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.

Monday, 31 January 2011

A River of Stones #31

Away with this mountain of paper!
Away with the lesson plans;
Away with the materials;
Away with reports and registers.
Away with it all.
And then I can begin again
To build a new mountain.

A River of Stones #30

Sunday Afternoon

I look around, suddenly aware
That we are the last ones in the pub again.
Funny how that happens.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Interesting Job

As I've been sitting here typing up my review of Bilston Voices, I've had the TV on with its usual Sunday morning discussion program. It's been a very shouty affair and I haven't really been paying attention but in the last debate (on the pointless and unanswerable question "Is there life after death") included a man who described himself as "Communications Director for the Spiritualist Union". 
Am I the only one who loves the idea of the Spiritualist Union having a Communications Director?

Bilston Voices: January, 2011

Better late than never.
My review of this month's Bilston Voices has been delayed by real life. Actually the bit of real life in question started on Thursday afternoon when I finally taught my last class at South Birmingham College but  it was the bit on Friday, my leaving party, that prevented my normal prompt review from appearing.
Anyway, enough of real life, what about the monthly entertainment that is Bilston Voices?

It started this month with Jackie Evans who gave us quartet of poems and then one of her prose pieces. The short poems - about the moon, butterflies, valentines day and blackberries - were very nicely done and very traditional but, for me, what I like to hear from Jackie are her very warm and human tales of her life. She is in the process of writing an autobiography and her memories of incidents from her life in her wheelchair are warm, humorous and an absolute delight to hear. On Thursday her tale was of two brief brushes with the law when she was younger and were as charming as ever. I rather hope that one day she completes and publishes her autobiography as I, for one, will be at the front of the queue to buy it. I suspect that everyone who has ever heard her read will be there with me.

Jackie was followed by Ron Davies who, in previous performances, has usually given us very Black Country oriented writing but on Thursday gave us a very funny tale of two people visiting a particularly seedy guest house in Weston-super-Mare. I chuckled all the way through it and laughed out loud a a couple of the funniest parts. It was a portmanteau view of some of the worst places that most of us will have, at one time or another, have stayed in.

Jane Seabourne was next. Her poems are diverse and thoughtful and covered topics as far apart as why we throw coins into fountains (or indeed, as the poem suggested, into just about any bit of available water), the story of King Canute, how fossils are formed and, as with Jackie, butterflies. Her quiet, relaxed style perfectly suits her poetry and, as I've remarked before, the venue - Cafe Metro - perfectly suits the style with its comfortable surroundings and attentive audience.

After the break we had a slightly more lively and animated performance from Naomi Paul who was the only performer of the evening that I hadn't seen before. Her poems, and her one song, were also diverse in tone and content but were great fun. Perhaps, though, fun is  the wrong word, given that the content of some of the poems wasn't exactly cheerful. I was particularly taken with her poem about libraries which included the great line "a novel a day keeps the fascists away". She finished with a tale of a trip across the USA on a hippy bus. It was a great performance from someone I hope to see perform again.

We finished with Dave Reeves who mixes poetry and music in the most entertaining way. Some he recites unaccompanied, in other cases he uses a harmonica to punctuate the verses or an accordion to provide a pleasing backdrop like a frame for a great painting. So he gave us the story of Good King Wenceslas, retold from the peasant's point of view, a rant about living in a home with thin walls. His final piece, this time with the accordion, was a marvellous piece about going home in the rain on a cold day in 1953. It reminded me greatly of Ivor Cutler or, perhaps, Viv Stanshall. I was pleased to find that he felt this to be a compliment because that's certainly what I intended it as.

If I get my hoped-for job overseas, I am starting to run out of visits to this monthly event but when that happens I shall certainly miss it. Since it started it has given me one night every month when I am guaranteed some great entertainment and after I am gone it will go on giving entertainment to others.
I will miss it.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

A River of Stones #29

Possibly a bit long for this project but I'll use it anyway.

Three Hours Later

Three hours later the page remains blank.
I wanted to write how I felt
.......................when the students threw a party
.......................gave me gifts
.......................laughed at the photographs
.......................of me aged six.
I wanted to write  how I felt
.......................later with colleagues in the pub
.......................saying goodbyes
.......................holding final conversations
.......................into the night.
I wanted to write how I felt,
But three hours later the page remains blank.

Friday, 28 January 2011

For those who came in late

Just in case anybody has no idea why there are a lot of posts titled "A river of stones" or what they are all about, there is a link over to the right hand side of the page.

A River of Stones #28

High-brow, Low-brow

A man on the Metro was reading Plato -
The complete works-
But every now and then he glanced
Over the shoulder of the man in front
Who was reading the Sun*.
All men are, by nature, equal.

(* For those overseas, the Sun is NOT the most intellectual of the UK's daily newspapers.)

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A River of Stones #27

The Last Lesson

I return to the class at the end of the break.
The tables are laden with biscuits and cake.
The students are waiting to wish me farewell
And a long happy life wherever I dwell.
The future's uncertain, there's much that's not clear
But I'll remember forever how I felt standing here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

What it wasn't

You know how much interest I have in sport!

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the Andy Gray affair that does interest me. First, for those who don't live here in the UK, let me tell you what that affair is. Two sports commentators, Andy Gray and Richard Keys who thought they were not on microphone made some sexist remarks about a female official at a football match - remarks to the effect that she couldn't possibly understand the offside rule because she was a woman. Unfortunately for them someone did record them and release them to the press.
One of them has been sacked. The other one has, I understand, resigned.

It has created a bit of a mediastorm of comment.

Now here's the only bit I find at all interesting.

The comments were certainly sexist.
They may well have been offensive - they definitely offended some people.
They - the comments - were a rather stupid variation on an old joke.
They - the commentators -were rather stupid to make such comments anyway.
They were doubly stupid not to make sure that nobody was recording them
There are, apparently, prior instances of sexism from Andy Gray.

What there words most definitely were not, at least in any sense that I understand the word, is a rant.

Several newspapers, including our ever-beloved Daily Mail, have described them as such but saying it doesn't make it so. Not even when it is repeated on television news programs.

rant (n) : violent or extravagant speech or writing (AHD)

rant (n): a long, angry and confused speech (Cambridge Advanced Learners' Dictionary)

rant (n): loud excited speech (Collins Pocket Dictionary)

The remarks in question lasted in total about thirty seconds, were said in the jocular, flippant tones that good friends use to each other and were perfectly straightforward, if straightforwardly stupid and wrong. I don't know if the two men deserved to lose their jobs and, honestly, I don't care one way or the other but whatever they were guilty of, it wasn't a rant.

A River of Stones #26

Two brief, but important, notes before we get to today's stone.

1) I'm not fluent, my translation may be faulty.

2) Blame Nancy, she gave me the Klingon dictionary in the first place.


jIlaDtah tlhInganmu'ghom
jIjajchu naghHommeywIJ

(Be Silly!

As I was reading the Klingon dictionary
I understood clearly that my small stones
Are everywhere.)

A Nightmare Day

I'm having a really bad day so far.

I'd like to put it into a small stone poem but it would be the biggest small stone ever written.

First I couldn't log into my college computer at home to upload resources that I needed for class.

Then, as I was leaving the house I noticed the stack pipe that was replaced only about two months ago had come away from the wall so I had to go back in and have a long conversation with the plumber.

That left me very short of time but half way along my walk to the station I realised I had left my wallet on the table.

By the time I had gone back for it I no longer had time to get to walk by my usual walk/metro combination.

I took the car to one of the stations with a car park.

It was full. I called my manager and told her I would be late and asked if she could get the class started for me.

I drove back along the line to the next one with a car park. I parked. The tram arrived. It had a very large sign saying "Sorry Not In Service"

The next tram arrived and I got on only to have to sit for the whole journey next to a teenager playing loud and unpleasant rap music on the speaker in his phone.

I'm now at work and in class. The class are doing a reading test and I'm really hoping that nothing else goes wrong.

Now, how do I get all of that into a small stone length poem?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A River of Stones #25

Perpetual Motion

In every lighted office window
A random moment from the machine.

One example of how they make life difficult for students

A couple of my recent posts have attracted some comments about education which, from the comments, appears to be suffering as much in Australia as it is in the UK. I thought that it might be informative to give a very specific example. I will change some minor details, for example the student's name, but otherwise this is exactly what happened.
Unusually this particular story does have a happy ending.

Last year I taught a beginners' class. There was one student in the class who was especially good. Let's call her Sarah. Sarah was bringing up a daughter on her own but nevertheless never missed a class, never handed in a piece of work late and progressed very quickly. I would have moved her to a higher class but she did have some issues of confidence and wasn't happy about going. She was a willing and helpful student who always tried to support any weaker students she was working with. At the end of the year she passed everything with flying colours.
As is college policy we completed enrolments for all of our progressing students ready for the new start in September.
In September, during enrolment and before the start of term, Sarah came to see me. She was very unhappy and upset. The Job Centre had insisted that she enrol on their course. This was at the same level but with a different exam board to the one I had enrolled her on. It was to last for ten weeks. She couldn't stay on my course because of the clash and wanted to know - such is her commitment to learning - if she could do one of our evening or weekend courses as well as the one they insisted she do. Of course, the answer has to be no. We are not allowed to fund a student twice for the same type of course. There was nothing I could do but I asked her to contact me when the Job Centre course was finishing.
Nine weeks later she called me and I said I would enrol her, as soon as she was free, onto my course. This would have taken me over numbers but I thought it was worth it in this special case.
In the period between me making that promise and carrying it out we had an open evening and before the open evening we were informed that the rules had changed. We could no longer enrol ANY adult students.
When Sarah came in to see us we had to tell her that she couldn't come back to college, even though we had already promised her a place - twice!
She was distraught. She felt the course she had just done was useless and only by coming back to college would she get anywhere.
Someone had an idea. One of my colleagues had been looking at a Government scheme where certain people if they claimed benefit and if they lived within certain postcode areas were considered to be from deprived backgrounds. We checked her postcode and, thank goodness, it was on the list. We were allowed to take her after all under this particular scheme.
She is now back in class and doing very well.
But she was just lucky. Thousands of others aren't so lucky. This is a ridiculous system that turns their education into a bizarre and ultimately unwinable game. I can't see any way at all in which it can be considered fair.

A happy ending this time. But for how long?

Monday, 24 January 2011

To Put Away Childish Things #24

It occurs to me that I haven't talked much about comics.
This is odd because for many years I talked about little else. I was a collector, and like all collectors I was given to waxing lyrical on my specialist subject. At the drop of a hat I would hold forth on the latest Fish Police or League of Superheroes or DNAgents or whatever else I was reading at the time. Although I haven't collected now for a long time and have sold a lot of the comics that I once had, I still have a wardrobe full of them that I now never look at.

I don't really want to talk about those comics now though, I want to talk about an entirely different comic. I want to talk about a comic that first appeared in 1963 - just after I ha started school - and lasted until 1971: Treasure.
I could already read when I started school (in the UK that was at the age of five) because my parents had always given me comics and helped me with books for young children but when Treasure came along it became the original source for my lifelong love of literature. It introduced me to The Borrowers, The Wind In The Willows, Robin Hood and of course Alice In Wonderland. 
Of course it was a very long time ago so I can't remember much about it but the very fact that I remember it at all tells you how important it was to my early development. As well as literature it had history and geography and even science, all written for and aimed at children of infant school age. 
Some stories and articles were presented as traditional panel stories; others - notably the ones reprinting classic stories - were presented as text with illustrations. My reading developed at an astonishing rate as my mother went through every issue with me until it fell apart. My reading age constantly ran several years ahead of my chronological age. If it had a detrimental effect at all, it probably accounts for my lifelong love of children's literature and my peculiar obsession with Alice In Wonderland.
Treasure disappeared in 1971 absorbed into World of Wonder and later into Look and Learn. About those, I know little or nothing but I hope that they continued the fine tradition that launched me into my love of literature and language and I hope that there are equivalent publications out there for today's kids.
 I have just spent a very pleasant hour looking at some of the illustrations from treasure to be found on the Look and Learn website.
And I may go back and look at some more later.

A River of Stones #24

A Burnt Offering

When I open the door to the kitchen again,
After getting caught up in a DVD,
The smell tells me immediately
That I have left the pie in the oven
For too long:
About two hours too long!

I'm not just a lone voice

From TES. (Times Educational Supplement)

Some More Reflections

I was lucky. I started to teach two days after I finished my CELTA training. What happened was that, on the final day of my course, a job came in for BABSSCo at Rugby and I telephoned about it only to be told it had already gone. They did give me another number for BABSSCo at Harrow where there might be a job. I called it, was interviewed by phone, had the job confirmed a couple of hours later and two days after that stood in front of a real class for the first time. Standing there in one of the rooms in Old School surrounded by kids expecting an experienced and professional teacher and getting me instead was the very definition of a baptism of fire.

By the end of the three hour session I was completely drained and completely elated that I'd actually done it. Until then it hadn't actually felt as if my career change from I.T. to teaching was real. But I'd done it. Taught a class. I was a teacher.

In my subsequent training for my Certificate of Education, I had to prepare an assignment called "Being a Reflective Practitioner" where I noted that J. Nais had written in "Readings For Reflective Practice" that it is "possible to teach for years…without incorporating "teacher" into one's self-image." Well there's no worries there now. I've been teaching for long enough that I think of myself completely as a teacher, but back in that first lesson in Harrow I definitely didn't think of myself as a teacher. I still didn't by the time I finished that summer job and started the proper job at SBC. I'm not sure where and when I started to think of myself as a teacher but somewhere along the line it happened.

Since then I have taught every summer but one at BABSSCo (one year I was out of the country at a wedding) and I like to think I've managed to build a good reputation there. They certainly keep on asking me back. It's very different to the job I do for the rest of the year, though both are teaching English. In some ways, perhaps because it's shorter and more intense, the summer job is more enjoyable. There is a lot less administration and paperwork involved and that means there is a lot more time for preparation. My preparation is therefore rather more detailed. I enjoy it a lot. It's what I thought teaching was about before I actually started doing it. Nowadays, it sometimes seems as if what teaching is about is record keeping for the Government. Certainly, in adult education, the only purpose that the Government considers education to have is to reduce the unemployment figures. If the education isn't aimed at getting people into work then it is completely valueless. My summer job, in contrast, has an aim of improving the English skills of my pupils. The education is the purpose. That's how I think it should be.

I think that's why I keep going back to the summer job year after year, because it renews my belief in what I'm doing, a belief that sometimes gets eroded by all the non-teaching stuff that my other job entails.

I have a lot of loyalty to BABSSCo. They gave me my first teaching job, they keep on giving me more work, they renew my faith in education and they give me some very entertaining and enjoyable summers. I hope to be back there again this year though whether future years will be possible, when I am living and working in another country, remains to be seen. I hope I'll still be able to do it though because summer just wouldn't be the same without my trip to Harrow.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A River of Stones #23

Eyes Closed

Traffic: a dozen yards left,
A hundred yards behind,
Half a mile right;
Birds: sitting in the trees,
Sitting on the fence,
Chasing through the air;
An animal in the bushes,
A siren in the distance,
The wind in the shelter roof.
Suddenly the rail sings,
The tram rattles into the station,
I open my eyes.

A River of Stones #22

 An awkward customer

He's turned his trolley sideways in the aisle,
Built a barricade.
Some shoppers, blocked, display a nervous smile
Others, with more anger, show a certain bile;
Upbraid him, unafraid.
And I, because my six items or less
Fit into a hand-held basket, show no stress
Find no impediment as I progress
Beyond him, undismayed.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Some reflections

Well, this time next week I will be sitting here at my computer with a hangover and out of work for the first time since I did all my world travelling. It's possible that I may have some future work in my calendar but equally possible that I won't. Strange times.
I want to reflect for a while on how I got here and where I'm going but first, for those who came in late, let me say where "here" is. I started enquiries about voluntary redundancy about a month ago, signed on the dotted line a couple of days ago and finish at the college on Friday. The hangover? That will be down to the leaving do I'm having after work on Friday evening. And that's where I am now.
But how did I get here?

Briefly, I had over twenty years in IT, quit that to go travelling, came back, had six months in temporary jobs, quit that to go travelling again, retrained as a teacher and have taught at South Birmingham College ever since (with a summer teaching job at BABSSCo in Harrow.)
My time at SBC has mostly been a lot of fun and I'm pretty sure that I've developed from a brand-new and nervously inexperienced teacher to someone who is actually pretty good at his job. Time after time, my classroom observations have commented on my commitment to the class and my rapport with the students. And, truthfully, my students all seem upset to be changing their teacher, though I'm sure they will be happy enough once they get settled down with someone new. While I've been here I've taught every level from Pre-Entry (complete beginners) to IELTS (University entry preparation). Given a completely free choice I prefer the middle levels because they are advanced enough to have a conversation but far enough from fluent for their progress to be both visible and rewarding. All the levels have their merits though. The very low levels tend to progress quickly and I love seeing someone happy and proud that they have managed to go shopping, visit the doctor or talk to their English neighbour for the first time. The highest levels are rewarding when the students sit their IELTS, gain the requisite score and can suddenly apply for the University courses that are going to change their lives.
I love teaching and I love finding and preparing materials for the lessons. Of course there are things I don't love. Over my ten years at SBC every year the admin burden on teachers seems to have increased and the jumping through management hoops has become so pronounced that it could almost be an Olympic Sport. I think we would field a pretty good team, too. This isn't really a problem of the college, it's a problem with FE in general.
To give just one example.
Back when I started we completed our registers, popped them into a pigeon hole in a room at the end of the corridor and left them to be dealt with by the one person who had responsibility for them. And a very good job she made of it too. I don't recall there ever being any problems with the system. Nowadays much more information has to be gathered, stored and analysed. The registers are collected and entered by a department. We get whole suites of computerised reports on attendance for classes and individuals. We spend endless hours checking them, making sure the computer record matches the reality, trying to work out if there are patterns to absences, trying to explain why each student has been present or absent on every occasion. I was doing it all again only yesterday.
Part of the problem is that neither the college nor the Government accept the obvious truth that our adult students cannot possibly meet the same attendance targets that teenage students meet. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons that adult students don't attend but it all boils down to the fact that adults have adult responsibilities that take precedence over their education. They have children who may be ill or off school. In our classes they have Home Office appointments, solicitors appointments, job centre appointments and job interviews. They have domestic emergencies that must be dealt with.
The one that has always got to me most is that, from the funding point of view, a student who leaves a course because he has found a job isn't a success he's a failure. He didn't finish the course or pass any exams so he's a failure.

The biggest problem is that while the paperwork increases, the time to do it never does and the only thing that can give way is lesson planning. This year I haven't felt that my work has been up to the standards that I'd like. My lesson plans haven't been as detailed as I want them to be. My resources haven't been as thoroughly researched or designed. I don't feel happy that I've done my best work. I simply haven't had the time. It's been taken up with admin tasks. Even our training days have mostly been hijacked to do more admin rather than any actual training.
I certainly won't miss that aspect of my job - though I daresay that, if my overseas plans come off, I shall find that bureaucracy and pointless paperwork are a problem the world over.

The bottom line is that leaving IT and going into teaching was certainly the best decision I ever made and that in my time at SBC I have seen hundreds of students progress through the levels. It still gives me a sense of pride in a job well done when a student who is now in a vocational or academic program comes up and says, "hi".

So what does the future hold? Initially I want to spend some time doing up and selling my house. I want to do my regular summer job at BABSSCo - which I shall write about later - and then I want to leave the country and work in EFL overseas for at least five years. I have already applied for one job and will be applying for others soon. This isn't just a response to all that increased non-teaching work at the college, it's a combination of all sorts of things - the change in my personal circumstances since my father died, the changes in Government policy that will mean a reduction in adult provision that may be as high as 80%, the availability of a redundancy package, the possibility of being "redeployed" into other areas of teaching when the provision reduces. (I have no objection to doing a different job, I just want what that job is to be under my control not imposed on me by someone else.)
A lot of things have come together that make this the ideal time for another of my great career leaps. It isn't the first time but, given my age now, it may well be the last. If I stick at the next phase of my career for as long as I've stuck at this one then I'll be getting close to retirement by the time I'm finished.
Strange and exciting times, indeed.

Friday, 21 January 2011

A River of Stones #21

The Big Sneeze

The man on the metro sneezed,
Reached into his battered duffle bag,
Pulled out a pillow case
And blew his nose.
Very odd.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A River of Stones #20

Jack Frost's Joke

Thin snow laced with diamond dust
Covers one side of one single road
On my route.
Jack Frost hides behind a chimney pot
And laughs at my bafflement.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A River of Stones #19

Friends Left Behind

These books are my friends,
And when I leave here I shall leave them too.
They cannot come with me.
They will become fallen comrades.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A River of Stones #18

Student response to a task about writing a letter to the council

He meant to write
We need more lights
In our street,
But it seems he's more
Prepared for war
As what he wrote,
In his short note,
Was, "more light tanks".

Monday, 17 January 2011

A River of Stones #17

Application form redux

Finger poised above the enter key.
An inch lower and it's done.
The form is sent
And all I can do is wait.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A River of Stones #16

On my way home

Thin rain penetrates my jacket;
Stings my hands and face;
But four pints of Blue Monkey ale
Warm me from the inside
And stop me caring.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A River of Stones #15

Revisiting old blog entries

Seeking an old blog to use in a reading
Becomes a kind of masturbation
As I re-read every one.
And find myself absorbed, but needing
Ever more self-congratulation
And read until the day is gone.

Forthcoming redux

I have dates now.

I'll be at City Voices in Wolverhampton on 12th April and at Bilston Voices on 26th May.


As you know by now, I am leaving my job shortly and hope to be leaving the country to work overseas from August or September. This means that I am keen to get in as much performing as possible before I go. My Summer contract means that realistically I have up to mid-June to do this.
So I am hoping to appear at City Voices in April where I will be reading a specially written piece of travel prose, and at Bilston Voices in May where I will be doing a selection of my own favourites from among my poetry.

My appearance at the Bilston Love Slam on Saturday 12th of February has now been confirmed and though you might only see me for the three minutes that it takes to get knocked out in round one (or six minutes if I make round two or nine if, by some miracle, I make round three) the evening is worth the money just for the curry.

I shall probably also go along to the next couple of Hit The Ode nights at the Victoria and try to get an open mic slot.

More details will follow later.

Friday, 14 January 2011

A River of Stones #14

The empty staff room
Is filled with the hum
Of the air-conditioning.

The auditorium
Is filled with the hum
Of the college-wide meeting.

My solitary mind
Is filled with the hum
Of a future unfolding.

How long did you say?

Interesting how different people can look at the same thing and have a totally different idea about what it means. As a bit of a stunt the BBC have had someone drive an electric car from London to Edinburgh using only official recharging points. I suppose the purpose was just to see if it could be done. And, apparently, it can be done. The journalist's response was to suggest that this proves that electric cars are becoming a viable alternative to petrol. The problem with that analysis is that a journey that, in a petrol car, would take around eight hours, took four days and that each refuelling stop took ten hours instead of five minutes. Factoring in the recharging times the average speed for the journey was a massive six miles per hour. What this tells me is that at no time soon will electric cars become a viable alternative to petrol as anything other than a purely local runaround.
I know the technology is improving all the time but until the charge time for an electric car is measured in minutes (and preferably single digits of minutes) rather than hours it will never be a sensible option for long distance travel no matter how many charging stations are available.

Hit The Ode

When I decided to take one of the open mic slots at last night's second Hit The Ode poetry event, in the Victoria pub in Birmingham, it's probably just as well that I hadn't been to the first one at the end of last year. Had I seen the standard of performance I would probably have felt too intimidated to join in. As it is I was asked as I entered if I wanted to perform or just watch and I said, "perform", which at least got me in without paying.

They started with four open mic slots, of which I was third. The two performers before me were both terrific and I must admit to feeling a bit of fraud following them. As I watched them, I contemplated switching my planned poems for something else a bit more challenging but I wasn’t all that sure I’d be able to remember anything else well enough so I stuck with the plan and did On Being Joined In The Pub By Two Female Colleagues Whose Limited Range Of Conversational Gambits Had Previously Been Remarked Upon and its companion piece Dave. It went down well enough but next time I’ll be raising my game a bit. The poet after me lifted the bar again for the open mics and then we were into the actual featured performers with Italian poet Sergio Garau. It was a stunning performance ,in multiple languages, with computer presentations and music and was delivered with breathtaking style and energy. It was more like watching a rock star than a poet and the poem that was performed in German (luckily in easy enough German for me to understand it all) reminded me of listening to some of Rammstein’s lyrics. (It had some stylistic similarities, for example, to one of my favourite Rammstein songs Los.) An excellent performance which was greatly appreciated by the packed audience and must have terrified the open mic poets who were to open up the second half.

If it did, they didn’t show it putting in another group of fine performances to the delight of the audience – though Gary Longdon’s choice of performance piece was definitely brave, being a lengthy poem about why women like crap music.

Then we were back to the featured acts for Emma Purshouse’s excellent set. She is an entertaining poet and performer, always a treat to watch and never disappoints. Last night was no exception. A couple of poems I hadn’t heard before were mixed in with a bunch of old favourites and very good it was too.

The evening finished with Ross Sutherland, whose quirky performance was hilarious. He featured a lengthy and bizarre retelling of Little Red Riding Hood – complete with a cartoon of the story running behind him, an equally bizarre poem dedicated to a random member of the audience and the same trivial anecdote about shopping in Spa repeated multiple times in different styles. Unusual and vastly entertaining.

I should also add a note that, while not appearing as a performer, Bohdan Piasecki did an absolutely marvellous job as the MC with an easy going style that was as entertaining as the acts and that made the whole evening seem a very friendly affair.

A great night out.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A River of Stones #13

Last night I took one of the open mic slots at this month's Hit The Ode poetry event in Birmingham. There will be review of the evening later. For now, here is a small stone about it.

Poetry Evening #2

Before I begin I warn them -
This may not be entertaining.
When I have finished they applaud anyway.
Must try harder.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

River of Stones: 12th January

After the eye-drops

On the way home from the hospital
Traffic lights become technicolour suns;
Shop names dissolve into alien languages;
Faces melt into indistinguishable blurs;
The numbers vanish from my watch;
The lines vanish from my hands;
And the whole world becomes a bad photograph.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

City Voices

"Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -  only I don't know exactly what they are."

Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

I know how she felt. This month's city voices was, to use a ridiculously outworn sporting metaphor, a game of two halves. In the first half we had a trio from Nine Arches Poets in Coventry - Matt Merritt, Jane Commane and Matt Nunn. Matt Merrit's subdued performance was drawn from two collections, Troy Town and Hydrodactylopsychic Harmonica. The poems he read had all clearly been very carefully crafted and polished and I'm certain that they were all about something but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what exactly it was. I enjoyed the flow of the words and rhythm of the language without at any point coming anywhere near an understanding of what I was listening to. Given that the title of the second book refers to the musical instrument that consists of partially filled and tuned glasses that are played by rubbing a finger round the rim producing unsettling and ethereal musc, this may well be the point of it. Or perhaps not.
Jane Commane was more straightforward and more animated, though at times still rather obscure. She delivered a lively set of descriptive poems encompassing little old ladies, landscapes, ghosts and Coventry. Once again I am sure that there were levels of meaning that escaped me on one hearing and that they are the sort of poems that would benefit greatly from being written down and studied. I enjoyed it though, even when, as with the previous performer, I wasn't at all sure of what it was all about. Matt Nunn, who finished the half, stepped up the volume of the performances by several notches but maintained the air of impenatrability* that had so far marked the evening.

Things became a good deal more straightforward when the young performers came on after the break. We started with fourteen-year-old Emily Oldham who gave us a confident set prepared on her iPad - a telling mark of how times they are a-changing. Her poems may have lacked sophistication but they were clearly rather heartfelt and if anything that added to their appeal. And they were a good deal better than anything in my notebooks from when I was that age. Roxy Lal followed with a nicely doneshort story which was reminiscent of the Arabian Nights - a comparison made by Simon Fletcher as he introduced her and met by a blank "if you say so" look from the author. She added a couple of nicely evocative poems to round off the set. Tom Jenkins finished the evening. He goes from strength to strength. I've seen him four or five times now and each time he is a notch or two better. He started with two lengthy humourous poems - both of which I have heard before - and both of which demonstrate his skill with words. The two more serious poems that followed - an early twentieth century Americana pastiche and a kind of love poem couched as a description of a garden - showed that he can handle the serious stuff as dexterously as the frivolous stuff. All very nicely done.

So the verdict this time round? Another good night if, on balance, a slightly perplexing one.

(*by which of course, like Humpty Dumpty, I mean "we've had enough of that subject and it would be just as well if you mention what you mean to do next".)

A River of Stones: 11th January

Poetry Evening

Three adult poets read
Followed by a teenager.
They read from books.
She reads from an iPad.
I like her poetry better
And I feel like a traitor.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A River of Stones: 10th January

Application Form

Four hundred words?
Recent achievements?
I wonder if they will accept
A small stone in lieu.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

A River Of Stones: 09 January

Snow had covered the fields
Like powder on a face.
Now it has gone;
And they are once more
Pox-scarred with litter.


I've today confirmed that I'm taking part in the Poetry Slam on 12th February at the Imperial Banqueting Suite in Bilston. The first round will be for romantic poetry, a form I don't do very much but I think I have a couple of good pieces I can use. The other rounds are free subject and I know I have good stuff should I make it through to those. I've chatted with the organiser and I'm happy with the format. Should be good and at the very least I'll get free admission to watch the other fourteen performers pieces.

I hope I can rely on some of my more local readers to pop along and support me. The price of admission is £10 and it does include a very tasty curry.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A River of Stones: 08 January


In my armchair,
Just before bed,
I try to find today's small stone.
Ah, there it is.

As indicated in yesterdays "small stone" I have now accepted voluntary redundancy.  I have a plan. Truthfully I'm not sure at the moment how I feel about it all, but I do have a plan. Basically, at the moment, the plan goes like this.

Leave work on 28th January.
Start applying for overseas jobs.
Spend a couple of months doing up the house.
Sell the house and (if necessary) move into temporary accommodation.*
Do my Summer job at Harrow.
Leave the country .

(* The step about selling my house might be replaced by a step about letting my house.)

Of course it isn't the first time that I've done something like this. After twenty years in IT I quit and spent a year travelling around North and South America. Then after six months in a call centre I did it again and spent another year travelling across Europe and Asia finishing in Singapore, which coincidentally is my first choice of destination when I'm looking for overseas jobs. 
If Singapore doesn't work out then I should be able to get a job in China, my second choice, without any difficulty.

The decision wasn't taken lightly and many factors have played into it —the change in my personal circumstances since the death of my father, a creeping dissatisfaction with some aspects of my job (not the teaching, never the teaching), the Government's savage cuts in education spending, the currently offered severance package, my long time desire to work abroad — all have played their part.

I accepted the deal verbally yesterday and sometime this week will be signing the compromise agreement at which point the first bit, leaving my job, becomes irrevocable. It's a much bigger step than the going off travelling was though, because it's really severing my links with home. Always in the past — University, first job in London, travelling the world — there has been somewhere else that I could point to and say "that's home" and someone back in that home who would be there when I returned. This won't be like that. Where I am will be home and, given that this room I'm sitting in typing this blog post has been home since I was six years old (a very long time ago) then not having it will be very odd. Very odd indeed. 
Before I go I intend to try to get in as many poetry performances and readings as I possibly can and with any luck I'll be able to find something similar wherever I end up. Whatever happens I shall, as far as humanly possible, be keeping up both this blog and my other photo blog.

Interesting times.

Friday, 7 January 2011

A River of Stones: 7th January

Twenty minutes ago I accepted Voluntary Redundancy with a view to selling my house soon and going to work abroad. I really hope this is the right decision. Either way, it's given me today's small stone.

The decision made

In void-black ink the letters form,
As I write my name and unwrite my future.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

A River of Stones: 6th January

Twenty-one Dead Christmas Cards.

Penguins, trees, wreaths,
Baubles, snow scenes, reindeer,
And wise men.
Ready for recycling.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A River of Stones: 5th January

The Last Days of the SS Great Britain

Rust patterns on her hull
Chart her voyages.
Holes let through the light
Like stars to guide her home.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Invisible People of Prague:Full Version

A couple of days ago I posted a small stone (see link on the the sidebar for an explanation) called "The Invisible People of Prague".

I had actually written a longer "proper" poem with the same title and same theme before I decided to see if I could boil down the sentiment into something really short and pithy. Here, for anyone interested, is that poem.

The Invisible People of Prague

On the narrow cobbled streets
That thread between the
Baroquely beautiful towers
Of the city,
As smoothly as silk
Through a needle's eye,
They have become invisible.
Eyes fixed on elaborate cornices,
On the detail and the decoration,
On the elegant façades
Of a bygone century;
Eyes raised in praise
Of art and artifice,
Do not see them.
They kneel in the snow,
Silent and unmoving,
Foreheads pressed to the cold stone,
Empty caps upturned before them.
They are as still and grim
As the gargoyles that look down
In mocking mimicry.
They are as grey and snow covered 
As the streets themselves.
And they are invisible.

Another year gone

So, that's another year over and done with. 
This year, for personal reasons, I didn't want to stay at home over the Christmas break so I booked a couple of trips. For the Christmas weekend I decided to go to Prague and for the New Year celebrations to go to an organised few days in Bristol and Bath.

Let's talk about Prague.
For a few days I was on edge about the weather. With airport closures and all the snow and ice I wasn't certain up until the last minute whether I would get away OK or not. In the event I managed without problems. That's more than can be said for most of the people on the flight given that just on that one plane Terminal 5 at Heathrow managed to lose seventy people's bags. By sheer good fortune I had taken a look at the length of the queue for baggage drop and decided that my bag was small enough to go as hand luggage. Ten of the group I was travelling with weren't so lucky.
The flight was uneventful and arriving in Prague in snow and ice and -18 degrees we found that, unlike the UK, such conditions hardly impeded our progress to the hotel at all.
The hotel was pleasant and comfortable and, next morning, turned out to be les than five minutes on foot away from the Old Square.
I'd like to say here and now that Prague is without question one of the loveliest cities I have ever seen. The Old Square is magnificent and even the more modern an open Wenceslas Square has really rather beautiful buildings in it. Just wandering around aimlessly produces another delight every few yards.
The brevity of the weekend trip meant that, in practical terms, the offered excursions were mostly out, being, as they mostly were, round trips of up to ten hours. It didn't matter. Prague itself kept me fully occupied. I visited Prague Castle and climbed the bell tower for some great views of the city. I pottered around the charming Christmas Market. I ate in nice restaurants and drank in nice bars. I visited the Kafka Museum and a Salvador Dali exhibition. Actually the museum selection to be found in Prague borders on a surreal paranoia that wouldn't be out of place for either of those two geniuses. There are two separate museums of torture, a museum of communism, a Copernicus museum, a beer museum and an absinthe among others. I had time for none of those though. Nor did I have either the time or the inclination for the Sex Machines Museum that is in one of the streets off the old square.
What I did visit, though I hadn't been intending to, was one of the many black light theatres. For those that don't know what these are, let me describe them. The stage is dressed all in matt black. Performers, rendered invisible by their matt black clothing move various things about the stage while other performers whom you can see act out a performance that is by turns ballet, circus, acrobatics and drama. All this is accompanied by a musical soundtrack and lit in UV light. It is quite compellingly hypnotic and I'd recommend it.
As I say though I hadn't been intending to visit at all. My plans had called for a spot of dinner and a Jazz club but strolling down one of the streets I came across this.

With my peculiar obsession with Wonderland it required no thought at all to call off the visit to the Jazz and go to "Aspects of Alice" instead. It was very good indeed. If you check out YouTube for "Aspects of Alice Black Light" you will be able to see quite a few clips of the show. They don't do it justice though.

On the morning of the last day I even managed to find a bookshop with a Czech edition of Alice In Wonderland illustrated by Dusan Kallay. I was a very happy visitor indeed.

So, in short, Prague was terrific. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a weekend away. In fact I'd like to go back for a week. Maybe two.

Obviously pictures will start appearing shortly over on my other blog but here is a selection to be going on with.

Well I'd call it a scam.

Last month I inadvertently went over the limit on my credit card by a couple of quid. My fault entirely,  I accepted that I'd done it and that I'd have to pay the £12 overlimit fee. This month my bill is a very long way from being over the limit but the fee appears again. I queried it. And that's where the devil is in the detail. The statements run from 16th of the month to 15th of the following month. Their call off date for a direct debit payment is 30th of the month. This ensures that if you you over your limit it appears on two consecutive statements and effectively doubles the overlimit fee to £24. It's all there in the small print of the agreement. You can, apparently, when you receive the first notification call them and authorise a separate early payment. That too is in the small print somewhere. I had assumed that because I pay off the whole bill every month by direct debit the fee would be taken care of but the clever business with the dates means that I have to pay it again.

Incidentally they have, after a very long argument on the phone agreed to refund the second fee. The only problem is that I was on hold for so long that the telephone call will cost as much as the refund. It's a mistake I won't be making again.

A River of Stones: 4th January

The disco

The darkened windows
Reflect the lights from the dancers' clothes -
But not the dancers:
Spirits in the night.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A River of Stones: 3rd January

Lunch In Bath

We sip green tea
And eat crumpets
In the Pump Room.
The trio is poised to play a waltz.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A River of Stones: 2nd January

The Invisible People of Prague

A strange invisibility
Bends all paths around the motionless beggar:
His forehead to the ground.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

A River of Stones: 1st Jan

View from a Train

Snow hides the ground;
Fog hides the sky;
A whole white world with no horizons.