Archive for September, 2018

Jean Verdon: Le plaisir au Moyen Age

September 30, 2018

51zbteZ-JsL._AC_US218_I’ve read, enjoyed and found enormously informative this author’s book on travelling in the Middle Ages, and couldn’t resist this one, on pleasure. Verdon was immensely informative on the idea of courtly love, which I’d first encountered at A level when studying Chaucer, but what we were given as school students was a basic outline and some key concepts. To have it all clearly exemplified with extracts from a wide range of literature from the time was fascinating, and only partly because I’d always regarded courtly love as such a crazy idea…

Pleasure only makes slaves of those who consider it an end in itself…’ that I found really thought-provoking. In those times, everything was overlaid by a strongly religious outlook – not just sexual activity – and yet it’s clear that there were lively debates and disagreements on the subject, with clerics and ascetics taking a much harder line than those who actually lived in and engaged with the real world. Verdon explains the astonishing religious scruples and hair-splitting about the different kinds of sexual activity, and the sinfulness of pleasure: from a twenty-first century perspective, it’s quite mind-boggling. And yet, there seemed to be a general agreement that desire was necessary in nature…

I found myself wondering why what seemed to have changed most radically in religious attitudes towards human sexuality over the centuries was its acceptance of pleasure, whereas the Catholic Church is still wedded to the idea that all sexual acts must be open to procreation, thus creating the problems we are all familiar with, concerning contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, before we even come on to considering clerical celibacy: why is enjoying sex now OK whereas the other baggage is still retained?

I found Verdon’s further exploration of the influence of religious attitudes to food, fasting and other forms of asceticism just as mad as attitudes to sex; within the total religious weltanschauung, they make sense perhaps, but at the cost of such an astonishing warping of human life and experience. There was basically an ‘official’ downer on any kind of pleasure, enjoyment or fulfilment, with the clergy wanting to dictate to everyone how they should live. However, as Verdon also makes clear, there was fairly widespread scepticism and ignoring of official dictates.

It was useful to be reminded that the entire mediaeval mindset was shaped by Christianity – or rather, interpretations of Christianity over the centuries – and focused ultimately on the duty to love God and have the eternal rather than the secular in view at all times.. And while this may make little sense to us in these radically different times, I am often unsure that our current materialistic, money-focused and ultimately hedonistic approach is any saner or healthier an approach to life, happiness or contentment.

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May Herschel-Clarke: The Mother

September 29, 2018

The Mother – May Herschel-Clarke (1917)

If you should die, think only this of me
In that still quietness where is space for thought,
Where parting, loss and bloodshed shall not be,
And men may rest themselves and dream of nought:
That in some place a mystic mile away
One whom you loved has drained the bitter cup
Till there is nought to drink; has faced the day
Once more, and now, has raised the standard up.


And think, my son, with eyes grown clear and dry
She lives as though for ever in your sight,
Loving the things you loved, with heart aglow
For country, honour, truth, traditions high,
Proud that you paid their price. (And if some night
Her heart should break — well, lad, you will not know).

A reasonable first reaction is that this is a very clever poem, parodying so carefully and so completely Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet The Soldier. And it is that, but so much more besides.

Yes, there is the cleverness of the echoing, with a different slant, of so many of Brooke’s actual words. But there is also the way in which, though the whole poem is about death and dying (like Brooke’s), the d-word is never mentioned, as neither is the horror of death in warfare. And it is death, not the (statistically far more likely) mutilation but survival. There is the same sense of Brooke’s picture of young men relaxing, laughing, which comes over so strongly in Peace, another of his sonnets, with ‘men may rest themselves and dream of nought’, the use of euphemism in drained the bitter cup’, and the patriotic pride in the raising up of the standard, almost in a Roman sense: echoes of Herbert Asquith’s The Volunteer and the oriflamme, and the men of Agincourt…

Battlefield death imagined – only as a possibility: ‘if’ at the opening of the octave, just like Brooke’s opening, and the mother’s private and quiet response in the sestet. She has wept, and come to terms with her grief: eyes grown clear and dry, patriotically accepting her boy’s sacrifice loving the things you loved’, and proud that you paid their price’note the alliterations which feel to me just a little too glib, and hint perhaps at the falseness or forced-ness of her public sentiments there…

And then the parenthesis, which is very powerful indeed, I feel. Setting it apart like that is significant in itself, side-lining her true feelings as somehow less important – than what, though? – the mother’s affection in ‘lad’, and the silent relief that he will not be able to witness her grief.

What a distance women’s poetry has come since the simple-mindedness of Jessie Pope three years earlier…

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

Klaus Mann: The Turning Point

September 25, 2018

41zmqD9SlKL._AC_US218_This post also begins with a confession: many years ago, I tried to read a novel by Thomas Mann, and gave up. Then I had to read one as part of my master’s degree: Death in Venice bored me. Nevertheless, I was attracted to his son Klaus’ autobiography when I came across it in a bookshop in 1987 and bought it. Finally, I read – most of it…

There’s an awful lot of self-indulgent rambling in the 600+ pages, as well as a huge amount of name-dropping, a great many of which names have completely fallen off anyone’s radar by now. So, it’s not an easy read, and I found myself skimming certain sections; I also took a two-week break from it, but then decided I’d better get on.

Mann is interesting in his description – and realisation, with hindsight – of just how much intellectuals, and intelligent people generally, were looking the wrong way all the time in post-First World War Germany, whilst anarchy reigned in politics and public life, and the far right was rumbling away, first in the background and then much more overtly and confidently, and this made uncomfortable reading in these times. I found myself beginning to understand the German feelings of betrayal in 1918, and the idea, so effectively used by Hitler and the Nazis, that they hadn’t lost the war.

Mann is clear about not wanting to succeed as a writer by hanging onto his father’s (or indeed his uncle Heinrich’s) coattails, but there is no denying that it helped a lot. The breathlessness of his youth and travels comes across very well, and I was interested to learn of his friendship and travelling with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whose travel journals I have dipped into. At times I had the impression of reading about the German equivalent of the British Bloomsbury group, with all the interconnected names and relationships.

Mann was gay, but nowhere does his sexuality or its effect on his life receive overt attention in his writing, perhaps understandably from the times. I was shocked by his, and his friends’ near-obsession with suicide, and how many of them, including Mann himself, took this option.

Chronicles of life within Germany during the time of the Nazis I have always found interesting, because I strive to understand how such a death-focused and poisonous ideology could have gripped an entire nation, and Mann’s account is no exception. The fact that for so long intellectuals just could not take the Nazis seriously, expressed total incredulity towards them, is revealing: Mann describes sitting at the next table to Hitler and his cronies in a Munich cafe a year or so before they came to power, and the description of the would-be führer troughing through one strawberry cream tart after another makes him seem utterly ridiculous…

Mann and his family left Germany very quickly after the takeover; his vehement anti-Nazism (and that of his sister Erika, who I have written about here) is never in doubt; he ended up striving to enlist in the US army even before he had been naturalised an American citizen, and his account of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is also very illuminating, especially about the sordid compromises very rapidly made by the Allies with the remnants of the old regime, and the way suddenly every German had secretly been an anti-Nazi all along…

Overall, for our time, the book is far too long and rambling, and I did find myself skimming sizeable sections, but I’m glad I bothered, for the various illuminating sections I’ve mentioned which I’ve fitted into my overall jigsaw of those times…

 

Farewell to the EU

September 22, 2018

I am becoming more and more despondent as the days tick by to 29 March 2018…

It was during a conversation with a Luxemburger whose studio I’d rented for my last walking holiday, that I realised I’d spent my entire adult life as a citizen of, first the European Economic Community, then the European Community and finally the European Union: I was 18 when we joined back in 1973. Although I felt happy then joining all our neighbours in the twelve (as it was then), two years later, in my serious but short-lived very left-wing phase, I voted for us to leave, in the first-ever referendum. We didn’t, I got over it pretty quickly and over the years came to enjoy the – mostly unseen – advantages that being part of the union gave us. Travel gradually became so much easier as borders, though still visible, disappeared in practical terms as one made one’s way about the continent. The quaint old idea of the ‘duty-free allowance’ of cheap booze as you came home vanished, and you could bring back anything you’d paid VAT on in any European country. Because travel was easier, I went to more places, experienced more of life and customs in other lands.

The real border shifted to the Elbe: Eastern Europe was still much harder and more complicated to access, but eventually with the fall of the Soviet Union, other Eastern nations eagerly joined the EU and those borders also vanished… Money – exchange rates and currencies was still rather a pain until 2001 (I think) and the advent of the euro; I’m still cross that we never joined as that would have completed the simplification of movement and travel.

Forty-six years later, all this is due to come to an end. If I can get to a port, and I have secured (bought) my authorisation to travel to the Schengen area, I could still go for my walking holiday in the Ardennes. But I will need to go to a post office and queue up to buy at least one kind of international driving licence if I’m taking my car, and currently I don’t know whether I will need to buy any form of extra, special insurance for my car – a replacement for the old ‘Green Card’. I think my EHIC – which entitles me to medical treatment on the same basis as citizens of the country I’m visiting – may still be valid, but I don’t know. I’m assured that it won’t suddenly cost me extra to use my phone while I’m abroad, but I’m not convinced. And I’m pretty sure that it will all be horrendously expensive, given that the value of the pound is likely to decrease still further.

First world problems – I’m complaining about my travel and holidays getting costlier and more complicated. I’m retired, and don’t have to worry about work: plenty of my fellow-citizens are likely to suffer rather more than I will. It’s the tiny-mindedness and the short-sightedness of what we are going to do to ourselves that appals me, our insular inability to see any of the bigger picture or to find common cause with others in an attempt to solve the real and pressing problems facing our continent, and our world. Never mind, when it comes up for renewal in 2021, if I still need one, I can have a nice blue passport… and if even if we are no longer in the EU, I shan’t feel any less European myself.

De lingua latina

September 22, 2018

I was reminded about this topic when at the Pont du Gard a couple of weeks ago. There is a small tablet placed on the road bridge side of this huge edifice; it’s in Latin and tells – who, exactly? – that the Romans built the aqueduct, and the Occitans added the road bridge in 1745. There were some students, engineers I think, larking about and taking their task half-heartedly. They were supposed to note down what the tablet said. One of them admitted defeat, telling his mates it was in Italian and he couldn’t read it. I helped him, whereupon he tried to pass off my help as his own genius…

In our country the teaching and learning of classical languages has pretty much vanished from the state sector of education, in some cases replaced by a vague and optional course in Classical Civilisation. And for years it was acceptable to decry Latin as a dead language, the study of which was of no possible use to anyone in such a modern and technological age as ours. So it has gone: people can no longer make out inscriptions in churches and on old monuments, and most people have no idea how to understand Roman numerals…

I find all of this very sad, not because I am a luddite, sitting here typing at my desktop PC using the linux system I installed and customised myself. I can manage the social media I want to use, admittedly not an awful lot. And I’ve been writing this blog for over five years. I studied Latin at school, up to A Level and originally intended to read it at university, until my love of English Literature overtook that desire. I read and prepared Julius Caesar and Virgil, HoraceLivy, Cicero and Tacitus for my examinations, and enjoyed them, too, along with the history we studied. I think I can still just about decipher Caesar’s Gallic Wars, though I do enjoy engaging with a fellow-blogger’s more demanding passages from Roman authors which she occasional excerpts.

I have found Latin useful throughout my life. My first encounters came as a Catholic in the days when all services were in that language, and I was trained as an altar-boy in all the responses at mass; I can still recite then today. I am passionate about history and visit many old churches and other archaeological sites, and Latin helps me understand inscriptions, books and other artefacts. A working knowledge of Latin has been invaluable in my studies and teaching of English, both language and literature, and obviously immensely helpful in my learning of French at school, and now Spanish. Latin helps us understand an engage more fully with our past, and in these divisive days a reminder of a common language, first via the Roman empire and then the Western church, is salutary.

I can’t advocate inflicting the study of Latin on all school students; I don’t suggest it replace other subjects in our school curriculum. But I would like the option of learning it, and using it to access an enormous wealth from the past, to be available to all students, alongside other subjects. I do have an issue with the prescriptiveness of the school curriculum and our current obsession with science, technology and mathematics to the exclusion of the arts, languages and creativity.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…

 

Travel: youth vs age

September 20, 2018

I’m in the middle of reading Klaus Mann’s (son of Thomas Mann) autobiography; in his early twenties he travelled quite widely, fairly randomly, with an open mind and a free spirit. I was reminded of myself at that age; I’ve been travelling again recently – in my sixties – and I also found myself thinking about the differences in my experience then and now.

In my twenties I was carefree and poor. As a student, I saved my pennies and a hundred quid would sustain me abroad for a month in the summer vacation, once I’d got myself across the Channel; then I’d hitchhike wherever the whim and my lifts took me. I travelled light: tent, sleeping bag and rucksack with a few clothes and basic kit was enough. I met lots of different and interesting people who gave me lifts to all sorts of places, and some of whom were generous as well to a not-very-well-off student. I saw a decent amount of France, Germany, the Low Countries over several summers. I fell in love with Provence, and the Loire Valley, and Hessen in Germany. I treated myself to a different cheese every day, as well as cake and ice-cream.

In my sixties, as back then, my time is my own and I can go where I please, but I crave – and probably need – rather more comfort, using basic hotels for overnight stops and renting studios and holiday apartments for longer stays; obviously I drive and I take rather more kit with me nowadays: phone and tablet keep me in touch with home – never bothered about that in the old days! – and I take music and books with me, and a selection of maps and guidebooks… as a student I allowed myself one doorstopper of a novel for my entertainment in the evenings, by candlelight, in my tent. I still treat myself to a bottle of beer in the evening. And what I want to see is still the same: I go for places with a history, and an atmosphere, that I can explore in a leisurely fashion, taking as much time as I like. There’s nothing like spending a couple of days wandering around a town or city for really getting the feel and atmosphere of the place, and I think of all the places I’ve done that – Carcassonne a couple of years ago, where I deliberately got up early to walk the place and take photos before it was swamped by hordes of tourists; Lübeck, GdanskLeipzig, Arles very recently, and I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve spent over the years walking the streets of Paris just to see what would turn up around the next corner.

So, organised tours are not really for me: too quick, and being marshalled off to the next place before I’ve got to grips with where I am today is not for me. I like to be able to spend ages wandering around looking for the perfect spot for photographs, and I like to be able to get up early for a photo session before a place gets crowded out with tourists. Yes, I know I’m one, too!

When I was younger, I think I stored up mental impressions, along the lines of, “I really like this place, I’ll have to come back one day!” whereas now it’s all rather different. Without being too maudlin, there is more of a sense of, “Well, let’s enjoy this place because I might not see it again…” And there is a developing perspective, from all the stunning places I’ve seen (and I’m not that widely travelled, as I don’t fly) that humans have made beautiful and wonderful things and live in such a beautiful world, so why are we ruining it, and treating our fellow humans so abominably? It makes me rather sad, really.

And there are almost no hitchhikers any more: they vanished in the mid-1980s, as I recall, with the advent of cut-price coach, train and air travel, and sadly, as a driver I’ve never been able to repay all the kindness I was shown back in my student days; I can count the number of people I’ve picked up on the fingers of one hand…

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…

Confession time

September 16, 2018

Do you have a – perhaps guilty – secret? Is there a classic novel that all your friends adore and rave about which you can’t stand? Are there books you feel you ought to have read that you haven’t, and are ashamed to admit? Can you bear to confess now?

There is a certain reverence, respect attached to the classics, whatever they are. It may be just about OK not actually to read some of them, though we probably wouldn’t openly admit it. And we are likely to feel awkward, if not actually wrong, if we don’t like a particular novel, or writer. Why is this?

I always wanted my students to express responses and opinions about what they read, and felt comfortable encouraging them to openly dislike something, as long as they could explain what it was that they disliked, what turned them off. If you were one of those students, you will possibly remember my cry of ‘Evidence?’

I will make a few admissions now, no doubt horrifying some of my readers. I’d like to hear from you if what I say shocks and appals you, and you are welcome to try and persuade me that I’m wrong in my judgement.

I have just got rid of my copy of Wuthering Heights. I read it once, twenty years ago, and hated it. What was the point of that, I thought, and I do not have any spare eyeball time to go back to it. Although I had to study Tess of the D’Urbervilles at university, I’ve never re-read it since, and can’t see that I ever will: it’s too maudlin and fate-ridden to be truly convincing to me, and that’s the overall impression I’ve gleaned of Thomas Hardy, too. I bought Jude the Obscure a long time ago and thought I might read it; I got rid of it a while ago, unread. And Charles Dickens you can keep, too. I did actually enjoy Hard Times – again, compulsory study at university – and have gone back and re-read it. I enjoyed an adaptation of David Copperfield on the wireless as a child, and a no doubt bowdlerised version of Oliver Twist too. I haven’t read Great Expectations, although I did enjoy Peter Carey’s reworking of the story, Jack Maggs. It didn’t make me want to go back to Dickens, though.

I suppose those are my big admissions about the classics: Hardy the miserable and Dickens the verbose. I’ll admit to a pretty strong loathing for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, too, even though I did see a very good theatre production in the sixth form, but all that magic and fairies gallivanting around I really can’t be doing with. One of my biggest mistakes as a teacher was to try and read it with a year eight class. I’m not sure which of us hated it more…

Along with active dislikes such as those I’ve mentioned above, there is then the whole raft of stuff I’ve read once, either because I had to as a student or because I mistakenly took a recommendation from someone. And the – rather fewer – books I started but gave up on. Time was when someone might have been able to be familiar with all of the canon of Eng Lit: not any more. Choices have to be made, time is short – especially when you realise you are getting on in years – and there is no law that says you have to like everything.

What’s your guilty secret?

Good English, correct English?

September 15, 2018

You would probably expect a retired English teacher to have strong views on what constitutes good or correct English, and what is permissible and what shouldn’t be. I’ve found myself thinking more deeply about this, partly provoked by what I’ve read recently about changes in French orthography. Whilst many and different attempts have been made to make our own language more gender-equal, languages like French which attribute, often apparently randomly, different genders to all nouns, have a rather more complex problem when they try to do this.

For instance, to use they as a singular pronoun in English, to avoid using he or she, and perhaps appearing to subsume the female in the male, jars for some, and for others seems perfectly acceptable, normal even. Usage evolves inevitably and although spoken English may lead, the written usually follows. With gender-specific nouns, some have started to use the (previously) masculine form for both male and female, thus, for instance, describing both male and female performers as actors, rather than using the separate form actresses for females only. I can’t, personally see a problem with such modifications of usage. But then, we don’t have any official body in charge of regulating the language, unlike the French.

At the moment, if you want to be equal across the genders in French, you have a masculine and feminine version of a word – let’s say étudiant and étudiante. And if you are attaching any adjective to that noun, it will also have a masculine and feminine form, and then there are different forms for singular and plural too. And the rules of the language currently say that the masculine form is sufficient when speaking or writing about a group that may actually comprise both genders. If you’re not happy about this, what do you do? I won’t go into further detail here, but there’s plenty of detail available out there on the web. All the possible suggestions I’ve seen or read about are either ugly or cumbersome or both. And then there’s the official body regulating the language to satisfy…

Which brings me back to right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Certain things rub me up the wrong way, like fingernails sliding down a blackboard. And yet, I have to acknowledge our language as a changing, evolving, dynamic system, and my studies of literature across the centuries have demonstrated this quite clearly to me many times over. Double negatives, which many blench at, were acceptable, even necessary, in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s time.

During my time as a teacher, I tried to explain to students the notion of clarity as central to effective communication, and also the idea that spoken and written language are different, as are formal and informal usage, and what students needed most for success was an understanding of this, and the ability to function well in the appropriate register for whatever situation they found themselves in. Thus, how one spoke or texted in free or social time was one thing, and I could tut-tut quietly to myself if I liked; how one spoke in the classroom – a formal situation – was different, and I could and did have various specific expectations. Similarly, depending on who the audience was for your written English affected how you framed it; anything ad usum privatumcould be as you liked, although sloppy habits there might well end up carrying over into formal situations and causing problems; written English with an audience demanded care and adherence to the conventions of correct English. The same was true with regard to regional accents; there was nothing wrong with themper se, but in certain situations Standard English might be expected, and an inability to function in that register might disadvantage one.

All that is before we get started on the vexed topic of spelling, about which I was always much more rigid.

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