Friday, 11 April 2014

Evidence that you don't need to go to a stand-up gig for comedy - just teach year 7s

I thought I would treat you to a favourite scene of mine from the sequel to 'Being Miss' which I'm currently writing and which will be next year's Booker prizewinner (according to a vivid dream I have sometimes in which I walk up to the stage to receive my prize money wearing a pair of greying knickers, a string vest and some Granddad slippers).

It is Monday morning.  'Miss' is in the middle of teaching year 7 a play version of 'Dracula'.  Year 7 are going to act out the scene in which the vampiresses attack Jonathan Harker ..........

‘But you said we could be the vampirettes, Miss.’ Krystal had appointed herself the spokesperson.
‘Vampiresses,' I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Krystal. ‘Vampirettes, vampiressters, it doesn’t matter,’ she said, tossing aside my desire for linguistic accuracy as though it were a used tissue. ‘So me and Bryony and Jade wanted to act it out properly by dressing up and stuff.  Didn’t we?’ The other two nodded, obedient as nuns. This was incongruous, clothed as they were in dark purple sheets that looked borrowed from a whore’s boudoir. And either they’d found some unusually pale foundation or they had Tippexed their faces.
‘I don’t remember mentioning costumes,' I said, 'and all the white make-up and black lips and blood down your chins. And the teeth. You should have asked me if you wanted to do this.’
‘It’s not real blood. It’s red paint,’ said Jade. ‘We got it from Art. Mr Mason didn’t mind. He let us put it on at break, in his classroom, while he ate his Poptarts.’
We were in the treacherous realms of one teacher’s standards against another’s. ‘You’re meant to be outside at break, not blooding yourselves up in Art,’ I said.

The rest of the class were observing the incident with interest, hoping for escalation. All schoolchildren live in hope of escalation - shouting, people kicking doors, the ‘f’ word: it’s what keeps them going while studying pond life in Biology.
‘Well, anyway, let’s get on with it now,’ I sighed. ‘Tristan. Come up here with your copy of the play. You were going to play Harker, weren’t you?’

Tristan looked wary. A tiny blonde-headed boy with eyes the colour of cobalt, he really belonged at Charterhouse or Rugby School, or in the Christmas story, bringing good news of great joy. He was already reading Robert Louis Stevenson and Dickens as well as science books. Other pupils his age were reading science books but those were called ‘Why is Snot Green?’ or ‘Stuff that Scares your Pants Off!’ Tristan was reading ‘The Science Magpie: a Miscellany of Paradoxes, Explications, Lists, Lives and Ephemera from the Wonderful World of Science.’ His only problem was that he never did his homework, because he always had more interesting things to do, such as, no doubt, restoring Victorian combustion engines in his bedroom. He was constantly in my lunchtime detentions for yet again omitting to complete the tasks I set, hence regular calls from his doting mother with her worries about his digestion because he’d had to rush a meal. I didn’t like to admit to her that all the kids rushed the meals at our school to avoid noticing what vile crap they were eating.

‘Come on, Trithtan,’ said Bryony, whose vampire teeth were getting in the way of her lips. She wiped spittle from her chin with the back of her hand.
‘Yeah, get up here,’ said Krystal. ‘We want to radish you.’
None of this encouraged Tristan to move towards the front of the class. He chewed his lip and glanced at Stephen, another timid boy and his best friend, as if to say, ‘Rescue me.’ Stephen shook his head, his eyes wide. Not even for Tristan would he approach Gorgons.
‘Come on, Tristan,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you a merit.’
‘No good, Miss,’ called out a boy from the back. ‘He already has 63 this term. And two badges.’
‘Two badgerth?’ said Bryony.
‘Badges,’ I said.
‘Oh, I thoughth he meanth the animalth kind of badgerth,’ she said, managing to suck back the spittle this time before it emerged. Was this what Ofsted meant by ‘rapid progress’?

Just as I thought we would have to abandon the lesson plan, Tristan moped up to the front. The class exploded into exaggerated applause, no doubt relieved that he had nominated himself scapegoat, so no one else would get picked on to be eaten alive by three girls whose paint jobs hadn’t dried enough to stop the fake blood from smudging down their necks and onto the collars of their school shirts. And I don’t know what they’d used as eyeliner, but I could see that Jade kept blinking as though it were irritating her corneas. If the Headteacher came in now, I thought, he would have something to say, and it wouldn’t be ‘How about a pay rise?’ 

Tristan read his part as though he’d been on the stage for years. He played the terrified Jonathan Harker, about to be attacked by three voracious, predatory females, with great conviction. And, as long as I kept reminding the vampiresses, ‘No, don’t actually bite him,’ he got himself radished very entertainingly for the class.

‘Thank you, Tristan,’ I said, when the scene was over. ‘You can go and sit down now.’ I didn’t mention the smudge of red paint on his forehead, but Stephen noticed it. He pulled a pure white handkerchief from his trouser pocket, leant over, and rubbed gently at Tristan’s skin until the mark had gone.
Rumours were that Stephen was also a good actor, despite his shyness. If, in ten years’ time, they did a remake of Brideshead Revisited, I could see the two of them in the main parts: white suits, straw boaters, sitting under a tree in the 1920s sunshine.
And not a vampiresster called Krystal in sight.  Merely the Second World War.

Neither vampiress seemed able to locate Jonathan's neck at the first attempt

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reasons why Fran is determined not to get fooled again ...

I woke early this morning, as usual, well before my alarm went off, and was fascinated by an item on Radio 4's 'Farming Today' programme all about how a farm in Devon was marketing giraffe milk with the help of a local zoo.  Did any of you hear it?

I listened with interest to the differences between milking cows and milking giraffes, to the description of the milk and how similar to goats' milk it was, and to the fact that they were marketing it in small cartons for now because it was an 'acquired taste' and the customer base wasn't yet secure.  'Do you milk them by hand?' the presenter asked, and the zookeeper said, 'Of course - she'd be frightened by being attached to a milking machine' and I thought, 'Too right.  Why does everything have to be mechanised anyhow?'

The farmer concerned offered the presenter 'tea or coffee?' so she could try the milk, but she opted to try the milk neat.  'So would I,' I thought.  'Creamy milk like that wouldn't make very nice tea.'  

Then I woke up properly and remembered what the date was.

Embarrassment: the one and only good reason for polo neck jumpers

A few years ago, Radio 4 did an item on the 'Eurovision Songbird Contest' that was going to be held alongside the normal Eurovision Song Contest.  England was going to nominate the blackbird as its contestant.  They played a clip of a blackbird singing and then a few clips of other birds being put forward by the different European countries.  I thought the contest a fabulous idea and decided I would definitely watch that.  I remember thinking, 'I wonder how they'll get them all there.'

Later that day, I told someone at work all about the songbird contest.

It took months for the teasing to stop.

Next year, I shall be on my guard for the 'Giraffes Got Talent' item.  They're not going to get me again.

The first giraffe wowed the judges with his rendition of 'Your love has lifted me higher'


Monday, 24 March 2014

Evidence that Fran has ventured outdoors

I actually went into a field this weekend.

What, outdoors?  I hear you say.  Do you even venture onto the doormat outside your house without hyperventilating and needing to breathe into a paper bag? I hear you say.  Don't you feel panicky merely standing near an open window? I hear you say.

Well, here's the proof that I braved the elements.  I took this photo myself, honest.

These are tractor prints, not my footprints.
  I may be a size 7 but even my trainers don't make tracks like that.

And here's a picture of the whole field, although I did send this to my sister and she said, 'You could have taken that while leaning out of a cafe window.'  This kind of cynicism cuts one to the quick.

This looks as though I was leaning over when taking this.  I may well have been,
through tiredness.  We had walked for 30 whole minutes.

What got me into the field, then?

No, I was NOT lost.

It was because my friend, with whom I had gone away for a weekend of writing, eating scones, more writing, more scone-eating, and more writing, is the type who loves to be outdoors.  For her, the wind through her hair is a joy.  For me, it's a threat, messes with my mood, and makes me want to slap people.  Still, I conquered my aversion to fresh air and followed her meekly out of the door of the house (checking for danger - one never knows) and into the field.

I think I managed quite well.  I had my hands in my pockets the whole time which my friend perhaps thought was because of the cold, but in fact I was clutching a card bearing the phone number of a reputable therapist, just in case I needed to book an appointment in a hurry.

There's a lot of green and brown in the countryside; I think I've mentioned this before.  I do worry about the lack of variety and am unreasonably cheered up by the odd daffodil or bit of purple heather.  This is why I prefer Turner's paintings of fiery sunsets to Constable's paintings of the countryside.

Manager of art shop: 'Hey, Constable's been in again.'
Assistant:  'Let me guess.  We're left with a glut of purples and yellows and need to order a shedload more of the green and brown.'
Manager: 'You guessed it.  What's the betting we'll get that chap in who does the Shrek and Incredible Hulk paintings and we'll have to make him wait?'
Assistant: 'And that guy who does the adverts for Cadbury.  He's going to be disappointed again.'
Manager: 'I'll have a word with Constable.  He can't keep doing this.  I mean, who's going to buy paintings as boring as that?  He needs to chuck in the odd sheep at least, or perhaps a farmer wearing a red shirt.'
Assistant: 'I agree. He's never going to make a name for himself.'
Manager: 'There's no telling some people.  Hey, here comes another customer.'
Assistant: 'Arrgh, no.  It's that woman who does the cabbage paintings.  What do we tell her?'

She ended up having to paint aubergines and it wasn't her genre at all.  Next time, she'd shop online.  

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Evidence that Fran-Fran can talk about the can-can

Do you know about modal verbs?  It doesn't matter if you don't.  You won't have a less fulfilling life.  It's not like not knowing about green meaning go and red meaning stop, or that a wasp on the rim of your lemonade can is a bad sign, or that taking your earrings off over a sink means oops only one earring left, or that opening the door to a double-glazing salesperson means three hours off your life expectancy, or that letting a two year old dress herself means you have to accept her woolly jumper/tutu/wellies/flat cap ensemble.

I do know about modal verbs, but that's because I have to teach them at school, not because I woke up one day saying, 'Hey, I know what's missing from my life!  No wonder I've been feeling low.'

My boss told me today that she teaches modal verbs using the Beverley Knight song 'Shoulda Woulda Coulda'.  If you didn't know already what modal verbs were, does that give you a clue?

Just in case you'd care more for neck acne than for modals, but you like Beverley Knight and fancy a listen to a great tune, here she is singing it live.  It's ace.

A brief distraction from the worries of life, care of Beverley Knight

I'm not as inventive as my boss and, anyway, I have only just learned how to show a Youtube clip in class WITH sound.  So I've been teaching modals by asking what's the difference between 'I must do my homework ... I may do my homework ... I could do my homework ... I will do my homework ... I should do my homework ...'  Each one has a slightly different meaning and the modal verb changes the 'strength' of the word 'do', giving elements of choice or possibility.  Or taking them away.

(Of course, the answer is, 'I must do my homework.'  Whatever the question.)

Beverley Knight and my boss got me thinking.  What other songs have modals in?  What would happen if the modal was a different one?

Celine Dion's heart might have gone on.  But might not.

The Rolling Stones would have sung 'I Shouldn't Get No Satisfaction' and their scanning would have been all out of synch to add to the pre-existing grammar problems.

Boys II Men would have sung 'I Might Make Love to You' instead of 'I Will Make Love to You' and may not have got the chance to make love at all, with that kind of shilly-shallying around.

Pete Seeger would have discovered that singing 'We Could Overcome' didn't draw quite the crowds of the original.

Whitney Houston's 'I Must Always Love You' would have been a song about doing your duty and one you'd sing to an aunt you only just tolerated at Christmas or a mongrel you'd inherited when a friend turned out to be allergic and you took him on out of a feeling of obligation.

And those frilly ladies doing the can-can in gay Paris would have found things very awkward indeed.

Yes, they could could, while they were young.

And then the options for live entertainment got a bit more limited.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Further evidence that every now and again Fran writes something more serious


I don’t know what Venice is like.  Once, I was as near as damn it, on a ship, with the chance to disembark and laze on a gondola trailing my hand in water, or sip coffee from a tiny white cup outside a cafĂ©.  But I was fourteen, and David was seventeen, and we didn’t need what Venice had to offer.  We’d made our own romance.
            At least, that’s the way I prefer to remember it.
It was 1976.  We were on the SS Uganda as part of a school cruise around the Mediterranean.  The night before, there’d been a disorderly evening of storms, of portholes that showed no water, then all water, then no water.  Everyone screeched with delight in the ship’s common room as glasses slewed off tables and anxious teachers hovered, urging us back to cabins.  We pressed coins into the jukebox and played ‘Rock the Boat’ by the Hues Corporation, dancing without balance like badly-operated puppets. 
David was with a group of friends, throwing his blonde head backwards and laughing as the ship see-sawed.  I was sure he hadn’t even noticed me; I was small and dark-haired, not pretty, and he was muscled and over six feet tall: a rugby player.  But as many of our friends sloped off holding their stomachs, he and I were among the few left in the common room, and he held my gaze.  By midnight, he’d draped his arm round my shoulders and I was proud in front of his friends.  I wasn’t the only one who thought he’d never consider me.
            In the morning, in Venice, the storm’s mood had passed.  Teachers gave us maps of the city and warnings about timings.  ‘Back by four.’
            But David and I agreed – was it his idea or mine? - that we would hide somewhere on the ship so that we could avoid the crowds and our teasing friends.  Soon the ship had emptied itself of our school group and the supervising teachers, all clutching their lira and white sunhats.

            It was three hours before someone came to find us.  We nestled together in a corner on one of the decks, away from the glare of the fervent sun and of the ship’s staff, and while everyone else explored the waterways and the Venetian glass shops, we kissed.    On and on, we kissed.  His hands mapped the skin under my summer linens.  I leaned back several times and searched his blue eyes for a sign that he too was in love, but then just closed my own eyes and gave myself up to the moment.
            Mrs Drake's voice came sudden, like a slap.  We stood up at the teacher's command, clumsy with disappointment and the heat of the day, smoothing down our clothes.  David wouldn’t meet my eyes as he mumbled ‘sorry’ while the diminutive Geography teacher lectured us.  David was at least a foot taller than she.  I’d expected him to be defiant, mutinous, defensive.  But he stood, head bowed, hands at his side.
            Still, I couldn’t bring myself to care about punishment.  Nothing could hurt me now that I had David.
            They separated us, though, and I was left in a bland, beige sick room alone.  I sat on the edge of an examination couch, swinging my legs and flicking through leaflets about sea-sickness for hours.  Then I was sent back to the dormitory and my friends.  I was a heroine for a time, and they harangued me for every detail.
            All I really wanted was to see David and to hear him say, ‘I don’t care.  All I want is you.’  But, on the flight to England the following day, a Friday, I was made to sit with a teacher and David was at the back of the plane with another one.
            Back in England, I called his home number hourly.  His mother said he wasn’t in.   
At school on the Monday, I saw David’s blonde head, lofty above others across the dining room.  He was surrounded, as always, by a group of friends.
I jostled my way out of the lunch queue to go and speak to him, my throat dry with thoughts of a future.    
As I neared his group, I realised he was holding hands with a girl in the sixth-form, a lithe brunette called Lisa who nuzzled her head into his neck.  'Hi,' he said, his voice lazy with disinterest, and his eyes looking straight into mine as if to warn, 'Say nothing.'

            I don’t know if I want to go back to Venice.  It’s meant to be a beautiful city.  But I’ve never had the travelling urge like friends who holiday in Rome or New York.  I guess David may have been to Venice many times, perhaps with Lisa and a couple of blonde-haired boys.  I wonder if, while he’s explored the Marciano Museum, or a fruit market, he ever remembers me and the things he told me in between kisses.  
            At least, I think he told me those things.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Evidence that bribery with chocolate is the new pedagogical essential

Two Fridays ago, I  made up a poem to teach some GCSE students not to use a comma to join two whole sentences together as in 'I love punctuation, I hate the way 16 year olds abuse it.'

A comma splice is not that nice
and should be used by no one.
Two sentences? Then use full stops,
or have a semi-colon.
Or why not use connectives
like but, because or and?
Then say with me, 'The comma splice?
It really should be banned!'

(Yes, I know.  It's not exactly 'The Prelude'.  But I only had five minutes to throw it together.)

I gave them fifteen minutes to learn it, testing each other until they were word-perfect, and then challenged them to recite it.  If they could do it, I promised them chocolate.  I only see them once a fortnight, so I wrote down a reminder to buy the prizes.

Four of them took up the challenge.  I was very pleased with them.  They're not all confident students.

So, I went to the shop last Thursday morning for some chocolate, knowing I was teaching the class again on Friday.  I bought four Curly Wurly bars.

Question (if you're a Brit):  How long since you ate a Curly Wurly?  And if you're not a Brit: Have you looked into finding a supplier that can send a box to your house?

It's actually a diet food, I've realised, like ring doughnuts and Polo mints and Emmenthal cheese.  Look at all those holes.

Unfortunately, by Friday morning, two of the Curly Wurly bars, destined for the students, had found a different destiny known as 'Fran's pudding', so I had to go and buy more.

I went to a different shop this time.  One so hates to go back to the same shop for a shedload of chocolate quite so soon after the last visit.

I couldn't see any Curly Wurly bars on the shelves so  I asked the manager.   'I haven't stocked Curly Wurly bars since the 1980s!' he scoffed, looking me up and down as if to say, 'But you seem to have been managing without them very nicely ...'

I had to go to the first shop again in the end, but fortunately there was a different assistant on the till.  I was relieved.  Apparently, new guidance has been given to betting shops this week; they have to advise anyone who's gambled over £250 to stop.  I suspect something similar might be brought in for chocolate.

I'm used to being laughed at in shops when I'm buying chocolate.  Once I got laughed at by an assistant because I was buying a Twix, a Double Decker, and a copy of Slimming World.

The year 11s were cock-a-hoop when I brought out the Curly Wurly bars, especially as I'd promised them a fortnight ago.  'Wow! A teacher who remembers her promises!' one said, which cheered me up more than any Ofsted rating would.

And then they recited the poem to me all over again.

(By the way, pedants may have noticed that I have used the phrase 'Curly Wurly bars' all the way through this in order to avoid having to make a decision between 'Curly Wurlys' and 'Curly Wurlies'.  Life is full of so many awkwardnesses.)

Friday, 21 February 2014

Evidence that Fran may be better off going bare-necked

I cannot wear scarves as part of an outfit.  It's a shame, as they appear to be in fashion, and as regular readers will know, I am always one for a trend.  Just call me the Zeitgeist Blogger, and watch out for next week's post on purple corduroy flares, cheesecloth blouses and Bay City Roller tartan tank tops.

I have tried the scarf thing and have a selection of them.  But, whatever I do, and however I wrap them or arrange them, I end up looking as though I've been attacked by a patterned carpet and forcibly smothered.

For illustrative purposes, and to show you what I look like in a scarf, I am going to Google 'attacked by a carpet' and see what I find.  I cannot resist.  Back in a moment.

Hm.  Not many actual images of people being attacked by carpets at that very moment.  Life is so unfair.  But I did find this.  Seems a little harsh on the lady with the hair.

And then there's this one, which is a kind of 'prequel' picture, being the moment before the actual attack. But it really looks as though it's about to get nasty.  Look at the way the camera angle has given the carpet the attention here, in a manner of foreboding familiar to fans of Hitchcarpet and Quentin Tarugtino movies.

And this is Kim Karpetdashian.  A few of you may not have heard that she has been given a leading role in a movie called 'The Texas Stanley Knife Massacre'.  Here is the opening shot, just before the carpet, newly cut, leaps at her.

Anyway, what I'm really here to tell you is that a friend sent me a link to a video on Youtube which is called '25 ways to wear a scarf in 4.5 minutes'.  As I said to her, I could see several problems with trying to do this, including:

a) wouldn't people laugh if you wore your scarf 25 different ways in 4.5 minutes?
b) how would you drink your coffee/gin and tonic/medication?
c) wouldn't you get scarf burn?

But then I watched the video, and it's the funniest 4.5 minutes I've had today, even though I've done the following things:

a) read a P G Wodehouse story called 'The Custody of the Pumpkin'
b) studied parts of an Oscar Wilde play called 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
c) looked in the mirror by accident when I only had my socks on

Please watch it, and ask yourself, as I did, the following questions:

a) Can one wrap a scarf around one's neck in the 'Boa' style and still feel safe?
b) Are there links between the ancient art of Origami and contemporary scarf-wearing no one has yet discerned?
c) Is it just a coincidence, or do many of these styles make her look as though she's been attacked by a carpet?

Here's the link to the video.

Evidence that Fran may be better off going bare-necked anyway