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.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 39

... and hoops made from bent over playing-card courtiers. The whole thing is very chaotic... a sense captured very nicely in this 1907 illustration by W.H. Walker. I have this illustration in a much later edition (Chronicle Books, 2000) which collects illustrations by various hands.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

DPRK: Spooky Update

Just watched episode one of the new season of Primeval. (For US readers: this is a series where the heroes fight against various horrible time travelling beasties that appear through big glowing anomalies. This parody will tell you all you need to know.)

In tonight's season opener a crocodile-like monster had come through an anomaly controlled by some ancient Egyptian statue. After a bit of a runaround the good guys defeated it. The statue remained in the British museum. In the closing scene we were told that the exhibition was moving on and we saw a crate being loaded onto a lorry.

And no, you didn't misread the title of this post: the place name stencilled on the crate was Pyongyang!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 38

The queen invites Alice to play croquet, but it is a most peculiar game with flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls...

The illustration is by Scott McKowen. Although it's a modern edition (Sterling Publishing, 2005) all I've been able to turn up on the internet about the illustrator is various sites selling his books. Lucky then that there are some brief details on the dust jacket. He's an award winning graphic designer, art curator and the designer of Canada's 2001 silver dollar.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

To advertise or not to advertise

What, exactly, constitutes and advertisement as opposed to, say, a news item? I ask because of an item that I saw on the BBC this morning. The charter under which the BBC operates specifically forbids them from commercial advertising but at what point does a news item cease to be a news item and become, in all but name, an advertisement?
The item in question was ostensibly about Starbucks closing some of its UK branches in response to the current financial situation. One question - do you think you expanded too rapidly in the UK - was connected. After a cursory answer the executive from the company was allowed to promote the brand, mention the prices and name some products, say that their prices were lower than their competitors' prices and talk about a new range of instant coffee products under the Starbucks brand that reproduce the "unique flavours" of Starbucks. Surely this must be considered advertising and hence in breach of the regulations.
I've seen things before - both on screen and in print - that were adverts masquerading as articles or news items but this seemed rather blatant. Starbucks couldn't have been more pleased with it if they had paid an agency to script it for them.
I sent my comments to the BBC and await their response (though with little expectation of receiving it.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Stars und Sternchen

I occasionally read a number of online sites to practise my German and I was briefly diverted by this sentence.

In der Comedy-Reihe "Switch Reloaded" werden Stars und Sternchen aus dem Fernsehen parodiert.

Translated this means "In the comedy series 'Switch Reloaded' Stars and Starlets will be parodied on television."

What interested me was that "Stars" in the sense of TV stars was written as "Stars" (German for star, as in the sky, is Stern) but the diminutive form wasn't "Starchen" but "Sternchen" meaning "little stars".

I don't know why I found it interesting that the diminutive used the actual German word for "star" as its root while the non-diminutive was rendered in English - but as I say, I did find it briefly interesting.

Monday, 23 March 2009


Apparently the Sci-Fi Channel is rebranding as the SyFy channel, a name that means nothing when you look at it and a move that is bizarrely inexplicable. I'm told that it's because they believe that they will be able to register this name whereas the generic nature of the previous name prevented this. I'm also told that for various reasons they have clearly received some not-very-good advice on the matter.

(I'm also told, though I can't verify it, that "syfy" is Polish slang for syphilis.)

The press release for the change has some interesting linguistic points about it. For example I can guess that "water cooler programming" means scheduling programmes that people discuss around the water cooler. I can guess it, but I don't know it for a fact.

Apparently they are also creating a new trademark to "travel easily with consumers across new media and non-linear digital platform". Your guess is as good as mine as to what a "non-linear digital platform" might be.

The new slogan is the linguistically unintelligible, "Imagine Greater". I can't find any way to parse this that makes sense.

They are also going to "open the brand aperture" and launch a "new brand evolution". Wonder what it all means.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 37

...Alice hid the gardeners in a flower pot.

And yet again I know nothing about the artist, only that the book is published by Hampster books of London.

Mothering Sunday

Today is now more commonly known here by the American phrase "Mothers' Day" but I prefer the older British term "Mothering Sunday". I've decided to share here a poem that I wrote shortly after my mother died and I had taken the decision to spend some time travelling around the world in search of different skies, which is the title of the poem.

Different Skies

On yestereve the skies were clear
And all I loved were with me here,
But suddenly the freezing rain
Has filled the world with endless pain.
The places that I stood before
Have changed now and for evermore,
And all I valued, all I prized
Is lost beneath this different sky.

The streets I walk seem colder now
Distorted by the pain somehow,
And where once I saw the pools of light
I notice now the walls of night.
The only answer I can find
Is to leave this empty place behind
And by breaking every tie
Seek warmth beneath a different sky.

December 1998.

(I confess that I made up the word "yestereve", though I see it does appear in some online dictionaries, usually the less reliable ones. I like it anyway.)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Oh dear, he's ranting again.

Ah, more training today. What a wonderful world education is. Actually, apart from telling me absolutely nothing that I didn't already know, today's training wasn't too bad, even, at times, moderately entertaining. What did get to me though, and I may well have ranted about it before, was the frequency with which the words "evidence" and "targets" appeared in the training. I believe passionately that these words are responsible for more bad teaching, for more drops in standards, more - to use a phrase I hate - bad practice than just about anything else.
It isn't just education we're talking about either. Everyone in England has shuddered in the last couple of days at the story of Stafford Hospital where hundreds have people may have died and where people keep blaming the targets culture for some of the failings. I've said it before, but it bears repeating, some things should not be judged by how they meet targets.
As for evidence there is an endemic belief that things must not only happen, not only be seen to happen, but be documented as having happened. Every conversation with students should, we are told, be written down because if it isn't then we'll not be able to prove to the inspectors that it happened. Every chat with co-tutors about classes should be minuted because if it isn't minuted then how will those same inspectors know that it took place? Things not recorded didn't happen.

The trouble is that nothing is ever proposed that reduces the paperwork load, only things that increase it and no one ever finds a way to put more minutes into the hours to give us time to do these things. I probably have a dozen or so tutorial-style conversations with students every week and a couple of in-the-corridor or over-lunch discussions with co-tutors. Even if they only take two minutes each to document (and that's a wildly optimistic estimate) that's around thirty minutes more of my time gone. And I don't have enough time as it is.

What is this obsession with evidence anyway? The college obsession I understand. They have to be obsessed because the Government and hence the inspectors are obsessed but why? What does having folders full of bits of paper saying that I've done things actually prove? It doesn't prove that I've done them; it proves that I have lots of bits of paper. It would be far easier to invent fictional paperwork by NOT dealing with the issues in the first place than it is to deal with them and document them.

Now that could easily be seen as over-cynical. Nobody, you might say, would just make stuff up but if you don't have time to do the job and evidence it (and don't you think the habitual use of "evidence" as a verb says something about people's attitudes?) then what do you do? Especially if the evidence is seen as more important than the task.

The obsession with targets and evidence is doing no favours at all for the students, patients, clients or customers. All it's doing is making life difficult for everybody trying to do a decent job.


This mini-rant was brought to you by the "Just Let Me Do My Job" Foundation.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled viewing.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 36

Another illustration where I don't even know who the illustrator is, this comes from an edition by Birn Brothers, London. It's an annual sized edition with rather naive art including a handful of nice colour plates.

The Queen is so angry that she demands that the gardeners heads are cut off. As the book progresses she demands that lots of people's heads are cut off, but fortunately the threat is never carried through, in this case because...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

DPRK Update

Got the passport back today. Things progress.

The passive voice is known to me.

Recently over at Language Log there have been a number of posts about passive voice, although when I say recently I should qualify it by pointing out that these are only the latest round in a long running series of posts.

Now as anyone will tell you I am as determinedly descriptive as the next determinedly descriptive grammarian but I am a little disturbed by the phenomenon these posts are describing. The passive voice is, or at least has historically been, a construction where the object of a verb (the thing or person it's being done to) is given prominence by being placed in what is usually the subject position and the subject (the thing or person doing it) is either left out altogether or replaced with some form of agent construction (for example a by...).


I kicked the cat. - active voice
The cat was kicked. - passive voice

This is, as Language Log notes, often being replaced with a new definition by newspapers and less grammatically savvy pundits. They use the phrase "passive voice" to mean any construction that is vague about agency. So they would claim that

Somebody kicked the cat.

was passive voice, which it certainly isn't.

There are plenty of examples to be found on Language Log and I don't really want to go into them here. The treatment of the topic over there is far better than anything I'm likely to write.

What I would like to go into is a difficulty this presents to me as a teacher. The level that I teach is the one where the difference between passive and active voice is normally taught so should I go on teaching what I know to be grammatically accurate or should I start teaching that any construction where we are avoiding responsibility is called "passive"?

It's a no-brainer really. Of course I shall go on teaching the passive voice as I have always taught it but I'll add a note that they will see the phrase used by people who don't know or don't care what it means. The thing is that this is a distinction that I think needs to be maintained. If this new usage takes hold then we are left without a name for the grammatical construction in question, we will either have to devise something else to call it or teach it as a construction without having any way to refer to it. I know it's only a name for a particular bit of grammar but names are important. By diluting the meaning to one which includes not only the original meaning but a whole host of others we'll lose the original meaning altogether.

The passive voice will be lost.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

DPRK Update

Well I now have everything I need for my trip to North Korea except my passport and DPRK visa which, touch wood, I should have in the next few days. I'm a little confused over money as the documentation indicates both a) Euros or dollars are preferred for exchange in DPRK and b) exchange is not possible in the DPRK. I shall call the tour company on Monday for a litle more guidance on this as I doubt very much that I'll be able to get Korean currency in England.

Of course the looming cloud on the horizon is the recent increase in tension between North and South Korea and hence between North Korea and the United States. I knew already of course that a North Korean visa in my passport might present future difficulties if I wish to visit the US again but I hadn't really anticipated the possibility that the two countries might go to war while I'm there.

My flight leaves the UK at a very civilised 20:20 which should mean I can eat dinner on the plane, watch a movie, get as close to a night's sleep as is possible sitting up and arrive relatively refreshed at my destination, a possibility that is greatly enhanced by being on a non-stop flight.

I shall of course keep you updated right up to my day of departure.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 35

As she stands there a great procession of the whole court comes down the pathe. The three gardeners throw themselves flat upon the ground.

This illustration, by Andrew Hopgood, is from a rather odd edition from Budget Books, Victoria. It's odd because it's been rewritten by Archie Oliver. It hasn't been abridged for a lower age or translated into a new language, it's just been rewritten. Though I'm not convinced that there is anything to be gained by such a process, the illustrations are quite interesting.


One of my colleagues covered my group today. The lesson was a practice reading exam. I've railed and ranted against it before so I won't bother right now. What I will say is that my colleague came round to my point of view, that the paper is just plain ridiculous. She actually remarked that she felt she couldn't have passed it, not because she has problems with English but because the whole concept and design of the paper is unworkable.

See, told you so!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Doesn't sound like fun to me!

This week is one of our annual telethon events - Comic Relief - and while I’d happily write them a cheque to NOT show it, other people have other views. The actual telethon is broadcast tomorrow and I shall be making a point of missing all of it. I don’t mind donating as long as I don’t have to watch the thing. However there is another related program on at the moment that my Dad is watching and which, surprisingly, has some points of interest for me. A bunch of “celebrities” went on a fund raising expedition climbing Kilimanjaro and this program is about that. I put celebrities in quotes because I have watched it on and off for the last thirty minutes and I don’t recognize any of them. I checked the names in the TV guide and a couple are vaguely familiar though I couldn’t put the names and faces together if my life depended on it.

A lot of these things look phoney because of the cameras but I’d have to say that this one looks authentic enough, and has raised a lot of memories. I’ve never been up Kilimanjaro but I have been up and down mountains in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes and the program has reminded in turn of all of them. A bit that definitely struck a chord with we was when one of them, apparently disc jockey Chris Moyles, crawled into his tent and showed the cameras how he lays out his kit and then took a pair of training shoes from his bag before waxing lyrical about the joys of taking off his boots at the end of the day.

So, sweaty aching feet and tiny tents seemed familiar. Also altitude sickness and the back, knee and foot problems suffered by various members of the team. Now that I come to think of it my holidays aren’t actually all that much fun are they? Well they are really. No, honestly.
Here’s a true story.

I was doing the Inca trail. Anybody who has done it, and there are plenty, will tell you that there is one killer day when you spend hours going up an unrelenting hill. And a steep one at that. It was exhausting but not really a problem. OK it rained all day and that makes it so much more difficult. Nevertheless it wasn’t a problem. The problem was the last bit where you have a relatively easy downhill hour to the camp. The trouble was that my knees were wobbly, the ground was wet and slippery and my boots weren’t the best quality. Frequent slips banged my toes against the caps of the boots. By the time we got to camp my toe nails were black. I was reluctant to let them pierce them, preferring to see how they felt next morning.
How they felt was terrible. I couldn’t put my boots on. My solution was to wear several pairs of soft thick socks, plastic bags over them to keep them dry and training shoes with the toes cut out of them. I know what you’re thinking. He calls that a holiday? Well the upside was I had my own guide for the day. There was no way I could possibly keep up with the others so I would be arriving at the next camp hours behind them. The weather had improved and I spent the day ambling along, well limping actually, looking at the beautiful scenery, chatting with my guide and having a rare old time. I actually really enjoyed the day and completely forgot about the pain in my feet.
OK, the remaining few days of the trip soon reminded me about the pain and by the time I got home a week later I’d lost both nails and had my toes wrapped in cotton wool. I can tell you from experience that toes without toenails feel really weird.

The point is that I’ve had all sorts of problems when I’ve been hiking and they don’t matter, it’s still fun.

Anyway, tomorrow I shall give a donation to the telethon but ONLY on condition that I don’t have to watch the damned program.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 34

This illustration is from a Ladybird edition illustrated by David Frankland. There seems to be little information on the web about him, apart from a couple of portfolios. The book also has a series of woodcuts by Jonathan Mercer.

Inside the garden Alice finds three playing cards/gardeners painting some white roses red because they didn't plant the colour the queen wanted.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Another poem written quite a long time ago, telling the true story of an incident in my first year at school.

The Naughty Chair

Apparently, aged five,
I cried,
And, unmoved by bribes
Or sighs,
Would not be denied.
The other children all
had had
A chance to sit where
Only bad
Children sat,
In the naughty chair
In the corner where
The class could stare
And glare.
But a goody two-shoes
From the start
I'd played no part
To put me there -
In the naughty chair
And so I cried
And cried and cried
And cried and cried
And made the teacher
At last decide
To let me sit
-At least for a bit -
In it.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word (to translate)

I decided that as I have a lot of DVDs that have both English and German soundtracks I'd watch a couple in German, just for the practice. I am after all rather rusty and what could be a better way to brush up than watch, say, a couple of episodes of Stargate in German? Because I'm so rusty I decided that I'd also put on the subtitles. After all reading the words would overcome any difficulties in identifying the spoken dialogue AND give me some additional practice.

The first oddity was that the episode entitled "A Hundred Days" in English had mysteriously become "O'Neill und Laira" (O'Neill and Laira). It didn't take long for me to realise that watching AND reading in German was worse than useless as they appeared to be two entirely different translations.
Take this short exchange.

First, English.

O'Neill: Please. Don't suck the fun out of this.
Carter: Sorry, sir.

Pretty straightforward, isn't it.

Here's the German as in the subtitles.

O'Neill: Bitte! Das verdirbt uns den Spass.
Carter: Tut mir Leid, Sir.

That's fairly close meaning, in back translation,

O'Neill: Please! That spoils the fun for us.
Carter: I'm sorry, Sir.

On the other hand the translation on the soundtrack was the completely different. Although it doesn't make much sense it sounds as if it's

O'Neill: Wir waren noch jetzt nicht da von Anfang.
Carter: Enshuldigung, Sir.

Or, in English (something like)

O'Neill: We weren't still there from the beginning.
Carter: Pardon me, Sir.

Five minutes later I gave up on the subtitles. None of them bore any resemblance to the spoken dialogue and my head had started to ache trying to reconcile the two.

Monday, 9 March 2009


Quote from episode one of a new series, Railway Walks, exploring some of the disused tracks around the UK.

"Once upon a time this route was filled with buxom busy express trains."


Sunday, 8 March 2009

Alices In Wonderland: Part 33

For those who grew up listening to seventies progressive rock bands there were two absolute giants of album cover art - Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews. Dean was responsible for all those paintings that graced albums by Yes, Matthews did work for Barclay James Harvest, Magnum and Asia among others. Of the two I always preferred Matthews so when I saw that there was an edition of Alice by him I had to get it - and it's wonderful, full of detailed double page spreads like the one shown above.

Technically I think this may actually be an illustration of the Kingdom Hearts game rather than the book but it does fit nicely in at this point of the story.

When Alice goes through the door she finds herself at last in the beautiful garden.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


Following on from the previous poem in this autobiographical sequence, this one is about that swing in the secret, forgotten part of the neighbour's garden. I wrote it quite a long time ago and am pleased to say that I see no pressing need to edit it now.

The Child on the Swing

Eyes closed, backward, forward,
backward ,forward
Sun warmed face and hands
Hypnotic rhythm

Traffic noises turn to surf
Breaking on golden sand
Mother's washing machine
A circling aircraft

Creaking chains, the crack
Of salt stained timbers,
As quicksilver waves
Propel the boat shorewards,

Towards the land,
Where it beaches,
And he wakes,
And rubs his eyes,
And runs indoors
For lemonade.

Irregular Verbs II

Actually some of those verbs in the list are quite interesting.

You know it hadn't occurred to me that if there is an adjective "handwritten", then there must be a verb "handwrite" (rather than the phrase "write by hand") or that the adjective "forlorn" was even derived from a verb ("forlese").

Irregular Verbs I

A couple of years ago I had a student who had, from somewhere, got his hands on an old French-English dictionary. Included in it, as there often is, was a table of French and English irregular verbs. You will all have seen them often enough : take, took, have taken; speak, spoke, have spoken; that kind of thing.
Anyway, he was, completely against my advice as his teacher, trying to learn the entire list. From time to time he would wander up and ask me the meaning of a verb. They were always words that were rare, archaic or obsolete. I recall him asking me about forsake, abide and beseech, for example.

Now, for like minded students, for those who wish to learn every obscure and ancient irregular verb they can find, I have come across this on Lexiophiles, one of the blogs I subscribe to.

Learn them by all means but I beseech you forego the temptation to bestrew your your conversation with them so that you do not mischoose your terms.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

From the Department of Out-of-Context Quotes

From the interview in today's Metro with comedian Tim Vine.

"It's like golf - there are times when you think you're pretty good and other times when it feels like you've never thrown a dart before."

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Too much of a good thing?

I've discovered, to my surprise, that it's possible to take a love of Alice in Wonderland too far. I reached this surprising conclusion last night when I saw the new TV program from celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. Those who don't know of him (perhaps because they live on the wrong side of the Atlantic) should be aware that he's an odd chap who owns a restaurant that serves his signature dishes of bacon and egg flavoured ice-cream and snail porridge.
Anyway he was creating a Victorian feast inspired by the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. His aperitif was a pink drink that tasted by turns of cherry tart, buttered toast, toffee and turkey. His soup course was a frozen condensed "mock turtle soup" that was a) in the form of a watch, b) made from boiled cows head and c) turned into soup on the addition of boiling water. His main course was an "edible garden" with soil made from ground black olives, stones made from potatoes and a selection of deep fried bugs. His desert was absinthe flavoured jelly made to wobble constantly by the inclusion of vibrators bought after extensive research in a sex shop.

I knew already, of course, that he was bonkers, but somehow he managed to find enough bonkers people to attend his party and eat the meal. Braver people than me.

*#+£ spammers

Please note that due to a spam attack on this blog which is going to take me hours to clean up, comment moderation has now been turned on. Comments will in future not appear until they have been approved by me.

Sorry, if I had my way spammers would be consigned to the lowest circle of hell.

Alices In Wonderland: Part 32

This is a weird one. It's from an edition by Starshine books, illustrated by Carlos Busquets, which includes Alice with three other stories. Well I say that it includes Alice, but that's only true after a fashion. The story is clearly meant to be Alice and is called Alice in Wonderland but it's not only extremely abridged but also rewritten practically beyond recognition, including as it does parrots and pirates, elephants and trees with faces. The rewrite is uncredited and I have been unable to find any information about he artist other than sites selling his books.

As she continues on her way Alice sees a door in a tree. When she enters she finds herself back in the hallway with all the doors and this time takes the key and uses the mushroom to get to the right height.

Monday, 2 March 2009


Continuing my autobiography in poetry.

I was by nature a solitary child. There was an alley at the end of the cul-de-sac that I lived on which led out to where the other kids played. I was far too timid to go and join them. Instead I had my own place, a completely enclosed area at the rear of our neighbours house that nobody went into. You could only get into it by climbing our tree and jumping over the fence.

Safe and Secret Places: Part 1 – Dream a life

Close your eyes and feel the heat
Of the sunlight on your face.
Nobody can find you here
In your safe and secret place.
Mother doesn’t know you're gone.
Father hasn’t missed you yet.
Every second in this place
Is a time you won’t forget.

In the corner of the garden
Behind a long forgotten fence
You found your safe and secret place
Without an adult audience.
The grass is overgrown and wild.
The swing stands patiently and waits
For the coming of a child
Who scales the rusty, padlocked gates.

Close your eyes and dream a life
In your safe and secret place
The world may seem too big and fast
But here, it’s you who sets the pace.
Outside you may be scared to run,
To turn the corner, join the game
But this place is yours and yours alone
Unquestioned by a counterclaim.

Overheard conversations

The world is changing in strange ways.

Yesterday I sat in the pub, as I often do on a Sunday afternoon, having a few drinks with a couple of friends. One had had to leave early and the other was at the bar and I overheard a snippet of conversation from the adjoining table.
Sitting there were four elderly men, perfectly normal elderly men. What were these fine fellows discussing? Was it fast cars? Sport? Action movies? Perhaps it was something more highbrow? The economy? Politics? Religion?
No, it was none of these things. Instead they were engaged in an earnest discussion about the best size for croutons in French onion soup.
Strange ways, indeed.