It is the last day of the year with a fully-crewed school. From next week we will run with a skeleton staff of students and teachers, and the atmosphere will change.

Marley's_Ghost_-_A_Christmas_Carol_(1843),_opposite_25_-_BLThis is fitting for a mid-winter language school, which needs quietly to regrow itself from tubers in the dead of the year, like anything other institution. This, after all, is the True Meaning of Christmas™.


It is an oddly protracted business, celebrating the solstice and the end of the year, and it comes in no particular order: in Britain, of course, we celebrate Christmas on 25th and New Year’s Eve on 1st, and mostly rest or shop in between; in orthodox cultures Christmas is celebrated on the epiphany, after New Year; in Japan they go to KFC on 25th; and in China we have to wait until some time in February before everything really gets going.

And then there is the Christmas Truce. The Christmas Truce is the sudden peaceful cessation of spending and consuming which descends on the Western World every year around 25th December. The brutal and dehumanising trench warfare of the preceding few weeks, where desperate shoppers with thousand-yard stares go hand-to-hand over wastelands of tat, gives way to an eerie silence. The streets are deserted, the shops are all closed, a few people start to emerge slowly, mistrustfully, late in the morning, perhaps driving over to equally suspicious relatives; some walk down to the pub, the only establishments open, or, later in the day, take new bikes or hats and gloves out for a walk. It is an oddly human time, away from the crunching cash-registering machinery of modern consumer warfare.



Inactive Edges

I was asked directions a few days ago, for the first time in a long time – a young man stopped me as I was leaving the school, wanting to know how to get to St. John’s College. He was a bit nervy, and ultra-polite, as though pre-programmed by his up-coming interview (he must have been on his way to an interview). I pointed him on his way.


I know how he felt. I was forty minutes late for my first university interview, wandering helpless around Hampstead Heath. For my second interview, in Cambridge, I pitched up at the wrong gate of the college, and was only put right by a milkman, who took me around to the Porters’ Lodge on his milk-float.

I was also once very late for an interview at a school in Rome. Perhaps there is a pattern. But I haven’t been late for much since, in large part, I think, because like everyone else in the World I have a phone.

Which is what surprised me about the polite young man outside the school. Where was his phone? How could he arrive in Cambridge for an interview without having his GoogleMaps fired up and purring in his hand?

When I was first teaching English, asking directions was a staple-function for beginners, alongside eating in a restaurant, checking into a hotel, and chatting to strangers in a lift (hold the doors please; are you going to the sixth floor? thank you, I think I’ll take the stairs etc.). But I don’t think I’ve taught anyone to ask for directions for some years now (I still teach my students how to strike up a conversation in a lift, out of pure mischief).

It’s a pity, partly because asking for and giving directions is fun, and partly because it’s a surprisingly complex thing to do; but partly also because getting a little lost and looking at a map are a good way to instigate casual encounters. There is an organisation called Happy City Lab which poses actors playing lost tourists struggling with maps in various parts of the city to see how many people stop and help. In brief, only 2% stop along what they call ‘inactive edges’ – streets with few shops or cafes, and with windowless walls – while 10% stop by ‘active edges’ – busy streets with street-level window, shops, and so on. I suspect more people stop to help on the active edges because they are simply curious how anybody could be struggling with a paper map in this day and age; and on the ‘inactive edges’ they are probably just avoiding the lunatic.

So I don’t invest much time in it any more. Language, I suppose, has its inactive edges. I just have to live in hope that my students can find their own way to the bathroom and figure out where the fire exits are unaided. And I should probably have stopped teaching students how to talk to strangers in lifts by now as well, since everyone is looking at their phone all the time and anyway, this is Southern England, more or less, and no one talks to anyone, especially in confined spaces. But I still have a sense of mischief.


Amazon has started making experimental drone deliveries in the Cambridge area, but not, regrettably, in time for Christmas.


I look forward to the day when I have to lay out a landing strip for my parcel vector, and watch the skies anxiously. Is thirty minutes too long to wait for a delivery? Perhaps. Heaven knows I don’t want to go to an actual shop (although Amazon seems to think that they too might be coming back into fashion), but if I want something now, I want it now, and I’m surprised they don’t seem to understand that.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-19-46-03That said, I have had a few parcels delivered to my door in recent days, in the slowest way imaginable (by Cambridge traffic). Christmas, after all, is a time for giving and sharing, even if what we mostly give and share is of dubious moral or functional worth. Perhaps that is the point. Gift giving is a symbolic, rather than a useful or functional, activity; thus tracing ‘gifts’ as far as possible out along a vector orthogonal to function or pleasure is much of the point.

And so the Guardian, that bastion of liberal ethics, the other day published a list of the thirty ‘must-have’ gadgets of 2016, which included a £14,000 bicycle, a hybrid electric car, a vacuum cleaner, a turntable, a 3-d printer, a ‘home-bot’ (which is a new category for me), and, ironically, a drone. As someone remarked of a similar assembly of must-have ‘gifts’, it looks like a shopping list for the last days of Pompeii. You can also, if you feel a little overwhelmed, buy a £30 box designed to help you ‘declutter’. Which, if it isn’t a clever philosophical think-piece, must be the very definition of sharp-practice.

All of which might be sounding a tad humbugish. And of course, were even a little of this bounty to drop on me from the skies this Christmas, I would be agog with simple delight. But, to repeat, there will be no airborne deliveries in Cambridge before Christmas, so I can, for the time being, nurse my horror at the armfuls of tat I’m going to have to bring home from John Lewis before the end of the week.





Rip and Tear

I sometimes show my students the scene from Apollo 13 in which the hapless astronauts attempt to build an adaptor to fit a round CO2 filter into a square hole. They have to tear and rip various things (the cover off a flight manual, a piece of tape lengthways), and accidentally tear or rip some other things (a plastic bag) into the bargain.

And so one of the things I do is pause the playback at every instance of the words rip or tear, which are freely interchanged (“What do we do if we rip the bag?” – “He tore the bag” etc.), or the phrasal versions which pop up from time to time (“he wants us to tear off the cover”), and marvel internally at the fact that no one ever seems to know them, or be able to pick them out. The verbs tear and rip, to my students, seem superfluous lexical items, barely worth storing away (and this could in fairness be my fault, since I I also taught today, to take a random sample, duct tape, biomimicry, geothermal energy, and kinetic charging: a brain only has so much room…).

And yet these are verbs that small children know. It is an oddity of second language learning that we seem to skip the easy lessons and jump straight to the stuff we think we need. Adults have a powerful filters for (apparent) relevance. As do children. If a child knows how to rip and tear, it is because a good part of her early life is spent ripping and tearing; perhaps we simply rip and tear less as we grow old. And yet, like scrunch up, crumple, stick and glue, they are handy verbs to have at your command, whatever your age.

Occasionally for very good reasons I get my students to make a paper aeroplane, and in this way I make sure they all know how to fold and fold back and crease a bit of paper. Perhaps we would do well to dedicate a lesson a week or so to finger painting as well, or to collage, or potato prints, or other such childish pursuits, long since beneath our collective dignity. It may be that we end up suppling an essential but neglected foundation of language. And it might, into the bargain, be kind of fun.


Oliver Cromwell is buried and dead.
There grew an old apple tree over his head.
The apples were ripe and ready to fall.
There came an old woman and gathered them all,
Oliver rose and gave her a clop.
Which made the old woman go hippity-hop.


cromwellcoinCambridge is belatedly to acknowledge the existence of one of its most infamous sons, Oliver Cromwell – Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (1653-1658), puritan, tyrant, general of cavalry, regicide, war criminal and, when he found a moment, Member of Parliament for Cambridge – with a blue plaque to be erected on the site of the Black Bear Inn, on Market Passage.

It was at the Black Bear Inn that Cromwell met with the armies of the Eastern Association at the outset of the Civil War in 1642, and discussed strategy. The plaque now forms part of what must be supposed a local Cromwell trail, taking in his birthplace in Huntingdon, his family house in Ely (where he was briefly responsible for collecting tithes), Sidney Sussex college, where he studied for a desultory year or so, and the Black Bear Inn plaque.

oliver_cromwells_head_late_1700sSidney Sussex college also marks one of Cromwell’s burial places – three years after his ceremonial interment in Westminster Abbey, he was dug up, treated to a mock-execution at Tyburn, and dismembered. His head remained on view on a twenty-foot spike outside Westminster Hall for at least twenty years (it was reburied at Sidney Sussex, having passed through the hands of various curio collectors, in 1960). His body may have been returned to his son-in-law’s family house, or tossed in the Tyburn pit. His name was and remains, to repeat, steeping in infamy of one sort or another.

There may be those who disagree (former British Prime Minister John Major prominent among them), but there is enough Irish blood in my veins that the name Cromwell comes laced with menace. Cromwell was responsible for the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649. He later justified the Drogheda massacre, in which nearly 4,000 townsfolk and members of the Royalist garrison were murdered following the fall of the city, as a “righteous judgement of God” upon “barbarous wretches” (although, for balance, he also noted at least the possibility of remorse and regret).

As late as 1997, the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern demanded that a portrait of Cromwell be removed from a room in the Foreign Office before he conducted a meeting there. I do not think the ire has cooled overmuch in the interim. But Cambridge, at least, and the Cromwell society, have moved on. Hippity-hop!


Which teacher does not suffer a little preparation anxiety? We all over-prepare, take too much along with us, have stuff up our sleeves. Just in case.


Hieronymus Bosch – The Wayfarer (detail), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

In case of what? You would think that if nothing else we have a more or less bottomless pool of language to draw on. We could if we wished talk about anything, for ever. And everything that we say, or that our students say, illustrates some point of language. So perhaps a little leanness in the preparation would be no bad thing. But no. We carry in great stacks of photocopies and disperse them like confetti lest our students intuit that we have in any sense run out of ideas (as if that were possible!).

Or perhaps it is just me. Some people – and I am certainly one of them – seem to suffer from a sort of hyperpreparedness, a condition which compels us to have our keys in our hands fifty yards from our front doors, and all our shirts ironed for the week to come. The weekend, for those wrestling with this pathology, is nothing more than a (usually failed and desperate) attempt to line everything up for the week to come.

But it is, of course, a form of displacement. Being prepared, like being tidy, is a way of not really doing whatever the difficult thing is. You tidy your desk before you do any work because it is less painful than actually doing the work; you iron piles of washing against the upcoming week because basking in a bit of unreconstructed here-and-now is for some inexplicable reason a recipe for anxiety and guilt; and you prepare your week’s lessons on a Sunday afternoon because you cannot go to bed and sleep if the week is looming before you like an unmapped continent.

And there you have it. We enter on our lessons like Victorian explorers, with our elephant guns and our typewriters. Nothing can take us by surprise, barring the variety of life itself (and as Helmuth von Moltke said,  no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy). Thus it is that the more you prepare, the less you end up teaching. The over-prepared teacher leaps from branch to branch, high up above his students’ heads, bewildering them with his balletic progress, and seducing them into a belief that they are somehow involved in the spectacle. When he should in fact just descend to the forest floor and act vaguely human.

And so if you see me wearing an unironed shirt this week, you will know I have confronted my demons and won a little victory of some sort.