Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I woke up in the night, sweating. I'd been dreaming of lesson plans.

Monday, October 29, 2007


The Module Two work keeps on coming; tonight, the first of six official observations. It went, I think, reasonably well: there was lots of scribbling going on in the corner but not too many perplexed looks, the students seemed to be having fun, and by the end of the lesson they were producing everything I expected of them. Back in the free and easy days when I taught English abroad that would've been enough to guarantee a pass. Here, I'm never quite sure.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


The tomatoes are finished for another year: dying plants untied, uprooted and chucked in the compost; the last of the crop stuck in a kitchen drawer to ripen off.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Unwelcome Visitor

When I came in from the garden a piece of paper from the BNP was hanging out of the letterbox; the front gate had been left wide open (whatever happened to controlling borders?). I scanned through the policies on the way back to the compost bin: hike up the mandatory sentence for the possession of knives; bring back corporal punishment for anti-social behaviour; don't trust postal ballots; don't believe the lies...

The Cinema Before Noon

Three men and a careworker, a pair of giggling teenagers in a corner at the back, a man with his mother, unbrushed hair and a knotted bag of sweets brought from home. The end of a drink gets slurped through a straw, a wrapper's torn open and a polyphene bag pops as the adverts come on, loud and incongruous in the empty cavernous dark. Outside, in the primary colour bright, a line of people builds by the popcorn concession, waiting for a children's animation to begin.

Friday, October 26, 2007


I came out of Michael Moore's latest film feeling very grateful for Nye Bevan and William Beveridge. For all its faults (and there were plenty of omissions in the film: no mention of patients pulling their own teeth out because they can't afford to see a dentist, old women dead of MRSA, or the postcode lottery of cancer drug provision), the NHS provides an immeasurably better service than most of us could expect to receive in the US, a country where tens of millions have no health insurance whatsoever and corporate dividends come before human lives.

The Eleventh Hour

Twenty years on from the wake up call to end all wake up calls: the planet's health continues to worsen, the privileged few get richer and richer, and the warning signs stack up like logs in a newly felled forest. For one hundred thousand years of pre-industrial history, Medieval Warming Period and all, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere never reached more than 300 parts per million. At the start of the Industrial Revolution the figure was 280 parts; by the end of World War II it had gone up to 300; in 2003 it had risen again, this time to 360; Tim Flannery predicts that the next set of data will show us passing 455 parts per million. Whatever the truth of that, the figures are heading in only one direction. All part of the natural cycle, no doubt.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Walk In The Woods

Chopwell Woods on a late-October morning, the leaves just beginning to turn. I walked the green marked path from the car park down to the banks of the Derwent, then back along the wooden-sculpture trail. Even in the middle of a school holiday there were more squirrels than people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Frosty Morning

The first real frost of winter. That's the marigolds done for, then.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Coast Is Always Changing

Half-term holidays: an early morning bus from Haymarket to Northumberland and the tiny cement harbour at Craster. The weather was perfect for walking: long, streaky skies, cellar-warm air, and a washed-out sun the colour of peach, poking wanly through a hole in the cloud bank. I headed up the coastal path, past the ruined mouth of Dustanburgh Castle, Newton-by-the-Sea, and the long, white curve of Embleton Bay. Turning round at Beadnell, I caught the bus home by way of Alnwick, stopping at a second hand bookstore to pick up a fiver's worth of Graham Greenes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Raise a Glass

You couldn't make this up (or perhaps you could): apparently, the guidelines on safe alcohol consumption are nothing more than guesswork, and - wait for it - later studies show that men drinking between 21 and 30 units a week actually have the country's lowest mortality rate.

I'll drink to that.


An interesting, disturbing or just completely stupid analogy from our former prime minister? Beyond the name of the country there's very little new in Blair's rhetoric: despite all the facile Bush's poodle talk, he'd been making the case for intervention in Iraq as long ago as 1999 (post-Kosovo), and had already put his words into action in Sierra Leone. In fact, one outcome of the mess the Allies caused in Iraq was to make humanitarian interventions in places like Darfur or Zimbabwe almost impossible to stage or justify to the voting public. Hopefully, a more positive effect will be to nip the economically-driven Let's invade Iran clamour in the bud, and quickly.

The Classless Society?

Ten years of New Labour and still Britain remains a nation dominated by class. I guess the 8% who disagreed have enough money not to let it bother them.

One interesting finding: Scottish people are just as snobbish as those in the South-East (47% describe themselves as middle-class). And one glaring ommission: how many people calling themselves working-class have actually fallen, often through no fault of their own, into an underclass of sink estates, poor education and benefit dependency? Too many people around here, for a start.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Module Two

Module too much more like. After a whole day of input sessions - three hours on teaching listening before lunch aand then another three on differentiated learning straight after - I've just spent half the evening finishing off a presentation for tomorrow morning - supposedly the start of my week off work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Something's Catching

This really does beggar belief. Time was when the government screwed over public services, you could at least comfort yourself with the thought of voting in someone better...

Disaster in Moscow

Ok, so it was never a penalty (foul or no foul, it wasn't even inside the box), but if England don't make the European Championships it won't be because of anything that happened last night - it'll be because they weren't good enough to beat Macedonia at home or take a point off Croatia away. When all's said and done it's a simple game, football: you pick the best team, not the biggest egos.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


It's my younger brother's 29th today. We're off to the bright lights of South Shields to watch the football and get blind drunk.

The Truth About Immigration

Or one of them anyway. Guess which part the Daily Mail concentrated on?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fat Nation

Is it really possible to equate the challenge posed by obesity and climate change? I suppose it could be said the government has waited much too long to deal with the consequences of either; and both problems are almost entirely man-made. On the other hand, most people already know the solution to obesity - eat less junk food, do more exercise, and use up more calories than you take in - and no matter how overweight the population of a few rich countries gets, it's hardly likely to threaten world peace or lead to environmental disaster, is it?

The TEFL Trap

Sadly, shocking as it is, this story doesn't altogether surprise me. Not everyone teaches abroad to make money, experience life in another country or broaden their cultural horizons. In South Korea the only special qualification you need to get a job with children is a university degree, and even that is easy enough to get around: a crooked boss; $30 to an internet site. There's no criminal record check, rarely any taking up of references, and often no control whatsoever over what happens in the classroom (the only advice anyone ever gave me was to stand up when teaching). Let's put it this way, I didn't need to read any newspapers to know that this kind of thing goes on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

And Moving On

As you can see, the fenugreek's coming along nicely indoors. I also sowed some early sweet pea seeds, to be overwintered in the cold frame and put out at the start of next spring.

Taking Stock

What worked?

Basil's easy-peasy.
After a few false starts, I got enough French beans for two whole Sunday dinners.
Tomatoes. Again.
Radish: much more next year.
Spring onions.
Last year's courgette seeds. Quality, not quantity.
Dill, although it went to seed faster than an ageing boxer.

And what didn't?

Carrots, but only because I didn't space them out properly.
Beetroot: all shrivelled up. Not enough water?
Chives - a total, inexplicable, flop.
Garlic, forgotten and left to dry-out.
Aubergines. Unless I get lucky, I left them a little too late.

Britain's Top Ten Wits

Wit. Something most of the respondents to this poll were sadly lacking in. Having Liam Gallagher at number ten is a bit like including his brother in a list of the greatest ever lyricists. And Jeremy Clarkson? The only way to make sense of that one is by replacing the W with another T.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Stephenson's Works

I had a tour of Stephenson's Works - the remains of the world's first locomotive factory - earlier this afternoon. Now buried behind public artworks, a casino, and a Royal Mail delivery office, it was here Stephenson designed the historic Locomotion and Rocket, as well as some of the first ever engines to run in Australia, the US, Egypt and continental Europe. This too, don't forget, has been one of the centres of the world.

Small World

What is it with Guardian Unlimited and lists? Barely a day goes by without a top one hundred foreign films beginning with the letter A, or the best fifty songs about unrequited love. This time, from the Observer, twenty of the world's best-kept travel secrets.

Rugby World Cup

I watched the England - France game in the Chichester Arms: the barmaid's lottery numbers took preference to the first six points of the second half, and Johnny Wilkinson's winning drop-goal was acclaimed by the thwack of a miscued pool ball and a drunk stumbling noisily through the side door.

The last time England made the final I watched it downstairs in Balon, by the bus terminus in Liberec. I was the only English face in a Saturday morning smattering of Czechs, placing bets on the afternoon football, drinking twenty-crown lager, and playing at roulette. There wasn't much time for celebrations: no sooner had the game finished than I was on the tram to Jablonec to see the locals hammer Sparta Prague.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Tidying-up Exercise

Speaking as I was of the garden, I spent a large part of this morning tidying mine up. I gave the thyme a short-back-and-sides, uprooted dead tomato plants, picked French beans, spread some home-made loam compost around the front of the house, gathered chocolate bar wrappers and dog shit from the bare borders, dug-out summer bulbs, and raked up fallen leaves for the compost heap.

Nobel Prize

I bet this sticks in the craw of all those still clinging to medieval warming periods, Holocene maximums, sunspots, and free-market fairies at the bottom of the garden.

New Dawn Fades

Terror and despair in the dark night of Burma.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Still Inconvenient Truth

Trust the Daily Mail to decide that climate change is news the day after An Inconvenient Truth was "slammed" in court for making scientifically unproven claims. To put the judgement into context, although the work was described as being "broadly accurate", in Justice Burton's opinion nine out of the hundreds of assertions made by Gore could not be fully substantiated by current scientific knowledge (though, as the wording of the judgement makes clear, none can be fully disproved either). I wonder what would happen if the same strict approach was applied to the teaching of religion in schools...

A Wild Leaf Chase

Our damp summer had one benefit: the display of autumn colours promises to be spectacular over the next month or so. The Japanese have a special word to describe the act of viewing autumn leaves - momijigari, or red leaf hunting: something I plan to do a lot of during the half-term holidays.

One In Ten

Done and dusted. It's not much cop, but there you go.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Assignment 6.1

The night before deadline day and I'm (almost) halfway through my first assignment: Educational policy and its impact on practices in the learning and skills sector. Harking back to university, I've re-discovered a talent for long-winded, verbiose but essentially meaningless sentences, which can be prolonged indefinitely by way of commas, dashes and brackets (as displayed here). A job offer from some government department or other is surely just around the corner.

Profit or People?

I've blogged about the postal workers' strike before, I know, but here's a timely reminder of the issues at stake from an unusually succinct Tony Benn. There are worse things in life, after all, than an uncluttered doormat.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Armenian Question

When is a genocide not a genocide? When it's an historic mass killing, of course.

On A Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Autumn's here; winter follows in the wind. The turning leaves take me back again to Asia: the flaming maple leaves at Mount Seorak and Naejangsan, whole hillsides ablaze with colour; an arching bridge at Nikko and the sound of water brushing against the rocks; crunching through chestnuts and gingko leaves; the smell of persimmon and hot red peppers drying in the breeze.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Ministry of Fear

On the subject of paranoid despots, here's that rarest of things: a Peter Hitchens article that I actually agree with.

Talking Heads and Psycho Killers

Only weeks after the slaughter on the streets of Burma, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators as "abhorrent and unacceptable". Meanwhile, special envoy Ibrahim Gambari expressed his "great concern" at the mass relocations, arbitrary arrests and disappearances still being carried out in the wake of his four-day visit. As the UN pontificates, hampered by splits in the Security Council, the international community pins its hopes on the same Chinese suits who sent tanks into Tiananmen Square and suppressed the monks in Tibet. One day we might start learning from our mistakes...and other people might stop having to pay for them.

Kettle Chips Boycott

So Facebook does have its uses after all. There's more on the multi-billion dollar anti-Trade Union industry here - definitely one American import we could do without.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

In Defence of Freedom

Looks like Gordon Brown really is into the politics of conviction...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Money Won't Save You

Coming over all vogue and edgy, the Tories have gone for Jimmy Cliff's You Can Get It If You Really Want as the official song of the on-off, will he or won't he? election campaign. After sitting through David Cameron's conference speech I would have thought Struggling Man was more appropriate.

Going Missing (For a While)

I'm off to see Maximo Park at the Manchester Apollo. Back tomorrow, when I have an assignment to start and (unless I pull my finger out this morning) Monday's lesson plans to finish.

Friday, October 05, 2007


The last of the Gladiolis, withering in a sheltered corner. Next year I'm going to group the bulbs together in containers, mainly to save me the bother of having to dig them up out of the garden every autumn.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Journey Without Maps

Across a continent and back with nothing more than a torn bit of paper, a train ticket, and a sprinkling of proper nouns. Of course, guidebooks come in handy sometimes, but almost all of my most memorable travel experiences have come from just 'winging it', even if things don't always turn out the way you expect...

Gone To Seed

I had more basil than I knew what to do with this year, a lot of which went to waste while I was gallivanting around Central Europe or trapped for a month in the Barnard Castle bubble. I'm going to try a couple of plants indoors over winter; hopefully they won't be too badly affected by the lack of daylight once the clocks go back.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Starting Over

I started back at college this morning, teaching Bangladeshi takeaway chefs, a Thai woman who cleans pubs for a living, a Somalian mother-of-four, and a smartly-dressed couple from North Korea. We went through telephone numbers and the spelling of names, intonation in basic questions, personal introductions and the pronunciation of /f/ and /p/ sounds. Repetitive, but fun.