Alberto Angela: Cleopatra

November 29, 2022

     I’ve grown to like Alberto Angela’s books over the past few years, after discovering him on a visit to the Roman sites in Provence. I suppose he should be classified as a popular historian, although he seems to take great care to annotate and support what he writes. He makes us aware, from the sources of the time, just how much information about life and the history of the Roman era is actually recorded, as well as by whom and what axes they were grinding, and just how many gaps there are too: like other historians writing about those times, he must necessarily speculate, and he’s always very clear with the reader when he’s doing that.

He’s written about the Roman Empire, daily life in ancient Rome, and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This book is rather different, focussing on historical personalities at the time of the final demise of the republic, and it’s the first one of his that I’ve read in English. I’ll get my gripe over quickly: the proof-reading is shocking, with a serious number of careless errors that should have been corrected before it ever got to print…

What Angela particularly excels at, in my opinion, is his way of bringing the ancient world to life for the reader through a myriad of small details, either from sources or through logical deduction and inference, thus fully contextualising his subject-matter. I was astonished to learn, that if one did the sums from information known, then there might be around two million wrecked boats and ships at the bottom of the Mediterranean! One of the things I gradually came to realise – my recent knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra being through Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, is just how freely the bard adapted his source material, whilst keeping the outlines of the story and the character traits of the principal actors. But his focus was on the personalities and their flaws, and their tragedy.

There are times when Angela is perhaps a little too free with his imagination, too fanciful – he is dealing with Cleopatra after all – although given the fatal attraction between her and Mark Antony, speculation about the exact nature of their relationship is surely allowed. Octavian emerges as a far nastier and ruthless creature than I recalled from my classes in Roman history over half a century ago. The real revelation for me was Cleopatra’s intelligence: she was a very well-educated and powerful woman, a master-strategist, perhaps the most powerful woman in history in terms of her influence and effect: Angela reminds us several times how different the Roman world, and hence ours, might have been if things had gone the other way, and Octavian had not become the god Augustus who founded the Roman empire.

A fascinating read, well worth my eyeball time.


Martin Buckley: Grains of Sand

November 23, 2022

     I’m always up for travels in deserts, and the premise of this book was interesting: that the world’s deserts lie in two bands, roughly at the levels of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and he was going to spend a couple of years travelling through all of them…

That was the theory, but the book ended up being rather annoying because there was rarely any continuity in his travelling: he seemed to flit from place to place in a series of short chapters, creating an impression of a journey rather than a continuous account, if that makes sense. That’s probably a bit harsh; it did detract from the book on numerous occasions, but I stuck with it, and it eventually grew on me. Buckley is interesting in his factual digressions about deserts, and his approach does, somehow, give a good impression of the random chaos of trying to eke out a living in the desert, for those who have to try and get by.

His picture of Africa – the Sahara in particular – is of chaos and lawlessness, and multiple rebellions against hardly-existing governments, alongside the mere difficulties of physical survival. He was travelling at the very end of the 20th century. But how could he miss out Timbuktoo? Dangers, I presume. This was a constant grumble for me: lots of very interesting detail about some places, many others glossed over. And yet, he does meet a number of very interesting characters on his journey, spending time with them and recounting his time with them in detail if it merits it.

As the book and his travels progress he develops a rather more political analysis, pro-minorities and ethic groups and their rights, and we are shown how complex the issues of progress and development actually are in so many places. He shows a genuine awkwardness when faced with the Australian deserts and the devastating effects of the white settlers on the Aboriginal communities.

His travels through the Xinjiang region of China show us the very beginnings of what we are now regularly reading and seeing of the Han Chinese approach to the Muslim Uighurs: even twenty years ago it’s problematic and disturbing to read about, but nowhere near as alarming as today. And there were fascinating insights into the closed world of Iranian society.

It was a decent read, after all; I’d have liked more detailed maps, but then I almost always say that; I wish there had been a greater sense of continuity to his travels, but then, at least he’s done the journey and written about it all, which is more than I will ever do.


Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

November 22, 2022

     I have long been intrigued by this Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. His meditations are rather hard to read in these modern times, because of the style of writing way back then, and also the need for quite comprehensive notes to explain so many points and references, even to someone with a reasonable classical education. I have been listening to a good Librivox recording, which has made them rather more approachable and accessible; they seem to have been designed for listening, in a similar way to the Qur’an which is intended for recitation rather than reading.

He enjoyed an extremely powerful and privileged position, in the years before the Roman Empire became so large as to be unmanageable; he clearly had the luxury of unlimited undisturbed time to think, to philosophise and presumably dictate his thoughts to his slave… He comes across as a thinker, someone wise, but also someone endowed with large amounts of common sense. He reflects on the purpose and meaning of life, and its counterpart, the inevitability of death, and how a mortal can face and come to terms with that necessary eventuality. Nothing new there, we may think, but here is one of the first to try and articulate a response. And it’s interesting that he continually returns to this particular issue a number of times; I found myself thinking, here is a man – an emperor, but still a man, and aware of this – who is at some level wanting to understand and to rationalise his fears: for me, this made him more human, somehow.

He’s also interested in the nature of the universe, fate and resignation, and his position is that the gods determine everything…

At some level, he’s interested in the same things that I spend a fair amount of time wondering about. There are wisdom writings in most religions and cultures, and some are rather more accessible than others. I’ve found that with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, there’s an awful lot of chaff and not much wheat to glean once the tribal histories of the Jewish people, their wanderings and the misdeeds of their kings are stripped out. And although the Qur’an doesn’t spend as much time on history, is is very repetitive, as a book originally designed for public recitation will inevitably be.

The Wisdom books of the Bible, on the other hand, I have always found attractive and thought-provoking, and as I’ve read more widely I’ve come to realise that they contemplate similar notions to, and say the same things as did Confucius and the Buddha, and various Greeks and Romans, and Marcus Aurelius joins them. For my money, the orientals are rather too enigmatic – again, it’s a different mode of expression that it’s harder for us to tap into. The Greeks and the Romans are a lot more straightforward, in acknowledging that there are things they don’t understand, there are powers above and beyond us, that we humans are limited in what we can do and mortal. And they have no sense of there being a life after death either. For me, the jury is out on that one, but increasingly I do think that the idea of a hereafter is part of the attempt of religion to comfort us in facing the awful and inevitable end.

In a nutshell, if you’re a fan of the Preacher, aka Qoheleth, aka Ecclesiastes, you’ll probably enjoy Marcus Aurelius.


Proud of my country?

November 21, 2022

I’m conscious of John of Gaunt’s pride in his country, and find myself thinking what can I be proud of in today’s England (or Britain)? I’m proud of the NHS, battered and constrained as it is, and hope it endures to look after me in my final years. I feel a great sense of loyalty to it: my mother trained as a children’s nurse as it came into existence, and made sure we had all that it offered to keep us healthy as children, all the jabs, the free orange juice and rose hip syrup and codliver oil.

My father was an exile from Poland, and after the war ended nobody wanted him and his comrades any more: they were foreigners, taking away jobs from the British etc etc – where have we heard that one recently? Reluctantly he and his mates were allowed to remain, all sorts of obstacles were put in their way, they were used and exploited. Nevertheless he was loyal to his adoptive country and eventually took British nationality.

My memories of my younger days are of a country that provided work for almost everyone, benefits (paltry, perhaps) for those that needed them, grants for students rather than loans, and offered supplementary benefits, as they were called back then, even to students who did not find work in the holidays. There were very few people living on the streets and no foodbanks. There was unemployment and poverty, but not the outright misery and destitution as we see nowadays.

Although I regarded it as my right, I had eight years of state support through my studies, and I recognise the value of what the country invested in me; equally, I can see that I paid it all back over the years through taxation and through service as a teacher.

Back in the past housing was affordable and rents were controlled: one income would support a family, even my father’s meagre wages, supplemented by overtime and some moonlighting. And although he always loathed them, trade unions were able to defend the working people and ensure a reasonable standard of wages, working conditions and pensions.

I remember grand projects: Concorde, Intercity 125 trains, the struggle to join the Common Market which became the European Community and then the European Union. All of my travel as a student was made so much easier by our membership, and I was glad of the new-found freedom, and the ability to encounter other peoples and cultures.

Like any old codger, I’m waxing lyrical about the days of my youth. But I lived through the Cuban missile crisis and Reagan’s cruise missiles and I did not feel as endangered then as I do now under the rule of incompetent liars. I lived through the so-called winter of discontent in 1978-9; it wasn’t that bad and there certainly wasn’t the feeling of impending doom that many of us are currently fighting off.

I have seen so much that was not perfect but that was decent enough, and certainly far better than we have now, deliberately demolished, destroyed and sold off to other countries through the greed and rapaciousness started by Thatcher and her cronies. I don’t need to ponder why there is a housing crisis, a shortage of homes: I remember what she did. I don’t need to bother my head with whether Johnson or Truss was a worse prime minister, as Thatcher scoops all the awards there.

There are many good things in the history of our country and these islands; there are as many dark pages, and the difference between us and a country like Germany, for instance, is that we do not wish to confront and recognise that dark past; we are waylaid and misled by those who think that our past glories mean we are automatically entitled to a glorious future… We are a small island off the coast of Europe, that Europe can ignore without too great a loss; it’s not the same the other way round.

More than anything I have an image of a country with its head in the sand, ruled by an aristocracy which has embedded itself deep in our national psyche over a millennium; we invented a form of democracy a couple of centuries back and think it’s still fit for purpose; we are collectively unwilling to face the challenges of the future, whether they are economic or meteorological, and we allow rich and vested interests shamelessly to play to the darkest sides of people in order to hang on to their privilege.

I have very mixed feelings about England and Britain. It’s my home, for better or worse. There are things I have been grateful for; there are things I love, but increasingly there are things I truly despair about.


Jo Durden Smith: The Essence of Buddhism

November 20, 2022

     Recently, some of my reading on matters spiritual has suggested that there is a certain overlap between some Buddhist beliefs and practices and those of Quakers; I have been seeking a basic introduction to Buddhism, about which I know almost nothing, with a view to exploring this further, and had high hopes when I found this book. However, I was to be disappointed.

The connections I wanted to explore were around one’s spiritual journey being an individual path and one requiring tolerance of others and their beliefs. The book’s opening chapter offered a clear history, both in terms of the people and the social context of the origins of Buddhism, insofar as these can be known with any certainty after two and a half millennia. Life is characterised by suffering; we need to become seekers after truth; the truth cannot be taught, only experienced. The idea of the ‘middle way’ made a good deal of sense.

In the following chapter some aspects were explained in more detail. The book then developed into a history of Buddhism and its various flavours across the oriental world, and a rather tortuous path through doctrinal disagreements and a certain amount of infighting, myriad debates about orthodoxy and so forth, most of which made no sense at all to a novice explorer. This came as a great surprise to me, and reminded me of what I am so much more familiar with from my own origins and background, namely the shocking history of Christianity and its move away from what it seemed originally to have been. And then I realised that perhaps I should not have been so shocked: is this not what happens with any large-scale spiritual or political movement: those who follow after the initial birth of a movement inevitably become embroiled in struggles for power and influence, and for determining the ‘original’ message and for preserving its ‘purity’ ie orthodoxy, expelling heretics and so on…

This depressed me greatly, and I realise that trying to develop an understanding of some of the key tenets of Buddhism will perhaps involve just as much care and wading through treacle as any attempt to understand any religion. I do feel a little defeated, having, perhaps naively, had a picture of Buddhism as a peaceful faith. I shall persist for a while in my attempts to understand, and would welcome any suggestion from my readers of books which may be helpful: it’s the principles I’m interested in, not the history and the arguments…


Speaking and listening

November 19, 2022

This is the last of a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently had not…

Somehow, I always felt quite confident leading and managing discussions in class, and quite early on evolved the idea that nothing should be off-limits as long as students could handle the topic sensibly and reasonably maturely. Students almost always responded well to this kind of trust and expectation of them; outsiders and visitors were at times shocked and surprised; I rarely was. It is hard work keeping a discussion on-track, and bringing it back to order when it’s become a little shapeless; it’s also hard monitoring who’s taking part and who’s not, and trying to call students in order to make their contributions. However, it’s also incredibly rewarding when at the end of a lesson, you realise it’s gone well, and some of the students leave the class still arguing about whatever it was…

The other thing I have always done is to play devil’s advocate, in order to ensure that there’s some sense of balance to a discussion and that all aspects of a topic are covered, and also as a way of challenging prejudices, challenging over-confident students, and also encouraging them to challenge me; things get complicated when you’re trying to argue back, and also manage a discussion. But I always did think that it was important for students to realise at some point that their teacher did not know everything or have an answer to everything, and I wanted them, more than anything, to be wary of anyone who offered supposedly simple answers to any of the world’s problems.

The rationale for speaking and listening in class for me was that I could see it would be far more important for many students to be able to speak clearly in public, to address meetings and gatherings, in their future working lives, than to be able to write well. I developed considerable expertise in teaching and managing oral communication in my early years in the profession, and it became a particular strength of mine as I moved up the career ladder.

A lot of students are quite confident at speaking in class, perhaps because they are among the brightest; equally, some of the very brightest can be very quiet, almost reticent: how do you bring them out of their shells? Part of it is offering them interesting things to talk about, part of it is ensuring that everyone knows and accepts the ground rules: that everyone may take part, everyone will be heard respectfully, and no-one will shout anyone down or abuse anyone else because of their opinion. And there has to be a range of different activities: whole class and small group activities as well as individual presentations to the class. These last are often the hardest for some students, but when they are offered the chance to talk to the class about a subject of their own choice, they often flourish because they are then confident experts in that field, and everyone will acknowledge this.

The significance and value of speaking and listening has been marginalised recently in public examinations; it is no longer assessed, and no longer contributes to marks and grades: I feel that this does a grave disservice to students.


Teaching writing

November 18, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

Although I remember loathing the imposition of the National Curriculum for English, after it had worked its way through primary schools it did actually make the teaching of writing somewhat more straightforward at secondary level too, because it clearly labelled and defined genres, and also encouraged writers to try and write with a target audience in mind; when it came to GCSE, the trio of genre, audience, purpose was a useful way into both textual analysis and the structuring of writing, as long as none of this became too rigid.

When I had had to write, at school and at university, I had always found initial preparation and planning of some kind to be invaluable, rather than rushing headlong into writing, and I tried to get students to slow down and do the same, with some success. Many could see that to have a fairly clear idea of where they were heading, what they wanted to say and how best to say it, before committing themselves to the final version, was a good idea. However, this tended to change over time as it became possible to word-process text: now one could write and erase, correct and modify as one went along, so it would be all right, wouldn’t it? Well, no: this method took ages, you still needed a route map before you started, and in an examination room, you still had to do it all longhand on paper with pen and ink, against the clock… although I gather that even this is now beginning to change.

As my career progressed, I gradually discovered that it was possible for the students and me collectively to plan an essay in class on a black/whiteboard, elucidating and illustrating the entire process from start to finish, taking the students through all the stages of organising, structuring and sequencing ideas, and also building in various prompts about timing, in preparation for the exam room. It was an exhausting tour-de-force which required a double lesson, and the ability to juggle quite a few balls at once, as well as keeping a rigorous control of time. But I could see the difference it made, and I could see my students realising the control it gave them. And with enough lead-in time, they had the opportunity to practise and refine their own take before using it in the exam room.

Receiving students’ writing to mark was a real joy: I could often see writers whose command of language and imagery was way beyond my creative efforts. And personal pieces were often very moving indeed: writing that came from the heart, often sharing things that I could see the student was sharing for the first time, with a stranger; the trust that involved was astonishing, and the writing demanded respect. It was often very hard to put a mark on a piece, and writing a teacher comment took much deep thought: how to value a piece as well as assess it, and not to patronise someone who shared part of her or himself.


Teaching spelling

November 17, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

Some can spell: many can’t. English doesn’t make it easy. I’ve always found spelling a doddle; yet, there are a few bugbears I have to stop and briefly think about. And spelling mistakes have always irritated me. So, how did I get here?

At some point in primary school there were spelling tests. At secondary school, these were regular, weekly events, and I suppose I ‘learned’ my spellings. I always read a lot, so I must have covered many thousands of new words, all correctly spelt, in my reading, and somehow – photographically, perhaps? – these stuck in my memory. I have always been intrigued when I come across new words; I look them up in a dictionary; nowadays I collect them in a notebook because they are such rare events. I suppose this careful attention to new words, this curiosity, must have helped the spellings to stick. Similarly, rules and patterns have always fascinated me, so when they cropped up in various spellings, this will also have helped, not that English is that regular in its spelling rules (unlike Spanish or Polish, for example). Because I have always liked to be right, when something is wrong, incorrect, it does tend to stick out…

That’s all been fine and dandy for me, but what about my poor students? I always strove to inculcate curiosity about words and language. I gave them regular spelling tests, of lists of words I’d gleaned from common errors in their written work. I always corrected all spelling mistakes and insisted on spelling corrections being done – I was unable to merely select a few errors in a piece of work, as official advice often suggested. I would provide word lists in advance of writing tasks so students had correct versions of words they might perhaps want to use. Perhaps some of this worked; it was a scatter-gun approach: some of the bullets would strike home.

And of course it all got so much more difficult with the advent of word-processing and the concomitant spell-checker. This would help you, if you could use it properly: was it set up for British English spelling? It wouldn’t help with homonyms. It wouldn’t help if you automatically hit the ‘correct’ button without looking at what it was suggesting. A spell-checker is as intelligent or as stupid as the person using it, I would tell my students… Mary had a little lamb/ She also had a bear/ I’ve often seen her little lamb/ but I’ve never seen her ….

Spelling changes and evolves. American spellings are inevitably creeping into British English, and there’s probably very little we can do about that. There are worse things than spelling mistakes. But taking enough care and trouble to get things right does show a certain approach, attitude and respect for your audience.


Teaching punctuation

November 16, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This probably comes second to grammar in terms of absolute dullness, but again is essential if you are aiming to communicate clearly and meaningfully in writing. And there was a gradual realisation that secondary school was a bit late to be trying to teach punctuation: ideally it is learned in primary school at the same time as the basics of reading and writing: you need to learn what a sentence is, and how to punctuate at the same time as you’re writing your own very first sentences; you can’t tack on punctuation afterwards.

So it was often an uphill task, not made any easier by students sometimes having been taught incorrectly at primary school… you could explain the rules and the reasoning behind them, and drill students in producing model sentences, but there was no guarantee that these abilities, demonstrated under ideal conditions in the classroom, would transfer themselves to their own work, done at home or in the exam hall…

As with grammar, I often felt that the best way to tackle a topic was to link it to the need to be clear and to be understood when writing, and to explain that incorrect grammar, and/ or inaccurate punctuation were likely to leave readers uncertain, or even mistaken: so in order to avoid this, you need to do that.

So much of good practice in all areas of English, it became ever clearer to me, was absorbed through good and well-developed reading habits: if one enjoys reading and reads attentively, it’s not really possible to avoid noticing how sentences work, are built and punctuated: you’re constantly reading good quality English, grammatical English that’s accurately presented and correctly spelt, and you unconsciously absorb this into your own practice. If you’re very curious, you ask questions, too. Easy to say: how do you get students to read when there are so many superficially more exciting things to spend time on?

Increasingly, I can see the separation that used to exist between reading and writing in past centuries emerging again: few people will need to be able to write more than the odd sentence or list, and will have technology to help them; those that have greater need will be able to call on expert practitioners of writing. Social media and instant messaging are changing everyone’s practice. I make no value judgement about this change.


Teaching grammar: does it matter?

November 15, 2022

I recently came across a number of posts about teaching, which I thought I’d published a long while ago, but apparently not, so they will appear over the coming days…

This is a difficult one. I never really had a solid grounding in grammar, as I was at school in the late sixties and early seventies, when the general feeling was that it would be picked up almost by osmosis as it were; there wasn’t a structured way of teaching it, and suitable textbooks were disappearing and being replaced by very dumbed-down ones. During my teaching career, things became even more difficult as the terminology used was changed, sometimes by grammarians in the name of accuracy and clarity, sometimes by government quangos in the name of god knows what…

To most school students, grammar is deadly dull, and the necessary drilling in order to inculcate understanding and good practice even more so. In my experience, gaining knowledge and understanding of grammar came mainly from learning other languages, and then reflecting that grammatical knowledge back on to my knowledge and understanding of my own language; if it hadn’t been for my innate curiosity about such things, very little would probably have stuck.

Learning Latin in those long-gone days was very heavily grammar-based, with memorising of the five declensions, four conjugations, principle parts and I don’t know what else. Once you’d cracked subject and object, you were good to go. And then there was French, and again, the grammar and its terminology gave you a handle on your own language. But the overall effect was pretty piecemeal, especially since a lot of it wasn’t directly transferable to English: English and Latin grammar are miles apart, despite the best efforts of several centuries of prescriptivists.

With such an incomplete knowledge of English grammar, trying to impart it to my own students was rather a challenge, to say the least. In the end, there wasn’t enough time fully to explore the subject, and I didn’t want to bore my classes to death; I was about to say there were more important things to teach them, but it would be better and fairer to say, more interesting things. It became a matter of working out what were the absolute essentials that needed to be imparted, starting with the basics of the parts of speech, and moving on from there, developing knowledge as far as was necessary, and when it was particularly called for. I was never happy with this approach, but it was the best I could do. I don’t think anyone has come near working out what to do – I just know how enabling the ability to communicate clearly in Standard English is, and therefore how important it is to be able to offer this to school students.


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