Tag Archives: Life in the UK

Women Bishops, Noah and Christmas Pud.

Amongst the media bombardment about Middle Eastern rockets and women priests, I notice that today is traditionally the day on which Noah is held to have entered the Ark.

Given the weather we have had this year, I imagine that there are many who feel like copying him, although perhaps without the complete domestic menagerie he brought along.

It is also about now, my almanac tells me, that Stir-Up Sunday falls: the last Sunday before Advent on which the Collect begins “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of the faithful…” which was taken as a reminder to stir-up the mixture for Christmas puddings and pies, in order to allow them time to mature.

It was parodied thus:
Stir up, we beseech thee,
The pudding in the pot,
And when we do get home,
We’ll eat it piping hot.

Christmas puddings and pies should always be stirred clockwise with a wooden spoon. All present in the house should take a turn to stir in order of age: father, mother, visitors, children and babies by seniority.

Is there a connection between ‘stirring’ and women?  Certainly Johnny Nash and later Bob Marley thought so in the reggae classic ‘Stir It Up‘ – and they weren’t talking about ecclesiastical ructions within the Anglican church.

Anyway, in this house, if I want a Christmas Pudding  I shall have to make it myself, so I wish you all have a safe ark to carry you forth and that you remember to stir your pudding clockwise. (What happens if you don’t…?)

And if you don’t know how to make one, here’s a Christmas Pudding recipe, for you to try at home.

At HELLO English, we enjoy all the oddities of English traditions – whether in the English language, or in our weird and wonderful institutions, even if their arcane rules seem a little outdated from time to time. To find out more, contact us here.

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Remember, Remember…

Gunpowder-plot

At this time of year, our English students often ask about the story of Guy Fawkes. Why do we remember this failed attempt to blow-up a king?

When Guy Fawkes planned the Gunpowder Plot more than 400 years ago, he could hardly have imagined his treasonous actions would be remembered for so long afterwards and inspire so many books, poems, short stories and songs.

Yet the man who was part of a group – led by Robert Catesby – that tried to kill the king of England in 1605 has been the inspiration for many millions of words – to which we add these few.

Most people born and raised in Britain know the story of the Gunpowder Plot, which was an attempt by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to kill King James I, when he opened the Parliament at Westminster.

Fawkes and his group cooked up a secret plot to assassinate King James. England was a protestant country and Fawkes and his fellow band of men wanted to have a Catholic king or queen on the throne.

Fawkes planned to blow up Parliament while the king was there. But the king’s guards were tipped off and on November 5, 1605 they searched Westminster Palace and found Fawkes guarding a pile of gunpowder. He was arrested and sentenced to death.

The fact that King James survived was cause for great celebration!  People took to the streets to have a party. The country soon followed in the celebration and a party-like spirit spread across England. Everyone gave thanks that God had saved King James’s life.

The king did not want any more attempts on his life. His ministers made sure people did not forget Guy Fawkes, and November 5 became known as Guy Fawkes Night. It continues today as an evening of celebration, with food, drink, songs and stories. Effigies of Guy Fawkes are even burned on a bonfire.

And it continues in our literature because the drama and intrigue of the Gunpowder Plot have appealed to writers across the centuries. The story has been captured in various ways.

The most famous poem, sometimes classed as a nursery rhyme, is “Remember Remember”.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
In Britain, most children will learn this ditty  in infancy, but there are longer versions: the longest being kept in the Tower of London archive.

There are Guy Fawkes related  songs, and many of these are period ballads with a decidedly sinister feel to them, including the “Devil and the Washerwoman”, but there is also a more recent “Ballad of Guy Fawkes” by the band Green on Red, which links these seventeenth century events to recent political dissatisfaction.

The most successful substantive account of the Gunpowder Plot has been that written by the renowned historian Antonia Fraser. Her book “The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996) unravels the tangled web of religion and politics that spawned the plot.

The Gunpowder Plot captures children’s imaginations too. There are many  books for younger readers about Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night. Two of the most popular are “The Gunpowder Plot”, by Liz Gogerly, and “Guy Fawkes” by Harriet Caster. Indeed, in towns and cities across the UK, children may still ask strangers to spare ‘A Penny for the Guy, Mister?’, although it is likely to mean a lot more than a penny these days.

Guy Fawkes even shaped our language.  In the 19th century the word “guy” was used to describe an effigy or a strangely dressed person. In American English use of the term evolved and it came to mean any male person.

Today, some people say Guy Fawkes Night is overshadowed by Hallowe’en, and the advent of ‘Trick or Treat’ – an American import, described by one Guardian journalist as ‘the Japanese knotweed of autumn festivals’.

So, whether you see Guy Fawkes as ‘The only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions’, or as a treacherous traitor, who deserved all he got, it seems we do ‘Remember,  Remember’ pretty successfully, so it is unlikely that ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot should Ever Be Forgot!’

At HELLO English, we love explaining the old customs and traditions of England, and we even enjoy exploring those of our near neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

If you want to find out more, please look at the HELLO English website on http://www.hello-english.com, or email us at contact@hello-english.co.uk.

God save the Queen’s English

God save the Queen’s English.

via God save the Queen’s English.

“Be a bloody train driver!”

Many years ago, when the world was young, my anarcho-feminist sister had Jacky Fleming’s 1991 cartoon collection “Be a bloody train driver” perched on her lavatory windowsill.

On the front cover, Minnie the Minx finishes: “- I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”

The gender stereotypes on which this is based  are a bit hackneyed these days, but they are still valid. Women are pretty rare in both train driving and brain surgery, and there is a range of professions and vocations to which more young women should aspire and gain entry.

However, I don’t think that in either of these jobs we would want applicants to be appointed on the basis of gender alone. I certainly don’t want to have my safety, on the operating table or elsewhere, left to a woman just because she is female rather than an expert and excellent surgeon.

So why is this of interest to linguists and teachers of English?

Well, increasingly these days, I interview  prospective IELTS students who complain about the standard of English required to practise as a medical doctor in the United Kingdom*. It is, they say, discriminatory.

I agree. It differentiates among those people who aspire to be senior professionals in highly-remunerated positions making life and death decisions about their fellow citizens. Some of them think that having the ability to speak good English is a legitimate requirement, and are ready to work hard to achieve that goal.

It is not unrealistic, I think, for those who aspire to practise in the professions to be able to converse and communicate on equal terms with other educated and highly skilled professional people in this country.

It is worth it, after all. In the UK, a salaried GP can expect to earn between £53,781- £81,158, while GP partners and hospital consultants can earn anywhere between £100,000 and £200,000.

Given these salaries, perhaps the effort to learn how to speak, write, read and comprehend English at a very good level is justified. After all, a train driver, at the pinnacle of his career, could not earn more than £51,000. Somewhat less, even after a lifetime of service, than our fresh-faced GPs will earn at the beginning of theirs.

So, if you don’t like the British Medical Council’s English requirements, there is always an alternative.

“Be a bloody train driver!”

* PLAB: Band 7 scores across all elements at one sitting. Foundation: Band 7.5 in all four in one go.

(With apologies to any train drivers who may take exception to this. No disregard for your skills and responsibilities is in any way intended.)

Taking Risks with the Truth

With the publication this week of the Hillsborough report, Britain has returned from a summer of sporting success – Tour de France, Olympics, Paralympics, US Tennis Open – to our most recent default setting: disgust at dishonesty among public servants.

Criminality, corruption, coercion and cover-ups… We probably aren’t too surprised at this sort of behaviour from politicians and journalists, but we used to expect better from policemen.

Disregard for honesty.

At heart, our dismay is at an increasingly widespread disregard for truth. Yesterday, our politicians queued-up to apologise for lying to bereaved families about the death of their children. Yet, we are left wondering how we can restore a regard for honesty among young people, so that such acts of deceit are avoided in future.

The portents are not good. As you consider this succession of scandals – vote-rigging in Birmingham, politicians fiddling expenses, match-fixing in cricket, phone-hacking, LIBOR-fixing, Hillsborough – spare a thought for those working in our schools and universities.

Local difficulties.

I run an English school for overseas students. We are good at what we do and enjoy seeing our graduates succeed. With our growing reputation for success, we have become conscious that some other schools are less honest in their admissions procedure (see London Met). So, we check our students carefully on enrolment, and we have learned to steer well clear of anything to do with visa applications, or the UK Border Agency!

In our area of work, there are people offering visa fixes for unscrupulous students, and income to unscrupulous schools. There are agents who offer you  an endless stream of international students, usually for a 30% share of your fees. As with every other dodgy deal, the rule is “Just say no!”

My problems are irritating but minor. They are run-of-the-mill stuff: fee payments delayed, bookings fudged and courses cancelled at short notice. Small beer, when all’s said and done, and as nothing when compared to the problems facing teachers and lecturers in our colleges and universities, these days.

A little help from your friends?

With the advent of modular coursework, it has become increasingly easy for students to get help with essays and assessed assignments which, because they are completed at home, can be improved with help from parents or friends… Or teachers, as we saw in the much-publicised case of Prince Harry’s 2005 A-level artwork.

From this it is a short step to buying-in help. The internet is awash with agencies who, for as little as £7.95 per page, will offer to write your essays for you. “Best Quality Academic Writing by Experts” they promise, and students are increasingly happy to stump-up the £150+ to cheat their way to success.

Writing last year, Audrey Watters noted that ‘… that cheating is at an all time high — or at least, students’ willingness to admit they’ve cheated. Some 75% of college students admit that they’ve cheated at one point or another during their academic careers. That’s up from 20% of students back in the 1940s.’

But this is what’s happening in the US, so it doesn’t concern us. Or, does it? Here,  in the UK, we tell our children that marks matter, don’t we? Increasingly, our teachers are being graded, paid and promoted on the basis of how well their students perform in standardised tests. Guess what they tell them, as well?

There is a conflict here, isn’t there? We want our schools to do well so that our children can do well, but should that success be predicated on a disregard for honesty and truth?

Academic dishonesty.

We need to answer this question because students, teachers and university administrators are cheating as never before. The Daily Telegraph‘s David Barrett reported in 2011 on a survey of academic malpractice in 80 British universities. In the 70 universities providing comparable data, there had been a 53% jump in reported incidents over the four years to 2010. Maybe staff are getting better at spotting plagiarism, but there is assuredly a great deal that isn’t spotted.

Our liberal university culture was built upon the personal relationship with supervisors that came from the tutorial system. It was quite easy to spot where a piece of work was not the fruit of your student’s intellectual efforts. You knew their voice – spoken or written – and could tell when something came from another hand than theirs.

This is no longer the case. Universities have been forced to change too quickly and, adopting the worst practices of US higher education, have replaced inter-personal trust with regulation and technology.

Into this arena have come a new breed of student with a ‘Nice guys don’t win’ philosophy which says that the end justifies the means. Ultimately, they would argue, if marks matter, then you buy your marks. Job done.

But, here’s a thing: if you are found out, the chances are you won’t be punished. In the 2011 study of British universities, out of 17,000 reported cases of cheating, less than 1% of students were sent-down.

What price honesty?

University administrators are complicit in this mess because they are desperate for income from overseas students, often with little regard for the legality of their enrolment. They won’t enforce a strict code of standards because they have no wish to lose the fees that come with each student place. And truth is again the victim.

All this is about to get a whole lot worse. Now that university fees for home students have tripled,  paying £27,000+ for a bargain basement service will no longer be acceptable. With a commercial relationship in place, we will see failing students suing universities for not providing tuition that guaranteed graduation.

This is already the case at some faculties and cases never come to court. Can universities afford to defend a slew of such actions from disgruntled students? Of course they can’t. Students will know this and accept their re-marked degrees with a suitable sneer.

What price honest, trustworthy, incorruptible public servants then?