Friday, 28 December 2007

Children who normalise

Children growing up in abnormal families (i.e. all families) have a natural tendency to think that their home life is the norm. My daughter is baffled by people who haven't heard of David Attenborough or who can't name all the instruments of a Javanese gamelan, while one of Charles Darwin's offspring supposedly asked a schoolfriend "Where does your Daddy do his barnacles?"

A few weeks ago I was in the lobby of the local leisure centre waiting for my daughter to emerge from the changing room after her swimming lesson, and sitting next to me was a man on a similar errand, except that he had a three-year old boy to keep amused. He was evidently a keen fisherman, and was attempting to read a fishing magazine. "What's that Daddy?" asked the boy, pointing a grubby finger at a photo in the mag.

"That's a golden tench!" replied the proud Dad.

I safely predict that not only will the lad be able to name 100 types of fish by the age of 10, but will be baffled by anyone who cannot.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas, everybody...

Looking out of my window, the apt song for today would seem to be "I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas". It's mild but rainy.

The oddest Christmas I ever had was spent in shorts and T-shirt in sweltering tropical heat without the benefit of AC, frantically trying to copy-edit a book which claimed to be a dictionary of idiomatic English, but which had quite clearly been written by someone totally unfamiliar with the English language.

It contained examples of 'idiomatic English' such as:

"World War I broke down shortly afterwards"


"Excuse me, can you tell me where I can move the bowels?"

I should have just let it stand as an inadvertent comic masterpiece, I suppose.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Why reading too many children's books is a bad idea

My daughter is currently unwell, having gone down with a horible cough on the last day of term (how crap is that?). Needing comfort, she asked the other night for me to read a Dr Seuss book that she hasn't heard for a while (admittedly babyish for a highly literate 9-year old currently reading Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy unaided, but comforting for precisely that reason).

That reminded me of an incident when she was about five. We were driving to the school at which my wife teaches for some reason, and were listening in the car to a tape of some Dr Seuss stories. She starts to become suspicious of my navigational ability.

"Do you know the way to Mummy's school, Daddy?"

"I know the way to Mummy's school -
I know the way - I am no fool;
I have a map upon a spool
I read it sitting on a stool."


"Shut up Daddy."

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The culinary delights of Central Asia

I have received further communication from Major Fortescue-Trouserbugle, stating "Enjoyed yer vignette-thingy of life in Tashkent. Got any more amusin' anecdotes from that trip?"

Funnily enough, yes I have. Some colleagues from our office there took me out to lunch at a courtyard restaurant famous for its plov - a rice dish not dissimilar to pilaf/pulao for the good reason that they are all regional variations on the same theme. The restaurant featured a number of enormous iron cauldrons on brick hearths over open fires, each one containing a different variety of plov and capable of holding 100kg of rice at a time.

My colleagues order for me. The meal begins. We chat happily about this and that until suddenly, and a propos of nothing, one of my colleagues - a charming Khwarazmian lady - asks me "Do you like horses?". I am baffled by the question but assume it has something to do with the locals all being the descendants of steppe nomads and what-not, so I give a non-commital reply along the lines of "Yes, they're, erm, quite nice I suppose. Why do you ask?"

"Because you have not yet asked what it is you are eating."

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Escape from TEFL

One of my two readers, a Mr Ward of Brazil (which I hardly need remind you is where the nuts come from) has inquired about the possibility of Life After TEFL.

For me, TEFL was less a career option than something which paid my modest bills while I was really doing something else - in my case trying to complete a rather pointless PhD (in the 10 years since its submission, my thesis has been read by a staggering total of four people, one of whom - my internal examiner no less - freely admitted that he hadn't really understood the main section of it. Fortunately he demurred to my external examiner, who had been brought in soleley becasue he was the one person in the country apart from my supervisor who could understand it. Such is academia.)

Where was I? Oh yes - TEFL. Having a PhD to complete and no money, the only viable option was to move to the country I was studying and get a TEFL job, passing it off as 'fieldwork' to my college authorities. For four hours work five days a week clowning around and showing off in front of the exotic, dark-eyed college girls who made of 80% of my student clientele, I got a house and a livable salary.

It hardly needs stressing that while this was a fine way of life for a single man in his 20s, I can see why it would rapidly lose its appeal for anyone with a wife to point out their financial, social and moral responsibilities.

Having said that, I did meet a charming young lady during my year of TEFL and returned a few years later to the scene of my crimes against education with the letters 'PhD' after my name (which impress people who haven't read your thesis, so I'm generally on safe ground) to start a university lecturing job.

The reason for this was entirely down to her - romance only blossomed fully during a year she spent at her university's expense doing an MA at a British university, and on hearing her plans to get married her employer felt it better to offer me a job than to lose her, if you see what I mean. Thus it was that I walked into a job teaching - believe it or not - 'British Studies'; a subject which - being born British - I had never studied in my life. All went swimmingly well for a while (being newly married tends to give one a rosy view of the world); and then the country went seriously pear-shaped and we had to flee. We arrived back in the UK with two suitcases, a baby, and no visible means of support, to land in my parents' spare room and start perusing job pages. As a way out of TEFL, I honestly wouldn't recommend it.

Soon I saw a carefully misleading job advert, applied for it, and found myself at a crapulent desk next to No Good Boyo drinking tea at the public expense and complaining about everything. I am now into my ninth year of tea and whingeing and going strong.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Speaking of Uzbekistan...

... as No Good Boyo was in his response to my last post - the funniest thing I ever saw in real life was in Uzbekistan. I was sent there some months ago by my employer. (Nonetheless, their plan backfired when they mistakenly gave me a return ticket).

Anyway, Tashkent is a city woefully short on diversion for the sober, morally upright gentleman; and so it was that I found myself trudging the shabby streets one evening in company with a work colleague. Tashkent was apparently a beautiful city once, before an earthquake damaged it and commie builders finished it off. The concrete that may have looked modern and impressive 40 years ago is now crumbling to dust as you walk on it. This probably explains the event we witnessed - a small shabby looking gent in a fur hat leaned on a lamppost which then - its concrete footing having crumbled into critical weakness - fell over into the street, just as we walked past.

The lamppost - motivated by the malevolence all non-sentient objects harbour for the sentient - was prevented from hitting the ground by a parked Mercedes, through the windscreen of which it plunged with a glorious noise of shattering glass and crumpling metal. As the shabby gent looked around in horror, a large nouveau-riche looking party emerged from nearby with body language which unquestionably identified him as the owner of the Mercedes in question.

Though I speak next to no Russian, I nonetheless found myself able to follow the ensuing conversation perfectly:

Shabby gent: Not my fault gov, it just fell over like.

I mentioned this to my (Russian-speaking) companion, who responded that that was indeed uncannily accurate as an executive summary of the language which rose upon the Transoxanian evening air....

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The precocity of my offspring

Last night, m'first born was sitting on the sofa casually examining some minor inuries (non-hedgehog related, I stress).

"Daddy", she said "I've just noticed that the scab on my ankle is the same shape as Madagascar."

I looked, and indeed the scab in question, suitably magnified, with the addition of some placenames, and coloured something other than dark red, could indeed have served as a cartographic representation of the Malagasy Republic.

Odd what the young notice, isn't it?

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

I have received literally an e-mail...

... asking me what exactly this blog is supposed to be about

"Gadzooks man" writes a Maj Buffy Fortescue-Touserbugle, "So far we've had the tantalisin' promise er Gyppo-kickin', manouche music, bad puns, wildlife - which yer never even shot, dashitall - and then incense-scented tractarian folderol. Meck yer bally mind up!"

To which I reply - where does it say a blog has to be about only one subject? Or indeed even one? Think of it as a 21st-century commonplace book, in which anything that momentarily distracted me may perform the same vaulable function for anyone else whose life is as boring and inconsequential as mine.

I was born too early for my own good, in that blogging as a form - while suiting my 5-minute attention span and inability to focus my meagre talents on one area of human endeavour - only arrived on the scene after I had done all the interesting bits of my life. You find me now, dear reader (I'm assuming that there's only one of you) in a state of placid, well-fed suburban dullness, in which the main challenges are traffic on the route to work, DIY and helping my offspring with homework. All of which are either 'rewarding in their own way' or 'necessary evils', of course, but hardly the stuff of heady autobiography. So you find me merrily flitting here and there, lurching from minor crisis to minor crisis on the road to inevitable ruin.

Still, you've got to laugh, haven't you?

Monday, 3 December 2007

The joys of Anglo-Catholicism

Last night I was roped into playing The Messiah (and he won - b'doom ching).

But seriously, I was playing second violin in a rare attempt to use parts of Handel's most famous oratorio liturgically in an advent service.

I shall refrain from naming the church or the priest involved, but it was a high-churchman of some repute whom I have not seen these past 20 years, ever since I used to sing in the choir at one of his previous churches - a full-on 'bells and smells' Anglo-Catholic place.

My abiding memory of the style of his ministry was the post-Easter 'renewal of baptismal vows' service during which the officiant processes slowly to the back of the church, accompanied by an acolyte carrying what I can only describe as a bucket of holy water, from which the officiant flicks the congregation in a symbolic baptism. When this particular priest reached the choir at the back of the church, he handed his flicking-stick to the acolyte, seized the bucket, and threw the entire contents over the choir.

He now has a sign outside his church reading "The Marquess of Queensberry's Rules Apply to All Mobile Phones and Chiming Watches."

Saturday, 1 December 2007

The wisdom of hedgehogs

Last week, I arrived home after dark in company with my first-born changeling (a girl-child of some nine summers) , and as we pulled through a herbaceous border and onto the lawn she perked up and said "Look! A hedgehog!". And indeed, ambling amiably past our front step and into the drive at the side of our domicile was a rather small hedgehog. My daughter, animal-mad as ever, insisted on putting food out for it; though to be honest I'd probably have fed it even had I been alone.
Since then 'feeding the hedgehog' has become a nightly task. Last night we arrived home later than usual and I stepped outside the back door to pick up the saucer from its dark, cat-proof corner and rammed my fingers into something unexpectedly prickly. Yes - our small visitor had arrived for its evening snack and - finding the saucer empty - had opted to curl up on the saucer and wait.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Should I seek help?

Yesterday, I awoke with the following thought in what passes for my head:

"And now, Linton Kwesi Johnson will read his celebrated poem 'Mama weer orl kwesi now'."

Today, I woke up thinking:

"Next week, the Guardian's Palestinian film festival will continue with a screening of 'Rabbi-Proof Fence'."

This may or may not be linked to the following factors:

1) I've had to start work at 7am every day this week.
2) Mrs Byard is not far off spawning our second changeling, and thoughtfully rouses me at 2am most nights with a plaintive cry of "IVEGOTCRAMPIVEGOTCRAMPAAAAAAAARGH!" and demanding massages with Singapore's most pungent unguents.
3) Compulsive punning may be linked to brain damage. I'm now doing it in my sleep.