Saturday, September 27, 2008

Authoritative comma-splicer

I'm delighted by the current series of "How to Write" booklets in the guardian. Indeed, as I looked at two of the titles - the one on Journalism, and The Guardian book of English Language - I reflected how valuable these wee bookies would be if you had enough copies to leave scattered usefully about an English classroom - much less intimidating and much more entertaining than your average text book, with the added cachet of having been produced by real live journalists rather than by educationists.

And then I came to a short section written by Michael White - the Guardian's Politics blog writer - on How to Write a Blog. He says, rightly, that the journalist's style "must adapt to the different medium it is: more intimate, more informally conversational ..." and so on. And then it all goes horrid as an example of comma-splice leaps out of the fourth paragraph.
"So a blogger must be careful with facts, even bad spelling can shatter the illusion of authority".
Yes, Michael, but surely an authoritative blogger must be sure of his punctuation - because this kind of stuff turns me right off.

And I'd have to think twice about the classroom idea.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Approaching the throne

T'other day I asked a friend and former colleague, an experienced, well-respected teacher in her late fifties, how the new headie was doing. As you do, when a school has its first new head teacher in a quarter of a century. "Oh, he's good," she said. And added, quite seriously, "He's very approachable."

I couldn't help wondering at this reply. What, in the name of heaven, would you expect a new headie to be if not "approachable"? What is there about the job of running a secondary school that would make for unapproachability? Does the fact of promotion to this exalted post take a teacher out of the realms of mere mortals and put them beyond approachability?

I suppose in a way you might say that. It's a lonely place, the top of the pile - any pile only has limited standing room. You can't just drop into the staffroom for a cuppa and a gossip - because someone will moan about favouritism and knowing your place. But surely the days are long gone of the remote figure who smiled seldom and could be seen only by appointment? Who kept his tawse over his shoulder under his academic gown?

I hope so. And I hope there is not a new headteacher in the land who imagines that their promotion makes them anything more than the head facilitator, whose job is to listen as much as to act. To be approachable, in fact.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Just home from the Scottish Learning Festival in the SECC. How conventional that sounds - how truly ordinary CPD. But it wasn't ordinary, and I only attended one seminar. I went to listen to Ewan's Thinking out of the X-box, and was amazed and pleased that he's still using Progress Report as an example of something that works. Yes, I knew it worked, but surely it would be old hat by now? Apparently not. And my new arena of education, the church one, is not really so different from the world of school in its reluctance to embrace new technology.

And then I went to TeachMeet08, actually the tenth of these gatherings which seem to have grown like a lusty child since my first one two years ago. I learned some new things, and was enthused by much of what I heard. Above all, I was inspired to go with my own instincts in the learning areas in which I now move - not to think that because it's a different area (the church) I have to adopt new strategies for facilitation and learning. Through everything I heard tonight, I heard the message that the technology is at the service of something much older, and that communication skills are supremely important in whatever field they are deployed.

It was great to meet so many people I know from online, and others whom I now regard as friends. I'm glad I was able to abet (can you abet without aiding?) Mr W in compiling an embarrassing farewell to Ewan. I'm sorry there was no-one from Dunoon there other than us, because the enthusiasm generated at a TeachMeet is something every teacher could benefit from. And I'm sorry they were eating so late that we had to leave them all to it. Yassas!*

*Because they were/are still eating in Konaki.

All this and heaven too

This photo, taken before breakfast this morning, seems a suitably magical one to represent a day stolen from normal life. By some wonderful chance, the current spell of fine weather (shhh) coincided with an invitation to spend a night in a holiday house at Cairnbaan, on the Crinan Canal. Yesterday we drove there in a morning full of sun, walked along the canal path to Crinan, with a picnic by the water en route and a coffee by the harbour when we arrived, and walked back in the evening light to a hot shower and dinner in the Cairnbaan Hotel. Ten miles in the sun makes for great sleep, and the evening was unlike those I spend at home. For one thing, I had no computer with me.

But this morning was amazing. The night had been totally clear and cold enough for winter, so that when the sun rose it was to show us the canal steaming as if it was an enormous hot bath. I shall post more pics of it when I've finished doing my Roman ones, but this, of the steaming water round the boat and the cloud in the hollow beyond, will suffice as today's glimpse of heaven.

And tomorrow? The SECC for the Scottish Learning Festival - and TeachMeet08. From the sublime ...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Marriage made in Macs?

'Tis done. I am not quite a bride - it's been a while - but if you look a the pic you'll see a sort of marriage going on, as my new iMac talks to my four-year-old laptop. Actually, it's more a case of the new machine apparently hoovering all the info out of the old one while leaving it behind at the same time. Nothing short of miraculous, if you ask me - which is why, presumably, only the very ignorant or very credulous would ever ask me anything about computers.

Anyway, I'm now using the new Mac, and very speedy it is too - except when my wireless signal appears to fail, as it has done a couple of times this evening. Don't know if this is a hiccup in the Airport or at this end, but time will doubtless tell. I love the big shiny screen, which allows me to see what I've got open far more readily than the small screen; I love its brightness and its wonderful colour rendition. And the keyboard is a joy - the low-profile click of the laptop with the ergonomically more pleasing position on the desk which I am now sitting higher above. Whatever is doing it, my typing speed seems to have improved already.

I still have some moving around to do - the desk is tidier than it has been in years, and I had to clean the dust of ages to allow the mouse to function (still getting used to the mouse, BTW). I can't see one of the pictures above my desk and will have to move it up the wall. But I'm a happy bunny nonetheless. Cheers!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The shock of the new

A second trip in one week to the Apple Store in Glasgow saw me and Mr B staggering to our car with my shiny new iMac in its box after its memory upgrade. It is currently sitting in the hall, challenging me to get it out and do something sensible with it. But I can't face it tonight. Deeds of such magnitude need to be undertaken in the light of day, when one is in full command - not in the last remnants of post-prandial stupor and the onset of must-get-to-beditis.

And although I am looking forward enormously to the newness and the speed of it, I can't help feeling the usual trepidation. Will it go? Will it find and love the Airport? How will I feel about a full-sized desktop machine with a 20" screen after four years of a laptop? (Notwithstanding the urgings of my physio friend about the postural hell of laptop use...) And what about all the things like Firefox that I've downloaded over the years - will the new one really speak to the old one and transfer stuff? Like Data in Star Trek?

Enough already. I shall sleep on it and dream troubled dreams of change.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sistine crush

Sistine Chapel ceiling
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Although I was primarily interested in the remains of Ancient Rome, we took a day to visit the Vatican, leaving early in the morning while the sun was still low and the buses reasonably quiet. Getting a bus is simpler than you might think - you buy the tickets in advance, and then have to validate them on board, just like a French train ticket. Apparently dire financial penalties apply if you are caught with an unvalidated ticket, and we had a great palaver getting the machine to do the biz when we did it ourselves. On that morning, however, I couldn't get near the machine and a kind girl did it for me. All was well, and we leaped from our bendy bus and followed two wee nuns who were heading purposefully up the road.

The rellies who advised us to make a beeline for the Sistine Chapel were not wrong. Even so, the journey along the interminable corridors of the Vatican museum was not one that I would willingly repeat. Crowds of people shuffled along, gazing up at the riot of decoration on the ceiling, bumping into stationary members of tour groups who were being lectured through ear-pieces in a Babel of tinny accents. I thought of the hadj, the Muslim pilgrimage where people are killed in hellish crushes in a walkway, and wondered how we would all cope if anyone panicked. We funnelled into a tiny, utilitarian stair - two people wide - and down to the chapel.

It was, of course, crammed with people. People looking upwards, at Michelangelo's ceiling, swaying and bumping into one another. Uniformed guards - not the stripey Swiss variety, but blue-shirted ones - moved among the crowd. At frequent intervals one of them bellowed "Silenzio!", occasionally adding "Per favore". This would be followed by a tide of loud shushings, like a class caught in flagrante by an approaching teacher. And now and then they would force their way through to someone who was committing the worse crime of all: taking photos.

Prohibition of this kind has a dire effect on me.It brings out the delinquent. And so it was that I found myself sitting on the bench which runs round the walls, my tiny Leica on my lap, pointing it casually at the ceiling and pressing the button. The picture at the top of this post is the first I took, right in the middle, with God and Adam doing the biz in the third panel from the left. I'm rather pleased with it, as I am with the pic here of the Last Judgment, and another two of ceiling and wall frescoes.

The chapel itself is a rectangular box, and it was impossible to imagine it being used for quiet worship of any kind. But as a work of art it is incomparable, and I'm glad to have seen it and wondered. They should, however, do something about their crowd control techniques.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Responding to theology

Every month or so, our Lay Training group meets to learn, to share and to grow. In between times, we do our homework. This time round, we were studying in a little more depth than before our response to aspects of the relationship between the Father and the Son. It was interesting that of the three of us present today, all of us had chosen a literary form to convey our responses - one dramatised dialogue and two poems. It was a highly charged and rather splendid session.

For me, this was an occasion when prose was entirely inadequate. I needed the ambiguity, the tricks, if you like, of poetry to convey the depth of my reaction to a section of Jürgen Moltmann's 'The Trinity and the Kingdom' - eight pages on the Passion of Jesus. The density of poetry suited the intensity of the subject. You can read the result here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Whose past is it anyway?

Augustus Caesar
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Back in lugubrious Scotland, suffering a drop of 20 degrees Celsius from the heat of Rome, I have at least a proper keyboard to blog on - even if the laptop, after a brief burst of energy, seems to be relapsing into stammering senility. This photo of a statue of Augustus Caesar, perched now on Mussolini's Via dei Fori Imperiali, sums up the effect much of the Roman experience had on me because of its ubiquity in my adolescence. It appeared in my Paterson and MacNaughton's Approach to Latin - the bible for Latin scholars in a school where the redoubtable Paterson was the Headmaster - and as such was there on a daily basis every time I opened the book.

And it was really then that my obsession with all things Roman began. Learning Latin was a matter of much acquisition of vocabulary and grammar - and we did it by rote, turning over the page to see if we'd managed to memorise it yet. As often as not, Augustus would gaze at us as we did this. I could have drawn that pose from memory. It was a part of my life.

And in a fascinating way the Rome of two thousand years ago is still a part of life in Rome today. The excavated Forum, for example, keeps getting in the way when you try to go from one point to another in that area of Rome. You can't cross it, as you have to pay to get in and it shuts at sundown. In the warm evenings, people hang over the fence simply looking down at the shadowy pillars - those still standing, those lying jumbled on the ground. In a small park which we had to cross to get to the main road, two large sections of stone pillar lay half-buried, and people sat on them to eat a sandwich, or merely to take the weight off their pins. Even as we were being driven into the city from the airport, we could see ruins of huge villas off to the left, along the line of the Via Appia Antiqua, and the arches of an aqueduct marching towards Rome.

Some of the time I felt my Italian was coming on a treat - and then realised that I was reading a sign in Latin, not Italian. Street names referred to long-dead first century Romans. They seemed closer by far than the shadowy figures of the Dark Ages, closer even than the Popes and the sculptors who took over from them. I shall have more to say about the ruins we visited - but right now I feel I've been on a visit to my own past as well as that of a civilisation.

I'm glad I didn't leave it any longer.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The more time I spend here, the more aware I become of the Rome of 2,000 years ago. A solitary visit to Trajan's forum last evening, today's walk round the massive Baths of Caracalla - I feel the closeness of the people who had their lives here, while the unknown mediaeval Romans who had their huts among the huge ruins seem much more distant. Today we also visited the 5th century church of Santa Sabina and marvelled at its plain-ness. Some day, someone will have to assist me to appreciate the Baroque.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Candles in Trastevere

Another day, another trip across the Tiber, another church - but no Bellini, a merciful lack of Baroque excess. This was a moment for silence and candles in S. Maria in Trastevere, candles for those who asked. You know who you are: the candles are on the right.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Petered out

Today, we learned from CNN, it was to be hot - 31ºC hot - and sunny. It was. And we were rubbernecking big style at the Vatican. I shall reflect on this later, when I'm not picking words out on my phone, but I have to remark on the constant yells of 'silenzio' from the guardians of the Sistine Chapel, the effectiveness of a severely pious look when heading for a wee sit down in an area reserved for prayer, and the wonderful unobtrusive nature of the Leica when snatching forbidden photos. And prayer? Never felt less like it.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Deja vu?

There are moments when I catch myself thinking that Rome reminds me of somewhere. It is disturbing how like Las Vegas some of the more bombastic flourishes - like the Victor Emmanuel monument - are. We spent today among the truly ancient ruins of the Forum, drinking from the ubiquitous water spouts and feeling more and more like ancient ruins ourselves as the day heated up. Morituri te salutant!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

In foro Romano

Well not quite, not yet. But this is the view from the rooftop bar of the Forum Hotel, where we've just had lunch. All a bit surreal, to leave the shabby grimness of Prestwick Airport this morning and be here now in the warm wind of Ancient Rome - because that's what it feels like. Brilliant!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Migrating Macs

No, not the laptop this time. Thanks to Ewan, I had a look at this site, and found out that the greatest number of people with the surname McIntosh live in New Zealand. Not only that: the only country in the world with the site's top rating for my maiden name, Findlay, is also New Zealand.

There are other interesting facts here - the top-rated forename for all these McIntoshes is Christine, though the fact that McIntosh is not my own family name makes it less remarkable. Does make my Google rating more pleasing,though!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Perilous poetry?

A piece in today's Guardian caught my eye because it was about teaching English. In fact, it was about the perceived possible effects of teaching a specific poem which might, so the argument goes, lead to knife crime in a culture where such crime is on the increase. You can read the poem, Education for Leisure, here (scroll to the foot of the page). You will see that it might also lead to an increase in crime against goldfish, and you may or may not care for the poem.

But that's not the point. The point is that a piece of literature by a respected writer is to be banned because of its subject, because someone complained and someone else took fright and knee-jerked. That's how it seems to me anyway. And if we apply the same strictures, we'd better not teach Shakespeare at all - the article refers to Romeo and Juliet, but you might think Macbeth a tad free with the daggers. And what about old Larkin? His poem The Old Fools could be seen as offensive to the very old, and as for that magnificent Aubade ... fear of death, worrying preoccupation with dying and being dead: not the sort of thing we want our young to think about at all. No, no - never mind the wonderful imagery, the masterful form - it's the possible damage to young minds we are about.

Literature gives the opportunity to bring the forbidden out into the open, to discuss it, to think about psychology and morality and choices and fears in a safe environment where you're actually seeming to do something else. If I were still teaching, I'd be copying that poem even now and teaching it tomorrow - and I'd tell my pupils why. And I'd remember that parents' evening long ago when a blustering father complained because I was encouraging his child to read Joan Lingard's Across the Barricades (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland). I don't know what he feared, but by today's standards he'd be seeing his boy in the IRA.

Dangerous stuff, literature.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


It's amazing how disconcerting it can be when your computer becomes sick. My laptop (a 4 year old G4 laptop) suddenly started to flash up little messages telling me that my startup disc was full, that I should delete files to free it up. I deleted some old stuff, tidied up a bit - no good. It was still groaning quietly, occasionally huffing and puffing, performing tasks at a glacial rate - a real oldie with a severe case of memory loss. And now it's in Intensive Care, being operated on by my good friend Mr Heathbank, having its marbles removed entirely and replaced - I think that's the plan - using my backup drive and the results of Time Machine. Sounds too clever to be true, but I'm hoping.

Meanwhile, Mr B is letting me use his machine, a big beast which sighs dramatically, purrs powerfully, and zips about at great speed. The keyboard makes the clunking sound I found so enticing in the movie "Wargames" - when the teenage geek hacked into the Pentagon war simulator: remember? I can't type on it with anything like my usual speed or accuracy, and I keep feeling for the non-existent track-pad. I've lost all my former mouse-dexterity - it has, after all, been four years - and I can't get used to looking up at the screen instead of down, though I know this is better for posture.

I'm contemplating buying a desktop to supplement (and I hope it is that rather than replace) the laptop, but there are so many drawbacks I'm beginning to wonder. Feel free to comment! And in the meantime, I need to sort out the conflicting calls on the mail front or Mr B will repent of his kind offer ...