Thursday, May 31, 2012

Further Accomplishments

Three more scones, and an annual exchange of cards with the lady responsible for them, make this a day to remember.

Sometimes I think the only thing I ever got completely right in life is the only thing that matters. And most especially so on this day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Accomplishment

A day on which one has eaten four scones of surpassing excellence cannot be considered wasted, all other evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

False Advertising

Found myself chuckling over a daft little item in yesterday's paper about some ditsy - but extremely well-off - girl in Australia who is suing the prestigious school she used to attend for failing to get her into the university course of her choice. Must say, other folk didn't find it all quite so funny, with quite a few ranting over her sense of entitlement and seeing the egregious law suit as another sign of the end of civilisation as we know it - as opposed to a rather entertaining bit of daftness that confirmed that an awful lot of people are not too clever, including quite a few who have money and attend prestigious schools.

If anyone's thinking of suing me on similar grounds, let me just say I'll plead guilty as charged and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Oddly what nobody seemed at all interested in with regard to yesterday's story is the kind of advertising the school puts out. (Though it's my guess the lawyers for the plaintiff intend to have some fun with this.) This is a wild guess, but I reckon they won't be saying things like, Well we really can't guarantee a genuine education for the kids we get because essentially that lies in their hands (or heads) and there comes a point at which there's not much you can do if they're not interested. But we'll make it as lively as we can to sugar the pill and there's enough money floating about to ensure they'll get the bells and whistles and teachers with a fair understanding of what they're talking about and not too many other young sharks competing in the same pool. After that, they're on their own really. But that's life, isn't it?

Funnily enough, if I saw that kind of advertising from a school I'd be quite keen to teach there.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Further Conclusions

Pleased to report finishing Walden today. It'll be good to get away from the Pond, though I must say the longer I stayed the more enjoyable the experience proved. By the time I reached the Winter sequences towards the end I was becoming a bit of a Thoreau fan. That's something I've found with other writers I've had to persevere with. Somehow you teach yourself how to read the blighters.

In fact, I was tempted to get going on the next work in the American Library edition I'm proud to own - an account of a trip, more than one, I think, to The Maine Woods. But I think it's time to get back to something that slips down with less of a struggle, and convince myself I'm still capable of reading at something beyond a snail's pace.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Coming To Conclusions

Got to the end of the BBC Little Dorrit this evening, and wasn't there a lot of end to take on board? Like many a lesser writer Dickens is better at creating mysteries than solving them, and tying together all of Dorrit's loose ends was never going to be easy. I'm not sure Dickens actually succeeds, but the resolution of the one storyline that matters, that of Amy and Arthur's sort of romance, makes up for everything else. The moment when Arthur is able to accept Amy because she is again penniless has a resonance that goes deep to the heart of the novel's thematic concerns.

This version opted, rightly I think, to give a fairytale sheen to proceedings thereafter. The Missus enjoyed that, which was justification enough. To have gone with the astonishingly downbeat ending, in the way Christine Edzard's movie did, would have been to alienate more than a few faithful viewers. But that brilliant final paragraph was in my mind, even as I smiled at the final images from Andrew Davies's version:

Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother's care, in the fulness of time, to Fanny's neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day. Went down to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip for some few years, who was never vexed by the great exactions he made of her in return for the riches he might have given her if he had ever had them, and who lovingly closed his eyes upon the Marshalsea and all its blighted fruits. They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Going Cheap

Happened to do a bit a driving today, to a doctor's appointment and what-not, and found myself listening to music on tape, two tapes specifically, loaded from my cache in store at Maison KL. I'd completely forgotten I owned a copy of Miles Ahead, and, into the bargain, just how good an album it is. I reckon I prefer it to Kind Of Blue and Sketches From Spain, heretical as that may sound. The tape itself isn't of great quality - I think I picked it up cheap somewhere - but that just didn't matter somehow.

And then later in the day I was listening to some late Haydn symphonies on one of those old cheapo cheapo DG tapes they packed all sorts of goodies into, once upon a time. I don't even know what numbers the symphonies are - I just know I love them, memories of repeated listening from days of old flooding back to me.

Riches. For next to nothing.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Listless

Today marks the end of our term so I'm technically into what's known as a vacation. I've been thinking of drawing up a list of everything I need to do related to the Toad work. However, I'm conscious that the list will prove so depressing that the effort to produce it will prove ultimately counter-productive. There's an irony in all this, one so savage that it's impossible to enjoy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moondancing

We've not been watching this year's American Idol as assiduously as we've normally done in the past. The Voice became Noi's preferred viewing in that regard, which I also enjoyed, and I lost interest in Idol when Elise went. But we caught the semi-final, final and finale and generally quite enjoyed the end of the season. (Pity that Joshua was eliminated though.)

Having said that, the finale was, as usual, a mixed bag. I won't dwell on the more painful moments, but find something to praise instead, that something being the distinct sense that's been developed in recent seasons of a reasonably sincere celebration of the culture of popular music especially with the various worthies taking the stage. The worthiest of them all this year were Chaka Khan - her voice sounding in as good a nick as it was in the days of Chaka Khan and Rufus - and, gasp, John Fogarty. Never thought I'd see the day, frankly. Truth to tell, his voice didn't blend all that well with Philip's, but a bad moon rising is never a bad thing when the master lifts it himself.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

All Done In

Now experiencing weariness - and not the Celtic Twilight variety. Just common or garden, tired to the bone, sick to the marrow exhaustion. No fun at all.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting It Done

Catching sight of the headline in yesterday's paper, Growing The Literary Scene, I falsely assumed it was going to be about some pointless official initiative concerning how to get the citizens of this Far Place reading. The article turned out to be far more interesting than that. It concerned a certain Fong Hoe Fang whose claim to fame is that he runs Ethos Books, a company who've published a fair amount of 'literary' material in recent years, lots of poetry especially. Basically he's done this making hardly a penny - the enterprise being financed by a rather more lucrative printing company he runs.

Now this really is how literary scenes (whatever they may be) grow (whatever that means.) Or rather, this is how people with something to say that's not necessarily of the mainstream find a means of saying it. And, as a result, have a chance of developing an audience, who themselves have an opportunity to grow in depth and understanding, and find their own voices. This is how things happen, when people do things.

As someone who has never done enough, my admiration for Mr Fong runs very deep. And I felt a bit petty, a bit snide regarding the mild sneering I'd indulged in when I first glanced at the headline. I felt a bit like doing something, in fact.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Man Marking

It's that time of year when I take a break from finding out what my students have to say for themselves and peruse the musings of a selection of other teachers' students from around the world on the May papers they have attempted. This is not a happy time.

I've survived the first serious day of marking and am reasonably compos mentis, I suppose, but to describe myself as thought-tormented would be an understatement. Some candidates seem to wilfully delight in not addressing what they've been asked to address, and not knowing what you'd think might be alarmingly obvious after two years of study, which would be funny if it were not for the fact that one has to accurately assess the degree to which they've fallen short, and there are many headache-inducing variations of degree, believe me.

I suppose it's heartening to think that there're always likely to be jobs for teachers given the remarkable inability of some kids to learn anything.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Man Out Of Time

Listening to a bit of Rachmaninov, a few Preludes, as played by the prodigiously gifted Nikolai Lugansky. It's ridiculously, wonderfully over-the-top, luscious stuff. Bags of heart and sacks of tears. Hard to believe it's out of the twentieth century. Lots of tunes; lots of rich harmonies; indeed, lots of everything - definitely too many notes, too much of the time, but so generously done you sort of get carried into the spirit of the thing.

At least you do if you try. There's a real need here to let yourself surrender to it; give yourself up to what's going on and abandon all of your critical faculties. I suppose this is true of all music though; even the stuff that's not so overtly emotional is asking something of you. And I guess that's why as I get older and my inner critic grows more picky, less generous, I find myself all too often outside the experience and sort of looking on enviously, excluded from the party.

In those moments when we connect with any kind of music we suspend time.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Mere Formality

Was reminded this evening, if a reminder were necessary, of how fundamentally unsuited I am to formal occasions. I feel enormously proud of the fact I don't own a single jacket - except for my denim one.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Corrosion

Had a conversation, a brief one, the other day with a young man who clearly felt bitter and betrayed, and I think I understood why. I felt helpless throughout, helpless in the sense that I was unable to help him deal with his feelings. But at the same time I was impressed to some degree by a sense that he was dealing with them himself.

I wanted to tell him that life isn't fair and there's no particular reason why it should be and that's an extremely useful thing to experience; and also extremely painful. I wanted to tell him that failing at something and being failed by others when you know you might have succeeded isn't the end of anything but can be the beginning of something; but there's no guarantee of what that something will be. But I didn't say these things because it seemed to me that you either know them or you don't, and it would have been patronising to assume he didn't.

I think there's a time, sooner or later, when necessarily it all eats away at you. Sometimes it's good to get there sooner, even if what lies beneath that bright shining surface isn't terribly attractive. But this is the kind of knowledge that brings little, if any, forgiveness.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Going Green

For the first time in years I have just eaten a KitKat. For the first time ever it was green. So who said this old stick-in-the-mud wasn't prepared to try something new?

I hasten to add that the greenness of the bar was not the result of some kind of decay but was its natural state, insofar as there's anything natural about a KitKat. Manufactured in Japan, it was made of green tea - according to the Missus, who knows these things and originally got given the bar.

Now as to why someone somewhere had to decide to improve perfectly good KitKats by turning the chocolate green, I am in no position to say. There is much about this world I do not understand, and I am happy not to.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Maturity

I remember a bleak Saturday back in 1968 when it became apparent around 5.00 pm that Manchester City had won the league. Gentle Reader, believe me I cried.

Fast forward, or rather, slow forward almost half a century and it's a measure of my extraordinary maturity and strength of character that hardly a tear was shed last night in this household. One or two, maybe, of frustration, but who would quibble with those? And I didn't sleep too well. But on the whole I've been a model of calm. Sort of.

And that closes the subject.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Completely Standing Still

Just read a lovely description of old Thoreau night-fishing on Walden Pond. Made me realise why I am persevering with his experiences there. Sometimes you’ve got to do some work to get the rewards.

Though I didn’t have to do anything to get the highly rewarding steak the Missus just served up. So some things do come easy after all.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Not Exactly Moving Forward

If I allow myself to think about it, I get quite depressed at the poverty of my reading of late. I find it difficult to believe I'm still slogging through Walden. Me and Henry David are just not simpatico somehow.

So I've been dipping into other stuff pretty much indiscriminately to relieve the strain: bits of Causley's Collected Heaney's Field Work, a few Stephen King shorts, a bit of Aylmer Maude's book on Tolstoy, and Karen's Sondheim books - having got the second as a belated birthday present from her yesterday. Fun, but not terribly satisfactory. No direction at all.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chatter

Back home fairly early in the afternoon to enjoy lashings of tea and a mound of freshly baked muffins, plus a heap of conversation with Noi and welcome guest Karen, who stayed to a suitably late hour. So much of life and lives to catch up on, and wonderful to have the time to do so.


Postscript: It seems that when Karen's kids asked how she'd managed to spend six hours in our company she attributed it to Uncle Brian talking like a narrative essay. Not quite sure what to make of that.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Voices

The timing isn't really that good for us, but the Missus and I have been watching quite a bit of The Voice, the American version. It comes across as a lot fresher than Idol partly because it features a wider range of music generally. I'm at an age when I hear a lot of complaints about declining standards in popular music. For the life of me, I can't hear this. I reckon there's a much wider range of exciting material available in just about every genre I can think of despite the fact I don't get that much exposure to it, except through programmes like this.

And listening to the four finalists featuring this evening, there isn't a weak one amongst them. I'm happily entertained, to say the least.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Performance Anxiety

I was very much looking forward to seeing my drama guys perform today for a rather silly competition, and they didn't disappoint. In fact, their confidence just before they hit the boards was quite something. And that's something I've never felt before going on stage, ever. What I feel in that thirty minute prelude is a sick dread, and what I hear in my head is the question, Why on earth do I get involved in these things?

The answer, like it did today, comes when whatever it is I'm involved in is firing on all cylinders. In a strange way it's like really being alive. An odd kind of joy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Kind Of Grieving

It's a month since Mum died. I've found I've adjusted easily to the rhythms of everyday life. I expected that. The rawness of the grief has gone. Hardly surprising really considering how long I'd had to prepare for what had to be. Some of the grieving took place before she left us, in fact.

But what has surprised me is how often I've found myself thinking in these last few weeks not just of Mum but of all her generation, as it were, who've gone before. I remember them, without exception, with warmth and affection. So it's been an oddly comforting month. Larkin was right: What will survive of us is love.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sacking Teachers

Caught a little bit of a programme today on Fox News dedicated, in theory at least, to discussing ways of improving schools - American schools, that is. (Curiously, if one were to judge from the entirely inward-looking nature of the discussion, these were clearly considered to be the only schools that exist.) It turned out that sacking incompetent teachers, lots of them, was the way forward. This was proved by the fact that a lady who had done this in one school district was being interviewed, in very friendly fashion, and spoke smiling sense, whilst a teachers' union chappie featured in two or three clips answering some pretty nasty questions with obvious discomfort.

Now I've got nothing against making spokesmen or women for any vested-interest group extremely uncomfortable. In fact, I think it's a very good idea. But it cuts in all directions, and the lady who had sacked all those teachers was being offered nothing but easy lobs over the net to smash into the face of the viewer. The obvious simple question for her was to inquire what exactly it was that gave her such absolute certainty that she was sacking the right folks. I'd love to have the assessment instrument used made open to analysis. It wasn't - and it was never going to be given the sound-bite quality of the entire discussion.

The whole thing reminded me of a brief discussion I had once (at a Christmas party of all places) with a deputy headmaster back in England in the middle-eighties. For some reason I can't recall he was telling me, or someone else, that you couldn't sack bad teachers simply because there was no way you could devise an assessment of teachers that could fairly identify who was bad enough to be sacked. I think he thought I was a friendly audience. I wasn't. I pointed out to him that if we were really going to be painfully honest that he could identify at least two teachers on his staff who were manifestly incompetent, quite beyond redemption, and should be shown the door. I knew this because the same was true of my own school and any other in our education authority. What bothered outsiders, I pointed out, was that they knew we knew about such teachers and knew we weren't going to do anything about them. I must admit I spoke vigorously, but I don't think that that was the reason he agreed with me within a minute or so. It was simply that I was saying what everyone knew to be true.

So does this mean I agree with Fox News's hatchet-lady? No, not at all. The worrying thing about her was that she was clearly enjoying being interviewed and striking her righteous poses - a sure sign of someone to distrust. She wasn't going to admit for a moment how difficult it was to honestly and accurately monitor the performance of teachers. (Just as a matter of interest: don't trust anyone in the world of education who makes such assessment sound easy.) That's why I trusted the guy I browbeat all those years ago. He saw the very real problems involved, but was grounded enough to recognise a pragmatic case for getting something done nonetheless.

So where is all my circling around going? Not too far, really. Except this: you can't generalise about all systems and you need to ground what you do in the reality of what you've got. For example, hardly any of the above discussion has any real application to the system in which I now earn a living. But if what you have got throws up manifest idiocies in terms of what happens in the real world of the classroom find ways of dealing with that and get reasonable people on board. There are plenty of them, and that even includes viewers of Fox News.

And a final point: never ever trust anybody who gets on the goggle-box pontificating about education and looks like they're enjoying it.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

More Rubbish

I bravely saw The Naive and Sentimental Lover through to the (bitter) end, finishing it today. It didn't improve over the final one hundred pages. How on earth did le Carre ever get it published?

My guess is that since he was an established writer, with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold already granted classic status, the editors just allowed it through. Also I suppose it's a very 'sixties' novel and since it was still the sixties in all but name, someone somewhere thought it had some relevance.

Thank goodness tedious existential crises are no longer the stuff of (most) fiction. Or charismatic rebels who completely lack charisma. Didn't le Carre see that Shamus (his charismatic rebel) lacks all credibility, except as a ludicrously selfish immature plonker who couldn't manipulate a tea-bag?

Oh dear, I really lost all patience with this one.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The New Jerusalem

I'm extremely wary of what's available through the World Wide Web. It's not so much that I disapprove of what gets out there, though obviously there's plenty that's worrisome; rather I'm cautious of just how much wonderful stuff there is, stuff more than capable of eating up what little time I have. A simple example: all I have to do is key-in to youtube.com the name of an obscure band of my youth to find myself deluged with material that I'm amazed to find exists at all.

This evening, for example, there I was idling browsing through various performances by Van Der Graaf Generator, a band I find myself appreciating even more now than I did in the days when I saw them live, when I came across a link to early Genesis performing Supper's Ready. The sound and video were not of the highest quality, but good enough to take me back to a time when I thought the Apocalypse in 9/8 was about as magical as music can aspire to be. And, yes, I wasn't wrong. This does something that reaches beyond the clever theatrics and Steve Hackett's tragic jacket.

For a moment you know the new Jerusalem is really there.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Rubbish

I bought John le Carre’s The Na├»ve and Sentimental Lover at some point in the late seventies and proceeded not to read it. I thought I’d put right the omission, and duly took the paperback from the shelves of Maison KL the last time we were there. In fact, it was one of only two books I took to Manchester on our recent visit.

And just why is it taking me so long to finish it? I suppose a lack of time is partly to blame, but essentially it’s quite possibly the worst novel I’ve ever read, and that doesn’t help. I regard myself for the most part as a sympathetic reader who’ll forgive a writer a lot. In this case I forgive the great spy-novelist nothing. Utter rubbish. I’m plodding on only from an odd sense of duty, and I want to get my money’s worth – it cost me a quid, when a quid was a quid.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Dark Flowers

Spent some time today considering the nature of the beautiful and why pieces that are constructed out of ugliness can manifest that quality.

Of course, if the beautiful is nothing more than a projection of our needs onto an indifferent universe then there simply isn't any such quality and we are cheerfully, foolishly, deluded.

But if there really is something that really is genuinely really beautiful capable of blossoming out of the most unlikely material then that changes the nature of the game.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Just Listening

Ferd and I have been rattling on about listening of late to our drama guys. Fortunately they are capable of listening to us and, more importantly, to each other. So here's a little something below for non-drama guys.

Listen hard and listen good to what I'm going to tell you. If you want to get really good at what you do on stage you have to be able to hear everything. The air-con switching off in mid-performance; the glow of the lights; the audience thinking.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Labouring

It had been my original intention to post a wryly ironic comment about having to labour on this Labour Day holiday. But I changed my mind, for two reasons.

The first of these is that my labour involved activities of a dramatic nature and, tiring as these were, there’s something that isn’t really work in the usual sense about trying to make something that works on stage. And it helps that the players do all the real work, which is a way of playing after all.

And then I saw the figures for people out of work in Europe and America at this time, and read about recent suicides related to being in this state in economically wounded Greece. Suddenly light irony didn’t seem such a good idea. I first got a holiday job when I was fifteen and I’ve never been out of work at a time when I needed it since then. So, just for now, I’m celebrating with gratitude all those years of work.