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


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" " 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.