Archive | May, 2012

Want a job? Learn English!

29 May

These thoughts are aimed at those leaving school, university or are in unemployed limbo. All your qualifications – or lack of them – might count for nought if the way you communicate, particularly the written word, is poor. For more than twenty years I have pored over job applications and merrily tossed those with heinous errors into the bin. When I think about it, most errors are heinous. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can damn your application out of hand. Not tailoring your letter or CV to the particular employer and demands of the post will be dealt with similarly.

When you get ‘feedback’ on your failure to secure the job, employers will be vague. They want you off their backs and will, usually, trot out the sort of language which tells you nothing: very competitive field; choosing from a vast number of applicants and so forth. They will fight shy of saying, “Your spelling is shit, your grammar is worse.” They won’t complain that, ” You don’t know your apostrophe from your colon. Your ten GCSEs don’t own anything, nor have any letters been omitted.” Employers fear the race, gender, age, disability and special needs ‘hawks’ so they may well not tell the truth.

Even as I am writing I have had to resist the tendency to use numerals for numbers, even though this is acceptable for numbers over single digits. I have consciously avoided ending a sentence with a preposition, been sparing with metaphorical language, idioms and slang. And yet (note the conjunction) it is almost impossible. Check heinous, tailoring, damning out of hand, off their backs…and so forth. What I can claim is clarity. The written word must be precise, not sloppy; appropriate, not approximate. With the spoken word there is much fun to be had with inventive, metaphorical language – so long as those listening can unlock the code.

The teaching profession has managed the extraordinary number and variety of changes thrust upon it these last thirty years with skill, ingenuity and forbearance. Many of society’s problems are blamed on the formal education process rather (as they should be) on upbringing. One exception may be the teaching of English. I need not revisit the child-centred, ‘discovery’ debate; save to say that what we learn intuitively often needs a more formal explanation for us to make sense of it. This is true of language. I may  have been more lucky than I felt at the time  to have learned Latin to O Level and suffered the torture of clause analysis and regular grammar, punctuation and spelling tests. I was taught French in a pretty formal way too. Some of this education was akin to visiting the dentist – to be endured as a necessary evil but at least my teeth wouldn’t fall out the next year. If teachers in primary and secondary schools do not know the rules themselves, they will teach approximately not accurately. Most teachers of English couldn’t tell a gerund from a gerbil or a split infinitive from a split end. As for apostrophes – don’t get me started.

It may take more than a generation to correct the appalling ignorance of language which pervades the nation. By then it will be too late. America has overtaken us as the questionable guardians of English, which means the protectors of all that is American. They lead, we follow. Their IT and TV programmes determine our language.

What can the young job-hunter do about all this? One thing -get your letters of application and CVs right. Get them checked and, as you ease into your mid twenties and beyond, read occasionally about your language as well as in your language. Along with my favourites Sebastian Faulks, Ian McEwan, William Boyd and the rest I have, most recently found unusual pleasure dipping into Lynne Truss’ celebrated Eats, Shoots and Leaves and John Humphreys’ Lost for Words. Both books have been on the shelves a while but they are informative and fun. Anyone can enjoy and learn. My English master at secondary school, the legendary Ken Cripps, would open the lesson with, “It’s clause analysis today gentlemen. It will be very dull but it’s vital. I’ll crack a couple of jokes to keep you awake but if you fail the test you will have to come back at lunchtime.”

Almost anyone recognises elegant, accurate language and we invest qualities in its author beyond mere admiration of good written and oral communication. When we apply for jobs our language sells us. When we open our mouths, take up a pen or tap a keypad we reveal just who we are and how good we are.

My Pal Joey. Yes – Joey Barton!

15 May

Joey Barton’s death-wish is plainly attractive. As I was glued in days of yore to the vengeful antics of Charles Bronson, guided by the directorial hand of the compulsive- but- odious Michael Winner – so Joey’s saga is played out through twitterbites no less blackly comic and gruesome. The latest chapter in his doom-tale involves those soccer saints Shearer and Lineker plus a cast of several at the Etihad on Sunday.

Before we examine all that let’s check on a few home truths. Barton intimidates a pussycat to precisely the same degree that Keane, Viera, Pearce, Vidic, Adams, Harris (Chopper variety), Smith, Mackay, Hunter, Stiles, Vinnie…et al manage to worry man-eating tigers. He’s serially naughty but he’s not even the playground bully – he’s the loudmouthed sideshow, spitting his vitriol and chucking his toys. What he clearly doesn’t lack is balls and brain. He may not be long for this Premiership but his tweets tell things (give or take the odd inconsistency) how they are – if  you can get to the end of his startling invective.

Throughout the season on Match of the Day we have witnessed Shearer, Lawrenson and Hansen fighting shy of telling how it is when their mates (principally dour, scratchy Kenny) have messed up. Squeaky Lineker cajoles ineffectively and the show is far too cosy for comfort. Enter the dragon Barton. He messes up seriously not once, not twice but thrice (at least) on Sunday – and Shearer has a little go at him. Well, we are so used to the Geordie puppet spouting bland nothings that a sideswipe at Pal Joey was to be welcomed. Back comes the Bartontweet savaging the bald icon; then another salvo against squeaky Gary. Joey even suggested there were some dark skeletons to be discovered in the Lineker vaults. What fun! Gary and Al  shut up, pronto. Joey is too honest and vituperative to lose. And he’s funny. Game over.

But back to the Etihad. Let’s examine what happened. Check the replay. Tevez – that shameful disgrace to a mostly honest profession – was climbing all over Pal Joey who lifted his elbow at him. Tevez dropped like a stone only to do a Lazarus the minute he spotted the ref. checking with his assistant. Then Joey’s red mist took over. Fair play – he even chose quite nice guys like Aguero and Company to molest. Balotelli felt left out of the fun so raced from his £170,000 per week seat on the bench to add his tuppence.

I am left wanting Pal Joey to keep tweeting and be given one more chance. I want Sparky to come over all headmagisterial:’Barton, you’ve had so many chances. Goodness knows we have tried. You’ve been in umpteen detentions and suspended from school time and again. However the local authority insist that we cannot permanently exclude – yet…You will be on lesson by lesson report and must come to my study at the start and the end of each day to sign in and out. Now get out of my sight and I’ll see you on Monday.’

Pal Joey is much more of a distraction than a main player – let’s not forget that. Let’s also not forget that there is a roguish, entertaining honesty about him – much of the time. He career seems on the wane now anyway. The one whose story presents a much deeper thorn in the flesh of our game is Tevez. Barton is a pussycat – just imagine him squaring up to Vinnie Jones.


Maurice Upperton

14 May

I arrived at Cuddington County Primary School, Worcester Park, aged six or seven and was dropped into Mrs Thorburn’s Class. New faces, little tables; feeling alone. Class 3, elder brother put in class 5.

Three weeks’ later promotion to Mr Upperton’s class 4. Mrs T had spotted something in me. Times table dynamism, no doubt. Astute woman – severe but astute. Mr U didn’t want a 35th or 36th member of the class when the uncompromising Head, Miss Iris Smith forced me upon him. He pouted like a spoiled child. A spare desk had to be found. I was placed in an alcove, separate. Not only was I new and a year young but now, also, in a recess. I felt odd. I was an inconvenience. Mr U was odd too.

Later, in class 7, our 11+ year, he was my teacher again. I have a stronger recall of this time. 1961. Mr U was a formal, suited man – usually brown or green tweed – quite dapper as befitted this neat little, pinched specimen. Half moon glasses over which he peered, perched on his nose precariously – his forefinger regularly prodded the specs back up to the safety of the bridge so he could relax into his piercing study of the individual under scrutiny. A decade earlier it would have been a pince-nez below his slicked Hitleresque hair. A strong but squeaky voive, a fob-watch running from lapel to top pocket (or on smarter days a waistcoat chain), a shiny dome and thinning hair, mirror-polished brogues which squeaked, not unlike his voice – are amongst many  impressions I retain of a man I didn’t like much.

He much preferred girls- their hard work, their general lack of interest in sport or being naughty, their desire to please. They fussed tirelessly over wickerwork and lino cuts, cried when they got the 15times tables wrong and pleaded for more sessions of country dancing. Boys he found tiresome. We didn’t have much time for him either – save for that lingering fear that smart, pinched, stern, controlled, neat, small men-with-strident-voices, can engender.

But. But…he could tell or read a story like no other. Most afternoons saw me tripping home in a glow of Huck Finn’s tribulations, Gladys Aylward’s heroics, Just William’s impishness and so much more. Uppity’s squeaky hectoring voice metamorphosed into a child’s aural delight as he navigated his way through the narratives: accents, gender and age-related diction, a brilliance of drama and timing, breath-holding and release – the story-teller’s power crackled across the classroom as we lay our heads. Occasionally I would be moved to glance up, intuitively knowing that it was the time to meet that extra grimace of expression, the edge of meaning that a facial contortion can give. Uppity rarely failed to satisfy.

For all his buttoned-up suits Maurice Upperton opened up new worlds each afternoon. Forty years later I met him at a past-pupils’ function. He was in his 90s. He didn’t remember me. His voice still squeaked. I still didn’t like him but his Huck Finn voice remains so strong in my ear.

Pretty in Pink – the Olympics will celebrate our softer, smiley sides

4 May

Pretty in Pink – the Olympics will celebrate our softer, smiley sides.

Pretty in Pink – the Olympics will celebrate our softer, smiley sides

4 May

So I enjoyed my first outing to the Olympic Park on Wednesday – the hockey test event featuring the best women’s and men’s sides concludes this Sunday at the Riverbank Stadium its first day was a treat. Well, forget that GB men slouched out late after half time and conceded a goal – possibly the match – when only 6 men and a dog were on the pitch to staunch the flow of Germans on our goal. We’ve had enough experience of the old enemy not to give them a bloody inch and here we were giving them several miles. Let’s hope Chelsea can manage a full complement in Munich. And forget, too, that the open stands meant that the characteristic post hose-ban weather meant that we humble spectators were wetter than Ed Miliband.

Let’s concentrate on pink. Off the Central Line, no signs left or right for the stadium but lots of visions in flourescent pink jackets with spongy pink fingers smiling and pointing our way to dreamland. There must have been a smiley volunteer every 10 metres, thinking ‘How long do I have to stand here and grin, anally, at hockey people?’ Answer….a bloody long time. And grin they did, in the relentless American-style Have a nice day way. And so helpful too with their fun spongy fingers – pink, pink, pink.

Through Westfield Shopping Centre (thought that was in Shepherd’s Bush?) busily gearing up for the spend-fest in July and Aug. Bars and restaurants and shops and wide walkways and glass facades – chic enough to shriek givusyamoney. Not too much pink hereThen into the Park itself. First security – it’s like Heathrow but so much quicker as our border agency’s not involved. Smug young operative on the belt brags that no airport in Britain can match it. Yeh, OK, but don’t sacrifice speed for Bin Laden’s mates. More pink directions once we’re through but the place opens up around us as the tingle of being on the Olympic way arrives. Ahead and left is the Pringle aquatic centre in all its low-slung smoothness. Right in front of us looms the Olympic Stadium – a brilliant confusion of the circular (overall shape) and triangular (floddlights, gantries and external pipework). It looks understatedly cool – rather unlike the lumpish Birdsnest. We swing right and find ourselves on a multicoloured  astroturf carpet – plenty of pink in it – and smooth cart-trains carrying punters who must be old, disabled or just plain lazy to one venue or another. Marquees hove into view – corporate catering territory to service the fat cats who have had their tickets paid for and who will, in all likelihood, miss Usain Bolt in favour of an extra glass of Merlot. Well it’s nearly pink.

We’re 20 minutes from the tube and as we swing right we see the Hockey Arena ahead. Starting to get excited. Are we nearly there yet. Yes, it looks about 5 mnutes away. Velodrome now to our right. That does look lumpish – but in quite a sexy way. The stadia seem to sit down so the docklands skyline beyond gets a look in. Even the main stadium doesn’t reach for the sky – London is visible beyond, over and through this park. I note the landscape gardens leading up to the Velodrome. Well done. Some circular building is being ercetd on our left as we enter the hockey zone. Hurry up with that.

And now we’re here. More people in pink. Still the smiles. Easy entry and now we look up. The stands are temporary – a scaffolders dream…but if the fans get excited will the rythm of their frenzied stamping create an amplitude too far? Ah I see the tented refreshment village at the rear of our stand. Time for coffee (yes I’ve already had a couple of beers so need to calm down). £2.40. Fair, I think. Then up to the gods of the East Stand. Wow – loadsapeople. India v the Aussie already under way. Free programme and fan-clapper presented by yet another smiley in Pink. But hte real pinkfest hits the eye when we emerge from the our steep climb.

The pitch! The Pitch! It’s Michaelangelo, deep duck-egg, Mediterranean –sky..BLUE. And the surround is the colour of our volunteers, their smiles, their tolerance, their whites mixed with reds – PINK. What fun! Mind you the concensus amongst the grumpies is that this is not hockey – or even sport – as we knew it. Grumpies are outnumbered by large no of Essex kids who fink it’s wicked and I’m with them. Hockey needs a boost and a Dali-esque bit of surreality is just the ticket. Now, the game’s the thing. Aussie pace, basics and method V India’s sometime virtuosity but oops the first goal goes in. Then a couple more. The Aussies hardly out of second gear win. Their coach, the estimable Ric Charlesworth, complains about the pitch. Slippery, too bouncy. A key player injured. Ah that’s the reason. Strange to hear an Aussie whinge?

Now the main event – and the half time debacle. I won’t let myself whinge of course but Germany’s 3 – 1 win owed something to umpiring inconsistency – South African (what can you do?)  – something to ball control (no not the pitch) – but most to the half time mess. And the fact that the bloody Germans are too good by half. But we’re close, very close. A blend of youth and experience, the pin-up Ashley Jackson but a few lesser-sung heroes who are hitting their straps.

Now I missed the GB women but, as I write, they are making their own strides with two wins. Our men recovered to beat India on thursday. All to play for as the tournament closes on Sunday. Enough hockey. As we trooped out to catch a Jubilee line train (variety is all) the self-same pink smilies were lining our route. Plenty of How did it go? See you in July? and Have a good trip home. Pink fingers guided us back and the Westfield Centre was thronging with hungry and thristy clients, most of whom must have fallen out of a Canary Wharf bonus bank because they were suited and booted and dry. It was we, drowned rats, who had enjoyed the Olympic Pink experience.

Pink Olympics? Bring it on. And we still had time for a beer on the way home. Decidedly amber.

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