Archive: Walking in darkness

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By ’87, we’d had enough of London. Its streets had turned out to be paved with just enough gold to take out a mortgage on a small house at a substantial remove from work, from where it was at, and from the kind of green fields that somewhat older children would probably want to frolic in one day if they weren’t to eventually succumb to a life of dissolution and hard drugs. We felt hemmed in, and worried that one day, my brother would bounce himself out the window of his tiny bedroom. And so, with a cunning little manoeuvre that saw us kids stay with relatives before arriving at a miraculously-furnished new house, we moved.

Perhaps this clever ploy explains why, for many years, I had dreams of hidden trapdoors and mysterious tunnels, Narnia-esque wardrobes and loose bricks into underground caverns. Or perhaps, given that I thought I knew how to think myself into flight and could hardly sleep for fear of the cybermen hiding under my bed, I just had an over-active imagination. Goodness knows we needed one, in those heady days of two-colour text adventures and Sylvester McCoy as Doctor Who.

Darkness

My home, in the dark

Or perhaps the house itself inspired such thoughts. I wasn’t the only one to have them. It was bigger and older than the London house, and while publicly I scoffed at my brother’s unwillingness to go up the stairs alone after dark, I did so myself with some trepidation. There was a haunting aspect to the way the shadows clung at the walls, a solidity and an age to the darkness that may not exactly have menaced, but boy did it know how to loom. It was a darkness that demanded to be taken seriously.

But I was not easily cowed as a child, and over time I came to an arrangement with the dark. What made it mad, I figured, is that although it had been there first, it was still forced to flee on a regular basis by these four persistent, fidgety beings on their meaningless nocturnal perambulations. Pretty unfair really, a concept that the young me understood all too well. So rather than shoo the darkness away with my blundering invasive presence, I swam through it, my hands learning to follow the wooden detail on the wall that started out at head height and sank over time to my waist.

Even now, I still prefer to walk the house in darkness. Sometimes, because I’m grown-up and sensible now, I tell myself that it’s because I don’t want to wake anyone. But the house and I, we know different.

From here on September 9th 2013.

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Archive: Song in the key of salaryman

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He is almost poetic,
Balletic,
A double-jointed twisting hymn
To an evening on the gin.

A sleeping salaryman

A salaryman expresses the pathos of existence through interpretive dance (by M from Somerville, via Wikimedia Commons)

From here on June 7th 2013.

Archive: There stands a tree

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There stands a tree.
Tall, slender, unbowed,
Trunk liquid smooth,
Luring of touch.

Boughs upflung,
Tangled, chaotic, unashamed.
A reverie, a revelry.

Roots that yearn deep
To tickle at dinosaurs,
And all that soil has seen.

With my leaves shall I
Reach ever to the sun.
As my trunk gnarls and twists,
so shall I stand slender and unbowed.
With my boughs shall I dance,
In reverie, in revelry,
In time to the death rattle
Of curling leaves.

And when there stands a tree no longer,
So shall my roots remain.

From here on June 1st 2013.

A tree

Milo44, via Wikimedia Commons

Archive: On language learning

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A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.

Archive: Everyone has his talent

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Everyone has his talent. I really believe that. Some people pull coins out from behind your ears, or pull numbers out their own behinds to trick you even better. Some people drag trucks with their teeth. Some people dance like butterflies, or swans or some such. Some people have the words to say what I wanted to say right there.

Me, I make things. That’s what I do. It’s my talent.

You may laugh. People do. Say I’m crazy, holed up in my attic with my wires and my diodes and my transistors. Say I’m building myself a robot lady friend. Say it’s the only way I’ll ever get one. You ask me, shows what they all know.

See, I invented a device that turns a stovetop pot into a rice cooker. It comes with a temperature gauge you can use to send data back to a laptop or mobile device. I even wrote a dinky piece of software that lets you make a graph of the heat variation and print it out. That way you can play around until you get your rice just right.

I showed it to a few people. They didn’t say much but I think they were pretty impressed. All I need now is investment. Coming soon to a high street near you!

I’m not seeking fame. I don’t want riches. I just want to be of service. And if my name is remembered in some corner after I am gone, if even one kid dreams of being the next stovetop rice cooker guy, then I’ll know that my life has not been in vain.

From here on December 22 2012.