Write Time, Wrong Energies or: Why I’m Running Away from Depressing Politics and Going to Play in Alternate Realities with a Zebra-Technoshaman and Other Possibly Fictional Friends…

Hey! Hey hey! It’s been quiet around here. Too quiet. Then again, sometimes quiet is good. In the quiet you can hear things that you rarely ever perceive: the flap of moth wings; the secret song of the solar winds; the prolonged death howls of Hope as the Heartless Heptagon Clan slowly destroy her in their tantric torture chambers far away beneath the cold, further canyons of Forever. Y’know: all the cult sounds you’d stick in the ‘Ultimate Me-Time Moop-A-Doop Mixtape Vol. 3’ playlist if they were on Spotify.

Me? In the quiet I can hear my mind working (or, indeed, not working) and lately it’s been running hot. It’s been raging and raring to write stuff, but not much stuff has been written and shared on the interwebs in recent months (in stark contrast to past times where I’d be pumping stuff out every single day and then some). I can tell you why, though, and I have good – well, reasonable enough – reasons.

First, in practical terms, travel and intensive work spells aren’t necessarily conducive to writing productivity. You can always make time to write but I poured my energies into enjoying my travels and summer school teaching as priorities when those things were going on. (Some writing still happened though. For instance, while at summer school I wrote a fantastical role-play experience/social experiment/intellectual ordeal for twenty students. It had them journeying around London (without physically leaving the classroom), solving a series of puzzles and – at the climax – looking for secret instructions in Iron Maiden lyrics then defeating the Devil himself in the Tower of London to reclaim a stolen diary that could potentially start World War III/upset several lovestruck teenage boys. It was a lot of fun.)

Energy is a key word, and it brings me to the second and main reason why there’s been a lack of writing action. That reason: the energies were all wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The Zebra-Technoshaman just stuck its head out of the monitor and confirmed that, yes and truly, the energies were all wrong so take that as a verified fact.

(Note: I had a moment of doubt there because when the Zebra-Technoshaman surfaced it said “Right!” to which I replied “Right? No, wrong! The energies were wrong!” Zebra-Technoshaman then whistled and said “Oh, no friend, I meant “You’re right to say the energies were all wrong! I was agreeing with you! Definitely yes, the energies were wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” I smiled and winked at it, “Got you, friend! Thanks for confirming my belief!” and then it whistled, grinned with all its eyes, pixellated and dissolved. The path to true understanding is plain if you persevere through the sometimes confusing speech of the Zebro-Technoshaman. I mean, it doesn’t help that the thing has fifty-five tongues.)

The energies were wrong because my thoughts were bent towards – and itching to write about – politics and current affairs. Oh, did you hear that? That was the sound of Hope screaming “AWWW NO! JUST DON’T GO THERE!” and punctuating it with the most obscene oaths that the Universe has ever known. The Heartless Heptagons were so surprised they stopped torturing her for precisely six seconds before returning to their tantric torturecraft (Phase 48,231: Christmas Tinsel-Clad Caterpillars in All-Remaining Orifices).

*agrees and refuses to accept this 'reality'...*

*agrees and refuses to accept this ‘reality’…*

Politics is a bad place to go. Politics has been even more unbearably potent (pungent?) of late and it’s causing me much dismay and despair. “The political is personal” and I take things very personally. Sometimes I take things very, very personally on behalf of myself and other people when grotesque political abominations occur. In the midst of a constant churn of bad stuff (wars, human rights abuses, corporate evils, institutionalised and ingrained -isms of various flavours, Donald Trump), Brexit is like a cluster-bomb of grotesque political abominations all rolled into one. It’s proving to be a giant, possibly bottomless can of radon-worms and the toxic fallout is terrifying. It’s everywhere and I’ve been trying to grapple with it (on top of most of the other stuff happening in the wider world) for the past few months.

I recommend writing as a cathartic exercise but in the case of political crises I find that other methods are more soothing and possibly more effective. For example, I feel better after shouting at TV screens for a few minutes or after rudely gesturing at a garage in my neighbourhood that’s been stencil-stamped with the word ‘BREXIT’. (Appropriately labelled because, like Brexit, we don’t know what the thing actually contains if anything at all. I’m guessing some second-rate powertools, a broken hoover and a fridge freezer full of white bread, crinkly chips and swan corpses). I would not feel better (and I wouldn’t have felt better) if I’d spent ages hammering a keyboard and pushing political posts out onto my small corner of the internet. And those who occasionally pass by my small corner of the internet wouldn’t feel better either.

I’m aware that when I write about what’s conventionally figured as ‘reality’, I tend to melt into a mess of emotions and earnest incredulity. I lose any sense of Zen flow and, in a state of apoplexy, end up soapboxing (and soapboxing shadows or, indeed, myself). I get angry and upset and any words I summon up – for what they’re worth – are irrelevant because I have no control or influence on political affairs. (I’m not an eminent journalist, public persona, expert, community leader or saviour of the human race. I’m just another human being armed with a laptop and opinions.) They’re even more irrelevant because things have been moving so fast in UK politics. They’re also even more irrelevant because I know that, if anyone does read my angsty essays/exorcisms they’re probably Facebook friends or Twitter followers and of a like mind. I don’t want to preach, and if I am preaching there’s little point in preaching to the converted. (No, I’m not going kickstart the ‘Utopian Space Missionary Plan’ yet. That project is pencilled in for 2265 and depends on certain technological advancements. I’ll let you know.)

In conclusion – because writing about politics is making me feel nauseous – I haven’t been writing about the stuff on my mind because the stuff on my mind shouldn’t be written about by me. Every blogpost would be a spluttering gloopshoot that could be summarised like so: “What the hell is wrong with people?! I don’t understand?! Why can’t people just be compassionate and level-headed! Look at what this Guardian article says! Here are some more Guardian articles written by people who can articulate and encapsulate everything far better than I can. I recommend you read them and, in the meantime, gah! What the hell?!” And all the while I’ll be looking like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, except I’m eyeballing what’s left of Big Ben and all the apes have been shot and turned into internet memes in order to promote that rare sensation, ‘Empathy’. Awww, damn you. Damn you all to hell.

Wretched hive of scum and villainy...

The author, in a wretched hive of scum and villainy…

Over the past few months I’ve also thought about getting back on the blog-trail to write about an array of other things but, yeah, that wouldn’t be a good idea either. (I can hear Hope screeching in horror again at the mere mention of it.) Mood whiplash and dissonance are likelihoods. (“This week I watched a fun blockbuster flick, read a vintage Japanese novel about morality, found a crumpet that’d turned into a mould-demon in the bread bin and here’s a link to a very upsetting photo-essay from the streets of Aleppo.“) Furthermore, what would be the point? Personal blogging is dead (possibly in the freezer next to the swan corpses) and Twitter now covers those ‘I’ll give the internet a piece of my mind!’ urges in real-time with emojis and easily-searchable hashtags. (Note: specialised blogging – like travel blogging, food and cookery blogging and Utopian Space Missionary Plan blogging – isn’t dead.)

I’m alienated from Twitter and I’d alienate myself and everyone else if I went on further self-indulgent, narcissistic rambles through my imminent reality for very little purpose. I like creating annotated photo albums on Facebook to keep track of what I’ve done and where I’ve been and to share with people who I actually know, in case they’re interested. That’s more than enough for me (and for everyone else), thanks, and I’d rather devote my energies to sharing in private conversations (ideally face-to-face, though videocalling and messaging will do) or actually living life rather than chronicling life (the sublime and the asinine) in excessive detail on a blog for the benefit of very few people. That’s one of the reasons I backed away from Twitter and that’s why I haven’t followed up those impulses to express myself in personal blogging.

So, where does that leave me with regards to writing? Well, I’ve re-realised that what I really, really like doing is writing about things that are not ‘reality’. Having had my head stuck in ‘real world affairs’ too much this year, I’ve remembered that fiction is where the fun and, indeed, the truth is. (Even more so in this era of ‘Post-Truth Politics’.) This is where my energies should be, and I’m channelling those creative energies towards fantasy, alternate realities and other worlds formed in my imagination. And also, possibly, the Utopian Space Missionary Plan because that’s just speculative fiction at the present moment.

Whether any of it ends up on the internet (on this site or another) remains a mystery. Tomorrow I’m moving away to Italy on a longer-term basis and the practicalities of pumping my creative action into cyberspace are heavily dependent on how I settle in to a new work schedule and, indeed, settle in to a new home. Regardless, though, I will be writing at least a little stuff and I can guarantee that it will be powered by the right energies and of a fictional nature. It may be that no one else sees any of it but, hey, it’s writing all the same and I’m having fun if I’m writing. I will also, of course, be doodling in my free time and you can continue to see my sketches on Instagram, on the Jamazing Things Facebook page or on this Tumblr blog if you want to see my miniature doodles in close-up.

And now my energies are directing me towards packing some bags. And the Zebra-Technoshaman coalesced into neon-stripey coherency and whistled me towards the righteous and sensible path. Aww, Zebra-Technoshaman my friend: we’re so on the same wavelength. Until next time or whatever, keep your head up above that which would drag you down and drown you and take care. Thanks for reading, and be excellent.

Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)

Epic Cathedrals, Awesome Cow Boxes and Italian Kids: An Update from Milano…

Allora, amici. I’ve got a morning without lessons, it’s snowing in Milano and I’ve got an itch to kick out blogpost and provide an update from bella Italia. Do you want a brief update? I hope you do, because I’m gonna give you a brief update and I’m going to begin it with a GPOY that sort of sums it all up…

Mugging before Milano's immense marble masterpiece...

An idiot abroad…

Hey! I’m in Milano! I’m in Milano and I’m getting to be silly! It’s my job and it’s my city and it’s all feeling really good. (Except for the fact that I’ve been addled by the flu-bugs that have struck down half the children in Italy and seemingly most of the teachers but, hey, we’ve got to fight on through froggy throats and sniffly noses, right?). Over the course of the past fortnight I’ve returning to Italian rhythms and settling back into the country that clearly has become my second home. To get back into the groove I stayed with my very good friends near Lake Como for a couple of days, learned how to make Risotto Milanese and caught the same kind of ailments that my future work colleagues and students had. (“When in Rome, or indeed, Milan…“, y’know?)

I then hit Milano and moved in with yet another fantastic family, hooked up with a host of other mother tongue English-speakers and we all got down to prepping for our new gig. That new gig is work as a linguistic assistant in the city’s schools, acting as a tangible, real-life English-speaking presence and teaching Italian children through informal methods (activities, games, songs, art, etc.) Basically, my objective is to be fun and be English. My first week has revolved around me walking into a classroom, beating my chest like King Kong and showing children a shoebox decorated in cow-print paper that contains five objects that represent me. The following doodle sort-of showcases some of the things in my amazing (seriously Jamazing) cow box…

 

 

The five objects are: teabags (because I love drinking tea and because English people drink lots of tea); a pen (because I love writing and drawing); Boston Celtics wristbands (because I love NBA basketball and support ‘dem Celtics); an ‘A Trip to the Moon‘ pin-badge (because I love films and because I love science fiction); and a Super Mario figurine (because I love Nintendo videogames, am a fake Italian like Mario and because Mario reminds me of my childhood and my family but I don’t go into all that ’cause it’s too complicated for the children and I’d probably start crying and squealing “Aww, man, I miss my brother!“). The lessons have been a blast and the children’s English ability is astounding. They’re really enthusiastic, ultra-keen to show off all the vocab they know, ask for new words and ask questions. The most common question is “Manchester City of Manchester United?“. Other questions I’ve been asked include  “Do you prefer it in Manchester or Milan?“, “Are you married?“, “Do you have a girlfriend?” and “Is your brother married?” Aww, them kids. It’s good to get back to engaging with Italian children again.

Altogether, it’s all really sweet and I’m excited about all the things I can do here (hopefully making some comics, composing some educational songs, imagining up some new games and so on). I also keep having “Whoa!” moments when I realise that I can just pop out to Piazza del Duomo on my lunchbreak, admire that epic marble masterpiece and grab a slice of pizza (genuine Italian pizza). Anytime I want I can drift off and dig Milano’s history and culture. I’ve still not quite got over the “Hey! I’m living in Milano!” state of elation.

I’ll now go back to that and cut this brief update short. More blogposts and bits of writing may surface soon (I’m still seeing how my time and work are working out). The snow’s now coming down thick and I’m going to charge out armed with a cowprint box to play Pass the Bomb with i bambini. From me in Milano then, buona giornata, be excellent and have fun with whatever you’re doing. (Having fun is my job, so I’m very serious about it…)