Saddling up for the Tour, and other puns

The arrival (and, more importantly, imminent departure) of the Tour de France in Cambridge, with its vast wagon train of logistical support and curious onlookers, has brought out the best and worst in cycle-related activities and puns.


The Scott-Polar museum, for instance, is promoting an exhibition on the use of the bicycle wheel as a technology in the polar regions, which actually sounds intriguing, if a little contrived. The website gives no indication as to what those uses might have been (hence the intrigue), but I imagine it was not actual cycling, on the whole.

At the other end of the spectrum, someone has organised a musical event, which through various commissions will première (and most likely dernière) a cycle of songs. There are bandwagons, and then there are weak puns thought up over a pint that somehow become actual things. Needless to say, there will be an app.

It’s all because of the purity of sport, of course. Cycling may not be the purest of sports (or it may in fact be just that, depending on how you cut it), but even if it were, the Tour brings in its wake colossal cashfalls – the last time it was in Britain it was estimated to generate 88 million pounds for Kent and the South East. How these figures are calculated I do not know, but the lure of it may explain the bunting, the song-cycles, and the bicycle-related exhibitions, where museums trawl their basements for anything with spokes and a bell. Because if there’s one thing visitors to the Tour de France will crave, it is bicycle-related merchandise.


In other exciting Tour-related news, a group from the Department of Engineering and the University Information Services (UIS) has wired up Parker’s Piece for WiFi. Six ‘Victorian-style’ lampposts have had hidden WiFi points installed, so those of us lucky enough to see the Tour push off will be able to follow its progress down through Cambridge on our various devices without moving or looking up.


Working Lunch

I had lunch yesterday with an old student who still lives in Cambridge, at the restaurant down the road from the school, La Maison du Steak.

Teachers occasionally go for lunch with students. It is sometimes a course requirement, a sort of business lunch. The first time I experienced this was in Milan over twenty years ago, when my school sent me over the road to an excellent restaurant, with a generous budget and an unusually taciturn student, a businessman who treated himself to a week of total immersion once a year, but who had very little to say for himself on any subject, seemingly. We had a lunch of multiple courses and a couple of glasses of wine during which I spoke, ate and drank simultaneously while my guest picked at his olive bread and a glass of water and nodded politely or distantly or with suppressed fury, it was hard to know which.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself on that occasion, but it was not an especially professional display. I have been on various business lunches since, both for real and for practice, and there seems to be an art to it which still eludes me. How do you eat a lobster without giving it your undivided attention? How do you watch a man devour a steak without pausing for breath and not marvel speechless at the performance?

Business Lunch

Business Lunch

I am dimly aware that there is a sort of international round table of businessmen and women who not only instinctively know the answer to these and other questions of business etiquette, but who can manipulate them to their advantage and who, moreover, recognise one another as belonging to this invisible brotherhood. I am not one of them.

My lunch yesterday wasn’t a professional one, it was purely social. Just as well. I had a colossal and pleasantly chewy steak and a glass of beer, and fries which they serve for some reason in a metal basket, and which you must fork out without tangling the tines of the fork in the weft of the basket. I had to devote a considerable amount of brain resource to my lunch, in short, and proportionately less to the conversation. It was a pleasant lunch, but not representative of a skill I have mastered. Perhaps I need more experience.

Boredom and Postage Stamps

I am going to an exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute (called Delivery by Design) which I fear many would find a touch dull, not to say positively boring. It is an exhibition of stamps of the British Antarctic Territory.

Interestingly, there are a number of territorial claims on the Antarctic, none of which are recognised by the United Nations or most nations on earth for that matter, but several of which – the British, the French, the Australian, the Norwegian – recognise each other, and a couple of which – Argentina, Chile – most decidedly do not.


The British Antarctic Territory issues its own postage stamps, most of which are traded by collectors. These are the stamps that are on display.

As I say, many people would not find this an interesting proposition. Neither do I, if I’m honest. But I have come to believe that boredom is not only one of the great drivers of humanity (what do you do once you are fed and rested?), but also one of the great illusions of life. There is nothing boring in and of itself; there is only your own boredom, emanating from within.

Boredom is sometimes generic – when you are bored, in a state of ennui, everything is boring – and sometimes highly specific. You can be bored by this but not by that. This specific boredom is a function of our internal cost-accounting. We are constantly evaluating the extent to which any experience, any person, any exhibition of postage stamps, coincides with our agenda of the moment, which we also sometimes call our interest.

I have known boredom in life. And I recognise the signs in others. I have occasionally noticed that, dare I say it, one or other of my students is a bit bored. That is fine by me. Nothing can be of interest – or relevance – to everyone in a group at all times. You can do useful work of a certain type even when you are thoroughly bored. It is even necessary, an index of productivity.

And, in my experience, you can come to relish it. In a properly boring tract of time you loose all sense of purpose, of goal, of ambition; there is just this aimless moment, this thing I am looking at, contemplating, this detail of language the use of which or otherwise is momentarily irrelevant but which becomes, in that moment, a thing of interest. Work slows down, gains focus; in the end you can begin properly to see the little scintillating details of life as somehow full of their own autonomous interest. It is no doubt the sort of Zen-like fascination that bird watchers experience, or professional grammarians; or, for that matter, collectors of tiny vivid postage stamps from a boundless empty white land. And occasionally, I hope, my students.




Social outlets

Tuesday night at the moment is punting night or bowling night, if I have understood the rigours of the social programme calendar correctly. I think last night was bowling.

Bowling allows an outlet for the naturally competitive individuals who gravitate to OISE Cambridge. Here are last week’s victorious team, grinding their opponents names into oblivion. Who were their opponents? No one can remember.


Punting on the other hand provides an outlet not only for more contemplative souls (who bring copious amounts of white wine to fuel their contemplation), but also for the naturally bewildered problem solvers who find a home at OISE Cambridge. Here, for instance, Isao tackles a difficult problem of propulsion and guidance through a process of trial and (mostly) error.


Sharp eyed observers will have noticed that there is one individual common to both personality types. Isao, man of many hats.


The view from here – 1

The library

I took this picture yesterday morning from my seat in the library, where I was preparing my lesson. library

Past and present students at OISE Cambridge will recall that the teachers are kept in the basement, like industrious gnomes of knowledge. The library, to pursue that image, is the coal face from which they busily chip great flakes and chunks of raw material (ok, photocopies) which they then hurry upstairs to be processed in the furnace of students’ minds (or room 6, depending on the season).

Or perhaps, rather than a mine (and looking at those mossy steps) the library is more of a grotto. Grottos in the Classical world and the Renaissance were associated with rebirth and rejuvenation; from here teachers, we conclude, rise rejuvenated to the sunlit precincts of the first floor classrooms.

Grottos are cool, and the basement is reasonably cool in summer. On a warm day (we have had a lot of warm days) the doors are open and voices drift down from the garden: just after this picture was taken I could hear James talking about the state of his tomatoes.

Grottos are also reasonably empty – and the library for most of the year is a quiet spot in the school (unlike the teachers’ room, where the unwary are caught in the crossword crossfire). In the summer, however, it acts as overspill to the teachers’ room, and can get pretty busy, pretty warm. More like a mine, in fact.

But for now, at 1015 (when I generally get in) it is quiet for a quarter of an hour, and pleasantly cool, and a reasonable spot to get a bit of work done.

Notes to Midsummer

Saturday was Midsummer Day, the longest and, as it happens, pleasantest day of the year. It was hot and sunny, so I did what every other English man (and no doubt a great many English women) also did: I mowed the lawn, listened to the cricket, and ate an ice cream. I was a living archetype of an English summer.

photo: snowmanradio

photo: snowmanradio

mow the lawn

I do not in fact have a lawn, I have grass. You can either mow the lawn or cut the grass, depending on the state of it, I suppose.  Mine is definitely grass, scuffed over where my sons play football, interspersed with dandelions and daisies. So I didn’t mow it, I cut it. I rarely teach mow the lawn but I did last week (one of my students said that while he was living in Cambridge for five months on research leave from his company, his father-in-law was checking on his house in Japan, and cutting his grass with a mowing machine, which is in fact a very good stab that just needed refining), and distinguished for him mowing lawns and cutting grass. Lawns are what you see in colleges here in Cambridge, beautifully even and stripy – but you are encouraged not to walk on the grass. At Wimbledon they play lawn tennis, on grass. Lawn looks like a past participle, akin to sawn (as in sawn-off shotgun) – so grass would be lawn or not lawn, and if not lawn would eventually grow seed heads, like wheat or barley. But it isn’t a past participle, it is derived from an old word for land.

And so on. It was quite a lesson.

listen to the cricket Both before and after I mowed the lawn, I listened to the cricket. I say listened, because you don’t watch cricket unless you have tickets, or are a student; you listen. Cricket on the radio is an institution. The rhythm of the game – short bursts of activity interspersed with passages of men standing around in a field – allows for a considerable quantity of comment, reminiscence, digression. All day, during a test match (an international five-day game) they are chuntering away on the radio. Listening to Test Match Special would probably be the acme of achievement for a non-native speaker.

eat an ice-cream I’ve posted before on ice-cream vans, their jangling lure, so I will say no more on that now, except to mention in passing Billy Connelly’s father, who used to tell his young son that ice-cream vans play their jingles to notify everyone that they were out of ice-cream and going back to the depot. I didn’t get my ice-cream from an ice-cream van; I got it from the freezer tub in my local corner shop. It was a Magnum. I have a feeling that the chocolate on Magnums is not as thick as it once was. Nor is the ice-cream as creamy. But I also have a feeling that my grass is not as lawn as it was when I was a child, nor is Test Match Special as epic, so I could be misremembering. And anyway, it should have been a 99 flake.


What do teachers do at lunchtime? When I was at school they seemed merely dematerialise, but now I realise that this was probably not the case.

The answer, it turns out, is the crossword. There is a healthily obsessed cadre of puzzlers  huddled over photocopies of the crossword in the teachers’ room every day – first quick, then cryptic.

The crossword is not an unusual way to pass your lunchtime. Nor are word games in general. I worked in a school in Rome where the teachers played endless rounds of Boggle. And the Director of Studies played online Scrabble.

This is all natural enough – you will find people doing the crossword (if not playing Boggle) in half a million work places around the country. But it is a little odd in a language school, where the teachers have just spent the morning manhandling words and their definitions, grappling with fine distinctions, and filling gaps. You’d think they’d settle down in silence to a Sudoko or something (as in fact Mike did for a long while – but then he is a rule unto himself).

So why the crossword? A crossword is more socially involving than Sudoku, for one thing:  you can shout clues at the photocopier queue, but not strings of numbers. But for another it represents from a certain angle the opposite of language teaching, in that you have to stretch and not contain your vocabulary. You can cheerfully trot off to the most obscure corners of the language, run through half-synonyms, try out antiquated spellings. It is, in its way, the most appropriate form of relaxation for a language teacher.

None of which explains why I dematerialise to the topmost classroom with my laptop and a sandwich. But that’s another story.