Thursday, 30 August 2012

Lucky Jim


This is my edition.

I have had a soft spot for humorous prose ever since a good friend in Oz kindly handed me a copy of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, father of the esteemed Martin. Sitting on his patio one afternoon, sipping a rather tasty Zinfandel, I set my friend a desert island challenge: pick a book from his collection that he would keep over the rest. Considering the man has library in his abode, this was no mean feat. His recommendation opened a door to a new world of giggling at painful and complex human relationships, truculent side swipes at contemporary culture as well as showing to me for the first time, that books don’t have to be weighty to be a worthwhile read. This is not to say that that Lucky Jim is weak tea – far from it; it is a deliciously crafted piece of work that stands up to the ravages of time. This can’t be said for many novels.

Here are a few quotes whet your appetite:

“You'll find that marriage is a good short cut to the truth. No, not quite that. A way of doubling back to the truth. Another thing you'll find is that the years of illusion aren't those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they're the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head. Your age, by the way, Jim. That's when you first realize that sex is important to other people besides yourself. A discovery like that can't help knocking you off balance for a time.”

“... all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing. Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he had none to celebrate it with. As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face.”
“How wrong people always were when they said: 'It's better to know the worst than go on not knowing either way.' No; they had it exactly the wrong way round. Tell me the truth, doctor, I'd sooner know. But only if the truth is what I want to hear.”

And here is the best hangover description in literally history:
“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Phuket Snaps

Some snaps out and about in Phuket







The view outside the SET EDU Group offices

There was another landslide last night beside the SET EDU Group offices, and it was large. One of our teachers who lives close to the impact point was awoken at 4am by what he thought was a car accident outside his room. He and about 15 others gathered in the car park to assess the damage. A number of motorbikes were submerged in the slide, and a ground floor bedroom was smashed to pieces. Thankfully, there were no fatalities.








Monday, 27 August 2012

9.08am


9.08am

As I type choral chanting can be heard over the low drone of the air conditioner. Here I am, on another Tuesday morning, on my own in room 6211. The whereabouts of my students is unknown. They are AWAL, running amok in the university grounds, carefree and unattached to the complexities and painstaking intricacies of Teacher Mike's Conversation Course.

I am sure their reasons for absence are genuine as there is always a commitment competing for their time. This I understand. It is not like my university days. There we were left to our own devices, usually swigging from cider bottles and rolling smokes. Having said that we had academic affairs to attend to; however, outside lecture theatres and tutorials, we were free and usually boozing. Maybe we were too free in retrospect, but that is how things were. Here, students have a million and one people to please, events to organize, and smiles to give. All of which put a heavy weight on the actual amount of time spent learning. Yes, of course they go to ‘class’ but often it is without intellectual focus, day dreams of Korean pop stars taking the place of study.

It is an innocent place, na├»ve. Students’ general knowledge of the world around them at times is vague. Last term I asked a class:

‘What’s the capital of France?”

I received a saucer eyed silence, each student smiling radiantly as their gaze met mine.

‘Does anyone know what the capital city of France is?’

My intonation rose up towards the clouds.

Once again eye lids fluttered and white teeth glowed. My eye brows rose to near the top of my forehead.

Quizzical, I wrote the word ‘France’ on the whiteboard in the hope that visual stimuli would conjure up a distant memory of Geography class. How wrong I was. Intrigued and at the same time baffled, I repeated the above in Thai. Still the same empty faces peered at me.

What was going on here?

Was I dreaming?

Was this some blurred and repressed memory from childhood send to haunt me in my sleep?

Suddenly, a student spoke and snapped me out of my perplexed reverie.

‘France kru a rai a krap, mai cow jai krap?’

This was it, the moment of truth. The box had been opened and its contents revealed. Revelation! My mind pulsated; my head thumped; was I about to burst into spasmodic fits of laughter, convulsing violently beneath the whiteboard? A sea of faces, oblivious to my thoughts, sat patiently waiting for my response. They must be joking. This is a piss take, surely.

‘France is a country’ I slurred.

Heads nodded and an guttural groan of understanding filled the room.

Dreaming


I had a strange dream last night. I was sitting in an unidentified living room with a number of people. We communicated but did not look directly in each others’ faces; a lively discussion was under way. All lay on a red wood floor and espoused opinions on seemingly important topics. However, the content of these debates is now too hazy to recall. This innocuous pitter patter continued for some time until I became aware of a large white door behind me. It was an old fashioned door, one with a high handle about one third from the top. In fact, it reminded me of the doors found my childhood home in Northern Ireland. The door became the sole focus of my attention, and the others in the room faded into insignificance. It had energy, a pulsating importance. There was a reason why it became the focal point of my attention, however, its significance eluded me then as it does now. I felt drawn to it, but repelled at the same time. It breathed life and an eerie vibrancy into the room, humming and buzzing like an industrial machine. My ambivalence towards it multiplied. I could feel it held significance for me, a monumental importance. But, at the same time, as it glowed like a pearl under lamp light, I began to experience a guttural fear. Something was wrong. I became aware of a strange sound outside the room, and it was instantly recognizable. Although I could not see beyond the white door, I knew that behind were other people; they screamed when the swarm rolled in to the hallway, a lethal tsunami of insects. Instantly, they enveloped the people on the other side of the door, which had by this stage become transparent. I could see the whole deathly scene, safe behind the door.

I was left with a bizarre sensation: guilt and sadness gripped me. Could I have done more to help the people in the hallway? Why didn’t I act? Perhaps I could have saved at least one person from the gruesome end. Who knows, dreams always leave you thinking.

The Red Hill and the Rains






It is unusual for me to fall asleep during the day. This, it must be understood, is not because I don’t want to, far from it; rather it is due the events of the last three hours. At noon Kay and I were eating in MK restaurant in Big C, Phuket. The food it this establishment is great: roasted red pork, duck, green noodles with garlic and various other niceties. Our gastronomic bliss was abruptly interrupted by a most inopportune phone call from our secretary. She informed us that there was a flood at our offices, which also are contained within the bowels of Ban Rueangsuttapha. We made our way directly to the office to find that more of the red cliff had collapsed, causing a landslide that smashed through the wall. A huge volume of rain water followed suit and, consequently, our relaxing afternoon vapourized in an instant. Two hours followed of wading around in red clay coloured water with a dust pan scooping like a man on a mission. Quite a merry band of helpers lent a hand in the clear up processes, and the compassionate individuals were stoic faced throughout the whole disgusting process. The mess is cleaned up, for now. However, with inky, ominous skies overhead, how much long can the remainder of the red cliff hold?

Soaked to the Skin


This was the scene earlier outside the SET EDU Group offices.

The rain is incessant. It comes in powerful gusts that cause one to stop and think. It blows manically in bursts - One, two. One, one, two. One, two, one. The red hill opposite the apartment building has subsided again over night; a tree clings to the remains of the jagged slope. The roots of the upper undergrowth hang downwards, a sinewy reminder of a storm that shows no sign of ending. Trees sidestep and bow violently, their heads almost touching the flooded ground. ‘Cow’, the mange-eaten street dog, lies curled up outside the office door, his somber eyes, reflective, inscribed with melancholy.


Roadtrippin


Kay and I were thinking about travelling again this morning, travelling in Europe, over land from Amsterdam to Bratislava. It would be great to have Kay with me for the ride. I would make it special but without any frills. Who needs frills anyway? Thrills, now those I get; unnecessary extras like four star hotels and spa treatments, they are not for me: overhyped, a retrospective let down.

We would rent a car in Holland, load it to the brim with suitable goodies and point the heaving beast east on the motorway. With the roof down, the warm summer afternoons would be just the ticket. As we hammer down the autobahn our eyes would begin to water and our spirits would dance as if sparkly magic dust was sprinkled from above. Electrified, we would be free, free and easy; we would travel towards the horizon in our topless beast, free from niggling anxieties, eyes focused on the tarmac laid out in front like some malevolent serpent.

I haven’t given up on the Kerouac dream. Moving on without a care in the world and becoming aware of the beauty all around. How great it is to have little to do and plenty of time to do it! Heavenly bliss! If only there was more time to engage in such leisurely pursuits, life would be simple: wake up, eat, read a news paper, decide where to go, pack a suitcase, catch a bus, listen to audio books and admire the scenery, and then arrive in a new place; a place to call home for a few days. Then after cool beers and making new friends, it’s time to say goodbye and repeat the process.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Back to the Drawing Board


The novel Ulysses, written by James Joyce, was set during a single day (16th June) in 1904 and is without a doubt one of the most feared and also revered books in the English literature. Surely I, a teacher of English, should have swallowed and digested this masterpiece a long time ago. Alas, this is not the case. My thirty one years have not seen me leaf further than the second chapter, at which point my attention span fatally wavered. No matter, I am focused to get though it in my lifetime. This, I fear, will be some time off as current work commitments leave me at the end of the day with a mind as fresh as a drunk's at dawn. Not ideal for picking apart a Joycean allusion. Thus, as things stand, I am still in the starting blocks with Joyce’s opus.

However, my flirtation with the great master has not all been in vain. In the last year or so I have ploughed my way through Dubliners and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and I found them most enjoyable. Portrait in particular is a novel which I return to again with regularity, and the reason for this is simple: the sentences are wonderful. Like this little beauty where Stephen “surrenders” himself to a prostitute.

It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour. (2.5.17)

In this quote, the young Stephen, modelled on Joyce as a boy, is so overcome with desire that he gives into his lurid desires and gets lost in a moment of blissful sin. For a boy so young to be at peace taking part in a sexually explicit experience makes the whole things feel very creepy indeed.

I really don’t feel like I have the vocabulary or the knowhow to make any sort of intelligent comment on Joyce’s work; therefore, I will leave it to the experts. All the same, it is nice to have a type at the end of a busy day.

Meander


At present, business is good with enjoyable classes and students growing in confidence and ability. Work doesn’t feel like chore. Having said that, I am realistic about life and how quickly everything can change. Thus, I have learnt not to rest on my laurels. Systems, skills and ideas must be constantly updated and refined to reduce the risk of life taking a nose dive. Any time now, due to the staggering large volume of competition on this island, business could flare up and explode around me like a Christmas cracker.

Very little feel stable these days: the economy, peoples' moods, house prices, and the price of groceries in the supermarket. Everything is fluctuating wildly, uncontrollably. The blissful stability of the 70s and 80s, with its 15% interest rates for savers, has been replaced with a present that is spinning out of control. An uncertain future hangs in the balance, with the likelihood of more hardship to follow for many.

I dream about a day when life shifts down a gear, meandering round the middle course of life, slowing down ever so gradually until the lower reaches where a soft and even pace awaits. Still, easy mornings and afternoons in the shade. Savoring barbequed prawns and fruit cocktails with friends. Coastal drives. A sunset hamburger. Ice cold beer. That is how it is going to be. No sweat, no stress, just a velvety soft traverse down the mountain side of life. The difficult times are going to pass, and when they do I will be the first one to bathe in the glory of the relaxed life and reflect with some pride and poignancy, the days when everything seemed just too much to handle.

Therapy

Teaching is a kind of therapy. When a lesson is in full flow and the students are actively engaged in the content, worries evaporate, the mind's pressure valve is loosened, leaving one feeling re-balanced and ready to tackle the rest of the day. However, problems arise when the amount of contact time is too great. This, in turn, leads of a downward spiral into lethargy and apathy. It is tough to find this balance when teaching is one's business.

Stress


The stress is intense of late. I am on the edge. Now it is 1.15pm and my head feels like is too heavy for my body, my movements are jumpy and my speech wobbly with sporadic incoherence. At any moment I feel as if I might collapse or worse wig out. Go bonkers in a public display of indecency: stomp around, foam at the mouth, dance a jig of lunacy.

In the past I would have folded and given in to the pressure, and, this morning I almost took the easy option. However, I have learned to be stronger and face the gales of uncomfortable anxiety head on, for soon they will pass, and the sea of daily life will once again be calm.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Thankful

Life in Phuket is frenetic at the moment. Bills, customers, rip-offs, dramas, stoic faced Russians, teachers resembling stand-up comedians, electrocutions, nightclubs ablaze, hissy fits, public displays of ignorance, rampant greed and shameless lack of self respect, petty jealousy, moronic parents, tediously spoilt teenagers, odious workmen, flash cars, painful realizations of unmitigated failure, tears, pressure and unreasonable skunk bag delivery men. Apart from these few minor issues everything is just velvety soft, and I, as a man, am full of teddy bear love for humanity in every shape and form.

It could be worse I suppose. I could be living in Syria, dodging bullets from government loyalists and trying to etch out living selling spices on a rubble strewn thoroughfare; I could be Juilan Assange, hiding shamelessly in my Ecuadorian fox hole, looking like the body double of Bitzer from Hard Times; I could be Gu Kailai off to jail for one of the murkiest crimes in recent history. I am none of these, and for this I am thankful.

Mike

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Going on a Lion Hunt


Objective: a spot of volunteer teaching.

Possessions: a laptop and pocket full of Clorets.

Time of day: Dangerously early in the morning

I’m not a morning person. Any civilized individual who has ever met me will adhere to this. Just one of my twisted pre-coffee glances can reduce a child to tears and often results in their dear parents shuffling uncontrollably. Today, this I could do without.

My mission was to get to a primary school in the north eastern part of Phuket and then deliver a lesson to group of 65 early learners, and, due to the tardiness of my departure, I was feeling rather apprehensive about the whole gig. I had promised a friend two weeks earlier that I would arrive early to help with the set up, but here I was thirty minutes late and stuck in traffic. My head began to pulsate as the digital thermometer showed 32 degrees.

The roads of Phuket were never built for high volumes of traffic, that much is true, but something that will truly amaze the uninitiated, is the particular methods used by locals to get from A to B: These include an assortment of unconventional driving offenses in any country worth its salt.

The Mazda weaved its way round traffic, slowly and deliberately, slamming the brakes to avoid a cement truck and then hauling to the left as a family of five on a motorcycle flirted with certain death. The road felt alive and seething with precarious possibilities.

Three school children diced with death hanging off the back of a Song Taw one handed, the vacant hand thumbing on a mobile phone. They were immaculately dressed in white shirts and brown shorts, smiling golden smiles and dreaming of God knows what. One of the students was wearing a uniform ironed with such militaristic precision that one could have sworn it was the first day of term. He stood lazily, slouching, not quite ready for the waking day, a leather satchel dangling this way and that. I smiled at him as I past, dodged a motorbike and pointed the Mazda, with some degree of anxiety, towards the shimmering horizon.

When I eventually arrived, I was met by a young lady who was visibly on the edge. Her eye lids fluttered mechanically and the left corner of her mouth weighed downwards, ever so slightly, as if attempting to invert her smile. After much flapping, she introduced herself as the English co-coordinator of the school. We exchanged pleasantries, and, as I was sincerely apologizing for being late, I was led by the arm into an airy room. It was tastefully decorated with green palm leaves and pink and purple tropical flowers. If you ever want an empty space made to look beautiful, ask a Thai. They are fantastic at making the mundane pleasing to the eye.

Without further ado, a micro-phone was given to me and so began my rendition of the early learner classic “We’re going on a Lion Hunt” complete with audio/visual accompaniment. Someone even dug out a hunter costume and a lion mask, which the kids just simply adored. They sang as loud as anything I have heard before and all were beaming.

All in all it was a morning of fun and games for the kids, and their smiles made the whole thing worthwhile.

Mike










Monday, 13 August 2012

Student Centred Lesson

I had a lovely student centered lesson today that I would like to share. It began as a Dogme-type experiment and in the end worked really well. I am please to say that it was student led and mountains of language emerged as the lesson evolved. The lesson began when I asked for a volunteer to write on the whiteboard. A student came forward and was given a pen. Then I asked the remaining students to brainstorm (3 minutes) verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, in groups of 3, with one student in each group responsible for note taking. The student at the front was asked to divide the whiteboard into quarters and get feedback from the groups; each quarter of the box representing a different part of speech. Thus, by the end of the feedback each box was full of language. At this point, we discussed, as a group, the language on the board with stress patterns drilled on the more difficult words. I then asked the students what they would like to do with this language. Immediately, they responded that they would like to make a story. Then I asked what genre of story they would like to create. One girl said ‘fairy tale’ to which a boy said, ‘those stories are old.’ I then asked the boy to justify his statement. He stated that he was not interested in the old and like new things such as I-Pads. Admittedly, as this point I remarked that I-Pads could be incorporated into a fairy tale story, and thus, I set them the task of rewriting a fairy tale and giving it a modern twist. However, there was a catch: they could only use 5 words from the whiteboard. All other parts of speech used had to be original. Students were encouraged to use their dictionaries. Students were then given 30 minutes to re-create a classic fairy tale in groups. At this stage, I monitored and wrote down common errors. Once the time limit was reached, students swapped stories and peer corrected. I then asked the students to act their story with one narrator and two actors per group. Once this was finished, I collected the stories and asked a student to read them back to the class. The students had to listen for new parts of speech that were not already written on the board. Students wrote these in their notebooks. After feedback, I wrote some of the students’ incorrect sentences on the board, as well as a number of correct sentences, and played a timeline grammar auction game. To play this timelines were drawn beside the said sentences and students had to bet on which were correct. Students were encouraged to correct the sentences and timelines on the board. Homework was modernizing another fairy tale using the emergent language from the lesson that students had not already used in class. Mike

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Back in the Game

My goodness, it is a long time since I posted anything on this blog. My business commitments over the past 14 months have seen me filled to the brim with agonising responsibilities;however, the time has come to make a extra special effort to get some thoughts down on paper. I plan to get some more Phuket-centric blogs on the go that, I hope, may be of interest to a few heads in cyber-space. All for now, Mike