Blog News

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

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

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

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

NOT a dangling modifier

... but an odd turn of phrase anyway.
People often get into a muddle with double and multiple negations. Language log has lots of posts about over- and under- negation. The one I heard this morning was a little more straightforwardly wrong.
Talking about yesterday's bad weather in Scotland the weather forecaster finished by saying, "So don't drive unless you don't have to."

Monday, 29 March 2010


What is it with people of my father's generation that makes them incapable of throwing anything away? Is it that the war years drilled into them the idea of austerity so thoroughly that they are completely incapable of letting go of anything? Is it that they cannot conceive at all of the idea that something you don't need and never use is just taking up space? Even when they decide to declutter they don't actually do it.
We are considering, at the moment just considering, moving to a smaller house. Partly because of that, and partly because it's a good idea anyway I decided to clear a few things out. I started with a cupboard that was filled with old science fiction magazines. There was a pile of them about seven feet high. I offered them to a friend who is a huge fan of the genre but he didn't want them so it was off to the recycling. Or at least it was a couple of hours later when I had finally finished arguing with my dad who was of the opinion that as I had once paid good money for them then throwing them away now was the equivalent of throwing away that money. Some of these magazines have been gathering dust for more than twenty years and I am NEVER going to read them again. My dad hates science fiction and the chances of him ever reading them are slightly lower than the chances of thirty-five-foot, polka-dot rabbit in a bowler hat and Michael Jackson T-shirt hopping over the fence and eating his carrots.
Eventually though they were loaded into the car and driven off for recycling.

Next up came clothes. He's been on at me for ages to sort out the clothes in my wardrobes. So I did. Clothes that no longer fit went into a pile for the charity shop. Clothes that I wouldn't ever consider wearing again went into the same pile as did a couple of old torn or damaged items. There were shirts, T-shirts, trousers, jackets, jumpers, some sports shorts, scarves, gloves, old socks. All sorts. Everything else went back into the wardrobe. I ended up with a very large black refuse sack full of clothes. I put it into the hall ready to take to the charity shop and went out. When I came back the sack contained only two old T-shirts and a pair of socks. Every other item had been taken out. I questioned him and he responded that if they fit him, he'd have them. Now, he hasn't actually tried any of them on and they almost certainly won't fit him, but nevertheless I can't give them to the charity shop. His wardrobes are already filled to bursting point with clothes so he has folded them up and put them on his dressing table. Every last broken-zippered pair of trousers, every last tiny T-shirt, every last holey sock, hideous scarf and mate-less glove is now in a pile in his bedroom. Decluttering apparently means shifting stuff out of my bedroom and into his. There is ominous talk of buying a new wardrobe to put it in. Two of us live here and between us there are already four chests of drawers, five wardrobes (one double) three large chests and two dressing tables ALL full of clothes. Most of that furniture is in his room where, never mind a cat, there isn't room to swing a gerbil.

I'm going to stop trying to throw things away. It just ends up with more junk in the house. At his rate if we move house we'll have to consider moving into a football stadium instead of the bungalows we had been looking at.

(As an aside, and to demonstrate how far this goes, a couple of years ago I bought a new washing machine. In the outhouse we had not one but two old twin tubs. Both were broken. In one the washing part of it would partially heat the water and then swirl the clothes round a bit before breaking down. In the other the dryer part would spin but leave streaks of rust on the clothes and holes in them where the jagged edges tore at them. He resolutely refused to let me get rid of them on the grounds of "th'other 'n might break, then where'd we be?" One day when my neighbour had space in a skip he'd hired I waited for my Dad to fall asleep in the armchair and got my neighbour to help me throw them in. There was a two hour row with my Dad followed by a week of sulking silence from him. He still has FOUR broken lawn mowers.)


I'm not on Facebook, or any other social networking site for the matter, but I hope the organisers of the A-Week Campaign won't mind if I join in anyway.
And I hope that none of my religious friends will take any offence. I just think that as an atheist I have as much right to my beliefs as anyone else.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Harder and Heavier (with added PVC)

(One of those reviews that I don't do.)

When I last saw Toyah at the Robin she was wearing very little. She did the whole set dressed in a rather revealing basque. Very nice it was too. Last night she was wearing more - a skin tight black PVC outfit with a four inch wide red rubber belt. Somehow it was even more revealing than the basque. Forgive me for a moment while I just try to recall the detail.

Ah, that’s better.

OK. What about the music? She did a set that was half and half songs drawn from her extensive back catalogue and covers of her own personal favourites. The back catalogue ran all the way from 1979’s Sheep Farming in Barnet to 2008’s Court of the Crimson Queen and the covers included everything from Alice Cooper to Cameo, Billy Idol to Guns’n’Roses, the Cult to the Osmonds. When she sang Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and reached the lyric “One of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you” there probably wasn’t a bloke in the house not thinking “I wish”.
Let me just consider that outfit again.

The arrangements and the band performances were harder and heavier than usual, solidly moulding all these disparate songs into a unified whole. They rattled through it without any wasted time in as fine a rock performance as I’ve seen for some time. The band were all excellent though the focus was obviously on Toyah’s own dynamic performance at the front. She is every bit as energetic and enthralling now as when I first saw her thirty years ago, and in even better voice. Not to mention even better shape.

It’s hard to believe just how long I’ve been going to Toyah gigs and she’s never disappointed and though her style has become more mainstream rock over the years it’s just moved right along with her audience’s personal tastes. Let’s hope that she’s back at the Robin again before too long.

I must go have a lie down now and think some more about that outfit.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bilston Voices

Last night John Prescott was addressing the members of the local Labour Party at Bilston Town Hall. Fortunately for me there was an alternative. I chose to forego the pleasure of Mr Prescott's company and visit this month's Bilston Voices to sit comfortably and listen to the evening's five performers.
Andy Moreton kicked off. He was a little nervous as it was his first time to read to an audience but he had no need to be. It's a remarkably performer-friendly venue and his work is strong enough to go down very well. It was a mix of humourous and serious poems and one longer prose piece about a voyeuristic old man and it was all well received. I know Andy from my writers' group and I was glad that Emma had finally managed to persuade him to take part.
Next came Dave Reeves with a well-performed, if rather odd, set. His opening poem, a polemic about reading poetry on the web, was fittingly written on a scroll and he moved on to a slight variation on a poem by Alan Ginsberg in which he had replaced "Levinsky" throughout by "Lewinsky". He accompanied himself on accordion. It was novel but nowhere near as clever as he thought it was. Fortunately other poems in the set were very clever and sometimes very funny and delivered very entertainingly.
A young local poet, Tom Jenkins, rounded out the first half well. His poems were witty and well-crafted and included a nicely done pastiche of Poe's the Raven as well as a worryingly convincing piece about an internet stalker.

After the break we had the highlight of the night, Theo Theobold, whose set was really a stand-up comedy routine interrupted by some very funny poems. His jokes elicited laughter and groans in equal measure and he performed with energy and spirit.
It was, perhaps, therefore unfortunate for Simon Fletcher that he had to follow him. Without Simon's organisation and advocacy of poetry in Wolverhampton it's probable that we'd have neither Bilston Voices nor its big brother City Voices. He also writes poetry and prose with a great deal of technical accomplishment. It would require a sharp ear and a harsh critic to find a mis-stressed syllable or a misplaced word. The trouble is that his writing is usually quiet and contemplative, and often very personal, memoirs of his life and family. If not following Theobold they would have been intimate and sensitive but in the circumstances they seemed a little flat.

So, another great night out in Bilston without a politician in sight. I can't help feeling glad that I wasn't in the Town Hall.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Those pesky dangling modifiers II

And another, in an item about suggestions that smoking should be banned in cars.

"How will the law handle people without children who wish to smoke in cars?"

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Those pesky dangling modifiers

Heard on the news tonight, "Doctors missed the problem that could have killed him three times."

Friday, 19 March 2010

Daft Question, Great Answer

I was at a compulsory training day yesterday. There was one good session but for the most part it was the usual kind of rubbish. One of the sessions was on "Stretch and Challenge" which turned out not to be, as I had half-expected, an aerobics lesson but a session about stretching and challenging students.

They started with one of those bits of training nonsense we see so often. They gave everyone a Post-it note and told us to write on it our "expectations of the session". One of my colleagues, who I suspect wasn't taking it all as seriously as they hoped, wrote, "To achieve Nirvana and divine harmony*."

I wish I'd written that.


I was rather disconcerted this week to walk into one of my classrooms and find that a wall display of student work had been replaced with this - a Birmingham City Centre evacuation plan map. What's even more puzzling is that it's to be used in event of terrorist attack, chemical incidents and severe weather.

Severe weather? Surely if the weather is severe enough to require the evacuation of the city it's likely to be too severe to achieve it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


It's been quite some time since I posted to my autobiography in verse. When last we left it I had just started secondary school.
At secondary school I was just about as useless at sports and games as it's humanly possible to be without actually being dead. And that, as you will see, is what this poem is all about.

Games Lessons

Part 1: Three Pitches

On the first pitch all the players
Were the ones who knew the game;
Could kick a ball about and show some skill.
On the second pitch the players
Still had little cause for shame.
Though lesser in ability, they had the heart and will.

On the small pitch in the corner,
Were the ones who thought it dumb;
Who'd rather eat a worm than kick a ball:
And hiding in the library
With a letter from my mum,
I sat and read a book, ignored it all.

Part 2: X-Country

The route had been explained.
He'd drawn it up in chalk.
We looked out through the doorway, at the rain.
"It should take about an hour,"
He'd told us in his talk,
"To get from here to there and back again."

"Why's it called cross-country,
When it's all through an estate?"
Asked Steven, as we set off down the street.
We jogged just past the houses
To the corner shop, to wait.
We couldn't see the use of wearing out our feet.

Part 3: Athletic Support

I was useless with a discus.
I was useless with a shot.
I was useless at the long jump and the high.
I was too slow for the track,
But worst of all the lot -
With a javelin I could kill the passers-by.

I couldn't throw them far,
The things I had to throw.
The direction that they'd go no one could guess.
I might just achieve a zero,
If I dropped them on my toe,
Or throw them behind my back and score much less.

Redacted Review

Dave Gorman, Alexandra TheatreBirmingham

I first came across Dave Gorman when he did his "Are You Dave Gorman?" TV series and was a fan straight away. I know he had a career before that but that was where I joined the ship. This means that I know him mainly through his "event comedy". I know him through "Are You Dave Gorman?", "Googlewhack Adventure", "America Unchained" and even as the presenter of "Genius" (a program that was much better on the radio than on TV). What I didn't know was whether or not he was going to be any good at stand up comedy, so I went to find out last night.

From the moment that he came on stage, ****** * *******, my concerns were allayed. He **** ** ***** * ****** ** **** **** *** ******* **** ****** **** ****** *** *. *** ******* **** ***** *** *** ***** hilarious ***** ********. ***** **** ** **** *** **** ? ***** *** ***** **** **** * ** **** ***** ** *** ***** **.
The first half continued with Dave ******* **** * ***** ****** ***** *** very funny****** ***, but **** ****** *** ****** *** ***** ** ***** *** ****** **** ***. The whole audience was in hysterics by the time he concluded the half with a lengthy story about *** ******* ****** ** *** *****.

After a twenty minute interval he picked up where he had left off. The nature of the second half was slightly different to the first half. Instead of ******** * *** ** ***** ******* * ******** ** *****, he ***** ** ****** ******** ******* ****** *****. **** **** **** ** *****.

There were references to ***** **** *** ****** ** **** **** *, ***** ** ** ***** *** ***** **** **** *** and a degree of audience participation. It was all ******** *****.

And when it was all over? After a couple more ******* **** ******* ****, he left the stage and then returned for further applause and to issue a simple request, that we reveal nothing about the show so that we can avoid spoiling things for future audiences.
I enjoyed it so much that I am happy to comply.

The bottom line is that he's very funny, the show is very funny and if you liked his event comedy, you'll like this. You should go.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A More Dangerous Place?

The kidnapping of Paul and Rachel Chandler by Somali criminals has recently returned to the news. They have now been prisoners for over four months and there is no sign that they will be released any time soon. It seems that the world is a dangerous place but how safe have my own travels been? Between 1999 and 2002 I travelled through dozens of countries, visiting most of the Americas and crossing Europe, North Africa and Asia by road. I only rarely felt any sense of threat, but was I deluding myself?
There had been instances in cities in the US where I had felt uncomfortable but all cities have areas where I feel uncomfortable, even my own. The first time that I was aware of danger was in Colombia, but there it was an intellectual rather than a visceral awareness. I knew of the danger solely because we had needed to change our plans. We had been advised not to drive down through Colombia and so we got to spend a week in the coastal resort of Cartagena and then fly to Ecuador. In spite of the warnings I didn't actually feel any particular sense of danger. There was another incident in La Paz where one of our party was mugged but I wasn't present and my impression of the city, and of Bolivia in general, was that it was quite safe.
Warnings never seem to have any great impact on me. I heed them and take the advice but they don't affect me emotionally. Years before, in New Orleans, my hotel room had leaflets telling me not to visit the park that was across the road as it wasn't safe for tourists. I didn't visit but I also didn't feel any threat from it. Similarly in Mexico city the hotel insisted that for our own safety we only booked taxis through reception and didn't take any of the ones touting on the street. Again I followed the advice and felt perfectly safe.
On my world tour, the first time I actually felt unsafe was in Peru where there was a distinct sense of low-level menace. It started when the tarpaulin on the roof of our truck was slit and various bags stolen while we were moving. That wasn't the end of it. More bags were stolen in Puno and one of my friends was robbed as we walked down the street. It was a slickly choreographed "razor" theft with the thieves bouncing out of a doorway and knocking him sideways as they slit his pocket and made off with the contents. As it happened the bulge that must have looked like a wallet was a roll of toilet paper. I expect they were rather disappointed with the haul. Nonetheless it was a violent encounter.
Still all these were minor annoyances rather than any great danger. That came for the first time when I was in Syria. We were driving and camping. One evening, running late, we left the main road and started to drive off in search of somewhere to pitch camp. As we followed a side road we saw in the distance what looked like a road block. We decided to turn around and find another route but before we could do so we were surrounded by armed men in a ragtag collection of military clothing. It was far too scruffy and ad-hoc to be genuine military and the way that they were pointing their rifles at us was seriously worrying. For ten minutes there was an increasingly tense exchange, and as we couldn't understand them and they couldn't understand us it seemed likely to end in real trouble. Then a jeep came bouncing down the road and someone who was in charge reined them back. With grunts and gestures he made it clear that we were to follow him back to the main road and then keep driving. We did and eventually camped, very nervously, in a disused quarry about twenty miles down the road.
The only other place that didn't feel at all safe was Pakistan. In the cities we were OK, staying in hotels, albeit rather ramshackle ones, but when camping we always had to camp in the grounds of police stations. On one occasion, one of the beautifully decorated lorries that fill the roads in that country, pulled up on the main road and two men started to approach us. We had assumed that the camping at police stations was a formality but before they had reached us two armed police had stepped between them and us and sent them packing. They were, the police told us, most likely bandits as the area was notorious for roadside robberies.

Now all of this makes my travelling sound terribly exciting and dangerous but the truth is that even in these incidents I never actually felt as if there was any real serious danger. Maybe that was my naivety rather than an accurate assessment of the situation but that's how I felt.
Nowadays though I watch the news and see that places where I felt completely safe are essentially no go areas. In Pakistan, one of those ramshackle hotels in Peshawar was about half a mile away from a recent terrorist bombing. Iran, a country where I met only polite courtesy from the locals is constantly in the news as a place too dangerous for tourists. Even Kashgar, a city in northern China famous for its market, has been under siege as the Chinese military try to quell unrest among the local ethnic people. Country after country that gave me no problem turns up as somewhere with a terrorist threat, or somewhere with civil unrest, or somewhere where there are unsafe levels of crime.
It makes me glad that I did my travelling when I did. I wonder if this rise in danger is real or perceived. After all, even when I was travelling there were threats. There had been terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt only weeks before I was there. New Orleans had famously had a couple of British killed by criminals near that park opposite my hotel. I don't remember this level of constant drip-feed stories in the news though. I'm sure if there had been this kind of coverage I'd have had a lot more arguments from my father about the advisability of going at all.
I don't know if the world is more dangerous now but I do know that from the comfort of my living room it seems to be. I'd certainly think long and hard before undertaking my previous trips again.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Ongoing #22

Sometimes I write things where even I really have no idea what they are about. This is one of those times. I like the poem but I'm damned if I can tell you what it's about though it seems to be about something.
The doodle that it's based on shows ants scurrying in and out of holes.

It all gets forgotten,
Everything said
By most of the living
And all of the dead.
When the memory's gone
It leaves behind holes
Which we desperately try
To plug with our souls,
Stretching them thinner
To cover the gap
And thinner and thinner
Till they finally snap.
We fall through the holes
And we vanish from view
And all that we are
Is forgotten then too.

Something I DO like about Alice

At last, something I can be unequivocally positive about with regard to the new Alice in Wonderland. I today received my CD of Danny Elfman's score for the movie and it's a remarkably well rounded piece of work. It doesn't play like a film soundtrack, it plays like a suite of music written entirely independently and works very well as such. Here and there it may be a touch episodic but overall it flows almost symphonically. Danny Elfman, as testified by such previous scores as Beteljuice and Batman writes with tremendous dramatic flair and while, in parts, this may be reminiscent of those - and other - Elfman film scores, it remains nonetheless a splendid piece of work on its own terms. The recurring Alice main theme solidly underpins all of it with the choral passages threading through it as a constant counterpoint to the frequently menacing foreground.
As Alice says in Looking Glass when she reads the poem Jabberwocky, "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't exactly know what they are!"
Fortunately the ideas and images that it fills my head with are shaped by my own previous knowledge of the books, by my own imagination of how Wonderland should be and not by Tim Burton's movie.
If only everything about the film had been as good as the soundtrack it would have been a mighty piece of work indeed.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Wonderland: A 3-in-1 Review

Warning: May contain spoilers

Three reviews for the price of one.

The 3D

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is the first of the new generation of 3D movies that I've seen and I decided to see it to its best advantage at the local IMAX cinema. Now I know that the live action was shot in 2D and then digitally enhanced to match the full digital rendering of the animated world in which it takes place. What I don't know is whether this accounts for the failings of the presentation. Some bits of the 3D are stunning. The panoramic shots as we race through or soar over Wonderland are terrific and some of the set pieces - falling down the hole, battling the Jabberwocky - are extremely well done. The trouble is that when it's good it's very, very good but when it's bad it's terrible. There are two major things and one minor thing wrong. The minor thing was completely predictable. Time after time action takes place into or out of the screen which would be easier to follow and dramatically better across the screen. It's the use of 3D just because it's there. The other problems are more basic and relate to the actual technique. The digital rendering of the live shots frequently leaves the actual actors looking like 2D figures in a 3D background, where there are multiple depths of action the overall effect is akin to the cardboard cutout Alice puppet theatre that I have in my collection. The final problem, also especially noticeable in the bookend "real world" sections, is that part of the process has been to sharpen the focus of the bit of screen you are supposed to be looking at and blur the focus in any other plane so that you get a foreground of out-of-focus bushes, a hyper-sharp middleground of two people talking and another out-of-focus background of fuzzy, unidentifiable figures. Flickering your eyes to another part of the screen is like looking through a frosted glass window.
So overall, while sections of the 3D are stunning, I can't help thinking it will be better when I get to watch it in good old flat screen 2D.

The film

But is it a good film? Well I will say this, it's quite remarkable how one man's virtue is another vice. Tim Burton has been doing the interview round promoting the film and has said, over and over, that all the previous versions suffer from a lack of narrative, that Alice wanders from one random encounter to the next without any rhyme or reason. He, of course has "put this right" by adding a narrative base to the story. He might actually have got away with it too if the narrative he'd chosen wasn't so familiar and trite that cliché is too inadequate a word. It's a standard good versus evil story with a climactic battle that could just as easily be from Narnia as Wonderland. Bolting on a narrative could only ever have worked if it was something as unusual and quirky as Wonderland itself.
It isn't all bad news though. Against all my expectations everyone puts in a good performance - even Matt Lucas as the Tweedles. The wealth of excellent characterisations culminates in Johnny Depp's brilliantly bonkers Mad Hatter - a character full of wild madness but with moments of great pathos. The ensemble as a whole almost manages to save the film from the weight of it's dull plot and the screenplay's ponderous "be true to yourself" moralising.
Almost but not quite.

The adaptation of the book

It is of course, as Burton keeps endlessly pointing out, not an adaptation of the book. It uses elements of the book to create a sequel of sorts, albeit a sequel to a version of the book that doesn't actually exist. In some respects it is truly excellent. Visually it may be dark but it's certainly in tune with my vision of Lewis Carroll's world. The characters are deliberately not based on previous renderings, showing instead all of the trademark Burton quirkiness which is completely suitable. I loved the look of the film. The problem is that while Burton is good at psychotic quirkiness he doesn't here pull off the whimsy that is required for Carroll. The use of a kind of gibberish German to name Wonderland items - upelkuchen for the cake that makes you grow, fairfarren for "safe journey" and so on - is contrived rather than whimsical. The humour is unforgivably clunky and Carroll's devious and cunning wordplay is entirely absent. Considered as an adaptation it misses the point by a country mile.

So the overall verdict isn't all that favourable. The movie has its good points but the bad points more than balance them out. I enjoyed it but not a much as I should have. The definitive version of Alice still remains to be made.

One last thing

Dear Mister Burton, can you tell Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter, that it's not "borogroves", it's "borogoves".

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Something Wrong Here?

In an item about Nikki Sinclaire's expulsion from UKIP (a British fringe political party) I heard the following. Am I the only one who sees something just a touch odd here?

"The party say that her views are incompatible with those of other party members. She says it's the other way round."

Am I missing something about the meaning of "incompatible"? Or is she?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

scratches head

One of the students in my ESOL class today showed me a letter from the job centre to explain why he can't come to class on Friday. It says that he has to attend a training course or he will lose his Job Seekers' Allowance*. There's nothing especially unusual about that, the job centre like to waste people's time teaching them how to lick stamps and such. The unusual thing was the topic of this course. It seems he has to miss his ESOL class to go on a course about the importance of attending ESOL classes.


(*For overseas readers this is a welfare benefit paid to people who are unemployed but actively seeking work.)