Fen Tiger and Punt Gun

The Fen Tiger is on the prowl again, through the local newspapers at any rate. The tiger is actually (or supposedly) a black panther, and has been spotted seemingly on dozens of occasions since the early 1980s.

Panthers have a lifespan of roughly twelve years in the wild and twenty or so in captivity. I do not know whether making your living mauling sheep in the Fens counts as living wild or living captive; either way, however, the extraordinary longevity of the Fen Tiger is testament not to the fatness of the sheep hereabouts but to the general durability both of myth and of mass hysteria (or profound boredom) in isolated communities.

That said, if you were to meet a tiger (sic) on the Fens, what you would want about your person would be a punt gun. The punt is a traditional fenland boat, low bottomed and ideal for the pushing about stealthily in the shallow waters. Ideal, also, to hunt from – not big cats, perhaps, but water fowl. You can drift silently along until you come across some birds dawdling on the water, and then you let off your colossal punt gun.


The punt gun is not a rifle exactly, it is more like artillery. Immensely long and heavy, you would balance it along the length of the punt, its muzzle crammed like a blunderbuss with shot of some sort (old nails perhaps, bolts, bits of crockery, tigers’ teeth); and when it went off (once in a generation), it would no doubt slaughter every bird within a five-hundred-yard radius. You would have weeks of work just scooping up the carcasses.

Just the thing, then, for the indiscriminate extermination of  myths, tigers, vulnerable aquatic fowl and the odd local reporter. I am in favour of regular patrols.



Teacher of English

In the 1881 census residents were required for the first time to state their ‘profession or occupation’. Citizens duly did so, no doubt putting down many ‘professions or occupations’ which we would recognise today: stevedore, costermonger, scrivener – that sort of thing.


Piero di Cosimo, The Building of a Palazzo


But the roster of jobs also included a wide variety of callings no longer available to the school-leaver or graduate, such as, for example:

  • colourist of artificial fish
  • disinfector of railways
  • proprietor of midgets
  • maker or sand views
  • turnip shepherd
  • goldfish-catcher
  • cow-banger
  • beef twister
  • electric bath attendant
  • teacher of wax flowers

Today we do not really do ‘professions or occupations’, rather, we do ‘careers and jobs’.  A career is something you are supposed to pick and manage and shape (although the word also carries the sense of a loss of control, in other contexts of course); a job, by contrast, is something you fall into and continue to fall into day by day.

Who knows which jobs and careers will sound equally strange to our great great grandchildren, a century and more hence? Call centre operative? copy-editor? steel-worker? And what about the somewhat fanciful ‘Teacher of English as a Foreign Language’?

Me and the King

I was talking yesterday to one of my colleagues (or should that be, a colleague of mine? – anyway, it was JM.,) about the unforgettable, and yet somehow largely forgotten, Rogers and Hammerstein musical and movie, The King and I, which starred Yul Brynner as the eponymous King of Siam, and Deborah Kerr as the eponymous I, governess to the King’s children.

The question at issue was, is it correct? Should it be The King and I, or The King and Me, or even The King and Myself, or Me and the King?

I gave it a few minutes thought with that powerful grammatical computer I call my brain, and came up with what can only be the correct answer: there is no particular reason why it shouldn’t be The King and I or The King and Me, in the absence of some polarising syntactic context or other; most likely The King and Me would have sounded somehow less ‘proper’ than The King and I, on the basis that you are more likely to hear something along the lines of the King and me went to the races than The butler saw the King and I walking through the shrubbery.

You get to choose, I suppose, whether to worry about this sort of thing or not, both as a teacher and as a student. I vividly remember a colleague years ago telling his students to F@*& the grammar and ‘be yourself’, which sounds wild and free but doesn’t give you all that much to go on if you happen to be an introverted systemising sort of person. Dwelling on arcana, for some people, is a way to understand the bigger picture. Not that I have understood the bigger picture in this case, except that I am now conscious that I have never seen The King and I, and probably need to have a look – which is an unexpected consequence.

Windy Bank Holiday

It is a ferociously intemperate Easter Monday, a bank holiday (Taka noted that it was too windy for his umbrella, which seems to have left him perplexed), but everyone battled to work or school regardless.

Working on a bank holiday should be a bitter experience, but is not. There is something pleasant about cycling in along empty streets (albeit today in the eye of a storm), while everyone else is still rubbing sleep from their eyes, and pottering around in the office or classroom. It is a slight break in routine, and there is plenty of excuse to feel mildly heroic, and it is, all-in-all, more than bearable.


Mildly heroic – The Nightwatch, Rembrandt

The reverse is equally true, of course, and I have spent many many pleasant hours not working when others are. Between school and university I took a gap year, and spent a few profitable months not working (much). I can still remember the uncomprehending joy of walking around the streets minding, quite literally, my own business in a bubble of leisure heightened by the activity of everyone else.

It didn’t last. But I still take a vicarious pleasure in knowing that my children are not at school, for instance, or that somewhere one of our recently departed students (Tatsunori) is enjoying a day off while he recovers from his jet lag. If from time to time I have to be the one whose admittedly none-too-onerous activity heightens the leisure of others, then I am happy to oblige.

Fish and Chips

The first time I went to Florence, aged 19, I ate my dinner in a small restaurant on the recommendation of my guidebook, which said: “try the cannelloni, it is out of this world”, or words to that effect. I did, and it was. I went back each night to the same restaurant, for six nights consecutively, and ate the cannelloni. Each day I thought I would try somewhere or at least something different, but each evening the lure of the cannelloni proved too strong.

I do not think there is anything to compare in Britain (or, for that matter, on the face of the Earth) with that cannelloni. However, one of our students, Mr. Tatsunori, has discovered within himself a similar obsessive hunger for fish and chips.


I like fish and chips. There is a chippie around the corner from where I live called The Codfather, and it is all right. I get my dinner there sometimes. The chips are congealed, the fish is interchangeable, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. All that is missing is the newspaper.

Tatsunori, however, sees it differently. He has eaten fish and chips 23 times now over the course of his stay, and claims he will make it 24 on Saturday, at the airport. He has eaten fish and chips in eight locations (I think I am right in saying), and many more restaurants, and has photographed each plate of food. The best, he claims, was served in Coast, on Trinity Street; he also favours Loch Fyne and the award-winning SeaTree on Mill Road. Mushy peas are not essential, he says, but tartare sauce is.

I can’t argue with that battery of data, just as no one can justifiably argue with me about cannelloni. Most of my adult life, taken one way, has been an attempt to recapture that cannelloni, and I suspect that Tatsunori, once he has returned to Japan, will feel similarly cut off from the font of all culinary joy. He’ll just have to make do with a bit of sushi, or something.


I have been reading about the Japanese art of non-sleeping, and I find that I have been doing something similar for many years.

According to my sources (and I am yet to confirm this with any Japanese people, but aim to do just that today), the Japanese neither sleep (much), nor do they nap: instead, the practice the art of inemuri.


Inemuri – Piero della Francesca

I’m not sure I fully understand the distinction (Tatsunori will no doubt clarify for me in our morning lesson, always assuming he is not doing a lot of inemuri during the lesson), but it seems to hinge on presence and absence. In Britain, if you take a nap, you generally absent yourself from various social and professional contexts; in Japan, by contrast, light dozing in public (on public transport, in meetings, at your desk, in an English lesson) is tolerated, even to a certain extent admired, since even though you are clearly exhausted from your various professional efforts, you have nevertheless made an effort to be present. Someone practising inemuri can snap to attention when required, but is otherwise permitted to drift for a few moments.

I have been summoned to a meeting later today, and if I am lucky with have an opportunity to deploy my own hyper-refined version of inemuri, where I am politely present, but also fundamentally absent (I am not permitted to say whether I conduct my lessons on the same principle). My eyes remain open, I nod, appear to make the odd note with my pen, I even occasionally make a constructive comment, but deep inside I am fast asleep. It is very refreshing, and a life skill.


My word of the day is syzygy. You may need to look it up. I did. It has a stress pattern not unlike holiday, is useful if you’re an astronomer, and looks a lot like Hungarian, but isn’t, as far as I know (and in fact it is pretty mind-boggling to consider what the Hungarian translation of syzygy must look like).

Here is an illustration of a syzygy.

Photo: ESO/Y. Beletsky


It’s a real treat for photographers and astronomers alike: our skies are currently witnessing a phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. When celestial bodies have similar ecliptic longitude, this event is also known as a triple near-conjunction. Of course, this is just a trick of perspective, but this doesn’t make it any less spectacular. In this case, these bodies are three planets, and the only thing needed to enjoy the show is a clear view of the sky at sunset. Luckily, this is what happened for ESO photo ambassador Yuri Beletsky, who had the chance to spot this spectacular view from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile on Sunday 26 May. Above the round domes of the telescopes, three of the planets in our Solar System — Jupiter (top), Venus (lower left), and Mercury (lower right) — were revealed after sunset, engaged in their cosmic dance. An alignment like this happens only once every several years. The last one took place in May 2011, and the next one will not be until October 2015. This celestial triangle was at its best over the last week of May, but you may still be able to catch a glimpse of the three planets as they form ever-changing arrangements during their journey across the sky. Links Images Three planets dance over La Silla (annotated) Three people, three telescopes and three planets

You’d think a man my age must very nearly be at the end of the language by now, but apparently not. The truth of the matter is, languages are absurdly large data sets. And not only absurdly large – constantly changing. There will come a time, although not in my lifetime, I hope, when syzygy ceases to mean anything to anyone bar a few dandruffed philologists.

Learners of a language obviously like to look for easy wins, rules which govern many cases, high frequency words and expressions, and so on. And English, the international language, is especially vulnerable to creole and pidgin and simplification. It is not unreasonable to consider a world of many Englishes, some of which are spoken by native speakers, but some of which are stripped down versions for international interactions of one sort or another, not unlike George Orwell’s Newspeak.

It would set a bad precedent, however, to give up on the particular. It’s got nothing to do with pride in the language, or doom-laden syzygies of ego, obscurantism, and defensiveness. The particular, the detailed, the sharp end of anything, is very often where the interesting stuff is located. Focus on a detail – of a language, a text, an argument, a phenomenon – and you will pretty quickly end up saying something about the whole.

I rest my case.