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, 28 December 2010

Just time to...

...pop in and say Prague was bloody marvellous. Off to Bristol tomorrow, back on the first of January.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

About time for some more juvenilia

It's well over a year since I dipped into the vaults and showed you just what a lousy poet I was thirty years ago, so it's a long overdue treat.
Maybe "treat" isn't the word most would choose. I've been transferring some of my (slightly) less terrible stuff from the hand-written notebooks to disc and decided to show myself up again. This selection of poems were all written at the same time. I was about nineteen - perhaps a couple of years older. Then, as now, I loathed discos but was persuaded by a couple of friends that we should try visiting clubs for a few weeks instead of just going down the local pub. It was a salutary experience, and one I have steadfastly avoided ever repeating. It did however give me something to write about. They go under the generic title of New Songs For Hollow Faces. The revisions that have been made to them are very slight. A word or two added or removed for metre, a verse dropped because I couldn't work out whatever the hell it was meant to be about and a few spelling corrections.

1. Excursions Into Hell
We visit ever more outrageous worlds,
Searching only for novelty.
We ignore the claws that catch at our skin.
They do not impede our descent.
Bizarre creatures pirouette around us
Beneath the garish lights of Hell.
The fractured sound murders all thought of speech
The heat steals breath from our bodies.
A storm of light breaks apart in our eyes,
Further dissipating sanity.
This is an excursion into Hell.
Following the terrible Maelstrom down
We chase the thrill of the new.
We surface amid mirrored laser beams
And satin seductresses.
We cannot reach into their souls and hearts
For they have none to be reached.
We become the future.
We become ourselves.
We join the revellers.
On excursions into Hell.

2. Faces Without Names
Faces without names
Words without voices
All around me are ghosts.
Sins without shame,
Futures without choices
Unsupported boasts.

3. The Sin Of Solitude

Solitude is silence
And silence is a sin.
Wait in anticipation
For the music to begin.
When they peak in rhyme
And you do not understand,
Ignore the singers words
Feel the rhythm of the band.
Not even in your fantasy
Allow silence to intrude
For silence is a sinful
Vicious interlude.
The interact in mime
Without communication
Together but for ever
Bound by their isolation.
For solitude is silence
And silence is a sin
Wait in anticipation
For the chaos to begin.

4. Part of the Heat

Like suicidal moths
On kamikaze paths into the flame
We plunge through the doorway
And into the heat.
Sweat stains our elegant clothes.
Our eyes hook upon other eyes
As other eyes hook upon us
With passionless fire.

We do not compete.
We will not join the dance.
We will choose no partners.
We will not become part of the heat.
Instead we slake our thirst
On draughts of cynicism.

5. Lies of Consent

Finally the manic mood catches me.
Off guard for a moment, it strikes at me
And pours poison into my mind.

It does not go unnoticed.

Eyes turn. Fingers Point.
My laughter balloons out
Visible but silent amid the furious sound,
Skittering like an animal
Through the mirror ball confusion.
I am lost.
There is no longer safety in unity.
There is no more deceitful truth.
There are only lies of consent
And more, and ever greater pain.

A River of Stones 22 Dec 2010

Nine days ago this picture was the picture of the day on my other blog. The first of my "Small Stones" is sequel to it.

The final apple has fallen from my tree: a blood spot in the snow.

A River of Stones

As you can see from the new link to the right I have decided to participate in the River of Stones, a project for writing very short, but perfectly formed pieces. You can see what it's all about by clicking the image.

I may link it to my "Ongoing" project which has been a little slow of late. Of course it doesn't mean I won't be adding longer, though hopefully just as perfectly formed, pieces to that project too. Enjoy.

Still not looking good!

It's snowing again. Damn!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Starting to worry

I'm due to fly to Prague on Friday and with more bad weather forecast I have no idea whether or not I'll be able to. Pictures of stranded tourists at Heathrow are doing little to lift my spirits. Official statements that BA may not be operating services until Thursday, or even later, are just downright depressing. The biggest problem is that they keep saying that you shouldn't start out for the airport unless you have a confirmed seat on a plane that is operating. My journey to Heathrow takes over six hours. I have a confirmed seat but how can I possibly know before I set out that the service is operating? By the time they know I'll be on a coach halfway down the motorway. It's not possible for me to confirm at a time that would still allow me sufficient time to get to the airport if they say it is flying. All I can possibly do is cross my fingers and go and if I have to come back then I have to come back. It's going to be one hell of a Christmas if that happens followed by having to try to get my money back from the insurance company. I suppose a crumb of comfort is that I have an open dated return ticket on the coach so if I have to come back it won't cost me any extra.

If I manage to get out of the country then I should have a good Christmas, but it's a big "if". If I don't get out of the country I'll be coming back to a cold, empty, undecorated house where I will have to spend my first ever Christmas on my own. This could well turn out to be the most miserable Christmas of my life. Right now my mood could not be described as buoyant!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Have I Got News For You #4

I am probably the only person who saw the show who had this as his favourite bit.

In the part where they try to fill in the missing words in headlines they showed this headline.

Congratulations, _________________, hospital tells man of 50.

The correct answer was "you're pregnant".

Ross Noble's answer which met with a bemused silence in the studio made me laugh, if no one else.

Congratulations, you are the first person able to communicate with large medical buildings, hospital tells man of 50.

Have I Got News For You #3

And sometimes I am really, really, really, unbelievably slow-witted.

It's only just occurred to me that the web site address that is at the bottom of the screen at the start of the program is and that it clearly stands for the name of the program. Why have I not noticed that before? I've always tried to read it as a word.

Have I Got News For You #2

This relates back to previous posts about inner-nerdhood.

When Ross Noble, one of the panelists, referred to the "Vulcan Death Grip" I found myself thinking, if not exactly shouting, at the TV - there's no such thing - it was something Spock made up in one episode , the Enterprise Incident, to pretend that he had killed Kirk.

Then I felt really silly and went for a lie down.

I was right though.

Have I Got News For You #1

Well, actually no I haven't but a number of things on the program have just caught my eye (and my ear) and I'd like to share. 
Actually tonight I was due to be i nNottingham having dinner with friends visiting from Singapore. I'd been hoping to talk to them about working overseas. Ah well, the horrible weather that has trapped me in my home has, at the very least, let me sit here with a couple of drinks and watch  the extend repeat of "Have I Got News For You"*.
The first thing that caught my  attention was footage of Vladmir Putin singing Blueberry Hill. I can't work out what it is about the man but I can't see him without being put in mind of waking up with a horse's head in your bed. Watching him sing made me think that earlier in the week he'd been heard to say, "You know what I'd really like? I'd really like to sing Blueberry Hill." Minions, for surely if anyone in the real world actually has minions it must be him, probably spent the week rushing around fixing it for him.

* For those who aren't familiar with UK  TV this is a weekly topical satirical news quiz.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

When you haven't got your camera.

Sometimes you see something that would make such a perfect photograph that you are annoyed that you don't have your camera with you.
My Metro stop overlooks some municipal football pitches and, as I was waiting this morning, I suddenly noticed that on one of the pitches a flock of geese had landed at the north end and were all lined up facing south. Meanwhile a flock of seagulls had landed at the south end and were all lined up facing north? It looked for all the world as if they were waiting for the referee's whistle to start the game. It would have made a great picture.
Sadly you'll just have to imagine it.

Christmas in the Philippines, 1995

The piece I performed last night at City Voices.

According to the official survey, the Philippines consists of 7107 Islands. Of these roughly 2000 are inhabited although only about 500 are larger than, for the sake of example, Wolverhampton Town Centre. The largest of the islands is Luzon where the capitol city, Manila, is located.
    It is a city of startling contrasts. At one end of Manila's social spectrum there are millionaires who live in palatial mansions while at the other there is the Tondo - a grim slum of a shanty town which runs for mile after hideous mile parallel to the South Superhighway and the railroad tracks, and houses one and a half million people in poverty and filth.
    We arrived about a week before Christmas and everywhere saw signs of civic festivity - enormous illuminated stars hanging above the street, multicoloured four-foot wide, flashing snowflakes like the displays on demented slot machines, giant snowmen painted on buildings in a country that has never even seen snow, Santa Clauses and Reindeer by the sleighful.

    The next morning we took a public bus for Batangas, a port in the South of Luzon several hours away along the South Super Highway. The journey took us first past the Tondo. It was a horrible sight that the descriptions in the guide book hadn't prepared me for. The most horrible aspect of this 'city' was the mundanity of the life within it. People in this terrible place went about the normal business of living as if it were any other suburb. Dirty and torn washing fluttered from lines strung between the buildings. People crouched out of doors cooking in pots over fires that burned with a greasy green flame and left oily smoke like a smear in the air. At the back of the huts, rubbish was piled high. At one point there was a break where the road passed over a wide drainage culvert which was perhaps twenty feet deep. It was half filled with the ghastly detritus of slum living. Children were playing in the filth.
    Here and there, though, there were small triumphs of humanity as some of the inhabitants had hung up home-made Christmas decorations that turned gaily in the wind.
The bus route wound on through an endless sequence of almost identical towns, the sort of places that look as if they were made from the debris when all of the real places had been finished. Buildings were jerry-built of wood, concrete and odd pieces of corrugated metal. Business in the towns seemed to consist mainly of Doctors, Dentists and Clinics mixed in with Auto Repair Shops with yards full of rusty gas cylinders. Eventually we reached Batangas.    
    Batangas is point of departure for the ferry to Puerto Galera on Mindoro. To my eye it had the look of having been thrown together hastily about ten minutes ago and of being likely to fall down again in ten minutes time. As the bus made its painfully slow way through the traffic to the harbour there was plenty of time to see it in all its glory. It seemed strange that many of the buildings had painted signs outside advertising courses in Word, Windows, PowerPoint and a host of other familiar computer products.
    At the harbour we boarded the ferry to Puerto Galera. It was a short journey and we were soon approaching our destination through the beautiful Batangas Channel. The harbour itself is filled with bangkas, unseaworthy looking boats resembling canoes stabilised by long bamboo crosspieces ending in struts - parallel - to the hull which lie at the waterline.
    The other ubiquitous form of transport in the islands is the Jeepney, a kind of stretched jeep which looks about as roadworthy as the bangkas look seaworthy. They are garishly painted and usually have religious quotations such as "Have Mercy On Us Miserable Sinners" featured somewhere prominently on them, to further terrify their already frightened passengers. We took one of these vehicles to Encenada Beach, the resort where we were to spend a couple of days before moving on. Inside our uncomfortable ride the roof was decorated with glued on Toblerone packets and empty yoghurt cartons. We bounced up and down the hills hanging on to our seats with dogged determination.
    Encenada was a nice enough place but I'm not really a beach person so I was glad when the time came to move on. We were going to spend a couple of days trekking into and out of the jungle interior of Mindoro. We met our guides, who all looked tiny next to us, on a long curving beach between the ocean and the jungle and started off along an easy broad path that ran into the forest roughly paralleling a river.
Initially it was a pleasant stroll with the forest only sporadically thickening and with many large open areas of rice-paddies. Very occasionally the path became a little narrower and steeper and slick with mud. At about lunchtime we crossed a wide and fast-flowing, though fairly shallow river and paused for a rest break. Through the afternoon there were several more river crossings at faster and deeper fords each time. Eventually, in a clearing we came to a broken down bamboo and palm structure which we were told would be our 'hotel' for the night.
    Some of the guides were already hard at work restoring the shelter. First they rammed four long bamboo corner pieces into the ground, jack-hammering them in with bare hands until they were wedged fast. To these, about ten inches from the ground, they attached four more pieces to form the edges of the floor. Further poles were laid across these forming the floor itself. A similar arrangement but with layers of palm leaves formed the roof. The whole thing was lashed together with tough and fibrous strips of bark, stretched and twisted into a kind of twine. I tried to break a piece and found that it was strong enough to resist my best efforts.
    In one corner of the camp was table and benches also lashed together from pieces of bamboo. This was our dining room. The meal that we ate there was goat stew and chicken soup, both animals having been dispatched with a chainsaw delicacy that failed to distinguish the bone from the meat.
It was already dark and the rain was lashing in at the sides of our makeshift restaurant. After dinner we chose our spots in the shelters, unrolled our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. I found myself dozing in short bursts. The rain kept on getting faster and harder and more and more of it found its way through the roof until all of us were drenched. I lay in an increasingly sodden bag trying not to think about the fact that, allowing for the time difference, my work's Christmas party was now in full swing.   
    About two hours before dawn I had had enough. My sleeping bag was reduced to little more than a soaking sponge and I decide that I would be better sitting in waterproofs in the remains of the dining room.
    When, shortly after the rain had finally stopped, dawn eventually came, creeping in slowly like thick honey spreading on a plate, we ate a breakfast of banana and coconut boiled in coconut milk and served with plates of fried aubergine and then set about retracing yesterday's route to the coast.

It was a couple of days later, the day before Christmas Eve, when we set off in Jeepneys for the point where we would begin main hike of the trip. The track, muddy and deeply rutted, wound up the side of a hill that was not quite big enough to count as a mountain. Days of heavy rain had reduced the traction to nil although our completely bald tyres could probably have accomplished that unaided. In places the road had eroded to the point where the driving surface was narrower than the jeepney's wheelbase leaving parts of the tyre right up against the edge. Once we were mired so deeply in the mud that we had to get out and push. All our efforts accomplished nothing more than getting us dirty. Eventually, after a dozen or more near suicidal runs at it the driver managed to bounce the jeepney round the edge of the worst of it and we could climb back in and continue.
    We left the jeepney to continue on foot at a concrete hut on the hillside that looked for all the world like a bus shelter although no bus could ever have ascended such a road.  Descending a path we joined the edge of a series of rice paddies which eventually became a muddy jungle track that wound up and down, sometimes quite steeply, through closely packed trees. We passed through several villages of thatched huts, to the total indifference of the indigenous population, before arriving at Batad, our overnight stop. Batad was the reason for the trip. Here the mountains rise around the village in the form of a huge natural amphitheatre and are completely covered in the stepped contours of hundreds of rice paddies which are one of the many wonders alluded to as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World".
The village was a couple of dozen buildings spread across both sides of the valley, supplemented by a few more substantial wooden ones, some of which were providing our accommodation - Spartan but comfortable enough.
    I was the first to rise next morning, shortly before dawn, having spent a restless night. I sat alone out on the empty balcony watching dawn through the still heavy rain. It was a peaceful and reflective hour and by the time other people had started to move about I felt calm and content. As everyone emerged from their beds and looked unhappily at the weather, I found myself in a ridiculously cheerful and hearty mood which seemed set to last all day. We ate a simple breakfast and set out.

    The day's walking was tricky. In dry conditions it would have been simple and straightforward but the conditions weren't dry. We climbed up the steep terracing by walking along the stone walls that edged the paddies. The pattern was constant. On one side of us was a six inch drop into a foot of cold and muddy water. On the other was a drop of twenty to thirty feet into similarly cold and muddy water. In between was our path, the top of what amounted to a wall about six inches wide and made slick and dangerous by the rain.
    Finally, after an especially tricky section, we reached Cambulo which is a sizeable town with a large school, its own clinic, several churches, several 'guest houses' and a village square. At the school a spirited, if damp, volleyball game was going on watched by half the village. The town square was an open area surrounded by bamboo benches in a kind of parody of an English Country Village. In this weather there was no-one sitting there. After half an hour of poking around I went back to our 'hotel', dug out some slightly drier clothing and went down for a drink.
    Our accommodation was split between two village houses. The 'dining room', such as it was, was in ours. It was a cramped space - not quite big enough for all of us - necessitating a rapid deepening of friendships as we struggled to fit onto the benches. I squeezed onto a narrow bench near the door with one of the other members of our party, Allison who I had been getting increasingly close to during the trip so far.
    Before dinner had arrived a group of school children did. They stood outside performing a medley of Christmas Carols, endlessly and effortlessly running one into another until our resolve cracked and we paid up. Later I examined one of their school book 'song sheets'. Everything was written down exactly as they had performed it, a single continuous blending of Mary's Boy Child, Good King Wenceslas, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, Silent Night and so on including, bizarrely, Christmas Time In Cambulo.
    During Dinner a second group rehearsed outside but were hampered partly by their inability to agree on a selection and partly by our host who kept chasing them away. Credit to them for perseverance though. They moved further away and stood under a shelter and sang at us from a distance. The guide was trying to give us a talk about local customs but his voice was so quiet that it was too hard to follow him. After about fifteen minutes Allison and I gave up the effort went out and gave some encouragement - and some money - to this second group of singers. We sheltered under the eaves of one of the thatched huts while they sang to us. It was dark and wet and rather cold but standing there together listening to them it seemed like a marvelous enough Christmas Eve to me.

City Voices

I wasn't able to stay for all of City Voices last night as I had been unaware that it was providing a nice buffet and hence running a little longer than usual. Had I been aware I would have arranged to meet my friends in the pub round the corner a little later.
So I was forced to miss the final performer, Dave Reeves, though I am sure that he would have been as good as the previous occasions on which I've seen him.

The acts I did see were due to start with Roger Jones but he was unfortunately unable to appear. Simon Fletcher stepped in with a nicely observed memoir of childhood about preparations for Christmas. The introduction to it, as Simon talked about an elderly couple that he had known as a child was as interesting as the piece he read in which he described making a Christmas pudding and joining with his sisters to entertain the family. 
The first billed performer to appear was Bridget Robertson who read the story that appeared in the recent New Writings From Wolverhampton anthology. Its evocatively written but I have to say that I've heard Bridget read it twice now and read it through a couple of times and I'm still not sure that I understand it. The ending seems a little obscure to me. Nonetheless the writing and the reading both flow very well.

Then it was my turn. I had edited down a much longer piece about Christmas in the Philippines. I have many reasons to remember that holiday fondly and the large number of complimentary comments I received afterwards have now given me another. I shall post a copy of the edited version here for anyone who may be interested.

After the buffet I stayed for Madge Gilbert who read a number of Black Country dialect poems, mainly about Christmas, some of which I'd heard before, others of which were new to me. Her performance was slightly marred by noise from outside the bar which combined with her quiet voice to make it quite a strain to hear properly. Nevertheless they were entertaining and well-crafted poems that were well worth hearing.

I felt a bit conspicuous leaving before Dave's set but I really didn't have a choice as by then my friends had already been waiting for me for thirty minutes. I hope that I'll be able to make it up to him by watching through next time, especially as he'd been nice enough to compliment my piece during the interval.

To Put Away Childish Things #23

Funny how the sense of smell can suddenly evoke forgotten memories.

I was walking down to the garage to get my car, which had been in for some minor repairs, when I suddenly got a whiff of an odour that in an instant transported me back forty years and brought to mind a toy that I had completely forgotten.
It was the smell of burning polystyrene.
It reminded me of something I used to have. It was a U-shaped piece of red plastic with a thin wire stretched across the open end of the U and a battery inserted in the other end. Pressing a button caused the battery to heat the wire slightly. The toy came with some pieces of polystyrene with pictures printed on them. By heating the wire it could be manoeuvred carefully around the pattern, melting polystyrene as it went so that the shape could be cut out. They could then be painted with water colours that, memory fails me, may or may not have been included in the set. 

I gather that similar toys are still available but, until I got that sudden momentary smell of polystyrene, they had vanished as completely from my memory as if they had never existed at all. Even now I find I can't recall what I actually made with them or what I did with things that I made or even how old I was at the time. 

I do however remember owning it, and for now that will have to do.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Ah, the simple pleasures of childhood

At some time in the past few days a horse with severe bowel problems has wandered along our street. I know this from the great number of piles of manure he's left in his wake. It was quite startled this morning to see that someone has taken the trouble of gathering together a very large pile of this ordure and shaping it into a castle, just as if they were using sand at the beach. Ah, the simple pleasures of childhood.

To the limit

Several times recently I've heard political pundits refer to the swingeing governmet cuts as "testing to the limit" whichever area they are talking about. Today I heard the phrase applied to the health service "efficiency savings".
The trouble with testing something to the limit is that you only find out where the limit is when you have passed it and by then you have broken the thing that you are testing. I have a horrible feeling that all this "testing to the limit" is going to result in a lot of very broken public services.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Decision Making for Dummies

I'm not sure how it works but, for me, it's always worked the same way. When I have a decision to make I don’t actually make it. I sort out the options in my mind and leave them there. They float around like bits of carrot in a vegetable soup, occasionally popping to the surface before sinking again, until eventually I become aware of them.
At some point - often, I confess, when alcohol has been involved in the process - things become suddenly clear and I find the decision has been made without my needing to give it conscious thought.
Just such a decision popped into my head about an hour ago. And, before you ask, yes, alcohol was involved in the process. A beer and two brandies to be precise. Not enough alcohol for me to actually tell you what the decision was but enough for me to realise that I had made it. What it is has to remain confidential for reasons that will be obvious when it no longer needs to be confidential. However, those who know me well enough will know enough to have more than an inkling.
I shall act upon the decision on Monday morning, the earliest possible opportunity.
Life-changing things are afoot. 
It isn’t a done deal - sobriety has an unfortunate habit of dampening the enthusiasm - but, barring unforeseen complications, the decision has been made.
For those of you who may be able to deduce what it is, I have to remind you that this blog has comment moderation enabled and while it is sub judice I won’t be authorising any comments. Comment away. They will be authorised later if appropriate. Possibly much later.
Private email is an entirely different matter and will be answered. If you don't have my private email address, then, frankly, I shouldn't think you'd be terribly interested anyway.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Hearing loss

This is most disagreeably disconcerting.
I woke up this morning to find that I couldn't hear anything through my left ear and had only very limited hearing in my right ear. Of course I know what the problem is. It's nothing more than that old favourite - wax, but, as a teacher (especially a language teacher) if I can't hear I can't do my job. I managed to get in to see the doctor at short notice. (One benefit of the bad weather, I suppose - lots of cancellations.) He tells me that until I have softened the wax up with drops for a few days there is nothing to be done about it. That means I have several days to look forward to of walking around with my head tilted to the side and feeling as if my brain is wrapped in cotton wool. 
I almost got run over a couple of times on my way to and from the surgery because I couldn't hear the traffic, though bizarrely I could hear a man scraping the ice from his windscreen when I was still a street away from him - though I couldn't have told you which direction it was coming from if my life depended on it.

I hope this condition can be cleared up soon. It's really rather unpleasant.

Friday, 3 December 2010


There were problems on the Metro this morning caused by a burst water main flooding one of the tunnels.
This afternoon I decided to find out before going home what the current state was.
I checked the website but could find no information. Clicking the link for problems caused by the weather took me to a page that was last updated early this morning. Clicking the further information link took me to a page that was last updated on the 6th October. Eventually I found the customer service number for Centro and called that. They told me that they don't operate the service and gave me the customer service number for National Express who do operate the service. I rang it. An automated menu system told me to press one for travel information.
I pressed one. A recorded message told me that this was the wrong number for travel information and that I should check the website.

I know that the problem was outside their control but surely this farcical run around is something they could fix.

Simpsons language

Another great example of that wonderland style language logic that sometimes turns up in the Simpsons.

Bart: I can't go to the party. No one else is.
Marge: If no one else jumped off the Empire State Building would you not jump too?

Christmas single

I was going to join the campaign to have John Cage's 4:33 as the Christmas number one single.

I've changed my mind. This one manages to be extremely erudite and just plain silly at the same time.

Thursday, 2 December 2010


Just in case anyone was thinking of going tonight, I have just been informed that the poetry at the cafe is OFF because of the weather.

I'll try to make it next time.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A reminder to anyone interested

Tomorrow night, weather permitting, I shall be appearing at the open mic session at the Margaret Rose Abri Cafe on Cheapside in Digbeth. I have a set of poems that are mostly about travel but with a couple of other surprises thrown in, assuming that the cold weather keeps enough people away to give me time to do them.

I will also be appearing on 14th of December at City Voices in Wolverhampton, at the City Bar in King Street. For that one I have a travel memoir about Christmas in the Philippines.

(And yes, Dave, you were right about the date. It is the 14th NOT the 12th.)


In conversation on the way home tonight "post-modernism" cropped up. It was in relation to comedy. Dave suggested that in this context anywhere the words "post modern" appear they can be replaced by "not funny" with no loss of meaning.
I took the more nuanced view that they mean self-knowing and self-referential, comedians in sit-coms who knowingly refer to the fact they are in sit-coms, for example.

Giving it some further thought I have decided to combine both our definitions into a new one.

A post-modern comedian tells you a thirty second joke and then spends five minutes explaining why it's funny. You don't laugh at all during the whole process.

A boring sort of a fellow

Last year I had a rather successful lesson in sentence building in which I first asked the class to guess which facts were associated with Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Queen and then to build sentences about them using the facts they had identified.

I want to teach a similar lesson tomorrow but of course I needed first to change the facts about Gordon Brown for facts about Ed Miliband. Naturally I hit Google to find things out. Of course there were the mundane facts such as when he was born and how many children he has but beyond that almost nothing. Thirty minutes intensive searching found not a single interesting fact about the man. I hadn't realised it before but he may well be the most boring political leader we have ever had.

Headline of the year?

In yesterday's Metro.

Medicine made me into cross-dressing sex-mad gambler

Gets my vote for headline of the year.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


I was in Wolverhampton today where I passed a shop selling discounted ex-catalogue electrical goods. Under the name of the shop, in large bold letters were the words

The shop that defie's the credit crunch.

I am constantly amazed that there seem to be people out there who believe that every word that ends with "s" must have an apostrophe.

Over-negation again

Just heard on the BBC news.

(Because of the road conditions...) police are advising people not to go out unless it's unnecessary."

Damn, my journey is necessary!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bilston Voices

Bilston Voices last night went for a Black Country themed evening and it gave the proceedings a consistency of tone that is sometimes lacking in the more diverse selections usually on offer. This time round I had seen all of the performers before and was looking forward to hearing more of their work. Jill Tromans, from Scribblers, kicked off with a couple of good poems and a very funny story about a man taking his pet chicken to the vet. It was her best performance so far. She performed, rather than read, the two poems and gave a very expressive and animated reading of the story. She also introduced them well and had the audience laughing out loud at the links as well as the writing.
Eileen Ward-Birch followed with a reading of a selection of her poems and a nicely observed, if rather slight, memoir of a childhood visit, in winter, to see relatives in Aldridge. She fitted quite a lot of short, diverse poems into her set ranging from one about the renovation of St Leonard's Church in Bilston to one about internet shopping via one about the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano eruption.
The three remaining performers for the evening had something in common. Much of their poetry would have been utterly incomprehensible to anyone who wasn't born within about five miles of the venue but achingly funny to anyone who was. So, from Geoff Stevens, we got a poem about pigeons, one called "Why am Darlaston blokes so slow?", another about a Black Country dialect sex chat line and so on all delivered in a heavy Black Country dialect that really engaged the audience. Dialect poetry has to be very well done to succeed and Geoff's is very well done indeed.
After the break Mike Tinsley took over and things took a turn for the prurient. This being Mike, we had expected no less.  He included poems about sex, death, Christmas and carrots (in sick) in his very enjoyable set. One of Mike's tricks is to take jokes, usually dirty jokes, that are so old they are creaking, and give them a new lease of life as poems. It works well, though the groans from the audience are as loud as the laughs. He's a thoroughly entertaining performer who included more dialect stuff to confuse any visitors from out of the district.
We finished off the evening with Brendan Hawthorne whose poems were just as good though perhaps (a little)  less seamy. He covered the way that pubs have changed their character over the years, health and safety and the wickedly funny idea of a Black Country dialect SatNav among other topics though my favourite was the slightly more thoughtful, though still funny, one about a lifetime of trauma caused by not getting a bright orange space hopper for Christmas in 1969.

Another great night for five excellent performances. Bilston Voices just goes on delivering the goods every time.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

How did that happen?

It seems that after years, decades even, of being a man defined by his complete lack of style and elegance, I have somehow, accidentally, become fashionable. On Friday I had to attend a meeting at one of the college's other sites which I haven't visited for ages. One of my erstwhile colleagues greeted me and then looked at me and told me that I was looking stylish. Given that I was wearing what I always wear, which is about as unstylish as it's possible to get without actually wearing rags, I was somewhat taken aback. I suspected her of having a little joke. After all I was wearing a perfectly ordinary shirt and perfectly ordinary trousers, neither of which fit me terribly well since I went on my diet. What could she possible have meant? Seeing my look of utter bewilderment she explained to me that it was neither the shirt nor the trousers. It was the Parka jacket. Apparently they are now the height of cool fashion. Given that I've had mine for years, ever since I visited the Army and Navy stores shortly prior to my holiday in Iceland, it seems that not only am I fashionable for this brief moment, but I am a bona fide trend-setter.
I of course dismissed this as either a joke on her part or, at the very best, a little sartorial hyperbole.
Then today I picked up a copy of this week's Shortlist, a magazine for men that is handed out free on the nation's city streets. There, in the middle, is a long article, with lots of photographs, explaining how - in their words - "the ubiquitous outdoor staple is back on trend this season". One of the ones pictured is very nearly identical to mine. I am, it seems, at the cutting edge.
Of course the one that looks like mine has one big difference. It costs £250. My ex-Norwegian army one cost £45. Still, I should wear it every time I go out for the next couple of months. Being fashionable is a novelty that I'm not used to and of course it won't last. A little way down the road they will suddenly be supplanted by whatever the next trend is and I shall go on wearing mine because it's warm and waterproof and I won't be fashionable any longer. I will however, henceforth, at least be able to say that there was a time when I was.

To Put Away Childish Things #22

Of course we had Lego as children. Didn't everybody? Brightly-coloured, interlocking plastic bricks that could be formed into any kind of toy imaginable. Lego, possibly Denmark's most famous product.
But before we* had Lego we had Betta Bilda, a very similar product made by Airfix. The bricks were smaller, all white and didn't lock together as well as Lego - though they were made of very sturdy plastic. To build a roof for a house there were small green tiles that were incredibly awkward to put together. There were door frames and window frames with little pieces of transparent plastic that had to be fitted into the window frames and little plastic doors that fit into the door frames. In short you built a house in the same way that you might build a real one.
Of course, in those days, when you bought a box of bricks, of whichever type, you got rather a lot of them. Nowadays when I glance on the toy shop windows I see that if you buy Lego you buy enough to make one specific model - often a model that has been licensed from a film - and that's all you buy. I daresay you can still buy general sets but I haven't seen them around.
And I haven't seen Betta Bilda for years. I don't know if it even exists any more. Lego was probably the superior product but nostalgia isn't about what was best, it's about what you remember best and I remember that Betta Bilda set with pieces small enough to choke a child that were fiddly enough to be next to impossible for uncoordinated childish fingers. 
Sometimes I wonder where all the these things that I get misty-eyed over went. They must have been lost or given away or thrown away as we grew up but I don't recall anything ever having been thrown away. I suppose that they were abandoned and forgotten and then quietly disposed of by parents who wanted a home less cluttered by things no longer used. It's a pity really that our pasts are so disposable.

(*That is to say, specifically, before my brother and I had Lego. I don't know which was actually the earlier product. I suspect it was probably Lego.)

Friday, 19 November 2010

Rhymes at Margaret Rose Abri Cafe

I'm intending to pop along to the next Poetry at the Cafe open mic session  at the Margaret Rose Abri Cafe on Cheapside in Digbeth so when I realised that this month's Rhymes, another event I've been intending to visit, was there last night I thought I'd pop along and have a look at the venue. It's only a few hundred yards from the college where I work and I killed some time by having a bite at the Warehouse Cafe and a stroll around the opening evening of this year's German Market and then headed down.
I didn't take my usual notes so I can't give a detailed review but what I can say is that it was quite daunting. If I ever get to perform at Rhymes I'm going to have to seriously lift my game. Two young poets, Sean Colletti and Andy Cook got the evening off to a very fine start indeed and they were followed by Fatima Al Matar who maintained the momentum with a set of poems that were startlingly accomplished. Even as I was enjoying all of this I was thinking how pale my own work seemed in comparison and how timid my performances. 
After a break we had the main reasons for the evening - the new Birmingham Poet Laureate, Roy McFarlane and the new Birmingham Young Poet Laureate, Jordan Westcarr. Jordan started and if he can write like that now he's going to be magnificent with a few years experience behind him. Roy was of course terrific. He always is, performing superbly crafted poems with passion and fervour.

It was a terrific night. I shall be making a point of seeking out future Rhymes events even if they are rather disheartening.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Ongoing #71

First the poem.
I'll dissect it later.

Alice waking, Alice sleeping,
Alice laughing, Alice weeping,
Alice singing, Alice dancing,
Alice fleeing and advancing,
Alice trying, Alice failing,
Alice healthy, Alice ailing,
Alice wanting, Alice needing,
Alice broken, Alice bleeding,
Alice falling, Alice flying,
Alice living, Alice dying.
Alice through the looking glass.
Alice in the underpass.

I have no idea if anyone will like this poem or not but I would like to talk about what it means and how it came to be written. 
Part, perhaps the major part, of what a poet does is to make connections. Each poem is in itself an attempt to connect the poet's experience with the experience of the reader. More than that though, the actual construction of a poem is an exercise in connections an many different levels. On the purely structural level there are the connections of the words to form rhythms and rhymes. There is the connection of lines to form verses and verses to form complete poems. But that's all purely mechanical. The real connection is the connection of ideas. The humblest limerick usually starts with a couple of lines which are joined by lines three and four to a twisting or subversion of the idea in line five. The greatest of poems link ideas in subtle and interesting ways. One of my favourite poems is Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray. Whenever I read it I wish that I could write that well, hope that one day I shall write something so nearly perfect. The beauty of the poem to me is the reality of the way that it links the ideas of life and death.

I don't pretend that my poem above has any such merit, perhaps no merit at all, but it's creation was a linking in  ways that not many of the poems in this series have been. It started out with a couple of lines based on my favourite book- 
       Alice falling, Alice flying
       Alice laughing, Alice crying
which went nowhere and didn't quite make it, in that exact form, into the final piece. I had been intending to write a poem connected with Alice In Wonderland but nothing more came to me. What came next was the doodle from the book that I have been using to provide inspiration - a doodle of an old lady on a bench, looking half-mad and quite frail. It occurred to me that she might be a very different Alice, an Alice whose inner world was very different to that of the young heroine of the book. I drafted a couple of versions on that theme but I didn't like either of them.
Then I saw a teenage girl begging in a subway in Birmingham. She looked even frailer than the lady in the doodle. She may well have been trying to get money for drugs - she certainly looked ill enough. As I continued on my way home I speculated on how she had come to her current situation and the poem, as it finally appears above came to me almost complete. 
I juggled the order of the lines a little to create a sense of narrative and finally had it done. The poem connects Alice Through The Looking Glass, a random doodle in a book and the sad life of a teenage beggar. I don't know if it's successful or not - poets are not able to objectively appraise their own work - but I hope so.

And I hope it makes a connection with some of my readers.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

City Voices

I decided on a whim last night to drop in to City Voices in Wolverhampton. It's a while since I've been, though I do try to attend the sister event, Bilston Voices, as often as I can. On offer we had four of the writers who contributed to the recent New Writings From Wolverhampton anthology and one former resident of Wolverhampton who now lives in Scotland and had travelled down especially for the event. 
We started with Michelle Moore who read us two stories. The first, Starting Block, I recognised from the anthology. It's a short but well told tale of the pressure that can be put on children by their parents. The second was new to me and on a similar theme of childhood but more about the pressure of children's own expectations.
Second on the bill was our visitor from Scotland, Neil Ledbeater, who gave us a set of lyrically descriptive pieces. He started with a few about various aspects of nature. When he moved on to some reminiscences about his Wolverhampton childhood they were still lyrical and rather nicely observed though the poem I liked best was about the rail journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
Next came Marion Cockin substituting for the absent Yvette Rose. Marion gave us the two poems from the anthology and a fairy tale told from memory. The two poems were very good but the fairy tale, though well enough constructed and well enough told, left me a little cold. It would have been completely suitable for its intended audience of young children but I prefer more complex material.  Still, she had substituted at very short notice and I wouldn't be able to remember enough of my own material to put together a full set if called on to do it.

After the break Nick Pearson did a mixed set of humourous and serious poems. They were very observational about life and the surrounding world. They included his contribution to the anthology, Dwellings, and a very nicely drawn portrait of a not particularly nice coffee bar. 
We finished up with, as Simon, the MC put it, "not a national treasure yet but certainly a local treasure" Win Saha who had been kind enough to come over to me in the break and tell me how much she had enjoyed my work at the performance workshop last Saturday. Her set was about half and half material I had heard before and material I hadn't. Mostly her poems were her customary clever and witty verses on all sorts of topics - from the shape of the faces of the members of the royal family to why she won't were purple. I was quite taken with the rather more sombre  mood of Requiem which was especially relevant as we approach armistice day. 

It was a good, mixed set and, as I feel I ought to make the effort to get along more often even though Tuesday is not a great night for me. I shall certainly be at the next one though as I am on the bill with a reminiscence about visiting the Philippines at Christmas.
See you there.

Monday, 8 November 2010


Editing a piece for my forthcoming performance at City Voices, I noticed that Word had put a red line under "aubergine" in the phrase "breakfast consisted of banana and coconut served up with fried aubergine". 
Checking why it was wrong, I realised that it was because I had the spelling checker set to US English. What was more startling was the suggested correction - "fried aborigine".


I was at a performance poetry workshop on Saturday. It was an excellent afternoon with a lot of useful advice and a chance to try out a new performance poem. The best thing to come out of it though was two more invitations for gigs.
I will be appearing at the December City Voices on Tuesday 14th. That one will be a prose reading about travel at Christmas, though I haven't decided yet on exactly which piece to use.

I was also asked by the MC of Poetry @ Margaret Rose Abri Cafe if I'd like to go along and perform there, probably on 2nd December. As it's about 200 yards from where I work it's an opportunity too good to miss. I shall probably do a couple of poems, one serious and one funny. More if I have time though they are only seven minute slots. Should be fun.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

To put away childish things #21

There was this incident.
It's a long time ago and I suppose one shouldn't bear a grudge but, nevertheless, there was this incident.  I was in my late teens and on the bus on the way home from school. My friend Pete was with me. As was my habit at the time I was sucking on a glacier mint. We had boarded the stop, as usual, at the end of Cumberland Road. Two stops later, at Bilston Clinic, Pete's nephew got on the bus. When he saw me eating he asked me for a sweet. Of course, given our local dialect what he actually said was probably, "giza suck" - something that could well be misconstrued nowadays but an innocent enough remark round here meaning nothing more than "please give me a sweet" (That's "please give me candy" if you are American).
Pete instantly chimed in with "he can't, he only ever carries one in case he gets mugged".

It was so unfair, and so untrue. In the first place I always started the day with two - one for going to school and one for going home. And apart from that the reason that I carried so few was that I liked them and if I'd carried six I'd have eaten six. If I carried six whole bags I'd have eaten them all too.

I've never forgiven him for such a calculatedly offensive remark.

I haven't eaten a glacier mint for years now but I think I may buy a bag on the way home. At two a day they should last me a month or so of journeys too and from work and that's quite enough nostalgia for anyone.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Until last night I didn't even know that the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham had a theatre, a hardly surprising gap in my knowledge considering that it's tucked away up the back stairs in a corner of the attic. I'm glad I found out though because that's precisely where I spent an hour or so in the company of the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre doing their new show, "On The Telly". Of course given that the company consists of one guy, Kev Sutherland, and two socks "his new show" might be more appropriate.

I am completely baffled by two things about the Socks. The first is the question addressed in this show - why aren't they on television in their own prime time show. They are funnier than anything currently showing on any channel. As funny as anything that I have ever seen. And the second is how on earth anyone can go on being as consistently hilarious. The standard hasn't dropped at all since I first came across them on the internet a couple of years ago. There isn't a single misfiring moment in the whole show. I was quite literally crying with laughter throughout most of the evening as they gave us what was an almost completely new show with just a couple of old favourites thrown in (including the briefest of nods to their classic Halloween sketch.)

Bottom line? Quite, quite wonderful.

Monday, 1 November 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #20

A "to put away childish things" special.

I've been cleaning out the loft.

Among the other junk was that old box of 78rpm records that I mentioned. So that you get an idea of the soundtrack to my childhood, here, with a few links to the ones I particularly remember, is the full list of the records in the box. It should be noted that sometimes the song that I remember was the B-side.

Yellow Rose of Texas (Michael Holliday)
Shifting Whispering Sands (Billy Vaughan and his Orchestra)
My Fair Lady Piano Pops (Russ Conway)
Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (Jimmie Rogers)
Charlie Kunz Piano Medley D80
Charlie Kunz Piano Medley D84
Charlie Kunz Piano Medley D96
All Star Hit Parade (Max Bygraves, Tommy Steel and others)
Open Up The Doghouse (Dean Martin/Nat King Cole)
With A Song In My Heart (Andre Kostelanetz and his Orchestra)
Piano Pops #6 (Russ Conway)
Cinderella Medley (Gracie Fields)
The Poor People of Paris (Winifred Atwell)
No Matter How You Pray (Billy Cotton and his Orchestra)
Love Letters In The Sand (Pat Boone)
If I Had A Talking Picture Of You (Rodman Lewis)
Whatever Will Be Will Be (Doris Day)
Love Is A Song (RAOC Blue Rockets Dance Club)
A Strawberry Moon (Bob And Alf Pearson)
Suddenly There's A Valley (Jo Stafford)
Beautiful Dreamer (Al Jolson)
That's Amore (Dean Martin)
Come Back To Sorento (Gracie Miller)
Love Letters (Nat King Cole)
Would You (Gracie Fields)
Flirtations Walz (Winifred Atwell)
Don't Cry Joe (Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra)
Alone (Petula Clark)
Girl Of My Dreams (Bing Crosby)
Three Little Sisters (Geraldo and His Orchestra)
The World Outside (Russ Conway)
There's A Lovely Lake In London (Primo Scala and His Banjo & Accordion Band)
Shiralee (Tommy Steele)
Honey Babe (Cyril Stapleton and His Orchestra)
If (Allan Jones)
Memories Are Made Of This (Dave King)
Rogue River Valley (Chuck Miller) (Not the same version as on record. This link is Hoagy Carmichael)
Stupid Cupid (Connie Francis)
Last Train To San Francisco (Johnny Duncan)
Wandering Eyes (Charlie Gracie)
Baubles Bangles And Beads (The Dick Hyman Trio)
The Deadwood Stage (Doris Day)
Mary's Boy Child (Bob Dale)
It's The Irish In Me (Ruby Murray)
Stick It On The Wall Mrs Riley (Billy Cotton)
Careless Love (Slim Whitman)
Alexander's Ragtime Band/The Spaniard That Blighted My Life (Bing Crosby and AL Jolson)
Three Galleons (Robert Earl)
Lords Prayer/Bless This House (Gracie Fields)
Bless Your Beautiful Hide (Howard Keel)
My Son My Son (Vera Lynn and Frank Weir)
Real Love (Rubt Murray)
Beloved Be Faithful (Teddy Johnson)

And people wonder how I turned out as normal as I did!

Sunday, 31 October 2010


We don't normally celebrate Halloween here in the UK but it is becoming more popular thanks to transatlantic influence and the desire of shops to flog more and more cheap tacky merchandise at every possible opportunity. I have had about half a dozen bunches of trick-or-treaters around tonight and a whole bunch of bemused reactions when I've offered them apples*.

Anyway, I won't be a spoilsport even though I don't really like the festival very much. Instead, I'll do something I don't normally do here and post a story I wrote at a writers' group a few years ago.

I'll even wish you a happy Halloween.

 Pumpkin Thoughts
Not really sure why but I feel a bit odd today, a bit empty.
I don't know what I think about that. Actually I don't even know how I think about that.
How I think at all, now that I come to think of it. I never did much thinking before.
I think.
I think that there should be more to it than that. Something more important.
I think therefore I think? That doesn't have much of a ring to it. Something like that though.
I think therefore I...

JEEZUS... what the hell was that ? I never felt anything like it before. Pain. That's what it must have been. Pain.
What's this though? Sort of not darkness. Sort of well... brightness for want of a better word though to tell the truth I'm a bit vague about what I meant by 'darkness' as well.
Bright. Light. Funny thing. I suppose I'll get used to it. Now what's that I can... can... what's the word?
See. That's it.
What's that I can see?
Someone moving about, carrying a long thin shiny pointy thing. Knife. Yes, a...
Hey, she's waving it this way. Careful with that you'll have someone's...

Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
Damn that smarts, but it's certainly made a difference. It seems even brighter now. Oh, off hand I'd say about twice as bright.
She's put the knife down at least. That's a blessing. Who knows what damage she could have done with it? Oh, here she comes again. What's she up to this time? Picking me up looking at me. I'd wink if I could but I just can't seem to manage the trick for some reason. She's turning me round now.
Stop, stop. Whoops, too late. That looked like me though. Must have been a wossname. A thing that reflects. I know, a mirror. Shame she's put me down again. I'd have liked a better look. I wonder why she ignored me. Maybe she wasn't listening.
Uh-oh. She's picked up the knife again. What's she doing with it this time ?
A bloody great gash right across my... er... face - sort of long and thin and curved.
That explains it then,. No wonder she couldn't hear me. I didn't have a mouth. I was just talking to myself.
Hey you out there !
You with the knife!
No reaction. She must be deaf after all.
Wa-hey. She's picking me up again, turning me towards the mirror. Now I can have a good look at myself.
Devilishly handsome chap.
I've overdone the orange tan a bit but I love the big soulful eyes and that's quite a rakish grin if I do say so myself. Quite the charmer, not much room for improvement there.

Where's she going now ?
Oh well I'm sure I'll find out soon enough. For now I'll just sit here and have a bit of a think. Everything is happening so fast today. I ought to take a few minutes to let it all sink in.
Oops. No time for that. She's back. What's she carrying. Is it a knife ? Well it's long and thin but it doesn't look sharp and it's white and waxy. Now she's setting fire to the end of it. It's a candle. One candle? It must be my birthday.
Hey! What are you doing with that? It's supposed to go on a cake.
Get off! Get off you bloody maniac. I don't want that inside my head I'm bright enough already.
Ow! That's really, really hot. Take it out. Turn it off. Put it out.
She's picking me up again. Not to look in the mirror this time. She's putting me by the window to look outside. Nothing much to see.  It's pretty dark out there. There are a couple of kids in fancy dress in the street but that's about it.

There's this word rattling around in the back of my head. It's a funny word and I couldn't say what it means but it sort of fills my mind with pictures. Halloween. If this is Halloween I don't really mind it although I could do without the bits with the knife and I don't like the idea of a naked flame inside my head but I suppose it might be worse. Another few days and she might have set me on fire.

(* Hey, I have so many apples from my tree that I have to get rid of them somehow.)

Saturday, 30 October 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #19

I was involved in judging a writing competition recently.
One of the things that surprised me was the number of entries that came in that had clearly been done on old-fashioned mechanical typewriters. I didn't think anyone used them any more and kudos to those who managed to submit some quite long entries that way. 
I used to have a mechanical typewriter and it isn't easy to write anything of any length on them because of the rigmarole you have to go through when you make a mistake. Type a letter wrong and spot it straight away and you have a chance - you can use a dab of correction fluid and type over it, but if, on proofreading a whole page, you find you missed out a word in line two you are buggered. You have to do the whole thing again.

I went up into the loft to look for my old typewriter but it isn't there. I expect it was long ago thrown away. The red box that it used to be in is there but it's full of 78 rpm records (and the fact that anyone under thirty has no idea what I am talking about tells you how long it is since I used a typewriter!). I remember it clearly though. My mother returned from Bilston market with it one day. It was a bulky cast iron red and black thing. It had the normal kind of typewriter mechanism where angled levers carry the letters up to strike the ribbon and print the ink onto the page but it could hardly be described as a delicate instrument. The muscular strength required to hit the keys hard enough to make an impression was quite considerable, for children's fingers anyway. I recall having a typing speed that was measured in letters, rather than words, per minute and sometimes in single digits at that. Now, as I sit here writing this, making on the fly adjustments as I think of a marginally better turn of phrase, popping off to find a picture of a typewriter to illustrate with, having the word  processor tell me when (it thinks) I have made a spelling mistake, I can't help thinking how easy we have it nowadays. And how impressed I am by people still using equipment that most of us now only see in museums.

Anyway. Must dash for now. I have a box of 78 rpm records to look through.

I'm in the wrong game

For the last three days I've had a skip parked outside my house which I have gradually filled with all kinds of rubbish. In three days fifteen scrap dealers have pulled up and clambered over it looking for the tiniest pieces of metal. I know that in this recession lots of people are out of work and have become part of the black economy and I'd be astonished if any of those dealers are running proper businesses and paying proper taxes but fifteen?

Can there really be enough money in collecting scrap metal from other people's skips?
If there is, I think I'm in the wrong line of work.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Disgusting, now I come to think of it

QI tonight, in a series devoted to the letter H, focussed on all things horrible. One of the things included was the Sourtoe Cocktail. It reminded me that I have actually drunk one. Here is the relevant bit from my other blog.

... rather than end up completely broke in the Casino a few of us strolled down Queen Street to the Downtown Hotel in search of another of those quaint ten minute old traditions - the ‘Sourtoe’ cocktail. Now without being unduly cynical an easier quicker scam for making money was never dreamed up by anyone. The ‘legend’ has it that a group of riverboat captains played a joke on another who was something of a braggart by convincing him that it was traditional to drink down a shot of spirits containing the pickled remains of a human toe lost by a prospector due to frostbite. In the Downtown Hotel not only do they pull the same stunt on dozens of tourists every night they charge them for the privilege AND make them buy their own shot. Strange how knowing you are being conned doesn’t stop you though. At least half of our group, me included, swelled their coffers and from the queue behind us they were clearly going to have a profitable night’s toe sucking.
There must have been something wrong with either the tequila or the toe though because by the time I’d added it to the dozen or so beers I’d consumed already and the extra couple of shots I had afterwards I was feeling quite unsteady on my feet. Nevertheless the advanced state of inebriation that were all in as we re-crossed the river and walked to camp through the trees did have some advantages. To begin with we were making enough noise to scare away a hundred bears and anyway we were at the stage where we didn’t really care if they ate us although someone did remark that the joke about the bells sounded even less amusing now than it had before.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Bilston Voices

I go to quite a lot of poetry events and, in my experience, the people I'm watching fall into two broad groups - readers and performers. Nothing wrong with either of those things, of course. Tonight's Bilston Voices was mostly filled with the latter and, in an event that is always excellent, it was one of the best yet. Jane James started the evening with a thoughtful and perceptive set of poems that were mostly performed in a monologue style. The poems had a reality and depth to them, concluding with a piece about the death of an uncle which, because of recent circumstances resonated very strongly with me. 
Following Jane was Richard Bruce Clay reading a section from his novel Both. I have previously heard him read another section of the same novel and on both occasions have been impressed both by the quality of the writing and the power of the performance. The range and passion of his vocal delivery greatly enhances what is already an engrossing tale. I bought the book and will review it here when I have read it.
Iris Rhodes had a hard act to follow and did so with a more subtle and measured performance. One interesting thing was that she brought a whole new depth to the phrase "a local writer". She writes mostly about the local area but tonight rather than focussing on Bilston or even on the smaller area of Bradley she announced that she was going to read to us about the extremely narrow area of "the corner of Baldwin Street and Salop Street". To that end we had a brace of pieces - a poem and a story. The poem was OK but I enjoyed the story, a tale about the "biggest pig in Bradley", much more. A slight tale but very well constructed and very well told.

After the break we had an unbilled treat as the new Birmingham Poet Laureate, Roy McFarlane, told us a little about his plans for poetry in the region and read a poem about a Hurricane which showed, if proof was needed, just how good poetry can be when done by someone who really understands his craft.
Returning to the billed artists the next one up was the regional coordinator for Apples and Snakes, Bohdran Piasecki. If there is a performer with more energy I have yet to see him. He bounced around the tiny performance area like a demented Tigger and delivered a set of genuinely passionate and serious poems that had the audience riveted, linked by witty and intelligent banter about the Polish people and life. For me he was the best turn in a night full of excellent turns. The first poem, Memories, was my favourite but all of them, even the one in Polish, were very well done indeed.
The evening was rounded out with an old favourite of Bilston and City Voices, Win Saha. She is a quieter performer than the others there tonight and writes in a much more traditional style. Her poems - on subjects as diverse as MPs, grumpy grannies, Christmas and Bilston Market - are all light and humorous and well crafted but by now she must be getting rather tired of performing Omelette, a poem that appears to be de rigueur  every time she appears. It was a quiet finish but a very good one.

Childish Things #18: Redux

Immediately after the recent post about how an episode of M*A*S*H prompted nostalgia for school dinners I watched the very next episode which starts with this dialogue.

Cook: Peas or carrots?
Hawkeye: Oh, a little of each will be fine.
Cook: Good, because I don't know which is which.
Hawkeye: And some mashed potato.
Cook: Those aren't mashed potato. It's congealed grease.

Yep. That about sums it up.

The Apprentice

The fired candidate in last night's Apprentice had her own unique approach to language - peppering her conversation with such words as "comfortability", "conversate", "manoeuvrement", "professionality" and "teamly".

My favourite, though, was after she was fired. She clearly felt that the others had been ganging up against her when she said, "Karmically they'll be retributed."

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ongoing #70

Still in a melancholic mood today.

The illustration in the book shows a distant stately home with completely empty gardens in front of it. This haiku is partly inspired by that and partly inspired by the view of my back garden from the kitchen window on this gloomy and miserable morning.

Mourning Haiku

The grass overgrown,
Apples lying where they fell:
Untended garden.

Mission: Untranslatable

I've been greatly enjoying watching season one of the old Mission: Impossible  TV series. One aspect of it that I had forgotten is the eccentric approach to foreign languages. Many of the adventures take place in made-up foreign countries and those made-up foreign countries have made-up foreign languages. The very first episode ever took place in the "country" of Santa Costa. 
In general, the foreign countries fall into two groups - the ones which are approximately Spanish and the ones which are approximately Eastern European. The approximately Spanish ones use signage in a language that is a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese but with the added twist that almost all words end in vowels. 
One episode contained signs that read "Material Radiocativo: No entrar", "Usar Anteojos Protectores" and "Escaleria de Salvamento".
Another had "Jardin Zoológico", "Estacion de Cuarentina" and, in consecutive scenes, both "No entrar" and "No entre".

I'm rather more partial to their unspecified Eastern European countries though which use a mix of English, German and a kind of Hollywood Bulgarian: featuring things like "Zöna Restrik: Entre Ferbaten". Another episode had both "Restrik Fumen Prohob" and "Varnung: Gaz Hydrocyanide - No Intreten" while the action of the one I watched last night took place mostly in a "Mortuari".

What I find most interesting about it though is that these made-up, mix'n'match languages that they use are all more or less instantly intelligible. They are clearly designed that way but it is interesting to me that in all the examples quoted above only "anteojos" wasn't clear to me. I don't know if this means I have an above average understanding of languages or if their executive in charge of making stuff up was especially good at his job. I suspect the latter.

Why Joss Whedon is so good

I have a friend. Let's call him, because it isn't his name, Chris. Chris is a nice guy. It would be hard to find a nicer one, and he scares me. He scares me because he is the me from an alternate universe where my life went horribly wrong. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that Chris's life is horribly wrong, just that it would be if it were mine.
Though it pains me to admit it, we have much in common, Chris and I. We share, for example, an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of geeky TV programmes. I could go head to head with him in a quiz about Doctor Who or Star Trek and while I'd lose I wouldn't be disgraced.
I mention all of this by way of a preface to explaining why Joss Whedon has a true genius for dialogue. Yesterday I was watching an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer which had an exchange between Andrew and Xander. For those few of you who have never seen it the essential information is this. Andrew, who was evil but is now reformed, is a socially inept geek. Xander, by contrast has, by this point in the series, spent six and a half seasons battling evil at Buffy's side but is, nevertheless also a geek - though not quite such a socially inept one.

The scene plays out like this.

All the potential future vampire slayers are gathered together and Andrew and Xander are trying to give them a rallying pep talk. Buffy isn't present. One of these potential slayers remarks that she is fed up of training and doesn't care if they have to fight Godzilla as long as they get to fight something.

Andrew: Godzilla? Mostly Tokyo based so he's probably a no-show.
Potential #2: Besides, Matthew Broderick can kill Godzilla. How tough is he?

Andrew looks despairingly at Xander who looks at his shoes in embarrassment.

Andrew: Xander?

Xander looks up, apparently reluctant to be identified with Andrew but unable to contain his own inner geek.

Xander: Matthew Broderick did not kill Godzilla. He killed a big dumb lizard. That was not the real Godzilla.

The potential slayers all look at them both as if they have gone mad. Xander looks embarrassed again but Andrew looks satisfied. Xander realises that he's showing himself up, Andrew doesn't even register the reaction they have caused.

And that's how it is when I'm in the same room as Chris. My own inner geek can't resist joining in with his conversations. It's exactly the same as the Andrew and Xander dialogue. I understand these people completely. And that's why Joss Whedon is the best writer of fantasy TV today. He also understands these characters so well that we can see ourselves reflected in them.

(And my own inner geek feels compelled to tell you that the episode in question, Dirty Girls, was actually written by Drew Goddard but it doesn't matter. Joss was in charge and he created the characters and had the ultimate say on what did or didn't get into the scripts.)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ongoing #69

Well, circumstances notwithstanding, I think it's important to get back to normality.
The next picture in the book is a partially completed mosaic pattern. The poem, though a little sombre, should, I hope, speak for itself.


Each moment a coloured stone
Drawn randomly from the jar,
Placed carefully to the ground
Insignificant viewed alone
A fragment of who you are
Unremarked and unrenowned.
When death comes to claim its own,
 In the pattern viewed afar
The portrait, at last, is found.

Not sure what it means, but certain it's not good news

So, we've had the spending review from the Government. All sorts of nasty things have happened to education but, like everybody else in the country, I'm selfish and want to know how my own job is affected. Here's what they propose

Reductions to key BIS activities include the ending of Train to Gain and replacing it with an SME focused training programme, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) funding for people not in settled communities, and the Regional Development Agencies will also be abolished in 2012.

That, of course, rather begs the question of what, precisely, a "settled community" is. I'm pretty sure it would rule out asylum seekers and there is every chance that it might also rule out those who have only limited leave to remain in the country. Although it would have little impact on us, it also appears, against anti-discrimination laws, to rule out lessons to Gypsies and travellers who are recognised by Race Relations law as minorities. Or it could mean something else that I haven't though of. Either way it seems to mean that our student body will be drastically reduced next year and fewer students means fewer teachers. At the moment ours is a very unsettled community.

Monday, 25 October 2010

How to undermine your arguement

One of my students came to me the other day with an impassioned plea to transfer her to a higher level class. She was, she told me, not happy to be with such low level students. I resisted the entreaties. I know my job and my class and she isn't, by quite a long way, the strongest in the group. Before she went away, still unhappy with the situation, she handed me last week's homework.
When I marked it I found, among other interesting sentences

"Somalia has own camel but England don't had got."

Pity, I'll bet a camel would come in handy.

To Put Away Childish Things #18

I found myself the other day getting all nostalgic about the most unlikely thing - school dinners. Back in my day we had no Jamie Oliver to get all righteous about nutrition and vocal about the evil turkey twizzlers, so we were spared the sight of overweight mums feeding salt and sugar laden snacks through the railings to their equally overweight children. As another plus we were also spared the endless bleating on about UK obesity rates by the Daily Mail.
We didn't have a cafeteria style system where we could choose from a wide variety of healthy, nutritious, balanced foods. We couldn't opt for any one of a dozen different meals and snacks. We had what was cooked and we ate it. Never mind that it was often unidentified, and unidentifiable,  brown goo or green goo accompanying a piece of something that might or might not have been meat. Never mind that the dining room always smelled of sprouts - whether they were on the menu or not. Never mind that the gravy for the main course and the custard for the dessert* were served in metal water jugs and were largely indistinguishable except by colour. Never mind any of those things. We queued up with trays and plates and the kitchen staff dolloped it onto the plates and we sat down at tables of eight and ate it. Or possibly left it. That was what passed for a choice back then. 
Ah, how fondly I remember the spotted dick - a suet and currents concoction that made everyone glad that swimming lessons were before lunch. After lunch, with that sitting like so much ballast in the stomach could have proven fatal. 
And who could ever forget the mashed potato with its wallpaper paste consistency - and a taste to match or the peas that came in two varieties - pellets resembling green lead shot or a processed paste of a neon shade unknown in nature.
It was probably passably nutritious - after all we all ate it with no long-lasting ill effects - but by no stretch of the imagination could it ever have been called appetising. And by and large I feel a warm glow of pride that somehow I managed to go through seven years of school dinners without ever once being sick.
What prompted this particular recollection was watch an episode of M*A*S*H where the medics of the 4077 regularly queue up in a very similar fashion to eat what appears to be very similar food. The difference is only in the quality of the scornful sarcasm they heap upon it. And the fact that they are eating it in a battlefield, though, now I come to think of it, school wasn't that unlike a war zone.
Today's kids, with their plethora of healthy options and their tasty wholesome menus don't know they're born. I wonder if anyone has ever thought of appealing to the nostalgia market and opening a restaurant that serves the kind of food my generation grew up on. Probably not. And probably just as well. Nostalgia would be unlikely to survive the reality.