34th Cambridge Film Festival

The Cambridge Film Festival is back.

The 34th Cambridge Film Festival started last night with, among other things, the UK debut of Woody Allen’s new movie, Magic in the Moonlight (the festival has a long-standing relationship with Allen, 20 of whose films have seen their UK premiere in Cambridge – other films to have previewed include Reservoir Dogs and Pirates of the Caribbean).

The festival runs for ten days (28th August – 7th September), and hosts a startlingly wide range of UK and international movie releases – something like 150 features, documentaries, shorts and animations.


Cambridge does not have many cinemas – there is the Cineworld complex just over the bridge from the school, the Vue in the Grafton Centre, and the 3-screen Arts Picturehouse on Regent Street, which specialises in smaller art house releases. The latter has been endangered for just over a year since its take-over by Cineworld, when the Competition Commission (now the Competition and Markets Authority), the regulator responsible for  overseeing questions of monopolies arising from takeovers, announced that either the Cineworld complex or the Arts Picturehouse would have to be sold.

The situation is still not resolved, and the Cambridge Film Festival (which has its offices in the Arts Picturehouse) cannot run screens in the Cineworld complex until it is; for this reason it has extended its range of venues to include Emmanuel College (just over the road from the Arts Picturehouse, or I suppose vice versa) and St. Philips Church on Mill Road.

You can browse the films on offer at the festival website, here.



Converging presentations

I had a student last year, a Russian working in tax accounting, who told me that when asked to give a presentation in Moscow to a large audience of her peers, she asked for a bluetooth microphone and freewheeled around the stage in imitation of the various TED presentations she had watched and enjoyed. The audience reaction, she said, was fairly positive but totally bemused – Russian tax accountants simply do not present like that.

I think it is fair to say that presentations are culturally inflected. Some cultures prefer the information-rich, bullet-pointed style; others the visually rich, impactful style so beloved of TED. I have often found myself urging students to strip unreadable tables of data out of their slides, but I am aware that the alternative is not always appropriate, but can come over as glib or superficial.

On a Thursday (the day our groups present to the school) we get all sorts of styles, but we also get a certain degree of convergence – not because groups are presenting on the same subject, but because they rapidly learn from each other. OISE has its own micro-presenting culture, in other words, which it is to be hoped enshrines certain simple and universal stylistic virtues (of humour, for example, or hands-free engagement with the audience, light-touch use of visuals and so on), but which can also fossilise certain vices or habits: there’s (necessarily) an awful lot of handing over to our colleagues, for example, a lot of broad humour, and an undue but wholly understandable emphasis, sometimes, on accuracy over communicative competence.

Perhaps in the end it is the whole notion of a presentation that is at fault. It is rare to see a good one, and even the good ones are not necessarily the most efficient way of promulgating information. They are either quasi-lectures, or quasi-advertisments. But there they are, inescapably part of the culture. And every so often you see a genuinely good one, even at OISE – a blend of interesting content, wit and, often, idiosyncracy. Such as this, which I watched this week with students, with the excellent Dan Ariely.


In Defence of Rain

Yesterday, I talked in class, not for the first time, about rain. It has been raining. I said. No wait. It is raining. It’s raining again. It feels as if it will never stop raining. You must allow me to apologise for the rain. And so on.

I was teaching a group of academics from Morocco, who had just arrived and were marvelling at our ludicrous non-stop weather, only one wholly inadequate umbrella between them as lunch approached and the rain showed no signs of letting up. I vainly promised them, at the end of the lesson, that it would not be raining the next day.

But later I sat at home, doing some work of my own and drying out, looking out of the window at the cars driving about in the rain, and I reminded myself that there is nothing like a bit of rain for knuckling down. If you had to learn a hundred phrasal verbs for a test the next day, you’d want it to be raining steadily outside. You might not enjoy cycling home in it, but you’d appreciate a dry spot and a cup of tea and a biscuit all the more. And so on. Rain isn’t so bad.

I was put in mind of an interview the noted English conductor Sir John Barbirolli gave towards the end of his life (and which I have posted snippets of before), in which he discusses his affection for Manchester, rain capital of the North, and his reasons for not leaving it, despite invitations from the the great orchestras of USA, Berlin, Italy and so. The great musical nerve-centres, he notices, are often in the drabbest cities – Milan, Leipzig, Manchester. The really beautiful cities of the world do not encourage work. Work, he implies, is a response to problematic circumstances, difficult contexts. It is born of struggle, not ease.

Cambridge is not a drab city by any means, but any city would have appeared drab in yesterday’s rain. One year I lived through the fog and dark and melancholy of a Venetian winter, and I don’t think I saw the sun in months. You don’t exactly get used to such conditions, but you learn to make use of them. There is no reason that a day of rain cannot be productive. Here is Barbarolli (there’s a transcript of some of it below).

You see noboby by the wildest stretch of imagination would call it a very beautiful city. But you have the strange thing that always I find the nerve centre of the highest activity generally takes place in rather drab cities, for instance the nerve-centre of music in Italy is in Milan, not in Venice, or Florence; sometimes places of extreme beauty have a little of decadence and debility about them, like the great conductors like Toscanini was never in Rome, but Milan, and Nikitch wasn’t in Berlin, but Leipzig; and the fascination of the North becomes, you feel if you achieve anything here, you’ve really achieved it.

Colour chart

I have worked in many language schools over the years, but have only painted one. It was a school in Rome, on Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, where the offices were on the ground floor and the classrooms on the fourth floor. The first February I was there, in 1995, there was very little work, so the owner employed me and two other teachers to give it a lick of paint. Brilliant white, if memory serves. I learnt the Italian for masking tape, among other things.

I’ve never been asked to paint OISE, which students past and present will know has its own strict colour scheme of Oxford blue (hex triplet #002147, contravened only in the banner of this blog, which astute readers will have realised is hex triplet #A3C1AD, or Cambridge blue).


All this comes to mind because I have spent the weekend painting the ceiling of a room in my house – Off-White, if you must know; it was a choice between Off-White, Joa’s White, Satin Slipper or Archive.

I suppose the names of colours as differentiated by paint companies are about the last bit of English a student of the language could need to know (or a native, for that matter). However, the names of real colours are another matter. I used to live with an oil-painter, and became familiar over the years with various chromes and cadmiums, madders and lakes, vermillions and ultramarines (many still in evidence as fingerprints on my cds).


I’ve posted this before, I think, but in the context of colour it bears a second look.


We’re going to the Zoo

I posted yesterday on learning strategies and perseverance, but clean forget to mention the zoo. Or more particularly, I forgot to mention one example of remarkable doggedness which I witnessed many years ago, in Italy, where I was parachuted in to teach a senior manager at Telecom Italia, a man in advanced middle age sitting behind a vast kidney-shaped desk, who spent half an hour making a Herculean effort to describe to me the animals he had seen at London Zoo. At London Zoo I seed a tiger. I seed a lion. I seed a elephant. On and on.

This estimable gentleman had been learning English for two years at that point, and clearly had no aptitude for the language, whatever other qualities he doubtless possessed. I sat and marvelled as he struggled over his task. When I tried politely to bring his agony to a conclusion (right, so you seed plenty of animals, got it, let’s move on) he held up a tremulous hand and bowed his head, while he forced his reluctant brain to screw together one last meaningful proposition. Also, I seed a ghepard.

That, with some licence, is how I remember it. A man squaring up to his own inadequacies. I like to think he is by now retired in conspicuous ease on some tropical island where the strange animals run free on his verandah. I seed a monkey.



There are two zoos in the vicinity of Cambridge, for those who are keen to bone up on zoo animals: one at Shepreth, the other at Linton, both easily reachable, neither hugely disappointing. Linton, if I remember, has tigers, lowland tapirs, some zebra, a number of kooky birds; Shepreth has a vigorous toucan, some rival tigers, wallabies, a pensive axolotl, and a doleful mini railway. As learning experiences go, you never leave the zoo short-changed, in my experience.

Keep on keeping on

In the teachers’ room today I overheard another teacher say (to general agreement) that so often the problems students encounter are down to poor learning strategies, rather than to any inherent difficulty of English.

This is of course true, and partly explains why the second and third foreign languages are so much easier to learn that the first – once you’ve learnt how to do it once, you can generalise your success.

That leaves the question of what a good learning strategy looks like, and unfortunately that’s not always a simple question – for example, while I’m an enemy of the concept of learning styles, there does seem to be a good deal of individual variation in what works.

One of those variables seems to be the question of critical mass. I was comparing notes with one of my Spanish students today, and it seems we both had to achieve a considerable (in my case, overwhelming) critical mass of explicit knowledge and receptive skills (listening and reading) before fluency in speaking in our respective target languages finally came. Meanwhile other learners seem to be up and running on a tiny store of words and structures. No one learning strategy will recommend itself to both ends of this spectrum.

For example, my favourite advice – to try something different since if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results – in fact flies in the face of most of our learning experience, according to which banging our head obstinately at a door will eventually open it. This is how we learn as children. So sometimes the advice should be, just keeping on doing what you’re doing, and have a little faith.

So here is a somewhat saccharine and nuttily optimistic video from the originators of the Khan Academy, on the subject of learning and perseverance.

And here – for learners with a different style, let’s say – is an even nuttier film memorialising Roy Hodgson’s rather testing spell as manager of Liverpool FC, where, if nothing else, he just kept on keeping on.

The View from Here

Room 10 – all this used to be fields…

They’re throwing up a new building at the back of the school on Station Road. I’ve mentioned before that all this used to be fields (actually, scrubland and a parking lot), but I continue to marvel at it.


I also continue to enjoy the perspective recession of the colourful building on the right, in the odd moment I get to look out of the window. It reminds me of the various insane but logical and inviting quattrocento recessions that in other contexts I enjoy (I don’t get to teach an awful lot of quattrocento art in my lessons, more’s the pity, but also I suppose to the relief of the school and my students). This sort of thing:


When I was an undergraduate I used to go along to the Italian galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum on winter afternoons and pine for Florence (well, I may have done so once or twice). I can’t say that view from Room 10 makes me pine for Florence, or the città ideale, but the days are getting autumnal, and one of my colleagues has just got back from Tuscany, and another is just about to go (for the first time); and it’s been a while. Language schools are full of students from far away, and in the summer are full of teachers touching base before departing for far away, so perhaps a little nostalgia is in order, for those rooted in the spot.

And Renaissance cities, after all, had their cranes and scaffolding, and once used to be all fields: