It's exam marking time again.
The topic is writing a letter for a job application.
One student's attempts at describing her personal qualities are definitely in the running to win this year's award for the most bizarre mistake. She is, apparently, "physically friendly and thrustworthy".
A standard short task we use in teaching higher ESOL levels is to provide newspaper headlines and get the students to try to predict from the headline what the content of the article would be.
I wonder what they would make of today's Sun front page.
As such a lifelong fan of Alice In Wonderland I cannot allow to pass unmentioned the news that Martin Gardner has died. It's possible that you have never heard of Martin Gardner and his vast contribution to Alice In Wonderland but to me he is the third most important figure in the history of the book- after Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. He produced the remarkably detailed Annotated Alice. It's a tour de force examination, filled with in-depth analyses of the humour, the history and the background to both Alice books with notes that range from simple commentary to lengthy psychological analyses. Anyone who has never read it should do so. It sheds light on many hidden corners of the books and of Lewis Carroll's life and is probably the single most important edition of the book for the collector to own.
Of course there was far more to Martin Gardner than a commentary on a single children's book. He was a journalist and a mathematician and produced an array of popular science books and mathematics texts all of which are filled with his characteristic style and humour. He was one of the greatest popularisers of all things scientific and mathematical and had the rare ability to turn dry and arcane subjects into something wondrous and magical. It's no wonder that he was such a lover of Carroll who had a similar turn of mind.
I have several of his books of mathematical puzzles ,many of which were culled from his popular Scientific American column, and they are all splendid.
I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn't have been, to discover that he was 95 years old.
I'm normally a bit of a critic of arbitrary pronouncements on how to phrase or punctuate restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Most of the time the meaning is perfectly clear from context whether you use that or which and whether or not you put a comma. Not always though. It can can make quite a difference.
Nick Clegg is being interviewed on TV at the moment. He was saying that we won't be able to judge the coalition until the end of it, five years from now.
He went on to make a list that took the form "We will have to see whether..., whether..., whether... .
For one of the items in the list he clearly meant to say
"whether we have an education system that helps every single child".
Instead, thanks to his word choice and the clearly audible pause that the comma would mark, what I heard was
"whether we have an education system, which helps every child."
That's quite a different thing and, given the scale of cuts they are likely to be making, probably far closer to the truth than he'd like us to believe.
This commentary contains NO SPOILERS to the end of Ashes to Ashes but one enormous spoiler to the end of the US version of Life on Mars.
A month or so ago I watched the US version of Life on Mars and to say that the ending of it was a disappointment is the understatement of all time. The sixteen preceding episodes had ranged from very good to excellent and while I didn't like it as much as our own original version it was very entertaining. Then that final episode ruined it all with an "it's all a dream" ending that relocated the action to a spaceship for the final scenes. A show that had been a solid seven out of ten was in a moment plunged to no more than a two. Perhaps a one. It's that bad.
In the last few weeks of Ashes to Ashes various characters have been seeing stars where there ought to be buildings and doodling stars on their papers. I was starting to worry that the stinker of an ending from America might be transferred and adapted here. As the final episode approached, I can tell you, I was definitely concerned.
And then the writers threw me. The UK ending had nothing to do with spaceships or dreams. (And that's as close as I intend to get to a spoiler.) It was far, far more satisfying. It managed to tie up pretty much everything from two seasons of Life on Mars and three seasons of Ashes to Ashes in a very satisfactory way- no, in a brilliant way - in an hour, with the obligatory crime of the week included. A couple of reviewers have said they didn't understand it but I don't understand why. Of course it was complex. It's been a complicated show from day one, but it wasn't just clear, it was elegant. The performances of the leads have always been great. Last night they moved up a notch. All of the main characters put in top of the line performances buoyed by a staggeringly good script that gave deep, intelligent scenes to all of them as individuals as well as excellent ensemble interactions. You needed to pay attention, it had a lot of work to do, but the attention was rewarded. Just about everything was explained.
It was the best hour of television I've seen for ages. It left only one mystery. Why on Earth didn't the Americans go with this ending instead of that one?
There was an advert on television this evening for the one of latest computer games. It was a science fiction extravaganza with spaceship battles, futuristic soldiers battling giant monsters, alien landscapes and truly incredibly realistic looking action.
And I had so little interest in it that I can't even remember what it was called. Similarly I can't remember the name of the one that about a year or so made the front pages of some of our more easily outraged newspapers. In that one there were terrorist attacks on all sorts of locations, blood and murders galore and the opportunity to play as one of the terrorists. All this was rendered in almost cinematic glory. And frankly I couldn't care less.
Now if we were talking about Space Invaders it would be different. There was a game. Unidentifiably shaped little blobs of coloured pixels marched in juddering lines across the screen dropping "bombs" that were single pixels. Your defence was a little triangular "missile launcher" that you moved left and right and used to fire at the blobby things. You could hide behind the gradually disintegrating shields and every now and then shoot at the little flying saucer that whizzed across the top. Personally I used to play it as "Suicide Invaders" where my objective was to shoot away the shields and surrender. But that was probably just me.
They had them on what were then state of the art computers like the ZX81, they had them on machines in pubs but best of all they had special table top versions that you could put your beer glass on and sit down and play. How anybody can prefer all these super-duper modern games is just beyond me.
Of course, there was also "Asteroids" where the white outlines of unfeasibly geometric "asteroids" flew towards your tiny ship that you could rotate or fly around and blow them up. Of course that just gave you lots of smaller, faster moving outlines that you had to blow up and then blow up again to finally destroy them.
Simple, utter rubbish and so much better than anything they play today.
Assuming this blog survives posterity (and given the nature of the internet you could be reading it twenty years after I've written and forgotten it) there is every chance that only music historians will have any idea what some of those things are. Many, if not most, people of what I now feel entitled to call "the younger generation" get their music by download, a system in which what you purchase has no physical reality beyond a compressed bit pattern buried in the i-pod or computer.
It was not always thus.
Back in my day we bought big round black plastic things called "records" and played them on a thing called a "record player". I confess that while I don't download I do have most of my music now on the later Compact Disc format. I do however still have the capability of playing my old records as I have a record player in my rather too bulky music system. I rarely use it.
Over the years we had quite a few different record players but the only one I get at all nostagic about is the first one I can remember. I'm not sure where we got it from. It must have been after I was five years old as before that I lived in a house that had no electricity, only gas, but I think it was second hand even then. It was a radiogram, a long wooden cabinet with two doors which had a record player in one side, a radio in the other, a speaker in the middle and space to store records below the working parts. It was a trully hideous piece of furniture but it had character. Well more character than an invisible, intangible download track anyway.
Part of the reason I recall it is that I can remember a lot of the weird record collection that we had accompanying it. There were a couple of LPs, a dozen or so singles and about twenty 78s.
Now if there is anyone under, say, thirty reading this I expect I've lost you. Just for your benefit then, LPs were twelve inch discs that played at 33 and 1/3 revolutions per minute, singles were seven inch discs that played at 45 rpm and 78s were ten inch discs that, unsurprisingly, played at 78 rpm.
Sometime in the seventies my mother, without telling us she was going to do it, gave the whole collection away to one of my cousins and the radiogram was unceremoniously broken up and burned. What happened to the records after that I really have no idea. They were mostly rubbish and even if I still had them now I'd struggle to find anything to play the 78s on but, as I've been writing this, I've discovered that, even though I can't recall who the artists were, I can sing ALL the lyrics to Yellow Rose and Tom Dooley and the chorus to Last Train. That's what childhood brainwashing can do for you.
Nobody in their right mind, not even me, would claim that a piece of furniture that fills half your room, has a valve radio that gets hot enough to warm you on cold winter nights and a record player that makes more noise than the records it plays, and looks totally hideous is a more convenient system than downloads but I liked it better. I wish we still had it. I wish we still had all those records.
Then again, I wish that a lot of things were how they were when I was a child. That's what nostalgia is all about.
The next doodle shows some birds in a cage. Now I've been on holiday with birdwatchers and I can tell you to me it isn't a lot of fun. They'll point to some tree about a mile away, claim to be able to see a bird in the top of it, raise binoculars to their eyes and yell out gleefully, "It's the greater-crested, yellow heron." or some such nonsense. I'm still trying to locate the tree.
I can't tell one bird from another. Hence this poem.
This afternoon Gordon Brown announced that he is prepared to step down as leader of the Labour party in order to facilitate any possible deal with the Lib Dems. There was a special news program on BBC to discuss the announcement.
The program that had been taken off to make way for it?
One thing was clear from the election debates. Soundbite politics appears to have been replaced by Mantra politics, with each of the leaders repeating their own little "Om" over and over.
Nick Clegg's mantra was "They represent the old politics".
Gordon Brown's mantra was "I agree with Nick. Nick agrees with me."
David Cameron's mantra was "I was talking to a man".
The "I agree with Nick" phrase seems to have already taken on an independent life thanks to the number of comedians, satirists and political opponents who have seized upon it. I wouldn't be surprised to see it entering the language as a set phrase meaning something like "I'm going to say I agree with someone because it's expedient to do so".
Personally though I prefer David Cameron's "I was talking to a man" because it reminds me so much of an old comment from QI.
Alan Davies: Why is everything I know wrong?
Bill Bailey*: Because everything you know you learned from a bloke in the pub.
Our political leaders might do well to remember that the bloke in the pub isn't always right.
(*I may be misattributing, it could have been one of the other guests. The point remains germane.)
And after I'd had the treat of the "After Eight Eater", I did of course settle down to watch The Prisoner. If there is any slower and more ponderous show in the history of television I'm glad I don't know about it. I'm interested enough in the story but the pace is so slow that the usual adjective of "glacial" isn't nearly damning enough. It makes the progress of an average glacier look like Formula One Motor Racing. My DVD player has a neat little feature that lets you watch and hear a recording at one and a half times normal speed. I did and it still struggled along so slowly that it was very hard to tell the difference. After the forty minutes of watching it I felt as if it had been on for a week.
It's a curse that seems to afflict many of the modern dramas that we import from the US but none of them suffer quite so badly as The Prisoner.
I've just watched my recording of last night's episode of The Prisoner and, as I had set the DVD recorder to start a few minutes early was also "lucky" enough to see the last few minutes of Britain's Got Talent. The definition of "talent" appears to have broadened somewhat since I learned it. The act I saw was a man whose talent was supposed to be "eating nine After Eight Mints in a minute without using my hands". This seems to me to be a rather odd use of the word as well as a distinctly bizarre contender for the prize - an appearance on the Royal Variety Performance*. I'd query his sanity as much as his talent as he couldn't complete his so-called act because he had only brought five mints with him.
Apparently he was in a previous series of the show trying to eat Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
At least it reminded me of why I never watch this kind of show.
* For US readers, the Royal Variety Performance is an annual televised variety show attended by members of the royal family.
"Ongoing" is so called because I keep on starting poetry projects and then abandoning them. The name is to remind me that the project shouldn't be abandoned arbitrarily, though there have been various hiaituses when inspiration or time has been lacking.
What is the project?
I bought a book called "The Telephone Doodle Book". It contains page after page of partly drawn doodles for you to complete while you are kept waiting on hold on the phone. You may buy a copy and do just that if you wish. Personally I am using the doodles as springboards for poems, to give me ideas of things to write about. Check out the previous 34 entries on the subject.
The next doodle shows people working in an operating theatre. It inspired me to complete a half written poem that's been sitting in my work-in-progress file for over a year.
Building A Monster
I'm building a monster from left over parts.
The head of a cabbage will do for a start
And the eye of a needle will give him sharp sight
While the nose of a fine vintage wine smells just right.
There's the mouth of a river and two ears of corn
And the neck of a bottle when the cork has been drawn.
Here's the ottoman chest from the side of my bed
And the spine of a book should hold up his head.
I have ten fine fish fingers and the hands of a clock
On the arms of a coat (though it might be a smock).
To the hips of a rose I'll join the legs of a chair
And stand them upon the foot of a stair.
Yes I'm building a monster from left over parts
And the only things missing are the brain and the heart.
Yes the only things missing are the heart and the brain
And if I can't find them, well I'll just start again.
Interesting that in the same day that the Labour Party Political Broadcast trotted out a rent-a-celebrity Ross Kemp to tell us that voting for the Liberal Democrats might let the Conservatives in, some of Labour's best and brightest (well, Ed Balls and Peter Hain anyway) were suggesting that in some places Labour voters should switch to the Liberal Democrats to keep the Conservatives out. I wonder which it is.
Just as interesting is that the Conservatives think that such a vote would let Labour in.
I had skipped over one of the doodles in book because try as I might I couldn't get an idea for a poem from it. It shows a man in a T-shirt that says "Dog Walker". He has nine dog leads. The dogs haven't been drawn and that's the bit you are supposed to doodle.
I came at it from all angles but with no success.
Then I thought of this. It took a few hours to develop into something sensible, especially trying to find a logical way to sequence the verses and the last verse that wrapped up the poem.
This is what I came up with.
Pets I never had
I never had a dog.
I never had a cat.
I never had a budgie or a fish.
I never had a gerbil,
Didn't even have a rat,
And though I had a rabbit it was served up in a dish.
I never had a parrot,
A canary or a mouse.
I never had a spider or a snake.
I asked once for a ferret
They wouldn't have it in the house
Though I briefly had a wasp until it stung me by mistake.
I never had a lion,
A giraffe or a gnu.
I never had a shark or manta ray.
I never had a crocodile
A wolf or caribou
And when I had a daddy-longlegs it died after a day
I never had a phoenix
Or a dragon, though I think
A dragon fly once fluttered round with hope
And if I'd had a kraken
I'd have kept it in the sink
And let it guard the plug, shampoo and soap.
No, I never had a pet
Of any kind, you see
Though I often begged for one from mother.
All she'd ever say
When she had to answer me
Was, "What do we want a pet for? We've got you and your brother."
It seems there are plenty of sites around where you can answer a series of questions to match you to the political party that best represents your views. To help you further I thought I'd give you my detailed political analysis of the main parties.
Gordon Brown: Vote for me because you can't trust Cameron or Clegg.
David Cameron: Vote for me because if you vote for Clegg you'll get Brown.
Nick Clegg: Vote for me because I'm not Brown or Cameron.
I hope that helps.
(Of course in reality, unless you live in one of their constituencies, you don't get to vote for any of them but they all seem determined to run a presidential style campaigm this time.)
OK. I used to quite like snooker. Of course back then it was half an hour a week of Pot Black. I didn't even mind it when they started showing the highlights of the World Championships , a couple of hours at the weekend,but now they have to show every excruciatingly slow minute of every excruciatingly slow game of every excruciatingly slow match in the whole damned tournament.
No matter how that messes up their published schedules.
Now I am well aware of this so I didn't try to use the video timer to tape tonight's Heroes. I decided to tune in five minutes before time and do it manually. The snooker was due to end at 9:40 to be followed by an hour documentary about rock singers which in turn should be followed by Heroes at 10:40.
At 10:35 there was still snooker on. I left the commentary turned up in case they mentioned when Heroes was going to be on. The game on the table seemed to have just started, most of the reds were left. Imagine my surprise when the commentary indicated that it had already been going for forty-four minutes of "safety play".
Nevertheless I left it on. I figured they would postpone the rockdoc and jump straight in with Heroes when it finished.
Well it finished at 11:10, a mere hour and a half after the scheduled time and then, no great surprise, cut to the studio for ten more minutes of analysis.
I reached for the Video control (I want to go to bed, I can watch it later) and lo and behold, with no mention of Heroes at all, up pops that documentary. I've set the video going to tape for four hours, just in case it's on, but I'm guessing it won't be.
Heaven knows when it will be on. There's a scheduled repeat in the wee small hours of next Friday but the repeats are cancelled more often than they are shown.
Why on Earth do they bother buying series and scheduling them if they are just going to arbitrarily chop them with no published date for reshowing?
The most bizarrely galling thing of all? It's the last bloody episode! Knowing the BBC it could be months or even years before they get back to it.
Thanks BBC. Thanks a lot.
P.S. To forestall any possibility of comments suggesting I watch one of the endless showings on BBC 3 or watch it on the internet, you may be surprised to know that there are still some of us who have no digital TV channels and don't have the internet bandwidth to use it as a TV substitute.