You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2011.

1. i’ve started teaching at a large, German car company. An interesting atmosphere – casually elitist, a real sense that if you work here, you are a cut above the rest. My brief is general – to improve their English – and i find the students highly amenable to the idea of going outside and having the lesson in the sun, over coffee. On Tuesday i have a 5-hour long class, for which i am instructed to take them on expeditions around Munich, to beergardens, the cinema, zoo, etc. i’ve also decided, if they seem interested, to take them to the art galleries to look at the paintings. i think it would be interesting to show them a picture such as this:

and ask questions, e.g., does she look happy, given she’s about to get married, what do you think of the way she holds her hands, then, what do you think her marriage was like? i’m also considering showing them films like The Insider and having a kind of film seminar afterwards, though it depends how rad and happening the students are, daddio. If they’re stiffs we’ll just do some grammar then get drunk in a beergarden.

i collected two amusing anecdotes from this company:

i) In places like Mexico and Columbia you can get models with flamethrowers – someone approaches your car at the traffic lights, so you press a button and watch your would-be kidnapper light up.

ii) One student, an architect, had studied Ancient Greek, and tried to use it in Greece. He addressed a group of Greeks, asking when the next ferry was leaving. They fell about laughing for some time, then explained (in English, i guess) that he had said “Hello, slaves! When does the war galley sail the wine dark sea?”

2. Some Wittgenstein links:

i) Wittgenstein’s cane and deathhankerchief donated to the University of Helsinki. They can keep the hanky but that cane could be put to better use on the streets of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Manchester, thrashing chavs and Guardian-readers.

ii) Yet more of the man’s enormous corpus has turned up.

iii) Great reviews of his work. A rather amusing sample:

This book is deliberately obscure pretentious drivel. If anyone tells you how profound it is–run quickly in the opposite direction. It is simply behaviorism (Ryle’s concept of mind is a much better book embodying similar ideas) with a pseudo-hip patina of bad coffee-house poetry pasted on.

Academic philosophy is only now beginning to recover from this wooly-headed bit of nonsense.

Buy it for the laughs you can get by contemplating how much academic ink was spilled over the latter half of the twentieth century trying to make sense out of this peurile [sic] idiocy.

3. Via Dave Lull, i found this interview with George Steiner, and have been reading it with pleasure. i think one reason i like Steiner is for the “atmosphere” of his works; he seems to me the last great European; as he says:

[…] I am absolutely fascinated by history, by the ancientness of European cities and landscapes. I have never been able, never been intelligent enough, to respond to the vast spaces of the American situation. Put me down anywhere in Europe, and I can tell you within a few kilometers where I am by odor, accent, names, the light on the trees, on the walls of the houses. This magnificent and tragic density of being, this pressure of felt being, is simply an instinct for me; one doesn’t reason on it. It seems to be absolutely integral to the way I am.

i have a similar sense, that i am disorientated, uneasy, in places of no history, or where the marks of history have been erased (in Kiel and Kassel, for example). Munich was obliterated in the war but, in the German way, reconstructed to look, i guess, more or less as it once did. So one has a sense of precedence, of anterior event and action and life, and it is this i require, to feel at home.

Steiner also comments on his inability to write really good fiction. He writes very good prose, and has very good ideas, but he is too definite, too orderly and careful, to write fiction, i think. His best is a short story about a German officer returning to his post in France after the war – i can’t find the title on the internet – it’s perfect up to the last page, where it ends in exactly the way i expected, with a heavy-handed, mechanistic rigidity, as if to say “the plot requires that this happen”.

Of the relation between culture and violence, he says:

Nazism, communism, Stalinism have convinced me of this central paradox: bookishness — bookishness, that old English word, it’s a good one — bookishness, highest literacy, every technique of cultural propaganda and training not only can accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it. We are trained our whole life long in abstraction, in the fictive, and we develop a certain power— allegedly a power—to identify with the fictive, to teach it, to deepen it (how many children has Lady Macbeth?). Then we go into the street and there’s a scream and it has a strange unreality. The image I want to use is this: I’ve been to a very good movie early in the afternoon. It’s a bright sunny day. When I walk out of the movie into the sunshine of the city afternoon, I have very often a feeling of nausea, of a disequilibrium which is nauseating. It takes seconds, minutes, sometimes longer for me to focus again on reality.

i wonder at Steiner’s insistence, that one can, for example, torture people all day long, then go home and read Goethe and listen to Schubert. Of course one can but it must be rare, and it also seems to me unlikely that literary study, fictive identification, could actively foster savagery or indifference. It is true that many academics are worthless human beings, who can weep for Cordelia in the morning, and whore themselves for advancement in the afternoon, really vile creatures, intellectually negligible but nonetheless capable of wholly fictive sympathies. But i don’t think literature made them base; they would always have been ignoble, it’s just that literature offers them a safe form of sympathy, costing nothing (or very little).

However, i suppose Steiner is talking of himself, and is sufficiently self-aware to offer accurate self-diagnosis. i wonder if there is a psychological connection between his inability to write good fiction, and his apparent tendency to feel more sympathy for the fictive than the real; that is, one can only do good fiction if one responds acutely to the real; so the fictive is drawn from the primary engagement, with living human beings, and if one lacks that contact, one’s fiction will only go so far.

4. On my last class with Carla, she asked for my email address, saying she wants to invite me to see the Vermeer exhibition with her next week. i don’t expect her to write, but it was a nice gesture, and who knows, perhaps she will.

Well, my silence didn’t last long. This morning i taught Carla, a really pretty 21-year-old girl who wants to study Photography in London. We talked about what it is to be an artist (an outsider who is nonetheless human), the futility of social recognition in these matters, the Nobel, etc. She said it would be nice to win prizes and fame, but wondered what it could mean to you, after death. i considered and said: “i suppose it becomes totally irrelevant”.

She showed me her photographs and asked if i could help her write some text for each. In the end, i dictated my impressions to her, that her photography is always about duality, shadow and light, reflections, the inscrutable which is yet clearly before us. She likes portraits. We talked about two very good shots she had taken, of children in South Africa, and i quoted Wittgenstein “the face is the best picture of the human soul.” She wrote it down, getting his name wrong; i corrected her, adding: “it’s better to say where you got it from, though i feel quite sure he wouldn’t mind you using the line.”

My last lesson with her tomorrow. i am divided, whether i should ask to stay in touch or just leave it to her to ask. i think the latter but in the moment, who knows. i fascinate her; but in turn she interests me, as i see she will not have an ordinary life. She is bold and sensitive, quite fearless, i think.

After Carla i travelled to a nearby company to teach Jutta, the HR Manager. We spent 3 hours together in a cavernous meeting room. She had food & drinks ready for me, and seemed to take pleasure in serving me – a novelty for her, i imagine. She was girlish, whimsical, laughing, enjoying my enjoyment of her. i told her, openly, that i enjoy watching her, her expressions, her demeanour, spirit. She said the face i see isn’t her work face, that to her colleagues she is formidable, and must be so.

At the end of the lesson she walked me to reception and in full view of the receptionists, perhaps mischievously, gave me a warm smile and prolonged, strangely sensual handshake, rubbing her palm into mine for what felt like half an hour. i reciprocated, stroking the inside of her wrist, and she gave me a half hug and a grin. Perhaps she does it just to sow gossip at work, out of mischief. Pleasing, nonetheless.

1. i’ve been too busy and idle to blog. Days teaching, mainly just schmoozing and listening to amusing tales, being paid large sums per hour but alas not enough hours per week that i can afford to move out of my horrible basement room. Tomorrow i teach English for Accountants, 8 hours to a group, though i get paid to take them out for lunch and my school even gave me 20 Euros for food. i’m tempted to take my students to McDonald’s and order 20 cheeseburgers per head, or just spend it all on booze. Accounting is easier when you’re drunk.

2. A new student has come my way, a 21-year-old girl, rich, intelligent, adventurous, beautiful, she wants to study Photography in London so has come to my school for prep. Luckily there are almost no British teachers so i get a lot of these students, who only want chit-chat. The girl is interesting – i haven’t seen any of her photos but i feel a kind of imaginative force in her, which i’ve learnt to recognise as the basic requirement for an artist; it’s not as overwhelming, raw, as in Murtaugh’s now 15-year-old son, Leo (whose talent is as yet latent), but it’s there. Talking about a painter i met in a temp job in 2006, David Whitlam, she asked “why do you meet so many artists? Is it just chance?” i said “no, it’s not chance, though it looks like it”. This basic imaginative force, a way of apprehending the world, is so deeply-rooted it can take many forms, not all of which are obviously artistic – but the great artists, i guess, have this force in every life, this intensity of apprehension. They see the world more acutely, and so they live with greater energy of attention and response, precariously and often blighted, but nonetheless more.

3. i found a parallel text of detective short stories, German and English, for a couple of Euros, and am strangely enjoying them – i say strangely because in terms of genre fiction i usually only like Fantasy and spy thrillers – but there’s something rather pleasing about elaborate, reasoned, brutal murders in English country houses, and characters like Poirot, who can say, with all seriousness: “I am down here on business. Murder is my business.”

4. Hungry, must eat burgers.

1. Taught all day at a big pharma company yesterday, the hardest part was getting there (2.5 hours); the actual lesson was, as is the norm now, just fairly structured conversation. For this i was paid 250 €. Highlight was the moment when a buxom Bavarian student showed me her ID card – her official work photo was a picture of Marilyn Monroe; when i asked how she would explain this away, if anyone noticed, she told me this was how she looked before joining the company, and daily stress had worn her down. This struck me as an excellent ruse and if i ever get a photo ID i mean to put this into action.

2. Teaching for independent schools is very very different to teaching at the Blitz (my employer in Ultima Thule) – i’m more or less free to do what i want now, and there’s very little grammar. As a result, i need no real teaching skills; it’s rather a matter of being a good schmoozer, interested in other people, entertaining, humorous. i partly miss the real grunt work of teaching grammar to low levels, though having said that i can certainly live with being paid 20 to 25 €  a unit to do nothing more than say “tell me about your job” and “how long have you been doing that?” and so on.

At times i feel slightly guilty for, e.g. being paid 60 € to spend a couple of hours chatting about Lederhosen and Volksmusik (as i did this morning), but then i reflect that, since language is central to the mind, and to human relations, an entertaining, thoughtful conversation – about Lederhosen, say – will go deeper than schoolmasterish rigmarole and grammatic trivia, and so hopefully my students do learn some English. In any case, i find them all curiously unwilling to learn grammar, and this tendency is the stronger the better their English – and since most of my students are already pretty good, there’s little to do but chat.

3. On Monday i taught a HR boss at a large German company. i got the impression she had been very stern and Germanic with the school director, who warned me she was an important client etc. etc. i turned up expecting to meet a gorgon but instead met a lovely 42-year-old MILF, elegantly dressed, with an almost girlish manner. However, i realised she projects a “power woman” persona in business dealings, from which i am excepted. We had 3 hours alone together; normally, i suggest a 5-minute break after an hour but it was such fun talking to her we went a good 2 hours without a break. She exclaimed, with some surprise, that it had felt like 20 minutes, not 2 hours. This time distortion is a good indicator. A couple of times in UT, i took over long crash courses from lesser, merely mortal teachers; the students noted, bemused, that time seemed to pass twice as quickly in my lessons. Actually, this was just because i never try to make the students talk about boring subjects, and am exceedingly cunning in finding a suitable vehicle for whatever grammar is on the menu.

i have the HR MILF again on Friday. Alas, the school will have to find someone else for her last 3 lessons, as i had agreed to work elsewhere (for twice the money) on those days. Had i known what she was like, i would have taken the low pay without a qualm. She was pleasingly displeased when i told her i wouldn’t have her for the whole course, and i saw a flash of the German steel. When i returned to the city, i bumped into the school director, who asked immediately: “was she tough?” i assured him she had been lovely; i don’t think he entirely believed me, and i felt a pang of sympathy, that he had only seen the steel, not the explosive laughter, the girlish, exasperated face she makes, when a word is just out of reach. i think, if it wasn’t for my curious, long-distance relationship with Juniper, i would do some sexy moves on her in the class, come in dressed like an Argentinian pimp or gigolo, fake moustache firmly in place, and suggest we conduct the lesson in a tango dancehall instead.

4. Wittgenstein’s City came in the post yesterday, a so-far interesting book by one Robert John Ackermann. The style is pre-90s (i.e. still alive, though a little awkward) and his approach isn’t as tedious as most academic works. A nice passage:

Sometimes in our linguistic usage experience, behaviour, and language seem completely coordinated, and we can say only one thing, aware that it is true (or false) and could not be otherwise. Because language and experience are interwoven in these locutions, perhaps as the result of something like linguistic natural selection, we cannot imagine that different behaviour or experience could follow if we were to change the syntax of our language arbitrarily.  Sentences at these hinge points seem to expose the structure of reality directly, but other sentences that are developed with implicit reference to these points will typically not be certain, even if their meaning, when clear, can be traced to such hinge points. The sentences at the hinge points appear on the horizon of language; we can find them when we note where meaning seems to break down, but we cannot explain why they are as they are.

1. Teaching has begun in earnest, at last. i now have enough work from small language schools, paying 20 to 25 € for 45 minutes, that i can turn down the 13€/45 minutes work of the big corporation, for which i worked in Ultima Thule. The big corporation may get nasty, as i will have to wriggle out of teaching a HR manager, and i think they wanted me to do the whole course with her – an important client, since she has the power to send groups to our school – but i can earn twice as much teaching for smaller schools, and without real money i can’t afford to get a flat of my own. i also don’t trust the big corporation an inch – so i see no reason to give them my loyalty.

2. i’ve been attacked twice by the dogs in the last couple of days. Yesterday they nearly made me miss my tram – i exited the house, whereupon they ran over, snarling, and hemmed me in against the building, preventing my escape through the front garden to the gate. Counting the minutes till my tram, i started to edge towards the front gate; this excited one of the beasts sufficiently to nip my leg – luckily, he only ripped a hole in my trousers. However, this was enough to alarm me, and i started screaming “help!”. It took five minutes of screaming, flailing my bag at the dogs to keep them back, before my landlady appeared. When i told her one of them had bit me, she said i should have just grabbed a stone and beaten it. i nodded politely and ran for my tram, reflecting that had i beaten her dog to death, i doubt she would have been too pleased, and against three dogs (one small, one medium-large, one large), anything less than a death beating would be foolishly lenient.

And again, today as i tried to leave one made a sudden lunge for my leg (the same dog which bit me a couple of weeks ago); this time i turned to meet his attack and screamed in his face, a Muad’dib killing scream. i was ready to grab the little shit and break its neck, and i think it felt the pure hatred in my voice – and so i gained enough time to unlock the gate and make my exit.

So far i am dealing with the situation by leaving early in the morning, before they are released, and only returning after dark, when they are in their kennels. However, i am spending huge amounts of money on green tea in cafes; while doing a great deal of handwriting on my novel & rune studies, so it’s not all bad.

3. i have an amusing student at the big evil corporation – a lawyer who wants to pass an assessment (in English), to become a partner in the firm. He looks like “corruption is why we win” lawyer from Syriana

His manner is however nervous and geekish. He says the problem isn’t really his English, it’s that to be a partner he must convince people, he must seem more in control, and in truth he’s happy looking at documents in some backroom somewhere. i like him and have made him my mission – to transform him from a geek into Patrick Bateman or better yet, Alec Baldwin:

To this end i have unofficially completely abandoned the school materials and am coaching him on body language, voice control, acting techniques, starting with the exhortation to watch all Alec Baldwin movies ASAP.

1. A great morning today, teaching at a Big Tobacco company, four students, one a smoker, all rather cool. To my delight, the smoker casually produced a cigarette and lit up in the first five minutes. i initially froze, expecting a fire alarm, a red-faced manager, legal action, prison time & sodomy for all involved, but it turns out everyone is allowed to smoke in the building, if they want. i don’t want to, though had i known i might have brought my pipe out, and smoked some crack cocaine.

The lesson was “business English”, my favourite when it’s done properly – at i______a, my first, bad TEFL boss, everything was business English, but badly, stupidly so – try teaching badass grammar using a fictitious company for examples, just to make it as abstract and remote as possible. At today’s employer (same as in Ultima Thule), the business English is mercifully reserved for high-level students, and contains no grammar. Most of the time it’s only for people who actually know about business, and all i have to do is ask them to read a short text and then discuss it. Although i have zero interest in starting my own, Elberry-themed company, i find it interesting, as one manifestation of human society. At times it seems obscene, to be paid even the low 13 €/45 minutes that my school dispenses, for such joys. In addition, i managed to talk about The Insider and to steal a corporate matchbox. Another victory for the forces of Elberry.

2. Between classes i now occupy a table at Starbucks, where i write by hand and stare at people till they get uncomfortable and leave.  The regular cashier is a very pretty girl, with whom i have one-sided conversations, she speaking German, me nodding and saying “ja, ja”, with almost no idea of what i’m agreeing to.

After an initial sense of extreme difficulty, i can now write properly by hand, and am managing a few hundred words of my bad old novel every day. i find the background noise & movement of the cafe useful, as i do the mess of my handwriting, the crossings-out and emendations, the sense of physical difficulty in creation. Perhaps it is my nature, that i cannot trust anything too easy, that for me any real achievement requires hard work. It need not be grimly so, however, and for all my tendency of gloom & despair, i hope to win something good from the mess of my handwriting, and my life.

3. i’ve been feeling stronger of late, able to cope with my crazed landlady and her hounds. i think in part this is to do with Juniper’s benign presence in my mind. Today, reading The Portrait of a Lady, i came upon this:

It was simply that Ralph was generous and that her husband was not. There was something in Ralph’s talk, in his smile, in the mere fact of his being in Rome, that made the blasted circle round which she walked more spacious. He made her feel the good of the world; he made her feel what might have been.

i feel the real muses are so; by their being, more even than by any explicit act, they bring something of the gods, a larger vision. It is to do with who they are – with how they see the world – and that, in a sense, is their world. Their brighter, larger world enters ours; they seduce, by their perception, by their everyday, unconsidered encounter with things. If we cannot adopt their world entirely (for it is theirs), it nonetheless penetrates and diffuses ours with its farther colour, its depth and subtlety and poise. So it is i feel graced by Juniper – not by her mere generosity (and she is generous, a giving nature) but by her world – so much gentler and brighter than mine, having found some resource against despair.

i arrange my life that i may receive such grace. A muse like Juniper is not to be previsioned, calculated, trapped – but i experience many lesser accounts, from, e.g. Henry James, the pretty girl at Starbucks, my sturdy Parker 51, from Munich itself – from every beauty, every accomplishment. It is all a matrix, within which spirit may, perhaps, survive against despair.

The weirdness continues.

i have taken to leaving my door permanently locked. i ‘m sure my landlady has gone in while i’m out (someone had looked through a bank statement i left on my table) but at least she can’t get in while i’m in (i turn the key in the lock). Late last night i was awoken by someone rattling the door, she (if it was she rather than the dogs or kangaroo or the Viennese handyman/drunk) gave up quickly, thank God. i don’t think i could cope with a sustained rattling session, late at night. i am keen to leave but realistically i see no chances of escape – i’m scheduled to teach about 600 € worth of classes in May, and i need more like 2500 € to survive, after tax and pension contributions and medical insurance. Goddamn the Kaiser and his taxes. And goddamn my landlady and goddamn the circus.

i am nonetheless strangely amused by the situation, as if it could be no other. Ordinary human beings find bearable accommodation with ease, while most of my flat/housemates have been insane, renegade, and variously intolerable. My ideal is my ex-landlady from Manchester, who charged almost no rent and left me alone in my garret – a perfect arrangement. As if i have travelled to a mirror image world, my crazed German landlady charges me obscenely high rent and has a bad habit of rifling through my possessions, hammering on my windows and door, and prying into my life as if i am just another of her dogs. While it is true that an Elberry is an animal, i am not fit for the circus.

Nor do i intend to be burgled.

1. Bitterly cold in my bunker today. Even when it’s warm outside, my room is so cold i shiver myself awake. i pay 40 €/month for heating but heating there is none. The dogs half-accept me now, in that their snarling & barking seems a little half-hearted, and one (my favourite of the circus hounds, a big black beast called Paris) seems to have decided i’m all right. My plan is to suborn Paris to my service with covert gifts of salami and brandy, and if the shit really goes down with the other dogs, he will take my side like Lancelot at the close of Excalibur.

2. Walking home yesterday, a small child riding his bike said “hallo!” brightly as he passed. i was nonplussed but managed a sinister, knowing nod. A week or two ago, a child walking on his own kept running to keep up with my longer, Aragorn-like strides. We didn’t exchange a look or words but i felt he felt somehow comfortable so. Peculiar but pleasing. i am reminded of this great essay by Theodore Dalrymple.

One of my students, when i remarked on the great & benign changes in German culture since the war (and how England now seems very like Germany in the 20s), said it was in part because, during & after the war, the women had to raise the children themselves, the men being dying or dead, and the women on the whole imparted a sense of the need for family structure, for good order, decency, for practicality over idealism. Perhaps it is so; in any case, i prefer the Krauts to the chavs.

3. i read Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day the other day, a grimly amusing, joyless, scatological, half-crazed, episodic tale of a fat, ugly, incontinent adjunct literature tutor in Philadelphia. i guess it is to some degree caricature, or selectively grim, but it nonetheless confirmed my sense that it’s better to teach the English language to adults, than English Literature or Philosophy to 18-year-olds. The hero spends most of his time trying to find a clean public toilet to shit on (no easy matter, it transpires), in the meantime fighting his way past genuine American racists/tramps/political nuts, and trying to teach opinionated or braindead students. It is in one sense very different to my experiences at Durham but the general atmosphere – of futility – is the same.

i enjoy most of my classes in Germany, and if i can’t talk about literature or philosophy or what not, it doesn’t greatly matter. My students generally want to learn the language, and even if, at 0730 on Monday, they are not initially enthusiastic, i quickly attune to their mood, their energies, and can rouse them to life by talking about raccoons or cheese or sex toys, whatever interests them. Contrast this with trying to teach literature or philosophy to Generation Zombie – the average 18-year-old has not suffered enough to have anything to say about King Lear or The Waste Land or The Portrait of a Lady (my current tram book), or if he has, he most likely hasn’t survived it. One must suffer and survive, and neither are easy. Without some measure of suffering, opinions will be theoretical at best (this is, in a sense, the point of James’ novel).

i can imagine 18-year-olds for whom there is some purpose in Maths or Logic – for this, you need no experience, no character. But for literature, you may as well be teaching dogs as young people. Give me a class of engineers any day, with some badass hardcore grammar and some amusing role plays – better that than the dogs.

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