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.

Friday, 30 April 2010

A phrase I never heard before

I've just seen an interview with the fine American comedian Reginald D. Hunter in which he several times used a phrase that was new to me - "a strong minute".
Apparently it means "a long time but not a very long time".
I like it. I may use it.

Especially for Dave

My friend Dave was on the Metro a couple of days ago. He was wrestling with the tricky task of rhyming the word "doggerel".

So here is a little thing I call...


A poet I know asked for help with a rhyme,
I said, "Let me try, what is it this time?"
He said, "Doggerel."
I said, "I know what you write but regarding your plight,
What is the word that you cannot get right?"
He said, "Doggerel!"
I said, "I see what you mean, it is really quite hard,
You'd have to be quite a spectacular bard,
To rhyme, "Doggerel."
He said, "I've read your poetry blog,and I thought it OK
And while I can't find a rhyme I think I can say
Such a blogger'll.
I said, "I'll do my best, if that's OK
At least for the moment I won't run away
Like a jogger'll.
I shall work very hard, work till I drop
Till I find an answer, I simply won't stop
No good slogger'll.
I'll call up my friends if I can't make it scan,
One is a lumberjack and if anyone can,
Then a logger'll.
And if he fails there's a man who makes shoes
Who I'm certain might well have a word we can use,
Yes that clogger'll."
He said, "All these words that you've tried seem to cheat,
Maybe we should throw in the towel in defeat,
Faced with 'doggerel'."
I sighed and then used an American voice
And said, "Then perhaps your first and best choice,
Is 'inaugural'."

Did nobody notice?

There's a TV advert for an online bingo site called "Foxy Bingo".
The advert is showing at all times of day, not just in the evening.
It features the line, "Hello sweet cheeks. Do you fancy a fox?"

I cannot believe that the TV companies didn't notice!

Woo-ooo, another educational rant

We've been down this road before.
More than once.

We've reached the time of year when our college has decided to start monitoring closely all of our photocopying and printing. For a change this year they have gone a step further. They have decided to impose a £50 limit. They have, to be fair, said that when we run out we can "request" more but the initial imposition of the limit is because they think we use too much.

Well, let's see, shall we? I teach an Entry 1 class. This, in case anyone doesn't know, is a beginners' class. The range is actually quite wide. At the high end I have a student who can communicate well and works hard at forming good, if rather ungrammatical, sentences. At the low end I have a student who understands almost nothing that is said to her, manages to just about communicate very simple concepts such as "My name is" and can copy things that are written down but very very slowly and without any actual understanding of the words.

The only way to teach such a class is to put very little information on a page and use lots of pictures. I certainly could take out the pictures, use a small typeface and cram a lot onto a page. This would be worse than useless. They do their best and they progress but picking out relevant information from a page that is dense with text is a difficult skill to master. And one they haven't mastered. A little information on a big page, that's the key.
Another suggestion is, print half as many copies and let them share. The trouble is that that's fine during the class but at the end of the lesson half of them go home with nothing to study and nothing to look at. I'll say it again, these are beginners.  They need to be able to consolidate their classwork at home. They CANNOT possibly learn English if they are denied the opportunity to practice.
There is also the question of vocabulary lists. I have to supply them on paper. 
Put them on the board and let them copy it? 
I've heard it suggested. The theory is that we don't need the paper because we can use the board. Well that will work, won't it? If I wrote ten five letter words on the board some students would copy them in a minute, some would take an hour. That's obviously completely impractical.

OK. There are problems but I can still use less paper, can't I?
Let's do some maths shall we?

In my Entry 1 class there are eighteen students. With the best will in the world the smallest amount of paper I can get away with in a lesson is about three pages per student, the average is about five. I teach them three times a week. Photocopies cost 2p each. Prints cost 4p each. Even if we do it all on the copier and nothing on the printer that, when you multiply it out, comes to £5.40.
I have another class in the afternoon. It's a different level with different needs but it still needs a similar amount of paper so that's £10.80 a week.
Of course there is other copying and printing to be done, class lists, group profiles, lesson plans, registers, letters to students, the endless minutiae of college administration. That adds at least another couple of pounds a week. So lets call it about £13 a week.
And I'm part time, add another thirty percent for the full-timers. That £50 isn't going to last long is it? Last term I used about £300. 

I know that we shouldn't waste money but surely we should accept that when students are learning a language - and the college doesn't provide text books for them - we have to give them notes and texts in the form of copies or we are destroying any chance that they have of making a success of the course.
No one has yet suggested that they should buy text books but I'm sure it's only a matter of time and my answer to that will be that some of them live in Government provided single room hostel accommodation and survive on £15 per week provided in the form of supermarket vouchers. They  are not allowed to work and if they work illegally they are liable to deportation. So that would be a non-starter even if it were suggested.

All this for the sake of saving money on copying. Anybody ever heard of "false economy"?

Ongoing #33

The doodle that goes with this shows two mountain climbers roped together. The poem is about another famous duo, and what they might have done once they were no longer quite as powerful.


Tony said to George, one day when feeling blue,
"Out of office, in disgrace, what is a man to do?"
George replied to Tony, "My time too has run out.
There must be another challenge, that's what life's about."
They were sitting in glum silence, pondering the task
Of finding purpose for their lives, when George took out a mask.
"Tony," he said "You know, we can put the world to rights.
What is your opinion of dressing up in tights?"
"As a prostitute?" asked Tony, "Can't say I fancy that.
Or do you mean perhaps I'll be Robin to your Bat?"
George shook his head and said, "There's one more thing that's left.
We'll be great as tag-team wrestlers in the Dubya-Dubya-Eff."
Tony looked confused. He wasn't into sport,
And World Wildlife Fund was the first thing that he thought.
George explained in detail about careers in the ring,
And tony said "OK - I can't refuse you anything."
So now the tour the world, dressed in Red-White-Blue,
And bill themselves on posters as "The Terror-Busting Crew."
But they have a rival team who may bring them to book
Abu-Hamza and Bin Laden, billed as "Hook and Crook".

Monday, 26 April 2010

Ongoing #32

The doodle has a picture of the world in the bottom left hand corner with the caption "The World is in Peril". It made me think of the news, and how reliable it is.


I'm watching the news,
But on closer inspection,
I can't help believing
It's all misdirection.
The words and the images
That flash on my screen
Mean no more and no less
Than they want them to mean.
Like the book of the month
It's the editor's choice.
I can listen forever
But there's only one voice.
An illusion of balance
Is all just a trick.
It makes no real difference
Which viewpoint you pick.
I don't know what's true
There's no way to find out.
And that's what control
Is really about.

Sunday, 25 April 2010


I decided to go to last night's Variety Night at the Imperial in Bilston for one reason only - the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre Company were on and having watched all of their You Tube videos I'm quite a fan. It would have been worth the bargain price of £10 just to see them but in the event it proved to be quite astonishingly good value with four more acts and a nice curry thrown in, in a venue I haven't been to before but one I shall certainly consider again.
In terms of the acts the Fizzog Theatre Company probably got overall more time than anyone else by virtue of providing two sketches, joined for one by the compere, Emma Rollason who also introduced the proceedings doing a tribute act to Black Country comedian Dolly Allen. In the role of compere her jokes were old before my dad was born but they were perfect for the evening and never failed to raise a smile. Fizzog had turns in both the first and second halves. The second had four of them performing a sketch about four old ladies at Christmas which was both very accurate and very funny, the first was a character performance as teenager "Wayne Kerr" which, unfortunately, was neither. The name of the character set the levels of originality and style that the skit maintained. Fortunately it was followed by Invocal who were nothing short of marvellous. They were a four piece female vocal group accompanied by guitar and cello. Their songs were inventive and quirky and the performance was great. They pulled off the trick of creating songs that were simultaneously funny, thought-provoking and poignant and with subjects that included chronic depression that's no mean feat.
The second half opened up with poet Brenda Read-Brown who did a set that showed just how it should be done. Her poems were laugh-out-loud funny and her delivery absolutely on the mark. She was followed by that "old lady" sketch from Fizzog (and I think I found it funnier because one of the characters had a caustic, no-nonsense humour that reminded me of one of my own aunties who is sadly no longer with us.)
Then it was time for the "Socks".
For anyone who has got this far without following the links let me explain. It's a Punch And Judy style performance by a guy with two sock puppets and a Scottish accent and if that sounds as if it isn't much fun, go and follow the links now and then come back.
I'll wait.
The thing about it is the humour and all I can say is that even though I'd seen ninety percent of it before it still had me falling off my chair with laughter. Included in the highlights were their send-ups of movies, Halloween and Michael Jackson as well as a couple that I would be very surprised to ever see on You Tube. It was necessarily quite short in such an evening but it would have been worth the tenner on its own.
Overall I can't remember the last time when I enjoyed a gig so much for such a small price. They have another variety night in September and I may just go along.

A review with fewer words.

Friday, 23 April 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #9A: One down...

One was Casdon Soccer.
And if you are wondering how I found out, I asked my brother.

Bilston Voices

It was an unusually subdued evening at Bilston Voices last night. I don't know whether it was the political debate that kept half the audience away or the football or the nice weather but something certainly did so that half the seats in the already quite compact venue were empty. It flattened the atmosphere a little but the performers still managed to give us another night of good entertainment. First up was Eileen Foy whose set fell a little between two stools. Her poems were well-crafted but occasionally had the feel of writing exercises - albeit very well done writing exercises - poems about poetry often do, nevertheless she entertained us solidly for fifteen minutes before handing over the stage to Rory Kelly. Rory was one of the occasional series of young performers that Emma is encouraging with slots at the venue and he treated us to a spirited and enthusiastic performance of short humorous poems delivered with a great deal of gusto. Considering that he had to rush off home immediately afterwards to revise for an exam today it was an especially bravura showing. He was also the only poet to perform there so far complete with a visual aid - a photograph of a meditating policeman on every table - to accompany one of his pieces.
The half was rounded out by Marcia Calame. Her poetry was rhythmic and with what was almost, though not exactly, a rapping style. While I found some of her pieces to be rather metaphor heavy, her reading of a longer piece which she described as a "work in progress" was really very impressive. She asked for our comments and I'm happy to comply. My comment is that if that is a work in progress I hope I get the chance to hear it when it's finished as I was quite taken with it even in its current form.
After the break the atmosphere picked up thanks to the style of poetry favoured by Mike Tinsley. His poems are funny and clever and with seaside postcard sense of humour and mostly written in a Black Country dialect. Dialect poetry can go horribly wrong but not last night. The trick is to have a poem that would be good without the dialect and then the dialect adds another layer. Mike managed the trick admirably. It made him a hard act to follow but Dave Finchett gave it an excellent try. His  poems were a mix of nostalgia and humour with a dash of anger thrown into the blend. He pulled off tricky rhyme schemes and rhythms with skill as he gave us pieces about his memories of "Spot The Ball" and his feelings about the credit crunch and the modern sound bite culture among others.
And then it was over for another month, a quieter night than some perhaps but still an entertaining one.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Ongoing #31

The doodle shows a couple of soldiers in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry.


"It's been a great success," they said,
"One hundred thousand people dead.
The ones remaining must see how
Things are so much better now.
Why do we meet with so much hate,
From those we want to liberate?"

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #9: A Special Appeal

I sat here for half an hour racking my brains.
Then I turned to my friend Mr Google and racked his brains.
To no avail.

So now I'm going to write the blog entry without pictures and without very much real information and toss it out into the wild to see if anyone else can answer the question.

When I was young I had two different table top football games but neither of them was Subbuteo. By football, of course, I mean the game that goes by that name in England, which some of you will know as soccer.
Let me describe them both. 

The first game consisted of a cardboard football pitch which was folded out onto the table top. The players were about two centimetres tall and sat on a flat circular base. There was a plastic goal fitted at each end. Instead of a ball there was a counter and the game was played like a cross between subbuteo and tiddlywinks with the counter being flicked from player to player and eventually into, hopefully, the back of the net.

The second game was rather more sophisticated and was played with a metal ball. It was also rather odd. The playing field was a green plastic contraption about a yard long. The players were a similar size to the ones in the first game but slotted into holes on the plastic base on top of a paddle. The paddles were rotated using knobs at the ends of the board. Each of the player positions sat in the bottom of a depression so that the surface of the field was like the cratered surface of the moon but ensuring that the ball , after following a very eccentric path, always settled at the feet of a player. Again play proceeded by batting the ball from player to player and hopefully into the net. I suppose this one could be characterised as a cross between Subbuteo and pinball.

I've never been a football fan but these games actually had precious little to do with football and were both, in their own ways, rather fun and certainly easier to play than subbuteo ever was.
Does anyone (well any of my three or so British readers) recall either of these games and what they were called. It would be nice to be able to find some pictures of them somewhere.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Fluffy Liquid Loveliness: Redux

On the online shopping site for my local supermarket it also tells me that the water is


Whatever that means.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Fluffy Liquid Loveliness

Another current advertising campaign has me scratching my head.
A fit and healthy looking young man says that he has accepted a challenge to drink a litre and a half of a particular brand of mineral water every day for a month. Bits of video are shown of him drinking water. Then he says his month is up and he feels much fitter and healthier than before. 
Cut to a picture of a mountain where the water is apparently filtered through the layers of rock so that when you drink it, it produces "Deep Volcanic Hydration".

Sorry guys. "Deep Volcanic Hydration" is about as meaningful a phrase as "Fluffy Liquid Loveliness". Drinking water is certainly good for you but drinking tap water, which is free, is just as efficacious as drinking expensive bottled mineral water - well it is in this country anyway. I wonder, though, just how many people buy into this pseudo-scientific stuff. By all means sell bottled water on the merits of its taste (personally I don't think it tastes any different to tap water but I'm happy to concede that this is a matter of opinion) but implying that the man in the advert feels better because he has drunk this brand of expensive water seems to me to be a bit of a reach.

To Put Away Childish Things #8

I don't think I should be admitting this really.
My friends will laugh.
I will though.
I'll stand up and admit it.
Back in the 1970s I bought quite a few of the "Top of the Pops" series of albums.

There it's done.
Now it's possible, probable even, that some of you, especially those overseas, don't know what these albums were. There were, apparently, ninety-two altogether in the series - though I had only about a dozen. They sold over three million copies. They were mostly not eligible for the album charts because they were budget priced but in the very brief period when they were eligible two of them made number one.
So what were they? They were albums by anonymous artists covering an astonishingly wide range of currently popular chart hits, about a dozen per album. The front of the sleeve always featured a list of the tracks and, crucial to pubescent boys, a scantily clad model.
The songs were covered as closely as possible to the original sound and often they made a pretty fair job of it, though I recall that the attempts at imitating singers with distinctive voices weren't always successful. David Bowie covers always seemed to come out particularly weakly.
Now I know that they were looked down on by nearly everybody. After all if you were a fan you'd buy the real thing wouldn't you? But I always quite enjoyed them. They were cheap and cheerful and very much a product of the era.
Anyway, I am quite nostalgic about them.
Even if this is the first time I've ever told anybody that I bought them.

Ongoing #30

The doodle that inspired this poem is of someone standing on the edge of a diving board apparently unable to bring himself to dive. It inspired the title Procrastination which in turn led to the poem.


Let's do first things first and put the kettle on.
I can make a cup of tea and think about the day.
So many possibilities, so many things to choose.
Don't really need to rush it. Reflect on it, I say.

I know I'll make a list but I've got to do it properly,
I'll turn on the computer and type it nice and neat.
I'll use my Word For Windows, double-space and bold.
I'll print it and consider it once it's all complete.

But before that I'll log in and check my email out.
Who knows there might be messages waiting for my view.
There's an advert for Viagra and some jokes someone sent me
And in among the junk mail, a real message or two.

I've deleted all the spam. The rest I've tried to answer.
I'd better get down to the task of deciding where to go.
But first I'll check the Met Office, get a weather forecast.
It will only take a minute and it's better I should know.

Well the forecast is for sunshine, all over the Midlands
And there's a link to pictures, I wonder if they're good.
Well they all look rather splendid but I'm pretty sharp myself
And they're asking for some more, with a prize, I understood.

Now where did I put those albums that have all my pictures?
I think I may have put them in the attic on a shelf.
I'll just get the ladder out and go up there and search,
After all I wouldn't mind the prize money for myself.

What's this? A box of books! I'd forgotten they were up here.
Look! Here's the Eagle annual from nineteen sixty three.
I'll take this down and read before going out today.
The adventures of Dan Dare - such a treat for me.

Now it's time to get back to it, sort out my day off,
But first I'm rather thirsty, I'll have a glass of ale
And a couple of cheese sandwiches and as I eat and drink,
I'll pop the TV on - it's some show called "Car Boot Sale".

Well after that's gone off there's a western, black and white,
That's staring Randolph Scott as the sheriff in some town.
And now that that is over I can get back to my planning,
But hey... where did the day go. The sun is going down.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

To Put Away Childish Things #7

I suspect this may turn into more of a rant than a piece of nostalgia and I know that, when we next have a beer, John will accuse me of being a Luddite but I've just seen an item on TV that has reminded me how nostalgic I get for vinyl. Today is, apparently, Independent Record Stores Day and on TV they were just interviewing a club DJ and a technology writer and their, predictably, different views reminded me of how much I used to enjoy buying records.
There is probably no one of my generation who can't tell you what the first album they bought was. My first two were Bursting At The Seams, by the Strawbs, and Kimono My House, by Sparks both bought in Woolworths in Bilston. Nowadays not only would I find it hard to buy records at all I certainly wouldn't be doing it in Woolworth's, would I?
It isn't just the vinyl that I'm nostalgic for, though. It's the whole process of buying it. I remember when I used to go, on Saturdays, to the record shops in Wolverhampton and spend hours in them. I would go through the racks of LPs in Ruby Red Records* or Sundown and look at every record in the racks. I'd pull them out one by one, look at the great artwork on the sleeves, read the sleeve notes, consider buying them and then put them back as my funds as a teenager were rather limited. The shops were small with narrow aisles and walls covered in posters. They were often quite dark and pokey. I could spend an afternoon in them and not even realise how much time had gone by. Later I extended my range to shops in West Bromwich, Walsall, Dudley and Birmingham. I remember scouring all of them for the multiple picture disc versions of early Toyah singles and being so pleased when I finally found them
Of course vinyl is nowhere near as easy to get nowadays, hasn't been for years. Some things are released on vinyl but mainly for the benefit of club DJs so it isn't my kind of music. When CDs came out I had no special objection to the format but as they quickly, and virtually completely, superseded vinyl I soon started to miss the packaging. Gone were the wonderful imaginative sleeves. OK, the CDs had the same cover artists working on them but were a quarter of the size. It wasn't the same. And how could they duplicate stuff like the marvellous fold out desk of Alice Cooper's Schools Out, the bizarre mirrored front of the original release of Uriah Heep's Look At Yourself or the great triple gatefold of  ELP's Welcome Back My Friends. Even something as minimalist as the Beatles' White Album just isn't the same when it comes as a CD insert.
Now of course even the CD packaging is going as downloading takes over the world. CD shops (I refuse to call them record shops if they don't sell records!) are struggling. Their stock takes up space and a download doesn't. I listened to the street interviews in the item on TV and despaired. Only one person seemed nostalgic at all about vinyl and most of the younger ones just didn't understand why you would want to buy something that you kept in your house when you could download something and take it everywhere with you. For them portability was the key element of value. For me every change that has reduced the actual "physicality" of what you get has reduced the value. CDs have the same musical value as vinyl but they are not as nice to own. I suppose, purely in terms of the music, so do downloads but they have nothing at all that you can hold and look at and tell your friends "Wow, did you see the cover of Topographic Oceans? Roger Dean is a genius!"
To today's instant-gratification, information-saturated, techno-junkie teenagers my attitude is about as comprehensible as if I were proposing that we should go out and kill and skin a bear to make a coat or light a fire by banging rocks together, and their attitude is just as meaningful to me. I wish I could say that it's their loss, but it isn't. You can't lose something you never had. The loss is mine, and my whole generations.

(*Ruby Red Records, like a few other independents does still exist. It isn't the same though. But that, of course, is the very essence of nostalgia.)

Friday, 16 April 2010

Who agrees with whom?

I watched the first ever televised debate between the party leaders in the UK last night. For overseas readers the background is this. We are just a few weeks away from an election. In Britain there are two main parties - Labour and Conservative. There are a host of minor parties ranging from one-man-bands upwards but, if we don't count the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, only one with any significant amount of power, the Liberal Democrats. I say with any amount of power and it's true that they have 62 seats, but it's 62 out of 646. Under normal circumstances this isn't very much power. However we may not be under normal circumstances at the moment. It's looking increasingly likely that there could be a hung Parliament, one where no party has enough seats for overall control. In those circumstances a good result for the Liberal Democrats could put them in the position of kingmaker.

And that's why I found one element of last night's program quite interesting. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, was given a chance to compete with Gordon Brown and David Cameron in an equal forum, just as if his party has as much chance of forming a Government as theirs do. It was a great opportunity for him and he performed very well, coming over as relaxed and amiable, apparently listening with interest to the others, putting his points clearly. None of that is what interested me though. What interested me was that, perhaps because they may be forced to rely on him later, both of the other leaders were at pains to be relatively nice to him and to repeatedly refer to areas of agreement that they had. But even that isn't what interested me. It was a phrase used several times by Gordon Brown - "Nick agrees with me". At one point Nick strenuously denied it but it's the word order that I find fascinating. Neither Gordon Brown nor David Cameron ever said "I agree with Nick." Both said "Nick agrees with me."

On the surface the two sentences have the same meaning. After all if I agree with you then you agree with me. The emphasis is the thing though. If Gordon Brown were to say, "I agree with Nick", it's giving the control to his opponent. It's saying, ""Hey, you have a good idea, I think I'll join you." By putting it the other way round it's saying, "I have a good idea, and you are right to support me." It's taking ownership of whatever the idea is instead of giving it away. Of course the reality is that if two parties have the same idea then they agree with each other but the reality is less important than the perception and that's why I'm absolutely sure the words were chosen with care to give that impression of ownership, that impression of who is really in charge. Nevertheless it would have been nice to hear someone say, "He's right, I agree."

Thursday, 15 April 2010


As I write, a cloud of ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland is drifting south over the UK and northern Europe. No one has any idea how long the eruption will go on. For safety reasons all UK airspace has been closed and all flights cancelled. It seems an apposite time reprint my article about my volcanic encounter in Ecuador in 1999.

Waiting for Pichincha

Apart from on Sundays when the whole of Ecuador seems to close, the Avenida Amazonas in Quito is always busy and usually a little chaotic. Even at 8:30 in the morning it is crowded with people threading their way to work through the tables of the pavement cafes and the stalls setting up for business. Men in suits are already sitting inside the cafés drinking beer. The army of street vendors have begun their manoeuvres.
Last week I sat outside Manola's Cafe and counted them. In the twenty minutes it took to eat breakfast I was approached by three sun-glasses salesmen, one watch salesman, five shoe-shine boys, four little old ladies selling paintings and no fewer than nine people offering me pictures of the 7th October eruption of the nearby Guagua Pichincha Volcano. This last occupation is something of a booming cottage industry in Quito. The same dramatic picture of the white and grey smoke towering above the cone of the volcano against a perfect cloudless sky adorns posters, T-shirts, calendars and postcards.
I didn´t arrive here until 24th October so that I had missed the event itself but the merchandising was in full swing and with the city still on Yellow Alert there was always the chance that the volcano might do something else spectacular for me.
I like Ecuador and in particular I like Quito which doesn't feel at all like a capitol city. It's 42 km long but only 6 km wide and, with a population of about two million, is big enough to have plenty to do and see but lacks the impersonal unfriendliness of, say, Mexico City or Panama City. Even all of those street salesmen are just trying to make a living and a simple 'No Gracias' is usually enough to send them on their way. (Although the shoe-shine boys seem to have a problem grasping the concept that my sandals do not need their attention !)
The changes to my plans caused by having to drop Columbia from my itinerary had given me three weeks in Quito. Such a long stay gave me plenty of opportunity to get to know it rather well. Roughly speaking it is divided into four bands, the southern suburbs, the old city, the new city and, in the north, the business section. I confined my explorations to the old and new cities.
The old city with its steep narrow streets is a busy, bustling and not especially safe place. Two Plazas, San Francisco and Independencia, dominate it. The former is a crowded lively square overlooked by the oldest church and monastery in the city, San Francisco, which inside is filed with elaborate gold-leaf covered carvings. Above the altar is a statue of 'The Virgin of Quito' an enormous copy of which overlooks the city from the nearby Panecillo Hill.
The Plaza de Independencia is a pleasant green park with the independence monument at its centre. On three sides it is bounded by impressive old colonial buildings including the splendid governor's palace. On the fourth side the authorities have bypassed their own planning regulations and built the ugly squat concrete block of the local government offices.
Further north, in the new city, there are many more tourists and hence many more of the shops and businesses that cater for them; restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops. The streets are wider and the buildings more modern although architecturally it is a bit of a mess. There are mock fairy tale castles, curved and painted Chinese pagodas, Moorish and North African buildings and a dozen other styles which invariably turn out to be restaurants, karaoke bars or internet cafes.
It didn´t take me long to settle into a routine. The Ecuadorian National Orchestra School and its less than virtuoso tuba player next door to my hotel ensure that I rise early. After breakfast I spend the morning reading, writing or just ambling about sight-seeing. Then it's off to the British Council for some lunch and a Spanish Lesson, followed by a couple of beers with my Belgian friend Manu who is also travelling around the Americas and dinner in one of the wide variety of international restaurants.
Every evening ends the same way with a few hours in the Reina Victoria, a reasonable facsimile of an English pub complete with stout and bitter to compliment the ubiquitous South American lager.
There the conversation invariably returns to the subject of the volcano and what effect, if any, its potential eruption is having on the city. No-one seems very worried. Apart from the pictures for sale and a lot more people selling and wearing dust masks the only noticeable results have been that the hotels are emptier so that good rates can be negotiated and all of the monuments have been covered with a protective layer of polythene spoiling the tourists' photography. Otherwise everywhere is business as usual, even if there is a slightly sharp edge to some of the humour. Captain Ron, who manages the pub for its owners Gary and Dorothy, has repeated his
"If the lava reaches Avenida Amazonas I'm out of here !'
a little too often for it to be a very comfortable joke and the eruption of Tungurahua further south has led to the evacuation of 15000 people from Baños, so remote or not the possibility of danger does exist.
Tomorrow I leave Quito and the volcano is still not co-operating in doing anything spectacular for me. True, the latest dustfall has been severe enough to make the streets look like a winter scene and to close the airport but it is only dust after all. It's not the same as being able to write first hand about vast smoke clouds or fire in the sky. If that happens at all now it will be after I've gone. If everything goes according to expectations the city will be fine if rather dirty and the street vendors will have a new set of pictures to sell. Until then I´ll be travelling south and leaving everyone here sitting around and speculating and waiting for Pichincha.

Ongoing #29

I actually wrote this poem a couple of years ago and then found it again yesterday when I was going through a pile of unfinished work. The circumstances were that the Government were changing the rules about who could and could not have English lessons. The changes would have removed the right from the most vulnerable members of society, the very people who need it most. The teachers and the teaching unions were opposed to it and organised meetings and marches and petitions. We managed to water down the proposals at the time but it's a battle we just keep on having to fight. This year's proposals are just as bad.

The poem came about after a public meeting where a student that I knew stood up to speak. She was living in a tiny single room with no kitchen, bathroom or toilet and surviving on the £15 a week shopping vouchers that asylum seekers - contrary to the Daily Mail's claims - are entitled to. She was not allowed to work and could not claim any benefits. She spoke little English and had been placed in accommodation where no one spoke her language. Her only human contact were four lessons a week of English in the college, and that was about to be taken away from her.
She stood up and in halting English told her story. These are not her exact words but they are her sentiments.

The doodle in the book shows a very sad looking foreign lady.

I wish I speak well English

I wish I speak well English.
I wish people not laugh to me.
I wish things like before
When I am important woman.
Not rich. Not rich woman
But have own business.
I dressmaking lady.
I wish soldiers never come.
Now I nothing.
Now I living like nothing.
Like no one.
I wish I speak well English.
I wish much... lots of things.
I wish knowing where children are now,
Where my husband.
I wish I know alive.
I wish they safe.
I wish they here.
I wish I speak well English.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Alice Eternal

I have started a new blog, Alice Eternal.

It's probably of little or no interest to anyone as it is just an index that I am building to my Alice in Wonderland collection. In the coming months I will be indexing all my Alice books, videos, CDs, comics and so on. 
Perhaps of more interest will be the occasional entries indexing and reprinting my own Alice poems and stories.

Take a look if it appeals, though so far there are very few entries.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Ongoing #28

This is another, very short, piece about North Korea. It seemed to fit nicely onto a page where the doodle is demon.


Our master does not make demands,
Issue edicts or commands.
Our master does not order us
To show him any kind of fuss.
Our master's voice does not cajole.
Does not coerce, does not control.
Our master does not need these things
For we know what rebellion brings.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ongoing #27

Yet another sunset poem this time. The doodle shows a field. There are some sheep at the top, with instructions on how to draw them, but they look like clouds to me.

Sunset on the African Plains

The alchemy of sunset turns leaden clouds to gold,
Sets shadow fires among the trees as twilight takes a hold.
The plains are never silent, but now every hoot and howl,
Every shriek and roar and below, every cackle, every growl
Echoes through the world, like the cries of wandering souls,
And towards, around and through us, onward the thunder rolls.
But then the sun has gone, the clouds are black in black
And a kind of quiet falls along each darkened track.
It's a quiet filled with whispers and the rustling of grass
As beasts that hid in daylight disturb us as they pass.
And now and then a distant roar cuts off distant cries
As one creature finds a meal and another creature dies.
There is beauty in the symmetry, but a beauty fierce and raw,
That the march of day and night can only underscore.


I like the line I just heard in the trailer for next week's "Outnumbered".

Child: "Why are they called 'size zero'? Zero means nothing and they'd be invisible."
Grandmother: "It just means they are very skinny. A woman can be any size or shape she wants."
Child: "What about a hexagon?"

The kids in the series are quite remarkable young performers.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The truth is out there

I saw some UFOs last night on my way home.
OK, I'm a rational human being so I know they were probably aeroplanes but it was quite strange. As I approached my house I could see, over the roof, four very bright orange lights in a crescent formation. They were spread out across about thirty degrees of the visible sky and moving in a very precise arc. I walked around the back of the house where I could see them more clearly. The sky was completely clear and all the stars visible. There was no cloud cover and visibility was perfect. I called my Dad out to look at them.
"Helicopters?" he suggested, but there was no noise at all. If they had been low enough to be helicopters we'd have heard them. If they were aircraft they were high enough to be effectively silent.
As we watched them wheel around the furthest one away dimmed and faded and disappeared.
"Gone behind a cloud?" suggested Dad. But there were no clouds and those stars behind and around them were still as clear as they'd ever been.
Then the nearest and brightest also faded and disappeared leaving just two. As they continued around the curve one of them faded and vanished, then the other.

They were probably aeroplanes but I've never seen aeroplanes follow a flight path like this one or aeroplanes showing such a bright, single orange light. And I've certainly never seen such a display of synchronised vanishing.

So, that's UFOs off the list. Next I'll be looking for ghosts.

Friday, 9 April 2010


One of the joys of poetry comes when I discover a new form that I haven't seen before. Such was the pleasure today of encountering reversos on Gregory K's Gotta Book blog.
Over at The Miss Rumphius Effect the challenge had been set to write them and if you read down the page you will see what people came up with.

The idea is simple, and the execution is really rather difficult.

You must write a poem, in any form that you like (though blank verse is rather easier to do than anything else) where the lines, when read in reverse order give another, different, poem.

Naturally I had to have a go.
My first effort strikes me as a bit of a cheat as it just uses the trick of applying pre- and post- modifying adverbial phrases and gives what amounts to exactly the same poem. Nevertheless here it is - forwards and backwards

Night and Day

Night falls
day breaks.
Night spreads quietly,
a cold enveloping sheet.
Day shatters,
hurling diamond fragments.
Night announces itself in whispers,
"Here I am,"
screams day,
"Look at me!"
Night falls
day breaks.

Day and Night

Day breaks
night falls
"Look at me,"
screams day,
"Here I am!"
Night announces itself in whispers.
Hurling diamond fragments,
day shatters.
A cold enveloping sheet,
night spreads quietly.
Day breaks
night falls.

I followed this with a second attempt which is markedly different when read backwards, hence the two different titles.

Struck By Lightning

He was alive,
He was dead,
By the strange mechanism
Of mortality.

In defiance
He had called the lightning
To him.

Neither Gods nor fate meant anything.

No one tried to save him.

From the folly of his hubris
Life and death became one.

Frankenstein's Triumph

Life and death became one.

From the folly of his hubris,
No one tried to save him.

Neither Gods nor fate meant anything
To him.

He had called the lightning.

In defiance
Of mortality,
By the strange mechanism,
He was dead,
He was alive.

Give it a try. It's harder than it looks.

Ongoing #26

The next poem, like the last one, is about a scene from my travels. In this case about watching the view across the Mekong from a hotel in Laos. The doodle is a strip of film in which to draw pictures.

The Perfect Moment

Waiting for the perfect moment,
For the sun to touch the ground;
Waiting as the birds' strange songs
Counterpoint the river's soothing sound,
Waiting in a broken wicker chair;
Waiting on the balcony, sipping tea;
Waiting for the perfect moment,
There is my camera and there's me.

Colour creeps into the faded sky,
And out of the fading land.
The trees that frame the golden water
Become blackened where they stand
And the sun is, for a moment, balanced
Where mountains from horizon climb
And the perfect moment comes, and goes;
A single shutter-click of time.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


I don't know whether the leaders of the three main parties will use their wives very much in campaigning for the election. I don't know whether they should use them. Frankly, I don't actually care.
ITV on the other hand seem to. I just watched an item on the news where, under his name, the journalist was captioned as "Campaign Wives Correspondent". A special correspondent just for the wives? Guess they must be important after all.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Watchmen:The Motion Comic

I had my doubts about the worth of the Motion Comic version of Watchmen. After all I've seen the live action film and I read the actual comic - of which this is simply a slightly animated version - years ago. It's worth seeing though. Though it is panel for panel and word for word the same as the original with just a little added movement there is something about it, something about the narration that focusses the attention on the words. As with all projects based on his work you will not find Alan Moore credited anywhere, it's his policy not to allow it, and while I respect his consistency it is certainly the words that are important here. Read out loud they are not realistic dialogue but they are almost hypnotically poetic. The narration draws you in even more than reading the words on the page draws you in.
You should buy the comics, the film, the extra DVD of Black Freighter and Under the Hood and you should also buy this. All of them tell the story in their own way but if you don't like comics and don't fancy the movie you should certainly take a look at this. Unlike the movie it doesn't alter the ending and it doesn't skip on detail. It is the comic but in a form that you can watch.

I was wrong. It is a worthwhile addition.

Ongoing #25

For the next poem the cartoon in the book has the page divided into four vertical sections. The first shows a night scene of a graveyard with bats and a skeleton, the second a day scene with birds, butterflies and a smiling girl. The other two, where I have written the poem, are blank.

Two Nights: Two Days - Remembering Africa

Here, now,
the sky is empty
and not even black,
merely a darker grey.
The stars are gone
lost in the eternal twilight
of the technological world.

There, then,
the sky was crowded,
a million sequins
on a velvet cloth.
The stars eternal
were spirits of the night
and the land was empty.

Here, now,
the city screams
and the heat smells
of machinery.
The sun is gone
lost behind the haze
in a hidden sky.

There, then,
the plains murmured
and the heat smelled
of animals and dirt.
The sun was god
ruling a sharper world
from a lonely sky.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Things I'd like to see.

As I type Gordon Brown is on TV announcing the date for the election and telling us why we should vote for him.

A moment earlier the door to number ten opened and the entire cabinet trooped out to stand in a row on the pavement waiting for the PM to emerge and make the announcement. As the door momentarily closed behind them it occurred to me that what I wanted to see next was the door open again, Gordon Brown to put his head around it and shout "And don't come back!" before slamming it shut.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Birmingham Botanical Gardens

We took our classes to Birmingham Botanical Gardens yesterday. It was a bit cold but fortunately the rain held off until we were leaving. The pictures from it (minus the ones that include students, as I like to get their permission) will start appearing on my other blog tomorrow.
Here are a couple to be going on with.

Ongoing #24

The next doodle shows a repeating pattern of doves and ravens. I've toyed with various ideas for the poem but finally settled on this bizarre item. I quite literally dreamed it last night. In the dream I was writing on a piece of paper and in the dream what I was writing was perfectly clear to read but didn't make any sense. I woke with it sharp in my head and the sense of it, and the title, came with waking. It may not make any sense to you but it's really quite easy to work out.
The reason it's here is that doves, as in the doodle, are often a symbol of love and the poem's composed-upon-waking title is - "Love Sequence". It's very odd, and I think, ultimately rather sad.

Love Sequence


I only hope that the reason I dreamed it so clearly isn't that I was remembering it from somewhere else.

Ongoing #23

I've been neglecting this lately, but I'm hoping to get back to it regularly now.
This is the second "Holes" poem inspired by the double page doodle of ants crawling in and out of holes. It's also partially based on a poem I wrote when I was about seventeen. It isn't very good but hey-ho, they can't all be winners.

Holes (2)

The holes in my memory, where the past slips away,
Drain off life's colour, leave everything grey.
When I try to recall the shape of her face
It's like looking through holes in a twice folded lace.
I've forgotten it all, her voice and her look.
Pages are missing from my history book,
But sometimes - unexpected - it spits something back
Some fragment of then, some old bric-a-brac
And I stop as an image, a sound or a smell -
Isolated, imperfect, but with stories to tell -
Tantalises and teases my heart and my soul,
Then teeters and topples, back into the hole.