Archive for March, 2014

On studying literature

March 25, 2014

Is it a self-indulgent waste of time?

I’ve faced this question a number of times, and it seems more urgent in these crazy economic times, when reading for a degree at an English university costs such a ridiculous amount of money. Surely all those thousands of pounds might be better spent?

I realise I’m not really qualified to answer that question: I received a free university education, for three degrees and a teaching qualification, and grants for eight years to fund my living costs whilst I studied. I don’t feel guilty about any of that, as I felt the country was investing in both my and its future, I then went on to teach for twenty-eight years, and repaid all the money the taxpayer spent on my education many times over. I think today’s students (although possibly rather fewer of them) are entitled to the same offer.

However, that doesn’t answer the question. As a student I hitch-hiked many thousands of miles in Britain and Europe, and it was a challenge, when a helpful lorry-driver asked me what the point of my studies was, or why he should be supporting me through his taxes. I always tried to justify the study of literature, and was listened to.

I have always felt it’s important to study something you are really passionate about: you only get one go at being a student, and it shouldn’t feel like a dose of castor oil. I have also always felt that a university education is about training one’s mind and intellectual capability, and that, in the end, most university courses do this to the same extent, whatever the subject of the degree, and that an employer is going to be hiring you for your mind, and what you have shown it to be capable of.

I recognise that increasingly this may not be the case, but, higher education does often lead to higher earning power and therefore paying more in taxation. So the debt is repaid in the end. And, if one works in a career which I would describe as service to the community, the debt is repaid in another way too: you are giving back what you have learned, to future generations.

A nation is not just the sum total of its economic achievement: its art and culture, for want of better words, are part of the sum total by which we may judge its level of civilisation, and though there is much in our country’s history which I abominate and execrate, there is an enormous amount of which we may justly be proud, and if future generations do not learn about it, then it will be lost, and we will be the poorer for this. It was very satisfying introducing students to a wide range of literature in a wonderful language. And, most of the time, it was highly enjoyable as a career, and that is something which is not granted to everyone, and for which I am grateful.

So yes, we do need people to study literature out of their love for it, and some of those need to go on to disseminate that to future generations. And we all need to be challenging and tackling the philistines out there who deny the importance of this aspect of our lives.

HMSO: The Town of Stamford

March 24, 2014

A bit of a niche interest here: though I only really lived there between the ages of five and thirteen, it’s the place I regard as my home town, and I still have family living there, and so return regularly. This is the definitive tome on the town, a bit of a rarity now (published 1977). The town is reckoned by some to be the finest in the land, and here you find the history, the architecture, both ecclesiastical and secular, and copious maps, plans and diagrams, to enable you fully to explore everything. As a curious child, I thought I’d been almost everywhere, but apparently not, and there’s further exploration to be done…

It’s not a book to read cover-to-cover, and I didn’t; it’s to browse deeply, dip into, study parts of, and explore, to fit together the various parts of the mental jigsaw, and to check up details that you’d heard at some time and were never sure of. I found myself wondering at the past of the place where I spent my formative years: fully half the book is photos (black and white, of course) many of long-gone shop fronts and names from the past. So a good evening’s wallowing in nostalgia was had by yours truly.

Stamford is a lovely town, especially on a sunny day when the light shines on the old stone, and the effect of the stone slate roofs adds to the beauty. I like going back. Next time, I shall do some more exploration.

On teaching literature (3)

March 23, 2014

It’s only natural to want to share one’s love of reading, but teaching it isn’t quite that simple: I came across many students who didn’t enjoy reading, and who had far more exciting and interesting things that they preferred to spend their time on. So, a certain reality check there: come on down out of that ivory tower…  But there were also students who hadn’t yet met the books that spoke to them, and it was wonderful to see this finally happen: “It’s not the sort of book I’d choose to read myself, but it was really good…I’m glad we read it.” That was enough, for starters.

Boys and girls, male and female students enjoy different things from books, not mutually exclusive, but definitely in need of consideration, as well as tackling gender stereotypes. I always found a great way in was via their own reading: getting them to present a book to the class, read from it, review it, respond to questions on it… it was often astonishing to see what they chose, what they found in a book I’d read and hadn’t noticed, what the interest and reaction of their peers was. I suppose it was all about establishing reading as a normal and enjoyable activity.

Shared enjoyment of texts and introducing students to the idea that you could explore and interpret a book was the key in the early secondary years, where I always felt it was also essential to embed the idea of different people having different opinions and our need to respect those, as well as the idea that in our subject, there were no ‘right’ answers, only your answer and how you justified it. Some loved this, others couldn’t really cope with the freedom…

As we moved towards examination courses, the texts became more adult, the issues they raised more complex and in need of plenty of time to explore: I always insisted on reading every word of a novel together. Every class was different, meaning that teaching the same books year after year never became boring. Of course, the choice of texts was crucial: there had to be some way of linking a text to their experience of life. To Kill A Mockingbird allowed discussion of the idea of justice, growing up, parents; Lord of the Flies meant you could explore the issues of society, rules, law and order, the dark side to the human psyche. And Romeo and Juliet: first love, parents limiting one’s life… where to stop?

At sixth form level, the depth and detail of a writer’s craft emerged even more fully, as well as the development and articulation of personal response to much more challenging texts; the real students emerged through their willingness to read more widely around the narrow syllabus framework, as well as to begin engaging with critics, and to see themselves as potential equals. The joy of teaching for me here was most profound: I had to work as hard as the students, in terms of explaining and justifying my interpretations, countering theirs, arguing and defending my ideas… it kept my brain alive and alert. The greatest revelation for me as a sixth form student was that I could know as much as my teachers, that my ideas were potentially as valid as theirs… I had grown up; I had arrived… magic!

On teaching literature (2)

March 20, 2014

Unlike many other subjects, with the study of literature a personal reaction is both inevitable, and also desirable. As I suggested in my previous post, we usually start with a gut reaction to something, and to develop our personal response and be able to articulate it is a key part of the study of literature. I often found it necessary to give students ‘permission’ to dislike a text. Because something is labelled literature doesn’t mean we have to like it. You’ll find my confession of disliking and/or ignoring various classic authors here.

I think the important trait to develop is that of maintaining an open mind for as long as possible. I’m reminded of teaching Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain to a groups of sixth form students, one of whom developed a loathing for the novel (which I really like) almost at the outset: it was quite a struggle, but by the end, there emerged a (grudging) admission that there was much that was worthwhile and clever in that text.

Poetry was always a particularly difficult form to teach successfully. There’s inevitably a gut reaction, and I find it harder to get beyond this than with other literary forms. My first rule was never to teach a poem that I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to appreciate in, or, failing that, (exam syllabi are prescriptive!) I would openly dislike a poem and explain why, even as I taught students about the technical devices and ideas it contained. And yet, there was always a richness to poetry which it was a joy to see students gradually tuning in to… language used in so many different ways, often the use of rhythm and rhyme, the imagery, and all that before one even got on to the ideas. I’m particularly reminded of classes where we explored the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne, where there is just so much cleverness packed into a short space.

Everyone’s response to poetry is very different and you can’t get very far without allowing and encouraging this. Drama presented different issues: it’s obviously written first and foremost for performance, and teaching it in a school in a small city quite  some distance from live productions was hard. I found that a quick read in order to grasp the outlines of plot, character and important ideas first worked well, if possible followed by a film or TV performance to bring it all to life; then one could begin to explore the detail of the dramatist’s craft and evaluate her/his success. The text can be brought to life in the classroom in different ways, but the entirety has to (at least) be read aloud.

With novels, one was often hampered by time constraints: ideally the entirety would be read aloud in class. This was possible until one reached sixth form, when there was just too much to get through in too little time; then, one had to be selective, using representative extracts to explore the whole.

Literature needs to be read, to be heard, to be discussed. It needs to be the subject of argument and disagreement, because it’s clearly open to individual response and judgement; there can be no ‘party line’, no ‘received opinion’ to which everyone has to subscribe. I felt that my job (for that is what it was, in the end!) was to enable as many students as possible to explore and articulate their response to as wide a range of reading as possible. And I loved it…

On teaching literature (1)

March 19, 2014

I’ve been retired for about three years now, and I still miss teaching literature to school students. I have been thinking about what, exactly, it has all meant for me.

I hoovered books up as a child; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own, often went daily to get new books, and by the age of eleven was allowed (by special dispensation) to access the adults’ library, as I’d exhausted the children’s section. In those innocent years, reading was about plot, the excitement of the story, and wanting to find out how it ended. And there was a gut response – liking, enjoyment, rushing off for the next book by a particular author.

At a certain point I discovered re-reading, and what that can bring: not being plot-driven, because I knew how the story ended, I could read in a different way and notice things I’d missed out on first time around. When I came to teach, I discovered that many students never re-read books and couldn’t imagine why on earth one might want to; those who did re-read shared the same new joys as I did, and through teaching literature, often for examination, I was able to introduce students to the joys of second and third and n-th time around.

This is where I reach the core of teaching and learning, in the world of literature. You have to look in close detail; you have to seek out things you might no otherwise notice and you have to analyse and make judgements about plot, character and themes in a text. You have to look closely at how a writer uses language, how s/he can manipulate the reader, how any novel is, in fact and obviously, a construct from start to finish, made up by the writer (a fiction, for etymologists out there), who makes choices all along the way about plot and character and language.

From all of this I always felt, and I think students agreed, one enjoyed a deeper and richer encounter with a text. And yet there was always a lurking suspicion that all the analysis, the deconstruction and interrogation of a text, took away from its magic, the spontaneity of enjoyment per se, the potential for escape in a good read… however you put it. There is truth in this, and, for me, the gains outweigh the losses. I’m sure I have never read a novel with those innocent child’s eyes since I began to study literature. When I taught analysis of poetry, there was usually the opportunity at the end of a lesson, to re-read a poem one final time and try and allow it to be just the poem, pulling it together after all the analysis.

In the end, I feel that the study of literature provides a toolkit which one can retain through one’s life, which allows one to get more from one’s reading, if one wants to, and allows one to share more of the enjoyment with others.

Agatha Christie: Miss Marple Short Stories

March 17, 2014

Recently we have been watching some of the Joan Hickson Miss Marple TV series, and I felt moved to read the Miss Marple Short Stories, and these prompted me to some more thinking about the detective story genre.

The short story genre works very well for the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, as I consider two of the longer stories to be rather flawed by their lengthy excursions to the United States, I think that the short stories are far superior. Raymond Chandler writes both novels and short stories equally well, though I prefer the more leisurely character and plot development in the novels. But for Miss Marple, I feel that the short story does not work at all well.

There is a lengthy series of stories where the same group of (varied) characters sit in a room; each of them recounts a mystery in which they were involved or came into contact with, and the others try to unravel it: it’s inevitably Miss Marple who comes up with the answer, at the end, and all the others are astonished by her powers of deduction…

There are then some (not very many) stories where there is a crime to solve; again, Miss Marple comes up with the solution very easily: no detective work, no visiting the scene of the crime, no investigation or consideration of clues is involved. She merely uses information imparted by others.

I find all this highly unsatisfactory. Clearly she has considerable powers of analysis: she thinks a lot, as does Sherlock Holmes,  but without the crime scenes, the interviews, the clues, the confrontations, the puzzling, there is nothing there. Solutions are not prepared for, led up to, clued…at all. It seems to me that we lose a great deal from the fact that Miss Marple is an isolated individual – there is no Watson to be puzzled, astounded, to recount the unfolding of the mystery. And yet, an assistant is not vital; Josef Skvorecky‘s depressed and gloomy Lieutenant Boruvka is very much a lone wolf, yet his mysteries intrigue, and involve the reader in the search for a solution.

So, eventually, it will be on to the long stories. which I am told are much better; there is, apparently, much more local colour and investigation, and these are the ones that have been filmed and which I have enjoyed watching. But I have realised that success in the genre is even more complicated, and harder to achieve than I originally thought.

P K Dick: The Unteleported Man

March 12, 2014

51lK-h4YyeL._AA160_This novel, written in 1966, is set in 2014 (!) and the world, with a population of seven billion (!) is overpopulated: people are encouraged to emigrate to a planet 24 light years away, by teleportation. Yet, in a world where you can be transported such a distance in fifteen minutes, voice recordings are still made on magnetic oxide tape (what’s that? some may ask…) I do find little details like that, in novels set in the future, quite telling, as well as amusing.

It’s one of Dick’s 1960s LSD-influenced novels, the most famous of which is still probably The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; the characters find themselves at various times on parallel, possible hallucinated, worlds, which tends to make the narrative rather confused in places.

Germany (reunited) rules the world through its control of the United Nations, having solved the Chinese problem by exterminating them… but suspicions are growing about the supposedly paradisiacal world to which emigrants are teleported, as for some reason, the process only works one way. Truly, things are not what they seem, and the only other way of getting there and back takes 36 years, via father-than-light-drive.

I have to say, I don’t think it’s one of his best novels, in terms of plot development or resolution, and it definitely loses its shape in the central, drug-influenced episodes, but it does testify to Dick’s astonishing imagination, his learning… and his paranoia.

Kazimierz Brandys: Rondo

March 10, 2014

9781609450045It took me a long time to finish this book; it didn’t grip me deeply enough to pursue it non-stop, but it fascinated me enough to want to finish it; certainly I didn’t want to give it up. And I still can’t work out what to make of it, or exactly what the writer was trying to achieve, though I found it a good book in the end. It seemed to me to fit in with the rather understated approach and message I’ve often found in Polish writers.

It’s set in Warsaw in the 1930s to 1950s, so against the background of political unrest, dictatorship, the Nazi occupation and Soviet takeover; it’s about an ordinary man who seems to lead an ordinary life, so none of these major historical events is foregrounded in the narrative; all are there and inevitable, but in an understated way. So, for example, I’ve never come across the Nazi occupation of Poland treated in such a low-key manner.

The hero, a drifting student, becomes gradually involved with the world of the theatre, and this becomes one of the novel’s major ideas: the world of pretence and make-believe, where nothing is quite what it seems, and Brandys is suggesting that life is often like this; throughout the novel the author reflects on life and human behaviour. The hero becomes involved in a complex love affair, and eventually ends up inventing a resistance organisation in which he can involve his lover, thus keeping her safe from the dangers of ‘real’ resistance to the Nazis. Except, of course, all this slips beyond his control.

The chronology of the novel, its time scheme, is confusing, with the narrator moving back and forth, and often making assumptions of his reader; thus one can also easily become a little confused with the characters and their significance to the plot; I got a sense of the narrator narrating in order to make sense of his life, and realised early on that to make full sense of the novel, it would need a re-reading…

Occasionally I have come across other books which do this to me; I’m sure I shall continue mulling it over in the coming days; it isn’t an ‘ordinary’ book and was worth the effort and eyeball time, even though I’m not yet sure what I’ve got from it…

The Search for Knowledge

March 9, 2014

219SW147+JL._I’ve been reflecting this week on this basic human drive: the urge to discover, and to know. I was prompted by revisiting two texts I really like, Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. In Roman times, Pliny attempted to codify what was known about the natural world – and it’s a lot – and in the seventh century, Isidore, a Spanish monk, attempted to write down everything that was known about the world, organised into (to him) logical sequence, thus producing what is arguably the world’s first encyclopaedia. Everything is listed, and its Latin name analysed for clues as to its nature and essence, sometimes correctly, occasionally very fancifully. And for his efforts, Isidore was named patron saint of the internet, which I find wonderfully appropriate. Arab scholars also collected and codified knowledge; the only one I’ve read so far is Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the early fifteenth century.


This urge to know, and to collect all knowledge, culminated in the encyclopaedias of the Age of Enlightenment, perhaps culminating in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sadly, printed sets of this mammoth work cannot now even be freecycled with ease – who wants 32 hefty volumes on their shelves nowadays, with all knowledge at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger?

Apparently, we now can search for, and find out anything, instantly. No need to learn or retain facts, as they can easily be re-located at will. And yet, these are usually only snippets or gobbets of knowledge, without depth, detail and context. I use wikipedia as much as anyone: it’s an incredibly useful tool, most especially for the links at the end of a lot of articles. But if I want depth and detail, I still turn to old-fashioned paper. I wonder if it’s my age; certainly, reading page-like chunks of text online is quite hard on the eyes; ‘normal’ net-text is smitten into small gobbets, surrounded by white space and illustrated with pictures and hyperlinks, rather like today’s school textbooks, which used to have me wondering whether there was as much depth to learning and understanding nowadays… and is much more readable onscreen.

Long ago I realised that one of the reasons I love travel writing, especially from past ages, is that the travellers were genuinely exploring and discovering (for us) new places and peoples, new knowledge, and so often wondering and marvelling at the diversity of the world. This urge to discover is one of the best attributes of our species, it seems to me. I have been fascinated by the exploration of space from my very earliest years (at primary school, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men to reach the moon!); I’ve always felt that this is money well-spent, peanuts in comparison with what is wasted on armaments and warfare, for example. I don’t think I’ll ever live through a more significant moment than that night when I arose at 3am to watch live on TV the first men actually walk on the moon, and the thought that, in my lifetime, our species has built a spacecraft that was launched and has now travelled so far as to be almost outside our solar system, is truly marvellous.

So, what have I contributed to all this? I hope that, as a teacher, I managed to inspire students with a yearning for, and an understanding of the value of knowledge. I have read, and will continue to read and learn as long as the eyes allow, and I will discuss and argue about most things with whoever comes along… and hope to learn something new every day.

The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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