Monday, 31 December 2012

The 48 Laws of Power

There is a curious pleasure to writing on a train; the tapping of the keys providing a counterpoint to the rhythm of the train as it slips through the evening’s darkness. The rain, too, has got in on the act, and it is performing a staccato percussion on the windows.

All along the train the melodic syllables of French trip from tongues and lips. Here and there I understand a smattering, but most passes like the trains on the other tracks – full of promise and light but gone so quickly that only a glimpse can be experienced. A small light in the darkness, and then the rain and the dark and the rushing silence again.

I am almost finished with a book called The 48 Laws of Power, which is equal parts sound advice and an overly-long prayer by the author for a time when stabbing someone in the back had a more literal meaning.

It’s also not survived the transition to e-book very well; words appear entirely out of position, the font suddenly spikes in size or changes type altogether, and asides appear inside, breaking up the text and one’s train of thought.

In short, then, a nice idea, but annoyingly it is most certainly a book that one ought to own in physical form, if at all. The author talks endlessly of courts, masters, kings, queens and courtesans, trying desperately to make them analogous to the situations one finds oneself in at work. Sometimes he manages, but for the most part it is an awkward stretch.

I realised as I packed this morning that I had completely overpacked. I had brought at least three weeks worth of shirts when I really needed just one – one week, not one shirt. I’m not a savage. In addition I have gained, as you’ll have previously read, another four shirts and an additional suit and they have been shoehorned violently in. I fear opening this suitcase will ping a zip into my eye and leave me roguishly (rather than classically) handsome.

In any case, I am hoping to meet a friend in Paris – Rachael, a girl I knew from a long, long time ago. She has been in Japan recently – what a glorious, jet-setting group of friends I have! – and has only recently returned to Western shores, with a new haircut and a desire to speak French once more. If I am very lucky, I shall happen upon her and we shall have coffee and talk of many things. Only if I am lucky; neither of us seem to have working phones at the moment.

But with the train rushing, and the dark comforting, and a small child sitting opposite who keeps laughing at my odd nose – I have a feeling of great contentment, and a sense that good things are just around the corner.

Happy New Year. May it bring you everything you deserve.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Last night in England

The evening draws in on my last night in England for quite some time. Quite some time here only means about 11 days, but since I'm only back for two days I feel it doesn't really count.

It's been a very lazy Sunday here, as I'm sure it has been across the country. I'm writing a little early because tonight I will be breaking with tradition and seating myself squarely in front of the television, along with my family, for Channel 4's Big Fat Quiz of the Year, an established tradition. I'm particularly looking forward to how Jimmy avoids - or doesn't - the worrying rash of tax dodgers like Amazon, Starbucks, and Jimmy himself.

Tomorrow night I shall be back in France, and most likely seeking something cheap/free to do to celebrate the New Year. I'm not a huge fan of New Year's resolutions; I confess that freely. If one wants to change, one does - an arbitrary line should make no difference. Despite this, I've noticed that I get a sudden influx of new students at the beginning of every month. These arbitrary lines do seem to matter.

However, if you are making resolutions this year, try to remember a couple of things.

Firstly: it will take longer than you might think. 66 days is the outside estimate of the time it takes to form a good habit. That's over two months of doing the same thing, every day. I've been writing this blog for about 30 days now, and it's become a little bit easier. But not a lot.

Secondly: don't leap straight in. Go little by little, and form a chain - an idea explained all over the internet, with an especially good one here. Inch by inch and everything is a cinch; it sounds trite, but it's absolutely true - do a little every day, and you will find yourself at your target before long.

Unless you are a short-distance runner, in which case inch by inch is no good at all.

I'm intrigued by the fact that over the past two days, I managed to score 200 views for talking about a tie and a suit that I bought. I'm quite excited by that, because if ever there was a chap who enjoyed talking about suits, ties, and sartorial things, then that chap is me.

In any case; however you found me, welcome.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Fate drops hints like I drop plates. Rarely, but with gusto.

This morning seemed to start badly; I was hoping to see an old friend named Alexandra for the last time before I return to France, but unfortunately she cancelled on me at the last minute. I decided to head in to town anyway but was half an hour late for my train - it had taken me longer to unpick the stitching on my new suit than I thought it would. In any case, I arrived at about 10.15 and strolled gently up the hill, pausing at a small coffee shop on the way and considering bestowing my custom upon them.

I had decided to sit, drink a coffee, and read a couple of new books recommended to me by my friends the Crouches. I decided to eschew this particular establishment in favour of the old fallback, Nero's, and as I arrived so did Alexandra, from the opposite direction.

The circumstances that had led to her cancelling on me had since been rectified, and she now had 45 minutes to spare - we could have our coffee after all. It is odd, however, that had I not come into town anyway, had I not paused at the earlier coffee shop, I would have missed her entirely. I had no phone on me; she could not have contacted me. It is peculiar that circumstances conspired in such a way.

Just to ensure that the message was clear, I met up with another old school friend immediately after bidding goodbye to Alexandra. Her name is also Alexandra.

I do not believe in the inherently flawed notion of Fate, and the odds of my meeting an old school friend who is employed close to where she lives are actually very likely. It is only from inside the system that it appears random and therefore astonishing when I meet, par hasard, two old schoolfriends of equal beauty and charm called Alexandra.

All on a day when I'm wearing a new charcoal three-piece suit and looking absolutely topping.

It would be nice to believe in Fate, because then I could say with reasonable enthusiasm that it is clear that my next relationship will be with someone called Alexandra, because beautiful and charming Alexandras keep dropping into my life. Believing that would ensure I remain on the lookout for Alexandras, even Alexandras who aren't as charming or as beautiful as my good friends, and from there the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.

Luckily I have no truck with such things, and so my next relationship could be a Mary, a Kate, or a Paula.

Or an Alexandra. Just because I don't believe in omens, it doesn't make them untrue...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Suited and booted

Firstly, I'm going to write about something I didn't write about last night because, quite frankly, I find it all a bit embarrassing. Last night as I came back from the Crouch household, full of soup and cheese and companionship, I encountered at Orpington station a young lady who seemed the worse for a drink and in the company of two officers of the Transport Police. They had managed to wring from her that she was getting off at Tonbridge, and since it is on my way I volunteered myself to them and promised that I would ensure that the girl - Cassidy - would get off at Tonbridge, as they were understandably a little worried that she was going to pass out on the train and find herself in Hastings.

For this small act of kindness, we were allowed to sit in First Class, and Cassidy rambled at length about her family, her studies, what she hoped to do with her life - and before long we had arrived at Tonbridge. We disembarked, I handed her to her mother, who seemed equal parts suspicious and grateful, and then I caught a train five minutes later which brought me home. Entirely unremarkable, but having mentioned this to my mother, she mentioned that this girl was probably known to my sister. It is constantly startling how small the world is.

Today has been an absolutely brilliant day; I confess this at the beginning because some of the feedback I have received have used words like "negative" and "ranty", and so I am laying my cards upon the cliché and saying that this could well be a cheerful and positive blog.

The reason for this is because I went suit shopping with my parents, and am now better off to the score of a gorgeous charcoal three-piece suit, four shirts and three ties. And one of the ties is a white paisley pattern. They look absolutely spiffing. We also bought my dad a new suit, which was brilliant, and both suits came from Suit Direct at Ashford Designer Outlet. We were served by a guy called Jack, who was fantastic and also liked my new tie knot. He mentioned that it looked "different" to his boss, who loudly pooh-poohed him, and since the guy was absolutely right I strolled over and showed my lovely knot off. There was universal bewilderment and an apology was rightly offered to Jack. They are all, apparently, resolved to working out how to do it, as is Francis, and I promised a video demonstration.

So here it is.

I should point out that this knot works best with a thinner tie; not narrower, but thinner. Avoid stripes as well; they tend to go in all sorts of weird directions and before you know it you're wearing something around your neck which would give Escher a migraine. Otherwise, as I said, have fun with it, and if you wear it in your office or out and about do let me know, because I'd love to get feedback.

That's how my day went; it started with coffee and a chat with an old friend again (I arrived dressed normally, she dressed ready for the gym. She was going straight to the gym after seeing me, but I should love to know what anyone watching thought.) and ended with new clothes and an explanation of my aesthetically pleasing necktie knot. And there was fried fish in between.

How could there be ranty or negative after that?

Dinner with the Crouches

A bog post that is hideously late and written just a smidgeon drunk. Business as usual then.

Today was a terribly slow day until I remembered that I had a standing invitation to dinner with some excellent friends of mine. I hope they won't mind if I drop their name, but dinner was so marvelous, the coffee so excellent and the cheese so cheesy that I can only hope they forgive me.

The Crouches, a family that I have known for around six years now, are absolutely delightful people. They are, every one of them, exactly the sort of people you want at your dinner party, regardless of time, location, or in fact dinner - they are faultless guests and peerless hosts.

I took a bottle of champagne to dinner with me and walked from the station to their house, despite the proffered offer. A mere six months ago I would have seized that offer greedily, but a combination of a gorgeous night - have you seen the moon! - and the unsettling little Buddha-belly I've developed over the Christmas season encouraged me to walk the mile or so to their house. It is a sweet little three storey house and suits its occupants perfectly.

This evening I was wearing a novel little necktie knot, the method of which Francis - the man of the house - has asked that I show him. I shall try to do a video tomorrow showing how to do it, making this blog truly multimedia. It will also be exclusive to this blog, if I can make it so, because I think if you're kind enough to read my little blog I should like to give you a first look at anything I do.

In any case, Sheila - Francis' wife - whipped up a "bold" minestrone and we retired for fizz, awaiting the return of Lydia. I should explain at this point, since I have been quite honest in this blog, that Lydia and I once stepped out together, a very, very long time ago. We were younger and far more foolish, and while I am yet to break these habits,  she has got herself settled with an extremely sensible and intelligent young man, whose father was my old English master. A small world, but a lovely chap.

Dinner was splendid, the wine was delicious and apparently endless, and the cheese smelt like feet and France. A deep breath was all it took to transport me back. Two was enough to put me on my back. We finished with coffee and, as always, I left with a list of books in my pocket, all of which had been cheerfully commended to me as the best thing since sliced pineapple.

If you don't think sliced pineapple is all that, try eating a pineapple like you'd eat an apple.

I would like to point out that she is  not entirely out of these habits; she is rather keen (at the moment) on jetting off to faraway places and experiencing new things which is quite unfair, because all I get out of it is the old emotion of jealousy. And really, aren't everyone's experiences directed at improving my life?

In any case; she is charming and beautiful and quite happy to tell one that one is uncouth, even if all one is doing is tapping the table with one's nails. In any case, she will go far, even if she is doing a philosophy degree (jobs for philosophers have been thin on the ground in the UK since the recent closure of the big philosophy factory in Dulwich).

There is also a younger sister, but I confess I have not seen her in at least two years now. She may be as charming as her mother, as beautiful as her sister, or as funny as her father. Or she may have three ears. I have not the first idea.

I rather hope all four, because imagine what a conversation starter that would be. And with those qualities, a start is all she would need to carry the night.

I know it's unlikely. But wouldn't it be great?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Boxing Day!

There are a lot of ideas about the roots of the name of this festival. In the Roman Catholic calendar, it is the feast of St Stephen - that day when King Wenceslas (the Good) first looked out. In my house, it is the day when out family descends, en masse, to our humble abode. It is an absolutely joyful day of drink, family, and gay dogs.

Other people's Christmases may vary, but this year my boxing day was merely the backdrop to an absolutely beautiful canine retelling of Brokeback Mountain. Brokebark Mountain? Perhaps. In any event, it seems that the Jack Russel that my cousin brought down has been forced to face the side within him that was always desperate to come out (of the closet) and it turns out that Ozzy, this dog, is a terrific flirt. Every time my dog seemed not to be paying attention to him, there he was, and the minute my dog paid him attention he bounced away. Adorable.

What else? A new wallet from an aunt which will house my French cards and cash and looks terribly smart, a second meeting with my cousin's fiancée (who seems unsure over who has been invited, which has made me a trifle nervous about who exactly is organising this wedding) and an introduction to a possible wedding photographer - her name is Helen England, and she's fantastic, her website is over here.

The day didn't start well. Ozzy was still fighting his inner gay, and tried to attack my poor dog. I should explain, at this point, that my dog is the Sir Ian McKellan of dogs. Gay, but also fantastically sweet and full of energy, despite his age. He brushed off the more aggressive dog, and then apparently gently brought him out over the course of the evening.

I seem to be focussing a little too much on the gay dogs, but almost every blog on the interweb will be going on about Christmas and the dangers of drinking too much, saying rude things to your nan and the other things that happen at Christmas. I feel this makes my blog slightly more unique. Jonathan Kerr, bringing gay dogs to the Internet since 2012.

A dubious claim to fame at best.

I've got some cash from relatives too, which is really interesting, because I pretty much live in France now. Sterling is essentially pecunia non gratis in France, but not to worry - I can pop it in a jolly old bank account and accrue masses of interest. This time next year, Rodney, we'll be millionaires.

So we're about to retire for port and cheese; everything that passes my lips for the next couple of hours will have been matured for between 3 months and 25 years.

Chin chin.

I should note, as a post script, that I have a wonderful family. Especially my cousin Agnetha, who I love the most.

Unless another cousin of mine is reading, and then obviously I love them the most.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Day!

I've just got home from Christmas Day celebrations with my family and tuned into new Dr Who. I'm currently writing this from underneath my bed where I am trying to recover from the shock of the revamped opening credits and score, because they are clearly the worst thing to have happened to Who since the last time it did, whenever that was.

As I recover, I shall recount my day to soothe the awfulness of it all. My day started at 8, when I awoke and padded downstairs for a coffee and a sneaky peak at the goodies Santa had left. A bag bulged promisingly, and I settled myself in front of the television. I promptly got out a book, because early morning television opens up whole new vistas of awfulness, and five minutes of Horton Hears A Who was sufficient to convince me that the Jim Carrey I grew up with and loved has finally gone the way of Candy's dog.

Before long, I was joined by my parents and finally my sisters. Nobody in my family has ever really been a morning person, and that distaste of hours that finish in -AM has clearly only grown in my absence. However, we got down to tearing open paper and tugging at sellotape with first joy, and then frustration, and finally desperation as we tried to use teeth, scissors, and at one point a tin opener to get into our gifts. No luck. My mother wraps presents as though she is not wrapping presents, but in fact binding a lesser demon. I suspect the reason nobody's seen Cthulu is because my mother sent him a gift, and he's still trying to get into it. He's persistent.

With gifts given and received - "What I got" is a game that has been played all day on Facebook, and quite frankly it's bored me to tears, so if you're interested in what I got then ask - we got dressed and made ready to head out into Christmas Day.

So that took me all of half an hour, and gave me an hour with which to amuse myself. I watched the first episode of Beauty and the Beast, which was quite frankly abysmal, and ironed shirts. I grow a little more like Jeeves and Wooster every day; I am still quite unforgivably posh, but I am mastering the art of "Indeed," "Very good," and "Of course." I am yet to fully grasp the intricacies of "Are you quite sure?"; it tends to come out more sarcastic than intended. But we live and learn.

One of the things I learnt today, for example, was that even amongst the morally bankrupt and the unrepentantly bigoted there is a spark of creativity; apparently "If it's not all white, it's not all right," which is a charming thing to say and has a masterful cadence while maintaining the repugnancy of white supremacy. I must note that the speaker controlled themselves masterfully, as they chose to speak this choice phrase before my cousin's very brown, Thai fiancée came in. It's the little touches.

I shan't bore anyone reading this with the intricacies of my family; I am quite sure there are similar pockets of your family with whom you do not speak, perhaps because of a difference of politics, of opinion on rights, or even religion. There may be some overlap, in which case, bingo! There are no prizes.

The only other thing of note is that I set a pan full of brandy on fire and poured it over a christmas cake, much to the consternation of our youngest family member, and my parents outed my dog, which I strongly oppose on ideological grounds and that it should be up to him to come out whenever he wants.

I'm back to Dr Who, where I'm pretty sure a mere 8 minutes in we've had a gay, cross-species wedded couple. I look forward to seeing how well that goes down over on BBC America. I am sure reaction will be 100% positive.

In any case, it looks good so far.

Monday, 24 December 2012


Although this is just a silly blog hosted alongside a million others, I'm still dedicating it to my brother Jamie, who's out in Hong Kong. We miss you.

I got back into the swing of my time at home by walking the dog at 9 this morning. It's clear the chubby wee monster knows that when I'm at home it's walkies every morning because the moment I rocked downstairs in joggers he bounced off all four walls and did a jig on the ceiling. Quite a restrained one, though. He is royalty, after all.

My plan was to take him at a gentle jog up to some nice local woods where I could let him off the leash and stroll about the fields like a man of leisure while he tore about like the over-excited ball of energy he is. Rusty's plan, however, was to drag me there as quickly as possible, by any means possible, and to then tear about like an over-excited ball of energy while his young master did whatever it is humans do to amuse themselves.

The limitless energy of my dog - of many dogs - is amazing, and other people have written extensively about the fantastic natures of dogs in more creative ways than I could. A webcomic creator called Matt Inman wrote a great comic about dogs, and I'd recommend you read it right now. I myself could wax lyric about my dog and his oddities (he is apparently unable to fathom why I go around puddles, and walked through the same one three times with a happy doggy smile to show me that water is nothing to be scared of) but I shall try to be brief, because I am planning on going to bed early, so that I can wake up tomorrow nice and early. Essentially because I am (still) a child.

So the only other thing to say today is that I suspect our tree has gotten bigger again, my poor sister is laid out with an absolutely appalling case of tonsillitis, and I watched Nativity! on ITV and found it absolutely smashing. Heartwarming and special, as one feels Christmas television ought to be, and Martin Freeman once again trying to help a bunch of short people.

He seems to have been unfortunately typecast after Sherlock, which better get back on our screens really, really soon.

But I digress. Christmas is almost upon us, and whatever you believe, wherever you are, I hope your day is filled with family, your belly with food, and your home with laughter.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

In which our hero rediscovers television

Today started interestingly. Apparently I'm a deep sleeper. My father came in and had to wake me up to turn my alarm off, which is a little unsettling. I feel like I ought to be a little sharper on the uptake. A four minute warning would be a thirty second warning for me, and with that sort of timespan there wouldn't even be much point in getting out of bed. I will die as I have always wished to die. In bed.

In any case, I got up in good time to meet an old friend for a coffee at ten. Ten came. Ten passed.

As did quarter past, half past, and forty five minutes past the hour. Neither hide nor hair could be seen of the individual in mind. Finally, at five minutes to the hour, I received a call. She would be there in ten minutes.

I hunted her down and we strolled back to the coffee shop. She has similar career interests to me, and it's very pleasant to be able to shoot the breeze and talk shop with someone else. She's also a lot of fun, and we've known each other long enough to have plenty to chat about. It was quite a delightful way to spend a morning, and I recommend to anyone reading - find a friend and chat about the old times for a couple of hours. Wallow in a bit of nostalgia.

I will say, though, my afternoon has been utterly wasted. The television has been on, but nothing worthwhile is on at the moment. On the other hand, I've read all the books I have and, having asked for several titles for Christmas, I'm wary of buying anything new for my kindle.

I'm hideously aware of how first world my problems are.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The road flows like a river

Which at the moment, in the UK, is not a metaphor. On the way home today we passed two canoeists and a frigate. Still, I am now warmly ensconced in the jolly old bosom of the family home, replete with Christmas tree that is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I shall try to give some idea of its magnitude. In Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II starts tiny and grows until he takes up an entire corner of the room.

The Christmas tree from which I am cowering would eat Audrey II and still have room for Audrey III. I'm stunned there are still presents under the tree. Perhaps the tree is only carnivorous. Perhaps it is cannibalistic. I fear discovering it making its insidious, arboreal way into my room in the dead of night, departing silently and leaving only a pile of needles that are incredibly hard to pick up.

So: yesterday I finished off the last of the food in my fridge, and knocked together a carbonara. The recipe is quite simple; 25g parmesan, 25g pecorino, 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk all combined with a very decent helping of pepper. Like seriously decent, it's called carbonara, so let's see plenty of black pepper in there. You can use the egg white to make almost any cocktail better, binding the ingredients and giving a thicker, creamer finish and a lovely foam. Start cooking some pasta, up to you how much and what kind. While that's happening, fry off about 75g of bacon - I use lardons, because they have some nice fatty bits that render down really well - with a glove of garlic. Get rid of the garlic with a slotted spoon. Mix the egg-cheese-pepper mixture together gently. Drain the pasta, chuck it over the bacon, get it coated in grease, and then throw on mixture. Stir it around, coating the pasta in that tasty goodness. Chuck it all in a dish. Eat it. Crush your enemies. Don't forget to wash up.

Now, I had no garlic. Most people would ask their neighbours for some garlic, or possibly just miss it out.

I doused my lardons in Zubrowka, a Polish bison-grass vodka, and then set it on fire.

It was awesome.

If you flambé in wine, you get a reddy-orange flame, which is awesome. Vodka, by comparison, burns blue - bright blue - with a yellow edge. It gives one a massive rush, especially if one realises far too late that one has left the damnable spoon in the ban and consequently set fire to that as well. Puffs out very easily, though, so no problems. It also gives the bacon a lovely, light, almost woody, almost citrussy taste and goes incredibly well with everything else in the mix. Highly recommend what I discovered by accident.

This morning, however, did not go so well. Having left all of my presents at the flat, I found myself queueing for the Eurostar behind the most nightmarish, upper-class twit-of-the-year couple in the world. Oh, how they nattered in nasal towns about if he knew "Biffy" Jones who's a Westminster man, and if she knows Sheikh Al-Banier because he played cricket with him at Eton, don't you know, and before very long the temptation to unhinge my jaw and attempt to swallow them like a snake.

Bizarrely, it got worse, when they started talking about their internships. He is at the Assemblée Générale, because "Uncle David at the Ministry had a little word, you know" and she's at Vogue, because "Mummy knows the editor or something." Both agreed, however, that absolutely nobody gets a job through the normal methods.

To every entitled twatting toff who's ever got an internship or a job through family ties, not because they're qualified, but because Uncle David is at the Ministry or Mummy knows the editor or because your grandmother is the Queen - don't trumpet it. Especially not in France, because there is a long history of revolutions here against upper-class twits.

Still; it's easy to take a step back and laugh at them. Their lives sounded utterly dull, and their chatter as inane as its contents. I've learnt this year, in just three months, that it's really an excellent idea to take a step back when one's instinct is to explode. Or swallow people with your dislocated jaw.

On the other hand, when it comes to the NRA, just feel free to get absolutely furious.

I cannot, I can not believe that there are still people who think that making more guns available is a suitable strategy, that armed guards in schools is not madness, and that a press conference in which you announce such a bizarre position but refuse to take questions is going to do any good at all.

It's the start of a new era, people. The Mayans were right. We just read it wrong.

Friday, 21 December 2012

So far so good.

End of the world, blah blah blah.

The most boring of boring non-stories is the apocalypse-themed ones that the media keep foisting on us. For reasons utterly unknowable to me, several hundred people have gathered in a small village in the south of France because that region is going to be safe. Bugarach, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has (or rather, had) 176 residents, no pollution, and lovely orchids. It is now ground zero for crazy people and journalists.

I don't understand.

All the same, it gives a little credence to my theory that stories are far, far more appealing than science. That just means that those in science need to find interesting stories to express their scientific truths, because scientific truths are generally quite boring. This is a great shame - I love science, but it doesn't make for good stories. There are very rarely resolutions, which is why one should be very suspicious of any story in a certain newspaper that says "so-and-so can cure cancer, says Science."

Not that I'm thinking of any Daily Mail particular newspaper. 

Anyway, I should be talking about my year abroad. Today has been a very slow day; I looked over an application for sponsorship that some students had put together and was blown away by the level of English (good) and the level of informality (bad). I've noticed that students here have taken to informal conversation like a cliché to water; and although that means that conversation flows beautifully it also means that they write to banks and companies saying "sponsorship is now up for grabs!"

Perhaps I'm being a bit strict, but one doesn't write to a bank manager talking about things being up for grabs. Or perhaps one does; perhaps the end of the world has come and all that's changed is the death of English. I hope not. Zombies I can deal with, meteors, explosions, viral elephantitis, but please let's keep speaking good English. In any case, I've been added to the committee that's trying to organise sponsorship, and that will be an exciting project to start next year.

I packed everything last night; I will be wearing only suits or joggers at home. Joggers for dog jogging - I cannot wait to see my dog again, though I'm sure he's gotten awfully chubby - and suits for literally everything else. Packing was made a mite difficult by the way half of the available space was filled with champagne. I'm in France, as if I wasn't going to bring back a lot of champagne. Three bottles of rosé champagne and three bottles of brut. Over 9 days. This will be exciting. 

In any case, this time tomorrow I shall be back in England with a bag packed with dress shirts and champagne, blinking owlishly in the British sunshine. I can't wait.


By now everyone in the Western hemisphere is probably sick of two stories: first, the supposed end of the world which, despite being quashed by everyone who's had even the most fleeting of contacts with scientific though, still has hundreds of proponents.

I'm not going to go into why the world isn't going to end - it's been done before by people with a greater handle on science than me - but I will say that if it does, it's been an absolute pleasure knowing each and every one of you. And I'm gutted that I turned down that credit card I was offered.

The other story is Instagram, and their stupidity in trying to grab away their users' content in such a brazen fashion. On a social network, where everyone shares images, to imagine that your ToS would stay subtly hidden for any more than five minutes is laughably naive. The fact that it was done in a fairly underhand way has simply worsened the effect.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. It's as true now as it has ever been, and the fact remains that if you are using a free service then somewhere along the line you're going to pay for it. Google, Facebook, LinkedIn - they all sell your information to advertisers. If you're being given something for free, consider that perhaps you are the product.

The problem Instagram also faces is that there are an awful lot of competitors snapping at its heels. A social network which is mostly mobile and based around taking pictures is fairly easy to replicate, more so now than ever. Facebook, which has had a long time to entrench itself in the market, is almost unassailable - even if Google+'s claims that it has 400 million users is true, it simply doesn't measure up to the 1 billion that Facebook passed in late September this year.

However, Instagram have at least responded smartly. They wrote a blog explaining what was going on and have stated that they will revert to the old ToS on January 19. The response is strong, well set out and clear - with a lovely little compliment at the end to soften the anger of these online campaigners. It's a beautiful piece of writing, and should hopefully smooth the feathers of certain users.

Looking ahead, though, it would still have been better to have not done it in the first place. Your users need to trust you, and things like this - no matter how quickly and how well they are managed - chip away at that trust. Winning it back is going to be an uphill struggle.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

You know you're in trouble when your nose runs and your feet smell

I am leaking brain lubricant.

Exactly like that, but on a sort of continuous flow. Quite vile. On the other hand, my voice has dropped a good octave and has turned into a 20-a-day, sexy, roguish sort of tone. Clouds and their silver linings. Aches are gone, cough is almost gone. Just a little hoarse now. And, as previously stated, leaky.

I have started packing, a phrase which here means "I've thrown everything in a suitcase and sat on it. It hasn't helped that I ordered six bottles of rather good champagne and then completely forgot about it until it got delivered today, although it was rather a delicious surprise. I'm just not sure how I'm going to get them back home. I certainly don't plan on drinking them all in one go.

I say, I've just had a thought. I was talking about champagne only yesterday. How peculiar. It seems that my subconscious has a better memory than I do. I hope it remembers my pin code, because I certainly don't.

A minor detail, though. I shall shortly get back on with packing - any recommendations on how exactly to fit six bottles into my relatively small suitcase would be most welcome - and then perhaps do something with the meager ingredients left in my fridge and cupboards. I was invited to dinner, but considering my distinct lack of voice I suspect I would be poor company. And I can't stand being poor company, it's a terrible thing to inflict on one's friends.

My sister has cooked a gigantic meal for her friends - and gigantic here is not an overstatement; look at the size of the animal that she's essentially clothed in bacon :

That is, to me, what little pigs want to be when they're grown up. She also made the crackers you can see there herself and is probably going to work shortly afterwards. 

My sister is clearly some sort of meta-human from a parallel dimension. I mean that's ridiculous. To have an entire Christmas lunch ready and then go to work? I could barely move after that much food. My entire plan for Christmas Day is get up - install myself in a chair - eat until I can be rolled around like a beach ball. At some point I might go and play darts with the other chaps in my family, because that's what we chaps do, but just...

Massive kudos to my sister.

I have about two hours of work to do tomorrow, and then I'm essentially free. Hopefully nothing more will be sprung on me, but I doubt it - colleagues are leaving left and right, all eagerly heading to their homes and their families. I can't wait to make that journey.

I just need to work out how to fit the champers in.

Postscript - I acquired some tickets to Disney for some friends and they came with free infant tickets. If you have an under-17 brother/sister/niece/nephew/cousin you'd like to take, then I should be happy to dole out the tickets. Worms, birds, you know the drill.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

In which our hero discovers that things get worse before they get better

Oh lord. It's got even worse. I woke up around ten times last night, alternately freezing cold and sweatingly hot, and finally at 6 this morning tried to get up and failed. My muscles ache, my nose is stuffed and my head is aching as though I drank four bottles of champagne. As I didn't, it seems really quite unfair that I'm suffering the hangover from hell. If I'm not better by tonight I propose getting rascally drunk; if I am going to feel rotten in the morning I might as well deserve it.

So today has been spent drinking litres of water, nibbling on a baguette - and I mean nibbling, I can normally wolf them down in minutes and this one has lasted me an hour - and trying to avoid bright lights. I'm typing on a laptop with the lights turned all the way down and with the curtains drawn. In short, I am an unwell and unhappy bunny.

I also can't find good leek and potato soup. I'm tempted to try to make my own, even though I'm going home on Saturday. I'm going home on Saturday! I've already been asked to bring back a tin of golden syrup.

I'm going to curl up again. If you hear nothing from me tomorrow, I have died. Somebody else must send over a tin of golden syrup.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

And he will come on a pale horse, and his name will be Jonathan

I am feeling fifty shades of disgusting today. Sore lungs from coughing all day, headache, painful joints, and a sort of throbbing pain around the lower back. I have no truck with hypochrondia, so it's clear that I have Spanish Flu and I will die. Since everyone else is going on Friday too I'm not as bothered as I might be, but all the same it's a bit galling.

Today has consequently been a drudge of a day, dragging my corpse around by sheer force of will and holding it together with orange juice and croissants. It is the very glue of my being.

However, I had a couple of interesting blog posts to read which kept my spirits up as my body flagged. Kate, an old acquaintance from university, writes a lot about television. I try to live vicariously through her blog, because television is something I am sorely lacking here and the speed of internet is so bad that buffering a show may take longer than the length of the show itself.

The other blog I read this morning was by Alexandra, an acquaintance from long ago. If I say how long it makes me feel old, so let us say we have known each for some time. In any case, her blog is an interesting read, dealing with the ongoing struggle that being a girl is.

I'll just leave this here and tiptoe away then.

A comic there by potentially my favourite comic artist of all time, Bill Watterhouse. I'd really recommend getting his collections; you can pick them up from most bookstores and sometimes even charity shops.

In any case, it's just before nine but I'm crawling into bed and aching for a bit. If you need me, try me tomorrow.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Winding slowly down

It's been a peculiar sort of day. The end is so close I can practically taste it; all over the school people are winding down, bringing back books/tests/things they'd borrowed and not told me. On top of this, I'm trying to sort through all the books in my little mediatheque library and sort the utterly awful from the merely bad. Digging through and finding little diamonds of the 90s is unsettling; a book by young Delia Smith, for example, in which she is free of worry lines and the little wrinkles one gets when one gets drunk and shouts at football matches. Other gems are books about famous footballers, fronted by Michael Owen, another expounding the incredible technological breakthrough that is the Morris Minor...poor misshapen things.

My last class tonight was peculiar, to say the least - we played French trivial pursuit, and my students tried their best to translate the questions and the answers. It started slowly, but before long they were leaping in and out of their seats, making noises that they hoped were approximately similar to words, and desperately trying to get the answer before anyone else. Magnificent. We also went through zodiac signs, just because, and face cards, because that was one of the questions. It's interesting to note that where the republican (and some might say sexist) French see a lady of noble birth next to a king they just think "Lady," while we think "Queen."

They also call the Jack "le valet," which to my mind is a damn sight simpler. A little research tells me why we have Js instead of Vs, but I like Vs. Not as much as this guy :

But, you know. They're better than Js.

My other student - my private student - had something of a cop out lesson, in that we played board games as well, but it was good practice and I feel like we did a lot of vocabulary expanding, even if I was not as strict with tenses as I should have been. We also played a game called Abalone, which if anyone else knows about I do wish they'd told me. Originally French but formed from the Greek ab and the English alone, and terribly good fun. Simpler even then chess, but similarly strategy-based. It's marvelous fun and I'd love to get it for Christmas, along with other board games. I have discovered that I rather like board games. But in all seriousness, if you don't know about Abalone, I'd recommend having a little go. Find someone with a set and bother them.

In fact, after Christmas, bother me. I shall be itching to play someone.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Le déjeuner en France

This morning I was woken by a call. One day, when I have a high powered job and responsibilities up to the eyeballs, that call will come at 3am and be an urgent call for help that only I can provide.

This time, however, it was at 8am and was an invitation to lunch.

I confess I didn't actually answer it. My voice, unlike Apple computers, is not ready to go from sleep. It takes a little while to get back to its smooth, British tones, and so I blearily flicked it to answerphone and staggered to the shower. The weekends are my favourite days of the week because, even though I have to get up early, nobody else does. So they don't. So there's hot water a-plenty.

I stepped from the shower just about ready to face the day and the lesson ahead with my student - the final one - when the phone rang again. This time my student presenting his apologies and letting me know that he had a match this morning, and that the lesson was unfortunately cancelled.

Once I'd run out of things to throw I slipped back between my sheets and caught three more hours of lovely sleep. Sleep is very much like money. When one has a lot, one hardly notices it. When one has only a little, each measure is precious. Those three hours were golden.

 And so to lunch I went. My host, Colette, is a charming lady who is working on her English for the sake of her (mostly American) clientele. Her husband is really nice, and has a very dry, very wicked sense of humour. He towers over his wife (and of course me) and smokes Camels. I thought this was going to be the entirety of our little lunch party; people with whom I am familiar and whose accents are known to me.

Coming up the stairs to their apartment, I was slightly unsettled to see the table set for six. Either we were going to switch seats halfway through lunch -  a tradition I was unaware of but was already formulating as a possible basis for the children's game musical chairs - or there were more guests coming.

- En fait, nous avons invité nos voisins. she said to me. Wonderful. Things were suddenly more interesting; the neighbours could be from anywhere and could have accents broader than the Champs d'Elysées. As it happens, they were a charming couple, she from the Netherlands and he from Alsace region, along with their daughter, who got over her initial shyness of me with the first mistake I made. And I made plenty, but somehow having your French corrected by a tiny and precocious infant makes the mistakes not seem so bad. Besides, this little terror of a teacher corrected her mother as well, who rolled sympathetic eyes at me when she insisted

- Mais Maman, tu veux dire... Children. Love them or hate them, you have to know how to deal with them, and for this I thank my mother. The years she has spent looking after other people's children has taught me two things; one, if you tell a child not to do something they will try to do it, and two, children and those with young hearts love magic tricks.

So we ate dinner, and we chatted a lot, and I managed - with the aid of Colette - to convince Emilie, the neighbour, that the haggis is in fact a real creature whose legs are shorter on one side that on the other. She held it far longer than I did, waxing on about the creature's relation to a similar animal that lived in the alps. We agreed, Colette and I, that it was well-known that the only way to catch one was to whistle at it. As soon as it heard it would try to run to you but, because of its physiology, will immediately fall over. It can then be captured at your leisure.

We finally both lost it when she asked, bemused,

- Est-il dans la famille marmotte ? and at the point we had to stop, with tears streaming down our faces and puzzlement reigning supreme. With dinner almost over, Hugh - Colette's husband - bought some fruit over.

Now some of my friends may have noticed this, but when I'm nervous I do a really silly trick. It's just a little sleight of hand; I learnt it when I was younger, but it seems to now be ingrained as something I do when my hands aren't doing anything. I was doing it with an orange, and noticed tiny Marie-Anna staring, so I stopped. It's an absurd thing to do.

She didn't think so. In fact, she insisted that I do it again, this time slowly, this time with my hands out to my sides, and finally with my sleeves rolled up. In a worrying glimpse into the future, should I have a daughter, I acquiesced to every demand this infant made of me until her mother hushed her. She looked terrifically stormy for a moment, and since I'm a sucker, I said

- Je parie que tu ne peux pas rester silent pour cinq minutes. Mais si tu peux, je te montrerais un petit tour de magie avec des cartes. As-tu compris? she just nodded. Smart kid. Worryingly so. In any case, that gave the adults five minutes to talk, and the neighbours quizzed me about my studies, what I was doing, what I did at work. The conversation flowed nicely and before long Marie-Anna was wildly (but silently) gesticulating at an imaginary watch. I congratulated her on her win, and she ran off to get some cards. It was interesting to note that at the same time, the adults all leant just a little bit forward - not enough to seem eager, but not so far away that they'd miss anything.

I did my favourite trick to start with; it's a simple switch where the action happens long before the action seems to happen, and then let Marie-Anna take over. She had a sweet little trick that she was clearly quite proud of, so I decided to let her be the star. After all, true recognition is better when people know you're pulling the strings but can't work out how, and the easiest way to do that is to let someone else perform the trick. So we did Four Kings, and for added drama I did it with my eyes closed and simply gave her instructions in French.

I confess, that meant I had to rely on my French to make a trick work, and the trick only works if the instructions are flawless.

It worked. We gave Marie-Anna a round of applause and she glowed to the tips of her ears. Nobody asked how I'd done it because I obviously couldn't have done anything. It was magic. And magic is still cool.

Alas; the trick was the last thing to be done, and it was time to pull on coats, shake hands and kiss cheeks. Marie-Anna's shyness seemed to come back in a sudden wave, and she had to be given a gentle push by her mother to give me the kisses that are necessary socially. I can't say I didn't find this a little bizarre, but I didn't want to cause offense to the nice people I'd just met, so I lent down and we kissed cheeks. It seems odd, but what's odd for me was clearly normal for my new friends. So when in Rome.

Last lesson with Colette tomorrow, so we'll do something quite fun I think. Five more days at work, and then home!

The tripartite nature of bad luck.

Firstly: this is a giganto-blog, and by all means dip in and out. I broken it up with pictures to make for snack-sized morsels of writings, but if you feel like going at it American style, by all means tuck in and get it all over your face.

An enormously long day which, at 3am, has still not finished. This might be seen as evidence that I am suffering for some sin that I have committed or some serious karmic backlash.

Despite the path of my life being strewn with cowpats from the devil's own satanic herd, and the excited and impassioned speech of 8 drunken Venezuelans that is providing the soundtrack to this blog, it's been a delightful day. Warmer than expected, a solid dose of excellent food, and I got to crack out my camera and take touristy pictures of the Eiffel Tower.

I'd like to pretend I did it ironically, but in fact I really like the Eiffel Tower, not least because it's been used in a con trick by a man named Victor Lustig, who - long story short - sold it to an enterprising American who planned to turn a profit on the Iron Lady by scrapping it. He did this not once, but twice.

To sell the Eiffel Tower once would be a trick of wondrous proportions. To sell it twice, the same method, to the same nationality, is worthy of note in every book of morals under a warning about avarice. What a marvelous man. What a wonderful trick.

But I've jumped ahead. My student and I finally completed his descriptive writing; he's come up with some excellent ideas and an analogy that's absolutely smashing. I don't know how much more I'll say about it, and I'm afraid we shan't hear much more from him for a little while. He's going off to Germany for the holidays - and so I shall be quite without funds for several weeks. On the other hand, I shall be having a lovely week of paid leave with my delightful family:

I'm seriously excited by this.

But not by the distance that separates us.

I headed into town at about quarter to one, catching the bus in, and didn't manage to make it to the Champs de Mars until 2. The traffic was a nightmare; short of tentacles and my old classmates critiquing this blog, it could not have been more horrible. I do not like cramped spaces, I do not like armpits in my face and I do not like the capricious system that the French metro uses to judge the length of time to keep the doors open. I'd like to say it's an inverse-proportional law, but that would imply some kind of...process. And it's not. It's just capricious. And nearly chopped off someone's hand. Capricious and vicious.

In any case, my friends and I managed to rendez-vous at the Champs de Mars - cue the touristy pics above - and then essentially strolled about. We had a wander over to St Michel Notre Dame, where there was a tiny little market which featured both corsets and garters - curious garb, considering the way Notre Dame loomed over us - and made our way to the Palais du Luxembourg, which eagle-eyed readers will remember I've visited a couple of times before. This time, we had come for the gardens, and made it just in time for a stern member of the gendarme to point sternly to a sign that told us that the gardens closed at half past four.

By the sheerest of coincidences, that was exactly the time. Bizarre. We retired to a nearby café, where a very stroppy waiter - where are these people found? - told me off for having cards. No gambling, no card games, not even an illustration of an exciting statistical principal. There was a cat behind the bar, however, because while gambling and magic is anathema to the French spirit having a cat in a drinks preparation area is absolutely a-okay. 

It's a shame, because this was otherwise a lovely little café, with delicious rillettes sandwiches and milkshakes. The staff are otherwise friendly and attentive, and the cat is quite sweet. It was marred only by a pompous and over-officious little tit behind the bar. 

From this café, we went to dinner at a place called Café Indiana, which is apparently a south-western American style restaurant. It's also sort of racist, apparently, but I can't for the life of me see why. There are portraits of Native Americans on the walls, and the symbol is the stereotype of a Native American :

But otherwise, I'm not really sure how it's racist. Perhaps a friendly American passing by this blog will post an explanation.

In any case, the food was delicious and hugely portioned; my friend Mary attacked a plate of ribs and wings with such gusto that I felt sure that she hadn't eaten in a week. No photos, but imagine, if you will, an otherwise sweet and cherubic face coated in barbecue sauce and smiles. Kate, who was sitting opposite, had the same meal but managed to keep her face quite spotless. I have no idea how.

For myself I had fajitas, which in Indiana are apparently served with rice as well as the normal bits and pieces. I didn't know, but now I do, I shall be adding it to all of my fajitas. Gives it a more solid feel. I couldn't face the whole thing - I probably shouldn't have had the gigantic rillettes sandwich previously mentioned - but Kate was kind enough to relieve me of my burden. Paula, who's also known as Lea, arrived at last - she protested that she was Hispanic, and therefore an hour behind us. She had the same as me, and as it arrived she looked at it, and at me, and pulled this face:

But she managed nonetheless, and did rather better than I did. We finished with desserts - caiprinha for me - and sorted out the bill. A curiosity, by the by, of this restaurant was that the food came with almost alarming alacrity. The bill may as well have come by post. At any rate, we settled up as Paula explained that in Spanish to eat and leave without paying is called "dead dogging." 

(In British English, dogging is generally frowned upon. Dead dogging more so. I did not tell her this. She is pure and lovely, despite her weakness for Belgian cake.)

At this point, things went a little bit Pete Tong.

Last week, these same friends of mine had made the same journey and, before taking the train, we were all convinced that we'd seen two trains that departed later on the departure board. Certain in our misapprehension, we dawdled in the restaurant, unwilling to face the rain. 

You will note the prefix "mis-"

We arrived at St Lazare in good time for the train that we expected to leave at ten to ten. As it happened, that train arrived at ten to ten, and then sat calmly in the station until twenty to nine the next morning. It seemed that my friends were stranded in Paris.

I can't say I know what the others thought in that moment, but I will conjecture that Kate was annoyed at herself more than anything. She and I are both slightly obsessive about checking things and arriving in good time, so to be undone by what she felt was a failing on her part to be her normal self was, I imagine, a little frustrating. Paula sprung immediately into action, calling friends she was staying with to see if room could be found. All of this with all four of us a little pregnant with food babies. It could have been the Christmas story all over again.

Mary asked for fifty cents to use the loos. The French may have invented sang-froid, but I believe Mary has perfected it. Within fifteen minutes she had expertly (aside from her first attempt to ring her father at his office on a Saturday) wrangled sufficient cash to stump up for a night in Paris. For my part, I recommended the Hotel Cosy, which is a stroll of about five minutes from Nation and absolutely brilliant. I stayed there last week, and the beds are wonderful, the rooms are - as one might expect - cosy as anything and the café next door serves an extremely decent breakfast. The floor is made of stripped wood and the walls are painted calming colours, and each room has its own little character. It cost the girls 55€ each, and that's for a room with a washbasin. A room with a shower and toilet was 70€. It's amazing value, especially when the girls payed 50€ for a room in a hostel that was not, by all accounts, too pleasant.

Kate flopped into bed like a human-shaped water balloon. She didn't look 100%, and so Mary and I headed downstairs into the little café next door for a drink and a chat. There's no doubt that Paris is having an effect on us; we made one drink each last about an hour and a half and talked about the desperation of creativity, the agony of editing and the half-expressed dreams of awards and recognition. It was terribly Parisian.

On the other hand, she was drinking a pina colada with a glowstick in it, so perhaps we've not achieved total assimilation yet. We also talked about the physics of magic in writing, and family, and influences. I am constantly surprised that our colonial cousins forbid drinking until the age of 21, but it would go some way to explaining the three wrong turnings Mary took between the café and the hotel, a distance of perhaps ten metres. She is a curious girl, simultaneously bubbly and spiky, and I always enjoy talking to her. Two snaps of her and I follow; in both, my face is slightly obscured. A shame, but life isn't all wine and roses. If you'd like to read what she has to say, she's got a blog too: 

In any event, we wound our merry way back to the hotel and I caught the last train back. One short slog later and finally, finally, I was home. To the sound of salsa. 

Gardens - Train - A party until 5am

I know that science doesn't accept anecdotal evidence, but I feel like this is sufficiently compelling.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Telling the truth with lies - PR

First up: my cousin is getting married in January. Both my father and my brother will be in Dubai, so I will be escorting my sisters and my mother to a wedding. If I escape with my sanity intact, there may indeed be a God, and a merciful one at that. It sounds like it's going to be rushed and hectic, which I suspect all weddings are whether preparations started a year or a month ago.
It's also a very romantic story, and romantic stories - really, any stories - make me very happy. Weddings especially though. Love is a tricky thing to pin down, and if two people can find it with each other, then celebrations are certainly in order. Though I'm still not sure about the (agreed, symbolic) "giving away" of the bride, harkening back to a time when girls were so useless that you had to literally give them away, along with a gift of money. We certainly don't make the bride's father pay a huge sum of money so that we can take her off his hands.

By, say, making him pay for the wedding itself.

That definitely does not happen any more.

The problem with changing this idea is that it's a tradition, and tradition just means "story that people have told for a long time." Stories have power; we learn that from the cradle. There are thousands of fantastic articles detailing the power stories have and, although I'd cheerfully advocate reading all of them, why not start with a story about the power of stories. It's complex, but trust me. Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett, is brilliant and although it's fictional, so are a lot of stories. It doesn't make them less real, just less true.

Not untrue, though. All stories need a kernel of truth. You can wrap that kernel in so many lies that it takes another form - racism is the truth "I'm scared of change" wrapped up in social, economic and political language until it becomes almost acceptable. The message of the story is formed of the lies with which you wrap your truth.

And yes, of course you can tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but the fact is that's boring. Any omission might be considered a lie, and a story with no omissions is dull. As an example, 24 is well-known for the fact that Jack Bauer has never, ever gone to the toilet. Ever. Why? Because that's dull. It's a necessary lie to tell the truth that we really like Jack Bauer being Jack Bauer, and he loses a portion of that character when he has to take a toilet break. It's one of the few times when dynamic action is really frowned upon.

I mean you don't actually look and frown, because that might be weirder. Etiquette in the gents' is a hydra of potential slip-ups. (Pun intended and immediately regretted.)

In short, if you're telling a story, first you need to find your truth. And if you want to tell the world something true, then you might need to find yourself a storyteller.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

In which our Hero realises he has bitten off more than he can chew

It is certainly getting colder. Snow is not yet falling all around us, but the threat is omnipresent. Those who live outside the city come in cars bearing fresh powder. The smell is crisp and blue. And I have bitten off far more than I can chew.

The Murder Mystery plan was absolutely brilliant, because it combines two facets of something I quite enjoy, to whit: Making Things Up. This is not the same as Lying, because Lying is something wicked children do, while Making Things Up is something actors and authors do. I agree that the moral difference is sometimes negligible, but the payout is larger by several orders of magnitude.

In any case, it has only just come to my attention that what I've actually promised to do is write a murder-mystery novel in a week. No, not a week. In the five evenings before I ought to send my students their characters.

Tonight is evening three. So far I have three outlines and a timeline that would only please the Doctor. See below.

Pictured: Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey...stuff.

This task is also driving home how egotistical I am, because for the life of me I cannot think of a single reason anyone would want to kill me. I rack my brains for hours, but at every turn I find the motive of this mysterious assassin utterly unlikely. I turned to a friend, and in short order I got the double whammy of jealousy and hatred as motive (and with the kind of response time that indicated she'd considered it before). Unsettling.

However, my hair has been judged as exceedingly attractive and far superior to the mop it was before, and although I now have very cold ears it is a price I pay stoically.

Pictured: Stoicism
Not pictured: Ears

A student has had the abstract for his paper accepted and we went through the introduction and conclusion to his paper together. Firstly, I'm incredibly proud of him, because this is his first paper and it's a work of sheer genius. I know this because it is utterly replete with words and phrases that by themselves I recognise but which, when strung together, flow past me in a veritable torrent of language. I sometimes recognise a whole phrase, but then it whips past me and I'm lost again. Grammatically it is perfect, but I fear that in terms of audience he is going for quality over quantity.

The final part of the day was a conference which started a half hour late - oh France, you deal with Father Time the same way you deal with all figures of authority; with utter contempt - and went on for two hours, aided and abetted by That Guy. Everyone knows That Guy. He goes to panels, conferences, anything with a question-answer format where you can quiz experts. He then uses these sessions to deliver a fifteen minute point which serves to do nothing but irritate every person in the room and force the panel to concentrate for fifteen minutes because this little sermon will not end with a question. Instead, That Guy will smirk slightly and ask "Don't you agree?"

If they are smart, the panel will say "Yes," and later people will pay fifty euros a head to beat That Guy up. If they are not, they will get involved by lowering themselves to That Guy's level. Cue a game of back-and-forth where the statements get longer, the questions are made up or the points don't matter. I might be thinking about something else.

It ended with drinks and canapés. I will give you this France. You do canapés very well.

Finally: I posted this last night on my Facebook page, but it's possible that you didn't see it. It's three minutes out of your life but I can guarantee they're worth it.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

In which our Hero finally understands Samson's pain

The midpoint has passed! It's CV season at work; students hoping to get English-speaking jobs after they graduate at the end of the year have realised that they ought to get an English speaker to read their CVs. Enter our hero.
I have to say, the one upside of this process is that I've seen a lot of very creative layouts and they've all given me ideas for a redraft of my own CV. It's also given me a tiny insight into the mind of a recruiter, and I already want to scream with frustration every time I read the same, recycled, uninspiring words and phrases.
For fun, I reread my CV to see how many of these phrases I had included. The prognosis wasn't great, so I'm going to have a redraft. I'm already thinking about internships for next year, which is exciting, but I'm also getting quite irritated by several big companies' insistence on 300/360 UCAS points. I didn't do inspiringly well at A-Level; that's not a big secret, but my degree is pretty good and getting better. Perhaps I'm just being a sore loser. Time will tell.

I had a haircut today, and I got what I had hoped I asked for and managed to carry on a conversation with the hairdresser, so an excellent end to the day. Several of the wonderful women in my life have been suggesting I get a trim, but it took an outright threat to induce me to go. I tend to the optimistic when it comes to my hair, as with most things in my life. Apparently where I see "shaggy, rugged and interesting" others see "poor guy, out in the cold with no home."

In any case, I've defied nature and got myself sheared in the winter by a franco-spaniard who tried to get me to buy a coffee machine. I nearly did. Someone reading this was within a gnat's wing of getting a coffee machine instead of Disney tickets this Christmas. I am slowly learning that buying other people what I want is not the right way to go about attacking the Christmas shopping.

All the same...who wouldn't want a coffee machine with a European plug?

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

It Could Be You

After yesterday's debacle of a mix-up - the less said about that, the better - today has been a day full of excellence. I didn't spend it in Paris, which is always a bit of a boo, but I did spend it chatting away in French and debating the relative merits of doing things with my new office. Some really exciting plans, but unfortunately it means hitting my brother up for another favour. At this rate I shall need to translate an entire book to square us up.
I posted my postcards yesterday; with any luck a couple of people will be receiving extremely short missives from me before long. Everyone else, I'm writing letters, when I'm not writing blogs. I prefer letters, but the advantage of the blog is that people can read it. My handwriting, on the other hand, requires a Rosetta stone and a sympathetic attitude before it can be decoded. Regardless; I am writing letters, and they should be posted soon.
The nights are drawing in here, although I'm sure they've been drawing in an awful lot quicker back at home. We are drawing towards the end of the year; ten days from the longest day, twenty from the end of the year, two weeks exactly from the second most talked about child this month. The number of column inches that Jesus and our future monarch will get over the next fortnight will, I imagine, be very similar. Fantastic.
My day has not been without its low points; my morning was mostly taken up by putting letters into envelopes. It's not rocket science, agreed, and had I the chance I would rather be learning something new, but it does have a certain pleasing rhythm to it. Open envelope. Insert papers. Rip tab. Close envelope. Seal. Add to stack that you have let grow ominously high. Feel Death's fingers brush your heart as the stack wavers...
Oh yes. I flirt with Death, and not in a romantic way. I neg Death right in her face. I tell her she's got a nice grin because it takes away the emphasis from her dark, empty eyes. When I dance with Death, I lead. Sometimes I eat chicken when I'm not even certain it's cooked.
Only sometimes though. I've heard it's actually quite bad for you.

In any case; back to my class this evening. We played a couple of games we've played before; Who Am I (this week's famous characters were Newton, Buddha, Bridget Jones and Benjamin Button) and Questions, the game from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and enacted here by the jealousy-inducingly talented Tim Roth and Gary Oldman :

I won, but I freely confess that I won mostly by cheating. I cheated by being English and very tricky, and using most of the ploys in the video above. If you would like to play at home, you must first invent the universe. After that, no rhetoric, hesitation, non sequiturs, repetition, or statements. Very simple to master, nearly impossible to play without tearing your hair out from the roots or reverting to baby-speak.
To finish up, we played Taboo, but with an added twist - the original word was in French. This put all of us at an advantage; my students because they had to read a French word and communicate their French thoughts into English with a limited vocabulary, and me because it turns out there are a whole load of French words that I don't know, which rather negated any benefit my modest vocabulary might bring. It was great fun though, and I hardly had to send anyone to the naughty chair.
The naughty chair is an idea my mother appropriated from Supernanny and I have applied to my students; anyone who speaks French sits in the naughty chair for a minute. It has simultaneously massively reduced French spoken in class and turned my students into jackals, willing to bait and trick their friends into speaking French so that they can then tell on them. Call me Dr Frank.

Next week will be our final week, and I'm really excited because I'm planning on doing a murder mystery style lesson. They're going to be emailed a description of their character, and then over the course of the lesson the mystery will unfold. They'll be allowed to ask each other questions, and the murderer will have to lie. However, the other characters may well have their own secrets, and since they are already more than willing to push each other under the bus next week should see some blood-letting at the very least. If you have some ideas for characters with shady pasts and interesting developments, I'd be really appreciative if you left me a comment. 

Otherwise, I'll be at my typewriter, while lightning flashes and clichés pound on the door like a traveller lost in the storm.

Monday, 10 December 2012

An Unexpected Journey

Bandwagon? What bandwagon?

Yesterday was another teaching session with my Sri Lankan student, whose writing progresses with subtle pokes and prods from me. He has to write a descriptive essay, and after last week's lesson on brevity and length we talked about emotion and exposition. I've told him he's absolutely forbidden from telling the audience what is happening. "He was scared," is utterly repugnant. It's all feelings and faces and imagining the scene unrolling in his head like a movie. There is no narrator.
Of course there is a lot of exposition; every time a character explains the plot to move things along, but we're going to avoid telling him that for the moment and concentrate on the language of description.

He's chosen to describe the war in Sri Lanka, which I confess is a little...unsettling, but he was there, and it does evoke incredible emotion, so that's a great start. I just worry that he's a little close to it all. Still, he seems okay so far. We're starting with the assassination of the sixth Prime Minister of India, a really horrible story to work with - but horror works well for descriptive language; we can use soft, gentle language to set the scene and then contrast it with powerful, violent language. Calm before the storm, clichés aplenty, etcetera. It's really interesting to see someone whose first language isn't English making links and suggesting verbs and ideas that are really quite startling. Very satisfying.

In any case, he's making excellent progress, and has promised me he'll work on it during the week. We shall see how that turns out; when I am there to pressure him he sparkles. Otherwise I suspect he comes off the gas a little. I suspect this because it's what I did.

The rest of Sunday was uneventful, relaxing. Did the washing up that tends to pile up when one is a bachelor, the laundry, kicked back and read a little. Blissful, really.

My Monday, by contrast, has been rather uninspiring. I went into Paris to collect some things from our soirée at the Sénat, but everything was just...grey. Perhaps my mood leeched into my vision, but it was just insipid and dull. Took a few pictures, mooched, and it started to drizzle - again, that insipid, pathetic, can't-even-be-bothered-to-properly-rain. Proper rain you can do stuff in, fight, kiss, declare love - all three, if you're anything at all like me. This was just...dampness that hung in the air.

Still. Tomorrow is a Latter Day, and hopefully it will bring interesting things. I've a couple of interesting meetings, a very long paper to look over for a student, and some research to do. It should be very exciting and keep me delightfully busy.

We hope so. Don't we precious?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The long, dark, rum-addled weekend of the soul

This weekend has been utterly replete with highs and lows. It has been a weekend of hideous drunkeness and glorious cold and intense irritation at damned stupid tourists.

Let's start with the rum.

Rum is a fascinating drink and goes well with all sorts of things to create refreshing and delicious cocktails. It can also be used to get our hero hopelessly drunk and turn the room into a spinning kaleidoscopic merry-go-round of unhappiness. I started with the idea of running with the first, and the evening culminated - oh, how predictably - in the second.

Being drunk is a bore, being drunk is a chore;
Being drunk is the worst when you look at the floor
It goes up and comes down like a ride at the fair
In the bath, on a bed, all the time, everywhere.
Being drunk is the pits
And next day it's the -

That's quite enough butchery of Seuss for today I think. In any case; Saturday dawned bright and clear, like an icicle to the eyeballs. A hangover of the type where blinking hurts, where your breath rasps like sandpaper and the smells of France, those delicious, rich, varied smells make your stomach turn over. Speaking of things that make my heart race and my stomach flutter - a segue so subtle that I need not point out how marvellously clever it is - a trio of friends had made the journey to Paris to see the wonderful Christmas markets. I was within a hair's breadth of blowing them off and heading home to be pitiful, but realised that doing so would be extremely impolite. And two of these friends are Americans. They rely on me to be the epitome of British good manners, taste, charm, wit and sartorial excellence, and since I'd already disappointed on one account - I was in jeans(!) - I could not disappoint on another. And so I dragged myself and my hangover - by this time it had had sufficient time to really develop into a back-hugging, joint-paining arse of a hangover - to St. Lazare. By that I mean I almost ran into the station by accident, having walked around it twice and still failed to see it. Don't judge. Remember the chocolate biscuits?

We ventured forth, the five of us, all three of my wonderful friends donating their water bottles to the battle against my hangover. It was to no avail, but the thought was kind, and I found that being underground eased the pain slightly. I have no idea why this is, but the next hangover I have I'm going to be borrowing a coffin. There is no way that is not a bad idea. The markets were, from an objective point of view, wonderful, with beautiful things to buy and delicious things to eat. Spiced sausages from Spain, sauerkraut from Germany, and French cheeses by the ton.

All of these things would have normally had me salivating and partaking eagerly in the titbits offered by every vendor in the place, possibly even using fake facial hair and a variety of colourful hats to swindle more.

As it happened, every sense I had was strangely enlarged - another punishment visited upon me by this bastard hangover; it rendered me superhuman and simultaneously as weak as a kitten - and every scent, from spiced to sour to the perfume my friends were wearing was a sign for my stomach to leap, like a salmon in spawning season, for freedom. I kept in down. I drank more water. I also searched desperately for toilets, because the French seem to have a phobia of having too many toilets. "Too many" here is a metaphor for "Any more than 1 per thousand metres"

We circulated, we oohed and aahed and ummed and strolled. The girls bought things, and I was awarded "homme le plus bon chanceux du marché," by a guy who sold just enormous portions of delicious-looking food. I was with three attractive women. Had I been less delicate, I would have agreed and tipped enormously while dazzling all and sundry with a cheeky grin. Other men would have seethed with repressed jealousy, and their girlfriends would have looked at me appraisingly.

Instead I smiled weakly and swallowed some vomit. I'm so much cooler in my imagination.

From La Défense - which, by the way, has a yodelling Swissman, a sight well worth seeing if you get the chance - we moved to the Champ d'Elysée, the most beautiful, the most disgustingly over-packed street I have ever been on. We went all the way down, doing out best to move through throngs of people gathered in the middle of the street. The middle of the street. The mind boggles. A special mention to the British tourists who walked incredibly slowly in a group of five, all with their arms linked, all looking down at their Blackberries and loudly wondering where they were. I told them very loudly; she looked up, veered to the side to let us pass, and loudly exclaimed her surprise that in the capital of France, on the Champs d'Elysée, someone else spoke English. Why this is a surprise to anyone is literally beyond me, but perhaps my raspy throat and look of pain and irritation fooled her into thinking I was not of English stock. Plus, I was in jeans.

We also strolled up the top part of the street; the girls wanted to look in Swarovski (the brand that nobody pronounces the same way twice!) and I strolled a little further up to venture into Cartier. The staff there are exceptionally friendly and helpful, although that may be because they're doing their best to fleece you. In any case, there were a few beautiful pieces, one or two worth purchasing, and a lot of very flashy but ultimately off-putting bling. Did I buy anything?

You'll have to wait and see, won't you.

At this point in the story my hangover was finally beaten by means of potato and lardon soup. A huge pot that steamed and smelled delicious; flavoursome but in a very wholesome way. I sipped it like a dying man sips the elixir of life; slowly at first and then, as his strength returns, in great gulps. It may as well have been the elixir of life. The scientist in me is suggesting I get more drunk next weekend and try the soup earlier, to see if it is, in fact, the true elixir. The scientist in me can get stuffed.

Finally - exhausted - we retired to the Champs de Mars, and after Instagramming and posing for multiple photos in front of the Iron Lady we sat down in an extremely swanky (and priced up to the very heavens) little café. Café du Trocadero. I recommend it heartily but advise you remortgage your house first. And here we met a friend of the girls, a Latvian who reminded me of my brother, were my brother a hundred times less mature and Latvian. And a little less intelligent.

There was some conversation, a bit of verbal jousting, several very awkward moments, and then I escorted my friends back to their train. The Latvian was left at the café with his ice cream. Goodbyes were said, alongside the frantic search by one of our party for the latest edition of Good Housekeeping, and I turned my nose towards home. Long weekend. Good weekend. And they'll be back next week, and I shall be sober and sartorially satisfactory.

And I'm also going to stuff my face, grin, and cause seething and appraisals from all around. Because I can.

Final thought. Putting people in boxes according to their date of birth is dumb. What affects our lives is down here, right now, and not up there. The five minutes you spend reading a horoscope is five minutes of your life you will never get back. If you watch the prologue to The Libertine, however, you will only lose two minutes but will really, really enjoy them. The recovery will take the other three.

Try it.