There is a simple way to deal with the rise of neofascists like Salvini, but it’s not what you might expect

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Our 13-month-old daughter has developed a new screech which is not just far louder and more grating than anything she’s previously produced, but actually more unpleasant than any noise heard in the universe since at least the Big Bang. Although it’s incredibly upsetting to be exposed to her it’s just her way of remarking that she’s feeling a little peckish, could do with a sip of the old H20, has done yet another poop or wouldn’t mind a bit of a nap. She has had a challenging few weeks during which we’ve moved back from Italy, she’s started nursery and her molars have started to erupt. Plus, over the last few days, thankfully unbeknownst to her, a gang of fascist thugs have moved perilously close to power in her homeland, something which has, whether we like it or not, put her parents’ nerves on edge.

How do we deal with her outbursts of nerve-shredding fury? By giving her exactly what she seems to want: either lots and lots of affection, a fresh nappy, chunk after chunk of banana-wana until she finally stops pointing in the vague direction of the fruit bowl, or by insisting as tenderly as possible that she curl up with her favourite cuddly toys in her sleepy-deepy placey-wacey. As much as she seems to want us to, we never respond with expressions of frustration or impatience; as hard as it gets, despite all the apparent provocation, we accept that she has no understanding of the causes or consequences of her tantrums, and treat her accordingly. She is, after all, just a confused, helpless being in a frightening universe with no other means of articulating her most basic needs, and we are, after all, the only family she has.

As for dealing with fascists, well that’s different, obviously. A combination of physical violence and public humiliation is probably the best bet. They’re not babies, fffs.

Maya learns her ABC

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There are three reasons why I reckon it’s about time for our daughter to learn her ABC. Firstly, she’s now ten months old. Secondly, I am, like Martin Fry, from Sheffield, and thirdly, my repeated experiments with ‘Being Boiled‘ and ‘Nag Nag Nag‘ weren’t encouraging, so it’s probably better to go for something a bit more accessible. As it happens, later this month we’ll be visiting my folks in Sheffield, so I can show her the former art college just around the corner where Martin Fry and, er, the others did their first ever gig. (Although when I pointed out Phil Oakey’s nearby house to her when we were last there in May, she was fairly nonplussed, I reckon if I just keep pointing at the block of student accommodation which now stands where Psalter Lane Art College used to and sing bits of ‘The Look of Love’, something might get through.)

For her, an album from 1982 is as distant in time in relation to my own birth as one from 1937. (Although seeing as she doesn’t yet possess concepts such as albums, years, meanings or words, imagine how she’d struggle with that sentence. What’s your excuse?). I showed her some photos of the group silver and gold lame suits they used to sport at the time and she seemed quite impressed, although to be fair her little roundy face does light up in a quite worrying fashion whenever she looks at a smartphone, so maybe it was more related to that.

With regard to the music, she certainly doesn’t react nearly as badly as she did to ‘Reproduction’, the cover of which admittedly features women in stilletoes trampling on babies.  One of the many joys of parenthood is seeing which music is intuitive enough to inspire a reaction. ‘Reign in Blood’ by Slayer didn’t go down enormously well, but she does have an ongoing thing for Prefab Sprout, and as for The Fall, you can judge for yourself here. The opening bars of ‘Show Me’ certainly stir my soul, but she’s too distracted by the appetising sight of my laptop’s international plug adaptor, on which she’s had her eyes for the last couple of weeks, to pay very much attention. I had high hopes for ‘Date Stamp’, very much my favourite song whenever I’m not at that particular moment listening to any of the others. Its heart-bursting but somehow also wry denunciation of the then-inchoate idea that every aspect of our lives including love itself is mere merchandise, a notion whose power has only grown to the point where my hometown’s trees are currently being smashed up by corporate hooligans and malevolent forces are trying to hypnotise our children via Youtube is, in a very literal sense, music to my ears. Unfortunately she’s too busy putting in and taking out some wild animal finger puppets to and from an empty yoghurt container to really focus on how trenchant, lush and unabashedly romantic the whole thing is.

Attention spans being limited, I decide to skip the whole of ABC’S subsequent career up until ‘Lexicon of Love II’ (which means she misses out for the moment on the jagged swoons of ‘The night you murdered love’, but doesn’t have to sit through their attempts at house music). This belated sequel to the 1982 album was released just last year to general acclaim. Contrary to what you might expect given Fry’s history of involvement in ’80s revival cruise ship booze-ups, it sounds not at all like not a cheap copy of the original album, but really rather freshly minted. It sounds, in the most positive sense, like it could have been made any time between 1985 and 1992, like one of those Paddy McAloon records whose release was delayed for a number of years. She seems to appreciate its mix of expensively orchestrated pop classicism and hard-won middle aged wisdom, bouncing around with a massive baby grin on her face to ‘The Flames of Desire’. On the whole it goes much better than our previous music mentoring sessions, especially the ‘Reign in Blood’ one, which culminated in my having to put on ‘Il cocodrillo come fa‘ in order to get her to calm down. (My wife, that is. The baby seemed to be just starting to get into it by the time ‘Altar of sacrifice’ came on.) On this occasion it’s not Chiara that complains, but the downstairs neighbour, who bangs on the door to give out about unreasonable levels of noise at 3pm on the Day of Rest. Miserable bastard. Maybe one day he’ll, you know, cheer up and, as someone once sang, find true love. Or something.

10 tips for staying in a hotel with a baby

1. Never, ever stay in a hotel with a baby.

2. Have you, nonetheless, found yourself in a hotel with a baby? (Are you, by any chance, in Venice, of whose labyrinthine layout of abruptly-terminating alleyways connected by thousands of pushchair-defying bridges Google Maps understands less than your 9-month-year old pride and joy, and which has worn you all out to the point where even this simple sentence is making your brain hurt and your eyes feel heavy, even if you’re not in Venice and don’t have any children?) Has no amount of lullabying and milky-wilky and shush-patting and promises to stop insisting that she eat bulgur done any good? Is your desperate 2am googling now being soundtracked by the sound of that selfsame caterwalling infant? Are you worried that not only will you, your partner and the baby itself get no sleep but also that you will incur the wrath of your fellow guests and the hotelier, meaning furious looks in your direction at breakfast, if you even survive that long? If so, here is the second tip: look away from your phone and think hard. What was the name of the car park/airport/train station you arrived at? Will it still be open? If so, pack your things immediately and head back in that direction. If not, invent a time machine and get a flat through Airbnb instead.

3. Is your baby upset because you forgot to ask the hotel for a cot? Call reception NOW and demand they bring you a cot. If necessary, threaten to put on Tripadvisor that the hotel belongs to Harvey Weinstein. Should that not work, go to reception and start screaming and screaming like a 9-month old baby until they get you a cot from somewhere. 

4. Is your baby still crying? Have you already toyed with the idea of throwing him/her out of the window/into the nearest canal, only to be overruled by your partner? Dang. Here’s something that might work, but it relies upon your being incredibly rich and having a huge amount of cash about your person: simply buy the hotel and have the other guests thrown out onto the street. It may also be a good idea to have them removed from the city/off the island itself for the duration of your stay, so as to avoid any awkward encounters which might spoil your holiday. (This also serves as the answer to the question #whatwouldtrumpdo?)

5. “Go on a boat trip or something”. That’s a suggestion from my partner, who to be fair hasn’t slept very well. The idea comes from the fact that we are now on a boat trip. The baby is in her pushchair; she’s asleep. Behind is there is the sound of another baby, whose voice is exactly like our child’s, having a total f*cking meltdown. Welcome to Venice!

6. There is no number 6.

7. Just having a look at Venice. Jesus I’m exhausted. Might get another coffee soon.

9. Where’s number 8?

8. Ah, there it is.

10. Take the baby out into the corridor to calm her down? Go outside for a walk at 3am? Mind you, I did try both of those things, they don’t work. Best stick with number 1. Oh look, Murano. Let’s see what effect her screaming has on a huge variety of very expensive glass products of differing shades and textures. Maybe number 1) should have just been never, ever take a baby to Venice. I wonder if there’s an Italian equivalent of Centerparcs?

Eight songs to celebrate our daughter’s eight-month birthday

Human beings only really come into existence in the own right following nine months of total dependence on their mothers. Nine months is therefore a significant enough milestone to blow up balloons, eat cake with lots of sugar and ice-cream (us, not her) and make playlists. As it happens, our daughter was actually born eight months today, but this site has a tradition of celebrating anniversaries on the wrong date, and in any case I just had the idea for creating a playlist and I don’t have the patience to wait another month. Plus it turned out that I can only (just) think of eight birthday-related songs I like*.

The Beatles – Birthday

So far she’s tended to turn her tiny piggly-wiggly nose up at the “White Album”, but this is a lot jollier than ‘Happiness is a warm gun’, plus the beat is very uniform and she loves banging her arms up and down like a totally demented  (if very young) Herbert von Karajan.

Altered Images – Happy Birthday

She’s not quite old enough to remember either Altered Images or ‘Gregory’s Girl’, but then neither is her mum. Actually, speaking of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, people did used to tell her dad (me) that he (me) was a dead ringer for the film’s star, and given that everyone who sees our daughter immediately exclaims that she looks just like me, we have the dubious honour of having a baby daughter who looks exactly like John Gordon Sinclair.

Stevie Wonder – Happy birthday 

This would make a far better US national anthem than that godawful self-aggrandizing dirge, which, let’s be honest, is more likely to make you lie down and go to sleep than stand to attention. Plus the Stevie Wonder version expresses far more laudable sentiments, with which no sane person could reasonably disagree. Also, at eight months our daughter is just getting to the point where she can actually (like Stevie himself) #taketheknee.

The Sugarcubes – Birthday

At this point in the testing of the playlist, our daughter starts actually singing along with gusto. Or she could just be in need of milky-wilky. Either way, she seems to know all the words. Maybe she’s been speaking Icelandic for the last few months, and we haven’t noticed.

The Birthday Party – Release the bats

Again, slightly before her time, and not in any sense a birthday song, but you will notice the presence of the b-word in the name of the band, and her dad’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave recently because there was a rave review of one of their gigs in The Guardian. Plus as she likes The Sugarcubes she might go for the screeching and the atonal elements in this one. Hard to tell, cos her mum took her off to her grandma’s place, muttering something about ‘torturando tua figlia con questa musica di merda’, which sounds bad.

Pedro Infante – Las Mañanitas

A change in tone from the previous one. My wife always gets embarrassed when I explain that the reason our daughter has a Mexican name is that she was conceived in Mexico. She prefers explanations which involve cicogne. If we were still living there our daughter would be hearing and singing this all the time, as it’s the Mexican version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I do know all the words, just not all in the right order.

Rafaelle Carrà – Tanti Auguri

This is the Italian birthday/wedding disco anthem of all time, to the extent we had it on our own wedding playlist. That of me and my wife, that is. Not me and my daughter. That would be…odd, even in the south of Italy.

Heaven 17 – (We don’t need this) fascist groove thang

You can probably tell that I really was running out of birthday-related favourites at this point, but then Spotify handily suggested including this, which is sort of appropriate, as she was born nine days after Tr*mp’s inauguration. On the one hand I’d hate it if his name was her first word, but at the same time I have been teaching her the word whenever she does one. Two more reasons to choose this song: 1) It is, like her dad (me) from Sheffield and 2) Current pedagogical theory suggests that it’s best to introduce the existence of (unnecessary) brackets to one’s child sometime between the eight and ninth months.

* ‘Birthday Girl’ by Stormzy was a candidate for inclusion, but on mature reflection I decided that its many references to ‘birthday sex’ were…inappropriate.

I try to interest my two-month-old daughter in the music of The Fall

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In what must have been September 1985 (when I was 13) I started seeing the above image on posters around my hometown of Sheffield. I wasn’t clear if it was advertising music or politics. Subsequently I started reading the music press, in which Mark E. Smith’s ensemble were ever-present. For around seven years, from 1987 (when they had their first Top 40 single) to 1993 (when they had a Top Ten album), you could legitimitely call him a pop star.

I tried hard with The Fall. At one point I ‘owned’ (what a quaint concept!) all of the albums from ‘Extricate’ to ‘Middle Class Revolt’, but I couldn’t call myself a fan. His manner on and off record was wilfully obtuse, his public statements drunk and ornery, his lyrics oblique and the music mostly discordant. There was the occasional glimpse of a more lilting and reflective side to their work which appealed to me, but overall the cut-up-William Burroughs/indied-up-Captain Beefheart mixup left me, if not cold, then certainly not warm enough to qualify as a Proper Fall Fan.

At the same time, I’ve always had a sneaking regard for real fans of the group. It seemed like a genuine sub-culture. The congregation at Fall gigs (I must have seen them three or four times) shows a stubborn attachment to something difficult-to-like that I find endearing and admirable. It seemed like a really cool club to belong to and I kind of wished I’d shown more curiosity back in 1985, when I was a disaffected schoolchild looking for an identity. Maybe if I’d gone for ‘Bend Sinister’ instead of ‘Please’ or ‘The Frenz Experiment’ instead of ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ I would have gone on to become cool.

It’s a cliché whose truth I’ve recently had occasion to observe that all parents want their (now our) children to experience what we never could. In relation to The Fall I left it too late. I’d like to give my own daughter the chance to rectify that mistake on my behalf.

So far, although she’s been responding with animation to the music that I’ve exposed her to, it’s mostly been pretty accesible stuff like Prefab Sprout and Belle & Sebastian. Nursery rhyme pop, if you like. Twee stuff. (Or, given that we’re in 2017, snowflake music.) Now she’s two months old I think it’s time for her to start branching out. (Plus I think that lots of their songs are genuinely great, whether or not that’s deliberately the case I’m never quite sure.)

For my purposes I’ve chosen a series of tracks which I personally love (or at least don’t mind) and have chosen a time when her mum is out to avoid any unnecessary arguments about inappropriate childrearing techniques. I have provided a Spotify playlist should you wish to repeat the experiment with your infant – in the case of emergencies, go to track 12.

  • ‘Totally Wired’. This is one of the group’s early singles, very much a post-punk product with jagged edges. I was a bit late for post-punk, being born in 1972, but I did grow up listening to the John Peel Show, so the abrasiveness of the music is something I appreciate. To say that my daughter would struggle to tell the difference between Devo, Magazine and Wire is no exaggeration, because she was born in January 2017. The phrase ‘it’s like punk never happened’ was rarely better employed. Hence she struggles to get past this first hurdle. Although she neither starts screaming or falls asleep, she does start moving her head in a slightly disturbingly frenetic manner, one which suggests the grating guitar is getting on her incipient nerves. We have to abandon the attempt after one minute and eleven seconds in case her head falls off and we end up on the front of Woman’s Weekly looking sorrowful and accompanied by the headline ‘TOTALLY WIRED: I lost my baby at two months because I was writing a tongue-in-cheek online thing about The Fall’.
  • ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is (according to those who know about these things) one of the Fall’s very greatest 45 minutes*. ‘The Classical’ is tuneful and the baby perks up (she’s in a jolly mood due to a recent infusion of milky-wilky). Unfortunately as soon as the second track (‘And the day’**) starts she goes puce and makes it clear why Fisher Price never use The Fall to soundtrack their products. There’s too much going on and from a newborn perspective it’s an audio nightmare. I quickly change to ‘Billy’ by Prefab Sprout, which she’s heard around 300 times, and once I’ve taken advantage of a pause for breath to angle her miniscule ear towards the speaker she stops bawling immediately. Mark E. Smith 0, Paddy McAloon 1.
  • ‘Victoria’. This feels like a bit like cheating because it’s a straightforward version of a Kinks song which The Fall covered in 1987, and which gave them a top 30 hit. It’s a cheerful if jingoistic romp and goes down extremely well with the baby, who takes very kindly to being bobbed around the living room in a lively BUT NOT IN ANY WAY DANGEROUS manner.
  • ‘Edinburgh Man’. Always a personal favourite, I’m hoping that this single-handedly turn her into a lifelong fan. She looks quite wistful, like she’s reminiscing about long-ago visits to the festival in Auld Reekie. Whatever she is thinking, it’s probably not that, but I add this to the mental list of songs to play when we need her to calm down a bit. Thanks, Mark.
  • ‘Bill is Dead’. I wonder what Mark E. Smith was like as a baby. Mine falls asleep immediately both times I play this and misses the epically tender bit at the end. One day if she ever hears the Happy Mondays she might notice that this sounds a bit like them slowed down.
  • ‘The Mixer’. This is an extremely accessible and fun conventional pop song. They’re aren’t any Fall songs which sound like The London Boys, but this one has got handclaps on it. My high hopes are dashed, however, because my wife reminds me that it’s bath time and after that she (the baby) falls fast asleep for seven hours. I’m feeling pretty knackered myself so I’m not about to wake her up so I can play her ‘The Mixer’ by The Fall.
  • ‘Free Range’. Released in 1992, this seems to be about the European Union in the year when borders opened up. I feel pretty sure that given his relentlessly chippy persona Mark E. Smith would turn out to be in favour of Brexit, but as it happens he seems to have been uncharisterically silent on the topic, although he did keep his end up by saying some quite twatty things about refugees last year.  Sadly I don’t remember anything the baby did when this was on, but she did seem to quite like ‘Birmingham School of Business School’ from the same album, maybe because for the first time she was able to relate to the lyrics, as the opening lines go ‘wa wa waa wa wa waa wa wa wa wa wa’. Maybe it was one of the very first songs that Mark E. Smith wrote.
  • ‘Reformation’. One of the few Fall songs from the last twenty years that I know and like. A curious thing about The Fall is that although the singer doesn’t seem to do much apart from write lyrics, drink alcohol and periodically sack the other members of the band, they do maintain a distinctive but varied sound. This one is almost metallish in its ferocity, so I play it quite quietly in order to avoid any disputes of the aforementioned variety. If you didn’t know that newborn babies could be nonplussed, you do now.
  • ‘Facebook Troll’***. In doing ‘research’ for this piece the title of this one caught my eye. It’s actually two songs because it’s medleyed with one called ‘No Xmas for John Quay’. I can’t make head or tail of the lyrics and the music is shit. Maybe when she’s a bit older my daughter will be able to explain to me what it means. For the time being she stares at one of the speakers for a bit in a way that suggests her nappy needs changing.

The result, then: Inconclusive. To close, just in case my daughter should ever come to read this, I’d like to paraphrase the ending of ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis (someone who’s been looking almost as decrepid as Mark E. Smith himself): So if you ever heard something, when you weren’t even two months old, like catchy-but-dissonant post-punk music, a bit like the Stooges but fronted by a verbally incontinent and cantankerous Mancunian drunkenly shouting half-remembered chunks of HP Lovecraft short stories mixed with items from his shopping list, it was The Fall. It was The Fall“.

* ‘Hex Enduction Hour’ is actually 60 minutes long.

** Spotify happened to be on shuffle.

*** Spotify gets the title wrong, it’s actually called ‘Fibre Book Troll’.

Thank you to members of the excellent Fall online forum at http://z1.invisionfree.com/thefall/index.php?showforum=7 for occasional fact- and spellchecking.

(Incidentally, the Bobby Brown album I referred to wasn’t actually called ‘Bobby Brown: The Remixes’ but ‘Dance!…Ya know it!’.

That last correction did not come from the Fall online forum.)

Two fun activities for very high-level classes

In celebration of my having recently welcomed my 2,000th visitor to this now two-month-old site, I decided to share two of my favourite activities for EFL classes.

A rejoinder: these activities are for very high level classes with whom you have an excellent rapport and who are immune to a bit of very bad language (NB do not do the first activity if you might lose your job as a result).

Activity 1: Why?

The first activity is great for getting the students to practise thinking on their feet, quickly applying whatever language they have in order to negotiate subjects they probably haven’t discussed in English before.

Procedure

1. Warmer: Ask the class if they have kids, younger siblings, etc. Elicit any examples of stupid or awkward questions they’ve been asked. Have a couple of your own examples to hand in case they can’t think of any. Tell them they’re going to play a game related to this theme, and you’re going to start by showing them someone demonstrating how the game works.

2. Show them this:

3. Ask them if they liked it and deal with any language issues (this may involve asking them if they want to watch it again – I’ve also made you a transcript and it’s here). Then tell them you’re going to start and then it’ll be their turns.

4. Tell them something random about yourself or the world, eg ‘It’s a nice day today’ or ‘I’m going to get my hair cut after class’ (ie. start with something light. If you begin with ‘I’m worried about Trump’ or ‘I read something about climate change that really scared me’ things will get very, very depressing very, very quickly). Elicit the question ‘Why?’. Try to answer each question in an entertaining way. You need to keep going until the whole thing collapses into absurdity, hopefully in the form of laughter.

5. Choose the most able student in the group to go first. Before they start, explain the rules: they can’t say ‘I don’t know’ and they can’t repeat an answer.

6. Feel free to step in if it seems that they’re being tortured – it needs to be in a spirit of fun.

If it works well (and this depends on your choosing the right class and ‘selling’ the idea to them by being entertaining when demonstrating it), this game can very rapidly lead to extremely profound (and silly) conversations about topics such as philosophy, psychology, history, science, etc. Then, if you (and they) like, you could use the questions that come up as the basis for a writing assignment or (if it is a nice day) prepare a questionnaire with the most impossible-to-answer questions that emerged and send them out onto the street. I’ve done this before and it works well, as people tend, when faced with EFL students with clipboards, to expect questions like ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ rather than ‘What is history?’ or ‘Why do numbers exist?’. You can easily get them to (consensually) film the voxpops they do and then use them in class in multifarious ways. Etc.

Activity 2: Sentence Stress Game

This activity is very easy to set up and huge fun to do.

Procedure

1. Write up on the board:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher. (Make sure you get the right number of ‘hads’ – it’s 11.)

2. Tell them this is a meaningful sentence, but there’s something missing – get them to tell you what it is (A: punctuation). Explain that they will be able to make sense of the sentence if they practise saying it out loud, thinking about which words to stress and where to pause.

3.Put them in pairs and get them to practise. Rotate the pairs every three or so minutes for about ten minutes or so, or until most of them have more or less got it.

4. Elicit the punctuated version (James, while John had had “had had”, had had “had”. “Had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.) and put it on the board. Check their understanding by asking who got the right answer (A: John). Drill it as you go.

5. Write up the following sentence:

The rat the cat the dog bit chased escaped.

6. Put them in pairs and ask them to rewrite the sentence.

7. Monitor carefully, not offering any specific suggestions. See who ‘gets’ it first.

8. Elicit the correct answer (something along the lines of ‘the dog bit the cat, which chased the rat, but the rat escaped’). Write up the original sentence in the following form and then drill it, moving your hands up and down to demonstrate the right ‘tone’ – encourage them to do the same:

the rat escaped.

the cat chased

the dog bit

9. If you have time and your students seem to be enjoying it, write up the following sentence:

What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?

10. Ask if anyone has seen this sentence before (one or two might have, but tell them not to give the game away). Put them in pairs and ask them to talk about who is speaking, to whom, and when. Give them three minutes or so, rotate them if they’re struggling.

11. Elicit the ‘real’ context (young child talking to parent at bedtime). Drill the sentence.

12. For a final whole-class activity, get them to identify the purpose of each preposition.

Et voilà! Feel free to let me know how it goes (except if you get sacked). And thanks for visiting my site :-).