On a boozy train of thought

7th September 2007 at 01:00

you might call it Strangers on a Train. Or possibly Brief Encounter although in this case, sadly, my significant other wasn't exactly a Celia Johnson. But I'm running ahead of myself.

The new term, the new year, is where we must start. You know what it's like. You arrive back in the office, chat about what you did or what you didn't do in the summer, spend a leisured hour or two preparing classes, then trot off home before the rush hour starts. Was it ever like that? Probably not. But it sure as hell ain't like that now.

If you're lucky enough not to be dragged back in the middle of August to handle the aftermath of the exam results, then it all begins with a bang once that summer-ending bank holiday has been dumped into the file marked "memory".

First you find yourself in a long and sticky mega-meeting called "briefing". Here you are praised for all your good work last year (45 seconds), then threatened with a thousand torments you don't really need those testicles anyway regarding what will happen this year if you don't meet your targets (45 minutes).

After this, they throw back the doors and in pour the multitude. Once this was called enrolment week. While it was frantic, it only lasted for three or four days and then you could get on with your real work. Now it's open house for a month, dawn to dusk, full of roaring boyos demanding their "rights" in other words, to be put on courses they're not qualified for and babies mewling and puking while their mums try to decide whether it's motor mechanics or soft furnishings they really, really want to do.

So, tipping out of work the other night on the wrong side of 8pm, I decided I deserved a drink. If you drink alcohol yourself, you'll know the mindset. You earn the odd glass or two by doing something demanding: walking five miles, swimming 40 lengths or slogging your way through two days' work in one. Go on you've earned it!

The pub was a non-starter I was late enough already but I just had time before my train to slip into a convenience store and buy a cold one. But that brought its own problems. How and where was I to drink it? It's a curious thing, but if the train has a buffet car you can drink all night without attracting opprobrium. If it doesn't, you're just another drunk.

The solution? Leave it in the bag you bought it in. Or at least I thought that was the solution. Five minutes out of Liverpool Street and my brief encounter had begun.

"I see you're a bit of a drinker then?"

I looked up from my book. He was staring at me, glassy-eyed, from across the aisle. I stopped my surreptitious sipping and attempted to slide the package down between the seats.

"It's no good keeping it in that bag, is it? Everyone knows you're boozing. Why hide it?" You couldn't fault his logic. A dozen people sitting around us were secretly nodding in agreement. They were also having the time of their lives, free to enjoy the show. The carriage drunk had fixated on somebody else.

"I like a drink myself," he said.


"Yeah. You wanna know how much I drink every week?"

"I get the feeling you're about to tell me," I said.

"About 100 units 150 some weeks."


"It's a lot, isn't it?" If it were true, he'd make George Best look like a Southern Baptist.

"How much do you drink then?"

I gave him the figure I usually give to my doctor. He snorted. "You look like you drink a lot more than that."

That really set the audience sniggering.

"Yeah, well, that's not the drink it's because I work in FE."

"Effie?" he said absently. "Does she drink a lot too then?"

"No, she's not a `she', and I don't."

"Look sunshine, don't be ashamed of it. We should stick together, us drinkers."

Now I was in for it. Next thing I'd be his mate and he'd have his arm round me telling me how much he fuggin' loved me. Then I really would be Trevor to his Celia!

Mercifully, he stayed put. All around the carriage the people pretending to read their newspapers looked disappointed. At last, my stop came into view. I couldn't get past him, though, without a final handshake and a conspiratorial slap on the back. The two carriage drunks together.

Halfway home from the station, I had resolved to give up the drink for ever. With the key in the door I had a change of heart. I'd give up Effie instead.


See the world for a moment through the eyes of a lecturer with a dart in his hand. His target, naturally, is management. But of the two inner rings on his imaginary dartboard, college principals, chief executives and the like are only in the 25. The bullseye he reserves for consultants.

Not only does their arrival normally in the run-up to an inspection inevitably lead to much pain, but they are also likely to be in receipt of large sums of money for inflicting it.

What joy then to read that a project in which lecturers and other college staff took over the job of reviewing the performance of neighbouring colleges work normally done by consultants has been deemed a success. In the words of the project leader: "We compared it on cost, quality and impact. Our experience is that peer review is delivering better outcomes."

Should we be surprised that lecturers are doing the consultants' work better than they do it themselves? Hardly. Consultants have usually been away from the classroom for many years before they take up their lucrative new careers. Consequently, they tend to understand grass roots education in the way that District Commissioners once claimed to understand Africa.

More to the point, are lecturers being paid the pound;600 a day that consultants might expect for their labours? If only. Instead, they are given "time off" from their normal duties to make their visits. No wonder that cost is one of those "better outcomes" of the project!

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