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Saturday, 18 October 2014

Another brick in the wall

The narrator is away. 

Welcome to our guest this week Gregor Steele. 

A couple of decades ago, having taken up residence in the TES  Scotland's comment pages, I felt that the world was    ready for a hilarious account of my teacher training year.  Maybe it was ready, but maybe what I wrote wasn't as         hilarious as I thought it was. 
Certainly, looking back on it (of course I kept it), there is a  lot that I would change.  Take the vignette of the first          science lesson that I ever taught. This tale of a voice not     used to being raised going squeaky at an inopportune         moment, of intrusive personal questions from teenage girls asked of a just-out-of-short-trousers pedagogue, of a boy   who looked like pre pubescent Kenneth Williams            auditioning for a part in "Carry on being a complete pain in the arse" includes the phrase, "foolishly heeding college     advice not to be sarcastic..."
I wouldn't write that now. It's not that I'm never sarcastic. It's more that I've seen pro-sarcasm, and having done so, feel well-warned away from trying even the amateur stuff.
I worked beside the World's Most Sarcastic Teacher. He was the one Pink Floyd wrote about in The Wall. Maybe.
"Can you tell me ma marks, sir?"
"How no?"
"Because you haven't got marks. You've got a mark. One. Out. Of. Thirty. Well done."
He was like this with all the kids. Some of his department members, passionate about their subject, were reduced to tears when they overheard  children say that they were avoiding it at S-Grade in case they got the WMST. 
The Tom and Jerry fantasy kicked in. I wanted to contrive the situation where he'd end up running, just so I could stick a frying pan in his path. 
I could hear the noise in my head. The only decision was whether I'd prefer if the frying pan ended up head-shaped, or his head ended up frying pan-shaped. It soon transpired that I didn't have to do this.
The World's Most Sarcastic Teacher had a knack of landing himself in it, and one of his redeeming features was that he was prepared to share his come-downs with the rest of us.
One day, a boy was idling in his Standard Science class, distracted by and distracting his classmates.
The WMST had tried to nag him into knuckling down but had failed. Time to turn the sarcasm up to 11.
"I'm going to put you somewhere, son, where you can do something that obviously you can only do by yourself."
"I'll give you a clue, son. It's a four letter word beginning with W and ending in K."
"Oh ya beauty...!"
"WORK, son! WORK!"

Monday, 13 October 2014

Guest bloggers wanted

I will be without internet access for a fortnight from tomorrow, for reasons that are known to my regular readers. 

This means I won't be able to keep you guys posted with the latest Friendly Encounters, and some of you will suffer withdrawal symptoms.

I am therefore looking for four light-hearted stories of 5-600 words each, just as soon as you creative people can write them. 

Email me please at 

Entries will be submitted to a judging panel. There will be prizes.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Male bonding, Scottish style

Photo by Andrew Huff
"I feel I should give you a cuddle," Al says, stepping close as we're walking down the drive of his Bearsden house, after he's presented me with his MP3 player, packed with great rock tunes from way back. 

Only ancient Scottish instincts to avoid any physical contact that doesn't involve punches save us both, by making me do a swift body swerve. For thirty years Al and I have worked, trained and showered together, without touching each other once, even accidentally. There is no need to start now, my instincts feel, just because one of us has a life-threatening illness and impending surgery.

"Look after yourself in Leipzig," Al says, as we turn right along the drive headed for my car, which I've parked at the end to force myself to walk. Several months ago the doc had advised me to get fitter and lose weight, as this op is not an easy one for old, fat guys.

"Not that you're either of those," he had added tactfully, but too late.

"I'll be fine," I tell Al. "My main problem is I don't speak the language."

"I know only one sentence, which I'll tell you in a minute," he says. "Why are they taking your prostate out in German?"

"This guy Stolzenburg is one of the best," I say. "Trained a fair few UK surgeons. Been using the robots for years himself. Does frozen sections during the op, which show if he needs to cut out more."

"Take warm clothes with you," Al says. "Continental weather can get extreme. You know what a girl you are when it gets cold."

"Not at all," I say. "I just believe that losing toes to frostbite is a high price for feeling smug about global warming. That house of yours is the coldest place on earth. There are interstellar molecules warmer than the air in your living-room."

He shakes his head. "When you were a boy you had one coal fire to heat the whole house, right? And you weren't cold then, were you."

"I was bloody freezing," I say. "I used to huddle in front of a single electric bar before school, because the fire hadn't been lit yet. The bedrooms were sub-zero in winter, with frosted windows and sheep-skins piled on the beds. Sometimes the sheep were still inside them. Tough times, I can tell you."

I feel him moving closer again as we reach my car, so I punch his shoulder and step smartly around to the driving side. "Thanks for the tunes," I say. "They'll keep me cheerful. See you in three weeks."

"Kann ich einen Kuss haben," he says and I figure I'll look it up later, if I can remember.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Pretty in pink

"That's Kelvin's old laboratory," I tell Rachel as we drive past, headed for the campus exit. "My son and I were in there last week, getting a tour of the Nanofabrication Centre

"You see all that pipework?" I add.

"What about it?" she says looking out the car window.

"That's for the services the Centre needs. Liquid nitrogen. Hot and cold running water. Tiny corn flakes for the nanobots' breakfast."

"You're gibbering," she says. "Get serious. What do you know about gay flamingos?"

"Mmm," I say, dredging the memory banks and coming up empty. "Nothing."

"See that's my point," she says. "You're a bottleneck."

"Did I miss the start of this chat?" I say, slowing for a young student in denim shorts who thinks earphones protect you from cars.

"Sorry," she says. "I was working through it in my head and you only got the end. The start was we need stories up faster on Three Minute Learning. We've got 200. We need 2000."  

"I can't write any faster," I say. "I got other clients."

"So we need more writers," she says. "Like me."

"What you going to write about?" I ask.

"Gay flamingos," she says, and the feeling I often get when Rachel talks to me - that my head's in a dark cave being squeezed by a giant hand - vanishes. 

"Got you," I say. "Makes sense now. What's the story?"

"Pair of gay flamingos at Edinburgh zoo have adopted a baby chick, after it was rejected by its straight parents," she says.

"Sounds good," I say pulling up on Wellington Street and getting her bag out the back of the car. "What's the development?"

"Same-sex animal pairs raising neglected babies is common," she says. "A zoo in Japan accidentally spent four years trying to get a pair of male hyenas to breed. A children’s book about a pair of male penguins who raised an egg is top of the banned book list in America."

"Great stuff," I say. "Go ahead and write it on the train."

"Which leaves in five minutes, so must dash," she says, reaching for a fashion item I hadn't noticed. "What do you think?" she says, holding it up. 

"It's a Harris Tweed handbag," I say.

"How did you know?" she says.

"Susan's sister got one for her birthday. But she's elegant. Why do you want one?"

"I figure Adam deserves better than blue jeans after a hard day in the fields," she says. "So geeky physicist is out and classy chick who's going places is in."

"You do look like a chick who's going places."

"Because I have a fancy handbag?"

"Because you're running for a train."

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Women in uniform

It's usually females who confess to a thrill when they see members of the opposite sex in uniform. But admit it guys, there is something about a smart-looking woman in a fancy uniform, isn't there?

They certainly stir my strongest emotions. They're called fear and guilt. So when the six-foot lady constable on my step does not reach out and clap the cuffs on me, as soon as I open the door, I am mightily relieved, I can tell you.

"Do you know anything about smart water, sir?" she says, and I wonder why the law has come to my door to babble strange words from the delirium ward. Maybe she's one of those fancy-dress strippers and will rip her top off any minute. But it's not my birthday or anything, so I play for time in a way I've mastered down the years, when things don't make sense to me, by opening my mouth and letting a cavernous sound come forth. 

"Uhhhh," I say.

"It's a uniquely coded liquid you paint on your possessions," she says, but my brain still refuses to engage, so she hands me a piece of paper and as I read it a little light begins to dawn. 

I've often found this and not just recently. People talk to me in lectures or conversations and there's no flicker of understanding, but if I go away and read about it, things starts to make sense. I reckon there's a design fault in the human communication system. If people had speed limiters, like white vans do, so they could talk no faster than one word a second, then folk like me would have less trouble keeping up.

"Well this sounds very interesting," I tell the nice policeperson. "You give me a bottle of this stuff and I brush it into 'the nooks and crannies of my valuables'. Then if they're stolen you can identify them as mine under ultraviolet light." 

"Every householder in Scotland is getting a different bottle," she confirms with a smile. "You also get SmartWater stickers for your window which act as a powerful deterrent to burglars."

"That sounds great," I say. "So what do I paint it on?"

"Your valuables," she says and I have another blank moment. 

"I can't think of anything," I tell her.

"Your television," she says. 

"It's twenty years old," I say. 

"Your sound system."


"Expensive clothes and shoes," she says and I shake my head.

"Paintings, gold, jewellery?" she says.

"Nope," I say.

She is clearly getting exasperated now and I'm getting worried. Last thing I want is to upset the law. 

"What is the most valuable thing in your entire house, sir?" she says and I get a flash of inspiration.

"Me!" I tell her. "Can I paint this stuff into my nooks and crannies to stop me getting stolen?"

She studies me with scorn, shakes her head and turns on her heel, and I have to tell you, guys, women in uniform look better to me when they're walking away.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Old fossils

I have no idea why god created courgettes. Maybe it was his idea of a joke. "Hey listen guys, I'm going to make millions of slimy long green things on this planet called Earth. Then I'll create TV chefs and make them tell people they're edible. Watch this. It'll be a laugh."

Sure enough, 13.8 billion years later he's buggered off to the twilight zone or somewhere, but his joke's still going strong. Everybody's eating courgettes like there's no tomorrow. Except me. Even if you slap them on garlicked toast and call it bruschetta, they're still inedible lumps of semi-sentient slime. Would you eat slugs on toast? Course you wouldn't. 

So while Linda and my sis are getting outside some tasty-looking pizzas in Paperino's, which I'd declined because so much food at lunchtime would dull the razor sharpness of my brain in the afternoon and make me lose my train of thought at key moments ...

Where was I? Courgettes, pizzas, sis, Linda. Right. So I'm pushing the so-called food around my plate hoping the nice waiter, who'd organised a light veggy bite for me that wasn't on the menu, won't notice I'm not eating it, when Linda tells us a story about a one-liner of hers that went wrong.

Now I've heard similar tales from friends who are quick-witted and funny. Folk take offence sometimes at things they say. They don't see the funny side. And the older they are, the more likely they seem to be to get the hump instead of the joke.  

"Old folk don't like humour where somebody is the butt of the joke, according to recent research," I tell her. "Young folk do." 

A large forkful of calzone stalls halfway to her mouth, as her active brain gets to work on this new information. "I wonder if that's an effect of ageing that happens to all of us," she says. "Or a difference in the culture the older generation grew up in." 

"Exactly the question they're trying to answer now," I tell her.

"If we lived in China we'd get some respect," my sis says, getting on to one of her pet peeves. "Makes me mad the way people talk to me, now I'm not so young. The other day the boy in the computer shop was telling me how to install some software and he turns to the man beside me, who I don't even know, and says, 'You can explain it to her when you get home.'"

She seethes for a second, her fists clenching, then comes out with the strongest word in her vocabulary. "Cheeky little ... SHIT!"

"I pat her sympathetically on the shoulder, and she turns on me. "Don't you dare tell me to calm down, dear," she says.
"As if I would," I tell her, swallowing precisely those words and turning back to my green slime on toast.

"See, where you're going wrong is doing one-liners," I tell Linda. "Traditional jokes don't upset people. Guy walks into the doctor's, with a banana in one ear, a courgette in the other and a carrot up his nose. He says 'Give it to me straight doc, what's wrong?' 

"The doctor looks at him and says, 'You need to start eating more sensibly.'" 

Linda studies me like I'm a half-cooked courgette.  "That's not funny," she says.

"Maybe not but nobody's upset," I say. "One of the social skills you learn as you get older is how to spare people's feelings."

"So where are you going now?" she says, as I get up to leave.

"The Fossil Grove down in Victoria Park," I say. "We're writing a story about it. 330 million-year-old trees turned to stoneAmazing place. I remember seeing the fossils for the first time when I was young."  

"What age were you?" she says. 

"About 20," I say.

"Weren't they still trees then?" she says, and I realise my sage advice has fallen on deaf ears again.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sofa so good

"Douglas called me an arty-farty jessie, a couple of years ago," I overhear Fraser telling a group of young teachers, at a drink and nibbles educational event, so I'm forced to butt in and set the record straight.

"I did no such thing," I tell them. "Fraser referred to himself as an arty-farty jessie* a couple of years ago. But he's been blaming me for it ever since."

A Spock-like eyebrow from the man conveys his scepticism more fluently than words, so I babble on, attempting a little levity. "Just because he writes poetry, can't play football and wears women's underwear doesn't make him a jessie," I say.

"Not true," he tells his adoring audience. "I'm an excellent football player."

They laugh and he dismisses them, then shakes his head at me. "You will never learn, laddy," he says. "Denial raises doubt. It makes more people think that what you're denying might be true."

"I  was countering what you said," I tell him.

"But you did it so loudly that half the room heard," he says. "So forty people now suspect both that I'm an arty-farty jessie and that you go around telling everyone I am." 

"So what do you suggest?" I say, as he plucks a vol-au-vent without looking from a passing tray and pops it in his mouth. He's a suave bugger and no mistake. Writes prose and poetry, does ingenious things with technology, looks great in a kilt. Kind of guy you can imagine rolling a cigarette with one hand while sat on a bucking bronco.

"Let's look at the facts," he says, taking me lightly by the arm and leading me to a plush sofa in the corner, below a painting of impossibly sharp mountains rising from a rocky river. "Although facts are a lot less effective than you might imagine. That is the point."

I'm trying to listen to him. I really am. I know he's going to tell me something interesting. But suddenly I'm not at a posh reception. I'm in a Carry On film. Because the bloody sofa has me in its clutches and is sucking me in. It's like being engulfed by a giant marshmallow. I panic and start to flail, but that's the worst thing you can do with man-eating marshmallows. It makes them mad. I force down the fear and stay still, finally stopping sinking when my head is two feet lower than Fraser's. 

"Comfy?" he says.

"Have you sat here before?" I say, turning my head sideways and up, to see him.

"Several times," he says.  "Fun, isn't it?"

"Stop messing about," I say. "Tell me the story. You want to set the record straight but can't use facts. What can you use? Fiction, blank verse, elegant epigraphs on the back of a napkin? Gimme a clue."

"That's a longer conversation than I've time for now," he says, glancing at his Rolex. "But let me briefly outline the problem for you, then we can look at possible solutions another time. Phone my secretary and she'll give you an appointment."

Birds can be happy, I'm sure, with their heads turned ninety degrees left and forty five up. Humans can't. Perched precariously on my knee, what's more, I've got a bone china cup and saucer, which strained-muscle vibrations have started tinkling tunefully together. Keeping this short is fine by me.

"Two mechanisms mean facts can have the opposite effect to what you intend," Fraser tells me. "First, most people feel psychological pressure to move towards the norm."

"The norm of what?" I say.

"Any kind of behaviour," Fraser tells me. "Suppose you're mounting a public health campaign aimed at obesity. On learning lots of other folk are overweight, plenty of people put on a few pounds. Which is not what you wanted. It's called the boomerang effect." 

"A study carried out at California State showed what was happening. It also suggested what you could do about it. Then there's another backfire effect, which is even worse. If you give people hard facts that contradict their strongly-held beliefs - that climate change is caused by the sun, for instance - it can make them cling more tightly to them. It's called motivated reasoning."

He glances at his watch again and rises from the sofa, causing me to sink more deeply into it.

"Don't go," I say.

"Fascinating, isn't it?" he says.

"Yes, but that's not it," I say. "I need a hand out of here." 

"I'm sorry," he says. "That's not a job for an arty-farty jessie."

"I didn't call you that," I say.

"I don't believe you," he says and is gone, leaving me with grave doubts that I'll ever see my arse again.

definition: an effeminate, weak or cowardly man. 
usage: "What are ye greetin for, ya big jessie?"