Thursday, 7 May 2015

English in difficult circumstances - British Council English in Iraq meeting report

I recently met Iraq ministry of education officials at British Council "English in Iraq" meeting in London. There were plenty of euphemisms to describe the state of English language teaching in Iraq, and everyone was putting a brave face on a very difficult - and delicate - set of circumstances. A report co-authored by Claudia Civinini and myself for trade magazine EL Gazette is here.

Some of the euphemisms to describe the delicate situation in Iraq that didn't make it into the report (spece did not permit) included:

The internet in most Iraqi classrooms was said to be "partially available."

Daphne Laing University of Wolverhampton complained that one of the biggest problems was that "our people are risk averse." The University of Wolverhampton has had to pull out "due to current issues."

On the positive side, Basra - Iraq's second city, in the majority Shia South of the country – is now officially as safe as the Kurdistan Regional Government area in the North. Amir Razman, British Council director Iraq, said the Foreign Office advice has changed, the KRG is now "orange... same as Basra." Orange means "advise against all but essential travel" slightly better than red, which is "advise against all travel". Basra's sudden relative safety is a reflection of the KRG being downgraded to less safe, on account of the Islamic State being just down the road.(The KRG enjoyed a more safe rating from the FCO for many years, including when I visited in 2004.)

Two UK publishers reported extensive problems with piracy of their English language textbooks (one shown above) in both Iraq - "CSI" (Central and Southern Iraq, the part of Iraq that's not in the Kurdistan Regional Government) - and within the Kurdistan Regional Government education system, which is completely autonomous from Baghdad. More will follow on this in EL Gazette later, but at the moment there is a reluctance to talk about this issue on the record.

The meeting was in the spectacularly grand surrounding of 10 Carlton House Terrace, about the poshest address you can get in London SW1 (it used to call itself The British Academy). Watching over the meeting was a magnificent portrait (above)by the artist Head depicting Admiral Lord Nelson receiving the French colours after defeating the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. We noted that the red, white and blue of the French colours held by (presumably) a French cabin boy appear to have been leached out by the cruel sun of the Eastern Mediterranean.

See also: New rector of Kurdistan university was victor of Battle of Basra (he's since left)

Radical reforms empower Kurdistan's universities (interview with Kurdistan higher education minister)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

North Suffolk big cat expedition

Woodwose on the porch at Yaxley church

I've just returned from a brief expedition to North Suffolk, staying with one multiple big cat witness near Eye and getting a lift back to Dunwich from another one. I was shown round the location of a sighting of an "Alsatian-sized" black big cat of "muscular build" with a "long, thin tail" (on condition of no photographs) and had a quick look at Lowgate Street, Eye, the location of a "big black cat" sighting in 2008.

I was also able to photograph three "woodwoses churches". The first was Yaxley, where there's a magnificent woodwose on the porch with particularly fine detail on the body hair. He's being attacked by two small lions, one broken. (Photo above.)

The second was Mendlesham, where two large and terrifying woodwoses with clubs are on the roof of the porch (it makes them hard to photograph). By the sound of it. Mendelsham had a service on when we arrived, it being a Sunday, as did Wickham Skeith.

One of the fierce woodwoses on the roof of the porch at Mendlesham

The Wickham Skeith woodwoses - heavily damaged - are on the font, so I knew I'd have to interrupt the service to photograph them. Fortunately, I also knew that the font is usually the first thing you see when you come through the door into the church, so I very carefully opened the door and tiptoed in. There was the font, right in front of me, with the nearest woodwose hacked off with a chisel (the iconoclasts had paid Wickham Skeith a visit), and the tiny congregation - half a dozen of them and the vicar, without any music - were down the other end of the church, so I was able to get a couple of quick photos in without them noticing me. My apologies to the congregation of St Andrew's Wickham Skeith for crashing their service.

Badly vandalised woodwoses on the font at Wickham Skeith. I had to crash their church service to photograph it.

Forester Paul Berry kindly drove me back to my base in Dunwich, and told me more detail about the Debenham lion of the early 1980s, he thinks it was 1982 when he and his wife saw it.

Paul had also brought along some of his collection of objects that he'd found across Suffolk over the years - some very rare Roman broaches, and some "fairly loaves" - fossilised sea urchins, that were in some cases attached to horses' tackle to ward of the terrifying Good Folk - the fairies, who had a particularly fearsome reputation for causing sickness in horses.

Some "fairy loaves" (fossil sea urchins) among his collection of fossils found across Suffolk

And there were some skulls - a intact skull with antlers of a male fallow deer left behind after a cull on the Shotley Peninsula, a coypu skull found in a hedge near Little Glemham about 10 years ago - impossible to tell whether it was alive after the December 1989 last known report of a living coypu in England. (Natural England in a FIOA request revealed they keep getting reports of coypu, but when they follow up they find they're misidentified - often otters and sometimes even water voles.)

There was also a skull Paul thought was from a badger - with a part of the snout missing - but Paul wasn't sure, as he thought it was too big for a badger.

Is this from a badger?

And finally, there was the skull shown below - badly damaged and missing a lot. Paul found it in the river near Framlingham ten years ago, but it was after Framlingham Mere - the lake next to the castle - had been dredged, so it's possible they'd been lying in peaty silt that preserved them for a few hundred years before ending up in the river. Paul thinks it's a pig, because of its flat head. Any ideas?

What is it? A pig?

This socket where the skull joins the vertebra is one of the few recognisable bits

What's left of the underside of the skull

A first draft of the big cats section of Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk will be ready soon. It'll be published sometime this summer by CFZ Publications. Meanwhile, you can follow it on Twitter here.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Gisleham Fossil Quarry

I recently had the chance to visit Suffolk's Gisleham Fossil Quarry, at the southern end of the EE Green building waste dump just outside the village. The village is pronounced "Gizz-l'm" and the locals know the quarry as "the old brickworks site."

Brick kilns at Gisleham

There are some impressive abandoned brick kilns, which Film Suffolk should consider renting out as a film location, something in the steampunk sci-fi post-apocalypse department.

The fossil quarry is a precarious slide down a slope, I'm told the best time to come is after heavy rains, when fossil-bearing fragments are washed down by the rain. I'd brought along some chisels, but it's all stuff you can pull out.

Edge of the quarry

I pulled out some small marine invertebrate fossils (trilobites? Crustaceans?) but they'd flaked away into powder in my pocket by the time I got home. It would require quite a patient trawl to find anything, although small reptiles as well as seashells have been pulled out of Gisleham, as well as some of the world's biggest teeth of the giant shark Megalodon.

Mesozoic sea creature in chalk at Gisleham, on a chunk of chalk too big to fit on a bike, so I left it

There's also a lot of (living) wildlife there, with rabbit holes and a rather obvious fox burrow in the sandy soil. I saw rabbits running around when I arrived, and as I left I saw a large fox out of the corner of my eye scampering around the cliffs - in broad daylight.

Gisleham was a 90-minute bike ride from my base in Dunwich Forest, including a couple of shot stops and a pleasant detour through the Benacre Estate to avoid the A12 road. It would be an easy cycle form Lowestoft of Oulton Broad stations (there's a cycle track from nearby Carlton Colville all the way to Oulton Broad and Lowestoft.) There's a bus at least every two hours to Gisleham Monday-Saturday from Lowestoft, Kessingland or Southwold.

Angry Language Brigade brighten the day of an education correspondent

English language teaching is not a glamourous industry, there very few freebies or glamorous parties to which we at industry publication EL Gazette get invited (I'm it's news editor). It's quite unexciting. There are very few occasions when you have to write your emergency NUJ legal helpline number on your arms with a permanent marker before going out on assignment.

However, in recent months there have been a couple of these. In contrast to most private sector Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (Teflers) who just whinge and tut about their working conditions and put up with them, Angry Language Brigade (ALB) have a preferred tactic of office invasions of the receptions of employees who commit "wage theft" (have issues around outstanding payment of wages). Other ALB tactics include getting all their anarchist mates to harass said employers via Twitter and Facebook.

ALB invited me along to observe and report on one of their "actions" recently, in which they charged into the reception of a language school on Oxford Street. Management apparently held the door of their office closed in an attempt to keep them out. There was a chorus of the hymn of the radical syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (some ALB are members, some are not) before they retired to the pub, where an email reportedly followed from management basically saying, "What do you want?" It's all here, with a suitably punk soundtrack.

What was particularly bizarre for me was that the ALB had got the wrong building on their first attempt, and it was the SAME BUILDING WHERE I USED TO TEACH ENGLISH back in 1998, when it was the premises of the Mayfair School of English! Spooky! (Mayfair moved out some time ago.) While a confidentiality agreement between an employee and management prevented ALB from naming the school, they did point out that their gagging order on the Tefler was "fairly pointless considering the English Language Gazette had got a hold of it". (See also here.)

ALB were then part of the crew then went on to occupy the premises of the Leicester Square School of English over the Christmas holidays, as they hadn't been paid. One of the teachers (one of them, not all of them) then got a letter over the holidays saying the school had closed. The occupiers found what appeared to be an attempt to cover some evidence trails - phone lines at the school had been cut, hard drives had been removed from computers, and there was a mysterious invoice from a shredding company in Manchester for "shredding services", seen by the Gazette. (Space did not permit us from mentioning it in our short article, here.)

And ALB's campaign against the school's owner, Craig Tallents, continued relentlessly. Soon he had wound up his bizarrely-named marketing company, Asparagus, and resigned as governor of Bancroft School. There were pickets outside the Drapers' Guild, where he is a apparently a liveryman, and social media attacks on his local residents' association, where he holds some kind of office. Teflers are an extraordinary timid workforce, so when managers find themselves up against the loud and relentless ALB, they don't know what's hit them.

ALB say they've also come across a proliferating phenomenon of English language teachers on "self-employed contracts," which would appear to be illegal. While the position was recently liberalised a little bit, I understand that it is only occasional lecturers and trainers who do things like take money directly from students, hire the classroom themselves, or give "occasional lectures" who can be self-employed. Teachers who do regular "timetabled hours" must be employed on PAYE contracts.

This is under the HMRC's "Work Status" rules, although after initially agreeing to help us on this story, HMRC's press changed their mind and decided they were going to be less helpful, saying they couldn't comment on either a specific case or a hypothetical situation, which pretty much rules out everything that they might be able to comment on.

They did say that teachers who believe their "self-employed contract" is illegal should contact them - in confidence - via their Reporting Tax Evasion helpline. Good luck! We think that in practice, HMRC will go after the easier-to-recover employer's contribution National Insurance that's unpaid, and probably won't bother coming after small amounts of National Insurance Class 2 contributions from teachers.

ALB and EL Gazette's editorial team would love to hear from you if you are a Tefl teacher working on "self-employed contract" (current or recent), as would Katie Grant, an education journalist writing for The Independent on "self-employed contracts" among Teflers in London, on (EL Gazette's web people warned us that the website's email was down at the time of writing, but assured us it would be back up soon.)

Thatch Coll still being quoted after over a quarter of a century

I'm surprised to find that Thatcherism Goes to College is still being quoted after all these years. (I call it Thatch Call for short, for convenience.) I was clearing out some surplus copies the other day - you can have one for £1 plus postage if you email me - and I noticed how god-awful the two-colour cover was, and how tame the scariest predictions for what would happen to education were compared to what actually happened.

The book, which I wrote in 1989, is now "historical background" to articles about the politics of education by Marxist academics (meta-academics?)

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Alderton woodwose of the Bawdsey peninsula

The woodwose on the porch at St Andrew's Alderton, on the Bawdsey Peninsula. He's less than a foot high, and he's charging with a pointed stick at a dragon or wyvern (below).

Take the road south past the edge of Rendlesham Forest, keep going through Butley and you eventually come to the part of Suffolk that calls itself "the peninsula." It's quite remote, and you'd think there wasn't much going on, but there was a surprising amount of traffic a couple of weeks even before the ferry opened for the Spring. We noticed several up-market local businesses with the word "Peninsula" in their name.

It's out of the way enough that it's still got a couple of prisons on it, a young offender's institution and an open prison where News of the World phone hackers seem to stay a remarkably short time before their release. So relaxed is security at Hollesley open prison that last year they were burgled, someone broke in and nicked industrial quantities of tobacco from their prison shop. When we pulled into the Shepherd and Dog pub in Hollesley, there were some uniformed prison officers off duty having a drink on the sofas.

On the edge of Hollesley is the Suffolk Punch Trust. The Prison Service accidentally saved the Suffolk Punch breed by using them on their prison farms. It's not open this early in the year, but we caught a glimpse of some magnificent young Punches in a nearby field.

Nearby is Shingle Street, and on the winding road down to Shingle Street, on Easter Sunday 2008, a prison officer had the peninsula's only recorded big cat sighting. Heidi Hawley saw a "giant" dark and fawn-coloured cat, initially mistaken for an Alsatian, the size of a large dog, "beautiful" with "great big eyes".

It ran across the road in front of her, clambered up a steep bank, turned round and looked her in the eye before finally disappearing into undergrowth. Colleagues were aware of "similar sightings in the area in the past. The East Anglian Daily Times caused confusion by running the story with a photo of a lynx - with the caption "A lynx - similar to the big cat seen in Suffolk", although the word "lynx" didn't appear in the text. Shingle Street would be of interest to a big cat - there are sheep (unusual for this part of Suffolk) and lots of reed beds to hide in.

Further south along the peninsula is the village of Alderton. Its St Andrew's Church is hard to find, surrounded by houses, and unlike most Suffolk churches you can't find it by looking out for its tower. Inside it's very bare, like a giant barn. It turns out it may well have been a barn at some point. An 18th century print hanging up in the porch show it as a ruin with a hole in the roof, and most of the tower is missing. There's a modern bell on some sort of scaffold just outside the tower. St Andrew's seems to have been restored by the Victorians. There's a "WARNING The tower is dangerous" sign outside.

The porch, showing the woodwose and its dragon antagonist

The woodwose is just under a foot high, and like the ones in Peasenhall, Cratfield and Badingham, he's squaring off with a dragon or wyvern (hard to tell, it's so eroded away) on the opposite arch of the porch. Unlike the other porch woodwoses of Suffolk, who tend to have raised clubs and shields, this woodwose is charging with a spear or pointed stick.

Hard to tell in the ruined state it's in whether this is a two-legged wyvern or a four-legged dragon

Down the road at Bawdsey Quay is Bawdsey Manor, where radar was invented, and Alexander's International College (one of only two accredited language schools in Suffolk, the other's in Bury), and the ferry across the Deben to the back of Felixstowe. The giant container-unloading cranes of Felixstowe Docks are visible on the horizon.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The woodwoses of Wissett and the imps in Wenhaston Doom

Thoughtful woodwose, Wissett church font

Less intelligent-looking woodwose on the same font

Damaged cross-legged woodwose

Woodwose with club, face vandalised

I discovered another Suffolk church with woodwoses in it, at Wissett, north of Halesworth. Not only does it have woodwoses on the font, there is evidence from tiny flecks of turquoise paint and from parish records, that they used to be painted. (Last painted 1492, according to parish records.) They are slightly vandalised, with the faces more scratched out than the entire heads chiselled away, as at other churches like Theberton and Covehithe.

Particularly interesting was the beard-stroking intellectual woodwose, deep in thought. (See above.)

I then went to the local pub, The Plough at Wissett. I was very proud of myself at having cycled from Dunwich to Halesworth in 40 minutes, but and two of the punters at the pub had arrived on horseback, with their still saddled and bridled horses let out to graze on the grass in the garden with the tables round the back. I later found that Wissett has two phantom Black Dogs, said to haunt the two little humpback bridges near the village, and enough ghosts to fill a book, The Wraiths of Wissett.

Soviet-style Social Realist art is alive and well on the Wissett village sign, which glorified a tractor. (The other side of the sign has a more traditional horse-drawn plough.)

Soviet social realist-style tractor image on the Wissett village sign (there's a more traditional horse-drawn plough on the other side of it)

I also stopped off at Wenhaston, and discovered something rare in pancake-flat Suffolk - a serious stretch of downhill on the way to the village. The church has the Wenhaston Doom, the Last Judgement. There's some fairly boring stuff on the left of "virtuous" princes standing naked before God, being judged by angels, and then it gets a bit more Heavy Metal album cover as you go further to the right of the painting. There's something going on with weighing souls and comparing them to the weight of imps. If your soul weighs as much as two imps, you seem to be in the clear.

See here for the "witch-weigher" in Oudewater, Holland, where they used to weigh people to make sure they weren't witches. They generally weren't. Many of East Anglia's convicted "witches" in the witch trials of the seventeenth century were convicted for "feeding imps," which generally took the form of exploding mice or ducks, giant flies, legless horned greyhounds of headless bloodsucking babies. And Black Dogs of course. These descriptions were mostly extracted under torture, with some copied and pasted from 15th century demonologies. Black Dogs were probably implanted into the testimonies to give them a bit of local colour and fake authenticity.

Imps on the Wenhaston Doom. If your soul weighs more than two imps, you appear to be in the clear.

It's all in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk.