Archive for December, 2016

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

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My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

Al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

December 18, 2016

51vj4rksg2l-_ac_us160_I have been curious about how people saw and tried to understand the world in the past, for a very long time. When I studied Latin in the sixth form, I came across Virgil’s recipe for bees in his fourth Georgic: to make bees, you stop up all the bodily orifices of a young calf and beat it to a pulp, and leave it in a tower with windows facing the four cardinal points: come back a week later and there will be bees! And it turned out it wasn’t that bonkers a theory as there’s a type of fly that looks very like a bee that lays eggs in carrion in that part of the world…

Writers have compiled compendia of knowledge over the centuries, until the time came at some point around the sixteenth century when it was no longer possible for one person to know everything that was known about the world. There’s a man from those times called Athanasius Kirchner who I’ve come across a few times. So there was Pliny’s Natural History, which is a fascinating collection of information that the Romans knew or speculated, and Isidore of Seville’s marvellous Etymologies, in which he tried to write down everything that was known in his time (seventh century) and for which he has become the patron saint of the internet.

And here is one of the Islamic world’s similar ventures. The original runs to 33 volumes, apparently, so this is a brief but carefully chosen selection, well translated and annotated, giving a feel of the original. Hazelnuts enlarge the brain, according to our fourteenth century author, but for me the most wonderful insight was that, if you are ever bitten by a panther, you must be very wary of mice, who will be attracted to you and come to urinate on you, and if one does, you will certainly die…

The sections on the natural world are probably the most fascinating; there are all sorts of bizarre recipes for enhancing sexual prowess, which make today’s spam e-mails seem positively dull. And the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is also an eye-opener, far more detailed and elaborate than the Genesis version. It’s not all from the Qur’an, but I’m unsure where the embellishments are from.

What come across to me quite clearly in all these authors and other that I’ve come across, is that there are things which they know for certain, and we can recognise these because they are correct and accurate to our understanding too, things that they are unsure about, and admit they are unsure about – here, our author concludes such sections with ‘God knows best’ which seems fair enough to me, and then things they clearly don’t know at all, have come across through hearsay or are just guessing. Today, in our scientific age, we are given the impression that everything is known; I think modern writers ought to be similarly modest and humble, but instead they usually present themselves as experts, founts of all knowledge and wisdom, or else we lend them that kind of authority unquestioningly. There are surely many things which we don’t know yet, and many things which we write of today as if we are certain of them, but which will come to be corrected in the future. I sometimes wonder what our generation’s equivalent of Virgil’s bees or Al-Nuwayri’s hazelnuts will turn out to be…

F Spencer Chapman: Watkins’ Last Expedition

December 14, 2016

41-yccg7xsl-_ac_us160_I’ve blogged elsewhere about the cerise Penguin series from the 1930s which was labelled Travel & Adventure, and this is another one of them, about exploration in Greenland in the early 1930s. It does read like something from the Boys’ Own Paper, with the semi-casual approach of the four men to a lot of what they do, but also with their powers of endurance and stiff upper-lip. They put up with risks – and experience tragedy when the expedition leader is lost in a kayaking accident – and appalling conditions that no-one would countenance today, and they do seem, by and large, to enjoy their adventures.

They travel in small boats, with dog teams, across snow and ice, among icebergs, and live with the local inhabitants – labelled with the now politically incorrect term ‘Eskimos’ – learn to speak the language, and eat the local diet, which to me sounds utterly disgusting: seal meat, large amounts of blubber, seabirds of various kinds, dog biscuits when reduced to it – without batting an eyelid. I admired their intrepidity and endurance.

Not a wildly exciting set of adventures but a decent read, and accompanied by a couple of decent maps, from the days when travel books knew what they were about.

Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

December 11, 2016

51pp-bkvpyl-_ac_us160_After my visit to Cathar country in September, I allowed myself some in-depth reading about this mediaeval Church, exterminated in the fourteenth century by Rome and its secular allies. Anne Brenon‘s book was just what I needed by way of further history, and more importantly, explanation of Cathar beliefs, theology and religious practice.

Much has been uncovered about the Cathars over the last fifty years or so, including ritual books, and much has been unravelled from the detailed records kept by the Inquisition: the church was much more widespread, longer-lasting and more deeply rooted in the south of France, northern Spain and northern Italy than had previously been known. It was a properly organised and run church, not secretive, hidden or lurking.

It was a very different church from the official Catholic Church of the times: it rejected violence, allowed equality between men and women, was against the taking of oaths, believed that its members were the church, rather than any buildings or property. Cathars denied the humanity of Christ – he was purely divine – and they held a dualist view of creation: God was only good, and the sinful world we lived in was the creation and work of the devil; we aspired to and could return to God’s world after death. But this was not a belief in two Gods; it did solve the problem about the origins of evil in the world, which traditional Catholics have always had problems explaining. However, it did do away with the notion of free will, too. And if there was hell, it was only the place of the devil and his crew: in many ways the Cathar picture of God was more human and more merciful than the traditional one.

It’s a fascinating slice of the past, of what could have been; it’s an indictment of the Catholic Church and its temporal obsessions, maybe an indication of the problems all religions face when they become widespread in their influence and following. Certainly George Orwell would have been proud of the job the Church did in disappearing history and evidence for the Cathars and their beliefs: everything into the memory-hole, books and people burnt alike.

My A-Z of Reading: S is for School

December 10, 2016

School was where I met the joys of reading. There was the alphabet frieze around the walls in class one, as we chanted our letter sounds, building them up into words. There were Miss Marvel’s bonkers flashcards which we chanted aloud: Mother, Mother, see Kitty! Even then I thought, but who talks like that? Why can’t we have real speech to chant? Janet and John readers, late 1950s gender role stereotypes.

Teachers read stories to us, as a reward for good work, and at the end of the day, when we were tired from all that school work. It was a treat; I don’t remember it happening at home. Certainly we didn’t get sent home with readers. There were small class libraries: I worked my way through everything. I remember a series of a couple of dozen books about a bear and her adventures – Mary Plain, she was called. Long before Paddington was ever invented. Eventually I moved onto the boys’ books – Biggles, and Jennings, and the earliest science fiction I could remember, the Secret Planet series.

There were factual books, too, to feed my quest for knowledge. The vast and even then ancient Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee, patriotic, imperialist and I don’t know how many other kinds of ideological unsoundness, but a huge reservoir of information which I greedily hoovered up.

There was Stamford Public Library, with a children’s section which I soon exhausted – the vast Young Traveller series, where two white, British, middle-class children visited countries all over the world and I learned about them, sparked my interest in geography and travel. My mum persuaded the librarians to allow me to join the adult library several years early…

School, of course, brought more than just reading: there was understanding and interpreting what I read, right from the very earliest days of comprehension exercises. And eventually it would bring other languages, too: Latin and French for starters.

In my later years, I have realised just how much of my early schooling was focused on that key skill of learning to read, and developing an enjoyment of reading. Yes, there were lots of other subjects, too, but the ability to read fluently was vital in all of them. Books were a natural part of the surroundings, and the treat when one finished a task successfully before the rest of the class – choose a book to read. My teachers fostered my love of books and reading, and, along with the town library, provided what a financially poor home could not; when people run down our education system and public services, I remember what they provided for me.

My A-Z of Reading: R is for Realism

December 9, 2016

The ability to superficially capture an exact and accurate image – a photograph, a film, a recording of any kind – seems to have created the idea that ‘realism’ is a thing, a ‘reality’ as it were, and one that is important, if not paramount, in many aspects of our culture. And yet, the ability to film or to photograph has not eliminated other kinds of representational art: they may have changed and developed in response to the new challenges, but they are still very much there.

And there is the unconscious expectation on the part of most people that literature shall pay tribute to the realist fallacy. (Here I must deliberately exclude science fiction and fantasy, which are, of course, minority interests anyway, in the greater scheme of things.) And we never really go on to ask ourselves what we want or expect from ‘realism’…

True to life? In how much detail? Do people clean their teeth, cut their toenails, wipe the kitchen worktops in novels? We ordinary mortals do such things most days… James Joyce had Leopold Bloom sitting on the toilet, reading and enjoying doing what one does there, in Ulysses, and shocked many people… realistic, though.

What I’m driving at is that ‘realism’ is in many ways a myth. I used to have fascinating discussions about this with students. Writers are creators and manipulators: they choose situations, characters, events to write about, they choose storylines, they leave out and include stuff as they see fit, because the novel or story is theirs, created by them… and we must take it or leave it. Think of the times you have reached the end of a story and thought, “But they can’t leave it like that!” or “That’s the wrong ending!” or just “No!” Why not? Characters may act in physiologically or psychologically plausible and true-to-life (whatever that means) ways, but so much is not done, not said, not included.

When we move back in time – let’s say, for the purposes of illustration the time of Shakespeare – things become both clearer and less clear. Students were prone to exclaiming that such or such train of events ‘wasn’t realistic!’ in any number of his plays. And they were right. Once it was pointed out to them that ‘realistic’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, that audiences didn’t have the same expectations as us, things made more sense to the students: what Shakespeare was interested in showing his audience was certain characters in certain situations, how they behaved, and the consequences of their actions. And to do that, the situations didn’t need to be narrowly ‘realistic’. Thus, Othello is about sexual jealousy and its corrosive effects, which we know in our minds can lead to violence. That the time-scheme of the play seems to suggest Othello becoming insanely jealous within a day or two of his marriage, and suspecting Desdemona of committing adultery a thousand times in that time-frame, is neither here not here; if we waste our time thinking about such details we miss the point of the play, and the dramatist’s greatness…

Story – novel or play, film or TV show – is largely about manipulation of the reader or audience, for certain effects, and we are aware of and complicit in that manipulation to a greater or lesser extent, or completely unaware of it, because we crave the escape, the emotional stimulation, the excitement or whatever the writer or director is offering us. And thinking about what’s actually going on – as I’ve tried to outline above – can enhance our experience and enjoyment.

My A-Z of Reading: Q is for Quiet

December 8, 2016

This post is a more general reflection on silence. That word used to feature on large notices all around the town library when I was a child: you were quiet in a library, you did not speak or have conversations but read, or looked for a book to read. At some point in the last twenty years or so, libraries became something else, in which books and reading took not quite a back seat, but were no longer the reason for the library’s existence, and the silence vanished.

I often read in silence. Some times I have music in the background, when I remember, or when it feels useful.

What I have come to realise as I’ve aged is how much our world finds silence awkward, or even threatening, and seeks to banish it. Not everyone feels comfortable sitting in a room not talking; people often feel they have to ‘fill the silence’ by speaking, about anything, just so that there isn’t no speaking happening. In shops one is normally assailed by music: this often has the effect of driving me out before I’ve had the chance to contemplate a purchase. But I’m not a typical customer, and so this is often as much my loss as the shop’s. Vehicles now have to make extra noise or speak in mechanical voices, particularly when manoeuvring. Wherever I go, I feel I am pursued by noise…

Silence – quiet – allows one to think. Sometimes there are things that need to be thought about; sometimes, thoughts just come, like dreams, a kind of mental sorting. And I find myself unable to conceive what is must feel like, not to like or welcome this state, or to find it threatening, or panic-inducing.

I find being quiet is peaceful, calming, restful. Reading sits well with silence: I can think, reflect on what I’m reading, take things in, react to what I’m reading. And it costs nothing. I think there’s a message there…

My A-Z of Reading: P is for Printing

December 7, 2016

Mediaeval handwritten manuscript books are often stunningly beautiful because of their gorgeous illustrations. And handwritten books were incredibly expensive: I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his life, Geoffrey Chaucer had acquired a library of some sixty books; I had that many by the time I went off to secondary school…

So printing was a wonderful invention, in a lot of ways. Books became more plentiful, and somewhat cheaper; for a while the wealthy paid to have hand illustration done to their printed copies, but it wasn’t quite the same. Woodcut illustrations became the norm, and while some are beautiful, many are quite crude and rather pedestrian. With print, the focus was very much on the dissemination of the word, the idea: historians often say that the Reformation could never have happened without the advent of printing in the West, and if you think that a major contribution was the mass production of bibles in vernacular translations, then this is surely true.

Printing meant the spreading of ideas, then, and it must also have contributed to the spread of eduction through different social classes, for if there is the technology to produce books more cheaply, printers and booksellers will have an eye to business, and they needed readers. And you couldn’t have the general access to universal education that spread in the nineteenth century without access to books.

However, printing and the dissemination of ideas is also subversive, a danger to the establishment: though you can give everyone access to the bible and preach about obedience to the authorities, you cannot easily stop other philosophies and ideologies spreading through the same medium. They thought of censorship, which was reasonably effective for a while in dealing with troublesome literature.

And so we get to our own times, where the internet is as powerful, if not a more powerful, disruptor of things. Previously, you needed a certain amount of money to get your book into print and distributed; you needed to be a wealthy man to start a newspaper and influence people that way. But with the internet, you could do it all for almost nothing: spread your ideas, lies, false news, ‘post-truth’ writings – call them what you like. And trying to censor the internet is like… well…

But those who would control ideas quite rapidly realised that there was a much better way to block dangerous or subversive ideas, no matter what the medium – print, television, internet – you simply swamp real content with crap. Think about it: serious newspapers exist and are read by the few, while The Sun, the Daily Mail, Bild Zeitung are read by the millions. Serious TV programmes exist, but who can find them among hundreds of channels of soaps, dramas, game shows, shopping channels and the rest? And on the internet it’s easier still: so much garbage out there, particularly when social media and search engines take control: who actually knows what is out there and where to find it, what is going on, how we are being manipulated?

Truly, both printing and the web are double-edged swords, allowing both the dissemination of new ideas and control of large numbers of people through obfuscation and fog. And no-one has found a way to cut through those, yet.

My A-Z of Reading: O is for Open Book

December 5, 2016

Should an examination be a test of memory, or of a student’s broader ability to apply knowledge and understanding? When I took exams in literature at school and at university many years ago, you were not allowed texts in the exam room. This meant that, as well as knowing the texts thoroughly, and the issues they raised that examiners might ask you to write about, you also had to memorise quite considerable quantities of quotations from those texts in order to support and justify your analysis. How useful was that ‘memory test’ part of my degree qualification, for instance?

When it came to the examination for my masters, I met the ‘take-away’ exam, courtesy of Lancaster University English Department. You took away the exam paper and came back a fortnight later to hand in your four essays; you’d had the time to re-read any text, any critic, plan, draft, write and re-write your essays, and the examiners knew that and expected and marked accordingly. No memory test there, but a serious test of one’s ability to analyse, theorise and evidence, as well as think originally.

When I first started teaching there was 100% coursework in both English Language and Literature; that worked for a while, but depended on committed and conscientious teachers, and there was too much temptation – pressure perhaps, particularly where parents were paying for results – to game the system. So that went, sadly. Incidentally, since those days, I have no personal evidence that students’ results are globally any better or worse. And once again, students were being graded on their ability to understand, to analyse and to evidence.

In came open-book exams: invigilated, timed sessions, but students could have their set texts with them; no memory test, but a test of understanding, analysis, and ability to evidence. Such a system had its downside: weaker students in particular saw the text as a crutch, a prop, and tended to spend far too much time searching for quotations instead of writing for marks. A copy of a text was no substitute for textual knowledge. And again, teachers were pressured to play the system: annotation was allowed, and how much was too much annotation? Who was going to police this? Students ended up with every available inch of their text crammed with notes and essay plans; weaker ones again spent too much time accessing these and not enough time writing.

So we came to the era of clean texts: schools had to spend money buying and storing sets of books to be kept solely for exam use, and again, quis custodiet? So everything came full circle and we are now back at the era of memory tests once again: learn the quotations your teacher tells you, and, if you are a weak student, try and cram every one in to your essay, whether it fits or not.

One of the greatest flaws of the English education system, I felt, during my time as part of it, was the amount of time spent chopping and changing and re-inventing the wheel: students were never served by this; teachers weren’t either, so who was? Exam boards, publishers, consultants all made a mint. And nobody really answered the question: what, exactly, are we trying to assess in a literature exam, and what is the best way to do this?

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