Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cats can't use apostrophes.

My mention of the apostrophe got quite a few comments. Ironically, of course, my teaching colleagues and I are the ones who seem to have allowed the younger generations to grow up grammarless, so perhaps I should be hanging my head in shame instead of making rueful remarks. (The essays I was marking weren’t written by my own students, I’d like to add – though probably my students produced work of much the same standard.)

When I started teaching in a comprehensive (high) school, in 1973, grammar was out. Or so it was said. But I don’t know any of my colleagues who didn’t try their best to teach it. What is probably true was that it wasn’t taught as rigorously as when we were at school: one period a week for thirteen years or so. The real problem as we secondary teachers saw it – and this may not have been true – was that primary teachers no longer taught it. Certainly we found that our first year pupils knew very little about grammar, and so we were building on very shaky foundations indeed.

Received wisdom from the teaching theorists was that creativity was more important and that we shouldn’t limit our pupils’ imaginations by banging on about spelling and such. But I’ve always corrected spelling, taught grammar and discussed sentence structure and fluency.

I have some ideas about why the standard of written English seems to be so bad now. One centres on the fact that some young people don’t read much for pleasure. The theory goes that if you read good English then you’ll absorb it. (Or is it just that people who read a lot are also those who like language and therefore tend to write carefully?) These non-reading young people are now being expected to stay on at school, do academic exams and take up jobs that require a certain amount of writing. Before, they might have left school at fourteen and taken up apprenticeships and no one would really have noticed their writing abilities.

At the same time, of course, there were many highly literate people who had to leave school early for financial reasons, which meant that though they worked in blue collar jobs, their skills in English were impressive. Now it's the less academic children, on the whole, who tend to go on to these jobs.

For another thing, yes, pupils may do less grammar and less writing in general; but they have other skills. They learn IT and go on outings and do projects. Time is finite and primary teachers can’t do everything. Meanwhile, in secondary schools and colleges of further education, we have to administer lots of assessments, so that at some points in the term we’re spending more time assessing than teaching.

And then there are computers that do your thinking for you, and text messages…

I was greatly comforted some years ago to read a book of letters written home by soldiers in the First World War. They were full of errors of grammar, spelling and expression. I blame the teachers.
Meanwhile, Spring is beginning to return to my garden. Thank goodness.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The joys of marking

After ten days spent, when not at work, hunched over the kitchen table, I marked the last essay a little while ago at midnight 30. Can you hear the fireworks, see the balloons? The students chose their own topics and you'll be glad to hear that they know with certainty what are the right things to think about abortion, animal testing, euthanasia and the attacks on the Twin Towers (conspiracy or not?) They have, regrettably, suffered in large numbers the death of a beloved grandparent; they know why young people take drugs and too much alcohol and exactly what should be done about this; and one or two of them, glory hallelujah, have a sense of humour.

The apostrophe, or at least the apostrophe used other than as a decorative feature (especially in the word "its") is an endangered species. But I'm going to have a nice bath and read the letters of the Mitford sisters.

Tomorrow, or strictly speaking later today, I shall read some blogs. I look forward to catching up with your exciting lives. And remember, "it's" has to mean "it is" or "it has". "Belonging to it" is "its". Don't let me down, now.

The cats are exhausted. All that marking wears a person out.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Marking in the evenings

I've spent most of this week assessing lots and lots of essays.

No time to post.

No time to read blogs.


I want to be a cat.
(PS - a pampered cat, of course.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Blogging. And cats.

Why do you blog?

It fascinates me that so many people do. Who would have thought that so many of us were starved of this facility to communicate with complete strangers and get feedback from them? I get the impression, from the blogs I read, that most of you are jolly people with friends, interests and hobbies – not introverted souls with no one to talk to.

(Except perhaps the Person from Salford and such like hoverers in the background. No, actually I reckon the Person from Salford is just very, very bored at work. I was a bit horrified, by the way, over Christmas to find that my statistics had plummeted – till it occurred to me that a lot of you must read blogs at work. You’re not so interested in other people's lives as to waste precious holiday time reading about them, but working time is a different matter. No wonder the economy’s going down the drain.)

What will eventually happen to all our blogs? They must be on some huge server somewhere – I can’t imagine such hugeness, but surely it will one day be full: choked with all our deep thoughts about vinyl and sewing and cats and weather and plants? One day, I suppose, Mr Blogger will shout “No more!” and delete us all.

Or will it remain, an enormous bank of material for future social historians? But there’s so much of it! How could any researcher trawl through the vast heap of words to extract the gems? The first blog I ever read was that of someone I was at school with – she mentioned it on her Friends Reunited message. Then I clicked on Next Blog and found Paul, a wonderful chap in his 80s in California. Which was such luck, because from then on, Next Blog led me only ever to crowds of illiterate teenagers rambling on about their college room mates and the movies they’d just seen.

Why do they blog? Why do I? Why do you?

Look how little they were!

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Well, thanks so much for all your additional linguistic advice to my youngest child. I shall pass it on.

Hmm… I’m not entirely convinced by those of you who diagnosed the patient in our little drama as having benign prostatic hypertrophy. Yes, I guessed that too, just because of the prostate-like bit of it but do you really know what a paraphymosis is, so as to rule it out? No, me neither. I asked the boy. “Um…,” he said delicately. “It’s an inflammation of the tissues under the foreskin.” (At least I think that’s what he said. I kind of rapidly lost interest. I don’t feel I’ll ever need to know in detail.)

Weeks ago, someone (and I can't remember who - sorry!) tagged me to reveal 5 pieces of music that mean a lot to me. So here I go. I do like some popular music if it has a pretty tune and interesting words – but it doesn’t mean nearly as much to me as … what I tend to think of as “proper” music. (“You’re such a musical snob, Mother,” says my boy (nicely). He calls me Mother only when I’m being bad.)

1. Holst’s “The Planets”. When I was 10, my parents bought a stereo record player and this was one of the two records they bought first. We all sat in our little living room with the huge speakers on specially-built shelves, and the room filled with that glorious sound which boomed startlingly into our ears from opposite corners.

2. The songs of Ivor Novello, for example “I can give you the starlight”. My dad was an excellent pianist and organist and, corny as it sounds, when I was a girl he used to play these songs and I would stand beside him and sing them – not very well, I should add: this particular song has a big range. I still love the words as well as the tune:

“I can give you the starlight,
Love unchanging and true,
I can give you the ocean,
Deep and tender devotion.
I can give you the moonlight,
Pools of shimmering blue,
Call and I shall be
All you ask of me,
Music in spring,
Flowers for a king,
All this I bring to you.”

I like the pattern of those rhymes. And of course, Mr Life has the same attitude as the chap in the song. Approximately. Or at any rate he brings me a cup of tea in bed first thing, which is more to my taste at that time of the morning than pools of shimmering blue.

3. “The Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” by Handel. We used to play this in the school orchestra. Our conductor, and my violin teacher, was a lovely man, Mr Watson – too lovely, since I was very lazy and didn’t practise enough and he was too nice to alarm me into diligence. But even I could play this well enough to merge into a reasonable performance. This piece always takes me back to our lunchtime rehearsals, with Mr Watson conducting and our HORRIBLE maths teacher patrolling the ranks of players and looking evil, a self-appointed guardian of our obedience.

4. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”. I sang this with the university choir. Music that you learn, especially when you’re young, embroiders itself into your brain for ever. It’s perhaps the most glorious music I’ve ever sung; and I’ll never forget standing in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh as part of that big choir and helping to create that heartbreakingly beautiful sound.

5. The choir I now belong to is currently rehearsing Haydn’s “Harmoniemesse” . I had never heard of this before, and as so often happens when I hear complicated choral music for the first time, I listened to it on a CD and thought, ah yes, very nice. But when you learn it – really learn it by practising weekly with a choir – and every week you become more aware of the layers of sound from the different parts – it enriches your life for ever. See answer to number 4. When I’m a very old lady I shall be sitting there in my care home, plugged into earphones and singing along in my cracked, wobbly old voice as I listen to all the wonderful choral music I’ve learnt over the years. I’ll be transported out of my arthritis and failing vocabulary – and it’ll be one way of ensuring that I get a room of my own.

Does anyone want to be tagged? Loth of "The Gym's Not Working?" Joni of "Yummers"?

I'm whiling away the time waiting for the vinyl-layers to come and refloor our kitchen. They're supposed to arrive before 1 pm. They have 9 minutes. I need to get my washing machine plumbed in again or we will all run out of underwear.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New Zealand

Our son is very excited because in March, he and his beloved are off to Nelson in New Zealand for their elective – two months which can be spent working in a hospital anywhere in the world. They were very keen to go to New Zealand and made the arrangements at the very first opportunity, which was more than a year ago. His bedroom walls are covered with maps of NZ, he has lots of books about the country and for some months now, he’s been bursting from time to time into what may possibly not be an authentic NZ accent. “Alright, mate?”, “Good as gold!” and “Sweet!” echo round the house as he goes about his business.

He’s been encouraged in this linguistic getting-into-the-mood by an information sheet sent by some wag at the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, which gives lots of helpful translations of descriptions that patients might give of their illnesses.

Here's an extract:
“The next group of adjectives imply that the patient is particularly tired or weak as the result of an illness, typically influenza, gastroenteritis, myocardial infarction:
wrung out
not firing on all cylinders
If a New Zealander vomits, he may say that he is about to chunder, yak, spew, hurl or ralph.
When a New Zealand patient recovers from an illness they may say that they have perked up and are raring to go, hunky dory, beaut, a box of birds, good as gold or sweet as.
The ultimate New Zealand sign of gratitude is expressed when the patient says, “Good on ya mate!” When a strange man calls you “mate” it is either a sign that he is open to friendship or that he has forgotten your name. If someone yells, “Oh, maaaa…te!” in a crowd then it is likely that another man has broken wind. If someone says, “Maaaa…te” without the “Oh” in front, and they have a concerned look on their face, it is an expression of sympathy.”

The handout ends:
“Here is a little test to check how much of this dictionary you have taken in. Please read the following scene and answer the questions at the end:
Patient: Gidday doc.
Doctor: Derek, how are you, mate?
Patient: I think I’ve got a problem with the old plumbing. I’m up and down all night and bugger all comes out each time.
Doctor: Maaaa…te! Giving ya gip after each slash?
Patient: No, good as gold, mate, good as gold.
Doctor: You firing on all cylinders in other ways?
Patient: Well, me and the Mrs both had the dreaded lurgy last week but she’s now a box of birds and I’ve perked up. Do you think the old fella’s on the blink, Doc?
What condition does the patient have?
a) psitticosis
b) a blocked drain on his toilet
c) influenza
d) a paraphymosis
e) benign prostatic hypertrophy.”
Well, now my lad is all set to talk the language of this distant land. Possibly.
He says that the answer is e), by the way.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The first week of the year

The year has started for us with tragedy and farce.

My husband went back to work on Thursday to find that a dear friend and colleague had collapsed and died on the bus on the way to work. He was only 57 and was in apparently good health. The whole office is devastated. He and his wife were looking forward to going to Australia in April for the wedding of their son to an Australian girl. Truly, our lives are fragile and uncertain.

And the less tragic event?

Ten years ago, we built a new kitchen on the side of our house. The vinyl floor covering was getting a bit worn and today was the date chosen to renew it. We did consider getting the more fashionable ceramic tiles instead, but the kitchen is quite large and it would have been expensive. It also occurred to us that a tiled floor in the middle of a Scottish winter night would be a chilly thing for little furry feet to walk on: the catlets spend their nights in the kitchen. So that decided it.

Yesterday evening, then, it was necessary to remove everything from the floor in preparation for the vinyl laying chaps today. This included the fridge, the freezer (both quite large and heavy), the tumble drier, washing machine and dishwasher (also quite heavy and in the latter two cases, attached to the water supply), a biggish table, six dining chairs, a rocking chair and footstool, an occasional table, a pot rack, a rubbish bin, a recycling rubbish bin… in other words, quite a lot of stuff. My husband is not necessarily a man whose favourite activity is unplumbing things and dragging them across floors.

We got up bright and early today to receive the vinyl layers. Then we discovered that they were actually booked to come next Saturday. We had the correct date marked on the calendar but somehow… we hadn’t checked.

But in the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Our washing machine, dishwasher and tumble drier are sitting unemployable in the dining room. The fridge and freezer are in the back hall – plugged in. It’s a bit unusual to have to walk from the kitchen, through the dining room and into the back hall to reach the fridge, but we’re getting used to it.

Daughter 2 has returned from seeing her actor boyfriend in his panto. Son has been writing an essay and telling us of his plans for after the summer.

And that’s what’s been happening this week.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


2007 has been a bit of a rubbish year for our family. Having written that, I immediately feel guilty because obviously many people have had a hugely rubbisher one and have had to endure warfare, starvation, fire, flood or the death or kidnap of their child. So I’m talking in very local terms here, from the point of view of a lucky someone to whom nothing really terrible has ever happened.

But my dad died in April after a long and distressing decline, and my lovely son-in-law has spent a lot of the year unable to go to work because of depression. And my wonderful second daughter is still going out with her actor boyfriend, whom I have nothing against on a personal level but who is not getting a lot of work. This means that he’s living with his parents in the Midlands while she’s living here in Edinburgh and they don’t see much of each other.

I’ve spent the last few weeks contemplating the end of the year and hoping to myself that 2008 was going to be better. But then during the last few days of 2007, I started to worry that in fact it was going to be worse. And I’m still kind of in that frame of mind.

This may well be the year that our two remaining children leave home. And I’m going to find this very hard. If Daughter 2’s boyfriend did become more successful, he’d base himself in London and so she would probably go there too. Which is entirely reasonable, of course: she’s 26 and we’re very lucky to have her still at home and she needs to make her own life away from us. But knowing this won’t make it easier. It should but it won’t. I want all my children to live near me. I love them so much and they’re so interesting and cuddly and such good fun. We’re lucky that sweet Daughter 1 lives fairly near, but even so, I’d prefer her at the end of the street. London is direly far way. Yes, I know that in American or Australian terms it’s just a toddle, but in Scottish terms – Scotland is a little country – it’s almost unreachably far.

And our beloved son will start working as a doctor and may well not get a job in Edinburgh. He’ll earn a reasonable salary and I assume may be able to get a mortgage. Which is good, of course. In a way. He’ll be 24 and needs to be independent too. Again, we’ve been blessed to have him at home for so long.

It doesn’t help that I know that my attitude is ridiculously clingy. I know I need to get a life. I know they’ll all still love us even when they don’t live at home.

And at least we have cats who don’t look like departing any time soon – like the lean, keen killing machine you see above. And Daughter 1 and I met up yesterday with Loth of “The Gym Isn’t Working” and she’s lovely! Funny and interesting and generally very nice! So there are good things in life too. I do know this.

I’ve just read Shauna Reid’s book, “The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl”, based on her blog of the same name. If by any chance anyone who reads this doesn’t know about her, please buy it! It’s published by Transworld and is available from Amazon and in shops. It charts her life over the years during which she lost 12 and a half stone in weight (that's 176 pounds or 80 kilos), moved to Scotland during the process… and lots more (don’t want to give it all away)… and it’s wonderfully well written, funny and touching. It’s not just about losing weight – it’s not a diet guide – it’s about how she learnt to become healthy and more confident in lots of ways. That sounds soppy but it isn’t at all.

Here she is describing herself after having had her wisdom teeth removed: "I can't sleep because my head is massively swollen like a mutant potato. I was hoping for a cute little chipmunk face, but instead I'm a slab with eyes, like those statues on Easter Island. My lips are numb too, so when I spoon gruel into my mouth it slithers down my chin as if I'm a helpless baby. Somebody should just strap me into a high chair and make the aeroplane noises."

One of her mantras at one stage in the book is “Stop moping and start coping” – excellent advice. I’m going to try to do this. Possibly even tomorrow. Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to have another little mope. And now that I've depressed you - Happy New Year!