Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Steven Taylor at 24

"By signing his new five and a half year deal to stay on Tyneside," wrote The Mirror's Simon Bird, "Steven Taylor now has a chance to elevate himself above the ordinary, and cement his place in the history of his home town club", though I suspect the writers of Leazes Terrace spoke for just as many fans when they tweeted 'Traffic warden Steven Taylor signs new 5.5 year deal at Newcastle - 5.5 more years of pointing at players instead of marking them.'

Taylor had it in him to be an excellent centre-half but, after 175 appearances, he still makes too many of the kind of basic errors which saw him outmuscled by Henrik Pederson in his full debut for the team, giving away needless free kicks in dangerous positions, failing to mark his man, or allowing attackers to advance unchallenged, his puffed out chest compensating for a tackle.

"I have no doubt Shola Ameobi will be a top striker at this football club," Graeme Souness said of our much criticised centre-forward in 2005. "Our supporters have to understand that there is a player in there waiting to come out". The same could be said of Taylor. Question is, how long do you wait?

Christmas

Frosted snow lay all about the garden. "It's coming down again," my dad said, parting the blinds, but it had stopped by the time we'd opened our presents. I got three pairs of socks, a box full of books (literally, given the size and shape of Crystal's Encylopedia of the English Language), bottled beers and a 12-year-old Glenfiddich, two DVDs and a hat which made me look, or so my sister insisted, a bit like this year's X-Factor winner.

My final present came on Boxing Day morning. Australia 98 all out, England 157-0. Merry Christmas indeed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Football in Japan

A couple of pieces I've written this week for In Bed With Maradona and The Seventy Two.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

Seagulls and slush covered the paving stones in King Street. A few shoppers, bundled up in scarves and wooly hats, sipped coffee at outdoor tables under the cover of an awning. "Morrisons is closed," a woman complained in a strong Birmingham accent, walking towards McDonald's.


The boating lake was frozen over at Marine Park and the miniature train tracks were wrapped up in snow. At the seafront, most things were closed and those that weren't were mainly dead. Two ships crossed just ahead of the pier, slate-coloured waves knocked on icy sand, and black matchstick shapes slogged along the beach like figures in a Lowry sketch, dogs bounding on ahead.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ashley Out

"I don't think you can afford to be bitter. It's a wonderful club and I had a fantastic time there over three years" - Chris Hughton.

With disheartening speed, the protests against Mike Ashley appear to have fizzled out again. Boycotts, walkouts and direct action at Sports Direct stores have all been mooted but, with minor exceptions, to next to no avail. Ultimately, as was the case in 2008 and 2009, too many supporters waited for others to act instead of themselves.

In the long-term, Ashley isn't likely to win - disillusionment with his running of the club, the continuing recession and, above all, public sector job losses will result in falling attendances, making it even more difficult for him to see a profitable return - but our football club will almost certainly lose. From Keegan to Kinnear, Shearer to Dennis Wise, a relegation season to the sacking of Chris Hughton, Ashley and Llambias have shown time and time again that they are inadequate to the task at hand. "I tried my best, but I accept that my best was woefully short," Ashley said in 2008. Nothing has changed to alter that view.

I can put things no better than the fan who contacted Sky Sports on the evening Hughton was dismissed. "Wanted: one owner with experience of running a football club."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Abroad

"Christmas makes me think of oranges," a student in the Czech Republic once told me. "During Communism it was the only time of year you could ever get them." My Czech Christmas meant carp and cold beer, and an afternoon train from Roudnice to the market in Prague, where I wandered aimlessly around the city centre along with several thousand tourists. In South Korea, I had Christmas dinner in a shopping mall chain restaurant, served by waitresses in Santa hats, and was back to work the very next day. I was a fortnight too late to celebrate in Sicily, and always left too early to see it in Japan.

Prague, Christmas Day 2005.

And Daejeon, South Korea, in 1999.

Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

MA Assignment 1 (Critique for BNU)

1. Introduction

The following paper will critically review a journal article entitled Understanding class blogs as a tool for language development, authored by Doris de Almeida Soares and published in ‘Language Teaching Research’ (2008; 12; 517-534). The study described in the article was carried out over a three month period at a private language school in Brazil using practitioner research into learning activities and includes the results of an online survey of teachers who used blogs in different contexts around the world. The paper evaluates both the positive and negative aspects of the article and is divided into six main sections. The first, which analyses the literature review presented by the author, is followed by the rationale behind the study. Subsequently, there is an analysis of the methods used to carry out the research, including the participants and sampling techniques, the instruments used to collect data, and the way in which the data was analysed. The fourth section considers how the findings are presented, whether the conclusions drawn from the study can be justified, and how important they are to the wider field of research. Next, attention is given to the author’s use of references and appendices to support her findings. Finally, there is an evaluation of the study as a whole.

2. Literature Review

The literature review describes previously published overviews of how blogs can potentially be used to aid language learning. It provides clear definitions of what a blog is and presents the three different ways they can be used for pedagogical purposes while listing some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of each in turn. However, the review could be criticised as being overly descriptive rather than discursive. The literature is quoted at great length without any critical comment on its strengths and weaknesses, such as an acknowledgment of the fact that none list empirical data or classroom research to support their conclusions or the fact that they present merely “an overview” (Stanley, 2005) or a “brief introduction and overview” (Bartlett-Bragg, 2003). Some claims, notably that blogging makes the learning experience “more fun and concrete” (p.520), are not hedged, supported by the author’s personal experience or substantiated by reference to research.

Soares could have formulated questions on topics which required more research or related the literature to the research questions posed (Taylor & Proctor, 2008). For instance, do class blogs actually facilitate project-based language learning? (Campbell, 2003) Or, as Soares herself speculates, could self-study links foster learner autonomy? Nor does she explicitly state the rationale for choosing a class blog, although she does later write “My aim was to foster student autonomy and independence” (p.522).

3. Rationale

In her abstract Soares presents two main research questions:

“a) did my students see our blog as a learning tool? and b) what was blogging like in other language teaching contexts?” (p.517).

They emerged as a result of classroom activities and the author’s observations on how the learners were using the blog, in accordance with the principles of Exploratory Practice outlined by Allwright (2003), who called for teachers to make use of puzzles (in this case, why the learners were not using the blog in the manner the author initially expected and to what extent this behaviour was found in other contexts too) in order to work towards a greater understanding of classroom events.

4. Method

a. Participants and Sampling Methods


The author conducted her Exploratory Practice with a class of nine pre-intermediate teenage learners, raising potential ethical concerns and the risk of a halo effect (Mackey & Gass, 2005: 114) in the learners’ actions and responses, particularly as they were “gaining extra marks for course involvement and participation” (p.524). Soares also admits that she decided on both the platform and type of blog to use before suggesting to her students that they create a blog (p.521). Mackey & Gass (op. cit: 51) warn of the unintentional influence authority figures can exert on students in recommending courses of action. Although information is provided on the learners’ age, language proficiency and previous experience with blogging as part of classroom work, the author does not relate if all of the students had frequent computer access at home, a fact of crucial significance in their ability to work autonomously.

The author does observe the ethical standards of Exploratory Practice advocated by Allwright (2005) by involving her learners and working to bring people together. She also maintains participant anonymity, although it is not stated whether the learners had given informed consent to the listing of their blog’s URL address within the published article.

The sixteen participants in the online survey were chosen on the basis of a convenience or opportunity sampling (Dornyei, 2007: 98) from among an online community of practice which the author had previously joined. Significantly, although one of the questions specifically referred to the attitudes of students, no attempt is made to sample the learners themselves.

b. Data Collection and Analysis

The author uses two “Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities ” (p.522) to gather data from the learners, which, quoting from Allwright, she defines as being “useful for data collection purposes without losing their value as learning activities” (ibid). She presents contributions from all of the learners together with her own commentary, although some conclusions are high in inference and could have been followed up by further questioning of the students involved. This is illustrated by PEPA2, when the author does not query the reported increase in motivation to use the blogs at home.

An online survey was administered to gather data about the use of blogs in other contexts. The author does make some attempt to describe the individual questions, but fails to state whether the survey was administered in English alone or with an accompanying translation, whether it had been piloted beforehand, if any statistical procedures had been used on the data, or if the results were analysed by the author alone. These are particularly important given the small size of the sample and the existence of distinct sub-groups such as the teacher of vocational studies and the two teaching English as a mother tongue (Dornyei, 2007: 100).

Furthermore, as the link provided to view the survey online is no longer accessible, it is not clear if open- or closed-ended questions were used. It may have been more helpful to include a copy of the survey as an appendix, along with a more comprehensive statistical analysis of the results.

As argued by Wilson & Dewaele (2010), the validity and reliability of data in self-report surveys cannot be assumed to be wholly accurate. Following the advice of Birnbaum (2004), the data could have been improved by comparing the results against a similar non-web based study or by analysis against separate demographic variables such as age and teaching environment.


5. Conclusion

The author recognises some of her failings in setting up the class blog and makes recommendations for improvement such as the need to trial different blogs before selecting a permanent one. Given the fact her initial aim was to foster student autonomy, it is perhaps strange that she does not suggest how this could have been better achieved. For instance, the author does not consider how her decision to correct students’ mistakes may have impacted on their motivation to use the blog independently.

Soares makes some attempt to describe the contexts of the respondents to her online survey, but there is no recognition of how either they or the sampling technique used might have affected the results. Dornyei (2007:99) recommends the limitations of non-probability samples be described “in detail” while Mackey & Gass (2005: 140-141) state researchers must “make an argument about the representativeness of the sample” before results can be considered generalizable. In this light, if the author believes her sample to represent, for instance, a form of a criterion sampling (Dornyei, 2007:128), she does not provide any grounds for the reader to consider it so.

It could further be argued that the research question itself is problematic, in that the contexts are too broadly defined to enable them to be measured successfully. Perhaps a more meaningful comparison could have been drawn with respondent 14 alone, whose learners shared some apparent similarities in terms of age and linguistic ability. If a similar form of Exploratory Practice had been used this may also have provided a degree of triangulation for the author’s data.

Once again, high inference is drawn from some of the responses to the survey, not least the author’s view of the importance of linguistic accuracy to teachers who include blogging as part of their curriculum (p.525). Dornyei (2007:99) argues that non-probability samples provide negligible scope for generalisation, while Mackey & Gass (2005:96) outline the frequent inability of questionnaires to provide a complete view of individual contexts. These views are shared by Bannen (2005) in considering the potential limitations of quantitative methods as a whole.

Given these factors, the author’s final conclusion that her blogging experiences are shared by practitioners “all over the world” (p. 532) can not be fully justified.

6. References and appendices

The author presents an alphabetical list of references at the end of the article and uses quotations from Allwright effectively in support of her use of Exploratory Practice. When citing published work, however, it is not always clear whether she is expressing a personal view or using direct quotations. This is illustrated in the literature review when she states:

“…the tutor blog usually restricts students to writing comments on the subject the teacher has posted” (p.519)

Despite the lack of attribution, this quotes directly from Stanley (2005).

As previously noted, appendices could have been used to present the author’s results in full and to ensure that data such as the online survey questions were available to all subsequent readers. Without access to all of the results and comments generated, the potential for anecdotalism in the responses selected by the author cannot be discounted.

7. Overall Evaluation

Overall, the author does provide some original evidence of how class blogs may or may not function as a language tool, supported by comments from learners and her own observations, although she does not always recognise the potential shortcomings of her approach. However, the previously mentioned flaws with the online survey and the conclusions Soares subsequently draws from it, mean the results can not be considered as generalizable to the extent claimed by the author and minimises its importance to the understanding of how blogs are used in contexts other than her own.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Belfast

The plane touches down before the sun has risen over Belfast. The Christmas lights are up and the trees outside the terminal building glow white in the icy wind as we shelter inside a rain-spattered screen waiting for the bus that will take us into the city centre. "Welcome onboard," says a pre-recorded voice. I rub the window with the sleeve of my coat but it's hard to see much further than the edge of the road through the mist and early morning damp. "Lot warmer than Newcastle, isn't it?" says a man across the aisle. His partner looks at him, and smiles.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

An Englishman Abroad

Born in Washington, Jimmy Hagan was arguably Sheffield United's finest ever player. He managed Peterborough United into the Football League, West Bromwich Albion to the League Cup, and a Benfica side including Eusebio to three titles in a row. You can read more about one of English football's greatest forgotten exports in this article I wrote for the marvellous Les Rosbifs.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why England Lost The World Cup

"We were equal top of FIFA's own technical assessment of the four bids. We were top of an independent assessment of the best commercial bids and our presentation on Thursday was widely acclaimed as the best of the 2018 and 2022 bids," said acting FA chairman Roger Burden. "I am struggling to understand how we only achieved two votes".

He shouldn't be. Viacheslav Koloskov, FIFA vice-president from 1980 to 1996 and a member of Russia's victorious organising committee, had already revealed how unimportant technical assessments are: "I know from my own experience that ExCo members work with little information. The inspection reports are enormous, so no one reads them." Ahongalu Fusimalohi, suspended from the vote after a Sunday Times sting, had given the FA an even bigger clue: "England don't strike deals...It is corrupt – but only if you get caught."

"All the fish is sold," Vladimir Putin had said, while the British press obessed about his failure to turn up in Zurich. England sent David Beckham, a prime minister and a future king, who spent 48 hours lobbying the 22 committee members - and got one extra vote other than their own (from Issa Hayatou, African federation chief, repaying England's support for his unsuccessful 2002 attempt to unseat Blatter).

Somehow, the English bid contrived to be arrogant, naive and incredibly stupid at the same time. A bit, you might say, like the men they chose to spearhead it.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Al Front!

"Blue boys, blue boys, what you gonna do? What you gonna do when they cut you too?" - Topshop protesters taunt police in Brighton.

"Only one political course is left to those who are disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a government spreadsheet," John Pilger wrote last month. First the students, now UK Uncut - "the Big Society's Revenue and Customs" - have taken up the call. In 2005 Sir Phillip Green paid a £1.2 billion dividend into his wife's Monaco bank account, saving himself almost £300 million in taxes. (Tax Research UK estimates this kind of "avoidance and planning" costs the UK £25 billion in lost revenue each year.) Despite the Lib Dems' pre-election pledge to "close loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy", no sooner was Nick Clegg elected than he acquiesced in the appointment of Green to head a review of government spending.

"I will give this efficiency review my very best effort knowing how hugely important it is to the recovery of the country," Green (Britain's 9th richest man with an estimated fortune of over £4.5 billion) said at the time of his appointment. He could have started with a few simple calculations - his £300 million tax dodge is enough to pay for 13,000 new police officers, 20,000 NHS nurses or 121,000 student EMAs.

This afternoon protesters forced the closure of Topshop and Vodafone stores in London, Brighton, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle. Tonight students are occupying buildings at more than 20 different university campuses. "There is no other way now," Pilger wrote. "Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Good Week For Gary Lineker

A couple of things I've done for In Bed With Maradona recently. Nagoya before and after their first J-League title.

The Irish Bail-Out

"It's the only way," said Brian Cowen. Except, as Argentina could tell him, it's not. You regulate against reckless lending and out-of-control bonus payments by hitting the people who run the banks, not the ones who clean their floors. "We'll make the banks smaller," Cowen promised, but the only thing they're cutting so far is the €8.65 an hour minimum wage.

"All changed, changed utterly," Yeats once wrote. But as the Irish workers are about to discover, there's nothing beautiful about the IMF.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Upside-Down World

"The upside-down world rewards in reverse," wrote the Uruguyan journalist Eduardo Galeano. "It scorns honesty (and) prizes lack of scruples". In the upside-down world the once saintly Vince Cable became Business Secretary and denied ever breaking his promise on university tuition fees. "We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election," he tells an upside-down BBC. "We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us".

In the upside-down world, nobody ever voted for an election manifesto - and a coalition government was always on the cards. "It's not an issue of trust," says Cable. You can only hope the voters disagree - and, at the very next opportunity, consign the Liberal Democrats to the electoral oblivion they so richly deserve.

European Football Weekends

My latest football writing is in European Football Weekends (as recommended by The Guardian, don't you know) and involves a six-hour bus ride to the capital city of Moldova, football in Arctic temperatures and a late-night encounter with kindly officers of the law.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Costcutters

Every time Michael Gove opens his mouth I'm a little more relieved I no longer teach in Britain. "Greater efficiences," in his terms, have nothing whatsoever to do with quality and everything to do with cost. In EFL, people can reasonably claim to have been instructed in the "craft" of teaching upon passing a month long introductory course. But you need, as unions rightly warn, a much wider theoretical understanding before you can actually begin to teach. Lacking in it himself, Gove may be right about the rather obvious importance of emotional intelligence, but he dangerously underestimates the importance of proper teacher training.

As most of us who've actually been in a classroom could tell him, good teachers are born and made.

Rained Off

Woken by the sound of rain pattering against the window and gurgling noisily out of the drainpipe below, I reach out for the alarm clock. 5.30. A milkfloat accelerates down the road with the same noise that scalextric cars used to make just before they flew off the track. "Piss, shit, bollocks," I think. "No football today."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Christmas: Now Coming

The estate's first Christmas lights were up the day after Guy Fawkes. I saw them on a house around the corner which always has one car on the drive and two blocking off the pavement in front. Red santas and blue reindeer climbed up a window, and there were the kind of flashing lights the TV news warn you about in advance all over the upstairs. "November the 6th? Someone should put their windows in," said the person I was with, half-joking. Or at least, I think he was.

Monday, November 15, 2010

UnSuper Sunday

By all accounts, yesterday was one of the most exciting days of football so far this season. Unfortunately, I also chose this particular day to finish a 2,000-word assignment on the use of blogs as a language development tool. I saw just one of Sunderland's goals at Chelsea (and that was more than enough), the final whistle at Goodison as relayed on twitter, and the last twenty minutes of the Milan derby live on ESPN. It's early days, but five wins in twelve games and six points behind AC can't be quite what Benitez had in mind. Wonder who he'll find to blame now he can't hide behind a greedy, incompetent owner?

Monday, November 01, 2010

In the Sack with El Diego

My second piece for In Bed With Maradona: Omiya Ardija's invisible fans. All 111,737 of them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

FTM?

Five to Magpies.
Nolan three, Ameobi two, Titus Bramble one (red card). Glorious. Just glorious. If it's any consolation to the Sunderland fans out there, at least you made it home before the final whistle.

This is the kind of scoreline that goes down in legend. Enjoy it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Autumn at the Byker Wall

Derby Day Cometh

When Arsenal's reserve team knocked us out of the Carling Cup on Wednesday night, I didn't feel a thing. Defeat tomorrow, of course, would be an infinitely more painful experience. I'm slightly more confident of victory than I was for the 1-1 draw in 2009, but significantly less sure than before our last win in 2008.

Something - blind hope? - tells me 2-1 Newcastle, though with our home form as it is I'd be almost relieved to come away with a draw.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Bed With Maradona

This month, in addition to the copious amounts of reading I'm expected to do on topics such as identifying the literature gap before embarking on research projects (fun!) and analysing the ways in which teacher talk can facilitate or restrict learning opportunities in the L2 classroom (enthralling!), I've been writing about The Decline and Fall of Chernomorets Odessa and My Top European Weekend Destinations. For watching football and drinking beer, obviously.

If pushed, I'll admit that neither has much of interest to the field of SLA.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cutting Back at BNU

Even before the spending review, cutbacks had started at Big Northern University. "You probably know we have a new coalition government," a lecturer tells eighty Chinese students, "and we're under pressure to reduce costs." The students may not know about the workings of British democracy, I think, but they've probably worked out that paying eleven thousand pounds a year should preclude them having to share an A4 photocopy. "I'm really embarrassed about this," says another lecturer, "but I'll have to ask you to print off your own handouts before each session." "Nobody mentioned having to buy your own printer before we started the course," a student whispers in my ear.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not Quite Munich

Oktoberfest in South Gosforth. The queue's four deep at the bar, they've run out of pretzels and are offering cocktail sticks instead of bread to go with the bratwurst. A German-style Oompah band are playing in the centre of the room. "This one's for the Mackems," they say, and "Are there any Jocks in here tonight?" The Dambusters theme played on accordian and tuba. "Oggy, oggy, oggy," the singer shouts. "Christ, what next?" mutters my brother. "Ten German bombers?" "Either that," I say, "or the one about Hitler's balls."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Just One Of Those Things?

The words "It's just one of those things" dribbled out of Lee Dixon's mouth on Match of the Day. Alan Brazil called it "unlucky", Steve Claridge thought "Ben Arfa should've seen it coming and moved out of the way". "As long as you allow neanderthals to dominate the public discourse on telly," Raphael Honigstein tweeted, "these 'unfortunate accidents' will continue".

Just one of those things?



How about two?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

When West Auckland Ruled the World

Before Spain's tikka takka there was Zidane's headbutt, Gazza's tears and Maradona's hand. Before that came Paolo Rossi and North Korea, Cruyff's turn, Banks's save and Bobby Moore with the Jules Rimet. But before all of that, before the Miracle of Bern and USA 1 England 0, there was a team of miners from County Durham beating Juventus in Turin.

Nobody knows how West Auckland Town ended up in the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy. Some think their invitation was meant for Woolwich Arsenal but got mixed up in the post. West Auckland paid their own way to Italy in 1909. Once there, they beat a team from Stuttgart 2-0 and the Swiss side FC Winterthur by the same score in the final. Two years later they were back, beating FC Zurich in the semi and thrashing Juventus 6-1 to win the cup outright. Juve have since won fifty-one major competitions. West Auckland went bankrupt and had to pawn their trophy to the landlady of a local hotel.

'Home of the first World Cup' says the sign at the entrance to the village, and the trophy adorns both the club's badge and the gates to their Darlington Road ground. There's a replica of the trophy in the Working Men's Club - the original, which the villagers bought back for £100 in 1960, was stolen sixteen years ago. They'd only started locking the cabinet after 1966.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Induction Week

There are ninety students on the Big Northern University's MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL course. Eighty per cent are Chinese, female, and just out of university. Fewer than ten of us have any teaching experience.

Much of the first week, predictably, is aimed at the International Students. "There are three stages of culture shock," one recent Chinese graduate tells us. "Try English food," suggests another. "It's probably your first time outside of your country," begins our course supervisor, "so use the opportunity to travel as well as to learn."

I find it hard to resist a sweet shop mentality when it comes to choosing modules. Reconceptualising SLA Research clashes with Teacher Development for TESOL. I can't decide between Corpus Linguistics and Discourse Analysis, but the first one loses out when I realise it's scheduled for Friday afternoons. In the end, it all comes down to why you're taking the course.

"A guy I work with picked the modules that seemed to be connected," a student whispers as I turn through the pages of the handbook, "and he did ok. To be honest, I'm only really interested in the letters after my name."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Power to the People

Anyone who's been to a game this season will know that English football remains scandalously overpriced at almost every level. It costs £51 for a Liverpool fan to sit at Old Trafford, £26 for a junior ticket at West Ham United, and £18 in the Conference - in the Conference! - to watch Darlington's home game with Gateshead.

Not so in Germany, where thanks to safe standing and strict rules governing the ownership of Bundesliga clubs ticket prices remain far lower than in England. So low in fact that Borussia Dortmund fans have announced a boycott of tomorrow's Ruhr derby against Schalke in protest at being asked to pay 22 euro for a standing ticket.

It's unlikely this could ever happen in England for the simple reason that supporters aren't organised enough (the Dortmund boycott is being co-ordinated by 59 separate fan groups; some English clubs don't even have one). The irony is, with an economic recession and most English football clubs struggling with debt, the average football fan holds more power than they have for a long time.

All it takes is for them to realise it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Graz: Sunday

Nothing much happens on Sundays in Graz. The bratwurst stands on the main square are shuttered up, and a monk waits at the counter of the only one that's open. A half-empty tram clangs its bell and moves off towards Jakominiplatz. Church bells ring out of synch. By the river, two nuns talk to a family on bicycles while a man waits behind on the ground, plastic cup in his outstretched hand.

Kebab sellers smoke on the pavement, a prostitute leans out of an upstairs window eyeing a drunk staggering into a cafe. Her right arm's covered with tattoos, her left flicks ash down a red and black sign that says 'Peep Show'. In the park, a man feeds bread to pigeons next to a Buddhist stupa. All of the supermarkets are closed.

We get to the train station and hour before we have to.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Up Above Graz


Almost everywhere you look Graz is a strikingly beautiful city. Baroque chapels, stucco facades, a steel island in the shape of a shell right in the middle of a river.

We tramp off breakfast on the 260 steps of the Schlossberg, climbing above the red roofs of the city centre. Across the fast-moving river the Kuntshaus, built to mark Graz's year as European Capital of Culture in 2003, looks like an upturned pig with too many legs.

At the top of the mountain, above the clocktower and flower park, are the remains of a bastion that once withstood attack from Napoleon. They put up a lot less resistance to visitors nowadays: there's a biergarten, two museums, a souvenir shop selling 'No Kangaroos in Austria' t-shirts and a sign announcing you are now 475-metres above the Adriatic Sea.

We sit under a Chinese pavilion, out of the sun, scanning the horizon for football stadium floodlights.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Graz

I'm up at half past four for the first of the two flights that will take me to Graz. It's dark outside and raining hard, and the long line of people flying to Orlando are shivering in shorts and flip-flops.

The sun is out when we land and everything around the airport is green. There are low-lying mountains and a crowd of people standing on a rooftop, waving Austrian flags at a private jet. We walk across a single-lane road and find the train station platform on the edge of a village. Ten minutes later we're in the middle of the city.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Non-League Day

Friday night. Billingham Town fans at Norton & Stockton Ancients.

Welcome to Birtley - and an hour and a half cleaning their stand.

The Northallerton fans mob the tea hut. "Long time since I've had a can of Coke and a Mars Bar for a quid ten."

Non-League Day at Birtley. "It's the first time in Birtley's history we've had any fans," says a player at half time.

"A hotbed of soccer," Arthur Appleton once called the North East. Help your local club, here, here and here.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Easington Colliery

There's a man in a work jacket at the entrance to Memorial Lane, just standing there, staring back up the slope towards the main street. Teenagers hang around the Co-op's doorway or sit on benches in the park, swinging their feet by the memorial stone. "We're gannin' to the big park, man," someone shouts from the path. "Yer kiddin'? I'd just got comfortable here."

There's a football pitch at the end of the path, and a woman throwing a stick to a dog. I look back. The yellow jacket hasn't moved. The sea is long and flat and empty.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Derby Day


Even at reserve team level, a Tyne-Wear derby matters. There's a crowd of four and a half thousand at (the other) Stadium of Light, Sunderland fans gradually spreading out to fill most of the middle tier of the West Stand. The three or four hundred Newcastle fans are behind one goal. "You're only here to see Campbell," we shout. United score once, twice, three times, seats are snapped off and taunts fly back and forth. "Cheer up Alan Shearer..." "4-1, even Chopra scored" "...to a sad Geordie bastard..." "Kill the Mackems!" Sol Campbell goes off at half time, having had to exert himself with little more than a forward run and two hooked clearances. Sunderland hit the post twice late on and pull a goal back with a penalty but ten-man Newcastle, with Nile Ranger outstanding up front, deserve the win.

Not that I'm biased or anything.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Over The Border: Kelso

From Peebles back to the border, wherever the Tweed went the road followed. We bypassed Melrose and got no closer to Dryburgh than a brown sign on the road and a lone hiker struggling up a hill path. The blustery morning sunshine had given way to rain by the time we reached Kelso Abbey, where we stopped for Sunday lunch. "Two roast beef dinners, please," we asked the waitress. "Do you want chips or potatoes with that?"

Over The Border: Jedburgh

It was Saturday lunchtime when we arrived in Jedburgh. The sun was out, the talk on the radio was about the early kick-off at Blackburn versus Arsenal and there were flasks of teas and tartan rugs on by the river and German accents on the stone bridge above. Opposite the soaring, skeletal ruins of the Abbey the queue for fish and chips snaked out of a shop doorway, down three stone steps and halfway to the road.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Journey's End

When the last of the Italians had finally gone we went back to the classrooms, moving tables and chairs back to their term time lay-out, pulling down posters and picking Blu-tack off the walls. Then the non-residential teachers left and there were just the two of us, sitting in a kitchen eating our summer school packed lunch (crisps, a bar of chocolate, four slices of bread spread thinly with tuna, an apple and a bottle of water), watching the rain fall outside while we killed time before the early evening train.

Steven got off at Sheffield, where I changed platforms for the two-hour journey home. At Central Station I met Martin, who I shared a flat with in Riga. "How was your summer school?" he asked. "Mine was a fucking disaster."

On an Excursion

"What's that building over there?" asked the teacher, but nobody replied. "Can you guess who went to school here?" he persisted, as the kids spilled across the pavement and out on to the road. "Shakespeare," a few answered, wearily, though most just looked bored and cold. Passers-by grimaced, trying to fight their way through the unruly crowd. "Ok, now we'll go to the church where he was buried." "Michael," someone asked, lighting a cigarette, "when can we go to Starbucks?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The End of Another Summer (School)

With the boxes packed and collected and the students all in Nottingham spening what was left of their money, I managed to get away to the nearest pub ten minutes before half time. "What's the score?" I texted my brother as I left the campus gates. "1-0. All over them," came the quick reply. "Get in! Nolan," went the next message, and I was still a hundred metres from the pub. "Three!" he texted as I opened the door.

Fortunately, Andy Carroll had saved the best for last. Where are your painted bedsheets now, Villa fans?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Big Match

England took on Italy in the summer school match of the day - and tonked them seven-three. Honed by three weeks of lessons, activities and nightly drinking sessions, the English played as a unit, while the Italians resorted to national stereotypes, gesticulating, complaining and blaming everything on each other. "Stupido, stupido," they shouted as another speculative shot floated harmlessly wide. "I'm sorry but I cannot play with people who do not understand the game."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Monday Night Football

“It’s been a masterful second-half performance,” said the commentator as Giggs stroked home the third. “Why did you bring Ameobi on?” asked the Palace supporter. “He’s shit.” “How did he ever become a footballer?” wondered the Man Utd one. “Just because he’s big,” said the Forest fan at the table behind. Only the man who said he supported Spurs stayed quiet. I looked at the onscreen clock, willing away the minutes, happy by now to take three-nil. “It wasn’t so long ago that Newcastle were United’s main challengers for the title,” added the commentator. What a long, long way it was we fell.

Week Three

The second two weeks of a summer school, if you’re lucky, are more or less a straightforward repeat of the first. A new set of students, new group leaders (the adults who accompany the students and comprise, at a conservative estimate, 99% of a Centre Manager’s problems), but the same lesson plans, the same activities and excursions and two full weeks of spit and polish on everything else.

Excluding the food.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Derby: The Jacobite Connection


Charles Edward Stuart reached Derby in the first week of December, 1745. Only 126 miles now separated him from London. He held a council of war where his officers, led by Lord George Murray, advised a retreat back to Scotland to gather French support. The Duke of Cumberland was said to be at Lichfield and two other armies were reportedly nearby. The Prince stayed two days - then took his 9,000 soldiers back to Carlisle. Four months later they were slaughtered at Culloden. He died embittered in Rome, in 1788, in the same palace he'd been born in 68 years earlier. "It was a noble attempt," Samuel Johnson later said.

There's a statue of Bonnie Prince Charlie behind Derby Cathedral, a few dozen metres from the site of the world's first ever factory. He sits on a galloping horse, a hand on the hilt of his sword. "In future I shall summon no more councils," he wrote after Derby. It was as close as his family ever came to regaining their crown.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Things That Happened Last Week

One teacher off with backache, one with toothache, and one who went into diabetic shock on the floor of the teachers' room ten minutes before the start of class. Two days preparing for British Council inspectors who never actually came. Ten boys stealing pop from a vending machine and six girls caught shoplifting in Lincolnshire, attempting to dispose of nail varnish and New Look shoes in a litter bin. A doctor missing a coach, children getting on the wrong coach, coach drivers arguing about which coach was theirs. Potatoes and pasta for dinner every night, in a watery red sauce with the taste suctioned out.

This week, so far, has been a bit more relaxing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Goes Around

Sob On The Tyne, went the bedsheets hanging from the Holte End on the day we left the Premier League. "Goodbye Geordies, you won't be missed," crowed their fans on every radio phone-in later that night.

We might have done the same in their position, but you'll forgive me if I don't feel the slightest bit of sympathy for Aston Villa this morning. A place in lower mid-table and a half-empty stadium await. In a league increasingly based on the size of your owner's sovereign investment fund it's the only place they belong.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Nottingham: Sunday

There were Italians everywhere you looked in the city centre. Being marched through shopping centres, crowding bus stops, waiting in lines to use cash points, laden with sportswear and paper bags from Primark. The adults were all in orange and oversized sunglasses, the children walked in rows, their backpacks covered in Biro: Oakham 2010, Gianluca!, Accademica Britannica, Forza Napoli . Across the main square was the sound of trams and fairground rides and "Ragazzi! Ragazzi!" shouted over and over again.

Burton-on-Trent

"How's it take 40 minutes from Nottingham to Burton?" we'd wondered, looking at the map by the ticket office window, but we soon found out as we crawled towards Derby. There were level crossings and streams, back gardens so close you could almost touch the washing lines, and the ugly metal heap of Pride Park, rising above a grass embankment.

Burton was much nicer, like a living museum of Victorian Industry in red brick and steel pipe: Midland Railway Grain Warehouse Number Two, the Great Northern Hotel and the famous Burton breweries, now with Coors Moulson emblazoned across the gates. We walked there from the tiny railway station, following the smell of curry, beer lorry fumes and hops.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Monday Morning

It started just before eight o’clock with the call I’d been dreading all week. “Michael? I’m really sorry but I’ve hurt my back and I won’t be able to come in today.”

There was no time for breakfast. I grabbed a banana from the canteen, balanced it on top of a lukewarm cup of tea, and took the stairs two at a time to prepare for the first lesson. When I walked in almost all the students were asleep. “What time did you go to bed?” I asked one. “Four o’clock,” he said, his head drooping all the while. My phone rang every ten minutes with questions from teachers out on excursions; in my breaks I had to chase up parts for the photocopier, deal with a mother who’d arrived to take her sick daughter back to Italy, go though lesson plans and arrange observations, and write up an itinerary and guide for the following day’s trip to Sherwood Forest.

It was half past nine when I finally switched off the office light. The kids were doing karaoke in a lecture theatre. The two doctors were smoking on the steps outside.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Journey to the Real World

By the time I left the campus the day had been reduced to a few red streaks in the sky. A plane came in overhead, bound for East Midlands Airport, the 9.07 to Nottingham was going past the gates. One of the teachers was smoking on the road outside. “Hi,” we both said, and did that semi-awkward thing you do when you've talked yourself out and have nothing left to say.

In the distance you could just make out the lights of the Tesco Express.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This Is Summer School (The Management Mix)

I’m up at seven to do some work before breakfast. After eating, I go back to my office: make class lists, mark exams, sort students into levels, answer constant questions, find materials, help with lesson planning, make excursion itineraries, have meetings. I carry post-it notes everywhere I go with scribbled down tasks and things to check, query, reconfirm. For every job I tick off, there are two still I have to do. I eat quickly at half twelve, even quicker at half six. All I look at online are the emails I get from work. The outside world is another country.

At nine o’clock I leave the office. If I’m lucky I go for a beer and if I’m not I work in my room until I fall asleep. I’m up at seven…

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Arrival


“We’ve given you the biggest room,” said Jeff, an Italian with an American father who I’m managing the centre with (he’s responsible for activities, me for teaching). When he opened the door I saw a triangle with a corner snipped out, a single bed taking up half of the smaller side, a low desk the whole of the bigger one. There was a mirror and an empty noticeboard on the wall, a window with a close-up view of a tree, more drawers than I knew what to do with, and a wardrobe with no hangers.

The wardrobe was almost as big as the bathroom. All white, all plastic, there was a lowered floor for the open shower, a sink I could just about fit my hand in, a bolt on the door a centimetre too low to fit anywhere, and a toilet roll dispenser without any toilet roll. “Take your time,” he said, “have a shower and unpack. The most important thing is food. There’s only one place nearby - a Tesco at the gas station.”

Nottingham: Summer School Begins

“Durham, Darlington, York, Doncaster, Grantham, Peterborough, Stevenage, London Kings Cross,” monotoned the voice from the ceiling arches. I hoisted my bags slowly (I had packed for an English summer: open-toed sandals and long-sleeved tops, shorts and a waterproof jacket) and joined the orderly queue waiting for the doors to slide open.

Over the river we began to pick up speed. A red telephone box and the Cathedral at Durham, the train tilting as we came across the bridge, rainclouds and wheat fields, the Medieval walls at York, smoke stacks at Ferrybridge, leaving Doncaster behind, joining a line that had trees growing out of an adjacent track, changing platforms at Grantham, Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher. After Ukraine everything looked small, neatly-packaged, and malleable. I sat reading, tuning in and out to the voices nearby. “Is there anything on the telly, do you know?”, “How far’s London?”, “Yeah, she murdered that Charlie, the one that came back from Canada. Or Australia - one of them,” “I’m on the train,” “Leeds are winning Hartlepool. Oooh, that’s good.”

There was a bus stop in front of Nottingham Station and a woman talking loudly on her phone as she looked through the timetable. “Are you from round here?” “Is that a Geordie accent? I used to go out with a sailor from Newcastle.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On Onions

Of the thirty Japanese Onion sets I planted back in September, neglect and the (Do we still use the adjective unusual to describe the weather?) heavy winter snowfall left me with a final crop of four (and two halves). I uprooted the survivors yesterday after weeding the vegetable patch by hand and left them in the sun to dry. Tomorrow I'll cook them - in something or other.

Now, what to put there next?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Leaving

The taxi came at 5.15. Dawn had broken, the stray dogs were awake and the first marshrutkas were running from the suburbs. I saw a stack of watermelons in a cage by the side of the road, someone staggering out of a 24-hour alcohol shop, and blonde haired women sweeping street corners. "Kyiv, Kyiv, Kyiv," called the minibus drivers. "Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?" ringing in my ear until I finally stepped onboard. Sweat trickled down my back. Another Odessa morning was only just beginning.

Last Day in Odessa


Breakfast at Kompot. Two elderly Americans sat at the table behind. "He's a fucking sailor," said one, "falls in love the second he's off the ship." "I'm flying to Italy later," said the other, "but if there's nothing happening I might come back."

I did a loop of all the usual places: Gor Sad, the Opera House, Primorsky and the Potemkin Steps, Novy Rynok, a beer on Deribasovska. Doors were all open and everyone was sitting outside. "I'll never see you again" blasted out of a cafe window.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Two Days: Arcadia Beach

It was late when we got there, and the worst of the afternoon heat had thankfully died down. We passed a small fairground, there were signs for speed boat rides and sushi bars, MTV on plasma screens, beachfront gyms and men with fishing rods standing in the water. "Who comes here?" I asked, looking around a beach still packed at eight in the evening. She arched her eyebrows. "In summer? Everyone."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Three Days: Farewell Party

"Michael, we have a proposition for you," one of the students said. "Yeah?" I replied, inwardly cursing myself for not having drilled the word suggestion enough. "To thank you for the lessons, we will pay for everything." "Thanks," I tried not to slur, looking at empty glasses, a meat tray the size of an ironing board and the Chernomorets Odessa scarf ("In Russian spelling, not Ukrainian") they'd just given me. "Thanks a lot."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Wedding Photos


Saturday is wedding day in Odessa. Even with a cruise liner in port, the tourists at the Opera House were outnumbered by bridal parties and the sightseeing coaches had been beaten to the best parking spaces by cars with floral bouquets tied to their bonnets. The couples took turns to pose in front of the fountain, the bust of Pushkin, the Potemkin Steps. "Walk," shouted a photographer. "Stop," said his partner with the video camera. "Now kiss."

Four Days: Goodbye To All That

My last day of work. Two of the groups gave me framed photos "so you won't forget us", another a collection of Ukrainian fairytales, a fourth a coffee table book with then and now shots of Odessa and handwritten messages inside the front cover. "Will you ever come back?" they all asked. "Who knows?" was all I could truthfully reply.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Five Days

"Have you seen what's on that piece of paper?" someone asked as I walked into the teachers' room. Believe, Educate, Anticipate, Inspire, Motivate. "What the fuck's that?" a head appeared at my shoulder, adding the words "You're a tiger! Grrr!" to the bottom of the list. "I dunno. Some management crap, I think."

"When I worked in Britain," took up someone else, "I went to this training course where a bloke stuck pictures of Stonehenge around the walls with "Can you be as good as this?" written underneath. He just kept pointing at them. Thing is, they were really bad photocopies."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Six Days: The Quiz

With the exams finally over, the humidity becoming as unbearable as a Scouser in defeat, and the students giving more thought to their summer holidays than what's happening in the classroom, this week I've been wheeling out the pub quiz I put together in Riga, updated for Ukraine ("In which year did your president first go to prison?" always gets a laugh).

"The next round is General Knowledge," I told my afternoon class. "Which country did Britain go to war with in 1982?" "The USA?" came the first suggestion. "If there'd been a war between Britain and America, you'd have known about it," I corrected, slipping in a bit of the third conditional (who says quizzes have no linguistic value?). "Holland?" "Ireland?" "No, it's further away." "Iceland?" came a shout from the back, quickly followed by "Japan". "I'll give you a clue. It's not Spain but they speak Spanish." "Italy?"

The evening class, big football fans, got the answer straight away.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Entering the Final Week

Eight Days

"Michael, we're talking about going to the pub together with you on Wednesday night," said my first class of the day. "Will we go for a drink on Thursday?" asked the next one, "When are you free?" the one after that, "Thursday, Friday or Saturday?" I tried to remember what I'd already arranged, seeing my evenings (and hopes of not having to come up with a final lesson plan) disappear. "Wednesday, yes", "We'll decide on Thursday," "Saturday after the football." "You're going to the football?" one asked. "Let's drink on the beach before the game."

Seven Days

Knowing that I was only staying here for five months, I never managed to do much in Russian beyond reading the alphabet, ordering a beer and asking for the bill. That's more than you need at Pyzata Hata, a chain of cheap, point-and-order restaurants that specialises in meat, potatoes and yet more meat. "Mozne eta?" works for one dish, "Y eta" for another. A quick spasiba (with the stress on the 'e'), a smile and a peek at the till usually suffices for the rest.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Remont

I first noticed all the orange metal scaffolding poles the week before last, the men laying tarmac on the roads only yesterday. "They're doing remont on the city," the students told me. I suggested renovate or repair and they dutifully wrote the words down, but next lesson they were back to remont all the same.
For Sale. One careful owner, minor repair work needed.

Slowly but simultaneously, work is going on almost everywhere you look in the city centre, reminding me of the joke my Latvian students used to make: "There are only three seasons in Riga - winter, summer and repair."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Nine Days Left

"It's fifteen minutes by tram," she said, "maybe twenty." And so we ended up, thirty minutes later, on the beach at Fountain Twelfth Station. The sand was flat and narrow and full of bits of shell. "It's like pistachio ice cream," I said. "Pistachio?". Volleyball to the left, a wire fence to the right, I spread out the towel and felt the rain begin to fall.

A broken TV and a twenty-second power cut couldn't spoil the World Cup Final. The players managed that just fine by themselves. I watched (and tried my best not to sleep through) the game with Ukrainian beer in a Greek-owned cafe. It is the World Cup after all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Statues

Ukraine wouldn't be Ukraine without a queue of people waiting to be photographed in front of, on, draped provocatively across, or simply standing beside a bronze statue. In Odessa, the City Gardens, where you'll find not one but two lions, a wacky sportsman on a staircase, a dining room chair and Bob Paisley reclining on a park bench, is the place to head for yet more of those unforgettable "And here's me with an inanimate object" shots.


Failing that, there's always Pushkin.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ten Days Left

Never drink and dive. Several Żubrówkas and a small bowl of cereal left me inadequately prepared for the first high ball of the morning, which squirmed back out of my grasp and dropped straight at the feet of the only opposition player within thirty metres of the goal. "Shit happens," I shrugged. "I'm a shotstopper."

Algeria versus the combined might of Ukraine, Vietnam and Chechnya.

It wasn't a good day for goalkeepers all round. One of the students got both hands to a long-range shot only to see it slip tamely through his fingers with a sound like a wet carrier bag flapping against a tree trunk. Another, built up pre-tournament as a professional volleyball player, was about as agile as a sweeping brush. By the last of the group stage games the only hope for the two student teams was for Algeria to beat England. They didn't. After the two international teams played out a convenient one-all draw, Ukraine 1 took on Ukraine 2 for third and fourth place, Ukraine 1 triumphing in a penalty shoot-out won by a Chechen shot that the goalkeeper unsuccessfully tried to beat away with a flick of his right foot.

The final was settled by the referee, the winning goal scored while the Algerians were (rightly) appealing for a foul at the other end of the pitch. "We cannot congratulate you because you did not win," they all said at the end. The referee was too busy asking for money off next year's course fees.

The first of the morning's refereeing controversies.

Penalties in the third-place play off.

The English celebrate their historic victory.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Twelve Days of Odessa

Twelve Days Left

I walked around the city centre for two hours trying to track down a Chornomorets Odessa top to take back home with me. And failed. "Umbro doesn't make it anymore so they've moved to a new shop," a student told me later. "It's cheap Nike shit next season."


Eleven Days Left

The students were in no hurry to leave at the end of my morning class. "What will you do after you finish your Master's?" they asked. "I don't know, maybe try and teach at a university in Japan or Korea." "Korea? The people there are very strange."

In the afternoon the sky turned from sunglasses to Sodom in five minutes flat, and the students who hadn't checked the weather forecast turned up soaked and bedraggled for their final exams. Those who had didn't turn up at all.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Spanish Lessons

"This is dull. I hope this doesn't go to extra-time," said the Englishman just before Puyol scored. "That was boring," agreed the Ukrainian when the final whistle went. But if the game lacked the crash, bang, wallop of Germany's previous two wins that was mainly because Spain did to them what they had done to England: made it seem as if the two teams were playing entirely different sports. As the Guardian's Raphael Honigstein tweeted, "Spain were absolutely brilliant in midfield, a pleasure to watch. If you find that boring, you don't understand football."

Xavi completed ninety-two accurate passes out of one hundred and six attempts - an astonishing performance in a World Cup Semi-Final. If Lampard, Barry and Gerrard had been capable of strangling the life from the German midfield, would England fans have called them boring? Probably. It would have taken about five minutes of possession football for the first shouts of "Get it up the pitch, man!" or "Have a dig."

The English problem isn't the weight of expectation, the lack of a winter break, or the number of foreigners in the Premier League. It's the way we still insist on playing the game.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Lights Go Off (Part 6)

The lights went off at three o'clock. The photocopier stopped mid-page, the air conditioner went silent and the computers shut themselves down with a beep. "Again?" someone said, staring at a pile of uncopied handouts. "We have some battery-powered lights, "said the boss," but if your students can't see, tell them they can either have the lesson in the pub or come back another time. It's Ukraine, they'll understand."

Two Ukraines

"Happy Constitution Day!" I wished the students in my FCE class who'd turned up despite the bank holiday. "Constitution Day?" snorted one, waving his hand dismissively in the air, "It's something for people in the west of Ukraine."

It was the answer I'd expected to get. For most Odessits, their city is a country of its own (the same student had previously told me he would be missing the next class because "I have to go to Ukraine on a business trip"), a state within a state that, barring a few brief months in 1919, didn't even exist until the Soviet invasion of September 1939.

The fault lines run deep. "For us (in the west) the Second World War didn't end until the 1950s when the last of the anti-Communists was killed," a Ukrainian-speaker from Lviv told me on the bus from Yalta. "Don't listen to this thing," a man in a Russia baseball cap interrupted, "his grandfather was probably a Nazi." The controversial Education and Science Minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, was hardly any more reasoned, dismissing Ukainian as a "dialect of Polish" and accusing "Halychany" (western Ukrainians) of "practically (not having) anything in common with the people of Great Ukraine, not in mentality, not in religion, not in linguistics, not in the political arena". People in Lviv (or Lvov if you speak Russian) took to the streets in protest at his appointment. Not that it made any difference: their candidate had already lost.

Politically and linguistically, the divide is between the west and the centre, where Ukrainian is spoken, and the Russian-speaking east and south. Culturally, Kiev looks west - "The problem with Ukraine is the lazy attitude of people in Donetsk and Odessa," two separate people told me last time I was in the capital. "Odessa? There are too many Jews," added someone who'd recently travelled forward in time from 1936 - but the language you hear on the streets is usually the same as in Odessa.

Like the Belgians and the British, Ukrainians stick together in spite of their differences. "There is hope for this country," said the man on the bus from Yalta. "When you go to Donetsk you notice there are no Russian businesses there. They realise that Russia is the biggest threat to their economy." Most of my students call themselves Odessit first but Ukrainian, not Russian, second. Still, there are dissenters. "I realised that I didn't like the people in west Ukraine," said one, returning from Lviv. "Their humour is different."

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

First One In

Our first signing of the summer falls into the Warren Barton category of unappreciated former full-backs. "Astonished #NUFC think James Perch will cut it in Prem. Nice lad but, trust me, he was #NFFC whipping boy. Poor even in Lg 1," tweeted Guardian writer and Forest fan Daniel Taylor. Forum writers were more evenly split: "Good luck to him. Tried his nuts off for us and was a useful jack of all trades" was a common response, "Most people wanted shut of him. Its a shame in that he gave us cover, but he wasn't any good for more than that" and "Are Newcastle preparing for the Championship so soon?" another.

A centre-forward turned midfielder turned centre-half turned right-back, Perch's best performance of last season was in our home win over Forest, which does at least suggest he can rise to the big occasion. At 24 he still has time to improve and his versatility makes him, if nothing else, a useful addition to a small squad.

With just over a month to the start of the season, hopefully this is the first of many some more than one.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

At the Beach


England Revisited

"Makes you feel better about England," said the person on my left as Klose volleyed in Germany's fourth goal. "Puts the England result into perspective," came the text a few seconds later. "That's just what I was writing to Heiko," said John, looking up from his phone. "And if that goal had been given, who knows?"

It took Joe Cole to put things clearly: "It wasn't just the Germany game. Over the course of the tournament we looked a long way behind the other top nations and when it came to the crunch, the best side won. People will talk about the decision not to allow Frank Lampard's goal, but it was plain and simple to see that we just weren't good enough.

Almost every team I have played for – including England – always want to hit the front players as early as possible. You won't get away with that at international level. It's about technique, keeping control of the ball, passing and moving. We seem to abandon good technique because we are obsessed with getting the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. That doesn't work against top teams."

As England's tournament showed, it doesn't always work against the bottom ones either. In fact, the only thing this World Cup has put into perspective is my theory that a talented team of players doesn't really need a great coach to win the competition. Between them, Dunga and Diego put paid to that one.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Pastera


I'm living on Vulice Pastera, which runs from the City Gardens on Deribasovskaya to the first of the disused grey and red smokestacks on the edge of town. It's an arty street, with a gallery-cum-cafe, a theatre and the M.Gorky State Scientific Library on my fifteen-minute walk into school. Directly across the road there's a church and the back entrance to a hospital, and there are two twenty-four hour chemists within a hundred metres of the flat. Further down, past the State Qualification Boards for Seafarers is the Iranian Cultural Mission, whose sign, the 'House of Ukraine-Iran Friendship', is half-crowded out by a Kangaroo in boxing gloves advertising a language school and a collection of parrots. Next door is a basement shop selling nothing but ladies' underwear.

Outdoor Drinking

Summer in Odessa: flowerbeds, cruise ships, beaches and outdoor drinking. The first of the pavement bars appeared back in April, canvas stalls springing up overnight, needing no more investment than a single beer pump, a few plastic seats and a (locked) portaloo somewhere nearby. Then came the fancier places: tables and chairs slung out in front of restaurants, with potted plants and blankets and big screens showing all the games from the World Cup. There are so many of them you could probably walk in a loop around the city centre without ever losing track of the score - or the sound of vuvuzelas.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Anti-Climax

My mate Frank was booked on the midnight train to Crimea but he stayed back in the pub to watch Portugal play Spain. "Should be a cracker," he said as the waitress stood on a chair and searched through the channels. His optimism didn't last long. "First goal wins this," he said out loud just before Villa scored and, like the Portuguese, he picked up his bags and left. Another for the could have beens, then, as Ronaldo joined the list of players - Rooney, Ribery - who departed the tournament with a whimper on the pitch and a long list of grievances off it.

"Don't worry," I'd told Frank's girlfriend before kick-off, "it's only once every four years." There are times this month when I've felt like saying the same to myself.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Morning After

If Munich 2001 promised much for England's golden generation then Bloemfontein brought it to a final, juddering halt. "The (disallowed) goal could've changed the game," said John Terry, "I can't explain why we didn't start as well as we would've liked". His defensive partner thought "the ball took a bizarre sail in the air" before Miroslav Klose outmuscled him to score the first goal. From where I was sitting it looked more like a simple case of bad defending. There was a lot of that about.

At the final whistle, the Germans in the room were ecstatic, the Ukrainians slightly confused ("Aren't England always strong?") and the English magnanimous in defeat. "The better team won," we said, "but Argentina will be a much more difficult game." German TV focused on Rooney's reactions to each of the goals. He threw his hands in the air, pointed to where the defenders should have been and gave the impression of a man who knew he had lost from the start. Gerrard, Terry and Lampard stood motionless, hands on their hips, going gentle into that good night. South Africa was no country for old men. England need to rip things up and start again - but with who?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Clutching at Straws

"They pass the ball a lot better than us," someone said, watching Müller lay it back for Ozil, Ozil ping it crossfield to Lahm. "Yeah, but they're very young, aren't they?" another voice piped up. "And they might be tired," someone else agreed. "Plus their forwards aren't great and our strength is in defence." "And Lampard's due a big game, isn't he?" There was silence for a few seconds. "Shame we didn't win the group, though." "Yeah, we're probably out."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Lights Come On

I got home last night to find an old man up a stepladder. His head was inside the fuse box, a cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and he was poking live wires around with the tips of his fingers. "It's all burnt out," translated the woman the school had sent to oversee the work, "but he thinks he can get the power on in one room." "Which one?" I asked. "He doesn't know yet. It's unpredictable. In Ukraine everything is unpredictable."

Two hours later the lights flickered into life, the fridge started humming, and a clock face started flashing on the front of the microwave. "The only problem is the kitchen light," she explained. "If you want to turn it off, you'll have to use the trip switch outside."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Moving

"So we spoke to your landlord about you moving out on the 20th of July," began my boss, "and he, erm, said in that case he wants you out by the end of this week so he can rent it out day-by-day over the summer." "Oh," was about all I could think to say in reply. "Anyway, as I'm going back away for the summer you can move into my flat. I have a Playstation, Sky and air conditioning, and it'll save me finding someone to look after the cats." "Oh," I repeated, wondering what the phrase looking after cats actually entailed me having to do.

I moved in on Sunday night and went straight to the pub. The next morning the electricity went off. No Playstation, no Sky, no air conditioning, no cooker, no hot water, no lights. Only me. And the cats.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Second Time Around

Two games in and, for England at least, South Africa 2010 already has the feel of a very bad sequel to Germany 2006. Unless there are some drastic changes on Wednesday (passing to players in white shirts for starters), Capello will have spent a whole year preparing a group of people for a test without making any improvement whatsoever to their final performance.

As a TEFL teacher, I know exactly how he feels.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hopeless

The best thing about tonight's game was the thirty-minute power cut either side of half time. When we were eventually able to pay the bill and move to another bar, Shaun Wright-Phillips was on for Lennon (what's the point in bringing Joe Cole if you're never going to play him?) and England had sunk to the kind of panicky blundering last seen by Newcastle fans when Sam Allardyce was still manager. "Bring back Sven," shouted one voice. "Embarrassing" and "Shit" chorused two others. "You will go through," consoled an Algerian, "but I am surprised. I didn't know you were so bad."

Summer Heat

There are two Englishmen standing by a window in the middle of June. "Fantastic, isn't it?" says one, looking out at a stainless steel sky and lightly falling rain. "Yeah," agrees the other, "I hope it stays like this for the rest of the day."

After half a month of relentless, energy sapping heat - the kind that leaves you feeling there's only an electric fan and a wide-open window between you and mid-lesson spontaneous combustion - the most welcome sound of the week was Capello telling Rob Green, "You're dropped." the unmistakeable pitter patter of raindrops that I woke up to yesterday morning.

Today the sun's back out - and the temperature's a lovely twenty-three degrees.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New Season

With this World Cup shaping up as the dullest since...well, the last one probably (Germany, Diego Forlan and that Spanish self-destruct button aside), it's the perfect time for the Premier League to release next season's fixtures.

As last year proved, the single most important thing is to get off to a good start. With our luck, though, we'll probably end up with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal away before the end of August - and Sunderland at home in between.

UPDATE: I wasn't too far off. Old Trafford first up, followed by Villa at home. Two of our next three away games are against Everton and Manchester City, making Blackpool at home a must-win and Wolves away a must not lose. As for the trip to Wigan on New Year's Day...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Museum of Western and Eastern Art

Even if you've never been within a thousand miles of Odessa, chances are you've heard of the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. It hit the headlines in 2008 when thieves bypassed the alarm system by removing a window pane instead of smashing it with a brick and made off with Carvaggio's Taking of Christ. I'd been meaning to visit ever since I got here, so it was entirely predictable it would be closed on the day I actually got round to doing it.

"The Western Art does not work today," said the sign at the cash desk. Instead I was ushered into a side room where there was a temporary exhibition made up of the kind of stuff Beryl Cook might have knocked up in an afternoon if she'd been persuaded to make repeated sketches of Sophie Ellis-Baxter in the style of a bored Picasso. There was Sophie with a cat, Sophie with a bowl of fruit and Sophie at a party...with a cat.

As I was the only visitor and the guard was feeling particularly chatty, I smiled, nodded and I don't knowed my way through an introduction to the paintings, remembering to look appreciatively in all the right places.

Immediately afterwards I escaped to the beach.