Category Archives: Work

On another day in another place.

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The gray sky hangs low, pressing you into the ground, opening out the horizon and forcing everything else to admit its insignificance.

Yet on this unpreposing canvas the reds and yellows of the trees glow. Green grass seems brighter. Buildings are whiter, and every little scrap of litter on the ground shines out in lurid advertisement of its former contents. There is no wind, and no chill in the air. Instead you are wrapped in a gentle soothing clagginess, fine drizzle misting your hair, which is soon warmed away as the fires are lit and bottles of beer are broached.

It is a distinctly autumnal kind of day.

Which is something to be savoured in Russia, a country where your favourite season lasts five minutes between the scorching heat of summer and the first snowfall.

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This is also a distinctly Russian works day out.

First, of course, is the enforced dash through culture. A trip around the New Jerusalem Monastery, undergoing, in common with every other Russian Orthodox building at this time, extensive renovations. The money that is being spent on the hand-painted frescoes, re-plastered walls, gold-leafed cupolas and heavily-carved stonemasonry is a testament to just how popular religion becomes if it’s banned for 70-odd years.

Much like any other drug.

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The highlight of the visit is a stone heralded as an exact 1:3 scale copy of the boulder which once covered the enterance of the tomb of Christ. A solemn precession of irritable foriegners, resentlful that this is taking up valuable drinking time, shuffle past, intoning “But how do they know?”

But then comes release. Into the park. Head for the windmill. Ignore the replica wooden peasents hut and chapel, ignore Patriach Nikon’s home-in-exile, ignore the riverside baptismal platform, ignore the colourful wishing trees with their penants of hankerchiefs, scarfs and plastic bags. Head straight for the beer.

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But there is little time to relax, for the entertainment the Boss has laid on is spectacular. In the middle of a field, in the middle of the sodden Russian countryside, you are seranaded by a full brass band, complete with baton-twirling, bright-smiling majorettes in shocking blue and red uniforms. And then, still reeling from the incongruity of it all, the folk singers come on, persuade a gaggle of capering lads to take bread and salt, chivy the company into the spoon game, and start up the ever popular tunnel procession run, last seen played by teenagers on Red Square before a pop-concert.

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And so to bed. Drunken staggering in the half-light, singing, whispering, collapsing.

On a Really Goode Job.

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You are supposed to be job hunting at the moment but you are putting it off. Or rather Putting It Off, the capitals being entirely justified by the lengths to which you will go to avoid it.

This is partly because the wonderful world of state school teaching seems oddly uninterested in you. Surely they are not taking onto account such small matters as the fact that your degree was 15 years ago and you’ve been teaching the wrong subject ever since. So you have too much teaching and, worse, management experience for a newbie. And now you’ve also had a year off after completing your initial training.

Still, it’s a bit deflating.

But you could cope with the damage the ringing silence in the face of your application (sorry, ‘applications’)is doing to your ego, if it weren’t for the thrice dammed bleeping application forms.

Applying for state school teaching is, essentially, applying for the same job with the same employer. Over and over again.

Yet every single school has a different form.

You assume this is because they like to think that every school has slightly different needs and so requires slightly different information.

But they don’t. On the form, they ask for exactly the same information, albeit laid out in a slightly different way each time. Presumably to foil your attempts to cut and paste.

Admittedly this differs a bit from a standard CV in that they want full work histories (in reverse chronological order) for example. This is supposed to protect them from undesirable elements.

But the same effect, surely, could be gained by specifying what they want to see on a CV?

You do not consider the fact that some schools want the full addresses of the places you’ve worked and some don’t sufficient excuse for making you spend hours you don’t have wrestling with what are frequently very badly designed Word documents.

Particularly as they also want exceptionally long cover letters to accompany them, which is where the actual tailoring your presentation to the job part comes in.

Luckily, if you just ignore it for a few months more, the entire problem will become irrelevant as the new term will have started and that’s that career move up the swanny. Probably.

Anyway, you are feeling particularly impressed by Max of Celluloid Blonde, who has managed to find a job with a company called Murphy-Goode where the application process eschews pointless busywork in favour of making the candidates produce a video clip.

Which people then vote on. (That’s important).

Shockingly, this actually has some relevance to the position at hand.

Now there’s a company to work for. The fact it involves becoming intimately acquainted with a winery has nothing to do with it.

Anyway, since the company seems to have an original approach, it’s entirely appropriate that Max’s clip is the most original there. So watch the video, vote for it, and complete the email which makes the vote count. Do it soon, as they are about to cut the applicants down to the most popular 50.

And while there, admire the backing track, ‘cos it’s really cool.

On korrect speling.

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When you were about nine years old you were extracted from the classes that everyone else was attending in order to do extra nature study.

It was one of those half arsed efforts schools make sometimes towards catering for ‘gifted’ children, the quotation marks there being entirely justified as the lesson you were lifted out of on the grounds that you were too good for it was the spelling class.

You spent the next twelve years being told by successive teachers that your spelling was appalling.

It wasn’t until you were actually a trainee on the course you now tutor on yourself that someone actually bothered to tell you which words you were misspelling though. Thanks to the fact that your essays came back with all the mistakes neatly underlined in green pen you discovered that it wasn’t (just) those long and complicated terms you had been dutifully looking up for all those years, but pretty much every fifth word.

Incidentally, you would just like to point out how difficult it is to find things in the dictionary if you don’t know how to spell them in the first place. Who knew ‘exercise’ began ‘exe’ and not ‘exc’, for example? The time you wasted on that long ago day when you were checking those errors because you had to go through the whole of the ‘e’ section to track that one word down has been indelibly burned on your memory.

And that’s assuming you’ve got the first letter right, which, trust me, is not something anyone should assume about your spelling.

Now, of course, the boot is on the other foot and you are the one driven to incandescent rage by the innaccuracies of your native speaker trainees.

So you do have a certain amount of sympathy for Dr Bernard Lamb of Imperial College, London, who has become so irritated by having to mark page after page of badly spelt essays that he has written a book about the mistakes his students have made. People have been handing you clippings about it – can’t imagine why – and you even caught a delightful little slot on BBC Breakfast news last week where he and another expert were slugging it out on the topic.

The thing about spelling – and punctuation for that matter – is that it does seem to bring out the raging pedant in people. Well, bad spelling brings him out in other people. You tend to get in touch with your inner disgusted of Tunbridge Wells over misplaced commas and the misuse of the word ‘however’.

Now, let’s be honest, this is rarely about people genuinely misinterpreting what has been said because the spelling, or even the punctuation is wrong.

Sure, there are lots of pithy little examples you could give to show how different punctuation – or even spelling slips – can radically alter the meaning, but these are always isolated sentences. What people should remember is that that’s not how they would be reading them in real life. The context almost always allows people to figure out what was meant.

It does slow them down, though. And this is what people seem to lose sight of when it comes to the debate about good spelling.

The point is, good spelling in and of itself is not a virtue. But it does help people process your text with the minimum of effort possible.

Punctuation too is not there – nowadays – to tell you how to phrase the text when reading aloud. Commas, for example, do not… do not – this is one of your pet hates – ‘tell people where to breathe’. The only texts we read out loud now are bedtime stories to kids, the religious book in the religious establishment of our choice, or, and you find this particularly unhelpful, whatever book the literature class is ploughing though in school.

Good punctuation, therefore, is there to help the eyes take the right route through the text, and occasionally, if anyone ever uses a semicolon correctly, show the brain the connection between ideas.

Reading is a silent and individual activity. All those moving their lips are not doing it properly.

Layout, of course, is also helpful here. Count the number of sentences that go to make up a paragraph in a text designed to be read on screen compared to one designed to be read in a more traditional format. The better ones have much shorter paragraphs, and quite short sentences. Much like newspapers.

It’s to take the strain off the reader because if other people are anything like you, reading off a monitor is considerably more laborious than reading off a page. Newspapers, of course, just want the whole experience to be as pain free and exciting as possible. One sentence paragraphs therefore abound, and this is good. For that context.

So badly spelt, punctuated or laid out texts are annoying because they trip you up. You are spilled out of the act of smoothly navigating through the mass of wriggly symbols and forced to spend extra time regrouping the words yourself so they make sense, mentally rearranging the letters so they are now in the right order, or lying down in a darkened room for half an our to stop the migraine from striking.

 And, quite understandably, this is infuriating if it happens too often.

Now fair enough, but you don’t think the effortlessly good spellers of this world realise what a trial it is to get it right for those who don’t have any kind of feel for the right combination of letters at all.

You’ve spent the last ten years noting down your misspellings. Spellcheckers are enormously helpful here. You’ve worked out your habitual errors you’ve learned as many rules as you can to help you.

There are a lot.

Take trying to work out when to use double letters.

Don’t, please, trot out that old chestnut about double consonants showing short vowel sounds rather than long ones (‘rapped’ vs ‘raped’ as Dr Shaw so amusingly put it on Breakfast). It’s following that kind of logic that has had you spelling ‘apologise’ with two ‘p’s all these years. As for vowels, since ‘lose’ is a long vowel sound and the same as ‘choose’, and ‘loose is a short vowel sound and not the same as ‘chose’, you can be forgiven for perennially getting the two confused. In your opinion.

There are, it has to be said, lots of fairly fixed patterns when it comes to doubling a letter when adding a suffix to the base word (‘hot’ to ‘hotter’ and ‘occur’ to ‘occurred’, ‘travel’ to ‘travelling’ and so on) and this has significantly improved the quality of your life.

But then many words just defy reason altogether. You were entirely in agreement with Dr Shaw’s Breakfast opponent, Masha Bell, a woman who seems to have dedicated her life to trying to explain spelling to people, who said that being of a logical bent did not help when it comes to spelling.

Of course, you would take this further and say that if you are bad at spelling, you must be very logical. This entirely justifies the fact that ever since you discovered that ‘acknowledge begins ‘ack’ not ‘ak’ you have been having to forcible restrain yourself from writing ‘chunk’ as ‘chunk’ and not ‘chunck’, with very little success.

And in any case there’s nothing much you can do at all about words ending ‘ent’ or ‘ant’ or ‘ence’ or ‘ance’, ‘er’ or ‘or’ or in the case of ‘grammar’, ‘ar’. Unstressed and so sounding exactly the bloody same as each other, so no kind of rules apply at all. Whaddayamean, learn them all off by heart? Do you know how many brain cells that wastes? Why can’t we just choose one and stick to it?

So you do make a distinction between when it is important to get it right and when it isn’t, and it should surprise no one that you are incredibly intolerant of anyone who claims to have problems with spelling who can’t do the same.

And just so everyone knows, here are your guidelines.

Anything which is permanent, which you actually want people to read carefully, or which you want to impress someone with should be checked to within an inch of its life. And if it means looking up every word on your increasingly long list of problem areas to make sure it’s right, then so be it. This applies to academic essays, blog entries, emails to prospective employers as well as the more obvious CV, professional correspondence generally, and boardwork for students to copy down.

In fact, it’s nothing to do with problems with spelling; it’s simply a matter of sharpening up proof reading skills. Or, in fact, proof reading at all.

Frankly, since most of people’s permanent writing is, or can be, word processed these days, there really isn’t much excuse for not getting it mostly right. The software might not help with the there/ their/ they’re conundrum, and have an inexplicable hatred for your use of ‘which’ and ‘who’ in defining relative clauses, but it can certainly earn its keep by pointing out where you’ve got ‘perennially’, ‘incandescent’ and ‘enormously’ wrong.

And as for the rest, a tip. Reading from the end of the line to the beginning helps. It removes the focus from content to form.

However, considering how much effort this takes, anything which is impermanent, where you might be able to rely on people liking you enough to overlook five typos in as many lines, where you are just trying to drop a quick note on your way out of the door to let someone know where you’re all going for a drink that evening, or when you are trying to reply to someone by email before your internet connection goes down again – gutted you were, when that excuse ran out with your acquisition of broadband…

… well, you can’t justify the five point blood pressure rise and the years off your life it would take to get it right.

On Mayerling.

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Carlos Acosta as Prince Rudolph (Photo: Bill Cooper) So there you are hanging off a handrail in the despised underground on your way to Covent Garden Opera House on a works night out to the ballet discussing why one of your number hasn’t managed to persuade her other half to come with you all.

“Perhaps he thinks it’s always sentimental and pretty pretty?” says your Boss, who used to be a dancer herself and is therefore the driving force behind the trip. “It’s not always sentimental and pretty pretty.”

This comment rather came back to haunt you as you were watching the denouement of the first act. The lead character was in the process of raping his very young wife on their wedding night.

The programme notes called it ‘frightening her with a gun’, of course.

This being ballet, it involved picking her up and flinging her limp body around the stage with much the same verve and twiddle that a cheerleader slings her baton before tossing her on the big bed at the back of the set and leaping on top as the curtains closed. You were caught between the twin thoughts of ‘I do not approve of this’ and ‘Good grief. Did he just wrap her around his neck and then somersault her up on to his outstretched arms? Cool!’

You are afraid that the admiration won out in the end.

Anyway, that’s modern ballet for you. Or at least, ballet written sometime in the 20th Century. Mayerling is the story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria who had it away with many many women – most of whom he danced with in the ballet, which was quite confusing and you had to keep consulting your programme – caught syphilis and became addicted to morphine. Which means that now, as well as having seen people dancing to represent being pissed out of their brains, you have now seen someone flopping around the stage on drugs. Oh and he was also a mixed up with revolutionaries and shot himself and one of his lovers (not in that order) in the end. Well, in a hunting lodge called Mayerling actually. Hence the title.

The ballet was good though. There were three acts, and they were well staged to represent Rudolf’s slide into debauchery, madness and (politically) impotent despair. You also were impressed by the way they had worked in the recurring theme of death and suicide throughout the dance. Different combinations of Rudolf and a woman whirled around waving a skull and a gun, until he found one as nuts as he was to blow his brains out with. Not to mention the reccurring theme of infidelity. Both the father’s mistress and the mother’s lover also got a look into the plot and the dancing too. It was quite tiring to watch so much sexual tension being acted out all over the place.

The dancing was breathtaking. You were rather afraid that a modern ballet might be all floppy emoting and no technique, but other than the fact there were rather more lifts and holds and rather fewer leaps and twirls than you are used to, the dance was as satisfyingly craftsmen-like and incomprehensibly difficult as ever.

You were particularly bowled away by the ensemble pieces. Sometimes one dancer would start and others would join in one by one in a sort of cascade effect. Other times they would all whirl into life at the same time, but everyone would be moving in a slightly different direction, at a slightly different angle. What looked chaotic to start with would eventually resolve itself into some stately measure and then they’d stop. Superb.

And very colourful as the costumes were pretty sumptuous too. Considering also that this was the late 19th century and therefore bustles, corsets and no ankles were the order of the day, you thought it was quite impressive that the designers had managed to keep this flavour and still make it possible to dance. Although it probably wasn’t surprising that most of the really vigorous dancing took place in the bedroom, in nightclothes.

And, of course, this was your first trip to the Opera House. Lovely space. Not just the amphitheatre itself, but also places like the huge conservatory-like Flower Hall. Which is very wrought iron chic and has a window to the upstairs bar which is set into a mirrored wall and makes everyone looking through seem as if they are suspended impossibly in space. And there’s an art deco inspired, copper covered champagne bar in the middle, which was also quite splendid, although not as splendid as the chandeliers in the posh dining room in the old part of the theatre. Even if the thought of wolfing down your courses in the 20 minute intervals did give you the ghost of heartburn.

All in all a very satisfactory night out. Even B enjoyed himself and only got shushed by the woman in front once.

On activating your schemata.

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You can be very boring on the topic of grammar. And punctuation. Particularly commas. The rules are comforting, even if you do treat them as something of an abstract concept when it actually becomes time to apply them.

You are considerably more interested in how we actually use language, though. And the routines we follow and the skills we employ when doing so. Pragmatics. Discourse analysis. Psycho and sociolinguistics and all that jazz.

And reading.

Isn’t it interesting to discover that we do not read word by word and certainly not letter by letter? Instead we chunk words together in groups of about four or five and hop our eyes along the page from chunk to chunk. In fact, if we were to watch someone read, their eyes wouldn’t be moving smoothly across the page, but going along in a series of little jerks. The chunks aren’t random either, but grouped for sense. We’d be more likely to group together ‘there are four chairs’ followed by ‘in the kitchen’ than ‘There are’ followed by ‘four chairs in the’ followed by ‘kitchen’, for example.

There’s also the issue of schemata. This is all the background knowledge about a subject that you have that helps you process new information, written or spoken.

Imagine coming downstairs and seeing a letter on the front door mat. Looking at it, it’s generally clear from the style of the envelope whether it’s a bill type letter or a personal one. Imagine it’s a personal one, although goodness only knows who writes real letters these days. Picking it up and looking at the address – assuming it’s handwritten – might give away who it’s from. We tend to recognise the handwriting of our nearest and dearest, after all. If that doesn’t work, the Preston postmark might help. Only 90 year old Auntie Doris lives in Preston and she hasn’t been told about email yet in case it over stimulates her. Which explains the anachronistically handwritten letter.

However, let’s just imagine for a minute that it isn’t from Auntie Doris, but old friend Tom. Look his computer is clearly being particularly bloody minded at the moment. OK? Hence the letter. No, his mobile doesn’t work either. Or the land-line. Oh shut up.

Next time, remember to choose email for this illustration.

Anyway. It’s Tom, and we tend to know what’s going on in the lives of our friends – to the extent that we have a reasonable idea of which country they are in, whether they are still married, that they have a particular fondness for flinging themselves off bridges tied to a bit of knicker elastic and such. We also know the sorts of things which we gossip about with them. And so, by the time we open that letter, we are going to gave a very good idea of what it contains, which will help us charge through it, hoovering up the information it contains very efficiently. Although we may pause and reread a bit more closely if he reveals he’s just seen the light and is moving to a small commune on the outskirts of Las Vegas to await the second coming of The King.

Anyway, the reason you mention this is because you’ve just had a rather dislocating experience, somewhat akin to finding out Tom’s hitherto unsuspected obsession with Elvis, or that the letter you thought was from Tom reveals itself, after a few confusing paragraphs, to be from Auntie Doris after all.

There you are happily whomping though a new detective story and all of a sudden you start noticing that there are a lot of references to Spain and all thing Spanish. This could be because this particular section of the book is set in Spain, of course, but you’d rather assumed that this was just a sort of shorthand for underlining that the subject of the story is High Art and therefore demands the sophistication of a continental location. And the fact that we had already been dragged around Vienna and Holland by the author did nothing to dispel this notion.

So why the obsession with Spanish motifs? It nagged. And so when you came across a particularly incomprehensible skit involving an Argentinian character’s pronunciation of ‘w’, you were actually forced out of the book and onto the blurb in search of enlightenment.

And it turns out that the book is in fact written by a Spanish author. And has been translated from the Spanish. Which explained everything.

It was extremely disconcerting to discover that all the dialogue of the last few chapters had been conducted in Spanish, though.

It’s a good book, by the way. The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza.

                                    The Art of Murder.

Calling it a murder mystery is a bit misleading, actually. You’d say it was an alternative universe construct, but again, you are sure the author isn’t much of a sci fi geek.

Nevertheless, everything in this universe is the same except for the word of Art, which is now all about using people as canvases, specially trained to be quiescent and hopped up on mind and body altering drugs. The killing of various of these canvases, who have all been painted by the same artist, is not seen by the Art world as murder, but as the destruction of masterpieces.

What you like about the book is the in depth exploration of the ins and outs of this artistic trend and the way that this is woven into the story neatly rather than, as so often happens, being dumped in unwieldy chunks awkwardly all over the plot.

And this world turns out to be absolutely fascinating and very well thought through by the author. 

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is one big satire on the absurdities of Modern Art, with the author clearly giving a lot of effort to topping the outrageousness of any pieces the real Art world can produce. You vigorously approve of this sort of thing.

Although the expose would be more convincing if you weren’t finding the descriptions of the art works he’s created so utterly compelling.

On comparative linguistics (again).

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It’s the Easter concert term at your choir, and you are having a Mary fest. The lynch-pin of this is Dvorak’s Stabat Mater.

The blurb to your copy of the score says that during the period he was writing it no less than three of his children died. I think this is supposed to lend poignancy to what is, after all, the lament of the bereaved.

You have a sneaking suspicion that it probably just shows that Dvorak didn’t have a superstitious bone in his body.

Anyway. No demon chords this time or bizarre syncopation. But Dvorak does, apparently, think that all singers have the lung capacity of someone brought up in the thin air atmosphere of the highest plateaus of the Himalayas. It’s a jolly good thing you gave up smoking or you’d be passing out in the first twenty bars. He also refuses to let you spend more than two seconds at a time at the same volume. Up and down the volume scale you go until you are quite seasick. Although just for a change, he’ll occasionally let you pounce dramatically straight from quiet to loud, presumably to see if anyone in the choir is still hanging in there. Your score is now covered in energetic lines and circlings as you attempt to keep up.

It’s also in Latin. This divides the choir sharply into those who know how to pronounce it and those who don’t. You are charitably assuming those who know are the old hands at choral singing. You are also desperately trying to remember everything you know about Italian in the hope that it helps.

What you know is partly based on one of the assignments you make your trainees do. They have to analyse a particular learner’s English and suggest why they are making mistakes. To help them do this you give them part of a book which discusses typical mistakes of people from particular language backgrounds in comparison to their first language. Many of the trainees over the years have chosen an Italian student.

Unfortunately, the discussion is quite in depth and the knowledge of your trainees… well, largely it isn’t. This produces the amusing situation of people trying earnestly to apply very technical language to things they don’t understand at all. Well, you find it amusing anyway. Look, you have to take your amusement where you can find it, and you find it in phrases like ‘… because in the student’s L1 this would be a fricative bilabial tap…’ applied to something which has absolutely nothing to do with taps, fricative, bilabial, or even as a piece of sanitary equipment found in a bathroom. Yes, you probably should get out more.

Anyway, your trainees are always assiduous in informing you that ‘Italian has a much freer word order than English’, and in the lulls in the rehearsals when the conductor is berating the sopranos you occupy yourself by applying this piece of information to your search for all the depressing words you can find in the song (grief-stricken/ sorrowful/ agony/ torment/ weeping/ mourning/ bereavement/ death /death/ death/ death/death). Although it does have to be said that it’s not all that difficult, given the influence of Latin on most European languages.

Somewhat more helpful to the task of actually singing the thing is the year of Italian evening classes you took once. What can you actually say in Italian as a result? Sono inglese [I am English]. Which is useful tourist-speak for ‘I don’t speak Italian’ but on the other hand telling people you are English is probably entirely unnecessary assuming the Italian you are conversing with can actually see you (or more importantly, your clothes and sense of style).

But some of the information about pronunciation has stuck. You remember particularly how scathing your teacher was about the English habit of pronouncing the ‘o’ on the ends of words such as ‘cappaccino’ as the ‘o’ as in ‘nose’. Italians find this terribly funny, apparently. You are also sure that the choir is not pronouncing enough of the ‘r’s in phrases like ‘virgo virginium praeclara’, let alone giving them a nice roll. In fact, can everyone just imagine, for a second, an English person saying that particular phrase in the least articulated, most London way? Right? Well, now, that would pretty much be you, when you are trying to remember whether this bit is loud, soft, or somewhere on the way to one of those volumes.

But I’m afraid that the absolute best thing about this piece is the way ‘Let me…’ translates – a phrase which appears no less than four times in the original lyrics and therefore many many times more in the actual song. Essentially, you are delighted by the prospect of warbling ‘faaaac mey’ loudly, softly, elongatedly and in short staccato bursts over the course of two hours. It’s juvenile, but utterly satisfying.

Does anyone else have the impression that you will be unbearable if your choir ever does a Russian piece? Luckily for all concerned, after another assault on Latin, you are going to finish the year by murdering the French language.

Nobody can have any objection to that.