Jim is uncharacteristically subdued in class tonight, and he's staring nervously at the tape recorder. There is a major football match on, the group is small, and I've taken advantage of the situation to record a conversation between the few who have turned up. It's a good opportunity to collect evidence of speech patterns for an assignment on spoken and written language, which I have to do for a course I'm on.
Although the whole group has agreed I can record them, I only really need Jim. Although he's chatty, he's the least articulate. He uses the most colourful and colloquial expression, but he rarely finishes sentences, and punctuates them all with "like" and a range of swear words.
So Jim is ideal material for my case study. There's not much to say about someone who speaks the Queen's English.
But tonight he is not on song. The combination of a formal situation, speaking in front of the tutor, his peers and a tape recorder has reduced him to an incoherent mumble.
I have asked them to discuss holidays and I learn that Jim took his family to a holiday camp last year. Someone asks how he can afford it as he is officially on benefit. Jim taps his nose and says you can always find the money if you need to, but doesn't explain how - and who can blame him with the tape running?
Next year, he'd like to try Lanzarote. He's seen an advert for an all-inclusive fortnight which looked very good value. Jim says he found it expensive to buy a round at the holiday camp, so a big attraction will be the free drinks. The sea should also be warmer than at Skeggie and there's plenty for the kids to do too.
Has he been there before? I ask. No, but he's been to Ibiza. Not with the family of course, but once, with his mates. "Bloody 'ell. A few sore 'eads like, in the mornin, know what I mean?"
Now he's coming up with the speech patterns, the regional accent, the colloquialisms, and the socio-economic clues I need to show. But in his nervousness, he taps his pencil repeatedly on the table, and I know that it will sound like gunshots when I play the tape back.
The radiators gurgle, cars come in and out of the car park, students shout in the corridor. I realise that, as long as I can hear the tape above the background noise, I have plenty of material to work on, so stop the tape.
I already have a story Jim has written for me, so I can link his spoken language to his writing. It's a ghost story and quite good too, except for the technicalities like spelling and punctuation.
When I told Jim what I wanted him to do, he said "I can't write a bloody story can I?" But I gave him a published story to work on and said he could copy the plot if he changed the main character, and chose a different setting.
Jim could not get started, until I suggested setting it in the pub, or perhaps, as it was a ghost story, in the cellar. He's quite proud of it too. They say write about what you know. Jim may not be able to structure a sentence with grammatical nicety, but he knows a lot more than I do about tapping a barrel. Well, what's a guy to do if he's to take his family on holiday?