Friday, June 29, 2007

The Profit Principle

Allowing private firms to cherry pick business contracts without also having to take on the social provision of residential post is sheer dogmatic stupidity. As the price of a first class stamp is heavily subsidised by bulk mail, the government's shambolic part privatisation will inevitably lead to savings for the rich at the expense of the poor. It's not as if we're short of precedents: you only need to look at public transport to see what happens when the profit principle is applied to vital services - prices go up and provision goes down. In the long run, we all lose out.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summer at the Seaside

My Czech friends Milan and Hanka have arrived for a six-day visit. It's their first time in Britain and, so far, they're both completely enamoured with everything they see, from greasy chips and seagulls to Victorian parks, bay windows and blue sky, grey cloud sunlit showers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Comment is Free

"If a person can walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a free society, not a fear society. We cannot rest until every person living in a 'fear' society has finally won their freedom."

Ever since Blair banned protestors from parliament in order to stop one middle-aged man with a fishing hat and a few paper signs Britain has been in deliberate and sustained breach of Sharansky's 'town square' test of democracy, though an ominously small number of people seemed to either realise or care. As for Gordon Brown's pledge to allow demonstrations, with New Labour it pays to read the small print, not just the headlines.


It's exam week, the time of year when my students' brains turn instantaneously to mush. As always happens, for precisely twenty-two and a half minutes - a period of time which co-incidentally matched the duration of the Cambridge ESOL Speaking and Listening exam almost to the second - any slight recollection of past tense verb forms was forgotten until it was time to switch to the present perfect, modals and prepositions got mixed up, maimed or just omitted altogether, the phrase too much became exactly synonomous with any plural number and pronouns were as easy to spot as an odd sock in a loaded washing machine.

Still, I think they all passed.

Monday, June 25, 2007


It didn't take Harriet Harman long to get back on message, did it?

Czech Beer

Smoky pubs with wooden seats, slips of paper covered in pen strokes sticking out from under ashtrays, beer heads two inches deep, bottles of Bernard, fried cheese and beer sausage, dark Svijanský Knižé, unfiltered Urquell and ten crown halves of Gambrinus desetka in the long afternoon gap between classes.

Both The Guardian and The Times have articles on the world's greatest beer. Read them and salivate.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

More of the Same

"Blair and Brown are just two cheeks of the same arse."

George Galloway

All this talk of fresh starts and clean breaks doesn't mask the fact that Gordon Brown has only moved one door down. Nothing much will change post-Blair except for a bit of tidying up round the edges: Brown supported all New Labour's terror laws, the invasion of Iraq, foundation hospitals, faith schools, student top-up fees, ID cards and Trident renewal, advocated the shambles of PFI and did next to nowt about the housing shortage, child poverty or social inequality.

We Look Out Upon The Sea

Friday, June 22, 2007

Going to the Match

Back when I was a kid, plastic seats were for the rich. Too small to see the pitch from the Gallowgate End, I had to be lifted onto a concrete crash barrier halfway between the goalnet and the Pac-Man scoreboard. It was a precarious way to watch the game: the surge of bodies that followed every goal meant I was always just one shove away from smashing my teeth on a cigarette-strewn step. Sometimes I'd end up hoping that nobody else would score - one of the few wishes that Newcastle ever managed to fulfill.

Matches would start at three on a Saturday afternoon or half seven on a Wednesday night, lit by prison camp floodlights that towered high above the ground. Climbing the zigzag steps before kick off, my stomach churning with excitement, we'd hurry past the open air toilets where you pissed against brick while holding your nose, the stench of urine mixed with beer breath, watery onions and hop clouds from the brewery. We bought oblong shaped programmes for 50p, jammed into the portacabin club shop, then stood outside corrugated iron stands with autograph books waiting for the players' cars to arrive. I never saw the end of a game until I was old enough to go by myself: my dad always dragged us out a few minutes early to beat the crowds back to the car. As soon as we got home we'd be straight back out with a battered caser, mimicking the Roeder Shuffle, Chris Waddle's shoulder feints and Peter Beardsley's drag-backs, scoring goals against garden gates and garage doors.

It's never easy to leave your first love behind, but sometimes it's the only thing to do. There's a fine line between sentimental loyalty and stupidity, between supporting your club through thick and thin and conniving with the destruction of what once made it special.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Paean to Westgate Road

Carbon Footprint

According to this nifty new carbon calculator device, my own individual footprint - way below the national average but still a little bit above what it ought to be - is almost exactly the same as David Miliband's. Not a comparison I would ordinarily be quite so chuffed with.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Long Term Thinking

Half the department announced they were pregnant this afternoon.
In nine months' time, I'll be indispensible.

Off to the Tip

A month's worth of cardboard and plastic on its way to the recycling village in South Shields. It's not all mine, I promise.

Not so very long ago this would all have gone in the bin. I'm sure for most people it still does, especially as South Tyneside Council refuses to collect anything other than glass, paper or tin cans (the only things they make a profit on?) from in front of people's houses. Perversely, if you want to be green round here, you need to get through a bit of petrol first.

Smoke and Mirrors

Credit where credit's due, when it comes to spinning a bit of politically-driven malice out of nothing there's not a paper to touch the Daily Mail.

Not that scare stories are a particularly hard trick to master - facts and figures are redundant as long as you have a year-old case, now very sketchily remembered, and some big numbers to stick at the end. Who needs actual evidence when things can be proved just as easily by insinuation? To cover your back, make sure you bury the real story - gangmasters who refuse to employ British people because they know it's far easier to exploit foreigners - somewhere at the bottom, just above the place where people start paying attention again. It's a low risk strategy: a few plurals in the headline and your point's already been made.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Free Museums

No wonder it took the Tories so long to come up with any policies if this is the best they can do. Scrapping museum entry fees has been one of Tony Blair's few undisputed successes, bringing in an extra thirty million visitors in the last six years. A return to the days when museums cost a tenner and the riff-raff stayed at home might appeal to the Tory Old Etonians but it doesn't sound like much of a vote winner to me.

When will they ever learn?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Gardening for Beginners

After last year's modest triumphs, the first courgettes of this summer had the success rate of a soggy match. I struck lucky with the last three seeds, now attracting various pests towards their strategically placed containers. Once again, the tomatoes shot up without a hitch - unless you count putting half the seed packet through the washing machine - and are just about ready to go in that lovely selection of 80p growbags I've been storing in the shed since spring.

When the Train is a Strain

For a man who wants to get on in the Labour Party Jon Cruddas is beginning to develop a worrying tendency towards common sense. Despite the clear economic and environmental benefits of renationalisation, the merest whiff of socialism - which only upsets the headline writers and puts Middle England off its cornflakes - ensures it'll never happen under a Brown government (though it patently would under a green one).

Nothing better encapsulates the insanity of our railways than the fact that unplanned train journeys have become more expensive than driving. Though cutting fares seems the obvious solution, a more likely alternative is to keep whacking punitive taxes on car owners until taking the train is seen as very, very expensive but driving as prohibitively so.

Watch this space. It's cheaper than travelling.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


I used this article with my advanced level literacy class yesterday afternoon, partly to practise their paragraphing and titling skills, partly because I was interested to see what their reaction would be.

Everyone made the point - or two, once we'd agreed that plenty of British people gob on the street and push into queues nowadays - that they would love to learn about our culture by spending time with British people but never get any opportunities outside of work and language classes, both places where they're mainly together with other foreigners. If we're going to tell immigrants how to integrate, we should start by realising that ghettoisation cuts both ways.

Forthcoming Events

This weekend I'll be using the dry hours of daylight to tend rain-sodden plants, putting curriculum links on schemes of learning, eating Bangladeshi food made by a morning-class student, assessing targets on individual learning plans, marking practice exam papers and adding diversity issues, syllabus references and learner outcomes to next week's lesson plans.

One big difference between TEFL and ESOL: the same number of letters, a lot more paperwork.

The Graffiti Man

Speaking of Korea, my old friend and ex-Wonderland exploitee Reuven Fletcher, now Newcastle Council's graffiti co-ordinator (Education AND Diversion), made the front page of the Evening Chronicle this week.

Daft as a brush? He's been called a lot worse.

The Art of ELT

Squeezed between the good mornings and start dates, my Korean hagwon telephone interview was concluded, successfully, in the opening two questions:

Do you have a university degree? Yes.

Can you speak with an American accent? Erm, maybe, I think so.

Things are understandably more rigorous in France, where trainee English teachers are tested on the history of devolution in Scotland and Wales (luckily only post-1966), stress patterns in the word pornography, the meaning of time and the time of meaning.

I think I might have failed that one. In truth, I never even managed the American accent, though I did drop the 't' in often once or twice.

Friday, June 15, 2007

June Again

Half a week of driving rain blown down and across on the wind, so that your head stays dry but everything from the stomach down is bound to get soaked. Pond-sized puddles in every roadside dent, reflecting a smudged pencil sky that clings to the rooftops and very occasionally breaks into a gloomy mix of light and dark greys. Temperatures scrape into double figures. Umbrellas go up and gas fires back on.

Another summer begins.

Named and Shamed

"It's an absolute, total lie," he thundered. "A complete lie. Whoever he is, Lord Stevens, he is a liar. The people who have done this are liars...I will begin litigation and do everything in my power not just to close them down, but I will discredit them like you cannot believe. They will rue the day they were ever born. They are total liars."

Reacting to the Stevens' Report, football agent Barry Silkman displays a noticeable, some would say Freudian, fixation with words beginning with the letter 'L'. Sam Allardyce and Graeme Souness - each implicated in four of the seventeen suspect transfers named in the report - are meanwhile proving far more circumspect. Guilty or innocent, they don't have much to worry about - like the butler in a bad murder mystery novel, everyone knows it's the agents who did it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Coming Down

Over in Gateshead, the Get Carter car park is at long last joining Westgate House on the great scrapheap of Sixties eyesore landmarks. In its place the council proposes to site a new Tesco supermarket, more cafes and restaurants, some tree-lined walkways, bars and luxury apartments, a cinema and a pedestrianised square with a piece or two of modern art. The whole thing will no doubt be built in pale brick squiggly lines with big glass windows and wavy bits of metal tacked on the top - the modern day equivalent of concrete and pebbledash.

By and large it seems an unimaginative waste of space. As was the case with the underused monstrosity it replaces, everything in this development has better sited, much longer established and already popular competitors out-of-town, down on the Quayside and across the river in Newcastle. If I were Gateshead Council, I wouldn't be putting that wrecking ball away just yet.

Where There Is Strife

Amid warnings of anti-Polish violence in market towns and rural villages, a new study reveals Britain has three times the claimed number of unemployed people, with 1.7 million diverted off the official jobless count onto other benefits. More than enough to get the right-wing media frothing at the mouth.

Not everything, however, is as bleak as it seems. The employment study reveals that jobless figures have fallen sharply in the most deprived areas of the country, and rebuts the idea that EU migrants are somehow 'stealing' jobs from indigenous workers:

"The surge in migrants from the EU, especially Poland, appears to have occurred not so much because there are no unemployed to fill job vacancies but rather because the migrants are better able or more willing to fill the jobs that are available."

In an ideal world there would be no economic migration; every country would have full employment and every worker a living wage. In the meantime, jobs for the British means more investment in education and skills training and higher salaries for undesirable work - the kind of dirty, dangerous and menial labour on farms and in factories that we all, as consumers, ultimately benefit from. The question is, are the market town malconents willing to foot the bill, or are their nationalist principles just another mask for prejudice?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Big Brother Europe

I share the unease of Conservative MEPs and Daily Mail readers at the thought of European police having access to Britain's DNA database. The difference, I suppose, is that my objection relates to the principle of any agency holding my personal details - Why do they want it? When will it be used? Who will have access? - while theirs will end the minute a European national commits a newsworthy crime in the UK.

How quickly people drop the innocent have nothing to hide argument at the first hint of an EU conspiracy. Even quicker, in fact, than the government itself, on the many occasions when it deems secrecy to be in "the public interest".

Still Here

Time to put aside those hazy thoughts of distant lands, for the next twelve months anyway. Come September, it looks like I'll be working part-time at South Tyneside College while finishing off my teaching qualifications in Newcastle.

So no street food smoke and hill-top temples, dust-swept baroque towns, all-you-can-drink rooftop bars, neon signs switching on at dusk, cobbled squares and 50p beer, dancing lessons in public parks, falling asleep to the sound of waves, sunlight streaming in through wooden shuttered windows, full moon stripes across an inky-blue sea, bike rides through paddy fields, onion-domed churches or back street shrines.

Here is different. No less interesting to an outsider's eye, perhaps, but much more familiar to mine.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Query

Why is it that other people's pets have the whole of my garden to choose from, and yet still insist on crapping right in the middle of my vegetable patch?

Monday, June 11, 2007

This Is Not An Oxymoron

Skipping The Sun's take on Big Brother housemates, EU threats to British sovereignty and the great lingo debate, I came across an insightful and fair minded article on the rising cost of Premiership football.

Even better, tonight's Manchester Evening News featured a truth filled polemic against corporate takeovers and the new breed of 'McFans' by the great Stuart Brennan -probably not at all influenced by my drunken ramblings in a Bury pub car park.

Learning The Lingo

There are many reasons why immigrants should learn English - mainly because it keeps me in a job - although the British aren't best placed to lecture others on linguistic ineptitude: I lived for six months in Japan without getting past sheepish grins, hello and thank you very much, which at least had the benefit of making me seem polite as well as idiotic.

It's not racist to worry about immigration and its affect on society if your anxieties are based on facts and apply to all people equally - Does unquestioning belief in religion foster extremism? If the only way to make house prices affordable is to keep building more and more homes, how many people can this country hold? - rather than hearsay and prejudice concerned with race or skin colour - All Muslims are terrorists; Asylum seekers get free council houses. It's a pity that so much of the debate falls into the second category: ignorance gone mad.

That's why I almost choked on my breakfast cereal hearing a BBC correspondent say that migrants might have to pay for classes "like everybody else". Sloppy reporting like this lends credence to the kind of bigots who forget - or wilfully ignore - the free classes available to millions of British people with learning difficulties, poor basic skills and employability problems, or the fact that many of the immigrants on 'free' courses have already paid for them through various forms of taxation.

Evidently, it's not only the migrants who need more education.

Simply Souness

"During my time at Newcastle and Glenn Roeder's time we had money to spend but it was money to tart the team up, not to build a team...I didn't enjoy my time up there".

Having wrecked so many different club sides that he can no longer even buy himself a job at a football team, serial failed manager Graeme Souness now makes a living by telling more successful people where they're going wrong - a bit like Chesney Hawkes advising Mick Jagger on the best way to prolong his music career or John Reid writing a list of prisoner control tips for Josef Stalin.

In case anyone has forgotten, this really is the same Graeme Souness who wasted almost £50 million on Albert Luque (£10 million), Jean-Alain Boumsong (£8.5 million), Celestine Babayaro (£1 million plus astronomical salary) and desperation buy Michael Owen (£16 million, a loss making buy-out clause and £120,000 a week for twelve games in two years), while allowing more productive and committed players to leave for a pittance. Poor Glenn Roeder had the dual misfortune of being a crap manager and having no money to spend because his predecessor had thrown it all away.

I can think of at least 50,000 people who enjoyed Souness' time at Newcastle - grim football, awful results and constant whinging about injuries - even less than he did. But not many of them got £3 million to go away.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

That Was The Weekend

So far this weekend I've drunk vases of Kirin and smashed raw eggs on the ceiling of a teppan-yaki restaurant, been on a full-day bender with an unshaven Geordie and a balding Mancunian, swayed drunkenly around the world's worst nightclub, ridden home at three in the morning with pizza stains on my trainers and crashed my brother's bike into a metal barrier, drunk real ale and listened to out of tune music at the Newcastle Green Festival, fought back the urge to shout rude words in a right-on eco-workshop, felt my brain dawdle in the wake of intent, looked at photos of wedding parties on Portuguese bridges and sat for too long in front of a computer screen in an ongoing but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid doing any work.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Simple Life

I can't see the Paris Hilton precedent catching on in this country, though releasing every convicted criminal who didn't like prison would go a long way towards solving the problems of overcrowding.

Here Comes The Summer

Friday, June 08, 2007

Christianity in the Classroom

A teaching assistant disciplined for refusing to help a child read a Harry Potter book because it "glorified witchcraft" is claiming a £50,000 pay-out for religious discrimination. I bet she wouldn't have objected to kids reading from the Old Testament - which in various passages extolls ethnic cleansing, rape, misogyny and infanticide - or the more benign 'truths' of Jesus Christ: the resurrection of the dead, turning wine into water, walking on the sea and feeding five thousand people with a few bits of bread and a couple of fish.

It goes without saying the reaction of certain newspapers would have been very different if the case had involved atheists and RE lessons.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

La Cucina Siciliana

Despite the downturn in the weather - three days of concrete coloured skies loaded with raindrops that never fall - I managed to rescue half a cupful of basil and a few oddly shaped radishes from the greenhouse this morning. If I don't have the Mediterranean climate any longer, I can at least have some of the food.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Testing the Natives

Last week my low-level class practised talking about school and education. Comparing styles of learning in different countries, the discovery that British children don't study grammar at school left them gobsmacked. One even went off and quizzed his workmates on the difference between the past simple and present perfect (for instance, I played football and I have played football). Predictably, only one person in ten managed to give an answer other than "I dunno" or "They're just the same, aren't they?"

This afternoon, out shopping, I overheard a conversation between two middle-aged women: "I called him but he'd've went out," mangled one. "I'm sure I seen him yesterday," garbled the other.

I cringed.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Bucking The Trend

Now that allotments are suddenly trendy, I realise I'm a traditionalist after all. This year I'm growing four of the five pensioners' favourites and not a single one of the things that young professionals are supposed to be into (even the aubergines are no more than a Chinese nostalgia trip).

I'm unapologetic: a greenhouse without tomatoes is like a tyre without air.

The Realities of Aid

On the eve of yet another G8 summit a sobering article in this morning's Independent.

How about a pound for every empty promise?

Strangers Into Citizens

The argument against the Strangers Into Citizens campaign - that it is wrong to reward illegal behaviour - is powerful but flawed. There would have been no peace in Northern Ireland without the release of convicted terrorists, no votes for women without the Suffragettes, no Magna Carta without the nobles' revolt. In modern times, the Poll Tax was repealed after riots in Trafalgar Square, the right to roam was enshrined in law after the Kinder Scout Trespass and the Conservative Party promises to overturn a ban on hunting that is openly flouted around the country.

Giving an amnesty to illegal workers is no different in principle to releasing paramilitaries in Ulster. You cannot hope to solve a problem unless you first acknowledge its realities.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Sound of Sunday

Leather footballs hitting garage doors; scrambler bikes and lawnmower engines; washing machines and electric kettles; knives scraping on china; the roar of heat when oven doors open; newspaper supplements falling to the floor.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

How Migrants Really Live

Three-bedroomed houses sleeping thirty people; workers paying to live in sheds. As Margaret Hodge would doubtless say, it's a sad state of affairs when the British working classes can no longer afford to live in their own gardens.


In a game of Spoof, each player takes up to three coins out of their pockets and hides them in a clenched hand. The person who correctly guesses the total number of coins held by both players wins a point; the first to ten points wins the game.

According to The Daily Telegraph, that's exactly how Mike Ashley settled a late-night argument over a £200,000 legal bill.

He lost.