On translations of the Bible

December 8, 2019

I’ve written elsewhere about what I like reading in the Bible and what I avoid or find tiresome. This post is by way of reflecting on the question of translations, and I will start by emphasising that I am no expert in any area of the field of biblical studies or translation, just that I have read the Bible through several times, and that I read a lot of literature in translation.

Raised a Catholic, the version available to us was the Douay-Rheims version of the late 16th/ early 17 century, pre-King James. I recall it being a bit wooden and styleless in the reading, and later discovered that what I had been reading was in fact an 18th century revision. I gather that the original translation was made to counter the very Protestant Geneva Bible, which was the one that Shakespeare would have been familiar with.

As Catholics we were obviously discouraged form reading the 1611 King James or Authorised Version – in fact, in those long-ago days it might actually have been forbidden! However, in my later years I have grown to like and appreciate its literary beauty. A good deal of this classic version was in fact lifted from William Tyndale’s much earlier translation, for which the poor fellow ended up being burned at the stake. Equally, some parts are indebted to the Catholic translation I mentioned earlier; certainly James I’s committee of translators had it to hand.

If we wanted something in accessible language, we had the one-man translation produced by Ronald Knox earlier in the twentieth century; I remember it read well. It has now been almost completely forgotten, but what an achievement, to have produced it by oneself. Still, Luther, St Jerome and others can also claim to have done that.

I recall from my schooldays the enormous publicity given to the publication of the New English Bible in the late 1960s, and remember large displays of it in the largest bookshop in the centre of Nottingham: you could have the version with or without the Apocrypha included. That was always a difficult point for Catholics, in that non-Catholic Bibles almost always had various books Protestants deemed non-canonical removed. Apparently this decision happened early in the 19th century with the growth of the British and Foreign Bible Society, responsible for translations into so many foreign languages as part of the Empire’s missionary work. Surely economics had something to do with it…

The weird thing about the New English Bible, as I discovered when I read the New Testament, is that, although it’s a good, modern translation that read and flowed easily, especially aloud, the translators had decided to retain old-fashioned ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s in certain places, particularly when prayers were translated. Very quickly that came to jar, and was one of the things that were changed when the version was updated as the Revised English Bible. I wouldn’t say that the NEB has vanished without trace, but its popularity was short-lived, although it has recently been reprinted.

The most interesting development for Catholics was the appearance of the Jerusalem Bible in the mid-1960s, an English version of La Bible de Jerusalem produced by the renowned Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. It was, however, a translation from the French, and the New Jerusalem Bible twenty years later was a much more thorough and careful rendering into English referencing the original texts, and very quickly become respected by Catholics and non-Catholics equally, for its readability, scholarship and the quality of the detailed notes in the full version. Both versions were unusual in adopting ‘Yahweh’ as the word for ‘the Lord’, an attempt at replicating the unspoken Name in Hebrew. However, Benedict XIV disapproved of this, and the recent further revision – the Revised New Jerusalem Bible – has removed it, along with much of the very useful contextual annotation, and at the moment it appears that it’s the New Jerusalem version which will remain the gold standard. It’s the one I have grown to use and appreciate over time for many different reasons and the one I shall stick with, although there are times when it’s the traditional King James version that does it for me.

What makes a good translation? You get an artificial sense of reverence through the archaisms of the King James Bible, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s language (and no, there is no evidence of his having been involved in the translation) and a sense of tradition. On the other hand, it’s difficult for many people to follow nowadays. A modern translation needs to be readable, yet to avoid slang, colloquialisms and other modernisms which would detract from its quality as a ‘holy book’, a scripture. It needs not to be rooted too much in the English of a particular decade or it will date very quickly and sound awkward (perhaps the failing of the NEB) so translators are aiming for a certain timeless quality as well as enduring accessibility. And it also needs to read aloud well. All in all there are a lot of criteria to address. And this is perhaps why there have been so many attempts in recent decades, with no single version standing out far above the competition.

It is interesting that a single Catholic and a single Protestant English version lasted though three centuries, and that only in the twentieth century have there been so many different attempts to ‘modernise’, to ‘update’, to ‘make more accessible’. Some of there have been gimmicky, some crass, some appalling. I can see arguments for being able to read the Christian scriptures in a more modern English – and then I realise that nobody has advanced a similar argument for Shakespeare’s plays. But I also accept that that is a ridiculous comparison.

Have you a preference? For which translation, and why?

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

October 28, 2019

912W443LLKL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Here’s a book I haven’t read for nearly forty years, since I worked on my thesis. Written in 1915, Gilman’s novel presents a socialist, feminist and (involuntarily) separatist utopia, a product of the early twentieth century wave of feminism, and rediscovered by the second, in the 1970s. It’s set up as a three-man expedition who have heard rumours of a dangerous women’s world, so they have to go there, of course. It turns out to be somewhere in an Amazon-type region, on a lofty basalt plateau cut off from the surrounding jungle, so suspiciously like the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It develops along the usual utopian lines: the visitors from outside discover a well-ordered land of peace and plenty (though a good number of fairly traditional feminine traits still remain there), and they (the men) are initially imprisoned by the women, cannot believe there can be no men, quickly reveal themselves to be rather silly in their attitudes, and have to learn to understand this new world in which they find themselves.

They learn the language and then there is the usual exposition, complicated by the naturally assumed superiority of men from our world and that particular time period. There have been no males of the human species in Herland for two thousand years; parthenogenesis spontaneously developed; there is a cult of maternity which has become their religion, and, the men are told, because there was no outlet for it, sex and sexuality were sublimated, suppressed and quickly vanished from the human experience. The feminists of the 1970s who produced rather different separatist utopias will have found this last development unsatisfactory; the concept of lesbian sexuality is not even hinted at here.

As the men learn – or not – we do come to feel, though it’s by comparison with our own society, that there’s a bit of a feel of the ant-hill or beehive to the world of Herland, happy and healthy though its citizens are, and the exposition ultimately becomes rather tiresome and tedious, just as in many other utopian novels.

I found myself wondering how convincing Gilman’s male characters were; they are types rather than personalities, and perhaps do represent attitudes from a century ago. The women of Herland are aware of the problem of stasis, which must be present in any utopian world, and are debating whether they want to re-establish a two-gender society, now that they have been presented with the potential and opportunity. Romances are developed (rather woodenly) between the three men and three women, marriages contrived (1915, remember!) and the awkward problem of sex and sexual desire rears its head, for the women are basically both uncomprehending and shocked when they encounter it…

As utopias go, it’s an interesting one, asking more questions than it answers, really, and casting a shadow on the world as we know it, which must necessarily seem dark and defective by comparison. Gilman raised the broader question of the differences between male and female attitudes and approaches to many aspects of life, living and society, and foreshadowed much more complex and challenging novels of the 1970s and 1980s where such issues are brought into play much more forcefully – thinking of the novels of Suzy McKee Charnas, for instance.

Worth a read if you happen to come across a copy… didactic rather than entertaining, and Gilman sets herself up for a sequel, which I have not taken the trouble to track down.

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

On rank insanity

October 25, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

When I read that there has been a survey of over 4000 people, that shows that over 70% of ‘leavers’ and nearly 60% of ‘remainers’ think that violence towards MPs would be an acceptable part of achieving the Brexit or non-Brexit that they want, I no longer recognise that country I was born in and have lived almost all of my life in. I am utterly ashamed to be part of it. My father found a haven here during the Second World War, and then eked out a difficult existence after it, when he and his compatriots were basically surplus to requirements for a lot of the British people. I cannot imagine what he would have made of the current situation.

I make no apology for saying that I have always regarded the idea of leaving the European Union as an act of rank insanity that will impoverish us economically and culturally, and further diminish our standing and status with the rest of the world (although that last may not be such a bad thing). I am proud to have been a European citizen for my entire adult life, and will feel the less when I am only a British one.

No British politician has behaved honourably in this entire proceeding, except perhaps the Speaker of the Commons. The referendum was only ever an attempt to reconcile warring factions in the Tory party, and Cameron was an idiot for allowing it, especially when the parameters were so vague. Farage is a racist and a hypocrite who can protect his family with citizenship of another EU state and fill his pockets with an MEP’s salary and pension. May was out of her depth, Johnson is another liar and hypocrite. Corbyn has dithered and played games just like his opponents, and the Lib Dems do not shine any whiter even if they do espouse what I ultimately hope for. Over my lifetime, our politicians seem to have become ever more self-serving and venal.

I honestly now have no idea what to hope for; although I’d class myself as reasonably intelligent, I find it almost impossible now to make any sense of all the permutations of possible outcomes, but unlike Johnson and his ilk, I don’t just want to ‘get it over with’. I would like the country to find its sense of tolerance again, and to treasure that which it can be proud of, especially the NHS; I would like us to be in the centre of the scrum, struggling to make our Europe a better place. At the moment, I honestly think that if I could rewind the clock some 30 years, I’d leave; certainly I’m rather envious of various friends and acquaintances who did…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth

October 7, 2019

91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I am trying to avoid spoilers in this post, as it’s such early days…

Well, the two years’ wait for this, the second volume of the second Philip Pullman trilogy, has been worth it. And I assume there will be another couple of years to wait for the final volume: this one breaks off in medias res, ‘to be concluded’… Here are some of my initial reactions.

The broader picture begins to emerge with this second book. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, wasn’t quite for children, but was centred on children approaching adulthood as central characters. The plot and the narrative style was appealing to a younger and an adult audience, with a huge canvas of different worlds and varied plot-lines; it seemed to be almost leading younger readers towards adult themes and ideas, centred on the power of religion and the difference between innocence and experience.

Readers passionate about that series will have hoped for more of Lyra and Will, and the many worlds. La Belle Sauvage, the first in the second series, was a curious bridge, in a way, taking us back ten years in time to Lyra and her importance even as a baby in the grand scheme of things, and as the Will-Lyra story was ten years in the future, not a word of it in that book. Here, in The Secret Commonwealth, we leap forward to ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, but remain firmly anchored in Lyra’s alternate universe. And eventually, various characters from La Belle Sauvage re-emerge and take their places in the story. Mrs Coulter is missing, but her brother is a key character in the plottings of the Magisterium…

And we are now most definitely not in younger readers’ territory: Lyra’s adult world is much darker, and the plot and events of this novel are much darker, even if we found the idea of the research station at Bolvangar separating children from their daemons quite spine-chilling. Part of me felt that I was losing out with the absence of the different universes, but I’ve accepted that Pullman is doing something different here, in this more adult alternate world, which is much more ‘real’ and less fantastical. Lyra is now a grown-up, in her world: it’s a different world from that of her childhood.

In this world the tentacles of the Magisterium are extending in every direction as they attempt to prevent what would seem to be the potentially liberating nature of the knowledge of Dust being known, researched, spread. And the semi-underground opposition known as Oakley Street work to thwart the Magisterium and to protect Lyra and others as they seek out knowledge. The Secret Commonwealth feels like a thriller at times, fast-paced and exciting, unputdownable on this first reading…

And yet, the ideas are still very much to the fore: Pullman wants his readers to think about their own world…

Daemon as soul? – personality? – consciousness? In His Dark Materials, children are horrified at the idea one might be separated from one’s daemon. In The Secret Commonwealth, the world of adults, we discover it’s not an unknown thing: people lose their daemons, fall out with them, separate voluntarily, sell them for money. There are even philosophers who would have you believe they do not exist. This is the new strand to this book: Pan and Lyra have fallen out, are estranged and go their separate ways, although seemingly on the same quest. He feels she has lost something, forgotten a key aspect of herself: are we back in the search for the meaning of Dust, the contrast between child and adult, innocence and experience? I think so, on this first reading. And everyone who is separated from their daemon seems minded to assist others like them.

Topical ideas germane to our own world abound: Pullman explores the idea of those in power undermining the nature of truth in order to disorient, confuse and ultimately disempower people, and also the notion that the enemy’s power comes from its absolute certainty of being right. And, as a good writer should be, Pullman provokes our reflection without wandering into being didactic.

I can’t wait for the final volume – but I’ll have to, obviously…

What did I learn from teaching?

October 1, 2019

I’m really looking forward to the new Philip Pullman novel coming out later this week. There was a very interesting interview with him in The Observer: I always find his reflections on his career as a teacher thought-provoking, and today he has had me reflecting on the question: what did I learn from my students?

It’s a very difficult question, and not just because a teacher is on the other side of the fence, supposed to be teaching rather than learning. But over the years I learned that my students wanted to be taken seriously, to be listened to. They deserved this, and it was their right. As my experience and confidence developed, I realised that anything might be said or discussed in my classroom, as long as the students could approach the topic as sensibly and as maturely as they were able. Staffroom conversations with colleagues led me to realise that not everyone could or wanted to do this.

I had my opinions and beliefs, and if I expressed them, students expected to be able to question, and expected me to be able to justify. One of my favourite call-outs to students being, ‘Evidence?’ I had to provide mine. There was a phase where politicians were touchy about teachers indoctrinating students, and I was once taken to task by a parent who felt I had been biased in criticising Margaret Thatcher. I explained that I was wont to play devil’s advocate, and to challenge students with a range of opinions – they knew I did this. Other opinions are available. My job was to get my students to think.

Respect was earned; good behaviour was earned. I can honestly say that behaviour was almost never an issue in my classroom. I know I spent most of my career in a grammar school, but students anywhere are not angels, and others did have disciplinary issues.

My students didn’t have to like me, or my subject, and not all of them did; I learned not to take this personally, although it never ceased to sadden me when a particularly interesting and promising student did not choose to take English on into the sixth form.

There was only one moment of epiphany, which took my breath away and left me temporarily lost for words. It came towards the end of my career, with a year 11 class; they had almost come to the end of their allotted time of compulsory education, and we were reflecting on the purpose of school, education and what use they felt it had been to them thus far. A propos of I cannot remember what, something about what they expected from their teachers, I suspect, one of the female members of the class said, ‘But sir, you respect us and we respect you.’ Noises of agreement came from others, and she must have explained further. I didn’t know what to say; I felt very humbled, because I had never consciously looked at the nature of our relationship like that. The weight and the responsibility of my position came home to me very heavily.

I think in the end if there was one thing I learned that summarises all that teaching students taught me, it was to be myself in the classroom, not to pretend to be someone or something else. They didn’t get all of me – no-one ever does, if you think about it – but what they got in the classroom was a true slice of me.

%d bloggers like this: