write nearly enough entries about Alice In Wonderland. It's occurred to me that there may be people who don't realise just how many different artists have taken a crack at this timeless children's tale and so I intend, in the coming months, to give anyone reading this a chance to reacquaint themselves with the story and see some of the art by showing, in story sequence, some of the many illustrations from my own collection. Pretty much every word of the book has been illustrated by someone so it could take some time. Still, we have all the time in the world, don't we?

Those familiar with the book, or with the Disney film version, will recall that as the story opens Alice is sitting on the bank feeling very bored, while her sister is reading a book with no pictures or conversations. As they sit there a white rabbit runs by and Alice follows.

In the translation into the aboriginal language Pitjantjatjara (Alitjinya Ngura Tjukrmankuntjala) the riverbank is a creek bed, the rabbit is a Kangaroo and Alice and her sister are playing a story-telling game… and the marvelous illustrations are by Donna Leslie.

The edition I have is by Ten Speed Press of California and contains a simultaneous back translation into English. You should get it. It's excellent!

Camera Trouble (a return to the travel annecdotes)

It's always nice when someone leaves a friendly comment on one of my blogs. Actually, with the sparse traffic I receive, unfriendly comments are nice too, they show that someone has stopped by. It's like being a sad lonely old hermit thanking the postman for bringing a bill. Well, on my other blog, the one that nobody EVER reads, somebody left a comment saying they liked my photography. I like that because I'm almost as proud of my photography as I am of my writing and I just love my writing. (It would be nice if more people ever read it, but you can't have everything.)

Anyway, for the moment the photography is the thing.

That blog is gradually documenting my tour of the Americas, a chapter a week (although I am a bit behind at the moment) with the book I wrote about it and some of my photographs of the trip. What hasn't so far been mentioned over there is the trouble I had with cameras. Which was considerable. It started before even the first leg was over. I was taking a couple of weeks to travel across from New York to Los Angeles in an arc that went Niagara, Chicago, Chamberlain in Dakota, Cody in Wyoming, Salt Lake City which is the scariest place on Earth, and Elko in Nevada which is surely one of the most depressing. It also took in some of the most spectacular National Parks anywhere in the world so don't get the impression I didn't like it.

Before I started out I had made a decision not to take my expensive Minolta SLR as the nine months bouncing about on the road would probably have killed it. Instead I bought myself a nice little compact. I shot a couple of rolls of film in the first few days and everything was OK. In Chicago I shot another but when I went to take it out of the camera, I couldn't. It was jammed. Jammed solidly and irretrievably. By the time I discovered this we had left Chicago and there was nowhere that I would be staying in for the immediate future for long enough to take it into a Camera shop. I buried it at the bottom of my gear and went in search of a new one. The only place available to me to get one was an out of town Wal-Mart where we stopped to buy some supplies for the van. Wal-Mart are believers in the pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap retail philosophy and so what I managed to get was of considerably lower quality than the one it was replacing but did have the merit of coming in at under thirty dollars. And it did the job. It lacked a zoom and didn't cope well with extremes of light but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by for a couple of months.

That camera broke in Quito, in Ecuador. Circumstances detailed elsewhere had put me in Quito for about seven weeks. It was a relaxing and pleasant time and about half way through it the winding mechanism on my camera stopped working. One shot it was fine, the next shot it wasn't. A camera shop quoted me a price to fix it that was marginally more expensive than buying another so I moved on to camera number three. This was another compact and this time, allowing for the plummeting value of the Ecuadorian currency at the time cost me about fifteen dollars. It was plastic with a manual winder and automatic focus only but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by for a couple of months.

It broke as we moved back up through South America, having been all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. This time it was my fault. We'd been plagued by insects and I'd been wearing a neckerchief covered in DEET to keep them away. I should have know better, because I had the same problem once before in the Far East, but I made a mistake. I forgot just what a nasty evil little chemical DEET really is. One of its nasty bits of evilness is that it eats plastic. One night I put my neckerchief down and I put my camera on top of it and when I woke they were welded together and there were holes in the plastic casing. Wearily I removed the film and went without a camera until we reached Buenos Aires where I could buy yet another. This time it was plastic, fixed focus, had a flash that went off for every photograph regardless of the lighting conditions and cost a stunning five dollars, but it did the job. It took pictures and the pictures it took were mostly clear enough and sharp enough and I managed to get by.

With this camera, the last of my trip, I got through the Iguassu Falls, the stunningly pretty town of Paraty and the Rio Carnival. OK the pictures of the Rio Carnival were, frankly, terrible. The camera just wasn't up to the lighting conditions but I got a complete roll of absolute belters at the falls and some rather nice shots of Paraty.

When I got home a week or so later I discovered that like my original camera this one had also jammed, with the film still inside. I took both of them to my local shop where the films were retrieved and processed. The best shots of the trip turned out to be the ones I had taken with the cheapest camera.

Nowadays I travel with a digital camera and I'm back to having sharp resolution, up to 40x zoom, the ability to work in any lighting conditions AND a memory card that will hold up to 5000 pictures. When I took it to Chicago , after a day of shooting I accidentally deleted the whole card.

I may be a pretty good judge of a camera angle but I do have a lot of equipment trouble.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

I confess to great bafflement

Travelling home on the Metro I ran into Dave, a friend to whom I had given the address of this blog. He was kind enough to be quite complimentary about it. However he said that a post he had particularly enjoyed was the one where I had listed my top ten favourite movies. Not only do I have no recollection of ever having made such a list, here or anywhere else, but I can find nothing in my back posts that resembles such a thing. I wonder what it was he saw? And what he'd been drinking when he saw it.

(There you go Dave, a mention in my blog. You have finally achieved the level of fame that you have craved all these years! BTW, I have tried to send you a couple of e-mails that have bounced back to me. There seems to be a problem with your account. Maybe you should try gmail.)

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Here's a little snippet from the Guardian web site.

"A study to raise awareness of geography found that two thirds of people (65%) mistakenly believe Britain is made up of four countries, rather than the correct three: England, Scotland and Wales."

Here's another quote, giving slightly different information.

"Britain,UK: These terms are synonymous. Britain is the official short form of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland... Great Britain, however,refers only to England, Wales and Scotland."

The source of the second quote?
Why The Guardian Book of English Language, a condensed version of the Guardian's own Style Manual. Oops!

Friday, 14 November 2008

Very Small Things

Over at Monkey Falls Off Tower they enjoy writing new tag lines to give away the endings of films. This isn't that but it was inspired by the concept. Here in the form of a poster is my review of the new Bond movie. *

(* Yes, yes. I know. I don't do reviews. Blah. Blah. This was too easy a target to miss.)

Sun comes up, sun goes down

The latest picture on John's blog at Blue Wave is a sunrise (or maybe a sunset, hard to tell one way or the other). I'm rather partial to sunrise and sunset pictures myself. So here's a little competition with no prize other than your feeling of satisfaction when you get the answers all right. Feel free to post your guesses as a comment. Answers, possibly, in a subsequent entry.

Here are a series of sunrise and sunset photographs from my own collection. All you have to do is correctly identify the countries and whether the sun is coming up or going down.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


When I made the second of my long trips, the overland from London to Singapore trip, I passed through Gallipoli shortly before Anzac Day. My diary for the day is rather sombre. A little less than a week before that anniversary I visited the cemetaries and the small museum. I thought that today, Remembrance Day, would be an appropriate time to quote the diary and also the poem that I wrote after my visit.

20th April 2001

The plan for today had been explained in last night’s daily briefing as ‘drive around the various cemeteries and monuments of Gallipoli’. It turned out to be exactly that - a drive, without stopping, around various cemeteries and monuments until we reached the Australian Cemetery at Lone Pine. Gallipoli was one of the most famous campaigns of World War One and if few people in England ever mark it nowadays that is partly because twentieth century history is a topic out of fashion but mostly because it means so much more to Australians, New Zealanders and Turks. Over 10,000 Australian and New Zealand troops were lost during the campaign. In total from both sides a quarter of a million were dead, wounded or missing. 86,000 Turks and 160,000 Allied troops were estimated as having been killed in the action. Considering that the Anzac forces and the Turks fought a series of bloody naval and military engagements to little effect other than the loss of so many lives each side came to have an unusual amount of respect for the others and a strange bond was forged between the enemies. Now every year on 25th April, the anniversary of the day in 1915 when the troops first landed, all of the nations involved commemorate the occasion with Anzac day when the dead of both wars are honoured. In Turkey, at the Lone Pine Cemetery preparations were underway for the service to be held there. Wooden decking was being erected for the seating and everywhere was being made even more neat and tidy than before. I walked around reading the plaques laid flat in the ground. On grave after grave the story was plain, soldiers still in their twenties had died here. It was a cold but bright day and there was a sense of peace and infinite sadness about the place made all the more poignant for the fact that this cemetery was on the ‘enemy’ soil.

We drove on to the main site where there is a small but moving museum. The displays of bullets, bombs and bones were not in themselves very interesting but a series of display cases filled with letters and documents from the Anzac troops and similar items with translations provided from the Turkish troops were especially moving. Saddest of all is the way that the sentiments in the letters home, if not the actual words, mirror each other perfectly to the extent that it is difficult to know simply from the words who was writing - an Australian far from home or a Turk in his own country. Every letter is filled with trivial detail of how beautiful the area is and how much they miss being with their families in their own homes. When the fighting and bloodshed is mentioned at all it is with a melancholy understatement as if there was an unspoken agreement to protect their loved ones from the full horror of the situation.

One letter from a Turk to his mother talks of how he wishes she could see how beautiful and peaceful the land here is and how sad it makes him to think of home.

The experience of visiting such melancholy sites affected me more than I would have expected. I am not an Australian, a New Zealander or a Turk. I am not a soldier or a fighter. Nevertheless, perhaps because of my already sombre mood I found that it was the most moving and emotional war memorial that I had ever seen. Perhaps that should be ‘antiwar memorial’ for no-one who has visited Gallipoli can fail to see the futile irony of conflict. Afterwards, reflecting upon what I had seen as we drove back to our campsite, I wrote the first draft of what eventually became this poem.

In Gallipoli Museum

I saw two letters, under glass
In a room of weapons
Uniforms and photographs
And more.
I saw the fragments of the shells,
Mounted, captioned
Memorabilia of hell
And war.
The letters drew me to the day
- The calm between the storms -
When two men had tried to say,
With words that might console
If grimmer tidings came
And their name was on the roll
Of those to die.
Transcribed afresh and copied clean
Where faded ink on yellow page
Might be no more than simply seen,
And yet not read.
Each wrote of optimistic times,
Comforted his family far away
Tonight on opposing battle lines,
Tommorow dead.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Here we go again (providing we can look up the times)

Well, the Daily Mail do just love their hobbyhorses, don't they? Once again it seems that the foundations of our language are under attack from the forces of evil. What, I hear you ask, is it this time? Is it children texting? Is it misplaced apostrophes and split infinitives? Is it the President Elect using the word "enormity" to mean "extent"? No, it's none of these things, though I'm sure that editors at the Mail fume regularly about all of them.
This time it's the dumbing down of A-Level English exams by including such reading fare as tram timetables.
If there were any suggestion that the tram timetables were being used instead of other texts, perhaps as a replacement for Romeo and Juliet, then I would certainly be in whole-hearted agreement, but there isn't. They are simply being used as one of a wide range of texts. I teach English for a living, albeit to students for whom it isn't a first language. One of the Governments skills descriptors says the following at the lowest level (complete beginner)

"Rt/E1.2 recognise the different purposes of texts at this level"

and this, at the highest level (pre-University entrance)

"Rt/L2.2 identify the purpose of a text and infer meaning which is not explicit"

Examining the latter more closely we find "identify the purpose of a wide range of texts, whether inferred or explicitly stated" and later, under a different code "use organisational features and systems to locate texts and information".
This, remember, is how we teach high level foreign language speakers but apparently it isn't a skill that native speakers require.
That's plainly nonsense. Reading doesn't just mean reading the very best of English literature, it doesn't even mean just reading books be they good or bad. It means reading everything. It means locating information on bottles of aspirin, tomato ketchup bottles, Government information leaflets and, yes, tram timetables.
Texts are different and have to be approached differently. It would be as ludicrous to read a tram timetable from beginning to end in order as it would be to read Oliver Twist by taking random sentences from a few disparate pages somewhere in the middle of it.
One of the great skills of reading, that becomes instinctive over time, is knowing how to approach a text. A tram timetable is just as much a text as a newspaper article or a sonnet and knowing how to read it is just as important a skill, arguably a more important skill, as knowing how to read them.
As ever, in its rush to defend Victorian values, the Mail has chosen to make a sensationalist article out of something very trivial and ignored the true heart of the matter.
Of course another important reading skill is judging how much trust you can put in the things you read. I wonder if they'd consider that to be dumbing down.


Apparently I'm supposed to be offended.

Offensive to atheists.

The cult of the individual and other educational disasters

I shouldn't say it, after all it might get back to the wrong people and lose me my job, but sometimes I get profoundly depressed about teaching and education.It's not when I'm actually standing in front of a class, and it's not usually when I'm doing the associated preparation, and it's only rarely when I'm doing the apparently endless admin. No, it's usually when I'm off at some obligatory training.

Last week we had some obligatory training. Each of the three sessions I attended, in it's own way, depressed me a little bit further.

The first session was actually quite fun. We played with wireless keyboards, digital voice recorders, smart boards, digital cameras and so on. No two ways about it, it was fun. Nevertheless it depressed me. It depressed me because it seems to me that in our headlong rush towards embracing every bit of new technology that is thrown at us we seem to be forgetting what teaching is actually meant to be about. Let's get right down to basics. Teaching is this: one person has some knowledge or a skill, one or more others don't, the one who does attempts to transfer that knowledge or skill to the ones who don't.

You can use whatever tools you like but it doesn't change the actual purpose of the job. Now I teach people, who don't speak English, how to speak English. That's the skill I have that they don't. The technology is nothing more than toys. I have a use for some bits of it and I have no use for other bits of it. But the prevailing thinking seems to be that all technology is good technology, that if I choose to teach using a board and a marker then I am somehow failing my students. I'm sorry, I disagree. In my classes there are students that like computers and technology and students that don't. I have one student who wants to be a sound engineer and will happily play with any bit of electrical equipment I hand over. I have another who after eight weeks of trying STILL can't even manage to turn on the computer. And why should she? I'm not there to teach them how to use computers. I'm there to teach them English. Forcing computers onto everybody is a ridiculous idea and I've lost count of the number of times I've been forced to defend a policy that I don't believe in, in the face of questions like "Why are we wasting our time on computers when I came here to learn English?"

I don't need all these toys to teach and for the most part the students don't want them.

On then to part two and one of my own favourite betes noire, the cult of the individual. The second piece of training was about preparing for an inspection and focussed largely on ILPs. Let me say from the outset that I believe absolutely and without question that it is important to know and respond to your students as individuals. I believe you should get to know their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, their preferred learning styles. I also believe that it is the gravest and most fundamental of errors to believe that you can teach a class of twenty people by perceiving it as twenty separate units rather than one single entity. And that's what's wrong with the whole concept of Individual Learning Plans. The idea that there is time to give each student a twenty to thirty minute tutorial once every six weeks and in that tutorial set separate goals and separate time frames (don't get me started on SMART targets) and then teach your class in such a way that those goals are achieved, monitored and marked is beyond ludicrous. It's flat out impossible. There are only twenty four hours in a day and you cannot teach twenty sets of individual goals without teaching each student for ten minutes and neglecting him for the rest of the lesson. In the training I heard people claiming that they do it and do you know what? I don't believe them.

Whenever we have training on this subject most people seem to nod a lot and say what a great idea it all is and how, if they didn't do it before, they certainly will now. And I NEVER believe them. I try very hard never to believe anything that is actually impossible. The few people that I know with certainty agree with me on this invariably remain silent in this training. Others go along with the assertions of the trainers no matter how far from reality they stray. Everybody is scared that voicing contrary thoughts will be seen as the kind of negative thinking that will be frowned upon and could, in extreme circumstances lose them their jobs. Agree or shut up are the only choices available. And that's what depresses me here.

And so to the third and final piece of training, the Government's laudable, Every Child Matters agenda. For those who don't know I should point out that even though I teach adults the principal applies not just to children but to "vulnerable adults" which, by definition, includes those who cannot speak English. There is nothing much to disagree with in the policy unless it's that it should really say "Every Student Matters". The five principals are entirely uncontentious; every child has a right to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, achieve economic well-being. All that is fine. There are two things about such training that depress me. The first is only mild. Is the training really telling us anything that isn't just a matter of common sense? It's just an attempt to codify something that we all do every day anyway. So far it's not much of a problem. The more depressing thing is the obsession with not just codifying things but with documenting the minutiae of everything we do. Made a phone call to the housing authorities on behalf of a student? Write it down, record it, annotate it. Helped a student get a bus pass? Write it down, record it, annotate it. Something in your lesson plan that could be construed as fitting one of those categories? Make sure it's documented as such on the plan. Nothing in the plan that does the trick? Change the plan to make sure there is something.

I help my students on all five of those "rights" every day. If I have to spend hours writing it all down will I be more or less inclined to do it in the first place? What do you think? As I said before there are only twenty four hours in a day and as I've said elsewhere the obsessions in education with targets, measurability and evidence are killing teaching. Possibly killing teachers too with the stress of it all.

Now I feel profoundly depressed again. I think I'll go and do some of the fun bits of the job and prepare some lessons to cheer me up.

Preoccupations of the times

Yesterday I watched, back to back, the 2008 television version of Michael Crichton's novel, the Andromeda Strain, and the 1971 film of the same novel. Both are good and I don't really intend this to be a review of them. Instead what I'd like to comment on is how they show up the prevailing attitudes and obsessions of their respective times.
I don't mean the styles of the films, nor the cinematic qualities, nor the special effects. I don't even mean the way that the "cutting edge" technology of the film seems so quaint (as the TV version doubtless will twenty years from now.)

No I'm thinking of the way that the characters lives and backgrounds are portrayed and in particular the way that the plot, substantially the same, varies to reflect the attitudes of the day.

Taken together these two films make an interesting and intriguing social document. Take the main characters, for example. In the 1971 version there are four main members of the Wildfire team, three men and a woman. They are all upstanding citizens, middle-class, middle-aged, respectable white scientists of good, honest morally unambiguous backgrounds. A single example will suffice. The leader of the Wildfire project is Doctor Stone. When the army comes to alert him to a problem, he is at a family dinner party. His wife's main worry is that there are men with guns in the street (whatever will the neighbours think?) and that the dinner party will be disrupted.

In the 2008 version there are five of them, three white, one black, one Asian. There is a much wider age spread. There are three men and two women. One of them has a military background, one of them was involved in some dubious biological warfare research, only one is happily married and that is just a plot device to allow her to be blackmailed later. The leader now comes from a broken marriage and has an embittered teenage son and a mentally unstable ex-wife. One of the other members of his team is the former student with whom his affair was responsible for the family breakdown. This characterisation would have been more or less unthinkable in 1971.

There is also a significant change to the background characters. Outside Project Wildfire there are no characters of significance in the original. One character survives – General Manachek (strangely changing his name from Arthur to George for no particular reason and his race from Caucasian to Afro-American in keeping with the multi-ethnicity of modern times). Initially a very similar character to the original (a career soldier, with a very military point of view), he undergoes a bit of an apotheosis at the end of the 2008 version and ends up on the side of the scientists, morally speaking, rather than the military. The fact that in the 1971 version the scientists and military are already on the same side shouldn't be overlooked.
There is an additional, plot-driven, character in the 2008 version. Jack Nash, a pill-popping, glue-sniffing, alcoholic journalist who is hot on the trail of the story while being pursued by sinister government types who want to kill him. This character simply couldn't have been put into the original, partly because of the lifestyle he is shown as having but mostly because it wouldn't have worked because his segment of the plot is very much a product of the post X-Files conspiracy-obsessed generation.

And that's where we come on to look at some significant plot changes. All of the main plot is intact. Satellite crashes to Earth. Deadly virus is released. Town dies except for two survivors. Scientists at secret lab race to find a way to destroy the virus. Many of the key scenes are almost shot for shot remakes. The trouble is that that is pretty much all of the original. It's a slow paced piece focussing entirely on what they are doing to solve the problem. There is a small subplot about a Senate Committee wanting to cut funding for the project and antagonism between the senate committee and the scientists. The project is temporarily cut off from the outside world by an equipment malfunction. (A device necessary for plot reasons.) However, everybody is on the same side. Everybody wants to save America and the world. Everybody is a good guy. Unsurprisingly the good guys succeed but where the "virus" came from and what it is remain a bit of a mystery.

What about now? Well now, we come onto the preoccupations of our time in a big way. The basic conflict is now between shadowy Government agencies who want to exploit the virus as a biological weapon and scientists who want to save the world. The project is intentionally denied contact with the outside world to force them to toe the line. The story is less about finding out what to do about the problem than it is about this conflict of interests. There is a subplot involving the flawed, but decent, journalist who tries to expose them while they try to kill him. There is another subplot involving injudicious exploitation of natural resources which may set the world on a path to disaster. And, because nothing is allowed to remain unexplained, there is a weird subplot about the virus having been sent through a wormhole from the future and containing microscopically coded secret messages.

We live in paranoid times. The X-Files and a thousand other programs have conditioned us to expect Governmental conspiracy. No program that involves Government can show it as being clean and acting in the interests of the people. The Government is always the bad guy. Here among other things, they shoot people, blow up their own helicopters and personnel trying to kill a journalist, kidnap a family to blackmail a doctor and want to use a plague that will destroy the world as a weapon.

This is the major theme of the new version. It's familiar ground. In everything, from the Sarah Connor Chronicles to Spooks, the government is shown as at best morally grey and at worst, downright evil. Apart from that bizarre and unnecessary time-travel-subplot, the Andromeda strain reflects the modern trend to jump at shadows and see conspiracies in what is usually no more than incompetence. Somewhere between then and now we have lost both our belief in the family and our trust in Government. Either or both of these things may or may not be good and may or may not be justified – I take no stance on the matter – but they have, to judge by our media, certainly happened. Whether the films are a product of the prevailing mores or vice-versa is a harder question but, as I said before, these two versions of the same thing make an interesting social document comparing the two eras.

(And oh boy, do those 1970s computers, and ticker-tapes, and medical equipment, and… …and everything, look quaint. I shall revisit this post in twenty years, if I'm still around, and comment on the quaintness of the computer simulations, the voice activated equipment and the biological hazard suits in the 2008 version.)

Saturday, 1 November 2008

And I'd buy it because...?

I am very rarely persuaded to buy something by an advertisement - my cheapskate approach to life means that I buy mainly supermarket own brands - but I have occasionally been persuaded NOT to buy something by advertisements. There are a couple of such self-defeating campaigns running at the moment. One is for a web based price comparison site. The advertisements in this campaign feature a number of characters (real actors) in poorly drawn cartoon sets using cartoon props (for example an oversize cardboard cut-out of a TV remote control). The trouble with the adverts is that the characters featured all come over as congenital half-wits, the kind of people for whom the Jeremy Kyle or Trisha* shows would be too intellectual. The kind of people who think that those appearing on Jeremy Kyle or Trisha are the creme-de-la-creme of the intelligentsia. The overwhelming impression that the ads leave is only someone with the IQ of a tapeworm would consider using the product.
The other spectacularly backfiring ad misses the mark for entirely different reasons. There is a campaign running trying to persuade us of the benefits of switching to high-definition TV. Now leaving aside my well-known technophobe objections to being sold a "better" system that isn't actually any better, there is something rather remarkable about the ads. They take bits of popular films and digitally process them to give a sharper image and a bit of a 3D effect and then show this to persuade me that I should buy an HD set. When I've looked at them my first though has been, "That looks pretty neat" and my second thought has been, "Hang on, it looks neat on my old non-HD set so why exactly am I supposed to buy a new HD set?" Clearly a bit of a waste of money.

As an aside, and not my story at all, I made the observation about HD to someone I was drinking with the other night. He told me that a shop he had been in was running, side by side, the same item in HD and in non-HD as a marketing ploy. The HD did indeed, he said look better than his own TV at home (although possible because it was a bigger brighter screen). The non-HD was where they failed to sell him though. According to him it was fuzzy, in poor focus and generally of about the quality of a tenth generation video tape copy and hence nowhere near the normal standard of a normal TV. If there was any real advantage to buying HD, he concluded, they wouldn't have to doctor the non-HD version so blatantly to sell it. My inner technophobe rejoiced to find a kindred spirit.

*For Americans who may not be familiar with Jeremy Kyle or Trisha, think Jerry Springer but dumbed down. They both run programs with titles like "My boyfriend's transsexual uncle molested my poodle" or "My mother's secret lovechild stole my husband". And sadly those examples are nowhere near as bizarrely outrageous as real ones would have been but I couldn't bring myself to Google for them.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Dusted down, polished up, still crap

The work on revamping my rather old poem, City of the Damned, is proceeding very slowly indeed. There are several reasons for this. First of all it is, as I said, very long. It also has some severe metrical problems and some issues of logic. There is also the problem that it's a product of a specific time and place, London in about 1981 and it hasn't travelled well. Beyond that it actually is an example of something that is really prose masquerading as poetry. Yes, even I sometimes fall into that trap. I am working on fixing it but it's a slow and difficult job. Therefore I'll switch track temporarily and present a number of revamped short poems. I've selected them purely because they are short and the degree of rewriting required, though variable, is small. This of course does not mean that they are especially good, in fact I'd be pushed to claim any pride in them. Still, they are mine and while pride would be misplaced I can't deny ownership.

Here then are the first three. They date, I believe to the mid-seventies which would put them either just before or just after I left school and went to University. The thought behind them was the way that we see every day people who we will never speak to, never get know, never interact with in any way whatsoever and the single passing glance of an attractive face is the sum total of their existence. A melancholy thought perhaps but at least it's a small variation on the teen angst that most of the poems from the period represent.

I don't know you,
But you're the first today,
A face in the crowd
As I'm on my way,
A sideways glance
As you're moving on;
I twist my neck
But you are gone.

Damn! Just missed the bus again.
Turned the corner, saw it go.
I always seem to miss it when
My feet are just a touch too slow
But through the window, scarcely seen
As its speed begins to grow
Another face, calm, serene
That I will never get to know.

Clip. Clip. Clip. Clip.
Measured and unfractured tread.
She walks towards me and walks past.
There are words I might have said.
Had the moment not slipped by so fast.

I always used to write myself a birthday poem, and a right set of miserable verses they are too. I'm not sure which particular birthday this one was for but it's fairly typical of them. I really didn't like birthdays much, did I?

No One Sent The Card

No one sent the card
That wasn't really there.
No one wrote the letter
That did not come.
No one came to visit
My castle in the air.
No one spoke a greeting.
There was no one.

No one came to see me
Or noticed me at all.
No one missed my face
If I failed to come.
No one dialled my number.
No one made the call.
No one rang my doorbell
There was no one.

And a second birthday, this one precisely datable because my age is mentioned in it. I was twenty four. Therefore it was 1981. And yes, it is as bad as the others.

In the closing and opening
Of the shutter
A year has passed.
The camera isolates
The victim in
An empty pose.
Each captured moment
In the series is
Just like the last.
Portraits of the hero
Are juxtaposed.

And that's about it for now although before I go I would like to draw your attention to a series of photographs on another blog. Blue Wave is my friend John's blog and he's recently returned from holiday. He's been posting a series of, mainly architectural, photographs, one at a time, on his blog and they are well worth a look with some excellent composition and use of natural light. Go see for yourself.

Friday, 24 October 2008

If you go down to the woods

Until today I had no idea that the children's song "Teddy Bears Picnic" had more than one verse. Now that I do, courtesy of a children's TV program, I'm really rather disturbed by the thought. The first verse is innocuous enough.

If you go down to the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.

I'm not sure of the need for a disguise but it's probably just because teddy bears are shy and retiring creatures who might run away and hide if they recognise you. Or is it? The second verse continues.

If you go down to the woods today
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely out in the woods today
But safer to stay at home.

That's vaguely alarming, now. Why is it safer to stay at home? Do those teddy bears get a little too boisterous when they've been at the lemonade. Are there gangs of teddy bears in hiding waiting to waylay any non-ursine intruder?
The third and final verse reveals the gory, Friday-The-Thirteenth, truth.

Every teddy bear that's been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There's lots of wonderful things to eat
And wonderful games to play.

It couldn't be any clearer. These teddy bears have an appetite and the reason it's safer to stay at home is because you are on the menu. Nasty little buggers teddy bears. Never did trust them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Parlez vous...huh?

In the course of my travels I have, as you would expect, accumulated quite a collection of guide books. They usually include some kind of mini phrase-book to help the traveller out as he tries to navigate his way about foreign lands. Buried in these phrase books it's not uncommon to find phrases which at first glance seem rather odd. Actually at second and subsequent glances too in many cases.

For example my guide to South America tells me how to say, "Help, there's something wrong with the brakes" though it's hard to conceive of circumstances where I would have both someone to say this to and the time to look it up in the book. Of course the same book tells me the Spanish for "Please call an ambulance" which might be handy a short time later.

My guide to Lao also includes this latter phrase but additionally, adopting a somewhat gloomier outlook, tells me how to ask, "Where is the nearest cemetery?"

Sometimes these things seem to give an insight into the things that occupy the collective national psyche, as in an Arabic guide in a book about Egypt which gives me translations for both "I need to check that with my chairman" and "We look forward to a mutually beneficial relationship" – phrases which hardly seem important for the casual traveller.

Food can also be a bit of a mystery as the guide book translations aren't necessarily all that useful. Knowing the Malay for "rice with odds and ends" doesn't mean that those odds and ends will be something palatable. For those who prefer their food rather fresher the phrase "do you have an ox", which I have in Malagasy, might do the trick and for after dinner entertainment there is always the Nepali for "Will you please dance for me", a phrase I was unwilling to try out when I was there for fear of it being a local euphemism inserted by a malicious guide book employee. It might of course be part of the mating rituals as indeed might the Chinese for "I think you look very pretty" though the Chinese for "I have lost my cat" could, perhaps, belong in the food and drink rather than the making friends section.

All of which is simply preamble to the point, which is that I have today bought a guide book for PDRK (North Korea) which gives me the two best phrases I have ever come across which I am absolutely certain will be winners with my hosts when I eventually get there in April. So, I'm off now to learn "Kim Il Sung really is the greatest communist fighter and true revolutionary" and "Yankees are wolves in human shape".

For those interested, the guide book, the only one I could find for the country, is one of the excellent Bradt series.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Where do we go from here...

Well, I don't know where we go from here but I do know where I go. I've just booked my first proper holiday for some time. I am a little concerned that the relevant stamps in my passport may cause me some problems if I try to visit my friends in America for future wordcraft conventions but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
It's a chance I'll have to take, after all, how many of my friends are likely to be able to say they have visited North Korea? Well, that's where I'm going. There are some quite drastic restrictions on travelling around within the country - for example you can't leave the hotels except as a group with the North Korean guides present so my habit of early morning wandering around the streets is a no-no, and you can't take mobile phones into the country so I'll have to just hope that no emergencies arise at home.

I'll post more about the itinerary later but for now I'll just start counting down the days to next Easter which is when the trip takes place and try very hard not to think how much it's going to cost me.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The middle ground

I've talked about this before, elsewhere, if not here. Since I was a kid something strange has happened to sizes. For example, it used to be that bread came in thin sliced, medium sliced and thick sliced; tins of processed food in small, medium and large; ice creams in small cones or large cones. Now the bread is medium or thick and the tins and cones medium or large. Small seems to have vanished off the radar.
I have two alternate theories to explain this. One is the theory, based on far more evidence than this, that the people of the world are gradually turning into morons who do not realise that to have a medium you have to have something larger AND something smaller. They genuinely see "medium" as being the opposite of "large". In my gloomier moods this is the theory that I embrace. In my happier moods I have an alternate theory which is that it's a product of misplaced psychobabble advertising spin. People are more likely, so the theory goes, to buy something that is labelled "medium" than something labelled "small" even though it costs more and is exactly the same size. I say misplaced because if this is the thinking involved then there's a startling gap of logic. Offered a choice of small and large, the average greedy customer will, perhaps, for those psychological reasons, choose "large". But hang on, if "medium" is preferable to "small" doesn't that mean that if the choice is shifted to medium/large a bigger proportion of customers will choose the medium than would have ever chosen the small thus reducing rather than increasing those turning to the more profitable large?

All this is old ground. What's new though is the choice I was confronted with when I went to buy a kebab at my local fish,chips and kebabs shop tonight. Looking down the list headed "Kebabs" I saw that I could buy

Donner Kebab
Chicken Kebab
Mixed Meat Kebab
Kebab Meat and Chips in a tray
Chicken Kebab Meat and chips in a tray
Mixed Meat and chips in a tray

All of these came in two sizes - medium or large, usually with a price difference of about 70 pence. It was the next three items on the list that puzzled me.

Small Kebab Meat and Chips
Small Chicken Kebab Meat and Chips
Small Mixed Meat and Chips

And these confused me because all of these also come in two sizes - medium and large. Was, I pondered, a large small Kebab Meat and Chips bigger or smaller than a medium, regular Kebab Meat and Chips?
The prices indicated that they were in fact the same and that a medium small was smaller than a medium regular.

I'm no wiser now. Because the whole thing was making my head hurt, I bought a steak and kidney pie.