Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Kindness Of Strangers

I am walking through Leeds market smiling uncontrollably on my way back to the flat. Nothing particularly funny has occurred and I haven't finally landed a job but reflecting on my morning prompts these facial contortions.

I began the day uncomfortably dressing for a job interview. I have one suit jacket and have never actually worn it to work - this under-used garment merely comes out for interviews. Although I'm not completely opposed to suiting up, I'm grateful that up to this point I've never had to sport this stiff shoulder-padded necessity on a daily basis – after interviews I've always gauged smart attire is required but without the need for two piece suits or even jackets. Wearing this jacket I feel like a small child wedgied in the playground. Generally instantly suffering from a faulty internal thermostat after any form of physical exertion, I find it difficult enduring a coat, jacket and shirt/cardigan. Today, I am combating this problem by carrier-bagging up the jacket until I arrive outside my destination. Ingenious?

The journey to my interview is a fair trek but certainly doesn't deter me from the job. A mere hour and a half commute seems like nothing in comparison to the hours spent travelling on a weekly basis for the last year and a half. Arriving from Leeds into Selby, I ask the ticket conductor which platform I should go to and he goes out of his way to give me detailed directions and even sticks his head out of the train nodding encouragingly. Selby is actually such a small station, I'm not sure such close monitoring is necessary but I'm grateful for his time.

A further ten minute train journey and I'm in Howden standing on one of the two station platforms waiting for the level crossing to go up. Three others chatter beside me and I apologise as I break their conversation. Confused my map and the nearby local sign seem to be conflicting, I unfold my print-out and ask the best way to my arrowed destination. The well-dressed American looks confused and asks how I plan to get there. “Walk”, I say. He appears distressed and asks me if I know it is far. I do. The lady beside him looks just as concerned and as the crossing starts to rise, they both suggest I join them in their pre-booked taxi, apologising it may be a squeeze with three already sharing.

Looking out of the window, I watch fields whoosh past on either side and notice the foot path. When planning my route the night before, Google maps had warned me, some of it might be unpaved – today I am glad to see the reality holds none of the dangers Google had implied. One long straight road and we stop at a junction. I get out, offering taxi money to my fellow passengers who refuse to let me contribute and send me in the right direction, wishing me luck.

An hour later and I'm perusing Howden's charity shop, killing time before my lift is ready. Not wanting to jinx the interview, I'll refrain from mentioning it but will say that one of my kindly interviewers afterwards offered me a lift to the station. Walking towards his car, he asks me how I thought the interview went and I hope his assessment of my suitability complements my desire for the job. Again whizzing past the fields and footpath, I hope I might one day walk the walk. And can't help but wonder what amazing results my MBTs might produce after months of walking from the station to work and back again every day?

Back in Leeds and I reward myself with a wee charity-shop crawl towards the market. My final stop before home is the watch stall where I have found the only watch strap seemingly wide enough for my bad boy Kahuna. At a mere £5, it has one drawback. I have never been one to wear gold – clothes or jewellery, however subtle or tasteful. For some reason gold repulses me and the buckle on this watch strap is of course gold. But today I seem to be living in “Pay It Forward” land - the cheery stall owner says “We might be able to sort that” and gets out the tools of his trade. After some spraying and filing he presents me with the same strap with a now almost silver buckle. I am starting to get slightly suspicious and wonder whether there's such a thing as National Goodwill Day and if so, if this is it. I just hope all the good luck I've had and kind people I've met in some way act as an indicator to the interview's outcome.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Some Things Never Change, Others Do

The bar downstairs is comparable to Butlins while the one on the upper level moves along the holiday camp class scale towards Center Parcs. We've played a modest game of “Bird or Bloke?” and watched a woman propped between two younger girls (probably her daughters) slumping into a nearby chair. Regenerated by the music, she animatedly sings and her younger companions look mildly embarrassed before giving up and deciding to join in. After failing to win at Bingo and listening to a soulful blonde member of the on-board entertainment belting out popular hits, we leave the lower bar and battle with the door leading to the blustery outdoors.

Heading to the upper deck and back into the shelter of the second bar, we're met with rather civilized piano music tastefully covering a range of familiar easy-listening. Looking for the source of these inoffensive backing tunes, we're both delighted to see the man whose shirt we earlier admired sitting in front of the piano. The wonder of this black crushed velvet shirt is only heightened by its amazing length but its model's tendency to utilise all available buttons makes it all the more striking. Lounging back on low sofas in the aptly named Piano Bar amid faux-greenery is an entirely different world from the Sunset Show Bar with its disco floor and lit-up bar.

Returning to the “Show” bar for one final squiz, we're both tickled by the amount of teens on the dance floor. The table nearest to this mob has become the perverts' front row pew. Two rows of young boys are squashed together eyes fixed ahead, checking out the talent. The two girls that had earlier on seemed somewhat ashamed of their older companion are now queens of the floor, striking eye-catching moves that wouldn't be out of place in one of Louie Spence's impromptu interpretive dances.

Wrapping up our return to the whole ferry sleeping experience, we head back along the corridor towards our cabin, walking past the signs reminding passengers to keep the noise down in the sleeping area. Our cabin is somewhat nicer than the one I remember staying in some ten years earlier for a night cruise from Newcastle to Amsterdam – this time we are en-suite and there is a wall between cabins, rather than just a thin divider that almost reaches the ceiling. We can't spy on our neighbours but we can certainly hear someone repeatedly swearing through the paper thin walls.

After a restless night's sleep in a cabin with some kind of dysfunctional and somewhat random temperature control, we're woken at 6.15am by a helpful announcement telling us breakfast is being served. For the next hour and a half there seem to be deafening in-cabin announcements made approximately every five minutes, ranging from news about the shop to information for motorists and different departure times for each type of traveller. Getting any sleep seems to be futile but something I'm really not ready to give up on. I lie in bed determined not to be defeated unable to stop myself thinking about the corridor signs and that really P&O should learn to practice what they preach!

Boarding the link bus between Zeebrugge and Bruges, we're both amused to see a couple who'd been sitting next to us in the Sunset Show Bar the night before. He is easily recognisable but no longer wearing a tiny dress, huge heals and make-up mask, she looks like a different person. When we notice their lack of baggage, we are all the more amused, realising they are not staying in Bruges but returning to the boat later in the day to put on special evening “boat clothes” once again. They are not alone in this bizarre ritual - others in the bar the night before had also clearly especially glammed up too.

Returning to the boat two days later, we know what to expect and are all ready for bingo just after 9pm. Queuing to check-in, we stand behind a large group for some time before realising they are a school party being briefed by P&O staff and teachers. Skirting around them, I think back to the first time, I visited Belgium with my G.C.S.E. History class for a WW1 tour. I was always the last back to the coach, trying to soak in as much as possible and today little has changed – booking on to a WWI day trip, as an “adult” I am still almost running-over our allocated time for each stop, trying to read all the museum signs. However, these days I am less interested by in-cabin drinking.

Later on retiring to bed, I feel sorry for the school group – they won't get lucky tonight. Clearly from an all-boys school, on this stretch of our journey the lads stick out and there are no all-girl school groups in sight. Tonight the blonde seems out of tune and there are less dance-floor revellers. I can't resist a snigger the next morning when I notice a cabin full of empty spirit bottles being cleaned and can't help but wonder whether the boys spent most of the night innocently “sleeping”. I don't remember my school trip being quite so messy but do recall attempting to decanter extremely thick Advocaat onto a spoon. These days I generally wait for a glass, lemonade and cherry juice.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Burning Questions Of Our Future Leaders

After a terrible teaching drought with weeks of nothing, I have recently been pretty busy back in schools and hooking up with old work colleagues. One of the best and worst things about supply is never knowing what the day will bring. I am never sure whether I'm going to work each day until I get a phone call in the morning so must be in a constant state of readiness. This also means I never have to revisit a school I dislike unless I choose to. In the last few weeks I have been to David Beckham's old secondary school, covered Drama/Technology/Geography/ English/Maths/Science/ Textiles/Art/Games/History/RE and been sworn at.

Where it all began for Becks is a ridiculously nice school but unfortunately quite a trek for me – although I'd almost describe it now as one of my regular gigs. Covering a PE lesson, I struck it lucky, sitting in on a G.C.S.E. options talk for half of the hour. In an attempt to ensure pupils don't wrongly pick G.C.S.E. Sport thinking it'll just be a lot of running around, the head of department revealed Becks' actually got a D in the subject and quoted an ex-colleague, describing him as “thick as”. He then went on to reveal Beckham achieved outstanding practical assessments but fell down on the theory - thus highlighting the importance of the sports science coursework component and written exam.

In the same school I witnessed the formation of the self-proclaimed “genetically modified” hand a less than gifted art student proudly held up and watched a year 10 boy measure along his leg with a metal ruler in a wood work class. His motive? I'm sure you can guess!

With the exception of a small girl telling me to “fuck off” and barging past me, forcing the paper I was holding to the ground, I've been teaching a far more endearing lot in one of my local haunts. In one week the top questions I was asked were:

"Why are calculators so clever – do they have brains?” - Year 11

"How do vegetables have babies?" - Year 11

"Can planes go backwards once in the air?" Year 7

As an indication of the variety of children I teach, I feel it necessary to mention the Year 9 twins I did a few home tuition sessions with, delivering English and humanities sessions (History, Geography and R.E.). Their awkward question was actually something I could answer and took great satisfaction in researching properly:

"Where does the word ghetto come from?"

You might be amused and mystified to hear that the very same twin boys quite literally whooped with joy when I set them homework, exclaiming they'd now no longer have to be bored on the plane home when returning from their Spanish weekend break.

And what better way to end a full teaching week but to hook up with old colleagues and teaching friends who manage to make supply seem like a doddle – particularly those still braving the modified and even more horrific version of my old place of employment. Chatting to the Head of Art, she told the story of an A'level student who'd managed to rip his ear-lobes attempting to self-insert flesh tunnels and had decided to cut them off using department scissors in the Art Office. You might like to know this same student had designed and given himself tattoos, working from his mirror image. This might sound like an unlikely story but having once worked in an earlier version of this now academy, I can quite believe it. I'm just grateful no-one's attempted anything similar during my supply stints. Yet.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Following Kafka's “Path”

When friends of mine started gravitating towards London several years after University was “out” and had been settled a while, I recall staying with a friend and hearing the great tube/bus debate for the first time. Obviously for some folk which stance they take in this argument very much depends on where they live and the nearest service but for many it’s a case of choosing. Over the years, I’ve noticed an obvious pattern in the correlation between bus users and long-time London dwellers.

Since tenuously moving to London nearly a year and a half ago, I think I’m still uncomfortably straddling the fence. During peak times in the morning or at the end of the working day, although often more direct, bus journeys can take a painfully long-time. There’s also the added problem of having to loosely know the bus route and nearest stop. Sure buses are marginally cheaper (especially for long direct journeys) but the tube is more accessible for those less familiar with London: one look at the map, a quick Google search for the end of tube-walk or glance in the A-Z and you’re there.

Out- of-towners often find the underground daunting while many “locals” seem to have developed an impatience towards the tube and everything you can expect from peak-time journeys. Horrifically over-crowded and punishingly hot regardless of the time of year, a trip in the underground is almost guaranteed to test tempers. As a natural over-heater, the temperature down there is certainly an issue for me but I find the over-crowding kind of amusing. Morning tube journeys are almost like a game of human Tetris as bodies are quite literally bent around each other and hunched over to fit the maximum amount of people into the carriage while still allowing the automatic doors to close without chopping off any limbs. I still haven’t quite fine-tuned my door-safety judgement. Unfortunately I can think of two or three occasions when I’m standing on the platform convinced I’ll never fit when someone else steps in and contorts their body into the space I had previously misguidedly judged to be impossibly small. Of course I have also witnessed the end result of other people’s rather optimistic attempts to board a full tube - someone nearly getting an arm chopped off or a bag almost left abandoned on the platform. It’s worth a go, eh? There’s nothing worse then being left standing on a platform and watching another loaded train pull in – especially when you’re late.

As the London Underground is the oldest underground rail system in the world (first dating from 1863 on the site of the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines), tourists who come from cities or countries without any form of underground are often so impressed by the concept they feel compelled to buy tube map T-shirts. The introduction of the oyster card has certainly changed the way Londoners travel with its incentive of discounted journeys and reduced queuing times but I often wonder how these awe-struck tourists fare. Without the issue of heat and overcrowding, there's the small matter of trying to purchase a “ticket” - “What a dated concept!” I hear Londoners cry.

As Britain undergoes more and more cut-backs, we are coming to almost solely rely on machines. A journey from Victoria the other day proved just how problematic this can be. There are very few ticket machines in Victoria, considering it is such a massive station. In addition, between certain times on certain days, no-one mans the few ticket office windows that there are.

The queues for the ticket machines almost merged into each other and I slowly edged forward trying not to pant and sigh too markedly while pointlessly watching the clock. As the minutes passed, I grew weary I'd not have enough time to return home, pack a bag and catch my train. Momentarily breaking the staring match between my watch and I, looking forward I saw the queue in front suddenly disperse. The man directly in front of me didn't walk away but stared towards the machine and my eyes followed. The words that met my gaze were not welcome: “Machine out of use”. I quickly flicked my eyes left and right to be met by the same infuriating message. Heading over to the card-payment-only machines, I struggled to keep my swearing inaudible to those around. Without any ticket machines operating and with ticket windows unmanned, I had no way of topping up my oyster card in order to hot-foot it home. Asking one of the few staff standing at the barrier, I was relieved to hear that my tale of woe would get me through this barrier and the one at Angel. Although a serious amount of time had been wasted and stress levels had risen, I ended up getting a free journey out of British Rail – surely something few can claim in these barrier-obsessed days?

I am just grateful I am not a non-English speaker trying to navigate my way around, injured or in a wheel chair. In so many stations the stairs are the only option. Hauling my trusty Primani stead up the London Bridge stairs or those leading to the Victoria Line from King's Cross, I dread to think how mothers with buggies cope. And I have still not truly mastered the secrets of the underground. When leaving almost any train in any underground station, signs seem to point both ways for the very same lines. I recall on one occasion in my first few months of living in London, I experienced a Kafka-esque moment blindly wondering back and forth around Bank during some kind of route diversion through Monument. Ever since that frustrating night, every time I leave a carriage and decide which way to walk, I am reminded of Kafka's The Castle. With signs so confusing and conflicting, at times the underground feels like a labyrinth, designed to both trick and delight. I certainly feel glee when I conquer its trickery and re-find the fastest route to my next destination.

Love it or hate it, currently the tube is more often than not an essential part of my day. I may grumble but I still get a disturbing sense of satisfaction from seeing the orderly lines of people standing to one side on escalators, allowing those in a hurry to pass – something never seen in Leeds that has nearly caused me to miss trains on several occasions and resulted in a police restraint for one of The Boy's colleagues who had newly moved from London to Leeds.

And if you're not into people watching and have forgotten your book, you are almost guaranteed to find reading material on the tube. Although signs encourage customers not to leave “rubbish” behind, I'm always grateful to those who do and get a strange warm feeling when I watch someone reach for my recently discarded Metro. Aside from the lines I'm travelling on, this recycled reading matter fleetingly makes me feel connected and the forced experience of being sardined into a carriage reminds me we're all just trying to survive however we can and sometimes in order to do so you need a bloody good sense of humour.