Credit where it’s due

January 17, 2022

I had a good moan some weeks back about Wordery’s appalling customer service. After their p*ss off and die response to my complaint, I thought there was no harm in approaching the publishers, Everyman’s Library, to explain the issue. I received a courteous response, which acknowledged that of course faulty copies emerged from the printers occasionally, and offered to send a replacement copy. This arrived this morning, so I record my thanks to Everyman’s Library for their first-rate service. I still scratch my head and wonder what it would actually have cost Wordery to respond in such manner, but heigh-ho, their loss.

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

Dismantling our NHS

January 6, 2022

No apology, politics ahead

If you asked most Brits what one thing we could be proudest of as a nation in the last century, I imagine most would say, the NHS. Healthcare cradle-to-grave, free at the point of use, set up in the aftermath of the Second World War as a response to the poverty and deprivation so many had endured previously. Set up by a Labour government, privately loathed by many Tories, some of whom have sought to undermine and destroy it ever since. And they are now well on their way to that goal.

The NHS never found the running smooth or easy; there was always a conflict between the necessary taxation to fund it and people’s resistance to being taxed. Eventually, charges for prescriptions, dental treatment and optical treatment were introduced. Many people shrug these off nowadays; reading glasses are cheap, you don’t need a prescription that often. But others have had to give up on their teeth completely, and increasingly there are people who ignore a health issue until they find themselves turning up in dire straits at A&E.

If you think about it, your health stays in the background until you have a problem. Then, suddenly, you may need healthcare, and perhaps lots of it. People in the USA spend their life savings, lose their homes sometimes, because healthcare is such a lucrative business there. Because it’s in the background, you don’t think about it. And you easily come to resent increasing taxes, and stories of ‘inefficiency’. But if you need healthcare, it’s not efficiency you want first of all, but accessibility and effectiveness.

Ever since Thatcher’s day, the NHS has been under ever-increasing pressures, deliberately engineered or not. Continued reorganisations in the pursuit of efficiency and cost-savings, because it’s ‘your’ money that’s being ‘wasted’, allegedly. Pressures to be competitive, tendering to outside companies and agencies who are cheaper and more efficient, allegedly, whilst providing profits to shareholders and salaries to directors? We don’t stop to consider how illogical that is. If private companies can get a foot in the door, they are onto a cash cow, because there are always going to be ill people to make money from.

So, for thirty years and more there has been a more or less constant stream of stories about the NHS being in some kind of crisis or another. Now, think carefully about what this implies; think hidden agenda. There are now a couple of generations of voting adults in the UK who have grown up with this constant belittling and undermining of the NHS, who have been taught (by whom?) that it’s inefficient, that it doesn’t work properly, that there might be ‘better’ ways of doing things. Young and mainly healthy, they haven’t had to contemplate the need for healthcare – yet. They are the ones that the current Tory government are looking to get onside as they contemplate further privatisations, which are being pushed forward even as I write.

Younger voters are potentially more open to ‘trying out’ alternatives; the fact is that once the NHS has been terminally broken, it won’t be possible to resurrect it, as all its constituent parts will have been sold off in so many different directions, in so many different ways. And let’s not forget the increasing add-ons offered to many people in their jobs nowadays: little extra private medical, dental, even alternative health insurances that cost companies little, generate considerable profit, and further undermine people’s sense of the NHS being necessary or useful… until you have a serious condition, when the private companies are suddenly not interested in you any more…

This change is being driven by people who do not have to rely on the NHS, who do not have to use it, among others by a chancellor whose family are billionaires and so who is utterly out-of-touch with the needs and worries of ordinary people. And that’s before we think about the rest of the Tory party, many of whom have holdings in private healthcare companies and stand to make fortunes eventually…

Finally, COVID. We’ve all been expected to clap for the NHS. We haven’t been asked to put our hands in our pockets to pay decent salaries to its workers. Other countries have paid bonus salaries to their health workers in recognition of their extra efforts. We have spent (wasted?) eye-watering amounts of (your) money on private purchasing, without competitive tendering, often deliberately excluding the NHS from taking part, often enriching friends of ministers with vested interests in weakening the NHS.

What is to be done, as someone once asked?

People need to wake up, realise what is being done, ask questions, think about themselves and their families and how they intend to manage without the NHS. And if they can’t, then they must shout and complain and do something about it. This obviously includes using one’s vote wisely!

Realise that nothing comes free.

We are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and should be able to look after our citizens.

Are other sectors expected to be efficient in the ways that are expected of the NHS? The armed forces? The government itself?

What is a reasonable amount of tax to be paying?

Declaration of interest:

My mother trained as a children’s nurse at the very beginning of the NHS. She knew what it had been like before, and the benefits the NHS brought. As children we had all our vaccinations, health checks in school, dental treatment and all the other support young bodies and minds needed, courtesy of the NHS. My sister is a nurse in a children’s burns unit at the moment. Her stories of the pressures she has to work under are often hair-curling. And that was before COVID. And I’m in my late sixties, have made relatively modest use of the NHS so far, paid my taxes willingly, and am hoping that should I need it, the NHS will still be there in my declining years.

Tayeb Salih: Season of Migration to the North

January 6, 2022

     I can’t now remember where I came across the review which aroused my interest in this novel, by a Sudanese writer, first published in 1969. It’s a challenging read, powerful and perplexing. I’m happy to admit that, as an inhabitant of the first world, I find novels from African and Asia difficult reads at times, in the sense that they come from and are about cultures and lives that are so different from the ones I’m familiar with from my privileged European perspective. And yet, I’m curious to know more.

This is the story, set about a century ago, of two Sudanese men who spend time in Britain – their country was a colony of ours at that time, the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’. Both eventually return home; one having had a decent education, becomes a minor government official; the second is rather odder: falling in love with the western lifestyle, he realises he is exotic to western women and leads a wild life seducing and abandoning them, and eventually murders one he had married. He escapes hanging and eventually returns to the Sudan, seeking anonymity… after a fashion. The lives of the two men are inevitably intertwined, given their common background.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, that fails to do the wider story justice, as there is much broader reflection on the nature and effects of colonisation, on both coloniser and colonised, on the mutual incomprehension and on the ultimately destructive connection. It is hard to avoid the picture of Sudanese lives blighted by contact with Britain.

The storyteller is happy to be back in his homeland, but has become not quite a stranger in his home village but someone now different from everyone else, and all his friends and neighbours are inevitably curious about the strange land across the sea where he has lived. The other man seeks him out, befriends him, and evidently has a secret which he eventually shares partially before being lost in a Nile flood, leaving the narrator to piece together the rest. There was a weird unworldliness about him, a man without feelings or emotions, only focused on the intellect; he leaves behind a curious locked room in his house, which the narrator eventually visits: it is a shrine to Britain and things British.

It’s well-written, with sudden bombshells lobbed in that create both suspense and astonishment; the narrative thread shifts in time and focus, blurring the flow, slowing us down and forcing the reader to reflect. What, exactly, is the message here? The insidiousness of rule by another race and nation which regards itself as superior percolates through everywhere, and the inevitable corruption which follows in its wake is also laid bare.

It’s a challenging novel – as I mentioned at the start – perhaps particularly to the western reader who knows himself to be perhaps not a target, but certainly implicated in the blame, perhaps also because it comes from a place that we as westerners are not, and cannot, be a part of; there is no sense of comfort or tranquillity available to such a reader. I can’t pretend I’ve exhausted everything the novel has to say on a first reading, and so I expect to be re-reading it quite soon. If you’re up to be rattled, I recommend this one.

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi

December 31, 2021

     Spoiler alert!

Well, in all honesty I should go back and amend this post – or not write about a year until it’s properly over, because this novel deserves an accolade. Read it in a day, and it stunned me, so utterly weird it was. Initially it reminded me of some of the drug-crazed ramblings I read during my hippy days, then reminded me of the utter weirdness of Ben MarcusThe Age of Wire and String, finally reminded me of some of the best detective stories I’ve ever read.

Weird beyond belief, the tale of someone trapped or marooned in what seems at first a strange parallel universe modelled on the bizarre drawings of the eponymous Italian artist: at first I found myself wondering whether there was some complex allegory developing. A world with only two people in it. And the behaviour of the other (or the Other) was quite quickly not exactly what it seemed to be. A story that defied attempts to parse it from the outset.

Do the two characters have anything in common, do they share a goal? Is one misleading the other? Do they understand each other, have they a rapport or were they just thrown together? And why is the Other so much better equipped than the narrator?

Another weirdness: although the narrator/writer of the journals is named as a male character, I cannot fathom why I never shook off the very strong impression that the story was being told by a female.

What triggered the comparison with Ben Marcus was the initial impression that there was just enough commonality between my world and my language and those of the narrator for me to be able to make some vague sense of what was going on. Gradually, as the plot develops and ideas suggest themselves, the story begins to mutate into detective fiction, although that term fails to do justice to the tour-de-force of motivations, clues and evidence that Susanna Clarke weaves to deceive and delude. It turns in on itself, there are wheels within wheels, and then there are doors between universes à la Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials.

Incomprehensible things have been happening, and rightly do we wonder, along with the narrator, where our and her (!) sanity lies; the mind plays tricks – has mountains, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once said – and the gradual and painful unpicking by the narrator of what actually happened to him, aided by his meticulous and obsessively-indexed journals, and his coming finally to entertain the possibility of being rescued from the bizarre world which he has grown to know and love unfold beautifully, sweeps you along.

It’s a truly mind-blowing tale as it plays with your head all the while you are reading. It’s really a stunner. Unputdownable.

Colin Thubron: The Amur River

December 30, 2021

     A very welcome Christmas present was this latest book from travel veteran Colin Thubron, an arduous journey along the Amur/Heilongjiang river (and tributaries) which forms the disputed frontier between Russia and China. It was a little while before I registered that Thubron was in his eightieth year (!) when he made this lengthy trip: my admiration increased given the evident physical endurance he needed, and the injuries he sustained. And so there still are incredibly remote, unexplored and relatively dangerous places on the planet for intrepid travellers to explore, even though, as we learn, they are inhabited by peoples who have eked out their living there for centuries…

The joy of such a book is being in the company of someone who writes really well: his style is atmospheric, he is knowledgeable, the prose flows almost effortlessly, and Thubron knows how to not intrude, how not to make his narrative me-me-me-look-at me! His curiosity is evident throughout the book, and for me it’s the mark of a seasoned traveller the way he patiently reports casual conversations and encounters without any commentary or judgement, because he’s aware of his relative lack of knowledge. There is room for him to report a personal reaction or feeling to what he sees or hears, but that’s different, as well as separate from his account. This humility and respect on Thubron’s part remains, even if it’s clear or evident that what someone says is wrong, or sounds incorrect. Thus the horrors of the Stalin era and the collectivised past are allowed to stand and speak for themselves. And they do.

One thing which I learned from this journey and these places is the centuries-old distrust bordering on open dislike, even hatred that exists between Russia and China; I did not really know much about this, other than being aware of military skirmishes way back in 1969. We learn about various treaties which moved borders in various directions, the Chinese sense of injustice, and the different native peoples who had been innocently caught up in the greater powers tussles over their ancient homelands…

It comes across in the way he writes, that Thubron is aware that his picture of both Russia and China is necessarily limited: an outsider, try as they might, can never really know what it is like to live permanently as a citizen of another country, which is why careful impressions offered by a seasoned and thoughtful traveller are so interesting. He is open about what he does not see or cannot understand.

The overall picture which emerged for me was of Chinese dynamism and confidence in its new-found place in the world, contrasted with Russian entropy, and its searching for a sense of itself since the disappearance of the Soviet Union. There is much mutual resentment and dislike.

Necessary explanations and contextualisations are carefully woven in as we go along, and the one map is very useful and very carefully drawn and helpfully labelled, and most of the time was a good deal more use than my collection of atlases. I was, however, disappointed to find no photographs included in such a travelogue. It was hard to conceive of the utter remoteness of some of the places he writes about, and he made me want to return to Vladimir Arseniev’s account of the region. It’s a very good read.

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

2021 has been a very conservative reading year. I’ve apparently only bought 20 books (I received another 3 for Christmas), but I have read over 90, so there’s been a lot of re-reading going on, and this has mainly been comfort reading to help me through the strange times we are living in. And the big clear-out also continues, as I get rid of books I know I’m not going to read or refer to again.

I spent quite a while revisiting Richard Brautigan’s novels, which have been in my library since my hippy days. They are light-hearted froth in a lot of ways, and yet some of them are very well-written, and I didn’t decide to get rid of all of them, but kept one or two just in case, as you do. The same is true of Hermann Hesse’s novels: I’ve now re-read all of these apart from The Glass Bead Game, which somehow I can’t face at the moment, even though some think it’s the best of all his works. I have a very vague recollection of it being a bit of a disappointment way back in the 1970s, too. But as I grow older I realise that Hesse’s fiction, and his ideas about the self and personality were pretty influential in my younger years in terms of how I saw myself and the world I lived in, and the connections between Hesse’s characters’ lives and the psychology of Carl Jung has been quite to the forefront when I’ve been re-reading the novels. Necessarily this led to a re-reading of some of Jung as well. In the end, I think the pandemic has caused me to undertake some fairly deep reflection on my entire life, and I know this has been the case for a good number of people.

There have been some new books this year, and a good number of them I read because they were choices of other members of my current book group. I’m a little surprised that I’ve stuck with the group – I like the people a lot – but at other times when I’ve been in a book group, I’ve dropped out fairly quickly because I didn’t like other people choosing my reading matter for me…

I’ve also realised that I read very little travel writing this year, which struck me as rather odd since my own opportunities for travel have been necessarily rather constrained for the past couple of years. I re-read a short and very lovely book Something of his Art, by Horatio Clare who travelled in the footsteps of my hero J S Bach, making the journey on foot from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the early eighteenth century. Clare records his impressions of the walk and reflects on the music and musician.

Discovery: I’ve wrestled with the Tao Te Ching a few times but not really got anywhere. My liking for Ursula Le Guin led me to get her version (ie version rather than translation, with plenty of her annotation and commentary) and I feel I’m now getting somewhere with it and something from it.

Blog report: more visits than ever this year, but this is largely due, as last year, to the number of what I imagine are students of the literature of the Great War reading up about various poems and poets as part of their studies. I’m grateful for their visits, and for everyone else who reads rather more widely in my meanderings through the world of literature, and I enjoy your comments and interactions.

Best SF: Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, although strictly speaking it’s an alternative history rather than science fiction. But a superb ‘what if?’

Best new novel: this has to be the (for me) long-awaited The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, which was a challenging but rewarding read and shows why she is a Nobel-class writer. Looking forward to more from her.

Best non-fiction: I found Adrift, by Amin Maalouf a fascinating account of the current state of the world, and how we got here. He’s a Lebanese writer, mainly a novelist but he has written about history and society before. He anchors so many of our current political problems in the Middle East and the effects that interfering outsiders have had over the past century as they struggled for control over the region and its resources. That’s oversimplifying a great deal, but is a very thought-provoking approach and one which matches the way I have thought about the world and seen it changing over my lifetime. The West’s appalling and cavalier treatment of Palestine is at the heart of so many problems and conflicts…

Best re-read(s): Amin Maalouf again, and Leo The African, his amazing re-creation of the true story of the Muslim boy from Spain at the time of the Reconquista, and his life, travels and adventures. Simply wonderful. Also Jean Giono’s Regain, about the resurrection of a remote village in France, the power of nature and those who live in harmony with it. Another book from my student days.

Next year’s plans: I want to continue with my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve also made a resolution to read/re-read more history. I shall continue to sort and tidy up my library, and attempt to buy no new books at all… I am allowing myself one exception, which will be the final volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, if it’s published. And lest you think I’m being extremist here, I will point out that I have several feet of as yet unread books on my shelves…

Amin Maalouf: Balthasar’s Odyssey

December 26, 2021

     I’ve just re-read another of my favourites by Amin Maalouf, and find myself wondering what it is I find so captivating in his writing. The socio-cultural and historical essays such as Adrift I find very interesting not just because his analyses largely concur with mine, but because they are far-sighted and take me out of my limited Western perspective and comfort-zone. With the novels, it’s different, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is to do with the nature of storytelling being different in other cultures; I’m not widely-enough read to judge at the moment.

I cam to Maalouf via Samarcand, then Leo the African, then this book. The settings are exotic, in the sense of a historical past, either in what we would have called mediaeval times, or else the Renaissance, and located in the Middle East, and the European parts of the Muslim world at those times. There are also usually characters from all three religions of the book, living together reasonably peacefully and tolerantly (within the parameters of their age), so perhaps Maalouf is looking back to a golden age in more ways than one, compared with our times. There is obviously an overlap – wishful thinking? – with his non-fiction.

This story is set in 1665-66, with overtones of the year of the Beast (666) and end times; there is a mysterious book which comes into and leaves the possession of the narrator repeatedly, which allegedly tells how to learn the mysterious hundredth name of God (according to the Qur’an there are ninety-nine) which will bring about transformation. Our narrator ranges the known world in obsessive pursuit of the book, which brings calamity in its wake; even in his possession and open in front of him, somehow it is impossible to read more than a few pages…

Maalouf’s characters in many of his novels are seekers, wanderers about the world; they are thinkers and they meet other kindred spirits on their travels and discuss religious and philosophical notions. Not only questing after truth, they are also on personal journeys of self-discovery and seeking happiness. Balthasar is 40 – significant, perhaps – seeking a book, love, a purpose for his future. I think this is one of the aspects of this novel, and Maalouf’s writing in general that appeals to me: there are real ideas and insights woven into the fiction.

There’s also something in the style of the story-telling: it’s first person, done through dated journal entries, so at one level there’s the potential for it to be fairly dull in terms of no suspense or changing viewpoints. But it’s not, it works in the sense that it’s the mind of his character that Maalouf wants us to know, and there is suspense via the gaps between the journal entries, and the unexpected changes of location of our narrator. It’s definitely not a Western novel as most of us might understand the term. In a way, it’s how some of the earliest English fiction was crafted; perhaps Maalouf is deliberately imitating something like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?

Finally, there’s a kind of meta-fiction here too, a book about a book or books, such as we find in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in various of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or in Gilbert Sinoué’s Livre de Saphir. There are books containing hidden or arcane knowledge for those who care to look or seek it, although perhaps not with the obsessiveness of the hero of this novel.

There’s a lot here. It’s not the average, evanescent stuff of much contemporary fiction – this is the third time I’ve read and enjoyed the novel, and it’s gone back on my shelves for the future.

50 years on…

December 24, 2021

For some reason, it came into my head that 2022 will mark half a century (!) since I did my A levels and left school. The sense of of the relentless passage of time was rather overwhelming, and I turned to reflecting on my world of so long ago. A Catholic boarding school; no sense of health and safety or safeguarding as we know them nowadays. From the naivety of the priests who ran it, a great sense of freedom in those heady days of the late sixties and early seventies. Much discovery of music, sexuality, astonishing films on TV… laying the foundations for my student days…

And, from the good teachers there, the inspirational ones, the push to be curious, explore the world of knowledge, art and literature. An amazing French teacher, years ahead of his time, who actually concentrated on getting us to speak the language, an English teacher who allowed and encouraged us to read anything and everything, a classics teacher who gave me a lifelong love of Latin and things and places Roman. No chance of becoming a scientist: no-one to teach Maths or sciences beyond O level. Was I bothered? Only much later on did I realise what roads had never been open to me, and by then any regret was pointless, futile: I was already me.

What remains today is the abiding feeling that learning is a lifelong activity, and that humans have a developed brain and a sense of reasoning for a deliberate purpose; yes, the priests’ message was laced with religious arguments, but for me the precepts are good in a secular world too. Since I left school all those years ago, at various points in my life I have chosen to go and learn German, Italian, Spanish, Yoga, and I have taught myself the art of bread-making and learned a lot about IT. From the relatively narrow field of my A level studies, my reading has broadened out in many directions…

Perhaps such attitudes meant that it was inevitable I would become a teacher myself… I don’t know. But I do hope I passed on some of that curiosity to those I taught.

I’m conscious of how much easier life generally, and schooling in particular, was in those long-ago days. You learned what you needed to learn for the exams, practised writing essays and sat the exams. No coursework, no continuous assessment, no relentless data-based pressure to make progress, and thereby enhance the school’s results and marketability. I have no memories of stress; perhaps I was lucky – I worked out how to be organised and get things done, and those habits have stood me in good stead.

Regrets? As I’ve aged, I’ve been aware of having missed out on sport and music. Back then, if you were keen and already capable, then games teachers were interested in you and encouraged you; if, like me, you knew nothing and couldn’t play, they were completely uninterested in helping or teaching you; you were bored, ignored, shivering and freezing on the edge of the field, and your lifetime loathing of sport grew early and long. With similar friends, I learned the joys of walking and rambling; that’s it for my physical activity. Music was the same: I now wish I could play an instrument, but there was never the opportunity. My voice broke early, so I was forbidden to sing lest I put others off. Just in case anyone is envious of the simplicity and freedom of those long-gone schooldays, there were those downsides, too.

I liked school. My father, who had only four winters’ worth of Polish rural schooling to his credit, encouraged me in my learning journey and I’ve never forgotten that. Education was the gateway to the world and to possibilities.

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