Archive for the 'language' Category

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 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.

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…


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.

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #18: words

August 18, 2018

I’ve always been interested in words, their history, derivation, etymology. Some words sound beautiful – concatenationis one of my favourites. But for sheer weirdness, I pick eleemosynary. Not one that’s easily dropped into conversation, and not one that your interlocutor would understand (probably). For me its utter weirdness stems from the contrast between the noun ‘alms’ as in charitable giving (four letters, begins with a, &c), and its adjectiveeleemosynary. And yet both stem from the same, originally Greek, word. The longer one is the closer to the Greek, the short the ‘English’ derivation. How we got there is a source of wonder to me – yes I know I could look it up in an etymological dictionary – and truly language is a marvellous thing.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Philip Larkin: MCMXIV

June 3, 2018

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s ,restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

This is one of my very favourite (if that’s a useful word) of all First World War poems, and I can imagine it being inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War, back in 1964. It is so good for many reasons, which I’ll come to as I write about the poem, but the Larkin’s great achievement lies in successfully capturing an era which has gone for ever, and the idea that the war irrevocably changed our nation’s consciousness…

In the first stanza he pictures the men queuing up to volunteer as if they were queuing up for a football or cricket match; there’s the touching detail of the hats and also the moustaches that were so fashionable in Edwardian times – hunt out any old family photo from the that era and you’ll notice it. The lightness of the idea of the August Bank Holiday lark is very touching, and accurate, as the traditional British holiday fell on the first rather than the last Monday of that month until relatively recently, and war was declared on August 4th, 1914.

Larkin carefully paints the picture of those days in the second stanza. The shops are shut (all businesses used to close on bank holidays until recently); they have the old-fashioned pull-out roller blinds to provide shade and keep the sun off the goods displayed in the windows, and shops would proudly display how long they had been ‘established’, perhaps as a mark of enduring quality. Farthings and sovereigns, two coins roughly the same size, one copper, the other gold: the vanished money of a vanished era. The children are dark-clothed – cheap colourful dyes and pigments were not yet invented. Very occasionally even now one may still see an ancient advertisement board in enamelled tin on the side of a building in long untouched areas of a town or city; a visit to Beamish museum would show you all the scenes Larkin describes so carefully and economically; back in the 1960s the details he mentions would, like Proust’s madeleine, have brought back quite vivid memories to many of his readers. Cocoa and twist (tobacco); pubs today are open when they choose, but strict licensing laws governing their opening hours were first introduced during the war to prevent key workers getting drunk during the working day when their work might be vital to the country’s war effort. As a student I remember my evening entertainment being quite strictly curtailed by those troublesome licensing hours…

After that, in the third stanza, we move out into the countryside not caring, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is suggested, the alliteration of all the s sounds evoking the wind gently blowing the crops ripening for harvest. The servant class that helped Edwardian England to function vanished almost completely with the war. Dust behind limousines because most roads were not yet metalled…

The title is interesting. Why Roman numerals, which I have discovered are now as impenetrable to younger generations as Sanskrit? I often used to ask my students this, and we ended up deciding that it was another device Larkin uses to take the poem into a distant and vanished past, which the Arabic numerals ‘1914’ would not do.

Consider also the way the poem is structured: four even stanzas of eight lines each, that we only gradually perceive to be actually a single, carefully structured and punctuated sentence… why? What is the effect of this? It means that the poem flows, but reads quite slowly, that pace creating a kind of dreamy feel to the images, again suggesting glimpses of a vanished past: so many different elements are working towards this single purpose. You need to read the poem aloud fully to appreciate this. The second and third stanzas both begin with and, contributing to the effect. The poem starts with the queues of men and the holiday atmosphere, moves on to the town itself in the next stanza, then to the countryside, and then onto the gradual shock – if I may put it like that – of the final stanza, which is very different.

The lapidary repetitions of never, always in that powerful and emphatic position at the start of the line, and the idea of innocence, in the opening line and again at the very end are so effective, but it’s the ideas and the way Larkin only hints at such shocking events that we must notice: the idea of things changing, vanishing, present becoming past without a word – you don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late – and I find the image of the men leaving the gardens tidy so utterly chilling: “I’ll just cut the lawn, and then be off to the war, my dear…” sort of thing, and the thousands of marriages | Lasting a little while longer – again, nobody knew, and the heartbreak and loss so lightly yet so effectively touched upon… in this, as in so many of his poems, Larkin demonstrates such mastery of the subtleties of our language.

This is an astonishingly powerful poem in my opinion, and one that could not have been written until a long while after the war. Larkin pays tribute to those early volunteers, as well reminding his contemporary readers that things can vanish almost before our eyes, as it were.

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…

%d bloggers like this: