Monday, 27 September 2010

Staying in Control

Since I started blogging I've had a go at food, sport, music and low-grade humour. I clrealy have a way to go before I've mastered any of them, and reading Malcolm Gladwell on the train today confirmed the enormous insurmountable chasm that exists between me and he. I'm not sure what makes him quite so good, but I'm pretty sure it's the fact (as I read in a review somewhere) that he makes you feel like you're the genius. He makes things that you weren't interested in seem interesting, and he makes things that you hadn't even thought about fascinating. I bet he'd make a great teacher, because this is all teaching is really about. If you can explain things to people, and develop their interest at the same time, you'll have done your job. When Arthur C Clarke said that 'when people are interested, education happens', he knew what he was talking about.

When people ask me whether they'd make a good teacher (most people seem to have thought about the profession at some point), I always say that all you need is the capacity to work hard, and you also need to be an interesting person. Since most of my friends are interesting people, I end up telling them that they'd make good teachers. It's not quite as easy as that, because there's a lot more paperwork these days (our litigious society has seen to that), and it can be stressful, and hard to turn off. If I ever thought that my friends were serious about going into the profession, I'd probably give a little more thought to the advice I gave, and the most important thing for any new teacher is this: stay in control.

The feeling of losing control of anything is terrifying (cars and bowels come to mind), but losing control of a class is about the worst thing that can happen to you during the School day. We all get by with a mixture of bluff and bravado, and with the realisation that the system only works if the traditional pupil/teacher relationship holds. We as teachers have complete power over the pupils, but this power is based on nothing at all. So a pupils wants to walk out, and swears at us on the way past? So be it (this never happens where I teach, but I'm sure it does somewhere every day). Power and control zapped in an instant. What keeps the pupils in their chairs is the illusion of power and no more. I am one of those teachers who has to be in control all the time, a control freak if you will. I had just enough of a taste in my early career of what it felt like to be on the edge of losing control, and I didn't want to go back there.

In reality, it should be quite easy. Pupils generally have no plan B, whereas we have the opportunity to have plan B, C, D and any others that are required. Easy enough to stay ahead? Maybe, but there's quite a few of them and only one of you, and you need to stay ahead of all of them. Pupils don't have a lesson plan, and it's our job to have a response to anything that may be thrown at us. Need silence? Have a 10 question spot test in the bag.

Now I work at an idyllic place; it's hard work, but it's control of a different sort that I thought about earlier today, and it's the control associated with management. What I liked about running a department was that it was easy to stay in control. You had your little corner of the School, your team of teachers and a section of the School population that committed to your subject every year. You could plan out your year; sometimes the admin got on top and it was enough just to keep up to date with everything and make sure that the ship stayed on an even keel. At other times, with no deadline pressures you had the opportunity to be creative, and the blue sky ideas could flow. After a year or two in post, you knew when it was time to baton down the hatches and get through the rough stuff, and when it was time to unfurl the sails and let the wind take you. Such is the joy of an academic department.

I have great respect for middle managers on the academic side, but that's a job I could do. Middle managers on the pastoral side have a whole different set of challenges. How do you stay in control? I'm not sure it's ever possible to do so. No matter how good and watertight the systems you put in place, they can be blown apart by one unpredictable incident, such as never happens on the academic side. Your job is reactionary, and no amount of pro-activity will ever make it any less so. For this reason (and I'm sure there are others) it's not for me. The thought that something (anything) could happen at any time is exciting, no doubt, but if anything is going to interrupt university challenge, I'd like to think that it's something I could have predicted.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The pleasure of eating

There's something about food critics that makes me unreasonably irate. I'm not sure why; maybe it's because of the apparent glee with which they condemn another knife-wielders dream, but let's face it, it's probably because they've got the job that many of us would kill for. A A Gill stands out as the worst offender, of course, not least for the fact that his opinion on the restaurant in question rarely makes an appearance before 75% of the column has been wasted down varied and waffly blind-alleys. He's like that infuriating teacher at School, who not only conisdered himself one of the few true intellectuals around the place, but also spent much of the time pontificating about nothing terribly interesting, before getting to the point around 5 minutes before the bell went. Giles Coren sounds ever more like the 'outraged of Tonbridge Wells', as if every restaurant that doesn't conform to his own ideal should be expunged from Christendom (see his savage assault on the mostly harmless Bombay bicycle club), and even dear old Matthew Fort has hurried into caricature with ever more limp series of Great British Menu. I'm faintly disappointed that we haven't had a GBM competition to make my weekend breakfast; everyone else seems to have had celeb chefs fight it out to cook for them. I seem to remember a bizarre version of a farmers' garden party was the last flogging of the tired idea.

Jay Rayner, however, is one that (until now) I've rather liked. Granted he looks like a cross between Captain Pugwash and one of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, but I can get beyond the farcical appearance, because he writes well, really cares about the food and is mostly spot on with those places he cherishes. This made his OFM article all the more bizarre last Sunday. I shall summarise briefly: food tends to be more exciting when the flavours are bold (ok, no problem there); great and memorable food should be an assault on the senses (hmmm, more odd, but I'll stick with you); the most exciting food should have a 'whiff of death' about it (Whiff of death? Now you've lost me).

His chosen 'whiff of death' vehicle was the andouiette sausage, which he was keen to point out that he loved, in stark contrast to his wife, who called it the 'poo sausage'. Now I'm a fairly adventurous eater, and never one to shirk a challenge, I've also eaten the andou. I ate it in the andou's spiritual home of Troyes, at the restaurant which specialised in the meaty morsel. I can safely say that it's likely to be the only time. For those who might be thinking of having one: dont. I believe that it's made from the lower intestine and colon of the pig, and though it is thoroughly washed before cooking, it retains a distinctly faecal smell. Close your eyes, and you may as well be chomping on a rubber textured dog shit. I had mine slavered in hot mustard sauce, but even as it came at me across the restaurant, the sausage the size of red rum's manhood hit me with it's special aroma from several metres away.

There's a story that an army once invading Troyes stopped to get some andou sausage just before a battle, and loved it so much that they downed arms and made peace. A likely story. One meal of that nature and they'd have slaughtered the whole place, and presumably the Town butcher would have been first up against the wall.

Jay may well like to eat poo flavoured chitterlings for dinner, and he may think this makes him more daring than the rest of us, but for a middle-aged man to try for lad points by extolling its virtues in a national paper just makes me think that if he were in the army, he'd be the first at the soggy biscuit.

I'm not suggesting we shouldn't be adventurous in our tastes. We should all retain an open mind when it comes to food, and should be prepared to try anything once. Some of the greatest culinary pleasure comes from the joy of discovering somthing wonderful to eat, and the memories are ingrained from that moment. This doesn't mean however that we need to take the macho approach of the hot-curry brigade, and look upon eating as nothing but a dare.

Anthony Bourdain's brilliant 'Kitchen Confidential' tells us this, in the immortal passage: 'But if I have once chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard - even if I have not been properly introduced to the chef - and I'm in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I'm going for it. You only go around once.'

Put that in your sausage skin, Jay.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Room 101

'You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'

So says O'Brien to the emaciated and almost broken Winston Smith. The worst thing in the world to Winston turns out to be rats. He screams for it to be done to Julia instead, and in betraying her, he realises that he has given himself fully over to the party.

It may not be one of the greatest books, but it's certainly one of the most iconic, and much of what it has to tell us is relevant today.

The phrase 'room 101' has made its way into common parlance. It was after the number of Orwell's office at the BBC. Maybe this was his own personal hell, but for someone who spent a fair amount of time on the streets and in the muddy trenches during the Spanish civil war, there were a few contenders to choose from.

Do we all have a specific idea of our own personal hell, the recurring dream of which causes us to wake in a cold sweat; fear turns to elation as we realise the unreality of the horror?

I've got a few more years left on this planet, I hope, and until today I didn't have any vision of any personal hell. I hadn't expected to find one as I drove out to Peterborough, in the hope of buying a suit or two to replace my current crop, which are looking a little frayed around the pockets.

The next hour of my life will haunt me for some time to come, and my fingers are trembling over the computer keys as I attempt to explain the full grimness of the ordeal.

First stop: John Lewis. Hardly a gritty beginning, though this is a Peterborough John Lewis, and as such, though the store is at least sanitary, the people have a strange deathly quality to them. They peered out at me from under cromagnon brows, shuffling in anoraks through the aisles, searching for meaning in the discounted tie selection.

Having thought little of the fabric on offer, I decided to head to 'Suits You', home of a few labels, even though the store itself is a tad on the tacky side. They had a 75% off everything sale, which sounds good. One jacket I saw was discouted from £200 to £29, which is suggestive a company on its knees. This particular garment did seem to be big enough to clothe an entire Texan family. The racks sagged with cheap and nasty brands; I'm pretty sure that one of them was called 'Johnny English', which may impress the Hong Kong market, but did little to raise a smile. There were no suits on display, merely row after row of jackets up top, and the trousers beneath. None seemed to match. I was of the opinion that a suit was at least a two piece venture. The idea of a one-piece suit had me stumped; surely by then it is just a pair of trousers? I asked the manager (if such a place seemed to need one), and he seemed baffled to be asked if there were any matching jackets and trousers. 'Just find what you can' was his answer, which seemed to fit better as the answer of a soldier in Iraq who's just recevied an order to clear out, and fast. The place was packed, and as I shuffled out, the second to last words I remember were from one man berating a store assistant because he couldn't find anything for a fiver. The very last words were from a man who looked like he'd been hewn from granite (if you could tattoo granite). He looked me up and down, and asked if we sold shirts. We. Jesus.

Obviously this had exhuasted Peterborough shopping centre's selection of suit emporia, but I had noticed River Island just around the corner. I hadn't shopped in RI since the mid 90s, buy hey, it was cooler than Burton back then, and maybe they'd sell me a suit that came in 2 parts. They tried to. Sadly the RI suits were so shiny I could almost see my face in them. They were the sort of nasty shiny grey at which Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses might have turned his nose. They did allow me to spy what was going on behind me however, and it seemed at first glance that an enormous ham in a white T shirt was singing to itself. I turned round to come face to face with the most obese child I have ever seen (most obese you've ever seen too). Global food shortage? of course there is; that kid's eaten it all. Somehow in my confused state I managed to part with £165 in RI. My purchases: a purple v neck, a jacket that looks like I'm a four year old off to a wedding in 1927 dressed as a sailor and a military style jacket that makes me look that even if I was military, I'd be the first to desert, and then be shot.

Keen to finish what I came to do, I spent a hefty £564 back in John Lewis (not sure what on, as I haven't dared open the bags yet). I think there's a tie that makes me look like an Open University lecturer from the mid-70s, but that can't have been more than twenty. Please?

With no word of a lie, I ran back across the bridge from the Queensgate shopping centre to the car park, stopping only to marvel at the unfathomably terrible music emanating from Heart 102.7FM's broadcast station (it really is the sound of Peterborough). I paid at the car park machine, which someone seemed to have urinated on (this is bizarre - who urinates on these, and cashpoints, and in lifts?), and fled.

Room 101? I found it. 90 miles North of London.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Great Divide

Monday 6th September. 8pm. There's a decent battle occurring on BBC2 as Hertford College Oxford take on UCL in university challenge. The UCL captain looks like an unwashed Simon Amstell, and he's sitting next to a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall clone (if Hugh decided to morph into Bill Bryson, and got stuck half way). This is the normal Monday night staple, but channel 4 seems to have unearthed something truly disgusting to rival UC. Some desperate x-list ex-big brother contestants are each attmpting to prolong their 5 minutes in the sun by appearing on a themed 'Come Dine With Me'. As low-brow TV goes, it's up there with anything Russ Meyer produced, and I suspect even Paul Ross would hang his head in shame at this tripe. Have there ever been two more polar-opposite TV programmes put up against each other? Has the nation ever been so divided into the haves and have-nots (brain cells, that it) by these two televisual ends of the spectrum?

Digression: I went to watch UC being filmed a couple of years ago in Manchester, and found out that the Jeremy Kyle show is actually filmed in the studio next door. Two queues had formed outside: imagine one to be made up only of twittering middle-class families, and the other to be make up of blue wkd-swilling overweight chavs, and you'd be pretty much there.

Back to my original point: these two programmes must have divded the nation neatly. We can therefore classify all people as type 1 (UC) or type 2 (BBCDWM), and ne'er the twain shall meet. The diagram produced would resemble two perfect non-overlapping circles; not exactly a Venn diagram for the purists. I wonder whether there are other such ways of dividing people so neatly, and I'm not talking about the obvious ones such as Lennon/McCartney, milk in first or not or marmite/not marmite.

1. Petrol. Not sure if there might be a little bit of overlap here, but people generally fall into the fillers (stop when the petrol handle flicks back) or neat totallers (stop when the price reads £30.00). It's always worth stopping early, as if you overfill, you get another chance to stop at £40.00, and so on. This of course all gets ruined when you buy a grab-bag of quavers and a can of low-sugar red bull.

2. Jumpers. People who take them off from the neck, and people who take them off from the waist. Definitely no overlap here.

3. Menus. Those who turn to the dessert list first, and normal people. The sign of a bad meal is that the dessert was the highlight. Nothing with fruit and/or chocolate can ever be that bad.

4. Blogs. People who write blogs when they have something to say, and people who write one simply because they haven't for a while, and are convinced their already-tiny readership will dwindle to nothing. Guess which camp I'm in?

I almost forgot, if you can't remember what a Venn diagram looks like, here's an easy one to refresh your memory: