Archive for March, 2016

Laughter and literature

March 30, 2016

My friends would tell you I can laugh loudly and heartily, and that I laugh easily and at lots of things. Something provoked me to start thinking about those books which have made me laugh the most…

I have to go back to my childhood, and Norman Hunter‘s amazing Professor Branestawm books (a couple of stories have recently been televised by the BBC quite successfully, I think) – silly stories about a mad professor and his crazy adventures: I remember friends at sleepovers when I was a kid, trying to read the stories aloud to each other, and it being impossible to keep a straight face much of the time.

Jerome K Jerome‘s masterpiece Three Men in A Boat had a similar effect on me as a teenager when I discovered him, and then, a little later on, I first came across Jaroslav Hasek‘s wonderful Good Soldier Svejk! The brilliance of his idea – sending a congenital idiot off to be a soldier in the Great War, and in the incredibly bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian army, too – allowed him to write by the yard (he never finished the novel, but there are a good 800 pages to keep you smiling) and have his hero in a great number of scrapes. My favourite pages are probably those where he is batman, first to a chaplain, and then to the amorous Captain Lukas. And the stories are always enhanced by Josef Lada’s great in-line illustrations.

Later on in life I came across John Kennedy Toole. His was a tragic story, in that he committed suicide thinking himself a failure, before The Confederacy of Dunces was published and was acclaimed a masterpiece. It will soon be time to read this minor classic again, and each time I’ve read it in the past, it has reduced me to helpless laughter. There is a second book, not as good – The Neon Bible – which I remember as being rather darker.

I’m conscious of the fact that all these are boys’ books, ie written by men and enjoyed – most probably – by male readers (although I know of one former female student who has enjoyed Svejk) and there’s a conundrum here. Firstly, I’ve racked my brain for any novels or stories by women writers who have had a similar effect on me and can’t think of any; this may, of course, be my own limited acquaintance with female humour, and I will be grateful for any suggestions any of my readers have to offer. And secondly, there’s the question of what makes us laugh. I can vaguely recall exploration of the nature of humour whilst at university and the mention of the name of Henri Bergson; the idea that we are laughing at a fellow human either being ridiculous or being made ridiculous; the idea that we are laughing at the misfortune of someone else. And I haven’t ever found these explanations completely convincing. For me, there’s something about the pure absurdity of situations involved, rather than the people. I’ve always been attracted to the Theatre of the Absurd, ever since I was introduced to it. And, as far as people are concerned, for me it seems to be something about them being allowed to act, react and interact in absurd ways, and the incongruous consequences of such actions. Whatever it is, I have always enjoyed laughing heartily.

Shakespeare: King Lear – a Thatcherite play?

March 29, 2016

51k02psI2sL._AA160_It was the tidy-up, and coming across Danby‘s book on Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature, that sent me back to King Lear, which I haven’t read for many years. There was only one opportunity to teach it as an A Level text, many years ago, after which it largely disappeared from the syllabus, another of those texts perhaps deemed too difficult for most sixth form students… Certainly, the madness scenes do take some unravelling. I’ve only ever seen one, rather poor, stage performance of the play.

My perspective on King Lear has certainly changed over the years: this time, I had a much stronger impression of the chaos the kingdom immediately falls into as soon as Lear gives up his regal powers to his daughters, whereas in the past, the sense of it’s being a purely family conflict had been more powerful. There was also a sharpening, for me, of the sense of loss of control over his world by an ageing man, and the vulnerability of his mind to disruption and madness. And I found myself thinking ‘Thatcherite’ every time Edmund, Goneril or Regan outlined any of their plans or ideas: there is no such thing as society, what I want I will go out and take, no matter who gets trampled along the way. I was quite shocked, initially, to find myself reacting like this, but as I persevered, the adjective made more and more sense. And the last time I taught the play, Thatcher’s reign was only halfway through!

In the early stages, the younger generation’s way of dealing with their fractious and cantankerous father seemed almost reasonable, until it came to abandoning him out in the storm; then the true, harsh and unfeeling nature of their behaviour was patent. A bit like the cheese-paring of benefits currently going on, not really noticeable by outsiders until the foodbanks are widespread and despairing claimants are taking their own lives… then suddenly we are outraged, and wonder how things got to this, as well as asking ourselves just what sort of a person could do this to another human being?

Chaos and strife do beset the kingdom instantly; the nasty party are almost at once at loggerheads with each other, the daughters colliding with each other against their father at the same time as scheming for advantage and for Edmund’s body – again, this hadn’t been quite so foregrounded las t time around, at least not in my memory of the text.

I found it a very powerful and convincing portrayal of the incipient and developing derangement of Lear, with the moments of sharp and tragic lucidity interspersed. Somehow the jarring nature of the Fool’s frequent interjections heightened the sense of madness, as well as the king’s suffering. And I was struck by just how masterly the whole flow and structure of the play is, with its various sub-plots so skilfully knit together. It was a play that could move me to tears when I studied it, and still can, I found: I remember now why I always used to say it was the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

Pleasures of reading…

March 26, 2016

I can’t really think of anything more enjoyable than reading. The other evening I was home alone and feeling a little under the weather. So I curled up on the sofa with my current book (Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, since you ask, and I’ll review it when I’ve finished it), put some Bach on the hifi and spent a very enjoyable two or three hours.

I can read pretty much anywhere – on the sofa, in bed, in the smallest room, out in the garden on the bench in the sunshine. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know my tastes are pretty catholic. Reading is often accompanied by music, sometimes by alcohol too – a session with a really good bottle of beer is hard to beat. Perhaps I’m too easily satisfied?

I’m also interested in the state of mind I gradually shift into; tranquil, restful, de-stressed but quite alert: I’m often deeply engaged with what I’m reading, thinking about ideas, sometimes pausing to reach for the iPad to look something up that is relevant at that moment, perhaps the book I’ll move on to next. Incidentally, I never thought I’d enjoy having a tablet that much, but it has displaced the need for dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and sits next to me on the sofa, replete with potential knowledge. Sadly, there’s still no replacement for the huge atlas. Don’t suggest Google Earth, it’s not the same. I often make notes on what I’m reading, sometimes for future reference, sometimes as preparation for my next blog post.

When you think about it, while reading, your mind is engaged, often with a kindred spirit, and sometimes with one of the better minds on the planet. And you can commune with someone who has long left it, too.

Sometimes I binge-read. This often happens when I’m ill and laid up in bed – I’ll work my way through several books in very short order, perhaps the same author or genre. It also happens in summer when it’s wonderful to be out in the garden, I’ve caught up with all the gardening jobs and it’s too hot to do anything else. And when I’m away on holiday.

Then there’s the physical pleasure of a new book: pristine cover, unopened pages, virgin territory. If you think about it, there’s something different about the newness of a new book, which you don’t get with other new things in quite the same way. Opening a new CD, DVD (if you still buy those) or a new gadget or garment doesn’t have quite the same thrill for me. A book becomes mine slowly and through quite a different process.

There’s a bit of me that’s uneasy at the thought of all this work and pleasure eventually going to waste, as it were: after I’m gone, all those thoughts, all that thinking and analysis, all those electrical synapse connections or whatever they are in my brain, will just vanish…

Reading in class

March 25, 2016

It’s coming up to five years since I said farewell to the classroom, and I find myself thinking quite a lot about what I used to do, and how and why; clearly processing something here, so I thought I’d share my musings, which are related to the broader issues of reading and literature.

Many young children are fortunate in being read to regularly at home; the most obvious example is the bedtime story. Then they are read to frequently at primary school, and enjoy this, too. I always felt that there is no reason that this should stop at secondary school. After all, many adults enjoy listening to audiobooks, perhaps while commuting. So, I always made it a practice to read whole texts with my classes; in the early years of secondary school, there was free choice, but later on the books were dictated by the demands of GCSE.

I always chose books that would be a challenge, in terms of language or subject matter; they were books that students often said they would never have chosen to read themselves, but nevertheless they were glad to have read the book in class. And we read the entire book, word for word, cover to cover. I really think this sharing and (perhaps) enjoying together was really important; there was no sending them away to read a couple of chapters for homework so we could get through it more quickly. The exciting bits we shared; the boring bits we shared, too, and out of them might come all sorts of interesting discussion: OK, that’s boring to you, so why do you think the writer did it like that?

All sorts of activities sprang from the book: looking up and learning new words; discussion of all sorts of topics and issues that came up – the story could be paused so that opinions could be aired. Anything was grist to the mill. Writing activities offered themselves: creative responses, dramatic or analytical ones, reviews and opinion pieces.

Everyone got to read. I would read frequently, to keep that pace of the story going, to pick up the threads after a not-so-good reader had finished, to ensure that we got to a suitable place to stop at the end of the lesson (didn’t always manage that!). Sometimes students volunteered; usually between a third and half the class were game for that; often I picked on students or read around the class, to ensure that all got the necessary practice. So much was gained by this sharing, it was clear to me; an outsider might think it was all a skive or a doddle for the class, when it was so much more. There was learning and enjoyment at the same time – what more could one ask for?


March 25, 2016

41cIAiMXYoL._AA160_ 51B5tp4i7fL._AA160_ 51FafGDT8SL._AA160_When I went off to train to be a teacher, I had first to spend a fortnight in a local secondary school observing teachers and students. It was then that I taught myself to do the Guardian cryptic crossword. It wasn’t easy, with a different compiler with their own particular quirkiness every day, but I persevered. The need to decipher the clues, and the fact that when you got the correct answer, you knew it, I found very appealing. For that academic year, I had a fellow student in our house who enjoyed it just as much as I did, so we did the crossword together most days, perfecting our ability. Most days we finished it.

Cryptics seem to be one of those things that, once you’ve mastered, stay with you. In my first year of teaching, as a supply teacher in Hackney, I found a companion in the Head of History: together we aimed to finish the Guardian and the Times cryptic by the end of the school day; most days we had at least one, if not both. And then, in my first ‘real’ teaching post, at Harrogate Grammar, there was the crossword corner in the staffroom, where we rattled through it every lunchtime… anagrams were my speciality.

What’s all this doing on my blog? Well, for a number of reasons, to do with the trivialisation of the newspaper, and its availability online, I only buy a printed paper at the weekend, so now I have turned to books of cryptic crosswords. I’ve exhausted all the Guardian ones, and now I’m working my way through the Times. Yes, I know you can access them online, but any crossword solver will tell you, it’s not the same. You need the paper space alongside to scribble on, working out anagrams, down clues and so on.

The Times crosswords are a bit run-of-the-mill, although demanding; they’re anonymous rather than named, so you aren’t sure who you’re pitting your wits against. And their conventions for clues are a bit looser in some ways, and completely off-the-wall in others, as far as I can make out. The Guardian crosswords are better, often harder, but the compiler is named (with a nom de plume), so you know who you are up against, and who to avoid, if you want to. Monday’s is always easy; the weekend one is often good fun, and there are specials three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, when you may get a themed crossword, an extra large one, a double one or an alphabetical jigsaw (where you get the first letter of the answer but no numbers on the grid and have to work out where to put the solutions – I love these!). You get to like particular compilers and their ways: everyone used to love Araucaria, and my favourite was always Bunthorne (aka Bob Smithies, anchorman of Granada Reports when I was a student, though it took me years to discover that).

You can possibly see that an English teacher would love crosswords: it’s all about playing with words, and knowledge of the language, as well as keeping my brain active. I used to like Scrabble too, but my friends refused to play with me…

Teaching English

March 24, 2016

I became an English teacher because I loved reading and hoped to be able to pass on some of my love and enjoyment of literature to my students: we all start off very idealistically! But, beginning from this enthusiasm meant that reading was always at the core of my work as an English teacher, and everything else grew from it. This approach was encouraged in the – now much-derided – past, long before the National Curriculum, datasets and all the other craziness which drives people out of the profession, by my first Head of Department.

Every class had a class reader, which the teacher chose, and as many as possible of the different aspects of English arose from that reader: vocabulary and dictionary work as well as new spellings, creative and analytical writing opportunities and speaking and listening work, which could and did obviously include cross-curricular themes. You would aim to get through a book a term, and would hope to read the entire book aloud in class. Everyone could read aloud, and this also offered opportunities for weaker readers to practise.

It wasn’t a perfect approach to teaching the subject – you still needed to bring in grammar and punctuation exercises and comprehension practice at various points, but throughout my career I never came across an improvement on it: certainly I ran a mile from any scheme that offered an English course from a textbook.

We did end up having to do rather more preparation than we otherwise might have done, because all the activities we wanted had to be created de novo – they weren’t available in a textbook or via pre-produced worksheets. But within a co-operative department resources and ideas could be and were discussed and shared, even co-produced. And once you’d created them, you had them for future reference, which meant that over time, as you developed a repertoire of texts and activities that could work with particular classes and ages groups, preparation became far less onerous; this made it easier to taken new texts on board from time to time. With suitable tweaking it was an approach that worked at Key Stage 3 and also at GCSE, and the methods could be applied in slightly different ways to Shakespeare and other drama, and poetry too.

OK, I liked this approach, but what about the students? I have to say that, once I’d ruled out books that didn’t work, my classes seemed to like what they got. They enjoyed the books, admitting they liked them, even while saying that they were not books they’d ever have chosen to read themselves. That was fine: I was extending the range of their reading, and stretching them to boot. They seemed to learn: their grammatical knowledge, their comprehension ability, their range of writing and their confidence in speaking and listening progressed as it should have done, and they achieved the exam results they were capable of. And we all got along pretty well: job done.

Picking the books I used was crucial: I never used a book I didn’t like, or that I felt we ought to read, because it would be good for them, or because it was a classic. I would never inflict Dickens, or the Brontes or other such weighty and worthy tomes on my classes. This doesn’t mean we read lightweight tosh, either: there are lots of good, well-written books suitable for young adults, or even specially written for that market. Anyone – this includes you, Mr Gove – who thinks you raise standards by force-feeding young people classics as if they were French geese just doesn’t get it.

Anne Mustoe: Lone Traveller

March 19, 2016

51zJDORQF9L._AA160_Anne Mustoe was the head of a private school who took early retirement to pursue her desire to cycle around the world, which she had done twice when she wrote this book; there are many others about her previous and subsequent wanderings.

This is a travel book with a difference: she does not narrate a specific journey but reflects on the experience of being a solo traveller from a number of different perspectives; she writes both about her own travels and the art of travelling. It’s a book that speaks to me, as I have always done a fair amount of solo travelling, both in my student days and currently, although I am nowhere near as adventurous as she was. Sadly, the maps are very cursory.

She comes across as a very practical, no-nonsense woman when she writes about the whole range of problems one encounters whilst travelling, and how she overcame (most of) them. She considers the advantages and disadvantages of solo travel; as I have found too, there are the chance encounters and companionships one would not meet if travelling with someone else, as well as the pleasure of being completely in control and able to make all choices and decisions to suit oneself, even to indulge oneself at times…

Mustoe writes well: a teacher and classicist, she begins each chapter with a suitable epigraph; she writes fluently, entertainingly, and shows a thoughtful attitude to people, places, customs and behaviours: a friendly attitude is usually guaranteed to elicit a friendly response. She understands and explains some interesting cultural differences she came across – the concept of ‘face’ in China, for example, and how important it is not to lose face. Only occasionally does she slip into rather jarring generalisations about politics.

The excellence of the book comes from its not focusing on one particular voyage, though she does write about some of her travels and adventures in some chapters, by way of illustrating her more general points. I enjoyed it in the same way as I have enjoyed books on the Grand Tour, and on travelling in the Middle Ages, for travelling itself is a pleasure, never mind the destination. A breath of fresh air here!

Neither a borrower nor a lender be…

March 16, 2016

This saying was originally about money, but for me it applies just as much to books. I know there are some people who will buy a book, read it and then donate it to a charity shop, or give it to someone else. Not me. A book is a special object for me, one that I’ve chosen to have, and therefore want to keep: you might say I have a fetish about books, or that I’m a compulsive hoarder, and I don’t care.

This does cause problems about other people, and their books, though. I’ve long grown out of libraries, which don’t stock the kind of novels I want to read (yes I know I can order them, but that kind of defeats the point) and only tend to borrow maps and manuals from time to time. Sometimes other people lend me books they think I should read, or that I ask to borrow, and I like to think I’m reasonably good about reading them and giving them back.

I’m a lot more cautious about lending my books to other people, because not all of them are that careful. My mother and I share an interest in travel writing, and lend each other lots of books and return them pretty promptly. We live over a hundred miles apart, so frequent different second-hand shops and find different things; our interests don’t coincide exactly, but do overlap. And we are both careful with books – she more than me, as she won’t fold over corners (!) and doesn’t make notes in pencil inside the back cover like I often do…

I’ve grown a lot more cautious about lending books to anyone else. My ledger has a list of books I’ve lent out over the years, and there are books I loaned over thirty years ago that I know I’ll never see again, and that, in some cases, I’ve had to buy again when I’ve wanted to reread them. And then, being an inefficient sort of person, there are books which somewhere in my mind I knew I once owned, and my ledger says I still do, but can I find them? No, because someone I can’t remember once borrowed them.

I won’t say I get upset about this, because life’s too short, and I do hope that whoever has them now treasures them as much as I love my books. But I am more wary. And this does go against the grain, because many books I read I really enjoy, and my reaction is to enthuse about them to all and sundry (well, to people with whom I talk about books) and of course, they often ask to borrow them. And I find it hard to say no…

I’ve often reflected on my feelings about books, and I think it’s true that I feel about them what I feel about no other object or possession: they mean something special to me, perhaps because I have read them, enjoyed them, absorbed something from them which has become a part of me. And I know music also does that, but I don’t feel so precious about my collection of CDs (remember those?).

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

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