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Thursday, 2 October 2014

A job................

In some senses the job of this blog is almost done - started when we 'returned' to the UK and documenting my efforts to get a job and the sense of frustration amazement and dismay at the overall state of Good Old Blighty. While a lot of our circumstances have changed, a lot of our sentiments have remained the same (and I say 'our' in the collective sense to include the cats who I know think the same but cant be bothered to blog). These include that when living in the UK you continually have to remind your self that you live in the eight richest economy in history in a era of untold glittering prizes. As humans we've walked on the moon, we're exploring Mars, medical science is phenomenal, and the dissemination of music, literature, information (real information not media)  has never been wider. Yet as it was when we arrived, England is a miserable place. Not, I hasten to add that we (and in this I include RHB as well as me and the cats) are unhappy. Far from it, for one thing, our relatively new found hobby of Lindy Hop/Swing dancing keeps us laughing. And secondly, I have finally found a job that I like. More of this in a bit, but what I mean by miserable is the public domain, or perhaps public demense would be more appropriate. Recent party political conferences have repeated the message (all of them!) that austerity will continue. The argument seems to be that England is on the brink of a disaster and being on this brink is what is keeping us all from being happy. However, the reason we arrived at this brink  was by being quite happy with the way everything was going. So we got too happy and this led us to the edge  of the chasm of happiness and we were in danger of falling in and becoming something like a Scandanavian country - permanently happy. This is bad because ...... actually there is never a reason given why its bad to be happy, it just is.  The argument continues that the only way to make us really  happy (in a non-Scandanavian way - remember, SCandanavian happiness is bad)  is to make everyone miserable for quite a bit longer. Furthermore, the argument goes, once we've been miserable for quite a bit longer, the only way to keep us away from the brink that is preventing our unhappiness, is to continue being miserable for ever so that we dont ever feel comfortable enough to return to the edge of the chasm of happiness. The problem with this - and something that makes me deeply unhappy, is that this mantra has been the pervading mantra in England ever since I can remember. Everything is always a problem, there's always been a disaster looming somewhere. Its all very well for outside observers to say "Well just ignore the politics" but you cant . At this point I will have to refer you to Polyani and leave it there except to note that at some point - and this is a long term plan - we will escape.

Its therefore fortunate that I have finally got a job, and it also provides some credence to my claims to be the UK's  joint second best academic. Indeed, I was getting a little concerned about the validity of these claims seeing as I dodnt have either an academic job or a PhD. Well now, one of those aims has been obtained, albeit that the job is 0.4 Lecturer and includes delivering some lectures about things I actively hate - children. Perhaps that's unfair and overstating the case - I actually quite like the children I know, I just dont see the point in knowing anything about them in the academic sense because usually they grow up and ruin everything good about being children by becoming adults. Still the job is paid, I have 1/3 of an office sometimes and I am now invited to lots and lots of meetings. I have to admit that the number and scale and subject matter of meetings deemed relevant to my job is somewhat a surprise. Indeed you could almost be forgiven for two assumptions based on a quick scan of   meetings since my appointment (the job started on Sept 12th). I am teaching on two programmes:

1: General Induction ( all new staff meet Head of Department). Half an hour of chat. crap coffee and biscuits.
2. New Staff meet established staff for Programme A.
3. New Staff meet established staff for Programme B.
4. Meet Dean of the Faculty
5. Meet Vice Chancellor of the University
6. Meet the Students (twice - A and B)
7. Meet the administrative staff
8. Departmental Meeting for the  start of a new semester
9. Meet my mentor
10. meet the head of International engagement

all the above  are the kind of half an hour of chat, crap coffee and biscuits meetings that take up two hours. Then I have had the following substantive meetings about details of the modules....


Then I have had a number of administrative tasks, all of which I have been told, by administrators I must do:

1. Get photo taken
2. collect name badge ( I dont do name badges)
3. collect office key
4. small amusing personal bio for 'getting to know you staff circular'
5. formal bio for web page
6. health and safety briefing
7. donate to Angela's charity run (I dont regard this as optional based on tone)
8. Sign a leaving card for someone I dont know
9. Re-register with the payroll office for pay, tax, etc. This means filling in basic details forms such as name and address, where you want your money paid, tax declarations etc etc. I should add that this is particularly puzzling because the job is at the same University I have worked at on a 'sessional' basis for three years and when this re-registration was complete I had the same payroll number as I had before. Then when I received my first pay, it was wrong.
10. Re-register with human resources for criminal record check, proof of identity and proof of accreditation. See above except it was slightly easier because my original documents were still with Human Resources because I'd forgotten to pick them up last time I was asked for this information (for the sessional work). SO HR just re-scanned the same documents again and all was set.
11. Start thinking about the Christmas Party including whether I will be a vegetarian by then ( I dont know) , where I might like to eat on the last day before Christmas (very democratic but the answer is 'in my house, alone') and an amusing question for the quiz.

The two conclusions its possible to reach from the above are both quite far-fetched. The first is that I am extremely important. This conclusion is reached mostly because of the calibre of people who want to meet me - Vice-Chancellors, Dean, HOD's and students. In fact the only people I havent met is the bar staff in the students union. The second conclusion to be reached is that it would be possible, if one was extremely sceptical, to come to the conclusion that the purpose of a University is to fulfil administrative requirements. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

 and the other day in a meeting I was asked my opinion on the basis that I was an expert. This was terrifying, so I put on my best expert voice and said "I agree with Ian". Ian is one of those very

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Ride of Hope IV (TROH S04: E01-E05): The Bad, The Good and the Ugly.

As readers are aware,  the annual semi-planned "The Ride of Hope" (TROH) is  a series of disasters, or near disasters, interspersed with some enjoyable cycling, that for some unfathomable reason, its participants (who are also the members of  seminal folk-rock combo 'Cheek to Cheek') start talking about every Spring as a 'good idea'. A date for the ride is speculated on and a route decided based on as little information as possible. Then follows months of inactivity - equipment is unchecked, training rides are cancelled because a good footy match is on the tv, and hoteliers, camp site owners and hostels are left untroubled by enquiries about availability of accomodation. Finally, and usually about a week before departure, the participants realise that they either have to 'put up or shut up'. The results are invariably that  TROH comprises  a series of  encounters with strange people, unexpected diversions and wierd food....interspersed with great views, bizarre rambling conversations, hellish but brilliant ascents and unsuitable off-roading.   This year's TROH was no exception. Lets take a look at what a television documentary would call 'the highlights' starting, in a break from the normal order, with 'the bad'.

The Bad.

This year's Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness undoubtedly goes to the food experienced on TROH S04. A high calorific intake is necessary when riding long distances and you need to eat constantly while riding as well - my friend's Canadian adage "eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty" is some of the best advice I have ever found out the price of ignoring. So we do carry food while we ride but mostly trail mix, jelly babys', granola bars and the like. At the end of the day however, something more substantial is needed in the form of a full meal. One solution may be that riders carry their own food but that seems (or perhaps bearing in mind this year's experiences 'seemed') unnecessary in this crowded, but occasionally sceptered isle as you are never really far from population centres and decent grub can surely not be that hard to find, spilling out of roadside inns competing for a dwindling tourist trade? While it may be true that grub could be found, the microwaved slush that was delivered about thirty five seconds after our order was taken in Berwick on Tweed's best Chinese restaurant, costing about thirty five pounds for two main courses, cannot be described as decent. The chicken I ate in Seahouses most popular fish and chip restaurant, rivaled BOT's Chinese disaster in how extremely bad it was,  having the texture, and taste,  of  paint brush bristles that had been left in paint long since evaporated, and practically every bar meal we had - almost impossible to get wrong I previously thought - brought on hallucinations caused by salt overdose. As TROH S04 progressed, I began to dread the evening meal, a dread that was only surpassed by the dread induced by contemplation of the following morning's fat soaked sausages (I stopped eating pork years ago as a rule but vegetarian breakfasts are even worse, usually consisting of a warm egg (which obviously isnt vegetarian anyway) sloshed round a cooling pan and presented as scrambled eggs.)

The food though achieved a narrow victory in the Richard Dawkins Award for Sheer Awefulness because sections of the route - which is advertised as part of the UK's national cycle network were spectacularly bad in specific ways. Some photos may help understand this, starting with a ford crossing near the sea near BOT

It does, I have to admit look picturesque but I should remind readers that this is a cycling route. The fact that the bridge is only passable if you have a unicycle with off road capacity as the bridge is too narrow for any handlebars so even a mountain bike is useless is one thing, but the really annoying thing is the regularity of gates on the route. In some sections, you repeatedly have to get off your bike, open the gate, close the gate then ride another 400 metres before repeating the operation.This goes on for miles.

The next problem with the route - called 'Castles and Coasts' (see the Sustrans website) is that an awful lot of it appears to be designed not to give an interesting or even safe ride, but to get bikes out of the way of cars. Thus a typical section in a town involves directing bikes through car parks, toilets, gravel pits, and abandoned roads on the undesireable side of town which look like the British Army used them to practice urban warfare techniques. The photos dont really do this justice as I was either too scared for my personal safety from roaming dogs, too concentrated on not getting punctured tyres from needles or broken glass or just too busy concentrating on not bumping into concrete bollards or rubbish to take many shots but here's a couple of images:
 The crumbling waterfront north of Newcastle that ended in ...........
 The abandoned road ...........

  This is a constant problem - even when cycle lanes near main highways are provided, many drivers see them as convenient extra parking spaces...
 And back to the gates............

  and the car parks ..........

What must be borne in mind is that these are not short-cuts. In fact the contrary is true as 'Coasts and Castles' frequently involves massive detours from the crow flying to divert the rider to these places. In fact, the route frequently appears to be designed less with the crow flying in mind and more  as an analogue of the nocturnal ramblings of a feral cat. Naturally, with two different academic paradigms on the Ride, this characteristic caused some debate, reminiscent of The Paradigm Wars. While we agreed that the inadequacies of the designed route suggested that  in road planning meetings when " "Agenda Item 3: Planning for Cyclists" was reached the  consensus view on cyclists among representatives present was probably "F*** 'em", how we should react to this was debated.  The scientist among us , Iceman (by the second day we had decided we needed Top Gun style 'handles'),  stuck with the scientific approach that took the route literally. For him, the route existed objectively, to be examined as a cycle route. The Critical Sociolinguist, Flamebearer (AKA yrs trly), thought that the route was there to be interpreted, and possibly with a twist of post-modernism, challenged  fundamementally,  ontologically and epistemologically. The result was a compromise wherein we interpreted some parts choosing better routes that would have been obvious to the route designers if they'd bothered to look at a map. let alone try the route out for themselves,  and took other passages where the route was, possibly as an oversight, really good,  literally. Which leads us to the whole point of the ride, which was the Good Stuff.

Good Stuff:

The views were occasionally stunning. The best thing to do is to just show a few pictures, although they do lack the smell of brine where we skirted the coast or the scent of wild garlic as we mountain biked through forests. Incidentally, mountain biking through forest trails with full panniers is not for the faint hearted but if it ever becomes an Olympic sport (and it should) I am stupid enough to enter as its an altogether different type of exhilirating, mostly terrifying.
 This trail started off looking dead easy like this, but it quickly got narrow and very fast...wild garlic everywhere .. just incredible.

 Fields of flowers like in a magazine (with a Newcastle housing project in the background to bring you back to earth)...

 A river somewhere in Scotland I think...
 A castle, of course..........
 Same river as above...

 Looking north to Bamburg castle ( I think) ...........

 Next few  (And one above) are from the final climb before Edinburgh - a ten mile climb, quite gentle, but we had miscalculated distance and the whole day was close to seventy miles with this climb the last thing we did before an exhilirating fifteen mile descent into Edinburgh. It would be pretty easy on a road bike, but on a loaded bike, you just have to slog up the hill. Iceman hates these climbs but I love them..

 Iceman at the top looking down on the Edinburgh plain..

Final word goes to buildings and friends.

On buildings : we only stopped at one castle Bamburgh Castle. It is magnificent in some ways ..

.... but the miserable-ist in me cant help but think that the craftmanship and energy on show also represent a mind set of exploitation - the beams of the ceiling of the great hall were hewn from a type of teak  (600 tonnes) that is now practically extinct as the tour guide - a definite enthusiast of Empire -  almost gleefully recounted. The same guy, describing a piece of furniture in another part of the castle, described how it constituted part of a dowry. He then went on to explain that the dowry wasnt just the furniture, gold and cattle a bride's family gave to a husband, it also included the bride herself as property . He appeared to find this rather "charming" but the resonances of a man owning a woman remain in Western cultue today in all sorts of ways so I left pretty depressed.

What didnt depress me was the wigwam we stayed in, our only night's camping.
 We lit a fire, bought a bunch of beer and just talked.
And finally what was best was the people, first of all Iceman........riding partners are not the easiest thing to find but we always quickly get into a rhythym, spelling eachother at the front, giving eachother space on descents and agreeing on rest stops without really discussing it..

 .. and secondly our friend Sarah who we met in Edinburgh on the night of the World Cup Final...Sarah is an ex-colleague of RHB and Iceman, a keen scuba diver, sportswoman and a great laugh.

 I have to finish by saying that The Ride of Hope is something me and Paul dreamed up as a jokey reference to the fact that whenever we told people we were doing a long distance ride, we would be asked "What charity are you doing it for?".  In fact a whole industry of sponsored bike rides, hikes, climbs and runs in support of one good cause or another has grown up in the UK. Its almost as if you cant do a bike ride unless you're supporting some good cause or another - some people look askance as if its somehow selfish of you just to do a ride for pleasure. I'd never de-cry a good cause but when you consider that commercial companies are now heavily involved in these events, requiring a minimum sum to be pledged, from which they take a handsome cut and are effectively  profiteering from say, cancer or mental health issues, the cynic in me wonders about the ethics of some of these events. It's true that these events raise awareness, but in many cases that's the best thing that can be said about them: when you examine the books (as I have done in the course of my research into the so-called Third Sector, an umbrella these companies fall under) they not only make profit from the participants ( who have to pay a fee)  but also from the donations the participants raise and  simultaneously they  take advantage of tax-relief for charities, thereby increasing their profits further. Simply put, they profiteer from misery. As for the participants, the activities are often things they would love to do, like sky-diving or trekking in remote places. I have to wonder whether, if the event was to spend an equivalent amount of time looking after a person with mental  health issues or involving experiencing the hardships of a condition in some way - a much more direct way of raising their own awareness  - as many people would participate. So I'm pretty sceptical of many of these events.

But not all of them, which is where my friend Reka comes in. Nel and I met Reka (her house is about fifty feet away) shortly after we moved into Large Mansions. She was among the first to welcome us to the area and,  as I soon found out,  was pivotal in local community action, including arts projects I later got involved in. She was also instrumental in integrating us in what is a truly unique local community based on our experience of living in two countries and numerous cities: :  summer barbeques, dancing at the Adelphi, house parties, sharing cars, helping with DIY - we became friends over the last five years -  Christmas parties, Halloween, mad arts projects, street festivals, just hanging out. She was also a keen cyclist who had cancer. As such she did participate in bike rides for a cause but for her it wasnt a 'holiday' or stumbling into making a  profit for someone else, she rode because she loved it and because she wanted to show the value of exercise and that you could live even as a cancer 'sufferer' (although she was never that). Her own awareness could'nt be questioned and at times she seemed as interested in getting people into cycling or fitness  as 'the cause'. We talked about bikes, about the advantages and disadvantages of using cleats, about climbs and descents and about food on the road. We even talked about my cynicism about 'sponsored bike rides' with Reka telling me off for being so cynical, although I (think/hope I) was clear that it wasnt her type of ride I was sceptical about.

Reka died three days before I left for this years TROH. I did think about her a lot on this year's ride and will miss her an incredible amount. I never went with Reka on one of her long rides only  going  for a couple of trips locally, which ended up in the pub. We almost never talked about her illness although she did  raise my awareness of cancer - I never imagined someone as ill as her could ride from Lands End to John O'groats while having chemotherapy.  But most of all she raised my awareness of how much difference a brilliant  person with a warm heart and  mad enthusiasms can make. This one was for you Reka.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Cats, sheds and transoceanic exploration

At first glance this post may appear a bit of a mish-mash. At a second glance, this post may also appear a bit of a mish mash. Frankly, its the best I can do as I nurse an enorgantic hang-over after a BBQ which finished a  week which may be described as bearing less than good news (of which more later) ..first up cats. Here's a few pictures of the cats Kali and Tosh,  who we shipped to the UK from Ontario. They themselves are transatlantic voyagers:

Cats have a very obvious point besides being rodent killers and mice suppressors, which is that they make people happy. They dont do anything else and they probably dont intend to make people happy (although how do we know either way?) but the fact that they do is why we flew them from Ontario. Next is a few pictures of a  shed that me and my friend Jeremiah James have built in some spare time for another friend in her massive and very beautiful garden. Even if it doesnt look like it, this shed is heavy on improvisation as it was constructed from discarded parts of another shed - it took considerable wood wrangling to make everything fit together and we are both incredibly proud of the result. In a way, the shed is a transoceanic thing because  Jerry (he grew up in a pretty remote village in Jamaica) and I crossed the Atlantic twice for settlement (and hope to do so one more time Westwards one day). In the pub the other night, Jerry and I were saying that we didnt know what to do now that we'd finished the shed.

Finally, last night we had a barbeque in my garden , largely cooked on a barbeque that we are looking after for the RHB's sister, Nysa. (NOTE: You all should know her name isnt Nysa but everyone on this blog gets a nickname and Nysa is norse for 'to seek') .We made far too much food and did nothing but eat, drink, sing and dance  until the early hours in the company of   people  some of who we will not see again. The people at the BBQ were from all around the world.  The reason we are looking after the barbeque is that Nysa is currently in Tonga (or thereabouts) in the middle of the Pacific an an adventure, sailing round the world on a sailboat. She really is a transoceanic explorer - she was gone for the best part of last year and will be about another year and a half travelling West before ending up in Italy or thereabouts. Its an incredible expedition for all sorts of reasons. I dont know exactly why our transoceanic explorer is doing what she is doing other than I know it is not for money: if I had to guess, I'd say she wanted a challenge.

Next time any idiot talks to you about 'human nature' in association with competitiveness or  rationale  economics and the application thereof to macro-economics, or alternatively talks to you about  immigration and its  problems (this is a dual use post) ask them to read this post before 'unfriending' them on Facebook.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Bad Back

BAckground: "I've got a bad back". A ridiculous piece of language when you think of it  - firstly the bodily area in question isn't a unitary thing, secondly it would be better to use a possessive pronoun,  and thirdly the back has'nt done anything wrong. Nevertheless, and ridiculous as it is, the phrase is accurate - to whit, I have a bad back. Or rather I have had a bad back in earnest  since about 1995 although even prior to that time, the back was suspect.  Suspect is another ridiculous word to describe a body part, used in soccer as follows:   'The boy Rigby has a suspect hamstring' (younger members of any given team are referred to as 'the boy...(name)'. Actually the more I think about it, the more ridiculous any and every language continues to be and a good part of me wishes we communicated in binary, with politicians limited to unitary. 

Anyway, the back (mine) has been bad (damaged not misbehaviour) probably the result of a combination of factors including yrs trly being long and stringy, damage caused by badly performed but  repeated physical actions (such as carrying  and lugging), bad posture and inappropriate or reduced exercise. The most recent bout has been the result of both inappropriate and reduced exercise but it has been in a good cause. This good cause has been the rapid writing of academic papers for publication which has seen me planted at the desk for much longer than normal.

The story: It all started with a visit from a famous academic in January. This particular academic is so famous that major parties consult him, he is frequently on tv and radio and now he was coming to my town to give a talk. I went along, not because I was impressed by the fame, but because I was interested to see that this guy's work had wandered into territory I cover in my research. I say wander, because the talk, although good, gave some impression that the speaker's interest in the topic was quite political and probably temporary - a kind of ideological diletante visiting 'immigration', possibly because every politician in the UK is obsessed with immigration at present, so the issue is 'current' (and we are obliged to swear in blood that our research will be current) . Equally however, the speaker's interest may be burgeoning and a lifelong commitment to researching immigration may follow. Whatever the speaker's motivation,  for me, and as being an immigrant is what inspired the PhD in the first place and because  I think processes of migration warrant further study rather than political visiting, the speaker's attention was welcome if, by dint of making a serious, academic and professional point at the conclusion of his talk, I could impress on him the need to make his visit (to the topics of migration) slightly longer and therefore have several important facts about migration relayed to senior politicians (who seem utterly unacquainted with facts of any type). That was the hope anyway, and if you think that the sentence immediately preceding this one is complicated, requiring a coupla reads before you understand what it says, you want to be there when I ask a question at academic conferences.

The problem is that I am so utterly out of place at academic events. No, really, this is not false modesty, I just dont belong at these things. Its not imposter syndrome either - I've discussed this with my good (newish) friends Riccardo and Cecilia and  they clearly  feel that someone will find them 'out' as new academics. If anything, I have reverse-imposter syndrome -  I believe I have found out the world of academia - a lot of it is constructed and stage managed so carefully  because some  people are terrified of (good)  radical new ideas . And this puts me out of place at academic events because although I recognize  the complex mirage-dance of manners, I just cant do it very well. Take 'the coffee bit' for example. I know that after you've grabbed your inadequately sized cup of shit coffee, you're supposed to chat, usually in some type of foyer, completely unsuitable for chatting. I havent got a clue what you're supposed to chat about , only that you're supposed to look intelligent or interested with a very controlled demeanour that should be pre-set somewhere between polite smugness and vaguely amused interest both with a dash of appraisingness while you drop names. In no circumstances ever  should you be "abso-fucking-lutely furious" (as I am about the immigration policy of the UK), and you should definitely not describe it in terms, or manner which indicates that you are abso-fuckin- lutely furious. You also should'nt find anything "brilliant", "really funny", "dead sad" or "a load of w***" all of which I have uttered during various 'the coffee bit'-s. If you do commit the crime of actually saying what you think, or talking about last night's footie or expressing strong emotion, there is a sideways glance and/or an imperceptible but perceptible shuffle on the part of your conversant and you find yourself alone-among-people in a large foyer that is completely unsuitable for being alone-among-people in. One solution to this is to take a conference-buddy, which is a bit like a f**-buddy (and may also be that as well), so that you dont have to endure 'the coffee bit' alone but this still means that if you ask a question within the talk, and you are not in the (or 'a')  'in crowd' you have to do so solo.

This was the point I was trying to raise about three paragraphs ago,  and that its taken this long to get 'there' may also be an illustration of why  I hate asking questions in academic situations: I find it really difficult to have  enough thoughts of the right standard while listening to an academic talk, let alone formulate coherent questions. Thus it is embarassing to feel that I have to ask a question at some point.  My accent - which is notorious  in the UK -  also doesnt help , threatening  (the accent that is) as it does,  through various social constructions of 'scousers',  to tell a joke, issue a threat of violence and be radically politically Left Wing simultaneously in a whiney nasal tone  in any question I ask even though I might'nt say anything which suggest any of those things with my words. The result is that when I do ask a question meant as a genuine enquiry it is wildly incoherent because I'm conciously trying to avoid sounding funny, threatening, Left Wing  or whiney but instead am trying to sound academic.

The result of asking my rubbish question is a bad back months after the event.  This is both a surprise and a problem because much to my surprise my observations strike a chord and I am identified as something of an expert, refreshingly regional and radical,  a bit dangerous perhaps  but academically sound. This is good for my research field, so is welcome, but is also a problem because having been identified in certain quarters as someone with something to say, I now have to say it, rather than (as was the current condition) say that I am going to be saying something (at some unspecified point). Thus much time has been spent writing furiously, glued to the laptop where I have had to concentrate on removing the word 'clearly' from everything I have ever written and replacing it with evidence. And such writing has reduced exercise significantly which has resulted in a bad back.  I've already resolved for the sake of the back never to ask another question in an academic conference again.

THe BA\d

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Dogged determinism

Well, Yrs trly has finished in York and not before time, mainly to do with patience. Dont misunderstand me, York is a pretty enough city, as blights on the landscape that cities represent, go. And I am now officially qualified to do what I have been doing for a number of years, namely teach people to speak the English. But a month was enough, for two, or possibly three, reasons.

Firstly, the commute. It doesnt take long before irritation sets in with commuting. The first thing that annoys me about this is the inanity of early morning commuting conversation,  repeated year-in-year out. I'm not  a conversation snob - listening to Mandy (our friend) telling her stories about work is a jaw dropping  pleasure. Mandy has  the 'she said and then I said' style of narrative down to an art form: "She said 'That's my mop' she said, and I said to her I said 'Get yer own naffin mop'" all delivered with shudders and finger pointing at exactly the right moment. But there is a certain type of lower middle management whose commuting conversation is a crime against speaking or any other form of communication. This is the type that actively wants to live in a new build estate named 'Elm Lea Grange' by the contractors Redrow in memory of all the trees they removed to build the inadequately insulated chimneyless plasticized boxes that infest English suburbia and who sprays insecticide everywhere in their garden to get rid of 'pests' but who likes going to 'country pubs' because its more natural who proudly describe themselves as  pragmatic  and the type who will survive a zombie apocalypse: unimaginative, prosaic, bilious and dull. An example of this during the last week of my commute was provided by Cathy. Cathy  gets on at Selby every morning with two friends and last week was planning a thirtieth birthday party, one of her primary ambitions for which was to ensure that 'people' did'nt get too drunk because she "could'nt be doing with" a party that was  "chaotic". In fact, Cathy's descriptions of "how much bother" was involved in arranging the party revolved around ensuring the maximum control over peoples' behaviour, including start and finish times (not too early, not too late), clothing ("I dont want anyone turning up like its a cattle market"), music (the dj's been given a list), children's involvement (they have specific duties), food ("the eating bit should'nt go on too long because then everyone gets settled and just talks") and arranging the date so it's impossible for people she does'nt like (but has invited anyway because she 'has to') to politely refuse to attend ("I told Emma weeks ago so she's got no excuse"). Cathy's friend's murmured agreement that as long as she could arrange everything exactly as planned,  "the night" should go well and offered a few suggestions for further control, such as the exact timing of when Cathy should allow everyone to sing her 'Happy Birthday' and how she should manage the receiving of gifts which everyone was required to bring, the purchase of which Cathy had directed in advance by issuing a list of acceptable items ("a good idea" intoned her co-commuters). Just before alighting at York, Cathy mused that sometimes she wondered if it was all "more trouble than it was worth", and I found myself nodding in furious agreement, the first, and only time  in the half hour I had been earwigging her conversation that we concurred entirely.

The second reason a month was enough concerns  the phrase 'station stop' (as in "Selby is your next station-stop"). Regular readers will remember my action filled one man campaign to have this hideous phrase removed from the lexicon, a campaign which I believed , at the time, to be successful. However,  as fellow activist campaigners will know and  as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela, the search for justice is never done, If a warrior for freedom abandons vigilance for even a moment, the forces of tyranny  will rise up again, relentless and implaccable. Thus it has been with 'station-stop'. Since I abandoned my campaign, satisfied that I had struck a blow against the hegemony of shit phrases, 'station stop' has returned with a vengeance, possibly being employed with more frequency than ever before. Clearly, a month has not been enough to re-launch my campaign so I have had to accept that at 07:37 every morning, the speaker in the carriage will crackle into life and "Selby is your next station stop" will echo unsonorously throughout the train. It has been tough on the nerves. 

The third reason a month was enough concerns the qualification achieved in the month, a growing discontent with which may have fuelled the irritations expressed above. The qualification was an English language teaching qualification, necessary for my future employment, but as the course progressed I experienced a mounting disquiet, similar to that experienced when being taught about 'learning styles' in my undergraduate degree. As a relatively recent acolyte at the altar of learning, and therefore not someone who can claim expertise, repeated contact with experienced academics and teachers has led me to the conclusion that learning (and teaching) without criticality is a waste of time. This criticality may take a number of directions, from functional analysis of reductive evidence in support of an idea (common in science) to analysis and critique of one's own worldview (common in social science) but despite an occasional divergence between academic paradigms (I know its a horrible word and one I try to avoid but the only one I can think of at the moment), the fundamental principle that is suggested is rigour (of thinking). In my recent course, debates over rigour focused n the thorny issue of  'pair work', which we, as trainee teachers, had been told was integral to good language teaching. One day, near the end of the course, I (who had been repeatedly marked down in assessment  of my teaching for not pairing students) could stand it no longer:

"What...." I asked, genuinely curious "...if like me, a student doesn't like 'pair work'?. What if, like me, they want to absorb new information themselves before discussing it with another person in case the other person is equally ignorant of the new information and themselves also require time to absorb it before they can say anything useful ? Also, what if, like me, they dont like the person they are paired with?" (this latter comment slipped out accidentally but reflected the actual situation in the training room because I really didnt like the person I was paired with and the extent of the dislike was such that it was evident to the rest of the class, causing an amused ripple in the room) "Not that I dont like the person I'm currently paired with"  I lied " but what if I didnt?".

The trainer smiled "An interesting point" he said "And thanks for that! So, like Mazzer says, how do we ensure students work in pairs? Have a think about it, in your pairs, for a few minutes..."

"I'm sorry" I said, utilising the phrase 'I'm sorry' in its full English usage "But that's not what I meant. I dont understand why we insist on 'pair work'. I mean, what is the theory behind it?"

"That's a good question. And thanks for that!" said the trainer, seamlessly practising one of the other tenets of teacher training which is to never engage in a debate about anything, especially when asking other people to debate something "In your pairs, also talk  about why 'pair work' is so effective. I want to see some real discussion going on". He leant closer to me and smiled "Thanks for that"  he said, then indicated that the class should continue.

The phrase 'dogged determination' is understood to  describe an individual's persistence because, according to vox populi comprehension,  it describes a canine pursuing a goal single-mindedly, such as gnawing on an old bone. However, there is nothing as determined as a cat which wishes to embrace the dawn chorus but finds the cat flap, or the back door,  locked and the persistence with which said feline will sit on the bed padding a human's face or sticking its sharpest claw up the right nostril until it gets a response, makes a dog look like a diletante. I returned to the fray, channeling  Toshack:

"But what are we discussing? Are we debating whether 'pair work' works or just accepting that it does and talking about it?" I asked, and determined not to be thanked again I rushed on, this time risking appearing to be that most hated of classroom entities, the smart arse " I mean, is 'pair work' based on Brunner's appropriation of the work of Vygotsky, the oft misunderstood notion of scaffolding? Because if it is, then surely it would only work if you were very careful about who was paired with who and..."

"Thanks for that!" the trainer interrupted smilingly "yes 'pair work' is effective because the students enjoy it as Mazzer says, and it helps them to learn and lots of research has shown this. So have a think about that,  in your pairs, for three minutes, then we'll have a discussion".

The inner cat slunk off. I capitulated and sat, in silence  with the other half of my pair while she carefully wrote 'Pair work' on a fresh sheet in her notebook, outlined the words with a little cloud and proceeded to tag the cloud with phrases like "students enjoy", "good practice"  and "good for learning". "What do you think? " she asked. "I dont" I replied.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Earth and Water

The sharp pain in the achilles, just above the ankle is indication that there has been an infrigement of mine personage. I turn round and see that its just Pat. I have been barged into by Pat, so I am the bargee and Pat the barger. Her instrument of choice is a scuffed plastic trolley, the topmost layer of which contains, for want of a better description, "food" items, and it would appear,  to the uniformed,  that Pat has just jumped the queue at Pumpkin, Hull Paragons foremost refreshment stand,  and is now, like me,  waiting for a hot drink. But looks can be deceptive, because Pat, according to her name badge,  is a five star member  of the Pumpkin's customer service team and this morning, her job is to replenish the supply of 'hot and cold snacks, sandwiches and light refreshments'  which henceforth we'll refer to as hcsslr,  that repose on the countertop near the till.

"Thiei dont get out'tt'way do thiei?" she asks Lindsey, as she lifts large plastic lids off plates of hcsslr. The lids, ill matches for the plates they cover, look like they've been purchased secondhand from Bargain Village, having that post-apocalyptic sheen typical of old plastic,  and have condensation on the inside which rapidly starts pooling on the floor which is where Pat has placed them. Other customers in the queue start retreating form the growing pool, but, as the bargee, I feel duty bound to stand my ground, so I dont move. This doesnt bother Pat, she just leans in, like a roller derby queen on the final bend, and sweeps the old hcsslr in front of me into a plastic bag. She drops a few into the pool of spreading water, but picks them up and chucks them in the bag.

"Yeh cant get at them from t'other side" says Pat, and I  realize she's probably earned her stripes through implementation of  innovative resupply strategies. When the plates have been emptied, Pat reloads them with the new hcsslr form the top of her trolley, pausing only to place her hand firmly on each item of hcsslr "Them sausage baps're still 'ot" she tells Lindsey, who has ceased service completely to watch Pat at work.

Now there are   times when a cessation of service at the drinks counter of a busy railway station may cause problems and some stress. If one analysed timetables carefully, one could probably predict when these times and the causal chain behind the resulting stress. I conducted such an analysis one morning while glancing briefly at the departure board, and the results were astonishing. In early morn, between ten two and five past seven, the trains for all of the natural commuter destinations realistically achievable from Hull (Selby, Leeds, York), and the most popular  business and airport destinations (London and Manchester) all leave. The pattern is repeated about half an hour later, with the delayed 7.37 leading the charge. Thus, one might predict that at a refreshment stand, demand might peak slightly prior to these departures, perhaps tailing off after ten minutes. In terms of service, this may imply a logistical problem - a log jam, in effect around these departure times as hordes of thirsty commuters roll up at your counter baying for a 'latte', 'americano' or even a hcsslr and a beverage.

You can imagine the hcsslr service staff who've worked these shifts as battle scarred veterans: ,steel eyed, square jawed, hard bitten survivors of a battle where steam bilged from the expresso maker as orders came in thick and fast "Latte!", "Tea!", "Capuchino" and even the dreaded "Decaf Americano" as the crowd of  pre-stressed communters built to a peak, flyers and business people impatient, waiting, urgent. In this imagining,  the staff gave as good as they got, hurling themselves from coffee maker to  fridge to cup storage to till... "one latte!!", "expresso!!!" "two pounds fifty!" "next please" .. hot beverage orders flying off the counter top until they did it.... they stemmed the tide. Like Spartans at Thermopylae they knew their victory was temporary but like Spartans, they approached their fate phlegmatically "We'll serve hcsslr in the shade" indeed.

This is perhaps a romantic view, but having commuted in the UK and travelled abroad (as they say), hcsslr staff are increasing Spartan. Identikit uniforms, scripted dialogue, scrupulously clean, ruthlessly, inhumanly efficient, and utterly careless about your (the customer's) fate. That is what customer service is about. You are brushed aside in order to prove how much the company care about you by showing you they can get rid of you quickly and this is done while they convince you that this is what you want.  Rush hours are not a problem - there's just more product to shift, efficiently, ruthlessly, inhumanly. Buying a coffee in York, Leeds or London rail stations  is one of the most demoralising experiences I have....and if you notice the tense, you will realise that I repeat the experience, frequently.

There's only two places I have been which buck the trend. In Hull, Pat has solved the problem of the log jam by timing her replenishment of hcsslr so that it co-incides with the imminent departure of the busiest trains. No service happens while Pat is replenishing from the front of the counter and the enemy attack just withers away. Commuters who are really hoping for a last minute coffee abandon the queue in droves,  and scores more by-pass Pumpkin. You'll only get a drink if you time your run perfectly.

"What can I get you love?" asks Lindey, brightly after Pat's finished "Any hcsslr today?". The replaced plastic tops  of the resupplied hcsslr plates are condensing quite quickly. "No thanks" I say brightly "Not today! Just tea!". Lindsey delivers, I pay and she asks "Where you off to today then?" as to my right a newbie customer is jiggling his change and  jumping up and down, apopleptic, but clearly English and Yorkshire,  because he says nothing about his agitation. "Just York like normal" I tell her "See you tomorrow".

As a note on the progress of this blog, I realise that this most recent spate of wrting is supposed to be about my adventures as a CELTA trainee in York, yet it is still only 06:56 and we havent left Hull yet after two attempts! Forgive my indulgence reader! I find commuting from Hull a unique experience but probably one which will not last forever, given increasing homogeneity. I can think of only two places I have been in similarly industrialised countries where the railway station or airport refreshment stands equal Hull's in terms of quirkiness and those two other places are Liverpool, where the main barrier is understanding anything the staff say, and Halifax NS where you get the feeling that hclssr might be Government make-work training schemes.I wil try to get to York tomorrow!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Symbolic Interactionism and Waggagaling

Its a vagrant misty morning and two old companions have resumed a familiar routine. If I were to mention that  the aforementioned routine involves the Crosstowner, early, early morn and Hull's Paragon Railway station, regular readers would probably be able to deduce that the second member of the partnership is yrs trly. And having deduced that fact (which I can confirn), the same regular reader might be aghast. "Has he taken leave of his senses?" they might say "Surely, our friend, and PhD candidate MJ etc cannot have resumed commuting? Why it seems like only two years ago that I was reading, with horror, tales of the (delayed) 7.37 to Leeds". Shaking their head, the regular reader may decide to read on, but I imagine that some would make themselves a very strong cup of coffee before deciding whether to forge ahead - although (and as will be discussed in another post) there may be some debate on whether you can 'forge ahead' with reading.

To allay some immediate fears, it is not the (delayed) 7.37 that we are intending to rendevous. And, having rendevoused, the Crosstowner wont join me on the train, but will stable in a quiet berth, near the employees rest rooms, at Hull Paragon station. And it is not 7.37am that is our temporal target, but the slightly earlier time of 7.07. And as a final piece of essential information, the destination is not the hideous metropolis of Leeds, but the much more attractive city of York, where I have enrolled on a course leading to accreditation known as CELTA  necessitating a month of travel, of which, half way through I am. 'Why' may be addressed later, but lets return to the immediate (recent) past present and the scenario we opened with, the Crosstowner thundering across Pearson Park, breaking through the early morning mist like a warhorse on the fields of Agincourt.

We roll into Hull Paragon Interchange Bus/Railway Station/Taxi Stand at 6.45 and I ruminate, as I glance at the sign,  on the fact that  if,  half way through my commute,  the  undecided nature of Hull Paragon is a source of growing irritation,  I have much to be grateful for that this commute is not permanent. I breeze past coffee stand No 1 - not open - and head for WH Smith, vendor of newspapers and magazines. Those with long memories may recall a running battle between proprietor of said store and self, based around my refusal to insert the word 'Thank you' into every utterance. I walk into his store, grab a pack of gum and stick it on the counter with the exact money, wave cheerily without a word, especially 'thank you'  - as his face rapidly ascends to puce - and walk out. Or rather, I try to, because he calls out '!Excuse me sir'. Actually,  if I had to use phonological symbols, I could represent what he said better, because the ! is really a strangled 'Oi!' which he realizes half way through he is not allowed to say because of corporate customer care policy (WH Smith is a franchise in railway stations) so he transmangles the 'Oi!' halfway through utterance and starts his sentence sounding a bit like our cats when they are particularly annoyed by the rain. However, he makes it clear with his follow-up that I should return to the counter.

Stretching his palm out expectantly he says "Thank you, sir, I need to scan the gum". He is just short of waggaling (please note the spelling is deliberate to emphasize just how much he wanted to waggal at me) his fingers impatiently. I wont be pushed around, so I say:

'Cant you just scan another pkt of gum?'

His near- waggaling escalates into near-waggagaling:

'Cant do that, sir! Need to scan for stocktaking. The Gum' (an order, linguistically an imperative, near waggalling reaching new peak of intensity).Thank you' (an expletive, socio-anthropologically a challenge to a death match).

'Well I've torn the packet now' I say, indicating an unreadable bar code.

The near-waggagalling becomes the full waggagal, indicating I should hand over the bar accompanied of course, with a curt 'Thank You' (phonologically his 'thank you's' have also become shorter). He looks at the packet in disgust 'Technically, that's shop lifting, you see' he says 'until its been scanned'. While saying this he's trying to scan the half open pkt o'gum with its damaged bar code. He realises very quickly this is impossible so he redoubles his efforts exaggeratedly sweeping the gum past his scanner, sighing dramatically.He contorts his body, twisting his upper arms so he looks as if he's doing an impression of a nesting ostrich, but the pkt o'gum remains unscannable.

Meanwhile,  I am amazed that I have practically been accused of shoplifting,  so look for support to the growing line behind me with a sceptical raising of the eyebrows and equally theatrical nod towards puce-face intended to be visible to my audience. There are not sympathetic tuts or wry smiles, indeed no support is evident and there's no sign of an incipient constituency either : queue-ers in WH Smith at this time of the morning are, by and large,  a certain type of Middle England commuter, the type of person who tolerates losing three hours of every single day travelling to work on a crappy rail system and buys the same middle brow newspaper  which  regularly reports on the crappy railway system and inhuman job market that makes people travel ludricrous distances to hold down a-shitty-job-in-a-financial-institution-that-caused-the-unemployment-in-your-home-town-that-means-your-life-is-just-a-procession-of-transferals-from-metal/train-box-to-concrete/office-box in the first place and who thinks these reports are about other people. For commuters like this, utterly self absorbed, life is 'that's just the way it is' and things are done a certain way because....well just because. Buying gum without scanning the bar code or four 'thank-you's' is a hanging offence. I receive no support;  instead I am tutted at (we have discussed the etiology of English tutting before and I wont repeat the discussion here).

I get my gum in the end, a definitively Pyrrhic victory,  and wander over to Pumpkin, the notorious coffee franchise people may remember from my exploits as a Leeds-bound commuter. At one time relations with the Pumpkin staff were not good, following an incident involving a ham sandwich and a croissant, but over the last year or two , the Pumpkin staff and I have grown closer.

'Where'y off to t'day then love?' says Lindsey as I gesture vaguely, which she inteprets (correctly) as 'tea with a little bit of milk'

'York, again' I say. I've explained to Lindsey several times over the previous two weeks  that:

1. I used to travel to Leeds but dont anymore
2. On Thursday evening I go to Beverley
3. Now I go to York every day.
4. Occasionally I go elsewhere

'Oh thats right,...' says Lindsey '....there you go love (handing over the tea).....I forget where you're off to ...cant keep track of all your travelling'.

That someone  who works in a railway/bus station/taxi rank is surprised that someone they regularly meet at (and because of)  a railway station,  should travel a lot is itself surprising, but Lindsey is lovely- bright, bubbly and friendly. I hand over £1.80 for my cup of disgusting tea and tell Lindsey 'Cheers. Thanks. Ta! See you later'.