Archive for March, 2019

P D James: Death Comes To Pemberley

March 31, 2019

41FmZ-a8YQL._AC_UL436_I remember attempting to watch the TV series and giving up in disgust; nevertheless a brand new copy of P D James’ novel for a £1 – in Poundland, of course! – tempted me and I took it as a holiday read. She doesn’t attempt to imitate Austen’s style, thank goodness, but her own dry and at times rather arch tone is reminiscent of Austen, especially in her clever summative opening chapter, which establishes continuity with the events and characters of Pride and Prejudice. She can construct an awkward conversation almost as well as Austen.

Of course, the novel is pure escapism, an opportunity to spend extended time with characters we have previously known and loved; however James does cast her net rather too wide and brings in a host of minor characters, servants and menials included, who are far too many to keep track of. There are some nice melodramatic and Gothic touches, reminding us fleetingly of Northanger Abbey, and she also managed quite skilfully to link the devious Wickham to events and characters in Persuasion. I did find references to ‘the Police’ in 1803 somewhat anachronistic, and I often felt James was being carried away by her strength in crafting twentieth century whodunnits. She does slip very easily into this mode, and even let her little-Englander prejudices slip out in apparently pro-Brexit comments by one of her characters. I don’t think I’m being too sensitive there…

The plot becomes slightly too wild as it progresses, and the courtroom melodrama and deus ex machina resolution is also a tad unsatisfactory. However, the post-trial denouement is undoubtedly gripping and cleverly worked, but then overdone, by squeezing in some of the characters from Emma. In the end I realise I am carping a little too much about what turned out to be miles better than the televised version, a pretty good yarn that isn’t Jane Austen and isn’t meant to be. Worth a read.

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Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days

March 22, 2019

21E6JZ4N4TL._AC_UL436_I used to have quite a soft spot for Garrison Keillor, but after revisiting his most famous book, I do think it has palled a little.

Lake Wobegon is an utterly invented place, as are its inhabitants; no different from other fiction so far. But whereas other writers may invent a place and some characters as the background for a story, here the place and people are the story, and the question arises, is there enough to be interesting, or is our author merely being self-indulgent?

The invented history of the foundation of the town in the depths of Minnesota, down to its location being obfuscated by supposed errors made by drunken land surveyors, is a direct lift from the much briefer and more relevant account of the origins of Maycomb, in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird; Keillor is far more long-winded. His aim is to get the place populated by Norwegian and German immigrants, whose antics he will then hope to amuse us with.

And this is what the book depends on – light, humorous mockery of small-town USA, in the way that Mark Twain did so well in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But again, Twain used his settings as the background to interesting stories. Never having visited the USA, I’m obviously dependent on all the different accounts of the place I’ve read to form my impressions of the place, and I do have a mental picture of the vastness of the country allowing such communities quite cut off from the mainstream of US life to exist and accumulate a certain type of character who isn’t, or doesn’t have time to be, interested in the outside world.

So is Keillor wanting to make a more serious point about the isolationism of a large part of American society, towns without any real intellectual life, where homespun wisdom is at the heart of everything? The portraits are often affectionate, but often equally deeply worrying if they bear any resemblance to reality. I can certainly understand the deep-seated desires of some to escape…

Keillor mocks the religious extremism of the Exclusive Brethren that his character’s family belong to: I found myself mentally comparing his version with the rather more real horrors depicted in Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised account of her upbringing, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Maybe it’s times that have changed – I first came across Keillor some thirty years ago, and the mentality of small town USA and the effects of that world-view seem rather more pernicious nowadays than I recall it then. His laconic tone and close observations of the mannerisms and language of his characters produce a good number of laugh-out-loud moments, but overall the book came across as quite long and rambling at times, and I found myself wondering, will I ever want to come back to this again, and will I even bother to look at the other books of his I have on the shelves?

Bread and circuses

March 21, 2019

If we are fortunate – and I have to count myself as such – then it’s possible to live more or less surrounded by people like oneself, with the same general interests and pleasures, a similar outlook on life, similar political opinions and perhaps religious or spiritual beliefs and practices

While this is very comforting and pleasant, I realise this has given me a rather limited picture of real life.

So, although 34% or so of the British electorate voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago, I’ve only ever had a conversation with one of them. Although I know a few people who are Conservatives (in the political party sense) I don’t have political discussions with them. Most people who I choose to discuss ideas with are as liberal or radical as I am. Thus we elaborate, explore and refine our own fairly narrow set of ideas, without ever being really challenged.

Then I look at the world out there, and read the newspapers (which reflect my own interests and opinions, of course) and it seems to be mayhem all around: crypto-fascists and sexists abound along with climate-change deniers, the super-rich and the arrogant entitled.

Turn all this on its head, and I’m pretty sure one might say the same about lots of other small groups of people, their beliefs and opinions: no contact, no discussion, no change. And yet, at some level, we also have to operate in the belief that most people are decent and well-intentioned, with the interests of themselves, their families, nearest and dearest at heart, just like us: we are all decent, and we are all ignorant and separate and divided from each other.

Partly, this is both necessary and inevitable: we can’t know and care deeply about everyone we see, no matter how we would try; we have to manage and get on with our own daily lives and survival, and inevitably we prioritise our time and attention, as well as our emotions. However, in my darker moments, I realise that there are some in the world who are perfectly happy with this atomisation, people whose interests it serves. Money – lots of it – can be made out of keeping us separated from each other.

Keeping us from understanding each other, through the media and propaganda, keeps divided groups of people who might otherwise find common cause with each other and then attempt – shock, horror – to change things in ways which those currently pulling all the strings might not like.

Divide et impera – divide and conquer – has been a prime mover of the powerful for centuries, millennia, as has panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Keep everyone in separate, manageable small groups and there will be no threats to the existing order of things; keep them well-supplied with things that take their minds off thinking that the system does them no service, and they will be less likely to ask awkward questions. Make survival a challenge for most people so they don’t have time to think about the system that makes it so…

This holds true now: anti-racists are busy demanding certain things, feminists demand different things; workers want this and the middle classes want that; environmentalists tell us that this is the most important thing to address whilst pacifists disagree and foreground something different. And what we must not realise, above all, is that it’s the current economic system that’s at the heart of everything that is unjust, unfair, inequitable, and that must surely be changed and transformed first.

That economic system works really hard to provide the bread and circuses: cheap food and clothing, endless entertainment, social media if you like or need that sort of thing; an ever-changing kaleidoscope of new culinary experiences from all parts of the world, bucket lists of expensive experiences and travels if you like to imagine yourself a cut above the hoi-polloi… it’s all the same thing, in the end: a diversion from what we must not be allowed to look at or think about in detail.

And if the fog-machine of the powerful breaks down, there will be vicious brute force to ensure that everyone knows their place: you only have to look back at British, American, Russian, Chinese history to see that. Again I find myself in the same place: able to see clearly enough what is going on, and what it would be good to change, and no idea at all how an entire species might find out, decide it wants change, and actually change things in a peaceful way so that everyone might share the benefits.

On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.

On England

March 14, 2019

I like England.

I may have given the impression, particularly in some of my more political posts, of finding my home country reactionary, hidebound and stuck in the 18th century, and if I have, good because it is all of those things, and yet I like the place. And no, I’m not about to go all patriotic and John of Gaunt-y on you.

This country welcomed my father when it needed allies against Nazism during the Second World War; most grudgingly after the war was over it allowed him and his mates to stay: they didn’t have to return to the gulag. So without England, there would be no me.

As a generous and socially-minded place it nurtured me, via the NHS, through my childhood, with orange juice, rose-hip syrup and cod-liver oil, and extracted my tonsils. It ensured I had a good, free education, including as many years as I could possibly have at university, funded by student grants and without fees. When I was unemployed, it paid me benefits. I had a very satisfying career as a teacher and I have a pension which currently allows me to relax and do some of the things I enjoy most. And the UK joined the Common Market, which became the EEC and then the EU, and for my entire adult life I have enjoyed its increasing benefits, particularly to travel simply and freely about the union; travel has always been one of my favourite pastimes.

I’ve sampled all sorts of wonderful food and drink from all over the world, and yet nowhere else has TEA like we do here, proper tea made with leaves in a teapot. Lots of countries make very good beers, many of which I like a great deal, but nobody else makes anything approaching bitter. And – disloyal to my Polish roots, just as my father was, I have to say that I’ll take a dram from that close neighbour of ours in preference to a glass of vodka any day. I could never be a vegan because I cannot imagine a life without cheese, and our friends just across the channel make some stunning fromages, but again, given only one choice, I can’t decide whether it would have to be Stilton, or tasty Lancashire. And much as I love cakes of all lands, Yorkshire curd tart is pretty unbeatable.

You’ll notice I started with food…people who know me won’t have been surprised.

But my life’s work was all about our language, and that’s a thing I can wax lyrical about. I can speak pretty fluent French, get by in German, just about in Polish if pushed, and I’m learning Spanish at the moment. And – witness this blog – I read widely in the literature of many nations and languages, if mainly in translation. But no language comes anywhere near English, for size of vocabulary, powers of expression, complexity of poetry. We have Shakespeare. I could stop there; I’m not dismissing the greats of other languages and nations, but there is something special and enormous in the sheer variety, depth and power of our national writer. And we have Milton, and Jane Austen… and quite a few others who we could argue over.

We have some history, a lot of which we should be ashamed of: colonialism and empire and slavery. There’s the colossal act of cultural vandalism that was Henry VIII’s Reformation, too. But there’s our inventiveness – the Industrial Revolution (perhaps a double-edged sword, that one) – our explorations and discoveries: yes, white men discovering what was already there, perhaps, but nevertheless, that urge to get off our island and see what was out there. We have been on the ‘right’ side in some wars, although it would have been better not to be fighting in the first place. And somewhere there’s a tradition of tolerance that developed over a long period of time, that allowed us to accept and sometimes assimilate different peoples and ideas, giving them the freedom to be themselves while becoming part of England too. Over the years, my father came to appreciate that.

We are proud of our democratic traditions – Parliaments, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, extension of suffrage – though much of the time this wasn’t about empowering ordinary folk, but letting the less rich get their snouts in the trough occasionally. But for me, our problems now stem from our being stuck in the past, trying to live off our past reputation and greatness, unaware that we are actually a small, fairly remote and pretty crowded island, home to three nations not just one, and that our traditions and pageantry and royalty and aristocracy may look charming to tourists, but at the same time they are seriously daft as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. Poland had an elected monarchy once; it did her no good at all and when she finally regained independence in 1918, one of the first acts of the new commonwealth was to abolish the nobility – just like that. No need of guillotines or firing squads in cellars. End of.

I won’t live to see it, but what if England were able to conceive of a way of facing the century as a small nation that was a member of a much larger union or alliance, with a voting system which allowed a real voice to all its citizens (not subjects!), and putting the energies of its best minds to working in concert with the other neighbouring nations to address the real problems that face the planet? The successes and achievements of our past suggest we could make a real difference…

On frustration

March 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead!

No-one now living in Britain can avoid the utter chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations and manoeuvrings; it really does feel as if the lunatics are running the asylum at the moment. I’ve been clear enough in a number of posts about what I think of the whole business, and what I really want to happen. And, as someone who thinks a lot about politics and the state of the world, I’ve tried to make sense of what is really going on…

It is evident that millions were persuaded to vote to ‘take back control’; it is evident that millions wanted to give politicians of all hues a good kicking. And the desires of those millions appear to have been hijacked by cynical populists. It is worth looking at what lies behind the wish to ‘take back control’. It is clear that larger organisations: multi-national businesses, and also the European Union, exert rather more control over our lives than the national and local governments which we elect. Multi-national businesses find it relatively easy to hide behind a smokescreen, as well as producing the shiny-shiny stuff that they then make us covet through advertising; the nasty bureaucrats of Brussels are a much easier and more visible target who have given us what? – a court of human rights, better working conditions, environmental protection and I don’t know what else. But they have also facilitated – no, wholeheartedly embraced – neo-liberalism and globalism, and helped multinationals trample on us in all sorts of other ways… even if the European project survives, surely it has to change in response to the concerns of so many.

‘Taking back control’ is a nice, and meaningless form of words: ordinary people don’t have and never have had any power other than through withdrawing their labour, and those politicians urging us to take back control have been at the forefront of limiting ordinary people’s right to strike.

Giving politicians a good kicking seems to me a laudable aim at the moment: in my time I have gradually seen the notion of public service demeaned and denigrated, insulted and diminished, and not just by those of a Thatcherite persuasion, but by many who should know better. Too many politicians are now mere venal careerists with their snouts in the trough – and I’m not just referring to my own country although that is the one I know best. And yet, the opportunities for giving those politicians a meaningful kicking are non-existent, particularly in our antediluvian electoral system. Cue the populists and faragists and other mischief-makers who exploit popular frustrations, but have no solutions to offer and are merely edging their snouts nearer the trough…

The right wing are making hay at the moment, unsurprisingly, because it’s always easier to shout abuse, find scapegoats and cause trouble than it is to come up with clear and feasible ideas that might make a real difference. The left has undergone a crisis over the last twenty or thirty years, as a result of the deliberate unleashing and encouraging of selfishness during the Thatcherite era; it cannot counter the waves of shiny-shiny stuff everyone is supposed to be able to buy now that they pay far less in tax and are therefore so much more in control of ‘their’ money. The left does not seem to be able to find an analysis that will allow it to propose a society that takes care of all of its members, nor to convince people that if they want good quality public services, pensions, social care and the like then it does have to be paid for, and that it is worth paying for. Meanwhile some died-in-the-wool dreamers of a new Jerusalem want everything to get far worse so that they can then make it better?

The final elephant in the room behind our Brexit chaos is of course immigration, and refugees, and it’s here that the real nastiness comes out of the woodwork. We could go a very long way towards diminishing the numbers of refugees and their desire to come to the West by not creating the conditions that make them leave their homelands in the first place – by not attacking their countries, fighting our wars in their countries, selling weapons to them and other countries who fight wars in their countries. Immigration is a rather more difficult issue. It’s easy enough to demonstrate factually the economic benefits of immigration. But when people in small towns feel as if there are too many non-natives around, what can we say? There is surely added pressure on jobs, schools and health services: here, neo-liberalism, austerity and the long-cultivated unwillingness to pay taxes are largely to blame. It ought to be possible to encourage greater integration of immigrants, but we are a small island, a much smaller country than Germany or France. And would we not have a better chance of addressing such issues working together with our European neighbours? It is also clear – although not widely known – that current European legislation would allow us here in Britain to do much that we have been told we need to ‘take back control’ in order to do.

Where I’ve got to is my usual paralysed understanding of the issues and what is going on, coupled with the inability to do anything, or to see a way out of the mess.

On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

On keeping my brain alive

March 7, 2019

It’s something I never heard anything about when I was younger, perhaps because people hadn’t then tuned into it as an important idea, or perhaps because when you are young, certain things just don’t cross your radar, but as I enjoy my retirement, it’s hard to miss all the exhortations to do things that will exercise your brain, keep you mentally active, and –who knows – perhaps stave off the horrors of eventual dementia. I suspect there is some sense in not vegetating, but I’m not sure about deliberately taking new things on board just in the hope…

Do I keep my brain active? I hope so. I keep up my French and German in conversation groups here, and obviously when I’m travelling, and probably about a quarter of the books and novels I currently read are in French; I also read a monthly current affairs magazine in French. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ as I found in those long years of being a parent, when holidays abroad faded somewhat into the background. I’m still quite proud that the French often have to ask what country I’m from – they can now tell I’m not French, whereas in the years just after I’d graduated, they often didn’t realise… And a few years ago I took up learning Spanish, with the aim of being able to manage some holidays in Andalucia eventually. I’m enjoying the mental challenges and have been fortunate in finding a really good teacher. I’m not sure what particular parts of the brain language learning uses, but I’m still fascinated at the way communication can come out in a different language without my having to do deliberate processing.

As a student, I taught myself to do The Guardian cryptic crossword, and it has brought me endless pleasure; there’s serious and tortuous brainwork involved – anagrams have always been my speciality – and I can do it by myself or with a friend. In my early teaching days a colleague and I had the goal of finishing the Times and the Guardian cryptics before the end of the school day, and succeeded more often than not. I’ve occasionally wrestled with even harder ones like Azed in the Observer, but haven’t the patience for them. My one small indulgence, in terms of actually paying for an app on my phone, is the one that gives me the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning: I download it before I leave the house and use it to while away idle waiting moments anywhere. Sudoku I’ve never managed to wrangle, unlike my other half, who whizzes through it; an aversion to numbers on my part, I thought until I came across Calcudoku, which I now enjoy, although at beginners’ level.

Those are the only ‘mental gym’ type activities I can bear; other than that it’s reading and writing, both of which I enjoy and do a lot. I have a very moralistic attitude to my brain, I realise, along the lines of “God gave you it, so use it!” Certainly, as I’ve grown older, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by how complex and wonderful an organ it is and what it’s capable of doing; reason should be capable of enabling us to live in a rather better and fairer world, but it hasn’t… and it seems a great shame that all those electrical impulses eventually just die away, after all those years of hard work, and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

How do you keep your brain agile?

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