Archive for April, 2016

On reading aloud

April 27, 2016

I remember being quite taken aback at learning, a few years back, that people did not always read silently to themselves. Apparently, up until something like the fifth century or so, even when reading alone, people would vocalise the words as they read – they read aloud, to themselves. And it was quite a discovery, a revelation, when someone realised that you didn’t have to do that; you could just look at the words and read them, and without the vocalising you could read rather faster…

Nowadays, silent reading is the norm, and reading aloud rather less common, I think. We read to infants and small children, and I can still recall the pleasure of reading to, and then reading with, my daughters. There is something magical about the young discovering story, and something conspiratorial as an adult sharing it with them. And, of course, children are read to at school.

I rediscovered reading aloud as a teacher. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these pages my sharing of readers with my classes and how I based the major part of my teaching on books we read in class. Looking back on it all now, some years later, I think somewhere I was indulging my enjoyment of reading aloud to a certain extent. I would ask for volunteers to read and got them; I would pick on those who never volunteered occasionally; I would go round the class and have everyone read. And every half dozen turns or so, it came back to me to read: to pick up the pace, to reach a suitable pause for the end of a lesson, to bring out the best in a particular passage. Sometimes I would do the voices, or the accents… I think we all enjoyed it, and got the necessary learning done, too.

Poetry is a particular case: most poetry is meant to be read aloud, for then we get the full play of sounds, words, rhyme, rhythm, metre and the rest,which skimming silently over the words on the page cannot give; indeed I would advise students presented with unseen poems to write about in exams to ‘vocalise silently’ to themselves in order to extract the subtleties of the verse to write about.

I listen to many audiobooks (cue mention of Librivox again!) which means that there are many people out there who enjoy reading aloud for others, never knowing who their audience might be. Some read wonderfully well, some rather less so. I’ve found many of the readings of these volunteers very enjoyable. So, I also like being read to…

Somehow, the pleasure is different: the consumption of the text – and therefore its enjoyment – is much slowed. The words themselves, the choice of language, and its rhythms, if the delivery is good, can be savoured. You cannot fast-forward, skip over or skim-read a few pages of an audiobook as you can with the paper and ink version.

As preparation for a certain writing activity, I used to have students focus on each of the five senses individually and try and decide which they would do without, and which they would least wish to be deprived of: their responses were always many and varied. I shared my own reluctance with them, to lose my sight and therefore not be able to read: in such a sad case I would, I imagine, try to find a refuge and a substitute in being read to…

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Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia

April 26, 2016

21wAaVQtrxL._AC_US160_51V9sYPAuNL._AC_US160_I first came across a reference to this 1000-page novel when I was researching at the Science Fiction Foundation many years ago; it was out-of-print and unobtainable, but their library had a copy. It seduced me then, as a utopia not quite like the others. At the turn of the millennium it was reissued, and I’ve gone back to my own copy and enjoyed it again.

Wright wrote the book in the 1920s, based on an incredibly detailed invented world he’d imagined and documented in great detail (I’ve heard his efforts compared to Tolkien’s – justified, but very different): Islandia is a nation on a continent somewhere in the southern oceans near Antarctica. It’s about to become part of the land-grab for its natural resources by Western nations in the run-up to the Great War. Two factions in the nation are opposed, one willing to accept the notion of opening up to the world, but naively unaware of the true cost of this, and the other determined to resist, to remain as they have always been, cut off from the outside world, a sort of mediaeval, pastoral utopia. In some ways, the closest resemblance I can think of it William MorrisNews From Nowhere, but Wright surpasses it by a long way.

Into this comes a young, rootless American named consul to Islandia as the US prepares to join the Europeans in getting what it can. Here is the classic way in to the utopia: the outsider slowly falls in love with what he sees, changes sides, eventually comes to make his new life there having helped the nation defeat the external threat. We can see how Islandia is attractive to him.

So far, nothing new. Yet Wright does more than spin a yarn, or offer a plausible route to human happiness, and, the more I think about it, the more the thousand pages is part of its success: it’s compelling because of its length; the leisureliness draws you in and seduces you with the attractiveness of the life the inhabitants seem to enjoy: hard work, good company, contentment.

As it’s an American utopia, the tendency is more individualist, anarchist even, than ours in Europe, but its proponents ask the same basic questions, nevertheless: what IS progress, exactly? Do we NEED it? There is more to life than the treadmill of work, be paid, consume… And they advocate equality for all. I could also see the American federal vs states rights issue coming though: how much should the individual cede to the state? – the minimum possible seems to be the answer.

The major striking thing, for a novel written nearly a century ago now, is its open and honest focus on relations between the sexes, and the nature of sexuality. Again, because we spend so long in Islandia, the issues can be explored at length. At one level I could describe the novel as a bildungsroman: the hero, John Lang, grows up and finds himself in terms of discovering a meaning to life, but also sexually: he experiences three very different relationships with three very different women, and we leave him having finally found happiness in his adopted country.

It’s by no means a flawless novel: there’s somewhat disturbing – to us nowadays, and I don’t think deliberately intended – racism, in that the external threat to Islandia comes from ‘black savages’ armed and put up to it by Germans. Islandia is a small nation and feels rather mediaeval in some ways: there’s no suggestion that its system might work on a larger scale. The important issue of stasis in perfect societies and what to do about it, is admitted but not really resolved. At one point I did find myself wondering, was the novel – elaborate fantasy that it is – written for the author’s own satisfaction rather than a wider readership?

But it is good, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in utopian fiction. I think it’s one of the classics of the genre.

Thought for today

April 23, 2016

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Carnets de Verdun

April 20, 2016

51gEh0EU7+L._AC_US160_Some of you may be aware of my long-standing interest in the Great War, from occasional mentions of my visits to battlefields and more frequent reviews of literature connected with it. I’ve read this anthology from accounts by French veterans of the Battle of Verdun during my first visit to the area.

British interest in the Great War tends to focus either on Flanders or the Somme, these being two main areas where our troops were heavily involved. For the French, Verdun is the battle, the symbol.

I’ve been learning a good deal about the difference between France’s and Britain’s experiences. For starters, large parts of northern France were occupied by the Germans, who ruled quite brutally. Families were separated, cut off from each other. France lost a sizeable part of its industry and coal, which made fighting the war harder. But the most important thing was, the Germans were there: this never happened to the British, and so it requires quite a leap of the imagination to comprehend. (It also, of course, explains the French insistence on the ruinous reparations from Germany after the war, which contributed to the rise of Hitler, but that’s another story.)

The soldiers’ accounts paint a horrific picture, of destruction, slaughter and cruelty beside which I have found a lot of what I’ve read about the Somme pales rather. Nine villages so completely erased from the map that they could not be rebuilt after the war and are now merely marked as historical remains – martyr villages – on maps. Men used as cannon-fodder because their commanders hadn’t a clue what to do, and (almost) willingly going to certain death because they were really doing it for their families and their country. Astonishing acts of bravery and endurance by ordinary men.

The more I see, the less I understand. The museums and memorials here are very interesting. I can see how and why both French and Germans have been so committed to real reconciliation and peace-making in Europe, and again, this feels like something hard for us on our island to understand clearly. Forty per cent of the Frenchmen who died in the Great War died in the first three months, because they were so desperate to drive out the invaders. Twenty-seven thousand of those died on one day, which puts some perspective onto the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Two things I’m aware of: books like this remind me of the appalling human cost, and the human tragedy. Museums and exhibitions, with their emphasis on artefacts, remind me of the stupendous destruction and waste of all sorts of materials and resources which might have been put to better use. Are we really an intelligent species?

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

On maths and science

April 6, 2016

51F6wH7UHeL._AA160_ 51h6BFLBjiL._AA160_ 51PtUSpds0L._AA160_ 51r2u2D8-tL._AA160_I wouldn’t want any of my readers who is a mathematician or scientist (and I hope there are some of you!) to get the impression that these are subjects I am indifferent to, even though my knowledge is pretty scant: I do have O-Level Maths, and was one of the very first students to study what was called ‘modern maths’ in the sixties, and I also have what was quaintly known as ‘General Science’ O-Level (ie very basic).

Some of the most interesting conversations I used to have as a teacher were with science and maths-teaching colleagues; I am still proud of my abilities in mental arithmetic and calculation, and I’ve always found playing with numbers in my head fascinating, along with other connections I’ve been able to make between what I learned in school, and later life. As far as science goes, I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy – my primary school best friend and I used to fantasise about whether we could get to be the first men to land on the moon! – and my enjoyment of detective fiction means I’ve always liked reading about forensic science. However, I do have to admit that an awful lot of mathematical and scientific knowledge does give me a serious headache after not very long: my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired that way… I did actually get to the end of Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time, but please don’t ask me what it’s about.

Maths and science feature noticeably in my reading. I loved Norman Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth, a book for children that introduces one to the joys of playing with words and numbers, as Milo visits the cities of Digitopolis and Dictionopolis. And, as I thought about this post, I realised that I’ve liked science fiction ever since I was a small boy, perhaps beginning with the Lost Planet series by Angus MacVicar, and never looking back since. But I must then confess that it’s never really been the ‘hard science’ variety that’s gripped me, much more the speculative kind.

Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein plays with what scientists were exploring in her day, and she couples it with a powerful story and incisive reflection on the morality of what scientists can get up to, reflections which perhaps we would do well to remember nowadays. Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should…

I found the fictionalised travels of the eighteenth century polymath Alexander von Humboldt, in Daniel Kehlmann‘s novel Measuring the World so interesting that I then went on to seek out and enjoy (an edited version of ) Humboldt’s travel journals. And Primo Levi, a chemist who survived Auschwitz, though not much of life after Auschwitz, wrote a fascinating fictionalised autobiography called The Periodic Table; each chapter is named after an element, the last is carbon, and the ending of the book is both witty (in the best sense of that word) and masterly.

I like reading popular science from time to time, because it’s accessible; I’ve enjoyed Steve Jones‘ takes on Darwin and evolution, The Descent of Men and Almost Like A Whale, and have also found what I’ve read about science and medicine in the Islamic world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’ very interesting. In the end, there’s plenty of approachable material out there for the non-scientists like me; if only there was the time…

Teaching English: learning to write

April 5, 2016

Reflecting on my profession five years after retiring…

Although I remember loathing the imposition of the National Curriculum for English, after it had worked its way through primary schools, it did actually make the teaching of writing somewhat more straightforward at secondary level too, because it clearly labelled and defined genres, and also encouraged writers to try and write with a target audience in mind; when it came to GCSE, the trio of genre, audience, purpose was a useful way in to both textual analysis and structuring writing.

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

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

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

I always regarded my students as writers, but, as I have written elsewhere, it took quite a while before I remembered that I was one, too. And now, away from all the pressures, I enjoy writing this blog very much.

Teaching English: speaking & listening

April 5, 2016

Continuing my thoughts on the craft of teaching English, five years after stopping…

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

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

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

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

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

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