The look of a teacher

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“Are you a teacher?” the woman at the station ticket office called out to me as I walked away from her window, tickets in hand, in search of a coffee.

She had never seen me before.  I wasn’t accompanied by uniformed school-age children.  No mortar-board perched on my head, no chalky patches stained my fingers.

“No, I’m not.  Why do you ask?”

“You look like one, that’s all”

I was wearing black shoes, grey trousers, blue-and-white checked shirt.  Nothing about me screamed ‘teacher’.  Maybe my specs lent me an academic air, but myopia doesn’t pick and choose between professions.

I was flummoxed.

But she wasn’t way off target.  For much of last year and the first six months of 2017 I was a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, mainly to corporate types.

I returned to her window.  “Well, actually I am one in a way.  I got back recently from teaching English as a foreign language in Mexico City.  But I’m not a teacher-teacher.”

Over coffee, I mused over her curious question.  Somehow, in the half-minute we spent discussing my best ticket option, she must have picked up some sort of teacher vibe.

I’d like to know precisely what it was.  I am also wondering whether I’ve become like a teacher because I’ve been teaching or whether I’ve always had a teacherly aura about me (despite being a latecomer to that line of work).

Over the years, a few people I’ve known well have pointed to my patience and liking for grammar, suggesting that I should consider teaching (they have Latin tuition in mind).

But neither my personality nor liking for words had been on display while I was buying my tickets.  So whatever possessed the staff member to say what she did remains a mystery to me.

Perhaps I should have questioned her further, just as any switched-on teacher would do.

teacher image

 

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We all need some mystery in our lives

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I’ve always liked wandering around churches.  Whether simple country church or great cathedral, a visit will leave me with a blend of happy-sad melancholy evoked by the memorials to the dead mixed with gratitude for the moment of rest from the crazy world outside.

I’m not a practising Christian, and find the faith’s main tenets hard to get my head around.  I’m probably in the ‘pious agnostic’ category, though leaning very definitely towards an abstract spirituality.  The intellectual sticking points, such as the Virgin Birth, are one thing: but the other real problem for me is that the average British church does little to foster my spirituality and even less to help me experience anything profound.

A sense of mystery is integral to Christianity.  To stir a man’s sense of mystery is to open up the path that leads him to a more spiritual life.  It’s in this respect that I find Anglicanism wanting.  The Church of England’s buildings and services may move me, but they only move me in an earthly fashion.  They have little in the way of other-worldliness to conjure up something greater in my soul.

I don’t spend time in Orthodox churches, but it could well be that the Byzantine icons associated with them would have an altogether more powerful effect on me than anything Anglican.  As the writer Vesna Goldsworthy suggested on Radio 3’s Private Passions earlier this year, these icons may be ‘flat’ in the sense that they don’t take advantage of the rules of perspective, but their pattern-following, stylized quality encourages the viewer to surrender to the mystery of the divine.  They are not really painted to be scrutinised by us, the viewer on the outside.  They exist for God; in Vesna Goldsworthy’s words, ‘your individuality doesn’t’ matter’.  For them to do their spiritual work on us, we first need to remove our individuality.

At a very different place on the Christian spectrum, I am surprised to be drawn to the slightly kitschy effigies of Christ found in, for example, Mexican cathedrals.  I am quite sure that if I attended a service in a suitably prepared state of mind, with the right music to help me along, ornamentation like this could do for me what Protestant churches cannot.  That is, provide the visual stimulus necessary to suspend my worldliness and lift my soul to a higher plane.

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15th century Albanian icon

A university challenge

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University should not be pre-job training but an opportunity to study something challenging and interesting

Many teenagers who picked up their GCSE grades a couple of weeks ago will now be turning their attention to the start of their A-level courses this month.  Some may be thinking further ahead, about what they are going to spend their three years at university studying.

For some, the course will be business studies.  For others, psychology or marketing or media.  All very interesting, I’m sure, but for me ‘business’ and ‘marketing’ and so on belong in job descriptions and not in university degree titles.  By choosing these sorts of courses, students are shirking a valuable rite of passage and missing out on a time that should be devoted to immersion in less obviously practical subjects, a time when they should be studying for the sake of studying.

I can appreciate why the youth of today (God, that makes me sound old) veer towards business studies or advertising or similarly fashionable subjects.  It’s to get a head start in the overcrowded job market.  Yet it’s almost cheating, like an athlete who sets off before the starter fires his gun.  Meanwhile, students who spent university reading Jane Austen or getting to grips with Hegel and Kant are left scrabbling to catch up.

I’ll admit that I’m biased towards that most ‘useless’ bunch of subjects, the arts, partly because I wasn’t any good at the sciences (or, to be frank, at anything really apart from Latin).  I share the view that university should be a time for plunging ourselves into studies that are not necessarily useful in the old nine to five but which will leave us feeling intellectually or culturally enriched.  English literature, philosophy, or even a good solid non-arts subject like maths.

Students can then start to learn something more vocational once they are out in the real world.  They’re plenty young enough when they graduate.

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So now, students: for the ultimate arts subject, how about history?  History has it all.  When it’s not drumming vital reasoning skills into your young minds, it’ll develop that great if now sadly rare skill of writing well and constructing essays.  The study of history will get you considering more than one point of view.  It’s a discipline the Twitter ranters could do with learning.  What’s more, even if you can’t stop yourself rejecting out of hand the other guy’s way of thinking, history will still help you to articulate your own.

This reminds me that I was quite impressed by the tape recordings an A-level history teacher used to play of distinguished professors firmly but politely and eloquently disagreeing with each other on the subject of the Wars of the Roses.  One even claimed that there was no such thing as the Wars of the Roses.  Even better, these conversations inspired Rob Newman and David Baddiel’s TV spoof (hugely popular and much imitated in my university days) in which a drily erudite discussion of the Enclosures Act between two crusty old dons degenerates into an exchange of puerile insults.

But back to your history studies.  The mental tools you will use to interpret what you read in your history books can be applied to texts you encounter in the news media.  All those troubles that are talked about now, from fighting in Afghanistan to white nationalism in the USA, are consequences of events that occurred and policies that were enacted centuries ago.  The world affairs of today are links to and reminders of the past.  And they are the ‘history’ of the future.

So I like to think that a good number of successful GCSE students will in due course put their names down for history degrees.  At the very least I hope that enrolment numbers in 2019 will hold up well against previous years.

For this to pass, students will have to stand firm in the face of parents hassling them into opting for lesser courses, those that look more obviously relevant to their first office jobs.

Battle

A few good things

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Side-by-side with the tinned beans in my mother’s kitchen cupboard were some interesting foodstuffs given to her by my brother.  There seemed no point waiting for Mum to open them, so I did the honours myself.

Here’s the background: last Christmas my brother bought a variety of quality goods and put them in a box for her.  He did the same for me, too.  The previous year he gave her a generous assortment of goodies pre-chosen by some hamper company.

These ‘luxury’ items, which were at risk of passing their best-before dates unappreciated, have given me small but notable moments of happiness.  More importantly, they point to a possible source of consolation in the years of middle age that stretch somewhat dauntingly ahead of me.

For what I need to do is buy the best I can afford of anything – anything at all, even when we’re talking little things like biscuits or sausages.  In fact, especially when we’re talking little things like biscuits and sausages.  They’re luxuries that won’t make a huge difference to my financial health (there is only so much one can spend on a biscuit), but could have a disproportionately beneficial effect on my sense of wellbeing.

It is not about showing off and splashing out, or spending much more than I need to.  It’s more to do with valuing something because you had to pay a little more for it.  A worthy ethic, in a world which over-consumes all manner of cheap tat.

Those Christmas packages have introduced me to nougat from Italy that was chewy yet light with a taste bursting with almonds.  I’ve had good coffee, good Cornish salt and tinned fish of the superior kind.  I’ve been perking up lowlier food with help from a jar of subtle smoky barbeque sauce.

One warm August day, the festive season just a blurry memory, I opened a tub of sugary biscuits from Spain.  I’d never tried these long, hollow cigarrillos de Tolosa before, but had sometimes eaten similarly shaped biscuits.  By the second of the four bites it took me to finish one I had turned away from the book I was reading to give the sweet thing my full attention.  Blimey, I thought.  You’re good.

It was hard to explain exactly why it was good, why it was so much better than its inferior lookalikes.  It didn’t have any special ingredient.  It hadn’t come freshly made from a deli.  All I can say is that the initial crunchiness and ensuing mouthfeel were just spot on.

This trading-up can go further than food, of course.  You can write OK with a cheap biro – but a pleasingly shaped pen that cost you more than 25p is another pen altogether.

If you’ve got considerably more in the bank than me, then how about a handcrafted table?  A flatpack job from a retail park big-name outlet will support your laptop and tea mug quite adequately – but the more bespoke table is more likely to ooze ‘tableness’, to bring quiet pleasure when you stroke an idle finger across its surface.

As a journal devoted to good craftsmanship and slow journalism, perhaps aimed at outdoorish hipster types, suggests in its raison d’etre, it’s all to do with loving ‘the grain of wood and the smell of paper’.

We buy more biscuits than we do tables, naturally.  But here’s a thing: the extra satisfaction fine biscuits bring will make us eat less of them.  So we don’t need to buy as many as before.

Those of us who are single or sharing food with just one or two discerning others don’t have the same concerns as parents of youngsters who wouldn’t know a fine biscuit from an Asda jammy dodger.  That’s why we should not flinch from spending a little more in future, and show our respect for the artisans and purveyors of fine foods by going for quality over quantity.

biscuits

 

Putting the apostrophe in its place

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There’s no escaping it.  It’s here right now in a street near you

It’s the misplaced apostrophe, widely called the grocer’s apostrophe.

Getting it wrong

Its name is a touch unfair, as grocers are neither better nor worse at grammar than anyone else trying to earn a modest living.  But it’s a grocer’s lot in life to be constantly rewriting his labels as the price of fruit and veg fluctuates.  And so we get:

Apple’s: £2/kg
Brussels’ sprouts: £1.50/kg

In truth, the worst offenders are pubs and restaurants, thanks to the trend for writing menu highlights and witticisms on pavement blackboards (and this doesn’t only happen in urban hipster enclaves).  Sometimes there’s so much writing they need two blackboards.

Just as crime rises as a city’s population expands, so it is with words: the more there are, the more the chances of mistakes occurring.

So we have offences such as:

Todays’ special’s
Its summer! Try our salad’s
Salmon with new potatoe’s

Getting it right

Let’s assume that you too have been guilty of getting it all wrong.  How can you do better in future?

To start with you need to know that we use the apostrophe in two very different circumstances.

Firstly, contraction.  It stands in for missing letters.  To make ‘It is summer’ shorter, we take out an ‘i’ which is why our specials board above should read ‘It’s summer!’

It’s no different to ‘do not’ becoming ‘don’t’, or all those negatives of other verbs like ‘should’ or ‘could’ (althought ‘will not’/’won’t’ is a strange one).

The reason for the errors in our grocer examples – the unnecessary apostrophes – is less obvious, but still quite simple to grasp once you know it.  He or she has forgotten that the plural of apple is just apples.

Sprouts have a connection with the capital of Belgium, which is why they are Brussels sprouts.  They are in no more need of an apostrophe than Worcestershire sauce (Worcestershire’s sauce would be a bit of mouthful, pronunciation-wise).

restaurant blackboard

Now to our second circumstance – possession, or ownership.  If the house belongs to the man we say ‘the man’s house’.  If the noun is in the plural, and that plural ends in an ‘s’, (some plurals, like ‘children’, don’t end in ‘s’) we shift the apostrophe from before to after that ‘s’.  Hence the boy’s treehouse becomes the boys’ treehouse.

In fact, even this possessive use is a kind of contraction.  At least, it is if you go back to Old English, where they used an -es ending to indicate possession: the boyes treehouse.  You could think of the apostrophe as standing in for the ‘e’.

So there you have it, my quick guide to the apostrophe, whose abuse causes such pain to the grammarian.

Which leads me to wonder this: is there really such thing as a grammarian?  It doesn’t sound like a real job.  But maybe we’ll deal with that matter another day.

apples

Pain-free ways to practise your Spanish

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I nearly called this how to practise your Spanish without too much (S)pain.  Ho ho!

But seriously, many adult learners find that getting to grips with a new language is not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff.

Of course, there has to be a bit of grimy work there somewhere.  For instance, when memorising irregular verbs.  But if you want to stick at your language learning long-term, you’ve got to enjoy it.  It’s no different to starting an exercise regime.  Make it fun and sociable, and you’re much less likely to get fed up and chuck it all in.

You have an advantage compared to language learners of previous generations.  It’s called the internet.  So step #1 should be to make the web your language buddy and bookmark some sites you reckon could be useful.  The online dictionary Spanishdict will conjugate verbs for you as well as give some pretty good examples of how new words can be used in a sentence.  Sign up to get its ‘word of the day’ mails.

If you find grammar daunting, or just consider Spanish verb forms a bit of a turn-off, then I’m afraid you may come across a few web pages that could put you off foreign languages for life: beat a hasty retreat, should you land on them.  Click here to see the kind of thing I mean.  Actually, I quite like this sort of stuff myself.  But not everyone is like me.  Which is probably a good thing.

Here are my tried-and-tested-and-not-too-painful Spanish learning strategies:

Writing whatsapp messages.  In Spanish, por supuesto.  I do this quite a lot.  Once you’re friendly with a Spanish speaker, you can have an authentic, live quick-fire ‘conversation’ with them.  If you want to use some fancy grammar or vocabulary, do as I do and look things up on a tablet or other device just before you type your end of the chat.  Get your phone set up for the Spanish language to benefit from some handy prompts as you write.

Writing emails.  For lengthier, more considered writing, email’s the answer.  Tell your Spanish-speaking acquaintance about what you’ve been up to this week.  You can make it simple or, if you’ve time on your side and want to stretch yourself, be more elaborate.  Either way, try to use at least one word or phrase that’s new to you.

Reading newspapers.  Get clued up on world affairs and practise your Spanish reading at the same time.  If you really want to multi-task, eat a bowl of cornflakes too.  I like to look at El Universal, a Mexican paper.  Because I’m over the age of 40 I do prefer to buy a ‘paper’ paper (if you know what I mean) and smell the ink, listen to the rustle of the pages…. but now I’m back in the UK I make do with the online version.

Reading Buzzfeed.  If pop culture is more your thing, try Buzzfeed’s Spanish-language sites (for the Mexican one, click here).  You don’t have to be an instagramming millennial to get some value out of Buzzfeed.  The snappy format is perfect for picking up a lot of varied language in small doses, even if you’re not all that enamoured of the highly practical advice in 20 ideas para experimentar con el estilo gotico.

Language/conversation exchange.  Make contact and meet up with a native Spanish speaker who wants to practise their English.  There’s so much to talk about when you sit down with someone from a different culture.  I find it works well if the other person’s English is much more advanced than my Spanish.  Some nice café vibes make it work even better.  Check out the Conversation Exchange website to get started.

Finally, some motivation for you.  You might begin to ask yourself, “what’s the point?”.  Unless I live in a Spanish-speaking country or am lucky enough to have multiple holidays each year, I’m not going to actually need and use Spanish very often, right?

Well, researchers have found that the process of language learning can boost your problem-solving skills.  It puts the brain to work.  Further up life’s road, it can even help to stave off Alzheimer’s.

For my part, I like to think of language learning as a pleasant intellectual challenge.  More useful than doing the newspaper crossword, at any rate.

cups

When a situation becomes ‘a million times worse’

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Conservative ministers “should be under no illusions that a lot of people are very, very angry at their disastrous handling of Brexit, which has made a difficult situation a million times worse.”

So says Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP, about his party’s plan to join the ‘pro-Brexit’ march during the Conservative Party conference in October.

Well now.  If a difficult situation has become a million times worse, just how bad is it?  As bad as the sun exploding and life on earth succumbing to a slow and jolly painful death?  Alas, he doesn’t elaborate.

It beats me why he cannot simply say that a difficult situation has been made “even worse”.  Or perhaps “far worse”, if he believes the whole Brexit deal-or-no-deal thing is going to get really dire.   To make useful sense of what he is on about, we could quite easily picture a scale spanning neutral to bad/difficult to really bad.

Saying something is “millions” times worse or better, or applying it to quantities, reminds me of playground boasts: “I’ve got millions and trillions more than you”.

If Mr Brake has a case, and maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t – who am I to say? – he undermines it by going in for such hysterical hyperbole.

If the situation truly is a million times worse than it was, then he should already have given Britain up as a totally lost cause, and be on a plane a million miles away.

airplane silhouette

The temptation of fatty bits

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Vegetarians should read no further…

Eating tacos at roadside stalls during my stay in Mexico City reminded me just how much I like globs of fatty meat.

Even better, fatty meat sitting on a soft corn tortilla, accompanied by chopped onion and herbs, and maybe a squeeze of lime or a dab of salsa for that Lat-Am kick.

There is something irresistably primeval about the experience of using your fingers to transport your tasty chunks from plate to gaping mouth.

Although by no means all tacos are made with fatty meat, a memorable one I had recently would be a prime contender in any fatty taco contest.  I am not sure what the meat or cut was: in Mexico there are many variations, from taco al pastor to taco de longaniza, taco de maciza, taco de chuleta…

But anyway, it went down like baby food.

Another time, at the same stall which served up that mystery fatty taco, I enjoyed a taco de cabeza (that’s meat from a cow’s head), which I was pleased to find had some more than passable fatty gristly bits.

Unhealthy?  Well, I’m not so sure it is.  The corn tortilla is a wholesome change from the standard bread products using flour made from wheat.  Even better, it’s a break from the pappy white stuff that passes for bread in most industrialised countries.

Indeed, a taco is fast food for the purist – being not much more than meat, corn and herbs.

Can we make similar claims for the hotdog, which has crawled its way south to Mexico from the USA (and north, east and west as well)?  Definitely not.  What about the omnipresent ‘hamburguesa’, as they call it in Mexico?  Or, pride of my very own England, sausage rolls and other products made from calorie-laden pastry (which hide their meaty contents, perhaps out of shame)?

No.  These are generally processed foods with quite a number of additives to boot.  And you don’t get fresh coriander or other taco touches sprinkled on top.

Back in the day, when humans depended on slaughtered game for their meat-centred meals, I’ll bet our cavemen ancestors gathering round the roasted deer grabbed at the really fatty bits like they were going out of fashion.  Not for them the fillet steaks that do so much damage to our wallets in fancy restaurants.  They knew what was good and what would see them through a winter’s night.

Those instincts are still alive in me, as in many other folk.  After enjoying a roast lamb in our house, I sneak into the kitchen to attack the carcass and pop a couple of greasy scraps, preferably with salty skin attached, into my already slime-covered mouth.  They slip down oyster-style.

Fatty meat should not be shunned.  It should be celebrated by princes and paupers alike for its taste, texture and comfort food value.  It really is the ultimate meat.

taco stand

Stuck in a train (though not for very long)

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In the darkness, a few sighs, a few nervous laughs. I stood motionless, trying to stop myself thinking about the press of bodies around me, trying to focus instead on the thoughts I might be having if I was walking the streets of Mexico City on this humid, sunny April Saturday, instead of being stuck down here…

That was my unpleasant experience on the metro the other day. Well, no: not exactly unpleasant in itself, for it didn’t last long, and I emerged with money and mobile phone intact. But I was left contemplating how much worse the situation could have been.

Aiming to get to Coyoacan for a late afternoon showing of Dr Zhivago at the Cineteca Nacional, I waited on the platform at Insurgentes Sur. And waited some more. All the time, the platform was gradually drip-fed with people. Those of us who had been kept lingering the longest wore annoyed expressions, save for a rotund man who kept chortling at every comment made by his companions. On the opposite platform, trains came, but the length of time they paused deepened my sense that I was in for a long journey. I only had to go to Zapata, two stops on, where I would change lines, and had allowed plenty of time: on balance I reckoned I would make it.

Eventually a train came, very very slowly. As many of us as possible crammed on board. At the next station some people got off, a few got on, and the doors shut. And we went nowhere. The lights went out. It grew uncomfortably hot. The lights came on again, followed by the air conditioning. But then both went out again. And then went on again. Then off. A few more chortles were coming from the direction of the rotund man, but most other passengers were keeping silent, coping with the situation in their own private ways.

That’s when my imagination started to run wild. I was at a station, so could have signalled my dire stress, if I got to that stage, to passengers standing on the platform: but supposing I hadn’t been at a station? What if I had been trapped in a tunnel, and for some reason imminent rescue was out of the question? Supposing some malevolent bunch of people had jammed us in here intentionally, and I was enduring my own Black Hole of Calcutta?

I got out, of course. That is why I am able to write this. In fact, I wasn’t actually imprisioned for very long. I have no heroic tale of endurance to tell. But I don’t mind admitting that some disturbing thoughts continued to lurk in my mind as I sat in a Cielito Querido coffee shop (I’d given up on the cinema), chai latte and philosophy book beside me.

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More than tequila: exploring Mexico’s drinks

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Never mind the tacos, tlacoyos, tamales and other quintessential Mexican foods beginning with ‘t’ (tortas, tortillas…). To understand Mexico, you needn’t go much further than exploring its beverages.

That was my conclusion after visiting an enlightening exhibition called ‘Que te tomas? Las Bebidas Mexicanas’ (What are you having? Mexican Drinks) at MODO – the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (no, that is not a typo), in the leafy heart of Roma Norte here in Mexico City.

 
The most celebrated of Mexico’s pre-hispanic drinks is pulque, possibly enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and in the first room at MODO I saw brightly coloured jicaras for drinking the strange milky, viscous stuff out of. They looked unfeasibly large to me, but then again pulque is not very alcoholic and if you go to a contemporary pulqueria you’ll often find yourself served a capacious jug for one. In the same room, what looked at first sight like a slaughtered pig was actually a cuero, a container made from hide that was used for transporting pulque.

 

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Jicaras

Meanwhile, a Jose Guadalupe Posada illustration in a satirical broadsheet showed a cheery sombrero-d man and was accompanied by Cancion del Pulquero – a pulque seller’s song. I’ll drink to that.

 
I also learned that bars, as we know them today, arrived in Mexico alongside the US troops who invaded the country in the 1840s. Cocktails followed hot on their heels.

 
Moving away from alcohol, the exhibition taught us about atole, that wholesome drink – typically made with corn dough, but also with rice flour or oatmeal – still popular with labourers needing to fill their stomachs before a long morning’s work building new apartment blocks. Like pulque, it is not a drink that has crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Hot chocolate, or chocolate full stop, is a very different story, as cocoa seeds are easy to transport. Very fortunate indeed for those of us who are addicted to the stuff.

 
Talking of addictions, few nations have a greater affinity with Coca-Cola and other sweet soft drinks than Mexico. Down in the MODO basement was a wall’s worth of shelving displaying old-style bottles of well-known brands alongside specimens of now-defunct sodas.

 
No tasting was possible, alas, but the shelves of old and not-so-old Mexican wines, and arrays of beer bottles sporting vintage labels – or everything, to be honest, including the tequilas – made me want to go off at once and let my tastebuds do some exploring. Definitely an inspirational exhibition.