Inspiring new linguists

Pupils from the surrounding area were invited to the University of Sussex to experience a snippet of university life. After a campus tour, the children would partake in an English appetiser. This is where I was called upon and my worldly knowledge was desperately needed. English Literature was covered. English and Drama was too. But no-one was available to teach a bunch of teenage munchkins about an English Language degree, so I happily stepped into the breach.

I have been attending such events for a couple of years. Because I am currently a student, barely out of secondary school myself, I command a little more respect than a bearded man in his forties smelling of Benson & Hedges. I talk to the kids on their level. I wouldn’t dare say I’m cool – far from it. But somehow I command a little authority. During one tour, a young girl asked if you could buy condoms on campus and whether you could have boys round to your place. I felt like saying “You’re fifteen! You shouldn’t be worrying about the subtle intricacies of the University’s sex policy”. Just for giggles, I should have said “No, this is a Catholic campus and last time I checked, Pope Benedict still isn’t keen on Johnnies”.

One cocky kid, after seeing the accommodation, asked how much it would cost for a double bed, alluding that he needed the room to perform his “moves” on the countless ladies he was planning on bedding. “Listen mate”, I responded with unmerited chutzpah, as if I was the ultimate authority on such matters, “If you can’t do it in a single bed, you’re doing it wrong”. It’s certainly an entertaining job.

I have led visits before but never taken charge of a group for which I have to create my own lesson scheme. I hurriedly jotted down a plan, trying to squeeze all of the interesting bits about English Language into a PowerPoint slideshow. This did not take long, as the interesting bits are far outweighed by grammar and phonology, the twin peaks of boredom.

Mine was the last lesson of the day and I was relieved that the two previous tasters were quite dry. Very dry in fact. They could have been wetter if delivered in the Sahara. Two rather stereotypical lecturers gave lessons about Shakespeare and poetry. They did a fantastic job and the story of Hamlet now makes a little sense to me (although considering it’s studded with revenge, betrayal and lunacy, there is an unmistakeable whiff of déjà vu). On the other hand, I looked into the children’s eyes as they were debating ‘movement’ in a Frank O’Hara poem about Billie Holliday’s death and I knew they were being put off English for life. “It’s like English at school” one kid said out of earshot, “but more boring”.

The O’Hara poem was interesting in the sense that it was not interesting in the slightest. In ‘The Day Lady Died’ the narrator is going about his daily business, before seeing Holliday’s face on the front of The New York Post. At the end of the session, once all viable means of analysis had been applied, the tutor asked if anyone actually liked the poem. There was a hushed silence so intense it practically screamed.

“Do you think O’Hara wants you to like this poem?” he pressed with a wan smile. A few kids mumbled what sounded like “no”, wondering whether such an admission might lead to a beating in the student dorms.

“You’re quite right. This is not a very likeable poem but that is the message that the poem is trying to impart – how little difference it makes to our lives when someone famous dies”. I could have cried. For a full hour, I was desperately trying to motivate a roomful of poetry-phobic teenagers to search for metaphors and poetic techniques, and then I discover that the poem is as popular as meningitis, even in the academic world!

It was my turn to sort things out. I showed them a clip of cunning linguist (try saying that in a roomful of adolescents and here the gentle ripples of suppressed laughter) Stephen Fry discussing the nature of language. Then I launched into the main body of the lesson; the characterisation of men and women in Amy Winehouse’s ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ and Lana Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’. I nearly chose the former’s ‘Back To Black’ but the lyric “kept his dick wet” may have gone down like a lead balloon with the accompanying teachers.

I asked them to choose four lines and deliver a short presentation t0 the class about what they had found. The kids came out of their shell. It was astonishing. Half an hour previously, they were slumped in their chair, clinically dead. Now they were arguing with their mates about whether Amy Winehouse’s lyrics are stereotypical of womankind.

If you had entered the classroom during my lesson, you may have come away thinking I was trying to be one of those ‘trendy teachers’ – all YouTube videos, background music, felt tip pens and relentless enthusiasm.  But the response was phenomenal. Yep, I still wanna teach.


Thirteen miles on tree stumps

Running long distances is not natural, I will happily admit. Such a skill will rarely come in handy in real life unless you are perennially late for work. So it was with a little apprehension that I signed up to the Brighton Half Marathon. I desperately needed an excuse to get fit and devised a training regime in earnest.

I have never been the fastest person alive. When I’m running, people think I’m walking and when I’m walking, people think I’m going backwards. My aim wasn’t a quick time – I would be happy to finish the thirteen miles with all limbs in working order. Training started well; within two weeks I was running distances of four miles without stopping and felt I could carry on if need be.

Then the cold nights started kicking in. Even on the mildest of summer evenings, it requires a huge amount of effort to get home, eat dinner, and then head out once more to run for an hour. To do this at a time when your sweat will form ice sheets across your chest takes even more gumption. After a decent start, I hit a dead end. It reminded me of a New Year diet resolution; it began with good intentions, tailed off a bit in the middle (there’s only so many days you can live solely on Ryvita) and by week four I was stuffing Krispy Kreme doughnuts down my gullet with brute force.

The race pack came through the post and I began thinking that maybe this was all a terrible idea. I stopped running altogether, my running shoes gathering dust on my shoe rack. My racing companion, Chris, persuaded me to at least give it a go just three nights before the big day. Even if we don’t finish it, he reasoned, we may as well give it our best shot.

I turned up at Brighton seafront on a crisp Sunday morning to complete a distance for which I had not prepared for. Given my lax training, I was barely in a fit enough shape to run for the bus without getting a stitch, so the task ahead appeared daunting to say the least. The army of paramedics by the roadside at least offered a crumb of comfort.

Whatever happens, I thought, it may make an enjoyable story. Putting another obstacle in the way, I had a few drinks the previous evening. Things began with a double vodka and Coke just to “get me started”. Slowly but surely this descended into something more serious. By the time I was knocking back my sixth double measure, the threat of dehydration became very real. I awoke crumpled and uncomfortable on Chris’ floor and made a long droning noise, which is the internationally recognised sound for “why did I drink so much, I’m surely going to regret it”.

We walked down to the start line and arrived just as the gun was firing. There was a big cheer but nothing seemed to happen. Everyone was jogging on the spot to keep warm, as the front-runners headed off. The volume of people was staggering – nearly 9,000 competitors. This meant that just crossing the start line became a nearly insurmountable task. Finally, we were on our way and I was running a half marathon.

Against all odds, I managed to keep jogging until the eighth mile, when my body just gave up and said “you’ve got to be kidding me”. During that entire time, I’m almost certain that I did not overtake a single runner. Spectators in deckchairs were recording a better pace than me. Once I stopped, the public lining the streets became a little hostile. While I was going red in the face and grimacing, as long as my legs were taking me with them, I was getting cheers and encouragement. The second I conducted a brisk walk, an onlooker started giving me hassle.

“Come on mate! Lactic acid will start building up, there’s only half an hour to go. You need to keep running!” he implored, under the impression that he was the Allen Carr of the marathon world.

“You try running it then” I mumbled under my breath, as I was overtaken by a seventy-year-old with a walking stick.

The last mile was painful. Most of the supporters were gathered around the finish line, which meant there was no way I could walk the final furlong as it would be too embarrassing. If I received near-abuse from a solitary man at Hove Lagoon, it would surely be multiplied by a huge crowd, trying to ascertain why a young man was struggling so badly despite registering a slow time. My legs had almost given up. I felt like I was walking on tree stumps. I crossed the finish line and fell to the floor.

My legs are still hurting a couple of days later. I’m thinking of getting a stair lift fitted in my house because walking to the first floor has become a daily struggle. Whenever I sit down I have to give myself a few weeks’ notice. I did it though. And I’m actually quite proud. Yay for me.

The end of the world

The end of the world. A cheery thought, I know. Just think about what we will miss out on. No more Made In Chelsea. No more Lewis Hamilton, moodily plodding around his pit-lane in some Asian outpost with an impassive face, changing neither for victory nor for defeat against his fellow drivers. No more charity fundraisers on the streets, covering up what is essentially mugging with a wholly demeaning facade of friendliness and bonhomie. It is almost enough to make getting sucked in to a black hole or disappearing in a vacuum of empty nothingness seem worthwhile.

Scientists have discovered many more ways for the world to end than Hollywood. Alok Jha’s The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World, sums them up nicely. There’s your basic, run-of-the-mill bronze medal means of annihilation: a deadly pandemic which wipes out all of humanity, or perhaps an invasive species coming along and sorting us all out, both of which have been dealt with on a considerable scale by the film industry.

Natural disasters also enter the equation. Around every 100,000 years there is a volcanic eruption so strong it blocks out the sun. It may cause the decay of civilisation and extreme food shortages but more importantly, British tourists won’t be able to visit Spanish coastal resorts for sun, sea and walking around in Speedos.

“The next mass extinction-sized asteroid is overdue” states Jha emphatically. With regards to asteroids, many scientists say things like “An asteroid the size of Dundee would kill 200 million people”. What is unfortunate is that they do not say for certain whether the asteroid will actually hit Dundee, so it remains a concern.

More realistic, at least in the near future, is “mutually assured destruction”, which in lay terms meaning bombing the daylights out of each other. If some crazy third-world dictator (or, judging by their policy announcements thus far, any of the current crop of Republican nominees for the White House) gets their hands on the big red nuclear button, it could spell the end.

One scenario would be exceptionally embarrassing should it ever come to pass: the death of the bees. They are responsible for pollinating 90% of farmed plants, so if they go to the wall, we may not be far behind. This would be a rather understated means of destruction. In blockbuster, apocalyptic circumstances, we could be wiped out by a surging tsunami, or an asteroid, maybe a volcano, perhaps nuclear war.

Then again, the bees might finish us off. I can’t see many high-budget movies based on this version of events. What would the blurb of that film look like? “Keanu Reeves stars in an action thriller as Bob Malone, head apiarist of Michigan State University, as he and his trusty sidekick Dave Simmons (Michael Sheen) attempt in vain to stop the end of the world by forcing bees to mate with each other. They are halted in their tracks when The Honey Monster and Winnie the Pooh take half the world’s bees under hostage to satisfy their honey cravings”.

Another option is a nanotech disaster in which “self-replicating nanorobots run amok and turn the world into grey goo”. This must be stopped at any cost because we have seen this happen already on a slightly smaller scale with the music industry. Self-reproductive machines which produce endless plumes of gunge, you say? We already have The X Factor, so please spare us from this particular travesty.

There are a few things we can do little about, astronomically speaking, except meekly stand there, getting destroyed. We could be sucked into a black hole, although letting Richard Branson take over Northern Rock (hence the creation of Virgin Money, which sounds like some illegal Thai brothel) for less money than the government bailed it out for, at least gives us a comparable feeling.

Then again, we could become extinct in a cloud of billowing smoke with a greenish hue. Jha offers “extinction by euphoria” as a plausible ending to homo sapiens, citing drugs that might make us lose control, leading us to slide slowly away from sentience. A man wearing a Rasta headband was asked for his opinion on the matter but he just said “yes brother” and carried on holding a conversation with a doormat.

A geomagnetic reversal, which last occurred 800,000 years ago and occurs when the South and North poles switch inexplicably, could cause multiple issues for our planet’s electronic communications. On the upside, estate agents in the Highlands will be able to market their properties as being “near the south coast”.

I think I’ll go with death by euphoria.

I am a rubbish student

Here’s the problem. I am a rubbish student. It’s approaching 4 o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in front of an expectant computer in the University library, words completely failing me. I’m supposed to be composing a ten minute presentation about chain shifts, a subject which involves people from places (I can’t be any more specific without boring you to death) talking slightly differently, and apparently I’m supposed to give three flying fucks. It turns out that people who live in Chicago now speak in such a way that the words ‘stock’ and ‘stalk’ are interchangeable to foreign ears. I know, thrilling stuff. Strap yourself in.

Something will always come along to distract me. The advent of BBC iPlayer was a marvellous thing. But when you need to be getting on with an assessment, the last thing you need is a publicly funded corporation suggesting you watch more of their highly-paid performers chatting to other highly-paid performers about their fabulous lives, instead of knuckling down to some proper work. When you have the choice between half an hour of Mock The Week or a paving slab called ‘The Handbook of Language Variation and Change’, it doesn’t take much effort to press play and push the book to one side.

Even when I go to the toilet I am distracted by the graffiti in the cubicles. I get the feeling there are a few students that fail to get their degree in the end because they spend too many waking hours thinking of the next amusing thing about Tim Richardson (if you go to Sussex this will make sense, if not, just wing it) they will write on a toilet roll dispenser. How am I supposed to concentrate on historical linguistics if some slacker is alleging that Tim Richardson enjoys putting his penis in people of questionable age? Where the toilet roll protrudes from the dispenser, some clever wag will always write something like “Lib Dem promises” or “Media degrees”, thinking they are the first people in history to make the link between Nick Clegg and shit. It’s so clichéd it’s like having a go at Bono (the sanctimonious little turd).

I guess I should explain why I am doing all this in the middle of the night. Two reasons. One, I am the least organised person in the world – it’s a miracle I am able to breathe and walk at the same time without putting it in my diary (that’s if I had a diary – as I say, I’m not very organised). Two, the people who study at Uni during the day are irritating eejits. They’re all loud and inconsiderate and utter, utter bastards. Getting myself excited about William Labov’s 1994 thesis is hard enough without a spoonful of ecstasy, but is even more difficult when the people sitting opposite you can’t stop chatting about last night’s clubbing.

It’s taken me three years to realise that I’m not a very good student but I think I knew all along. In years one and two, I get the feeling the tutors were just being nice. “He’s paying £3,500 a year for this, so we might as well give him some hope”. Now my grades are sinking faster than an Italian cruise ship, only kept afloat by these all-night sessions in the library. I can’t remember the last time I completed an essay while it was light outside. I long for the day when I can hand in some coursework and not feel my eyes burning with tiredness. “Make some time” people say, as if it was that easy. But I have so many more important things to do, like watching football, working, playing snooker and masturbating.

Last minute is the way I roll. I once began an essay four hours before it was due in. I had done no reading or revision. I hadn’t even chosen an essay title. I’m not even sure whether I had chosen the format for my essay: there was a small chance I would present my 2000 words through interpretive dance. Somehow I chugged along with half a crate of energy drinks and dashed to the School of English in the nick of time to avoid a lateness penalty. My grade was still half-decent. I suppose that’s the problem. When I have left something far too late I have not been punished for it. Now I’m in my last year, with an 8000-word dissertation lurking and I feel close to thinking about perhaps starting on a brief outline.

Onwards and downwards. Chain shifts. Yes. Well, I was about to make a start but then I began writing this.